Christmas or Bust

Christmas, Yom Kippur, U-Haul, Terra Haute, IN

Try mixing these four elements in a bag and come up with a story. It’s true, that seemingly unrelated events scattered across the globe can funnel into one life changing event. This is the old butterfly effect. If a butterfly flaps its’ wings in China does it cause a breeze in California? December 1973 must have witnessed the largest flock of butterfly wing flapping in history because their wind hit hard in eastern Kentucky.

Christmas

The first semester of seminary life was coming to an end. Along with my fellow Nebraska seminarians I was looking forward to Christmas vacation. This was the first extended time away from home for most of us and as you can imagine, the desire for a Christmas homecoming was strong. Each person was responsible for finding their own way home for vacation. I was blessed in many ways while in the seminary. One such way was by kind people from the parish along with a few other benefactors who supplied me with enough cash to fly home for Christmas. My reservation were set and I was to fly out of the Cincinnati airport on the last day of classes.

Yom Kippur

October 6, 1973 Syria and Egypt launched an attack on Israel on the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur. This moment in the history of the Arab and Israeli conflicts intensified the already pressured oil prices. Gas prices began to soar as the oil embargo squeezed the supply to drips in the United States.

You didn’t know you were going to get a history lesson through all of this did you?

Back to Christmas

With my airline reservations set, the end of the semester with the first round of finals is all I had to worry about.

Seminary life tended to isolate you. You didn’t have ready access to newspaper, TV and of course, there was no internet. Most of us were not aware of what was happening outside the walls; the gas prices were rising faster than the December temperatures were dropping. Gas stations were closing all around the states and people were worrying how they were ever going to be able to drive to work.

We didn’t realize until travel plans were canceled the impact the events of October 6 would have on this small group of Nebraskans wanting to get home from Kentucky. One by one bus tickets were voided and plane routes scrapped. Finally, I received the call that my flight, which was only days away, was cancelled.

When the dust settled, there was not one Nebraska seminarian that had a ride home for the holidays. Twelve men ranging in ages from eighteen to twenty-two were stuck and none of us felt like spending Christmas in Kentucky.

Enter the bright idea!

Someone came up with the clever idea of renting a van. This made all the sense in the world. We would pool our resources and cut back on luggage. There was little doubt we could do it. As a group we dispatched the over twenty-on year old guys to rent our van while the rest of us stayed behind completing final exams and packing for the trip. The building slowly started to empty as other students finished exams and packed up to head home.

By mid-day only ten Nebraskans were left in the building; two were off searching for a van.

U-Haul

The two oldest seminarians returned with our ride, proud of their accomplishment. Our ride home was a U-Haul box truck. Our assigned negotiators explained that this was “a take it or leave it deal.” All other forms of traditional transportation was either on the road or non-existent.

On a snowy Kentucky afternoon (sounds like an Elvis song) ten men, luggage and food packed by the nuns in the kitchen, climbed in the back of the truck. The two older guys of course had the up-front cab. It was only when the door closed down on us, that we realized we would be making the almost thousand mile trip, in…total…darkness. With the gate closed, you could not see your hand in front of your face. We might as well have been dropped into a black hole of time and space.

With luggage as cushions and head props, we started down the highway like blind men at the mercy of their guide dogs. We felt the sway of the truck as it hit icy sections of the road. We would collectively slide towards the cab of the truck on sudden stops and then back to the tailgate as the drivers accelerated. The drivers seemed to ignore the effects of their actions on the living cargo behind them.

As you can imagine a variety of stories, jokes and comments flew with ease in the darkness. Also, there numerous exchange of gases which no one would ever claim or was it even necessary to do so. The air inside became a mixture of body odor, dirty laundry traveling home for mothers to work their magic on and Murphy’s smelly feet which no one had trouble identifying.

Terra Haute, IN

The farther west on Interstate 70 we traveled the colder it was getting inside the truck and the more slips we could feel as the truck plowed through a now snow covered interstate. More than once the truck came to a stop as holiday traffic combined with the snow storm formed mile long traffic jams. Finally relief came with the first gas stop just outside of Terra Haute, IN.

