The summer of ’79, I was new. Gordy Bjoraker and Bill Merline had been there a year, a year and a half. We were saying, “Boy, we miss the old country”—meaning Wisconsin, where all three of us were from—and we said, “I wonder if you can get good bratwurst in this city?” So we shopped around, tried a few places, found out that you could, and we decided we’d have to share this gourmet delicacy with all of our friends. We jokingly called it the first annual Bratfest. The first one came off as a reasonably small event, but obviously it has taken on a life of its own.
Gordy was there one semester before me, and I showed up mid-year, and Nick showed up the next fall. It was that first semester of the school year, the ’79-80 school year. We all got together over at the Big A, which I don’t think is even there anymore. We were grumbling because we couldn’t find any bratwurst anywhere. All three of us were from Wisconsin, and bratwurst and Bratfests were common in Wisconsin. We couldn’t find any at the store to buy. Of course now you can buy them anywhere. I don’t think we’re necessarily responsible for that, but you never know.
One of the big highlights of the year was what we call the Bratfest. When I found myself living in the grad student house, I didn’t realize that all of the sudden you became one of the major organizers for a serious party.
In general we’d get 120 pounds of bratwurst. We would bake the night before about 20 cheesecakes. We’d get lots of corn on the cob. We’d get many kegs of beer. This would be an all-day, all-night party. We usually had on the order of between 150 and 200 people coming. This is all in the backyard of this grad student house. It was amazing.
It started off small—there were some misplaced Wisconsinites, Nick Schneider and Bill Merline, that decided they wanted to have their Oktoberfest party here in Tucson, and they named it the Bratfest. Year by year it got a little bit bigger and a little bit bigger, and then it turned into this gargantuan proportion at some point, because everyone had so much fun they kept coming back and the crowds kept getting bigger.
There was always a major fear that we were going to lose money on this thing. Every now and then we would come close. It would always be about two weeks out of my life getting ready for it, but it was so much fun. All the faculty would come. The party, of course, would pretty much go till dawn. By morning it would pretty much clear out except for the people that couldn’t move anymore.
I still have a lot of the Bratfest T-shirts. I have a lot of fond memories from that. It’s sort of a rite of passage for all the students; you go through this and then you remember it and you want to keep doing it. The students who have done it so far, as far as I can see, have done a good job of carrying on the traditions. My theory is that some of these traditions are going to drop off, but somehow they keep going year after year. We’ll see what happens. Maybe we’ll have Bratfest 100 Year, when I’m an old guy.
Hawthorne House was already a fixture by the time I got there in 1986. It was rented initially by some folks from the Midwest, like Wisconsin and Michigan, around there. When October came around they wanted to have their Oktoberfest. That’s how the Bratfest started. Originally it was brats and corn and beer and cheesecakes, and it was to relieve the homesickness of the Midwesterners.
I visited there frequently. Of course, I knew lots of people who lived there, and it was a place where you could always drop in. We were there for every party and every social occasion. There was one notorious Bratfest where they had a booth where you could dunk your favorite professor. You would toss bean bags and if you got it just right, there was a dunking chair, so your favorite professor would get dunked. That was a breakdown of protocol and status. Certain professors, Jay Melosh in particular, made a lot of money that way.
We had that beautiful mural of Saturn, a Voyager picture, that was blown up to the size of an entire wall. I’m sure it was the only picture that wasn’t destroyed—I mean, it was a museum-quality picture.
There were probably a lot of romances that took place. We had all these graduate students who did nothing but study, so they don’t have the opportunity to meet anybody else but another graduate student. If you ask me, it’s the very worst form of inbreeding, but it happens.
There was a party called Bacchanal, and one of themes there was bizarre-flavored daiquiris. Usually it was Bill Merline in charge of the blender. One of them was fish-and-chips daiquiri; snow-pea-and-onion daiquiri. For years people would try to top it.
The other tradition that was very strong and really helped build up a sense of camaraderie were the graduate student skits. Mark Sykes was a key player in those in our years. We would do things not only to amuse but also to inform. Sometimes we had to let certain faculty members know that their behavior didn’t meet the standards for one reason or other, personal or professional, so we would put that right into the skit. Sometimes we were reprimanded for doing it, but it didn’t necessarily change what we did.