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Show Us Your Brand, Governor Bush!

Readers of Doonesbury learned not long ago that George W. Bush probably bears on his buttocks the brand of his Yale fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon. At the very least he must have presided while others were branded, since he was president of the chapter.

Now that Mr. Bush is seeking another presidency, one question ought to be on every voter’s mind: What happens when you ram a red-hot iron into human flesh anyway?

Not many people know, but I am among them. George W. Bush still belongs (“Once a Deke, always a Deke,” is how we put it in the brotherhood) to the Yale chapter of DKE. I belong to the chapter at Middlebury College. In the mud season of 1955, I was a senior there.

Mud season in Vermont is when winter hasn’t gone out yet and spring hasn’t come in yet. There’s not a damned thing to do but kick the dog or whip your son or rape your daughter or beat your wife, or just shoot yourself and all of the above to death, and the final hell with everything.

Well, you could get branded, too.

Before World War II branding had apparently been the custom in the Alpha Alpha chapter of Delta Kappa Epsilon. When the veterans came back it became no longer the custom. They had seen enough of that sort of thing.

But in those olden days the real brother of one of our fraternity brothers had served as Brother Brand--the one who actually carried out the job. I’ll call the younger brother Sammy, and will similarly change the names of the other brothers involved, on the slim chance that they may look back on their youthful selves without fondness.

Sammy argued that great increases in self-esteem and tribal solidarity were to be gained through third degree burns, a proposition that seemed plausible to perhaps half of the brethren. To the rest of us, it seemed nuts.

In our gentle fashion, we suggested that Sammy ought to get his brand not on the haunch, where Middlebury’s football coach had his, but on the forehead so that his Dekedom might shine before men. Or if this seemed overly boastful Sammy might elect a location allowing for more private contemplation, such as the inside of his eyelids. And thus, at increasingly inventive length, did we youngsters while away the lazy hours of college.

Nonetheless meetings were held on the absurd idea. Sammy’s elder brother, Brother Brand, came by to explain it and to address the health concerns raised by certain Nervous Nellies among us. In his day only a few wounds had ever turned septic, he told us soothingly, and those were “guys who got infected from every little thing anyway.” This sounded encouraging, and the date was set.

The ceremony was in the secret room on the third floor, where even the windowpanes were painted black. Human bones hung on the walls, along with mottoes or passwords or something, in a language that was Greek to us. Delta Kappa Epsilon was not about scholarship.

The furniture was old chairs, trunks and footlockers in storage, and a council table. On the table was Sammy, with four football players holding down his arms and legs in case the human canvas should flinch and spoil Brother Brand’s artistry.

Our new Brother Brand was a hockey player named Ollie. His assignment was to brand each volunteer three times, once for each letter. Sammy’s older brother had explained to us that a single branding iron with all three letters wouldn’t work, as some of the fellows might prefer to be marked on curved parts of the body. Consequently Ollie’s assistant was juggling three brands at once in the flame of a blow torch that hissed and stank.

Everyone in the room intended to get branded except for myself and a classmate called Pooh Bear. Pooh and I climbed on a trunk, from which we could stare down on a Thomas Eakins tableau--grave men of science bent over their immobilized patient, disputing whether the instruments should be sterilized red-hot or white-hot. Meanwhile Sammy waited, spread-eagled under a lamp suspended from the ceiling. In late winter, his torso was the milky color of a Japanese beetle grub.

Ollie had argued for white-hot, and once the irons reached that stage he ran out of excuses for delay. He plucked the brand from the fire (how often do you get the chance to use those words in their literal sense?), took a deep breath, and then struck while the iron was hot (or these words either?). To Ollie’s credit, his hand shook. Only one corner of the triangular brand actually made contact, searing a small caret rather than a proper delta above Sammy’s heart.

“Oh, shit,” Ollie said. “Sorry.”

“Hang in there, Ollie,” Sammy said, stoic as an Iroquois brave.

By the time Brother Brand was done, Sammy’s white flesh bore a partial and a complete delta, followed by a passable kappa and epsilon.

Next up was Will, a distance runner displaying less body fat than a flayed whippet. He wanted the brand on his shoulder. Ollie’s hand was still shaky, and he had to redo the first two letters. Will’s negligible anterior deltoid offering only a limited area for text entry, the last letter wound up in his armpit.

And on it went, as smoke rose from youth after callow youth and the smell, familiar to any barbecue chef, became overpowering. Only an involuntary flinch or two showed that the process might be anything more than mildly bracing.*

In the days that followed, the branded brothers talked very little about their experience, at least to the nonbranded. This may have been because the results were almost uniformly unsatisfactory--illegible smudges of scar tissue. Or perhaps, and this is the explanation I prefer, regret and even shame had set in.

Have second thoughts of this sort ever occurred to the compassionate conservative from Texas?

This strikes me as a perfectly legitimate avenue of questioning for the press to pursue. Were you branded yourself, Governor, and if so, where, and can we take pictures? George Schultz had a Princeton tiger tattooed on his buttocks, Governor Bush. What’s your opinion of that? What’s your position on tattoos generally? Is tribal disfigurement a Republican thing, Mr. Governor, or just an Ivy League thing? What do you think about all those wannabes in the NBA?

Where do you stand on piercing? How about nipple rings? Governor, governor! Over here! If elected, will you support assisted suicide? Where should society draw the line between self-murder and self-mutilation? Between second and third degree burns? Between George and Gracie?

Fair questions, all of them, and relevant, too. I don’t care a bit about whether Mr. Bush snorted cocaine during his unusually protracted adolescence. I doubt if Mr. Clinton had the nerve to inhale, but I hope he did. I know Mr. Gore did, and so what? Boys will be boys.

But hey, George--mind if I call you George, Brother Bush?--if you’re branded, enquiring minds want to know.

May, 2000

*The brandees were too cowardly to show pain, a phenomenon later to be explored at length in G. Gordon Liddy’s autobiography,Will.


Copyright © 2004 by Jerome Doolittle