Wednesday, April 5, 2006

An Angry Crowd, a Few Thrown Punches, Insults and the Riot is On: Part III and Finale of the Knights of Columbus Initiation in 1954.

[If you want to scroll back up or read something else, go ahead. This is for my four kids and 13 grandchildren to read sometime when (especially the grandchildren) are older.]

The banging on the door was furious. Then it opened and the gowned adjutant appeared. Everybody knew now that he had been drinking. Darryl Hurd, the deputy sheriff, said in a commanding voice, “Sir, we have a sick man here. I’m a sheriff’s deputy and I command you to let us through.”

He said, “I’ll be the judge of whether he’s sick or not. Right now I’m taking the roll.” Hurd kept it up but he started reading off names. The physician said, “I tell you, sir, we’ve got an emergency. I’m a doctor!” He kept reading off the names with some of them answering “here.” The convert, Gerald Olson, moved up and implored him. “Sir, for the love of God, don’t you know the meaning of corporal works of mercy? We have a man who may be--.”

“Corporal works of mercy?” roared the Adjutant. “Listen, I knew about the corporal works of mercy when you were going to that goofy Protestant babble house--.” A shout of dismay and a forest of fists flew at him which he ducked expertly. “Calm down, now,” he said. . He continued calling the roll.

“Listen,” shouted Olson, “I resent that. I really do!”

“Do you now? Well, at least I got into the Church by being born into it, not like you did—getting an Irish girl into trouble and marrying into it!”

Olson fell back, aghast. Everybody shouted. That was enough for the priest who pushed his way forward and said quietly, “These men have asked and I command you to open the door and let us out.” “Not until I’m through reading off the names.”

The priest shouted: “Sir, I’ve got to ask. Have you been drinking?”

The Adjutant exploded: “So what if I have? At least I buy my own liquor, I don’t sneak behind the altar and drink it” and he pushed the priest away with fury. I couldn’t see everything he did, but I heard a slap; the priest fell back, his collar loosened—and the reasoning period was over.

They leapt over the slumped priest, over the backs of those who were standing by his side. Seeing the crowd had boiled over, the Adjutant turned and fled, all of us on his heels. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Darryl Hurd reach into his jacket for the gun I was sure was there. Suddenly the lights went out; everything was pitch black. There were three shots fired. “Dear God! Somebody said, they’re going to kill us all!” “Down!” someone else said, “down! Hit the deck!” We did, which was the best thing we did.

For a time there was quiet. My heart was pounding and I was trying to imagine what happened. Hurd must have got bezerk; the Adjutant may have had a gun himself; they may have had a shootout. And here I am—a newspapeman! Wonderful story—maybe a national story! Religious fraternal initiation gets out of hand, struggle, two dead!

When the lights went on, we were still on the floor and surrounded by a ring of Knights, grim, humorless. Suddenly up comes Jim Dailey. “Order! As a prosecuting attorney, although of another county, I am still an officer of the Court. I ask you Knights to help these men to their chairs. We’re going to initiate an inquiry right now. I want a stenographer: here he is. You take notes.” Now, when we were seated, dusty and sweaty from rolling on the floor, he pointed at one guy and said, “tell us what you saw—and only what you saw.”

“Sure,” said the guy. “Your great comrade here, where is he? The Adjutant was drunk. He pushed us around. He pushed the convert here.”

Pushed him? “Pushed him. And he hit the priest after insulting him.”

Hit the priest. Get that down. I was one of the testifiers. “What do you do?” Dailey asked. A journalist. “Oh,” he said. “A newspaperman. Trained to observe. Let him talk.” I started at the beginning. The drunken bum they had pushing us around. The locked door and the crowd of Knights outside applauding for some reason, not hearing us trying to get out. The sick man, a friend, getting upset, fainting, bleeding. The drunken bum comes in and ignores the sick man. Insults the convert. Insults and slugs the priest. The gun shots I imagine were fired by either Darryl Hurd or somebody else. I looked around for Hurd. Gone as was the sick man (they probably took both of them out).

So, said Dailey, strangely calm as he conferred with his stenographer. Then he stood up and strode about almost as if he were summarizing a case before a jury—summarizing it for us and the assembled Knights.

“Listen to me,” said Dailey. “There was no drunken functionary. I’ll produce him here…” Waving his hand and out comes the guy, not wearing his robe, his hair combed. “I’ve known him for thirty years. He’s George Ingrebretsen, assistant director of the state Liquor Control Commission, a law enforcement officer who has worked with me for years. It so happens he’s a total abstainer. George, how did you give the impression you were a drunken bum?” Ingrebretsen said, “I wanted to give that impression, Jim, so, as you know, I soaked my robe in Jim Beam and put it on the radiator in the back room there until it got fragrant. You saw me do it.”

“Yes,” said Dailey. “I did. George taught you a lesson. Through the whispered suggestions of others in your group, you became convinced he was drunk. And now what about the sick man. I’ll produce him now…” Waving his hand and Al Coulson, my friend, dressed in a fresh suit, shirt and tie, strode out. “I do have ulcers,” said Coulson, “and was hospitalized with them about ten years ago. I’m pretty well now.”

