Title: Pledging a Fraternity
Date Occurred: Spring of 1983
Date Originally Written: March 20, 2005
Date Modified for the Web Site: May 15, 2020
Written by: Joel Kant
Copyright (c) May 15, 2020
During the spring semester of 1983 while I was a Cornfield University student, I pledged a fraternity.
In the years since I left Cornfield University, many co-workers, fellow students, and other colleagues have treated all fraternities with horror and disdain. When I mention that I once pledged a fraternity, it is treated with disbelief. I have been repeatedly told that I do not seem the type to join. A common perception is fraternities create problem drinkers and alcoholics. While there were a few members of this fraternity I met who consumed copious quantities of alcohol, the fraternity was for me a haven to escape from intense pressure to consume alcohol in the dormitory! When fellow dorm residents found out I would not consume alcohol, they sometimes became hostile and confrontational. Yet, I was not trying to keep anybody else from indulging, but merely wanted to be left in peace. While I cannot say I experienced absolutely no peer pressure to drink alcohol in this fraternity, it was orders of magnitude less than in the dormitories. When I visited this fraternity with their live-and-let-live attitude, it was as though a heavy load was lifted off my shoulders. While this is directly contrary to the common reputation of fraternities, it is what I personally experienced.
I had been introduced to this fraternity back in 1982 by a fellow electrical engineering student named Josh Cistern, but he had transferred to Capital City University the year before I pledged. Albert Rose had been Josh's roommate in 1982. The semester after I pledged the fraternity, Albert became my roommate, but he was not my roommate when I pledged.
Unlike some universities where being in a fraternity requires living at the fraternity house, Cornfield University had a requirement that Freshmen and Sophomores live only in the dormitories unless married, over the age of perhaps twenty-five, or living with parents within commuting distance. As a result of this policy, many frat members did not live at the frat house. Even though the upperclassmen could live at the frat houses and many chose to do just that, it was not a requirement at most frats there even for upperclassmen. Albert Rose was a Junior and a member of the fraternity, but lived in the dorms.
Albert Rose was appointed my Big Brother. That phrase made me think of George Orwell. In this context, it meant a current member who helps a new prospective member, known as a pledge, completed all the membership requirements. I had to prepare a spiral notebook to document progress toward meeting the requirements.
At Cornfield University back then, there were considerably more male students then female students. I have heard the ratio is nearly equal now, but it certainly was not then. One requirement was interviewing a number of women in what was called a sister sorority. I had a separate pamphlet from my spiral notebook to keep track of the interviews with the sorority women.
I talked to more women doing that then any other activity at Cornfield University. While most of the women I interviewed answered the questions reasonably and politely, one woman claimed her major was sex and the goal of life was a vulgar expression for sexual intercourse.
At that time, there was much press given to a nationwide problem involving some fraternities and sororities. There had been initiations with what was called hazing that required heavy drinking of hard liquor. A few students had died of acute alcohol poisoning as a result. Other initiation stunts had involved dangerous activities that had led to horrific accidents such as fatal falls. Nothing remotely like this seemed to have happened at the local level that I knew about.
Still, with so much national attention on it, many universities created rules against potentially dangerous initiation hazing rituals. I believe Cornfield University introduced a rule of this type. If a fraternity or sorority violated it, it risked losing recognition by the university. That had many dire consequences, probably entirely ending a fraternity's existence as an organization at that university.
For example, one fraternity activity I have seen depicted in movies and books is a pledge running a gauntlet of members who swatted his bottom with a flat wood paddle. No longer considered innocent fun, that initiation with hazing would have been a direct violation of the new hazing rule. Any initiation that required forced drinking would have been a direct violation as that also would be considered hazing.
For the members of this fraternity whom I knew, complying with the university's rules was treated seriously.
Nothing I experienced while pledging the fraternity was even slightly dangerous.
One activity I refused to join was the beer barrel roll. Given that I would not touch alcohol back then, this might seem related to why I refused to participate, but it has no bearing on it. Although a beer barrel roll sounds like worshipping of the drinking god Bacchus and debauchery, it was actually a charity event. The beer barrel itself was completely empty before the event ever started. Although it really was a beer barrel, it did not look that much like one after the modifications were made. Around the perimeter of the barrel, rubber tread from an automobile tire had been screwed or bolted on. A shaft went through the center of the barrel. On each end where it came out were high quality ball or roller bearings. What looked vaguely like a lawn mower handle was attached to the shaft. Although rolling a beer barrel might sound difficult, when configured this way it was easy to push.
