Campus Life

 

A secret system of concrete tunnels that runs beneath the Notre Dame campus?...Ah, I thought you knew...
From Richard Sullivan's Notre Dame...

Under the present campus runs a network of concrete tunnels, big enough to walk through. A student of mine walked through them last year, enjoying himself tremendously, partly because of the catacomb effect, partly because if he'd been caught he'd have probably been admonished severely and no doubt campused by the rector of his hall or by some even higher, sterner authority. Because students aren't supposed to walk the tunnels. This fellow stumbled on an entry somewhere or other; not one of the manholes that dot the campus, but at an opening out of his hall basement, as I understand it; and being of explorative bent he entered, tentatively, then wandered about, mainly by night, when the passages were clear of workmen, mapping his course as he went. He showed me the map: a fine, thorough job; I contemplated going with him on his next sally, but decided against it, being subject to croupy symptoms when exposed to dampness.

These tunnels-a latterday improvement of Zahm's first central heating system-were built just a few years too late to be cited by the Klan as an ominous storage place for rifles and dynamite in some illusory Papist plot. No doubt they will, some time or another, be so cited; or be charged with even nastier intentions. When I heard the other day that an itinerant preacher currently in this region -fellow who wears a white velvet vest and drives a bright blue convertible-had revived some of the old lurid priest- and-nun charges I wondered how it was he didn't mention our tunnels. But I guess he hadn't investigated closely. He should have, though it would not have paid him his customary take to report honestly what he would have found. Because what the tunnels were built for, and what they do admirably and exclusively, is to house the steam lines and water pipes and so on that service the thirty- five or so buildings that make up the present University. They were dug and lined as insurance against the perpetual digging which goes along with the perpetual disintegration, and the consequent perpetual repairing, of such communications as are subject to wear, tear, and decay. I understand that as an engineering achievement they are considered admirable.

One day coming early to class to meet a student for a conference -faculty office space is short at Notre Dame, and a lot of us are accustomed to using empty classrooms, or the Library, or the Caf, for appointments of this sort- I found a steam fitter doing something noisy to one of the radiators. The student didn't get there quite on time so I had a preliminary and highly instructive conference with the steam fitter. He was a big, blocky, flat-nosed man, with tar-black hair, and blue stubble on his jowls, a very good guy, once he'd eased up and stopped suspecting me as a damned professor likely to object to his banging and interfere with his vocation and state of life. Once we got friendly, he told me exactly what he was doing to the radiator; but my memory is not geared to such details, and
I can't trust myself to quote him accurately on the subtleties of his own craft. Only I can quote him, with deletions covered by paraphrase, on the tunnels. Our talk drifted, and he got on to the steam lines. He loved those tunnels as a man loves what he lives with, his own work, his reason for being. He spoke of them in the profane and genuine terms of complete affection.

He told me it was a funny thing but those lousy pipes developed lousy little pin-prick holes; he didn't know why the lousy things should do that; but they did; and he paused for me to marvel with him. But you get down there, he said, and you follow out those lousy lines of steam running all over to hell and gone and you get to thinking of the way people plan things out ahead of time in their heads. "By God," he said, "you know it took some doing just to think up those lousy things!" He would like to know, he said fervently, the illegitimately born so-and-so who thought them up; because there was one illegitimately born human being he could honestly admire. "And I mean it!" he told me, brandishing a wrench.

I said I shared his admiration. He looked at me and asked: "You teach here?"
I said I did.

"By God! " he said, and I felt I had done something honorable for my profession, and followed up my advantage.
"You pretty near through with that radiator?" I asked him. "I got a class coming up here in ten minutes."

"I'll be done before you get your lousy books laid out," the steam fitter said. "Listen, you race pigeons?"
"No."
 "Didn't I see you drinking beer one time out at the Belgian BlueBonnet Tavern?"
 "If you want to put it that way," I said, "there are a lot of places you might have seen me do-"
"Out at the Blue Bonnet is where all the guys that race pigeons hang out," he said. "I thought maybe you-"
'I never raced a pigeon in my life," I told him. The student with whom I had the conference scheduled came in, puffing from the stairs.
"What I was going to say," the steam fitter declared, the best thing about them lousy steam pipes"-he pointed
a forefinger with a great blackened nail at me, then at the student-"is the green grass and the lousy dandelions! Am I right?"
"Right! "Am I right? " he demanded of the student.
"Righto! "
"And that's something," said the steam fitter, "was just an accident. They never thought that up ahead of time!"
What he meant was that in late November, when the first dry grainy snow comes, or in December when there's a sweet and soppy fall of big wet twirling flakes, or in February when a foot of sooty, pock-marked snow lies over the campus, the heated ground over the steam lines always melts first; and in March there is fine green grass making stripes on the gray matted ground from building to building; and dandelions come up in their brightness months ahead of their proper season; and they make you feel good about that time of the year, when Lent is still running its course and the end of winter drags.

"By God!" said the steam fitter, walloping the radiator, I could eat those lousy dandelions!"

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