AsophæditaW. L. WarrenThis is a story from 1946 --- although given the nature of the times and of America, I guess it could be set in 1936 or 1926 or maybe even 1956. But it happened to me in 1946 and it is etched on my mind as being the essence of that strange, just-after-the-war period. It was all in fun and I have no knowledge of how many of my peers were killed or maimed (both physically or psychologically) by such carryings-on, but I think we can assume that some of my generation still have what I would call "Pubic Birth Marks" from those events.
It transpired through something known as Greek Letter Fraternities, part of our new-found, noisy manhood in that tortured spit of sand and palm known as the Northern Florida coast.
I was a member of Alpha Delta Tau. Our main competition was Phi Lambda Epsilon. They were the hellions and drunkards. We were all hellions and drunkards --- but the ADT did it in a more proper way (we didn't drink in our cars as much; we tried not to drink ourselves into rigor mortis, as did Buck Taylor of the PLE twice a year, for six years. We were more genteel.)
Our female counterparts were the sororities Iota Delta Sigma, and Lambda Sigma Sigma. Because of the peculiarities of the capital Greek Alphabet, Lambda Sigma Sigma came out looking like "ASS" and we had a great deal of fun with that. The letters being Greek gave class to all of our operations which --- now that I think, of it --- were no more than heavy drinking, chasing around in high speed 1946 Plymouths or Chryslers, and rutting. The usual exercises of the 14, 15, and 16-year-old American white middle-class male.
What I want to tell you about is the weekend of "initiation." I have described it over the years to friends, with disbelief --- theirs, not mine --- and now I want to set it down here so that those of you who, perhaps, came of age before what they so lovingly refer to as the '40's and 50's can know a little about the foolishness we engaged in in the name of growing up.
There are two stories from my youth, which are greeted with total scepticism by good friends --- and this is one of them (the other is what happened to me when they sent me away to The Hun School --- a school in which the older students did things to the younger students in keeping with the spirit and meaning of the word "Hun").
No, this is a tale about North Florida, and the soft wind off the sea, a passionate heat, palm-trees. Initiation ceremonies took place some time in late April. They fell into three parts. The formal robe-and-candle foo-foo-raw was stolen nakedly from Masons, and as I have been sworn to eternal secrecy, I can't tell you about that. It came last, anyway, and the only thing I can report to you was that we were each required to recite the entire Greek alphabet from memory which I can, with strange mnemonic loops that bear us out of our childhoods, still perform to this day. If I am drunk enough; if I am in the mood; if you care to ask me, and to listen.
Then there was the first Initiation, the night before the "field trip." By means of wooden paddles, the older "members" turned our "freshman" bottoms to red masses of pain. The master of the stroke was LeLand Burpee (where do they get these names?) who would start striding --- side-stepping really --- from across the room and wham! land a good hard one on our bony rears as we leaned facedown, arms outstretched on the table, holding onto the table. Wham! And we would suppress any noise, any sign of pain, and await another side-step dance across the room wham! and I recall my mother's tight-lipped warning me about hospital cases resulting from these ceremonies, wondering if it would be me. Wham!
Field trip initiation took place the next day, on a Saturday. A Saturday when the sky comes an inverted bowl of milk-white honeysuckle holding in the heat that arching man-self stumbling towards fruition. This was our flowering, our debut, our initiation into the sacred state of manhood.
We were instructed to bring to our deserted beach isle the following:
The crankcase oil was to be second-hand, and well-used. That means that it was black, and thick, and dirty, like the insides of a car engine. Filling-station people couldn't understand why we wanted such a mess of dirty oil.
- LePage's Airplane Glue
- One Bottle of Castor Oil
- One Dozen Eggs
- One Box of Kellogg Corn Flakes
- One Bottle of Red Fingernail Polish
- Two or Three Onions
- Five Gallons of Second Hand Crankcase Oil
- Five Pounds of Pillsbury flour
The Asophædita was and is some miraculous folk-witch cure-all for baby colic. For flavor and stink, it certainly ranks with a fish that has rested a week in the trashcan, or perhaps the insides of a New York garbage truck: spoiled Kotex, spoiled chicken parts, spoiled dog-shit, general sticky-shiny green putrescence, old barf bags. I trust you get my drift.
