Road Trip

Creative Nonfiction by John Lane

I’ve told the story so many times it feels immediate, real, if not true. Studying at my desk one weekday night for a history test back in 1973, several of my fraternity brothers knocked on the dorm door. My roommate was out. I answered the door with no trepidation. Why would I be concerned? I felt secure because I trusted the fraternity rule that stated you could not road trip a pledge on the night before they had a test.

Rather than bullshitting like they usually did upon visiting, I’ve always said the brothers grabbed me, tied my hands and blindfolded me. I remember the chill of that winter night in the upper South Carolina Piedmont rushing through that open door. It was near the end of the first semester of my freshman year, and I wasn’t a good student, so I always had trouble focusing on my studies, so I can’t claim that long-ago code violation disrupted the developing habits of a budding scholar. I made four Cs that first semester, including a C in the history class I was studying for that night.

Were there two or three culprits? I remember three, but that may be because later, when I became a writer, I learned there are always three of everything in a fairy tale. It’s hard to sort out when I became a writer and conventions like “the law of threes” would become a script for my own life. I grew up hearing stories in my family around the dinner table and so by the time I came to college I’d likely learned a great deal about the craft of making a story.

That fall, I had somehow missed the understanding that I was in trouble, that I was in line for some correction, that a road trip was in my future. I remember I had a few demerits. I’d maybe failed a chapter test or two on the history of the fraternity. Around that time my big brother had tried to reason with me about being more compliant. “You’re a pledge for four months,” he explained. “Get through it. And then we’re brothers for life.”

I was likely road-tripped for these simple reasons. I had violated a code. At least one brother also believed I needed to be punished for preserving close friendships on my hall among those who would be known as “GDIs, Goddamn independents.” Soon after I pledged, I told the brothers that I had other friends and that I would make a deal; I would sit with the brothers four lunches a week and with my other friends for one. This one particular brother was furious. “You’re a pledge, Lane. You don’t make the rules. You follow them. You wait on us every day. You go on beer runs. When you are a brother the pledges can wait on you.”

I recall two brothers carried me down the outside steps of the dormitory. They threw me in the trunk of one of their cars in the parking lot. Would I have struggled? I can’t believe that after being tied and blindfolded that I would have gone down the steps in sheep-like compliance. Once the brothers threw me in the trunk, I must have settled in among stale beer smells, tire rubber and a whiff of lingering exhaust. I could have kicked blindly in the dark against the trunk, but I don’t think I did. I don’t go into rages easily. In my version of the story, the brothers drove me a short distance. They stopped maybe in the parking lot of a bar not far from campus. Maybe they parked there while they stoked up on beer for the road trip. There was nothing I could do. I was simply a victim to the narrative unfolding. I huddled in the dark, waiting for the ordeal to end.

Sometime later the brothers cranked the car and drove a half-hour or so. Then the car stopped, and the trunk finally opened. I still couldn’t see. It was cold. In the rush to get me started on my road trip the brothers hadn’t given me a coat. They hauled me out of the trunk, loosened my ropes, but left my blindfold in place. “See you in a week or two, Lane,” one brother yelled. Then I heard the car disappear into the cold and dark.

I remember my young self as a college Houdini. I worked off the loosened ropes and removed my blindfold. There were stars above and pavement under my feet. The brothers had dropped me on top of a hill. I could see lights below through the bare trees. Based on how long I’d been in the trunk, and by the terrain, I knew generally where I was— somewhere outside the city, likely up near the mountains. Once I was free, I jogged downhill and soon saw I was right. I saw the sign to Spartanburg, twenty miles to the east.

At the bottom of the hill I flagged down a truck and explained to the driver what had happened to me. I remember he took some pride in us beating the brothers back to campus. Of course, like the stereotypes they were, the brothers stopped for more beer, likely telling their side of the story to other drunk, assembled brothers and pledges. Once back on campus, I went straight to one of the brothers’ rooms, the brother I considered the ringleader, the one who had given me the most trouble at lunch, the one whose voice had assured me when he pushed me to the pavement, that I was in for a long night far from home. There wasn’t exactly hell to be paid for their transgressions. How could it be an eye for an eye? Retribution was sweet that night, but it wasn’t total. Back on campus I found the brother’s shaving cream and I sprayed down his sheets with foam. Then I squirted “I quit” on the desktop beside the bed.

Nearly fifty years later, I discovered I made much of the incident up, as if it had somehow simply filled a space I needed for something in my college poet psyche to emerge, grow, and then bloom. The memories were clear, but maybe my memory had embellished the reality over so many years of telling. Sometime later, when I taught at the college where I’d been road tripped, the incident became a story, a go-to fable. This road trip story was always the equivalent of a personal morality play, usually told around a campfire when my students would ask me if I’d been in a fraternity.

