Thursday, June 19, 2008

Flashback: I Knock on the Prefect’s Door. “Come!” He Orders and Then--.

A memoir over 50-plus years for my kids and grandchildren.

The story to now: Meeting a beauteous nurse from St. Cloud Hospital, the sister of a monk of St. John’s, I lost leave of my senses and sneaked out of the dormitory one weeknight, hiked 1-1/2 miles down a country road, hitch-hiked into St. Cloud, took her to a Johnny Mack Brown movie at the Paramount, bought her a hot fudge sundae and returned her to the hospital before scooting back to catch a Greyhound bus at 2 a.m. only to see my Prefect awaiting the same bus. Dexterously I slipped by him, got off at the tiny town of St. Joseph, woke up a classmate, had him drive me back to school and while I hunched down in the back seat passed the Prefect, Fr. Adelard Thuente, OSB, a fearsome man we called The Bull of the Woods, walking on the lonely road in the middle of the night, me scurrying to my room and clambering into bed…only to awaken the next morning and find a note on my pillow: “See me! Adelard OSB.” Timidly I knocked on the Prefect’s door and heard him call out in a basso profundo voice: “Come!” So mustering up my courage I strode in.

He was writing at his desk. And he kept on writing. I decided to sit.

“No-no,” he said. “You don’t sit. I didn’t tell you to sit.”

So I stood up. An eternity passed as he wrote. Then he looked up.

“What do you have to say for yourself?”

On what?

“ON WHAT? Why do you think I called you in here?”

No idea, Father.

“No idea.”

He lowered his head continued writing and while scribbling, incredibly, spoke at the same time, something I have not seen done up to this very day.

“Either you don’t have the courage to own up to what you did or you’re determined to lie your way through it. Either trait does not fit in here at St. John’s. We assume men of good character come here. To find one has poor character requires several disciplines. The first—obviously—is expulsion. The second—suspension. The third—at the very least, being campused, confined to campus on weekends when others leave to go to St. Cloud, for one month. Which do you think you deserve?”

Father, you can expel me if you wish, or suspend me or campus me but I think I have the right, if I may say so, to be told my offense.

“YOU DON’T KNOW? Of all the men here in the freshmen class including ex-GIs who have fought overseas in the war and risked…risked death…only one member of the freshman class—YOU--saw fit to challenge the rules that have been in effect since I went to this school as a freshman…that is that there is no…absolutely no…sneaking out to St. Cloud and that if a trip to St. Cloud in the middle of the week is required, you go to your Prefect and ask for permission. Sir, you are a sneak and are in disrepute. I might say that when you saw me in the bus station, any man of any mettle, any Christian gentleman typified by Newman’s definition of gentleman that being one who does not consciously inflict pain, would have come up and owned up to his dereliction. Not you. You sneaked around and got on the bus, paying the driver instead of going to the counter in the depot. Then when the bus stopped at St. Joe you sneaked off, shamefully I might add, and woke up Skip Linneman in the middle of the night and got him to drive you as fast as he could to school. Passing me on the road in the middle of night, me carrying a heavy bag, with the exhaust from the car spewing up and hitting me in the face. On that issue alone…not stopping to pick me up…you warrant expulsion. On that issue alone, exclusive of the sneaking out…FOR A DATE.”

Standing there I decided I was to be expelled anyhow so I might as well…

Father, I’m curious. How do you know these things? You’re absolutely right but how do you--?

“It is not for you to know. You are hereby put on campus for the period of one month. Your room and bed will be checked to see that you observe the campus and if you do not, you will be expelled forthwith. The Abbot has entrusted me with making that decision for I have spoken to him about these matters. You may leave.”

Father, I have one question.

“One more question or even a word out of you and you’re expelled.”

I started for the door.

“One more thing. On weekends when others go to St. Cloud you will help me with things to do in the Biology department, such as washing test-tubes and classifying exhibits and specimens. Excused.”

Who Told Him?

“You got off lucky,” said Kenneth, my roommate. “Very lucky. The Bull of the Woods is a very powerful man around here. You’re very lucky.”

My question is, Kenneth, how did he know? How did he know I had a date?

I grabbed him by the shirt, he being younger than I—16 years old. And I was l8.

