Saturday, February 28, 2009

Gone fishin'

I'll be out of this blog until Monday, March 9. Hope you're still around when I get back. Actually, I won't be fishin' anything other than my errant golf balls out of a pond teeming with alligators on the golf course in my father's backyard in Florida. I woke up last Sunday, looked at the couple of inches of snow that had fallen overnight, and decided to cash in my frequent-flyer miles and go mooch off the family.

On another matter, I failed to mention previously that "Enter, With Torches" will not be available in bookstores, other than those in the immediate vicinity of Washington, Pa., so if you plan to buy it, please do so online. And if you hurry up, you can get the discount. (End of hideous, shameless self-promotional commercial!)

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Farmhouse, Part 13

So many of the young men who sought refuge and recreation at the farmhouse in those few years are not around to remember it. Several members of the Skull House died young. One collapsed and died while jogging; one took his own life; one was killed in a bar fight, and all within a few years of graduation.

Two fraternity brothers are missing. Maher returned to the Middle East just before the Yom Kippur war and was never heard from again. Abbas Bayat was believed to have been back in Iran at the time of the revolution in 1979.

Warren Dodge, Abbas’ happy-go-lucky roommate, went on to become a flight attendant, the perfect occupation for his buoyant personality. Warren was aboard TWA Flight 800 when it took off from New York bound for Paris on July 17, 1996. He was one of the 230 souls to perish when the plane exploded and fell into the Atlantic off Long Island.

Izzy, Maher’s heavy-smoking and unlikely roommate, died of natural causes not too long ago. At about the same time, Big Bob killed himself.

Richard, who had tempted Death by screaming at the sky from the top of the silo in the middle of a thunderstorm, became a stone mason and fathered three daughters. A fall from scaffolding seriously injured him and left him in constant pain. He ended his own life more than 20 years ago.

Most surprisingly, Ted survives. He started on heroin while still in college and battled the addiction for many years.

After our wild college days, many of us settled down to be productive citizens and fathers. Chas finally replaced that silver tooth with a white one, married, and formed his own manufacturing company. He has sailed his boat several times from New York to Bermuda, but sticks close to home these days so that he and his wife can care for their daughter, who was paralyzed in a swimming accident while away at college.

About five years ago, when Chas returned to this area for a funeral, he drove out toward Marianna to see the old farmhouse. He told me he wasn’t sure that he saw it, though, and that he couldn’t find the driveway up which we had hauled so many armloads of wood during hell week so long ago.

I took a drive there a few weeks ago and had no better luck. If there is still a barn, silo, and house on the hill, it is too obscured by vegetation to see it now. Perhaps the whole place burned down many years ago. Regardless, it is as inaccessible to us today as are Maher and Richard and Warren and Abbas.
Houses, no matter how old they may be, are temporary. Just like the lives inside them.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Farmhouse, Part 12

Late one night, state police and narcotics agents quietly crept up the long driveway toward the lighted farmhouse on the hill. They surrounded it, then knocked on the door. The sole occupant of the house on that night put aside his textbook and warily cracked the door. The narcs burst in, handed him a warrant and began turning the house upside down. After two hours, the search ended. All that was found was a partially-smoked joint and a few seeds inside a shoe in the closet. Nevertheless, the student was cuffed and hauled off to the pokey.

The bust was very much a bust. Everyone in the fraternity knew that the narcs must have been after Ted, who had become quite big in the drug business. But Ted wasn’t at the farmhouse that night; the nabbed student unlucky enough to be using the quiet house for study could barely be described as a social smoker; in fact, he was the son of a judge in a neighboring county.

The unfortunate student would get off lightly, but the bust was the end of the farmhouse, as far as the Skull House was concerned. The Skulls had been careful to be sure that the house was rented in the names of several individual students, and not the fraternity, but the college administrators weren’t stupid, and holding onto the farm could jeopardize the fraternity’s existence on campus.

Ted, meanwhile, continued to do business, and although the narcs could not catch him, something else would: a bullet in the abdomen. In a drug deal gone bad, Ted was shot through his side, the bullet somehow missing vital organs.

