The Broken Pledge
A play by Hank Nuwer
While Hank Nuwer retains the copyright on his play The Broken Pledge, he freely allows individuals or groups to put on performances–whether free of charge or for admission. He believes the theatrical experience may cause people to be moved and to change behaviors such as hazing.
The Time: The Present
The Place: The farmhouse bedroom of Luke, newly dead in a hazing incident.
The bedroom contains a number of props (hand weights, a kid’s fishing pole, a ball-bat, a pair of beat-up running shoes, an old computer on a table, a jar of pennies in a John Deere metal container, a journal, a sheaf of fraternity promotional materials, a folded quilt, chairs stage left and right, a small cot and a dresser).
An older but muscular man walks into the room. His step is slow. He tosses a newspaper on the bed and peels off his gimme cap from a seed company and the coat of a workingman. He addresses the audience.
GRANDFATHER: I ‘ll try to keep my voice down. My daughter-in-law is asleep in the bedroom upstairs.
GRANDFATHER: We put her son, my grandson, into the ground yesterday. We buried Luke in the family plot here on our farm. He’s got good company there. His daddy, my son John, is there. John died in Afghanistan fighting for people like you. It would have destroyed John to know that his boy is gone. Especially the way Luke died.
GRANDFATHER: Lots of other company to comfort him.
His grandparents, great grandparents, great great grandparents.
My wife June who died while giving birth to our son John.
This farm has belonged to our family since 1858, two years before the Civil War. Luke was proud of our history. He planned to run this farm for me after graduation. That’s why he double majored in business and science.
GRANDFATHER: Also in the family plot rests my sister Rose. Maybe Luke is introducing himself right now. Rose was seven and playing up on the hayloft long ago. She tried to catch a puppy that was about to roll out of the loft. She saved the pup but lost her balance and went over the side. My daddy was below with a pitchfork and mucking the horse stalls. He heard a crack loud as a car crash. It was Rose’s head hitting concrete.
GRANDFATHER: My mama and father never got over Rose’s death. Now I guess I’m to know what something like that feels like. A man doesn’t expect to outlive his son and grandson; you know what I mean?
GRANDFATHER: Oh shoot, I can hear my daughter-in-law walking around upstairs. I got a loud voice and that’s a blessing and a curse. I used to be the referee at Luke’s Little League baseball games. One time he hit the ball way out of the park down the left field line. It got me so excited that I shouted “home run” but signaled foul ball.
GRANDFATHER: Well, Luke and the catcher are at home plate and both looking at me. “Which is it, Grandpa?” Luke yelled. “Fair or foul?”
GRANDFATHER: “Well, Luke,” I said, “you heard me say `home run’ but all those folks in the stands saw me call it `a foul.’ I guess it’s just not your day.” Oh, he was upset, I tell you. At least I made the catcher happy.
GRANDFATHER gets up and walks around, picks up a baseball bat.
GRANDFATHER: One time he’s in the utility room and takes this bat and says, “Look at my batting stance, Grandpa.” He holds it high like this and bam, he knocks out an overhead bulb. “What did you do?” I said. “I just showed you my stance like this,” he says. Bam, out goes another light. I stood there in the dark, sloshing glass in my coffee cup. My daughter-in-law walked in and caught us giggling like goofballs.
GRANDFATHER: His mother brought Luke into the world right here in this room. His mom is old school and enlisted a midwife to deliver him. She wrapped him in this quilt that she made herself. Darn near took her the whole nine months to finish it, her working two jobs and all. She put in every stitch with love.
He sits down heavily on the cot.
GRANDFATHER: You’re probably wondering whom I blame for Luke’s death. His fraternity and buds? The school? The administration? Nah, fact is I blame myself. I acted more like his grandfather and less like his pal, riding dirt bikes and telling each other corny jokes. I wish I could return Luke to his mama’s womb and get a start as a role model all over again. Raised him right and a lot stricter like my Pa reared me. I was his freaking grandfather, I should have acted like I was.
