One Night in Many Lives
February 8, 2013—
At breakfast, the judges are wide-eyed and alert, like parents on Christmas morning, ready to observe and be proud. They speak in almost hushed tones of the glimpses they’ve caught of completed statues. Most of them are a generation older than the students whose work they are judging. The room is brightly lit, much like the work lights students feverishly worked under the last 16 hours.
Outside, the occasional bleary-eyed student wanders past, but most are tucked away, few seeing these first rays of morning light. The impending sunrise is making the gray morning clouds purple, an orange glow coming from the occasional thin spot where blue sky might poke through later in the day.
The students of Michigan Tech don’t have to be up, though. With two days off from classes, this is the time for sleep. Soon will come the other traditions of Winter Carnival, the Stage Revue and hockey and everything else that will be stitched into the fabric of memories.
The All-Nighter may be the signature moment of Winter Carnival, but it is also the pivot, the place where what will be becomes what was. Not just for statues, but for those moments, like old photographs, that linger in remembrance for decades hence.
Those memories are so easily shared amongst alumni, because tradition goes hand in hand with the experience. A tradition of recent years has been the wall of speakers embedded in snow, turning the empty space across from the Hamar House into a winter nightclub.
One of the first songs pumping through the speaker wall this year was “Good Life” by OneRepublic, a song that captures what the All-Nighter is better than almost anything:
Day turns to night, night turns to whatever we want
We're young enough to say
Oh, this has gotta be the good life
Winter Carnival is for all of Tech and the people of the Keweenaw. It is a festival not just celebrating or embracing our winter, but also understanding how much winter is a part of us, how we are connected to it. There are events for every age and interest, a kaleidoscope of frigid rituals.
Winter Carnival is for everyone, but the All-Nighter is for the students.
I feel like there might be something that I’ll miss
I feel like the window closes oh so quick
There’s so much happening along the half-mile plus of the All-Nighter, it’s easy so miss something. But that’s beginning with what was; I must start with what will be.
Early Afternoon, Hour 1
4 p.m., and classes are officially out for the week. The All-Nighter is technically under way, though the only ones out and about are setting up concessions or beginning work on statues. The feeling is one of anticipation: this is what we’re going to do.
At the east end of campus, between Walker and Fisher Halls, a few first-year student groups are going full-speed, embracing the moment though moving in fits and starts. Across the walkway, a more experienced group of students is casually mingling, pacing themselves for the night’s work. But each group has the same sense of anticipation about them, knowing that something is ahead of them, though not really knowing what.
The air is full of the sound of hammering and front end loaders, dropping off snow by request for statue teams, backing up with a warning tone, and moving on to collect more building material. Here and there a set of speakers is getting the students into the mood of the night.
It’s still early.
The speaker wall is going up, the mini golf course is almost finished, and concessions tables are being laid out from one end of the campus mall to the other. There is a spark in the air, a hint of giddy determination, knowing the momentous evening that is to follow.
Evening, Hour 4
It’s as though someone has flipped a switch. The last light of day has faded from behind the blanket of clouds, but the campus mall is still brilliantly illuminated by the array of lighting equipment on hand. The crowd has gotten thicker, the snow now forming an almost uniform walking surface, the distinction between grass and sidewalk long since trampled down. The music is cranking up and the statue teams are friendly but busy as they juggle plywood forms and battle hoses stretched hundreds of feet.
The crowd has a youthful complexion, with area middle and high school students joining their families to take in the sights. A buffet lines the sidewalks, with shish-kabobs, grilled cheese, pancakes, and deep-fried everything on offer. Even that iconic summer treat–cotton candy–has spun its way into the chilly evening. The air is still, though, the flurries falling straight down under the lights.
Blocks of snow are taking shape as the snow and ice mixtures solidify, students ready with an array of tools to carve out their creations. The air feels optimistic, even amongst the teams having issues and needing to restart their sculptures. The air temperature is slowly increasing as the evening goes on.
Evening, Hour 6
By 9 p.m. the young children are filtering out, and it feels like almost all of the student body is drinking in the moment. Large crowds are gathered around the broomball courts, cheers erupting like it’s a professional match with every play. In the distance, more students are crossing 41 near Wads, more bodies packing into the campus mall as the intensity of the All-Nighter picks up.
Near the center of campus, Sigma Phi Epsilon’s snow mountains have now taken the obvious shape of the ice world Hoth from “The Empire Strikes Back.” Outside the MUB, Delta Zeta’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are taking form from the chunky slabs of a few hours before. The rest of campus, too, is seeing recognizable shapes emerge from winter’s detritus. But there is still much more work to be done.
