Spring Break at Virginia Tech

IMG_2492My first spring living in Baltimore, late 80s, I had no friends in town, but I did have a record collection, a television set, and a Mazda 323. In my third-floor walkup near Mount Vernon Square, I’d collected every gourmet spaghetti sauce on the grocery store shelves, but I rarely invited others to share in my bounty. And although my parents lived about an hour away in Virginia, I didn’t have much desire to visit there. It was time, I thought, to get started on a life of my own.

In the mornings, after rolling off my futon and walking one block north to my job, I’d say hello to my employers. They were a middle-aged couple, both with glasses, one with hair, one without, her a rail, him a bell, husband and wife architects, and I was their only employee. We had about two or three projects on the boards: a university gymnasium that had been in the design stage for ten years, a work-release prison for women, and renovations to city government buildings that required accessibility ramps. As was my unfortunate habit, I had strong feelings that my employers, like most people, didn’t like or trust me.

I couldn’t blame them. I was not someone to be trusted. I enjoyed reading and often brought paperback books to work: Black Boy, Madam Bovary, or The Fixer. Throughout the day, as I got bored drawing accessibility ramps, I’d get up from my drafting table, go to the bathroom, and pick a book from my back pocket. Sitting on the john, I’d read three or four pages. When I re-emerged, thankfully, neither employer mentioned my extended bathroom break. Gastrointestinal disorders are not uncommon, and I suppose it’s an area that few people care to discuss openly.

Not only did my architect employers and I never talk much about health issues or books, we rarely talked about accessibility ramps either. Most of their comments to me were in the form of red lines on a drawing. As a result, I considered our shared reticence and their apparent suspiciousness of me as the reasons they refused to give me an office key. I could have used one because they seldom arrived at work at a consistent hour, and I was frequently forced to sit on the marble front stoop of their row house office until they did show.

In keeping with our strained employer-employee relations, that spring, my bosses decided to take a spring break, and about a week before doing so, they told me they were locking up the office. “Don’t you need a break as well?” the male half of the partnership asked me, and although I said, “Not really,” he suggested I take one anyhow, unpaid, of course.

I hadn’t made any plans, didn’t have much money, but that Friday evening, when the office closed, I got in my Mazda and drove west across Maryland on I-70 until I reached the Blue Ridge Mountains. Somewhere around Front Royal, Virginia, it occurred to me that I was about to turn south and drive an additional five hours to visit my alma mater, Virginia Tech.

When I arrived on the Tech campus, around 10 PM, I gave myself a tour of one of my old hang outs, Cowgill Hall, the university’s architecture building. The design studios didn’t look much different from two years before, a few late night designers bending their backs over their drafting boards. The studio had always been an exciting place full of ideas and energy. Models on desks and drawings pinned on walls featured visions of dystopias and utopias. I had penciled and inked similar drawings in my student days.

IMG_2468 labs

The architecture studios at Cowgill Hall are an excellent environment in which to study comparative literature, but it should be noted that the architecture program offers no degree in literature.

When I finished touring the building, I could think of nothing better than to go downtown to Gillie’s ice cream store and order a cone. I liked hanging out there when I lived in an apartment above the store. I’d often descend from the apartment that I shared with my roommate, get a cone or a coffee, and sit reading the newspaper. Many times I’d meet other students and gossip or talk about architecture or philosophy or the philosophy of architecture. Mine was a serious crowd, or at least I thought so. Those friends had moved on, to Richmond, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, or Boston.

On the night of my spring break, I didn’t take up a chair at Gillie’s but ordered an ice cream cone and walked back out into the night. On a grassy hill across the street and behind a wrought iron and brick fence, I had a favorite spot where I used to sit and watch people. As I sat in the damp grass to eat my cone, barely tasting the vanilla, I wondered if the students who passed on the sidewalk knew that these were their glory days. If not, I wanted to jump up and shout it out to them.

I couldn’t do it though, because I wasn’t sure if these were their glory days or not. Maybe the days I was longing for really hadn’t been my best days either. I had liked architecture in the first couple of years at school, but after my third, it became clear that I didn’t want to learn how to design and build, but I did want to learn how to write. I’d been spending way too much time in the library reading literature instead of spending time in the studio designing buildings. Writing hadn’t sounded like a very promising future though, so I didn’t have the courage to transfer from the architecture to the English program.

After finishing my ice cream cone, I laid back on the hill. Blacksburg had always had Creamsicle sunsets and starry nights. I’d missed the day’s sunset but the stars were flickering overhead. The air was getting chilled too, and when I considered my next move, as usual, I wasn’t sure what to do. Should I spend the night on the hill? If so it wasn’t going to be a comfortable rest. It did not escape me that my every decision required major effort, and a waterworks between my facial skin and bones verged on erupting. I managed to keep things dammed up.

Maybe the days I was longing for really hadn’t been my best days…

Back in my car, I drove up the highway and searched for a hotel room. Maybe I could spend the night, wake up the next day and look around town some more. As I stopped here and there to check for rooms, it turned out that all the hotels were booked. The college students, I learned, were most definitely not on spring break. “You aren’t going to find anything tonight,” the hotel managers kept saying. “All the schools up and down I-81 are having parent weekends, not just Virginia Tech but also Roanoke College and The Virginia Military Institute.”

