When Hope College's soccer coach, Philip Van Eyl, showed up for the Flying Dutchmen's game against Lake Forest one day last week, all he saw were two teams and an empty field. "I knew it," he grumbled. "Everybody's gone to The Pull."
He was right. Practically everybody at Hope, a small, sobersided college in Holland, Mich., was lined up along the shores of the Black River, half a mile east of town, watching a group of freshmen trying to pull a group of sophomores into the river. While the boys strained on a huge rope stretched across the stream, fellow students, alumni, townsfolk and teachers shouted encouragement. A brown-haired girl climbed up a tree to get a better look. Another sat on her boy friend's shoulders to see over the crowd. Four nautical-minded students watched from a boat in the river itself.
"Hang on, Dave," urged blonde Ann Gunkler, who sat beside the sophomore anchorman. Dave responded by holding up a blistered hand for Ann to wrap with tape, then grabbed the rope again. "Heave. Heave," shouted Sophomore Coach Ron Kronemeyer. "Rock. Rock, you guys." "Full heave coining!" a boy on the opposite bank told the opposing coach. "Lock in," screamed the crowd. "Lock in."
Nobody knows precisely when the first Hope College Pull took place, though it was probably sometime around the turn of the century. Through the years, however, The Pull has grown to become the most important annual event on the Hope campus.
It is hard to go anywhere in Holland without finding a Hope alumnus eager to reminisce about his time on the rope. White-haired Dr. John Van Zoeren, retired founder of Miles Laboratories in nearby Zeeland and donor of Hope's modern library building, remembers The Pull he joined as a sophomore in 1909. "It used to be just a simple tug of war across the creek outside of town," he says. "In my sophomore year every boy in the class was in it, but there were only 18 of us. We were outnumbered by the freshmen two to one."
A member of the 1935 Pull, who prefers to remain anonymous, swears that the sophomores won that year because their anchorman, Ekdal Buys, now the dignified chairman of Hope's board of trustees, tied the rope to the axle of a nearby truck when nobody was looking. John Tysse, a 1960 Hope graduate now in the admissions office, is quite frank about the chicanery that was practiced in the 1927 Pull when his father, the late Rev. John W. Tysse, was a member of the sophomore team and his uncle, Clarence Howard, pulled on the freshman side. "Dad wrapped the rope around a tree so nobody could win," admits John. "But he didn't tell my uncle about it till years later."
Such flagrant skulduggery is rare at The Pull these days. As befits an aging institution, it has become encrusted with rules, protocol and tradition, all of which make it difficult to exercise gamesmanship. But just in case anyone should try, each side employs an official judge as well as a corps of spies to peer through the bushes and keep an eye on the opposition. Spies caught in the act have been tossed in the river. One captured last week was rendered powerless by being sat on till The Pull was over.
The most important tradition concerning The Pull is that the sophomores should win it—because they are bigger, stronger, older and, like sophomores all over, superior to the callow freshmen in every way. For this reason the sophomores at Hope annually tremble at the thought that they might be the ones to disgrace age and dignity by losing to the frosh. And every freshman class clings to hopes that it might prove to be the David chosen to upset the Philistines.
Spurred by their respective dreams and nightmares, both sides start their official practice nearly three weeks before The Pull is scheduled. Hope's chaplain, the Rev. William Hillegonds, affectionately called "Wild Bill" by the students, says The Pull has become much more systematized than it was in his day—1946. "We went into the water a lot faster," he explains, "but now they have more strategy and technique."
Not only do the pullers of today have more strategy, they have girls to egg them on, and not just any girls, either. During the early practice sessions each potential puller selects a co-ed of his acquaintance to serve him as "morale girl." It is her job to cheer and comfort him, to urge him on and tape up his wounds, to sit beside him in practice and during The Pull itself, feeding him oranges, water, chocolate and encouragement.