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“Pledge brain” is what we would always call the mental shift that pledges eventually achieve during pledgeship. For some pledges this happens right away. For others, it takes some time. No matter how quickly they achieve the mental shift, between the constant demeaning, drinking, and sleep deprivation, pledges lose most if not all of their sense of real consciousness, logic, and decision making. They become reactionary beings, moving from one beer or command to the next, and situations that would make a normal person stop and consider the possible outcomes or implications are sprinted toward without hesitation.
For me, right around Halloween in the fall of my freshman year, pledge brain was running strong. I was a well-liked pledge, to the extent that I was not fucked with as much as others and never got a personal hazing session separate from lineup, and I was rather firmly implanted at the top of my pledge class.
My pledge class, however, was terrible. We were, as they say, the worst pledge class ever. We made the dumbest mistakes, the worst decisions, and generally managed to fuck up everything we tried to do as a unit up until this point. Every pledge class gets told that they are the worst ever while they actually are pledging, however at least in my chapter, they don’t get reminded of this years after the fact. We still do.
I have a lot of pride and I was determined to change this perception. The Halloween mixer was going to be a complete blow out, the best party in the fall outside of homecoming week, and I was not going to let us fuck it up. We were one, we were told, and that meant whatever failures we had as a group were my failures as a person.
We were tasked with “procuring” decorations for the house: hay, pumpkins, plastic ghosts, fake coffins, mummies, Democrat donkeys, and other generally frightening things usually found in a haunted house. Most of these Halloween items were permanently borrowed from local involuntary donors. I asked a couple of older brothers, with whom I had grown close, what would really put this over the edge, what would redeem us.
“Impress us,” they said. Vague advice aside, it was on. While the rest of my pledge class snuck onto front porches and drove out to the sticks, I was going to blow them away.
But what could I do in only a few hours? It was already getting dark, the party kicked off at 10, and we had to set up at least before then. I had to think fast. What was creepy? What was spooky? What inherently reminded you of Halloween?
Then it hit me; the cemetery.
It was the entire way across campus, but it was within walking distance. Graveyards are undeniably creepy places, especially at night, and we were bound to find something that we could use. My pledge brain had reached new levels of obliviousness. There was only the mission to accomplish; there was only success to achieve.
I turned to my best friend in my pledge class and quietly told him my plan. He stared back, not sure if I was serious, saw that I was, and then shook his head “no.”
“There is no way I’m walking through a graveyard looking for decorations,” he whispered, a look of genuine fear on his face. This could not be happening. My entire plan was going to collapse because my buddy was afraid of graveyards at night.
Most of these Halloween items were permanently borrowed from local involuntary donors.
I quickly scanned the rest of my pledge class and decided on two others who I knew would be down. The one kid, tall and lanky, was pretty much down for anything at any time. Drink at 9am on a Tuesday? Sure. Found random pills on the floor? He’ll take ‘em. Try to turbo his car with Natty cans? That happened. The other was fat, had a stupid beard that everyone hated, but had been broken down so much by the process that his pledge brain was now in a state of advanced psychosis. This is the kid who stole a brother’s SUV and drove it around all night because we were told one of us had to be a DD. This is the kid who would later bring a 40-year-old coke hag he met at the bar back to a Friday night party at the fraternity house. This is the kid who is also now a city policeman. They would do.
Released and sent off on our mission, the trek began. Surely there would be something creepy we could grab. The entire walk, we discussed how much this would “kill it.” I would be heralded as a party enhancing visionary, cementing my super pledge status. My fat friend would be redeemed and people would talk about how cool he made the party. My lanky friend would, well, he was always down to do something ridiculous, and this would be near the top of the charts. Visions of greatness danced through our eyes as the sun set behind us.
We arrived at the graveyard and surveyed the scene, carefully walking between small mausoleums and patches of earth where the deceased had been resting peacefully, until our arrival. My windbreaker was little match for the cool breeze of late fall, but I was beginning to have a far bigger problem on my hands. There was nothing to be found.
“Dude, what about these?” my fat pledge brother asked. T
The moonlight danced off of his moon-shaped face. He held up a bouquet of flowers with both hands.
“Those are flowers…” I replied, shaking my head in disgust. “How in the hell will they remind anyone of Halloween?”
