Saturday, July 23, 2011

Dating my big sister

Before anyone starts with some sort of Appalachian incest joke, let me state up front that I don't even have a big sister—except the Big Sister assigned to me when I joined a fraternity. This is another essay in my series of stories about college life.

Normally, first semester freshmen were not allowed to join a fraternity or sorority at the University of Charleston, in order to allow them to get better adjusted to college life (i.e., let them get a semester under their belt prior to Greek life). However, because I had taken the CLEP tests and already achieved college credits, I was technically not a first semester freshman. This allowed me bend the rules and join Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE) during my first semester at college in the fall of 1976.

There is plenty to write about my fraternity days, but this essay focuses on just one aspect—my big sister. During the initiation phase, prospective members (pledges) were each given a secret “big sister” from the group of girls who had agreed to be members of our affiliated TKE Little Sisters organization. Girls became little sisters either through blood lines, or as girlfriends of a fraternity brother, or just because the brothers (or the other little sisters) wanted them. They had to be voted in by the fraternity.

One of their primary duties was to provide encouragement and support to the pledge they had been assigned—which might even include small gifts. This was done through secret notes back and forth that were tacked onto the Greek bulletin board in the Coffee Tavern (CT) on the first floor of the student union. [By the way, sororities had similar programs of big brothers for their pledges as well, and I was honored to have had this experience from “the other side of the fence.”]

This bulletin board at that time was divided up and decorated into eight segments. The fraternities (TKE, Alpha Sig, Theta Xi, and Sig Ep) were across the top, while the sororities (DZ, Alpha Xi, Gamma Delt, and AOPi) were across the bottom. In the ancient days prior to e-mail or instant messaging, anyone could write a message, fold it over and address the note to a specific Greek member (or to the entire group), and tack it on the board. [It seems so archaic in today's high-tech world!]

There was some trickery involved with the big “siblings” programs for the new pledges. Since anyone who might be sitting in the CT could see who was putting up the notes, so as a big brother or big sister you would often ask someone else to tack it to the board to maintain your secret identity. In fact, if you were a big sibling, you might even ask a friend to copy a note you wrote into their handwriting to prevent your little sibling from identifying you by your penmanship. It was all part of the ruse to keep your identity secret—and very quaint by today's standards!

In the TKE fraternity, we would not learn the identity of our big sister until we finished our pledge period, survived hell week, passed hell night, and then went to the fraternity formal that weekend (the TKE Red Carnation Ball near the end of the fall semester). During a break at the dance, the identities would finally be unveiled.

I enjoyed corresponding with my secret big sister. As a brand new college student, I was trying hard to find my place and establish my identity, so we exchanged notes frequently, sometimes with long letters. Having a secret friend was a good way for me to understand the college social scene better. My positive communications with this unknown girl led me to consider doing something novel—why not ask her to be my date for the formal? I didn't have a steady girlfriend on campus, and my first formal experience at Fall Festival (the pre-football era predecessor to UC's Homecoming weekend) had not gone all that well (on a whim, I had asked a commuter whom I really didn't know all that well), so why not ask this unknown girl who was being so nice in all her notes? She obviously knew me, but I wasn't sure which of the dozen or so little sisters she might be.

I decided to take a chance and ask her in writing. To my surprise, she said yes! So for a couple of weeks I knew I was going to the dance, but I had no idea of who might be accompanying me. It was an odd experience. I got a ride with someone to pick up a corsage at the florist shop down MacCorkle across from Krogers—a trip that probably included a stop at the “state store” for the requisite BYOB. Then I got all dressed up for the big event.

In those days, there was an office at the entrance to the girls dorm, and you had to tell the person working at the desk the name of the girl you were there to see. Well, I obviously didn't know the name of who I was supposed to pick up, but it had all been pre-arranged. I've forgotten who was working the desk that night, but they knew immediately about my situation, and “buzzed” the appropriate room (there was a buzzer system in the girls dorm to alert residents to come to the front desk).

I was anxious to finally see who my big sister was! It was a bit like the old “Dating Game” show, eagerly awaiting the date you selected to walk around the corner of the set. You really want to lay your eyes on the unseen person with whom you have been communicating. First, the hallway door opened up, and Jill B. called out to me “I'll be right out” before ducking back inside, probably to grab her purse, or put in her ear rings, or something women do like that. I quickly decided that I could obviously have a good time escorting Jill, who was a cheerleader. However, just when I thought I had finally found out the secret identity that had been hidden from me for months, another girl's head popped out the doorway and called to me. It was Fern S., telling me that she would be with me right away.

Now wait a minute—what's going on here? Is Jill my date, or is her room mate Fern my date? Had I misunderstood Jill's first announcement to me when she stuck her head out the door? Had she said something to the effect of “I'll be right out” or had she said “She'll be right out”? Was it just wishful thinking on my part that had caused me to misinterpret Jill's words? Who is my date for the night? Needless to say, I was confused! And they let me linger in that confusion for awhile.

Finally, yet another girl came out the door—this time it was sophomore Doreen R. It turns out that the third girl was my big sister all along, and Fern and Jill were part of the plan to mess with my head before I met my true date for the night. It was a memorable start to a wonderful evening with a great girl. Doreen had already made plans to transfer to a college back in her home state of New York, so she would be leaving campus soon. I only saw her one more time, when she came back to Charleston as my date again for the TKE formal in the spring semester. We only had those two “dates” but all the correspondence through notes tacked on the bulletin board had helped us to get to know each other on a deeper level than we would have otherwise.

I always admired Doreen, and thought of her often over the years, but in the pre-Internet days, it was hard to keep in touch with people. Fortunately, the modern technology of Facebook has allowed me to reconnect with Doreen (now living in California), as well as Jill and Fern. In fact, it was great getting to talk with (and even get hugs from) Jill and Fern at the Governor's Cup Regatta this past spring. I hope all the folks from my era will attend the Governor's Cup alumni events which will be held during the last weekend of April next year (contact UC Alumni Director Bridgette Borst for more details). See you on the riverbank!

1 comment:

  1. I am a sister in TKE's little sister sorority at the University of Charleston. I pledged three semesters ago and I just wanted to say that I found this story to be very heart warming. There truely is a close bond formed between sisters and brothers. Thank you for sharing this with others, so they can see how sororities and fraternities truely are a family.-MC