Archives for posts with tag: Dickinson College

Rabble Rousing

I attended college four or five years too late to participate in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. And had I been at a hotbed of unrest, like Wisconsin or Columbia, it’s unlikely I would have led a sit-in at a dean’s office or stared down the National Guard. Still, in one college era controversy, I overcame my reticence to bear witness to epic events.
*****

Midway through my comfortable first year living in a leafy coed dorm at Dickinson College I learned, to my dismay, that sophomore men had to live in one of the ten houses comprising the fraternity quadrangle, whether or not they belonged to a fraternity. This system had developed in an era when near-unanimous fraternity membership prevailed. By 1975, however, things had changed. Dickinson’s male population split evenly between “Greeks” and independents.
Hostility festered between the two camps like an open wound. Greeks openly referred to independents as “geeks,” a term suggesting a circus freak. Independents showed their disdain for the inanities of “brotherhood” with imitations of secret handshakes and lingo. Fraternity members, for instance, scored life’s experiences on a spectrum from nega-dece (not decent) to dece (okay) to gungabo-dece (the best) and every sort of dece in between. To mock fraternity members was not even a challenge to my friends and me. We described everything, from classes to dinner vegetables, as somewhere on the dece scale. We called our fake fraternity Kappa Wu.
An undercurrent of tension permeated the College cafeteria where factions self-segregated at their unofficial, but unchanging tables, the locations handed down by generations of students. Similarly, in some classrooms, “brothers” sat among brothers and “independents” among independents. Segregation was pervasive, like at schools in the Jim Crow south, albeit without serious national significance. (For that matter, most of the few African-American students at Dickinson also sat at “their” tables in the cafeteria and self-segregated in classrooms, too.)
*****

I played on the soccer team. One fraternity, Phi Psi, dominated the program. Though I hadn’t participated in any social interactions to attract a bid, midway through my freshman year, Phi Psi invited me to join. Certainly, my receipt of a handwritten invitation occurred solely due to the likelihood I would be the goaltender for the next three years.
Fraternity life held no appeal to me. I had two real, biological brothers and found the concept of referring to near-strangers as my brothers to be silly. Also, I perceived no value to the fraternity system except as a cost-effective way to enjoy binge drinking.
A minimal drinker myself, I didn’t take the membership offer seriously. Plus, none of my quirky, socially awkward freshman friends had sought or received fraternity bids. Still, the night I failed to show up at midnight at the center circle of the soccer field to commence “pledging” passed with a realization: “This may become a struggle. Fraternity membership isn’t something I desire, but non-membership is a significant choice.”
*****

