In a lot of ways, Christmas 1994 was the high-water mark of my grad school career. I hadn’t gotten any grades yet, so there was no real sense that I might be doing quite badly. My then-girlfriend was off to California for Christmas with her family, so I didn’t have that hanging over me. As the semester wound down, there was a whole social ramble to contend with, and when it ended, I went home with a big leather coat, a goatee, and the air and aspect of the big-alligator alum returning to the old patch.
What really stands out, though, is the crew. I hadn’t had “my gang” in five years – certainly there was nothing of the sort on offer in college, and my team graduated a year ahead of me in high school for the most part. But within a couple of months, our oversized class of first-years had somehow becomes known as “the Herd.” Which was a subset of the larger “Family” of grad students in PSCI (for “Family” think “Manson” or maybe “Gambino”). We did things together, had signature features (Red Dog…I actually drank Red Dog. It isn’t a crime exactly, you can’t go to jail for it, but it’s kind of a disgrace, almost as bad as being vice president), had a reputation as the Oakland Raiders of Vanderbilt Graduate School, won the C-league intramural softball title. Our women got dated and our men got fleeced (trust the sucker from down South to admit having $70 in his pocket when everybody else was mysteriously broke in line for beer at the Mapco). We dressed up to go drink at the Oak Bar and went bowling at midnight and howled drunkenly for the GRINCH and slumped in hung over as one.
So when I swaggered home, in my Maynard G. Krebs starter-kit goatee and my huge overstuffed leather coat (which another grad student christened “the Elk”), it was with a confidence and sense of belonging I hadn’t had in years, and it made it all the better to link up with my old crew again back home. Especially now that we could all drink, which meant that horrifyingly bad Garcia Y Vega cigars ($3 for four!) on the concourse at Bulls games were followed by beers at the Garages and vigorous debates over SLIP vs PPP and whether it was worth paying extra to have other than a terminal connection to the Internet.
Oh yeah…I had Internet access for the first time. And it was so amazing that I actually drove back to Nashville during Christmas break to check my email. It was, as it turns out, a life-transforming experience.
Naturally, it would all go wrong in the spring, but under the cold clear skies of December 1994, life was just about perfect. And to this day, whenever I hear Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers wailing “Christmas All Over Again,” I can close my eyes for just a second and there I am…first-round draft pick, shiny Saturn SC2 with less than 20K miles on it, new Nikes laced up tight, class rings on both hands, leading the charge with Chris, Craig, Nicole, Stephanie and Tracy. The good old days may not be as great as we remember…but those? Were.