When Joe Lunchbox went to war
Rifles were made of wood and steel
Cars had fins and iron engines
Dad could still recite his General Orders
and the World Made Sense
When Joe Lunchbox went to war
Men wore cotton utilities and leather boots
And kids said Yes, Sir and Yes, Ma'am
Took their hats off indoors
and the World Made Sense
Those are the opening verses of Professor Alan Farrell's poem "Joe Lunchbox Went to War." They speak of a time that has largely come and gone, of the old days, before modern innovations in philosophy and values disrupted a world that made sense to Dr. Farrell and so many others.
For most of his life, Farrell has been drawn to people, places, and things that take him back to a better time. More than 40 years ago, it was that drive that brought him to Hampden-Sydney to teach French and English to students who didn't quite fit into the popularized counterculture of the time.
"When I walked onto the campus, it was like I'd walked back into 1957," he said. "The guys were wearing khakis and penny-loafers and oxford shirts. They still had haircuts. You could smell soap in the corridors. It was like a time machine wafted me back. The place was a classic college-white columns and brick, greensward and oak trees. Anybody who's seen the place for the first time has to fall in love with it.
"And I was happy with the academic program. It was old-fashioned, square-headed. The grading was still stiff. I loved it from the start and always did."
Farrell began teaching at Hampden-Sydney in 1973. After nearly 25 years on the Hill, however, he started to feel the need to "step back in time" once again, as he put it. The former H-SC president, Josiah "Si" Bunting III, who had become the superintendent of Virginia Military Institute (VMI), invited him to Lexington in 1997. Farrell started teaching French and became the dean of faculty, making sure the cadets behaved properly and kept their uniforms in line-standards that had lapsed a bit since Stonewall Jackson's day.
But some administrators didn't like those methods. He held the post until he "said the wrong thing to a fat guy in an expensive suit and a cheap haircut." He had tenure, however, so he continued to teach French until 2014, retiring just last year.
Former students at Hampden-Sydney still remember him fondly. The Class of 1984 invited him to their Summer Reunion last year. He still gets requests for recommendation letters, now 20 years later. Professors on campus still talk about him, too. Some stories are taken from his three years in the legendary 5th Special Forces Group during the Vietnam War-the kinds of tales that widen eyes and drop jaws. Others are about his time on campus, his recent talks on leadership-or even the 1942 Harley-Davidson Army motorcycle he used to ride around, or the time at a faculty meeting when he called the entire assembly "a bunch of squirrels."
But he loved the College and the people. He thinks about the students and his former colleagues often enough, and they wonder about him, too, about where he is and what he's doing. So this author decided to find out. And finding out-that is, finding him-was no easy task.
To find Alan Farrell, one must travel west from Hampden-Sydney for a couple of hours, divert onto a winding two-lane road, accelerate up and over the Blue Ridge Mountains, coast down into the Great Appalachian Valley, and venture across a heavy tributary of the Upper James. Toward the peak of a nearby mountain, overlooking the valley through a forest of deciduous hardwoods, there is a slim, dirt path that few would notice while navigating the narrow lanes. One can't help but think of the pioneers and moonshiners who once roamed these nearly vacant hills.
There are no signs of life from the road. Strategically parked halfway up the one-lane path, however, is a shiny, black Corvette. Up a little farther one finds a multi-level cabin with a stilted porch, a four-wheeler under a camouflaged poncho, and some old coupe covered with a blue tarp. If he knows who you are and that you're coming, a rough, grizzled paratrooper may step out to the second-story railing to greet you warmly, inviting you up for a cup of hot tea or coffee.
Inside the one-bedroom mountain perch is a time capsule from the 1920s. Farrell grew up with his grandparents, who had lived a couple of generations before, and over the years he has acquired the same items that he remembers from his childhood home: a wooden, hand-crank wall phone; a cabinet radio; a treadle sewing machine; a Victrola gramophone.
Within sight of the cabin are a half-dozen outbuildings and shelters that he built to house a woodshop, books, memorabilia, a shooting platform for his firing range, and a John Deere 550G bulldozer-a beast of an earthmover with a six-way canting blade. He used it to cut four miles of trails around his 60-acre side of the mountain, uprooting trees when he had to, prying boulders, leveling horizontal paths on the 55-degree incline, and trying to manage the constant problems with drainage inherent in the steep terrain.
"When you're up here, you have to do everything yourself," he said.
Inside the cabin, much of which he built himself, the old furniture was soon mirrored by a conversation about the past, of times well spent, of the students he's known and kept an eye on over the decades. When asked how it all began, why he decided to become a teacher in the first place, Farrell seemed to figure that, in a way, teaching chose him. It was simply a natural progression from his time in the Special Forces.
