Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Flashback: Operation Breakout Begins with Two Lucky Breaks. Then a Memorable Evening, a Brilliant Choice of Options When Danger Looms and the Denouement.

More than 60 years of living written as a memoir for my kids and grandchildren.

“Two items of good news,” my Saint John’s roommate Kenneth said on September 25, 1946, two days from my breakout. Being a child prodigy, he spoke in just those precise, legalistic (even literary) terms—“two items of good news.” We had hardly exchanged words since his condemnation of student nurse Mildred Murphy as one decidedly inappropriate for dating since she was too experienced in observing the male physiognomy, as absurd an objection as I ever heard.

I didn’t respond. I had decided he was hopelessly immature…just passed sixteen, turning seventeen a few weeks earlier (having been promoted two grades as a kid)—although a near genius in math, knew his towering IQ score which he told everyone who would listen, also an accomplished pianist--…and his callowness warranted no response from me. But he recited them anyhow.

“First, The Bull of the Woods will be gone, out of town on Wednesday, the night of your breakout. There’s a note on the bulletin board that the substitute prefect for that night will be Fabian. No one better for you than he.”

(“No one better for you than he.” That’s how he spoke, with grammatical exactitude).

But that was TRUE! It cheered me immensely. My biggest worry had been the Bull of the Woods and now he was out of the picture. That meant the breakout should be duck soup, a phrase we used to say and which Kenneth disdained. The sub would be Father Fabian Weigleitner, OSB young, newly ordained cleric who worked in the university’s accounting office, a pushover who wanted all to like him. Soft, pliable, shy, meek, wanted to be a pal to the students. As unlike the Bull of the Woods as was possible to get. Odds are he would be in his room holding a bull session with some of the brown-noses on the floor who like to ingratiate themselves with all Benedictines (the Bull of the Woods discouraged brown-noses which at bottom is why I couldn’t help liking some of his qualities). Fabian would be gratified with the attention, would get his Office prayers out of the way early so as to have time slinging the baloney with the students…definitely not pacing the corridor sentry-fashion like the Bull of the Woods. That will make it easier for me on the break-out.

What’s the other good news?

“Wednesday’s a big night on the radio so everybody will be listening, including Fabian. It’s the night of the Zale-Graziano fight.”

EVEN BETTER! Fabian was a jock enthusiast so he’d get his Office prayers said early and the corridor would be empty for my breakout as everybody on 2nd floor Benet would be listening. Tony Zale, the middleweight champion of the world, would be fighting a very tough challenger, Rocky Graziano, broadcast on a national radio hookup. Everyone will be huddled around their radios and the corridor will be empty which should be perfect for my breakout. Fabian would undoubtedly host a group of them in his room, smoking cigarettes and cigars to listen and cheer while the fight was on.

“Kenneth,” I said, “thanks for that news. I guess I should not be mad at you anymore so let’s shake hands. You only just turned seventeen and you can’t be expected to understand the need of a man to go to the movies with a girl.”

“And I probably never will if I continue thinking about the priesthood,” he said. We shook.

Then he added: “That doesn’t mean I favor the breakout. Just trying to be helpful.”

Understand. Where has the Bull of the Woods gone?

“Supposedly to South Dakota. Somebody in his family has been sick.”

EXCELLENT! With those two good items, I re-calculated how much money the breakout would take. Those reading this who are not from the era will be stunned at the paucity of an amount needed to make a breakout successful in 1946. To shore up money reserves for the date, through the month. I had avoided buying sweets, cigarettes (smoking cigarettes was entirely acceptable…in fact de rigeur in college with men--although not women who were viewed as cheapening themselves if they did it. Smoking for me was encouraged at Saint John’s, for students as well as clergy, the view being that this was a particularly acceptable form of male diversion…the only rap on them was that it got you winded easily if you were an athlete. Otherwise, smoking was assiduously welcomed on campus: pipes for the intellectuals and professors, Roi Tan cigars soaked in rum at 10-cents apiece for the jocks, cigarettes for the ex-GIs and the rest of us. I smoked cigarettes as an affectation, inhaled but never got addicted thankfully so giving them up…Chesterfields cost 25 cents a pack…was easy. But I resolved to take a pack with me to smoke when I took her out because it was acceptably sophisticated.

