At 9:50 last night, Lucas ‘14 and I were walking through Building 14 to go bouldering on MIT’s climbing wall. As we rounded the corner, a woman called out: “Please, will you help us? We need somebody who is very strong!”
Building 14 is shaped like a square and has a square courtyard cut out in the middle. The hallways along the edges are lined with big windows, and one of the windows was flapping around on its hinge. The woman was standing with an elderly man, and the two of them had been trying unsuccessfully to fasten it shut.
The climbing wall is run by volunteer staff, who are in many cases experienced MIT students. Lucas has been climbing since his freshman year and is now a staff member, which means that he has the authority to open up the wall whenever he likes. It also means that he is very strong, so I pointed at him and announced that “he’s very strong!”
Lucas dutifully hopped over to the window and tugged. He realized that there was a problem with the latch and rod, and started fiddling with them. I realized that it would be easier to close the window from the outside, so I gingerly stepped through the window into the courtyard. Lucas pulled out a Leatherman from his pocket (Lucas, why did you have a Leatherman in your pocket?) and I supported the window with a knee and both hands. From outside, I could see how the latch had to be adjusted in order for the locking mechanism to work, so I called instructions through the window.
The man and woman stood back and watched. I thought, this is what it must be like to play an Olympic sport. They ooh’d and aah’d, and Lucas got a particularly loud “WOW!” when he pulled out his Leatherman. The man asked what Lucas is majoring in (physics) and said something about how engineers, not physicists, do things like carry around tools.
Finally, the window locked. I waved silently at Lucas and our two new friends through the window, then wandered around the courtyard perimeter until I found a way to get back into the hallway.
After receiving extensive congratulations from our spectators, we said our goodbyes and “you’re welcome”s and hurried out of Building 14 towards Walker Memorial, home of the bouldering wall. It was dark and drizzling. Out of nowhere, a guy came hurtling in our direction and, huffing and puffing, managed to spit out “Kresge Auditorium. Where is it?”
I looked around. Were we on some reality TV show about MIT students helping strangers? Lucas apparently has a much faster reaction time than I do, since in the seconds it took for me to process what had been asked, he was already walking the stranger over to the end of the Infinite Corridor. In the meantime, the two people from Building 14 caught up with us. They had heard the exchange, and the elderly man leaned towards me as if sharing a secret. “your friend isn’t a physicist,” he revealed. “He’s a social worker!”
After chatting for a few more minutes, it emerged that the man is an MIT alumnus: Class of 1952. He lived in Senior Haus and majored in Course 10 (Chemical Engineering). He visited his old dorm room last year, he said, and “it has been changed quite a bit.” He asked what area of physics we work in (condensed matter for Lucas, astrophysics for me) and what our plans are for next year (Harvard grad school for Lucas, Germany for a year and then Caltech grad school for me). “I went to Harvard for graduate school too!” he said, “in environmental science.”
Finally, he said that it must be finals period (it is) and that he should let us go study (I didn’t mention that we were on our way to go rock climbing, not to study). We shook hands and exchanged names. He wished us luck with everything and ambled away in the rain, while his companion called out to me and said “HE WORKED ON THE APOLLO 11 PROJECT!”
Lucas and I walked up the stairs into Walker Memorial. I said that I think it’s wonderful that this is the kind of institution that alums come back to visit when they’re over 80 years old. Lucas said that he hopes he does the same.