To our amazement, Ted was able to march with us at graduation. It wasn’t his physical condition that surprised us, but his academic achievement. Ted’s grade-point average was even lower than mine, and he had hardly attended any of his classes the whole semester. We imagined that the college, faced with having to deal with him for yet another semester, decided it was best he be graduated and be done with forever.

Whatever became of the farmhouse and the characters who frequented it in those years? There’s both mystery and tragedy in that answer, which you’ll have to read about tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Today's gripe

It's annoying enough to witness drivers completely ignoring the rules of the road; it's disturbing when those drivers are the ones who are supposed to be enforcing those rules, or at least setting a good example.

Case in point: the County Sheriff's patrol car today that I had to brake for as the driver rolled through a stop and pulled in front of me, then failed to use his turn signal at the next intersection.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Farmhouse, Part 11

As we progressed through our junior year, Chas and I noticed how our pledge brother, Ted, had veered away from us. Chas and I were derelict goofs; how else would you describe people who arranged their class schedules so as to be free at 11:30 a.m., when the reruns of “Bewitched” were aired daily? Sure, maybe we would drink a pony bottle or two of Rolling Rock while watching the program, but at least we weren’t constantly high, like Ted, who was rumored to be supplying half the campus with marijuana and who knows what else.

At the end of the second semester, Ted took off for Arizona, returning a month later on a Harley chopper. He moved into the farmhouse, where Maher was already living. Poor Maher didn’t have enough money to return to Lebanon or enough desperation to stay with Uncle Beirut in Detroit.

Unbeknown to his fraternity brothers, Ted started cultivating pot at the farm. I suspected as much when I stopped at the farmhouse in September and found a colander smeared green in the dry sink on the back porch. We also suspected that Ted had himself moved onto far more dangerous drugs. He had become alarmingly thin and was almost never comprehensible.

We knew he was headed for a crash, and we felt helpless to do anything about it.

Friday, February 20, 2009

You asked for it

Over the past three years, some of you have suggested that we publish some of my serialized stories in book form. "I'd buy it," some of you wrote. Well, here's your chance.

If you haven't noticed the ad at the upper right of this page, take a look. You can order "Enter, With Torches" online, and it's cheap, comparatively. I've given the stories a slightly different treatment, added a few things and a whole lot more photos.

This book is for you, loyal followers of the G.O.E., but not for you alone. It's also for this newspaper, the Observer-Reporter, which could use a little help right now. As you well know, newspapers are going through some pretty tough times, and this newspaper is not immune. In the past couple of weeks, I've lost 7 valuable professional employees from the news department to retirement and layoffs.

The O-R, like everyone else, has to find new ways to make money so it can continue to employ us. This is one of them. I won't make a cent from this book, but hopefully, the good company that has employed me these past 36 years will. This may sound corny and sentimental, but I owe an awful lot to the company that has paid me regularly all these years and given me the opportunity to express myself, in print and online, and expose it to the consequences of my opinions.

So, criminy! Buy the book, and when it's sent to you in April, turn off your computer for a while and read it. And while you're at it, buy another for a friend.

The Farmhouse, Part 10

If you read “How to Break an Ankle” on this blog last year, then you might recall my friend Richard. He was the guy from my hometown outside New York who shared my apartment during the summer of 1969, attending summer school and annoying all the neighbors on North Avenue with his melancholic, feedback-punctuated electric guitar solos blasting through open windows.

Richard had been in a deep, self-destructive funk since breaking up with his longtime girlfriend and was in the habit of medicating himself with gin and whatever drugs he could get his hands on. We tried to keep a close watch on him, because his behavior seemed suicidal.

Richard and I took our amplifiers, guitar and bass to the farmhouse for the party in July, and that night forced the others to endure our renditions of the Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” and “All Along the Watchtower.” The music was loud and not good, and the reception cold, which made Richard even more depressed and surly. By the time the thunderstorm struck, we had quit playing. The lights flickered and went out for a while, and we lighted the house with candles. Then someone asked where Richard had gone.

