May 6, 1995. Sardines in the Death Star.

In the nine decades between the founding of the University of Jeromeville and my arrival on campus, enrollment had grown from 112 to over 21,000.  During that time, as the university added more departments and fields of study, many new buildings have appeared, and some old buildings have been torn down.  Because of this, some people have criticized the UJ campus for its lack of unifying architectural style.

That’s not me.  I’m not some people.  I don’t know much about architecture, and I think the different styles and time periods of the buildings on campus make it more interesting.

A huge concrete monstrosity known as the Social Sciences Building stood out the most architecturally.  It had not yet been named after an important person in the history of UJ, as most other buildings had. (As of this writing, late 2019, it still has not.)  Social Sciences was the newest building on campus, having just opened at the start of this school year. The building had one large lecture hall, room 1100, the second largest lecture hall on campus.  (Today, it is the fourth largest.) The building also contained three other classrooms and many academic offices, including the departments of economics, history, political science, and sociology.

The extremely modern building felt very out of place in its location at the east end of campus between the Memorial Union and A Street, surrounded on three sides by the oldest parts of campus and on the fourth side by the oldest part of the city of Jeromeville.  For that matter, the building felt very out of place on planet Earth. Students had already given it a much more fitting nickname: The Death Star, after the giant moon-sized battleship in the movie Star Wars.  The lower levels of the Social Sciences Building, with steel and concrete towers rising five stories high, remind students of the scene from the movie where Luke flies through the canyon of metal on his way to destroy the Death Star.

I had spent the entire day studying and doing homework.  After dinner, I walked back from the dining hall to Building C, my dormitory, ready for a fun-filled Saturday night full of reading for pleasure, flirting with girls on IRC chats, and maybe Tetris or SimCity.  I hoped that I might have a Saturday night filled with actual fun and doing things with friends. My hope came true this time, as soon as I walked into the common room.

Taylor Santiago, Sarah Winters, and Pete Green were sitting in the common room.  “Greg!” Taylor said. “I was just looking for you.”

“Yes?” I asked.  I didn’t know why he had been looking for me, and I wasn’t sure if it was for a good reason or a bad one.

“We’re gonna play Sardines in the Death Star.  You wanna come?”

“Sure,” I said.  “What’s Sardines?”

“You’ve never played Sardines?” Sarah asked.

“No,” I replied.  I tended to get that often.  Someone would find out about some normal childhood experience that I didn’t have, and their reaction would come across as incredulous because of it.  It always made me feel sensitive about my deprived and sheltered childhood, although on the bright side, having new experiences as an adult makes me appreciate them more.

“It’s kind of like hide and seek,” Sarah continued.  “But only one person hides. The rest of us all look for the one person and then cram into that hiding space like sardines in a can.”

“I see.  So hide and seek, but when I find the person who is it, I hide with them?”

“Yeah!  You got it.”

“I’m in.  Who else are we waiting for?”

“Krista, Liz, Ramon, and Charlie.  Danielle and Caroline and Jason said maybe.”

“We’re not going now,” Taylor said.  “Meet down here at 9. It’ll be pretty dark by then.  Does that sound good?”

“Sure.  I’ll see you guys then.”

 

A few hours later, Taylor, Pete, Charlie, Sarah, Krista, Liz, Ramon, Caroline, and I were walking east toward the Bike Barn and the chemistry building.  Apparently they didn’t know the shortcut through the temporary buildings north of the dorms, because that’s the way I would have gone. I hadn’t exhaustively studied which way was actually quicker, though.

“Have you guys ever been to the Death Star at night?” Ramon asked.  “Winter quarter I had a class there at 5pm, and I stayed after class to talk to the professor one time.  I got lost getting back to where I parked my bike. It was kind of scary.”

“Everything about that building is kind of scary,” Pete said.

“I’ve never really been inside the building,” I said.  “I’ve never had a class or office hours or anything there.”

“That might be a good thing,” Taylor said, laughing.

It was 9:10 PM, according to my watch.  The sun sets fairly late this time of year, but the last glow of twilight was just fading by the time we made our walk across campus to the Death Star.  It was a clear night, and a few bright stars were mostly visible despite the glare of streetlights and the occasional light shining from within a building.  The campus was relatively quiet as we walked around the chemistry building, in front of the library, and diagonally across the Quad, occasionally seeing a student walking or cycling past us.

We stopped in front of the door to room 1100, the large lecture hall, across the street from the main campus bookstore.  “Give me five minutes to hide,” Taylor said. “Does anyone have a watch?”

“I do,” I replied.  “And it has a timer on it.”

“Perfect!”

“Ready?” I said as I set the timer on my watch for five minutes.

“Ready,” Taylor said.

“Go!” I started the watch as Taylor walked around the far corner of the lecture hall and disappeared into a corridor between the lecture hall and another part of the building.  The others made small talk.

“How is physics class, Greg?” Sarah asked at one point.  “You said you didn’t do well on the midterm, right?”

“It’s going okay,” I said.  “I’ve been studying harder. I don’t think I gave the class my best effort at first, because I expected it to be easy like high school physics, but it’s not.”

