The term frat boy has a universally negative connotation. To most people it conjures images of the college-age George W. Bush portrayed by the media when he was running for office—and maybe the reputation is deserved; I have no idea. That’s not the point of my comment. The point is that such images produce a bum rap for fraternities. Fraternities while, associated with drunkenness, bad behavior, and a frivolous approach to life, can serve a very noble purpose for men.
I experienced fraternity life not in college, but in the United States Coast Guard. As I recall, during the nine weeks of hell known as basic training, my most vivid memory was the sense of brotherhood and camaraderie I experienced. The regimen of physical training, nautical education, and military protocol coaching, while much less stringent than the other branches of the armed forces, galvanized strong bonds with former strangers.
One training exercise that comes to mind was the swimming regimen. On week two, we embarked on two days of testing, training, and exercise in an Olympic size pool complete with a 25 foot diving platform. We were all initially asked to swim several laps while observers graded our performance. They then divided us into three groups: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. I, of course, made the intermediate team because it’s the hallmark of my brief existence here on Earth thus far. Intermediate is a synonym for mediocre, which pretty much sums up my life.
Then the observers donned their training mantle and gave us our instructions. One of the instructors dispatched Team Beginner to the shallow end of the pool and announced free-time. He then turned to us, Team Good Enough, ordered us into the deep end of the pool and instructed us in the art of drown proofing. This technique essentially requires you to impersonate fishing bobbers, taking a breath, submerging, and then resurfacing. Rinse, wash, repeat. ”Now you boys practice that until I tell you to quit.”
We all did as we were instructed and he moved onto Team Star, instructing them about something I couldn’t quite decipher as I bobbed up and down with my teammates in the water. He returned 15 minutes later and barked “Recruits: out of the water. MOVE!” Next, he ordered us to sit, which made me feel a little bit like a Labrador Retriever. I then watched as he ordered the individuals of the advanced team up the ladder of the diving platform. One by one they walked to the edge of the platform, crossed their arms with hands on shoulders, and stepped off for a vertical freefall into the drink.
“What are they doing?” I asked the guy next to me. “They’re practicing abandon ship.” I was suddenly struck by the disparity in the training. The losers get free-time, the also-rans practice drown-proofing, and the winners are trained to abandon ship. “Why aren’t we all practicing abandon ship?” I naively inquired. “Because in the event that a ship goes down, those guys are the only ones who are going to survive.”
Now that doesn’t initially sound like a bonding exercise that would promote camaraderie—but then something interesting happened. One of the guys froze. He was JROTC in high school, knew a myriad of cadence calls, and seemed to possess a natural sense of military bearing. But it seemed he had trouble with stressful situations—and this particular situation definitely qualified. 25 feet might not sound like much, but give it a try. If you’re even slightly acrophobic, you might as well be standing atop the Chrysler Building. But the important thing is that after a few seconds we were all pulling for him.
We began shouting words of encouragement—but to no avail. Then one of the braver members of the advanced team quickly scaled the ladder and hopped up onto the platform. “Dave! Get it together man. It’s just one step and you’re home free. Come on Dave; take the step.” Gradually a cheer spontaneously erupted. “One step! One step! One step!”
Now as I write that it sounds a bit hokie to me—but remember—we were functionally just a bunch of frat guys. The fraternity being Bravo Company of the United States Coast Guard Basic Training Battalion, Alameda, CA. In our brief time in boot camp so far, we had already learned to rally around distressed individuals who were part of the fraternity for the good of the collective. Sure enough, Dave took the plunge after only a few seconds of encouragement as cheers erupted from below. For me, a kid from a small Texas town away from home for the first time, it was a quite a moment.
Fast forward to last Saturday. Several former co-workers wanted me and my two friends Jeff and Tom to introduce them to pistol shooting. Very well. I sent them an invitation to report to my house at precisely 1030 hours Saturday morning for a weapons briefing, after which we would head over to Red’s Indoor Range right here in Pflugerville.
On queue at 1025 Jeff and Tom arrived to unload their hardware on my kitchen island. Five minutes later two of our students, Curt and Adi, promptly arrived and filed into the kitchen. Another five minutes and the last of the newbies, Nick, arrived and we began the briefing.
You could have heard a pin drop as we introduced them to the world of self defense weapons that Jeff, Tom, and I almost take for granted. Laser-focused, they stood riveted by every word of the safety protocol lecture, technical analysis, and weapons operation demonstration. 45 minutes later we were satisfied that they were ready to step up to the firing line and off we headed to Red’s.
As we entered the range, our students seemed surprisingly at ease, despite the noise of discharging weapons and frigid air from the ventilation system that was delivered directly from outside. For the next 90 minutes the guys went from station to station trying handguns: 9mm, .45, .38 special, and even a big-ass .357 Magnum—that last one being a big hit with the guys. As we were nearing the end of our outing the guy in the bay next to mine tapped me on the shoulder.
“New shooters?” he shouted.
“Yes sir.” I yelled back.
“I’ve got a Sig Sauer .40 cal if they’re interested.”
“Hell yeah.” I offered up enthusiastically.
I happened to glance over at the ambassador’s girlfriend who suddenly broke into a knowing smile as if to say, “They’ve got the bug.” Sated, we then headed over to our sports bar of choice, Twin Peaks, a few miles to the North.
We were immediately seated and we placed our drink orders before catching up on the last 10 years. A few minutes later our drinks arrived and Curt, having the demeanor of something akin to a frat boy raised his beer glass and offered a toast: “To one more kick-ass time with a great bunch of guys.”
My friends thus inducted into our fraternity, a sense of satisfaction swept over my psyche.
Here’s to the Fraternal Order of Middle Aged Armed Guys. Be polite to us. We may not rule the world, but we are in charge of our little corner of it.