Editor's Note: The following column was originally published in 2007.
When I was in college, I belonged to a fraternity that was founded on the principle that if we were going to have a fraternity, we ought to have some principles. These principles were inflexible, inviolate and, we believed, probably written down somewhere.
The badge of our fraternity reflected these principles. It was festooned with more than a dozen symbols, like eagles, candles and one we couldn't quite make out but suspected was a turnip.
One year, we found a poem that had been written about the badge, each stanza explaining what all the little trinkets represented. We decided that we should bring all of our freshmen pledges to the house, read them the poem, make them stare at the badge and then maybe go moon the Phi Delts or something.
We were excited to be inventing this new mystical ritual! I was elected to read the poem because everyone said I looked like somebody who should be on radio. We wired together a bunch of stereo amplifiers to a microphone so the pledges wouldn't just hear me - they would feel my every word, their dental fillings vibrating right out of their mouths. We hung a large wooden model of the badge on the wall and strung up some spotlights, and herded the pledges into the room and told them to stare at the badge. I stepped forward, turned on the microphone and blew every fuse in the frat house.
Now I was standing in complete darkness, the pledges nervously fidgeting in front of me. After several uncomfortable minutes, I decided the lights were never coming back on, and began reciting the parts of the poem I remembered, which frankly wasn't very much.
I tried to picture the badge in my mind. Let's see, wasn't there a turtle? "The turtle," I said into the darkness, "represents the, the slowness of time, time in a ... a shell, while the turnip reminds us that as keeper of our principles, we should always eat our vegetables."
I was an English major, which was why I was so good at this.
Let's see, what else was there? Yellow moons, orange stars and green clovers? That sounded familiar.
Plus one of the Caesar brothers was on there, Julius or Augustus, or maybe it was supposed to be Nixon in a bathrobe. Sweating in the blackness, I hurriedly speculated aloud that the other icons on the badge would later be revealed as mysterious representations of the principles that would later be revealed. I ended my poem with a stern reminder to the pledges that the house had recently voted to ban cigarette smoking.
Then we stood there in the silence. The minutes ticked by, punctuated only by someone's hiccups and the smothered laughter that followed. The more they attempted to strangle their mirth, the more they laughed, until I, fighting cramps in my own ribcage, sternly barked out that they should keep their "eyes on the badge of the fraternity!"
There was no way to tell if they actually did this.
Finally, the doors to the dining room banged open, admitting the flickering light from a candle someone had lit. One of the brothers strode in from the gloom. "Get the hell out of our house!" he bellowed.
Like frightened cattle, the pledges bolted for the door. A minute later, the lights came back up.
"There's a turtle on the badge?" someone asked, peering at it.
"Never mind that. What's with the 'get the hell out'?" I complained. "That didn't seem very ritualistic."
It was admitted that perhaps we should have thought of something more formal, plus everyone was disappointed that we forgot, in all the solemn dignity of the moment, to go moon the Phi Delts.
Years later, I visited my fraternity house, regaling the students there with how superior we were in my era. I asked them about pledgeship - what did they like about it?
Their favorite event? The thing where they went into a dark room and someone made jokes about all the symbols that used to be on the badge.
I was offended. I believed the fraternity's principles were being violated.
I just wasn't sure which ones.
To write Bruce Cameron, visit his website at www.wbrucecameron.com. To find out more about Bruce Cameron and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.