Preface & Reader Response
Forbearance was exhibited, and minor misdeeds were winked at and graciously forgiven.
A FRACTURED BROTHERHOOD
by Jerry Murley
I don't know when or if I ever wholeheartedly believed in liberty, equality, and fraternity. But when I was 17 and about to begin school at a local college, while still living at home with my parents and sister, the drummer of our garage band asked if I was going out for rush. I had a similar question asked of me in the eighth or ninth grade: "Are you going to dress Ivy?" In both instances, I had little idea what was being asked of me, but my adolescent lack of resolve and ignorance made avoidance of the suggestion irresistible. In both cases I tried something novel, assuming a new course was the better option at the time.
* * *
Brothers, take heart: what happens in fraternity stays in fraternity. However, my life does not stay there. Therefore, I am at liberty to rake my past over the coals. Were I not so inclined, it might make for a more interesting read, but aged wisdom tells me that it does no good to speak all one knows. First, there is a tacit loyalty oath, especially among frat brothers, about what happens in youth remaining safely tucked away in youth. Second, I am not certain about what I do know; due to being unaccustomed to strong drink at the time, I don't remember many details of what happened, nor am I sure that I understood the underlying meaning at the time. Third, there is mutually assured destruction involved in shooting off one's mouth about one's associates: we all were young and innocent, and no one benefits from the release of fissile material after years of wise containment.
* * *
During rush, in the late summer of 1967, the fraternity that seemed to be interested in me – which came as a surprise to me – was one full of average guys, not overly handsome, physically fit, smart, or well dressed, but more personable and less creepy than members of other fraternities at the university. It also had a quaint, above-average appreciation of history, particularly Old South themes.
The goofy male stuff aside, playing music in high school for fraternity parties revealed another reason I should try membership in a college fraternity. Part of being in a fraternity, the generally unspoken but hugely significant part, is association with a larger gene pool of young women on something like a continuing basis. I am not going to claim that they were like sisters, but they saw and heard what was going on just like the boys. In most cases they probably saw and understood more. And to differing degrees, they were game to party. Being with the dates of brothers was almost as good as being with the brothers – and often better than having a date of one's own.
* * *
In youth, I had cousins, neighbors, and team and church members, who served as a loose brotherhood. In childhood one doesn't much control how long one lives in one place, where one moves with family, who's on various teams, or who attends church. At a hometown college, one doesn't much control who attends. Selectivity is a luxury that we delude ourselves into thinking we possess when we don't. There is choice in a fraternal association to a degree, but after that it's a game of chance.
Adolescents need a relatively safe group in which to define themselves, sometimes in opposition to the group. It might be a dorm or a fraternity. I was nearly a complete innocent when I started college. That does not mean that I had nice thoughts about the world, others, or myself. It does mean that I didn't know much about the depth and complexity of relationships and of how the world worked. Actually, college itself, especially business law, history, philosophy, English, and psychology courses and books, helped me expand my understanding. But so did my brief two- or three-year association with a fraternity. Due in part to my venture in fraternity life, before there were classroom influences from philosophy and psychology, I discovered fiction writers such as Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut. (Yossarian truly was a friend of mine.) Consequently, I was set free late in youth by a sudden recognition of absurdity all around me. Absurdity and fraternity turned out to be a well-suited pair.
During rush, I prided myself on repeatedly saying that I had never had a drop of alcohol to drink – which was true. I thought when I was accepted on those terms, I was in. But I soon learned that I was on mere probation, in a trial run, when my frat "big brother" told me I was not a shoo-in to become a full-fledged member. It only took one black ball. I could stay under the radar of most folks, but my worst-case-scenario tendency told me that it was unlikely I could dodge offending at least one of the voting members. Either I concealed my faults well or the brothers were more desperate for dues-paying members than I imagined. Nevertheless, I gradually recognized that I was seriously misjudging the sincerity and profoundness of my relationship to the brothers as a body.
Other than my membership in a relatively good dance band, I really didn't know why I was even tentatively accepted as a member of this group. After my first semester grades came in, I did discover one asset: I had the highest GPA of the pledge group and the fraternity dearly needed to bring up the average of the pledge class and the fraternity. The grade point average compared to others surprised me, too – I had just tried hard because I feared failure. (With time I learned that my GPA that first semester was not very good.) This outcome induced me to gravitate more toward a thoughtful and humorous clique within the fraternity – well, my supposed smarts, the sheer entertainment quality of the individuals associated with the clique, and their being the only subset that would have me. However, in retrospect, I overestimated the strength of that bond and affection as well. College relationships were conditional at all times, and I was very slow to realize that.
Strong drink is the devil's fuel. Yet imbibed in moderation, a drink can encourage affection and good feeling in an otherwise bedraggled, uptight, or spiritless soul. Besides recklessness a few times, my primary offense during inebriation, besides utter foolishness, was thoughtlessness – particularly, impinging on the society of others for no other reason than to vent, shock, get a laugh, or show off (what also motivates today as well). And there was no small amount of bitter, disappointed sulkiness thrown in for good measure. It was needless and I immediately regretted it, but it happened – a long time ago – and that's that.
