Floundering at Twenty Without a Rudder

Duke Chapel with courtyard

Sophomore year at Duke found me pledging Beta Theta Pi fraternity after my roommate and a few Betas convinced me it would enhance my social life. Switching from the pre-ministerial program to pre-medicine, I was faced with two demanding courses Zoology and an advanced Chemistry course: Qualitative Analysis. The Zoology textbook contained fascinating details about the development of animals and insects with an enormous scientific vocabulary. There was a two hour lecture in the science auditorium and lab experiments that explored genetics, evolution, and animal dissection for three hours each week.

Qualitative Analysis emphasized lab work, with a one-hour a week lecture and classroom problem solving. My fraternity brothers told me not to worry about this course because they had all the laboratory exams for past years even though each year’s questions were uniquely different. Assuming a minimum of study was required there I focused on my other courses and frat pledging.

World History from World War I to II had a professor who arrived in tweed coat and tie and lectured from memory until the bell rang. He rattled off historical facts as if they had just occurred regarding philosophers, artists, authors, poets, musicians, architectural designers, military leaders, social movements, and connected the consequences of each to the past, present, and possible future. I had never encountered a more informed man. In each of his two classes a week my notes accumulated to more than a hundred pages. Assigning about fifty pages of the text a week, a research paper of 1500 words, he also suggested much outside reading.


Weight-lifting during the summer had strengthened my shoulders, arms, and frame adding thirty pounds of muscle. However, missing the two-a-day practices in August while in Europe made me change my mind on joining varsity football when I thought how the other players might view me as a late comer. Winter varsity baseball interested me far more. My added strength improved my hitting, especially to the opposite field. I was able to drive an outside pitch over the right fielder’s head and occasionally over the fence. The varsity coach mentioned my name in the college newspaper as one of his best prospects who would probably start on the varsity.


As quarterback for the Beta flag football intramural team, my play helped us earn the respect of other fraternities and challenged the view that Beta only housed weak-minded party boys. Nevertheless, other fraternity pledges visited our dorm and routinely sang, “Let’s all go down and piss on the Beta House.”

The Beta pledge master, an ex-marine, towered over us at 6’5” and his drill-sergeant mentality was intimidating. Of the many tedious pledge tasks, at least some were humorous. Required to carry a five-gallon jar under each arm to class during hell week and collect gum under the tables in one jar, and cigarette ashes in the other, I looked ridiculous when emptying ashes and gum into awkward jars.

Duke Chapel 1958

Performing a ballet dance on Sunday morning in front of the Duke Chapel was timed by the Betas so my performance began as the crowd of dignitaries, faculty, students, and guests departed from the Church service. A Duke dance major gave me advice, lent me her pink tutu, and showed me how to spin, leap, and move as gracefully as I could. We choreographed a series of movements involving running to a spot, tossing a spiraling football high in the air, and leaping so the ball would land close enough for me to catch. Twirling in a circle, spinning the ball underhanded, and moving gracefully while smiling, the routine had a comical effect: I looked like a clown.

When the crowd gathered, frat brothers directed them to my outlandish spectacle. Tossing a football in the air, catching it, doing ballet moves, twisting and turning, rolling in the grass, jumping up with the ball, and then starting over, attracted many gawkers with nothing better to do. Although laughing through the routine and trying to make it humorous, the stint humiliated me and made me look foolish. Finally, after the chore ended, I dutifully curtsied, and the gathering responded with a loud ovation.

Duke University Campus 1958

Another duty was to procure a photograph of me with a nude woman. Not knowing anyone at Duke who could fulfill this task, I went to a clothing store and asked a salesperson if I could put a mannequin next to me on a bed for a pledge assignment. He laughingly agreed. Quickly removing the clothes from one, putting a coat over her shoulders to hide the fact she had no arms, I reclined next to her in a bed for the photo. Later, my secret was disclosed as some impetuous brothers demanded her name.

Nude Female Mannequin

They also required me to enter a movie theater in Durham with a large fish in each hand during a kissing scene of a movie and yell, “Fresh fish for sale.”

“Go ahead and make an idiot of yourself, but do it quickly, and leave,” the manager laughed and said when he heard what I had to do. The audience responded with a rousing roll of cackling after my announcement when the Rock Hudson kissed Doris Day in “Pillow Talk”. Bowing with two smelly sturgeons from a seafood store tucked under my arms, I dashed out and gave the fish to the ticket-taker for his help.

