As Chipper stepped forward on the fresh snow, he felt the crunch of frozen grass needles beneath the powder, a winter cake layered by rain first, frosting second.
Brushing shoulders as he eased to the front between Peachy and Drywall, he glanced to his left, confirming that Smokey Ray was near. Behind him, 34 pledge brothers. In front, a horde of Actives, maybe 70 strong, salivating, just itching to lynch. And as Chipper prepared to speak, he could feel the rope tightening around his neck.
The city lights coming from beyond the members cast the Actives' faces in silhouette, though President Al Marlowe, front row and facing the pledges, seemed to have a bluish glow, perhaps from the moon, over half his face. The two armies were bordered on the west by cedars growing heavy with snow, on the east by Pringle's Pool. Pledge Trainer Ted Boone stood between the two groups beneath cedar branches, a referee of sorts.
Chipper felt the snowflakes sizzle as they landed on his burning cheeks. Then his voice cracked the still air:
"Over a century ago, our founders were dedicated members of another fraternity—dedicated, loyal, honor-bound, and votive. As all present know so well, when one of their brothers was nominated to serve as the Golden Mean in the Aristotle Society on campus, two members refused to support him for they knew he lacked any knowledge of philosophy. Instead, they favored the opponent. The fraternity was split down the middle, and when an alumnus was brought in to settle the matter, he passed judgment against our founders after hearing only one side of the story. And that is when Clovis Rickel hulled off his fraternity pin, threw it on the table, and said, `I didn't join this fraternity to be anyone's pawn.' Of the 20 members, only Thatcher Bell followed suit. Thus, Sigma Zeta Chi was founded by these two individualists who would not buckle, cave, fold, or capitulate to the pressure of `our fraternity right or wrong.'
"How far we have come. How far indeed. But in the wrong direction. From 1855 to 1967, we are no longer in a fraternity-splitting debate over the leadership of a philosophical society. We are locked in a debate, an affray, a donnybrook over a member micturating on the pledges—"
"Speak English, you fucking twerp," someone yelled from the crowd of Actives.
Another Active joined in: "Us dumb Dying Breeders can't understand your high fallutin' words, so cut the egghead crap and talk like a white man, you pissant!"
Chipper wanted to burrow all the way to China. He felt like an idiot, a dolt, a ninnyhammer. Perhaps he'd overdone it with the thesaurus.
continued, his red face masked by the cold:
Chipper could hear some Actives snickering with the crystal clarity of mountain air. But he continued:
"As a result of our founders choosing to root themselves in principle, they were dubbed `The Insurrectionists'—an insult they embraced as a badge of honor. Tonight, we resurrect the words of founder Clovis Rickel who said, `I didn't joint this fraternity to be anyone's pawn,' as we, the insurrectionist Sig Zeta pledge class of 1967 proclaim: `We didn't pledge this fraternity to be anyone's fool.'"
And from the rear, in loud pledge chorus: "We didn't pledge this fraternity to be anyone's fool!"
The echo shocked him. A humongous lump swelled in Chipper's throat as he knew nothing of the unison, planned most assuredly by Smokey Ray, the only living human who had a sneak preview of the Liberty Address. Fearful that he was speaking for a fractured, bickering pledge class, Chipper was so stunned by the outpouring that he hesitated to proceed and thus betray his tearful relief in the form of a crackling voice.
He gulped several times, then continued:
"We will take the heat when we screw up. Yes, you can chew our butts if we don't know our stuff. When it comes to knowing about all the members, for memorizing the Rickel Standard, and especially our national and our local history, we—are—accountable. But we will not be pissed on while an entire chapter stands by and does nothing. `Complacency' and `complicity' are two words distinguished by only a few letters, yet their meanings are vastly different. But when evil slimes its way onto the scene, the distinction is lost, and the two words become one, gentlemen. Complacency is complicity."
Oh, help me now, Lord, thought Chipper.
"For the return of Jack DeLaughter, two conditions must be met. First, the chapter must agree that Jack has lost his right to interact with pledges in any way. If he so much as speaks to a pledge, the chapter is to initiate the formal jerking of his pin. Failing this, you will find all of our pledge pins in a pile, and you will be sifting through the rubble, looking for a strand of hay in a needlestack, trying to stay on campus and explain what happened to the slums and the folks at national."
couldn't believe his own lips were letting these words pass.
In the snowy silence that followed, President Al Marlowe took a few steps out of the front row, then turned to address his flock: "The pledges are right. And I'm the first to take blame. Jack has been out of line for a long time. But no one had the courage to stop him. I suppose sometimes it's the children who teach the parents."
Then Al turned and faced Chipper. Without a trace of expression or emotion, he offered his hand to Chipper and they shook, little fingers interlocked. "I give you my word and the word of the chapter—Jack will be silenced."
Chipper's arm went limp as the President pumped it up and down. He couldn't believe what he was hearing.
"And now, what's the second condition?" asked his Big Brother.
"Huh?" asked Chipper, giddy at the victory.
"You said there were two conditions to end all this. What's second?"
"Oh." No time to chicken out now. "In view of the entire chapter's complicity in the reckless behavior of Jack DeLaughter, we declare a total chapter takeout."
"A what?" asked the President.
and every member must toss himself into Pringle's Pool.
The Actives started to roar, some with laugher, some with disbelief, and some with contempt. But the crescendo of their barbaric cries peaked and ebbed while AI Marlowe smiled ever so slightly at Chipper then walked slowly to the edge of Pringle's Pool—and, by golly, the President jumped, crashing through the paper-thin layer of ice.
Chipper felt his eyes a-poppin' as he turned to locate Smokey Ray who tipped his cowboy hat. Then Smokey Ray delivered a secret sign to Chipper, a gesture that crafty pledges always managed to discover from the ritual before initiation.
One-by one, the Actives followed their President into the chilly water. And as the freezing cold took their breath away, they began to laugh and shout, converted to kids in the summer, splashing and dunking. Within minutes, all the Actives had joined the fun, frolicking in the icy pool.
Something didn't seem right to Chipper. Where was the remorse? These guys are having fun!
Smokey Ray stepped up to Chipper's side.
"Why are they acting like that?" Chipper asked.
"It's a defense mechanism," replied Smokey Ray.
"Oh." Chipper pondered the answer for a moment. "What's a defense mechanism?"
Chipper felt a body hurl by, knocking both Smokey Ray and him aside. By the time he regained his balance, Chipper saw that Smokey Ray had grabbed Ernie Dumas by the arm and was locked face-to-face, with Ernie a full head taller than Ray.
"What are you doing, Ernie?"
"Let go of me, Smokey Ray I don't want to hurt you," replied Dumas as he pulled his arm away. Then Ernie turned to the pledge class and yelled, "Come on, guys, let's all jump in with the Actives. It'll be fun, freezin' our butts."
Smokey Ray reproached Ernie in a low, scary tone: "Ernie, don't go in the water. You do not understand the dynamics going on here."
Ernie lifted one corner of his upper lip into a snarl, his chalk stripe eyebrows pinching together above his nose. "Screw you, Smokey. I do what I want."
As Ernie twirled away to charge for Pringle's Pool, Smokey Ray danced a judo jig, intertwining his legs with Dumas, sending Ernie sprawling to the ground.
When Ernie lifted his face from the snowy earth, he twisted his neck to look back at Smokey Ray. The powder on his face made his eyebrows disappear, leaving two dark, menacing eyes peering out of the white. "I'm keeping score, asshole, and you can be damned sure that payback day is coming."
Smokey Ray didn't flinch.