May Day! May Day!

Getting naked, or a cry for help?

“WOOOOOOOO!” screamed the naked, burly lacrosse player as he chased two giggling coeds down the brick path in the middle of Washington College.

I sighed and shook my head. May Day had arrived.

For decades, the proud student body of Washington College — located in tiny Chestertown, MD — has celebrated each May 1 by getting sloshed, stripping off clothes and gathering at the giant flagpole at the center of campus after dark.

Yeah, you read that right: college kids plus beer plus birthday suits. Genius.

I learned about May Day only after wandering onto campus as a freshman in 1998, but the tradition apparently dates to the 60s. The story goes that a lit professor unwittingly launched the tradition during a lesson on gathering ye rosebuds while ye may. His class held a celebration that allegedly included an actual Maypole, dancing, and crepe paper; how much nudity was involved is still debated. (And though it’s near the end of the academic year, the annual nude-fest doesn’t really mark the end of classes, as Wikipedia erroneously notes.)

As a self-conscious and fairly self-repressed freshman, there was absolutely no way I would participate. But I listened to the stories — the talk of naked volleyball, naked Frisbee and naked barbecuing (!).

Over my second and third years at W.C., I grew less creeped-out by May Day and more curious. It was starting to sound like fun. More importantly, I gradually realized this might be my last chance to let it all hang out, to uncover a wilder side of my formerly-repressed self.

In my senior year, I made my resolution: I was gonna take it all off on May Day.

I wandered toward the flagpole bacchanalia that night. I was alone. Although I could have used some moral support, I wasn’t sure I wanted my friends and dorm-mates as witnesses.

The throng of a few hundred college kids, nearly all in the buff, was milling around the giant flagpole. Lots of talking and yelling. Flashbulbs popping, as people created their own “Girls Gone Wild” slideshows. Every few minutes, another guy would start climbing the flagpole, apparently too drunk to realize the excruciating discomfort likely to follow.

I stood at a distance — too far to make out any faces or body parts, just close enough to know they were naked. I thought about classmates and acquaintances down there celebrating. I thought about why I don’t drink. I thought about my fiancée, sitting chastely in her college dorm room on the other side of the state.

And somewhere in there, I thought about how the cool night air would affect the … um, impression I’d make.

“Oh well,” I thought as I trudged back to my dorm room, still fully clothed. “Maybe some things are better left covered up.”

Article © 2006 by Michael Duck