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Staying Alive
Edward Yasuna, Alum
Columbia College 1967

In the spring of 1965, finding myself drifting within a sophomore slump, playing pool a tad more than reading utopian theory, visiting the West End Pub almost as often as visiting my class on the poetry of Stevens and Williams, I realized that some time away from Columbia might be useful. But there was the small inconvenience of Vietnam hovering over my generation, the College, and myself. In short, taking time from Columbia would mean I'd be drafted, sent to 'Nam, shot, and killed, and that didn't seem a wise career choice. So, my challenge was to find a way to take time off from school and not lose my student deferment.

Now, one has to recall, or realize, that students did not drop out of Columbia and study somewhere else. It simply was not done. Nevertheless, I researched study-abroad programs. In spite of many years of French, I knew that I couldn't study in France. German and Spanish were, well, not unlike the proverbial Greek to me. And my solid grounding in Latin wasn't going to solve the problem. I needed a program in English.

To my amazement, I found such a program: six months study in Copenhagen, all courses in English. But to receive credit! Ahh, there's the rub. Otherwise, I might as well be signing up for study in Saigon. So, I went to my advisor: minimal interest, less help. The College Dean: couldn't be done, I was told. "We offer Danish [one of the courses I'd be taking] in General Studies. As for the European History since WWII, we offer that as well. Indeed, haven't you taken that with Professor Rothschild already? European Opera and Ballet? Scandinavian Literature? Danish Architecture and Design? Are those really courses? Can't you take something equivalent here at Columbia?" Yes, I thought, but as much as I liked NYC, I needed time away, and New York wasn't Copenhagen.

Finally, after too many doors that didn't open to my dream, I stopped by Dean Irving DeKoff's office. He was best known as the coach of Columbia's powerful fencing teams, but was dean of something. He didn't know me from a cake of soap, but said that he thought my studying in Denmark was a grand idea, and he'd guarantee credit. "When you return, just pop in and we'll take care of it all." Still fearing the Mekong Delta, I asked for the guarantee in writing. Dean DeKoff , I recall, looked at me as if I had doubted the word of my best friend. But finally he did produce a written document on Columbia letterhead, something my draft board would accept.

Knowing that I was leaving in January of 1966, my autumn semester at Columbia was splendid. And my six months in Copenhagen were even more so. Courses were extremely easy -- but I never told Dean DeKoff that. I went to opera and ballet, to craft museums and famous buildings. I read Strindberg and Ibsen and Hans Christian Andersen. I skiied in Norway -- they gave us these skinny, edgeless skis with half the bindings missing: cross-country skis, I discovered, falling left and right while just standing still. I skiied in Austria, downhill. I went to jazz clubs, and saw the Hollies in Reykjavik, Iceland. I played tennis once, indoors, on wood! The ball just sliiiiiiides, perhaps bouncing 15 inches high. I'm sure I won at least three points, maybe four. Not bad for two sets. I learned enough Danish to make small talk, cash travelers' checks, and, once, to give correct directions to a Danish sailor who wobbled up to me late one night near the waterfront. His inebriation probably masked my questionable Danish grammar. I played lots of bridge, saw the risque movie "I Am Curious, Yellow," well before it sparked controversy in USA, lived with a most delightful family with three small children, and fell in love. Indeed, last summer I re-discovered Else, but that is another story. Suffice that we again write letters to one another, but our love is teenage then, not fiftyish now.

And so I returned to Columbia, received the promised credit -- thank you, Dean DeKoff -- and had an excellent senior year. Today, most universities almost insist that students travel or study abroad, but 40 years ago, 'twas not the case. I was fortunate: the time away was what was needed. To paraphrase Robert Frost, it was good both going and coming back; one could do worse than be a traveler in Denmark. And I managed to stay far from Vietnam, but that, too, is another story.

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