Not finding him inside the house, I walked around it, dodging the large, stinging raindrops. No cars had left the driveway, so I figured that the only place he could be was in the barn. As I headed there, lightning flashed, and in the blue-white strobe I saw him ascending the ladder of the silo.
I screamed for him to get down, that there was lightning, that he’d be killed, but he ignored me. The rain came slashing in the gusty wind, and after each crack of thunder I heard his crazy laugh. I saw him through the splatter of the storm, standing at the top of the ladder, head thrown back. “This is just like ‘Night on Bald Mountain’!” he yelled. (The Mussorgsky composition was his favorite classical piece. He liked to smoke hashish and listen to it over and over again, for hours.)
Frantic and sure that he would be electrocuted, I ran back to the house (“Maybe he’ll listen to someone else,” I said,) and then back to the silo with a few others. “Richard, please!” we hollered over and over again, before giving up and retreating. There was nothing we could do.

When the storm subsided, we heard him come in the back door, whistling and humming and acting annoyingly normal. I remember his profile in the living-room doorway, arms akimbo, water dripping from his elbows, the lighted kitchen behind him.
He could not see us glowering in the dark.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Edgar Sawtelle

Seldom have I felt cheated at reaching the end of a long novel, and David Wroblewski’s “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” is long. Too long.

Early in the reading, I snuggled into this book and felt comforted by the author’s poetic phrasing and graceful storytelling. I can’t recall another work in which the characters of dogs were so well developed, or in which the thought processes of dogs were so well drawn and explained.

Unfortunately, the human characters in this novel are much weaker, their behavior most often incomprehensible. Midway through the book, the author seems to wander off, just as his title character does. The wandering goes on for more than 100 pages before descending into melodrama and a hyperbolic climax that is too disappointing to be even laughable.

This might have been a great little book had the writer spared us his attempt at a 20th-century Hamlet and what he must have figured were the obligatory tornadoes, fires, ghosts and murders. The Wisconsin farm, and all of its beauty, life, love and heartache, would have been enough.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Farmhouse, Part 9

Washington & Jefferson College was still all-male in 1969, and so we had to import women for party weekends. The Skull House seniors had, well, seniority, and thus first dibs on the bedrooms of the farmhouse, so Warren and Abbas and their classmates bedded their dates there and pretty much monopolized the place. Once they graduated that May, the farmhouse became more accessible to the rest of us, especially those of us compelled to attend the summer session.

No one had farmed the land for years, and so the hillside fields had grown up with berries, poke berry, wild rose and sumac that began to hide the farmhouse from the road far below. No other house was even visible from the top of the driveway; we could make as much noise as we wished, and no neighbors could hear us.

It was a perfect place for parties. One blistering July afternoon, we drank and sprawled on blankets in the yard, speakers set in bedroom windows blaring the Rolling Stones. A dozen of us piled into and atop a Jeep wagon for a jaunt through the more open fields across the road. Plowing a sea of waist-high grass at the edge of a shallow ravine, the Jeep’s right front wheel dropped into a hole. Riding on the roof, I felt the radio antenna whip down my face and my chest as I and another person flew into space and down into the ravine. Uninjured because of our relaxed state of inebriation, we lay there laughing, looking up at the vehicle so ridiculously posed with its left rear wheel lifted like a dog’s hind leg at a fire hydrant. Had the Jeep not come to an abrupt stop but had instead rolled into the ravine, we would have been crushed to death. This did not occur to us at the time. Years later, we would shake our heads and wonder at the vastness of our stupidity.

That particular hot day would end in a typical July thunderstorm, and with someone else tempting Death in an even more bizarre and stupid manner.

Today's gripe

I've often complained about the parking meters here in Washington. Don't let me do that again. This past weekend, we were in Philadelphia, where the predatory meter people patrol seven days a week, until 8 p.m. You get all of 7 and a half minutes for a quarter in Philadelphia meters. So, if you're planning on visiting the Old City and maybe having lunch, be prepared with a roll of quarters, because you'll need 24 of them for three hours!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Questions and comments

Q: My great grandfather had a long career in the newspaper industry. In his obit the final sentence reads: "It is with genuine appreciation of his early effort and his long career in the profession that the local newspaper fraternity writes “30” after the name of Samuel Longood." Could you please tell me the significance of the term “30” in the newspaper industry? - A.L.

