The Idler: Tempus Fugit

As I reflect on my undergraduate years at Georgetown University—now a full eight months behind me—I realize that many of the most important lessons took place far from the classroom. Indeed, an education remains incomplete unless the formal learning of the classroom is complemented by rich and high-spirited experiences of life itself—experiences to be found in such locales as the sports field, the cafeteria, or the local pub. Evelyn Waugh pointed to this extra-academic aspect of college education when he remarked that drinking well is the most important thing that Oxford has to teach.

Youth by its nature is a hopeful period of seeking and learning. Aquinas emphasizes the abounding hopefulness of the young, which stems, he says, both from the openness of their future and from a lack of experience with their present limitations. Indeed, the very word joy (Latin, gaudium) seems to have etymological ties to this stage of life that issue today in the British slang “gaudy night,” meaning a college revel. Hope and high spirits, then, ought to pervade the youthful years one spends in college. Allan Bloom explains that such spiritedness and “Glauconian eros” fuel the friendships and the passionate delving into life that make possible all real learning.

I certainly arrived as a freshman at Georgetown filled with great hope, and it pleased me to find myself surrounded by young people imbued with similar passions and ambitions. As the year progressed, however, many of these students seemed to lose this element of spiritedness. Concern for grades and careers consumed their thoughts, and their passions seemed incapable of seeking beyond law school, the GREs, or a Capitol Hill internship—their minds absorbing a predigested view of life as drab and uniform as the increasingly similar clothing that began to appear on their bodies. Even in the midst of such leisurely activities as drinking revels, these students still clung stubbornly to the “important” topics of grades and work—a painful contrast to the “wine drinking” that makes possible the elevated conversation of Plato’s Laws. Not even the hardest of alcohol could soften these students’ hearts to the allures of Truth, Love, and Beauty as topics worthy of conversation.

Josef Pieper decries this excessive emphasis on “social usefulness” and warns that we must not “lose the ability to look beyond the limits of our social and functional station, to contemplate and celebrate the world as such.” Yet many of my fellow Hoyas did lose this ability. They learned a great deal about the ways of formal academia and about the careers for which its book-learning serves to prepare them, but they seemed to have desperately little knowledge of—or worse, interest in—life itself. As Robert Louis Stevenson comments in his “Apology for Idlers” (from which this column takes its title): “Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life.”

This lack of spiritedness and obsession with utilitarian productivity made itself painfully clear in one particular episode. During freshman orientation upperclassmen reverently told of various and long-lived university traditions that “make the school what it is.” One tradition especially appealed to me: the ritual stealing of the hands from the large clocktower that is part of the Healy Building, the campus’s focal point. My affinity for this enterprise perhaps stemmed from my experience as a mountain climber, which has taught me two things: first, how to scale tall, sheer faces; second, and perhaps more importantly, the use of the rationale “because it is there”—that is to say, the belief that certain activities are worthwhile simply in and of themselves.

In any event, the challenge of the clock hands held an uncanny appeal for me, and I still remember exclaiming when told of the tradition, “That’d be so cool to do. That’s so college!” Many other students shared my enthusiasm and early in the year diverse plans were laid for the endeavor. As the year progressed, though, the growing concern with studies and careers squelched this lively interest in the clock hands.

Disappointed but still hopeful, I continued to spend occasional weekend nights scaling the Healy Building (“roofing,” as the sport is called) in an attempt to find a way at the hands.

On one Friday night expedition I discovered a metal plate set into the roof at the base of the clocktower. Removing the plate, I found a chute leading into the sealed-off fifth floor of the building. From my research of the building blueprints I knew that this floor led directly to the interior of the clocktower and, ultimately, to the hands. As I gazed down the chute into utter blackness, my mind filled with rumors I had heard that the fifth floor was the site of the actual exorcism portrayed in The Exorcist. The story went that the floor was haunted and for this reason had been sealed off years ago. Though I knew this to be superstition, my 19-year-old mind would not be persuaded to climb alone down the darkened chute. I returned to my dorm, dejected for the moment, but cherishing much hope.

A few weekends later I decided the time had come. I had two friends visiting from my home state of Alaska who, both climbers, had expressed an interest in the project. I had also recruited a fellow student who lived across the hall and was as excited about the project as I. Finally, and most appropriately, it was April Fools’ Day. At 20 minutes to midnight, we clad ourselves in black, stuffed as many flashlights and tools as we could find into our backpacks (welcome replacements to the books they had been carrying all week), and headed out.

