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The Yale of My Day
Distant Thunder

It was, of course, a different world. The main difference comes down to the shrinking distance between undergraduate Yale and the “real” world outside. Many of the technical connections between their campus and the outside that our successors take for granted simply did not exist for us. Only those of us affiliated with the Yale Daily News were allowed telephones. Radio programs were not worthy of interest except on Saturday afternoons in the fall when our football team was playing “away.” There was no such thing as television.

In relative shelter from the great economic depression, we lived a sybaritic life: two men to the typical three-room suite in the residential colleges; one, to a single room. Maids swept, and they made our beds. Porters laid fires in the living room fireplaces, and waitresses served meals in the dining halls.

Another significant difference between us and the rest of the world was the fact that we undergraduates were exclusively male, and entirely non-"Negro” to use the then-proper term. These matters—and other social distinctions—seemed inevitable to us, while the real world outside was beginning to entertain the possibility that they were, instead, unnatural.

From an occasional weekend at home for those living nearby, and from occasional faculty remarks, we understood that the general economy was in trouble and so were many of our own families, who did their best to avoid worrying us by trying to conceal it.

For many of us, the course catalogue sparkled with the names of faculty who were reputed to be outstanding teachers. Their presence, in some way, may have been distracting. If you knew you wanted to become a lawyer or an electrical engineer, the route was clear. If you wanted simply to be educated, these were the years when Robert Hutchins’s bare-boned classicism first came up against the individualistic libertarianism of John Dewey. Many of us chose to try something of both at once.

Meanwhile, the world’s fuse was burning. We knew that trouble in Europe had lit it, but most of us also believed that the First World War proved that war itself (rather than the failure to face risks to limit or prevent it) was the worst crime of which mankind was capable. We feared another pointless debacle, but thought we could avoid it by ignoring its preludes. In this illusion we tended to be encouraged by our elders on the faculty who believed that the Versailles Treaty had been a vicious exercise of revenge and short-sightedness. In the early spring of 1936, Hitler re-occupied the Rhineland, and if we noted that event at all, it was only to breathe a sigh of relief that the other signatories to Versailles did nothing.

Many of us appeared to put out of our minds the reality of dictatorship, leading some to assume (rather silently) that if leaders in Russia, Italy, Spain, and Germany imposed massive terror on categories of their own countrymen, the victims probably had done something to deserve it.

We were still at Yale when the Munich treaty was signed, celebrated by Neville Chamberlain (and by many of us) as the key to peace in our time. By then, however, the disparity between the battlefield power of the Allies and Central Powers of the first World War was so great that events accelerated. Czechoslovakia was stripped of its defenses. Russia and Japan aligned themselves with Germany and Italy. A day or two before the Class of 1939 graduated in Woolsey Hall, The New York Times reported in a couple of paragraphs that a movement of German troops toward the Polish frontier was underway. A few months later the war in Europe started and, affecting us more intimately, the New York World’s Fair closed its first year.

Soon, many months before Pearl Harbor, some of us who had been in the ROTC were in uniform. Before it was over, what mattered most personally to us was that classmates had lost their lives too young-part of the terrible result of a shortage of humanity’s admirable yearnings for peace; or, bitterly perhaps, of a surfeit of them.  the end





The Yale of My Day

Young Lords and Lower Classes

New Haven On Stage

From White Shoe to Combat Boot

Defying Dink

Harold Bloom and the “Orc Cycles”

Vietnam On Our Mind

Of Reading, and a Wink

A Confusion of Lures

Chronicling a Cauldron

Surviving “Grim Professionalism”

Diary Daze

A Not Unwelcome Senselessness

When the World Barged In


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