Souvenirs Tell Stories: Part 3 — My Fraternity Paddle

A while back, I started writing stories about souvenirs. My initial story was about the first trophy I ever earned when I was 12. This small trophy reminded me of how I diligently practiced playing baseball until I was good enough to make the 1963 Wee-Men’s All-Star team.

My second story focused on the college beanie I had to wear as a freshman in the fall of 1969. This souvenir reminded me of what it was like to live away from home for the first time and the silly rituals we endured, rituals meant to unify us as a class — a class that would live and study together for four years and graduate in the spring of 1973.

This next souvenir is also from my freshman year, and while the stories associated with it are somewhat humorous, my overall recollection of that spring semester of 1970 is not overly positive. The souvenir is my fraternity paddle.

Image from Jim LaBate

At the time, I lived in one of the three all-male dormitories on campus. (The college had just become co-educational, but no girls lived on campus that year.) I lived on the east wing on the fourth floor with about 20 other freshmen. The north wing of the same floor was mostly juniors and seniors, and they had a fraternity, one that they encouraged us to join. Sigma Phi Kappa was not an academic fraternity nor a service fraternity but pretty much a party fraternity. And we couldn’t just join, of course; we had to survive the initiation if we were foolish enough to pledge. I was definitely foolish.

As an immature 18-year-old, I convinced myself that the experience would be good for me, a rite of passage and a test of my manhood. In reality, it was a test of peer pressure, a test that I was not smart enough or strong enough to pass. Thus, I endured six weeks of hazing, a blindfolded mystery ride/treasure hunt, and a hell night that included verbal, physical, and mental abuse — all of it ridiculous.

“I solemnly pledge and promise to never reveal the secrets of Sigma Phi Kappa.”

Yes, I made that promise, and I am about to break it. I have verbally told many of these stories before, but I have never put them down in writing until now. I assume the statute of limitations on such foolish promises expires when we receive our AARP cards.

During the six weeks of our initiation, we were never publicly humiliated. Thank God! Instead, about a dozen of us had to gather in the north hallway each Thursday night from 9:00 to midnight to demonstrate our stupidity. We had to do push-ups, chug warm beer, do sit-ups, chug warm beer, and then compete with our fellow pledges as entertainment for the upperclassmen before chugging more warm beer. I’m not sure throwing up was required, but it occurred often.

During those six weeks, we also had to secretly complete silly tasks or face additional punishment on Thursday night. One of our tasks was to make and decorate a fraternity paddle.

Fortunately, one guy in our group worked for the college and had access to the campus wood shop. There, he was able to cut oak paddles for all of us, paddles that were about the size of a tennis racket but shaped more like a small guitar. As evidenced in the photos above, I added a little wood burning trim, a bit of paint, and a clear stain to create my masterpiece with my name and the fraternity name on the front and a ridiculous poem on the back: “My bones will probably rattle when you finish with this paddle” (more on that later).

On the final Friday night of our six-week initiation, we were divided into three groups of four and blindfolded for our mystery ride/treasure hunt. Two upperclassmen drove us for about an hour and dropped us off in a farmer’s field with a treasure map. Fortunately, the moon was out that night, so we could read the map and try to decipher the clue: “Don’t get too keyed up about this treasure.”

We needed an hour or so to hike from one field to the next and from one deserted road to another, but we finally found our treasure: an old, beat up manual typewriter which was missing a few keys. Naturally, we had to take turns carrying that treasure back to the campus, a hike that required another hour or so before we found a main road with a phone booth, so we could use our dime, the only cash we were allowed to carry, to call someone for a ride back home. We were all relieved to be back by midnight, so we could get a good night’s sleep before Hell Night on Saturday.

Hell Night began at 6:00 p.m., and lasted a full 12 hours, and we were again blindfolded during most of that time. The whole experience was mostly a stupid mind game to test our resolve. We could quit at any time of course, but then we wouldn’t be inducted into the fraternity.

First, those in charge had us pick numbers from a hat to indicate how many times we would be struck with our paddles during the night. My number was 129, and they started us off with three strong hits on the rear end. (Yes, they were painful.) Later that night we got four more, and later still, five. They want us to believe — which I did — that we would eventually get the full 129 before the night was over. Fortunately, we did not, but the fear of that number might cause us to quit.

Around midnight, after more general hazing that involved gross foods, warm beer, and cigars, we faced another mind game. They told us to remove one shoe and sock and prepare to face a physical test. While still blindfolded, we had to hold that bare foot above a basin of boiling water. They explained that when we placed our foot in the boiling water, we would get a minor burn that would leave a permanent mark, one that would serve as a unique physical sign of our fraternity membership.

Image from Wikimedia

Yes, I was nervous, but by then, I had a hunch that they weren’t really going to burn us; they simply wanted to see if we were willing to be burned. And since we were blindfolded, we couldn’t actually see the boiling water; we could only hear the sizzle and feel the moisture as we dangled our foot over the water. Fortunately, my hunch was right. The boiling water was near my foot, but I actually stepped into a nearby basin of ice water instead. Cool relief, indeed.

Finally just before sunrise, again after even more general hazing, all the upper-class fraternity members gathered in one room, and they brought us into that room one at a time for the final ruse. There, they removed our blindfolds and gave us the bad news: we did not qualify for admission.

Of course, they gave us some bogus reasons, but, again, it was all a set-up. They wanted to see our reactions to this negative news: some swearing perhaps, some exhausted crying, or even a tantrum of some sort. I gave them humble pie instead.

“I am so disappointed to hear this,” I lied, “but I understand and accept your decision. If allowed, I will try to join again next year.”

Then, they thanked me for trying out and opened the door for me to leave. And just when I began to doubt my own analysis of what was really happening, they pulled me back in and welcomed me into their membership.

By then, exhausted and totally spent, I pretended to be happy, but I really just wanted to sleep. I didn’t care any more.

As a fraternity member during the rest of that year and the following year, I simply went through the motions. I attended the meetings and the keg parties, I played on the fraternity’s intramural teams, and, I am embarrassed to admit, I even helped to initiate the next year’s class. Fortunately, however, Sigma Phi Kappa died a slow death caused by general apathy.

In its heyday on an all-male campus, this fraternity had provided a small family of sorts for innocent and immature young men who needed a place to belong. By my junior year, though, I had grown up and found my niche. I was a member of the baseball team, and I served as a resident assistant in the dormitory. In addition, the college had finally allowed females to live on campus, so I became much more interested in co-ed campus activities, and, apparently, so did everyone else.

Looking back, a small part of me is proud of the fact that I proved myself by passing this self-imposed test. A much bigger part of me, though, regrets that I caved into the peer pressure. I wish I had been stronger. I wish I had been smarter. I guess pledging for this fraternity was just one of those mistakes that we all have to make as young people before we figure out who we are and who we want to be.

Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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