A truly fascinating look at trivia a quarter-century ago can be found in this article by Stephen Gardner. A member of the mighty BOMO team, Gardner recounts their Winter 1973 performance in loving, almost hour-by-hour detail, providing a one-of-a-kind glimpse into the original Golden Age of Williams Trivia.
This was a era without TV encyclopedias, without Top 40 books, without websites, videotapes, or even programmable touch-tone phones. But it was also an era of gusto, megatonnage, pigment and occasional T.O.T. torture. (See the article for explanations.) Many of the nuances of the time are captured in Gardner's essay.
Amazingly, the impressive BOMO machine described here wouldn't even be in full gear until the mid-70s, when they finished first or second for three years straight. In all, they competed for 17 semesters, running the contest three times. BOMO alumni would then continue winning into the early 1980s. But the roots of BOMO dominance can be found in Gardner's eyewitness account.
And most cunningly of all, Gardner then received academic credit for it all by affixing a larger context to the Trivia Contest and submitting it as a term paper! (You'll be amazed to learn at last just why it is you PLAY this stupid thing!) It later appeared as an article in the Alumni Review, and now most shamefully, on the Trivia Stuff Archive.
"In the form and function of play, itself an independent entity which is senseless and irrational, man's consciousness that he is embedded in a sacred order of things finds its first, highest, and holiest expression." --Harvey Cox, "The Feast of Fools"
The final weeks of an academic semester are always and everywhere a time when an individual faces a stern test of his or her sanity. At Williams, the advent of exams is accompanied by later hours at Stetson Library, the inability of the "Tuesday Night at the Pub Club" to assemble a quorum, and a prevailing tendency to "measure life out in coffee spoons." It is a time when bleary eyes occasionally rise to be rubbed or to check a clock, only to sink back into oceans of print; it is when the liberating escape to a meal degenerates into the festive tension-reduction of food fighting; and it is when one falls asleep to the gentle low hum of electric typewriters that tap out a steady march until dawn.
It is in these final weeks of the semester, when one could make millions off a black market supplying time and energy, that a fair proportion of the campus directs much of that time and energy to a cause that is by definition meaningless, "trivial." The Williams College Trivia Contest, held from midnight until 8:00 a.m. the night following the last day of classes, exists as something of a non sequitur. This marathon exploration of the most obscure and dusty corners of the memory is traditionally timed so that the most extensive, exhausting, and competitive final exam on campus tests the individual on literally everything one never learns at Williams College. It seems incongruous that the contest, with its intimidating requirements of massive sacrifice of time and thorough mastery of the banal, could divert student attention from exams, grade point averages, grad schools, and the Williams Railroad to Success and Suburbia. What kind of student competes in the Trivia Contest? What function does the Trivia Contest serve on the campus? The most recent contest presented an excellent opportunity to analyze these questions, as the winning team, "BOMO," was one of the most comprehensive, thorough, and committed teams in Trivia Contest history.
BOMO assembled en masse in the living room of Gladden House at 11:00 p.m., Friday, December 7, 1973-- approximately seven hours after the fall semester classes had ended, one hour after one member had turned in his last paper, and roughly sixty hours before a member of BOMO would take his first final exam. The hour that remained until the Trivia Contest began had been set aside for organizational purposes, for of the 70 or 80 members of BOMO, half were competing in their first contest, and all but six or seven of the veteran members of BOMO had to be instructed in some of the more technical phases of BOMO's trivia machine. The speakers during that hour were the "hardcore" of BOMO-- the seniors who had witnessed the creation of BOMO four years ago. "Peemo" is one of those seniors, and he is considered the unofficial leader of BOMO. He is a double major in math and philosophy when he is not thinking about trivia, and many BOMOs wonder which field of interest consumes the most of his time.
He began the evening's formal activities with an explanation of the Trivia Contest itself. The contest originates at the campus radio station, where trivia questions are asked over the air from the basic "realms" of trivial information-- movies, sports, television, comic books, and advertising. A typical question from television trivia might be to sing the theme song from "The Patty Duke Show," or to recall what the letters "T.H.R.U.S.H." stood for in "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." The competing teams are then given the length of an "oldie" (a late fifties or early sixties song that one's older brother or sister might have listened to) to telephone the radio station with the correct answer to the trivia question, the title of the "oldie," and the artist who recorded it. Technical excellence is essential for a successful trivia team, as participation in the contest involves the McLuhanesque spectacle of absolute dependence on the media of radio and telephone for communication. The electronic voice of "Trivia Central" announcing, "....and our next question, from the realm of movies...." would bring a reverent hush to the Gladden living room; once the scratchy sound of an "oldie" began, BOMO people would begin a frantic phone dialing crusade to reach the radio station, triumphantly shouting the answer through the phone to an unseen party, again the electronic "big brother" who represented final authority, absolute power, mercy or cruelty, justice or abitrariness.
