Web Exclusives: Bonus Stories

July 7, 2004:

A Grand moment
Understanding the P-rade, finally

by Nate Rawlings ’04

Long before most of us arrived at this place, we knew of many Princeton traditions. It wasn’t until most of us arrived that we became aware of what awaited us. During the first few weeks, deans and professors told us that during the struggle to produce our independent work we would make discoveries that would define our academic careers and shape our lives.

When it came time to actually produce these great discoveries, I started to notice an unintentional side effect. As many of my friends struggled with the stress of JP’s, on their way to these great discoveries, they made a few GRAND discoveries as well. These findings were different because they were examples of the Great Random Academic Non sequiturious Discovery. In order to qualify as a GRAND finding, the new information had to be, chiefly, original, secondly, completely random, and most important, have nothing whatsoever to do with the discoverer’s area of study.

My own GRAND wasn’t the result of my academic struggle, but rather a product of another tumultuous time, the final day of Reunions. For two years I had the privilege to work on the 5th-reunion crew, a job that entailed being awake for four days of hauling kegs and equipment. Last year, I served as the beer chair of the 5th, and for the first two nights I slept a total of 45 minutes as the Princeton world seemed to revolve around our beer tent. For three days those looking to celebrate made their way to us, progressing backwards from the reunion tents of older years, wishing for nothing more then to gather on a grassy hill and consume more Budweiser than at any other single event in America.

During the little down time we had that week I was re-reading The Great Gatsby, the masterpiece of a quintessential Princetonian, and during the P-rade I had planned a short nap after stopping to see my roommate’s family march with the Class of ’71. As I sat and watched the procession with my good friend, teammate, and boss for the weekend, Matt Hawrilenko ’04, I read the underlined final lines of the book: “so we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past.”

I looked up and watched as hundreds of alums clad in orange and black abominations marched by, and suddenly it hit me; I knew exactly what Fitzgerald meant in those final lines, grabbed Matt by the shirt and announced, “I see it now! I know what he’s talking about!”

Matt stared at me with a concerned look then glanced over my shoulder for the invisible “he” about whom I was speaking. “What are you talking about?”

“I just discovered what Fitzgerald meant at the end of The Great Gatsby! He was talking about the P rade, see!”

I read the book’s final lines aloud for Matt and pointed to the stream of alums marching past us, but rather than the excited understanding I expected from my friend, I got instead a worried look and the suggestion, “seriously, get some sleep before you hurt yourself.”

Shocked at his lack of enthusiasm at what was clear to me the greatest literary discovery of all time, I tried to explain my revelation to my Woody Woo friend. The novel’s final image, where the narrator comments on humanity battling the changes of time, trying to reconnect with the past, made perfect sense as I watched Princeton alums marching backwards in time. Beginning with the oldest living alum and culminating with that year’s graduating class, the P rade appeared to me the ultimate act of Princetonians beating on against the current, reconnecting with their past.

What if the P rade had inspired the book’s closing lines? Better yet, what if the P-rade had been the inspiration for the entire novel? My ideas went from crazy to absurd, and being the friend that he is, Matt listened and pretended to know what I was babbling about.

In the time of rest and recovery that followed Reunions, I realized that while my theory of Fitzgerald had been somewhat bogus, I had made the great, and GRAND discovery of my Princeton career — that the P-rade is perhaps the greatest tradition of the many that define this place. In the P-rade, Princeton alums, from their graduating year to the final reunions celebration of their lives, can gather in one place and march, from oldest to youngest, moving against the current of time, reconnecting to this place and the people they once were.

As Princeton alums, we have a special opportunity in the P-rade to return, not only to the place of our youthful experiences and discoveries, but to the people, past and future, with whom we shared those times. Two days ago we did so as students, as the honored guests of the thousands of alums who marched towards us. Beginning next year, when we march as alums for the first time, we will reconnect, not only with our classmates, but with the honored guests of that year, and in doing so, we can remember, each and every year, the hopes and dreams we forged in this place. Whether our academic discoveries live up to the expectations we had when we arrived, whether the careers and choices we have recently made bring the happiness we hope we will find, we can return and remember who we once were and reconcile who we have become.

When we don the ridiculous costumes of our growing years and march on, class banners against the current of time, we can remember the dreams we now possess and ask ourselves if we have lived up to our own expectations. While my GRAND discovery did little to change the standard thinking on Fitzgerald, it did allow me to appreciate the amazing tradition where, each and every year, we can march on as part of a progression: back toward those who will soon enter a world beyond Princeton, back toward who we were, back ceaselessly into the past.

Nate Rawlings grew up in Lookout Mountain, Tenn., and wrestled and played rugby at Princeton. He was a history major and an officer at Tiger Inn. He did Army ROTC and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army and is working for a few months in the ROTC office until he goes to my first training school in early October.

You can reach Nate at nate.rawlings@us.army.mil.