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True stories of St. Pat's

Years ago at New Mexico Tech, St. Patrick's Day was the biggest holiday of the year, the celebration of the patron saint of engineers. A lot of cultures in this country don't really have coming-of-age or initiation rites like a lot of tribal cultures do, but St. Pattie's had most of the standard ingredients: costumes, baptisms, rituals, ordeals. A lot of the upperclassmen wouldn't even give the time of day to a freshman that hadn't gone through St. Pat's. After I went through in March of 1967, suddenly my status went way up: some upperclassmen who had completely ignored me would occasionally favor me with small scraps of ridicule and abuse.

The first event of the holiday was the posting of the Sophomore Higher Intelligence Team (S-list)---a selection of the twenty most obnoxious freshman, singled out for extra duty. I made #9, probably because I spent too much time bragging about my job in the air-conditioned computer center, and the sophomores who had jobs digging ditches tended to resent that.

The organizational meeting was held on the Tuesday before St. Pat's weekend. Freshmen were formed into squads of ten; the twenty S-list members were put in two special squads. The sophomores passed out the scavenger hunt list and the rules for accumulating points. Naturally our squad was very competitive, being made up exclusively of wiseacres.

Some of the items on the scavenger hunt list were easier than they looked. Asking a female professor to autograph a jockstrap or the president of the college to sign a bra sounds intimidating, but neither Merry Lomanitz nor Stirling Colgate were likely to refuse any such request.

One of the items on the scavenger hunt---a hubcap from a Socorro police car---caused a bit of friction with the town. I heard the story of an eyewitness who was in town that night about two blocks from the police station. About three minutes after the scavenger hunt list was handed out, a '56 Chevy pulled up right outside the police station and six of the seven people in it got out and grabbed hubcaps and piled back in and took off. For about the next five minutes people were converging from every direction. By the time the people inside noticed what was going on, there weren't many hubcaps left.

It was at least an hour later when our team made the attempt on the police station---on foot. It didn't occur to any of us that we might not be the first ones there, or that by then the police might have known what was going on, or that we might need a car to get away in a hurry. I hid behind a tree while my confederates went in to try get another scavenger hunt item: signatures of all the police in town on a petition stating ``I Like Tech.'' Fortunately, I was caught before I got my screwdriver out; I hadn't started on the hubcap yet because I was suspicious about the patrol car that had been shadowing us all the way from campus.

About three hours later, here came Red Beret with the two trademarks that made him a figure of universal ridicule: his beret and his ten-speed bike. He leaned his bike against a light pole right across the street from the police station, pulled out his screwdriver and started to pry on one of the remaining hubcaps, and was quite surprised when three spotlights nailed him where he squatted. The police put him in jail and negotiated a deal with Tech: they would let him out if the school would agree to keep all the students out of town until Monday morning.

There was not much official activity planned for the upperclassmen, which left them lots of time to paint shamrocks on various things (like the water tank in Belen and the Lobo statue at UNM) and repaint some of the center stripes in the town streets using green paint.

The most important activity was climbing Socorro Peak and whitewashing the M, which required lime and a broom. In the fifties and earlier, every student had to carry a fifty-pound sack of lime and a broom to the top, except for some students who carried water instead of lime. This is why the mountain is very white just above the standard jumping-off place for the M climb: it's a pretty steep climb, so many people just dumped their lime sacks.

In my day, they brought the lime and water up the back of the mountain in a jeep, but some people still carried lime out of macho or respect for tradition, or perhaps to make an assault on the record for the fastest climb with a lime sack. It was still necessary, however, for every freshman to be equipped with a stolen broom. They wouldn't let you show up with a West Hall janitor's broom; you had to steal it in town. Like many of my classmates, I had hardly ever been in town, so a bunch of us asked an older student named Byron to drive us through town so we could steal our brooms. It didn't occur to me that this broom business happened every year about this time, or that the townspeople might have been expecting it.

Byron took us to a likely neighborhood, stopped and pointed at a house. There on the porch was a broom, with a large dog sleeping on it. The wall around the front yard wasn't that tall, maybe a couple of feet. But I almost broke a leg going over it the second time, with the dog trying hard to eat me. I had an easy time of it, though, compared to my friend Pat. We were driving along on South California and he spotted a broom leaning against the screen door of a house there. He ran over and grabbed the broom, but it wouldn't come; it was nailed to the door. He pulled harder, and the hinges on the door gave way. He ran all the way back across the front yard holding tightly to the broom, dragging the disintegrating screen door with it. We had to jump out and help him bang it on the fence to get most of the door off so we could get the broom in the car.

Thursday at six in the evening was the start of the ordeal. First was the traditional costume check: every item of clothing had to be inside out. There was always one guy that had put on his underwear the right way and had to correct it on the spot.

Most of the squads were put to work digging the pit for the tug-of-war on Saturday, but the two S-list squads had to clean out the ``fish ponds.'' Driscoll Pond was about eight feet by four, octagonal in shape, and about three feet deep, located just east of the old Driscoll Hall. No fish would live in the kinds of things that the upperclassmen donated to the pond in anticipation of St. Pat's---drilling mud, gelatin, broken bottles, and whatever else might be put in there by folks stumbling back from the Capitol Bar after closing time, when inhibitions are just a theory. The lower ten of the S-list got to clean out another fish pond just north of West Hall, which got less attention than Driscoll Pond but was still not a pretty sight.

