A legacy thinks twice about joining a frat
By Kevin Uhrich 08/14/2014
Recent reports about 19-year-old Armando Villa, whose relatives believe died as a result of a hazing ritual conducted by his pals at Cal State University, Northridge, conjured memories of my own brief traumatic time in a fraternity, a “jock frat” at a college I attended in southern Pennsylvania in 1977 and ’78.
Why Villa tried to join Pi Kappa Phi wasn’t immediately clear, though I imagine his reason for reportedly walking barefoot and without water through the hot and treacherous Angeles National Forest with seven other pledges had something to do with a strong desire to belong to something that he thought was special.
In my case, three older brothers went to a college located in the suburbs of our hometown, the two younger boys playing football and baseball. They both belonged to a frat, Kappa Lambda Sigma, KALO, though neither was active by the time I got with the program. In high school, I also played sports and anxiously looked forward to the day I could join KALO once I enrolled in the little Methodist liberal arts college.
From virtually my first day on campus I became friends with two of the extremely few black people attending the school. By the time came for me to meet my future frat “brothers” the following spring semester, it was common knowledge to anyone who cared that we three went everywhere together: meals, events, football games. Apparently, the exclusively white frat brotherhood knew all about our friendship when I was invited to a pre-pledging party.
“Hey Uhrich,” a very large and extremely drunk white football-playing frat brother from Philadeplphia bellowed just as I entered the room full of guys. “Still screwing that n----- chick?”
“What did you say?” I yelled in utter disbelief. In all the times that I was exposed to the frat as a young teen, I had never heard anyone talk like this. Certainly my real brothers didn’t use such language. Then someone else, another guy from Philly, tossed out another racist, sexist comment about my friends, both of them women.
“You know what? Forget you guys,” I shouted angrily, actually using another word that begins with “F” as I shot the room the middle fingers on both hands before storming out.
Incredibly, at dinner later that night, the slobs at the party — now among them the frat president, who wasn’t at the party, and the two guys who made the offensive comments — issued heartfelt apologies as they turned in their trays to me at the campus kitchen, where I worked after class. At 19, I was genuinely impressed by what seemed like real remorse, so I accepted their apologies. Then again, I was a potential dues-paying legacy, which I only realized later probaby best explained why they were all so contrite.
I have to admit, the pledging experience had its moments, but mostly those of my own making. One was “Daniel Boone Night,” which began with two frat brothers blindfolding another pledge and me and essentially kidnapping us. They forced us to drink beer while they drove us around for a couple of hours, then dumped us on a cold, dark and desolate road in Pennsylvania Dutch farm country. Having grown up in this town, I immediately knew where we were and one phone call from a gas station not far away did the trick. My partner and I got back to campus pretty easily, well before our red-faced tormenters. This was as unusual as it was embarrassing and infuriating for these upperclassmen.
“Treasure Hunt Night” was another victory for the pledges. Here, each pledge traveled to another campus, stole something, then brought it back. I had a friend at Franklin and Marshall in nearby Lancaster, so I went there that weekend. After a Friday night of drinking Billy Beer and listening to Peter Frampton, Fleetwood Mac and the Rolling Stones in his dorm room, then wandering around the campus at 2 the next morning, we literally stumbled upon an ornately engraved, beautifully painted and laminated wooden shield hanging by two loose screws on the sloping, snow-covered front lawn of the house. This was the college’s lacrosse jock frat’s house and its coat of arms. As music blared and drunken brothers partied inside, we quickly sobered up, jamming snow in our armpits, devised a plan and snagged this true treasure, one which later briefly hung in the frat room at the dorm.
But there were other times that weren’t so much fun, when pledges didn’t beat the frat at its own twisted games. On most school nights, the other pledges and I were called into the dorm and forced to line up face-front against a cinderblock wall in a darkened hallway. We stood ramrod straight while frat brothers walked behind us, sometimes spitting gibberish in our ears, sometimes swatting us with wooden paddles, thus ignoring a school prohibition against paddling implemented the previous year. They didn’t care. Like junior drill sergeants drunk on power and alcohol, they made us sprint laps around the dorm and do pushups, situps and pullups until we collapsed or threw up. Often they force-fed us concoctions made of white Crisco cooking grease, chewing tobacco, tobacco spit, snuff, anchovies and other disgusting but digestible ingredients.
On one school day, pledges were required to walk around campus backwards with their ankles tied together. Another time they had to put bags over their heads. I didn’t care for these ideas and simply refused to walk backwards or wear a bag. Nor did I call the frat brothers “sir,” as required, creating some friction with a few of the older guys, some of whom I played with on the lacrosse team and others I personally knew through my real brothers long before enrolling.
