Why Campus Technology Was Better in the 1970s

Sophomore slump. Even the phrase sounds wet and flat.

It won't stop raining and sleeting and snowing. Your dorm smells like mold. And unlike just a couple of months earlier, you can't drum up much of an interest in "Introductory Sub-Aquatic Ecology" or "Elizabethan Drama as a Metaphor for the Absurd."

You are back there: in your room at Middlebury College that has an unraveling purple carpet bought at Ames. There is your roommate, George, a decent guy, but boiling mad about all of the popcorn that you eat for snacks and spill.

And coiled in the corner: the super-powerful sophomore presence known as The Ant.

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Nowadays, you've heard, college success has something to do with "being wired." Someone's decided every dorm room is in need of laptops, cell phones, and high-speed Internet. But back within your memories of the 1970s, there is technology too.

The Ant exists thanks to the scientists at Hoover. To summon it and put its powers to use on popcorn, or whatever else, you simply head for the custodial closet down the hall and roll it out.

Voila. Low-slung, fat tubular body (probably the reason for its name). Ugly and hard-to-retract hose. Dented attachments. Tangly annoying cord. That is it.

The Ant, you are sorry to admit, is an unprepossessing machine. But then you snap it on: Phrrrrooooooooosh.

Popcorn vaporized. Bits of dust, dozens of paper clips -- was that a pencil? -- gone. First four pages of psychology paper due tomorrow: crinkled and sucked up. Gum eraser, corner of the purple carpet, half a box of Wheat Chex: all are gone.

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You decide to tame The Ant. After all, you're not a freshman anymore. You are a sophomore. You're the boss. You try emptying its bag but, although The Ant has chewed and digested half of the items in your room, there is nothing in there. How can this be? You snap it off. And snap it on again.

The Ant has sunk its teeth into your L.L. Bean pant leg and you are afraid it wants more. MORE.

With other sophomores standing by for safety, you try some experiments. Suction is an interesting process. Maybe you can pick up course credit for this. You have discovered that not only does The Ant eat objects -- big ones -- but that it can drink.

The Ant is thirsty for whatever sophomores pour. It isn't picky: it will slurp up whatever it can get from out of jugs, buckets or mugs.

It swallows instant coffee. It enjoys beer.

The Ant looks slightly larger every day, and stronger, and its barrel torso has a gleam you're pretty sure you've never seen. And then it happens.

One wintry night a chilling scream from somewhere deep in the dorm. The Ant has had enough. Enough of Wheat Chex and scrunched up papers. Enough of Maxwell House granules and enough of half-drunk Molson Golden six-packs. Enough.

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Months of The Ant's delicious meals and drinks cascade from somewhere deep inside it. A dark-brown tide is bubbling and fizzing. It drowns the white shag rug of the guy who lives across the hall. It floats his chrome-and-glass side table. It shuts up his stereo that liked to pound out disco tunes at dawn.

You (and even George, who has grown afraid of The Ant) are secretly impressed. And sad, because just seconds after this episode, it will not switch on. You try feeding it its favorites. You try shaking it. You try dropping it from the roof of the dorm.

The Ant is dead.

Still, you are a sophomore now. You vow to memorialize it in some dignified way. You will write a paper on it or -- that's it! -- your thesis. You will graduate and go on to become a world class vacuum technician. You will be famous. And you will commence this important work soon.

It's either that or "Introductory Sub-Aquatic Ecology." This is a no-brainer.

As soon as it stops raining. And as soon as you finish that bag of popcorn...

You will begin.

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Peter Mandel is the author of the read-aloud bestseller Jackhammer Sam (Macmillan/Roaring Brook) and other books for kids, including Zoo Ah-Choooo (Holiday House) and Bun, Onion, Burger (Simon & Schuster).