Headaches started in the fall of my college freshman year, I was among the original occupants of a new dormitory. Everything was pristine including furnishings, fixtures, and recreation room equipment. Within a half hour of settling into my room and wandering to the rec room, an angular, blond, crew-cut fellow from St. Joseph, Michigan named Mike introduced himself. It turned out his room was two doors from mine. Both of us were registered in engineering school, had girlfriends at home, and had similar interests.
We developed a close friendship; hung out after class, did homework, played touch football, and took our meals together usually in one of the local beaneries. Both of our roommates flunked out before the first term ended, becoming among the earliest exits of the first-year attrition of about one-third of freshmen registered in various engineering departments; but Mike and I were good students, and eventually graduated together.
Often on our way to dinner, we’d pass a white, rambling, seven-gabled house at 517 Gale Street, just off campus. Something about that house caught my attention. It looked timeless and an inviting place to spend my undergraduate years. There was an alluring character about it. A fraternity resided there, Sigma Mu Sigma, which was founded back in the 1920s by a group of freemasons though the society was not in any way affiliated with the Masonic Lodge.
In those days, at the start of each new term fraternities held what they called “Smokers” during the period of pledge week. The idea was to invite all non-Greek males enrolled in school to an open house to recruit new members. Snacks, desserts, and drinks were served. Free cigarettes were also liberally distributed in four-packs (courtesy of R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company), hence the name Smoker.
The on-campus RJR representative was “grandfathered” to Sigma Mu Sigma ΣΜΣ; that is, the job was handed down from member to member. Winston and Salem were popular labels, but even then, we referred to cigarettes as weeds, coffin nails, and (mostly) cancer sticks. Mike and I decided to check out several Smokers for free eats—college kids are always hungry—and free cigarettes.
After making the rounds of Smokers in fall and winter when the dust settled (after the smoke cleared—gasp, wheeze, cough, rattle, choke) we pledged a fraternity in the spring. (Aside: After graduation, it took me five years to break the smoking habit.) We selected Sigma Mu Sigma because we liked the house with the seven gables, knew several members, and had rooms available in the fall. The housing cost was on par with the dorms so I figured the economic decision was a push.
Since my father was a gung-ho freemason, I figured he’d support my decision to room in a “Masonic” fraternity—a little bit of misdirection there you see. (It’s one of the many maneuvers I’ve pulled in life that was less than commendable. How many? Well, I attempted to compile a mental list from primary school on, but after an hour and a half, I was only up to a junior year in high school.
Every time I tried to forge ahead; I’d remember other deceptions forgotten. Talk about revealing.) Mike had a different problem since he belonged to a church that considered freemasons a bunch of rat bastards in league with Satan. You can imagine the tap-dancing he had to do when his local paper erroneously reported he’d joined a Masonic fraternity.
As pledges we had daily work details at the house: vacuuming, dusting, mopping, cleaning the bathrooms, etc. Tuesday was the fraternity meeting night for all members, including pledges. After these meetings, the pledge master made us each tell a joke, and would designate a member we had to make laugh. He always selected some disciplined hardass who wouldn’t crack a smile even if everyone else in the room was roaring.
Failure to amuse resulted in a black mark; and the number of total black marks translated into the number of miles we would be dumped in the country on the Night of the Long Walk. (For that ordeal, we were blindfolded, dressed in a gown, given a six-pack of beer and a baseball bat, and individually dropped off somewhere in the boonies.)
After receiving our inevitable joke-telling black marks, suggestions were taken from the floor from random members who would assign each pledge a “headache”, which was an assignment to be accomplished and reported back at the next meeting. These tasks could be relatively easy (e.g.; chart the temperature of Miami over the next week) or difficult; and sometimes embarrassing (see below). Although I received weekly headaches throughout the pledge term, three are memorable.
The first was to find out why a certain sourpuss math professor, Mrs. Gorecki, usually referred to by students as that-goddam-Gorecki, was a grouch; just what the hell was her problem; why did she act like she was perpetually on the rag; didn’t she get laid enough; and why was she always in a bad mood. Mrs. Gorecki, a thin, severe-looking lady in her early thirties was from Connecticut and had the harsh Yankee accent and abrasive tone to prove it. She was relatively new on campus, a chain smoker, and always had a pissed-off demeanor.
I wasn’t looking forward to the interview but made an appointment using a cover story that I was sent by the university newspaper. I didn’t write for the paper, but Mike did so using his name seemed like a good idea—you know; in case she checked up on me. (Sigh—another for my long list of transgressions.)
Mrs. Gorecki was sitting at her desk puffing on a cigarette and nodded me into a chair. She looked at me suspiciously and closed one eye. “Mike Glossinger? I don’t think so! Isn’t your name Myers, and didn’t you take calculus from me the last term? See, I always remember those who try to hide out back of the room.”
Rats! Busted! “Uh…yeah, Mike wasn’t feeling well so he sent me with a list of questions—his questions,” I emphasized. What a coward I was. BTW, honesty compels me to admit, grouch or not, Mrs. Gorecki did a good job in the classroom.
You don’t seem very sharp.” I could tell from her cynical sneer-smile that she enjoyed the dig.
“I got a B,” I said defensively, feeling insulted. Thanks for thinking the least of me.