A: Back when I started newspaper work in 1971, all articles were written on typewriters. I was told to end stories with " -30- ." It signaled that it was the end of the story and there were no other pages. No one could tell me why we used -30- then, and no one can tell you why now. Nobody knows for sure. But here's a link to an article from the American Journalism Review that will help you.

The Farmhouse, Part 8

Late in April 1969, as we approached the end of the semester and final exams, I became desperate about my coursework and felt a need for long hours of uninterrupted study. It was impossible to do this in the Skull House, with another class of pledges running likes hounds through the halls, day and night.
They were an odd mix young men: the Kahuna, Big Bob, Little Bob, Maher and Izzy, to name a few. Maher Abugazzaleh was a Palestinian who received “Care packages” containing the most bizarre pornography from a relative in Detroit known as Uncle Beirut. “What sort of woman would have sex with a pig?” Chas often asked, his lips twisted in disgust. Strangely enough, Maher became close friends with his pledge brother Izzy, the chain-smoking, gravel-voiced Jew. Despite their animated arguments about Middle East politics, they would eventually become roommates.

At any rate, the Skull House was no place to study, and the college library was not much better for a student like me, who saw it as a place filled with tens of thousands of distractions, all lined up neatly on shelves. And so I packed my books, a toothbrush and a change of clothes and headed for the farmhouse.

The house was cold and the lighting – from bare ceiling bulbs – was stark, but there was little to distract me, once I had poured a bowl of milk for the cat that one of the brothers had adopted. Sometimes, no one showed up at the farmhouse to feed it for days. But the mice were plentiful.

I pored over my botany and Spanish texts and my copy of James Joyce’s “The Dubliners” while the house rocked and creaked in the spring gales. Noises, like the banging of a loose door on the barn, kept distracting me. An intermittent rain splattered drops on the siding that I mistook for gravel crunching under tires, sending me anxiously to the window several times.

The farmhouse had little personality; it held no evidence of the humans who had occupied it for perhaps a century other than the few jars of canned fruit in the cellar. I walked with a cup of coffee through all the rooms, reassuring myself of my solitude but feeling no sense of the eerie. Edgy I might have been, but not because of shadows and spirits within the house. I was more fearful of the forces outside – the weather, and the murdering thieves that might be attracted by my burning lamps shining from the distant hill.

When my eyes grew heavy, I turned out the lights and curled under a blanket on the couch. No sooner had I dropped off than I woke with fur on my lips. The cat had curled around my face for the warmth of my breath. I threw it to the carpet, but time after time, it returned to sit on my neck and purr, only to be hurled again.
I did not banish the cat to the cellar, though. Too tired to rise and too unwilling to listen to its pathetic cries all night, I let it stay. Better to battle the cat, I thought, than to fall into nightmares of murdering thieves.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Farmhouse, Part 7

Hustled from the farmhouse in the dark of night, our captors drove us back to town. “God, do you pledges stink!” they kept saying. We hadn’t showered in a week. We still had the odor of smoked oysters about us.
We entered the new fraternity house in the quad like skittish, beaten dogs and were ordered to strip. Then we were led, naked and blindfolded through “stations” in the house, where brothers, some of them drunk, some of them intoxicated with the opportunity for sadism, conducted exercises vaguely intended to instill in us trust for our soon-to-be brothers.

Some of these exercises were disgusting, but harmless. Take, for instance, the brick drop. We were ordered to stand on a chair and then handed a string and told to tie it to a certain part of our anatomy. Then we were handed a brick – a rather large and heavy one – and told to lift it upward. As we lifted the brick, it was apparent to us – blindfolded as we were – that the string attached to our anatomical part was also tied to the brick. Then they ordered us to drop the brick.

You can just imagine how fearful we were and how detached from reason were our brains, having been deprived of sleep and nourishment for so long. We dropped the bricks, which thudded to the floor, unaccompanied by any part of our anatomy. We gasped; they laughed.

At one station, we lay on our bellies on the floor and were told not to move. If we moved, we would be beaten. WHACK! A rolled-up magazine struck my back. Chas and Ted must have flinched at the noise. WHACK, WHACK! And then we were pummeled from head to foot. When we left that station, we probably looked as if we had fallen asleep while sunbathing in the nude.

