The Battle of Red Square

Bill Coffin


February 1, 2010

snowballA big part of my college experience was being in a fraternity. At my alma mater, Washington & Lee University, there were 16 fraternities for a male student body of only about 800, and nearly everybody was in one house or another. My fraternity, Sigma Nu, had a house adjacent to four other fraternity houses--Phi Kappa Sigma, Beta Theta Pi, Pi Kappa Alpha and Phi Gamma Delta. Since all of our houses were made of red brick and took up about a whole city block, that part of town was known as Red Square.

Life in Red Square was pretty interesting, in part because there had been a lot of brawling and vandalism among the houses, particularly between my house and its immediate neighbors, Phi Kappa Sigma and Phi Gamma Delta. For my first three years, though, I never saw anything to suggest that the houses couldn't be friends. Personally, I had buddies all over Red Square, and the thought of getting into a fight with any of them struck me as rather alien. And yet, a strange air of mutual suspicion hung over the Square.

One winter day in my senior year, as the town recovered from a recent snowstorm, my friend Heath and I stood on the side yard of our house having a chat. As we did, I looked across the street at the Phi Delt house and saw two of its brothers on the front porch. One of them was a friend of mine named Wade, and in a fit of mischief, I packed a snowball and threw it at him. As I did, Heath arched an eyebrow at me, suggesting I think twice about it. After all, something like this could turn ugly. Heath was right, too, but I had a feeling that Wade would take the snowball in the spirit in which it was meant. I was sure that things in Red Square weren't like the old days, but there was no way of knowing without opening fire.

I didn't hit Wade, but I came close enough for him and his brother to return fire at me and Heath. Pretty soon, the four of us were lobbing snowballs across the street at each other without much real hope of hitting anything. It didn't take long for more Sigma Nus and Phi Delts to join the battle as they came home from classes, and within an hour, we had a pretty big snowball fight on our hands as brothers from every Red Square house got involved. It was my Sigma Nu clan versus everybody else.

The fight raged for hours, and at its height, there were more than 100 students involved. None of the other houses really left their yards, though a few times Phi Delt rushed our lawn like a WWI trench charge for some intense, close-quarters combat before falling back. The Beta Theta Pis bombarded us from their roof with snowballs hurled from lacrosse sticks. And the Phi Kaps kept flanking us, since their house was off to the side of ours. At one point, university security drove down to break up what they thought was a riot in progress, only to be driven off by dozens of snowballs thrown at their car.

Incredibly, Sigma Nu held its own until about 5 o'clock, when every house's pledge class came down to join them for dinner. Suddenly, our opponents gained about 100 fresh reinforcements, and we were overwhelmed. By the end, the entire Phi Delt lawn was filled with guys standing three rows deep. You couldn't throw a snowball at them and not hit someone.

The battle ended when we literally had no snow left on our yard and were forced to retreat into our house. I was the last to quit the field, thinking that since I started this fracas, I might as well finish it. I addressed the crowd and informed them that I would accept their surrender whenever they were ready. They responded with a hail of snowballs that left me looking like a refugee from the North Pole. So ended the Battle of Red Square.

I think about this every winter, and how much fun we all had-and more importantly-that the bad blood supposedly separating our houses wasn't really there. It was just a tradition people were carrying on because it never occurred to them to do otherwise, and to act counter to it seemed like a risk not worth taking. But in the end, all we needed was the willingness to have an epic snowball fight and trust that it wouldn't go any farther than that.

It was a risky move, I guess. But it was one of those moments where I was gripped with the need to stop playing it safe and take a calculated risk. I'm glad I did. I'd like to think the rest of the guys are, too.
Bill Coffin is a freelance writer and former editor in chief of Risk Management.

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