In late August of 1965 just days after turning eighteen, I was in the backseat of my brother’s car on the way to Washington State University on the far eastern end of the state. It was over an eight-hour trip, far enough to go home only for major holidays.
I was never allowed in the front of my brother’s car. And there weren’t two syllables of conversation on that eight-hour drive. He disappeared when we were on the ferry to Seattle. It would be a couple of years before I learned that he disappeared to smoke. My clean-cut athletic brother, who swore that he would never smoke, smoked all through high school. This was possibly part of the reason I was relegated to the back seat to hide detection. But that was only part of the reason.
He dropped my trunk and me at a motel the night before I was to show up at a dorm where those of us who were going though the formality of rush week were to stay. I had to take a cab in the morning. He was not about to let his fraternity brothers know that he had to drive his little sister. I was used to that.
A cab delivered my belongings and me to a dorm near the center of the huge campus. It would be my home for that week. Since my brother was in a fraternity it was assumed in our household that I would join a sorority. I was half perfect for a sorority, and half completely wrong for one. I had poise, community spirit, made friends easily and excelled in music and English and could make a darned good speech. I also had mediocre grades which did not demonstrate my intelligence.
I knew next to nothing about what the process of rush week would be like. I’m sure it terrified me on some level. We visited my brother’s fraternity a couple of years earlier and that was the only impression I had. I don’t know why my brother didn’t campaign my parents for me to go to another school, which was what I so desperately wanted. He hated me and didn’t want me there but he would never have gone against my father’s wishes.
When I arrived at that dorm, they assigned me to a room where my temporary one-week roommate was already entrenched. We were assigned alphabetically. I’ll call her Mary. Mary was from Colorado and was smart and fun. She had no desire to join a sorority, but her parents expected it. Right away she was the gang leader of our two-person club. She devised a plan that we would go to all the houses together for the coffees and teas and switch identities. No kidding. I have no idea how I was so easily talked into this plan but have absolutely no memory of rejecting it.
We were given our schedules for the next couple of days with all the same destinations. Girls were mingling in the halls of that temporary dorm, all expecting and hoping to join a great sorority for their college career, except us.
Mary was so funny that we just naturally hit it off and laughed. I was no slouch at humor or sarcasm, so this was a screwball comedy from the start. Off we went to the various gatherings sincerely interviewed by nice young woman and housemothers. Only we weren’t sincere at all. I was Mary and Mary was I. We did it with straight faces. Now that I write this I realize if I had been Mary and they checked her records I’d probably have been snatched up immediately. Mary was a straight A science student. But her selection would be based on my impressive record of achievements but anemic GPA.
I had never done anything like this in my life then or since. We just went through the week curious about what would happen. We not only told each other’s story, we started making things up as we went along. Mary’s father was in the military too so it wasn’t such a stretch if anyone asked about moving a lot growing up. I remember being in those lovely houses, sitting on lovely chintz covered couches, sipping tea from lovely china as we politely and graciously told our lies.
Back at our temporary dorm there was no pressure. This was purely a social week and we smirked at the system. Apparently I had given up any expectation of joining a sorority, something that might have saved my college career. It represented snobbery to me. My mother’s sole identity was through the Daughters of The American Revolution, which she used in order to feel better than anyone else through this accident of birth. She still does. Somehow I had come to associate the sorority system with the D.A.R.
Partway into the week we each received invitations to keep doing the rounds. We were not barraged with invitations, but there were enough to keep going. This we did not expect. Even though we were not telling our own stories, we made perfectly pleasant impressions.
I had done little if any research on which would be a good house for me. I don’t think back then I believed I belonged anywhere. And it’s confusing now what we would have done about telling the truth. Would we have shown up at a house that chose us and confess what we had done, or go through four years with the other identity?
Anyway at the end of the week, I don’t think there was much of a decision to make. We had made a sham of the process. We were actually accepted, but from the moment we met it was assumed, or there was a pact that we would not pledge.
This was probably one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done, for if anyone needed a circle of friends and a schedule and goals and camaraderie it was I. Needing even a borrowed family atmosphere that was unlike where I had grown up. Safe was something I had never experienced in our family, and maybe I couldn’t allow myself to find out what that would be like. But both Mary and I were such mavericks we just couldn’t see ourselves following the rules. Perhaps we both rejected them so they couldn’t reject us.
At the end of the week those of us who had not pledged a sorority were sent to a dorm nearly off the campus grid. One or two floors had been reserved and when we arrived Mary and I roomed together. Most everyone on that floor had been rejected or had not pledged. It made for a very interesting group of young women. They were smart, funny, accomplished and had just been through the same process and it was a mystery why they were not chosen. Of course we never told anyone what we had done.
And after all that Mary was a candidate for some fraternity’s princess or queen or whatever it was called then. A couple of my friends on that floor were. They went through all sorts of teas all over again. And I sang in a chorus, which mostly gave romantic background serenades for the frequent pinning ceremonies at our dorm. So just what was it I was avoiding?
Later in my life, a respected colleague described me as a “maverick.” Though I worked in a job in broadcasting where success was the point and quite visible, I didn’t follow the same schedule, plan or method of anyone else. I did my job. I worked hard. And I brought income into the company that set records. But I was a “maverick.”
So I suppose that’s exactly what I was that August of 1965.