Remembering Tomorrow: Chapter 2

Chapter 2 

Dachau on the Charles 


Another excerpt in the serialization of Parts One and Two of the memoir Remembering Tomorrow by Michael Albert, this time chapters 2 and 3, distributed in this 40th year since the New Left and May 68.

Fraternity Rush Riot


I have always regarded myself as the pillar of my life. 

—Meryl Streep 


In high school, in 1964–65, I applied to five colleges and got in everywhere except Harvard. I wanted to go to Harvard because I wanted to be in the same school as my best friend Larry Seidman, who was a Harvard freshman during my senior year in high school, and to be near my girlfriend Nancy Shapiro, who was going to Simmons College in Boston. All was not lost, however. I chose to go to MIT, just down the river from Harvard and a few miles from Simmons, instead of going to Yale, Princeton, Columbia, or Cornell. I was only a fraction as good at humanities as I was at physics. I would have been only a fraction as able to excel as a speaker or even to feel comfortable as a person at an Ivy League school as I was at socially-backward MIT. MIT inflated my confidence. 


In July 1965, following my senior year at New Rochelle High, MIT upper classmen visited and befriended me. One of these campus suitors was a pre-med student two years older and wiser than me. He patiently helped me consider my future academic options and urged that I join his fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi. We spent considerable time at the beach that summer—he, me, and Nancy, listening to the Rolling Stones bemoaning getting no “Satisfaction,” and to the Temptations celebrating “My Girl,” among other classics. 


I arrived for MIT’s Rush Week just before the official school semester began, as did about a third of my classmates. We were all seeking to join a fraternity. Physics was on my mind, not politics. I went to fraternity houses and was wined, dined, and often invited to stay for the evening. Some fraternities were more party oriented. “Wooly Bully” was the big dance hit. Some favored athletics. Go Celtics, though I favored the Knicks. Some emphasized academics, and a few were havens for all-around achievement. The differences could affect your days and nights at MIT. I was shopping for a home. The fraternities were shopping for freshmen. It was advanced living group matchmaking. I became a brother at Alpha Epsilon Pi, one of MIT’s four Jewish fraternities. My pre-med emissary had recruited better than emissaries from Sigma Alpha Mu and other fraternities. Rush Week preceded five months of pledging. Since MIT outlawed dangerous hazing, pledging involved having to light cigarettes for upper classmen, to learn everyone’s name and hometown, to do push-ups whenever we forgot some required fact, and “pantsing”—we were tackled by numerous upper classmen, throttled to exhaustion, and stripped. Among those treating me to such indignities was a sophomore named Robert Horvitz. He was a good guy, and quite bright. In 2002 he shared with two others the Nobel Prize in Biology “for their discoveries concerning ‘genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death.’” The opening sentence of his acceptance speech was “I never expected to spend the rest of my life studying worms.” Pretty cool. Go AEPi, go. 


On Friday nights, the AEPi pledge class rigorously cleaned the fraternity. Partly the sessions were a rational way to thoroughly clean, polish, and sometimes restore broken or worn items. It kept a large pair of four-story brownstones comfortable. Partly the sessions entailed washing a floor, and then washing it again, two, three, or even four times, as hazing. Cleaning would extend from immediately after dinner to as late as four in the morning, depending on what screwups occurred while we waxed on and waxed off. Upperclass authority eradicated our Friday nights and even exhausted us so we couldn’t enjoy our Saturdays. Since personal time at MIT was slim, saying goodbye to Friday nights and many Saturdays was a considerable sacrifice. 


About twenty Fridays later, AEPi held for its freshman a melodramatic induction ceremony. Amidst candles and pomp, we were declared brothers. After the ceremony, our new brothers told us how Rush Week had been organized. We learned that the fraternities had carefully researched lists of all incoming freshmen well in advance of our arrival. It was like NBA basketball teams researching prospective recruits before a player draft. MIT had few women in those days but only men chose between various all-male dorms and a couple of dozen all-male fraternities. Our choosing fraternities and them choosing us was a male ritual. When a freshman arrived at AEPi, he either got the bum’s rush—a quick walk out the back door into an alley—or he got the Prospect’s Perusal, for which he’d be taken upstairs, introduced around, and offered information and snacks. If the freshman impressed the brothers, he’d be enticed to stay for elaborate dinners and perhaps overnight and throughout the week. Contenders were closely evaluated at late-night sessions during which brothers sat around judging each prospective inductee for how he would fit the fraternity’s ethos. After we heard the above, we heard the big news. The rooms in the fraternity that we had inhabited overnight had been tapped. The phones we had used to make outgoing calls had been bugged. Big brothers told us they used information gleaned from wiretapping and bugging to judge our thoughts and, for those whom they sought, to offer us our preferred inducements to join. 


