A Gift We Can Give Each Other
When my cell phone buzzed me a few minutes ago, it was a voice from long, long ago in my life: Loren Schoenburg, a bosom buddy from my earliest junior high-school days right through college together. Apart from a glimpse of each other in a Zoom reunion for our high school gang during the pandemic, we’d not crossed paths for the better part of half a century.
My delight bordered on ecstasy to see his name on my caller ID and then hearing his voice when I answered. How precious the moments that bring alive deep and distant memories of treasured friendships long neglected. And the reason for his call made that all the more vivid. Loren got right into what prompted his dialing my number: “I haven’t seen anything new from you on The Daley Almanac for a long time now, and, you know, well, I got to thinking…well, you know, at our age, you get to wondering…”
On Saturday, I will celebrate my 86th birthday. In late December, Loren turns 87.
I guess I don’t need to spell it out, right?
But Loren has given me two reasons for turning his wonderful call into a brief post on The Daley Almanac right now. The first is to let you know that I’m alive and well, in case you too were wondering. My paucity of posts of late is caused by my finally having turned to writing a long-postponed book—one that I’ve been mulling for more than fifty years. That work has been consuming the time that might have gone into additional short pieces for The Daley Almanac.
The second reason is way more important: Loren just set a model for the rest of us old friends to follow. And it’s all the more important, the older we are. So much of our life has been lived by now, and so we have such a wealth of memories to awaken in each other--and not a lot of time left in which to do it. So my simple lesson from Loren’s call is to pick up the phone and call more of my old friends more often. If only you knew how happy his call made me, you’d also want to make the friends from across the more distant years of your life glow with delight to hear from you.
That said, I guess I ought to seize this moment to share a story from Loren’s and my youth together that will give you a hint of how importantly the lives of even two seemingly crass and carefree college kids can be linked. Happily, such a tale is already at hand. Over the years, I’ve taken to writing up—but not publishing—events from my earlier life that stick with me, and this is certainly one of them. I wrote it many years ago, so I guess it’s just been languishing in my computer awaiting this moment to come out of hiding. NB: in this memoir, I refer to Loren as Lorrie—his nickname as a kid. While he has long since dropped that in favor of his actual name, Loren won’t mind if I leave his name in this story just as I knew him in the days when it happened.
My Brother Lorrie
So, if you grow up in a household where Jewish-or-not is simply a moot point, you don’t become very skilled at identifying who is or is not Jewish. That’s how I got clear to college without its ever occurring to me which of my classmates happened to be Jewish, with the sole exception of Rochelle Greenberg whose father I knew to be the local Rabbi. But as for a bunch of others whose names I now know were sure giveaways to their Jewishness, I was mentally mute.
One of my dearest buddies in high school was named Loren Schoenburg. That he was Jewish might be the first thing that would come to some people’s mind, but not mine. Of course I wasn’t unaware that his family didn’t worship at the standard-brand churches in town—but then, they didn’t worship anywhere else, either, so what did it matter anyhow? I guess I knew Lorrie was Jewish, but it was a meaningless designation. Lorrie and Eliot were simply fast friends, doing together all the dangerous and demented things that teenagers do.
We parted company right after graduation from high school, with Lorrie headed off for a stint in the Air Force where he would spend a couple of years firing off letters bitterly despising the sub-zero climate at a God-forsaken base in the Aleutian Islands, while I headed off to the local state college.
Fresno State College was a small school in an overgrown cow-town turning out farmers and teachers, for the most part. When I arrived there in 1954, the student body was liberally sown with veterans returning from the Korean War. They were guys in their early twenties who had experienced life’s harshest realities in Asian battlefields and brothels that were utterly beyond the imagining of those of us who stayed home. When they came back, they brought with them all their hard-living habits, yen for risk, and sexual aggressiveness, and they tended to run with each other—a natural fraternity whose overseas initiation had been brutal and intense.
But they also yearned for a taste of the traditional home life they’d missed, and so some of them joined the formal “Greek” fraternities at Fresno State. Many joined one in particular, Kappa Sigma. And since hardened vets couldn’t easily regress to the more innocent role of “frat boy” that prevailed among the membership of the other fraternities, Kappa Sigma took on a renegade personality of its own—raucous, rowdy, rambunctious, worldly, unconventional, destructive, lawless.
Which is why it appealed to me and why I joined Kappa Sigma myself.
And that’s why, when Lorrie was discharged from the Air Force several years later and enrolled at Fresno State, Kappa Sigma appealed to him, too. So when “rushing” for new pledges began in the fall, I made sure that Lorrie was well showcased at Kappa Sigma and that the “brothers” got to know him for the great guy I knew he was. All went as planned, and when the end of “rush season” arrived several weeks later and it was time for fraternities to issue invitations, it was a foregone conclusion that Kappa Sigma would extend a membership invitation to Lorrie.