In addition, I forfeited one Saturday night’s trip on the Johnny Blue Bus to Saint Cloud to conserve money, watching an unforgivably dull movie circa 1944, Nelson Eddy and Charles Coburn in “Knickerbocker Holiday” for pre-div’s (pre-divinity students) in the Auditorium. So I had about $22.50 in pocket now, more than enough. My Mom would send me $5 one week and $10 the second. Tomorrow there should be the $10 check in my post-office box in Benet basement. So I would be flush--$32.50. Obscenely rich! The entire episode shouldn’t cost more…tops…than $15. At the most. Free hitchhike to Saint Cloud. A cab to the nurse’s residence to pick her up and then to the theatre—let’s say $3.00 with 30 cent tip. The show $1.50 apiece.

Two hot fudge sundaes @ 75 cents. Then a cab back to the nurse’s residence. I walk back to the center of town and hang around until the 2 a.m. Greyhound for $1.25. Duck soup. No Bull of the Woods to tyrannize me and make it difficult to slip out on the night of the 27th. So, flush with money, it couldn’t be better.

Perfect Timing on the Breakout..

All systems go on the evening of the 27th. Missed dinner in the refectory (which you could do if you wanted to study and planned to grab a sandwich at the Snack Shack later, but you had to tell the Prefect—which I didn’t because the Bull of the Woods was out-of-town and Fabian wouldn’t be eating with the faculty in the refectory so he wouldn’t notice an empty place). Grabbed a sandwich. After changing into a suit on the second floor Benet at 3:45 p.m. before dinner was called, I slipped down the corridor and made it `round the bend to the stairway. I strolled out on the grounds, largely unobserved. It was a mild, Fall afternoon with russet leaves on the ground as I walked until I lost sight of the abbey’s twin towers, then jogged part of the way. Got to Highway 52 at 4:30 p.m. Stuck out my thumb to the ongoing traffic and got a ride within 30 seconds: traveling salesman who was going right to Saint Cloud. Dropped me off right at the Saint Cloud hotel at about 5:30 p.m.

I was rather early; didn’t want to get to the hospital before seven, so I sat in the lobby and listened to the piano playing coming out of the Golden Pheasant lounge off the lobby. At 6:45 p.m. I got the cab and drove to the hospital’s nurse’s residence, arriving there a few minutes after seven. She was there and—huzza!—the nun on duty at the desk was her close friend Sister Camille, OSB, who winked at the curfew hour.

Like my date, Sister Camille (whose surname was Wallek) had a Stearns county Germanic accent despite her Polishness, saying “nort’” for north, “sout’” for south. Real-real Stearns county talk could be heard from the oldster retired farmers who sat on a bench near the bus stop on Saint Germain street who, when you asked them where Weibel’s beer stube was, said: “Weibel’s iss in block ver postoffice ist,” which sounded like a sentence in German but was Stearns English. They used plenty of Ja’s or yah’s for yes.

Mildred Murphy had a touch of the Germanic but not much. With slim waist and a figure that you could describe as fulsome, amplitude of aspect. With blue-black hair, unaffected which she tied up under her nurse’s cap but unloosed when out of uniform, she would wrinkle her nose and burst into laughter when she felt like it and she more than made up for it with brown eyes deep and unfathomable.

We got in the cab, chatted cordially as we rode to the Paramount. In the cab she said she had put on a new perfume and would I take a whiff to see what I thought…whereupon she brought her slender wrist to my nose. Excellent: not the perfume so much as her familiarity. The cab driver, a country boy from Avon, said,. “Hey, can I get a whiff, too?” so she put her wrist to his nose and he approved. Her gaiety and light-hearted chatter was refreshing and bode well for the evening. The only mark of sadness came later when she said that Father Malachy, her favorite brother and one to whom she was very-very close, was at Saint John’s in the monastery so that she and the family could not see him often—but she would write him ceaselessly.

Once in the Paramount, I was going to buy two boxes of popcorn but she dissuaded—one which she would share with me would be sufficient. . Helped her off with her coat which she and I tucked around her shoulders. Opened the popcorn box and our fingers touched often and got slippery with the butter on the corn as we fumbled with the box—I gentlemanly allowing her first dibs. Before the feature there came a clutter of commercials for local Saint Cloud businesses—Fandel’s department store, Carl Fritz’s photography, Ace Bar and Grill featuring ribs in East Saint Cloud, the O.K. Café (Chinese restaurant), the Gladstone bar and restaurant on the main street, Saint Germain and Bert Bastion’s GM dealership owned by a former U of M football star for Bernie Bierman.. Then the inevitable slides: please, no loud talking during the film…Coca-Cola, popcorn and candies will be available until the end of the evening. Then, ta-ta! The main presentation.

