February, 1971. The frigid evening wind lashed through Billy Doane’s pea coat as he hastened from his last Friday class to the cafeteria. He knew what to expect when he got there. You see, Billy worked there part time and had been in on the preparations for Trenton State’s Mardi Gras festivities that weekend. Ballooons and ribbons and streamers and banners decorated the otherwise banal look of an institutional lunchroom. In fact, before Billy left for class he had even pumped up the music for the normally placid dinner crowd. But, as it turned out, his expectations were met with anything but “normally placid”.
Perched at one end of the Phelps Hall cafeteria, the Theta Nu’s held court every meal for years. Table manners were as optional as well-balanced meals. Naturally things occasionally got out of hand. But no more so than this eventful night. With the PA system amped up, the strains of Santana permeated the din of dinner conversation.
“Oye como va!” One brother began tapping out a mindless rhythm on the table. “Me ritmo!” Someone else, maybe just to break balls, picked it up. “Bueno pa gozar!” Then another and another. “Mulatta.” Within moments, an ominous tribal beat from one end of the table to the other. Then the accompaniment of knives and forks; the clinking of glasses. No; make that the banging of glasses…and cups…and plates… and trays. Then someone shoots a pea over the table. The first shot fired across the bow. A plate of peas comes back in response. Then an orange, an apple, milk cartons and jello. Bowls of pudding are answered with with directed missles in the form of Sloppy Joes. Mashed pototoes provided air support for squadrons of Swedish meatballs. Trays of entire meals flung viciously like carpet bombs in every direction.
The effect on the rest of the student body was immediate. Everyone scattered as far away as possible from this culinary blitzkrieg. That only encouraged the combatants even more. Now at least twenty potential mental patients hurling anything they could get their hands on at each other. And then, picking up the trash, recycling it, and giving it a second airbourne tour. For what seemed like interminable minutes, the onslaught would continue conjuring up comparisons to the Huns or locusts.
Who knows what irreversible damage might have resulted had not Bobby Carr, food service student manager, emerged from the kitchen declaring “They called the cops!” Another group would have panicked. Another group would have scattered into the night. But Theta Nu was never another group. This was merely one more bump in the road.
Phelps Hall was designed in such a manner so that it could be divided off into thirds by closing off “accordian walls” to accomodate smaller groups and meetings. Ron Thompson and Dumbo Gillece quickly sealed off their third isolating the rest of the students on the other side. A high-powered fire hose was available to wash everything down and into septic grates positioned in the concrete walkway just outside the “Do Not Open” back doors. Jimmy McLaughlin secured the hose into its hydrant fitting. He handed it to Kenny Crowell who funneled it to Tubby Mattern. While Tubby fired away, Matty Previti and Lou Micca grabbed a buch of squeegees and went to work. The Cifalogio brothers commandeered bus boxes and piled in everything they could grab. Kitty Carlisle and Tom Gartland bolted into the kitchen and corralled every towel and sponge in sight.
Merlin couldn’t have worked his scorcery more magically. Within ten minutes, the transformation was complete. Not a grain of rice, a chard of glass, a drop of Hawaiian punch remained. Some of the brothers had even returned to the food line (meal cards for Theta Nu’s had become a “perk” years ago) and sat back down to dinner.
Moments later the Ewing police barreled in like Eliot Ness in a speakeasy. Summonses and pens at the ready along with an ample supply of handcuffs. Imagine their embarassment at the bucolic assemblage of college kids peacefully enjoying their supper. And then multiply that humiliation exponentially when Thompson and Dumbo pulled open the folding partition to the amazement of the rest of the student body who, recognizing the metamorphosis that had just taken place, actually gave them a standing ovation.
Ewing’s Finest seemed doomed to slink away in the absence of any concrete evidence of a food riot. That is until one paticularly gifted trained observer looked up. As in “up at the ceiling”. A ceiling festooned with butter pats. Dozens of them planted firmly in the ceiling tiles.
The lead cop knew a rat when he smelled one. “What’s going on here?” he demanded. Twenty voices answered in unison, “Nothing!”
“Don’t give me that shit! What’s with the butter on the ceiling?”
“That’s been there all year”, someone offered.
“Mardi Gras decorations” said another.
“What butter?” said Al Corby.
As revealing as the violated ceiling was, there was little the police could do what with the municipal codes vague on the abuse of butter. They sauntered ( that’s what cops do – they saunter) out. Theta Nu Sigma had dodged another bullet.
But not aso fast. While nothing tantamount to an arrest or in dictment was obvious, complaints of such revelry quickly reached the dean’s office. Theta Nu had always been a thorn in his side and, dammit, they were not going to get away with this.
A student/administrative tribunal was convened to address this issue and brothers “Lucky” Luckner, Robyn Daplyn, and Billy Doane were summoned to appear before the court. It was Dean Paddock for the prosecution. For the defense, fraternity faculty advisor John Karras. Mister Karras. To those of us who knew him – just Karras!
Paddock opened: “You boys have been identified by cafeteria workers as taking part in the destruction of property, endangering the welfare of the other students, and causing a riot.”
Karras now played his hand. “Where are these cafeteria workers? I don’t see them anywhere. I believe the accused has the right to face their accusers.”
Paddock replied. “No, but they did identify them by name.”
“By name?” said Mister Karras. From the complaint that I’m reading, Luckner is picked out by his long hair. Might I suggest that in the age of Woodstock, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Hair, that describes just about everybody who’s not in boot camp. And Daplyn? He was identified as wearing a mummers headress. At least a dozen other students were also somehow costumed for their Mardi Gras dance”.
“And Doane. I have here a written document signed by Professor Bitner verifying that he was in class at the time of these accusations. This is obviously a case of mistaken identity. This entire affair is a sham! Let’s go, boys!”
As they marched out, Karras (Mr. Karras) subtley smiled to himself. His signature defense of “Deny. Deny. Deny.” had once aghain carried the day. And all was right in the heavens.