Or so I thought.
“Uh, there’s a bit of a problem,” began the adult alumni advisor to our fraternity, a very proper local insurance executive who had invited me to his office to discuss “a very important matter”. He looked across his big desk at me with a well-practiced mixture of empathy and sadness. “I know you’re the principal sponsor of Lorrie and that the brothers all agree he is a fine person, but I’m afraid I have to inform you that he is not eligible to become a member of Kappa Sigma.”
“Why is that? What are you talking about?” I groped, dumbfounded.
“Well, you see, in the national charter of Kappa Sigma fraternity, there’s a clause.”
“What kind of clause?” I responded, feeling some vague stirring of suspicion and anger stewing in me.
He tapped the red leather-bound volume that lay on his desk—the national constitution and by-laws of the fraternity. Then his index finger crawled to the top of the book, slid down a bookmark, and peeled it open to the page that would dismiss Lorrie.
“It says right here—let me show you,” he ceremonially rotated the book to face me, “Here in the opening sentence of our charter it says that ‘Kappa Sigma is a fraternal organization for the mutual pleasure and benefit of white Christian college men’." He paused momentarily, then continued. "I’m afraid that doesn’t include your Mr. Schoenburg.”
I looked at him perplexedly, so he spelled it out. “He is clearly not a Christian. So the fraternity may not invite him to join.”
I blurted, “So, to hell with the charter. That’s ridiculous. It makes no sense at all to keep a guy like Lorrie out of the fraternity. Everybody wants him.” My brain began roiling like hot lava, my vision going blurry. “Hey, this is the stupidest damned thing I’ve ever heard of!”
“Well,” he continued ever so reasonably, “we certainly can’t violate the charter of our national organization, now, can we? I mean, that would bring about de-certification of our local chapter and our expulsion from the national body. It would mean death for our Kappa Sigma brotherhood here. Now you wouldn’t want that, would you?”
“But what the hell is the point of having the chapter here if it doesn’t include the people we want it to include?”
“Well,” he smoothed along, “you’ll come to see as you grow over the years that sometimes one simply has to abide by the rules as we receive them, and that it is not ours to question the wisdom of those who made them.”
I stumbled from his office blindly—furious, frustrated, helpless. This supercilious son-of-a-bitch was going to undo Lorrie’s and my years of indivisibility with one smug citation of a line in a charter I was certain no undergraduate ever even knew existed. Well, the hell with that. I’ll just quit the God-damned fraternity. I don’t want to be part of any organization that has that kind of prejudice enshrined in its charter anyhow.
I went home and flung myself on my bed, stewing and fuming and swearing. I wore myself out with anger and finally fell asleep, probably to avoid calling Lorrie with the ugly news.
But somewhere in the middle of the night, my mind lit up ablaze and I sat bolt upright in bed. The words of the alumni advisor shimmered before me: One simply has to abide by the rules as we receive them, and it is not ours to question the wisdom of those who made them.
Hot damn! Two can play that game!
Among all the hocus-pocus of fraternity life is the ritual of “blackballing”. At the end of rush season, a list of prospective members—pledges, they’re called—is drawn up and the members gather in the fraternity house parlor to vote secretly on whom to invite. As each prospective invitee’s name is announced, a wooden box and a velvet sack are passed from member to member. Each in turn reaches into the velvet sack, selects and removes either a small white wooden cube or a round black ball, and, palming it to conceal his choice, surreptitiously deposits it in the box. When all members have finished voting on that individual, the box is opened. If there is no black ball in the box, the invitation is approved. If even one black ball is in the box among the white cubes, the invitation is dead. The person in question can never be invited into Kappa Sigma fraternity. And no challenge can ever be made to undo the blackballing.
By late morning I was back in the office of our alumni advisor.
“I’ve been thinking about what you told me about following the rules,” I said, “and so I wanted to let you know I have decided to do just that.”
“Oh, good,” he responded, no doubt thinking: Smart boy. Learns his lessons well.
“Yes, you see, I still have three years to go at Fresno State, and here’s what I intend to do. Every time a new member is proposed, I will blackball him.”
Confusion rippled across his face. He looked away briefly to compose a thought, struggled with it, and returned his gaze uneasily to me.
“Right. You get it,” I continued. “Three years. No new pledges. I’ll blackball every single one. Come 1958 the house will be empty. Adios to Kappa Sigma at Fresno State.”
I savored his look of incredulity for a moment and then finished. “You said the national office would kill us off if we take Lorrie in. I’m telling you that I’ll kill us off if we don’t.”
With that, I got up and walked out of his office.
Later that day he called to say he had decided that Lorrie was “Christian in spirit” and that was plenty good enough for him.