Looking back, I sometimes think that my youth was not nearly as mis-spent as it should have been. A case in point: the night I helped to erect the dragon crossing.
The idea began as a joke at the university Medieval Club. Newly moved out from my parents’ house and feeling I had missed out on the socializing at university because I was too busy commuting, I had joined as soon as the fall semester began. Loosely connected to the Society for Creative Anachronism, the club centered largely on dressing up and some moderate drinking in the pub. Punk or new age, it definitely wasn’t – but we enjoyed the thought of what we called “freaking the mundanes” by wearing costumes and doing the odd bit of impromptu theater. Probably, we weren’t nearly the novelty we imagined.
Anyway, we were talking one night about how to publicize the club more. The ideas kept getting sillier as the night wore on. Vaguely remembering something I had seen a few years before, I proposed the idea of a dragon crossing: a sign on the university ring road, with some spray-painted giant tracks going across the road nearby.
The idea wouldn’t do much for publicity, since we couldn’t admit what we had done without risking the wrath of the campus authorities. At best, it would give people a chuckle and get them thinking of things medieval.
At least, so we hoped and so we began preparations. One Club member, who had worked as a flagger on a road crew the previous summer, produced a Yield sign that she had somehow acquired (we didn’t ask how). I produced some giant stencils of foot prints, and someone else some paint.
In theory, we had everything planned. We would gather at the pub for some liquid courage, and wait until closing time, when fewer cars would be on the road to spoil our handiwork. One person would wait up the road and act as a spotter, in case campus security found us. A couple of others would dig a hole for the sign while others painted the foot prints across the road.
In practice, things went with less than Mission Impossible ease.
After the pub closed, we drove to the park next to the campus, and climbed the hill to the ring road. We even thought to turn the cars around so we could make a quick getaway if necessary (we were so proud of that detail).
The hill was steeper and, in the dark, more crowded with trees than we remembered, but with a few stumbles and moments of disorientation, we reached the road. For a long time, that was the last thing that went right.
Crouched in the scrub alder, we waited for the cars to thin out. There were far more than we expected. When we finally psyched up enough to start work, we could barely get a few minutes of work before the spotter called out a warning and we scattered like rabbits with pounding hearts.
A traffic sign, we soon found, needed a far deeper whole than any of us imagined. It also needed packed earth around the base of the post if it wasn’t going to sag.
As for the footprint templates, they would have worked a lot better if anyone had remembered to bring masking tape to hold them in position. It didn’t help, either, that cars kept running over our work before it had dried.
Eventually, the inevitable happened, and campus security surprised us by coming on us from the direction in which we had no spotter. We scattered, quickly getting lost – only to find that one of us had kept her head and, knowing the campus cop, assured him that we weren’t doing anything really destructive. But, good middle-class kids that we were, we were terrified, and called it a night.
A few days later, in the cold light of day, our efforts did not match our vision. The Dragon Crossing sign looked distinctly amateurish, the post it was on had a definite tilt to it, and the tracks were smeared with tire marks. But they made the campus paper, leaving us in paroxysms of regret at the thought that we couldn’t claim credit.
Still, someone must have noticed our efforts. A few years later, the science fiction club produced their own Mutant Crossing, with green glow-in-the-dark footprints. “Immortality is ours,” those of us still on campus murmured. But the truth is that all of us had been scared straight by our own daring, and almost getting caught, and would never again do anything wilder than wear medieval costumes on campus.