We could feel the truck pulling up an incline then slide back. Another run was made at the same slope with the same effect. After the last attempt, the tailgate was flung up. Much to the surprise of two senior citizens in the car directly behind the truck, ten bleary eyed and wrinkled men jumped out of the back of the truck. We must have looked like a band of escapees from the local pen.

Ten men put their shoulders to the back of the truck and we pushed it up the hill.

OH, I failed to mention, the temperature was now down to fourteen.

When we looked around after our pushing detail, we found ourselves in a superb truck stop. Amber lights combined with the multicolored lights on countless idling diesels filled the air with an illuminated fog of light and sound. It looked like a mecca of warmth and salvation.

We must have looked desperate because as we entered the truck stop restaurant it seemed as if they had a table waiting for us. In a back corner we sat around a massive round table fit for Arthur and his Knights.

The leader of our band ordered the same plate of food for everyone, which is what you do when you have been living in a community. Choices are taken from you and accept what is given to you. This probably also confirmed the escapee impression.

Our bodies warmed and our bellies full we reluctantly climbed back in the truck. I think a few considered walking from this point but we convinced them this was just the claustrophobia over taking their common sense.

Neither the road conditions nor the weather improved as we drove west.

Somewhere outside of St. Louis we hit another traffic jam. By this time the sun was high overhead. The moisture from our breath had unexpectedly been forming icicles on the ceiling of our box. They must have been hanging like stalactites on a cave roof. As the sun warmed the stationary U-Haul, the ice started to melt dripping on us like rain. After repeated banging on the wall next to the cab, one of the front seat passengers came to our rescue. As the gate opened, we were blinded by a scene that looked like they took a wrong turn and we were on the Arctic continent.

Once our eyes focused, we could see a line of snowbound traffic for miles behind us and a line just as long ahead. On both sides of the road were jackknifed trucks and ditched cars. One old grizzly trucker was talking to our driver and sharing what he knew about the road ahead.

“I think you boys have reached the end of your ride until they can clear the interstate. There is a hill up the road that is solid ice. Trucks a trying to take a run at it and ending up sliding backwards.”

I can’t remember how long we sat there or how cold it really was but I can tell you it was long enough to freeze a jug of apple cider and to send the sun lower in the western sky.  When we finally started to move we could have walked faster to St. Louis than were rolling.

Sometime after midnight, a day and half after we left Kentucky the trip for the two of us from Falls City came to an end. We were lucky enough to be the first stop. The others had another two hours to Lincoln traveling on a snow covered two lane highway. The last one to bring this fiasco to an end was one of the two adult drivers. He parked the truck in his driveway and I am sure, crawled to a warm homecoming.

The next day we checked on one another to make sure we all woke up with no body parts requiring amputation from frostbite. There were no casualties except for the truck. When the driver went to return the truck to the rental it wouldn’t move from his driveway. The transmission had locked. Further inspection revealed…there was barely any fluid remaining in the transmission.

I guess God wanted us all home for Christmas.

It was all part of growing up.

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Thunk

I’ve made reference more than once in previous blogs about my seminary experience. I believe with all my heart I was called to the seminary by God. I also believe I was given the boot from there by God. Scripture says you hear the voice of God in the whispering wind. I heard it loud and clear and I don’t think He was whispering. When I told mom I decided to leave the seminary her response was, with a flip of her hand, “I knew you would never be a priest.”

Mom and God definitely had an understanding and communicated often.

I was a good seminarian. I followed all the rules. I am not a radical. There were a few things that I found hard to conform too, but I fell in line. I never missed morning prayer. I rallied in our work crew details which included cutting acres of grass and making regular runs to the seminary farm with an old Army surplus dump truck (which will be a story in itself someday.)

All was good with God, the seminary administration and my spiritual life…until my senior year.

In the seminary your life is run by bells. You have a bell to rise in the morning. A bell to attend chapel for morning prayer, a bell to end morning prayer. You get the pattern. As an eighteen year old freshman you conform to these bells. As a twenty-two year old senior you start to exercise some of your new found freedoms and adult views. After four years of bells you start to have a Pavlov Dogs experience to the ringing of any bell. Show me a man that drops to his knees when he hears the bell of a Salvation Army Santa and I will show you a Catholic seminarian from the sixties and seventies.