The fraternity members talked professors, other students, and anybody they could find into pledging a certain number of cents per mile the barrel was pushed. The money went not to the fraternity, but a charity hospital.
What then would happen is the barrel would be pushed inconceivably far. They went from Cornfield University up to Capital City, a distance of about fifty miles. They then continued on to another city on the other side of the state, so another eighty or so miles from Capital City. Even a pledge of a few pennies a mile added up for that kind of distance. Frat members and pledges would take turns pushing the barrel, riding in a follow-up van when it was not their turn. Done with a large team, the task was not impossible, although certainly still impressive!
I greatly admired what was done in the beer barrel roll. Raising money for a charity hospital was certainly a noble goal. The humor behind the outrageous stunt as well as the awesome distance covered convinced people to open their wallets and pocketbooks.
The beer barrel roll took a lot of time, perhaps two regular school days and a weekend. I was in the electrical engineering major. I found most of the fraternity members did not comprehend how demanding the electrical engineering major was. Perhaps in some other majors, missing a couple days of class and a weekend would do no significant harm. However, there was no way I could take so much time off without doing damage to my academic performance. Missing even a single lecture in physics or differential equations could cause problems since if one got behind one was likely never to catch up. It was sadly common to flunk those courses. Also, on the weekends, I was often in either the computer center or the electronics laboratory.
My Big Brother Albert Rose knew about the time demands I was under, though. He had once been an Electrical Engineering major, then had switched to the major of Computer Science. With academic demands on his own time, especially for programming computers, Albert was not going on the beer barrel roll either.
Going on the beer barrel roll was not treated as a requirement for a pledge, merely as a recommended activity. Some of the fraternity members seemed to be struggling with methods to retain the fraternity experience while making allowances for members and pledges in demanding academic disciplines.
As the semester rolled on and final exams approached, the more conflict I had between the demands of the courses for the electrical engineering major and the demands of the fraternity. I still made it to fraternity meetings and put in a token effort on listed requirements, but because I valued academics, my participation in the fraternity naturally fell off. I noticed that I did not know another electrical engineering student, other then Josh Cistern, who had transferred away, who had pledged with any fraternity. Those I asked about this claimed they could not afford the time that a fraternity required. I was finding they had a point.
Yet, a number of the fraternity members seemed sensitive to my predicament and made allowances. How well I was doing academically was treated with some admiration and respect, which was very invigorating and encouraging.
As the semester wound down, a joint meeting was announced between the sorority and the fraternity. The pledges of both organizations had to compose a poem to recite at the meeting. Us pledges were told the subject and requirements of the poem. I forgot what these were. We had about a week to come up with it.
Swamped with course work, I put almost no time or effort into my poem. I took a couple generic rhyming words like blue and true, wedging them into silly lines about whatever the poem was supposed to be about. It met the stated requirements, but had no literary or artistic merit. It looked like a half-hearted effort because that is what it was. Having dashed off that drivel in a few minutes, I gave it no more thought. I went back to cranking through my difficult courses.
The day and time of the joint meeting came almost before I knew it. The meeting was held at the fraternity house. I glanced at my poem. I wondered about how embarrassing it would be to recite it in front of an audience. It was so dreadful that it might get a laugh. I was not going to spend time to come up with anything better. I felt just making it to this meeting was a concession. My professors were really putting the screws on tight.
All the pledges were led to a bedroom on the second floor. Since this was a joint fraternity and sorority event, the pledges included men and women. We were to wait there while the members gathered down in the living room.
As we waited, the poems were discussed among ourselves. Some of the other pledges, especially the women, had poems that were very artistic. Some were clever or elegant. Most were much longer than mine. It seemed others had put in vastly more effort than I had, with vastly higher quality poems to show for it.
A fraternity member came up to the bedroom. He selected one pledge. The pledge was led down to the living room while the rest of us waited in suspense.
After perhaps five minutes, a member came up and brought down another pledge. After a few people went in this manner, it was my turn. The pledges still waiting wished me luck.
In the living room of the frat house, I saw a group gathered around. Some sat on couches and easy chairs while others sat on the floor or stood. A makeshift podium had been set up, although there was no microphone. A kitchen chair was placed behind the podium. Lamps had been arranged to shine on the podium and chair.
