by Ralph E. Shaffer
End of term recess at Pasadena’s exclusive Huntington College was in full swing, and fraternity row was as quiet as a morgue with nearly all residents gone for the week. At the Zete house, only Mrs. Bishop and one student stayed on during the break in late January, 1950.
A somewhat feeble woman in her late 70s, Mrs. Bishop was the Zetes’ housemother, a role she had held for the past four years. Rick, the boy who stayed in the house that week, was a pledge from New Jersey who preferred not to go home and didn’t have enough money to cavort at one of the usual destinations of those Zetes who went to Vegas, the beach or Mexico.
At some time during the pledging process, Mrs. Bishop invited each pledge to have tea with her privately, in her room. Most of the boys considered the invitation as part of the pledges’ routine. Although they didn’t particularly relish the idea of meeting with the old lady, they assumed that failure to do so might hinder their chances of becoming an active member of the Zetes. No one ever turned down her invitation. So it was that during the week-long vacation, Rick found an invitation under his door one afternoon, inviting him to tea the following evening.
Promptly at eight, as she had instructed, she heard a knock on her door and welcomed the young freshman into her basement room. Rick was dressed in his fraternity t-shirt, blue denim pants and inexpensive, slip-on shoes.
One of the reasons the Zetes had trouble keeping a housemother was the location of her quarters. Zete House was a three-story, hillside residence with a basement under the back half of the building. The housemother’s room occupied one end of the basement. The sloping hillside on which the house was built gave that room full windows on the back side, looking into a private garden accessible only from the room, and on one side of the room there were small windows near the ceiling.
A hallway led from the room to a stairway to the main floor and to an underground garage. Along the hallway were storerooms, one of which was reserved for Mrs. Bishop. Students rarely ventured into the basement unless they were looking for her.
The Zetes had hired her primarily because she was old and not likely to cause a fuss over their wild parties. They were right. For four years, no matter what they did, there was never a word of caution from the housemother.
The Dean might complain about their antics but, when he contacted Mrs. Bishop, she always managed to keep the fraternity from being placed on probation. By this time, the Zetes had earned the reputation on campus as the house of the party boys. Most sororities eagerly accepted invitations to party with the Zetes. The other frats were envious.
Thus, when Mrs. Bishop asked Rick if he really wanted to be a Zete, he enthusiastically assented, citing the rousing social life at the House.
Mrs. Bishop nodded her approval. “The Zetes do have a reputation for being party boys. The girls are excited when they get an invitation to party here. But, Rick, the treatment and actual initiation are a bit hard on the pledges. I never complain about it, but it borders on torture. I’m surprised that no one ever gets hurt.”
Rick assured her that whatever the actives had in store for the pledges was something he could take. So far, it hadn’t been too bad. None of the other pledges had complained. Well, they had grumbled a bit to each other but not to the actives. Anyway, the initiation ritual and whatever went with it was scheduled to take place later in the winter quarter, which would start the next week.
“But, Rick, you know that from time to time some pledges have chosen to leave the fraternity before being initiated. They’ve lost one every year since I’ve been housemother. Oh, here, let me refill your cup.” She poured him a cup from the old but fancy teapot.
“My son gave that teapot to me long, long ago,” she said, noting that Rick was admiring it and the cups. “It’s one of the few reminders I have of him. He’s gone, my husband’s gone, so now all I have are the Zeta boys. I look out for them now.”
She paused, pouring hot water from the kettle into her cup and adding a special tea bag. “I can’t drink the fancy teas anymore. Doctor’s orders. So I make the good tea in the teapot for the boys and drink this tasteless stuff the doc makes me take.”
Rick asked her why anyone would drop out of a chance to be a Zete.
“Well, let’s see. The first year I was here, Bill eloped with some girl none of the boys knew. I don’t know why he couldn’t have just dated some sorority girls instead of running off with a girl who wasn’t even a Huntington student. But I guess he was in love. He had split from this parents and didn’t even tell them. His dad came for the stuff he left behind.
“In my second year, Tim went hiking alone in the wilderness east of here. He never came back. He was never found despite a massive search. We have no idea what happened to him.”
“Say, are you all right, Rick? You have a strange expression on your face.”
Rick made a meek smile, said he was okay and said she should continue.
“Well, if you’re all right... My third year, Roger quit school to join the army. He wasn’t doing well with his grades and decided a few years in the army would make him a better student when he returned. He just left one day. The only word of goodbye was a note he left for his roommate. He came back once, on leave, but I doubt that he’ll be a fraternity man when he returns to college.”
Rick shuddered, alarming Mrs. Bishop.
“Rick, take off your shoes and lie down on my bed. You suddenly don’t look well.”
He followed her advice, stretching out on his back on the bed after taking off his shoes. She pulled off his socks. Rick muttered something that sounded like he wanted her to go on with the story.
“All right. But let me know if you feel worse. It may have been something in that tea. The bag was old but should have been good. Surely whatever it is will be over shortly.