GRANDFATHER: Thing is, before last week I would have told you I had done my best. I tried to prepare him in every way for college. Bought his books from the bookstore a week before his classes started. Paid for even the really stinking sociology text that Professor Boggs wrote himself and make all the kids buy for $179.00. The one that had 30 pages printed upside down, and had more errors than last year’s Chicago Cubs made. Luke said that Boggs should have worn a mask to class when he held everyone up.
GRANDFATHER: My daughter gave me a job today. She wanted me to pick out a headstone and put something on it besides Luke’s name.
So I go down to a stone carver’s shop in town. What do people write on those? I asked the man.
“Whatever’s in your heart,” he says.
“He never screwed up but once and it killed him,” I say. “He had all the freaking potential in the world, but look where that got him?”
He gives me a pained look. “You can’t put something like that on a sacred stone,” he says.
“No, no,” I agree.…Do I sound bitter, I ask the salesman? He nods at me.
“Well, I am bitter,” I say. “One day I’m reading a postcard from Luke asking if I could deposit money in his bank account for his fraternity chapter dues. Next day I’m picking out a casket. “
I talk to the salesman. “Luke Samuel Lysiak, 1997 to 2015. Well, that much I got down in my head to put on the headstone. I’ll come back when I got the rest.”
GRANDFATHER: Jeez, what could Luke and Rose be talking about now up in heaven? I am thinking of them both up there but can’t bring myself to pray. Even back in church I couldn’t bring myself to pray.
I had to be strong for my daughter-in-law sitting beside me in the pew.
I tried to concentrate on the flowers, but it was hard, I tell you to keep the tears inside.
I listened to his buddies from high school come up one at a time. I loved the story one kid told about how Luke and his other buddies once tried to build a boat. They worked in my shop up in the barn and used my power saw and tools..
GRANDFATHER: Came the big day to christen the boat out at the lake. Luke bought a bottle of energy drink and cracked it against the side of the boat. They pushed off, and the dang boat sunk like a rock. They had furnished the boat with stuff from my barn: oil lanterns, a cookstove, kitchen utensils.
All gone to the bottom.
I pretended to be mad. But I thought it was a good lesson for Luke and his friends. Ask before you take something.
GRANDFATHER: The preacher told everyone that God asks us to do hard things. I wanted to scream from my pew: “Where was God the night Luke died.”
But that wouldn’t have been right.
I’m even ashamed having to tell you I thought that.
Lord, I know you are with me in the spirit, and it is not for me to question your purpose.
GRANDFATHER: I’d like to think Luke might have learned a lesson from his last night on earth. That is if he had lived. How alcohol is essentially a poison if you slug down enough of it.
What did his roommate try to tell me at the funeral home?
That he and the other pledge brothers had to consume twelve bottles left at twelve stations in honor of their twelve founders?
What Einstein brother came up with that screwball plan?
I can’t believe not one brother said, “Hey, guys, this isn’t such a great idea.”
GRANDFATHER: The roommate told me two other pledges went to the hospital that night. They had their stomachs pumped in emergency.
They were lucky. Bet they and the others have learned a lesson now. Too bad it comes at Luke’s expense.
GRANDFATHER: When Luke went off to school last August and said he wanted to rush a fraternity, his mother asked me if I thought he might have to go through hazing. “Nah,” I said. “That stuff happens in the military.”
He goes over to a laptop on the table.
GRANDFATHER: Lord, do I know different now. The Internet is full of horror stories.
One researcher says there have been at least one death a year and sometimes many more deaths for well over three decades in the colleges.
I should have read all this back when my daughter asked me that question, not answered her so quickly. The research says about 80 percent of the hazing deaths involve drinking. The others die of beatings, drownings, and road accidents during scavenger hunts or kidnappings.
Yeah, crazy right? And it’s not just fraternities. It’s sororities, bands, and sport teams.
GRANDFATHER: You send your kid off to someplace you think is safe and then you bury him?
If our schools are no longer safe then no place is safe.
GRANDFATHER: You see all this stuff in Luke’s room? My daughter-in-law wants to leave the room just as it always was.
I don’t know about that. It’s kind of painful to see everything as he left it.
