Saturday, April 18, 2009

"Goodnight, Mr. Jefferson!"

Yesterday evening, after a quiet dinner in the historic area of downtown Charlottesville, VA known as “The Corner,” my friend and I strolled onto the University of Virginia campus to find a quiet spot and stargaze. One of the warmest nights so far this year, the moon low, the sky still clear, the opportunity to observe a number of early summer constellations was too powerful to resist.

The walk itself was quite pleasant, too. It’s been years since I’ve wandered the campus with any real purpose, but despite the changes, it came back fairly quickly. (Though at UVa, they traditionally refer to the campus as “the Grounds.”) It was ten years ago this spring that I trained with a platoon of Marine Corps ROTC cadets on “the Grounds.” Three days a week, rising at home before 4AM, I would drive, half awake, to meet for a 0430 or 0500 PT session with young men well-adjusted to the early hours and the intense physical training. As fit as I was at the time, I still felt like a wimp. Some of the runs exceeded seven miles.

There in the campus darkness, we’d run sprints, or run the steps of the amphitheater, or do exercises on the sidewalks until my hands shook and we’d take off on a run. As we walked the campus last night, the specific runs were starting to come back. “We ended the 3-miler right here. I came in nearly dead last at 18:34.” She politely listened to my shameless reminiscence.

After a time, we selected a spot in the center of the UVa Lawn, the large rectangular field that is surrounded by the historically oldest portion of the campus. Designed and built by Thomas Jefferson, occupied by Edgar Allen Poe and other famous, troubled students, it still houses students of superior academic and community achievement. They are supposed to be privileged to live in the same ramshackle rooms as did their predecessors over 200 years ago. Such a lofty honor requires hiking to showers and bathrooms every day, since no such amenities exist in the rooms. I would probably turn down the “honor.”

But the lawn is gorgeous, with ancient dorms on either side, the UVa Rotunda on one end and another old building on the other, so I laid the blanket in the center of the grass midway between the ends. As our eyes adjusted, I began to identify constellations. “See that one there?”


“That’s the Big Dipper.” As I started to explain how to find the Little Dipper, some rather disruptive screaming was heard (more than the usual drunken din to either side of us), and we were nearly run over by a naked man and two similarly naked women sprinting with him. Neither of us had remembered to consider that this is spring, the semester is almost over, and we’re lying in the dead center “lane” of the UVa Lawn – arguably the most famous campus streaking spot in the country. After a little surprised stumbling, the naked people veered clear of us (barely), and continued their desperate careen towards the far end of the Lawn. We had averted disaster. To my credit, my only remark had been, “DO NOT run into me.” The guy had nearly tripped with surprise, but managed to figure it out at the last minute.

According to tradition, a streaker will start on the steps on the UVa Rotunda, run the full length of the Lawn (about 300 meters), do a turn around the statue of Homer at the far end, return to the Rotunda steps, peek in the keyhole to the Thomas Jefferson statue within and recite, “Good night Mr. Jefferson!” They will then have the eternal honor of having streaked the famous Lawn, and accompanying shame of having made total asses of themselves. Cops, more concerned with containing the melee around the frat houses, rarely enforce the indecency laws. Frankly, they probably enjoy the occasional view.

As the naked people come jogging (much more slowly) back up the Lawn, my friend looks and me and quietly asks, “Ben, do you think we should move?”

“Nah. It’s a cold night. There won’t be many of them.” A dozen streakers later, I took her suggestion.

I suppose that some would have found it all terribly offensive and alarming, but in the low light of the backlit Rotunda, the speed and desperation of the runners, and finally our distinct lack of interest in seeing, it was more strange than anything else. As the numbers quickly mounted, so did the entertainment.

One would think that people experiencing the total vulnerability and illegality of running a large field naked would have selected a more “streaker friendly” location to run, but the Lawn is anything but. At three places, the gentle grade of the field terraces into a steep, three foot incline, a brick walkway at the bottom, and then another flat section. In bare feet and dew-filled grass, wipeouts are inevitable. Streakers, usually somewhat compromised with alcohol, have difficulties. Not only do they forget about the little hills, but they slip and then slide ONTO the bricks. It looked painful.

“Hmm. Those two look a little unstable.” It was five guys this time, and two looked like they’d been about their cups for too long. Sure enough, they hit the first hill hard and slid onto the brickwork. We could hear the skin coming off. But troopers in the face of adversity, they clamored to their feet amid their compatriots’ laughter and kept going.

