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Reflections on the Summer of '78

Summer Session Polar Bear Swim

By Bob Low, Summer Session faculty and former Cardigan faculty. This letter first appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of the Cardigan Chronicle.

Bob Low

“This will be good for you, Bobby. You’ll be surrounded by structure, take some classes, play some sports, and learn how to be responsible. And maybe even grow up a little.”

It was 1978. A gallon of gas cost sixty-five cents, a new car ran roughly $5,400, the Yankees won the AL East playoff behind Bucky Dent’s homer, and every Saturday night The Love Boat set a course for adventure (and romance). Grease, Superman, and Animal House were the top three blockbuster movies. Air hockey and the video game Space Invaders made their debut.

And there I was, late June, awkwardly leaning against Cotting Rock while posing in front of a Polaroid for the Summer Session student directory. Looking for a place to help her son navigate the stormy waters of adolescence and live with a modicum of independence, my mother lucked onto Cardigan’s advertisement in the Boston Sunday Globe Magazine summer camp section earlier that winter. She had found her answer, and there wasn’t much debate on the matter.

And here I am, now 40 years later, having just finished more than 20 years of the Cardigan Summer Session experience, feeling just as fulfilled now as I did then. Like the rare baseball feat, I’ve hit for the Summer Session cycle here at Cardigan: student, faculty, marriage (I met my wife Stacey on The Point) and parent; both of my children are now current students. Furthermore, all three of my Black Labradors have learned to swim here over the past 30 years. Max and Finny’s ashes rest atop Old Baldy.

Mr. Hicks was the director of summer session and my French teacher that summer. Activities Director and Lacrosse Coach Mr. Heath was a soft-spoken, articulate, patient man, stern and firm—just what a boy like me needed. I had Jim Marrion H’03, P’88, GP’03,’05,’14 for math and baseball, and boy, did I feel like I hit the jackpot. He was in charge of Polar Bear every morning after his workout routine. I remember him ambling down the dock with flip-flops, a white gym towel draped around his neck, and his rugged, handsome smile. His U.S. Marine-like buzz cut and deep, stentorian voice belied his gentle demeanor, friendly twinkle in his eye, and his ever-present smile. He treated us with so much respect (undeservedly so), and we all unfailingly reciprocated. He seemed like he was sculpted out of granite from a local quarry—ubiquitous, gracefully strong, enduring forever. I wanted to be around him as much as possible.

I remember my courses then were pretty much meat and potatoes: English, French, math, and typing. My typing class was in the Clark-Morgan enclosed porch— an admissions office now—just above the old Hayward kitchen pantry. I diagrammed sentences in Hayward basement classrooms and wrote book reports in Hopkins Library. There were strict haircut and dress code rules back then, and our Saturday evening activity was a movie in Hinman (not Humann) theater. Every student had a school job— classroom cleaner, dining hall waiter, chaplain assistant, dorm job, gym and van cleaner, or locker room cleaner. Reading and rest period was sacrosanct; you either read or slept. No in-between. If you were caught whispering, or God forbid, giggling, you ran the risk of eliciting your dorm master’s wrath or at least a “bad conduct slip,” hand-written on carbon copy paper. Evening study halls at our individual desks were also part of the regiment, similarly policed by the adult on duty. After the Saturday night movie, we’d rush to line up at the Hayward kitchen back door (now a new bachelor apartment), where Mr. Marrion would treat us to black cow floats.

Bob Low and his family

Bob Low with his family in 2018 at Cardigan Mountain School Summer Session.
 

Beach Day was at Hampton Beach, and we also trekked into Boston for a Red Sox game. I recall watching Grease in the movie theater in West Lebanon that is now a Kohl’s, and Enfield’s Great View Roller Rink was always a hit. I felt like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever when the disco ball lit up the place. On Sundays, we started our days with a room inspection the U.S. Naval Academy would be proud of, followed by Chapel and Sunday brunch, all in Sunday formal dress.

And then there was Green and White Competition and The Great Race, of course. Several legs of the original Great Race are still in existence—blind run, cowboy race, dizzy Izzy, swimming races, turkey trot, potato sack race, and the three-legged soccer race, to name a few. Current Activities Director Gus Means has bolstered the epic relay race with new stations over the years, and watching the entire school—divided into two teams—on its penultimate day working together to get through the 27-station race, cements the experience as a metaphor for the Green and White Competition and the Summer Session itself; teamwork, participation, the joy of healthy competition, risk-taking, enthusiasm, and sportsmanship. There is no hyperbole here.

Mountain days, Polar Bear swims, Great Races, dining hall table-setting, room inspections, mandated haircuts, Sunday chapel in Sunday dress, and cookie breaks...All of it mattered and all of it had its place in Cardigan’s mission of steering an impressionable adolescent on his first step towards adulthood.

Fast forward eight years later, as a fresh-out-of-college rookie teacher in 1986, I suddenly found myself working under Cardigan’s Mt. Rushmore—Norm Wakely, Joe Collins, Jim Marrion, and Dudley Clark. And now, in the summer of 2018, with folks like Director of Summer Programs Matt Rinkin and Activities Director Gus Means serving as worthy leaders of this program (along with their fellow administrators and colleagues over the years), the opportunity to pass on the legacy and tradition of these giants—my heroes—is nothing short of a debt of gratitude paid back in small installments, one child and one experience at a time.