When You Say Wisconsin, You’ve Said it All!

Graduation day is something you dream of almost from the day you start school.

This vision of how it will go, what you will have accomplished and the aftermath appears as a premonition in many of your daydreams. The assumption your visions allow is that it will be a viscerally moving moment of surreal proportions, filled with golden sunshine, blossoming red flowers, endless smiles, tight hugs and fulfilling laughter.

I still remember my day of commencement like it was yesterday. My hope is to write it down in as much detail so that I might never forget what the moment felt like as long as I live, even if there comes a day when it slips my mind.

The orchestra in my mind don’t play like this, raps Lupe Fiasco in his ever-underrated love ballad, “Sunshine” — But I’m prepared for it, got a lil rare for it. Brushed off my Airs, even cut my hair for it.

Those are words I played back in my head over countless cold, late nights where the only thing that might bring joy and strength was to look ahead to happier events that haven’t yet happened.

The reality turned out to be that and more.

Photo by J. Scott Kunkel (@Scotify)

Our story starts in the early morning hours of commencement day, Saturday, May 14 at where else but the Kollege Klub in Madison, Wisconsin.

Aptly nicknamed, “The Dungeon”, the underground KK’s brick walls held out the wet, cold air seeking to put a damper on four years of general debauchery and honest-to-goodness hard work.

A crew of humble gentleman assembled itself within the hallowed walls of the KK around the fabled colony of wealthy and merry parents experiencing their kids’ favorite Friday night haunt for the first (and last) time. This of course following a pregame that included a firestorm of loud Lord of The Rings and Harry Potter soundtracks produced by a tremendously drunk friend we’ll call Kevin.

Drinks and stories were tossed around with so many darts at the dartboard outlying what had been a celebratory last month of college. It dawned on me how out of place I felt — even now as a senior who had made my bones in the classroom, established a few separate communities of stellar friends and had seen all that college had to offer. Self awareness always seemed to hit me where drinks and music flow freely.

In all the commotion and notoriously bad cellphone service within The Dungeon, I consigned myself to meeting up with my sister and brother-in-law to show them what the Madison night scene was like. Leaving the KK for the damp air of Lake Street,  I immediately wondered what I might show them, as graduation eve generally manifests itself in long lines and shorter fuses.

After meeting up, the three of us walked to the Double U, a popular new bar on campus that previously housed underage freshman on Thursdays and J.J. Watt’s infamous pop-a-shot skills under the name “Johnny O’s”. RIP. The pop-a-shots still remain, however.

We all chatted as I introduced my pint-sized sister to several friends I’d made years earlier. Two separate worlds colliding on a sticky, whiskey-coke coated dance floor. The world really is a small place afterall.

It had been a long day and I grew tired by the minute. Biding my sister and her husband farewell, I accidentally ran into a friend I’d been trying to reach all night. Madison was small like that. We both made one more guest appearance at the KK for good measure and walked ourselves to Wendy’s. My friend who we’ll call Bill had a reputation for drunken dance moves and an appetite for chicky-nugs. Leaving Wendy’s, I asked him if we should take the scenic route home. Just one more stroll down Langdon street with it’s sky-high ash trees and runway of pillared fraternity houses. It really is charming in the right setting.

I dropped Bill off at the “Brothel House, Pt. 2” on Henry Street where he had some friends in the waiting and I took myself home alone.

Photo by J. Scott Kunkel (@Scotify)

Sleeping that night was going to be a task.

I must’ve stared at the ceiling for hours thinking about all that had just happened. Thinking about four years of genuinely grand memories that were all going to come to a head the next afternoon. I’m sentimental like that I guess. No stone cold ice in the veins on this side.

Mostly I thought about how lucky I’d been. As I mentioned earlier, I never did feel like I belonged at that school despite having made triple the friends I had in high school and ten times the acquaintances. Where some kids would talk of family trips as free rides to the Bahamas, I knew it in secret that my mom worked three jobs my sophomore year, and I came in my freshman year with a wardrobe of clothes almost entirely from the thrift store. How in the hell did I get in here?

Don’t feel sorry for me, though. I was lucky. Ray Allen sinks a fadeaway buzzer-beating shot in Game 6 to lead the Miami Heat to an NBA championship lucky. Knowing this, I thought about three-year-old Terrell Mayes all night, a young boy who’d been killed in a neighborhood not too far from mine while I was a senior in high school. His story barely made the news, as a stray bullet found its way to a closet he tried to hide in, striking him while he ate his plate of spaghetti for dinner. He’d never get to experience college or a graduation ceremony. That story never left my mind for long. God I felt lucky and humbled that night.

Sleep found me for an hour before I knew I had to wake up and get ready for the big day.

7 a.m. came in time for me to take a hot shower, slick back my longish sandy hair, throw on a black slim fit suit, my prized wine-red Yves Saint Laurent tie and a pair of shiny black cap-toe Oxford’s.

My thrift store beginnings were a smirking memory of the past.

