A Penn State fraternity has lost its university recognition due to a hazing incident. Additionally, Delta Sigma’s alumni board has decided to close the fraternity's house.
I mention this because it reminds me of similar incidents in the past at Pittsburgh colleges, and it reminds me of my fraternity experiences.
Several years ago I was cleaning out the attic of my mom's old house and I pulled out a box and found my old fraternity paddle. Pulling the 20-inch-long wooden paddle out of the box, I was swept over by a mix of emotions I didn't quite understand -- surprise, nostalgia and embarrassment, mainly. As I held the hacked-up paddle in my hands, I looked at the gouges that I'd made in it by banging it off of the front porch wall of the old ATO house at Carnegie Mellon -- it was a ritual whereby one proved the sturdiness of his paddle -- and I shook my head, still feeling embarrassed. The whole servile nature of pledging a fraternity, the masochistic tinge to it and the near homo-eroticism of the paddling aspect of the initiation ceremony, looking at it years later, made me feel like a chump.
I recently admitted to a friend that I was ashamed that I'd been in a frat. "You shouldn't be embarrassed," he said. Having never been in a fraternity, he doesn't know. And since I've been in one, I know that these places of social activity and charitable work can be magnets for shameful behavior.
Sharing a common wall with Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Alpha Tau Omega was not nearly so egregious in its hazing as was SAE, which had a notorious "Hell Week," when pledges were abused and made to do chores and kept up at all hours while trying to not flunk out of college. I know this because I had friends there, while I was a pledge and after I joined ATO.
But ATO did have its own hazing, and maybe that was its downfall. Several years ago I went to an ATO reunion party during Homecoming Weekend at CMU -- it was held in the University Center because the "house" no longer exists. The chapter lost its charter with the university and its university-owned house several years ago. The reunion was in a room overlooking the football stadium during a football game -- many ATOs at CMU were football players -- and there was a good turnout of brothers from the 1950s up through the last generations of the 1990s, but the feeling was strange. Without a house to go back to, we just had the old glory days to BS about and some catching up to do.
I was talking with a younger guy about the old days and I mentioned that a conservative Jewish fraternity that reportedly doesn’t drink now occupies the house. And the old oak bar, which the brothers made in the 1960s, had supposedly been sold off to Pi Kappa Alpha. It seemed the ultimate insult to CMU's former "Animal House," which was known more than any other frat on campus for the crazy partying and irreverent attitude of its brothers. I asked him why they lost their charter.
"You guys were the ones that ended up killing it," he said to me with an annoyed look.
"You remember how you had the ritual of taking the pledges out to steal a Christmas tree? Well, you brothers took us pledges out and had us cut down this tree."
"Yeah, I remember," I said, laughing at the thought.
"Well, it was the wrong tree, because some rich person owned it and they were pissed, and they complained to the university, and the university started getting on our backs to pay for this tree."
"Why didn't you guys just pay for it?"
"It was a huge, fully mature blue spruce, and the owner wanted like $2,000 or something. We were just college students -- we didn't have any money. So when we didn't pay it back, the university was pissed, and that was the beginning of the end."
"You guys screwed up. No wonder you lost your charter," I said.
"You guys, the brothers in your pledge class, are the ones who led us to it," he said, laughing cynically and shaking his head at me. "You yourself," he said, pointing at me. "You and a few others picked out this huge tree and told us, 'Cut down that tree,' even though it was obviously on the lawn of some Squirrel Hill bigwig's house. We didn't want to, but you guys insisted. And cutting down that tree was the beginning of the end."
It could be that some of what he said is right. Perhaps the sins of the brothers are visited upon the pledges, unto the third generation, when they lose the charter. Maybe we deserved to lose the house, and maybe my generation of brothers helped it happen through our hazing. Ironically, I had taken a stand against hazing just after becoming a full-fledged brother, writing an essay explaining why I felt we should end one particular type of hazing that was an unofficial part of the initiation ceremony: the Walk of Abuse.
The Walk of Abuse was when a string of blindfolded pledges, one steadying himself with a hand on the shoulder of the one in front, walked around the basement of the house while the brothers punched and slapped them and hurled curses, eggs, beer, cold water and spit on them. Part of the later initiation also involved having sex with a chicken -- a ruse kept up to the last moment by brothers who actually brought a live chicken and tormented it and put it in the girl's bathroom, with a pile of condoms, and took the pledges in there, one by one, to see how much they could freak them out.
I wrote my little essay against hazing because during my Walk of Abuse, one of the brothers surprised me when he punched me in the balls -- I happened to see who it was and the spiteful look on his face as he was low-blowing me, as my blindfold had fallen enough to one side for me to see him through the corner of my eye. It disgusted me, and I wrote the essay, which was considered by the membership but not acted upon.
Alpha Tau Omega fraternity is a charitable and worthy organization, but like many of the other original American fraternities founded to strengthen the bonds of brotherhood after the Civil War, it has lost some of its chapters because of the poor decisions of its members. Virtue, truth and love are the three watchwords of this fraternity, whose emblem features a Christian cross, and yet things like the Walk of Abuse, forced Christmas tree cutting and far worse abuses likely still occur in some chapters. Peer-pressuring your suggestible younger fraternity "brother" into drinking far too much might separate the men from the boys, but it also too often ends with young people dying from alcohol poisoning.
In my fraternity, many were known to cheat with each other's girlfriends -- both their friends within the fraternity and those not in it. The behavior was instilled in us, to a large, degree by the older "brothers" who did the same thing. As soon as a friend's back was turned or the opportunity presented itself, they'd sleep with his girl. This sort of behavior might not have been hazing, but it wasn't helpful.
I quit after a couple of years as an active member and stayed on as a "social" member for another year or so.
Finding my paddle years back, I felt myself blush at the thought of what that stupid hunk of wood represented to me. I turned it over and over in my hands, feeling the weight of it and tracing a finger through one of the gouges. I inspected the signatures on it from the brothers, which I had been required to get before I could be initiated, and noticed how some were cursory, others warm, some referred to me by a nickname, others not at all, reflecting my rapport with the individuals. Shaped like an old-style wooden cutting board, my oak paddle had fractured during one test-hit on the front wall, shearing off one side of it and giving it the appearance of a meat-cleaver. Holding it by the handle, my fingers comfortable in the grip, I brandished it to myself for a second. I remembered being proud of that thing when I was a pledge, and now it made me cringe. I wasn't quite sure if I wanted to take it home, because of all it represented, even if others didn't realize what it represented to me. So, knowing that it would be tossed out by someone else if I put it back into the box, I did just that. Thankfully, I haven't seen that paddle since.A version of this story was previously published in Pulp.