Cornell 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:
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.
My Elegant Friend.