“Pledge President, why do you want to be a Phi Psi?” screamed one of the Hell Masters, spittle spraying from his mouth onto my chapped, dehydrated lips. I froze. Not because I didn’t know the answer. I knew the answer. They had drilled it into our minds for the past three months. But I hesitated with my answer. I had committed three months of my life to this godforsaken organization, and I wanted to reflect on how I had changed and whose company I had joined. Was it all worth it? Were they worth it? Was it everything I thought it would be? Was it anything I thought it would be? Questions raced through my mind as I stood there among twenty-two pledges lined up against the four walls of the third-floor Band Room, named as such because a few of the more musically-inclined alumni brothers used to practice their covers of songs like “Can’t Stop” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which they would play to kick off their Saturday Soiree’s back in the day. Even though it was Saturday, there would be no Chili Peppers, and there would be no soiree. We stood at attention in the Band Room that night as pledges of Phi Gamma Psi Fraternity on Day Five of Hell Week, the grueling, final test of a semester’s worth of learned pledging activities and traditions. The brothers said that the purpose of Hell Week was for us to prove our worthiness of brotherhood by showing that we had learned their customs. That was the PR-friendly statement. The truth is that this was their time to inflict on us the same sado-masochistic hazing rituals that were once inflicted on them.
I write this rumination on my days as a Phi Psi pledge in the throws of the second semester of my senior year. I transferred to Penn State at the beginning of my junior year for reasons unrelated to the fraternity. Finances, really. My father called me during finals week of my sophomore year and told me that if I didn’t want to pay for school, I had to transfer to a cheaper one. I was not about to pay the bill for an elite, private school tuition. Having been distanced from life at Phi Psi for so long, I tend to romanticize my experience. Such is the mind’s prerogative. Since I am not able to trust my mind to not tamper with my memories, I must extract my experiences from my mind and put them onto the page where they can be seen in plain sight. Like the slavery advocates in antebellum America who told Moonlight and Magnolia stories about the benevolent slave masters caring for their property, I too told myself a fanciful story to justify our fraternity culture. No more Moonlight and Magnolias.
So there we were, all 23 of us lined up against the four walls of the third-floor Band Room, squatting with our backs against the walls,hands stretched out in front parallel to the floor, standing shoulder to shoulder, wearing nothing but tall, black, kitchen trash bags. This was called Form B, one of several formations for our lineups. I don’t know why or when they elected trash bags as the clothing of choice, but our real-world clothes were confiscated on Day One. Also, none of us had eaten since Day One, except for the occasional saltines provided at night by the more sympathetic sophomore brothers. None of us had really slept since Day One, provided that the Hell Masters blared heavy metal music during the four hours of designated “Rest Time” between the hours of 2AM when the hazing activities ceased for the night and 6AM when we would “wake up” to make the brothers breakfast. I use the quotes around the words related to sleep because, like I said, we didn’t really sleep, except for the few hours we left the house for class. My professors probably thought I was pulling all-nighters in preparation for my final exams. Little did they know that I hadn’t seen my textbooks in five days. Also confiscated on Day One. I must have been a poor sight to look at with rings under my eyes like a raccoon and with hair everywhere that hadn’t seen a comb or any other hygiene product in over 100 hours. And even if the Heavy Metal music didn’t cause a cacophonous ringing in your ears at night, you were still attempting to sleep in a 12’x12’ room jam-packed with twenty-two other freshmen dudes. And if you weren’t bothered with the sexual implications of spooning the dude next to you, namely, the high possibility of waking up with your morning wood poking at the other dude’s tush, or perhaps worse, being woken up by such a sensation in your own tush, or dare I say both, you still had to drown out the snoring. Imagine trying to fall asleep to the sound of a den full of grizzly bears snoring in your ear. Don’t change the image in your mind a bit and that’s exactly what it was like. This last barrier to the semblance of a peaceful night’s sleep was removed for the last two nights by identifying the five loudest snorers on the third night and making them agree to give the other eighteen of us a head start into Dream Land before they made it utterly impossible for any person awake to get any shut-eye. Needless to say, we were thoroughly deprived of sleep.
It smelled like one big, sweaty taint in the Band Room. Revolting. Apparently, olfactory adaptation doesn’t kick in when new odors are constantly introduced into the atmosphere. Sadly, olfactory adaptation just couldn’t keep up with the foul-odor production in the room. Maybe it could have with fifteen or twenty somewhat-hygienic dudes, but not with our hygiene-deprived bunch of pledges.To make it worse, there were no windows for ventilation in the band room. By Day Five, I could see condensated sweat (and probably tears) dripping from the ceiling right back onto our sweating bodies. We had recreated a veritable Water Cycle in the Band Room. The uber-moist environment led to a majority of us contracting folliculitis, an infection of the skin pores, due to the sweat-locked trash bags adorning our bodies. Infected skin pores oozed from our buttocks, thighs, and backs. We sweated and dehydrated as the Hell Masters walked around drinking ice-cold Stella Artois. They did pass around a cup of water, but there was one poor pledge who had influenza the entire week, so to drink the community cup of water was to infect yourself with the flu, which of course we did because we were thirsty as fuck. The Hell Masters liked to launch into what I can only assume were cocaine-induced sermons about fraternity life or any topic they wished to preach about in the moment. All we could do was listen and agree, no matter how much we disagreed.
Still, the Band Room was a relief from time spent in the Fun Room, a walk-in closet inside the Band Room. The Fun Room was 4’x8’. The colloquial phrase “packed like sardines” never held so much meaning for me. The one benefit of being in the Fun Room was that we had a break from performing calisthenics. However, claustrophobia got the best of some of the pledges, who we ushered to the front of the closet so that they could breathe relatively-fresh air through the crack in the door. The closet, also lacking ventilation, felt like a sauna due to the heat produced from our bodies during exercises in the Band Room before we entered the Fun Room. Needless to say, breathing was laborious. Not only was time in the Fun Room a physical struggle, it was also psychological torture because of one Hell Master in particular. Somehow he located a box of 2,300 assorted, color-coded Pony Beads that normal people use for making necklaces, bracelets and various art activities. Every time we were locked in the Fun Room, he would toss the box inside, scattering the 2,300 beads. He locked the door until we sorted the box of beads by color… in the dark. Luckily, there was a crack of light beneath the door so that we could sort them. Those who were not standing near the front were in charge of picking them off the floor, which was coated with a quarter-inch of sweat.
“Pledge President! Are you fucking retarded?” screamed the Hell Master again, his patience noticeably thin.
“Sir, my family doctor hasn’t provided a formal diagnosis, sir.” I replied, my lips curling in amusement. The Hell Master’s lips didn’t. So I replied, “Sir, brotherhood, sir.” in a respectful tone this time.
I left my college before I could become a senior at my fraternity, and so I never became a Hell Master of a freshman pledge class. As I write this, I have been away from life at Phi Psi for two years. Had I never transferred from my college and been removed from my home at the fraternity, would I have doled out the same physical and psychological hazing to helpless, pitiful freshmen as freely as my Hell Masters in the name of tradition? Would I have espoused the same racist, misogynistic, and homophobic beliefs to the poor, mushy-minded freshmen and perpetuate the cycle of abuse? Would I have continued to stand alongside my brothers and celebrate addiction to sex and drugs? With an insatiable desire to be accepted, loved, appreciated, is there anything I wouldn’t do? The fact that I’m even writing this essay makes me think there is.
Jordan Ehring graduated with an English major in December 2016. He enjoys snowboarding, lifting heavy weights, and reading books that blow his hair back. He plans to attend law school in 2018.