Let me say right now, I don’t regret my time in the seminary. For some reason I was sent there and the experiences I had with my seminary brothers I cherish. But…..the bells.

One night in my senior year a plot was hatched. Four fellow classmates, who of course will not be named, met in my room after the official lights out bell. Our subversive plot was hatched with little thought to the consequences. The supplies for our plan were simple; a screwdriver, black friction tape and towels, all the necessary ingredients for a successful overthrow of the establishment.

We met again early in the morning most likely around two or three. You have not walked down silent halls, until you have crept down the halls housing sleeping prayerful men. The silence was greater than what you would hear dropping a feather on cotton balls. Our footsteps could easily give us away if we weren’t careful. We skulked through the passages which were only illuminated by the red exit lights and an occasional votive light under a statue.

Our first target of attack was the electronic bell located right outside of the faculty dining room. It was a particularly annoying bell for nothing more than the volume. If you were unfortunate to be standing under it when the bell went off, your ears rang in full echo of the bell.

The bell was just a little out of the reach of the average six foot guy. This meant that some sort of boosting was necessary. To fix this we hijacked a table from the student dining hall. With two guys securing the table, and one standing guard, left me to climb the table to secure the bell.

Screwdriver. Check. Friction tape. Check.

Using the screwdriver, access was quickly gained to the workings of the bell. The next step was to wrap the knocker of the bell with the black friction tape. Countless wrappings turned the knocker into a black glob of tape.

The screen was reattached. The table returned to the hall. Now it was time to move on to the next bell.

Target number two was the main chapel bell located high in the bell tower. This was the mother of all bells. This one called us to chapel, signaled the start of the most sacred of liturgies and beckoned us to assemble when community meetings were necessary.

To reach the bell was no hard task. A small door behind the massive pipe organ in the choir loft gave you easy access to the bell. An open invitation to mischief.

Now the towel comes into play. The bell hung free and within easy reach. It was not difficult to wrap the knocker of this beauty with the towel and secure this wrap with the tape. When finished, the bell looked as if it had a Q- tip hanging out of it.

The attack on the bells was over. We each went back to our respective rooms under the cover of darkness and silence. I doubt if any of us fell asleep after our little escapade. Most likely, we were the first in chapel for morning prayer later in the morning.

As the hour of morning prayer approached the chapel began filling with sleep walking seminarians. Most were dressed in long cassocks which hid pajamas underneath. Others, the show offs, showed up brushed and polished as if they had been up for hours preparing for this time of the day. The minutes ticked by for the final call to chapel. One tug on the bell rope by the student assigned the task demonstrated our handiwork. The bell yielded a resounding, thunk, thunk, thunk with each pull.

Morning prayer was lost for that hour. We were dismissed from chapel to attend community breakfast. A hundred plus men, living together, day in and day out form a pretty tight community bond. Every man in the dining hall knew what happened but it was not necessary for anyone to utter a word about the chapel incident. Those conversations would take place behind closed doors or on walks well out of faculty ears.

Then, the bell to signal the end of breakfast and the start of the class day sounded. The sound of a stick drawn across a picket fence was announced from the bell housing. Because it was an electric bell and on a timer, it went through its normal run sounding the tapping up and down the hall. Every seminarian knew this day would lead to lectures and searching out the “Bell Kidnappers.” Before the day was over, both bells were restored to the rightful dignity by seminary maintenance men.

The four midnight ninja’s knew we would live under suspicion until we graduated but it was worth the challenge. Each of us felt like we exerted a little bit of adult freedom and recaptured some childish foolishness.

It was all part of growing up.

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Your Hand Will Stick out of the Grave!

 

Anyone who attended a Catholic School has a wealth of stories in their back pocket. It’s not that those who attended public school have any less, it is just the Catholic system seemed to produce the “unusual” stories.

Many attending Catholic schools prior to the early seventies, were trained by holy sisters. Notice I said trained over taught. There was ample amount of teaching going on. We learned our times tables, history facts and English grammar just the same as any normal pupil. The training came in much more subtle ways and in some cases not so subtle.

