Sunday, April 18, 2021

An ‘Adirondack Outlaw’ at Cornell

my elegant friend imageCornell University; Fall-1981: There I was. Fresh from the mountains of Saranac Lake.   I stuck out like the proverbial “sore thumb”.

     Flannel clad, black fly bitten, Saranac Lake Redkins football sweat drenched –   Mountain lake washed, wild blueberry fed, bug dope DEET stenched. 

     Elegant??  I was anything but.

      I had applied to Paul Smith’s – still a two-year school then – been accepted.  Paul Smith’s College was always my plan – major in Forestry – follow my DEC Dad.

     Then came a road trip with Dad, down to Ithaca.  We met with Dick Booth, Dad’s old colleague and friend, who was by then a Cornell Professor.  Professor Booth showed us the campus, then took us to lunch.

  We toured Cornell, viewed the gorge & the falls.  That was it- I was hooked.  I picked up applications.  Every plan changed.  I somehow got accepted-Army ROTC scholarship- full ride.  My future was booked.  I was going big time, all my Paul Smith’s College plans cast aside.

      From the day I arrived, I felt misplaced at Cornell, a miscut jigsaw from some other puzzle piece that just never quite fit.

   Looking back, to this day, I still don’t know really know how I even got in.  I was a too smart for his own good – spoiled rotten – bigger than his own britches- high school football team bench warmer – fishing worms in his pocket –seventeen year old kid.

     But I had a scholarship.  I’d just been accepted at an Ivy League school.  I felt like a big deal.  I had no clue. Everyone seemed very impressed, which meant to me I was cool.

     So, there I was – Cornell University Freshman – ROTC Scholarship Cadet – Natural Resources Major, sitting in Bailey Hall for my first day of class. 

     Biology 100 – Monday morning, 8am:  Bailey Hall lectures occurred in a theater bigger than any I’d ever been in – 1500 students in the class.   My Saranac Lake High School class had graduated barely 120.  My “Intro To Bio” class had almost more students than the population of my entire home town!  So did Computer Science & Chem.  Show up late for class, there would be no seats.  Tardy students watched morning lectures on remote screen TVs.  As the semester wore on, I was late quite a bit.

   I was suddenly competing with New York City Pre-Meds; science fair award winners, trans-national geniuses with 300 IQs.  There was no extra credit for the guy who knew how to start a fire, bait a hook, finger gut and stick cook a trout.  I was swimming upstream in a deluge, with no good way out.

     That first semester landed me smack dab in a swamp. Computer Science for Majors- CS100.  I was expected to code “DO-LOOPS” in COBALT and FORTRAN.  I’d never logged on to a computer in my life.  Why was I enrolled in these courses??!! Why were they required?  I didn’t give a crap about FORTRAN.   All I really wanted to know was how to manage wild forests and combat acid rain.

    The first “prelim” grades came back- CS100. The professor put the results up on a big chalk board.  We sat there in the lecture hall while graded exams books got handed back. They graded on some curve.  Everyone with a score in the 90’s got an “A”.   The curve sloped down from there.

     My exam book came back.  Total score-TEN!  The professor hadn’t even bothered assigning my test booklet a grade.   I came in drinking hard.  I began drinking more.

     There were just two classes that I actually LIKED that first fall.  Nat Res 100, and Introductory French.

     That’s where first I met Adrienne- in French Class. She was everything I wasn’t.  A beautifully sophisticated, high class, Jewish sorority sister from midtown Manhattan.  I was a slow motion seven car pile-up, just looking for somewhere to crash land.

     I was immediately smitten, no doubt.  Adrienne made it perfectly clear from the get go- she had a boyfriend.  Still, she smiled and said “Hi” when I walked into class, was easy to talk to, seemed genuinely interested in being my friend.

    Somehow, I managed to survive that semester, to hang on. The B+ in Nat Res 100 definitely helped.  I managed to put together a well-received term paper on the High Peaks impact of acid rain. That, combined with the fact that I was enrolled in French 100, despite four years of high school Francais, translation: “A”.   Two point five something average- enough to salvage my scholarship and keep driving on.