Down a still State Street I strolled to the nearest open coffee shop, in need of liquid fuel after a restless night. I ordered my usual small cappuccino and walked to the only place I thought right to take in a sunrise on your last ever day of college at UW-Madison: the Memorial Union terrace.

White caps spilled over the sides of the concrete terrace steps as a harsh wind disrespected the hell out of any clothing deemed worthy for graduation day attire. Somehow this mid May day felt like a Michigan Avenue wind tunnel in December. Funny how cold, windy days and a bit of espresso seem to knock the hangover right out of you.

Quietly, I sat alone on a stiff orange terrace chair facing lake Mendota and drank the coffee with the wind on my face, trying to hide shivering limbs in any way possible.

What a sight the terrace is when you’re the only person there.

Walking back to my apartment, I had to pass the “Brothel House, Pt. 2” on the corner of Henry and Gilman Street where I previously dropped Bill off at hours before. The brothel boys were a social bunch of guys — mostly from Wisconsin — who had all lived together for a few years and formed a sort of makeshift fraternity outside of the greek system. They threw gameday parties and weren’t strangers to many of Madison’s finest ladies, who seemed to adore their positive energy.

On a small landing over the porch stood the Brothel Boys in their caps and gowns, taking pulls on a knee from a bottle of cheap vodka from the night before. Laughter was in the air as the sun shone bright on their faces.

“Louis!” I heard from the crowd. A slight wave of my hand and a head nod acted as a salute to the camaraderie and friendship they were now celebrating on the morning of our graduation. Walking on I smirked as I recounted that special moments (and also not so special moments) are often accompanied by cheap vodka in your youth.

“It’s not over yet, damn it!” I thought as I rounded the corner away from my apartment, texting Bill if he was up yet. He was. A lightbulb flicked on in large part thanks to the play hard attitude of the Brothel Boys.

Being it around 10 a.m., the closest liquor store was closed and I was out of product. No matter, I still wanted to see Bill, Ryan, Nick, Chris and hopefully get our friend Nat over too as we had all come in as freshman together four years earlier.

Bill and company lived in a high rise next to another liquor store that I thought I’d check out, despite it being too early to purchase in Wisconsin. As I peeked in the door, a store clerk stocking shelves came to answer.

“Can I help you?” he said.

Help he did under the conditions I not tell anyone. A few bottles of André brut and orange juice ought to do the trick.

There we were, on our last day of college, sipping mimosas and leftover whiskey while swapping stories and laughing our guts out. Even the usually hard-to-convince Nat came around for a few cold ones. Thanks for the idea Brothel Boys.

We parted ways under the assumption we’d see each other again later in the day and off to meet my mom I went.

This part I’ll share in brief as this memory belongs to only her and I. She wanted to personally walk me to Camp Randall for commencement as a memento to the trouble and sacrifice we both went through to get to this moment. I found her sitting alone on a park bench facing the state capitol, taking in the morning sun. Apples never fall far from the tree.

Photo by J. Scott Kunkel (@Scotify)

Once at the gate of Camp Randall where all of the 2016 graduates were slowly filling in, I waited to walk in with my high school friend Luke, who I’d sworn to go to college with since we were sophomores in high school. The only reason I ever even chose to go to UW-Madison was because Luke had wanted to go, and that was good enough for me. It was only right to sit next to him at commencement for a moment we’d dreamed of sharing for years now.

As we entered the stadium and walked onto the playing field of our sacred Badgers, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel to the mysticism in Tim Burton’s southern fried tall-tale film, Big Fish.

In the film, a dying old man is carried back into the river where he came from, surrounded by all his closest family and friends as they looked when they were young.

Here in the moment I was seeing all of my friends from years before enter the stadium with groups of their friends, all young and beautiful with fulfillment in their eyes. Time literally almost stood still as cliche as it sounds. Filling in the space around those faces and almost more magical yet were the faces of people I’d recognized, but never had the pleasure of getting to know. I wondered if they recognized me. There was a realization that this would be the last time we’d all be in the same place together, despite the occasion having happened numerous times in the past. It had to be taken in deep.

Upon finding seats near the back, I couldn’t help but get up and greet everyone I could recognize around me. There was a girl I’d met on one of my first days on campus — she got a hug. Bill and Ryan weren’t far away. We snapped a picture. Emma and Molly were a few rows behind me, and I always enjoyed their sports takes and humor. For a graduating class of thousands, I sure did recognize a lot of people around me. Suddenly my lack of care for studying didn’t seem so foolhardy and my appreciation of taking time with people was realized.

We all took our seats and waited through what seemed like a never ending stream of pleasantries and student speeches during the ceremony. All of us were shivering as the temperature had dropped well below freezing with that trademark Madison wind hitting us right where it mattered. Somewhere near the end of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson’s surprisingly inspirational Charge to the Graduates began a light snow and hail. Yes, you read that right. On May 14th it snowed in Madison, Wisconsin.

It wasn’t the glowing sunny day I’d envisioned, but it was one none of us will ever forget. How often does it snow in May? Prince was right. Sometimes It Snows In April.