For example, when I privately mentioned to a friend in a shared room or to my lover Nancy over the phone that I liked what I saw at AEPi but would prefer a bit more emphasis on physics and would enjoy it if some AEPiers were into playing tennis and participating in campus politics, the next morning, bright and early, I was nonchalantly welcomed into a bull session on physics. Later, I was casually invited for a game of tennis. In the evening I was given a tour of the campus student-committee rooms. Of course, if I had mentioned other preferences to my girlfriend, those desires too would have been met. Had I said disturbing things or indicated questionable tastes or inclinations, this too would have been conveyed to the brothers and affected their votes on me. 


If I had discovered these wildly intrusive policies during Rush Week I would have gone berserk. You did what? But having given up six months of Friday nights, made new friends, and acclimated to a new and very comfortable home, on learning of these policies I felt only momentary anger. Similarly, after induction, no one in the fraternity’s past had ever been pissed for long. Beyond a disconcerted day or two, life continued without a hitch. Mine, too. Malleable humanity. The excuse offered by our upperclass brothers for AEPi’s duplicitous manipulations convinced everyone, including me, that in context, the brothers’ actions had been wise. The upperclassmen had researched us. They had taken long hours to carefully assess our personalities. They had determined where we would best fit on campus. In Rush Week we had only a week to make life-affecting decisions. 


Because everyone was trying to rush us, we had no honest information to guide our choices. How could AEPi’s brothers trust us to decide for ourselves? The big brothers, therefore, told us they decided for us, and then, for those they wanted to rush, they used whatever wiles they could muster to get us to join their house, lest we mistakenly end up somewhere else. 


What is perhaps most instructive about all this is that we MIT freshmen, with half a year of college under our belts, smug as all get out about our wisdom, all accepted this explanation, as did midyear freshmen in other houses. We welcomed the pebble of caring that resided in the upperclassmen’s revelations. We ignored the boulder of elitist, paternalist, deception that also resided there. We were living where we wanted to be. We were happy. Our home away from home was good. Anger would rock everyone’s boat. Selection worked. Why question success? For the rest of the second semester, life at AEPi proceeded as in past years. Our little community was academically serious but we enjoyed ourselves, too. We competed but also mutual-aided. AEPi pressured excellence. We had privacy, but we also had nearby friends for advice and support. Did Barry need help with classes? It was there. Did Steve need help with meeting people, dating, or personal angst? It was there. AEPi offered communal rewards made even more attractive by the exigencies of dreaded dorm life. 


AEPiers were serious about campus politics and particularly the position and influence of their fraternity. For each new member, upperclassmen would envision plausible futures and then help to make them happen. One or perhaps two people in each new class, unbeknownst to them, would be selected for special grooming to become campus stars. So it was that within days of Rush Week, I was picked out by my big brothers for a prominent future. 


My upperclass handlers envisioned me becoming undergraduate association president of the whole student body, or UAP, by my senior year. Within days of the end of Rush Week, they charted me through running for freshman class president and through a number of other steps, including using contacts of AEPi upperclassmen to participate in various campus activities devoted to assessing campus teaching and academics. Upperclassmen didn’t discuss these plans with me until a half year later, after my induction. At first they simply planned my future and projected me in the directions they chose. 


Oblivious to all that, for my first half year at MIT I enjoyed having my girlfriend Nancy Shapiro close to me at nearby Simmons. I aced my classes and enjoyed playing touch football and then softball in campus athletic leagues. I had a happy freshman year, nearly perfect from AEPi’s perspective, and from mine too. Nancy and I were very close, even thinking about future marriage. We regularly studied together in the MIT libraries, went out every weekend, and slept together via a system where fraternity roommates would vacate space for one another before women’s curfews. Sometime in the late winter, however, Nancy and I fought, pretty seriously, and I feared our relationship was over. I was despondent and I milked the situation for a week or so. 


I remember sitting in a downstairs living area at AEPi listening to Paul McCartney repeatedly sing “Yesterday,” me singing along under my breath, as maudlin as one can get. I remember walking across what was called the Harvard Bridge—which links Cambridge, where the main MIT campus was, to Boston, where AEPi was—over the Charles River. I remember looking over and thinking about jumping. But I wasn’t really thinking about suicide. I was trying to make myself that forlorn in order to experience that state of mind. Wasn’t it the condition I was supposed to be in? So the one depressed part of my opening year at MIT wasn’t even depression. It was me exploring myself through a technique I never employed again. Nancy and I didn’t break up then. It was just an argument. But that summer, college contentment collapsed. 



Summer Job, Something for Nothing 


A fashion is nothing but an induced epidemic. 

