–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–


by | Nov 30, 2023

“So, what are you going to do?”

It was 1987 and we were sitting in the TV room of the Alpha Tau Chi house at the University of Michigan. It was the third time Chris had asked me this.

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know? Rush starts on Friday.”

I’d been elected Alpha Tau Chi’s rush chairman the week before and was regretting it. We expected a thousand people to come through our house over the rush weekend, and I had advertised that we’d be barbecuing throughout. Alas, we had no grill, and my budget was slim; just barely enough to afford the hamburgers, hot dogs, buns, chips, and the always expected kegs of beer that I’d already ordered.

“Chris, industrial size grills are, like, a thousand dollars. We don’t have anywhere near that kind of money.”

“Ask Craig about it,” Chris said. Craig was the fraternity treasurer. Chris was the food steward, which meant he managed the kitchens and the cook. His job did not include making food for rush-related events.

“Ask me about what?” Craig came into the TV room and threw himself down on the couch.

“Money,” Chris said. “For a grill. For rush.”

“How much?” Craig looked at me.

“The cheapest one at Sears was $1,100.” If I sounded bored, it was because I already knew what the answer would be.

Craig gave a short laugh. “No way, man. Your budget’s tapped after all that meat and other shit you bought. You’ve got, like, 75 bucks left.”

I looked dismal and didn’t say anything.

My little (fraternity) brother Neil wandered in. Glanced over at me. “What’s wrong with him?”

“Dumbshit promised a thousand people a barbecue and failed to realize that it would require a grill,” Craig told him.

“So? Buy one.” For Neil, everything was simple.

“Dumbshit already used up all of his money buying all the crap he can’t cook without the grill.”

“Enough with the ‘dumbshits’, ok?” I was starting to get my dander up.

“Waitaminute,” Neil said, “I’ve seen a grill we can snatch.”

I wondered how one “snatched” an industrial size grill. “Oh yeah? Where is it?”

“Up on North Campus,” Neil waved vaguely northward. “Chained to a drain pipe.”

“Well, that seems a problem,” Chris got up to change the channel on the TV.

“Nothing we can’t commando,” Neil replied. “There are bolt cutters in the toolshed.”

“I can’t believe I’m having this conversation.” Craig had stood up. “You’re going to steal someone’s grill?”

“We just need it for three days,” Neil said. “I never see anyone around the place, whatever it is. They won’t miss it over the weekend. We’ll clean it up and return it after the party.”

“We’ll take it in the middle of the night.” I found Neil’s confidence invigorating despite the fact that he was a bit of an idiot.

“Take it and return it in the dead of night.” Neil flexed. “Total Arnold. Total commando.”

Chris just stared at us while Craig exhibited more explicit disgust. Neil and I hurried off to plan the evening’s miscreancy. Rush was imminent and time was of the essence.

It was about 1am when we reappeared in the TV room, ready for our operation. Chris was already there, as we had convinced him to let us use his station wagon. He seemed to be having second thoughts.

“The whole ‘Arnold’ thing was bad enough,” Chris looked us up and down, “but now I’m convinced that you two are the two biggest dumbshits in Ann Arbor.”

“Again with the ‘dumbshits’…” I still wasn’t over the afternoon.

“Yeah, what’s wrong with us?” Neil wanted to know.

“You look like two rejects from Soldier of Fortune magazine, that’s what’s wrong with you – among other things.” Chris rubbed his face and seemed pained. “I can’t believe I’m lending you my car.”

Neil and I had donned camouflage gear, combat boots, and Vietnam-style jungle hats that were left over from when we’d played paintball earlier in the year. We’d also painted our faces with green and black stripes.

“We’re trying to be …” Chris’s tone was making me falter.

“Stealthy.” Neil narrowed his eyes. “Commando.” 

“Right!” I rallied. “In and out without a trace.”

“In and out without a brain is more like it.” Chris tossed the car keys at me and clumped off. “I’m going to bed. Don’t get arrested, and don’t mess up my car.”

The plan went off without a hitch. We made it up to North Campus, the place was deserted, and the grill soon was in the back of Chris’s station wagon, which we’d  lined with old towels so as not to get it dirty. Not even an hour had passed before we were back at the house. No dumbshits in this venture. I went to sleep feeling vindicated.