For that matter, youth is obnoxious and dangerous in and of itself. In truth, I was as harmful to myself and others before I ever even thought to sip alcohol. As a new driver, I had bad luck that a more experienced, and older, driver would not. In a brief three years after getting my license, I had three accidents – in the same car.
I am not saying there was no shame when party drink entered the equation during my fraternity days, but I am capable of cutting myself – and others – some slack for uncharacteristic mistakes and lapses. Strong drink is no excuse, but it definitely loosens inhibitions that restrain the emergence of other, perhaps more valuable, characteristics. The difference in a slight error and a tragic mistake is often the difference in luck and no luck at all. That understanding is sobering in and of itself, but only when seen from hindsight and retained to better influence subsequent behavior.
Young men get angry. Juiced men get angrier. Pumped by desperation, ill fate, injustice – most anything really – hormones play tricks and make fast with facts and prudence. The company of others can be and should be a steadying hand rather than an exaggerating one. From my experience, the fraternity was a relatively safe environment in which to test the limits. The boys in my fraternity were steering mightily toward manhood even as the cutups around them strayed from accepted rules. Their presence did help, and excess was not routinely encouraged – except on primitive occasions when I generally left the field. But when it boiled down to it, though we were embedded in a group, we were generally on our own, as in most times since. The sooner we realized that the quicker we transitioned to another level, either toward steady respectability and responsibility or toward some other path away from groups into companionships that expect, accept, and offer more challenging frontiers.
As I have noted, nothing bars me from recounting my own folly and acts of imbecility and credulity. Had I been unable to handle the recollection with humor and self-deprecation, I would have crawled under a rock long ago. Things I heard and said and did well over forty years ago are still with me and crop up in memory or re-enactment now and again. I particularly enjoyed my performance in the basement of the school library late one Sunday night after a party at a lake in Mississippi. My recitation of W. C. Fields rambunctious spelling of the name Carl LaFong (capital L, small a, etc.) was less humorous and doubly disturbing to the studious denizens, of whom I was usually one, of the library that evening. There were worse and more dangerous acts that I will repeat only for the pleasure of my enemies and the amusement of my few remaining friends. Time and again, I thought I had exhausted my supply of kindness from strangers and the special intervention of a benevolent hand, but apparently I had not.
There was enough induced and episodic stupidity on my part that there is no need to drag anyone down with me in the telling. (Miraculously I did not drag anyone else down with me at the time, either.) There is the time I played beer-bottle baseball (including a bottle bat) in the frat-house living room doorway. Or the time I played aggressive ping pong on the carport and stepped back through a flimsy bamboo covering to fall six feet on my back on a pile of large rocks in a drainage ditch, cracking my coccyx and giving much pain in the days that followed. Or the time I was found downtown walking east in the middle of Union Avenue at 3 a.m., dressed in my three-piece party suit. Or when I cut my finger badly while trying to retrieve my money from a malfunctioning vending machine that had swallowed it without producing the goods. Or the time, having traveled all night by car to Panama City for spring break and having no motel reservation, my friend and I walked onto the beach the first cloudy morning and fell asleep; severely sunburned we sought refuge in the motel room of our brothers and did not leave, not setting foot outside during daylight for the entire week; and our decent brothers, patient but put out, allowed it. Or the time the same friend and I went to the home of another equally hospitable brother, whose parents had left town for the weekend, and we refused to leave from Friday to Sunday night until every morsel of food and drop of drink in the house had been consumed.
These highlights demonstrate the low personal sport of the era. These transactions would be terrible if not for the laughter they carried over time and the bewilderment they stir as to why nothing worse happened. Still, there was a lot of wasted time and, now, lost memories of other, more subtle and deserving details. It is a wonder that I was not pounced upon late one dark night as I walked from the library to the fraternity house and soundly thrashed. Only the imperatives of brotherhood – and much time spent in the library – saved me.
Oddly, I vividly remember all of these episodes. I think I actually reasoned that it would be safer walking in the middle of Union Avenue late at night alone than using the sidewalk beside dark empty buildings. The bottle baseball was a put-on to scare the bejeezus out of a fresh-faced pledge and future politician.
I cannot justly assert that ours was an animal house, though the house boys were in a proprietary subculture that added parental stability to various gatherings and a touch of primal coarseness to rituals. A tedious mock seriousness pervaded the air of long, compulsory meetings, as rules were made, membership was reviewed, parties were planned, crises were discussed, and punishments were levied. Fraternity activities, no matter how inane, paled in terms of senselessness and destruction beside the wars that raged outside the house and in terms of import beside the human stirrings within individual members. We fumbled forward, seeking refuge, companionship, and weekend fun; we refought the lost causes of control, serenity, and unanimity amid a sea of intoxicants, hormones, hurdles, social confusion, and readily accessible diversions.
