Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Cannonball in Wallace Hall

It was an ordinary day in the Spring of 1973. Seventh period meant it was time for study hall in the now transformed Wallace Hall with its beautiful, perfect rows of half-desks. It seemed like there must have been about 100 rows with thirty deskettes each in that massive hall. I know it was significantly less, but in my mind, the room was huge.

At least one hundred students were scattered across the study hall under the diligent rule of Mr. Drake, a normally good-humored professor with great relationships with students. We all knew though not to push him too far. He commanded respect and was quite willing to employ the dreaded demerit system if we were found falling short of the MBA ideal of being a Gentleman.

In case you are not familiar with demerits or in case that tradition has evolved into some other beast, acquiring a mere two demerits in 1973 resulted in the culprit student getting to return to campus on Saturday. Two demerits could be acquired simply by failing to address one's teachers with respect. Five demerits were frequently awarded for students caught with responsibility for objects of various kinds flying within the building whether shot with the use of a straw or simply projected manually.

The poor young bloke with demerits got the privilege of writing three large vocabulary words in rows filling three pages per demerit. The sadistic designer of this system had calculated that a student writing rapidly could fill three pages in about thirty minutes. Thus, each demerit represented thirty minutes of constant writing. Needless to say, one's hand and lower arm were in significant pain within the first fifteen minutes. As if this were not enough, the demerited student would then have to learn the definitions and prove their knowledge of them when they turned their pages in.

In a way, all three MBA ideals were included in this exercise. Gentleman: the un-gentlemanliness was being quashed by the conditioning experience of writing the words. Scholar: the student engaged in a vocabulary building experience to improve his command of the language. And Athlete: the sheer physical exertion, persevering sometimes for many hours, helped in the development of the athletic mind and body.

So on this ordinary spring day, I, Dale Berry, along with my best friend, Will Ferguson, settled into our deskettes on the very back row of the massive study hall preparing for an hour of productive scholarly activity. Keep in mind that MBA study halls are quiet affairs with talking not allowed. I imagine that is still the case to this day. So the hall with its tile floor amplifies any sounds like coughs or sneezes of the students therein. It is generally so quiet, you can hear the pages turning on books across the room.

I am not sure why my mind treaded toward the moment of loss of impulse control. Usually, the demerit system kept my Freudian id well within normal limits. However, on this day, my impulsive young soul broke through the restraining confines of the MBA system and my own self-control.

I looked over at my friend who was already well into working on his assignments and completely engrossed in these studies like a good student should be. It was then that the idea of simply throwing a piece of notebook paper at him developed. It is ironic that the paper I was planning to use was the very same type of paper I would be using if I were caught and awarded demerits from Mr. Drake. The momentum for this act had grown too strong, and I put away any thought of the demerits I could earn. I stealthily crumpled the first piece of paper. Even though I tried to do this quietly, the noise of the crumpling reverberated throughout the hall. Thankfully, crumpling paper is a normal sound in a study hall, and neither Mr. Drake nor Will Ferguson paid any attention. At this point, I had committed no crime so my heart was still relatively calm.

Then, a second order decision occurred. I thought that throwing an ordinary piece of notebook paper was not worthy of my best friend Will. I thought he deserved something better and more substantial. Therefore, I proceeded to crumple a second paper around the original one and the a third, a fourth, and so on. I found myself emptying my notebook as the ball of paper grew in size and volume. Still, surprisingly, no one seemed to notice the rhythmic crumpling of so much paper. Eventually, I had created a paper ball about the size of a moderate cannonball. Though not as heavy as a cannonball, it was fairly significant in weight.

At this point, I knew that I would have a hard time explaining to Mr. Drake why I was holding in my lap a cannonball of paper, so getting the ball out of my hands was a high priority. I looked over at the unsuspecting Will Ferguson. He was two seats over from me on the back row. He was deep into reading the book on his desk. I looked up towards the front of the study hall where Mr. Drake sat on the stage behind a small desk. Mr. Drake was looking down reading. I checked back on Ferguson and Drake two more times. By this point my heart rate had almost doubled as my sympathetic nervous system prepared me for the upcoming moment of action. When I like I could wait no longer, still sitting in my small desk, I drew my hand and arm back like a baseball pitcher and hurled the cannonball of paper as hard as I could toward my very best friend in the world (he was actually one of my only friends).

The cannonball sailed true hitting Will square on the side of his head with impact on his ear, jaw, and temple. The sound of the impact was a very loud "whack!!!" And then there was the sound of Will letting out a surprised, shocked "Aughhhh" followed by the sound of the paper cannonball hitting the tile floor.

Mr. Drake jumped to his feet startled out of his peaceful, mesmerized state looking for the origins of the disturbance. As he was moving off of the stage to get to the floor of the large hall, the cannonball had ricocheted off of Ferguson's head, hit the floor, and still had enough momentum to roll to the back of the room where there was a stairway heading down to the floor of classrooms below. The cannonball slowly rolled over the edge of the first step making a small "boom" sound. It hit the second step, then the third gaining momentum again to complete the entire set of steps below. "Boom,boom,boom boom" it went. All this time Mr. Drake was heading across the study hall in our direction.

Will, by this time, had had time to absorb what had just occurred and looked at me with a mixture of incredulity, shock, and admiration just before he and I started silently laughing. This is the kind of laughter where your entire body is engaged with shaking. I had had the good sense to have an open book on my desk and Will and I both locked our eyes on our respective books as we tried mostly in vain to control our shaking bodies. We could feel Mr. Drake's presence beside us and behind us, but we did not dare look up.

I thought it was likely my life was over. Since an ordinary piece of paper would merit five demerits, I figured this cannonball would merit at least ten. Remember that would translate into five straight hours of writing and memorizing. Mercifully, as Mr. Drake continued to stand in the back of the hall near our desks, the bell rang for the last period. Will and I gathered our books and quickly exited the hall with our heads down not daring to look at Mr. Drake. To this day, I wonder if he was laughing inside as well. I will always be grateful to Will Ferguson for not turning me in and for that stairwell in the back of Wallace Hall that removed the evidence of the cannonball from Mr. Drake's sight.


submitted by Dale Berry '76