“I Knew You Would Never Be a Priest”

“I knew you would never be a priest.”

Those were the words that Mom uttered to me when I nervously told her that I decided not to continue with my Catholic seminary studies. Of course, you need to understand that along with this statement came a hand wave as if she was chasing away a pesky gnat.

Months of nervous introspection and practicing just how to tell her all vanished with the wave of a hand. It would have been helpful for her to share some of her insights maybe six years earlier. But then, I wouldn’t have any good stories to share.

There are many misconceptions about life in a Catholic seminary. If you have followed this blog series you have probably had a few of those myths shattered and buried. “Thunk” (October 17, 2014 or “Christmas or Bust” October 26, 2014

By the time I am done with this edition, a few more myths might bite the dust.

The road to the seminary is different for everyone called, and it is a calling. You receive small invitations that you don’t recognize until you start putting all of the pieces together. Like playing priest and setting up an altar on your mother’s kitchen table. Or, being the on-call altar server for the parish. You become the server that Father looks for in the congregation when the assigned server sleeps in.

Then there are the nuns who would just come right out and say, “You ought to be a priest.” I think they saw every boy who managed to stay out of their discipline radar for more than a year as a potential candidate. I was never the favored student. Matter of fact, the nuns probably secretly voted me most likely to fail. Proof of this theory was when it came time for the SAT tests. Sister, who will remain nameless, refused to let me sign up for the test. “Why would you take the test, you are never going to make it in college.” I know she meant well and was probably just trying to give me a free Saturday morning to go fishing.

One year later, when I announced my intention to go to the seminary, the same “blessed” woman elevated me to just below valedictorian status and somehow my poor algebra skills, which she was convinced would hold me back, vanished out of importance.

I wish the call to the priesthood was as clear as Paul being knocked off his horse or Moses and his bush of fire, but it wasn’t. Of course it is very obvious from Scripture that those two key figures didn’t understand subtle hints as clearly as I did or God would not have used such dramatic signs.  (I’ll probably need to answer for that statement somewhere along the line.)

When the day arrived to head to the seminary in Kentucky a whole crew of seminar recruits assembled in a parking lot in Lincoln to form a caravan of priestly hopefuls. We looked like the Crusaders sent east to conquer and convert the Kentuckians. We had no idea what to expect and the peaceful Seminary of St. Pius X in Erlanger, KY also was not prepared for the onslaught of Midwest culture.

The lane leading to the Seminary building

Entrance to Seminary Lane

Back to Mom.

Mom and I argued about this for years, but I know what I saw. After tearful good byes we pulled out of the lot to start our new adventure. Looking back I know I saw mom dancing a gig in glorious celebration. She finally had me out of the house. In her defense, she said a bee was chasing her around the lot. I think my version is more believable.

Move in day in the seminary is a little different than move in day at any other college. There are no buff fraternity brothers jumping in to help hoping to recruit some new pledges. There is a notable absence of cute girls in shorty shorts checking out the new freshmen. There ARE numerous upperclassmen, dressed in black clerics, standing around carefully assessing the class of freshmen to see if there is a future Bishop or Cardinal in the pack that they may need to buddy up to. In our case, they were more curious to see what a likely priest from Nebraska looked like. We disappointed them on this trip and left our bib-overalls and seed company hats at home.

After going through a week long induction process the real seminary life began. In chapel by 7:00AM for Morning Prayer followed by a half hour of spiritual reading. Required dress for prayer was a cassock. For those not familiar with clerical attire, a cassock is a one piece black covering with a clerical collar. What was great about these was you could get out of bed, slip on a pair of socks and shoes, roll up your pajamas if you were so inclined to wear them, and head to chapel with no further decisions to be made. I have little doubt there were many of my brother seminarians who had less than what I just mentioned under their frocks.

