KAPALKO: Va. Tech community down but certainly not out

Jamie Kapalko

The 51 Cardinal leaves Philadelphia and stutter-steps south, stopping every hour or so in another dull gray, congested station: Wilmington; Baltimore; Washington, D.C. Business travelers and cranky tourists elbow their way on and off, each waiting impatiently for the next stop.

Once the train hits Virginia, it breaks free. It glides for hours at a time, stopping occasionally in small-town stations surrounded by open fields and quaint main streets. Most of the passengers are gone, so those who are left are free to stretch out and enjoy the view. At times, the Cardinal barely crawls along; the train itself seems to want the journey to stretch on longer. The autumn sun gilds the unadulterated landscape, from the grassy hills to the copper and russet leaves of the trees. As the train curls west, stops become less and less frequent.

When the train reaches the town of Clifton Forge – nine hours after departing Philadelphia – the conductor places a simple plastic stepladder on the ground without fanfare, and a few passengers disembark. There is no station here – just a small “Amtrak” sign. The sun is setting, and the cool wind is a reminder of western Virginia’s high altitude. A few people sit on the curb outside a handful of stores on the main road, but the trip does not end here.

During the hour-and-a-half car ride that follows, it is impossible not to stare at the wavelike shapes of the black mountains rising against the inky nighttime sky. The ride is quiet, the car first winding through narrow roads surrounded by dense woods, then passing wide, flat farm fields and finally zipping down the highway. By now, it is late, and it would be easy to drift off to sleep.

And then suddenly, like the glittering lake of an oasis in the desert, Virginia Tech rises up from the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The enormity of the campus strikes me more than anything when I visit. The residence halls are twice the size of Stanford, and they house freshmen almost exclusively (after that, students move off campus). Dozens of massive classroom buildings surround the drill field. The parking lots are the size of Villanova’s entire campus. My first thought is that if I went here, I would most definitely get lost.

But there is no confusion on the Saturday I see campus; everyone is going in the same direction. It is game day. Game day means Lane Stadium, and thousands of Hokie fans stream toward the field. Tech alumni with their young Tech children dressed in jerseys and cheerleader uniforms set up massive spreads in the parking lot, and students throw footballs back and forth and set up their own tailgates. It’s one of those unseasonally warm November days, the kind that makes you laugh because the ground could be covered in snow in a week but you’re squeezing the very last drop out of summer by wearing flip flops one last time.

In western Virginia, and maybe anywhere else, there is nothing better than this.

Lane Stadium seats 65,000. That’s about three packed Wachovia Centers. It gets crowded, too, with the students filling in one end zone. Snack stands sell – what else for the Hokies? – sinfully greasy turkey legs, and the mascot poses for pictures in the stands. The students have their rituals like we do – they jingle their keys instead of raising V fingers – but the effect is much more impressive, as their number of students far surpasses ours.

Here I observe true, pure pride in team and school. This stadium in the middle of nowhere, these generations of family members who live for games decades after graduating, these students who are genuinely proud to be a part of what they are – that is pride. Looking at the fans in the stands, they appear to be one enormous cheering body. This campus bleeds Hokie maroon and orange.

But now, it just bleeds.

Of course, I felt safe when I was there. How could I not? They flocked to the stadium; they yelled their cheers in unison; they even lent utensils and traded snacks in the parking lot. They weren’t just there for Virginia Tech. They were Virginia Tech.

But now that vibrant campus, full of warmth, is shot through with holes. And everyone feels it, because when those lives were taken, a piece of each Hokie was taken too. That’s what happens when you’re truly a part of something.

So what now? How do you recover? How do you heal?

Over time, they will return. They will go to class, even if it means being afraid. They will go to football games, even if it means feeling guilty that others will never again do so.

They will not forget this. They will build memorials and wear ribbons in solidarity. They will be watchful for signs – violent tendencies, depression, isolation, despair – because if only someone had taken the right action, maybe, just maybe, this would not have happened. They will cry, and they will pray.

Virginia Tech is a football school. They will do what any team does when it suffers a debilitating loss. They will rebuild. And they will remember.

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Jamie Kapalko is a sophomore English major from Belmar, N.J. She can be reached at [email protected]