Throngs of students exited stage left to Breese street where tailgate parties perpetually thrive on gameday. Before exiting I hopped up into the stands and went to the bathroom. Hell, I even recognized three people in the bathroom, including Nat. UW-Madison really is the smallest big school in the nation.

The Class of 2016 had gotten through what I imagine to be the coldest and most bizarre spring commencement in the history of UW-Madison. Now it was time for a nap.

When you wake up hours after what you’re told is one of the biggest moments of your life, you aren’t quite sure how to digest it. Only that you know you must go on with life, one way or another.

Following a shower, I headed back to the KK around nine o’clock with my roommate for a celebratory drink. An hour or so passed in the company of my friend Alex and his girlfriend. A doorman at the KK, Alex was better known by his last name as is any good man who is worth his weight in gold. With a plug on top shelf mark-downs and a penchant for whiskey, Alex and I shared a few words after meeting each other years before during the second week of college. Cherished are the times when you can look down at the foothills from the peak with your fellow journeymen.

But this was my last night as a college student, and it had to be spent with people I’d grown close with. Away from the KK, and on to Nat’s apartment to meet him and his lovely girlfriend Jessica. I’d third-wheeled with those two for years, once hitchhiking with an Asian Kitchen delivery man to the nearest ATM for correct change so all three of us could eat. Somewhere between riding in a car with a complete stranger to an ATM and eating Cantonese cuisine on a Friday night, you realize who your family are.

And so, we departed back out to the bars. This time, it was to the aforementioned Double U where we waited in line for the better part of 30 minutes. There are certain facts of life; for instance that you will die and that you will probably pay taxes. One of those certainties is that bar decisions have to be made and stuck with on your graduation night, lest you be stuck in a line and never make it in the door.

Photo by J. Scott Kunkel (@Scotify)

Whenever I was with Nat, my head was always on a swivel. He was a muscular six-foot-two, 215 lb. Irish whirlwind from St. Paul who always seemed get rowdiest when the drinks were in abundance. It wasn’t that he was a mean spirited person. Quite the opposite. He’d give you the shirt of his back, if only to make a wisecrack about it later. It was that people clearly didn’t understand he wasn’t to be messed with when he was under the influence of one or six Jameson’s.

Knowing this, I cautiously enjoyed my night while glancing back and forth at our party of friends. It’s not that I’m anyone’s dad, or that I’m the gatekeeper of anyone’s safety. I guess it’s that I have a careful gene within that boasts a heightened sense of surroundings. Like clockwork, the inevitable bout of rail mixer aggression came out. Yet it wasn’t from Nat, surprisingly. This time it was a random bar patron who’d clearly seen better moments. He was noticeably stumbling directly towards Nat, with daggers in his eyes.

Just as our antagonist tapped Nat’s shoulder and was about to deliver a dishonorable coldclock from behind, I wrapped the poor soul’s neck up with my right arm and lifted him away to the befuddled look in Nat’s eyes. Somehow he was released from my arm and began to charge at me while bouncers pushed him towards the exit.

Let me make this perfectly clear: I am so not a tough guy. I would just assume make a self deprecating joke about myself to avoid a confrontation than to put my pride on the line and punch it out. But really it was the right move. The only move. Had I not headlocked this poor devil off the floor, I can assure you that Nat would’ve ruined this kid’s week (and also the kid’s parents’ week) as well as jeopardized a shot at a comfortable life post-graduation.

Rarely will you find anything noble in a physical altercation, and I’m not asking you to here. What I am saying is that I can say with a lot of confidence that what happened was best for all parties involved. Making the moment even less noble, we found out that our friend Jimmy (a notoriously clever prankster who had both supplied the majority of his college dorm with fake ids as well as been one of the first direct-from-high-school admits to the Wisconsin Business School) had been throwing ice at this poor kid all night from the direction of Nat. Jimmy was the instigator of all instigators and did it all for cackling laughs. He was admirable in his mischief, really.

(Upon figuring all this out the following day, Nat and I must’ve laughed for two minutes straight.)

As we left the Double U that night of our graduation amidst heightened senses and a few too many, I wanted to walk Nat and his girlfriend home just in case something weird happened. Instead of further misfortune, we found some laughs and memories to look back on. Walking up Frances street and across Langdon, I looked back down the street at the campus I’d enjoyed the best four year span of my life at. Science Hall always stood proud with its red brick clocktower at the bottom of Mansion Hill, and tonight was especially extraordinary. Just above the peak of the tower stood a full moon, shining down on those lucky enough to notice it.

“This is a happy night,” I told Nat and his girlfriend. “Let’s leave all of our baggage for tomorrow.” With that we parted ways and our big day was history.

Life never seems to work to our expectations. Often, it’s quite the opposite. But I learned something that night that I carry with me to this day. When you’re in the presence of great people; people who double as your surrogate family or even people who you simply shared a common experience with…put your troubles in the wayside and make memories knowing that you gave it, gave them your all. When you’re living in the moment and you do it with a full heart, the moment has a habit of becoming eternal.

Photo by J. Scott Kunkel (@Scotify)

** Editor’s Note: Some names have been changed to avoid any personal information conflicts.**


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