Thursday, May 22, 2008

Flashback: The Exacting, Careful Planning for the Breakout, My Date’s Willingness… and a Roommate’s Objection.

Fifty-plus years of memories written for my kids and grandchildren.

Making Sure Every Detail is Covered.

Determined to execute a daring slip…a breakout… to the world outside mid-week from the pre-Vatican II Saint John’s (September, 1946) in order to take a raven-haired nurse-in-training, Mildred Murphy, to the movies, I resolved to make plans with utmost care. I couldn’t imagine being expelled for such a venture (although given the discipline at the school this was not impossible) but suspension would be dreadful in that my parents back in Chicago would be informed. With luck (were I caught) I would be campus-ed but I resolved not to let that happen either. I called her on the phone from the phone booth in the monastery porter’s office. The layman, an elderly garrulous layman named Ted the Porter, had to place the call for me as per custom—to the switchboard at the nurse’s residence at Saint Cloud Hospital. He cupped his ears to hear so we had to speak in code.

I talking to the hospital switchboard at the hospital, looking at him: “My name is Roeser from Saint John’s. There’s a nurse there waiting for this call.”

Nun at switchboard: “Yes, Mr. Roeser, she’s been waiting for a while. Mildred Murphy. Mildred, a call for you! [To me] “She’s a lovely girl. My favorite. Here, Mildred.”

She: “Hi! Good to hear from you!”

Me: [Pause] Same here. The nun likes you, huh?

She: “We’re old friends, aren’t we Sister? Sister Camille. She wants me to become a nun, don’t you, Sister?”

Sister Camille breaks in on our all: “Yes, indeed! She would make a lovely one!”

Me: “But I would be very sad!”.

Much giggling and the nun hangs up.

Me: “About the event we discussed in our correspondence, what would you say to reading the page in the text under date of September 27?”

She: “What are you talking about? Oh, I get it. September 27 did you say? A week from Wednesday?”

Me: “Yes. The portion in the text that deals with 7 p.m.”

She (chuckling softly): “Say, this code is brilliant of you. That’s Chicago-style, isn’t it? You say seven p. m. on the 27th? A week from Wednesday., right?

Me: : “Right.”

She: “Perfect. Since you can’t talk, I will. Come to the nurse’s residence at Saint Cloud hospital. You know where it is? 1406 Sixth avenue north. I think you’ll have to take a cab.

Me: “Yes, wait a minute. I’m copying it down.”

She: “The nurse’s residence is right next to the Emergency entrance. You’ll find it. Go to the desk where Sister Camille here will be at the switchboard. Ask for her. If she’s not and somebody else is, remember this: The rule is that only a member of the family can call on me on weeknights. Sister Camille here understands [more giggling] but not the others. Sister Camille will know you. If she’s not here for some reason, tell the nun who is that you are a relative of the family, she will call me and I’ll come down. Better yet—I’ll be here when you come in. You know, this is really funny—the name Roeser is well known in Saint Cloud. You’re not related to them, by chance?”

Me: “No.”

She: “I meant to tell you at the dance as soon as you told me your name. There was a judge by that name so you won’t have any trouble. They’re well known in Stearns county. Gee, that’s funny.”

Me: “On your mother’s side.”

She: “Yes. How clever. We’re related on my mother’s side Okay, thanks for the call. You’re being overheard, I imagine.”

Me: “Very much so. Wait, what time do you have to be back there on that night?”

She: “Depends. If it’s Sister Camille who I think it will be, there is no deadline since we’re friends. With anyone else, it’ll be 11 p.m. on the dot. But I’m sure it will be Sister Camille. Who’s overhearing you there?”

Me: “Oh, I don’t--.”

She: “Must be Ted the Porter. My brother (Fr. Malachy Murphy, OSB) tells me about him. See you on the 27th. Looking forward to it. Should be fun. `Bye.”

Me: “Wait-wait-wait!”

She: “Yes?”

Me: “The name you just mentioned.”

She: “Who? My brother? Fr. Malachy? Are you worried he knows? Of course not, silly!! Don’t you think I can keep a secret from him?

