Keeping Traditions in Perspective
by John Grace PC'83
The Bengal Lancers take pride in traditions…which is ironic, since Trinity has always been known as a school without traditions. But that is not really true, is it? Whenever you mention Trinity’s lack of traditions, Trinity students and alumni will start listing off Trinity’s traditions. For a school with “no traditions,” Trinity has a lot of them.
The Start of a Tradition
One of those traditions is the birthday dunk in the Miller Fountain. Almost everyone who has ever attended Trinity has been dunked in the fountain. It’s a tradition that goes back … forever … right? But…again…that’s not really true, is it?
The Miller Fountain was not constructed until 1966. And it was not where it is now…west of Northrup Hall, in front of the Bell Tower. In fact, the original fountain was not anything like the fountain we have on campus today. It was much smaller...it had pipes and nozzles all over it…it had lights and wiring submerged in the water...and the water was unchlorinated City tap water, full of bugs and germs and leaves and algae. It was a nasty thing to be dumped in the fountain. You risked being impaled on the pipes and nozzles. You risked being electrocuted by the wiring. And you risked catching some foul disease from the nasty water. And you risked damaging the fountain, which was never intended to be used as a swimming pool.
But every year, you got tossed in the fountain…and it became a tradition. In response, the university prohibited being thrown in the fountain. If you got caught throwing someone in…or even being the person being thrown in…you faced University discipline. It was just too dangerous. Even if everyone participating was in on it.
And the tradition lived on. And everyone agreed that if the Miller Fountain and the Birthday Dunk Tradition went away, Trinity would be a poorer place.
But Traditions Do Change
In 2004, when the University demolished Northrup Hall and reconfigured the entrance to the campus off Stadium Drive, the Miller Fountain was moved to its current location in front of the Murchison Tower. And when it was moved, it was re-imagined. The plumbing and lighting were concealed under the cement. The bowl was enlarged and deepened. Filtration and chlorination were added, to keep the water clean. The only thing that was really salvaged from the original fountain was the “wedding cake” structure in the center…and it was reinforced and strengthened. And the prohibition against getting in the water was quietly repealed. The fountain is new, but the tradition lives on. And everyone believes that nothing has changed.
Being dunked in the fountain on your birthday … or on Bid Day … still serves the same purpose of bringing people together in a shared experience. But now, after the reconfiguration of the fountain, it is safer. And more fun. Instead of being a clandestine ritual, it is now part of the official Trinity Experience. And if it went away, the University would be worse for its loss. And everyone…from students to faculty to the Administration … would argue that it needs to remain. It is even part of Trinity’s marketing. It is open and recognized and celebrated.
So what does any of this have to do with the Bengal Lancers and our club’s traditions?
The Evolution of a Lancer Tradition
Let’s look at a couple of long-gone traditions as examples from the early days of the Bengal Lancers. From at least the ’40s, the annual climax of freshman orientation was Flag Night. When the Lancers were still a freshman club for men, and the Triniteers were the Lancers’ upper-class counterpart, the two clubs organized an all-night, campus-wide game of “Capture the Flag.” On Flag Night, the freshmen, lead by the Lancers, spent the night trying to hang their flag somewhere on campus. The upperclassmen, lead by the Triniteers, spent the night trying to take down any flags hoisted by the freshmen. The freshmen went hands on to keep the upperclassmen away from their flags. If the upperclassmen managed to catch a freshman, he was stuffed into the trunk of a car and driven out into the countryside, to walk back home. It was rowdy and rough. Injuries were commonplace. Getting hurt was all “part of the fun.” To quote a 1949 Trinitonian article, “Several fish were tied and chained, but too late. One, despite being tied, laid out two tacklemen with such force that we both couldn’t breathe. We sat for a minute, fish and upperclassman, tired, struggling to breathe, while wrestling matches took place around and on top of us.”
Meanwhile, the Lancerettes (precursor to XBE) and SPURS organized the women of their respective classes. They served coffee and donuts to the guys. The women also took responsibility for tending to the wounded. Despite the risks, the university tolerated the game, because it served to unite the upper and lower classes, strengthening school spirit and camaraderie.
Some time in the early ’60s the tradition transformed into Flag Day, a much tamer version, intended to fend off sleep deprivation and reduce injuries. As times changed, and Trinity matured, the tradition was finally deemed too dangerous.
Some aspects of Flag Night percolated into the traditions of the four original clubs during their evolution into full-fledged, four year fraternities and sororities. For example, I remember “walking” actives when I was a pledge in the early 80s. By then, of course, there were “rules.” Actives could only be “walked” in pairs. They were entitled to a six-pack (of their choosing) and money to call a Chi Beta for a ride home. The “Rules” were there to preserve the tradition while making it a tad bit safer. The tradition helped unite the pledges, and the actives shared an opportunity to strengthen and temper the bonds of their fellowship, as they walked to the nearest pay phone. Nevertheless, as “pledging” became “orientation” and the time period for orientation dropped from eight weeks, to six weeks, and then to two weeks, the tradition of pledges “walking” actives disappeared.
Traditions Are A Purpose, Not An Activity
My point…and I do have one…is that what we think of as Lancer traditions have changed and evolved over the decades, even as the core values of our club have remained the same. Things that a Lancer from the 1950s experienced would be unrecognizable to a Lancer from my era. Likewise, what me and my pledge brothers enjoyed would be foreign to the guys who became new members this year. The goal of all of these traditions is to challenge a new active, allowing him to experience personal growth, while developing a life-long bond, both within his class and within the club as a whole.
The challenge for all of us, as our fraternity nears a century of brotherhood, is to preserve the purpose and intent of our traditions while making them safer and more acceptable. Metaphorically, we need to be supportive of the next generation continuing to find the spirit and intention of a “dunk in the fountain” while reducing any associated risk.