Essay: A First Flight and Destination That Became Home

  • From left, Canaan College senior Michael James, President Charles Cummings, baseball, basketball, soccer and ski coach Dwight Chandler, Chandler's dog Caesar, senior Wayne Willhaus and junior Doug Hooper pose for a photograph at the school's main building in Canaan, N.H., on June 3, 1971. (Valley News - Larry McDonald) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • At the end of the Canaan College's commencement on June 6, 1971, professor and former dean of faculty George Marcoulier, left, chair of the Board of Trustees Charles Brundage, guest speaker Charles Draper, at left in second row, and college president Charles Cummings file from the auditorium with students and faculty in Canaan, N.H. Donald Mahler, a junior at the school, was the traditional ringer of the bell atop the church, calling all to the graduation celebration. (Valley News - Sid Leavitt) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Friday, September 07, 2018

The ticket was maybe the size of a baseball card. Hidden away in the back of an old wallet, its discovery was like stumbling onto my personal Rosetta Stone. It held the whole story.

It was a Northeast Airlines Youth Fare card. Serial number 64808. In nearly mint condition, it still showed off its brightly yellow-painted corner — the mark of the Yellow Bird. I didn’t know it then, but it was about to change my life.

It had been a tough summer up to that point. First there was the letter from the registrar at Long Island University, telling me my academic performance had left much to be desired. In other words I was all done with college. With Vietnam and the draft still on, it was not a good time in history to be out on your academic butt.

So, I spent the entire summer sending out letters, filling out applications, doing anything I could to find a collegial safe haven. All to no avail. They didn’t seem to want me.

That was until I got this letter, offering me a spot at a school called Canaan College for the fall 1968 semester. All I had to do was get to New Hampshire.

Where was New Hampshire?

That’s where the Youth Fare card comes in. It was the first time I had ever flown in an airplane. It was the first time I was ever out of New York. I realized, there was a first time for everything. This, however, was my last chance.

The time stamp on the back of the Youth Fare card says my family and I flew into West Lebanon on Sept. 7, 1968. That was 50 years ago this week. I should have known something was up, because as the taxi drove us up the John Roberts Road to reach Canaan Street, we were met with a snow squall. It was the start of a beautiful relationship.

There were about 180 of us enrolling that September. The college’s dean had culled the list of academic casualties from the three campuses of the Long Island University system and wrote a personal letter to each student, inviting them to enroll in Canaan at a cost of $3,000 a year. (Out of that group, 24 graduated four years later).

Let me just say that without Canaan, I can’t say where I would have ended up today, or what I would have become. Everything I am, I owe to that small school on the hill. To that small town off Route 4.

And that little Youth Fare card was my magic carpet ride.

Oh, this Canaan thing was a bit different at first. All us city kids, stuck in the forest with no way home. It took some getting used to. We were just a bunch of round pegs stuck in a world of square holes. Nothing seemed to fit.

Until the placement test. It was a history essay describing social change through revolution — French, Russian or American.

At that point, one of the guys raised his hand. “Which American Revolution?” he wanted to know. It was, after all, 1968.

In that singular moment, we all knew we had found a home in the woods of New Hampshire. The next four years served as a foundation for the future. It was our own personal Utopia. We used to call Canaan Street the 1,000-thought walk. We held classes at the lake, ate home-cooked meals and learned how not to trip over questions.

But even paradise couldn’t survive without money. In the fall of 1973, the college closed its doors forever. Still, nearly a dozen of us stayed around town and in the Upper Valley, making this our home.

All those memories came flooding back after 50 years just by picking up that little card. Remembering those times brought a warm smile. The soundtrack of our lives blaring through personal speakers.

But there is no more Yellow Bird and its Youth Fares; no more college and its life lessons. Just 50 years of memories. Which made this anniversary so bittersweet when I found this letter from our dean of faculty, Richard Ford, written upon the closing in 1973. Then it brought tears.

“Though the college as an institute is dissolving, she cannot die as long as anyone of us incorporates her ends in his life. Canaan represented personal integrity and growth, the honoring and pursuit of truth through rational discourse and the celebration of decency and the civilized life.

“While she was not always successful in attaining and representing these ends, the reaching out for them was the soul of the college.

“You can honor the memory of Canaan as you allow her ends to become incorporated into your daily lives. I would that you permit Canaan’s ideals to shine through your lives, and so make the world regret that she no longer exists to serve other young men and women.

“Curse not the darkness, but let your light shine before you.”

There is still a light: To have once been a glorious part of what is now forever gone.

Donald Mahler was sports editor of theValley Newsfrom 1978 to 2015.