Me: “I hope so because if not, I’d be dead.”

She: “Never fear, my dear. You’re safe with me. Always. Just pray that Sister Camille will be on duty. I think she will so no worry. This is exciting!”

After hanging up, I paid the Porter for the call (25 cents) and said: “

Ted the Porter said: “Who died?

I said: “No one. Just a figure of speech.”

On the way to my room, I was still concerned about her brother, Malachy Murphy, OSB. So on the way to my room, I saw the lineup of monks before the abbey church door, waiting for the Abbot to arrive to lead them to Compline. There was the Bull of the Woods. He noticed me and I nodded. Let him think I’m so religious I’m going to Compline. I decided to inspect Malachy Murphy, OSB so I slipped into a pew in the back. The entire community walked in with Abbot Alcuin, carrying the crosier with curved head in the form of the shepherd’s staff. Toward the end of the line came the slight form of Malachy Murphy, pencil-thin, shy, singing with the rest of them, dark haired, brown eyes like his sister. The monks took their places in the two choir stalls across from each other. I stayed a while, then slipped out, thinking to myself: this is a dangerous-dangerous thing you’re doing, all for a woman, Roeser. Foolhardy but it’s too late now.

Planning the Breakout.

Philosophy…and I was a philosophy minor…took up a major part of the first year’s academic regimen. I had ancient, properly Medieval old Ernie (Fr. Ernest Kilzer, OSB) for Logic—a wonderful break since many of the freshmen took it from Godfrey Diekmann, OSB who made it appear that the Church is an exhilarating, free-form, hugely inventive organism that cannot be tied down by the bureaucracy or machinations of men. For Ethics I had a layman, Emerson Hynes, father of nine, a disciple of Aristotle and Aquinas no holds barred, with no innovations, paradoxically a confidant of Eugene McCarthy who wound up as his legislative assistant and adviser in the Senate during the climactic `60s. For Aristotle’s Politics, there was Fr. Oliver Kapsner, OSB, a man like Ernie who had spent his entire life translating brittle, yellowing, parchment documents from the original Greek for the abbey library. He had haunted eyes that made you believe he had seen everything with them and would be surprised at nothing more.

In Oliver’s class as he extolled the wisdom of Aristotle, I scribbled the plan for the breakout on the 27th. As he went on, I took my mind off the breakout blueprint when he said how wise Aristotle was in contradistinction to Socrates in his view of young people. What Oliver said has stayed with me my entire life. Aristotle warned that young men are incapable of listening to lectures on political philosophy. Why? Because they are doubly disadvantaged: First, they are overflowing with enthusiasm for changing the world and, said the Philosopher, they are incapable of doing so because they know so little about it. Because of this, second, they fall for cerebral, utopian schemes that have them believe that things can be changed in short order. Which is why, Oliver said, Aristotle never imitated Socrates in speaking the philosophy of politics with the young. The young men Socrates talked to ended up endorsing tyranny over reality. I thought that one over for a long time. As I was young myself—18—it seemed Aristotle was right in refusing to talk politics with the young. We are naturally led to radical things.

Radical things like what I was planning: a breakout.

Breakdown of the Breakout.

The entire scheme was complicated. I would obligatorily go to dinner with the community at 6 on the 27th.

After this there would certainly be (1) gatherings of people in each other’s rooms to hear the promos for the big fight. My roommate, Kenneth would have been informed of my plans some days earlier, and of course would be pledged to keep it quiet—not lie if asked for that would be too much to ask because it could get him campus-ed (along with me were I to be found out)--but he could certainly play along with the game, notwithstanding the fact that he had been so influenced by Dismas Clark’s retreat that he was seriously thinking of entering the Benedictine Order. But he had a lot of time—he was 17. a year younger than I.

