Laurelton was home to a collection of unique institutions called “Secret Societies”. They were carry-overs from the prior century and, despite their name, they were far from secret. Their meetings were held on campus, but nobody outside of their memberships knew what happened at their gatherings, or what their true purpose was. In fact, nobody even knew who their members were, which made it impossible to ask questions or to learn much about them.
The most intriguing thing about them was that they all had spooky names. At the top of the list was “Snake and Skull”, followed by “Scroll and Lock” and another called “Gnome and Book”. But what made them especially peculiar were the buildings they occupied, which all looked like mausoleums. They were two-story, stone structures that were conspicuous for their lack of windows. Members would enter and exit through hidden passageways, many of which originated in neighboring cemeteries. To add to their mystique, the buildings were designated as state Historical Landmarks, ensuring they remained unchanged in their appearance in perpetuity.
There were more than a dozen Secret Societies scattered around the campus and there was a hierarchy concerning their level of prestige. Each spring, they recruited members from the junior class, when a dozen or so new students would join each for a life-long commitment. The way that they chose their members was secret. All of them had internal nominating committees, but that didn’t help to understand the process, because no one knew who the committee members were. It was clear that the recruits for the top-tier organizations were chosen according to family pedigree, prestige, wealth, and political connections, but some of those of the lesser-known societies were selected based on their intellectual merits, especially if they excelled in areas of interest that were cutting-edge and that could offer either a selective advantage or notoriety to the Society. Rumors circulated freely about the wealth and status of the society members, and we were often surprised to see well-known politicians and industrialists walking the streets of South Winford when the annual meetings were in session.
The Societies never sponsored any events or issued statements, which kept their missions obscure. In fact, the single most important obligation of a Society member was to never disclose any of their activities. In the case of one top-tier society, it was widely rumored that it owned–through multiple holding companies–the largest land portfolio in the state. And it was also claimed that its membership boasted two living ex-presidents and eight sitting governors. Whether there was any truth to this was pure conjecture. Laurelton undergraduates speculated about the Societies’ true motives and operations continually, but nothing was actually known to anyone outside of the organizations themselves.
Aside from these many oddities, the Societies were analogous to fraternities. The difference was that they were much more powerful and had a much wider scope of influence. And for the students at Laurelton, that was part of their allure.
The recruitment of new members occurred at the same time each year, on the first Thursday in March. It was referred to as “Tap Day”. Not surprisingly, the process was secret. There were many reasons for this, but one obvious one was that there was competition among the different societies for many of the same recruits. Because of this, a format for the selection process was established a century before. A team of two members from the Society would approach a potential candidate from behind–usually when alone and in an obscure location–and tap him twice on the right shoulder. When the recruit turned, one member would announce the name of the Society followed by a standard three-word phrase: “Accept or reject”. The recruit would then either accept–in which case he would be whisked away to an undisclosed location for initiation–or reject, in which case the Society members would withdraw, never to be seen again. Despite the advantages that membership was said to confer, some students regarded the Societies as too elitist and were dead set against them; in fact, rumor had it that the university’s current President had been tapped by “Snake and Skull” when he was an undergraduate, but rejected the offer for just such a reason.
The strongest candidates for the Societies had a dilemma: If they rejected an offer from a lower-tier Society that approached them early because they expected to be tapped by a more prestigious one later, there was no guarantee that such an opportunity would arise. And because the “accept or reject” framework offered no second-guessing of membership decisions, there was pressure to accept the first offer that was made.
So, “Tap Day” progressed predictably. The lesser-tier Societies sent out emissaries early in the day to snap up recruits, hoping that the uncertainty surrounding the process would induce high-level candidates to feel insecure enough about their fortunes that they would accept their offer. It was different for the top-tier Societies. They would wait until the evening to send out their envoys, having the pick of the best qualified and most confident recruits who rejected other offers.
Not surprisingly, Richard was convinced that he was a candidate for one of the elite Societies. Which one would solicit him, he could only guess, or at least he wouldn’t say in public. But according to all his behaviors, he was confident he would be selected as a member.
In mid-March, Richard came to my room to chat. After a succession of mundane musings about the size of the gymnasium across the street and the weather, he changed the subject.
“You know what’s coming up,” he said in a conspiratorial tone.
I wasn’t sure what he was referring to.
“No,” I answered. “What?”
“It will be ‘Tap Day’ in a couple of weeks,” he replied.
“Oh,” I offered unenthusiastically.
“Well, have you thought about it yet?” he asked. “I mean about which to accept.”
“No,” I answered. “As far as I’m concerned, they’re a bunch of creepy, elitist clubs that have outlived their usefulness. Maybe they had a role in the past, but they don’t anymore.”
Richard raised his eyebrows in disbelief.
“Do you know who some of their members are?” he asked, baitingly. “I don’t think you’d say that if you did.”
“Yeah,” I answered with pestered annoyance. “Presidents, governors, ambassadors, industrialists, congressmen, etc. I’ve heard all the same rumors you have.”
“Well, I have it on good authority that they’re true,” he said challengingly.
“Really? On whose authority?” I asked.
“I’m sorry, Josh. I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to say,” he replied. “But I have my sources.”
“Humph–very convincing,” I said sarcastically.
“Of course, there aren’t any guarantees,” he continued. “But from what I’ve been told, I think I’m going to hold out for the big one.”
His comment made me laugh.
“You mean Scroll and Lock?” I asked incredulously.
He raised his eyebrows again.
“Think bigger,” he answered.
“Not Corinthian!” I shuddered.
“No, I mean ‘the big one’,” he emphasized.
“You can’t mean Snake and Skull?” I asked, stunned.
He paused a moment before answering.
“Can’t I?” he answered with a lilt in his voice.
“You’re kidding. What makes you think that you’re a candidate?”
“I suppose that they’ve noticed some of my work,” he answered matter-of-factly. “I’ve been quite visible as the President of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society.”
“And you think that’s what they’re looking for in their recruits? Show producers?