We joked amongst ourselves, nervous smiles, as if to avoid thinking of something else, something on the way. We felt like fans waiting for a rock band to take the stage, those rock stars being, in this case, the members of Sigma Phi Omega, or “SPO” for short, the high school fraternity in town. The members were always late, as if they choreographed their lateness.
A parade of cars and trucks arrived, and the members stepped out, some wearing khaki shorts and bright polo shirts, some wearing jeans and cowboy boots. They transferred cartons of milk (“Been sitting in the sun for a week,” a member boasted) and cartons of eggs into one truck. Packs of Swisher Sweets and Marlboro Reds lay scattered like Uno cards in the front seats.
They counted us off and loaded us into the beds of the three pickup trucks. “You know the drill. Blindfolds on.”
We unbuttoned our starchy work shirts and tied them around our eyes. Someone checked to make sure the blindfolds were tight enough, in case any of us was feeling bold enough to peek. Then away we went, pickups leading the way, the others following, honking and yelling out the windows, as we made our way through town. Where would it be tonight? We never knew. But it was always some place similar, an abandoned field out in the country, away from spying eyes. And loose lips.
The member riding shotgun opened the cab window and yelled. “Sing!”
“Yes, sir,” we shouted. Hottie Toddy, God Almighty, who the hell are we? Flim-flam, bim-bam, S.P.O., by damn!
“Again,” the driver shouted. “If you don’t sing louder than the others, we’re gonna kick your ass.”
“Yes, sir,” we answered. Hottie Toddy, God Almighty, who the …
Pledging SPO was a three-tiered pursuit, which occurred during the summer before our sophomore years.
Every weekday, we’d meet at the country club in the morning. Members would arrive, take their picks of pledge, then escort us to their homes and put us to work—washing cars, mowing lawns, cleaning windows, any other job they could think of. Then they’d return us to the club and we’d wait for the next job.
On Sundays, we’d meet downtown for formal meetings. We’d march around the square in ordered lines and take quizzes on the history of the fraternity, its founders and past officers.
But Tuesdays were the special night, the night the members looked forward to the most. And the night we dreaded.
As darkness stole over the land, the crickets sang their evening song. Mosquitos searched for fresh meat. The truck turned onto a dirt road, bumpy as measles and winding like a wet noodle. We bounced and swerved in the back, a rush of fear and curiosity bottled within.
Finally, the trucks came to a stop and the members led us into a large field, where the chiggers nestled and the grass was tall and itchy against our skin. For the next hour, we rolled around in the weeds, collecting numerous welts and bites. The members took turns yelling and dumping the rotten milk on our heads. Those egg cartons quickly emptied.
Then they came for us, one at a time. This was the part we dreaded. The “interrogation.” I waited my turn, which didn’t take long.
“Your turn, Little Green,” a member said. I recognized the voice as that of Scottie, a boy a year older, set to be a junior that fall. He led me into some building, maybe a barn, maybe an outhouse. All I knew was that it was hot and smoky and made my chest burn. I counted four voices in the room.
“Sit down, you dumb son of a bitch,” someone shouted.
Scottie pushed me down onto a rickety wooden chair then took off my blindfold. A wall of smoke filled my vision. Someone shined a spotlight in my face. The heat put a glove around my neck.
A member named Allen put his butt into the seat facing me. He dragged from his Marlboro and blew the smoke in my face. “You think you’re special, don’t you, Little Green?”
“So you’re saying you’re not good enough to be a SPO?”
“No, sir. That’s not what I’m saying.”
“Who’s the best pledge here?”
“Uh, I dunno. Probably David.”
“David? Why not you? Don’t you want to be the best?”
“No, sir. I mean, yes, sir. I want to be the best.”
“Then I’ll ask you again. Who’s the best pledge here?”
“I am, sir.”
Allen stood up, put his nose to mine. “You cocky piece of shit. Just wait ‘til we tell the others you think you’re better than them.”
He retreated to the shadows and another took his place—Connor, a senior-to-be. “Who’s better-looking, pledge? Me or Scotty?” he asked.
“Uh, you, sir.”
Scotty butted in. “So you’re saying I’m not good-looking?”
“Uh, no sir.”
“Then who’s better looking?” Scottie said.
“Rotten bastard.” Connor poured the sun-drenched milk on my head. The smell made my throat convulse.
The last member, a boy in boots named Marcus, took his time on the approach… sitting backwards in his chair, his legs straddling mine. He held the cigarette’s ash close to my eye. Camel Light.
“Would you screw my mom, Little Green?”
Marcus blew the smoke into my eyes. “So you’re saying my mom’s not pretty?”
“Uh, no, sir. I mean, yes, she’s pretty.”
“So you would screw her?”
“Uh, yes sir.”
“You asshole. Are you calling my mom a whore?”
“Uh, no sir.”
“Get out of my sight, you piece of shit.”
Scottie led me out of the room and back to the field, where he pushed me facedown. The weeds tore my skin. “Who’s next?” he shouted. “Ah … Dustin Gregory. Get your ass up, you dumb son of a bitch.”
That night, at home, I filled the bathtub with warm-to-hot water and sank into the tub, letting the water soothe the welts and bites.
My mom knocked on the door. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah. Fine.” No telling what she’d do if she found out. Raise hell, for sure. The last thing a SPO pledge needed was to have his mother raising hell.
The next morning, I put on a clean work shirt and rode my bike to the country club, where we pledges enjoyed a half hour before the members arrived, during which we played volleyball and drank Cokes and ate ice cream sandwiches.
That’s how we spent that summer before our sophomore year, and we were grateful to do it, as we knew that only a few were chosen to pledge, those middle class and from good families, who were well-liked, and white. We mowed the lawns, washed the cars, and rolled around in bug-infested weeds because we were becoming SPOs and that meant we were popular.
And being popular was what mattered.