Saturday, November 18, 2006

Old Greek Letters On the Wall

In that haughty old way of debonair gray men swirling brandy snifters at the local club, surrounded by like business tycoons who chortle at life’s foibles because the plight of its triviality doesn’t affect them, let me say this: I’m a Fraternity man. I have been so for nearly half of my life, longer than I’ve been formally educated, longer than I’ve lived on my own, longer than I’ve been married.

I remember nothing more from my days at the institution of higher education than my time spent being an active brother in my fraternity, as the rest of my time spent earning my degree was a utilitarian function of making my grades each quarter, and while most people are “working for the weekend,” I was “studying for the fraternity.” My degree was inevitable (though I did have my share of setbacks—what writer fails English 321?), but I knew then I would only have a short time to spend in that wonderful period of legally being an adult without the responsibilities all that entailed.

However, I’m not going to marginalize my memories by merely recanting the tales of debauchery and irresponsibility all for the name of the fraternal order, though there are many—San Francisco, Reno, Santa Barbara, Laughlin, Vegas—but there was more than that. Instead, I will share with you the spirit of an organization I so dearly enjoyed, and how I have decided to return it after so many years.

The good thing about Cal Poly, Pomona, is that it is a big school with lots of people and it was close to home, and the bad thing about Cal Poly, Pomona, is that it is a big school with lots of people…and it was close to home. I dearly wanted to go away to college, but that just wasn’t in the cards for me, and I spent the first two weeks of school not knowing a soul and barely talking to anyone, and since most of my friends had scattered across the country in search of an education, there wasn’t much in my life to do; I guess I could have found a job, no wait, on second thought. Though I did make some friends outside of the fraternity, they were fleeting relationships based on the quarter system of the school. Every time the class ended, who knew if of when I would see that person again, but granted, I did have some people continually appear in most all of my classes (as if they were following my class plan), I didn’t make friends with them beyond the classroom.

I only knew of one other person in the whole sea of 18,000 students (Ann Flynn, a long-time family friend from before I even started Kindergarten), but I rarely saw her and after a while, I didn’t see her again until my high school reunion 10 years later (and she only went there for a year). Anyway, it was a lonely place to be three days a week, as I had classes all day on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and Tuesdays and Thursdays off, nicely.

The only thing I knew about fraternities and the clout that surrounded their mystique was what I saw of “Animal House,” which is probably a lot of people’s first and sometimes only impression of Greek life, so I didn’t know what to make of the booths and the flyers and all of the fuss made by the dozen different fraternities on campus. I read the handouts that were given to me in front of the student union and I was vaguely interested in what it was all about. At least I would meet some friends and have something to do. I went to the information nights and a couple of the events put on by a few of the chapters, and there was a group of guys I met at one of the house that I liked. They seemed naturally down to earth, and the brothers I spoke with were genuine and straightforward. At home, Mom saw the flyers and suggested that I do it, as she wanted to join a sorority when she went to Cal State LA but my grandparents wouldn’t let her, for whatever reasons.

On “Bid Day,” the day each fraternity offered perspective pledges entrance into the fraternity via the pledge class, I thumbed through the invitations and found my name listed under the fraternity of my choice: Sigma Phi Epsilon.

And I didn’t look back.

Our Fall 1991 Pledge Class (Alpha Zeta), now 15 years ago, consisted of 21 men at the beginning, but three months later, only 18 initiated… yes, in that double secret initiation ritual I cannot speak of, of course. Dr. Rico, aka Nathan’s dad, was one of my Pledge Brothers and now one of my best friends, and frequent reader of this very blog Brother Brain lives only a few streets from me.

Pledging is similar to boot camp in many regards; the pledge class is the platoon, its members new recruits, and the rest of the fraternity is the drill instructor with the charge of conforming a bunch of guys into a group of men befitting the badge. Say what you will of the process or the end result, but if it wasn’t for the Brothers of Sigma Phi Epsilon, Cal Poly would have been a lonely place to get an education indeed.

Of course, this isn’t to say that I liked every single guy in the fraternity either; I’m not that amicable. When I was an active brother, our chapter (Cal Mu—which means that it was 12th chapter to establish itself in California) had nearly 100 men, and it would be foolish of me to suggest that the personalities of every single one of those guys meshed nicely with mine.

As with any group of men, you become very close with two or three of them, and for whatever reason, Rico and Robert became part of my triangle clique, so much so that we were known as the Three Rs, mostly inseparable, but each one of them fed the two major portions of my Id: Rico was grounded and focused, willing to just sit in a bar and watch the people go by, which fostered my introversion and quiet shyness; while Robert was passionate and extreme, always ready to “take it outside,” and he was handy to have around when my untamed and extroverted side wanted to burn the bar to the ground.