While my colleagues were gathered in one or another’s room for the big fight, (2) I would move my freshly pressed suit down the hall to a colleague’s room near the end of the corridor. (3)--then the pacing of the prefect, the Bull of the Woods (Fr. Adelard Thuente, OSB) while reading his breviary which contained prayers for the Office would begin. His squeaky shoes would signal the pacing. (4)—I would saunter down the hall in my regular school clothes, corduroy trousers, SJU shirt, sneakers and pop into the colleague’s room where my freshly pressed suit was hanging. Under my sweater I would be wearing a white shirt with tie already in place.

(5) I would swiftly change in my colleague’s room and wait for the squeaky shoes to pass as the Bull of the Woods passed by. If the Bull were to knock on my colleague’s door and enter, seeing me in a suit, I would say I was just trying it on. He could doubt it but no proof and so all bets were off and I would have to go down to the Porter’s office, place a call to her at the hospital and say all bets are off—sorry. But I doubted that would happen. (6) When the squeaky shoes passed, another colleague would stick his head in the door and say Adelard’s back is to us and he is midway down the hall going the other way. With my own shoes in hand, I would then sprint like a deer in stocking feet to the opposite end of the hall and round the bend where I would not be observed. (6.). I would put on my shoes and gallivant down the stairs to the outside.

(7). Once outside, there would be a mile and a half walk to the highway leading to Saint Cloud. I could make that jogging in, what? twenty-five minutes or so? Maybe longer as I’m not in shape and I’ve never gauged the distance before. (8) I would flag cars—hitchhike—on Highway 52. Usually cars stop to pick up student hitchhikers. (9) I would get out in downtown Saint Cloud at the Saint Cloud Hotel where taxis are lined up. (10). I would take one to the Saint Cloud hospital, directly to the nurse’s residence next to the Emergency Exit. (11) Pick up my lady love and we would take the cab to the Paramount theatre, part of the Saint Cloud hotel building where the feature movie would be playing—which unfortunately would be “Rustlers of Red Dog,” starring Johnny Mack Brown, an ex-football player from the U of Alabama turned cowboy. But who cares? Just to be with her.

Continuing: (12) Hold her hand during the movie, maybe put my arm around her in the seat, her head on my shoulder as we watch Johnny Mack Brown. (13) Take her to Dan Marsh’s drug store/restaurant and soda fountain where we would have either a hot fudge sundae (50 cents) or something else. (14) Take her back to the hospital in a cab. (15). Now this might or might not work. We get out of the cab and stroll around the grounds. (16). Who knows? We can stroll, possibly sit on a bench and relate to each other. (17). Then I take her to the door and (18) walk back to the center of town. (19). It’s now quite late. I walk the ½ mile or so to the main part of town and go to the Greyhound bus depot to catch a bus for Collegeville Road. The last bus will have left for Collegeville Road at 10:30 p.m. If things go well, I will not arrive at the depot in time to catch the bus but will have to wait for the next bus to Collegeville Road which leaves at 2 a.m. (20). I walk the mile and a half back to the university, slip in the back door. The electricity will have been turned off since 10:30 p.m. so I would have to make my way upstairs in the dark to my room on 2nd floor Benet. (21). Do not disturb my roommate and go to bed, prepared to arise at 7:30 a.m. or so.

Terribly Cumbersome Process, but--.

The first task was to tell my roommate Kenneth. He was, 17, brilliant, precocious, a gifted scholar, in pre-Med but now thinking seriously of becoming a monk since the retreat. And he is not impressed with my plan..

“Let me tell you what I think,” he says. “I think she is not worth the risk you are getting yourself in for. She could well be an Occasion of Sin.”

That is absurd.

“Do you remember what Fr. Dismas said about dirty girls?”

What the hell are you talking about?

“Dismas said that he would tell the GIs the same thing he told us-- that if they had to date a dirty girl and couldn’t get out of it, they should go up to her door, pull a rosary out of their pocket, ring the bell and when she answers hold the rosary in front of them and say, `I am here for our date, but I will not let you rob me of my virginity, dirty girl! A boy’s virginity is his jewel! Remember that, dirty girl!’”