Our squad, the Cherries, made up of the S-list top ten, marched over to Driscoll Hall to attack the pond, singing our squad song. We had a great song, composed by the famous Fast Eddie Miller, with a chorus to the tune of ``Thunder Road.'' Since today's students are so innocent, I have deleted all the bad language. Not much left, is there?

  We're the (deleted) Cherries
  And we don't give a (deleted)
  We'd rather clean out Driscoll Pond
  Than dig the (deleted) pit

  We are (deleted) (deleted)
  And we know what we want
  For when St. Pat's is done and gone
  We'll go and get some (deleted)

  Cherries, Cherries,
  We're that (deleted) batch
  All we want from life
  Is just a little piece of (deleted)
  Cherries, Cherries,
  We just want some (deleted)
  Cultured women you can have,
  We'll take them (deleted) (deleted)
When we started singing, there were about fifty women watching, hanging out of every window in Driscoll. By the time we finished, it was down to three. Back then we had a very simple definition of correct behavior---``grossout chic.''

The S-list squads were supposed to clean out the fish ponds with toothbrushes, but the first problem was just to empty them out. The large cylindrical ashcans from West Hall were perfect for bailing. I was so eager that I jumped into the pond, slipped on the slime layer on the bottom, and laid open my leg for about ten inches on a broken bottle. It was pretty cold in there, so my leg was numb and I didn't realize I'd been cut until I got out and someone noticed the blood running down my leg. Not exactly the most antiseptic conditions, so even though it was just a shallow laceration, not even deep enough to need stitches, I got a ride to the emergency room at Socorro General. The nurse cleaned and dressed the wound. Just after she finished, the doctor on call staggered in to inspect the work. This doctor was always at least three thirds drunk; he came in and said everything looked fine and staggered back out. I still have the scar.

Meanwhile the Thursday schedule continued. The majority of the freshmen dug the pit, about twenty-five by forty by six feet deep. The pit site was south of the pool and had been used in previous years, so certain items had been buried there to make the excavation more challenging: several tires strung on a telephone pole, a mattress and box spring, and a whole auto body (I think it was a '49 Studebaker). The S-list squads finished emptying the ponds and started the toothbrush detail work.

Uncooperative freshmen were sent to Kangaroo Court, that landmark of impartial justice. Sick? Have a nice mustard plaster, made with real French's mustard. Tired? Maybe not after you were tied to the chain-link fence of the tennis court while wet sponges were thrown at you. Not singing loud enough? Perhaps if we all held hands with the old hand-crank telephone generator, it would bring back that missing energy. There was something for everybody at Kangaroo Court.

By about four in the morning, the pit was done, but the ordeal was only half over. First we had to go down to the train station to pick up a couple of telephone poles that had been liberally coated with that gray-green stuff that you may find on the boots of people who work in stockyards. We walked down Mines Road and Manzanares, then walked the poles all the way back on our shoulders, loudly singing our squad songs all the way.

We got about half an hour of rest while the sun came up, then it was off to M Mountain for the climbing and whitewashing. If you've never been up there, I recommend it. The view is really impressive, commanding the whole valley. I have the utmost respect for those that first surveyed and constructed that letter; it's about a hundred feet tall, and there's a dandy talus slope just below it. Four steps up, five back.

Friday night was the beer bust. Few freshmen made it that far. In my sophomore year, the beer bust was raided by the state police, even though it was off campus in Escondida. No arrests were made, because all the underage people ran out the back door and went south, while all the people who were legal went north, screaming abuse at the authorities and leading them on a wild goose chase through the snow.

Saturday was the crossing of the pit and the tug-of-war. A greased telephone pole was laid across the pit and each freshman had to cross it and then kiss the Blarney Stone. Some of them would be anointed with ``holy water'' that made Driscoll Pond seem wholesome by comparison. St. Pat and his court were there, chosen from the junior class mainly for their great alchohol capacity.

After all the freshmen had crossed, the tug-of-war got underway, over the water-filled pit (and that water can be cold in March). For some unknown reason, the freshman side not only sloped downhill towards the pit, but it was also a morass of liquid mud. Things were nice and dry and firm on the sophomore side, especially around the rows of trenches where the sophomores could brace their feet. The years I was there, the sophomore end of the rope was also tied to something solid like a six-by-six that would be fairly hard to drag into the pit, just in case. Lest you think this unfair, keep in mind that there are always more freshmen than sophomores. Experienced spectators always ran away just before the climax of the tug-of-war, since it was always followed by the freshman throwing everybody they could catch into the pit.

St. Pat's is no longer celebrated at Tech. It was always basically just an excuse for light hazing and heavy drinking, and from what I hear it got to be a bit too nasty in its later days. When I went through, it was not vicious; humbling, yes, and certainly tiring, but nobody's spirit was broken. Those that went through it got something that seems in short supply nowadays: a sense of belonging, a rite of passage.

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John W. Shipman,
Last updated: 1997/01/25 20:48:47