For prayer, the seminary body filled the chapel with the faculty perched in the last row like a flock of white throated crows keeping an eye on tasty morsels carefully analyzing which to keep and which ones to discard. Chapel had assigned seating so the faculty always knew who made it up for prayer or who came in late. The prayers volleyed back and forth in true monastic style. It is a moving experience to hear a hundred plus men praying in unison in the stillness of the morning. It gives the morning a voice that should start everyone’s day rather than the staccato blabbering of news anchors. The stain glass windows would cast angelic rays across the student body giving the look of pure holiness and innocence to the whole body of men. The scene made you appreciate all that nudged you to this point.

God's View of the Seminary

God’s View of the Seminary

After prayer you moved right into spiritual reading. During this time you were to read something from the lives of the saints or any other tract that would keep you focused. You obeyed that rule for the first six months. After that, you realized that no one was keeping tabs on what you were reading.  You knew that most of the faculty were gone after prayer, retreating to their private dining room for breakfast and I am sure a grilling of the personalities of the student body. What was considered spiritual reading then became a matter of your own censorship. There were guys reading the latest bestsellers, copies of Sports Illustrated were smuggled in under loose fitting cassocks as well as class notes for the day and letters from home.

When the hour of chapel came to an end, the bell would ring announcing time for breakfast. We filed out of the chapel based on class rank with the seniors leading the long black line to the refectory. (fancy word for cafeteria) If you could get an aerial shot of this procession out of chapel it would look like a stream of black ants one following the other with one goal in mind…food.

Now I have no proof of this next statement but it is one of those things that just seems glaringly obvious. I believe they replaced and hoped to repress any sexual inklings of a student body made up of twenty something year old men with food! Breakfast and lunch, which were served cafeteria style, could outpace the finest smorgasbord you can imagine. Eggs prepared to order, always more than one breakfast meat choice, pancakes, waffles, coffee, juice all made up your choices. Three saintly nuns, who must have started in the very early hours of the day, prepared each meal as if they were cooking for the Pope himself.

Supper, a community event, followed immediately after evening prayer. Supper was served family style with six guys at a table. Two people were assigned to the table as waiters. One was the server. He was in charge of coming in sometime during the afternoon and setting the table in preparation for the evening meal. Once everyone was seated for supper, it was his job to bring the food to the table from the kitchen. If seconds were needed, again, it was his duty to retrieve them. The other guy, had it a little easier. When the meal was over, he cleared the table. His biggest worry was stacking the dirty dishes. There was a very specific way to stack the dishes. Violating this order gained you a scolding from the guys on dish crew.

One of the specialties of the nuns was scratch carrot cake. Its thick cream cheese icing and moist cake made it such a desired treat that guys traded favors for cake. Bargains were made to spend a day on dish crew or take a turn on a work crew for an extra piece. If we were in a prison, (well we kind of were) carrot cake would be the equivalent of trading cigarettes.

I had the good fortune in later years of rooming with the Joe Pat who was assigned to work in the refectory. He had the keys to the kingdom of carrot cake. More than once, in the middle of the night, Joe and I would help ourselves to some of the leftover cake.

Tuesdays and Thursdays were work crew days on campus. Every man was assigned a job with little discretion as to class ranking or position in seminary society. Two seminarians were in charge of the work crew details and they floated around the campus making sure that the assigned jobs were being completed based on the job list handed down by the faculty. For some reason, the first detail that came down to the new Nebraska residents of the hill was operating the tractors to cut the twenty-five acres of land or to plow the cornfields or…to drive an Army surplus dump truck loaded with a tractor and slop for the hogs down to the seminary farm.

You can probably see where this is going. I was tapped to drive the truck, the only question asked was, “Do you know how to drive a standard shift.” After several years of driving my VW Beetle around, I answered with a confident yes. I should have kept my mouth shut. The priest in charge of the grounds directed me to a truck with a cab so high it had steps. The truck had more gears than my eighteen speed mountain bike and each one, as Father made note of, needed to be double clutched.

The journey to the farm followed every twisted, hilly road Kentucky could throw at me. To make things worse, I shadowed a school bus that would stop every time I managed to get through gear five and six. Once I finally made it to the farm, I had to back this monster up to a loading ramp using only the mirrors. Come on! I signed on to save souls not piglets.