A guy and a girl ran it this next time, stumbling hard, but not entirely falling. He regained his footing and tore off. The girl, nude but for FLIP FLOPS, stopped to remove her footwear and took off again at a jog. The runners’ paces varied widely. Though the males always tore off enthusiastically, a number were barely jogging by the time they passed us again. A few were walking. Partners and pairs rarely remained such, but the girls usually hung together.

Moved though our blanket may have been, we still were nearly run down a couple of times. As a herd of girls approached, I was told “don’t you dare say anything to them,” so I cradled my head with my hands, and prepared for impact. Instead, a shriek, a muttered apology, and they continued on.

“Ooh, you can tell he’s a runner. He’s pacing himself well. But his friend’s pretty heavy. He’ll be walking.” My friend’s analysis was correct. She was similarly correct about the next group of girls that tore past us. Most walked back in defeat.

To their credit, the seasoned streakers started passing intelligence to their associates, and the groups began to anticipate the slopes. Catastrophic wipeouts drastically reduced, which while fortunate for them, was a bit of a disappointment. Watching them fall was half the fun. Yet at the same time, I had no particular desire to use my EMT skills on a naked person lying in the cold grass and mumbling epithets. That’s a tough one to explain to people.

Two girls come walking back up the Lawn, breaking ranks to bypass our blanket. “Sorry guys. We didn’t see you there.” They kept strolling and chatting about classes.

“They’ve been the nicest naked people so far,” my friend remarked. I had to agree.

“Wait, hasn’t he run before? This has to be the third time!” We were both surprised as a large man ran by. He looked to be older than most of the other students.

“Yup!” We spoke too loudly. He gasped his reply and kept jogging.

Amid cheering crowds on the Rotunda steps and jeering drunks along the sidelines, the runners persisted; crowds of them. A sizeable percentage needed to drop a few pounds. It was entertaining to eavesdrop on their not-so-candid conversations as they passed. “Last time I ran this, I really busted my ass. It left a huge scar.” That guy ran more carefully this time. The diehards ran it in running shoes

“Ooh, she has nice hair.” My friend gestured to a darker skinned girl with long hair flowing as she ran. I hesitated to agree with her. I didn’t want to indicate I was looking too closely.

“She has nice hair too!”

“Um, that’s a dude.”


At least 100 runners later, the hour late, we folded up the blanket and prepared to walk back to the car. Another large group ran by us as we stood there. Grabbing my wallet from my pocket and flashing it like an ID, I ran towards the nearest – the heavyset man who was now running for a fourth time.



“Stop.” He looked bewildered, stared at my wallet (there was nothing to see), and suddenly felt very naked. His hands automatically migrated to his crotch.

“What? Why are you stopping me? What did I DO?!” I started to laugh uncontrollably.

“Nothing. Just giving you a heart attack. Keep going.”

“Oh.” He tore off with renewed energy.

“I just want to see ONE MORE bite it,” my friend remarked as we walked away. As we reached the end of the Lawn near the statue, her wish was granted. A particularly ambitious group had not only run down, but now was doing small laps around Homer’s statue. Sure enough, a couple sprawled flat in the grass. We both walked off laughing.

Whatever peace we may have otherwise enjoyed that evening had been irrevocably shattered when the first gaggle of nudes nearly ran us over. A profusion of naked people barreling past us and almost falling on us wasn’t terribly relaxing, but we still had fun. I’ve never seen this before – at least not numbers like these. Stargazing was relegated to the status of secondary interest. The self-shaming before us was more entertaining. And so was the falling.

We’re actually planning another follow-up outing. And we’ll be coming prepared. We’ll bring a camera with a high-powered flash (to preserve these memorable moments indefinitely) and a long rope. And there, lying atop our blanket on the sidelines, we’ll tie one end to a distant tree, and take turns yanking it taut when the streakers approach. After all, what could be more fun than watching well over 100 naked people run by? The answer: watching them all fall down, too. And then we’ll take their pictures. I’m seeing dollar signs…

For a virtual tour of the Lawn, click here (requires Flash).

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


Poet said...

Wasn't there a Ray Stevens song...

Anonymous said...

Ben, you should write more often about your dates. LOL! They seem to go awry every time. Romantic evenings turn into poking at road kill and getting run over by streakers. I'll bring my popcorn next time I come to read your blog.

Elizabeth said...

Well, that sounds like an interesting evening.

Sarah said...

It warms my heart to know that streaking from the 1970's is still a very important part of earning a college degree.

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