We quickly made our way up the building and across the roof. Surrounded and encouraged by these friends, I had no—or rather, less—fear lowering myself down the chute. To my relief, I found the floor only a few feet below and easily helped the rest of the team through. We proceeded to the center of the building where we found a ladder that lead directly up to the tower. Inside the tower, an antiquated wooden staircase ran along the walls, turning 90 degrees at each corner. Cobwebs, dust, and dead pigeons made the exorcist images uncomfortably believable. As these visions began to gel in my mind, I was horrified to hear a low humming sound emanating from the floor above us. As this sound crescendoed to fill the entire tower, the floor began to vibrate beneath our feet. We clutched each other in fear, half expecting demons to rush from the walls about us. Seconds later, the clock bells struck midnight, and we realized that the sound and fury had signified nothing more than the bell mechanism coming to life.

We laughed ourselves back to manly composure and proceeded to the level of the clock face, where we found the clock mechanism set into the wall in an alcove protected by a steel cage. The cage, old and corroded, was easily pulled from the wall, and we faced the soft underbelly of our foe. As we prepared for the final stage of the operation, an alarm echoed through the building below us. We searched frantically for any wires we might have tripped and, finding none, assumed that this was a fire alarm that drunken students frequently pulled in the basement pub of the building—a rival prank that by comparison, we thought, showed little imagination or regard for potential injury to others. Trucks soon arrived, sirens blaring, and firemen began to inspect the building. For fear that this search might include the clocktower, we exited to the roof and sought sanctuary in a second tower that we knew could not be reached from the building’s interior.

Approximately one hour later the firetrucks retreated, and we resumed our mission, re-entering the clocktower and dismantling the gears. All that remained was to open the trapdoor on the face of the clock and pull our prizes inside to us. We stuffed the hands into a duffle bag that proved to be considerably too small, descended the building, and sprinted across campus to my dorm with a full three feet of golden clock hands protruding from the bag.

The following weekend we liberated a large mailing box from the student union, packaged the hands, and took them to the next-to-the-nearest post office to mail them to the pope with a request that he return them to their rightful owners. (We were told that this had been done in past years, and we thought the gesture in very good taste.) After the post office told us the package was too large for international mail, we opted to send it instead to President Reagan, hastily rewrote the address and explanatory letter, and thought ourselves in the clear.

Remarkably, the same campus security force that was completely unable to figure out how we had accomplished the crime had seen us with the suspicious box and recognized it (and us) when it was returned by the Secret Service. A few weeks later we were called before a student adjudication board consisting of two faculty members and three students. The hearing was conducted with rigid, even humorless formality. The board sat above us on a raised stage with an old-fashioned wooden podium and thus spoke down to us both literally and figuratively. The board members seemed unable to grasp the spirit of the mission and referred to it only as “vandalism” and “destruction of property”.

We freely admitted our guilt to what was, technically, a felony, but hoped that by explaining our benign motives we might soften their attitude. It soon became apparent that this tack was unlikely to succeed. When they informed us that we would have to pay the company who repaired the clock mechanism and that the bill amounted to $1600, I remarked that $1600 was a hefty sum and jokingly inquired, “Don’t they have a student rate?” This comment was met with blank stares and a stony silence, broken only by the muffled snicker of my fellow defendant. I realized then that those about to decide our fate would not see the nature of our prank and would treat us as purely malicious criminals, morally undistinguishable from someone who pulls a fire alarm or drunkenly breaks windows.

I emerged from the hearing with an $800 fine, a 40-hour work sanction, a year of probation, and no regrets. The punishment, while considerable, could in no way dull my enthusiasm for our successful meeting of the challenge. But while the punishment did not bother me, I was somewhat disappointed with the spirit (or lack thereof) with which the prank was received by many quarters of the university. While some students were genuinely excited by the deed, their enthusiasm quickly subsided as final exams loomed. More disturbingly, both the adjudication board (composed primarily of students) and certain student journalists referred to the act as vandalism, which misses the aim of the endeavor. The term “vandalism” suggests that the act was directed against the university, while obviously it was done for the university— to carry on a school tradition, to display student spirit, and to shock people out of the daily grind.

I was also disturbed to learn that the tradition of stealing the hands had not been upheld for ten years and that the severity of our punishment stemmed from the administration’s enragement at the reawakening of a practice it thought it had smothered. I found it strange and troubling that a decade could pass and produce nothing more than talk about such a spirited tradition. Equally disturbing was the administration’s determination to suppress the tradition (though we heard surreptitiously that then-President Healy had discretely enjoyed the affair). Allan Bloom argues that students whose souls know no longing will never seek the wholeness that is the goal of true education; the administration, by contrast, seems to prefer quiet, predictable students who “ply their books diligently” (again to quote Stevenson) and live sedately within the established norms. I was very happy not to fit this mold. Despite the stringent punishment, stealing the clock hands remains to my mind one of the most worthwhile things I accomplished in college.

Before entering our adjudication hearing, my accomplice and I told each other that no matter what happened, we were glad to have confronted the challenge. Leaving the hearing, we reaffirmed that sentiment. We shook our heads, laughed, and headed to the pub.


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