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The Truth, Mainly - 05/06/1991

Fraternities under fire: What's the big deal?

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 not infantile.

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.


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