I know one thing for sure. Me and my daughter don’t want to pick up his stuff from his fraternity room. “Just pack it all up and ship it to me,” I said to that fraternity adviser at Luke’s wake.
Adviser? What in blazes kind of advice did he give Luke that done him any good?
GRANDFATHER: Walks to the side of the stage to peer out a window.
Old Tramp, Luke’s dog, hasn’t left his place atop the loose earth over Luke’s grave. Luke was five when we gave him Tramp as a pup. Those two used to run the fields from sundown to sunup. One time Tramp ran into a rattler right on our farm’s back forty. The vet wanted to put the dog down, but Luke would have none of it. The vet stayed and Luke sat there with him and the dog’s head on his lap ‘til he pulled through.
Once Luke got to college he missed Old Tramp so bad. He talked me into letting the dog live in the fraternity house. Luke said Tramp used to visit all the guys’ room every night. It was as if the old dog didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
At the wake, one of the pledge brothers brought Old Tramp into the funeral home.
GRANDFATHER: “That dog can’t stay,” the funeral director said.
GRANDFATHER: “Oh, yes, he can,” I said.
Tramp limped over to the casket and licked Luke’s hands. The dog began to tremble and then he just let out one long sorrowful sigh and lay down in front of the casket. A couple of the boys petted and hugged Tramp and they cried and cried.
[He picks up a dumbbell and does some curls.]
GRANDFATHER: I remember when I bought Luke these weights. One day I said to him, “How much can you lift?” Quick as a button he winked and said, “Ten pounds more than you, Grandpa.”
GRANDFATHER: He was the most competitive kid I know.
If someone did 100 situps, he’d do 101.
Competitive, yes he was. Maybe too competitive.
He was trying to show all those guys how much he wanted to belong. If he was going to drink with them, he was going to outdrink them.
The coroner said he’d never treated anyone with so much alcohol in his body. Luke literally drowned in his own fluids.
GRANDFATHER: Trouble is, Luke wasn’t a drinker. The only thing I keep in the house is brandy and that’s as a flu remedy. I saw my best buddy in the service drink away his career.
Maybe if I had talked to him about alcohol a little more. Maybe shared my view, even taught him how a real man stops at one or two drinks. Maybe he’d still be here.
No, don’t go there. Driving myself crazy I am. If Luke had been a serious drinker, he’d still be alive. Just had no tolerance for it.
He locates a pair of his grandson’s well-worn athletic shoes.
GRANDFATHER: I know it’s crazy but I think I have to slip these on. Maybe walk a bit in Luke’s shoes so to speak.
He had big feet like mine. Inherited them from me. Size 14’s. Big as Gilligan’s SS Minnow.
He slips on a red baseball cap, adjusts it to fit.
GRANDFATHER: Luke always was crazy about the New York Yankees but when he was in the fourth grade someone told him about the rivalry with Boston.
He made me buy him a Red Sox cap and a Yankees tee shirt. “Who are you for when those two teams play?” I asked him.
“I’m for whoever’s winning,” he said.
GRANDFATHER: I picked this ballcap up at the emergency room.
His mother and I got the call when we were in the kitchen about five in the morning. I was up of course.
That’s life on a farm. Cows to milk. Hogs to feed. Chickens need their grain. Then there’s always something to fix. I never could afford to buy new equipment so there always is a tractor valve needing replacement or a milking machine breaking down.
GRANDFATHER: Fact is, for the longest time I didn’t know how we were going to afford to send Luke to school. His grades were good, and the school helped him out a bit with a remission of tuition, but I had to take a second mortgage out on the farm.
Luke and his mother never knew I did that, of course. They never would have let me do that for them.
He tosses the hat on the cot.
GRANDFATHER: So the call came in, and I put down my fork and my daughter-in-law says, “Luke’s in trouble. We got to go.”
GRANDFATHER: I say, “What do you mean he’s in trouble? Is he failing a class?”
GRANDFATHER: I see her fighting to get the words out.
“That was a doctor over at Memorial Hospital on the phone. He said Luke had partied too hard and was on life support.”
