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College life, although depicted in film and literature as quite exciting, in real life is anything but and often results in much down time, tedium, and boredom. For generations, college students have had to put as much effort into entertaining themselves as they have their studies. For many of us, the effort, to our chagrin, tilted more to the side of entertainment. Recognizing the obvious tendency for much of the entertainment to center around alcoholic beverages, I prefer here to look at some of the more obscure forms of entertaining oneself; for example, swallowing goldfish.

In the 1920’s a fad was started on many college campuses that involved swallowing goldfish. I know it sounds odd today, but I’m sure it was quite entertaining in its time (after all, this was the same era that gave us flagpole sitting. Flagpole sitting? Why? And wouldn’t that eventually lead to hemorrhoids or prostate problems?). Anyway, I can only imagine the conversation in the men’s dorm on the Harvard campus in 1922:

William, prostrate on the bottom bunk bed speaks to no one in particular, “I’m bored. Isn’t there something we can do?”

“We could study some more,” Herbert mumbles, not looking up from his calculus text.

“Like I said, isn’t there something we can do, anything? I’m tired of playing cards. I’m tired of listening to the radio. I’m tired of getting drunk. I’m tired of wearing this raccoon coat. There has to be something we can do to jazz up the joint.”

Over in the corner, reading the most recent copy of Vanity Fair, Todd interjects, “Let’s swallow some goldfish. Alive.”

William’s ears perk up and sitting at attention he responds, “I think you’ve got something there Todd. Tell us more!”

“Well, it’s just an idea, but I thought we could go down to the pet store and buy a couple of dozen goldfish and then go out to the common area in front of the library; you know, where most of the girls mingle. Then we could have competitions to see who could swallow the most in the shortest amount of time. The girls would surely be impressed.”

William adds, “We would have to advertise it to get people excited. We could put flyers around campus and make a huge deal out of it. Yeah, I’m sure it would impress the girls.”

Herbert, after hearing the discussion, queries, “Why do the goldfish have to be swallowed alive? Won’t they just die anyway as they become saturated in your digestive acids?”

Todd, giving Herbert a look of incredulity, answers him, “A live fish makes the whole ordeal that much more exciting. Imagine a goldfish, being held by the tail, wriggling vigorously, trying to free itself from between your fingers as it’s slowly lowered into your open mouth. I’m sure some of the girls will faint at the sight.”

William exclaims excitedly, “That seals it. I’m in. How about the rest of you?”

And there you have it; the beginning of the goldfish swallowing fad that swept college campuses all over America in the early twentieth century. When that fad died out, bored college students had to come up with other entertainments. Of course, a few decades later, streaking was a huge fad that not only enveloped colleges, but even trickled down to the high school level.

When it became my turn for the college experience (I only had one year of dorm life, the rest as a commuter), I too found that there was much down time. The hardest thing was getting up in the morning. It seems that living up to my own expectations versus parents and teachers elicited two polar opposite reactions. If I didn’t go to class in high school, my parents, teachers, administrators and the local police would all become alarmed, whereas if I slept in and skipped class in college, no one would even notice. There were however the end of semester grades, but that’s another story altogether.

My friends and I (remember, all alcohol related stories are being ignored in this post) found that playing cards was a pretty good cure for the boredom of college life. Of course we studied, but how much could one person’s brain absorb reading the same textbooks over and over? It was usually four of us that would meet in someone’s dorm room and around a table we would play hand after hand of euchre or spades, each of us consuming family size bags of Nacho Cheese Doritos and multiple cans of Mr. Pibb and Dr. Pepper. These games would go on for hours and days at a time with occasional trips to Kansas thrown in during the week (I know, no drinking stories). But at some point, as the boys at Harvard had done some fifty years earlier, we too became bored.

Ronnie, lying on his dorm room bed, “I’m bored. Isn’t there something we can do?”

David, his nose buried in his calculus text mutters, “We could study some more.”

“Like I said, isn’t there something we can do?  Anything!  I’m tired of studying. I’m tired of drinking. I’m tired of listening to this stereo; One of These Nights, although a good song is getting old after the one thousandth time of hearing it. I’m tired of playing cards. I’m tired of wearing this high school letter jacket. There has to be something we can do that will liven this place up.”