There were no immediate consequences to my decision. The spring, non-soccer semester proceeded peacefully. I hung out with my nerdy friends, and the fraternity guys were too busy indoctrinating their new members to pay attention to us. But my friends and I began to worry about where we would live as sophomores. We expected to be randomly assigned to whichever of the ten fraternity houses had empty bedrooms.
Later in the school year, after not establishing eye contact with me for several months, since my non-attendance at the initiation ceremony, the president of Phi Psi approached me in the hallway outside the cafeteria.
“Hey, Stu, how you doing?” said Neil S, friendly as could be.
“Okay,” I said. I thought I should explain. “Sorry about not accepting the bid, but my friends…”
“No need to explain, Stu. No problem at all. Let me offer you a proposition,” said Neil.
“Okay,” I said, wary.
Neil proceeded to explain that his “house” had seven empty “doubles” available for the next school year and “he’d be happy” if my friends and I would move in as a group.
“But why?” I asked.
“It’ll be like your own little fraternity,” he concluded, with a big smile. “And I’d rather have the gee… ah, guys I know rather than some random bunch of independents. You know, I’m sure you won’t be troublemakers.”
“Sounds interesting,” I said. “I’ll let you know.”
When I discussed it with them, my eight or ten friends jumped at the chance to cluster in one location. Several additional independents begged in, and I approached Neil a week later with a full roster of fourteen.
“That’s gungabo-dece,” said Neil.
*****
The following September, our group moved onto the second floor at Phi Psi. Like all the fraternity houses at Dickinson, Phi Psi had three floors. The bottom floor was the common space, including a “social” floor, a large bar and a television room. Neil assigned my group to the second floor, and fraternity members lived on the third floor.
For a week or two, the arrangement worked fine. The bedrooms were no worse than any other dorm. We watched television downstairs, if we chose, without overt hostility from the “brothers.” And the smell of spilled beer that pervaded the building seemed an authentic part of the college experience.
That all changed on October 1 when fraternity rush commenced, the intense period of partying when members indulged their addictions and recruited new members. Each weekend, loosely defined as Thursday through Sunday, a beer-soaked, music-blared bacchanalia took place just beneath our rooms. We weren’t welcome to attend the bashes but participated nonetheless by way of vibrating walls and floors. Our bathroom also was more convenient than the one on the third floor when partygoers needed emergency relief.
For several weeks, my friends groggily congregated in the hallway to lament the situation. We learned from other independents that the pattern was similar throughout the quadrangle. Most aggravating was that fraternity members who wanted to sleep or, God forbid, study, could do so in the relative, non-throbbing quiet of the third floor. Our floor served as their buffer.
“It’s horrible,” we concurred. “But at least it’s not personal or violent.”
That changed quickly during the spring. The new fraternity recruits, called “pledges,” began their indoctrinations. Among the tasks apparently assigned included rampaging through the second floor after midnight hooting, hollering and banging on doors.
Complaints lodged at the office of the Dean of Housing yielded no more than sympathetic nods and the sentiments: “Boys will be boys,” or “It’ll be over in just a few weeks.”
One night, when the door banging took place with metal baseball bats and several drunken pledges regurgitated on the hallway carpet, we finally acted. Ten independents, including myself, marched half a mile to the home of Sam Banks, the college president, coincidentally a proud Phi Psi alumnus. Declaring: “if we’re up, he’s going to be up,” we banged on his door. No one answered.
We did this the next couple of nights, too, with additional independents from other houses, now numbering over twenty. We wondered, with increasing frustration: “How do we get his attention?”
Two members of our group, CLW and MP, decided upon an inspired action I wouldn’t do myself, though I admit to having been sympathetic. When no one answered the door on the fourth night, they unzipped their pants and urinated into the college president’s mail-slot. The next night, they did the same. On the third such night, following their customary loud knocking and leaning on the doorbell, lights finally came on in the house. Bustling down the inside steps, while fastening the tie on his silk bathrobe, was Sam Banks, the President.
“Come in, come in,” he said, peering into the darkness.
Dr. Banks, a large man of about fifty, stood to the side with a look of amazement as our group, which had grown to nearly thirty students, entered. We stepped over the conspicuous, discolored floor in the foyer, and gathered in his living room.
“What can I do for you?” he said, as we stood awkwardly.
Several of my friends explained why we were there and indicated it was our intention to wake him each night we were awakened after midnight. To his credit, Dr. Banks listened with equanimity and nodded that he understood. No one mentioned the mail slot, of course. When the story concluded, he appeared downcast, but thoughtful:
“Thank you for bringing this to my attention,” he said. “The situation is unacceptable. We’ll figure something out. I’ll speak to the Dean of Housing first thing tomorrow.”
Our uncivil disobedience had apparently succeeded spectacularly, since news circulated through the cafeteria the next day that the College had established an “Emergency Task Force on Housing.” As a further indication that something was afoot, Phi Psi brothers glared at us with more hostile silence than usual. Relative quiet also prevailed on our floor from that night forward. When I passed Neil on the walkway to the house later that week, he shook his head.
“Why didn’t you talk to me first?” he said.
“Would it have helped?” I asked.
He paused for a moment.
“Probably not,” he said.
I waited for a moment, thinking he might offer some apology. He resumed walking.
*****

