First D-Day at ISS

By Allan B. Cruse

I was at the first "D-Day". It was in spring 1956. The school was predominantly a boarding school then, with 150 students, all boys. The campus then was a long way out of town and surrounded by woods. The idea for D-day was Doctor Armstrong's brain-child, and we first heard about it nearly five weeks ahead of time at a special Town Meeting that Doc called to explain what ISS faced. Specifically, the Alabama Power Company had decided they needed to build a major new power-line that would have to cross part of the campus property. They had the legal power to appropriate the land needed for this, and they had the right to send in their own crew to clear the necessary 50-foot wide right-of-way through woods across our 800-acre campus. So one aspect of this project was that ISS didn't have any choice about whether to allow or not allow this desecration of its property.

Being the creative genius that he was, Doc had devised a plan that would nevertheless allow the school to take back some degree of control over how this right-of-way would be cleared. He had convinced the Power Company to let the school do the actual work of clearing the power-line's path. This way we could avoid being left with ugly scars to the land and woods caused by opening extra roads for tractors and letting heavy clear-cutting equipment make ruts in the ground, triggering future soil erosion, and we could control what would happen to the trees and plants that had to be taken down. In a way we couldn't grasp at the time, Doc was an "environmentalist", even before there was such a word in the language. And Doc assured us that we would all learn a great deal about ourselves and about life by the process of organizing ourselves to take down those trees.

So basically he had made the decision that this was something we were going to do, and it was going to be part of the curriculum, and he asked us to give it our best effort. Several of the elected council members, and a few faculty folks as well, spoke in support of this concept, which became known as Development Day, but which also was referred to as "D-Day" in an ominous reference to an event during World War II. The amount of planning that preceded that first D-Day was phenomenal. We devoted class time to learning about surveying, about how to use ropes, and at what angles to chop, to control which direction a tree would fall toward, and thus how to avoid getting ourselves killed in the act. We learned how to organize people into efficient teams with specialized skills. We planned for contingencies, for food and water distribution, for possible medical emergencies. In my class we each wrote a paper on the topic of what we wanted to achieve from D-Day and what if any apprehensions we had. We held team-meetings to plan the day's agenda and schedule, set target-goals, discuss safety issues and first-aid precautions, and to get instructions on how to operate certain equipment and tools that most of us had never touched before.

Initially there was some private grumbling among students, about how to devise schemes for avoiding participation in D-Day. Some intended to be "sick" that morning and check into the student infirmary. But it soon became clear that there would be a heavy price to pay, in terms of social ostracism, by anyone who did not shoulder their part of the work in making D-day successful. At least one faculty member made a memorable speech about "duty," comparing our D-Day to mandatory military service and making the point that there come times in life when individuals may be called upon to put something besides themselves into first priority for the greater good of the general community. All in all, there was a lot to of heavy stuff to think about and discuss over dinner. For myself, as the day approached, I remember feeling initially a great sense of foreboding and dread. I was a freshman, with thick glasses and a slight build. I did not know how to cut down trees. I realized I could get killed or permanently injured if I should be standing in the wrong spot at the wrong moment. I did not relish the prospect of all that physical exertion for an entire day. I didn't like the idea of eating lunch out in the woods with swarms of insects and no tables or chairs. I concocted a hundred morose scenarios in my imagination, some of which I conveyed to my parents; but Doc had already headed off that route of escape, by getting all the parents on his side in advance. Then, to my great surprise and relief, I was told what my assignment would be for D-Day. My job was to be the "D-Day Reporter." I would have a pencil and notebook, and I would be expected to roam everywhere, documenting all the day's events, like a war-correspondent on special assignment. I would move from team-site to team-site, along the nearly 2-mile stretch of right-of-way, taking down notes, recording progress and unexpected problems, and making sure a record was kept of who was doing what.

Wow! This would be great. Writing was something I believed I could do, so suddenly my whole attitude toward D-Day changed and I began actually looking forward to it with some eagerness. Well, as you might imagine, with all those weeks of build-up, when the actual day finally came there was a great air of excitement. Everyone arrived at the dining hall for early breakfast, in work-clothes and carrying their water canteens. The Day-Students were bused in early from Mountain Brook. Teams had designated spots to gather for their hike over to their section of the trail. Most teams had a faculty member to accompany them and to theoretically "supervise"; it was fun to see our faculty wearing overalls for a change instead of coats-and-ties. One of the big logistical efforts was the delivery of lunch to crews scattered over a nearly two-mile distance. As "reporter" I covered this effort, riding with some of the kitchen-crew in the back of a pick-up truck with trays of sandwiches and ice-buckets full of soft drinks. I particularly remember this truck-ride because of a nasty argument that broke out on the way over. One of my classmates had asked me to help him lift a very heavy ice-bucket up onto the truck-bed, and I had responded by patiently explaining to him that my job was "reporter", not bucket-lifter. Well I sure got what I deserved, the most ferocious tongue-lashing I ever experienced from a peer. He called me several names, "gold-bricker" being one of the mildest, and he said I had failed utterly to comprehend the spirit of D-Day. I gave quite a vigorous verbal defense at the time, but his criticism had hit home and I remember feeling quite ashamed of myself for some weeks afterward.

Over at the work site, it was truly awesome to watch those trees coming down. A crew of six or eight would do the deed with amazing coordination and deft teamwork, using ropes, axes, a huge chain-saw, and lots of yelling. It was hot, it was noisy, but it was focused. What most amazed me, as that day wore on, was how all the customary roles of the individuals involved got changed around. Students who weren't known as "stars" in the classroom began emerging as leaders, on their work-crew, and faculty members were actually taking direction instead of giving it. Brawn counted more out there than brains, and energy was more prized than knowledge. In some cases students. who ordinarily were fierce rivals in the classroom, actually were cooperating with each other instead of trading barbs and sarcasms. The whole social order was getting turned upside down, a most sobering phenomenon to witness and to ponder. My most vivid image from that day was the scene I came upon late in the afternoon as the heat began subsiding and tiredness began to set in, and as everyone began realizing that, despite our best efforts, we weren't going to succeed in finishing all that we had set out to accomplish in one day's time. Some teams began sitting down to rest, a few others seemed to just redouble their effort and determination. I looked up to see one of my classmates, a freshman, holding a big chain-saw that was nearly as large as he was, totally concentrated on severing a large tree-trunk as six of the upper-classmen held guide-ropes to assist him. Sweat was pouring off his forehead and arteries were pumping in his neck, but in his face was a look of both fury and ecstasy.

As Doc had said, we would all learn some things about ourselves and about each other that couldn't be experienced in the classroom. He was right. Looking back it is still rather incredible to me that a hundred-fifty intellectual-type teenagers with no previous training could organize themselves to clear a 50-foot wide mile-long trail through thick woods in one day's time, with nobody getting hurt. I'm sure everyone who was there will remember that first D-Day in their own way and from their own point-of-view, but at the time there seemed to be a real consensus, when it was over, that we had all been through something together that was pretty extraordinary and that this ought not to just cease and be forgotten; so "D-Day" got turned into an ISS tradition. Now, as some people begin talking about perhaps phasing D-Day out, it seems maybe worthwhile to at least try and recall why it once felt like a type of experience that would be worth perpetuating.

--Allan Cruse, Class of 1959