Since my fraternity days, I have generally shunned groups. Family, with the addition of a few close friends, is quite enough. Much more than that and a person becomes diluted in frenetic socializing, without absorbing work or the strength and allure of deep relationships. The brotherhood was fractured from the beginning, but I and most others couldn't tell and didn't care. It has been further fractured less by distance and time than the natural forgiveness and forgetting that follows finding one's own way.
In retrospect, it is amazing how sympathetic the brothers were despite the shallowness and irrepressible selfishness of some. The brothers, and various hangers-on, were by and large balanced achievers; that is no small accomplishment for unsupervised young men, especially when considered from the perspective of today. Forbearance was exhibited, and minor misdeeds were winked at and graciously forgiven. It was a venue in which I was introduced to a wealth of people – a few who became life-long friends – and up-close glimpses of multiple, significant life events – some of them embarrassing but bearable – that I do not want to forget. We are our stories and our part in the stories of others, and we cannot flee or abandon them without losing who we are, what we are made of, and what we might become or failed to become.
* * *
When race relations and war tensions hardened on campus, many fraternities joined in publicly voicing opposition to the protests. A handful of us on the other side, all brothers save one, joined in anonymously writing a brief letter to the school paper explicitly voicing – in the exaggerated form we heard behind closed doors – the views of our wayward brethren who were hogtied to older ways. When our brothers praised our published parody, rubbing the outspoken views in our faces as a rebuttal to our usual, more tolerant, arguments, we immediately wrote and signed a vigorous and humorous joint refutation of positions in our earlier letter. When it was published, our fraternity brothers were strongly disapproving, exasperated at our breach of solidarity and our duplicity. In some few cases, they were enraged by our mockery of "the code." Most, of course, didn't care a fig and resumed their play of cards. Though petty in the round, the experience was an eye opener, and for me it was my first lesson in the fun and power of pretending in print.
Finally, it was the revolt of my best friend in the fraternity, and the re-emergence of a relationship with my older cousin from Texas, that broke the hold of the fraternity on my nightly and weekend habits, on my relationships, on my horizons. After buying a motorcycle, I reunited with my first cousin, with whom I had spent little time over the previous eight years. We renewed our bond again over youthful outrage at social injustice, music, common labor, and a shared desire to move to California. Soon I quit school, despite the threat posed by my local draft board. I had had enough and not enough – I was at wit's end, in flight seeking earth's ends.
After I returned from a summer experiment working in California, lured by assistance to complete my schooling, and an as-then unknown invitation from my local draft board, what finally terminated the brotherhood for me was an encounter at the door of a department store with a brother I had known very well. I was twenty-one and receiving cobalt radiation treatment at the time. I had visible iodine marks all over my neck that indicated the area of treatment, the boundaries of burn. My brother, upon seeing me for the first time in a while, ignoring the marks and news of my recent decimation, tried to sell me life insurance right then and there. That did it for me, especially after I learned that another close brother had voiced criticism to others that I was not sufficiently upset about my cancer diagnosis, surgery, and treatment – I was not rewardingly therapeutic in my expression of personal shock. My sympathy for them, and theirs for me, was clearly dead and cold.
* * *
The truth is that the fraternity house meant little when there was someplace else to go. When there was a cozy, quiet house with friends of both genders who could talk and laugh about acquaintances, family, work, aspirations, politics, history, music, art, books, culture, there was no need of a frat house or impersonal frat brothers. People and events are cross-connected and eerily persistent in Memphis, then as now. In it all, the university – that university and the friends, family, and familiars around it, including those derived from my brief membership in the fraternity – remained the focal point of my social existence. That learned place and the people associated with it, and my adopted university and family in Middle Tennessee, remain the center of my heart and mind today. A university experience, one of my first and most influential mentors used to imply but never quite clearly stated, is more than books and lectures and exams and papers: it is first and foremost the people that one meets, the tangled ties of lives and ideas. Without those connections, a university experience is sterile, perhaps even pernicious for some.
As with everything else in adolescent development, fraternity was never meant to be permanent. It merely served as a generator and an incubator – space in which to grow, make mistakes, and learn from being in the midst of others of my kind. The experience gave me a perspective on who I was relative to others – and on what I should not be. By the end, I had gained the confidence, realism, and desire to leave; in fact, those three attributes are principal indicators of when it is time to go, time to move on. Still, I value the experience and am grateful to have had it. A fractured brotherhood is, in the final analysis, better than none at all.
1. The trinity opened my eyes, though they did not intend to open them quite as much. Then they vanished.
2. W. C. Fields never had a closer friend. The wasted frat-house lawn, the spent stump, the placid dog, the casual chat with a passing Sunday School girl, the juice carton rather than a beer can – all are illustrative of the culmination of fraternity party life, when sunlight stirs the morning after and dazed survivors rally to face the day – and another week – until Wednesday.
3. Bomb-throwing incarnate. My fellow library-nap dreamer-teller. Nothing too dignified for laughter, nothing more honorable than active personal loyalty, nothing more dangerous than phoney or ill-timed confrontation, nothing more ridiculous than pretension. Expanding intelligence as a way of life.