As Peemo explained, BOMO was well-prepared for the technical challenge of trivia. "Gunny" and "P.F," two veteran BOMOs, had hooked seventeen phones into the Gladden living room, which were divided into banks of phones on two main tables. Intercom phones connected the tables, leaving some fifteen phones free to compete with other teams to reach the radio station. For even though many teams could receive credit for any one question, there is always a massive tie-up of telephones during each question. A stereo system carried the broadcast into BOMO Headquarters, equipped with headphones so that "oldies" specialists might be able to concentrate on difficult songs.
Peemo then turned his attention to the trivia library, a concentration of countless obscure facts organized with the rigid structure of a card catalog at Stetson Library. The "song file" epitomized BOMO's dedication to trivia, for it alleviated one of the most torturing frustrations of a contest-- to recognize a song's title but have the name of the artist linger at the "T.O.T." (tip of tongue) stage. The song file contained some 1300 3x5 cards, each with the title of an "oldie" and its performer, arranged in alphabetical order on the basis of song title. Other vital information sources in the trivia library included collections of sports books, movie books, the inevitable "Guiness Book of World Records," and a four-foot-long file containing some 500 comic books, also organized in alphabetical order for easy reference.
With approximately twenty minutes left before the contest began, the BOMO banner was brought in. The banner was a four-foot-by-five-foot icon with the purple letters B....O....M....O set on a yellow background. Most members of BOMO as well wore a yellow T-shirt with "BOMO" in purple letters across the chest, and the individual's "BOMO name" (often a far cry from one's given name.... "Jexxon," "Blond Beast," and "Rutabaga" were typical) on the back. After a cheer was given for the banner, Peemo called forth the BOMO chaplain, a senior majoring in Religion named Edley, to read the invocation.
Edley's invocation was addressed largely to the veteran members of BOMO-- those who had seen BOMO lose a five-point lead and victory in the most recent contest, in Spring of 1973. Edley recalled that in the post-contest depression following the defeat, "Cruiser" had written "196 days" on the chalkboard at Gladden. 196 days until the next contest, when BOMO would be victorious. Tonight would be the night when BOMO overcame the demon of trivia; 196 days bordering on obsessional neurosis could be ended only by victory.
"Blutt," the BOMO archivist, then offered a speech which touched on two related concepts in BOMO's language-- "gusto" and "pigment." Just as a family might have its "in" jokes, which could send a sibling into fits of laughter on the floor but remain quite opaque to a family guest, so too did BOMO members share a unique meaning of a word, or even a sound (such as "BOMO" itself) which had long since been divorced from the literal meaning commonly associated with it. Thus, in BOMO language, to "have pigment" is to have color, fullness, and richness, while "lacking pigment" implies faintheartedness, incompletion, or drabness. To "have gusto," needless to say, derives from the popular advertising trivia that encourages the individual to realize that one only goes around once in life." Customarily, "gusto" is used specifically in the positive context-- a bravado act "has gusto." "Pigment," on the other hand, is most often referred to in its absence; "the man in the gray flannel suit" lacks pigment, although the correct etymology of the term is far less logical. Blutt's message to the members of BOMO was that tonight of all nights, they must "grab out for all the gusto" in order to achieve victory.
The 196 days were now some eight or nine minutes, as the crowd in Gladden House swelled with the arrival of non-T-shirted spectators, including serious students of the phenomenon, and wandering patrons of the Purple Pub, who seemed visibly unnerved at the sight of the sea of yellow T-shirts. One could readily picture one of them walking upstairs, pausing as if to consider the possibility that he was indeed imagining things, and that the strain of exams had finally sent him over the edge.....but why yellow T-shirts? BOMO? Then, he might fall asleep with the radio on, and hear "BOMO" over and over again throughout the entire night. One could finally picture him waking the next day, convinced that his mystical experience signalled the beginning of a new religious consciousness..... "Cosmic Trivia Awareness," the sense of the communal celebration of a trivia contest...... the motivating spirit of BOMO.