§ § §
It is only recently that I have wondered about the fates of my non-fraternity friends --- Robert Gardner, Irving Spivak, George Tobi, Richard Saturday. Contemporary wisdom was that since they had not been invited to participate in our world, they spent their weekends alone in their rooms in that pre-television world, looking at the wall, feeling bad about their teen-aged loneliness and isolation. That was the contemporary wisdom.
But I now suspect it was a stroke of luck that they never made it into Alpha Delta Tau or Phi Lambda Epsilon. They probably spent their weekends in far more creative pursuits than having their rear ends swatted purple, then being dragged out on some isolated sand-dune to be blindfolded and stripped naked, then have their pubic hair painted with airplane cement and Fire-Engine Red fingernail polish, both of which, in combination, were a bitch to get off nascent body-hairs.
It seems to me now that perhaps my non-fraternity peers in reality had jobs to attend to, adults to communicate with, books to read, music to hear, things to do --- all a bit more important than having five gallons of crankcase oil dumped over their bodies, then dusted with corn flakes, the whole being whitened with five pounds of Fisher's Blend flour. I mean that I think that Bobby and Irv and Dick and George were busy on more profitable or creative pursuits that submitting, for the sake of manhood, to lying, mouths open on the hot Florida sands --- as a revolting concoction of raw egg, onion, and castor oil was dropped into open, unwilling mouths --- after which we were rolled around in the sands which, combined with our oil base, gave us a true white-grit decorativeness, before our torturers (our brothers, our friends) departed, leaving us with a few rags of clothing, so that we, in our newly decorated state, could make our way home, stinking of the waste-oil of cars, tasting of castor oil and folk medicine: to finally know that now, at last, with our initiation, we had passed into the last stages of our acceptance, our rites being no different than that inflicted on the boys of New Guinea with their circumscision rites, the aborigines of Australia and their wilderness treks, the M'butu of Central Africa with the scarring of face and chests and backs: with them, with our pain, we now entered the world of men.
We were the chosen ones, weren't we? While Rich Saturday (uninitiated) was playing saxophone in some dance band, while Irving Spivak (uninitiated) was reading Proust, while Robert Gardner (uninitiated) was out with his truck-driving friends, while George Tobi (unitiated) was rebuilding his Ford Model A --- we golden-haired initiates were being taken through the ritual beatings, ritual body decorations, ritual Greek alphabet, and the secret handshakes. The ritual, and the distinction of our having gone through it, and having survived it, without openly weeping, made us men --- ready next year to administer it to the new and innocent and fuzz-cheeked initiates.
§ § §
Only it never happened. For some reason, our class was the last. After us, there was no one to take the mantle. One of my fraternity brothers got the ritual robes, the ritual books of Alpha Delta Tau. He put them away in his closet so that we could take them out next year and start the cycle of harrassing and beating. But it never came to pass --- and I now see that we were the dinosaurs, of dying traditions, meaningless ritual. Some of the younger kids went away to school; some dropped out and took jobs; most of them seemed to be interested in something new, staying home with their families every evening, watching this new thing called television.
It's all gone, and all I have to show for it is a funny feeling in the tum when I recall raw egg and castor oil being dropped in one's mouth from five feet up, the terrible job of getting red nail polish and airplane cement out of burgeoning pubic hair, and that weird taste and smell of Asophædita. And, oh yes, the wonderful feeling, after it was all over ("I've done it!"), after an hour in the bathtub --- that man's feeling of being clean, and free, and alive, and now, truly a man.
Oh, yes. There was one more prize. After fifty years, for the life of me, I can never forget:
and, as always, Omega.