Friday, June 20, 2008

Flashback: Unsuspected Benefits from Being Campused for a Month.


More than 50 years of living written as a memoir for my kids and grandchildren.

As the days and nights wore on under house arrest for a solid month of not going to town on weekends and having to clean biology department test tubes and catalog biology specimens, some hitherto unsuspected hidden benefits came to the fore. One NON-BENEFIT was having to list the various subcategories such as Drosophila melanogaster, just another bug that looked like a tiny lobster, or feeding the live termites and labeling the Praying Mantis Egg case or pressing a dead Giant Hissing Cockroach into the leaves of a book and spraying it with some kind of vile smelling preservative or tending the Mealworm Larvae Living specimen—all in Fr. Adelard’s antiseptic odorous biology lab. But the unforeseen benefits were

1. Getting to know and becoming a kind of friend to the Bull of the Woods insofar as he tolerated friendships with students he continued to browbeat. He started the tradition of us playing ping-pong in the deserted gym on Saturday nights…enthusing over beating me at the game…while everyone of my classmates was recreating in Saint Cloud…after which we would go to a deserted Snack Shack and have coffee/coke and a chocolate brownie each. I would pay; as a Benedictine pursuing the vow of poverty, he got his free.

2. Getting to hear Abbey scuttlebutt from one truly on the inside of the Monastery i.e. the fact that aged Fr. Sylvester Harter, OSB, my 82-year-old professor of English grammar, the last real master of sentence diagramming, would spend each evening after vespers propping an air rifle on his window ledge and popping off noisy birds and other harmless wild life in the pristine Abbey garden three stories below. And the fact that the Abbey had lost one priest, suspiciously named Fr. Valentine, to a nurse in the infirmary whereupon the name Valentine was withdrawn from circulation on the abbey clericate. Yet another was the episode 10 years earlier when an old Brother turned dotty and kept asking his colleagues if they liked or hated him. Then it turned to “you hate me, don’t you?”
On one Christmas Eve, a brother, tired of this routine answered, “yes, I hate you!” trying to shut him up. He shouted “I thought so!”, pulled a pistol from his long, floor-length habit and shot the guy to death…necessitating the Abbot to have to re-consecrate the Abbey church. Fascinating.

3. More important and something which certified my career in writing, the Bull of the Woods decided to recommend me to my English lit professor who was also the faculty moderator of the university newspaper, “The Record” as a student reporter for the paper, something I dearly desired but had figured would have to await my sophomore year. The English lit professor was Stephen Humphrey, a layman, who powerfully impressed me because he could make a point not only with superb diction…choosing the right word to express the nub of an idea in the English classics…but that he could express an opinion by the mere raising of an aristocratic eyebrow, something that only the actor David Niven could do as effectively. Steve Humphrey of which more much later was one of the very-very few hugely determinate influencers in my life.

4. Of subordinate benefit was to hear the Bull of the Woods’ views on vocations to the priesthood, brotherhood and sisterhood. He had influenced his fellow Ping-Pong player, Fr. Malachy Murphy OSB on the importance of becoming a priest, Malachy at one point not being sure and Adelard pushing him into it whereupon Malachy became a valued, happy and thoroughly productive Benedictine monk.

Adelard had the view that no one ever woke up in the morning and wanted to be a religious because of the doctrine of Original Sin which promotes pleasure and satisfaction over sacrifice and the unutterable tedium of celibacy. He argued that one who was hesitant should undertake to fulfill the vocation right away by going to the novitiate and seeing if the studies would “take.” If not, nothing lost. If yes, everything gained. It turned out without his telling me that not only was Malachy inducted into the Benedictine Order in this way but the Bull had put great stress on Malachy to encourage his comely sister, Mildred, to do the same—at least try it out, the sisterhood being far less formidable than the priesthood so that a postulant could easily leave before taking final vows with nothing the worse for wear.

“I think it is a very wise thing for Abbot Alcuin to do, to insist that all incoming freshmen this year take four straight years of Thomistic philosophy and theology as if they were going into the priesthood,” he said. “That should happen always.”

I asked him: Father, are you saying that everyone is originally pointed to the religious life from the cradle on but is somehow diverted?

“Yes, basically. I suppose I would make an exception for you.”

Do you contemplate what would happen if a person not oriented to the religious life just followed through and joined it—the unhappiness that would cause?

“Well, there’s a built-in correction for that. When and if a person gets to a convent or monastery and is unhappy—before final vows—they, he and she, take off. I was unhappy for the first week here and Saint John’s but haven’t had an unhappy day since. The same with Malachy.”

He talked of Malachy’s sister Mildred without any reference to me although both of us knew that there was a connection, but the Bull of the Woods was enjoying nuance here.

“And the same with his sister,” said The Bull of the Woods. “She’s due to go in and will find out whether she likes it or not.”

Then he asked archly, “how long do you think she’ll last?”

Eighteen months, tops, Father.


Because she is a very womanly woman, warm, sweet, responsive, soft, caring, not at all like so many of the shriveled, antiseptic types I’ve met in the convent.

“I beg your pardon. My own sister is a very, as you say, womanly woman and she is--.”

I know, Mother Superior in Pierre, South Dakota. That may be. There are always exceptions. I understand Saint. Catherine of Siena was one.

