Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Duclod Mystery Solved--or Is It?

My Grinnell alumni magazine came last week and with it an apparent solution to a mystery more than twenty years old. When I first arrived on campus in 1987, I was struck by a series of cryptic jokes written in permanent marker, all in the same handwriting, along the sidewalk leading to my dorm,. These were the jokes:

Q: What makes a duclod turn blue?
A: Airtight closets.

Q: What do you get when you cross a geek with a Greek?
A: A duclod.

Q: What do you get when you cross a closet capitalist with a closet communist?
A: A red duclod who says, “oink.”

Later, on a stall in the men’s bathroom in the library basement, I saw the words, “DDT = Duclods Die Twice.” Then, during my third year, I saw this riddle on a bathroom wall in the basement of what was then the new science building:

There once was a zhloip named Art
Who couldn’t get much of a start.
First he f***ed his stepfather,
Then he f***ed his stepmother.
Now he f***s no one else worth a fart.

None of these graffiti was understandable or even funny in itself, but taken together, the common themes of sexual relations with both sexes, the union of opposites, and closets led me to assume that a “duclod” was a closeted bisexual man. A zhloip, then, would be a subset of the duclods—a duclod who slept with both step-parents. This didn’t make the jokes funny in a "ha-ha" sort of way, but it did give me the feeling that I had solved a darkly amusing puzzle.

Then, while I was at home after graduating and before moving on to Texas, I received an anonymous letter in the mail in a small envelope. It contained at least twenty duclod jokes printed from a computer onto a large sheet of that stripy old dot-matrix paper, then folded into tiny squares. I think I kept it at my folks’ house, but I don’t know if it survived the fire of ’98.

Over the years, idle web-searches for the words “duclod” and “zhloip” have revealed nothing but posts on random chatrooms and a couple of “urban dictionary” entries confirming my suspicions about the words’ meanings (although challenging my understanding of the taxonomic structure). Then, a couple of years ago, I found an article in the campus newspaper summarizing the state of knowledge about the “duclod” phenomenon. It appears that a number of Grinnell seniors have received letters like mine. But what struck me as a pleasing piece of vernacular surrealism seemed to others like a threat, in part because of the perception, now questioned, that the letters were being sent to Gay and Bisexual students. According to the article, Student Affairs had kept a file of these letters and was worried that someone might be stalking students. Nobody had reported being hurt in connection with the letters, but that didn’t stop people from being afraid.

This year, however, our knowledge appears to have taken a giant leap forward. In a pair of thoughtful articles in the Advocate, 2004 alum Sarah Aswell chronicles her obsessive and apparently successful search for the author of the “duclod” letters. After a couple of years of careful web-searching, following the links to posters on the kind of chat-rooms I had found and responding to leads from recipients of letters, she finally made contact with a man she calls “Richard.” According to Aswell, “Richard” lives alone, suffers from autism, and is the son of a University of Kansas chemistry professor. He has attended Grinnell reunions for years with an aunt who is an alum and has sent the anonymous “duclod” letters to Grinnell students from cities where his relatives live for at least sixteen years. She asked him to stop, but he continued, so she contacted relatives of his, and they persuaded him to take some of his more disturbing web pages down and apologize personally to Aswell.

There’s a lot to admire in Aswell’s writing and her careful research. I particularly like the way she describes herself beginning to behave like an online stalker during her investigation. Her description of the man she found behind the letters is compassionate, especially given her earlier fear of him. Still, I think I agree with “Marshall Poe,” a poster on a recent MetaTalk thread on Aswell’s articles.

Glad she wrote it, and did the digging, but there are some things I don't understand. First and foremost, the Duclod thing was alive and kicking when I was at Grinnell from 1980 to 84. There was graffiti all over campus. We put it there. And it was the habit of some Grinnellians to leave it wherever they went. A kind of mark of the school, an inside joke. I remember finding a Duclod graf in a Village bar once. It meant "Someone from Grinnell was here." Other than that, we never knew what it meant. So this guy didn't invent it, if that's the claim …

Clearly “Rick” is what a folklorist might call an “active bearer of tradition,” perhaps even a hyperactive bearer, but it’s hard to believe he’s the only source of the graffiti and the only one “in” on this joke. I am not female, so I can’t know what it feels like to be a woman, alone in an apartment, who has just received an anonymous letter with “Duclods Die Twice” scrawled on it. I guess it makes sense that some people feel threatened. But for me, the duclod jokes and the anonymous letter were more intriguing than frightening. Part of me is a little sad that the mystery is gone and sad that a magazine dedicated to sexual non-conformity as a political cause would promote fear of eccentric jokes that don't make sense. I'm not sure our lives will be the richer for her having shut down an ailing autistic man's exercises in wierdness. I hope that the reports that "Rick" is now receiving harassing calls himself are wrong or exaggerated. I do take some consolatin, however that "thestocker," posting at the new “duclod” blog has brought a little of the mystery back.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was at Grinnell from 77-81 and Duclod was active then. I think it was active for many years before that. I agree with you that it was a Grinnell marker thing and more than one person was involved. I did get a letter in summer of 81. Don't know if i still have it

July 02, 2013 6:51 PM  

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