The next morning Neil and I were in the fraternity’s rear parking lot admiring our acquisition, when Craig came running up, red faced and clutching a newspaper.

“You fucking dumbshits! Look at this! Look at it!” he thrust the paper in my face.

“More of the dumbshits…” I took the paper, which turned out to be the Michigan Daily. Scanned the front page. “Oh.”


“‘Oh’? ‘Oh’?! You stole the grill from a Ronald McDonald house?!”

“What’s the big deal?” Neil was confused. “Who cares if some McDonald’s lost a grill?”

“Not McDonald’s! Ronald McDonald House! It’s a fucking charity. For sick fucking children! Craig was hopping up and down with rage.

“How were we supposed to know it was a Ronald McDonald House?” It was a weak retort, but the headline and Craig’s reaction had given me a bad shock.

“Oh, I don’t know … maybe from the fucking sign in front?!” Craig wasn’t having it. 

Neil raised a finger, “It was pitch dark. We couldn’t see the sign.”

“Put that finger away or I’ll rip it off!” Craig gestured vigorously towards the grill. “They’re going to have the police looking for that thing, and they’re going to find it. And we’re going to be the fraternity that steals from children’s charities. We’ll lose our goddamned charter!”

“I have an idea.” Neil remained unperturbed.

“You’re on thin ice, Neil…” Craig’s voice was dangerous sounding, “Be very careful about what you say next.”

“We paint it!” Neil announced, triumphantly.

Craig stared at him. “Paint it?”

“Paint it.” Neil nodded and folded his arms. With the face he was making, he looked a little bit like Mussolini.

I leapt up. “Yes! There must be a hundred grills like that all over the city. We’ll just paint it a different color. No one will be able to tell it’s the stolen one.”

This seemed to defeat Craig, who slumped as if his skeleton had been partially removed. “I can’t even tell what’s smart and what’s stupid anymore.” He drifted off, calling back over his shoulder. “Just do whatever you have to do. And please … don’t tell me.”

Neil and I looked at each other. “Let’s buy some paint!”

Like Wednesday night’s operation, the rest of the weekend went without a hitch. We painted the grill a lovely royal blue, set everything up, and opened the house for rush. By my count, around 1,300 people came through over those two and a half days, consuming 24 kegs of beer, 3000 hamburgers, 1,500 hot dogs, and scores of bags of potato chips and bottles of ketchup and mustard. The recruitment people were more than satisfied and a dozen bids were written Sunday evening. Our event had been a tremendous success and enthusiastic congratulations were offered all around. In just a few days, Neil and I’d gone from being Ann Arbor’s biggest dumbshits to heroes.

The last order of business was to put the grill back as clandestinely as we had taken it. That Monday we stripped all the paint off of it and cleaned it up nicely. At about 2am, Neil and I reconvened in the TV room. (Chris had given us his car keys earlier.) By 3, the grill had been returned and we were back in the house. The next day, Neil, Chris, Craig, and I met up at Red Hot Lovers for lunch.  

“Well, I hope you learned your lesson.” Chris waved a chili cheese waffle fry at Neil and me.

“What lesson?” Neil was trying to keep the coleslaw from falling off of his hot dog. 

“How about ‘Don’t Steal Grills from Ronald McDonald House’”? Craig remained tense from the recent days’ events. 

“Borrowed,” Neil corrected, holding up a finger, which he quickly put away when he saw Craig’s look. “We gave it back.”

“I doubt the police would see it that way. Just be grateful you weren’t caught.” Chris dug back into what remained of his pile of chili cheese fries.

“I’m actually kind of annoyed,” I said, reaching for the napkins and taking far too many. 

Chris narrowed his eyes. “Annoyed? Why?”

“The fucking Michigan Daily,” I groused. “Nothing about the grill being returned and in tip-top-shape. No ‘Benevolent Thieves Return Grill’ or even a simple ‘Grill Returned’. I mean, they were quick enough to report it stolen. What happened to ‘No Harm, No Foul’?”

“I was thinking about that.” Neil said. “Stuff gets stolen every day, but how often do people return the stuff they stole? That’s the real story, isn’t it?”

Chris finished his last chili cheese fry and washed it down with a gulp of soda. Wiped his mouth and stood up. “No, Neil, the real story is that you two are definitely, undoubtedly, most certainly, one hundred percent the biggest dumbshits in Ann Arbor.”