This summer marks not only the completion of Phase I of the Edgemoor renovation project, but the twentieth anniversary of the refurbishment of the stone front patio, and thus the twentieth anniversary of the Deliverance of The Tree.
The last attempt to refurbish the front porch had been made in 1966, when Dave Shannon '69 happened upon construction work at the Straight. He negotiated for the old flagstones, rented a truck to haul them down, and then spent the next few weeks laying them in place with ample quantities of ready-mix concrete and late adolescent hubris. It was excellent for demonstrating Lambda Chi can-do spirit, but grew even more excellent at accumulating and clinging to ice as the decades progressed, and finally the city ordered its replacement in 1994.
The alumni would need to move swiftly. Unless the patio and staircase were redone by the end of the next summer, we would lose our hard-earned Certificate of Occupancy. The matter had to be first order of new business at the Homecoming meeting. The minutes note that at the duly appointed time, Brother Barney moved to approve funds for the reconstruction of the patio in flagstone. And then,
"The motion was tabled until the Spring meeting."
At issue, as ever, were the tenuous finances of the house corporation. There was much hand-wringing over our mounting expenses; over $1 million in house improvements was needed overall, while the last capital campaign had brought in $75,000. Costs needed to be kept to a minimum. Perhaps the stone stoop could be replaced with a railroad tie terrace, or Portland cement porch. The stairs could be redone in concrete— though the possibility of simply roping them off and sternly instructing the undergraduates not to use it was seriously mooted.
But there was another option, and that was to use the Folgerman funds. That was not what we called it, but that was what it was: money from a system Folgerman had developed as High Tau, after a couple years of severe budgetary crises, for generating surpluses and squirreling them into reserves—namely, overcharging brothers at the start of the semester, then refunding the overage later. He was succeeded in the office by Bus, the kind of treasurer who charged daily interest on late house bills, which is to say, a good treasurer. The fund grew. And in 1995, with Bort and Gomer in the executive chairs, there was no doubt that the reserve would be a slush fund— that is, a fund used to address the slush problem on the front patio.
Trout was enraged that the money had been hidden. Most everyone else was pleased. The contractor was hired. Hamster demolished the old porch in about forty-five minutes with howl and hammer. By the end of summer, we would have a new patio and stairs, and in attractive native stone.
But first there was the matter of The Tree.
The tree had no significance in chapter lore; it did not and had never had a name. It occupied a spot to the house's northwest, where it provided no useful shade, yet from this perch did release hundreds of quadramini of leaves to rake every autumn. It did not date from construction; there are no trees in the west lawn in the 1921 photo. Rather, it came with later work which added fill dirt to the front yard and allowed for the stone porch. Its counterpart on the east lawn remains much grander in the photo from 1938.
What it was now, was in the way. To finish the patio job before the end of summer, the contractor wanted every square foot of space for room to cut slabs and stack supplies. It was reasoned that the work would end up damaging the roots, and the tree would probably not survive the trauma anyway. For safety's sake, it should really be removed. The contractor, the alumni, the undergraduate leadership were in agreement.
Olney, however, was not.
Initiation, for those being initiated, is a symphony of hurry-up-and-wait, each movement allegro con fuoco followed by a smorzando that you learn, aprés la performance, was actually an extended intermission during which the brothers had decamped to Shortstop Deli.
The wait after a silent supper is particularly endless, as the candidates wait awkwardly shivering in the bar. There are smirks after someone makes the hundredth joke about sheep in as many minutes, then remorseful silence after a sharp rebuke that no levity or conduct not in strict keeping with the spirit of gravity of the rites of the Fraternity will be countenanced by Brother High Phi.
Naturally, the conversation turns to the unintended consequences of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the proper role of government in human societies—at least, it does if Olney and Choster are in your A.M. class. Unit described himself a "green libertarian," an advocate for free markets but above that an advocate for the natural environment. Bennetttttt was bemused. Brianno was amused. Here was a Dr. Seuss character from Michigan. I am Unit, and I speak for the trees.
