Speaking of starch . . .

Russell Baker

May 15, 1991|By Russell Baker

THE EASTERN Establishment press, also known as the press for people who think they're better than everybody else, has been filled lately with news about Skull and Bones. This is a secret society at Yale. It is composed of men who are expected to do very well in life and sometimes do. A typical member is George Bush, of whom it is often said, "He is Skull and Bones to the marrow."

This is one of the highest compliments a member of Skull and Bones can pay another. If, however, the compliment is paid by anyone not a member of Skull and Bones, the complimented member must immediately leave the room. In the highly unlikely event that Bush, for example, had started reading this column over breakfast at the White House, he would already have dropped his toast and jam without a word to Barbara and marched from the room, since I am not a member of Skull and Bones.

This is but one of the many Spartan rules Bonesmen must live by. Note, for instance, that they are always called "Bonesmen." Never "Skull-and-Bonesmen." Never "Skullmen."

When a Bonesman hears either of these proscribed terms applied to members of the society, he must immediately form his lips into an "O" and rap the top of his skull five times with the knuckle of the middle finger on his right hand. This produces a hollow-drum sound known in Bonestalk as a "Bonescram alert," since it alerts all Bonesmen within range of its lugubrious echo to "scram," which is Bonestalk meaning, "Stop whatever you are doing and walk out of the room in which you are doing it."

What has made Skull and Bones newsworthy in the Eastern Establishment press is the attempt by Yale's undergraduate members ("Boneskids") to admit women. This has so flustered old-timer members ("Bonesfogeys") that they locked the doors of their historic old windowless meeting hall (the "Bonestomb"), thus shutting off access to their astonishing museum of relics.

These include Dink Stover's skull fitted into his high-school football helmet and the secret pornographic letters of Frank Merriwell, for which the late Nizam of Hyderabad is said to have offered his weight in rubies and pearls.

Contrary to rumor, the Bonestomb contains neither the calcified body of John Wilkes Booth nor the Scroll of Thoth with its terrifying power to recall Boris Karloff to life every 3,000 years if slipped under an Egyptian pyramid with a few tanner leaves.

Why the opposition to admitting women? No, it is not because tradition dies hard. In America nothing dies easier than tradition. The problem is with language. Bonesmen capable of thinking things through have asked, "After we admit women, what will they want next?"

They fear the answer is that women will balk at being called Bonesmen. At best, they suspect that women would insist on being called "Boneswomen," but they suspect the worst; to wit, that women would denounce both "Bonesmen" and "Boneswomen" as oppressively sexist words and demand that everyone -- even Bonesmen! -- be called "Bonespersons."

It takes little imagination to grasp how somebody long accustomed to thinking of himself as a "Bonesman" might feel life had lost a lot of ginger once he became a "Bonesperson." He might even feel foolish giving a Bonescram alert when he hears somebody refer to members as "Skull-and-Bonespersons" or "Skullpersons."

When secret-society members start feeling foolish about doing what's necessary, they stop doing it, and soon it's no fun at all being a member. Pretty soon Skull and Bones might start letting down its standards, and before long nobody at all, anywhere in the world, would be leaving the room immediately just because somebody had asked a perfectly boring question.

Speaking of which, I am unable to confirm a rumor that nothing matters more to Bonesmen than having their shirts starched perfectly.

"You can always tell a Bonesman," they say in the laundry trades. "Put too much starch in his shirt, and he'll whip you within an inch of your life. Put in too little, and he'll immediately leave the room."

I have talked constantly of starch in rooms infested with great men and everyone has always left the room almost immediately. This proves nothing, of course, except what everybody has always known: While Bonesmen leave rooms for no reason, the whole world hates a starch bore.

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