Who wasn’t dumb when young? Blessed are they who survive to laugh about it.
The 1960s were not for the faint of heart or overly idealistic. The same caution applies to the story for which these few words feign preface. Thinking of that time brings to mind the term wasted. But the times were wasted in intriguing ways.
Those who find modern society perplexing and unruly surely did not attend a large public university in American in the 1960s. The chaos was both diffuse and acute – and unremitting. Nonetheless, there were core standards that set a pace – even under long, unkempt hair and amid bizarre street-theater antics. We were wackos then as we are now in aging. Still there were, and are, steady limits that continue to yield results and reassurance.
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The recollections associated with this introduction started with a dream about a hunt for a missing person. I began getting visits and phone calls from a disparate group of individuals with little more in common than prolonged proximity to one another long ago in youth. The individuals were roughly equivalent in experience, intelligence, class, wealth, ethnic and social background, and aspirations – but different enough to make interactions among them interesting and unsettling, offering a context for the personal evolution of all involved.
A youthful initiation into the world of intoxicants figures in this account. No serious offenses or accidents derived from said experimentation worse than what I had already accomplished as a very sober, yet equally dull-witted, 16-year-old driver. My first accident occurred two weeks after getting my license. Driving with four or five friends on the way to school, I was hit from my left at an unmarked neighborhood intersection. One friend broke his collar bone. Though the other driver was charged, it was as much my fault as not. The second was about eight months later after being caught downtown at night in a fresh snow storm with a car full of church friends. Of course, no one wore a seat belt; one girl in the lap of another friend hit her tooth on the dashboard. I was not charged, due to the ice, slow speed and minor damage to the other automobile, but I knew it was my fault ultimately. The third time, maybe a year later, while double dating, my engine (in the same car) caught fire in a quiet out-of-the-way suburban neighborhood. To my father’s dismay, the car did not burn up. Still it was damaged enough in my three accidents that my father traded it (rather than me) for a green Volkswagen Karmann Ghia convertible. Finally, I had learned my lesson: there was no way I was going to scratch that beauty.
An excursion in fraternity introduced me to new ways of self-defeat – and maturity.
Memphis is sustained by social and emotional tendrils. Long after I left my college fraternity, a former brother occupied a house near campus with his best friend, who was not our fraternity brother but a party beast beyond any in that organization. When they gave up the house, my uncle and aunt and cousin moved in, and my grandparents moved next door. Within no time, my other two first cousins moved, each with a wife and child, into separate houses within a block of my aunt, uncle, and paternal grandparents. This area of Memphis became a frequent and much-appreciated resting place, especially after I moved into a duplex on the other side of the tracks, closer to the university, about six short blocks away. We all surrounded the location of my old fraternity house. In effect, it was as if over the years of significant events, I had not moved out of the realm of fraternity but rather stretched my links from it to the university and broader world beyond.
This story explores youth and fraternity as a potent, hazardous coupling. Though the subject and the telling may seem small, the personal consequences were enormous. And they live on in countless ways.