“Then last year...” She stopped abruptly. Rick was shaking and at the same time breaking out in a sweat.
“You look awfully warm. Let’s take off your shirt.” Rick meekly raised his arms so that she could pull the t-shirt off. He fell back onto the bed, breathing heavily.
“Rick, I think we need to get help for you.”
He shook his head, saying with a slurred speech that he would be all right shortly. Mrs. Bishop wasn’t convinced, but she continued with her story of pledges who had left before being initiated.
“Last year, another pledge quit before initiation. Steve didn’t even leave a note when he left. We have no idea where he went, or why. His parents were frantic. The police investigated, but couldn’t find a trace of him.”
At this point, it became apparent that Rick was in great distress but, bowing to his determination not to call medics, that he would be better in a few minutes, Mrs. Bishop simply suggested that he remove his denims. She tastefully put a blanket over him after unbuckling his belt, then pulled his pants off by the cuffs.
“Now, isn’t that more comfortable?” By this time she was convinced that something was terribly wrong.
“Rick, I think we’ve got to get you to a doctor. My car is in the garage, just down the hallway. You can’t walk, but I can get you to the car, and we’ll be at the clinic in five minutes or less.”
Rick finally conceded that something was wrong and that he needed to see a doctor.
At 160 pounds, Rick was more than Mrs. Bishop could carry or even help walk to the car. But in her room was an ancient red wagon. “This belonged to my boy when he was little. It’s one of the few reminders, other than photos, I have of him. I use it now to bring groceries home from the market. In fact, I know the Zetes joke about me and my wagon. But it comes in handy. Here, Let’s put you in it, and I’ll tow you to the car, and then we’ll be off to the clinic.”
It was not clear that Rick understood anything she was saying. He was staring straight up. He could no longer talk, although his lips seem to move, as though he was trying to form words. There was fear on his face, but he could not express it vocally.
“Don’t worry, son, I’m sure that whatever it is will soon be over,” she said as she put pillows in the wagon before pulling him off the bed. His torso went into the wagon, his head dangling over the front of the cart. His feet dragged behind on the floor.
Mrs. Bishop opened her door and started down the darkened hallway, slowly pulling the heavy load. “The wagon still works well, doesn’t it? It was my son’s prize possession when he was little. Rick, I think he would have made a good Zete. He looked a little like you, and, like you, he was polite.”
The wagon moved slowly down the hallway with its now shivering load.
“Yes, my son would have made a great Zete. In fact, like you, he came to Huntington and pledged Zeta.”
She stopped at one of the hallway doors and removed a key from her purse.
“It was a little later in the year than right now. Deeper into winter. A very cold winter, with terrible storms that came up unexpectedly.”
She put the key in the lock and turned it. Then she turned the knob and the door unlatched.
“My boy was captain of the pledge class. With his personality, he would have been president of the House some day, probably president of the student body as well.”
Mrs. Bishop pushed the door open.
“But, of course, there was the initiation process. A week before that he told me how excited he was about becoming a Zete. It was the highlight of his life.”
She turned the handle on the wagon and, instead of continuing down the hall, they entered the room she had just unlocked.
“The initiation was run by a particularly brutal pledge master that year. Even when other members of the fraternity urged him to postpone the ritual, he insisted it go on despite the forecast of sub-freezing temperatures and strong winds that made the wind chill near zero. He prevailed and the initiation took place.
“My son and the other pledges were stripped to their shorts. Barefoot, they were dropped off somewhere in the mountain wilderness and told to find their way back to civilization. All did, except my son who had been left in the remotest spot possible, in freezing temperature. His pledge master insisted that he be left there, alone, while all the other pledges were paired off.
“The snow soon began to fall. He stumbled down a canyon and soon came to a waterfall. He tried to get around it but fell onto the boulders below. It was several days before they found him. He had survived the fall, but with two broken legs he could not walk. He crawled some distance before he died, frozen to death.”
Mrs. Bishop pulled the wagon into the room, which had been a small walk-in freezer. It had been replaced by a larger one adjacent to the kitchen sometime before she was hired. She had asked if she could use the old one for storage. The boys had agreed. Instead, she had turned the cooling apparatus on, set at zero degrees.
Rick still stared up at her, his eyes showing the look of a frightened animal. Unable to speak, and perhaps no longer capable of rational thought, he was at her mercy.
“Don’t worry, Rick. I’m sure the effect of the bad tea will wear off in a few hours. Don’t worry about it.”
She grabbed Rick’s hands and pulled him, as gently as possible, off the wagon.
“Do you understand where you are, Rick? You’re at your initiation, like the other pledges who had a cup of tea with me, then went to their initiation in zero degrees, like my son.”
She dragged his limp body to the center of the room and dumped it on top of a pile of three other young pledges, one from each of the previous four years except for Roger, all stripped, like Rick, to their shorts and frozen into grotesque corpses.
Copyright © 2018 by Ralph E. Shaffer