Reading the most recent edition of Mad Magazine, Keith looks up and says, “We could climb the water tower.”

Ronnie’s ears perk up and he sits up and prods Keith for more, “I like it. That sounds really cool.  Tell us more.”

“Well, there’s this water tower not too far from campus and there’s a ladder that runs up the side all the way to the top. At the top is a walkway that goes all the way around. We could climb the surrounding fence and climb to the top. It would be fun. And once the girls find out, I’m sure they’ll be impressed.”

The next day, after classes, we all hopped into the ’58 Chevy and drove out to the water tower. A half mile away I could see the water tower obvious above all other landmarks on the horizon. Misjudging its height from that distance I confidently asserted, “This should be a breeze. I’ve jumped off cliffs that high.”

Kevin, who’d heard my bluster before, asked, “How high were those cliffs you jumped off of Ronnie?”

“Oh, they had to be anywhere between forty and sixty feet high. Climbing this will be nothing compared with jumping off those cliffs.”

Kevin sarcastically replied, “Well, I thought you might want to know that the water tower stands one hundred and twenty feet off the ground and there’s no water at the bottom to land in.”

His comments shut me up, for the moment, and I continued to drive to the tower. Once we arrived, all four of us piled out of the car and began scaling the fence; built to keep dummies, er, intruders from climbing the tower on a lark. As the four of us stood shoulder to shoulder, preparing to start up the ladder, I looked straight up and realized that Kevin was pretty accurate in his description; the water tower was at least twice as high as any cliff I had ever jumped off. I swallowed hard and followed the other three up the ladder.

There were rumors surrounding this tower; the usual one about someone falling to their death, but the other rumor involved a male student defecating over the side of the rail surrounding the walkway. My first thought is, why? And why would you brag about it? And how would you do it?  Anyway, no matter what the other three decided to do up there, I decided that defecating over the side wasn’t on my immediate to do list.

They say that you should never look down when scaling great heights and in that I have to concur. It’s best to keep your eyes focused either straight ahead of you or looking up at the rear end in front of you. I did both. Hand over hand and one foot after the other, we made our way to the top of the tower.

One thing not considered while standing at the bottom was the last fifteen feet of the climb. You see, the tower at the top bulges out a number of feet and correspondingly so does the ladder. So instead of climbing straight up, which isn’t all that daunting, you now have a situation where you are climbing at something resembling a 75 degree angle. At this point, the grip tightens and so does the anal sphincter.

Once we had all made it to the top, we became a bit cocky and hocked loogies over the side and dared each other to hang out over the rail surrounding the walkway (which none of us did). The view was stunning; we could see the surrounding countryside for miles in all directions. After a while we became bored with our newfound boredom reliever and decided to head back down.

Now up to this point, I was nervous, but not extremely so as I didn’t want my buddies to see my fear and call me a scaredy cat. However, looking out over the edge and seeing how the ladder was angled in toward the tower, I realized that getting down was going to be much more of a challenge than climbing up. Sitting on the platform facing out, my feet could not find the first step of the ladder, so I had to turn around and lie on my stomach facing the tower. With both hands firmly gripped (to the point of white knuckles) on the side rails, I inched over the edge, my feet dangling, searching for the first step below. After a few more inches and a lot more sweat, I found the first step. To say that I moved cautiously from this point would be an obvious understatement, but I eventually reached the portion of the ladder that was perpendicular, I finally relaxed, sort of, and nervously blurted out, “Man, this was fun! I can’t believe it was so easy.”

The other three gave me knowing looks and thankfully left me to wallow in my false bravado. It was the only time I ever climbed a water tower, that one time being sufficient. They say that the college experience is designed to expand your mind and broaden your horizons. Standing at the top of the water tower, staring down at the ground below, I will admit that my mind went places I never dreamed of and my horizons were surely broadened. If you ever have the chance to climb a water tower, I would highly recommend it. But watch that first step coming down; it’s a doozy!