Blood, Guts, and Beer

Mishaps dogged a student leader of campus blood drives—until he tapped a winning idea.

It was a dark fall night in Hanover. Standing just beyond the arc of the streetlights in front of Dartmouth Hall, I didn’t see the black lug wrench flying at me. Moments later, as I came to my senses, I found myself on the ground with a broken nose and blood oozing from my lips. Spitting out part of a tooth, I stood up under the 4-by-16-foot-long “GIVE BLOOD!” banner I’d raised a few days earlier.

Ironically, I was the one who had thrown the wrench.

Dartmouth was again hosting a blood drive for the College and Hanover. In past years there had been lackluster support, as only about 75 students or residents had donated during the quarterly drives. In spring 1964, I volunteered to take over the job of running the event from a graduating fraternity brother. Determined to increase participation, I tried my best to get the attention of students and town residents before each drive.

Sometimes things didn’t go as well as I had hoped.

With a long length of rope and an extension ladder, I hung the banner high along College Street, attaching the ends of the rope to two stately elms on the Dartmouth Hall side of the Green. Wanting to avoid needing a ladder to take down the banner when the drive ended, I tied the sign to the elms with tight slipknots. To ensure the sign wouldn’t be stolen, I rigged it so no lines dangled. My knots would loosen only when I pulled extra hard on the banner.

To do so, I would have to tie one end of a rope to my car’s bumper and the other to my lug wrench. Then I would hurl the wrench—with the rope attached—over the banner with enough force to ensure it would land far away. After retrieving it, I would tug both ends of the rope and yank down the banner.

The lug wrench scored a bull’s-eye in the middle of my face.

Now that the drive was over, I flung the wrench with all the strength I could muster. Hearing it whoosh as it flew over the banner, I started to step where I thought it would land. Unfortunately for me, instead of running out 50 or 60 feet straight ahead, the lug wrench somehow abruptly changed direction and swung back, scoring a bull’s-eye in the middle of my face.

This wasn’t the only time my efforts backfired. For the drive two years later, I bought a 10-foot-diameter weather balloon that I planned to fill with helium. I would paint “GIVE BLOOD!” on it and tether it to a light pole at the corner of Wheelock and Main, Hanover’s main intersection. Throughout the day, it would remind students and town residents on their way to work or class to do a good deed.

It was unusually cold that morning. I inflated the balloon without incident. Picking up our brushes, a fraternity brother and I painted streaky but legible letters on its surface. As we finished, we realized that instead of drying naturally, the paint froze. Moments later, as we launched our flying advertisement, a breeze rippled its skin. The shell of frozen paint instantly transformed into hundreds of tiny, razor-sharp knives that pierced the balloon’s thin skin. The resulting muffled explosion deflated both the balloon and my ego.

By late winter 1967, I realized I needed to do something more grounded. With the campus still covered in deep snow, I decided to use the Green itself as the canvas for yet another “GIVE BLOOD!” sign. Shortly after dawn one day, I mixed gallons of green food coloring to use as paint. As I walked out each letter, I poured the “paint” on the snow, certain these 20-foot-high letters would alert everyone as they traveled around the campus.

When I was halfway through, I looked back to admire my work. The letters were nowhere to be seen. Just as syrup poured on a sno-cone sinks to its bottom, all my “paint” had seeped to the ground, leaving no trace on the surface of the snow. Feeling defeated, I finished the job anyway.

When the blood drive ended, I stopped by The Dartmouth to ask its editors to publish the results in the next edition. A staffer told me that the previous day a strange story had come in over the news wire. The captain of a commercial airliner flying over Hanover had filed a report saying Dartmouth must be mighty serious about its blood drive, because someone had painted a gigantic “GIVE BLOOD!” sign in the snow on the campus Green. Some of the newspaper’s staff had looked out a second-story window overlooking the Green, but seeing no such message, they ignored the report. My sign reached newspapers across the country, but no one in Hanover ever saw or heard about it.

Not all of my ideas were painful embarrassments. One worked beautifully, and it came to me early on. Knowing Dartmouth students’ love affair with beer and ignoring New Hampshire’s minimum drinking age of 21, I brazenly asked Dean of Students Thaddeus Seymour if the College would give kegs to the fraternity and dormitory whose members contributed the most blood. It would be Dartmouth’s very own “blood replacement program.”

Thanks to Dad Thad’s response,  my job became simple. I just needed to get out the word and deliver the beer. Droves of young men swarmed our blood drives, and donations jumped by nearly 1,000 percent. The Red Cross was ecstatic.

What happened after the lug wrench hit me? I pulled down the “Give Blood!” sign and picked up a keg that just happened to have been won by my fraternity. Two-thirds of my brothers had given pints, and by the end of that evening they were replaced in full.        

William Lamb is a former U.S. Navy officer and entrepreneur. He lives in Lebanon, New Hampshire. 

Illustration by Lars Leetaru                       

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