“Hollins University and Washington and Lee University too,” I might have added after another hour in my car.

Several times I considered pulling over into a rest area and sleeping in the car, but I have difficulty sleeping anywhere other than my bed. I kept driving and soon it was four in the morning, By then I was so far up I-81, it didn’t make any sense to stop until I got home. Arriving at my third-floor walkup near Mount Vernon Square at about 8 AM, I fell onto my futon and don’t remember anything until my spring break ended and I was back to sitting on the stoop of my employer’s row house ten days later.

More than 25 years have passed since that spring break. Sometime after I got back to Baltimore, I switched jobs to a different firm and moved from one apartment to another. I also started flirting with writing classes. But the best thing that happened was that I met someone. One Christmas she bought me a poetry anthology and encouraged me to stick with writing, so I went back to school and earned a master’s degree on our shared Master’s Card. We also got a house, got married, and had two girls.

Despite having a degree in writing and doing some teaching at Towson University, I continue thinking of myself primarily as a Virginia Tech Hokie. I never earned an undergraduate writing or English degree from Tech, but the architecture school was a great place to study world literature. The professors never told me what to read so I read widely, nor did they require me to write any papers, so I never got discouraged about my lack of writing talent. I maintained a true love for literature until I had completely backed myself into a corner and had no other choice but to return to school.

Since the night of my spring break vacation, I’d been avoiding a return trip to Virginia Tech, but it so happens that such a trip is not difficult for me. My wife has a sister who lives about an hour and a half from the Tech campus, across the border in North Carolina. We visit her and her family several times a year, and whenever we do, there is always a moment when I see signs for Blacksburg and Virginia Tech. One right turn and a 30-minute drive, and I could be on campus, my heart swelling once more with that old combination of regret and nostalgia.

A week ago I finally did take that turn. Both my daughters had spring break and as my oldest, CiCi, is about two years from attending college, she’s been expressing an interest in studying architecture: I don’t judge and I don’t dissuade. She’s much smarter than either her mother or me, draws better, and could probably breeze through the structures courses that I always found an inconvenience. Having architecture on her short list of possible careers seems a good fit, and my alma mater is on her list of potential colleges. Virginia Tech, according to DesignIntelligence, is currently rated number four in architecture for undergraduates behind Cornell University; California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo; and Rice.

Once on campus, I took CiCi to Cowgill Hall, the architecture building. Except for the addition of laptop computers on this or that desk and additional studio spaces, not much had changed. Inside the studios, I spied the familiar creative drawings and models and many serious student faces. CiCi and I talked with one bright male student from Baton Rouge who had designed a fishing retreat with huts hovering over a swamp. Then a gray bearded professor happened by and offered us a tour of the pottery and print making studios. CiCi was impressed, and I found myself having a good time.

Wood Table

The wood tables at Gillie’s have always been a highlight of the Virginia Tech college experience.

Beforehand, I have to admit to being worried, remembering my last spring break visit. I didn’t know if this one would make me bitter, nostalgic, or split between those feelings like I was on that night those many years ago. Obviously I was in a much better place. I wasn’t rich and successful, didn’t have a bookshelf with my titles on it, but I was clearly more emotionally stable.

After the professor’s tour, our family walked downtown. I wanted to take everyone to Gillie’s, the ice cream store. Skirting by the breezy green campus, we arrived in the town of Blacksburg where I was slightly upset to see that the university had built a theater on the hill where I used to sit and watch people. When we got to Gillie’s, I was also somewhat shocked to note that the store didn’t sell ice cream anymore, just fish, vegetarian, and vegan meals. Okay, that’s too bad, I said to myself, but my emotions weren’t overwhelmed.

Instead of ice cream, we stayed to order lunch: a salmon burger for my wife, a tofu burrito for CiCi, a bean burger with Swiss for Corinne, and a bean burger with provolone for me. We waited for our food at the same thick round oak tables at which I once sat drinking coffee, and with my cell phone, I shot pictures of my three favorite girls silently reading their social media posts.

Mostly I was pleased not to feel nostalgic for another time, not to carry the emotional weight that I felt on my last spring break in Blacksburg. I was much less inclined to want to escape to another place and another me. And in some ways, it even occurred to me that I had been less interested in showing my daughter the campus, than I had been in showing myself how far I had traveled.

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2 Responses to Spring Break at Virginia Tech

  1. Bruce Powers says:

    Mark, I really enjoyed your blog post : Spring break at Virginia Tech. I went back to Virginia Tech in April 2016 for a fraternity reunion. It was the first time I had been to Tech in 13 years. Yes, Gillie’s, along with many other things, has changed. You are an excellent writer and I am sure your students are benefiting from your talent. Your friend, Bruce

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mark Charney says:

      Thanks Bruce. You are most kind. Even if a few of Tech’s architecture students go astray, I hear their engineering students rarely slide and almost always rule.


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