      I went home for Christmas, returned to Cornell for Round Two.  Another semester of Biology & Chemistry, more coding “DO-LOOPS”, a freshman literature seminar, some more French.

     I was an ROTC cadet, which exempted me from Freshman Gym Class.  I attended ROTC classes, kept what had been late ’70’s hair militarily short.  Cadets wore fatigue uniforms or dress greens to class, one day each week.

     My first semester was bad enough.  Spring semester was worse.  “Small Fish – Big Pond?”  I was plankton. 

     Mid-February, I was barely hanging on. Adrienne was still in my French class.  Still said “Hi”. Still smiled. Still walked with me every day after class.

     I asked her to be my date to the ROTC Military Ball.  She knew that I knew that she had a boyfriend.  Still, the Military Ball was a big campus event.  She was a high-class sorority girl from “The City.”  She said “Yes.”

     An upper classman lent me his car- a silver 2 door Chevy SS.  Probably not a great idea on his part.  Still, I appreciated it.  Good thing I knew how to drive stick.

   I donned dress greens, bought a corsage.  I was spit shined and military slicked up, ready to pick up my date for the biggest military gala of the year- destination- Barton Hall.

   I met Adrienne in the foyer of her sorority house.  She was “take a young man’s breath away” beautiful in a long chiffon gown.  I pinned on her corsage, held her car door, shifted that SS into gear, off we went, ready to make our debut at the ball.

      All the Senior ROTC officers were there, from all service branches, in a long receiving line.  Each couple got announced as they entered the room. Adrienne reached out, took my hand. Our names were announced. I swear the music stopped- every uniform turned.

    I heard a male voice whisper “Well done, Cadet.”  All eyes were on Adrienne, my elegant friend.

    We danced that night, laughed as friends, and had fun.  One good night kiss at the door, that was it.  We were done.

     School had been rough.  It got worse.  I got lost in a bottle, stopped going to class, tried finding my way to a hearse.

       Adrienne stood with me, remained my friend, through it all.  I’d show up at her sorority, drunker than sin, barefoot in the snow.  She’d take me in, dry my tears, hold my hand, not let go.

      Somewhere, somehow, one night, on my way in or out of a fog, I wrote her this poem:

***

“Sweet Adrienne”

A slim decanter standing there

Tender, fragile, lithe

A gentle fragrance in the air

That drifts across my mind

A potent drink, yet delicate

Its flavor light and fair

A taste so very elegant

Its essence very rare

If only there were recipe

to make another wine

intoxication haunting me

from tasting some of thine

I want to drink again, again

A vintage called “Sweet Adrienne”

*** 

   By mid-February, Cornell had had enough of me for a while, and in truth, I of it.

   The Dean of Academics called me in. They were erasing the semester, giving me time to get my head sewed on straight, catch my breath.  Cornell University was sending me home.

      Before I left- I bought a bouquet of roses, went to Adrienne’s sorority, gave her the bouquet, and a card, with the poem. My way of saying, “Thank You”- and “Good Bye”.   I wasn’t sure I’d be back.

     I said, “I Love You”.

     She smiled sweetly and replied, “Thank you, Richard- I love you too.”

     I meant one thing.  She meant another.  I understood that.  She gave me a hug, held my hand as a friend, kissed my cheek.

     I returned home to Saranac Lake in late February that year, caught on with a DEC trail crew.  Back in the mountains, I spent time breathing the trees, cutting new trails, catching my breath.

I manned a bow saw, post holed knee-deep snow, worked as part of a team. I helped build stringer bridges, clear blow down clogged back woods high peaks trails, hand sharpened my ax. There I found my true self again, at home, in the woods.

      I returned to Cornell in the fall, changed my major to Government.  I dropped the hard sciences, added History and “Poly Sci” classes, took on more languages; Russian, German, and of course- continued with French.

     I still saw Adrienne occasionally, in class and on campus.  But her course led elsewhere.  Her path was set.  I had my legs under me now.  She slowly faded from view.   Life moved on.

