I was pretty well pumped up by family, my brothers especially, to expect something great, even awesome. Just what that was to be, was unclear, though more than once my dad had expressed regret that he did not accept an offer from our Great Aunt Lizzie in Jefferson to lend him money to go to The University of Texas. At that time there was one and only one University of Texas, or if you prefer, The University of Texas, although soon about every town with a population of 50,000 or large enough to have a Burger King has a branch of The University and/or now the parallel system out of Texas A&M.
Once or twice I had ridden with my folks the long six hundred miles by car from El Paso to Austin to check on my older brothers, Forrest Jr. (Buddy) and Paul (aka Bim). We would eat Sunday dinner at their fraternity house. The boys wore ties. I called them “sir.” Two or three times they’d sing fraternity songs in three-part harmony that sounded hymn-like during the lunch hour. I was properly impressed.
My blood brother Buddy, who was five years older than me, joined Phi Gamma Delta on his return from the Navy, a fraternity of one of Dad’s golfing buddies. Buddy was drawn to the ritual, the Greek letters, the secrets, and the special symbols, passwords, handshakes, all laced with Greek words and other inane nonsense. He was so into fraternity that the Army expression “Gung Ho” comes to mind from Infantry days. Buddy was a UT pre-med senior when he pioneered the new Phi Gamma Delta chapter at LSU in Baton Rouge. Forrest Jr. (Buddy) at that time was referred to by a Greek word, which I’ve forgotten, for “missionary” from Texas, I suppose, to the less civilized brethren at LSU across the Neches River in Louisiana.
The fall of 1949 when I entered UT, my older brother Paul (Bim) was president of the UT chapter. I was to enter “rush,” a curious process by which fraternities add members, which was then in full swing. It seemed to me as phony as a seven dollar bill, but looking back, I guess fraternity members assumed that since I was Frosty and Paul’s little brother I would join their fraternity. Without invitation or complaint, and referred to as a “legacy,” technically a double legacy. I pretty much went along with the program and soon found myself a “pledge” to an unknown something my brothers somehow thought worthwhile.
Shortly I came to realize that all those fraternity boys were not like my own big brothers. In fact, quite a few of them were closer to the opposite, fine songs and ties at Sunday dinner notwithstanding. One of the members was sadistic to the fraternity dog, throwing him off the second story porch into the bushes to hear him howl. Late one Saturday night a taxi driver pulled up to the fraternity house and essentially dumped a member on the entry floor, dead drunk. One older member who had been in WWII, and who was referred to as our “trainer”, had a constant snide outlook. By objective standards he was just plain mean. (I supposed that meant we pledges were to be treated like horses or dogs.)
I began to wonder who these men were that I was associating with. Sure, there were some fine fellows among them, but what was all this secret stuff and jibber-jabber they were making us learn? Some members’ relatives were authentic Texas Germans; i.e., pre-World War I and II, had parked their ethnic prejudice/hatred, especially with another war an object to reset their ethnic hatred on.
My roommate Joe Hammond from El Paso and I were at least moderately committed to good school work. Living as we did at Brackenridge Hall near the fraternity house, both of us were pledges and went to the weekly indoctrination sessions. Some of the stuff was fun or funny, like ganging up on a member on his birthday to throw him into Littlefield Fountain or having to stand on your chair and sing your high school “hymn” or fight song. I could handle all that.
Our older ethnic German, quite possible by his constant sneer and hatred vented on us pledges might well have been a U boat commander in another war and time zone.
By snide remarks and other statements we pledges were given to understand that not every pledge would “make it.” There were references to previous unknown pledges who did not make it for various reasons, such as poor grades (flunking out), but primarily it was for not having the macho stuff to endure “hell week,” which was three days of semi-sadistic tests contrived by the less intelligent members for the perverse amusement of certain members. We pledges were made to walk like ducks while the members would pour catsup and drop eggs on us from the fraternity house second story porch at 300 West 27th Street, next door to Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
The climax to “rush” came late one night when some 30 odd members of the “pledge class” were blindfolded, “kidnapped,” then dumped at a remote place out in Travis Country. We pledges were left walking around blindfolded in a large circle, singing a ridiculous though not obscene song, while the members sneaked off.
It was at the end of the second day of this asinine nonsense that I decided fraternity was not for me. I hunted up my actual brother Paul and in anger plus disgust expressed my view about as follows; “Bim, I’ve had enough of this stuff and I’m checking out. I’ve made a few friends in the pledge class, but if this is brotherhood, then I want none of it.” I ranted on even in tears.
Paul (Bim) urged me not to quit, especially since I was only a week from formal initiation and the hazing was nearly over. He reminded me that I would be allowed to enter the third floor chapter hall (translate holy of holies) and would learn the mysteries of full fellowship in my brothers’ fraternity. An issue that remained unspoken between us was that both Bim as past president and Buddy, a Gung-Ho “Fiji,” would be disappointed and embarrassed were I to quit. With reluctance, I agreed to continue through “hell week.”
