Monday, April 17, 2006

“Fellows, I’d Like You to Meet Father, Here: He’s Going to Go Through the Initiation With You.” From Those Words to a Likely Tumble Down from the 14th Floor.

[Another flash-back to the past for my kids and grandchildren].

It was December, 1954. Hubert Humphrey was decisively reelected along with a Democratic-Farmer-Labor governor and a full complement of Democratic-Farmer-Labor constitutional officers (save one) along with hefty majorities in state House and Senate, picking up a Congressman along the way. The state became more Democratic than ever before in its history. All the newspapers said the Republican party of Minnesota was a walking corpse. The polls showed farmers from normally conservative southeastern Minnesota were voting Democrat, as were urban Scandinavians in Minneapolis (interrupting the landslide only to vote for their legendary Congressman Walter Judd, a former medical missionary to China and icon of the Eisenhower-Dulles foreign policy), the Irish in St. Paul, the eastern Europeans of the Iron Range, the Germans of central state even many business leaders who loved Humphrey’s ability to get things done for them. The vaunted progressive Republican party of the `40s and early `50s was dead.

But it mattered little to me as we St. Cloud Knights of Columbus embarked on a road trip to Minneapolis to initiate about 43 candidates into the Order. I had my freshly pressed priest’s suit plus black dicky, shiny patent leather shoes and stiff celluloid roman collar in my suit bag. At 26 I was finally somehow to validate my mother’s prayer that I become a priest—a fake one, yes, but one who would be insulted and slapped soundly for the Faith.

“My only worry about you,” said our chief, Marty Nilan, “is that you look too young. You’re 26, barely old enough to be ordained. Your predecessor had grey in his hair. He looked something like a monsignor. Not you. You look like a choir boy. If anybody asks, you’re a young 33 or so. It’s only because you’ve pestered the hell out of me to be the priest that I allowed it. Don’t make me regret it.”

I resolved I wouldn’t. On the Friday afternoon before, I skipped out of my reportorial job early and went to the city police station where, with George Stotko, captain of detectives, we rehearsed his slapping me without touching me over and over again, me falling back and unhooking my roman collar at the same time.

When we got to the big city—Minneapolis (although I was from Chicago, having been in St, Cloud for almost two years made me feel privately and oddly awed at seeing the big buildings after so long)—we got to the changing room. I stepped into the immaculate black suit, viewed myself in the mirror as a proper young clergyman, and we infiltrated the group. Unlike any initiation we had held before, the Knights of Columbus Hall was on the 14th floor of what 1954 Minneapolitans called a “skyscraper”—the antique and somewhat rickety Marquette building—but which we Chicagoans would scoff at (as indeed I did with my St. Cloud-ite brothers showing the sophistication of one who had beheld true skyscrapers long before).

“Fellows, I’d like you to meet Father here,” said the Minneapolis Grand Knight. “He’s going to go through the initiation with you.” A decoy from our group said, “Father Foley, nice to meet you!” (It was a rule never to have the officialdom mis-lead and the decoy gave out the false name). We shook hands all around and soon I was talking about the tasks of the priesthood with a familiarity that made our sheriff’s deputy decoy, Darryl Hurd, roll his eyes privately. Then he came over and said, “Don’t overdo it now. Lord, I thought you were going to give them a homily a few minutes ago.” O.k, I said. “I’ve checked this crowd over,” he said. “Quite a few chickens here. Quite a few.”

By which he meant it was a vastly different group than the behemoth Iron Range workers we initiated a few weeks before. These were largely businessmen, mild, bespectacled and gentle—sure to hang back after the priest was slapped which gave our new “Mad Dog,” the man allegedly bitten by a dog, Paul Walleck, great anticipation as he juggled his Alka Seltzer tablets in his coat pocket, clearing his throat and getting ready some hours later to froth at the mouth and emit the “eeeeeeowowowow!”

Hurd was right: they were a placid group, responding not at all to the decoys’ complaints about what was taking so long to get it started; some saying, “oh, it’s all right.” Our sick man who looked like an advance man for a famine went around gently telling the story of his hospitalization for ulcers which elicited only yawns. The Mad Dog was looked at with faint interest. They understood Hurd was a sheriff’s deputy but were bored. Our decoy convert, Gerald Olson, didn’t cause a stir when he happened to mention he had just been received into the Church—others in the group had done the same. So it was going to be a dull event.