Students not involved in statue construction are taking it all in, trying to stay warm and bonding with friend and acquaintance and stranger alike. Just off campus, the streets are filled with students coming and going, rendering this night unrecognizable as a Wednesday.
Even a few blocks over, standing outside of Jim’s Foodmart, the music is still pumping, the air full of elation. A couple of fifth-year students walk out of the grocery store and stop, looking up at nothing in particular, taking in one of their favorite days of the year. The snow started falling just a bit harder.
Late Night, Hour 11
It is 2 a.m., and the party is still going. It is thinning a bit, though, with the dance floor back to its 7 p.m. emptiness, save a few stragglers determined to hang on to the energy of the moment just a bit longer. Most of the sculptures are basically there, getting detail work and lettering before the students call it a night.
Back at the east end of campus, the first-year students are still going strong, though their ambition has left them with a couple of additional hours of work yet to go. They’re doing their best to work as teams, though it’s getting obvious they bit off more than they could chew. Still, the final form is taking shape, and they’re looking good to finish on time.
Across the sidewalk, the lights are dark. The more experienced students have been done for a couple of hours, wandering off into the night, wherever it may take them. Their sculptures are understated but intricate, the lettering on the signage perfect. Their creations just await the dawn of a new day and the flood of visitors to campus from across the Keweenaw and around the country.
Late Night, Hour 13
Two hours later, the festival atmosphere is gone. The music blaring out from multiple speakers around most statue sites is no longer reflecting the energy of the occasion, but is now trying to rally those students still building. The blue and red LEDs are still lit near the mini golf course, but the signs and equipment are packed away, the overhead lights gone dark. It feels like an amusement park that’s been shut down.
About three quarters of the statues are finished, and the activity on campus is no more than there is during an average day when class is in session. The dance floor is empty, the bright lights splaying on its surface extinguished. Across the sidewalk, only one of the many spotlights is still on, the giant generator no longer rumbling through the evening.
Only one first-year group is still building, working on the fine detail and finishing up their lettering. They’re tired, they’re cold, they’re happy, and they’re proud of themselves. They’ve just about done it. No one said anything about judging or what place they’d get.
At the west end of campus, only a couple of the larger month-long statues still show any signs of activity. The parking lots at this end of campus are all but empty, the remaining students working calm and composed. It will all get done, they assure me. Just another hour or so.
In the center of campus, two students are riding a teeter-totter, with students staying on in shifts for 36 hours to raise money for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. The nearby lights are all out, their rising and falling forms just visible in the distance against the snowy backdrop. Only 24 more hours to go.
Early Morning, Hour 16
It is a bit after 7 a.m., and it is as quiet as I have ever remembered it on campus. Down at Prince’s Point, the frozen Keweenaw Waterway reaches out from Houghton, to Hancock and Ripley and Dollar Bay and Lake Linden, uniting the Keweenaw as much as it divides us in the summer.
One of the other songs blasting across campus tonight was “One Day/Reckoning Song” by Asaf Avidan and the Mojos. Asaf has a haunting sound, the kind you remember for the way it says as much as the lyrics themselves. His voice is distinctive, like Annie Lennox or Chrissie Hynde. Just like “Good Life,” Asaf hints at not missing anything in life, of pushing the limit of what we may live in this one chance at being human.
One day, baby, we’ll be old
Oh baby, we’ll be old
And think of the stories that we could have told
The All-Nighter is all but over for this year, the stories that will be told already being written. Maybe some tales will grow an extra leg or two over time. That’s okay. These are the stories that remind us of what is most important.
Later today the students will rouse themselves, and there will be so much more to see and do: the stage revue and hockey games this weekend, as well as a comedy show and a formal dance. They’ll awaken and try to prove Asaf wrong. They will try to capture every story, leave none untold. To not let go of this weekend, this moment. Because what comes after is school and work and life. Their exuberance is the rage against the dying of the light that only youth and optimism can bring. The All-Nighter reminds us to live now.
A light snow is gently falling, floating to the ice in front of me in the calm air. For this one frozen moment in time, everything is still, as if in a photograph, students clutching to their memories as dreams, a lifetime of waking ahead.
One day, baby, we’ll be old
Michigan Technological University (www.mtu.edu) is a leading public research university developing new technologies and preparing students to create the future for a prosperous and sustainable world. Michigan Tech offers more than 130 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in engineering; forest resources; computing; technology; business; economics; natural, physical and environmental sciences; arts; humanities; and social sciences.