I held the list in my hand as Spencer, my Pledge Master, sounded off the supplies laid out on the lawn in front of the fraternity house.
“Kegs?” he asked.
“All five,” I replied.
“About 50 of them.”
“100 dogs and 150 burgers.”
“Not an ounce, sir.”
Spencer paused at a backpack and began rummaging through an assortment of pill bottles and baggies stuffed with white powder and weed. He pulled out a bag of mushrooms and held them up.
“We look a little light on boomers.”
Just then, a red pickup truck barreled over the curb, tore across the lawn, and came to a halt two feet from the stockpile. James stumbled out of the cab, which was blaring Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” His long blonde hair was tucked under a Confederate flag bucket hat.
“This isn’t the checkout line at Walmart,” he said.
“Well, that explains that,” Spencer said.
He turned to me.
“Make sure the rest of your pledge class has their shit together. We’re rolling in five.”
I went to the side of the yard where my pledge brothers sat in a cluster. They all wore jeans, white t-shirts, and hardhats with a number scribbled in Sharpie on the front, and everyone carried a handsaw.
It was the weekend of our fraternity retreat. For two nights, we camped out in a five-acre swath of forest with a clearing in the center, lent to us by a generous alumnus. The brothers spent the weekend sitting around a massive fire pit in the heart of the clearing, drinking and taking drugs, while the army of pledges toiled away in the woods, manually sawing down tree after tree to fuel the towering blaze.
It was a brothers-only event, of course. Partly due to a shared belief in the bonding power of “roughing it” in the South Carolina wilderness, but mainly due to the ruthless, non-stop hazing the pledges endured.
The moment we piled out of our vehicles and made the short hike to the campsite, Spencer was shouting at us to line up in formation. The 30 of us stood shoulder to shoulder in order, signified by the numbers on our hardhats. Pledge #1 — referred to by the brothers as “Special” — wore a children’s styrofoam bike helmet.
After a few routine up-downs and planks on the muddy ground, our white t-shirts were soaked in brown. Spencer walked up and down the line like a drill sergeant, a BB gun slung over his shoulder. He took a deep breath.
“Ahhh, nothin’ like the smell of fresh forest air –” he leaned in close to me and took another whiff. “– And wet pussy.”
I heard a few snickers from the rest of the fraternity, which had now assembled in the clearing.
“It sure is pretty out here,” Spencer continued. “But for some reason, I can’t help but feel like something is missing…”
He looked at the other actives in feigned confusion.
“But you know, for the life of me, I can’t quite put a finger on what it is. Can any of y’all help me out?”
At once, the brothers erupted into a frenzied chant, jumping up and down as they howled into the sky.
MORE WOOD ON THE FIRE LET’S GO LET’S GO!
MORE WOOD ON THE FIRE LET’S GO LET’S GO!”
My pledge class and I grabbed our saws and sprinted into the woods. I heard a pop and the crackle of broken twigs as a BB pellet whizzed over my head. That chant would become the anthem of the weekend. It haunts me to this day.
By noon, we had a roaring fire in the middle of the site. It was the biggest bonfire I’d ever seen, measuring at least 10 feet across and 15 feet high. Still, we continued to saw away at the waning forest line. We must have downed hundreds of trees over the two-day span. Most of them had relatively thin trunks, so one of us could harvest the lumber with a handsaw pretty easily. The actives handed us axes for the bigger logs.
The deforestation continued throughout the day, egged on by the incessant chanting of drunken brothers, and broken up with the occasional lineup. A handful of pledges had been separated from the pack, handed shovels, and told to start digging on the other side of camp for reasons none of us knew.
At one point we were told to sprint up a muddy hill. As we ran back down, a whistle blew, and Spencer shouted, “SEAALS!” We dove into the mud and slid on our stomachs as far as the hill could carry us before standing back up and continuing the run.
As the day turned to night, the brothers began calling pledges’ numbers in groups of two to run to the circle and provide fireside entertainment. Dancing. Jokes. Horribly-executed freestyle raps.
James, still whacked out on mushrooms, shouted, “Kobe!” and attempted to leap over the fire. His pants were quickly extinguished with a nearby bucket of water. Moments later, a can of beans that were thrown on the flames (a “bean bomb”) exploded. I ducked to narrowly avoid a piece of hot shrapnel flying towards my face.