Little did I realize, God intervened and did me a favor. From that successful trip I was now the official driver of the big blue monster as well as enjoying being allowed many hours of solitude on the tractors, cutting grass and plowing fields while others were scrubbing urinals, waxing floors and dusting shelves,

Grand silence fell on the building at 10PM. Every student was expected to be in their rooms with no talking unless the building was on fire or you were addressed by a faculty member. If you were in the halls, you had better be on your way to or from chapel or one of the common bathrooms. It was moving to hear the silence descend on the building. It was a peacefulness that inspired prayer, study and gin rummy.

My room was gin rummy headquarters. I made a lot of pocket change after 10PM helping my brothers learn the finer points of the game. It wasn’t necessary to talk through the game other than to quietly utter the word, “gin” at the appropriate time so we weren’t breaking too many rules.

Once a year we had a seven day silent retreat, usually after our return from Christmas vacation. I am sure the idea was to help restore us to the saintly practices that we left behind at the start of the break. What it really was, was the start of the gin tournament which ran for seven nights. When the retreat was winding down, the parallel tournament was also coming to an end. The winner walked away that week enriched spiritually and financially. I think that is called good stewardship.

Retreats were not all about gin rummy. My senior year in the seminary, Bishop Connare, the then Bishop of Greensburg, PA and one of the authors of the Vatican II documents, was our retreat master. You will never find a more down to earth and saintly Bishop than this man. During one of our chapel sessions with the Bishop, a freshman seminarian presented a question he asked, “Bishop, when do you get a handle on, you know, these urges?”

Bishop Connare, dressed in full bishop regalia stepped off the altar, walked up to the now shaking seminarian sitting in the front row put his face almost next to the freshman and calmly said, “When they put the last nail in your coffin.”

That settled that discussion.

You often hear people say that every young man should be in the military. I can’t totally disagree with that. In my opinion however, the seminary could run a close second. Behind the walls of the seminary you learn to live in a community, looking out for others first, then yourself. Orders are followed because they will make life easier for everyone. Your daily attire, black clerical shirt or cassock, unifies the body of men, (plus you don’t have to make any decisions as to what matches with what.) The prayerful atmosphere and ample time for meditation and introspection gives you time to understand and appreciate the soul that is trapped in your body. Whether you go on to be a priest or decide to leave based on the urgings of those who know better “that maybe you should pursue other career options,” the seminary has a lasting effect.

For my part, I still wear black socks with almost everything I put on.

Learning about yourself. Challenging yourself. Changing directions. It is all part of growing up.

If you would like a copy of the “special secret carrot cake” recipe send me an email at yesac1@gmail.com

Photo’s Google Earth, 2015

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“How Much is that Doggie in the Window?”

This edition is dedicated to Dickens, a Golden Retriever who served his family well and was a friend to all he came in contact with.

Dickens

Dickens

“So Brian, what would you like for your sixtieth birthday?”

That was a question posed to me by Tina sometime in August or September of 2014. It didn’t take me long to respond to the question. I immediately said,

“A dog.”

After reassuring her that I was serious, the discussion started on the pros and cons of dog ownership.

We went through all of the usual arguments of why we shouldn’t be dog owners. The list of reasons why not to have a dog was long and included our schedule, housing, veterinary expenses, lack of experience and the restrictions that come with a pet. They were all good arguments but ones that I also had some good countering responses for.

After mustering up my best sad face and throwing in a few promises, which I have yet to fulfill, I won the debate.

In October, we visited a breeder and selected a six week old female miniature schnauzer named Bella. Bella, would eventually come home with us sometime in December.

Our first meeting with Bella

Our first meeting with Bella

Bella's first night in her new home

Bella’s first night in her new home

It wasn’t until we picked up Bella that I realized I was preparing for a puppy much of my life plus how much dogs have been a part my of growing years.

We never had a dog in the family. We had pigeons, chipmunks, an alligator, even a praying mantis that lived a very healthy life in captivity on tomato worms and grasshoppers and, there were even a few dime store turtles, but no dogs.