“That’s good.  I’m sure you’ll do better next time.”

A few minutes later, my watch beeped.  “Time to find Taylor,” I said. I switched my watch back to the time display; it was 9:22 PM.

“Let’s go!” Ramon shouted.  He and Liz went in the same direction that Taylor had gone when he hid; Charlie, Krista, and Caroline walked north along the street and turned along the north end of the building; and Pete, Sarah, and I walked along the south end of the lecture hall.  This path descended a long stairway, curving slightly to the left, next to a terraced area that resembled very large stairs. At the bottom was a courtyard, with doors leading to the stage side of the lecture hall, one story below ground level; across from the lecture hall was a large wall of tall glass panels with three doors leading to classrooms.  Beyond this, a large five-story section of building crossed over the below-ground area, with the ground where I stood forming a sort of wide tunnel under the building.

“I guess we need to split up eventually,” Sarah said.

“Yeah,” I replied.  Pete and Sarah continued through the tunnel, and I climbed up the terrace back to ground level and turned in the direction away from where I started, with the Social Sciences building on my left and Younger Hall on my right (ironically named, since it was more than 50 years old, although it was named after a person, not descriptively).

In the name “Social Sciences Building,” the word “building” is used somewhat loosely.  The building was actually a complex of jagged concrete and steel structures both rising from the ground, at varying angles and heights, and embedded into the ground below street level.  Some parts of the complex looked like one detached room, and other parts were soaring towers up to five levels above ground. There appeared to be no main hallways or walkways and little consistent patterns to the room numbering, although the thousands digit of the room number did indicate the height above ground level, similarly to other buildings on campus.  

I walked past the five-story tower toward another five-story tower that rose almost, but not quite, parallel to the first one.  I was at ground level, but on the other side of me was a low wall overlooking a courtyard below ground level, giving the illusion that I was above ground level.  Below me were bushes in planters, and a bridge to my right connected to another building. I crossed that bridge and then climbed down a set of stairs to the courtyard below.

I walked around looking for hiding places.  I looked behind trash cans and under benches.  I found a wall with deeply recessed windows where a college student of small stature like Taylor could hide; he was not hiding in any of those.  I turned a corner into a corridor between two concrete walls that led into a locked door. No hiding places there and no Taylor. I came back the way I came and then turned to walk under the five story tower.  I figured I must be close to A Street by now, but I was surrounded by walls and tall buildings, so I couldn’t tell.

To my left, a two-story section of building crossed over the courtyard like a bridge, with a terraced area that looked like large stairs, similar to the terrace near the lecture hall.  I got a running start and climbed those large stairs; at the top I found myself facing the football stadium, with North Quad Avenue in front of me and A Street on my right. I turned left back on North Quad Avenue toward the bookstore, then turned back into the Social Sciences complex of buildings, checking behind every corner, trash can, utility box, and tree for Taylor.  He wasn’t there.

I found myself in a new below-ground courtyard.  It was not any of the same ones that I had seen before, but it looked similar: bushes and small trees in planters, narrow stairways leading up to ground level, towering concrete structures around me.  I climbed the stairs and walked along the walkways until I reached locked doors and turned around. I climbed a different set of stairs, which appeared to spiral around at right angles and connect eventually to all five levels of the building next to me, yet none of these stairs led to any unlocked doors.  More importantly, there was no sign of Taylor anywhere nearby.

I found a path I had not taken before which led back out to North Quad Avenue, near the bookstore.  I turned down East Quad Avenue past the lecture hall and walked back into the Social Sciences Building complex the same way I saw Taylor first enter the building.  About fifteen minutes had passed since Taylor entered the building. I found myself back at the five-story staircase I had climbed earlier. The stairs climbed upward turning at 90 degree angles; in between this right-angled spiral was an elevator shaft.  I pressed the Down button, not sure if the elevator was actually running at night. It was, and Taylor was not inside it. I got out at the basement level and walked to the glass wall of classrooms where I had been earlier.

I wandered around the building, trying to find new places I hadn’t been yet, new places where Taylor might be hiding.  I climbed every staircase I could see. I tried opening every door; almost all of them were locked, and the few that weren’t did not lead to Taylor’s hiding place.

During my third time passing the glass wall of classrooms, I saw Liz approaching me from the other direction, coming down the stairway between the lecture hall and Younger Hall.  She was the first human being I had seen since parting ways with Pete and Sarah at this very spot some time ago.

“Still searching, I see?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Liz replied.  “He must have found a really good hiding spot.”

“Good luck.”

I climbed the stairs that Liz had just come down, finding myself back at ground level on East Quad Avenue facing the bookstore.  I looked at my watch: it was 9:49 PM. Eight of us besides me had been wandering around that strange alien building for the last twenty-seven minutes, and I had not seen any of them until now.  Was the building actually so labyrinthine that I would not have seen anyone for so long? Or, perhaps, did everyone else except Liz find Taylor quickly and hide with him? Were they all waiting for me and Liz, wondering why we weren’t there yet?