“She was. Malachy is bringing her here tomorrow, Sunday, for Mass--”

“Saint Catherine of Siena?”

“--before she says goodbye,” said Adelard ignoring it. “ Would you want to meet her?” Here he said “meet her” deceptively as he knew full well the reason I was campused was because I sneaked out to take her to the movies. Rather needlessly duplicitous, thought.

No, thank you, Father. Then I thought I’d zing him back.

I still give her eighteen months.

“A cynical view.”

A realistic one.

“This because she gave you some womanly affection, I take it.”

This was his first and only reference to the reason I was campused.

Yes, if you must know.

“You’ve been so wrong about so many things, so we’ll see.”

She was out of the nunnery in seven. Out and enrolled this time at Saint Benedict’s as a freshman where we met at a Mixer but I steered away. I never quite got over the fact that she blurted everything to her big brother who alerted The Bull of the Woods who pretended he didn’t see me at the bus depot, slunk down in his bus seat as to feign slumber while I sneaked off the bus and then campused me for a month.

But all things considered, I am indebted to her and to the Bull for yet another unforeseen consequence of being campused. That was

5. Thanks to the Bull’s recommendation of me to my English lit professor, Steve Humphrey, I was recruited as a feature writer for “The Record,” the first in a string of journalism jobs.

“You know what I mean by feature writer?” Steve Humphrey said.

“That means I want you to write some light stuff—something that relates to the readers. Not hard news.”

What shall I write about?

“I think it would be instructive for you to write about being campused for a month. After all, so far this year you’re the only one who ever tried to break out during mid-week—and that goes for all the world-weary ex-GIs here.”

Would that not worsen the situation for me with Adelard?

“No. I’ve already talked to him about it. He thinks it would be a scream.”

I could not imagine The Bull of the Woods thinking anything that required his exertion of discipline a scream—but I did. And the story really took off. Headlined across page 2 “30 Days Hath September—and Roeser!” it rather elevated me from an inconspicuous 18-year-old freshie to a journalist…which eventuated into another unexpected good consequence which was

6. …at the semester break when table assignments were changed for the three meals in the refectory, the invisible line of demarcation…the ad hoc rule that we teen-aged freshmen eat at tables by ourselves and the ex-GIs, men of the world, ate at their own tables, changed. A graying, grizzled ex-GI came to me and said, “a number of us who liked your article about being campused wondered if you would move over to our table.” My fellow teen-aged freshmen overheard, were hotly envious. I feigned coolness and said, “sure why not.”

From that time on I was the only teen-ager, non-World War II freshman who fraternized with ex-GIS including invited to go to Saint Cloud with them when my time of imprisonment ended. We rode on the Johnny bus together, I with the raucous group of irreverent veterans and my classmates with their young fellows who were just starting to shave. And we, the ex-GIs and I, drank seriously, as only ex-GIs can …some 23 to 28 years old…could do at the Hotel Spaniol Bar. The very first Saturday night I had to watch myself for I was getting tipsy but the bartender understood and and after the first legitimate ones, mixed drinks for me that were mainly ginger-ale, mixed with apple juice (not a very appetizing confection) while my colleagues would whoop it up with what they called Boilermakers and their Helpers—Glueck Stite beer, 12% and a shot. In that way I was given the appearance of keeping up with them, although to my discomfiture the bar bill amounted to the same as theirs. But then I heard stories and roared with laughter at inuendos I could not fathom, with one eye cocked to see if my fellow teened colleagues were enviously watching. They were and hated me for it which I savored.

Double-dating with them was somewhat of a problem since most of them in their 20s, even 30s, wanted the companionship of women their own age and the schema was to double-date and thereby share the cost of the movies. But here I was a problem because what woman in her 20s wants to go out with a kid of 18? They tried to accommodate by fixing me up with their girls’ friends but there is a great gap between an 18-year-old and a, let us say, 25 year old woman. We never, really solved that problem and whenever I socialized seriously I did it without the ex-GIs who were quite more sophisticated in the world’s ways than was I. But that was only a slight inconvenience. Associating with them for a lad my age was worth it.

The ex-GIs put the pressure on Steve Humphrey, my English prof, who was an ex-GI himself, to give me a regular column which I took proudly. Then when young Kenneth, my roommate, decided to move from Saint John’s, having reconsidered a priestly vocation much to the Bull of the Wood’s displeasure, I was invited down to the first floor Benet where I was a roommate to three ex-GIs where the Prefect was Fr. Walter Reger OSB, an elderly, cigar-smoking realist, a grandfatherly type who, unlike Adelard, did not think all men should try out for the priesthood—and who felt marriage and family life were at least equal to the consecrated life.

Even so, rooming with ex-GIs and having Father Walter as Prefect while classmates of my own age were struggling under the Bull of the Woods was to die for. I ask you: even today as I approach 80, I say to myself, was that heady or not?

In the second year, my fellow ex-GIs at my table—notice how I preen when I say that?--decided to try to improve the quality of the food, especially at dinner. All meals were served family style, prepared by German Benedictine nuns who had been imported from the old country. Unwisely and to my unremitting regret, I signed up for that ex-GI-based consumer revolt which taught me a great deal after conferring some pain on all of us.

That painful story anon.

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