The closest to having a dog was a few strays that followed Dad home from his mail route. They would stick around a few days, never really giving in to ownership then they would move on once they realized this was not the family for them. I think of them now as the hobo’s of the dog world. They were free to roam where they wanted and find food from generous handouts by sympathetic humans.

Mom was probably the biggest opponent to a dog in the family. She tolerated the creatures listed above and I never remember her saying no to any of them. I know she was not fond of the snakes Tom brought home from Scout Camp but they made it in to the house despite her arguments. One by one they disappeared from the basement. To this day, I believe the garter, bull, and black racer snakes that inhabit the old neighborhood are all descendants of those basement snakes.

It was mom that helped me stitch up a racing pigeon when he came home with his crop split from one wing to the other. I held the bird while mom, an expert seamstress, stitched the old boy back together in between douses of peroxide that turned his whole front blonder than Marilyn Monroe platinum. So she had a sympathy and understanding for creatures, just not those that might eventually boss her around.

Then, Banjo came on the scene. Banjo belonged to the Grimes family who lived across the alley. I can’t tell you the breed of Banjo, not sure if he was any particular breed, but I hesitate to label him a mutt because he was much more than that. Banjo was a short legged, black curly haired creature who’s eyes were always covered with tangles of curls and his tongue always hanging out looking for a hand to slather with a good licking.

Banjo was ready to play just by hollering his name. He roamed the neighborhood ready to chase balls, cats, our pigeons or just roll over for a good belly rub. But, what was special about Banjo was his relationship with Mom.

Banjo and Mom had an understanding early on in his introduction to our yard. Mom had no problem with Banjo running at will through the yard and even now and then begging a drink from the garden hose while she watered her flowers. However, it only took a few attempts on Banjo’s part to follow her up the porch steps to learn he had crossed the line.

If you remember, the porch was part of the house, it was a room without walls and that meant it was no place for dogs. It was Mom’s claim that she taught Banjo to stop at the steps and come no farther into her territory. She was the first dog whisper that I ever knew. With a look and a stern no, Banjo quickly learned to respect the boundaries.

For his reward, Mom labeled him the best dog she ever knew. Mom would remark often how well trained this dog was to not venture on “her porch.” When Banjo mysteriously disappeared, as often is the case with free roaming dogs, it was Mom who missed him more than us kids. Even years later when we were all adults and talk would turn to dogs, Mom always brought up the legacy that Banjo left behind that no other dog matched.

As I got older, I needed a source of money that would supplement the grass and snow shoveling business. Dog walking became the weatherproof business. When the grass stopped growing and the snow was not flying, dogs still needed to be walked.

When I came home from school I had a regular circuit of house-bound dogs to tend to. One was Paddy, a young beagle full of energy and blessed with a typical beagle voice. The closer I would get to Paddy’s house, which was just a half a block down Morton Street, I could hear him wailing as if he was hot on the trail of a rabbit. I could struggled to get Paddy out the door and hooked to his exercise line because he was so happy to be outside. Once Paddy expelled his energy along with a few other things, it was time to move on to Bugle.

Bugle was a grossly overweight beagle basset hound mix. Bugle was the dog of one of the county judges and they both shared what I would list as a mansion on Lane Street. It was house filled with old wood, winding staircases and memorabilia from the Judges years of public service as well as his stints with some very famous Jazz artist. The house was later destroyed to make room for a modern grocery store. When I go home and visit the store, I can still picture back in the corner where the deli ends and the milk coolers start, that this is where the back door to the mansion would be. The back door is where Bugle and I would start our walks.

The judge never locked the back door. Many folks in town did not. I would open the back door, step inside the entrance parlor, and holler for Bugle. With the utterance of his name came the response from several flights of stairs above me of a bugle charged bark that would make any fox and hound fan proud. Barking at a volume that could be used as a warning siren, Bugle came slopping down the steps his nails scratching the wooden runners and his belly making a sweeping sound as it hung up on each one. Finally at the bottom he was exhausted. His exercise for the day was finished in his mind but the orders from the Judge were to walk him despite his opposition.