Kenneth, it looks very much like you told him because you had this information.

“Take your hands off my shirt. No, I can tell you I opposed this thing you did from the very beginning. You know that. I even wish he had expelled you. But there is a matter of honor with me. I did not betray your trust. You can believe me because since the Retreat I have given great thought not only to becoming a priest, a Benedictine, but to try to become a saint.”

I dropped my grip on his shirt. I believed him. Not that this mangy little priggish pest would become a saint but he was very truthful.

Who would tell him? There are a few on this floor who knew.

“No one—I tell you no one—would do that kind of dishonorable thing.” And he ticked off the names of those on the floor…Charlie Baron, no. Bill Augustine, no. Jake Polta, no. Skip Vetter, George Borgerding, no, Bill Bruemmer, no, Bill Becker, no…

Well, I said, it would have to be Skip Linnemann, who drove me in from St. Joe.

So in Ethics taught by a layman, Emerson Hynes (a close friend of Gene McCarthy who ultimately became his legislative assistant in the House and Senate), I cornered Linnemann. I have always thought I could detect when one lied to me and so far I have had a good record at this. Linnemann looked shocked, so shocked to hear I was campused he offered to give me a rebate on the money I paid for the cab he drove as well as the generous tip. AS WELL AS THE GENEROUS TIP. Obviously…very obviously…he did not take my money and spill the beans to my Prefect. For one thing as a student himself…although what we called a “day hop”… he would be laying himself open to charges that he conspired to aid one to break the rule, a very stupid admission.

But how, I asked Linnemann, did he know you drove me?

“Not hard,” said Skip. “The Linnemann family has been driving guys to St. John’s late ever since my grandfather, Herman. When the priests here want a cab they call my father and he shows up with the very same cab. A good guess. No, that’s not hard to figure out. Our car is easily identifiable, anyhow.”


As my colleagues on second floor Benet Hall gathered to express condolences, I did not need to ask if any of them betrayed me. They had not.

But how, I asked them, did he know I had a date?

“That’s easy,” said George Borgerding, “why would you go to town anyhow—to see a Johnny Mack Brown movie alone?”

They all agreed.

“The only answer is this,” said my roommate Kenneth. “The girl you took out, Mildred Murphy, told you she has a brother in the Abbey named Fr. Malachy Murphy and that he was her favorite brother. It’s obvious she wrote to him and betrayed you and he got hold of Adelard.”

Everybody agreed.

So I wrote her, telling her the bad news that I was campused for a whole month but also the good news that I had not been expelled and would not be sent back to Chicago in disgrace. Then I asked her delicately if she could help me deduce how the Bull of the Woods got the information that I would sneak out and take her to the movies and that he even had the right date.

The answer came in a fragrant envelope in the usually beautiful feminine handwriting. But it disturbed me. She went on about how sad she was that I was campused but dodged the issue and did not speculate.

I suspected. So I went to the Porter’s office and placed a call to the St. Cloud Hospital, to student nurse Mildred Murphy. It was my good fortune to have Mildred’s good friend Sister Camille on the switchboard there. Of course Mildred was not there but she said if I called back at 9 p.m. she would see that Mildred, who was her favorite, would be on hand.

After I hung up, I reflected that Camille of course knew I came over there to date Mildred but certainly she wouldn’t know Adelard. But then she probably did know Malachy. Hmmm.

When I got Mildred on the phone, I said:

Thanks for the reply. But I must say you avoided speculating on how the Bull of the Woods got the intelligence that I would be sneaking out.

“I didn’t reply because I didn’t know,” she said. “…but now I DO. And it’s my fault, all my fault, Tom. I’ve been close to my brother Ben, er Fr. Malachy all my life and I wrote him, never imagining--. I called him as soon as I got your letter. God I’m so sorry I got you into this. I wouldn’t blame you if you never wanted to see me again or have anything to do with me ever.”

That’s not so. But WHY? Why did you tell him?

“Because of many reasons. He wants me to become a nun. I’ve thought about it seriously and have been undecided. He acted as though there was no recourse, that I would inevitably become one. I guess I wanted to tell him that I am dating and that there is another option. As simple as that. I never believed he would tell the Bull of the Woods.”

Did you ask him not to?

