A Retrospective on Dartmouth Night

We present the following description of Homecoming weekends in the recent past so that freshmen may know how much the College has changed in just a few short years. While originally addressed to the Class of 2013 (truly the Worst Class Ever for their inability to either touch the fire or rush the field), this article provides a quick glimpse at the bonfires of just yesteryear. While those weekends were very different from those of yore, they were still harsher and more traditional than the current incarnations.

Dartmouth changes from year to year as it is defined by the ever-changing student body. We at The Dartmouth Review find this article to be a wonderful reminder of how the student body has shifted the tone and impact of a weekend in less than one generation.

Ah, homecoming, the time when the sons and daughters of Dartmouth descend en masse upon the College on the Hill to relive old times and renew old friendships. Alumni know the drill. For freshmen, however, it’s one giant carnival of sound, music, and wild fun. This year the class of 2018 will run around the bonfire one-hundred and eighteen times. I’d like to take this opportunity to pass on some of my homecoming experiences to the freshmen—so listen up, ‘18s, this article is for your benefit.

The 2008 bonfire

The 2008 Bonfire

Before the freshmen sweep passed East Wheelock, I descended from Andres 302-C towards Brace Commons clad in classic attire for the occasion: jeans, tennis shoes and my class jersey emblazoned with the oversized “Dartmouth 12” on the front. East Wheelock has long had the reputation of being the quiet dorm cluster populated by nerdy, introverted types, but that certainly wasn’t the case that night. Music was pounding, everything from old Backstreet Boys hits to much more modern tunes (if memory serves, “Soulja Boy” was played at least once), the lighting was turned down low and dozens if not hundreds of pea green freshmen were gyrating wildly around and having a blast. If you didn’t want to stand out in this crowd, you had to affix a number of temporary tattoos to your body, fasten a ludicrous number of green glow sticks around an appendage of your choice and then dance like a fool.

So I did; one pair of glow sticks made a loop around my neck and another bundle was snapped together and wrapped around my right forearm like some sort of brace. I had “Class of ‘12” temporary tattoos on the backs of both my hands and on my scruffy right cheek. I was ready for anything, or so I thought.

It wasn’t too long before the world’s biggest ‘shmob marched by outside and collected us. As the horde of freshmen oozed towards the Green, my roommate and I broke off from the main group and joined the glee club in front of Dartmouth Hall, which gave us the best view of the Green.

When I said that Dartmouth alumni descend en masse, I wasn’t kidding. Thousands of people from every graduating class for decades stood shoulder to shoulder in front of Dartmouth Hall. The marching band made their way into the near-corner of the Green and after a few short speeches, including one from then President Jim Wright, Louis Burkot, the glee club director, took his position in front of us. We sang two Dartmouth classics: the alma mater and “Son of a Gun,” two of the oldest Dartmouth songs. To all you freshmen reading this, I hope you enjoy the smell of Keystone.

Then we were all but shoved downhill through the crowd of people and back into the mob surrounding the wooden bonfire. The bonfire was lit and it didn’t take long for the flames to begin devouring the towering structure. It was time to run.

My aforementioned roommate, an engineering major, had taken the time to estimate the distance of the run we were to take that night: nine miles, quite a distance for people who weren’t in shape. I wasn’t too concerned. I had played football in high school and had withstood some conditioning in my time. How bad could a leisurely jog around a bonfire surrounded by my fellow classmates be? I’d just set an easypace and keep at it until I had completed all one-hundred and twelve laps. I was going to complete this thing with ease and style to show my less fortitudinous classmates how it was done.

I should have known better. As Colin Powell once said, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” Unfortunately for myself that night, I was my own worst enemy because I’d failed to take into account several things.

Debauchery at its finest

Debauchery at its finest

First, the diameter of the circled-off area was fifty yards, which meant that the freshmen had to run around one hundred fifty yards per lap. On the face of things that may seem like plenty of room, but in practice it’s rather difficult to squeeze a thousand hyped up freshmen into an area that small, so the first seven laps or so took some time to complete and resembled less a marathon than a cattle roundup. Second was the rather obvious fact that the gigantic bonfire was hot, even from a good distance away; the towering inferno was enough to remind one of the Biblical story of the Israelites as they were led out of Egypt by the pillar of flame at night, but this particular pillar of flame was the god of NASCAR and we only made left turns on a small track.

My final mistake was my attire. The night was cold and the combination of continuously running with my left side facing the fire and my right side exposed to the cold night air meant that it felt like I was getting sunburned while freezing. On balance, however, my jeans meant I’d dressed too warmly. The biggest problem with my clothing, however, was that I was running nine miles and not wearing athletic gear. I’d have been in much better shape had I been wearing mesh shorts and a jock instead of my jeans—at least I wouldn’t have chafed like mad. As you can imagine, all of these things made my progress rather slow, especially later on.

Of course, in a throwback to Dartmouth’s old school sanctioned hazing, upperclassmen encircled the freshmen and made grabs at the glow sticks while screaming various epithets and commands.

“Hey, twelves, you guys are the worst class ever!”
“You suck!”
And other variegated insults not fit for publication.

And of course, that perennial favorite, “Freshmen, touch the fire!” was yelled incessantly.
The pack began to thin as some fellow ‘12s made up excuses to leave like, “Hey, two plus zero plus one plus two is five, so I’ll just run that many laps!” Others ran only twelve laps. Some ran thirty-two. More still gave up when they got bored, regardless of what lap they were on. I pushed on, determined that my jogging partner and I would be two of the few crazies who ran all one hundred and twelve and reasoning that we would never forgive ourselves if we didn’t.

Debauchery in East Wheelock -- temporary tattoos and rock ‘n’ roll.

Debauchery in East Wheelock — temporary tattoos and rock ‘n’ roll.

As the night wore on and my jeans wore on my legs, the fire began to die down a little bit. The ring of S&S officers tightened up and upperclassmen crowded the freshmen towards the bonfire. The effect was twofold. The number of freshmen running had dropped considerably so that only a few score were still going and that meant that it was easier to move around the fire in a tighter circle without bashing into my fellow classmen. Regrettably the closer proximity to the burned down fire—which by the end of the run was merely a pile of embers—meant that I had to contend with rather thick smoke. I also wasn’t as physically fit as I thought. I was still making it around the bonfire at a steady pace but I was regularly lapped by those who had run cross country before coming to Hanover.

Finally, I was done. I checked the Baker-Berry tower clock. All one-hundred and twelve laps had taken about an hour and forty minutes. I’d managed to neither pull a groin muscle nor singe my eyebrows off. What did I earn for my trouble? Well, I and fourteen others joined a Facebook group titled “I ran all 112 laps at Homecoming ’08,” and I had to walk tenderly for a few days afterward. Those were unimportant, though. What was important was that under our watch the old tradition had not failed.

So now it falls to you ‘18s. In the words of the alma mater, “dare a deed for the old mother,” and complete all the laps. Ingrain yourself in the proud, long running tradition. You won’t regret it.

This set piece to the Review‘s Homecoming coverage was written by Sterling C. Beard.