Pillow Talk KissPillow talk poster

Required to paint the testicles of a reindeer statue in front of the Durham Police Station bright red, I feared that prank might get me arrested for the crime of malicious mischief. Why would the brothers require me to take such a risk? Was becoming a Beta that important? Why not say, “I won’t expose myself to a crime for anybody.” After considering quitting, I rejected dropping out from peer pressure and decided to show them risk-taking didn’t bother me. My past was full of danger. Waiting until 3:00 AM, I crawled on my belly under the reindeer, opened a can of red paint, brushed it on hanging stone balls, scurried silently to my feet, and disappeared into darkness.

Reindeer statue Bronze

The final hazing incident occurred on Hell night. Our pledge master ordered all twelve of us to the darkness of a parking lot at night. He placed a steel bucket upside down, and poured undiluted tincture of wintergreen, extremely painful to the touch, on the top. There was a quarter of an inch of the furiously spicy fluid to sit on. Carefully placing a tiny green pimento-filled olive in the center of the mixture, he ordered: “Get in line, strip naked, bend down, crouch over the bucket, and pick up the olive with your sphincter muscle. Remove the olive from the bucket and drop it in the garbage can.” This allowed the irritating oil to inflame our entire underside. Each compliant pledge jumped up, and screamed from the pain as the offending liquid hit its intended target. Many dropped the olive and had to repeat the procedure. Once any pledge successfully finished the process, he hopped like a rabbit, and yelped like a wounded dog. As each naked pledge lowered his butt towards the olive, our pledge master watched from his chair next to the bucket to ensure the pledge grasped the green grape-sized olive. The voyeur smiled as each of us struggled with his torture. When we were finished, I walked back to my dorm and wondered what ever drove me to allow myself to waste so much time pledging a fraternity, despite some intelligent brothers and parties that we would soon enjoy in the future. But pledging left me disillusioned and disappointed that I wasn’t more deeply involved in academics.

Pledging included memorizing an enormous amount of Beta materials, attending pledge meetings, appearing at all Beta functions, meetings, parties, dances, washing cars, cleaning rooms, making beds. These tasks interfered with my academics and forced me to neglect an advanced Chemistry course, Qualitative Analysis, that I should have taken more seriously. Not leaving enough time to study the concepts, I had temporarily put off studying the course in depth thinking the frat file cabinet would help me. It was another dismal distraction I never used and tried to learn the principles, formulas, and solutions to difficult problems in the few weeks left before the end of the semester.

When final exams approached, the grim dilemma burgeoning became reality. Using what little money I had for a tutor for the last two weeks of classes was far too late. The teacher’s strong southern accent mangled the English language, and was difficult to understand. Despite knowing how to solve the problems, he could not teach me the subject. I didn’t understand how to solve the assigned problems, worried about the final exam approaching like a two-hundred and twenty-pound linebacker, and floundered aimlessly with each practice problem. Two students joined me for tutoring. Each paid him, so he soaked us for three times what he normally charged. He refused to take us individually. After attending ten sessions where he solved a problem from the text, quickly set up the correct solution, and reached the answer without explaining how he calculated it, my fate was sealed. None of these excuses justified neglecting my studies I lamented.

Entering the final exam with a C minus, when I looked at the exam, the questions confused me. They were worded differently from what I had studied. Trying to set up each solution by listing the formulas, I hoped to at least receive partial credit that might help me pass. When my grade appeared in the mail, I could not believe it. For the first time in my life, I had received an “F.” Feeling horrible and humiliated, I recalled my father saying, “You’re wasting my money by not taking the NROTC scholarship,” and my faith in myself eroded. How could I call home and announce my abject failure?

The Chairman of the Chemistry was supposed to arbitrate appeals of final exam disputes. I appealed seeking partial credit on some problems. The Chairman informed me, “Your meeting is scheduled for 8:00 AM Monday.”Arriving before the appointed time having hurried across the campus to the place for the meeting a mile from my dorm, I waited until 8:00A.M., and knocked on his door when the hour arrived. No one responded. After knocking every five minutes thereafter, at 8:30 AM, a fat man waddled out of the door, a large leather brief case in hand. He glanced at me.

“My name is Dan Lavery. I’m here for the 8:00 AM appointment.”