The film with Johnny Mack Brown was boring so we chatted in whispers, I telling her how absolutely perfect the occasion was to be with her and how superbly easy it was to get out of Saint John’s due to the boxing match. There was a chorus of “shhhhh’s” so we put our heads together to whisper. Excellent. Making a point, she put her hand on my arm and left it there for a good half hour during the film: excellent. She said she was impressed with how I had planned the Breakout, appreciating the logistics from her brother’s experience. I said, “did he try to do that when he was studying for the priesthood?” She laughed and said no but just from what he had heard. She said, “I really-really am impressed with how you did it.” As the film wore on, I made a move—putting an arm around her shoulders and she put head on my shoulder: excellent.

After the show we had the hot fudge and then she suggested we walk, not take a cab, to the nurse’s quarters which was excellent since we held hands, fingers, still buttery, interlacing (the very first time I had done so with a girl although in William Howard Taft high school I had greatly envied the jocks who strolled the halls with their “steadies”; now I had one who was incompoarably better looking than theirs, if only they were around to see me). The walk made the evening last longer and also saved money. It was the first time I ever kissed a girl my age other than a cousin obligatorily: excellent, lasting longer than expected. We walked around the grounds of the hospital for a long time, she pointing out the various portions of the building. We sat on a recovering patients’ bench in the yard and talked in low voices and some deeply heartening tender moments.

. At midnight, she thought it was time to go in and so I walked her to the desk where Sister Camille was gently nodding, half-asleep. A final kiss at the door which she prolonged holding my chin in place until completed.. EXCELLENT. On the walk back to the center of town, I adjudged that it was a perfect one: and I was immensely proud of myself for executing it.

Then—Crisis! Necessitating a Change in Strategy.

I was about to bound into the Greyhound bus depot when I saw through the glass door an ominous figure. The Bull of the Woods, hat down over his eyes, in his black clerical suit, with his bag propped up on his lap, sound asleep—waiting for the same bus as I was to take at 2 a.m. going to Collegeville road (and beyond: Avon, Albany, Melrose, Sauk Centre and ultimately to Butte, Montana). THE BULL OF THE WOODS! He was coming back from South Dakota or from wherever the hell he had been! He had not seen me. Now, what to do? (1). Should I avoid the bus and try to stay in town? No, impossible. I had some pop quizzes in philosophy early in the morning. (2). Should I chicken out, drop the suspense and shake him out of his slumber and confess all? After all, he was a priest. Hell, no. The evening had gone too well through my machinations and was not going to end on that note of abject failure and cowardly surrender.

Option 3— should I hang on beyond Collegeville Road and go all the way to Butte—or at least Avon? Impossible. Option 4 clearly looked like the best one. I would sneak onto the bus as quickly as possible before the Bull would see me. The stop before Collegeville Road was Saint Joseph—known as “St. Joe”--population roughly 400. That’s where the girls’ school, Saint Benedict was located. This would have to be the only viable option.

Executing Option 4.

How to sneak on without him seeing me? I didn’t enter the bus depot door but went around to the driveway where the buses were parked. It was theoretically possible to buy a ticket from the bus driver if the depot counter was closed—but it was open. I tried a bluff. I got on the bus and asked the driver if I could buy a ticket from him. After all, it was nearly 2 a.m. At first he said no, but then the hell with it and he sold me a ticket. So I went to the very last seat and slumped down.

Soon after, the scratchy loud-speaker sang out “Greyhound 42 for Saint Joseph…Collegeville Road…Avon…Albany…Melrose…Sauk Centre boarding now.”

A few passengers got on including the very last one, the exhausted hulk of the Bull of the Woods. He grabbed a seat midway near the window, scrunched down, pulled his hat over his eyes and went to sleep. The driver turned the lights out in the bus, turned his headlights on and started out.

As we traveled out of town I planned how to get off the vehicle without the Bull spotting me. I couldn’t get off at Collegeville Road and walk in with him, that’s for sure. I would get off at Saint Joe, the small town (population 400) where the girls’ school Saint Benedict College was located. The town would be fast asleep by the time the bus would get there at about 2:40 a.m. One advantage: the interior of the bus was darkened so passengers could sleep. I would somehow have to move up front in the darkness and jump out the door at Saint Joe, making sure that the Bull of the Woods didn’t see me.

Once in Saint Joe, I’d go to Linnemann’s hardware store where the Linnemann family, the First Family of Saint Joe whose great-grandfather started their general store. The family lived above the store. The scion of the family, Skip, was a classmate of mine in philosophy, Skip drove the Saint Joe taxi. I would ring the bell, awaken the family and suffer their displeasure and get Skip up and ask him—as a buddy to whom I would be permanently in his debt--to drive me in his family taxi to Saint John’s for which I would to pay him dearly for this inconvenience even if I had to exhaust much of my reserve.

