A Day in the Field

By Chad Galts / July / August 1999
November 12th, 2007
Reunions are a form of time travel,a way station where alumni reminisce, measuring the distance between then and now. Touring the landscape of Field Day on Commencement weekend, you see the shape of life before you, or at least its public face. Promise unfolds into accomplishment, accomplishment into the promise of retirement. One day you're footloose, the next you're juggling a mortgage, a demanding boss, and a supply of diapers that inevitably runs out at 2 A.M. The time line extends along Aldrich Field, each node marked by a broad, white, rubberized-canvas canopy and a small sign near the barbecue: '94, '89, '84, '79, and '74.

The gathering of the class of 1994 is the smallest of the Field Day crowd. Most class members, one assumes, are off exploring the planet, cramming for the bar exam, or generally trying to get a foothold in the big world. Those who have shown up cradle beers while eating burgers and cold pasta off plastic plates. They sit in small groups, comparing notes about work and "relationships." Many seem unsure and speak vaguely of their jobs, in a tone that suggests they're merely putting in the hours there until something better comes along. These alumni are still kids, after all, and the white tents, white chairs, and white tables against the green grass seem ill-fitting, a little too grown up. The word reunion doesn't signify as much when you're only five years out of school.

The atmosphere changes briskly at the ten-year tent. If college is a time of experimentation, of saying yes to everything, adulthood is about choices, saying yes to one thing and no to another. At the class of 1989 tent the choices are starting to show. There are two distinct camps - alumni with children and alumni without - and early in the day, at least, the two groups don't seem to mingle. Work, promotions, new ventures, and movies are the subjects dominating the conversation of the childless. Many sport expensive sunglasses and pricey summer outfits. Others, shunning work and kids, perhaps, lounge in beat-up tennis shoes, cutoffs, and t-shirts. Opposite them, on the other side of the tent, talk of work seems minimal, and perfectly sophisticated men and women share hot tips on strollers and potty training. There is an undercurrent of the coochie-coo that binds infants and parents. As if to retain some shred of guyhood, a few fathers wander off together for a beer or a quick peek at the rugby game.

By the fifteenth year, children are ambulatory, opinionated, precocious, and energetic. Oh so energetic. Contrary to the sign, the tent is not the kingdom of the class of 1984: here, the kids are in charge. Not quite old enough to organize their own games, they whine about throwing the Frisbee with Dad. Between frequent trips to the outdoor toilets, parents slather SPF-45 on children and try to catch a few snatches of conversation with classmates. It's a losing battle. "Yes, honey, we can go to the pony rides again," says one mother, excusing herself and her daughter and heading for the tiny enclosed ring on the south side of the field. After a lengthy wait, she plops her daughter down on the back of a tired-looking animal. Her daughter begins to cry.

Alumni reclaim the tent at the class of 1979. Kids now organize their own games: baseball, Frisbee, soccer, tee-ball, football - anything that involves running, throwing, catching, and hitting. Some of the parents brave the heat to join the games. The rest sit under the tent, exhibiting the practiced eyes and attention spans of seasoned parents. Complex conversations about work and friends coexist with the minutia of supervision: "Bill! Let your sister have a turn at bat! And put on some more sunscreen!" Then, in a lower voice: "I wasn't sure what to do when they offered me the position in Atlanta. You hear such good things about the city, but I've never been South in my life."

At the twentieth-reunion tent, you enter bragging territory: "Courtney got early-action letters from Harvard and Brown on the same day!" exclaims one father, tugging anxiously on the bill of his baseball cap in the manner of a third-base coach. There are few babies in this crowd. The non-reunioning are mostly teenagers laboring under studied looks of boredom. They flirt and empathize at having been dragged to this weekend of parental chit-chat; a few sit at their own tables out of earshot of parents; others wander off to sit in the shade under the stone wall on the south side of the field.

At the 1974 tent there are few kids, but the crowd is thick. Hair has begun to gray, recede, or get replaced, but life is good. Prosperity has brought either thickening midsections or the ropy, tanned thinness that comes with years of regular hours on the tennis court. Here, too, conversations tend toward the activities of stupendously gifted children: "John is so happy with Shearson Lehman," exclaims one happy mother. "He and Susan are already talking about moving out of the city." Fortunately, John's not here to complicate the boast.

without some eccentricities - we're talking Brown, after all - and Mark Kohler '69 is exhibit A. "The BAM did an article about me in 1970," he says while pulling a makeshift stage, assorted rolls of muslin, burlap, and velvet, and a small speaker system from the back of his minivan on the north side of Aldrich Field. "I was one of four recent alums with what they called 'interesting' jobs." His laugh is high, tinny, and a little nervous. "I'm sure they thought this was a temporary, fresh-out-of-college thing. Little did they know . . ."

No reunion would be complete

His own Commencement was three decades ago, but Kohler still works his interesting job, which is putting on puppet shows. The tools of his trade all fit into the back of his van. The stage and curtains have the worn look of having been loaded and unloaded many, many times; the puppets, sealed in special boxes, stay in hiding until the performance. Kohler is portly and tallish, with a graying mustache and heavy glasses that he frequently pushes up his nose. His voice, like his laugh, is well-suited to his profession: raspy, high, and zany - he sounds like a toned-down Pee Wee Herman. The stage, about four feet wide and six feet tall, comes together quickly. Kohler talks and talks; his hands move almost by themselves as he swings the side panels together and begins attaching the various drapes and curtains with hooks and long silver push pins.