The earlier pledges stood along a wall. More than one of them was smirking. Those smirks told me something was up. I no longer cared how terrible my poem was, because I did not think that would matter for whatever was really going on.
I was instructed to read my poem. I did so. Nobody groaned, although they should have if they had been listening. Certainly, nobody acted admiring, not even in a polite manner of accepting the effort made even if the result was terrible. In fact, nobody seemed to have even listened! With the poem over, only then did people perk up and act expectant. Given that reaction, I was certain some prank would happen.
The podium seemed to have nothing rigged to it. The chair did not look like it would collapse. Nothing was on the chair. Not even considering how silly I must have looked to the crowd, I peered up at ceiling. Nothing was suspended overhead. I then looked more closely at the other pledges along the wall, but I saw no signs of shaving cream or water dumped on their heads.
A fraternity member instructed me stand to the side, but remain standing. He recited a few lines about brotherhood and sisterhood. It sounded to me like nonsense, the way Dilbert cartoons would read if set in a fraternity instead of a business environment.
After the speech, I was told to sit down while an announcement was made.
I reached behind and held the chair. I suspected it was going to be yanked back. I had fallen for that many times before. With the chair firmly where it belonged, I then sat down. I immediately leapt back up. There were howls of laughter. While I had been distracted by the brotherhood and sisterhood speech, somebody behind my back had set a water-soaked sponge on the chair. It had not been there before the speech, because I had looked just for such a thing.
They had gotten me! I had not figured it out in time even though I had been so obviously suspicious and cautious. I laughed along with the others. The sponge had held only been water, which would dry soon. I was not remotely upset, but amused.
I was instructed to stand over by the other pledges. Standing as we were, no wet clothes were visible.
A member was sent up to fetch the next pledge. A pretty young woman was led down. She acted nervous, as though facing a firing squad. She trembled as she was introduced. Then, in a shaky voice, she read her well-crafted poem. As with my poem, the audience only acted expectant and interested after it was over. I felt pity, because she had clearly put effort into it.
Events then played out just as they had for me, except she did not seem overtly suspicious of a prank.
After she leapt up due to sitting on the wet sponge, she broke out into tears. Rather than quietly crying, she then angrily shouted that there was a new university rule against initiation stunts involving hazing like this. She then stormed out of the room. Some of the sorority sisters chased after her.
It had not even occurred to me to be angry. I thought the trick had been cleverly arranged. Yet, given how important the young woman had treated her poem, I could sympathize with her being furious that it had merely been a setup for a juvenile practical joke.
The joke was not continued. The remaining pledges were brought down from upstairs. I do not recall if they were asked to even read their poems. The mood was subdued. The earlier pledges whispered the story to the pledges that had been upstairs.
Various fraternity and sorority officers had a hurried consultation. From what I overheard, it seemed over whether a violation of the new hazing rule had happened as the upset pledge had claimed. Pulling back a chair might to a real stickler of the rule be treated as dangerous, as well as if it had been a sharp tack on the chair, but there seemed no danger from sitting on a wet sponge. I never actually read the university rule, but only heard about it secondhand. As far as I know, there were no official repercussions over the wet sponge despite how upset the young woman had been.
A week or so later, I was told I had another requirement to meet before I could become an official fraternity member. By then, major projects were due and final exams were breathing down my neck. Anything for the frat that would take any time was not going to happen. It was as simple as that, even if that meant not finishing joining.
This new requirement had nothing to do with more time. I was informed I had to send a check for eighty dollars to the national organization. I had been under the impression that I had already paid my fees. It turned out those fees were only for the local organization. The national organization had another fee of its own. If I did not pay it, then I would not be an official fraternity member.
At that time, I was earning $3.35 an hour working six hours a week as a tutor. I could not just whip up eighty dollars. The end of the academic year was almost there. Because of expenses for parts on electronic projects, I had cut things so close financially that I honestly did not even have eighty dollars sitting in my bank account. You cannot squeeze money out of a rock.
I never paid the national fee, so never became an official fraternity member. What happened with the wet sponge on the chair had no bearing on my decision to not send a check. However, I must admit experiencing the competing time demands between my studies and the fraternity activities had me much less interested in continuing with the fraternity. I knew that in later semesters, the demands on my time and energy in getting through the electrical engineering courses were only going to get worse. As a result, I never even bothered with a plea to my parents for the eighty dollars. That almost certainly would not have worked anyway.
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