By: Bill McFadyen
It would never happen in today’s more competitive world but somehow, in 1979, I managed to secure a spot as a freshman at the prestigious Davidson College. Their expectation was that I be a part of the graduating Class of 1983. The miracle is not that I got in; that was just a mistake on the part of someone in the Admissions Office who was foolish enough to be swayed by my application. The miracle is that I did indeed get out with a degree four years later.
They were four long, grueling years of academic hell, where I spent a considerable amount of time looking for a major out of which I could wrest such a degree. Math? I flunked calculus in my first quarter. Econ? D in 101. Biology? The professor said he would give me a C instead of the earned D if I would move on to another major. Philosophy? Dr. McCormick, who had seen my work in the humanities curriculum from my freshman and sophomore years, ushered me out of his office door before I could even take a philosophy course.
Then I found history, where the heaviest weighting was given in response to the papers one had to write. Somehow, as a junior, I found a stride. With time served in summer school to atone for the F as a freshman, I left Davidson at the back of the pack, but proximal to the same folks with whom I had arrived. Interestingly, no one important since then has ever asked me my class ranking.
In those darkest Davidson days closest to the time that Dad denied my request to drop out, I literally wandered in search of my place at that school. Eventually, I found it. The music was loudest at the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house. It was the place credited with inventing Headball, where you dug a clay rectangle and served a soccer ball (using your head) across a rope laid through the middle of the water-saturated course. The intent was for a volleying of the ball back and forth to ensue. Failure to serve or return into the other half of the court resulted in a point for the other team and in a beer-chugging penalty for the mud-caked losers of the point. (Needless to say, the game has since been outlawed on college campuses.) Margaret Sloan was our cook, and she excelled at fried. Chicken, pork chops, cube steak. Fried. Steamed broccoli and melted Velveeta were commonly consumed under the moniker “Trees and Cheese.” The fraternity house became my where; the other men became my who.
After being elected treasurer at the end of my sophomore year, I discovered that the social line item was the only one over budget, but to such a degree that we were in effect bankrupt. For both fiscal and behavioral reasons, we faced dissolution at the hands of an administration that saw opportunity in silencing our oversized Marantz speakers, while also potentially dispersing the band of misfits that congregated with such decadent density in that place known as the Delt House. Yet, through a fortitude that was possibly the common thread of fifty, we each raised about $350 extra over that summer before my junior year to save the organization. We bought stupid lamps made of miniature corn liquor jugs that said Phi Delta Theta or sold cutesy animal posters to co-eds, all from trite fund-raiser magazines. We truly gave our life blood to the effort. Well, actually we sold it to some plasma company that came from Charlotte to our frat house in a mobile MASH unit. They paid us $10 a pint.
In all of the time that I was with those guys, I really thought that we were just having a years-long party to divert our attention from the near impossible-seeming grind of getting a degree from what was a rigorously academic institution.
Thirty years later, at Emerald Isle, I put together a reunion of eight of us who had been my inner circle. It was magical. It was also a couple of days before Hurricane Sandy, which skirted North Carolina offshore before following several of the guys home to Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. Two years later, I expanded the guest list and had about 16 participants. Two years after that, the number swelled to 24, even though Hurricane Matthew had just devastated eastern North Carolina. It was uncanny how after thirty years of not seeing those people, you just sat right back down and picked up the same conversation where it had left off in the early 1980s.
In September of 2018, we here in eastern North Carolina were stalked by a killer turtle named Hurricane Florence. She whirled up in the south Atlantic, and for two weeks Jim Cantore waxed his scalp in preparation for the confluence of his and Florence’s arrival in Wrightsville Beach. For an interminable number of hours and days thereafter, Florence angrily crawled across our landscape, tearing down the tallest of our pines and the most historic of our oaks. She wept and spewed and spit water to the point where new flood plains were created. She devastated lives as she destroyed homes and businesses in her plodding destructiveness. The country watched on live TV.
The emails and texts started coming to me from my Phi Delts before Mr. Cantore landed on our coast. They persisted through the entire event and they continued in the aftermath. One of my tightest, a retired lawyer in Vermont named Dana who now is a sailing instructor on Lake Champlain, sent an email saying he knew I must have suffered loss and he wanted to send some money to help me through whatever burden was upon my family. I was moved to tears in front of my bathroom mirror.
I wrote back that his love was enough. “Send that money to people who really need it,” I said.
“Do you know who some of those people are?” he asked in round two of the exchange. Yes, I said, I knew some people who had been hit pretty hard and I knew of places where lots of people had been knocked slam out.
Dana forwarded that email thread to every one of my college pals who had ever attended one of our three reunion events in Emerald Isle. He told them he was funding a small relief effort and he told them where he was sending that which he intended to send. He named me as the administrator.
Within two weeks, there was a literal stack of postmarked letters (and one PayPal receipt) on my desk at New Town Apartments. These men from my past with whom I had so long ago laughed and suffered and misbehaved and eaten Trees and Cheese entrusted me with distributing to strangers in pain the sum of $5,400.
Thelbert lost most everything to Hurricane Florence; he got hundreds in cash for clothes and shoes. Jimmy had the roof torn off his double-wide and the interior soaked for hours; he got hundreds. Nina was buying clothes for children in Robeson County; unrestricted cash was placed in her hand. A pensioned retiree in Spring Lake had vinyl siding ripped off his trailer; my Phi Delts paid for its re-installation. All the while, I enjoyed my unmerited status of Angel of Their Mercy benefitting people my guys never will know.
As I think of my somewhat random and coincidental life-ever-after enjoining with those good men so long ago, a familiar reflection comes to me – I really thought that it was just a party.
It was vastly more than that.