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Campus combat

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I read recently in the newspaper that three Duke students were charged with assault with a deadly weapon for hitting two classmates in the face with water balloons. One of the victims was wearing contact lenses and suffered cuts and bruises around the eye.

I hope she recovers and I understand her anger at her attackers. But charging them with assault with a deadly weapon? Things have changed since my college days--or have they?

When I was a freshman at Yale in 1968, water balloon combat was a rite of passage. Wright Hall, the five-story dorm in which I lived, was built in the shape of a U. To get inside, you had to walk through the middle of that U, making you vulnerable to water balloon attacks from three sides.

For the first few weeks of fall semester, the balloons flew hot and heavy. One wet shot to the head was enough to get my attention. From then on, I watched the windows like a hawk anytime I entered the courtyard. Of course, I threw a few water balloons myself and scored some memorable "kills." Gradually, water ballooning got old and by wintertime, the practice had all but ceased.

But one cold night for reasons I don't remember, my roommate, Bob, and I got the urge to throw a water balloon. All we could find was one of the big, sausage-shaped variety. Holding the nipple over the bathroom faucet, I cradled the swelling balloon like a baby in my arms. When it was two-thirds full, I walked it over to our fifth-floor window and peered into the courtyard.

The first person to come along was "Crazy Dave" Polonov. Dave was a short guy from New York City with the wild eyes of Rasputin and the bushy hair and beard of Jerry Garcia. He'd started out the semester as a comedian, standing at his window and taunting, tongue-in-cheek, "Hey, buddy! Get a haircut!" and, "If you don't like it here, why don't you go back to Russia?" But as the tragedy of the Vietnam War became apparent, Dave abandoned his clown act and turned into a campus radical. He was so strident that the campus police put him under surveillance

Knowing of Dave's sensitive--even paranoid--state, I was hesitant to douse him with cold water. But there were no other prospects in sight and water balloons don't keep well. As Dave approached the doorway, I leaned out the window and opened my arms. The balloon fell like a giant sea slug, quivering under its own weight. It broke over Dave's head with a tremendous SPLAT, soaking him from head to toe.

For a moment, Dave just stood there dripping. Then, he turned and stormed over to the bike rack. Shouting, "People are dying in Vietnam and you're throwing water balloons!" he began to rip bicycles from the rack and hurl them into the courtyard. Just then, a man in a black trench coat emerged from the shadows. As Bob and I looked on in shock, the campus cop grabbed Dave by the collar and dragged him down the courtyard steps.

"That's it, Polonov," the cop said. "I'm taking you in."

Thankfully, Dave didn't get thrown out of school and he never asked, or even seemed to care, who'd dropped the water balloon. But for me, the incident was a lesson in unintended consequences. I haven't thrown a water balloon since.

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