"Let the rush begin"

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I received an e-mail earlier this week from my college fraternity, Xi Chapter of Zeta Beta Tau, about their upcoming rush week activities.

Saturday: All-you-can-eat steak and lobster dinner and a casino night.

Sunday: Building potato guns, canoeing on the Charles River.

Monday (Labor Day): Paintball, barbecue, geocaching.

Tuesday: Bowling, go-kart racing.

School starts on Wednesday, but they will have an event each night, and then a Boston Harbor cruise to a 19th Century fort on Georges Island on Saturday and a picnic at Larz Anderson Park on Sunday.

During rush week, fraternities entice freshmen to visit with fun activities and the best food they'll eat all year. This gives the freshmen a chance to get to know the brothers and vice versa, to figure out whether a potential member is a good fit with the house.

Reading about rush week brought back a lot of happy memories.

Way back in 1981, I arrived on the MIT campus the night before the beginning of what was then officially called "Residence/Orientation Week," but was unofficially known as rush week. During R/O Week, you met your adviser, registered for classes, and picked a place to live, either entering the dorm lottery (as about 2/3rds of the freshmen did) or pledging a fraternity or joining an independent living group (as the remaining third did). To join a fraternity, you had to receive a bid. There was also an "activities midway," where you could learn about clubs and musical groups and sports teams. All this took place before the start of classes.

Over the summer, I had received an official residence book from MIT, with a page about each of the 33 fraternities, ILGs and a couple of pages about each of the dormitories, and a map in the middle showing how they were scattered throughout MIT's campus, Boston's Back Bay neighborhood, and beyond.

Some fraternities (not "frats" -- you wouldn't call your country a...) held summer rush parties in cities where they had a cluster of brothers -- our house usually had one in Boston, one in Chicago, and one in LA. Most houses sent out postcards advertising rush week activities. When the booklet I ordered from The Sporting News about baseball scorekeeping arrived in the mail, my mother assumed it was a particularly offensive fraternity brochure. On the cover, in big letters, was the title: HOW TO SCORE.

After flying to Boston on Braniff and catching a shuttle to campus, I spent my first night at MIT in a gray, dismal cell dorm room in East Campus, my temporary assignment. It was like an SRO apartment -- there was a sink and a mirror in the room. The dorm was quiet -- dorm residents weren't required to come back for R/O week. I was alone, just me and the clock radio, tuned to WEEI 590, the news station. I was homesick to the point of tears.

(Earlier that night I had eaten a cafeteria dinner at Lobdell Dining Hall with three other freshmen, one of whom was named Greg Lobdell -- no relation.)

The next morning, I was surprised to discover that the bathroom on our floor was co-ed. I learned this as I was about to go in for a shower, only to hear a female voice declare, "I'll be out in a minute." Had I misread the sign on the door? I retreated to my room. No one had instructed me on the etiquette of co-ed bathrooms, and rather than risk an embarrassing breach of protocol, I skipped the shower and washed up at the sink in my room as best I could.

If memory serves, we had adviser meetings later that day to get acquainted and to start the process of signing up for classes. There was an R/O edition of The Tech to read, replete with ads for fraternity rush events. (There was also an ad for the whizzy TI-59 programmable calculator, featuring Bill Cosby in academic regalia.)

That afternoon was the freshman picnic. The picnic was held in Killian Court, a broad lawn surrounded on three sides by the original 1916 campus buildings. According to The Tech's report, we ate roast beef, corn on the cob, watermelon, and ice cream, mingled with fellow frosh, and then listened to speeches, including addresses by Dean of Students Shirley McBay and President Paul Gray. (At MIT, the joke went, the skies are gray, the buildings are gray, even the president....) Banners were unfurled from the roof of Building 10, behind the speakers. One of the banners, which didn't completely unfurl, was supposed to read, "This to MIT. Collect and third number calls will not be accepted at this number." (That was the message the phone system played to outside callers.)

While our attention was directed in the opposite direction, fraternity upperclassmen lined up across the open side of the court. At the end of the picnic, the president of the interfraternity council declared the beginning of rush, and the upperclassmen rushed in to shanghai freshmen to their parties and activities. While I had a list of houses in mind, the onslaught threw me into a state of confusion, so when an upperclassman named Scott Fulks came up and invited me to ZBT, I said yes, having forgotten that I had pretty much eliminated the house as being too far off campus. Scott conducted me to a waiting car, already packed with other freshmen, which took us up Memorial Drive, across the BU Bridge, west on Commonweath Ave. alongside the "B" Line streetcar. A U-turn at the Brighton Ave. bend brought us to Naples St. and the colonial facade of ZBT at 58 Manchester Road, Brookline. I was ushered up the steps and into the house, where I signed in at the front desk.

ZBT's special event was an excursion to Canobie Lake Park, an amusement park just across the state line in New Hampshire. I was hesitant; I had planned to visit several different fraternities that evening. I later learned that this was part of the game -- keeping freshmen out on activities for as long as the rules allowed gave a house a better shot at finding and getting their choice of freshmen.

My seatmate going up to New Hampshire had been a sophomore named George. He was a talkative fellow with wire-rim glasses and a tidy little mustache. He told me all about the house and the brothers. Later another brother apologized that I had to sit next to George and told me I shouldn't believe anything he said. I seem to recall he left the house and possibly MIT as well after about a year.

It was a fun evening. Canobie had a great wooden coaster. I recall riding it with a senior named Bill Rubin, who, with his bushy black beard, curly hair, and receding hairline, looked more like a middle-aged professor than a college student.

I was invited to spend the night at ZBT, and someone drove me by the dorm to pick up a change of clothes. I didn't spend another night at the dorm.

It was only as an upperclassman that I learned how much went on behind the scenes. Brothers had vacated some of the second-floor rooms for freshmen and were sleeping on floors and in the basement. Being invited to stay over meant you were a prospect.

While freshmen slept upstairs, the brothers cleaned the house and then met in the basement to go through the log of freshmen who had signed in, soliciting appraisals from those who had talked to each one. Brothers were encouraged to keep a small notebook handy and after a particularly interesting conversation to make some notes, discreetly, to bring up in discussion that night. Eddie Beauchemin, who was in the class ahead of me, always had the most detailed notes. If no one else could remember a freshman, Eddie would.

Upperclassmen didn't get much sleep during rush week, particularly those who ran the front desk and the back room, part of a bigger IFC operation to track the whereabouts of all freshmen and the house's own efforts to find and bring back freshmen that were regarded as good prospects for membership. (Stephanie Pollack's column in the post-rush edition of The Tech from that year is a good description of an upperclassman's experience of rush week.)

After a short night of sleep, upperclassmen were supposed to be showered and shaved and ready to schmooze before the first freshman came downstairs for breakfast.

After a Saturday morning made-to-order breakfast, I asked to be taken to one of the houses that I had on my list to visit -- Epsilon Theta, a co-ed house and the only other MIT residence in Brookline.

To be continued....

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on August 28, 2008 9:01 AM.

"Out of the night, when the full moon is bright..." was the previous entry in this blog.

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