For example, training in Sister Number 1’s class (I changed the name to protect the innocent, me, just in case she is still lurking in the halls of a convent somewhere.) As a boy, you didn’t walk into Sister’s class without a belt. I am sure it was not part of a fashion accessory model that she lived by. She truly believed that a boy without a belt was walking around advertising himself to the young ladies. If you didn’t have a belt, you were marched to the boy’s bathroom. Sister stood outside like Sergeant Schultz from Hogan Hero’s, while you were inside, feeding toilet paper through the loops for your missing belt. When you stepped out, she tied a big bow with the toilet paper so all could see you left the house without being fully dressed. To this day, I would never think of wearing slacks or jeans without a belt. I am trained.

The sisters, as well as the priest, were held in the highest respect. Not always by the students, but always by the family leaders. The old stories about getting into trouble in school, meant double trouble when you arrived home are true. If an incident occurred in school, it didn’t take long for your parents to find out about it. When a fellow student bit the dust of discipline, a collective gasp went up like a crowd watching fireworks. Everyone knew the poor student was in for a double whammy.

One of the most saintly of all the nuns was our third grade teacher Sister Marie. Sister was not much taller than the average third grader. Her Sister of Charity habit added an extra five or six inches to her but that still did not do much to make her stand out in a crowd of students. Sister Marie would remind you of Father Fitzgibbon played by Barry Fitzgerald in the classic movie, “Going My Way,” only in a habit.

Because I went home every day for lunch and my route took me past the convent I was assigned to walk Sister Marie across the parking lot to the convent for her lunch. This would usually shave about ten minutes off my lunch time but during those walks, sister shared some of her stories and thoughts. It was on one of those walks I found out that sister for years was the seamstress of the convent. This devout woman was content to mend and sew for her sisters and prepare vestments for the priest. It was only in the later years that she was allowed to pursue her lifelong ambition to teach. There are times when I can still feel sister’s tight grip on my arm.

Sister Marie was a great organizer of playground sports. During recess she would send the girls to play tether ball or jump rope, while she umpired the baseball game with the boys. Sister assigned the positions and teams. I suspect she was raised in a family of boys judging from her knowledge of the sporting world and the rules of the game.

During one recess softball game my fate was determined for my end time. It was my turn at bat and I approached the plate with a confidence that from this day on I was never to find again. I don’t know how many pitches it took to set the scenario up, but it only took one misguided swing to seal the deal.

The ball connected with the bat, but not in a way that sent it forward. Instead a foul ball was sent back in line drive fashion to the umpire, Sister Marie. The ball connected squarely on Sister’s habit. The ball ripped the habit from her head revealing a compressed clump of wiry gray hair and immediately shaving five inches off her height. Of course as the batter, I had no idea what was happening behind me but what I could see in front of me was a look of shock on every defensive player. When I turned around, I saw sister hurriedly fumbling with the habit dangling behind her. She was like a mother caught half undressed by her children. Immediately other nuns came running from all ends of the playground to sister’s aid. It was like watching a flock of crows descending on a fresh ear of corn.

No one paid any attention to me. I stood alone in my shame. The batter’s box was now a prison which held my feet solid to the ground. I knew at that point my life was set on a path of doom and gloom with the final end advertising to the world for all eternity my indiscretion. It didn’t matter who said it, but it might as well have been a chorus from the heavens, “You hit a Nun. Your hand is going to stick out of the grave for all eternity.” That was the rule. If you hit a nun or priest you knew that was the fate of the offending hand.

We were all ushered back to the classroom. Sister Marie was nowhere. I don’t know who filled in for her but my afternoon was lost anyway. All I could think about was how I was going to tell my folks. The shame I brought to the household was never going to be erased. I knew I would be buried in some far corner of the cemetery where the grass was never trimmed that way my hand would not show above the thistles and buffalo grass. The family secret would be hidden forever.

When the final bell of the day rang, I had no desire to charge down 18th street towards home. The longer I could stay in school, the longer I could delay the news to mom. We weren’t so well connected in those days, so the news was on me to share. All the way down the hill to the house I could feel the push of fate on my back like a grubby prison guard shoving me to move faster as I stumbled to find the next step.