“I know who you are, Mr. Lavery. You are an F student and always will be.”

With mouth open, unable to defend myself, shaken from his blunt dismissal of me, I watched as he left me there having winnowed the chaff and dropped me from his ivory tower. What a fool I had been!

My mind started spinning into utter confusion. How would my father react to my flunking a course after dropping the NROTC scholarship, costing him extra money, and wasting my time with fraternity boys who barely knew me? How many hours, days, months, had I wasted pledging to earn an idiotic fraternity pin? It was absurd. My confidence was on empty. My relationship with Dad had soured from my impulsive decision to switch from NROTC to pre-ministerial studies. Needing to restore that relationship, I realized Dad had wanted me to succeed and genuinely believed the Naval Academy would fulfill any young man’s dream with a superior education, discipline, and a professional future in the Navy.

But, my academic strength was in literature; and the professors in the English Department truly inspired me. What kind of a future would await me if I graduated with a major in English? Teaching? Too immature, I couldn’t visualize opportunities for English majors that would interest me, even from a prestigious university like Duke. While walking to my dorm, the Deans’ words entered my mind: “You were lucky to get into Duke. You are a borderline student. Maybe you should sign up for the Marines.”

Maybe I should seek a military career; try to get into Annapolis where a different kind of fraternity existed, serve my country, and work with others on a large dedicated team. Both my brother and father thrived in that atmosphere. If they could do it, it might be right for me after all. A major change in my plans for the future could turn things around and secure my broken relationship with Dad who would support that decision since he had said, “Some of the midshipman who had previous college experience entered the Academy more mature and performed better for it.” Dad knew from experience because he had attended the University of Chicago before entering Annapolis in 1928.

Richard J. Lavery Jr, Midshipman, USNA, 1928-32

Captain Richard J. Lavery, Jr. USN

When I reached the Beta house, I had already made up my mind. In seconds my suitcase and belongings were packed in the 1949 black Buick Grampa gave me. A brilliant pre-medicine senior frat brother from Maine, Boyd Eaton, tried to change my mind, “You can take the Qualitative Analysis course over in the summer. Don’t cash it all in. You have a bright future here.”

“Duke is a great University and graduating would enhance your life whatever direction you go,” former roommate, Steve Hopkins pleaded.

“I let my father down by flunking a course. He can’t afford the tuition. I’ll study for an appointment to Annapolis as my Dad and brother did,” I said trying to look resolved. They both knew I was devastated. During our friendship, we had discussions about the fraternity, sports, and life. Boyd had visited my home one vacation. Of all the Betas, he impressed me the most. Because of men like him, and Steve, I had thought pledging the fraternity would improve my social skills, introduce me to attractive coeds, and make me more confident. Both made me feel joining Beta would help me have a limitless future. Boyd majored in English and minored in the sciences on his way to medical school. Blind to such possibilities, my disappointment and an impetuous perspective drove me from Duke because of a relatively small failure. Now they believed I had made an irresponsible decision, but knew they couldn’t change my mind or remove my guilt for failing a course and wasting my father’s money. Focused on fulfilling my father’s plan, I did not look to my heart, and left Durham’s dust a few hours after the Chemistry Chairman assaulted me.

Black Buick on road

Driving over the hills and past pine forests of North Carolina, I thought of qualifying for Annapolis before arriving in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Given my recent Chemistry course failure, what made me think I would succeed at an engineering school with intense science courses and military indoctrination? Why had I not dropped the fraternity madness? Wasting valuable time diverted me from finding my path for meaning and purpose at Duke where many flourished. Having lost the confidence that surrounded my past from recent bewilderment, I recalled my pride in my Dad and brother, and wanted to return to that secure mold. Not praying to God, nor listening to my inner voice of truth, the drumbeat of my father’s plan drove me. Anyone could realize their dreams at a university like Duke, but after giving up the ministry, I wandered without a rudder. Soon I would be tested like nothing I had experienced before.

front gate USNA 1960Bancroft Hall Mishipman in Whites parading to mealDan entering RA5C 1965 Judgment RA5C on the groundVietnam USS Oakhill black and white

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2 thoughts on “Floundering at Twenty Without a Rudder

    • Thanks Mike for your comment.This is an excerpt from All the Difference. When you reach that point in my memoir you will recognize it. Glad you enjoyed the floundering experiences when I was twenty and that I survived! Dan

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