The decoy guards, who had the job of protecting Stotko, were going around looking at the size of the men whom they hoped would be infuriated. They were average sized, some slight, some elderly. One little man, I would guess he was 70, was in fact the most benign man I had met in all of the initiations. He told me his name was Jarle (pronounced “Yar-ley”) Carlson, a Norwegian name. He was a convert, one of several in the group, a father of six and grandfather of thirteen. He was instrumental in converting his wife and kids and so his grandchildren. He was delighted to be a Catholic, so much so that it was touching. He had been an accountant with General Mills and spent his days doing good works, helping at food pantries for the poor etc. I remember him well because he was only the second man I ever met with the name Jarle. He was telling me who the original Jarle was when we were ordered into the holding room by an insolent and drunken appearing George Stotko. It was exactly the size of other holding rooms: no chairs, the heat on full-blast. Only a small window near the ceiling which was shut tight.

“That guy looked drunk,” one of our decoys growled as he slammed the door. No one volunteered an agreement. “I don’t think so,” said Old Man Jarle. “They wouldn’t allow that in the Knights.” Everybody agreed. I looked over at Hurd and we agreed: this would be a very placid event. Next time I wanted to go back to being the Mad Dog.

As the afternoon whiled away, the convert Gerald Olson scored in the catechism test and no one else did. When we were back in the holding room, Stotko appeared, wiping his lips and bellowed out the roll call. One of our decoys protested at the length of time it took. None of the inductees agreed; in fact Jarle seemed to reprove our decoy. Stotko looked at me meaningfully as if to say these guys aren’t very stirred up. After he left and slammed the door, the decoys tried to work them up. A greater example of Christian charity and forebearance I never saw. Then Caulson, our decoy sick man flew into his well-rehearsed rage, pounded on the door, rolled his eyes back until you could only see the whites, sank down and bled from his gaping mouth.

That created quite a stir. But not anger. As the priest, I knelt by him and talked tenderly (whispering softly to ask whether Coulson wanted to go to Confession, which caused him to open one eye and grunt, “not hardly.” . But Jarle Carlson was all over him, loosening his tie, fanning him, asking me if I thought he was having a heart attack. I said no but I was gravely worried. Then Stotko came in, insulted the convert and people began to become more agitated. As I confronted Stotko, our eyes seemed to agree that things were getting worked up. One of our decoy guards aimed a blow at Stotko which he expertly ducked and the temper of the crowd of portly bankers, accountants and retirees started to raise. Stotko disclaimed any interest in the sick man—none at all. All according to plan.

Then, as I was getting ready to shout my line, “Sir—are you drunk?” I happened to look back over my shoulder. What I saw stunned me, then gave me the fright of my life—something that wasn’t in the script.

While everybody was massed at the door berating Stotko, my friend Jarle Carlson had not left the sick man’s side. But he had inveigled another two guys to—believe it or not!—boost him up to the small window high up on the wall. When I saw him he had forced the window open. They gave him a shove and half of him disappeared but his buttocks were stuck on the ledge. Before I could shout—“hey! Don’t do that!” his friends gave him a mighty boost and his rump squeezed through the window and he had disappeared. “He’s gone to get help!” one guy said.

“Do you know we’re on the 14th floor?” I yelled.

They looked remorseful. “I guess that’s right,” one said slowly.

That’s when I felt my life would be changed for all time. A national story: Catholic organization horseplay features an inattentive kid dressed up as a priest who did nothing while elderly man scrambles out a window and tumbles fourteen stories to his death. Funeral featuring elderly widow, children, grandchildren. Archbishop of St. Paul condemning horse-play. Mayor of Minneapolis, governor all condemnatory. Fired journalist admits complicity. Dead man’s widow, children, grandchildren leave the Church in anger; become Lutheran. News goes across the nation. Reading of this in the Chicago Tribune my mother asks, “why, tell me, did my son dress up as a priest when I even had trouble when he was a kid getting him to observe Holy Days of Obligation? Playing a trick on that old man. Dressed up like a priest! What in the name of God was wrong with his head?” How would I respond? “Ma, it was a religious service, actually.” She: “RELIGIOUS SERVICE? You acting as an imposter, a drunk gets abusive, a man collapses and bleeds from his mouth, they get after the drunk, somebody running around yelling his head off that he’s been bit by a dog and there’s a shooting and a poor old man goes out the window, falling fourteen stories? RELIGIOUS SERVICE? God give you sense! Your Father won’t tell me the whole story to this day but we agree on this: You’re coming home to Chicago and do penance probably for the rest of your life for the death of that old man and the turning of his kids and grandchildren from the Faith!!”

Not seeing the old guy go through the window, Stotko was starting to fend off quite a few blows now, not just from decoys but from the business-types who were getting worked up. He was waiting for me to give the words that would lead him to slap me but I was worried. I almost forgot to say them and he motioned to me, his eyes widening: get with it! Thinking about how Jarle Carlson was lying on the street dead and what it would mean for all of us, I finally shouted (with a preoccupied tone): “Sir, are you drunk?” Stotko yelled, “at least I buy my liquor, I don’t sneak behind the altar to drink it!” and wound up, giving me a beautiful fake slap, the decoy guards jumped up to block vision of the slap, someone hit his fist into his palm with a resounding smack and I fell back, loosening my collar, tumbled into the outstretched arms of the men behind me, thinking all the time about Jarle Carlson.

