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Freshman-sophomore battle one for the ages

A tradition persisted in my hometown involving freshman hazing at our local college, the Colorado School of Mines. It culminated in a public showing of manly strength in the center of town as sophomores faced freshmen in a mighty tug of war across Clear Creek.

You have to understand that few of us local guys understood what went on at the School of Mines — for years I thought it was the Skula Mimes — nor did we know that students there would someday become engineers and geologists, marry pretty girls from town, and get rich. All we knew was the Skula Mimes was a place where wimpy guys in pith helmets walked around all day looking at slide rules and talking to rocks.

But we did understand the annual tug of war between freshmen and sophomores, and while you may think this rivalry wasn’t much on a grand scale, in my hometown it was the closest thing to a sport spectacle, if you didn’t count the biennial seven-day Rotation Pool and Snooker Marathon at Mullin’s Billiard and Domino Emporium.

Each year a two-inch hawser was stretched across Clear Creek, an improperly named stream, and sophomores took the north side in front of a thick forest of cottonwoods while freshmen dug in on a barren, rocky south side below the Ford Garage.

Traditionally, after some hooting and chest pounding from both sides of the creek, the noon whistle at Coors Brewery blasted, and all the contestants grabbed a length of hawser and pulled like crazy. Smart wagering historically held six-to-five for the sophomores, but most bets were even.

All this took place in the waning days of September each year, and a crowd of locals filled the WPA Bridge on Washington Avenue overlooking the battle ground. Bets were placed, muscles were flexed, and local girls sent up cheers for one side or another.

But there was a problem in l946. When the stage was set for the annual battle, no one had taken into consideration the first wave of GIs returning from World War II and entering college. The freshman class that year outnumbered the entire Skula Mimes student body, and they were tough. Fresh from wars on two fronts they were able-bodied Marines, Airborne Rangers, Navy gunners, loan sharks, and crap game hustlers.

Still, as tradition would have it the hawser went up anyway, and those of us with front row privileges on the WPA bridge giggled and pointed fingers when we saw the puny sophomores on the shady side. Dressed in canvas hats, shorts, and white shoes, they clustered together like baby chicks.

Meanwhile, on the freshman side a milling, seething horde of war veterans boiled and bubbled in surplus army fatigues like an angry khaki volcano. They roared at water’s edge. Reverberations caused stones to rattle on nearby Castle Rock. It was easy to guess who was going to win that year’s tug of war.

I suppose that’s why we local rowdies were suddenly struck by a David and Goliath view. From a lack of common sense, we yelled out a cheer for the sophomores. “Get ’em!” we shouted. “Get ’em!” And the sophomores nonchalantly waved back with confidence.

Then the noon whistle at Coors Brewery sounded, and the 1946 Tug of War began. That’s when our mouths dropped open as the runty sophomores slowly strode backward, dragging the colossus freshmen class into Clear Creek. Some sophomores yawned as they tugged on the rope. Others were less theatrical and used both hands.

It was my friend Smooth Heine who first noticed white fumes rising behind the cottonwood thicket on the sophomore side. “What’s making those funny smoke rings?” he said. We didn’t reply. We were too astonished.

Do I have to go on? Do I have to tell you how the entire freshman class of rough, tough veterans refused to give up and was dragged red-faced into the icy waters of Clear Creek — by a bulldozer hidden behind the cottonwoods?

The next year the freshman class was even larger, but the 1946 freshmen, having learned a little after only one year of college, won handily without a single wet foot.

I suppose that’s why I broke with hometown convention and got a little learning. I reasoned that if those sophomores could get that smart after only one year of college, think what I could do with several.

Bob Huber is a retired journalist living in Portales. He can be contacted at 356-3674.