I’m in the Queue for Love

Writer: 
August 1, 2007
Chapelville: The mini-community of campers included McFarland, far left; his fiancée, Halbert, to his right; and the Anderson family

Chapelville: The mini-community of campers included McFarland, far left; his fiancée, Halbert, to his right; and the Anderson family. Jon Gardiner

Tom Anderson paces the Chapel Quad, eyes down, in search of a sprinkler head. Recently retired from his post as administrative director of grad­uate medical education at Duke, Anderson A.M. '65, Ph.D. '71 is dressed casually in a short-sleeved, blue button-down shirt, black shorts, black socks, and shoes. He kneels to brush aside some grass and inspect a likely spot.

The search is not as easy as it seems, he explains. The sprinkler heads are buried, their tops flush with the ground. His wife, Kate Anderson, who worked at Duke for thirty-three years in various capacities be­fore retiring this winter, watches from a folding chair. At her feet is a gray tarp, and on the tarp, still rolled in plastic packages, are two sleeping bags and a tent. A large white bud drops off a nearby magnolia tree and hits the tarp with a loud "thwap."

The Andersons are here this hot Wed­nesday afternoon to schedule a wedding date at Duke Chapel for their daughter, Susan. The reservation window doesn't open until Friday morning (reservations for wedding dates in the chapel become available a year in advance, at 8:00 a.m. on the first of each month), but Susan has her heart set on getting married at noon on June 7, 2008, and her parents have gotten in line early to ensure that she gets her wish.

Camping out for wedding reservations at the chapel, as well as wedding and reception reservations at the Sarah P. Duke Gar­dens, has become common, especially for those planning late spring weddings. In fact, the Andersons also camped out last month to schedule a back-up date (May 31) in case their daughter's first choice was taken.

As the first ones here, they shouldn't have any trouble, so Tom, the academic, is busy applying a lesson learned last month. The automatic sprinklers on the Chapel Quad come on daily between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m., and their reach covers the entire quad. Last month, Anderson and other campers figured out that they could pry the sprinklers up and tie bags over them, which didn't completely stop the flow of water, but weakened it enough to save them from a wet wake-up call.

The official line is to downplay camping. But it's not toed assiduously. Mollie Keel, the weddings coordinator for the chapel, and Ashley Carmichael, her gardens counterpart, both deny encouraging campers. But they appear to enjoy their presence and their spirit and duly explain the process to couples who call to inquire about it. Still, Car­michael is quick to note, "I don't allow people to tell me how early they are planning to come, because I don't want to know. I don't want people to ask me what time they have to get there to be the first one in line."

Keel has seen this go on for much of her twelve-year tenure at the chapel. Car­mic­h­ael has been here only a year, but she's already seen a lot. Last September, for ex­ample, one camper brought a George Fore­man Grill, plugged it into an outlet at the entrance to the Doris Duke Center, and proceeded to cook hot dogs.

For the gardens' reservation day in May, generally the busiest month of all, nine groups that camped out "had a little lawn party," Carmichael says. They brought along their dogs, took photos of the brides-to-be flashing their engagement rings, and invited one another to their weddings.

But the relaxed and festive nature of the campouts belies the importance campers place on them. Arrive too late, and you risk missing out on your date and time—no matter how far you've traveled to join the line. Among those waiting for a June 2008 date at the gardens is Meredith Mabe '02 of Washington. Mabe's fiancé, Craig Principe '02, drove down last month hoping to book a May date. When he ar­rived at 5:00 p.m. the day before, he found that their preferred date, as well as most of the others for the month, were already spoken for. So he turned around and headed home. This time, Mabe drove down on Wed­nesday and stayed with friends in Raleigh so she could get to the gardens early Thursday morning.

She gets there early enough to claim the number two spot in line. She and Chris Donald M.Div. '06, who's first, pass the time reading and chatting. Donald says he was prepared for this experience after camping out for Duke basketball tickets. Mabe agrees. "That's why we're more accepting of this," she says.

Thursday morning, the Andersons take down their tent at the insistence of a groundskeeper who seems peeved not so much that they've tampered with the sprinkler heads, but that they didn't get soaked. "I think he wanted us to get wet," Kate says. "He said we should just let him know in advance and he'll turn them off, but we don't believe him." They set up camp in a chapel archway, to stay in the shade but also out of re­spect for a funeral that is taking place today. Cu­rious pas­sersby stop to ask what they're doing. The An­dersons reply with their now-standard re­sponse, a joke they borrowed from a fellow camper last month. "We're camping out for Duke football tickets."

They've bonded with another couple, rising Duke senior Taylor Halbert and her fiancé, Andrew McFarland '06, who joined the line yesterday evening just after the five o'clock bells rang out across the quad. Hal­bert drove down from Nor­thern Vir­ginia to camp out and spend the week meeting with photographers and florists and mak­ing other wedding plans.

Upon their arrival, Kate had asked them what date they were looking for and found that they, too, were hoping for June 7. "At either noon or six," Halbert said. Kate broke the news that they were taking the noon slot. "So I guess it's going to have to be six," Halbert said, shrugging. She re­turned to the car to get pillows and a sleeping bag and piled them in a corner of the archway. "I didn't pick a specific time so I wouldn't be disappointed," she said, but a fleeting frown belied her nonchalance.

As the morning sun climbs and the four share a breakfast of sausage biscuits and Egg McMuffins from the McDonald's in the Bryan Center, Keel comes out to inform them that the 6:00 p.m. date on June 7 has been reserved by a "V.I.P. from the Allen building." Halbert and McFar­land confer and decide they will take 3:00 p.m., the only remaining time on June 7, then settle down for a day of waiting.

They flip through a copy of Bride & Groom magazine. Nearby, Tom takes a call on his cell phone. "Hello?" Pause. "I'm hot and sweaty and sticky. I camped out in front of Duke Chapel last night, and I'm going to do it again tonight."

Tonight Tom and Kate plan to throw a surprise birthday party for Susan, who, blissfully unaware, joins them in line af­ter getting off work (she teaches English in a Raleigh high school). Just after sunset when the sky turns a deep purple and the quad begins to take on the preternatural hush of a college campus in early summer, Susan's fiancé and friends arrive bearing cake, ice cream, and party hats, their entrance heralded by bright laughter and celebratory voices.

Friday morning arrives at last. Every­one's up early. They have their tents down by 7:00. At 7:30 Oscar Dantz­ler, a housekeeper who's been work­ing at the chapel for ten years, unlocks the doors, peeks out, and motions for them to come inside. "I would have let them in earlier, but I had to wax the floors," he says.

They sit in pews in the back of the chapel. Morning light seeps through the stained glass windows. The campers wait patiently for Keel to arrive with her reservation book, taking in the large, empty chapel, imagining what it will look like, filled with people, in one year's time.