Eventually, the pledges were herded to “Mexico,” a small, rocky ditch on the edge of the campsite where we were to sleep. The Mexico thing was a common theme throughout my pledgeship. The episode of South Park where Butters is mistaken for a Mexican had recently come out, and whenever we were cleaning a house (or in this case, sawing a tree), the brothers would sing, “Work, Mexican, work!”
Just as I found a nice mossy rock on which to lay my head for the night, Spencer appeared at the top of the ditch and sang the offensive jingle. As we emerged from the ditch, the rest of the brothers joined in with the other godforsaken chant we’d been hearing all weekend.
MORE WOOD ON THE FIRE LET’S GO LET’S GO!
MORE WOOD ON THE FIRE LET’S GO LET’S GO!”
Back to the forest we ran. The “sleep break” was a cruel farce.
As we sawed away past sunrise, then past the 24-hours-without-sleep mark, many pledges grew delirious. Stuart was taking it especially hard. I saw the pudgy Rhode Islander nod off, still standing, while sawing a tree, then snap awake and blurt out, “There’s a walrus in my closet!” Then he drifted off again, only to jolt awake a second later and add, “I’ll throw some water on it!”
The day wore on. I had never been more exhausted in my life. My vision tunneled, and the task at hand was all I could see. The growling of metal teeth on wood all I could hear.
Night fell, and after another lineup, a burlap bag was thrown over my head. I stood in total darkness for what seemed like hours. Then I felt two hands on my shoulders push me forward.
The hands guided me on a winding path until I could make out two flickering lights.
The bag was ripped off my head and I saw Spencer standing, arms crossed, over what looked like an empty grave. That’s what the group of pledges were digging on the other side of the campsite all this time. The president and vice president stood on either side of the hole, wearing robes, each holding a torch.
Spencer motioned towards a wooden coffin at the bottom of the grave.
I climbed in and folded my arms, staring up at the night sky. The stars were replaced with blackness as the lid was placed on the coffin. Then I heard the sound of hammering on each corner of the wooden box.
“Number four,” Spencer spoke up. “What are the names of the founding fathers?”
He continued to blankly sound off question after question from the pledge book. With each piece of trivia I answered wrong, I heard the thud of dirt being dumped on top of the lid.
They aren’t actually going to bury me, I thought to myself. They just smacked a hammer against each corner of the coffin to try and scare me. No way they used nails. How stupid do they think I am?
But as the questions became more and more obscure and the dirt began to pile, another thought darted into my mind.
“Damn, number four,” Spencer said. “Things aren’t lookin’ too good for you right about now.”
I was silent. Then came more wrong answers, and more scoops of earth.
“Mr. Buscemi,” Spencer said finally, using my real name for the first time all weekend. “Who in this fraternity can you count on to help you no matter what?”
“Chris,” I said. “My big brother.”
“No,” Spencer said. “All of us.”
The lid flung open. A group of brothers reached into the hole and hoisted me out. Chris was there, too. He grinned and handed me a bottle of Jim Beam.
“You ready to get fucked up?” he asked.
I joined Chris and the rest of the brothers by the fire, where a few members of my pledge class were already on their merry ways to getting blackout drunk. When everyone had completed the coffin ritual, it was time for “Stick Toss,” where each one of us, pledges and brothers, would grab a stick, say something about what the fraternity meant to him, and toss the kindling into the fire.
After everyone had spoken their piece, Spencer stood up for his turn. I expected him to either belittle us pledges or make a completely off-the-wall joke (after all, this was the same guy who once told us our first pledge assignment was to “Watch Patch Adams… naked”).
Instead, Spencer said something I’ll never forget. He turned directly to the group of pledges and told us his father died a year ago, something only the actives had known. He told us how pointless and worthless life had felt after it happened. He told us how, for awhile, he hadn’t been able to eat or sleep or enjoy anything he used to. He told us that when he finally opened up to the chapter, they were the ones that pulled him out of the deep hole he found himself in. Then he tossed his stick in the fire.
James took out his guitar and strummed a few chords. We all recognized the tune immediately — “The General” by Dispatch — and sang along. I watched the smoke from the dying fire curl into the purple, early-morning sky..