Eventually, it was over, and we were inducted and endowed with all the secret, spooky information of the Skull House, and welcomed as brothers by our tormentors.
I suppose that we were meant now to feel a special bond with these people, one as strong as family, having endured so much. As I stumbled up the stairs toward my room and awaiting bed, I felt relief, but also bitterness and resentment.

We would never again respect those members that had taken such glee in our suffering. We could not see who was beating us with magazines, but we knew them by their voices, and their behavior would not bring them closer to us but rather create a distance that would last forever. Chas and Ted and I vowed that no one in our house should ever be subjected to that kind of hazing again.

And they were not, although we can’t claim all the credit for that.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Farmhouse, Part 6

In order to keep us alive enough to move furniture, scrub pots and detail their cars, the brothers fed us soup. If we performed our tasks well enough, they promised to even heat it for us. The younger brothers, especially the ones who had pledged immediately before us, were the cruelest and most sadistic. But they supervised us in shifts, and sometimes we were left in the care of older, mellower members.

Warren and Abbas were seniors and the oddest and most unlikely roommates. Their night with us was a respite from hell.
Warren, blond and balding, possessed the enthusiasm and outlook of a cruise-ship activity director. A cheerleader and font of optimism, Warren dressed for fraternity parties as if he were headed to a picnic at the beach – T-shirts, flip-flops and those really tight, small bathing trunks they wore in the 1950s.
Abbas came from a wealthy family in Iran, then ruled by the Shah. He had been educated in proper English boarding schools and spoke with a patrician British accent. He dressed impeccably and as if he were a member of the royal family. He enjoyed fast cars and the company of fast women and was similar to Warren only in his sweet and affable nature.

Warren and Abbas amused themselves by quizzing us in the Greek alphabet and fraternity facts and trivia. Correct answers earned us bits of food and hours of uninterrupted sleep. We had been reduced to dog-like behavior. We would never forget their relative kindness to us.

When the shift changed, the hell resumed. One night, we were given smoked oysters for supper, but we had to place them in our underwear and do calisthenics before we were allowed to eat them.

Time was blurred. We seemed never to be more than semi-conscious. I became alarmed one day when I discovered that my urine had turned dark brown.
“This is such crap!” we muttered among ourselves and considered walking out of the farmhouse and out of fraternity life forever. But the fear of being labeled as cowards kept us there, along with the fact that we had been kidnapped and were being held captive. But we could have quit at any time, and we were taunted with this often.
On about the seventh day, I found myself telling the Pledge Master an outrageous lie: that I suffered from epilepsy and without my medication, more sleep or food, I was likely to experience seizures. I did not have epilepsy, and even as I spoke I wondered how this ridiculous lie could be tumbling from my lips.
The Pledge Master told me to quit the bullshit and get back to work. He could not tell me what I needed to hear – that Hell Night, the conclusion of our ordeal, was just a few hours away.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Comments and questions

C: I subscribe to the OR & the Post-Gazette. I also daily look through the OR On-line. I also look at/read 12) a dozen - or more papers on line. ie the NY Times, Chicago Times, Phoenix, and also papers in San Diego. LA, the Navaho-Hopi Nation, Wheeling, WV, and many others. Is it fair that I read these papers on line for FREE ?, given the expenses of these organizations? Surely not!!! I've been doing it for a long time for FREE. But know what? I think it's just wrong, I should be paying..."something." Somehow, you guys must establish a cost for all of this wonderful on line information that is available to ME..for FREE. The whatever form...cannot be free!!!!! You and your industry must establish a billing system and a cost. Hey, maybe it's only 5 cents or 10 cents a day.It should be a daily charge, not how many I times I look at the site each day. But you newspaper guys/editors/owners...must get it done. NOW is of the ESSENCE! - J.A.

A: Charging for content online does not work at the moment - few people seem willing to pay for news online. We do get income from our online edition in the form of advertising, which is based on traffic; the higher the traffic, the more we can charge for advertising. If we made you pay for the content, the traffic would fall off dramatically, and with it the ad revenue.
But that does not mean that our content is not valuable, and that you won't ever pay for it. When we, as an industry, can come up with an easy way for people to pay for our content - like the micropayments your describe - we will have a much better chance for survival.