“No, I did not. I didn’t think I had to. God, I’m very angry at him.”

He owned up to the fact that he told the Bull of the Woods?

“Yes. They were playing ping-pong and he told him.”

Did he say WHY he told him?

“No, but I think it’s clear. He wanted to end our dating. And that was the best way to do it.”

Is he that-that possessive of you that he would do this sort of thing? Isn’t that a very strange thing between brother and sister?


“I mean it comes close to coercion, you know. I don’t care if you go in the convent or not but the fact that he--.

“You don’t, Tom?”

I didn’t mean it like that. But I guess I can’t for the life of me figure out why a sister would tell a brother…no matter how close they are…something like that. When you knew and he knew the risk I was running, he having gone to St. John’s and all and you having had a brother who went here, he knowing I could be expelled or suspended. I guess I can’t imagine why you would tell him. And I can’t for the life of me understand why a brother who loves you would want so passionately to have you choose the Benedictine sisterhood when he would have to know that the worst thing that could happen would be to put pressure on someone to join the Order when they’re not ready to. I guess I--.

She said testily, “I didn’t say I’m not ready to. There are only two people I’ve talked to about it—Malachy and Sister Camille here. Not even my mother and father.”

What’s this telling people you’re thinking of the convent thing? Are you trying to get up enough courage to go or do you--

She grew frosty. “Well, you don’t have any brother or sister, do you, Tom? You’re the only child. So you wouldn’t understand would you? So I guess that when someone is an only child and only has himself to think about and parents who think only about him, I guess you wouldn’t understand, would you? Look, I’ve got to go. Once again, I’m sorry this happened. It won’t happen again, don’t worry. Maybe it’s better we don’t see each other anyhow until I make up my mind.”

I’m not ready to hang up yet and I’m the guy who’s dropping nickels and dimes into the slot.

“Well, I can’t hang on long, Thomas. No, seriously, maybe this is all for the better until I work it out.”

You mean that? Until you decide whether to be a Benedictine nun?


Well, okay. Say hello to your big brother Malachy.

“Thomas, that’s mean. He’s a priest of God.”

I’ll leave it like that. And say goodbye for me to Sister Camille. Goodbye.


A Game of Ping-Pong.

After the second full week of being campus’ed and after a long Saturday night of washing test tubes and cataloging specimens in the biology lab all alone, the Bull of the Woods came in.

“Roeser, you know how to play Ping Pong?”

Yes, Father. I understand you play.

“Come along. I’ll see how good you are and then we’ll have a snack.”

Afterward…over chocolate doughnuts and coke in the Snack Shack run by ex-GI students…

“You’re not bad, you know but you have to learn not to let your opponent lead you away from the table with those long drives so you’re out of range when he dumps one over the net and you have to break your back getting over there as you did.”

Who’s the best player you’ve found here, Father?

“Unquestionably, Malachy Murphy. He’s wiry and has developed a sneaky serve—what I call a sneaky serve—duplicitous-- that is really hard to top.”



He knew full well what I meant.

“He has a sister who’s in nurse’s training at St. Cloud Hospital. She has talked to him about being a nun since she was a little girl. She said she would ultimately be one but just wanted to have some time to think about it. That’s how you lose vocations to the convent, you know. The longer they’re out dating the less likely they are to decide. What they should do is go in and try it out. Then if they don’t like it, come out. The convent isn’t like the priesthood. Try it out I say. Put it off and you’ll never get around to it. I mean the sisterhood.”

Did you feel the same way about the priesthood?

“No, I always wanted to be. My sister didn’t but after she broke up with a guy she joined and now she’s the Mother Superior of the order in Pierre, (S. D.). Well, it’s time to call it another Saturday night. Just another three of them and you’re a free man, Roeser.”



  1. The conclusion of the serial was well worth the long wait!

  2. Yes indeed, be careful what you ask for. Several weeks ago I complained that this epic was moving too slowly. What followed was a baroque tale of teenage lust more complex than several of the contracts I've had to review in that same time period. But the final chapter of this saga was worth the effort of reading what preceeded ending worthy of O.Henry. And, yes, an ending not as improbable as one might suppose. It's always reassuring to be reminded that no man is alone in having had the experience of being beguiled by a difficult, indecisive woman.