As my search continued, through a nearly endless post-apocalyptic alien landscape of steel and concrete, up and down stairs, across bridges, and through tunnels, I felt my frustration growing.  Where else could Taylor be hiding? What was left to search? Why was this so difficult for me? I looked behind the same trash cans and planters I had searched twice already. I climbed up and down the same stairs over and over again.  No sign of Taylor, or anyone else.

I sat on one of the benches that Taylor was not hiding under or behind.  I looked up at the dark night sky. I was lost, I was frustrated, and I had no idea what to do.  I took a deep breath. I checked my watch. 10:26. I had been searching for Taylor for over an hour.  For all I knew, my friends might have all found Taylor and gone back to Building C and left me behind. I wanted to trust them, I didn’t think they would do that to me, but at this point I didn’t know anything for sure.

I walked back across the courtyard with the glass wall of classrooms.  I had lost count of how many times I had been here tonight. I wasn’t even sure that all the times I had been here had actually been the same place.  Maybe there were two courtyards with glass walls of classrooms. I didn’t know anymore.

I climbed the staircase that made 90 degree turns spiraling around the elevator shaft for the fifth or sixth time.  How long would I stay out here? What if I never found Taylor? Would Taylor and the others come find me when they went back to Building C?  How would I know? How would they even find me, if I had only seen one other human being in the last hour? This was my life now. I was going to roam the stairs and tunnels of the Social Science Building forever.  Someday a new generation of Jeromeville students would tell ghost stories about me, about the time they walked down the haunted staircase in the Social Sciences Building and saw a tall dark-haired guy with a Jeromeville sweatshirt looking for some mysterious person named Taylor, and then disappearing into thin air.

I climbed more stairs.  I knew exactly where this stairway would lead: a locked door that was part of the third floor of one of the five-story towers.  On the other side of this stairway from the tower was the roof of a two-story part of the building.

Roof.

Two stories.

I was climbing to the third floor.  The roof was below me. The roof was just on the other side of this low wall on the right side of the stairs.  Just three feet below me.

I hopped the low wall and jumped down three feet, landing on the roof.  I turned around to look behind me, on the part of the roof under the stairs.

Taylor was sitting, hunched over, out of sight of anyone on the stairs.

“Hey,” he whispered when I made eye contact with him.

He was alone.

“Am I really the first one to find you?” I whispered back, crawling under the stairs out of sight.

“Yeah.”

“You’ve been here for over an hour?  This is a brilliant hiding place!”

“I know!”

“I thought I was going to be last because I’ve been looking–”

“Shh!” Taylor said, cutting me off.  I stopped talking, suddenly aware that I was supposed to be hiding.  I thought I heard footsteps approaching, but they quickly went away.

About five minutes later, Sarah found us.  With three people hiding, it became more difficult to stay out of sight, and it did not take long for everyone else to find us after that.  It also became harder to stay quiet as more and more people hid under the stairs in close proximity. After the last person (it was Ramon) found us, we emerged from our rooftop hiding place at 10:48.

As we made our way out of the Social Sciences Building complex and headed back across the Quad toward Building C, Pete asked, “Who found Taylor first?”

“Greg did,” Taylor said.

“I couldn’t believe it,” I said.  “I’d been looking for over an hour, and I only saw another person once.  I thought for sure I was the last one and you guys were all hiding with Taylor and wondering where I was.”

“And we were all just as lost as you were,” Sarah said.

“I was starting to worry that maybe I would never find you guys.  How would I know if it was time to give up and go home? What if I was wandering around in that crazy building all night?”

“Greg,” Liz said.  “We would never leave you behind.”

“Thanks.  I appreciate that.”

A few years later, I would read more about the Death Star building.  The architect intended much of its unusual features to be a metaphor for the natural geography of the surrounding region.  If one looks at the building from above, the patchwork of buildings and courtyards represents the patchwork of farms in the valley.  The two five-story towers represent mountains rising above the valley, and the crooked paths between buildings represent rivers winding through the valley floor.  The problem is that most people don’t fly over the building, they have to find rooms within it, but I was told that the building was intended to be confusing on purpose.  People would have to interact to help each other navigate the building; the interaction fits with the building’s purpose of housing social sciences offices and departments.

As we walked back toward Building C, I looked up at the sky again.  I could see more stars now than I could from inside the Death Star. Life is confusing, just like finding someone or something hidden in the Social Sciences Building, or like the Social Sciences Building in general.  Sometimes I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing or where I’m going. But then I look around and realize that a lot of other people are just as lost and confused. Maybe someone is less confused than me about some things, but more confused about other things.  And that’s okay, because we always end up getting somewhere somehow.

death star 1death star 2death star 3
In April of 2019, after Spring Picnic, I walked around the Death Star trying to find Taylor’s hiding place.  That’s when these pictures were taken.  When I found the hiding place, I noticed that there was a locked glass door in  front of it.  I don’t remember a glass door in 1995.  Someone probably added it later, once it was discovered how easy it was for silly college kids to sneak into the building and get on the roof.
death star 4

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