Finally, panic began to set in. Not only were we about to fail to bring back something game-changing, we were about to not bring something back at all. We would be forced to miss the party, or more likely end up wishing we did, and the brothers would hate us even more.
There was no fucking way I was going to let that happen.
Holding my phone out in front for light, I took one long look at the resting souls before me. If mine left at that moment, rejected my body for what it was about to do, I didn’t feel it. Pledge brain now consumed me. I had become pledge, destroyer of worlds.
“Pick it up,” I muttered, calmly, confidently, as I pointed at the smallest tombstone I could find.
My pledge brothers looked at me, but there was no contention in their dead pledge eyes, no disgust. They had succumbed. Walking corpses themselves, they lifted the stone from the earth. It was cold, and far heavier than it looked, but this was the game-changer. A real tombstone at our Halloween party. This would go down as legend. My lanky friend put it under his shirt, holding it awkwardly in front of him, and we walked back to the house.
Eventually it was my turn to carry the now desecrated headstone that noted a life long lost, and I put it under my jacket. I could feel the dirt on my hands, dirt that had been there for decades, and the cold chill of the stone against my skin.
We arrived at the house late, but victorious. All of the pledges and brothers had gathered in the massive front room we were about to decorate with their loot laid out on the table. There were plastic decorations, pumpkins that would later be smashed, bags of leaves for that real fall feeling. Our sweetheart, a longtime girlfriend of an older brother, was passing out awful thrift shop dresses to my pledge brothers. They would be our costumes for the evening.
“We need to get this the fuck out of here.”
Slowly but surely, everyone stopped what they were doing to turn and look at us.
“We did it,” I proclaimed as the conquering hero.
We had gone out into the wild and returned, tired, dirty, but triumphant. The smile on my face, perhaps the first in weeks, and the exuberance I was emitting were both contagious. My other pledged brothers looked at us with hope, a feeling they had all but forgotten. The brothers were already bordering on actually being impressed just off of the promise of what we had accomplished.
“There,” I pointed.
My fat friend pulled the tombstone out from against his furry gut. He placed it on the floor in front of him, a trophy for all to see.
“Oh, cool,” a brother said, obviously disappointed. “Well you’re late…and you came in the front door…”
“No, no,” I replied. He didn’t get it. Not yet. “It’s real.”
I could feel every eye in the room scan me up and down. The disappointed brother approached the stone and touched it, felt how cold it was, how heavy, how so very wrong.
“Oh…my…god…” he muttered.
My grin widened. I turned to my two accomplices and they were equally on high. This was our moment. For what felt like a long while no one else really reacted until, like in a movie, our sweetheart screamed.
“This is a party, you fucking criminals,” her boyfriend deadpanned. “There will be girls here, wearing next to nothing, drinking. That is the entire point. How in the hell does a gravestone help that?”
The blood drained from my face.
“Dude this is not cool,” muttered another brother, shocked.
“We need to get this the fuck out of here.”
No! What was happening?
“Take it back,” we were ordered. “Take it back right now.” My lanky friend reached down, lifted the idol in disgrace, and started putting it under his shirt.
“Holy fuck you carried it here?” a horrified shout rang out from various mouths. “You are NOT walking that back. We are driving you, right now.”
“Amos,” my fat friend said, staring at the stone. I looked at him with confusion, but he was reading it. “Born February 1888. Died August 1888. Guys, this is for a baby. No wonder it was the smallest.”
“Get the fuck out of this house.”
Pledge brain had betrayed us. The mental walls we had built came crashing down. As we returned the stone and said our prayers, human beings once more, the extent of what we had done washed over us and I was immediately filled with more regret than any of the pictures of me in a dress later that night would give me.
It would not be the stupidest thing my pledge class would do, as a pledge brother of mine would saw down the school’s mini-pine trees and drag them across the street to our house, on camera, for our Christmas mixer, while another would literally rob a fast food place by jumping over the counter and get thrown out of school, almost bringing me down in the process even though I legitimately had nothing to do with that one, but what we had done was easily the most fucked up.
Pledge brain is a dangerous state, wherein all judgment, all sense of right and wrong, any common decency, is hazed out of you in a damp basement set to loud music. For some people it fades right after initiation. For others, it can take until their second semester of being a brother. For me, it left when I robbed a grave, ironically making me a real person once more in the midst of my most inhumane act.