     We never kept in touch after college.  Where she went, I don’t know.  What I do know is this:

     When a backwoods boy from the mountains was drowning, lost deep in a swamp – when a young Adirondack Outlaw had his back to the wall and cried out for help- a beautifully sophisticated, high class, Jewish sorority sister from midtown Manhattan reached out her hand.

Sweet Adrienne”

My Elegant Friend.

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Richard Monroe

Lifelong NYS resident. Raised in Saranac Lake. Cornell graduate(ROTC). Army veteran, Airborne/Ranger qualified, 10th Mtn Div, stints in Honduras and with JTF VI. 3rd degree Black Belt; 3x cancer survivor; published writer with several featured stories in Adirondack Life Magazine. Residing in Watertown NY with wife Robin & our 3 adult children. Loving Life. Living in the Day I am in.




27 Responses

  1. ADKresident says:

    Your bittersweet story was very engaging~ This could be written into a screenplay ! 🙂

    • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

      Wow! Thank you so much for the comment & compliment. All things are possible, I guess- so maybe someday it will happen- who knows!

  2. Susan says:

    As you were entering Cornell in mid 1981, I was leaving there headed for a North Country job after finishing a BS and MS degree in the CALS. I, also, felt very intimidated at Cornell as I was the first member of my family on both sides to attend college. My parents did not understand why I was doing it. I stuck to it, Biochemistry, Physics, Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis, etc., and went on to a very successful 42 year career, having retired in summer 2019. Some of my proudest and fondest memories are those very grueling and challenging years in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University. I owe my career and my current home and life on my farm and in my woods to my efforts there.

    • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

      Susan, Thanks for sharing your insight and experience. You are absolutely right. Cornell is such a phenomenal place. I too loved my time there, once I settled in, and owe a great deal of who and what I have and am to what I learned there as well. My only regret looking back is that I wish I had had the focus THEN that I have NOW. I left so much on the table there without even knowing it. It sounds like your own experience there worked out quite well. I have great respect for that. I hope you are enjoying retirement years. Best wishes.

  3. amy godine says:

    Loved this!

  4. Bob Meyer says:

    Beautiful. Bittersweet. Real.
    Thank you for the gift your writing has given us.
    I can’t help but want to know if you have ever thought of reconnecting with Sweet Adrienne.

    • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

      Thank you Bob, your comments are greatly appreciated. In answer to your question…No. Not really. I think some things are best left as memories. Life moves beyond them.

  5. Gary LEE, FR retired says:

    Nice story Richard was you Dad Tom Regional Director in Ray Brook, if so I have a story as we went on a hike into West Canada Lakes with DEC Commissioner Berely to look at the new wooden bridges over West Canada Creek and Mud Creek. After the nine mile walk in on a fairly hot day the Comm. Said it’s time for a swim and no one had a suit of course but If the Comm. and your dad could go in the buff so could the local FR. I lived at West Canada two summers so I knew the water never got much above 65 so we wouldn’t be in for more than a quick dip and in and out quick we cooled off. Thanks again for your story.

    • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

      Gary, 1st- Thank you for your comments. They mean a great deal to me, especially coming from one of my Dad’s fellow Rangers. Yes, I am proud to say that Tom Monroe was indeed my father. Thanks for sharing your story. That sounds just like my Dad! I have my own Commissioner Berle/Dad adventure to tell, maybe at some point I’ll get around to writing it to share in the Almanack. Enjoy your retirement. On behalf of my father, thank you for your service.

  6. Ann Breen Metcalfe says:

    Good for you, Richard Monroe! You are a survivor. My experience was somewhat similar. At age 17 1/2 I entered Syracuse University as a freshman. It was 1949 and the campus had grown to a huge enrollment due to post WW2 GIs. I’d graduated from Schroon Lake Central School in a class of 18. Don’t know how I got through those 4 years, but I did graduate in 1953. Most of the students seemed to be from New York City. I’d like to think we folks from the Adirondacks brought something to the culture of those big schools.

    • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

      Hello Ann, Thanks for sharing your own personal experience going from Schroon Lake to a major university like SU. I’m sure that was a true challenge! I suspect it’s a bit of a culture shock for most folks from the Adirondacks. I think you are absolutely correct, Adirondack students have a great deal to offer big school culture. I encourage them to go, take on that challenge and share who we are with the world. I know that in the end, I have absolutely no regrets, and the whole experience made me far stronger. Sounds like the same held true for you at SU as well.

  7. Lorraine Duvall Lorraine Duvall says:

    Thanks for this remembrance. BTW, it’s COBOL, Common Business Oriented Language. I wrote many lines of COBOL code.

    • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

      Lorraine, thanks for the comments- and the correction! Where were you when I needed you??? No wonder I got a 10 on my prelim!

  8. David Bower says:

    Very nice! So many of us have an Adrienne in our past.

  9. I loved your story of hope especially for those who may step off the path, to read about a man who left that path and went on to do wonderful things in the world. I love Saranac Lake; my children were born there and I do go back and walk the area quite often. Thank you again.

    • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

      Thank you Gail. Saranac Lake is an awesome place. I too return often. Life took me away but my soul never left.

  10. Christine Denno says:

    Wonderful story….. Never underestimate the power of a smile and a kind word. And they cost nothing!

    This would make a wonderful movie.

    • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

      Wow! Thanks Christine! You are absolutely right. The world could use more of both. As to the movie idea…you are actually the 2nd person to suggest that. Who knows, maybe somebody out there who makes such things happen is listening.

  11. Mark says:

    Richard,

    I have been coming to Saranac Lake yearly, with the exception of this past year, since I returned to the world in ’70. What a wonderful place. I tell my wife that the Adirondacks aren’t just a geographic location, but a state of mind.

    AIRBORNE!
    Mark

    • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

      Mark, 1st- I salute your service. I assume from your comments- Vietnam. Most of the senior officers & NCO’s who trained & mentored me were Vietnam Veterans. I have nothing but the deepest respect. I am glad to hear you’ve found the peaceful tranquility of Saranac Lake & the mountains. I strongly believe you are right. The Adirondacks transcend geography. They are a life altering moment for anyone who experiences them.

  12. Frank Woods says:

    I don’t know how I stumbled upon your essay. I too was a Cornell misfit. You from the mountains, me from the blue collar jersey suburbs. Different details, similar feelings. Thanks for your story. It brought me back to Ithaca in a good way.

    • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

      Frank, I don’t know either- but I’m so happy you did! I suspect there were a lot of us “misfits” – finding their way at Cornell. My best college friend & I spent most of our “study time” time hiding out in a duck blind on Cayuga Lake. It took him 7 years and me nearly 5 to finally figure ourselves out. I think Cornell is uniquely well equipped though, to patiently handle “misfits” and allow us time to evolve and grow. It’s a big part of the experience. I loved Cornell & Ithaca. Despite trial & tribulation, I wouldn’t trade that time for anything. It sounds as though you feel much the same.

  13. Jay Taylor CALS '80 says:

    Richard:

    This is a beautifully written piece. As someone who also had a rough first year at Cornell intending to major in Natural Resources in the fall of 1976, I could certainly relate to many of your trials-including Chem 207! I’m glad you were able to take some time away and re-enter in a way that was productive for you!

    I know it’s a personal decision, but I would urge you to consider sending this article to Adrienne (she’s easy to find in the Cornell directory). The few times in my life when people have commented to me years after some event that I had an impact on their lives, …well, there’s no better feeling. I think she might take it in that spirit. My first date at Cornell and I continue to exchange Christmas cards to the present time, and it’s been great over the years to see how here interests have developed (and one of her daughters is a Cornellian, too!)

    Thank you again for stirring up many memories, and for your wonderful writing.

  14. Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

    Jay, thank you for your kind comments, and shared Cornell experience. I’m not sure which was worse, Chemistry or Computers! I blew up one of my chem lab experiments once. Burned a bunch of holes in my lab partner (who also happened to be my roommate)’s shirt!
    As to the rest…you are the 2nd person to mention that, actually. I appreciate the sentiment but think I prefer to just let things quietly find their own path, or not.

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