"Special Forces, in spite of all the movies and stuff," he explained, "is essentially about teaching. Special Forces soldiers train guerrillas. To do that, you have to be a teacher-and pardon me for saying so, but an exceptional teacher. You're often teaching people who have no experience being taught; teaching unwilling persons; or bored persons; or persons with a primitive level of technology.
"What you deal with is purely human, face-to-face, man-to-man, communication. It has to do with language, analogies, metaphors, imagery, and all kinds of things that later turn out to be the real core of teaching."
In one example of the Special Forces' Methods of Instruction (MOI) training he experienced at Fort Bragg, Farrell told of his assignment to build a functioning M16A1 model out of dumpster garbage. He had to use it to teach a class on the rifle. His 20 students didn't speak English, and he was given only 10 foreign words to use during his instruction. If the students couldn't use the actual rifle afterward, he would fail, and he would have to do it again.
"That encourages you how to communicate, how to imagine, how to envision, how to reduce, how to simplify-all the things that in my view, all the best teachers know how to do," he said.
Farrell applied much of what he had learned in the field to his classes at Hampden-Sydney years later. But he did not say it's the teaching itself that he misses so much, but rather he misses the students he taught.
"I had two kinds of guys in class: I had the guy sitting in the back in a Cat hat, dozing through French, and then I'd have the really sharp guys who were interested in the subject and could do terrific work. But both of those kinds of guys turned out to run Virginia: I've got guys in civic government; I've got students who are priests, artists, students in finance, law, medicine-and they're all top of the game. They were smart enough to be comfortable with complex ideas-if they felt like it.
"Every once in a while I'd take a chance and assign an inventive, creative, ‘write me a story, write me a play, write me a poem' type assignment. And about 20 percent came back as really clever, drop-drawer, amazing. And the rest would be half-hearted, because they just didn't do that [stuff]. That's not the standard game at Hampden-Sydney. There's no foo-foo stuff.
"But from the guy who got an ‘F' to the guy I gave an ‘A' to in French, they all turned out to be winners. I still get Christmas cards from both. That's just the kind of guys they were," he said.
"And we need to keep makin' them."
Farrell stays in touch with some of the professors he still knows on the Hill. Through the Wilson Center he occasionally comes to Crawley Forum to discuss his views on leadership and other topics. He came to the Reunion Weekend again this year. And he still cares about the guys who used to go over to his house to shoot skeet after class. He wants Hampden-Sydney to keep accepting and producing the good men he came to know over so many years.
"The Hampden-Sydney culture, the ethos, the moral values-the cultural values that the guys are first soaked in at home, and then they polish, and learn to understand and justify at Hampden-Sydney-those values are the values that the nation needs, and badly. The guys who aren't from Virginia and take those values home, or the guys from Virginia who take those values out into the world-well gee whiz, that's good for the nation. And I was pleased to be part of that."
Although he admits that a teacher probably can't single-handedly change a student's life, he can't help but feel proud of helping to refine the values and principles that so many of them had already brought to campus.
And yet seeing so many of his students leading groups and organizations in Virginia and elsewhere is one of his greatest personal rewards.
"Almost a week doesn't go by that I don't get an e-mail or a postcard from a student who's now the head-of, the director-of, the chief-of, the second-in-command of, or the judge-of something ... that's just really satisfying."
Farrell now spends much of his time shooting from his collection of vintage rifles and handguns-he owns one of nearly every significant military rifle ever made. On his wall hang three particular rifles from great wars of the past: a French Lebel Model 1886, used in World War I; an American Model 1873 "Trapdoor" Springfield from the Indian Wars; and a British "Zulu-thumper" Martini-Henry rifle from the Anglo-Zulu wars of the late 19th century.
He still has a few Army buddies who come around to the house, a girlfriend from time to time, and sometimes a student will drop by. An unusually long-haired orange cat lives there, too. It's just the right amount of company."And the place is so hard to find that nobody shows up who doesn't really want to," he joked.
He also spends much of his time kayaking around the Upper James, considered to be some of the finest kayaking and canoeing water on the East Coast. He works on his 1929 and 1931 Model A coupes, writes poetry, builds, and stays in shape. One might consider it a decidedly active life, but to him, it's all just some well-earned downtime.
"They call it repos du guerrier, ‘the soldier's rest,' " he said.
So there Professor Farrell is and will remain, until his "string runs out." Up on his mountain, overlooking the valley below, he has only one thing to say to his former students whom he's seen go on to do such great things for the country and for Virginia:
"Thank you. Thanks for making my professional life mean something."