Unfortunately, Bugle was not in the habit of taking orders from the Judge or from me. Bugle would oblige me my job of attaching his lead and complying by walking down a few more steps off the back stoop. From there it was a tug of war between wills and dog fat.

One time I made the mistake of walking Bugle across Harlan Street. If you have followed previous stories, you know that Harlan was the main highway through town. Not busy all the time, but enough that one should probably not try to walk a reluctant dog across. In the middle of Harlan, Bugle decided to exert his rank as the dog of the high ranking county official and planted himself in the middle of the highway. We had tractor trailers passing us on one side and monster combine machines with their tentacle arms pointing at us on the other. Bugle was just taking it all in as if this was his kingdom and he wanted his subjects to see he was in control. All I could picture was a life in the jail on top of the courthouse where the Judge sent me for risking the life of his only family member.

Bugle and I eventually came to an understanding and returned to the mansion, never to speak of this event again. Bugle and I continued our relationship for a few more years and then, Bugle’s rich and lazy lifestyle eventually caught up with him. I tried to warn him but he never listened.

The early years with dogs did not always bring about the best results.

One night, mom, Teresa and I were walking down 19th street only a block away from the house. I was on the outside next to the street, where mom taught me gentlemen are supposed to be when walking with a lady, Teresa and Mom were on the inside. As we passed a house I noticed a black lab stretched out on the front stoop. With no warning the lab came out around Teresa and Mom and sunk his teeth into my, at that time plumb rear, and hung on as I ran down the street. The dog eventually released his bite on what was to him a tasty morsel and for me at that age a near death experience. I think to this day I still have two canine scars in my rear but I have never had anyone verify that.

When Mom and Teresa arrived home, trust me, I beat them home, my cuts were painted with methylate, the cure-all for any cuts. Later dad went over to the house, armed with Tom’s single shot .22 ready to defend himself against the monster. As he approached the house carrying the rifle, a well-meaning neighbor called the sheriff thinking dad was up to no good. The sheriff at the time was Dad’s half uncle (which is a whole new family history story.) Turns out the dog had selected another victim earlier in the evening, so the sheriff was really there to investigate. The poor dog was later moved out to the country where he was free to take on any creature that got in his way. He was probably secretly hoping his antics would get him out of town and out where he could roam free and pursue his wolf instincts.

Then there was Ginger. Ginger was Scoutmaster Bill’s Golden Retriever. Ginger went on every campout with the troop and if you bunked with Bill, you also bunked with Ginger. Ginger liked to roam the campsite at night checking on her boys. This meant that throughout the night, you had to tolerate Ginger stepping on you as she made her way in and out of your tent.

It was Ginger that taught me about pheasant and quail hunting. Bill, who would often call to take me hunting and he always brought Ginger along. Ginger was trained as great gun dog ready to flush out quail and pheasants and then retrieve the kill when a bird was brought down. If Ginger flushed a covey of quail and I missed them all, she would give me a look of “really, I worked hard and you missed them!”

Eventually Ginger taught me to be ready for what she was sniffing out along with the etiquette and respect that is required when using a working dog.

The seminary years brought a few more dogs to help in the dog education. Cheri, a German Shepard and Murphy an adventuresome Beagle.

Cheri roamed the halls of the seminary with free access to any room or quarter in the building. She was everyone’s dog and was happy resting in the TV room with the guys or visiting the faculty in their exclusive dining room. Cheri never ventured into the chapel. Like Banjo, somewhere along the line she learned this was crossing the line, but every morning and evening when prayers were finished, she was waiting outside ready to find someone to play with.

We don’t know how Cheri got pregnant. Well we know, but just couldn’t explain when she participated in activities outside the walls. Late one night, while sleeping over in one of the guy’s rooms, Cheri decided it was time to introduce her nine puppies to seminary life. That was the first time many of us witnessed a live birth. (For men preparing for a celibate life, it was most likely the last time.) The puppies were all dispatched to homes around the seminary and Cheri in proper time, resumed caring for her men in the seminary.