"I've been doing puppet shows since I was six or seven," he says. "It seemed like a fun way to make some extra money. I did them when I was at Brown, too. Only I didn't have a car. I used to borrow the Pontiac of one of my fraternity brothers and do shows around Providence." Kohler is a puppeteer for one simple reason, he adds: "I'm saving my soul." He measures success not by "celebrityhood," which he calls "the devaluation of your own life," but by the same feelings that motivated him as a child. "I just love doing it - the kids, the laughs, the puppets. It's really a lot of fun."

As the stage comes together, it attracts the attention of parents and children from nearby classes. They wander by and peek behind the stage and into the back of his van. Kohler nods at the parents and makes silly faces at the children, who giggle and run back toward mom and dad.

His preparations nearly complete, Kohler stashes the boxes of puppets behind the stage, gives his tiny sound system a quick check, then sits down to collect himself for his performance. "I'm always totally wired before a show," he says apologetically. "And this is the first time I've performed at Brown. I've been waiting and waiting - I thought they were going to offer me money," he laughs again. "Finally I just called them myself. I got the notice for my thirtieth reunion and told them I'd do it for free."

The show is a big hit. The crowd, mostly children at first, swells with parents and curious passersby. The little papier-mch figures on the stage ask for direction and guidance from the kids in the front rows, who respond with gusto. In high, squeaky voices, Kohler's puppets tell them the story of the evil king of Bingo-land, who discovers a green worm called a shlunk in his kingdom. The king banishes the shlunk, which sings a song no one can understand, and the creature grows and grows until it is an eight-foot-tall tower of green velvet dominating the tiny stage. Eventually the shlunk finds friends who help decipher its song. He returns to normal size, and the show ends with a rousing, if somewhat off-key, version of its tune in English. The shlunk's message, Kohler shrieks to the kids, isn't just for the king of Bingoland. It's one they should all remember: "Peace, love, and understanding for all people, no matter what they look like."

'55, who's been singing the Field Day song since 1959. That was the year the late Jay Barry '50, a sportswriter and staff editor at the BAM, convinced Zucconi, who had just started working at the University, to join the Brown Club of Rhode Island and take over the event. Now the executive director of the Brown Sports Foundation, which raises money for various athletic teams, Zucconi doesn't run Field Day anymore, but it's hard to imagine what the event would be like without him.

Field Day's shlunk is Dave Zucconi

Early in the day, Zuc (pronounced "zook"), as he is known in these circles, is down on the baseball diamond putting a little of the old pepper - but not too much - on some pitches to Jim Steiner '59. "When I first started pitching at these games, I was trying to strike everyone out," Zucconi says later. "Then I realized - these are the same people I'm asking for money. I should probably let them hit a few." Steiner, the baseball game's principal organizer, manages to get his bat on more than a few of Zuc's slow, steady pitches.

Originally one of the two principal athletic events of Field Day, the alumni-student baseball game has been losing ground as a Brown tradition. This year only a dozen or so alums have shown up to play, and the seniors from the Brown squad are out of town. Suited up in loaner uniforms from the Bears, Steiner, who plays in a senior softball league that tours the country, has managed to find a few recruits. Seventy-two-year-old Joel Korn '49 is soon at second base, hustling after ground balls, flinging sharp tosses to first, and hooting at batters. By mid-afternoon Steiner has managed to cobble together a game by drafting kids from the class tents on the field above.

Baseball may be the national pastime, but on Field Day it loses out to rugby. The game has become a staple of Field Day, Zucconi says, thanks in great part to Jay Fluck '65. Head coach of the Brown rugby team since 1981, Fluck used to play every Field Day, but a knee injury several years ago has forced him to switch to officiating.

As the numbers on their reunion mailings slowly tick upwards, returning rugby players get a little bigger and slower, and, Zucconi admits, he is no exception. "My playing time has really diminished over the last few years," he says. "I used to work out secretly for two weeks before the game so I could come out in good shape and make some good plays. I just don't have the time anymore." He has exchanged his baseball uniform for knee-high socks, white shorts, and a long-sleeved shirt with blue-and-white stripes.

Before he enters the field, Zucconi takes a turn behind the microphone as an announcer for the swelling crowd in the stands. To the uninitiated, rugby games can seem like a random series of tackles, dog piles, and tosses. It is, Zucconi patiently explains, a controlled series of line-outs, scrums, and laterals by hookers. The alumni take an early lead, overpowering the undergrads on the scrums and showing more seasoned discipline on the passes. They score the first try, or touchdown, but wear down quickly. Several minutes into the game a fresh batch of alums comes onto the field and has its way with the students. Alumni have won the majority of the Field Day games, their record due in large part, Zucconi admits, to the alumni team's ability to substitute - strictly forbidden except for injuries in official games.

Finally, itching for some action, Zuc trots on to the field. At 265 pounds, he has a lot of close-quarters stopping power, but his mobility isn't what it used to be. When a small, speedy student gets the ball on a toss, wide left, he begins motoring up the sidelines near Zuc. There is a mild roar in the stands as the big man gives chase, but the student zips by him and scores. "They're going to carry him out of here on a stretcher," a man says to his wife in the stands. If not this year, maybe next.

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July / August 1999