You need to know where you’ve been

By Lane Wurster (’86)
From Wake Forest Magazine

Some of you are aware of a little trip that I made over spring break this year with a couple of friends. Like most spring breakers, we headed to Florida. We checked out the Epcot Center and hit the beaches and participated in many of the other spring break rituals. But there was a unique twist in our trip and that was our mode of transportation. We stowed away on freight trains. That’s right, just like in the movies.

We’d run alongside the moving trains, waiting and hoping for an empty boxcar to come rolling along. Then, at just the right moment, we’d throw our backpacks on board and ride, ride, ride! We cruised through South Carolina and then Georgia, slowing down to pass through small towns along the way. As you can well imagine, we met some interesting folks along the journey, including an eighteen-year-old hobo whose supplies consisted of a single pack of cigarettes, and a train switcher, who at 3:30 in the morning and against his orders, directed us to a train bound for Tampa.

We spent three freezing nights on the rails and more than once rechecked out the compass to be certain that we were still heading south and not racing off to Michigan. But there was a moment on the trip, on one of those cold nights, when we couldn’t find the compass, our only gude to where we were or where we were bound. While two of us were scrambling around trying to find our compass, the third member of our trio, sitting with his legs hanging out of the moving boxcar, gave us a long look and blurted out, “You know, it doesn’t matter if you know where you are or where you’re going, as long as you know where you’ve been.” Spoken like a true Dharma Bum.

I think he was right on the money with that statement. It made a lot of sense at that moment and I think it means a lot today. Uncertain of where we were going, all we could be sure of was that we were leaving someplace. Since we were in motion, we had not yet established a new vantage point from which we could stand and look back. Until we found that compass we were in a kind of limbo. It was one of those rare moments when the sun shines right through the clouds, time stops for a few seconds, and you find yourself simultaneously active and reflective.

This is one of those times: A time in which we all move, breathe, and quiver, alive in activity — both mental and physical — but we are already gone somehow, being, and at the same time reflecting and remembering how we were when we were students at Wake Forest. Most of of our rooms are already empty and the cars are already packed up. In that sense, we’re leaving and abandoning this place, but at the same time, we’re hoarding emotionally. We’re grabbing up those last few precious experiences that will, in a few days, become part of that book that we all write in our minds about our college days.

The book of our Wake Forest experiences is unique to each of us, as unique as our spring breaks were. Our books will never be the same and they shouldn’t be. We’ve all gotten here, to this special day, by taking different paths and by having individual experiences. Many of you are in my book and I trust that I will make appearances in some of your memory books, as well.

There are episodes in my story that I would like to share with some of you someday, and I would like to hear your versions of the story. But as different as our experiences have been, I believe some of the same characters will be featured. They include our friend, “Spike,” the leather-capped physical plant worker who barely knows I exist, but who has brightened more than one of my days by participating in a ritual exchange that features him stabbing fraternity beer cups with his little trash harpoon before being asked, “How’s business, Spike?” As predictable as the trash that would be there the next day, he’d reply, “Pickin’ up, always pickin’ up!” They include the woman at the K&W Cafeteria on Coliseum Drive who must by now repeat in her sleep the phrase, “Help jew wit yo meats?” And they include the woman in the snack pit with those golden slippers. Even Dorothy would be envious of those shoes.

There are just a few of the many people I will remember fondly for the role they played in the day-to-day life here in this country-club-tobacco town I’ve called home for four years. They have made the getting there a pleasure in itself. Like the train ride to Florida, they’ve helped make the journey as rewarding as the arrival. I want to remember them all but I doubt that I will, not without a checkpoint that will prompt me to reflect, in years to come, about who and what Wake Forest was.

I have such a checkpoint in my home, as I imagine many of you do, too. It is a portion of our kitchen wall that is stained with ink and pencil lead. It is a wall on which my growth has been recorded. When I look at that wall I can’t help trying to remember who and what I was at those different points in my life and then comparing those images to where I am now and where I’ve become.

We, the Class of 1986, have a marking wall of sorts on this campus that we alone can claim. I am referring to the eleven new trees that have been planted on the Quad this spring. It is with these trees that I will mark the page at the end of my edition of the Wake Forest experience, and I urge you to do the same. I urge you, before you leave this place, to inspect one of these new trees still supported by string, and allow it to inspect you. Allow it to become your checkpoint for future visits to this campus, both actual and imagined.

Unlike the kitchen wall at home, these trees will not remain the same. They will grow and change as we all will. Our duty, upon returning to this Quad in the future, is to make certain that our growth is as dramatic as that of these soon-to-be-great trees. Other classes will be able to look at the trees and to admire their beauty, but ours alone will be held accountable by their rings. The trees will, I believe, challenge us to keep reaching out as they will, to give shelter to others as they will, and to never forget our roots.

But above all, they will welcome us back upon our return to this school, embracing us as partners of sorts who set off into life together. They will, in their own special way, remind us of the getting there. I invite you to listen to the trees today and tomorrow as they echo, in a secret language, the words of Fyodor Dostoevsky who wrote, to train travelers and classmates everywhere, “Let us always remember how good it was once, here, when we were all together, united by a good and kind feeling which mad us, for a time, better perhaps than we are.”

Lane Wurster (’86) was one of three finalists in last year’s senior oration competition.