Time and Again

On a recent visit to campus, an alum finds that the past has a way of intruding on the present.

January/February 1998

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It is the summer of 1943. The Second World War burns on. I hope to enter Stanford as a junior transfer from Santa Clara University and have come down from San Francisco on the Southern Pacific to take the entrance examination. It is a foggy, damp morning. I walk up Palm Drive from the Palo Alto train station. Memorial Church becomes more visible, particularly the murals on the front wall. I look inside, perhaps more to delay the exam than to appreciate the art. Not until many years later will I learn of my grandfather's connection to the building.

Now it is June 1997. I'm on a visit from my home in Maryland and have stopped to see Memorial Church, which my grandfather, a woodworker, helped build at the turn of the century. No trace of earthquake damage remains, neither of the first in 1906, which my forefathers lived through, nor the second, in 1989. It is superb, inside and out, just as I remember from the first time I saw it 54 years ago. I touch the massive, beautifully finished doors and wonder if my grandfather's plane smoothed them.

On a cool, overcast morning in the autumn quarter of 1943, I am walking to an 8 o'clock. The trees on fraternity row are still. Washington Hall, where I live, is behind me, and I am opposite Professor Bacon's house when I am overtaken by a tall, smiling man. "Hello," he says.

I suddenly realize I am speaking to President Tresidder.

"Early class?" he inquires as we walk alongside each other.

"Aerodynamics with Professor Reid," I reply.

"You're an aeronautical engineer?"

I am, and I tell him so.

"Really. I was a pilot in World War I. I flew DH-4s."

"De Havillands." I am enchanted. We chat for a short while about the Liberty engine. I turn off at the Cellar, a coffee shop underneath a wing of the Old Union, where I will breakfast on my doughnut and hot chocolate before facing the difficult Professor Reid. I will not see President Tresidder again until he shakes my hand at graduation, but during that walk he made me feel as I had not felt before, that I belonged at Stanford.

I walk down fraternity row again. Washington Hall, a dormitory for engineering students back in 1943, has disappeared, and some nondescript townhouses now occupy the space between Campus Drive and Santa Ynez. Where is the old post office and, indeed, even Lasuen Street, which passed the Old Union where the green bus to Paly stopped? The Old Union is still there, but the others have been replaced by White Plaza and Lasuen Mall, handsome spaces closed to vehicles, filled with cyclists and rollerbladers -- students from many nations.

Even the Engineering Corner is engineering no longer. Other departments and schools occupy the place. The familiar wooden writing chairs of 1943 are gone. Where, I wonder? I would like to own one now. They were indestructible, unlike the people who sat in them -- victims of war or casualties of time.

It is 1963, the Men's Pool. I am back at Stanford working on a PhD. The day is sunny and, during lunchtime, the spectators' seats are packed with men -- stark naked -- sunning themselves. (Swimming suits are not allowed. It is naked or nothing, for health reasons, nude bodies being cleaner than swimsuits that have been hanging damp in a locker for a week.) It is possible to see the great men of Stanford, completely unashamed in their birthday suits, diving into the water. I remember Professor Bark of history and Professor Scowcroft of creative writing. There were surely many others. Somehow nudity made them more approachable, even though I had dined in Professor Bark's house and spent many an hour in class with Professor Scowcroft.

Where the men's pool used to be is now a grass plaza located between the Brown building and the Ford Center on Galvez. The new DeGuerre pool is located across Campus Drive, past the Arrillaga Sports Center. Everyone is clothed. And the divers -- all young women -- are made of spring steel. They whirl through the air; the coach's quiet voice corrects; they try again.

As I leave, the haunting pungent aroma of the Stanford fields in summertime comes to me, ever so faintly. I smell it still.

Henry M. Steiner, '44, MS '50, PhD '65, is a professor in the department of engineering management at The George Washington University.


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