Murphy was a different type of dog. He was independent and had an adventurer’s spirit. Murphy would take off on journeys and sometimes be gone for weeks. When he returned, he was celebrated like the prodigal son returning. Announcements were made that Murphy was in the building and guys started feeding him scraps from their plates as encouragement to stick closer to home. Sometimes when Murphy returned home there was less of him. Often when he returned he was very thin, or maybe part of his ear would be missing. One time he came home with part of another creatures tooth lodged in a delicate part of the male dog anatomy.

Murphy did not roam the building like Cheri. He held court on the well-worn leather sofa in the game room. If you wanted to see him, you had to go to him. You were welcome to have a seat next to him but don’t try to encourage him to follow you from that spot.

One day Murphy left the seminary grounds and we never heard from him again.

Years later the “teacher” arrived on scene. The Buddhist have a saying that goes something like “the Teacher will arrive when it is time.” The pup that opened the door for future dog ownership was a little black schnauzer named Shadow. The grandsons thought that Grandpap needed a dog to keep him company. The idea set well with everyone except Grandpap. In less than a week, Shadow found a home with Craig the oldest grandson. Shadow endeared herself into the family and it wasn’t long till she was an expected member at any family gathering. Tina, who was never a real fan of dogs and even by her own admission was a little fearful of them, because she didn’t know how to act around the four legged ambassadors of licks and kisses. Shadow and Tina bonded to the point that she became a guest in our house for several dog sitting sessions. It was not unusual for Tina and Shadow to be curled up on the couch both enjoying forty-winks on a Sunday afternoon.

The teacher had arrived.

Next in line came the Berdoodle, King Tut Casey, Cleopatra and Christmas Wren, all dogs of our son’s family. Tut was never little. From the time we met him he was a big boy and soon grew to a size that would display his St. Bernard roots. What he had in size he also had in love. He only wanted to be near people and please those around him. Tina took to Tut with no fear of this large gentle giant. Shadow had prepared her well. Cleopatra was to Tut in size what a house cat would be to a tiger. The two made a Mutt and Jeff pair that was comical and loveable. Tut wanted to be the lapdog that Cleo was, and Cleo thought she was the size of Tut when it came to standing her ground.

King Tut Casey

King Tut Casey

Then Adam and Laura rescued Wren. A little thing that could easily fit in a shirt pocket. She needed round the clock care with feeding carefully monitored and room temperature kept high. It wasn’t long before she was included with the pack and the three musketeers became sources of entertainment no reality show could match.

Now we are back to Bella. With Shadow as the teacher and Tut, Cleo and Wren following to round out the class, it wasn’t hard to make room for Bella. She quickly made herself at home and I believe still it was Bella that adopted us, not the other way around.

Bella has brought life and comedy to the house. She has her routines which quickly became our routines. Her toys can sometimes be scattered from the bedrooms, down the steps and into the kitchen. More than once I have walked into a dark room only to kiss the ceiling after stepping on squeaky toy. Even as I type the words she is sitting on my lap fixed on the cursor and words as they pop on the screen.

With Bella I have been forced out on cold mornings before the sun climbs over the mountains behind Springfield Pike. Bella has given me a chance to view the constellations I’ve missed for years. Watching her wonder at a fly for the first time or the smell of grass greening up reminds me how fast life has become. Catching her wonder at birds chasing each other in the burning bushes and the predawn song of the robin sitting on the power line over the alley reminds me there is more entertainment than what I pay the cable company for. We’ve been out in the rain and snow together and according to Bella, it is okay to get wet and it reminds me how delicious snowflakes taste and how good the smell of rain really is.

Bella today

Bella today

A dog, I am convinced, takes you back to just far enough that you can start over again.

One afternoon I had Bella out in the front yard for exercise. A car passed with a young boy in the back seat. His gazed was fixed on Bella as they passed. He turned back to his parents in the front seat and the car was still close enough for me to see him mouth, “I want one.”

Hang in there kid, it will happen sooner or later, it may take sixty years, but it is just all part of growing up.

1.How Much is that Doggie in the Window? Bob Merrill 1953

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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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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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