Tuesday, March 29, 2022

My Brief Experience With Fraternities

It's not all fun and games at a Fraternity house.  And since when should college be fun and games?

Fraternities nearly died in the mid 1970s, and if it wasn't for National Lampoon's Animal House they would have died.  In the Hippie 60's, the idea of pledging a fraternity was viewed as "square" and bourgeoisie.  The idea of secret handshakes and special privileges for upper-class (white) people seemed to go against the mood of that era.

In the 1970's it was seen as a lot cooler to get your own apartment, preferably with your girlfriend, rather than hang out with a bunch of drunken squares in a subliminally homoerotic setting.  Why join a frat when you can shack up with a chick?

And make no mistake about it, fraternities were all about class privilege.  They were restricted to white (male) students from a certain social class.  Before the 1960's, people vied to join a "frat" and maybe dozens would want to join, but only a select few would be allowed to "pledge."

Of course, in addition to fraternities, there were "secret societies" in some elite schools.  Yale had the infamous "Skull and Bones" and Harvard the "Porcellian Club" - the latter of which denied membership to both Joseph Kennedy and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  I think they had the last laugh, though.  The idea behind these clubs and frats was that people of a certain social class would meet and mix and later in life would offer opportunities to one another.  Back in the day of Mad Men, if you used the "secret handshake" during a job interview - and the interviewer gave it back - then you were in.  It was a system designed to keep the ruling class entrenched - and exclude social climbers and of course, minorities and women.

Yes, women had sororities, but back then, women didn't work for a living - and certainly not the type of girl who joined a sorority!  You went to college to meet a husband and marry well.  Education was secondary.

So there was a lot of elitist baggage with fraternities and sororities well into the 1970's.  And since then, many "Greek" organizations have tried to move with the times and recruit minorities and people of different social classes, but it doesn't seem to be working out too well.  Sadly, every year we are treated to stories of racist incidents, physical assaults on pledges, as well as rapes, and sexual assaults resulting from pledging activities or fraternity parties.  Funny thing, when you get a lot of adolescent young men together and leave them to their own devices, bad things happen.  Kind of odd, isn't it?  Inexplicable, really. You'd think that instead of drinking beer they would be studying the Bible, but there you have it.

Fraternities were less like "Animal House" and more like this, back in the day.

I started college in 1978, the year Animal House came out. Overnight, fraternities went from being perceived as dorky to being perceived as "cool." At General Motors Institute, we had an odd situation. The dormitory was very small - it could barely accommodate the freshman class.  So off-campus housing was the norm for years 2-5 (yes, five).  We had the same number of fraternities as my next Alma Mater, Syracuse University, but about 1/5th the student population.  As a result, nearly every  freshman was asked to pledge at least one or two, if not three, fraternity houses - they all had mortgages to pay!

I was asked to pledge two - Sigma Chi and Delta something-or-other. I pledged Signal Chi as my Dad was a "Sig" and I guess at the tender age of 18, I was still trying to gain his acceptance (it never came) and I wanted to "follow in his footsteps" by becoming an Engineer and pledging his frat. Decades later, he confessed he never got an Engineering degree as it was "too hard" and he switched to the management program at MIT in his Junior year.  Let that be a lesson to anyone wanting to follow in their Dad's footsteps!   Blaze your own trail.

The pledging thing was interesting.  Even back then there had been come celebrated "hazing" incidents where pledges were abused and actually died - from excessive alcohol intoxication or falling from a window, or whatever.   So the school had a "no hazing" policy and we were pretty much left alone.

I digress, but the fundamental problem with hazing - other than it is just pointlessly cruel - is that each successive class tries to outdo the previous class in terms of hazing cruelty.  If the class of '73 made the pledges sit outside naked in sub-zero temperatures for a half-hour while drinking an entire fifth of vodka, the class of '74 has to one-up that by making it a full hour and a full quart - and so on and so forth until someone ends up in the hospital or dead.

And this still goes on today, with pledges dying of alcohol poisoning on a regular basis. One frat decided that since alcohol was verboten to make the pledges drink staggering amounts of water- not realizing that even water is toxic in great quantities.  And yes, some poor kid died as a result.  Send your kid off to college, have him come home in a box!

Young men are desperate for acceptance from their peer group and thus are very vulnerable to such nonsense.  So they go along with this sort of abuse until it is too late.  Or in terms of sexual assault, they remain quiet while some young co-ed is roofied and raped, or are egged on into participating.  And of course, remain silent when the investigation begins.  Hey, you don't want the other fellas to call you a "wuss" or worse - "gay" - right?

Like I said, putting young men together in a situation without much supervision and left to their own devices usually results in tragedy.

Even for those who don't end up dead or going to jail, a frat can be problematic.  I had a friend of mine, a couple years older, who was an excellent draftsman and was going to become an Engineer at S.U.  He pledged a frat in his freshman year and discovered his new friend - beer.  He dropped out before his sophomore year - a complete and utter alcoholic at that point.  Sadly, "brothers" tend not to intervene when they see a "brother" going over the edge.