Did I make a mistake in not carrying out my intended resolve to quit which I expressed to Bim? Possibly so.
(Come to think of it a little more, I’ll change my position to “probably so.”) As a matter of fact, this may come as something of a surprise, because Bim and I never revisited the issue in the years since I expressed intent not to join the Fijis. For all I know, I may be deemed a traitor or at least a heretic by those who may look at me sideways should I attend the annual Fiji reunion at a beer joint in downtown San Antonio. At my advanced middle age I hate to give offense to brothers or shirt tail relatives or my dad’s side of the family.
The fact is, or was, I had an identity problem in the fraternity. It was assumed that I, as Frosty Smith’s little brother, was likewise enthusiastic about the useless drivel taught to pledges: the mystery, the history, the candles, the Greek names, and the men whose duty it was to ensure that the door to the chapter hall was well guarded. These and other important “secrets” were contained in a book called the Purple Pilgrim, which some called the fraternity’s “Bible.”
Can you imagine yourself in a position of having to teach something you knew to be false or even just inane? During my sophomore year at the University of Texas, located in Austin, Texas, I found myself having to teach that perverse stuff of the Purple Pilgrim to new pledges, as though it were substantive.
For the record, in Christian candor I’ll tell you, actual fathers and brothers in the bond, shirt tail relatives, the whole business of Greek letter college fraternities is flawed.
It just popped into my head that there was one time in my life when something from the Purple Pilgrim found its way into a conversation in an interesting way. Years after college and fraternity days, a neat Louisiana school teacher, today my wife, and I were growing interested in one another. Though she was still working on her Masters degree at LSU (where Buddy had gone for a year), she had never heard of the Fijis, but she dazzled me with lots of profoundly useless information such as the latitude and annual rainfall necessary to grow sugar cane on plantations in South Louisiana.
She had invited me to meet her folks in the college town of Hammond, LA. As we were crossing the Mississippi River by ferry into St. Francisville, I took the opportunity to astonish her with some of my fraternity knowledge. It went something like this:
“Hmmm, St. Francisville; that’s where the immortal Daniel Webster Crofts is buried,” I observed casually.
“Daniel Webster Crofts. You know, one of the Immortal Six.”
“Immortal Six? Who, might I ask, are the Immortal Six?” she continued.
“Were,” I corrected.
“OK, who were they?”
“The founders of the Fijis,” I responded as though that were a fact any sixth grade school teacher like Charis Jeanne should know.
She looked at me as if to say, “What have we here?”
We weren’t connecting. Charis later told me that she was going down the trail to the Fiji Islands, when what I meant by Fijis were members of the fraternity of Phi Gamma Delta.
I had one more arrow in my quiver to fire and I fired it. But it still wasn’t the right one.
“You’ll have to read about them in the Purple Pilgrim, but much of it is secret,” I told her.
Her look of passing curiosity changed to one of anxious concern, especially as we passed by the state mental hospital at Denham Springs, Louisiana. But we still weren’t connecting.
What if she had said thank you, but she would go on to Hammond by herself?
Perish the thought!
Fraternity well might be viewed as a stage in life, part of growing up, perhaps like the terrible “twosies” but for nearly grown college boys. There were and are some fine things that came out of the Fijis for me, especially two chemical engineers who joined me in CXI/Texmark several years later as limited partners. But that’s a different venue and another story. Unspoken aspects of fraternity life give me a problem. At the risk of being black-balled at the next Fiji Reunion, I’ll speak my minority opinion.
To all nephews, great nephews and others interested, for the sake of your own initiative, independence, and freedom of adventure, I would recommend that you not join a fraternity; i.e., a Greek letter, college, solely social fraternity.
From possibly so to probably not, let’s move this thing still down another notch to probably not. Fraternity was not for me as an average, friendly, West Texas boy, not an offspring from a family of psychological cripples. Who might a single teenage boy from the back of the room at CHAPTER Hall think he is/was when he points his thumb downward and shouts “BALL!”
Friends can be found lots of ways, most of which are far better than rush week, hell week, with or without any of the ritual nonsense that goes with fraternity and/or Purple Pilgrim equivalent. Consider the unnecessary embarrass-ment and hurt caused many a young man not accepted in a fraternity for trifling reasons. Isn’t there something artificial about joining an outfit, paying costly dues, playing at ritual with attendant jibber-jabber just to have a few instant “friends?”
When I found myself making a “pledge” to something supposed to be “my first and all powerful influence and rule of daily action”, it was too much. I was making a mistake, a commitment to something patently false, especially in the case of Frosty Smith, my oldest brother who died a few years ago.
(For the rest of this story and more by David Smith and “Texas Spirit,” go to www.totalrecallpress.com or www.amazon.com.)