The Farmhouse, Part 5

A late-January thaw had melted much of the snow; what was left lay on the hillside and fields in an icy crust after the weather turned frigid again. We marched from the farmhouse toward the woods beyond the barn, each step slow and difficult as our feet broke through the crust.

Time after time, we gathered armloads of firewood and carried them back to the house, then returned to the woods, scooping up snow an ice along the way to melt in our mouths. Our fingers and toes hardened and numbed. “Faster, you worthless peons!” came the cry.

In the fading light of afternoon, we carried wood from the road up the deeply rutted red-dog driveway, several hundred yards to the farmhouse on the hill. When the piles were finally moved, they marched us – hungry, exhausted, frozen and dehydrated – back to the house. Visions of Clark bars and Three Musketeers danced in our heads.
Kicking off our boots on the back porch, our Pledge Master appeared in the kitchen doorway, munching on one of our secret candy bars.
“Thought you could pull a fast one on us, huh?” he said, showing us a trash can filled with the rest of our hidings. “We found everything that the mice didn’t get to first. For your deceit, no supper for you tonight!”
And just for good measure, he led us in another long session of calisthenics, before banishing us to the cellar.

Next morning, our tormentors slept late. We found a candy bar that had escaped their search, but it had done little to relieve our hunger. Bright sunlight streamed in through the high, dusty cellar windows and splashed upon cobweb-covered shelves. Jewels of reflected sunlight caught my eye. On one shelf I found broken glass and three or four Ball jars and rusty lids, and behind them three or four full jars of canned fruit.
“How long do you think these have been here?“ I whispered.
“Who cares? Open them!” Chas answered.
“If the seals have broken, the botulism could kill us,” Ted opined.

Hunger overruled judgment. We chose the jar with the most recognizable fruit, wiped the dust from it and screwed off the ring. The flat cap was stuck, so Chas worked on it with the claw of a hammer. The rim of the jar cracked when the cap came off. I scooped the broken glass from the thick syrup and we fished out the sweet, soft, yellow apricots with our fingers and devoured them.
The fruit did not kill us, but in the coming days we wondered if the brothers would.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Farmhouse, Part 4

Our hell week began with the traditional “pledge meal,” supposedly intended to fortify us for the tough week ahead. We walked a gantlet of brothers screaming in our ears things like, “You are the lowest bottom-feeding suckers of slime!” and “You are the dingleberries in the hairy crack of ignorance!” Entering the party room of the new fraternity house, where our dinner was to be served, we were first led in an especially long session of calisthenics, during which we were pelted with eggs and gobs of mustard. Insults continued to be shouted above the blaring rock music.

At last, they seated us at a table. We were each given a large raw onion and told to eat it as we would an apple. When we had finished that “salad course,” our “entrĂ©e” arrived. Cans of Alpo dog food were emptied into bowls and then smothered in a gravy of Pepto Bismal.
The room rocked with uproarious laughter each time one of us, pale and splattered in bright yellow, gagged and then vomited in the waste cans placed beside us for that purpose.

When they had tired of this amusement, the brothers threw us into ice-cold showers. After we dressed in dry clothes, we underwent another hellish exercise session before being hustled into a car and driven to the farm. While our masters drank and warmed themselves by the fireplace that evening, we scrubbed the filthy wooden floors, over and over again. Eventually, we were allowed to sleep – on the floor – but were wakened every hour to perform more push-ups and jumping jacks.
When dawn arrived, I felt a sense of satisfaction that we had made it through the first night, and perhaps the worst of it. We feasted on bowls of dry cereal and then the Pledge Master told us to prepare ourselves, because the “hell” of hell week was about to begin.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Farmhouse, Part 3

My pledge brothers and I grew close in our semester-long ordeal. Ted, who lived down the hall from me during our freshman year, had come to W&J with the intention of going on to medical school. At first, he was a serious student who spent most of his time at the library or in his room. He wore neat slacks and V-neck cashmere sweaters and listened to Johnny Mathias records. By the end of the year, however, he had changed. I think marijuana had a lot to do with that. And by the fall of 1968, his hair was long and stringy, his eyes bleary, and he was always saying, “Far out, man.”