There is material evidence I pledged a fraternity that fall of ‘73. Students two generations removed from that night of rebellion often told me they were surprised to find my picture, with only a stubble of beard and in a tuxedo tie, on a composite, stacked among others in the frat house attic. The students, often young pledges themselves, would shake my hand and expect the secret fraternity handshake in return (the little fingers clasped with a special squeeze) but I never complied, never entered that shared fraternal zone again after that night long ago. I don’t know if that composite still exists. Much of the fraternity archive was landfilled when the old row, a horseshoe of dilapidated houses, was torn down in the 2000s and the new row built across campus.

Fraternity life was different back on the old row. Fraternity literarily means “brotherhood” in Latin, and strangely it also has a religious origin, suggesting early Christian orders of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages, morphing later into guilds and fraternal orders like the Freemasons. Throughout the 20tth century, fraternities were popular, especially in small mostly all-male Southern colleges like mine. By the ‘70s, when I arrived on the scene, fraternity membership had begun to ebb. About that time, fraternities became almost entirely associated with images of Animal House where alcohol and sex are the lingua franca of the group. Fraternities have been fighting that image ever since.  

Pledgeship has changed so much at Southern colleges that men my age would not even recognize it. There are now stiffer penalties for hazing, though I’m sure some level of the practice still exists. Like the Freemasons, early college fraternities almost always included initiations, symbolic gestures and chapters. Back in the 1970s in South Carolina, fraternity pledgeship lasted six months, enough time for some deep toxicity and resentments to emerge among those engaged in a war of young wills. Today, initiation takes six weeks.

I still have the annual from my freshman year, but I appear nowhere in its pages. I didn’t show up for my class photo. The double-page spread of my former frat shows a long-haired band of brothers, smiling, gesturing, holding each other up, leaning into these friendships many of them would never forget or diminish. They were gathered around a PBR truck at the town’s Acme beer distributor. I have studied the photo carefully and confirmed that I am nowhere to be seen. In typical 1970s sloppiness, there is no caption to the photo, no block of names, and the annual has no index. To gather details, I resorted to forensics, employing experts with better memories than mine.

I called a friend, a classmate who had long been the college institutional memory. He opened his copy of the old annual and named a dozen brothers he still recognized. There were two that I had forgotten—one a year older than me who went on to become a developer and even a trustee of the college, and the other, Dave, a lifelong friend, though we had lost touch the past few years. With the telephone numbers for both, I sat out to triangulate my past. Would these two men now in their sixties remember anything of that one night so long ago?

The developer-trustee would have been a sophomore when I was a freshman. Did he remember that I quit? I asked.

“Oh yes,” he said. “I was disappointed, but I knew fraternity life didn’t fit your personality. We lost three or four pledges from your class that year. I blame it on the pledge trainer.”

I told him the story of my road trip. He laughed. The memory didn’t surprise him either. “Everybody gets mad,” he said. “I remember when they road tripped me. They dropped two of us outside of town. I went and knocked on the door of a nearby house in the middle of the night. The old man dressed and took us back to campus. We beat the brothers back too.”

Maybe my scary road trip was once a convention of fraternity life. Maybe I was not singled out. Maybe I was simply included in the lengthy line of the initiates who had endured kidnapping and displacement. I just hadn’t handled it well. Road tripping was a familiar hazing technique, and depending on the circumstances, could range from mild to severe. Many of the deaths associated with fraternities are the results of road trips gone bad. Headlines after a quick Google search like “fraternity hazing killed our son” or “Fraternity pledge dies during hazing ritual in forest” suggests the risks of kidnapping can be high and lethal. There’s even a website celebrating the alternatives to fraternity and sorority hazing— “ropes/challenge courses, outdoor adventures, friendly road trips to visit the headquarters of your chapter, a weekend for moms, dads, and siblings.”

I called my old pledge brother Dave and he listened to my version of the road trip. When I reached the part about being thrown in the trunk, he stopped me. “That part’s true,” he said, laughing. “I know because I was in there with you.”

Once I recovered from the shock of realizing I’d not been in that trunk alone and that I was in the process of hearing an entirely different version of my tale, I continued. Dave listened and said: “I don’t remember us being let out on a mountain. I remember we were on the outskirts of town. And they’d given us a dime before putting us in the trunk to call our pledge brothers. But you exploded out of that trunk and said, “This is bullshit… just bullshit… BULLSHIT!” Your animation in delivery was why it stuck with me all these years. Arms waving, cursing, seething with indignation. You were not the friendly, happy-go-lucky guy I took you to be in our pledge class. You were spitting bullets at the brothers’ departing taillights.”

