After two long years, it’s time.
It’s dark and raining slightly, the only light on the Harvard Bridge coming from the streetlights and the Boston skyline. The Charles River drops off under the bridge, churning more than usual.
I am holding pallets of bright green, yellow, and purple paint with five other girls in my sorority. Further down the bridge is a group of older men wearing Lambda Alpha Chi shirts.
It’s time to continue the ancient MIT tradition of repainting the Smoots.
But first, let’s rewind 65 years ago to when it all began.
POV: it’s 1958
In the fall of 1958, a couple members of the MIT fraternity Lambda Alpha Chi were making the trek across the Harvard bridge from their house to MIT. The pledge trainer remarked how miserable it was walking across the nearly half-a-mile bridge all the way to MIT — that it was basically walking to hell.
One night after a chapter meeting, they decided they were going to mark the distance of the bridge so they’d know exactly “how long it would take to get to misery.” The original plan of marking the distance with feet or yards morphed into a new plan that would introduce the most iconic unit of measurement to date: the Smoot.
This new unit of measurement was the height of the shortest pledge in the class — none other than short king!! . Soon enough, the Harvard bridge had been measured at 364.4 Smoots ± 1 ear, and bright yellow, purple, and green (the fraternity’s colors) tick marks and labels appeared on the bridge.
Twice a year, it was the responsibility of the newbies of Lambda Alpha Chi, the pledges, to repaint it. What started as a funny inside joke turned into a source of pride for not only the fraternity and MIT, but for all of Boston, and it was soon commemorated as a public landmark!!
The tradition has survived the complete teardown of the sidewalk, the pledge class of ‘92 getting hauled to jail by Boston police, and more…
POV: it’s 2023
Now, fast forward all the way from 1958 to 2023. How did I end up here on this bridge? Not even an hour earlier, I was minding my own business, desperately trying to Courseroad and reorganize my junior year, when I received the following mysterious text from a sophomore in my sorority, Alpha Phi.
So at 10 pm, I scooter on over to the bridge. There are 15-ish people total, a mix of Aphis and older MIT alumni wearing Lambda Alpha Chi working their way down the left and right side of the bridge.
Because of COVID, it’s been two years since the iconic numbers have been repainted. Despite the break, the long-graduated Lambda Alpha Chi members dive into the task with what can only be described as frat boy enthusiasm. I can’t help but get as hyped as them, and soon enough, a paint pallet is shoved into my hand and we are painting away. Faded numbers are redrawn purple and yellow, and the word ‘Smoot’ is repainted a dozen times in several disorienting patterns of color.
As I wander further down the bridge, an older man wearing an LAC shirt suddenly swaps my yellow paint out for a brush dripping green onto the sidewalk. Looking down at the faded letters reading ‘Halfway to Hell,’ I ask him, “So, which letters do I paint green?”
He tells me, “Whichever ones you want!”
It’s an activity of passion more so than precision, and the paint drips and splatters, and some of the letters admittedly end up funkily drawn, but it all somehow adds to the thrill.
I get to talk to the members about their time at MIT. One was a Architecture :O from the Class of 1990 who started working in the financial trading industry and developed a super sick formula to trade derivatives in foreign currency. Another Course 4 from the Class of 1981 now owns his own architecture firm. There was also a fellow mechanical engineering!! >>> from the Class of 1983 who started his own trading company.
It was so interesting to learn from the original creators about the Smoot lore — something I have heard so much about at MIT. (Also it was just plain exhilarating to run around the bridge
vandalizing painting) It’s cool how MIT traditions keep drawing us back to campus long after we’ve graduated. From now on, I hope that if you walk on the bridge and see the Smoots looking fresh and taken care of, you think of Lambda Alpha Chi dutifully painting them year after year. It’s moments like these where, even though we make fun of MIT for its rigor and IHTFP nature, we know in our heart of hearts that there is nowhere else we’d rather spend our four years.
- short king!! back to text ↑
- Architecture :O back to text ↑
- mechanical engineering!! >>> back to text ↑