Chas was gregarious and never in a bad mood. His laugh was infectious. A combination of natural athletic talent and the privileges of being raised in a well-to-do New England family and attending the best schools made him an excellent skier, swimmer and sailor, none of which he took seriously. Like me, he did not take his studies seriously enough. He disdained pretentiousness and embraced the proletariat. When a front tooth went bad, he replaced it with a silver one because it was cheaper than gold or a false white one and just as functional. Rather than buy a new belt when his only one broke, he held up us pants with a length or rope or an old extension cord.

From what we had heard, the worst things about hell week were the deprivations of sleep and food. We couldn’t prepare much for lack of sleep, but food was another story. One night during finals, when all members of the fraternity were holding their monthly meeting, we were excused to go to the library but instead drove to the farmhouse. The doors were locked, but standing on Chas' shoulders, Ted was able to open and climb into a window. We raced through the house, hiding candy bars, bags of nuts and pepperoni sticks in the corners of closets, under sinks, in the floor joists in the basement ceiling, in flower pots and taped behind the headboards of beds.
We felt good. We knew that we might be tortured, but we would not starve.

How were we to know that every pledge class before us had tried the same trick?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Farmhouse, Part 2

My miserable academic performance as a freshman prevented me from joining a fraternity until the fall of 1968, my sophomore year. When you are asked to join a fraternity, you become a pledge and are subjected to humiliating servitude at the hands of the membership for an entire semester in order to prove your worthiness to become a brother. At the end of the semester, pledges undergo “hell week,” which may or may not include sadistic torture, after which the survivors are inducted and immediately take on the role of sadistic torturers of the next pledge class.

I and two of my classmates whose academic performance was equally miserable comprised the pledge class of the fraternity known informally as the Skull House in the fall of 1968. The name came from the skull and crossbones of the fraternity’s insignia.

Previously, pledges did not live in the fraternity house until they became members, which meant that they could occasionally escape persecution in the confines of their own dormitory. But we three moved into the new fraternity house right along with our masters and were thus enslaved continuously.
For the brothers, pledges were the people who shined your shoes, ran your errands, cleaned up your messes, and amused you by doing push-ups and jumping jacks every time you ordered them to.
“Pledge!” one of the brothers would yell.
“Yes Sir?”
“When my alarm rings every morning, I want you to come to my room and tell me if the surf is up or if it is calm before I open my eyes.”
“But Sir, there is no surf in Washington, Pa.”
“That’s not my problem, pledge!”
That sort of nonsense went on all the time.

In those days at W&J, final exams for the first semester occurred after Christmas vacation, and then there was a week-long break in the end of January before the second semester began. We pledges were told that our hell week would take place during the semester break, and that we would be undergoing most of it at the farmhouse.

We had heard horror stories about hell week and dreaded its arrival. At the same time, we were anxious for our servitude as pledges to be over and done with. In our elevated state of anxiety, we made preparations for the tribulations that awaited us. We knew there were things we could do to make our hell week less grueling, but doing them would mean a daring and dangerous break-in of the Skull House’s sacred hideaway.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Farmhouse, Part 1

Fraternity life, as several generations of Washington & Jefferson College students knew it, came to an end in the fall of 1968. That’s when 10 of the 11 fraternities were compelled to give up their off-campus houses and move into the 10 identical buildings constructed by the college in the area between Beau and Wheeling streets. Phi Gamma Delta, the only exception, was already housed in a building on campus.
More than half of W&J’s students were members of fraternities at the time, and many of them had lived in and taken their meals in old Victorian houses scattered around town. By design, the fraternities lost much of their independence with the move.

The college had good reasons to gather the fraternities onto campus. Neighbors of the frat houses complained about loud music, juvenile behavior and raucous parties, and the houses, outside the jurisdiction of the college, were poorly maintained and fire traps.

Some would say the new structures resembled artillery bunkers. Each was equipped with a kitchen, party and living rooms, and an apartment for a house mother. The houses were grouped so tightly that it was possible to throw, say, a water balloon, from the window of a room in one house through the window of a room in a neighboring house.
The new facilities were clean, functional and convenient, but fraternity members accustomed to hiring their own cooks and regulating their own premises bristled at the new and sterile arrangement. They felt as if the personality and identity of their brotherhood had been stolen, and that they were now under the constant watch of campus security.