I attended several meetings of the housing task force on behalf of my friends. It consisted of faculty, administrators and student council members who represented the Greek system and independents, respectively. Impressive in their diligence, they produced a report before the end of the school year. They recommended an ingenious solution to the problem, namely: instead of having independents assigned to fraternity housing pay the college for their rooms, like every other student, the fraternities were required to pay for all their rooms and then seek reimbursement from individual residents. Therefore, if a fraternity with an empty bed could not entice an independent to occupy it, the fraternity absorbed the cost. A fraternity known to be hostile to independents would be unable to survive economically.
As a result, sophomore independents in subsequent years were pampered, relatively-speaking. The fraternities offered them third floor rooms, away from the noise, and also refrained from disturbing their sleep. Anecdotally, I heard that fraternity officers apologized if inebriated pledges became too rambunctious or belligerent. The entire balance of the relationship had changed for the better.
*****

Looking back on the experience, I’m pleased I participated in a cause that brought positive change. It benefitted the College, whose reputation has vastly improved, and also benefitted the individuals who spent their sophomore years in civilized circumstances, at least by college standards. I even think it benefitted fraternity members who learned to rein in their baser instincts. Instead of merely rolling over when pissed off, I’m happy I took action along with my friends, though I refrained from being an active, mail-slot pisser.

