It shouldn’t a’oughta rained, if you know what I mean. Things woulda’ been different if it just didn’t rain. But it did and, as you’ll see, that changed everything.
It was a chilly damp October morning in 1969 and Trenton State College was hosting their annual Homecoming Day. That’s the day alumni show up to lie about what they remember, cheer for the home team at the football game, hit their favorite undergraduate pub, and maybe with a little bit of luck wind up at a house party somewhere. It was a grand time. If only it didn’t rain.
No one looked forward to this day more than the brothers of the Theta Nu Sigma fraternity. Which was completely out of character for them. Their interest in collegiate affairs ran from, at best, minimal to, at worst, non-existent.
I had the good fortune to be part of this craziness. We were loud. Irreverent. Somehow at war with inanimate objects. Cafeterias were trashed. Banquet rooms desecrated. Small bridges blown up. Bus stops demolished. By Bob Dansbury with his car. By Al Corby with his bare hands.
The “Animal House” movie was merely a timid portrayal of their hijinks. Havoc seemed to follow them wherever they went and they reveled in it. Incoming coeds were counseled to stay away from the Theta Nu’s but ironically that only seemed to heighten their appeal. They took an almost manical pride in being first in everything: the first dance of the year, first place in football and basketball intramural leagues; they held the area’s first local rock concert ( the bands played on the roof of the concession stand at Pagnani’s swim club); and, as it turns out, first place in the Homecoming Day Float Parade. But it wasn’t supposed to rain.
Every Greek organization, fraternity and sorority, built a float for this event. The standard structure would be a flatbed trailer supporting a wooden frame encased in a mold of chicken wire covered with a type of paper: crepe; tissue, or (in Pasadena) roses. We had access to none of these. So we used toilet paper (of course appropriately painted once it was in place). In the days leading up to the float parade, there was not a clean square to be found. The janitorial closets of every building were ransacked; local gas stations and restaurants found their restrooms vacant; toilet stalls in the cafeterias, dorms, and faculty lounges were left barren. It was, no doubt, a time of great chafing.
That year the theme of the parade was “A Salute to World Peace”. We knew we had to come up with somehting spectacular. There was only first place; every other place was a loss. Gifted artists walked among us. Butchie Migliaccio who would go on to become one of the Shore’s most popular landscape artists. Toby Grace, who led his “Dr. Edison’s Magic Elixir show from carnival to state fair replete with horse-drawn wagons and the country’s largest working steam calliope. People like that can dream up anything. Their imaginations were infused into reality through a contingent of Industrial Arts majors; the wood, metal and auto shop teachers of the future. They could figure out a way to construct anything. A plan came together.
We would build a giant four-pedaled flower, closed up during the parade around the campus and then magically open in front of the judge’s stand. Matt Previti and Chris Preston, two physically well-constructed young men would be outfitted with speedos, gold body paint, and a leafy crown. Crouched inside for hours, they would stand up before the judges holding aloft a wreath of flowers symbolizing love and world peace. Doves would fly aloft in a sensational tribute to Peace on Earth.
The entire float was to pulled by, not the standard tractor or truck, but by thirty brothers each costumed in the traditional garb of a foriegn country. Sombreros and blankets from Mexico; Mountie uniforms from Canada; yarmulkas and prayer shawls from Isreal, lederhosen from Austria: ten gallon hats and cowboy boots from Texas (did I mention not everyone passed geography?) On inclines and rough surfaces, other brothers pushed from behind.
Of course, it would be amazing. If only it didn’t rain. Alumni Day was also a time that the Theta Nu’s showed a softer, compassionate side. Every year, a group of brothers would trek up to St. Michael’s Orphanage and take some of the kids out for the day. Each brother was assigned an orphan; each orphan, a brother. They always left reluctantly, the younger kids trying to hold on to the older ones. Their world, cold and often cruel, did not lend itself easily to strangers. They were quiet. Reserved. Wary.
First stop: the football game. Brothers and orphans cheering their team on, sharing hot dogs and cokes. For some, rum and cokes, the legal drinking age in Theta Nu World being ten. After the game, everyone headed to the student Union, the hub of campus popularity and snack bar. The kids were given the best seats. They could order whatever they wanted; get served immediately no matter where they were in line; and nobody paid. Mainly because Bobby Carr was the student manager of the food services, the guy grilling the burgers was a brother, and so was the cashier. By the time they left for the parade, all that temerity and inhibition had been replaced by an affection from a bunch of guys not particularly known for their affection. Even the constant misty drizzle outside did little to dampen their spirits.
The Theta Nu’s and their charges positioned themselves next to the judges’ stands. Where better to observe the machinations of their construction? The contingent of outfitted brothers, straining through the mud and puddles, soaked but uncomplaining in their assignment, came to a halt.The flower opened flawlessly to gasps of awe from the crowd. Matty and Chris, cramped and aching from their position in the flower, stood up regally, their wreaths of peace held high above their heads. Gold body wash began to puddle at their feet.
The doves? Well, that’s another story. Doves, you see, tend to set up shop in places like Rome and Par-ee. Even on a bet, no self-respecting dove goes anywhere near Trenton. And so we had to settle for their poorer cousins – the pigeon. Pigeons are a much more accomodating lot. They don’t know they’re in Trenton; much less care. And they never suspect that that human holding out a peanut will snatch them up and cover them with flour so they look like a dove.
But it shouldn’t oughta’ rained. Besides the gold body paint draining down the muscles of our two Hercules, the colors fading off the thousands of toilet paper plugs; pigeons dusted with flour apparently can’t fly. They took off only to drop like rocks on the ground.
Orphans, rarely treated to such spectacle, seized the opportunity to chase them down, kicking and plucking them in their attempts to capture one. By the time they got back to the orphanage, they didn’t want to leave their buddy for the day. Sometimes love shines through where you least expect it.
As for the float contest itself, Jimmy Wiliams and myself got to hold up a silver cup – First Place! Who cares? Let it rain!