The gang now sufficiently worked up, leapt around the guards, aimed blows at Stotko and he was off across the chamber floor with them in hot pursuit—but I was still thinking about poor old Jarle. Dead at 70. His family all converted Catholics because of him. And Catholicism did him in. And I hadn’t taken sufficient care to watch him. His death, his wife, his children would be on my conscience for the remainder of my life. Fourteen floors. Right now, probably, a crowd is gathering outside. Somebody saying, “the body came down from that little tiny window up there where the Knights of Columbus meet!”

This was on my mind as I went through the act mechanically. The lights went dark, three gun shots, someone shouted “they’re trying to kill us all!” and another: “everybody on the floor!” Then there was the familiar eeeeeeeoowowowowow! from the Mad Dog. I scrambled to my feet and beat it out a side door to get to the changing room where I could put on my civvies, making my way through the darkness, when I bumped headlong into Jarle Carlson!

“What in the name of God is going on, Father!” he screamed.

I hugged him with exhilarated relief: “Jarle! I saw you go through the window. We’re on the 14th floor!”

He said, “There’s a roof two stories down. Awful experience. What’s that scream: eeeeowowow?”

“How did you make out? I had visions of you falling--.”

“There it goes again! Eeeeeowowow! Hear it? They’re goin’ bezerk in there!”

“Jarle, what happened after you went through the window?”

“I went to summon help for that poor man! I’m sure he’s dead! What was that yowl? Why are the lights out? Are you hurt, Father?”

“Forget the yowl. Jarle, tell me what happened?”

“I opened the small window and two guys gave me a boost out. I got stuck and they gave me a shove that almost sent me to the street! Lucky, there’s a rusty old fire escape there so I ran two stories to the other roof rapped on a window and a night janitor let me in.”

“Thank God!”

“Father, you’re a man of compassion. I knew it from when we first met! Almost thought I’d have a heart attack when I went through the window after I remembered we were fourteen floors up. Then I thanked God for the fire escape and the other roof and the janitor. But let me tell you this: I took the elevator back up to the Council chamber and ran in saying, `Hey you damn fools! There’s a sick man in there and they’re trying to get out and there’s a drunk insulting everybody! Can’t you hear `em! You know what they did?”


“They were on the way to throw me back in that room, believe it or not, that’s what they were goin’ to do when all hell broke loose, the whole crowd ran out chasing the drunk, the lights went off and shots were fired! Then you ran up! Somebody’s bein’ disemboweled in there with that eeeowowow! You’re the only one I can believe in, Father! This is a disaster! That finishes the Knights of Columbus for me! The only thing I can believe in now is…”

He started to weep unashamedly and sobbed:


Now, Jarle,” I said. “Sit down. I’ve got to be gone for a while. I think they’re settling down in there. Go join `em! They’ll want to take testimony from those who saw the whole thing. They need your expert testimony.”

“I will. God bless you, Father! Give me your blessing that we can all get through this night together!”

I didn’t want to but what the hell.


“This was productive but rather dull,” said Marty Nilan as we drove the 82 miles home to St. Cloud.

“Sorta,” said Stotko. “Nobody came close to hitting me. They didn’t run after me very fast. Not like those guys in Duluth.”

“Sorry, said Nilan to me. “Some days aren’t as good as others. Stick with us; they’ll get more exciting. Say, some old geezer ran into the Council chambers and told `em what was going on in the Holding Room. Was he late for the initiation or what?”

“Listen, ” I said. “He got out of the Holding Room. Let me tell you what really happened.”

Thank God, Jarle Carlson didn’t leave the Church or become the world’s most bitter apostate, a Martin Luther, a vehement Protestant Savonarola, a re-igniter of the Acacian Schism or a cynic like Voltaire, Spinoza and Baruch. He took it like the grandfatherly gentleman he was and greeted me with an embrace.

“You all sure had me fooled!” he said. “And I can’t even tell my wife?”

“Not under pain of the most severe penalty,” I said with the last remaining trace of my priestly solemnity. It was fun except from when he went through the window until I bumped into him in the dark.

But no more priest for me.

Ever since and for the rest of my acting career, I played the Mad Dog.

[In winter-Spring 1955, the disappearance of a bar maid in the neon jungle of Sauk Rapids and I start serious worrying about ever getting out of St. Cloud when the phone rings].

1 comment:

  1. Please remember, Mr. Roeser, that you are bound to keep certain details of KofC ceremonials secret, and here you have posted details in a public place! If these aren't removed, I will have to inform KofC authorities!