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THE ROADS NOT TAKEN

We went retro on a recent southern sojourn. We took an old-fashioned driving trip, without a detailed plan, waking up in a different roadside motel almost every day, and seeing “the country.” It’s my understanding people used to do this sort of thing on a regular basis back in the 1940’s and 1950’s. But my family never took such a trip when I was young and when my wife and I had children of our own, nothing could have sounded worse than piling into the car and driving for hours each day.
Now, unencumbered by jobs or small children, spurred by cheap gas and relatively cold temperatures, and chastened by the hassle of air travel, my wife, Katie and I opted to allot ten-twelve days to see the south. Of course, we didn’t leave everything to chance. Our first stop was Charleston, always a dependable spot for great food and sights. And our final destination was Savannah, also a guaranteed source of interesting and delicious things to enjoy. In between, however, we traveled the back roads of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. And we got together with friends I hadn’t seen in over thirty years. As Robert Frost concluded, “And that made all the difference.”
*****
Several improvements have been made to car travel since the heyday of “the road trip.” First of all, our car is not a station wagon or van, but a BMW with heated seats and cruise control. Second, there’s no struggle to find something to listen to in out-of-the-way places; we have Sirius satellite radio, books on tape and CD’s. Finally, there’s no dealing with maps or asking for directions from strangers. Rather, our smart phone and a GPS combined to save us time and anxiety.
*****
Our first destination after Charleston was Aiken, South Carolina. A college friend, Scott, settled there thirty years ago and invites everyone on our mutual e-mail list to visit when they are in the vicinity. Given that Aiken is the definition of “off the beaten track” in the southwestern quarter of the state, I believe we were the first in decades to take him up on the offer.
Aiken, I learned, is the home of “The Bomb Factory.” It’s where the United States produced much of its nuclear weaponry during the Cold War. Now, the same facility is the repository of millions of gallons of radioactive waste from that effort and Scott, a nuclear chemist, is in charge of devising methods for its safe disposal. While he indicates he is making progress, at the present rate, his employment is assured for several centuries.
Scott cooked a fabulous crock of chicken tortilla soup for lunch; it would have suited Charleston’s finest establishments. He introduced his wife, Deb and his son, Mark, who is a recreational food-eating contestant. I’m not sure if I could describe Mark as “accomplished” or “aspiring” in this particular avocation, but his You-tube account shows numerous triumphs in such disciplines as pizza and hot dog inhalation.
A third college friend drove down from Atlanta to join us for the day. Scott and I felt honored since Dan’s been visible only via Facebook and e-mail for the past three decades. Sure to stump any “What’s my Line” competition, Dan is an itinerant pediatrician, traveling the country on short-term assignments. He offers an amusing and insightful perspective on our healthcare system, parenting, and the difficulty of landing a fulltime position for a person determined to speak the truth.
Neither Scott nor Dan is defined by their careers or by having graduated from Dickinson College in the late 1970’s. Scott is a leading expert on the Three Stooges. He is published on the subject and owns a collection of memorabilia, correspondence and memories that would be the envy of any nine-year-old boy in the country. Women, not so much. In addition, Scott has the unique talent to make his shoulder blades speak and several less couth skills, if you can imagine.
Dan is renowned for having memorized the home address of every person in our entering class as of 1974. “Why?” one might ask. Some questions defy answers. The three of us had a great afternoon reminiscing while Katie and Deb endured. We communicated as easily as if we were back at our table in the rear of the cafeteria during the Carter administration. How could so many years have passed?
The visit stretched into dinner at a restaurant where I thought Mark might order twenty servings, given his eating skills, but he refrained. The next morning, Scott made blueberry pancakes, and we covered more meaningless but enjoyable trivia. As one might imagine of someone who can recite 400 home addresses after so long, Dr. Dan was particularly good at making one shake one’s head and say: “Oh, yeah, I had completely forgotten that.”
*****
After breakfast, Katie and I resumed our trip with Valdosta, GA as the day’s destination. Picked randomly as a place five hours due south, it sits just above the border with Florida. I can conclude the following about western South Carolina and central and southern Georgia: there’s not much there. Still, the ride was traffic free and the scenery pretty. To see it one time was interesting; if I had to take that drive on a regular basis, oy vey.
The weather was unseasonably warm, in the mid-70’s, and it seemed a shame to spend the entire afternoon in the car. Accordingly, in the town of Tifton, one hour north of Valdosta, we stopped at what a billboard proclaimed “The Third-Best Golf Course in Georgia.” The opportunity to knock off one of Katie’s least significant bucket list items was at hand. While I flailed my way around the course, which may not have even been the third best in Tifton, she drove the golf cart. She did a fine job driving and following the location of my shots. Her only serious breach of etiquette occurred in front of a large lake. As I stood over the ball, she said: “Don’t think about the water.” Do I need to complete this paragraph?
Also in Tifton, anchoring Main Street is “The Big Store,” owned by the family of a friend. It was Sunday, so the store was closed, but the exterior reminded me of my father’s store in Philadelphia. If he’d somehow settled in southern Georgia or the like, how different my life would have been.
*****
Following a planned two-day visit to Katie’s step-mom in Sarasota, we resumed our unplanned road-trip. Encouraged by the visit with Scott and Dan I e-mailed another college friend, Dave, whom I knew lives in Jacksonville, FL. Dave is like the three-toed sloth of our group of friends. We know he exists but is hard to see. Rare to weigh in on our email communications, I doubted Dave would be accessible for an impromptu visit.
An email elicited no response, and neither did an initial phone message left at his work number. But two hours into our drive, Katie texted Dave and he responded immediately. He agreed to meet for dinner at a local restaurant. My mind filled with recollections. Not only had Dave attended college with me, he had also attended the same high school and had shared my Washington apartment during my first year of law school. Yet, we’d hardly communicated in the interim.
The temperature fell from 79 in Sarasota to 54 when we arrived in Jacksonville during a fierce rainstorm. The billboard-dominated ride northeast featured orange groves and small towns dominated by trailer parks. We stopped to buy oranges and grapefruits but didn’t see other attractions unless one is a passionate about seeing baby alligators in cages. We aren’t.
Dave waited in the foyer when we arrived at PF Chang’s. An associate athletic director at Jacksonville University for eighteen years, he looked the same as I remembered except greyer. The same could be said of me. We enjoyed reviewing our shared history for several hours and vowed not to let thirty-five years intervene again. As to his lack of communication, Dave didn’t explain. Offering many memories but fewer insights, I accept that Dave is simply on the more private end of the human spectrum.
Jacksonville was a revelation to me. For no particular reason, I’d always assumed Jacksonville to be a sleepy backwater, surrounded by swamps and filled with trailers. Instead, it’s a vibrant city with over a million people. When the weather cleared the next day, we saw an impressive skyline, a river walk, beaches and museums.
*****
When we finally arrived home after two days in Savannah, Katie and I agreed it had been a good trip, different and interesting. Would we do it again? I doubt it’ll be anytime soon. Driving hours each day is tedious. But if we can catch up with old friends in new places again, you never know.