I watch her and I’m speechless. She tenses up and gives out this odd sound, something between a whoosh and a scream.
I never want to hear a sound like that again.
GRANDFATHER: Now I drive like a fool and a cop stops us and gives us an escort to the emergency room. A nurse peels back a sheet and there is our Luke on a gurney. The doctor straightens up and tells us that Luke’s had two heart attacks.
We go over to our boy, and suddenly he starts to move. “It’s as if he’s heard our voices and is trying to sit up,” I say.
GRANDFATHER: “He’s getting better,” my daughter-in-law says. “He’s recovering. I can see it. Thank God.”
GRANDFATHER: The doctor takes her hand.
I wonder how many mothers’ hands he’s held like that.
“No, he’s not getting better. Part of his brain has gone into his spine.”
GRANDFATHER: I watch all her hope go out of her. I look that Doc straight in the eye.
“You saying our Luke is a vegetable?”
GRANDFATHER: “I’m saying he’s in a vegetative state,” the doctor says. “We can keep him like this a few more hours if you have the right insurance. [pauses] But I’m telling you the time will come when you have to let us turn off these machines and let him go. I am sorry.”
GRANDFATHER: So that’s what we did. My daughter-in-law kissed him for the last time. I held both his hands. We told him we loved him.
Not long after I addressed the doctor. “Is he gone?” I said.
The doctor wiped a tear. I’m sure he was thinking of his own grandson that moment. “He’s gone.”
GRANDFATHER: That’s when I noticed Luke had some kind of writing on his legs. “What’s that?” I asked the doctor.
GRANDFATHER: “The kids are always scrawling on each other with markers when someone passes out like this. We see it all the time,” he says.
GRANDFATHER: My daughter-in-law lifted the hospital gown and saw the crude and rude words written there. “Didn’t they like him?” she said. “Didn’t they even like him?”
GRANDFATHER: I tried to tell her they were just kids being kids, but she wasn’t going to have any of it. “Luke would never have done that to them? Would he?” she asked me. I didn’t answer her.
He goes back over to the computer. Rubs his temples with worry.
GRANDFATHER: Now that Luke is gone, I have to figure how to pay the hospital and the funeral home. Then there’s the doctor bill for my daughter-in-law so she could be sedated to attend the wake and funeral.
We’re talking thousands of dollars I don’t have. I may have to sell off some of the farm equipment. I’ve been to several auctions where my neighbors had to sell what they had to make ends meet. Now it looks as if that will happen to us.
GRANDFATHER picks up a jar of coins.
GRANDFATHER: Luke always loved his coins. Every time he got change he would look at the date to see if he had a special old coin.
One day he and his mom went shopping when he was five and he asked if she could give him some pennies. He takes them and throws them as far as he can. “What did you do that for?” she says.
“Well, Mom, someone has to put down lucky pennies for people to find.”
GRANDFATHER locates a fishing rod.
GRANDFATHER: I can’t believe Luke kept this toy fishing rod. I used to take him to the lake to catch panfish. At fourteen he told me he didn’t want to go. I thought it was a phase and asked him again. “No,” he said. “I’m through tricking fish into committing suicide.”
Luke thought he was disappointing me, but I was proud of him for thinking for himself.
GRANDFATHER’s voice grows cold. “Why didn’t you think for yourself your last night on earth, Luke?”
[He returns to the weights, taking a heavy one and pumping it over his head.]
GRANDFATHER: It was real hard for me to talk to those fraternity brothers at the wake. I wanted to wring their necks instead of shaking their hands.
But I saw the horror in their faces as they knelt by the coffin to show their respect. They understood they would have to live with what they did for the rest of their lives.
The adviser gave me a framed certificate with Luke’s name on it as a full-fledged member of the fraternity. I paused a second but then I took it. I knew how much being a brother meant to Luke. I put it into the coffin with him.
He picks up the newspaper.
GRANDFATHER: Today’s paper said the police may press charges against the guys that furnished the pledges with alcohol.
Luke wouldn’t have wanted that. No, Luke wouldn’t have wanted that at all to see his friends in jail.