At midnight, the voice of Trivia Central, a senior on the team called "The Great Impostor" (which had beaten BOMO in the Spring '73 contest and thereby won the right to run the next contest), came into the Gladden living room over WCFM. After a brief synopsis of rules and a reading of the radio station phone numbers, the first trivia question was announced. The question asked for the name of the song that is heard in the first scene of the Marx Brothers movie, "Monkey Business." BOMO phone dialers reached the radio station quickly, and BOMO scored two points-- one for the answer to the trivia, and one for the correct identification of the "oldie" and the artist who had performed it. The first hour was an hour of nervous energy, some frustration (as three phones were soon out of commission), and a feeling of tempered confidence. Scores are only announced at the end of each hour, so that one knows one's standing in relation to the other teams only seven times during the contest. The end of the first hour found BOMO tied with a team at Mills House called "The General," each team having scored 26 points. The announcement of scores brought forth an ambivalent response; some BOMOs cheered the fact that BOMO was indeed in first place, others were concerned, not expecting "The General" to have kept pace with BOMO during a fairly successful first hour.
Most BOMOs felt that the second hour was their poorest in the contest. BOMO had difficulty with many of the trivia questions, song proficiency was not much better, and BOMO failed to answer the second hour's "bonus question." A bonus question is an hour-long question worth five points, usually with a greater degree of difficulty and complication than a one-point question. In this case, the bonus question required recollection of the complete survival kit in the movie "Dr. Strangelove." The General answered the bonus question while BOMOs were still excavating the abysses of their memories in search of the more subtle details of the kit. BOMO expected to fall behind by several points at the 2 o'clock scores. Joyous celebration greeted the unexpected announcement that BOMO had taken a 51 to 47 lead after two hours.
But groans and sharp slaps to the forehead ("Oh, JEEsus, I KNEW that!!") filled the Gladden living room as the answer to the "Dr. Strangelove" bonus was read from Trivia Central..... "We weren't giving any points for dialect, but I'll try to do my best..... what we wanted was 'ONE forty-five caliber pist'l, two boxes of ammunishun, four days concentrated rashuns, one medical kee-it includin' antibiotic pills, vitamin pills, pep pills, sleepin' pills, tranquilizers an' morpheen. One combinashun Rooshin dickshunary an' Bible, one hundred dollars in roobles, one hundred dollars in gold, nine packages of gum, three pair nylons, and one box of profullacktiks. A feller could sure have a good weekend in Vegas with this stuff."
>From 2 o'clock to 4 o'clock, the BOMO trivia machine slowly widened its lead on the General. Two sports bonus questions consumed much time and energy; each exhibiting a different aspect of BOMO's success. The 3 o'clock bonus question was to name the seven college basketball players who in their careers had averaged twenty points and twenty rebounds per game. Logical guesses ("...gotta be Alcindor, Lanier, Maravich...") often failed, and BOMO sports specialists sifted through well-known stars to arrive at six of the seven by trial and error. The elusive seventh, Walter Dukes, was suggested by a BOMO who had wandered in for a few moments, apparently passing through after having celebrated the semester's end at the Carter House keg, and who was not very far from passing out entirely. Despite preparation and available resources, "Walter Dukes," and many answers like him, came from the dark recesses of the trivia minds present. The role of the hero thus shifted with each trivia question, and whatever hierarchy existing in BOMO before the contest began was constantly redefined for the duration of the contest. The "leaders" of BOMO at any given point were those who knew the trivia answer, the song, the artist, and the phone dialer who had reached the radio station. These people would be the most important members of BOMO during each question, although their reign ended as soon as a new question was read.