Although I pledged, I never joined the frat.  Some of the "brothers" there were kind of cool, but others were, well, utter assholes. I realized I really didn't want to hang out with them and this whole "fraternal" thing was a complete hoax.  It was just a way of sharing a run-down dormitory that smelled like stale beer and puke.  What's not to like?

Like I said, there were plenty of other frats looking for warm bodies and they rented out rooms to students such as myself.  I stayed one semester at one frat, and one of the "brothers" was using his fiancee as a punching bag.  No one bothered to intervene.  So much for "brotherhood" - it was appalling.

It is sad, too, because I could see a world where a fraternity is a mechanism whereby young men can learn from their elders and get a leg-up in society and look out for one another.  Instead, it devolves into the least common denominator and the lowest forms of behavior - alcohol and drug abuse, misogyny, sexual abuse, and racism. You don't come out of a fraternity as a better person, but worse - viewing women as objects to be used and society as a set of privileges for you to enjoy.  I suspect that today, many a frat bro has discovered that the privileges are fleeting, if any, in this economy.

Of course, about then, I dropped out of college myself - I smoked a lot of pot and drank a lot of beer, which doesn't mix well with Engineering studies.  In retrospect, I was probably depressed as well - my career at General Motors wasn't what I thought it would be - they wanted me to be a plant Engineer working it the waste processing department at a ball-bearing plant.  It turns out that dropping out was the best thing to do - the factory closed only a few years later.  My career - in a field not of my choosing - would have been short-lived.  Sometimes our subconscious does things that are in our best interests.

So I went to work for Carrier and returned to school - at Syracuse - as a "returning adult student" which was a much better deal.  No longer were they interested in how much my parents made in determining student aid.  And the perspective of age - even if it was only a few years - made me see things in a different light.   Like I said, there were the same number of frats at SU but five times as many students.  So when I talked to other students, they were in awe of the fraternity houses - they thought that being in a frat was the coolest thing in the world and only a "lucky few" got in.  I kind of found that humorous.  The "animal house" thing was in full-swing.

I worked nights delivering pizzas - often to fraternity houses and frat parties.  And it was interesting seeing things from the outside.  They tipped well - generally - and I was happy to make the money.  Of course, those kids were paying me with their student loan money, which as we found out, was kind of stupid.

I digress, but at the time, there were separate "black" fraternities on campus - frats that were just social organizations without any kind of frat house.  I never saw the point of those.  And the hazing - it was ten times worse that any "white" frat!  The students had to dress up like Pharoes in black and gold and carry around bricks painted black and gold with the geek letters of their frat on them.   Every day they added a new brick, until the pledges were carrying a dozen bricks (the kind with the holes in them) lashed together with clothesline.  They never spoke to anyone (one of the rules) and they had to walk in single-file all in a row, like a centipede, touching one another front to back.

I remember delivering a pizza once and a string of these fellows were crossing the road, shuffling their feet, and I was bearing down on them.  I hit the air horn and boy did they truck across that road!  That was probably kind of mean, but maybe it made them re-evaluate their life choices.  From most students' perspective, we couldn't understand why someone would subject themselves to such abuse for a frat with no frat house.  I mean, you get enough abuse being a "person of color" - why would you tolerate even more, unnecessary abuse, from your own kind?  It made no sense to me then, or today.  Like I said, it is a shame fraternities don't lift people up, but instead smash them down.

I graduated and left college behind. There were no "frats" in law school that I knew of. That sort of thing seemed kind of childish in retrospect.  And since then, like clockwork, every year, we hear a story of a co-ed raped or some young boy killed by hazing.  Everyone wrings their hands and says "what could we have done?" and the fraternity is banned for a semester or a year or their party privileges are suspended (but parties go on in secret anyway).  It seems like it will never change.

There was one positive experience from the whole ordeal, I guess.  At Syracuse, I was President of the Gay and Lesbian Student Association.  The school gave us a house on Ostrom Avenue - a three-story Dutch colonial.  I installed a draft beer system and we had our own little "frat" (and I had free off-street parking!).  One night, my Vice-President came to see me and say we had "trouble" in the living room.  I went out and there were like eight guys sitting on the couch, looking very nervous.

"What fraternity are you from?" I asked, and one of the pledges blurted out, "Sigma [Whatever]".  I laughed.  It was a hazing stunt - they confessed that the "Magister" (pledge master) made them visit the GLSA and stay for one full hour.  I told them not to sweat it, to have a beer and relax and enjoy themselves.  By the end of the night (they all stayed longer than an hour!) they were a little tipsy and one said, "You know, you guys are just like regular people!" I thought that was a very thoughtful hazing "stunt" by the Magister - it taught these kids something useful.  Two of them came back the next week - and not just for the free beer.  So maybe there is hope for frats after all.

Bu you know, I didn't miss a damn thing by not belonging to a "frat" and I suspect that most folks wouldn't find much advantage to it these days.  At best it is a place to stay on campus, at worst, a way to derail your college education, career, or life.  Frankly, I think that renting an apartment and living on your own (or with roommates) is a better way of learning responsibility in life.  If anything, living in a frat insulated you from "the real world" and allows you to be a kid just that much longer.

And we have too many adult kids today as it is!