Certain trees more than others. In one of his more famous stunts, alongside his habanero pepper-eating contest and weekly death metal jam sessions with the Helminator, Olney famously climbed over the fence behind the house to tap the maple trees. And then, in a move less green libertarian than green-eyed corporate capitalist, socialized the production costs while privatizing the profits, boiling it down for hours in the house kitchen using the house stove and house gas to make homemade maple syrup for personal consumption. His brother Jolney would continue this tradition through the end of the century.
But Unit did speak out for this one tree in particular. He was appalled and infuriated when he learned the tree in the front yard would be chainsawed in advance of the reconstruction of the front porch. But by then it was already after formal, well into finals. The brothers left in town were preoccupied with exams, and graduation, and the Zero Days Party, and satisfied to accept its disposition as fated by the powers that be.
The powers that be, be'd formidable. Chris brought up his concerns first with Gomer, not an Alpha who entertained dissenting opinion, and one not above strongly implying that he would use physical force to get his way. He was planning a career as a nuclear engineer in the Navy, and had no patience for hippie nonsense. But after persistent lobbying, he decided he had even less patience for arguing against hippie nonsense. If Olney could convince everyone else, he wouldn't stand in the way.
Next, and trickier, was Art. Art was a landscape architecture student, and concurred with the contractor's conclusions on the future of the tree. But he did not stand on this. Every A.M. knows never to trust a brother in anything related to his major. Never elect a Hotelie as steward. Never enlist a government major to write a bylaws amendment. And never, ever let a double-E try to fix the switch for your ceiling fan, unless a CPR-certified non-premed is standing nearby.
But Art was the elder statesman of the house, BLA being a five-year program. After a successful turn as Delta, he had withdrawn from house politics to spend the days watching Sally Jesse Raphael in Paus M with his improbably living childhood dog, Stitches. He had opinions about everything, but shared them sparingly, which served only to elevate his aura. Contemporaries may recall that earlier that spring, the house had been bogged down in an unusually vexed debate over a rushee, with all the usual opinionated voices voicing opinions in loopily predictable loops. It had dragged on for weeks. Then to everyone's surprise one Delta meeting, Art took the conch. "He's not for us. We're not that kind of house." Then Art sat.
Motion to bid defeated. Motion to reconsider defeated.
Art was an enemy of sentimentality, of feel-goodery, and of French toilet hygienic practice. The last of these led to the famous incident involving Clorox bleach cleaner, a Snapple bottle, and an evacuation route, whose story we must leave for another time, but after which this totally not-evil grin became a permanent fixture on Art's face:
The yard, he explained, was soon to be filled with heavy machinery, huge slabs of stone, and construction workers. On the house side, half the tree's roots would be snapped through, or crushed as the old staircase was removed and the new one slowly put in. The tree was marginal to begin with, and if not killed outright, would be weakened, and susceptible to disease and insects. Unless Olney intended to water the tree every single day, there was no point to try to preserve it.
But here was something. Olney went to the new alumni president, explained the situation, and pled his case. Long-distance! Prezzy called the contractor to discuss. It was 1995; faxes may have been exchanged. The execution was stayed. The health of the tree would be monitored closely, and it would be taken down if found to be unsound in any way, which was likely. It would need a lot of attention over the summer, and summer was a time when brothers were not in the habit of caring about too much of anything.
Top stories from the summer of 1995: The Anthony Wedding. Renc gets a job at Dunkin Donuts; said Dunkin' is robbed; said brother gives notice. Saus, in the ultimate Ivy League fraternity old boy network meets underemployed Gen-Xer diminished expectations, uses the ''Omicron Oracle'' to get a job as a line cook, and drives to San Diego to start a new life on the aproned side of an alum’s catering company. Too much turkey is eaten at Lloyd's. It is determined that skinny dipping in Six Mile Creek is pointless after dark. Ms. Pacman breaks. Choster, fighting with his parents, refuses to take their calls all summer, prompting them to fly out from California. Churchill cannot find his Jergens. Sex is had with Alpha Phis.
The one that everyone forgets is that Olney, having lobbied to save the tree against the great and the good of the chapter, and having made the workers promise to be careful around it, would go downstairs every morning for the entire summer, without telling anyone, and water it. It was the best he'd ever treated a maple tree.
His birthday falls the Monday after Homecoming. So after Homecoming, when we've returned from admiring the new house, be sure to tell him happy birthday. And thanks for the tree.