The 3 o'clock to 4 o'clock bonus question illustrated Blutt's notion of "gusto." The question, rated "poor" in terms of its ability to "detonate megatons of nostalgia" (the measure of an excellent trivia question), was to name the pitchers off whom Hank Aaron hit his first, one hundredth, two hundredth, three hundredth, four hundredth, five hundredth, six hundredth, and seven hundredth home runs. Two of the pitchers were readily recalled, but the prospect of guessing the remaining five pitchers out of the several hundred obscure (Cal Koonce? Joe Grzenda? Ernie Broglio?) pitchers who might have faced Aaron in his twenty-year career were not encouraging. "Mot," one of nine or ten BOMOs who are not Williams students ("the Mot" had been imported from Briarcliff High School for his knowledge of the Hardy Boys detective stories and sports trivia) recalled that an article containing the complete answer had appeared in the Sunday New York Times sports section following Aaron's 700th homer-- which occurred, Mot mused, sometime in late July or early August of 1973. Four BOMOs then made a late-night visit to Stetson Library (having enlisted the support of a faculty fellow-traveller), and began a systematic study of the reels of New York Times microfilm from the late summer. Fine-tooth-combing of the sports section from the July 22 Sunday Times revealed a concise synopsis of the eight pitchers, which was copied down and raced ahead by one member to phoen in from BOMO headquarters. A large roar greeted the remaining three members of the library expedition upon their return to Gladden House, as each was lauded for the "gusto" displayed in "pulling out all the stops" for BOMO.
Although the Hank Aaron bonus question provided one of the more dramatic episodes of the evening, Peemo mentioned to me later that he still had an ace up his sleeve if the library mission had been unsuccessful. He had cut the same article out of the Chicago Tribune over the summer, and was prepared to call home (Winnetka, Illinois) if there was no word from the library by a quarter to four. Mr. and Mrs. Victor Abnee (known to BOMO as Mr. and Mrs. "Big Peemo") slept more soundly that night due to the "gusto" of Mot, Paul and Dave.
The 4 o'clock scores gave BOMO its largest lead of the night, a twelve-point lead over the second-place "General." On an optimistic note, BOMO had continued to expand its lead, but the cautious still viewed "The General" and "Bee Bumble and the Stingers" to be within striking distance. 4 o'clock to 5 o'clock was another period of uncertainty at BOMO Headquarters, for the bonus question was again exceedingly difficult and appeared to be "minutia" (the official name for trivia questions that are thoroughly obscure without being unusually interesting or nostalgic). Most BOMOs did not even try to remember the names of eight of the twelve "King Cousins" from the "King Family" television show, especially when it was learned that the one who married "Robbie" on the TV show "My Three Sons" didn't count. The news that "The General" had answered the bonus was disconcerting, but the 5 o'clock scores listed BOMO in the lead by ten points.
In the hours from 5 o'clock to 7 o'clock, the number of pages that had been read, typed, and written in the last weeks of the semester began to show on the faces of several BOMOs. Some members began to "fade," or "lack pigment," terms describing loss of enthusiasm, motor coordination, or consciousness.....
"Oh, he's faded over there in the corner."
Yet one could never be sure. A BOMO who might have been given up for totally "lacking pigment" might suddenly leap to his feet upon hearing Trivia Central request a rendition of the theme song to "Norge" refrigerator advertisements, and scream for a phone......
"Knock on any Norge!! I KNOW this is it..... it goes 'knock on any Norge,' twice, no maybe THREE times like that, then it goes, 'hear the solid sound of quality, knock on any Norge'!!" Then he would smile triumphantly, and collapse on the floor.
The phone dialers, many of whom manned (or womanned) their phones for the entire contest, displayed much "gusto." Phone dialing is an often thankless task, and borders on the masochistic for anyone who does not enjoy the sound of a busy signal. It is the phone dialers who are the most physically punished by the contest as well; there are right forefingers on campus to this day that have not recovered from eight hours of phone dialing. At about five-thirty in the morning (the proverbial darkest hour), a song and question were asked that BOMO knew instantaneously, and the correct answers were called in within fifteen seconds after having been asked. Immediately all the receivers were placed back on the telephones, and BOMO people were suddenly clapping and singing along to the "oldie." The short moment of the singalong was spoken of later as a time when people seemed to transcend the particulars of time, space, and contest. The sense of community, intensified by the fact that the people there at 6 o'clock were the most committed and closest people in BOMO, was experienced most fully by those who stayed at Gladden for the entire contest. The moment reflected the joyous self-congratulation of those who had exhibited the most "gusto."
At 7 o'clock, Trivia Central announced the last bonus question of the evening.
"We'll give you the bonus for the last hour. Back to movies, and the movie is "Mr. Roberts"......"
"We've got it!" Peemo called, listening intently to the question, but exuding confidence in a clenched-fist signal of victory.