Knowing Skip, he would agree since he was working his way through school driving the family cab which was part of the operation of the family’s general store. We would pass the solitary figure of the Bull of the Woods walking to the university in the middle of the night, carrying his heavy bag. I would lie on the floor of the cab, ask Skip to step on the gas and roar past the Bull of the Woods. I’d race into Benet Hall, go to bed and pretend to be asleep when the Bull would come to the floor to go to his room. Yes, that’s what I would have to do.

Which worked brilliantly. The bus ground to a stop at Saint Joe and I exited without the driver turning on the floor lights so I had moved up to the door in perfect darkness. I jumped off quickly and the bus rolled on to Collegeville Road carrying the sleeping Bull of the Woods. Thank God I was out of his clutches.

Waking up the Linnemann family with the doorbell was not as bad as it could have been. Hermie Linnemann, Skip’s father, now the patriarch, said that he had been driving cab to Saint John’s in the middle of the night for many years and, with a wink, he was awakened often by late arriving Saint John’s students like me but the cab fare would have to take that into account. Agreed. . Skip, my age, rubbing sleep from his eyes, hopped into a pair of dungarees and a light coat and we started out in the St. Joe cab. There ahead of us, tottering slowly down Collegeville Road carrying his heavy bag, was the solitary figure of the Bull of the Woods. “Now, get down on the back floor,” said Skip, “while I gin this thing up.” He stepped on the gas while I crouched on the floor and the cab roared by the solitary clerical figure, kicking exhaust and light gravel in his face.

I paid Skip good money and a very good tip and raced up the darkened stairway to my room, pulled off my suit and hopped into bed, congratulating myself on the neatness of execution of the entire evening, falling asleep to dream of my beloved as the heavy bells tolled off the remainder of the morning.

When I awoke, Kenneth was already shaving, hardly needing to, since he was only seventeen. As I stirred, barely awake I noticed a note pinned to my pillow. A handwritten note: “Roeser, see me first thing this morning. Adelard, OSB.” I was sickened.

I asked: “Was the Bull in this room last night?”

Kenneth was dumbfounded. He studied the note. He said, “he must have come in here after just a few hours ago. Did you hear him? I sure didn’t!”

How did he know I was on Breakout? Was he pretending all the while…pretending to be asleep in the bus depot and on the bus? Or was this note a bluff?

“No,” said Kenneth in his precise way. . “Of course not! He must have been feigning, pretending all the while in the bus depot and on the bus that he was asleep. He must have spied you looking in the door.

“Let me tell you this from the vantage-point of a seventeen year old, to an elder. You will be expelled; maybe suspended if you’re lucky. Or campus’ed for a year, a whole year with every Saturday seeing movies in the Auditorium with the pre-div’s. I hope it will be expulsion which means you’ll be going home to your beloved Chicago and tell your parents who have sacrificed to try to educate you that you frittered it away on some girl in pursuit of carnality. You will live with that fact all your life—and with you gone midyear, I will have this room all to myself. I’m going to Mass. You better get up now and see him. You know how ferocious he is when he gets angry and you made him walk in from the road a mile and a half carrying a heavy bag with your cab kicking up exhaust in his face at 2:30 in the morning. You know how he likes sneaks! Lots of luck. See you!”

He allowed the door to slam loudly.

Kenneth was still sadly immature, just past sixteen. I vowed that if I were not expelled I would find a new roommate mid-year. He derived joy from this experience. He was not manly at all. As I dressed and shaved I wondered if Kenneth himself had not told Fabian that I broke out and Fabian had left a note for the Bull of the Woods. But that would have been violation of the honor code where one was sworn to protect miscreants out of plain simple morality and fairness. Although true, Kenneth was a hot convert to rectitude after the session with Dismas Clark, S. J.

Still, it was hard to imagine Kenneth would be so disreputable.

He then reopened the door.

“By the way, you missed a great fight. We thought Zale was done in the second round when he went down for the count of five but he pummeled, virtually killed, Graziano in the fifth for the count of ten. I’m going to Mass. Bye again!”

I responded by calling him a vulgar name for a piece of excrement before the door slammed again. After showering, shaving and dressing, I steeled myself to face the Bull of the Woods and my punishment which could well be expulsion, the Bull famous for exacting his own death sentences which no one in the front office was man enough to countermand. I strode down the corridor to the Prefect’s door, knocked lightly.

The deep voice inside ordered: “Come!”

The final installment which changed my life at Saint John’s will be next.

1 comment:

  1. Waiting with bated breath for the next installment of this thrilling serial which has been much better than the main feature with Johnny Mack Brown.