–George Bernard Shaw 


I spent that summer in the city. My father got me a job in a hospital for which he was doing legal work. I went in, met my boss, and was put in a very small office. I was supposed to help the hospital staff with medical programming. I knew nothing about programming or about anything medical. The first day on the job I spent eight hours alone, bored silly, doing nothing. The second day replicated the first. On the third day I smuggled a book to work. I read the book all day in my little office and no one cared. I formed a hypothesis: the hospital gave me the job as a favor to my father but actually had nothing for me to do and would very much prefer that I was silent and invisible than that I constantly sought assignments. I tested the hypothesis by hiding out and ignoring the whole place, doing my thing, alone in my hospital office, reading. No problem. My first brush with wage slavery was delightful. I was paid to read whatever I liked with no boss in sight. 

I didn’t only read, however. I also wrote letters back and forth with one of my fraternity mates, Bob Barr. Bob left AEPi, as did some others in my class, about six months after I did. In fact, most of my class left, and much of it joined Students for a Democratic Society at MIT, which in turn became the most effective student organization in the Boston-Cambridge area. Like me, Bob was very into Bob Dylan and music generally, and we became close friends. Bouncing my concerns about AEPi off him was very helpful to my finally deciding to leave the fraternity. 


Early in my freshman year, my AEPi classmate Larry White, who was from San Francisco, told Bob and me that he knew who the next big band would be: The Jefferson Airplane. We said no way—how could a group with such a stupid name get anywhere?—and we bet him a tidy sum, which he, of course, won. My father used to tell me if someone wants to bet you that a camel can fit through the eye of a needle, don’t take the bet: it will happen. It was good advice. Later, Larry left AEPi and became radical. One of our early protests was to disrupt a talk by Walt Rostow, who was Lyndon Johnson’s national security adviser and an architect of the Indochina war. I remember Larry hopping onto a stage where Rostow was talking and throwing dollar bills at him. Larry joined a Marxist-Leninist sect called the Progressive Labor Party (PLP). I learned that good people could get drawn into idiotic projects, and that there but for fortune I might have gone. I should note that there are those who would say that there but for fortune I went, one cubicle over. 


By the way, the evil Walt Rostow’s parents were socialist. Walt’s older brother, Eugene Victor, was named for the socialist Eugene V. Debs and became dean of the Yale Law School and Lyndon Johnson’s undersecretary of defense for political affairs. A third brother, Ralph Waldo Rostow, was named for Ralph Waldo Emerson. As reported in a Texas obituary, Walt Rostow expressed no public regrets about the war. “I’m not obsessed with Vietnam, and I never was,” he said in 1986. “I don’t spend much time worrying about that period.” Larry and I differed with Walt on the matter. So did a classmate of Walt’s at Yale, Dave Dellinger, whom we’ll meet soon. 



Leaving AEPi 


One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar. 

—Helen Keller 


After my summer of letters at the hospital job, I returned to MIT. It turned out that the psychic investment of pledging hadn’t permanently exterminated my common sense. During my hospital stint, my brains and scruples made a comeback and I became outraged at my fraternity brothers’ manipulations. Earlier I had ignored the debits of Rush Week to cling to a nice new home. Now I ignored the benefits of my nice home to jettison its duplicity. I quit AEPi during its pre-Rush Week cleanup period. 


When Rush Week started and the brothers were enticing new freshman into earshot of AEPi’s tapped phones and bugged rooms, I sat on the fender of a car directly outside AEPi’s front door and called over incoming freshmen as they were about to enter the house. I told them exactly what was going on. 


Sitting on that car and telling the truth to those freshman was my first overtly political act, though at the time I had not a political thought in my head. There was a street brawl. Some of my AEPi ex-brothers sought to forcefully silence me. Others sought to limit the carnage for fear of repercussions for AEPi’s campus credentials. A few sought to save my hide. 


The school administration acted quickly. Removed by campus police, I was banned from returning to the corner. The MIT administration opened private discussions of Rush Week reform. Lacking political motivation, however, my public dissent didn’t last. I wanted no part of AEPi’s mini-pestilence, but I wasn’t yet actively focused on the broader pestilence that was MIT itself, not to mention U.S. society. 


Within a few days of the curbside fracas, my father arrived in Cambridge. Dad was welcomed by AEPi upperclassmen, who rented a nearby motel room for a daylong meeting. First, junior and senior AEPi brothers urged me to stay in the fold. My sophomore classmates were kept away, lest my example spread. In the afternoon came AEPi’s officers. Toward evening, highly successful alumni and the current fraternity president arrived. 


With the elite’s arrival, the day’s rhetoric became blatantly disgusting. The fraternity’s leaders, unlike the younger brothers who had filed through earlier, admitted to my father that my accusations were correct. Of course the fraternity pried and lied, but why couldn’t I see that I would benefit from the lying and prying? I was headed for the top of the heap. I would be an AEPi success story. “It works for us,” they told my father, “and since Mike’s going to be one of us, he shouldn’t give it up.”