"In the movie 'Mr. Roberts'," Trivia Central continued, "you'll all remember when Jack Lemmon gets wind of Betsy Palmer, he gets the idea that he might be able to invite her out to the ship..... he starts tidying up his bunk, and a couple of the things he pulls out are those two little souvenir pillows which Mr. Roberts sees, and carefully announces to the audience what's on them. We'd like you to tell us what is written on Pulver's pillows, in 'Mr. Roberts'."
Peemo was forced to qualify his initial triumphant statement: "We've got it, but it's on tape." Part of Peemo's preparation for the contest involved actually taking notes on trivia-- watching movies and television programs with a tape recorder in his hand, so that if a potential trivia question materialized in the course of a film, he would read the information curtly into the microphone, in case the question was asked in a contest. Watching a movie with Peemo was quite distracting, for he would frequently click on the microphone, and in a low voice, state, "The name of the town where the plane crashes in 'The Andromeda Strain' is Piedmont, Arizona." Click. Often, he would record a piece of information that was so obscure that fellow tube watchers would chuckle or comment, and in fact, the answer to the "Mr. Roberts" bonus question WAS partially obscured by a derisive giggle in the midst of Peemo's verbal note. As BOMOs listened to the tapes of Peemo's notes on "Mr. Roberts," the giggle prevented BOMO from answering the bonus immediately. Numerous attempts finally yielding the correct answer, which was relayed to the radio station with some thirty minutes left in the contest. It was at this point that BOMO members began to feel that the contest was "in the bag," as the 7 o'clock scores had restored BOMO's twelve-point lead. In the last hour, BOMO answered a high percentage of trivia and song questions, creating an atmosphere of delighted expectancy. Only later did BOMO learn that "The General" had combined with "Bee Bumble and the Stingers" for the last hour, in a last-ditch effort to overcome BOMO. And the final margin of victory, eight points over The General, reflected the near-success of the effort.
At 8 o'clock, Trivia Central brought the contest to an end, and played fifteen minutes of oldies while the final scores were tabulated. The number of people in Gladden House, which had reached a nadir at 6 o'clock (although a rough count revealed that sixty BOMOs were there at that point), again swelled with the arrival of early risers. At 8:15, Trivia Central began to announce the final results.
"OK, fourteen teams stayed with it the whole night.... in fourteenth place, "Vermin" with 48 points...... tied for eleventh, twelfth, or whatever-- "Doo-Doo For Brains," "The Young Demons," and "Manhattan Skyliners," all with 55, quite a combination. "The Fuller Brush Men," the only freshman entry we know of, had 64 points-- the potential is there...... "Spencer House" with 74, "The Grand Duchy" with 87. "Fowler," yes old Lindsey Fowler the Third still lives-- 88 points. "Elmer the Fox"-- 112. And now, the fourth runner-up, "Chima," with 165 points. Big jump there, we're into the pro ranks now. "Carter House," 181. "Bee Bumble," 193 with a fine second-to-last hour. First runner-up for Miss America was "The General," 218 points.... and finally, with 226 out of a possible 281 points, BOMO, defying the law of diminishing returns. Congratulations, BOMO!"
The announcement brought forth a massive ovation from the assembled multitude of BOMO-- embraces, handshakes, raised fists, and triumphant shouts. My own reaction to the celebration was one of somewhat manufactured glee, for at about 7 o'clock I had inadvertantly stepped outside of myself, and viewed the spectacle with the eye of a neutral, or slightly cynical observer: "My God, why did I stay up all night? What are all these people doing here? Don't they realize they have exams in three days?"
This perspective caused me to be slightly reserved during the celebration, until I shook hands with Stan. I remember looking at him and seeing his eyes-- black marbles shining with the demonic glow of accomplishment. It was at that point that the entire event was reaffirmed in my mind. Of course it didn't matter, but we had decided arbitrarily that it did, and we had accomplished a goal that we had set out for ourselves. I walked over to Peemo and found him in the embrace of another BOMO, his eyes revealing the serenity of one who had chased out the devil-- a bliss of spiritual release in his achievement.
We all walked over to the Greylock dining room for a champagne breakfast celebration. There was much talk at some tables; others seemed to be in a dazed silence. No speeches were given, no final or official conclusions were made, as some BOMOs stayed to clean up, and others returned quickly to their rooms, to sleep away the better part of a sunny Saturday afternoon.