The disgruntled seniors in one of the fraternities concocted a remedy for the situation: a home away from home. They brought before their membership a proposal to rent a farmhouse about 15 miles from Washington. The house could be used by the brothers to escape the pressures of campus life and as a refuge for study. It was also argued that such a remote retreat, away from the scrutiny of the dean, would be ideal for conducting initiation activities. It would also be a great place to party and to shack up with girlfriends.

And so, that December, an old farm high on a hill, long vacant and just beginning to give in to the beatings of the elements, received new life.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A new story

My friends from college like to joke that they would love to reminisce about the old days at W&J if only they could remember them. It is true that I have lots of blank spaces in my memory of 1967-1971, but a few recollections remain. Some of them have to do with fraternity life.

In the late 1960s, Washington & Jefferson College was all male and the majority of students belonged to fraternities. The situation is entirely different now, and maybe that's not such a bad thing. Despite the associations with partying and hijinks, fraternity life had a dark side.

When the college moved all fraternities into new and identical buildings on campus, mine found a way around the new restrictions by renting a retreat in the country - an old farm near Marianna. It was necessarily a secret place. It's time to tell some of those secrets.

As with all of the stories, this one is true, although my memory is hardly perfect, some of the names have been changed, and although I know how this one begins, I do not know how or when it will end.
We'll call this one "The Farmhouse." It begins tomorrow.

Count your blessings

Some of you around Washington may remember Misha Zelenchukov, the Russian journalist who has visited here several times as a guest of this newspaper and of Jon and Kathy Stevens. Misha started his journalism career as a police reporter for our sister newspaper in Siberia, the Kuznetsk Worker. He then moved on to television but lost his job a couple of years ago. He's now working as a security guard at a furniture factory. No longer able to afford his apartment in Novokuznetsk, he's now living in a village outside the city, in a house with no running water and heated by a coal stove.

Misha wrote to the Stevens recently and wondered how they were faring in this harsh winter and trying economic conditions. There's something to learn from the comparisons. A few excerpts from from Misha's letter:

"Such cold (minus 42 F) was last week in my region. Each day I must go beside the small shed, where I store the reserves of coal, and bring the minimum of three buckets of coal to the house..."
After running out of coal in January, he purchased 2.5 tons for $150 U.S.
"This is expensive sum for me. To me they again detain wage. I did not obtain wages for three weeks of November and entire December...
"To have a house in the village - this is much work each day. I must clean snow, pump cold water from column (well), drop snow based on the roof... I do not buy firewood. I guard furniture factory and I take wooden withdrawals from the garbage. Large problem - to attend toilet during the terrible frost. Toilet - this is small house in the vegetable garden, it has thin walls and does not have heat inside. Cold makes my visits to the toilet short and rapid...
"There was last week terrible cold... water in the pump froze and for several days I could not pump water..."

"If you please, report to me about the weather and economic situation in your city."

Monday, February 2, 2009

Language, please

Try as I might, I've never been able to become fluent in another language. But I keep trying.

I've been working at Russian for almost 15 years and still can hardly speak it, so you'd think I'd give up by now, but I can't seem to quit. My bathroom reading is exclusively Russian, and this month it's short stories by Chekov.

The great thing about reading literature in another language is that you can sometimes experience a different perspective on the human existence. Our view of the world – our experience in it – is limited by the language with which we can express that experience. Reading in an another language can reveal interpretations of our world rooted in very different and ancient cultures.

Take this morning, for instance. I stumbled on a word: gori. In the context of the sentence, it meant "sorrows," but I stumbled because there are so many words in Russian with the same root: gor. There are gora (mountain), gorets (to burn), gorlo (throat) and gorky (bitter), and gorney (heavenly), just to name a few. The interesting part is when you begin to see a relationship among some of these words.

Connect the words and you see mountains reaching up toward heaven, and streams flowing from those mountains like tears of grief. Goryouchiye sleozi means "scalding tears."

We look at mountains and see majesty and strength and challenge, because our language, our culture and heritage have always described them in this way.

Reading in other languages is indeed a mind-expanding exercise.