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University basements

September 22, 2016

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Seems like every Summer morning about 10 a.m., or so, my friend Paul Dennison would show up at the door.  “Can Dan Play?” he asked my mother.  I was often still in bed asleep, but Paul didn’t mind sitting with me while I ate Wheaties or whatever cereal was available.  Although he lived at least a half mile away, he had a bicycle, as did I, and we had the University of Montana as a playground, to travel the sidewalks.

We pedaled hard, the wind whistling in our ears, to the chemistry-pharmacy building.  We tested the doors, usually locked.  We cruised around the oval and the outlying walkways, probably stopped at the journalism school print shop to watch the printers.  I remember watching as freshly colated pamphlets got stapled with a wire stapler on a kind of metal saddle.  Always fascinating to see the linotype operator at work.  I don’t know when I’ve ever seen a machine as complex as that at the university, except the Montana Kaimin was printed on a flatbed press in those days and the press fed one sheet at a time on a huge roller across the type.  Lots of little spindles and things spun to distribute the ink on the type.  Sometimes little gas flames dried the ink before the pages got to the stack where the jogger evened up the pile.  Best of all was the smell of printers ink that permeated the journalism building.

Upstairs the two teletype machines chattered away.  One was marked AP, the other, UPI.  They chomped away and occasionally emitted a “Ding” signaling the start or finish of a transmission.

Every building at the university had the potential for fun within, even the somber liberal arts building, four stories connected by both stairs and an elevator.  We liked to travel to the basement of the buildings and try to get lost in the maze of pipes and passages.  Occasionally one of the doors that was usually locked would yield to our daily testing and allow us to creep into a sanctum that might have immense boilers of red-lead painted hue.  Sometimes the floor was simply concrete; other times it was concrete painted gray.

Elevators provided fun, as long as we allowed real use by students to interrupt our play.  One game was to get in the elevator on the fourth floor, press the button to make it go to the basement, then run down the stairs floor by floor to try to beat it.  We could usually win at this game, even when we tried to beat it from the basement to the fourth floor.

The best game, as always, was to avoid getting caught by university officials.  Well, the adults at the university came in a variety of modes:  The most dangerous were the uniformed police, then the watchmen, then the custodians and maintenance workers.  Any of the foregoing could ruin the game.

You couldn’t always tell them apart.  The professors and students were the least menacing, in fact, if you fell in with one of those the chances were pretty good you’d not only get away with being where you didn’t belong, but if you asked some questions you would get answers to real science questions.

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