1962: We were brothers, we were young

Filed under: Hazlehurst |

In an interview published last week in New York Times Magazine, author/screenwriter Nora Ephron was asked whether there are any advantages to growing older.
“This insistence on the joy of aging — this is all garbage,.” said the 66 year-old Ephron.
Well, I dunno. As it happens, I’m exactly her age, and I’m eagerly anticipating an event which, absent the steady accrual of years, I could never imagine attending.
Yup, it’s a reunion — my 45th college reunion.
It takes place at the end of the month at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.
When I was a student there so many years ago, it was an all-male institution. If you wanted a girlfriend you had to go to one of the neighboring women’s colleges. Connecticut College was a mere 40 miles away, but the so-called seven sisters — Vassar, Mount. Holyoke, Radcliffe, et al — were several hours away.
Our social life revolved around the fraternities to which most undergraduates belonged. There were fraternities for jocks, for the smart and nerdy, for the overly serious and for the less serious.
I pledged the Xi chapter of Psi Upsilon, which had a well-deserved reputation as a refuge for the less serious.
We drank, we partied, we were desperately girl crazy, we drove to women’s colleges and tried to meet girls — and some of us studied, occasionally.
Most of the fraternities on campus had been there since the early 19th century. Members (“The Brothers”) could not but feel a deep sense of continuity, of the bonds between generations, of the common experience shared with the living, the dead and the yet unborn.
Psi U was housed in a spectacular brick and stone structure which had been built as a fraternity house in the 19th century. At initiation, scores of alumni would join the ceremony, whose rituals were both hokey and moving, like those of the Elks or the Shriners.
To join was to connect to an intricate network, which, we were told, might serve us well in later life.
Did you want to become a banker? Xi brothers ran the Hanover Bank in New York and there were jobs waiting. Or did your thoughts turn to the law? No problem, a couple of white-shoe law firms were just waiting to hire you as an associate.
Alas, that privileged, ordered and unchanging world was about to be swept away, doomed by its own fossilized elitism and lazy sense of entitlement.
The Hanover Bank merged with the Manufacturers Trust, became Manny-Hanny and then disappeared into Chemical Bank, which was later taken over by Chase Manhattan, which then became J.P. Morgan Chase … and the women and men who run that global institution don’t care where you went to school or what fraternity you belonged to.
The cozy little campus that I knew so well has changed beyond recognition, as has the student body. In addition to being all-male, ours was a virtually all-white school. Today’s Wesleyan is proudly and aggressively diverse, perhaps more so than any university in the country.
The fraternities are almost all gone, irrelevant in a changed world, but the Xi chapter remains, its gorgeous building and quaint rituals intact, ready to pass on to a new generation of brothers.
Of the 17 brothers who pledged in 1958, many will return for the 45th. We’ve all managed to cope pretty well with the winds of change — and yet now, none of our successes (or failures) seem to matter.
What matters is that ancient, hokey ritual that united us 49 years ago. We were brothers then, and we’ll be brothers again a week from today. We’ll greet each other with the secret handshake, we’ll marvel at just how careless, how lighthearted and how free we were then.
The building and the kids who now occupy it are tangible reminders of our journeys through life, of the continuity of generations and of the importance of friendship.
I’d feel strangely bereft if the Xi chapter had disappeared, like almost every other fraternity on campus — disconnected, dispossessed and disinherited.
I’d feel, I guess, like the Grace Church parishioners who have chosen to remain with the Episcopal Church, and have been effectively cast out of the historic building where they have so long worshipped, thanks to the bitter factional split that has divided the congregation.
It’s dismaying to watch.
Although I’ve scarcely gone to church during past years, my links to Grace and its predecessor span nearly 130 years. Generations of my family have been baptized, married and buried in Grace — indeed, my parents were the first couple married in that beautiful building.
And now, the battle lines are drawn, the lawsuits filed and the war between the faithful begins — a war which will only have losers.
The winners will inherit a building which, like all such structures, ought to symbolize love and redemption. Instead, they’ll inherit an empty shell, a place of conflict and a decimated and dispirited congregation.
Maybe it’s time for the warring parties to have their own reunion, to make peace, to cut a deal and to move beyond the present and think of the future.
As for me, I’ll be at Wesleyan, where today’s brothers might have something in common with their predecessors.
As my classmate Phil Putnam, who’s an alumni liaison, wrote of a recent event: “It was clear from the cases of beer peeking out from behind a table that the evening was just getting under way and that it was time for all fossilizing alumni to depart …”
Say it ain’t so, Phil! Our party days may have departed with our youth, but we’re still brothers.
And, to paraphrase to the old cowboy in “The Big Lebowski”: The Xi endures, dude, the Xi endures.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.