The Secret History of Ma Dung

by Tupalo Scarecrow
From
Vanguard Party 2.1 (October 2002)

 

Chuckling away at the latest copy of “Ma Dung’s Old Phedinkus,” the idea that it’s a spontaneous bit of pop-humor, a micro-cultural blip in the river of never-ending “Now” is deceptively easy to indulge. However, one benefit of hours working in the library is the knowledge that the “Old Phedinkus” is the culmination of over fifty years of underground publishing at Bethany College.
Look at that one or two page rag decomposing even as you scan the cartoon. It’s contemporary, disposable, entertaining, yes, but on a whole different level it is one more chapter of do-it-yourself literature in the never-ending cannon of what the almost average student can put out when the journalistic culture of Bethany is so despicable that this kind of action is demanded.

Ma Dung, as she’s affectionately known, has put out a solid string of some of the best works Bethany has ever seen (Vanguard Party included.)

Here’s the bit you don’t know, the rub, the point (if you will): She did this fantastic work 20 YEARS ago!

History

You didn’t hear wrong. It was no misprint. 20 Years Ago. The explanation comes when I bring that library reference from the first paragraph into relevance.

One part of the library that few people learn of before they’re seniors is the archives. There are yearbooks from the nineteenth century hidden away there, documents from the very beginning of the college’s existence, copies of every Tower ever written… and copies of damn near every student publication to slam into the mortar foundations of that clockwork panopticon in the hopes of Some-Shit-Happening as a result.

Ma Dung’s best work was done 20 years ago.

Maybe they wanted revolution of thought and life, like the staff of “Up Against The Wall,” published in 1969, and was one of the slicker ‘zines to come out of Bethany (Motto: “The staff that bathes together…” Accompanied with picture.).

A similar production was “The Liberator” in 1967, claiming it was dedicated to a “Dialogue of Dissent” involving the college and community.

Integration could sum up the goal of “Polyglot,” a short-lived (or sparsely archived) ‘zine filled with segments in different languages; articles in French, Spanish, and German.

Sadly, most of these never (from what few issues are preserved) seem to have lasted more than a handful of releases, not at all like their original. That first major publication to rival the Tower was output by the journalism class (they taught some kind of Journalism here once?!) of 1944-46, “The Tell.” Tagline: “Anything The Tell Doesn’t Tell Isn’t Worth Telling.” Cute, and simple. A Bethany scuttlebutt sheet, informing the campus and entertaining the masses three times a week, in an era when rumors were laughable delicacies, not the meat of student life. Incidentally, it also places the earliest reference to GDI (“God-Damned Independent” in today’s vernacular) I’ve ever seen, in a 1945 edition.

But none of these prints made an impact like Ma Dung when she swept into Bethany College.

Ma Dung

In 1976, there was a briefly-run news bulletin put out every so often, mostly culling the most important stories from the press, and putting them into the college’s view with a Doonesbury strip for dessert. It probably stuck in the mind of Mother Dung, patron of the underground comic sheet and those freshmen who would become her staff.

No one knows, officially, how it all came about. Some whisper that the entire run sprang, Athena-like, from the brow of a godlike trustee who believed he was having an irregularly large zit squeezed. Some think that a professor began copying down Faculty meetings verbatim, and printed what resulted. No one really knows, officially, and unofficial knowledge would only implicate that person, so know one knows, except for the people who do. And they aren’t talking.

But in 1978-79 there emerged the first issues of what was to become a legend among faculty and alumni alike. It wasn’t using any trite faux-news format like the current version, it was an all-out attack on Bethany College: the students, the staff, the system, the stupidity… make up your own “s” word. You get the idea.

It was a weekly work of genius, and it was backed by Bethania. Bethania was a Sunday-style comic strip that spoofed everything Bethany holds dear. Set in a medieval court that rivaled Monty Python’s Camelot, instead of Professor Taylor, there was Sir John the Bloody; replacing Interim President Sandercox was Prince Bob, who didn’t want the job; the trustees were represented by godlike creatures who could manifest themselves in the most unusual forms, like bowls of porridge (So it stuck true-to-reality on some points).

At the same time New York was being taken Live every Saturday night with Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and Chevy Chase, Mother Dung and John Sayers, the illustrator of Bethania, were making fun of everything in Bethany and being loved for it. People looked forward to seeing this great thing on their cafeteria tables. It brought the school together: “Who was Ma Dung?” rang from everyone’s lips. No one knew.

If you’re hoping that the identity of Ma Dung, the current incarnation or the earlier one (if there is a difference. Many professors of this fine institution have been here since the 70s…) you’re out of luck. If you want to know why so many people have wondered who Ma Dung is, go into the archives and ask Mrs. Cobb to show you it sometime. It is some of the funniest stuff this reporter has ever read, even 20 years after its creation.

Ma Dung attacked anything. From blasting students who didn’t seem to realize that graduation meant they could leave, asking publicly if the colors of Beta were Really baby blue and pink, to offering the most truthful interpretation of WVBC’s schedule ever, it was unfailingly funny, almost always brilliant, and put out once a week.

Go to the archives, discover what the universal spirit that Ma so flawlessly captured. Catch Mrs. Cobb on a good day, and she’ll explain all of Bethania to you, showing you the bound books of the entire run that Sayers sold to students when it was all over.

Ma is still here today, as we can see. With a brief appearance in 1996, this is the first long display of her since that long ago time. She’s a little older, a little more bitter, and twenty years can play hell with getting to print or the toilet regularly, but doubt not that the last has not been seen of her. As long as publications like A Vision Thing, Old Phedinkus, and Vanguard Party continue to prove that Bethany students can offer something to read that soars high above the Tower, Ma will be with us, always.

 

P.O. Box 266
Bethany, WV 26032