I see one of them all the time and I miss the other greatly.

However, it is hard to describe the complex relationship I enjoyed with the fraternity for the nearly five years I was in college. We played sports together like a team; we lived together like a family; we stuck up for each other like a gang; we supported each other like a church congregation; we argued like politicians; and we confided in each other like priests.

But the years pass, the times change, and life’s evolution takes its twists and turns. I got married to a Chi Omega sorority girl (thanks to a meeting at a fraternity event that I’ll tell you about one day), and some of the relationships fell by the wayside. Peter Miller disappeared soon after he stood up with me at my wedding. Marc Ruiz, son of a Mexican consulate and my roommate for nearly two years—with whom we enjoyed abusing his diplomatic immunity—moved back to Mexico and last I heard was running a big hotel in Central America. Things like that happen, and out of the 18 pledges of the Alpha Zeta Pledge Class, I can only tell you, with any degree of certainty where only two of them are.

I moved on with my life, every now and again, coming across a Brother when I wouldn’t have expected it. Kara and I ran into Keith “Flipper” Franks, also a roommate, at Target one day, and we saw Kevin Cutter and his Chi Omega (Kara’s sister) Hope in Sam’s Club one afternoon. It is pleasant, but like I said, life goes on and I don’t have the same relationships I once did with these men. Though we are bound by the ritual of the fraternity, they are no longer my family, my teammates, my priests.

Fast forward 15 years, and Kara and I went to one of her high school friend’s daughter’s birthday and I saw one of my Brothers there as well (he is also one of Kara’s high school friends). He suggested that I come out to help with the Alumni Board of the fraternity, a segment of alumni who still offer advice and support to the active members. I said I would be happy to help, but a year went by until I heard from him again. He suggested that I come out to the Sig Ep charter chapter at UC Riverside and give them a hand, see what area I could offer some assistance.

Why not?

Two weeks ago, I drove out and found the chapter president’s house, what is actively being used as the Red Door (all Sig Ep houses have red doors), and the second I opened the door, five years of fraternity life came rushing back to me in the form of couches, computers, books, guys lounging around in grubby jeans and t-shirts complaining about finals or fees or tests and papers due. The house was filthy, as I expected it to be, as ours was, and the bathroom was worse—I’m glad I was wearing shoes.

Moments after introductions were made, a list of unclaimed responsibilities found its way into my lap, and the president of the alumni board asked me which one I would be interested in taking on. At that point, I was only interested in getting a feel for how they were doing, where they were headed and what kind of guys they were. I didn’t intend on getting involved, at least not just then.

I made the mistake of pointing out what I did for a living—wordsmith and all—so that was the nail on the coffin. Secretary was open, naturally, and it could only be fitting that I take on that duty. I’m not sure what kept me speaking, but I couldn’t shut up about the fact that I was chapter Secretary when I was an active member. That was it. It was settled. Congratulations, they said, “you’re the new Secretary.”

Shanghaied, yes, but I didn’t mind too much. I was there to help, and volunteering my time seems to be a phase I’m currently in, so why not jump right in and get started. There was a stigma I enjoyed by being there. I was one of the old crew; in fact, nearly the oldest one there as far as I could tell, part of the old school pledging brothers (Sig Ep doesn’t pledge anymore, but instead has open enrollment that takes the perspective member through a series of steps leading toward initiation; I don’t know much about it, but look here for more information). With that age comes knowledge, respect and wisdom. I survived college and I currently reside in the “real world,” the ultimate goal of each of those men at the meeting.

And being that old guy—the alumnus that came out of the woodwork to help the fledgling chapter get on its feet—I got to see the exuberance of their youth from the other side of the coin. I was beyond the parties and the sorority girls and the drinking and the annual Carlson Leadership Academy, the Buchannan Cups, Greek Week, Intrafraternity games and the eternal struggle for campus supremacy among the other fraternities.

It seemed like eons ago when all of that was at the forefront of my life, and it was refreshing to hear that it hasn’t changed much in the 15 years I had been absent from it.

Let them have at it. It’s their turn. I’m one of the elders now, which means I sit in my wigwam dispensing wisdom and platitudes about the old days and how good they were, too far removed from the warrior days to make any good use of a well-planted tomahawk. Nope, let the tribe whoop it up and I’ll just sit back on my buffalo rug, smoke my peace pipe and watch.

In my office, always above the door, hangs in a dusty frame my Certificate of Brotherhood to the hallowed halls of Sigma Phi Epsilon, the old Greek letters on the wall, one of the only things in my office, besides my pledge book, that reminds me of the time my life changed for the better when I agreed to pledge that October afternoon in 1991.

It was fun while it lasted, but all good things come to an end.

This time, I’m just happy to volunteer.

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