The bag was whipped off my head and I found myself standing, in complete darkness, in a field side-to-side with the other 26 pledges. The smell of early morning dew and cow shit permeated the air. A handful of brothers walked up and down the line, stopping in front of every other pledge to shine a head lamp in their eyes and challenge them with fraternal trivia.
“Raging Autism, what are the names of the founding fathers?”
“Susan Boyle, what does brotherhood mean to you?”
“Failed Abortion,” that was me, “What does … you know what? I don’t even care. Just drop and give me 20.”
It was fall 2011 and we had spent the entire semester pledging [fraternity redacted] at [school redacted]. Now, it was the final night of Hell Week. The eve of initiation. The home stretch leading to official brotherhood. And like any home stretch, we were going to have to sprint to make it to the finish line. A whistle blew.
We took off running into the darkness in front of us, duck boots sloshing through mud and bovine feces. Ricky Martin’s Wet Dream tripped over a particularly large pile and fell to the ground. I backtracked to help him to his feet and continue the back-and-forth sprint. A whistle blew again.
“Bows and toes!”
We lined up and dropped to the grass, the weight of our bodies resting on the bends of our elbows and the tips of our toes. We shouted out words of encouragement, pushing each other to refuse to fall to the ground. When a pledge’s arms began to shake, a brother would stick a boot under his belly to help him support himself. “Don’t quit on us now, pledge – you got this.” It was the kind of reliance on one another in the face of physical challenge that I had cherished the most when playing sports in high school just months prior, a dependence on fellow man that I had never thought I would get to re-experience after graduating. The whistle blew again.
Smegma Hunter and Prolapsed Uterus volunteered and lied down on their stomachs, backs arched, beside each other.
“Ready?” a brother called. “And … fight.”
The two began slamming into each other from the ridiculous position, howling like walruses and struggling to stifle their laughter. “ARF ARF ARF ARF.” After around thirty seconds, the winner was named.
“Prolapsed Uterus, you win. Give us a walrus blast.”
“Great job, boys. Bring it in.”
We were stunned. We had never heard the words “great job,” or anything close to them before. Could we finally be — dare I say it — finished?
“Y’all have been working hard all semester, and we know it’s been a tough week,” a brother spoke up. “Who’s hungry?”
We all looked at one another, then nodded slowly.
“Great, because we all pitched in to make you something.”
Two brothers came out of the darkness, each carrying something. Upon closer inspection, I could make out the toothy grins of two jack-o-lantern buckets, the kind a child would tote from door to door on Halloween. But the smell that wafted from the smiling cauldrons was something far less sweet than bite-sized candy bars. Each was filled to the brim with what I later found out was a mix of dip spit, bong water, vodka, milk, and leftovers. We circled up and began passing the buckets around.
What ensued was the most savagely beautiful experience of my life. Cheering, high-fiving, adrenaline, vomit. Dinners were lost. Heroes were gained. It was something that would seem vile to anyone who never lived through such a thing, but as I threw back the ghastly concoction, I couldn’t help but swell with pride — a mutual feeling amongst my pledge class and the classes that came before. The fact that an outside observer would find the act shocking and repulsive is what made it so special. It wasn’t born out of cruelty or peer pressure or fear. It was born out of an inherent desire within every human being to be able to look back at their lives and say they did something that not just anyone would do.
Slowly but surely, the buckets were drained. A brother reached inside the last bucket and pulled out a stick of butter caked in the cocktail juices.
“One of you eats this, and you’re done.”
Unprompted, Profoundly Handicapped stepped forward into the middle of the circle. He was the runt of the class. The pledge who never remembered the hometowns of the brothers or their favorite drinks, who struggled the most during push-ups and wall sits. His whole life, he had been cut from the team or had missed the grade. But now, illuminated by the spotlight of dozens of headlamps fixed on him in that dark field, Profoundly Handicapped was about to become a legend.
He took the stick of butter, held it in the air as if to say, “cheers,” then scarfed it down. The circle of us surrounding him erupted. He threw back his head and howled like a beast into the night sky.
The following morning, we arrived at the back porch of the village mansion dressed in blazers and khakis, ready for initiation. A brother sat in a rocking chair.
“Everyone go back to your dorms,” he told us. “We’re under investigation for hazing and you’re not allowed to be here. Wait for one of us to text you.”
We left the Greek village a bit surprised, but not too worried. We all figured it was just another mind fuck. It wasn’t.
To this day, no one knows for sure what got us caught. Some speculate that a member of Greek council saw the jack-o’-lanterns of pledge cocktail sitting in the kitchen. Others say that the council member saw some of the bizarre things we had to collect during our scavenger hunt – including Pokemon cards and gag porn – lying in the hallway.
Either way, nationals soon arrived in town, and with them came a mandatory, individual interview before a panel for every pledge and brother. At first, the questions were familiar. “What are the names of the founding fathers?” “What does brotherhood mean to you?” Then came the kicker. “We know what took place during the final week of this chapter’s pledgeship. Tell us exactly who did what to you.”
I responded the way we had agreed upon before entering the interviews. “I did nothing that I was uncomfortable with,” I said. It was true. We were never in danger. Sure, the pledge cocktail finale may have crossed the line, but even that was unanimously regarded as something we were all glad to have done. Of course, the way we felt about things did not matter.
A few days after the interview, the entire chapter was herded into a meeting room on campus. We were each asked our names and handed an envelope as we walked in. A skinny man with thick glasses stood at a podium between two policemen. He spoke like the host of some fashion designer competition that my mom would always watch on TV.
“Boys, please open your envelopes to see if you are still members of this fraternity,” he said.
I looked down at the envelope, which read “Brotherhood For Life” under a cross and crescent symbol. I tore it open to reveal a folded paper within and held my breath. “I better not have just gone through all of that to NOT be in the Fraternity,” I thought to myself. I folded back the paper. I was out. Done. Despite being a pledge who was merely doing what he was told the entire semester, nationals had decided to permanently remove me from the chapter. I quickly realized that I wasn’t alone. The room exploded.
“You mother fuckers!”
“Are you fucking kidding me!?”
“Why don’t you tell me I’m kicked out to my face you fucking pussies!?”
Fifty-four brothers and a dozen pledges were removed, gutting the chapter to only twenty men. Days later, the local headlines were written, our letters were stripped from the house, and the fraternity crest, which was carved into the brick on the side of the mansion, was covered in ivy.
A fellow pledge brother of mine, who was also kicked out, founded a new fraternity. Myself and much of my pledge class followed in his footsteps. The remaining members continued to rebuild. Neither of us have pledging processes that resemble what we did back in 2011.
Nevertheless, through it all, we learned that pledging created a bond between us that we will always hold sacred, regardless of the letters we wear. We ate together. We studied together. We held secret parties every Wednesday night that the initiated brothers didn’t know about. We learned to make the transition into college life together. Of course, these kinds of friendships can be achieved without pledging, but no other college path forges a friendship on the wild and unforgettable scale that pledging does. For something considered by outside parties to be sadistic and demeaning, it sure did create some fond memories.
On the fateful day of our sentencing, we all walked out of the meeting room and into the heart of campus. One brother stood in the center and raised a paddle in the air. We began with a soft rumble of voices.“Oooooooooooooohh.” Then it grew louder. “OOOOOOOOOOOHH.” The paddle dropped and we shouted in unison.
“Highty-tighty God almighty who the hell am I?
Flim-flam Goddamn I’m a [fraternity redacted],
We’re the best fraternity and all the others suck,
[fraternity redacted] ra ra fuck!”.