And Dave? Why had he remembered this story for all these years? “It’s always been my go-to Johnny Lane story,” he laughed. “You had such a clarity of vision that night.”

Why had Dave stayed in the fraternity? He admitted he wasn’t cut out for fraternity life either. “I was fascinated by the pledge thing though and with rush time. These guys are your new best friends for a week, then you accept the pledge and they turn into raging assholes. But when I came out of that trunk, I resolved to stick it out. That served me well the rest of my life. Stick it out.”

“You’re a quitter,” my first football coach had told me when I handed in my gear at Red Shield when I was nine years old. A year later, I quit little league baseball because the coach put me in right field and wouldn’t let me be a catcher. And I quit boxing the week after Christmas when the neighborhood bully pulled on my new gloves and knocked me out in the vacant lot next door. Then I quit choir to play basketball, and I quit algebra, and I quit art because my basketball buddies made fun of me for drawing. I also was a Boy Scout, though many would say I quit that too. After tenderfoot, First Class and Star, at the level of Life, I quit a few merit badges short of Eagle. As a child I learned and repeated “I pledge allegiance,” but none of that was enough to get me to keep my pledge to that fraternity.

The night I was hauled away on that road trip was the first night of my life when I realized I might not have to pass through hell to become a human being. I wanted friendships that did not have to endure initiations. I realized that maybe companions were better than brothers, that there was room to fit on campus and not join restricted organizations. I came to college a poor kid with a dead father and an alcoholic mother. I either had a million reasons to rush a fraternity or none, depending on how I wanted to arrange my emotional life. My mother advised me against it. Joining has always been expensive. There have always been fees and dues.

But I wasn’t into taking advice from my mother at that point. I was more about escaping from what seemed the tractor beam of her love. I had not gone far to college, only across town, though I did manage to stay on campus. To pay the few months of fraternity dues until I quit, I went to work delivering appliances, crawling under dark houses to hook up water lines. At the beginning of my freshman year, I still believed if I was going to escape from poverty it would only be through luck, membership, education, hard work and commitment. I underestimated art, but the rewards of creating would come later, once I cleared some space for it by jettisoning the frat. It turned out noncompliance would be my catapult.

I don’t recall the consequences of my action that night. I mean socially. After rejecting the frat, I easily assimilated among the officially unaffiliated. By escaping I made space to write. By the spring of ’74, I became a member of a fake fraternity, an outpost of outcasts, quitters, moral renegades, and Jesus freaks.

Maybe college has always been about escape and transformation—from adolescence, from family, from home, from high school. You can dip your foot into many worlds and begin to wade from one shore to another. I once believed college allowed the illusion of the safe context to choose from among many choices, that it’s a springboard, a liminal period. A time when things count but they don’t count. But despite all this, it’s not often that someone is given a metaphoric moment like I had in freshman year: bound and kidnapped and presented the choice of bondage or freedom. Once back on campus, I could have buckled down and put my shoulder to the wheel of social life, like Dave, and become a model pledge and later, a brother of a fraternal order. Instead, I dropped out and dropped in on my particular true self. In three years, I pulled myself up by my intellectual bootstraps and almost recovered from joining a toxic social group—graduating with nearly a 3.0. I majored in English and religion. I explored geology on field trips. I wrote poems and stories for the literary magazine and sports articles for the college newspaper. And within seven years I was teaching at the very college I’d attended.

I escaped that night by choice. I fought back in my own way. “It seems you always relished the role of outsider,” one friend reflected when I told him this story. “The rules either weren’t interesting to you or it was by breaking them that you could create your own context.” He was right. Many, like Dave and the college trustee, make it through the crucible of brotherhood and go on to do great things. Many grew after a shaky start into good, smart men. They go on to write novels or history books, complete PhDs in various disciplines. These surviving boys might still sing the praises of fraternal brotherhood just as I scorn it. I sit here at my desk, working through this complex of memories from fifty years ago that obviously didn’t happen as I remember them. “That was the end of that,” Dave had explained once I’d finished my version of our story. “That night must have had a powerful influence on who you became.”

John Lane

John Lane is Emeritus Professor of environmental studies at Wofford College and was founding director of the college’s Goodall Environmental Studies Center. He is the author of many books of poetry and prose. His COYOTE SETTLES THE SOUTH was one of four finalists for the John Burroughs Medal and was named by the Burroughs Society one of the year’s “Nature Books of Uncommon Merit.” In 2014 he was inducted into the SC Academy of Authors. He, with his wife Betsy Teter, is co-founder of Spartanburg’s Hub City Writers Project. He can be found on Twitter at @kudzutelegraph and on Facebook at John Lane.