A beard, a club and a desperate attempt to survive St. Patrick’s Day

by the Night Writer

What’s a little regurgitation on St. Patrick’s Day? Here’s a favorite piece describing the adventures – and misadventures – of my first St. Patrick’s Day in college.

I don’t think there will ever be a St. Patrick’s Day when I don’t think about my first semester of college when I enrolled in the Spring term at the University of Missouri-Rolla campus. UMR is mainly an engineering college but it was close to where I lived at the time and a convenient way for me to knock out some general liberal arts credits before transferring to the main Mizzou campus in Columbia.

St. Patrick’s “Day” was actually a 10-day party at UMR. The campus was about 90% male then, almost all in grueling engineering classes that seemed to require binge drinking in order to cope. The reason St. Pat is such a big deal at UMR is because he is deemed to be the patron saint of engineers for having driven the snakes from Ireland and thereby creating the first worm drive (engineering humor). The rites and festivities of the season were under the auspices of the St. Pat’s Board: upper-classmen (some I think were in their 30s) elected by their fraternities, eating clubs and campus organizations. For most of the year their duties seemed to be based around regular “meetings” marked by drinking and carousing. Come March, however, they were especially prominent in their filthy green coats (part of their semi-secret initiation rites) as they enforced the rules and protocols of the holiday (for those familiar with the St. Paul Winter Carnival – especially in the older days – think green Vulcans).

Part of the tradition was that all freshmen males were to have beards in the week or so leading up to St. Pat’s, and were to carry shillelaghs (an Irish cudgel). Most people think of shillelaghs as being a bit like walking sticks, but at UMR there were specific requirements: the shillelagh had to be at least two-thirds the height of the student and at least one-third his weight, and it had to be cut from a whole tree with at least some of the roots showing. The punishment for being caught beardless by a Board Member (and they usually traveled in packs of two or more) was to have your face painted green. The penalty for being without your shillelagh was to be thrown into Frisco Pond. Frisco Pond was actually the town’s sewage lagoon, but was called Frisco Pond because the St. Pat’s Board of 1927 rerouted the Frisco railroad into the pond after one of their meetings. I’m sure it seemed like a good idea to them at the time.

Fortunately I was able to cultivate my first beard, red and wispy as it was, and I cut myself a suitable cudgel. Carrying books and a shillelagh of the stated dimensions was a challenge, and even more so when certain professors wouldn’t allow them into class, meaning they had to be stacked in the hallways and guarded because Board members liked nothing better than to snatch unattended shillelaghs and then wait for their rightful owners to appear — followed by a honking procession to Frisco Pond. (I did mention the campus was 90% male and fueled by alcohol, right? During St. Pat’s week the campus looked like No Name City from “Paint Your Wagon.”)

The reason we carried cudgels was in case a Board member approached you with a rubber snake and demanded that you “kill” it. This generally meant pounding on the snake with your cudgel until the Board member (not you) got tired. I weighed about 170 then; you do the math as to what my shillelagh weighed, minimum. I was fortunate to go largely unnoticed (as unnoticed as a guy carrying a tree can be) through most of this period. This was especially remarkable given that one of my friends from my hometown was on the Board. Toward the end of the week, however, he came up to me in the dining hall. “Red,” (for my beard) he said, “I think I see a snake.” With chants of “snake! snake! snake!” I was led outside and my “friend” tossed said snake on the ground. It landed, however, in a flower bed. “Freshman! Kill!” was the command. Hoisting my club over my head (and somehow not tipping over backwards) I brought it crashing down onto the hapless rubber creature — and even more hapless plants in the soft earth.

“Hit it again, it’s not dead,” was the order. I looked down once, then again. “Oh, it’s dead, alright,” I said. Actually, it would be more accurate to say, “Missing, presumed dead” because the rubber snake was nowhere to be found in the newly-created crater. Rather than wait around for CSI, or the gardener, the small group repaired to the dining hall to toast the success of the mission and I survived the week, the highlight of which was the St. Pat’s Parade.

In those days the St. Pat’s Board would be out early in the morning with mops and barrels of green paint, painting Pine Street in advance of the parade. High school bands from around the area would march, car dealers would drive demo models with pretty girls in them and various and sundry other parade standards would be present. In particular, however, I remember the Precision Pony Team: a group of students scooting along on empty pony kegs strapped to skateboards with rudimentary heads and yarn tails attached to the kegs. They wove patterns and formations down the street, stopping periodically to lift the tails of their “mounts” and drop handfuls of malted milk balls.

Much like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, the event culminated in St. Pat (not St. Nick) appearing on the route, riding a manure spreader and attended by his Guard. The duties of the Guard were largely to keep St. Pat vertical (he’d probably been drinking for four days straight) and to bring any fetching lasses from the crowd to St. Pat for a good luck kiss. (I did say the campus was 90% male and fueled by alcohol, didn’t I?).

After this particular St. Patrick’s Day all the other ones I’ve experienced have just kind of faded from my memory.

Note: the annual UMR St. Pat’s parade and related festivities still go on, but in a much more muted manner. A couple of alchohol-poisoning deaths were a factor (sad and true) to be sure, but I also think it was because some of those Board members finally graduated.

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