I don't get it. Why all the bad-mouthing of fraternities this spring?
First, William Sloane Coffin comes to town and says that "trying to
liberalize a student's thinking by putting him in a fraternity is like
trying to reform a wino by putting him in a wine cellar."
Then an anthropologist named Peggy Reeves Sanday tells us that among
fraternities there's "an infantile male subculture" that engages in
"extraordinarily compulsive heterosexual displays."
I donít know what fraternities are like now, but I didnít hear anyone saying
things like that when I was a pledge down in Kansas back in the 1950s.
Everybody I knew then pretty much agreed that fraternities were witty and
urbane organizations, grown-up as all get out. Male, yes, but certainly
Oh, some of the pledges might have been a little coltish, but by the time
they activated, they were just as mature as the other regular members.
Thatís what being a pledge was all about: An apprenticeship in maturity
and brotherhood and scholarship and social skills and good character.
It said so right there in the pledge manual.
OK, so maybe we did do a little drinking. But only because we discovered
that the more we drank, the more urbane and witty and sophisticated we
became. It only took me three beers to learn how to chug-a-lug a full
glass by picking it up with my teeth instead of my hands. But our real
drinking hero was an active who drank 13 cans of Schlitz, then fell down
a flight of stairs at the same time he threw up, spewing like a pinwheel
while he tumbled. He wasnít nearly so clever when he was sober.
And we had a very sophisticated approach to academics. Rather than wasting
hours in the library looking at the raw material of scholarship, we went
directly to the finished products in our fraternity files. Our academic
hero was an active who burglarized a faculty office for a copy of a
final exam, then selflessly shared it with the other brothers, the grade
curve be damned.
Our most impressive display of maturity and sophistication and brotherhood
came during Hell Week, when we carried wooden paddles with us and invited
the active members to hit us on the backside with them as hard and as often
as they wanted. Softies would only tap us, but actives really dedicated to
strengthening our masculine character prided themselves on raising welts.
We ended the week with a maturational frenzy called Hell Night. To be
initiated into fun adult membership, we were taken to a country shelter
five miles from town and stripped. Actives standing on step ladders,
would try to break eggs into our mouths as we lay on our backs in the
mire. Other fun included the marshmallow race. We had to pick up that
confection between our bare buttocks, no hands allowed, and waddle
twenty yards to deposit it in a milk bottle. If we failed here comes
the really funny part we had to eat the marshmallows.
The Truth, Mainly
Then the actives would cover us with sorghum syrup and roll us in
chicken feathers, make us put on gunny sacks and send us to town on
a scavenger hunt. I canít tell you all the things we had to come back
with because this is a family newspaper, but it was a terrifically
witty list, and the difficulty of finding all those things
without getting arrested especially since we looked like gunny sacks
full of sticky chickens really helped us to mature.
Ad astra per aspera, as we nearly always said in Kansas. To
the stars through difficulties.
After we'd repeated all the secret oaths, we became full members of
our grown-up brotherhood with all the rights and privileges
appertaining thereto: we sang dirty songs and gave secret hand-shakes
and told heroic stories about our extraordinarily compulsive
heterosexual adventures. They were all true too, because you
weren't allowed to lie to a brother unless it was absolutely convenient.
And there was lots of good-natured horsing around, the way brothers
do, you know. Like the fun we had with Pete Johnson. He had only one
leg, having lost the other to a grain auger, and he stumped around on
a wooden replacement that made us all laugh. He'd take it off when he
went to bed and that's when our collective wit came into play. We'd
hide the wooden leg, then wake him up and watch him hop around
threatening to punch out the brother who took it. We could hardly
believe how clever we were.
You know what we'd probably have done then if people had called us
an "infantile male subculture"? We'd probably have shoveled a fresh
cow pie into a paper sack, set the sack on fire on their front porch,
rung their doorbell, and hoo-hawed in the bushes while they tried to
stomp out the fire.
That's how witty and urbane and sophisticated and mature we were back
in the 1950s. So I don't get it. Why all this bad-mouthing of fraternities
now? I canít believe they've gone downhill.
Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.