The look in Stan's eyes was one of my more distinct memories of the contest. When the questions asked at the beginning of this article were first asked, the glow of accomplishment that Stan exuded helped point toward one essential element in understanding the phenomenon of BOMO. One BOMO reflected that BOMO existed as a group of friends before it became "BOMO," the trivia team. Trivia was the axis around which those friends could periodically experience the intense unity of commitment to a common goal; the contest became a ritual reaffirmation of the community. There is a certain joy in the loss of self-identity that occurs in this commitment towards a common goal. The barriers between people are broken down, as one surrenders individual ego for collective desire. The "sea" of yellow T-shirts in Gladden House symbolized the removal of the normal individualization process that is inherent in the day-to-day demand to express one's individuality through one's clothes. Most BOMOs willingly exchanged their right to declare their independence through unique dress for the sense of being "one part of a whole" that the uniform implied. On each T-shirt, "BOMO" was written on the front, and the individual's identity through BOMO, his "BOMO name," was relegated to the back of the shirt. The BOMO name itself was in most cases far different from one's real name. Thus even within BOMO, the only expression of individuality was not associated with the normal identity one carries in society.
The spirit of community in evidence during the contest was described in several ways. One BOMO described the eight hours of the contest as an alteration of his normal perception of the members of BOMO-- that is, for the duration of the contest, there were no distinctions of hierarchies in his relationships with the people in BOMO. Instead he felt a union with all the BOMOs present, in which there was no qualitative in intensity of relationship from one BOMO to another. Not all BOMOs shared this "absolute" perspective, although many experienced an intensification of existing relationships, in which people who may have been mere acquaintances at midnight were old chums by 8 o'clock. The most graphic illustration of that phenomenon was the fact that some twenty freshmen, introduced into BOMO by two Junior Advisors who were veteran BOMOs, were readily assimilated into a functional role during the contest, their yellow T-shirts like a family last name, signifying their belonging to the community of BOMO.
The intensification of emotion, the loss of ego identity, and the feeling of community with friends witnessed in BOMO in the last two trivia contests is difficult, if not impossible, to contrive. Sometimes such an atmosphere occurs spontaneously, such as at a party in which everyone is suddenly given to dancing, yet those who experience it realize the uniqueness of the event. The first question raised at the beginning of this article sought to explain the seemingly illogical timing of the trivia contest. In the context of "spontaneous community," one asks if there is a relationship between the intense atomization of individuals under the strain and pressure of final exams and papers, and the eruption of community that occurred for BOMO in the trivia contest. Could one generalize about the circumstances of exam week that make it a ripe time for the alteration of normal consciousness that a ritual experience entails?
The answer to this question might be seen in the dialectic relationship of "structure" and "anti-structure" found in Victor Turner's "The Ritual Process." His thesis, interpreted in the context of the Ndembu tribe in northwestern Zambia, describes the sacred time and space of a ritual as a catharsis-- an annihilation of normal consciousness, in that the rules, hierarchies, and relationships of the tribal society are suspended, reversed, or removed in order to restore equilibrium to the society and its individuals. Societal roles requiring submission are reversed in the sacred time and space, and the servant is allowed to abuse, criticize, and even strike the ruler. Paradoxically, the result is that the experience of anti-structure results in a reaffirmation of structure. One is able, after the ritual, to return to one's normal societal role, having restored psychic and social balance. These terms needn't be so abstract; most Williams people know that a Saturday night party is required to restore the individual's equilibrium after a week at the grindstone.
Twelve weeks of intense structure precedes the trivia contest. One ritual "role reversal" that occurs in a trivia contest is seen clearly in the definition of trivia-- one spends an intense eight hours concentrating mental energies on the antithesis of the knowledge valued in the liberal arts atmosphere. It is a celebration of anti-structure. Roles are reversed, in that victory is awarded to those who score the highest grade on their knowledge of the meaningless, not the liberal arts "meaningful." The timing of the contest is therefore crucial-- the end of the semester is the apex of structure in a student's academic year, and demands an outlet, an equilibrium-restoring experience of "anti-structure."
The contest is not only a temporary reversal of academic structure, it is as well a reversal of the normal social structure of the institution. Certainly Williams is a school with a largely social orientation, yet the intensely competitive academic enviroment necessarily breeds a struggle of individual against institution, and not-uncommon competition between individual and peer. The human reaction against the institutional pressure towards atomization is an experience of community; an intensification of one's friendships at a time when one feels most isolated. The spirit of ego loss in the uniform of yellow T-shirts, and the altered perceptions of people described by several BOMOs are expressions of social anti-structure. One begins to see BOMO as an occasion for restoring the psychic and social balance of its members, and the trivia contest as an "anti-establishment structure" which serves to reinforce the institution of Williams College. Twelve weeks of structure are balanced by the anti-structure of the trivia contest, making it possible for the student to return to the structure of exams.
