by Ronald Scott Price
I was a naïve eighteen-year-old, an out-of-state college freshman, five hundred miles from home. I knew no one. Academically, I was prepared for the rigors of studying and class assignments. Even the professors didn’t intimidate me. The first few weeks of walking around campus and living inside the long, sterile corridors of a building called a dormitory didn’t bother me. But there was one thing I couldn’t adjust to nor feel comfortable about. It was the guys on campus wearing shirts with three Greek letters sewn across the front that baffled me.
Every Wednesday a group of about thirty-five upperclassmen would appear wearing maroon and gold shirts. But why Wednesday? Why maroon and gold? The letters were AΦT. And they meant what? Alpha Phi Tau.
There were whispers in the dorm room late one night, after listening to Crosby, Stills & Nash on stereo components carefully positioned on shelves made of lumber scraps and cinderblocks. The whispers were coming from the other freshmen guys who also wondered about those Greek letter- shirted men. By now our new-found college intelligence had figured they were members of a fraternity—a group of males who pledged allegiance to an organization. But why? Why pledge? Was it a promise? Was it a secret society? No one could come to the definitive conclusion of why these men, seemingly diverse in personality and stature, all pledged this fraternal group. Some were science majors, some economics majors, others pursing music. It wasn’t academic commonality. Some were sophomores, some juniors, and even seniors. It wasn’t an organization according to grade level. To really mix up the group, there were also a few football players wearing the maroon and gold.
All of us freshmen had various interactions with these guys throughout the week, but as bottom-of-the-totem-pole students, we never took the risk of asking what it meant to belong to Alpha Phi Tau. Besides, on weekends, these maroon and gold shirted guys would all head downtown to their favorite bar, where they tightly congregated over some pitchers of 3.2 beer. The definition of that golden liquid is a beer alcohol level of 3.2 percent for under twenty-one-year-old drinkers versus a higher alcohol level of regularly produced beer for adults. Regardless, the results of either were the same after a multitude of pitchers were consumed nightly.
So there we were one Friday night—bored sitting in the dorm. It was 10 p.m., way too early to retire for the evening. A group of us decided to venture downtown ourselves and march into Maudie’s—the fraternity sanctuary for gathering and drinking—not only to see what was happening inside but to get out of the chilly autumn air. We found a table and sat, somewhat conspicuously, in the middle of the room. We ordered the mandatory 3.2 beer and some fries. This was well before the decades of healthy and diet conscious living. After a pitcher or two, we heard singing coming from the back of the establishment. Was it the Greek men? Were they wearing their now infamous maroon and gold? It was. Whether it was curiosity or the effects of the alcohol, we got up from our chairs and with glasses in hand, we ventured cautiously to the dimly lit back area. Swarming everywhere were the Greeks. They even had banners adorning the cinderblock walls with their fraternity name and Greek letters. Feeling a bit out of place and not wearing the mandatory dress code, we stopped just prior to entering the dungeon-like room—sparse in amenities with only Formica topped tables and wooden chairs, along with an old upright piano. The piano, slightly out of tune, didn’t seem to bother anyone, as everyone seemed to be having a good time. The floor leading to the room was already sticky with the effects of spilled beer.
Remarkably, a sophomore in one of my classes recognized me and waved us to enter. Huddled together, the four of us freshmen entered their space. We were greeted warmly, and they even offered to fill our glasses with beer from their pitchers. Of course, we didn’t refuse. These men, who walked confidently around campus and didn’t seem to notice us during the week, all of sudden took an interest in us and introduced us to their other brothers in the fraternity. Soon we were laughing and drinking. But we still didn’t know how they became members of this group or why.
Over the next couple of months, we continued to go downtown to Maudie’s. Repeatedly, we were invited to join the festivities in the back room. By now it was March. The doldrums of second semester were setting in rapidly on the barren, cold, and gray Ohio landscape. A warm, unadorned room was a highlight compared to the outside world. Then one day, upon checking our campus mailboxes in the Administration Building, an envelope appeared. My name was handwritten on the front of the envelope, but I could not identify the writing. I tore it open. It was a formal invitation to join the Alpha Phi Tau brothers at a party to learn about frat life. We were being rushed. That was the term used by the active members of the group who wanted certain guys to join their group. They wanted us! My buddies and I were all surprised but at the same time anxious to participate in such a rush party.
Before the night of the rush party, we chatted with each other. What were we going to be expected to do? What questions were they going to ask us? Did they require something clandestine? No one knew, but that didn’t stop us from attending the party. Again, the beer flowed. We were happy to see other freshmen there also. Soon the president of the fraternity welcomed us warmly and provided a rudimentary outline of activities for the night. No formality, just drinking, eating, and having the actives, or current members, talk to us and introduce themselves to us. Through casual and relaxed conversations, we found out the APs, as they were called on campus, was a gathering of guys who enjoyed the company of one another but also were brothers. Brothers in the sense of helping each other out in times of stress or need. Brothers who were there for you when things weren’t going well. Brothers for you to socialize with and become lasting friends during the years at college and beyond. I was glad to learn the organization was more than sticky-floored gatherings and singing.
The next step for the freshmen was to formally pledge the fraternity. We needed to make a commitment exclusively to this group and not another fraternity group on campus. The integrity of these men become evident the more we learned to know them. They were not simply guys who exclusively gathered to drink, although that did seem to be a high priority, but rather a group of men who were integrated into the college community and contributed to campus life. They were scholastically gifted and focused on obtaining their varying degrees. Without hesitation, we placed our names for consideration. After an apprehensive week of waiting, we received another envelope in our mailboxes. We were accepted! We were now pledges and committed to going through a four-week process of, shall we say, education and enlightenment of the by-laws and traditions of the organization. Our pledge fathers ensured our knowledge increased daily. The physical and mental demands of joining were not for the faint of heart. We freshmen pledges stuck together. After twenty-eight days of intense orientation, the night of induction arrived. In the cavernous fraternity hall on the third floor of the Administration Building, we gathered, our paddles and notebooks in hand. We faced the actives on one side of the room while us fledgling freshmen confidently, yet obviously nervous, stood on the other side of the room.
We recited the obligatory fraternity creed together. We individually promised and committed to uphold the values of the organization and support each other in times of need. We agreed to respect not only the members of the fraternity, but all others on campus. With our pledge fathers taking our paddles, along with handing us a maroon and gold shirt with three Greek letters on it, we now were all brothers. Brothers together as one.
Six months had passed from that autumn day I arrived on campus knowing nothing of Alpha Phi Tau, their secret group a mystery. Now I was a member. I was part of this group. I knew the importance and meaning of being bonded together. It was no longer a secret to me. I held inside me all the values of joining this brotherhood of men. I treasured the secrets I learned. I still deeply treasure them today, forty years later.
Ronald Scott Price is a retired corporate banking executive living in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Tired of using the left side of his brain, he began taking art lessons and writing classes upon retirement, focusing on the right side of his brain. A member of the Pearl S. Buck Writers Guild, he is finalizing his manuscript/memoir—The Letter Men: 40 Years of Brotherhood. The story is about nine college fraternity boys corresponding tirelessly with each other for the past 40 years as they matured into men, fathers, and grandfathers—all the while strengthening their bonds as brothers. He can be reached at: www.ronaldscottprice.com.