This growing lack of respect on my part didn’t help improve our overall situation when the brothers decided to do things to us, like taking us outside in below freezing weather late one night, putting Alka Seltzer tabs in our mouths and running us around the snow-covered track. Someone could have easily gagged to death on all the foam fizzing from our noses and mouths at the end of that mile.
But the worst part was the Meeting of the Board, so called for the wooden plank that one would be paddled with during the frat’s weekly get-togethers. Only here, partly due to the prohibition and partly because it sounded like fun, they improvised, instead using a piece of rope to whip our behinds. Nice guys, huh?
When my turn came, the nervous nitwit swinging the rope hit my hand, which was covering my scrotum, and it nabbed the nail of my pinky, yanking it out, uleashing a small geyser of blood and prompting a visit to the emergency room. Honestly, I was taking 15 units, working in the kitchen, playing lacrosse and dabbling in the campus newspaper. I had enough of this craziness. Upset over my bloody finger, before leaving for the hospital I stood before the room full of guys and essentially told them all to screw themselves while flipping them the bird with the blood-stained hand. That moment marked the second time I had done this to these guys in just more than a month. Maybe I should have quit, as many others had — as my mom insisted I do. But I didn’t. I wanted to see this thing through, if only to irritate my torturers. All that remained was another week and then the last gathering, Hell Night. I could hang on that long, or so I thought.
At sundown on that last night, pledges gathered at the dorm’s back door. There we were blindfolded, then told to hang onto the backs of each other’s jackets as we were run like a team of ponies through knee-deep snow. Cold, exhausted, disoriented and still blindfolded, the remaining pledges and I — now seven of a starting class of 18 — were led to the basement of an old, unused brick building on campus and stripped down to the jockstraps we were previously instructed to put on that morning.
Barefoot, still blinded and now all but naked, we were put through a series of stations. At one, pledges were spun around, turned upside down and dunked in a barrel of ice-cold water. At another, we were spoon-fed dogfood, white fluffo cooking grease and God only knows what else. At some point, we were forced to stand on a chair and tie a 10-pound weight around our penises. We held out the weight and blindly trusted our brothers to cut the rope before we dropped it. With just enough light in the dungeon-like cellar, a Polaroid picture was snapped of me just before I dropped the weight. I really hated these guys. Just the same, I did as they said .
After the blindfolds came off and we were allowed to dress, we were invited to the frat’s “afterparty.” Here we would just forget the past eight weeks of torture and be brothers, equals.
“No hard feelings,” one of the more sadistic guys said while tapping a beer from the party keg.
“Hard feelings? It makes me sick just to look at you, man. I can’t stand any of you guys. I only did this to prove that I could do it, and I just did it. And now it’s over,” I said, turning to others who were now craning their necks to hear. Taking advantage of the impromptu audience, I reminded my drunken faux bros how they burned the beautiful shield — my shield — at halftime of the home lacrosse game we played against F&M. I watched in equal parts disbelief and rage from the sidelines as they set it ablaze at the far end of the outdoor sports complex. This is what these idiots did to the greatest trophy ever seized in the history of their own stupid contest. How could they be trusted with anything? There were no apologies issued following this unbelievably stupid act, which I later came to believe was intended as much for me to see as our opponents from F&M.
“Just do me a favor, fellas. From here on, if you guys see me coming, you don’t need to say hi, ’cause I won’t. If we see each other at a party, just keep moving. And, oh yeah, I almost forgot, screw yourselves” (again, not really saying “screw”).
After having my say, I chugged my beer, flipped them off one last time and left, oddly or appropriately enough ending my career in the frat with the very same words and gestures with which it started. And you know what? I didn’t miss those guys one bit. All but a few were anything but special. I reunited with my original friends, Janice (a North Carolina native who wanted to be a nurse, like my mom) and Marcia (an actuarial science major from Baltimore), made other friends and my grades improved. Whaddaya know?
Notwithstanding Villa’s death, today’s fraternities are much tamer than they were in my time, but do yourself a favor: Be wary. If you join, know exactly what you are getting into. The truth is both of my real brothers urged against joining, advice which I ignored. And like Mom, they also said I should quit after the fingernail incident, but I didn’t, although in retrospect I should have.
In the case of Villa, soon after his death due to heat stroke on July 1 CSUN officials reportedly ordered Pi Kappa Phi to cease operations while authorities investigate. It might be worth mentioning that the frat described above was banned from campus a few years ago and was ultimately disbanded.
All I can really say to a kid with his mind made up is just think twice about starting something that might be too time-consuming, scholastically compromising, criminally questionable, racially offensive, morally crippling, psychologically challenging, socially demeaning, physically demanding and/or emotionally taxing to be of any real help in achieving what should be your true educational goals.