Finally, one asks, why did so many BOMO people choose trivia as the unifying focus of the community, and not an equally unifying and seemingly more worthwhile social or political cause? A member of BOMO once mentioned that he would have loved to have been an undergraduate in the late sixties, a time when campus political activism generated the same community spirit and sense of direction and goal described in the ritual of the trivia contest. Today, however, the horizons for political involvement are bleak. The activism of the late sixties crumbled, as belief that one could work through the system-- a system that appeared insensitive, corrupt and malevolent towards the "effete eastern establishment"-- evaporated in the wake of Cambodia, Nixon's landslide, and Watergate. One BOMO said:
"Woodstock to Altamont, March on Washington to Kent State, Black takeover of Hopkins Hall to takeover of the Snack Bar..... all of a sudden, people were wandering around mumbling, 'This is all too weird.' Everyone was coasting on too much illusion, two levels of reality, and things just blew up. So, it's absurd."
Absurd. One remembers as a freshman standing alongside Route Two in Williamstown with ten friends-- a "vigil for peace" to protest the mining of Haiphong Harbor. Then there was the realization that ten students in Williamstown didn't effect anything, especially in an equally lofty Ivory Tower in Washington, D.C......followed by disillusionment, cynicism, and a certain kinship with the absurdity it meant.
There remained, however, the desire for commitment prevalent in the political consciousness of the sixties. Trivia might be viewed as the marriage of two forces-- commitment and absurdity. The commitment to that which is by definition meaningless, "trivial," could be read as the ultimate existential commitment; there is no justification in the end one seeks. To be committed to the absurdity of trivia is a paradigm for being committed to life in the seventies, a life filled with the absurdity of assassination, Viet Nam, Watts, and Watergate.
Yet BOMO should not be viewed as a resignation to despair. I interpret it as one substitution for the vacuum of commitment left in the wake of end end of the political activism of the sixties, reflecting a general trend in the student population to "tend to one's own garden." If the youth of the sixties were somewhat naive idealists in their belief that they could change the world, the youth of the seventies are pragmatists who seek to make commitments on a more manageable scale. The ritual of the contest did not end in disillusioned surrender to an omnipotent force (a landslide victory for those same folks who brought you Watergate?), but in a joyful, playful union with a god of a smaller scale. One is left to choose which is a more positive commitment.
The belief that members of BOMO are the segment of the student population analogous to the politically-committed could be lent credence by one interesting statistic. By assumption from conversation with friends who were undergraduates in the sixties, and Williams professors who taught at that time, it was often the brighter students academically who were the most politically committed, perceptive and aware. It was the students who were most committed to academic success who were also the most committed to the world beyond the Ivory Tower. BOMO people are not the academically apathetic, or overtly anti-academic. An interesting fact is that of the approximately twenty members of BOMO who have been members of its community for several years, the standard grade point average of a BOMO is above B, probably closer to B+.
The commitment of BOMO members to trivia should not be viewed as a despairing, nonconstructive diffusion of energy, but as one outlet for those who feel an intense need for commitment and direction.
What constitutes successful resolution of the trivia contest ritual? An important aspect of the religious ritual is that an incorrect or incomplete enactment of the ritual negates its functional role, and can even cause harmful effects to the performer of the ritual. The success of anti-structure in the social context is the experience of community, ego-loss, and a commitment to the group's goal. The antithesis of academic structure is in one sense the simple veneration of the trivial. Yet most BOMO people felt that the success of the contest as a ritual would be incomplete if BOMO did not win. Some believed that their preparation for exam week would have been impossible to cope with, if BOMO had lost. Others were less reserved, and seemed to find nothing less than suicide as a viable alternative to victory.
It is this realization that perhaps most clearly illustrates the unique manner in which BOMO reaffirmed their commitment to the liberal arts values of Williams College, in their apparent negation of it. An important anti-structural element of the trivia contest is that one should NOT be able to study or prepare for it. The quantity and nature of the information that one is "tested" on is literally everything that one never learns at Williams.......