Monday, February 22, 2010


From above, they might look like a brigade of prime-colored parachutes descending into a Scottish stone fortress. From eye-level, they look more like the camp of a Mongolian raiding party.

In front of Wilson Gym at Duke there are tents. Lots of um.

Green tents, red tents, blue tents. Old tents, aged tents, new tents. There are gigantic, twelve-person tents and humble three-persons. In the middle there’s a massive, seven-foot-tall, eight-person Eureka Copper Canyon. On the edge there’s a two-person sitting atop an inflatable mattress. There’s a fly tent—just a tarp and guy lines—with the words, “The Fortress,” duct-taped on its roof.

Two tents snuggle under an enormous blue tarp for warmth like lovers spooning under covers. Others are elevated atop concrete blocks and orange rimmed three-quarter-inch plywood. The grass around the tents is trimmed short like a golf fairway, except that it has browned from trampling feet and rain showers. In shaded areas, the ground looks freshly manured; the few blades of grass yet to be smooshed are caked in sludge. To keep sneakers from sinking into mud pies, paths have been blazed from tent to sidewalk made with everything from spare plywood to plastic crates that once carried pop bottles; one even has a cobbled footpath.

The city of tents is called K-Ville, or Krzyzewskiville, named after the famed basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski (pronounced Sha-sheff-ski) who’s led Duke to ten Final Four appearances.

There must be at least fifty tents. Soon, there will be more. With some tents holding as many as twelve students, K-Ville is home to hundreds of Cameron Crazies—the suicide bombers of the sports world known for their elaborate chants and an ardor of almost Biblical proportions for Duke basketball.

K-ville began in 1986 when a group of students—determined to watch the much-hyped Duke-UNC rivalry game—elected to sleep in tents in the ticket line. Ever since, it’s become a fixture on campus, except now there are elaborate rules that tenters must abide by to be awarded their coveted tickets. The most devout live in K-Ville for months.

Each tent is subject to random checks by monitors. During the “Blue Tenting” period that lasts from January 30 to February 22, at least one of twelve students must be present in their tent during the day and six of twelve must be present at night. If they don’t pass the checks, those living in the tent are bumped to the bottom of the wait list and are thus in jeopardy of not getting tickets.

One might expect K-ville—comprised of hormone-pumping, funnel-guzzling college students who’ve been haphazardly thrown into coed sleeping arrangements—to be a breeding ground for unrestrained licentiousness, hallucinatory experimentation, and a healthy disrespect for authority—a modern day Woodstock sans bellbottoms, good music, and pubic hair.

Yet, one can’t leave K-Ville without noticing a baffling sense of order. It’s reminiscent of a well-led galleon of the Royal Navy: guy lines are taut; stakes are well-fastened, tightly-secured rain flies flutter in the wind like ocean sails, and a jovial air of social harmony is palpable.

A trio of underclass males toss a football. Others bask in the sun with laptops or textbooks resting on thighs. An Asian girl and a white guy eat from a plastic container with chopsticks. A duo of blondes gab, pausing to check for text messages. Another gal is passed out, her head hanging over the back of her folding chair.

Walking past the tents is like flipping through TV channels; or like taking a stroll through a schizophrenic’s warped psyche. For each tent there’s a different voice. One talks about his American History assignment. Another’s having a coughing fit. Someone else complains about how everyone in his tent is sick. “The high today is 62. Thank god. It’s been less than 40 for the past week.”

Crows are cawing; someone strums a guitar; tennis balls thud against rackets from nearby courts. Inside, students snore. In tents with doors ajar I can see a rat’s nest of clothes and sleeping bags shuffled into a disorderly heap.

I have one word for my fellow classmates: Respect. I know how cold it’s been, and it’s no easier for them to get out of their sleeping bag when it’s thirty degrees outside than it is for me. Plus, they have to contend with the snores, smells, and idiosyncrasies of fellow tenters, not to mention those meddlesome early morning monitors.

I find something admirable about caring about something so meaningless. It gives me hope that we might dedicate energies to something that’s actually important.

I see the allure to events like K-Ville and backwoods religious revivals: that sense of unbreakable solidarity, the shared belief in something intangible, the clarity of purpose—that, with a suspension of disbelief, we can momentarily cast aside all doubt and bask in the ridiculousness of believing that one side is good, and the other, evil.

Plus the lessons learned in K-Ville—how to stay warm, how to keep the inside of a tent dry, and how to come to appreciate physical discomfort—are arguably more valuable than those taught in classrooms.


Anonymous said...

"... caring about something so meaningless"? But caring about something is exactly what makes it meaningful.

Anonymous said...

or about someone...

-broken leg guy

Anonymous said...

Sports competition has so many benefits, I don't see anything meaningless about it. Especially when it comes to public participation, encouragement, sportsmanship, and most importantly: fun!

Ken said...

Broken leg and anon-- I hear ya. I'm a devout Buffalo Bills fan, myself, so I'm well aware of how meaningful athletic competition can feel. (And how irrational it is that I love a team that perpetually puts me on 'suicide watch' every Sunday.) Didn't mean to disparage sports. I love sports. Though, sports-fanaticism, in relation to other things, is far less important than, say, our collective response to a costly and deathly war, the issue of healthcare, or environmental degradation. It's funny how we can get so wrapped up in local teams to the point where we sleep outside for months to attend a rivalry game or keep following them year after year (even after a huge playoff drought in the case of the Bills) while remaining apathetic about issues that are, undeniably, far more important. You guys have good points. I'm just sayin.

Anonymous said...

"in relation to other things, is far less important than" --is it? In the moment, perhaps. But wouldn't it be amazing if our costly and deathly wars were just on the Olympic fields or our personal health came from idolizing athletes?

"If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea." ~ Antoine de St. Exupery

I think when we fight for something we just fight for it, but when we live something we actually accomplish it. Basically: positive enthusiasm is just as important, probably more important, than negative enthusiasm (like war or environmental degradation). If it's in the name of sports, or hugs, or a joyful hobby, whatever, then there is positivity in the world. Positivity in no means is less important than negativity, regardless of political agenda.


Ken said...


Well put. The Exupery quote officially wins you the argument. I'll also add this one which conveys a similar message:

"One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am — a reluctant enthusiast... a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards." --Ed Abbey