For all of us fans who are no longer students, this weekend will come and go with little fanfare. It’s just an average weekend in the middle of August. Maybe a little smokier or a little hotter than usual, but that’s to be expected at this point. We’ll all take our two days off, maybe have a drink or two, and (hopefully) be ready for work on Monday.
But for a whole crop of Cougs, this week was something different.
Monday is the first day of class, and for many, the start of something new. Incoming freshmen are about to embark on a journey that can only be described in retrospect. For seniors, they are entering their final year of pre-adulthood. Those in-between will meet new friends, experience things they haven’t before, and grow more intertwined with the roots that lie below all the concrete and asphalt in Pullman.
Pullman has a way of sticking with you, wherever you’re at. At least for me it does. There were always the people who went home every weekend or who couldn’t wait to leave and get out into the world, but I just found myself wanting to stay. I still find myself longing for the comfort of that tiny town in Eastern Washington. I miss that place every day, probably more than I should, and I still have this feeling that I’ll find my way back there sometime.
It’s hard to say exactly why I feel this draw, this thought that it was all over too soon. Maybe it’s the fact that I only really had a year and a half of a normal college experience. Hell, maybe it’s just that I really miss going to practice in PEB every day and catching games at Beasley and Martin every other weekend.
But I actually think it’s much more simple than all of that. It’s nostalgia.
There’s a line toward the end of Rob Reiner’s 1986 film “Stand By Me” that perfectly encapsulates nostalgia as a concept. The film follows a group of young boys in the 1950s as they embark on a quest to find the body of another local boy who was hit by a train. As the main character writes his auto-biographical novel in the wrap-up -in classic Stephen King protagonist fashion- he thinks about what has transpired since his odyssey as a young tween. He says:
“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?”
This is one of those lines that always struck me as fitting and thematically resonant, but it never really fully hit me. When I was a kid, I read it literally. I supposed that it was only meant to be framed in that exact way, as a ponderance on prepubescence.
However, as I go back to this film now, I can feel the line in my chest. It’s about a yearning for the simplicity that comes with nostalgia. Life is simple until it isn’t and nostalgia roots itself where we last found that comfort, that ease. For the boys in the film, it was in that time of friendship before they found the body and were confronted with the reality of life. For many of us, that simplicity died as we were handed our diploma cases while dressed in cap and gown.
As dramatic as that sounds, it fits. Most of us don’t have a traumatic moment where one life ended and another began. Few have a cinematic story where they discovered mortality or were forced to grow up in an instant. No, for most, it’s a lot more mundane. You’re handed a diploma, told congrats, and then you’re on your own.
The summer post-graduation is one of an ever-encroaching anxiety. Student loan repayments start soon, having to worry about covering rent while working an internship or interim job, the stressful and looming thoughts of career and eventual retirement. It all rests on the same chest that used to stress about reading a chapter of some dumb book before an arbitrary deadline.
That fear, that dread, it leads to a longing. It leads to nostalgia. I think that is what draws us all back to Pullman. Yes, it’s the sports and it’s the underdog spirit- and it’s The Coug or Valhalla, but it’s also the calm. Problems are simple in Pullman. On the court or the field, there’s a bad guy that must be vanquished. In the classroom, there’s homework to and tests, but no fear of getting fired or a 9-to-5 to slowly drain the life from behind your eyes. In college, money woes are more immaterial and theoretical thanks to predatory loans and we are allowed the freedom to build our schedules in a way that centers our relationships with friends.
For me, the equation was always simple. I spent two and a half hours in the morning in a competitive environment surrounded by people I enjoyed being around, I went to class and mostly didn’t pay attention and skated by with mediocre grades, and then I put my time into my friends. That’s what college is all about! No one is rushing dances at Emporium or speeding through a hang at a frat house. We cram studying and rush essays because we’re having too much fun doing other stuff.
I think, for awhile, I let myself believe in the ethereal power of Pullman and WSU as concepts. As if they were mystical forces that I was forever bound and drawn to. But, having been away for the place for a little bit, I’m starting to realize just how much of being a Coug is the people.
I think that part has only become more clear to me as the pain and nervousness of the realignment has dominated so much of the discourse in WSU spaces. There are a number of wonderful articles on this beautiful site that you can read with much smarter and more thought-out takes than mine, but it’s safe to say that it has been on my mind too.
There’s a lot of nervous chatter about WSU’s future. A lot of fear that this is their last chance to be relevant. And I can’t really squash those fears. I was an optimist for the longest time. One of those idiots holding out hope that the Pac-12 would figure their shit out and things would move on without those losers in LA.
Clearly, I was naïve.
But, I can’t help but still hold a place for that optimism. WSU is more than its sports. It’s more than the classes or the buildings or the hills. WSU is more than the Pac-12, just like Pullman is more than a town in the middle of a bunch of wheatfields.
Pullman, and WSU, are people. They’re memories. They’re nostalgia. What makes Pullman so beautiful, what makes being a Coug so worth it, is that we’re forever connected because of it. Being a Coug is simple. We’ve always been David, rock in hand, ready to fight whoever came to our cold little neck of the woods. We’ve always had the chip of being the little guy in a big pond and we have the camaraderie of a bunch of people crazy enough to go to school in a tiny town where everyone thinks nothing happens. That can’t change, not really. The landscape might shift, the wheat might rot and fade, but that feeling never will.
That’s my message to all Cougs, but especially the ones on campus right now. As you buy your books and you get to know your roommates, or as you prepare for your final year in a place you’ve grown to call home, know that it was all worth it. Know that the feeling you have there where never truly leave you. It’s hard to describe in words, but you’ll know it when you feel it.
To all our new and returning Cougs, good luck and Go Fuckin Cougs for life.