About a week ago, I finally arrived at Mory’s.
Mory’s Temple Bar is a private club on York Street and a staple of the Yale tradition. Surrounded by varsity memorabilia and echoes of Whiffenpoof medleys, it’s where Yalies have their most revelrous and unforgettable nights. It’s even been inducted into the National Register of Historic Places.
And yet, almost a year into undergrad, this was my first time here. More strange, I had not been invited by friends or teammates in good spirits, but by an alumnus I had met in a steakhouse the night before The Game. Isn’t this place supposed to be “the dear old Temple bar we love so well?”
The club was hosting an alumni event to celebrate a Yale-Cornell hockey game. I was the only student there. The guests graduated as far back as 1973 — Yale’s first co-ed class.
The night ensued with laughter and story after story. Apparently “JE Sux” — the Jonathan Edwards motto proudly parodied in fairy lights across Farnam Hall — comes from another staple of the Yale tradition: “bladderball.”
The rules were simple. A ball was rolled into Old Campus. Teams then fought to retrieve the ball by any means necessary — including fishing gaffs and actual helicopters. Classic. But the legendary antics came to an end in 1982 when bladderball was finally banned by the administration. Truth is, I don’t think I had ever even heard of it.
This is the great divide between Old and New Yale. Some students know the vestiges of decades past — the legacies of TD’s Head Robert Thompson or Wall Street’s Naples Pizza — but so many do not. As with the JE motto, the Yale tradition has delivered countless trivia that we constantly hear. But how much of that tradition lives today? And — as with bladderball — how much will die tomorrow?
This piece evolved from a much simpler prompt. On Monday, I journeyed To the Lighthouse — Five Mile Point Light, overlooking the Long Island Sound — and was asked to “profile the historic landmark” for the News. Before I left, I did some research. It seemed promising.
Five Mile Point Light is also on the National Register of Historic Places, and for good reason.
Our story begins in July 1779. British troops invaded New Haven Harbor during the Revolutionary War. American militia eventually beat them back. A mount that commemorates the battle lies just behind the lighthouse. It reads:
THIS ENGLISH CANNON IS MOUNTED HERE
BY MARY CLAP WOOSTER CHAPTER
THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
OF NEW HAVEN CONNECTICUT.
No cannon remains.
Before defeat, the British managed to burn down several nearby homes. One victim was America’s Captain Amos Morris, who fought alongside his son, Amos Morris, Jr. In 1804, Morris Jr. sold an acre of the land to the federal government. Congress ordered the construction of a wooden lighthouse with a keeper’s quarters. The first keeper was Morris Jr. himself.
In 1847, the lighthouse was replaced with a new stone lighthouse — the one that stands today. As early as 1877, it was rendered ceremonial when the nearby Southwest Ledge Light superseded its navigational functions.
Since then, the vicinity — now known as Lighthouse Point Park — has been brought to life. In the early twentieth century, the site was transformed into a trolley park with myriad attractions. Though almost all were demolished by 1957, the Lighthouse Point Carousel still stands behind the keeper’s quarters.
The carousel is historic in its own right — it’s also on the National Register of Historic Places. It even boasts one of only three seats worldwide shaped like a camel instead of a horse.
I close my laptop and set out for an afternoon of scenic lighthouse views and cheerful carousel rides. Alas, my Lighthouse Point Park is not the one from the stories.
The place is nearly abandoned. I see the lighthouse in the distance, but decide to leave it for last. One of my first snapshots from the site depicts a dilapidated door with “STAFF ONLY” written in what is either red spray paint, or blood. Inviting. After a perfectly timed “BANG!” from a nearby coiling door, I crack a joke about how haunted this place feels.
Next, I find these strange stone constructions all over the beach. Naturally-cut boulders form massive walkways that stretch far into the sea. They’re far too craggy to make for good fishing, and I can’t imagine how any human could have moved rocks so heavy and numerous. I blurt out the first explanation I can think of. “Aliens.”
The rest of my exploration is much of the same. Empty buildings, locked doors. Even the carousel sits quietly behind a thin glass wall. At one point I take out my phone and play the soundtrack from Twin Peaks. Maybe this will help me find something. Then — what’s this?
A coin-operated tower viewer. But no one carries change anymore.
Perhaps the sheer mundanity of the park can be summarized in my first interview. A few minutes after I arrive, a tetrad strolls out to the beach to take a few pictures. “What makes you come here?” I ask one of them. He ruminates for a beat. “I don’t know.”
Finally, I go To the Lighthouse. Granted, it’s imposing. I realize this is my chance — scenic views don’t require people or payment. I reach for the doorknob to enter. Locked. I turn around and scan the beach. “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare the lone and level sands stretch far away.”
I’m about to call it quits when I see someone walking his dog. I prepare my notebook for one last interview. To my surprise, his Lighthouse Point Park sounds as grand as the one from the stories.
He recalls a wedding of all things. I can imagine it. There’s a quaint wooden structure by the water. Maybe that’s where the altar was. The historic lighthouse, the merry carousel, and the scenic sea — all within view.
He brightens up as he continues his stories. “The lightshow!” I inquire. Every year, they adorn the area with Christmas lights around the holiday season. “And they make the horses look like ships!” I don’t know what he’s talking about.
Suddenly, I get it.
Lighthouse Point Park isn’t abandoned. It’s just the wrong season. A friend later told me that Yale Outdoors had dared students to take a “Polar Plunge” at the same beach a few weeks prior. A frigid Connecticut March afternoon spent by the water is a feat, not a pleasure.
My Lighthouse Point Park wasn’t the one from the stories. Still, much of the tradition lives. Five Mile Point Light stands tall like Harkness Tower. The carousel is seasonal, but that makes it special — an annual fixture is how I ended up at Mory’s, after all.
That’s why I asked to qualify my prompt. I’ve heard story after story of halcyon Old Yale. Alumni and professors reminisce about faculty members long gone. Friends fantasize about living the tradition themselves. I admit, I went to Mory’s hoping to reclaim a touch of that lost magic.
“My Yale isn’t the one from the stories.” True, but that neglects what we’ve kept, and more, what we’ve gained.
Some Yale traditions have died, but few have passed without memorial. Head Thompson has his own room next to the TD dining hall. Other traditions live on. Naples Pizza is gone, but we go to Sally’s, Pepe’s and Modern all the time. Best of all, some traditions have evolved. Sure, a game of bladderball sounds fun, if not a little rambunctious. Its ban, however, gave rise to the Spring Fling — now one of the most anticipated events of the year.
As I close my notebook, the man continues with his dog. He faces the historic lighthouse and smiles, seemingly content with the memories. I start in the other direction.
I end on the pier. It’s the only structure that looks new. Overlooking the water, another joke about a piece of debris that protrudes from the sea. “That’s the topmast of the ghost ship. It’s where the spirits that haunt this place come from.”
Though not as active as I had imagined, it’s been an afternoon of adventure enabled by Lighthouse Point Park only as it stands.
I glance back. As the man turns the corner, I realize — he couldn’t walk his dog amidst cannonfire and burning houses. He couldn’t walk his dog in a bustling trolly park. He spends his time here not for what it was, but for what it is.
That’s why he comes To the Lighthouse. That’s why we go to Yale.