“You were sent in there to give an impression. Al, you’ve been a Knight for many years, have you not?” Yes sir. “And how did you give the impression you were sick?”

“First, I take my plate out,” said Coulson, “like this [demonstrating] which causes my cheeks to sink in and I sort of suggest that I’m not feeling well, that I have bleeding ulcers. I just sort of float around the room with these recruits and happen to drop the rumor. Before I show up at initiations, I go to the Hormel slaughterhouse near here and get a vial of chicken blood and before I get into the act I slip it in my mouth like a capsule and bite down hard on it and—that’s all. I bleed from the mouth.”

“Next,” said Dailey, “I understand a priest was insulted here and hit. That’s unforgivable. Will he come out, please?” He cast a sidelong, somewhat sheepish look at me.

A young man walks out in an expensive sports jacket and slacks. The same guy: wearing white shirt, cuff-links, natty tie. I thought: Now I remember, I’ve seen that guy before. Where?

“My name’s Ray Warnock,” he said. “I’m general manager of the Franklin Transformer plant in Little Falls.” That’s it: I saw his photo on our Business page!

“No priest,” he said, “but I studied for the priesthood for a year or so. I never called myself a priest—I was introduced as `Father.’ I am: father of two. George Ingrebretsen and I have been doing this thing for about ten years. He insults me, then he reaches over. If you remember, when he reached over a number of men—plants, four in all—raise up and block the view; one smacks his fist on his palm, smack! And I go down, having been careful to loosen my clerical collar before I supposedly get hit, so I fall back, collar askew.”

“Now,” said Dailey, “there was a deputy sheriff here. And one of you said you thought he fired a gun. Where is he? Here he is.”

Darryl Hurd walked out, gives me a high-sign and a smile seeming to ask, “no hard feelings?”

“I am a deputy,” he said. “And have been a Knight of Columbus for seven years. I never carry a gun to these functions but I spread the word that I am a sheriff’s deputy. I guess when my friend Tom here saw me reach into my jacket, he took it that I—well, he was wrong. The lights went out. The shots you heard were real, but recorded. I recorded them years ago.”

“And there were four others in this group who went in as plants,” said Dailey. “One was Gerald Olson who is not a convert but played the role. You see, everybody played a role to show you a powerful lesson. Converts are usually better informed about their faith than cradle Catholics. Rumors are insidious. I will ask the other three to stand—so in a class of 54 initiates, six were plants: the sick man, the bogus priest, the supposed drunken lout, the sheriff’s deputy and two others who hustled fake stories—stories like: he’s drunk, he hit the priest, why are we here? One of your number was taken in just like you. The physician. He did what a doctor is supposed to do when a guy faints, try to get him out of there.

“The real lesson of this initiation is this,” said Dailey. “While you were waiting to be initiated, we initiated you. In addition to the role-players, four men who were in this group spread dissention and disunion about to the effect that fifty of you were turned into a raging mob and not one of you had time to ponder the effect. And our newspaper reporter here was taken in as well! [Applause]. I was worried about you because I don’t like nosy journalists, but you didn’t give me any trouble. You were taken in with everybody else!”

What should we take away from this thing except that we are damn fools, a guy asked.

“Just this,” Dailey said. “In 1917 a small group of dedicated people—sixteen thousand—took over the entire nation of Russia, many hundreds of millions, and made it the Soviet Socialist Republics. Read Lenin, read Trotsky. Just like you, they were mis-led, then led. But I don’t want to leave it like this. You feel humiliated.

“You shouldn’t. You should have seen me forty years ago when I was initiated. What you did at the end made all the difference. You showed you got what it takes. A sick man collapses, an adjutant insults a convert, insults and purportedly, I don’t know, hits a priest. Your church is going to the dogs before your eyes and you rose up like one man, you sprang to it’s defense. You’ve got what it takes, gentlemen; you’re not mealy-mouthed lukewarmers. Now we got dinner waiting for you—and beer, good old Minnesota-brewed Cold Spring beer. Your families, wives, sisters, kids are in another room waiting for you. A combo for your dancing pleasure. But before you go, you’re committed to keep this secret until you are absolved from secrecy. One guy released it, James T. Farrell in Studs Lonigan. Someday, maybe not long from now, this initiation will be scrapped because of a dawning age of cynicism. Not now. Until then, keep the secret, keep the faith.”

The initiation was dropped because times changed. If it sounds maudlin to you—unbelievable—it’s because we’ve been inundated with so much entertainment, so much falsity that it cannot comport. We’re not in the age of Ozzie and Harriet anymore as our world-weary advocates joyously remind us. That’s o.k., because I still wince when I think of how I—such an innocent at 26—was taken. But there are times when I wish I were back there, my kids and grandchildren. Things began to change soon after that. Dailey never made the cut to be the Democratic Farmer Labor party’s choice for attorney general, by the way. Too conservative, too Irish. A few years later, the party filled a vacancy by appointing a liberal Walter F. Mondale, future Senator, future vice president and future presidential nominee who lost to Ronald Reagan.

But Dailey would have had my vote forever—just as 30 years later Reagan ultimately got the patriarchal Dailey’s as part of the realignment that lost the Democratic party the conservative Catholics.

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