Web Exclusives: Inky Dinky Do
a PAW web exclusive column by Hugh O'Bleary

December 19, 2001:
Breaking the falls
Youthful highjinks and highwires on campus

By Hugh O’Bleary

A helicopter hung in the sky above Princeton one night last week, just hung there in the dark, its red and green tailights flashing, the thumpa-thumpa of its rotors going on and on. A quick drive around town, neck craned out the window to keep the chopper in view, produced no obvious focus for its ominous, hovering attention, though a rescue vehicle was parked, lights flashing, in front of Maclean House and two Borough squad cars sat dark and empty near Firestone. After maybe a half an hour, the helicopter moved off, the night went quiet and sleep was possible.

The following morning the papers revealed what had been going on. A young woman, a Princeton senior, had fallen from a ladder high inside the north turret of the University Chapel. According to the report, she had fallen about 20 feet and was lodged for more than an hour before rescue crews could bring her down on the outside of the Chapel in the bucket of a hook-and-ladder truck. It was feared that she had sustained a broken leg. And just what was this young woman doing in the upper reaches of the Chapel — an area closed to the public — at 10:00 at night? According to reports, she was leading a friend, another Princeton student, up to the bell tower. The young woman had been there before and she wanted to show her friend the view.

“Well, that’s just ------- typical.”

The speaker was Mikey Grumpatto, and he was sitting next to me on the train that morning, evidently reading about the incident in the paper. He actually snorted. “These Princeton students think none of the rules apply to them — least of all the —— rules of common sense. She’s lucky she didn’t break her —— neck.”

It was the sort of charitable observation for which Mikey was known. A native of Boston (who, to judge by his customary voice level and vocabulary, must have grown up in the vicinity of a shipyard, or perhaps a boilerworks), he has lived in Princeton for more than a decade. He is quite decidedly neither an alumnus nor an adopted son of Old Nassau.

“It’s like that kid who climbed on top of the Dinky —” He jabbed a finger above his head without looking. “— damn near got killed. And then he sued the —— university.” Another snort.

By the time we reached the junction, Mikey had touched on clapper-caper falls and Washington-Road jaywalkers and Nude-Olympic vandalism, all accompanied by snorts and the sort of expletives that were deleted from the Watergate tapes.

“They think,” he said, as we parted company at the Junction, “that the world belongs to them and that nothing can hurt them. —— fools.”

Mikey’s diatribe had depressed me. Maybe the young woman who fell in the chapel was foolish, I thought, as my train pulled out of the station bound for New York (Mikey, of course, had waited for the Amtrak). I was just glad that she was going to be all right. I thought of my own daughters. Egad. I decided that I didn’t think that the woman’s risk-taking was really related to being a Princeton student. I thought that probably it was related to being young. I remembered my sophomore year in college, when my friends and I all considered it easier (and, okay, cooler) to walk around the corner of our dorm roof, our toes barely gripping the old copper guttering, than it was to walk down three flights to the courtyard, over one entryway and up three flights. I remember a couple of illicit belltower visits as well. And plenty of oblivious crosswalk near-misses.

I’m older now — firmly into fogeyhood — and such memories make me feel faintly queasy. I certainly don’t encourage such actions. (Once again, egad, I think of my own daughters and I want to install safety belts and guardrails and air mattresses pretty much everywhere.) Nor do I think that students ambling across the road against the light, the music on their headphones so loud that the headphones actually jump cartoonishly from their ears, is particularly endearing (there is a place for common courtesy). But I do think that those of us — Mikey and me and all the fogeys — who move through this or any campus every day should remember that we pass through a land inhabited by another species: the young. They are, after all, supposed to be climbing up to see the view. Give them, as the traffic signs say, a brake. Protect them, as best we can, from themselves.

You can reach Hugh O'Bleary at "Hugh O'Bleary" paw@princeton.edu