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Chuck and his brothers.

I've never gotten over the fact that Chuck didn't tell me he planned to join a frat. After all, we had grown up together, spending our summers clamming in open skiffs on Long Island's Great South Bay. We were childhood friends. It's the kind of decision friends typically sweat through together.

Chuck enrolled at Alfred University in 1978 during my junior year, after taking time off to work and travel, In the first weeks of school, we fell into the habit of meeting in the union pub. We would stand at the end of the bar and talk about friends back home, the boats, ale price of clams. But my thoughts were a long way from the bay and outboard motor oil. And Chuck gensed it. An awkwardness crept into our meetings, Chuck was struggling to make the transition to college life, one few find easy.

I made some fitful attempts to bring him into my world of history majors and left-leaning political acfivists, but more and more I'd see Chuck with the Greek crowd, About half the male students belong to one of the five fraternities. I knew some of them and they knew me. But Alfred is a small, rural campus and the Greek and non-Greek world divides social life. From the day I was shoved over a porch railing for flirting with a brother's girlfriend at a rush party, I had chosen sides. I was no more comfortable joining the Greeks around a table full of beers than Chuck was sitting with my friends.

Just two days before he died I saw him in the pub. Sensing the boundaries as much as 1, Chuck got up from a table of fraternity brothers and joined me, leaning on his elbows with his back to the bar, his wiry, six-foot frame tilting on his heels like a shovel against a barn wall.

"So what are your plans for school, Chuck?" I asked and lifted a beer.

As if he were prepared for the question, Chuck explained he had decided to major in history like me. I saw his reply as a signal that he too was looking for new common ground. Within minutes I had him in my adviser's office filling in the paperwork.

As we bounded down the worn oak stairs of the history building, I felt we had closed a gap between us. We headed back to the pub. I ordered more beer to celebrate, But as I carried on, recommending classes to take and professors to avoid, Chuck's eyes kept glancing back toward the Greeks. Soon I stopped talking. Chuck said nothing. I found myself rolling a cigarette butt back and forth under my foot, staring down on the beer-soaked carpet. Before long Chuck returned to his friends at the table and I left.

Two days later, Chuck climbed into a car trunk during a fraternity hazing. His brothers-to-be locked him inside with two other pledges and a fifth of liquor, a six-pack of beer, and a bottle of wine. They were told to drink it while the brothers took a joy ride. When they opened the trunk about 40 minutes later, "Chuck was out of it," as one brother said. He died sometime later that night.

I learned later that Chuck had been struggling with the decision to pledge the Klan Alpine fraternity that very day in the pub, A roommate said that the frat brothers had been pushing him hard to join, but he was anxious about the hazing and remained undecided until shortly before he climbed in that trunk. As unbelievable as it seems now, it never occurred to me that Chuck would actually pledge.

Had we talked, maybe I would have told him of my experiences as a resident adviser in a freshman dorm, where I spent hours counseling the guys on my floor, The decision of pledging tore roommates apart from each other. It was the single biggest counseling problem I had. But none of that compared with Hell Week. The nightly riwal began about 10 p.m. when the brothers would storm the halls, pounding the doors with baseball bats and whisking away dazed freshmen for a night of hazing that often involved heavy drinking, In the morning, I'd roll the stragglers to their rooms after they had spent a few hours resting their faces on a toilet seat, emptying their stomachs.

Saturday, I woke in the middle of the night to someone screaming my name from the bathroom across the hall. In a shower, I found three pledges leaning against the tile walls. Four shower heads blasted a stream of water over a fourth pledge, lying across the drain. His body was blue and motionless. He had thrown up and choked on his own vomit. His buddies were too drunk to help. I cleared his throat, and a friend blew a few shots of air into his lungs. He began breathing easily.

In the eerie silence that followed, the pledges pleaded with me not to report the incident, saying it might hurt their chances of joining the frat. In the context of that horrible week, the incident didn't seem much crazier than what I had already seen. In one of the worst decisions of my life, I agreed to say nothing and returned to bed.

Chuck never knew that story. When his brothers pulled him from the trunk of that car they too threw him in a shower to wake him. But he never came to, and like the socked freshman on the shower floor, he choked on his own vomit. There was no one around that night sober enough to help.

Many young men enjoy the kind of close friendship Chuck and I had growing up. But when they leave, for college they most often do it alone, without those childhood friends and that sense of shared experience. In Chuck's case, the loneliness and loss was compounded when he joined me at school and found I had changed in ways he couldn't understand. And so he turned to the fraternity.

I understand the attraction now, in a way I didn't when I chose sides then. I only wish that I could have talked it out with Chuck.
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Title Annotation:college fraternities
Author:Belanger, Greg
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Nov 1, 1988
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