“I see… I guess you’re brighter than you look; either that or I made a terrible mistake.” That’s right, rub salt in the wound. Her visage grew more suspicious, and she let out an annoyed tobacco-raspy sigh. “All right. What the hell you’d want to know? Ask your questions. Maybe I’ll answer ‘em.”
I started easily enough by asking questions about where she came from, went to school, previous teaching experience, etc., to which she responded with curt, abrupt answers after intently studying my face every time. Her eyes bore holes in me. It was not a comfortable experience and I started to sweat.
Finally, I had to get to the meat of the interview. “Still married?” Oops, why did I say “still”?
“Yeah. Why wouldn’t I be?” She gave me that one-eyed challenging look.
“Oh, nothing. Just asking the questions Mike gave me (heh-heh). What does your husband do?”
“That’s none of your business, but he’s an armed services veteran who’s a senior here in electrical engineering.”
“Poor bastard,” I said under my breath. (Tried to slip one by the goalie.)
“What! What was that?” She glared daggers. (Gorecki makes the save.)
“Uh…um…I said, ‘so his last year.” Sweat was trickling between my shoulder blades as I wondered how to skillfully lead into the subject of her perceived rotten demeanor. “Say, are you in a bad mood in the morning, maybe don’t like your job, or is that just the New England way?” I dim-witted blurted, and instantly recognizing my faux, pas, squeezed shut my eyes waiting for an onslaught.
For a long, silent moment nothing was said. I thought (hoped?) maybe she hadn’t heard. My eyes inched open. Mrs. Gorecki took a mighty drag on her cigarette and gave me a murderous look, a volcano about to erupt, as she exhaled. “Get out, Myers! Now!” She hissed and slowly rose from her chair. I thought she was going to come after me and scrambled toward the door knocking over a chair and some papers from her desk. I heard her swear as I zipped out (like in a cartoon), my heart beating wildly. Thank God I’d never been in one of her math classes again since she only taught freshmen. (I hoped.)
For not providing answers to all questions, I received a BLACK MARK. Hey, there was no way I was going to ask if she was always on the rag or didn’t get laid enough. I hoped my ordeal was enough to receive leniency. It wasn’t, but it’s too bad my recitation didn’t qualify as a joke. The brothers certainly enjoyed a long, tearful, hearty laugh at my expense, which I learned was the point of headaches anyway.
The second was being required to check out a student who dressed like a motorcycle hoodlum—like Marlon Brando in The Wild One—and find out what he was all about. He looked like one intimidating, tough s-o-b, and I was more frightened of him than I was of Gorecki. He might just punch my lights out. I figured his nickname would be something like Snake. Once again, I used a campus newspaper subterfuge about doing profiles on students, but this time used my name.
He turned out to be a very polite and pleasant fellow happy for someone with whom to converse. My personality didn’t fit the image; a lesson I took for the rest of my life. My interest in him, his attire, his major, and his origin he thought to be flattering. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, and feel guilty to this day that I never spoke to him again.
I did not receive a black mark, but my audience was disappointed I hadn’t been put through some kind of grinder or didn’t have to run for my life. The only point of humor was that I reported he was from Windblown, Indiana. (Woodburn was the actual name, but I had to salvage something.)
Finally, the school had this old Civil War cannon that was chained to a concrete pad near the school cafeteria. My headache was to report the last time the gun was fired. I walked away from the meeting congratulating myself for receiving such an easy task. Even before the internet, the library and local historical society had to have the information: where the gun was manufactured, who used it, where and when was the last time, it was in battle, etc. Well, I’m here to tell you I could not find out fact one. Finally, in a Sunday afternoon panic, I knew what must be done.
Tuesday evening came, and the time for me to report was at hand.
“When was the last time the cannon was fired?” asked the pledge master. Everyone looked around and smirked. I figured many of them had probably been burdened with the same headache when they pledged. They knew they had me, and were about lumber me with another black mark.
I answered calmly, “Last Sunday evening at eighty-thirty”. The response was open-mouthed silence.
I’d spent Sunday afternoon sneaking into the chemistry laboratory—it wasn’t difficult—and made enough gunpowder to charge and fire the weapon. Compressed newspapers were the ammo. After I lit the wick, I ran like hell but heard the boom. What, you think I wanted to be on double secret probation from the dean? A week later the barrel was filled with cement by some killjoy. On the other hand, I made history. Hoo-hah!
The last headache I remember was one given a year later by Mike to a pledge named Wiltanger. It was a physics problem that brought down the house. Here it is: A guy is sitting on the can with his ass six inches above the water line. He drops a 225-gram septic log and accelerates it four feet per second squared with a fart. Determine whether or not the water will splash his ass. Assume he is at sea level. (Note the clever mixing of units.) As I recall, Wiltanger came up with the answer via a controlled laboratory experiment. (Ans. The water splashed his ass.)
ΣΜΣ | Some years ago, the university annexed the block that included the seven-gabled house. It was razed to make room for campus expansion. Sigma Mu Sigma merged with Acacia, which was thrown off campus in the late 1970s. A year ago, Acacia petitioned to return, which was granted. I’ll see some of my old brothers and a few from my pledge class at a reunion in October. I expect a few Acacia members and pledges may show up as well. Maybe we should give them headaches just for old-time sake. If you can think of any good ones, let me know.
-Your working boy, Gene Myers