When I got home, mom was upstairs ironing. She was sprinkling clothes with her coke bottle sprinkler. A pile of clothes rolled up beside her which had just come out of the refrigerator where they were stored to prevent mold. She had no idea the level of my sinfulness but she could tell something was wrong from the minute the screen door closed behind me. Mothers are like that. I confessed my sin to her. She didn’t seem to see the seriousness of the hit. To me, I would never see mom and dad in eternity because I was most likely going in the opposite direction while my hand stayed behind and waved a warning to all would be offenders. Then she uttered the words no kid wants to hear. “We will just wait until your dad comes home.”

This put a stamp on my salvation that I knew would not be erased. Dad, who the nuns thought was next to God himself, would now have to suffer in the shame of his son, the nun basher. When dad came home mom shared the story so that I did not have to relive it again. I can remember dad, still in his postal uniform, telling me to get ready to go see Sister Marie. “Did you apologize?” he asked. At that point I could not remember if I did or not. He loaded me in “Black Beauty” the family DeSoto and up the hill to the convent we went.

With dad standing behind me, I knocked on the back door of the convent, the one that led to the kitchen. The first nun to the door was Sister Number 1. I am sure I turned whiter than the white of her habit. Maybe they were going to eat me for supper, which would have saved my life at that point. We were invited in by Sister and led through the kitchen to a long dining hall. Waiting there for what seemed like a thousand seconds of silence, Sister Marie finally appeared. She walked in a determined cadence towards me and I prepared myself for a slap or a wrap across the knuckles. Instead, I was pulled close to her in an embrace that was so motherly for a woman who never knew that joy. I could smell the fragrance of Ben-Gay or some type of salve smeared on her forehead. Through scared tears I uttered “I am sorry” and to this day I can’t remember her response.

Until Sister was sent back to the Mother House, I continued to walk her across the parking lot, rain or shine. We never spoke of that incident again. But, I have this suspicion when I finally move on from this world I might be greeted by this little old nun at the gate smelling of Ben-Gay looking for help across the golden way.

All part of growing up.

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The Bad Speller’s Dicshonary

The Bad Speller’s Dicshonary

Ghoughpteighbteau?

 I am a victim. I am, however, not alone in my victimized state. You might be one also. Many suffer in silence shouldering the shame and heartache of imposed phonics. We are…bad spellers.

In Sister Marie’s third grade class it was drilled into us, “If you don’t know how to spell a word, sound it out.” That was a cruel hoax played on those of us across the English speaking world who carry the scars of that phrase. In my early years, I thought a system for written expression was the answer to book reports, essays, and letters to Santa. Following Sister’s instructions there were no words which I needed to shy away from. But, the academics would not leave well enough alone. After teaching us the master key to literary greatness, they came along and added another phrase. “Well if you don’t know how to spell it, just look it up.”

What a death blow to a struggling phonetically challenged young man. If I could not spell a word I would sound it out but no one told me I was also pronouncing the word wrong. What I was saying and what I heard were two different sounds. “Sound it out or look it up,” did not even connect in my world.

I was a freshman in the seminary when I realized The Lord’s Prayer, The Our Father, was not the Are Father as I had been spelling it. I sounded it out. This mistake was made clear to me on my first trip to Connecticut for Sunday Mass with my sister. I was the only person saying the “R’s” through the whole prayer. I was a Nebraska boy surrounded by a bunch of Kennedy sounding locals.

I could never figure out the signs which demanded, “Do Not Litter.” I thought it was illegal to throw out your cat droppings. If you didn’t want me to trash your roadway then why not put up a sign, “Do Not Lidder.” My personal nemeses is the word history. I just saw in a hymnal at Sunday Mass, the word spelled in a way familiar to me, histry, makes sense to me. As a matter of fact, I have experimented with spelling it as, histery which is how I hear it or my favorite, histary, they all work for me.

Write now, my spell chek is reddy to blow up. I am saving a few of these words to my dictionary for future use.

