It was only a matter of time before my old fraternity chapter of Phi Kappa Sigma, the Skulls, was shut down. It seemed an anachronistic setting for such a conversation, one beyond the imagination of my college self, existing in another millenia, though only 20 years ago: about twenty brothers on Zoom from various graduation years vacillating between conversations of resurrecting the dead carcass of what was being abandoned by the “active” members, recollecting old memories and connections, and attempting to make jokes that we wanted to still be funny, relevant, and inappropriate in a familiar way. That was the funeral… and the revival
The “active brothers,” three seniors and two juniors on campus, had determined to give up the ghost, the death knell the pandemic and a virtual rush, a thing as absurd as it sounds. The vote of 4 to 1 smelled of finality from a distance, and yet the urge to fight to preserve the unpreservable pervaded the discussion. The solution centered around the idea of a week-long visit by alumni to conduct a rush. As one joked, “We could run through the quad, waving a flag, yelling about how cool we are, and that’s why they should join.” We all laughed at the absurdity, but now for the life of me I can’t recall why it was more funny than depressing. I guess some laughter is more catharsis than comedy.
In the late fall of 2021, the sunset of the pandemic, the episode was fitting and discordant simultaneously. Covid had been the final death knell of a fraternity that quietly had been dying to begin with. But I found myself wondering what that death represented about larger social trends on college campuses across the country.
To extrapolate, we have to return to what fraternity life was around the year 2000, give or take. Yes, my fondest memories of Phi Kappa Sigma surrounded beer pong at the fraternity’s Pink House and lounge parties in North Hanna, Ice Luge in the decrepit bathroom first floor bathroom, and a variety of other semi-legal and lascivious activities that comprised my social life. But in equal parts I remember the faces of my brothers: Charlie Reinhardt licking a Q-tip to put in his ear, Baron Sampson, relaxing on a plaid dumpster-bait couch in 113 with the lazy, contented eyes of the afternoon, the looks on all of my sweaty blue-jacketed brother’s faces chanting our “Carol Simmon’s Raiders” around the Beta Rock after dumping a barrel of indescribables on the symbol of our rival, belting out all the vein-bulging fanatical spirit at the base volume of our collective peak existences.
As brothers, we had our beefs with each other, true. I still remember being pissed off when Chuck Lynch broke the washing machine at the Pink House where I did my laundry. But we loved each other, deeply and truly, a way that lives through 20 years of diapers and scattering careers and broken aspirations, snapped youth on the back of life’s upside down keel– in a way that brings memories of the passion of the past up from where buried and fossilized.
And I remember our nights there were golden dreams: we lived and died a hundred times in a dozen worlds. Our parties were probing bonfires of the flesh, booze and the unmentionable, depraved and reckless and beautiful. We lived for the peaks and deaths: the forging of our relationships, the bones and skulls. Every morning was a resurrection. The Phi Kaps were known for this: for “playing hard, working hard” was our informal motto. The highest GPA on campus with the longest rap sheet alike. We were kings and villains, but a little dorky and eccentric too. We lived down to those bones, in love with the many little deaths that made up our young age of immortality.
I don’t think the newest generation, generally speaking, knows death like this. I think they’ve been spared it. They don’t drink as much, or in such irresponsible ways; they don’t smoke, they don’t vandalize school property in those purple nights. They live to the flesh and not to the bone.
I don’t express this judgmentally, I really don’t. I have two sons, and I don’t think I’d sign them up for all that manic glory. And I, like all whose generation X legs span the abyss of pre and post-internet eras, have succumbed to this era’s inevitable realities. My cell phone never leaves my pocket, and I have far more social media profiles than friends. I am no more authentic. But it’s a reality that has neutered and deified simultaneously, creating a generation that will have access to the godlike power of virtual creation, digital omnipotence, even in their organic sterility. Their caution and innocence tested on the granite washboard of life is all recorded and watched and scrutinized, and they well know it… a commercialized and self-conscious hallucination. Their deaths are staged, the outcomes predetermined, their artificial resurrections like the restarting of playstations.
The primary reason that the now former active brothers gave for surrendering was that the fraternity had a lack of identity and purpose. “Insane,” I initially thought. “How can one not identify with this essence? How can this grasping for marrow not reverberate?” But when I reflect on the conundrum of this newest age, I see. All due respect to George R.R. Martin, that which is dead can indeed never die, and yet, when life is made eternal by its own unreality, it must.