Don’t you realize that he was talking to ex-GIs who are used to going out with Texas girls they would pick up in say El Paso or across the border in Juarez, Mexico or girls in San Diego or across the border in Tijuana, Mexico. This is a girl from Cold Spring, Minnesota who went to Catholic grade school, Catholic high school and is taking nurse’s training at a Catholic hospital, whose very brother in a Benedictine monk!

“I’m not through. I don’t know the girl but this I know—we are encouraged, to the extent that we go on dates, to date the girls from Saint Benedict College. Why do you think that is? Why don’t the monks here say take out the girls who take nurse’s training a Saint Cloud Hospital?”

I don’t know.

“Because women who study to be nurses KNOW THE DETAILS OF THE ENTIRE MALE BODY! She probably has seen more male nudity than even you have—in labs, in textbooks where the anatomy is shown in detail, in making the rounds of the hospital. In bathing male patients. I have an aunt who is a nurse. They do autopsies of dead bodies including male ones. Each nurse has to be intimately familiar with the male physique as well as the female before she is accredited. Did you know that?


“She knows your body—what makes it react.”

This is the most nonsensical thing I ever heard.

“I’m not through. You told me about the night you met her—at the Coliseum dance hall where the old time band was playing. She came there with a man, did she not? She was dancing with that man when she saw that you didn’t know how to dance Old Time. So what did she do? You told me. She left this guy in mid-dance and went over to you and right then and there without knowing you or you knowing her you two were partners all evening while her other guy was left to himself. I ask you: what kind of woman is that? Is that any example of loyalty? Is that behavior usual? A man here and another one there.”

Kenneth, what I think was, she came there with a group of girls and some guys, not dating but in a group and she wanted to dance with me—what’s the matter with that?

“I’m not finished. When it was time to go home, you wanted to take her home in a cab without hardly knowing her and she was willing to let you without hardly knowing you. But you couldn’t afford the cab so she scooted over to the guy she came in with and left with him—but she could have gone home, back to the hospital, with you. Does that qualify for Dismas’ description of a dirty girl…at least one of questionable morals-- or not?”


“You know what you’re getting in to? An Occasion of Sin. That you know about, don’t you? Don’t you remember Dismas’ description of it. Don’t interrupt me, I’m not done yet. Moreover she has a nun pal who allows her to break curfew. How many other times has she been out with men until all hours of the night—maybe until early morning? Mark me, nurses are worldly. More worldly than you or me. Also, she has a brother who is a Benedictine priest here you said. If anyone should know about the rules at Saint John’s it should be her. How is it she is inviting you to break the rules? Why do you think she’s doing this? She is not acceptable wife material, Roeser and you know it!”

I am not interested in getting married.

“Of course not. Not now. Nor is she, probably. All right. I won’t interfere. But don’t ask me to lie for you. If the Bull of the Woods comes in here on the 27th and asks where you are, I won’t say you’re in the library. I’ll say I don’t know. And when I say this, he will turn this place upside down to find you, I guarantee that.”

That’s the chance I am going to take. Your views of this entire thing, Kenneth, are grossly inflated. Occasion of Sin? There is no possibility that bad things can happen to me or to her either in the Paramount theatre where we will be watching Johnny Mack Brown or the Dan Marsh drug store where we will be eating or the Saint Cloud cab or on the grounds of the Saint Cloud Hospital.

“I told you I shall not interfere. But I am sorry that your carnality has returned—possibly never left--so soon after the retreat. That’s all I will say about this issue but remember this. This could be the day you decide to become a kind of outlaw, violating the curfew rules here and other rules later.”

With no vestige of guilt, I went to bed in the upper bunk, listened to the heavy bells toll the hours and reviewed the plans in my mind.

Kenneth was a 17-year-old wild, raving descendent of Savonarola of Florence who burned articles of art and ruined everyone’s fun until he was burned at the stake and quite properly, too. The important thing is: . I had at last found a young woman who was interested in me and I would take the risk that she would be an accomplice in my flight from virtue. I was sure she would not be. And after all, would I be just putty in her hands? Then I fell asleep.


Have I drawn this out too long? Well I haven’t. As you will see when there’s more—next.

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