My brother Tom, who will always be an influence in my life, was an amateur radio operator or “Ham,” as they are called. I wanted to be one also and join him communicating with people around the world. The first license required the mastery of Morse code. I had no problem committing the dots and dashes to memory and recognizing them tapped out on the key. To pass the test required the sending and receiving correctly of so many words in a measured time frame. Piece of cake, until it came to sending back a message. You really needed to be able to spell to communicate effectively in code. The person on the other end of the dots and dashes would receive a message that was more like code than the code they were trying to decipher. It didn’t take long for Tom to encourage me to pursue a different hobby.

Mom came to the rescue. She must have noticed that her special child was struggling and racing rapidly to a life of flop houses and bread lines with his inability to master the written word. She found what was to save my life and lead me to a somewhat successful educational experience. Random House publishing company, recognizing that there is more than one way to spell a word, published The Bad Speller’s Dictionary.

The volume was a God send in the form of a little pocket book. It was affirmation that those who can only spell a word one way, lack any form of creativity.  Within this gem one can find philosophy under the “f’s” where it has a place right next to philanthropy and fizicks. (See, you knew what I just spelled.) The manual has followed me to job interviews where I knew I would need to write in a way that is accepted by the general hiring climate. It is in my briefcase before my computer and never out of reach when I am working from home.

Those of us who suffer from Ortographobia, the fear of misspelling, also know that there are trick words hiding in every sentence. Words such as to, two and too, there and their, and countless others.  The Bad Speller’s Dictionary has me covered in this area also.  At the end of each alphabet section there is a listing of words that look alike or sound alike.  As a self-diagnosed ortographic, I cringe whenever I need to write away from spell check, or my trusty Random House book. Those trick words without any conscience on their part, rear their ugly heads and bring my writing to a grinding halt.

Many who suffer from bad speller’s affliction will just ask someone how to spell a word. That is great if you are in the presence of a retired grammar teacher, or a saintly nun who recognizes the signs of this crippling phobia. Otherwise you are on your own. What you find when you issue the challenge; “Does anyone here know how to spell Cincinnati?” (Which if you ever lived in Cincinnati, you soon learn they pronounce it Cincinnata) this just further compounds the problem. The question only serves to bring out the closet Ortographics. People begin to stumble over their letters and you soon learn it is better to resort to a different city or find a new way around the word.

I spent five and half years studying in the seminary. I regret not one day living and learning behind those holy walls. I have no doubt, God led me there for the salvation of my soul, although I am still waiting to see if His plan worked. However, as they say, the devil is in the details. While there, my phobia reached a clinically dangerous level which could only be comforted with occasional retreats to the local pubs. I had steeped to the lowest point in my spelling life.

The introduction of foreign and classical languages did me in. I gave up. I admitted I had a problem. I couldn’t take the constant correction, the embarrassment and shame among my peers. My downward spiral was brought on by violent contrast such as; my Latin instructor, who was female, Jewish and a Doctor of Classical Languages; my Greek instructor, a German Lutheran minister. My ability to keep any proper spelling was lost. Then, the condition grew worse, Spanish was introduced. The devil of spelling won.

On what was a cold November night (probably not but we will use it for effect) I grabbed my Bad Speller’s Dictionary, retreated to my room, huddled in the corner, a broken man, I surrendered my spelling soul to the gods of grammar, dictionaries and thesauruses, where ever they might be.

Of course none of it was that dramatic but it makes for a good story. The truth is though, I am free. No longer trapped by the chains that bound me with fear and embarrassment. I welcome the corrections. I rally in the variety of ways I can approach a word and not feel like I am the only one that has the same view.

Today, individuals who have no knowledge of my condition will ask, “How do you spell history?” That my friends is a very different questions from, “What is the proper way to spell history?” I respond with every bit of honesty I can muster, “This is how I spell it.”

I appreciate that embracing my weakness is, all part of growing up.

If you would like to know what ghoughpteighbteau really is, you will only find it in The Bad Speller’s Dictionary.  Send me a request using the comment section and I will tell you what ghoughpteighbteau really spells. Once you find out, you will never raise your eyebrow to a misspelled word again.

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