I read that one band member in Florida got a six-year sentence for manslaughter after he helped beat a guy in another foolish hazing ritual on a bus. Six years is a long time to pay for bad judgment.
GRANDFATHER: Maybe I can talk to the boys, then talk to the police about making a deal to keep them out of jail.
Or if they must serve hard time, maybe I can help them come back and find their lives again.
GRANDFATHER: Luke said the reason he wanted to join this fraternity was that the guys were so involved in community service.
He sent me a picture of some fundraiser for a favorite charity they were doing with a sorority. It looked like they were having a lot of fun.
GRANDFATHER: Yeah, maybe I will go back to the fraternity house. The school president said something about holding a memorial service. The adviser said the national fraternity already named a scholarship in Luke’s name.
He picks up a red book.
GRANDFATHER: “This here is Luke’s journal. I bought if for his high school graduation. I never opened it when Luke was alive.”
He reads and tries not to be overcome.
GRANDFATHER: “I will never be like Kurt Cobain and Heath Ledger and die so young. I love life too much. That will never happen to me—nope.”
GRANDFATHER gives a low moan. Was it that important to you that you impress those new friends, Luke?
GRANDFATHER: That boy was always collecting quotations. He reads: You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result. ~ Mahatma Gandhi.
All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. Edmund Burke.
How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world. Anne Frank.
GRANDFATHER: My daughter needs to see this journal. I can’t bring Luke back. The boys can’t either. But maybe I can help those kids do something positive to help other people and honor his name.
Maybe even one or two of the boys will speak out and say that hazing not only brings dishonor to the human spirit, but it can break a pledge, destroy a family.
GRANDFATHER: I sure can’t do anything for anyone locking myself up in Luke’s room and playing with my memories.
You’d think I’d break down here and cry, but the pain is buried too deep. Now I understand my father better. He once was happy go lucky.
After Rose’s death he never smiled. Just blamed himself for not dropping the pitchfork and catching her.
[He picks up a bit of literature and scans it.]
GRANDFATHER: Here are some of the recruiting materials the fraternity sent to Luke right before he rushed.
Almost every other line here talks about fraternal values and principles and loving your brother but holding him accountable. I don’t see a word in there about drinking yourself stupid.
GRANDFATHER: Yeah, I think I will visit the fraternity house and sit and talk with the adviser and the guys. Maybe I can help transform that bunch, maybe make this a chance for them to show me Luke didn’t make a mistake in wanting their company.
He puts down the fraternity literature and picks up the journal again.
GRANDFATHER:: Here are some quotes Luke put down from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. …We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. …There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.
GRANDFATHER reads more slowly. “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”
Grandfather repeats the quotation.
“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”
Perhaps I’ll put that quote on Luke’s gravestone. Yes, that’s the one. I’ll pay that stonecarver another visit.
GRANDFATHER: Maybe I need to admit to myself that if Luke had survived that night, he might have put another pledge through that initiation and broken some other family’s hearts. He might have been giggling as he wrote on a passed-out pledge with a colored marker.
I don’t see how it’s going to help me live the rest of my life being mad at them. I can’t stay bitter at life the way my own father did.
If I can forgive them, maybe they can someday forgive themselves.
GRANDFATHER: I think I’ll box up Luke’s weights up and take them to the fraternity house. Those boys I saw at the funeral looked kind of puny.
He laughs wryly. I’ll bet I can lift ten pounds more than any of them.
He goes to the window.
GRANDFATHER: I’ll take Old Tramp with me and give him to the boys to keep. He won’t live long if I keep him on the farm, and he just drapes himself over Luke’s grave like he’s doing.
I know Old Tramp misses the boys. I bet they miss him.
He picks up the coat and cap and diary.
Yeah, I bet those boys miss him.
He exits the room.
A NOTE ON THE PLAY: THE BROKEN PLEDGE premiered as an Anne Frank Project selection in the Donald Savage Theatre at Buffalo State on September 12, 2013. Playwright Hank Nuwer’s play was selected for its theme of examining hazing as a human rights abuse.