A Bigger Pasture

Do you remember your transition from grade school to high school?  His very first day of school, when his mom left him in a classroom with some thirty other six-year olds he’d never seen before, was his first introduction to the world beyond the walls of home.

Home was claustrophobic.  His dad, the baby of his family, was born in that house in 1923.  Dad’s parents lived in the back half of the house, while mom and dad and (eventually) ten kids lived in the front.  He was fourteen years old, average height, overweight.  Smart as a whip, shy as a mouse.  He had a small circle of friends, and a sincere desire to become a Catholic priest – at least, he thought he did.  He was looking forward to a new start in a high school some 400 miles away.

The high school seminary did not have individual rooms.  About eighty-five students all slept on the same floor, freshmen and sophomores on the west end of the third floor, junior and seniors on the east end.  Each seminarian had their own twin size bed.  The metal bed frame included a couple of large metal drawers tucked away under the foot end of the bed.  Each also had their own dorm locker, about five feet tall and maybe two feet wide.

The lockers were lined up down the middle of the 70 foot wide floor, dividing the 140 foot length equally into north and south.  Because there were many more freshmen than sophomores, juniors or seniors, the upper classmen enjoyed slightly larger personal living spaces.  The older students, sophomores on the west side and seniors on the east side, occupied positions nearest the windows; freshmen and juniors were assigned the interior spaces.

Now if you had your own bedroom back home in Detroit or St. Louis or Chicago or Grand Rapids or Kansas City or wherever else in the Midwest you happened to come from, you might have wondered how the hell you were going to manage any degree of personal dignity living with a herd of teenagers not unlike the herds of cows well within sight of the high school.  But if you had shared a bedroom with at least four other brothers for the first fourteen years of your life – in his case, two or three of those years were shared in the same twin size bed with his younger brother – you could not begin to believe your good fortune.  His personal space had gone from something like thirty square feet to a hundred – with his own drawers and his own closet (locker) that belonged to him, that no one else (well, no one other than the fathers, of course) could access.  Yes, he was now part of a larger herd – and this pasture was a whole hell of a lot bigger than his last one.

Fall ’71 – Part One

We spent the summer getting ready to pack up and ship me off to the high school seminary in Edgerton, Wisconsin.  It’s not really fair to say “ship off” – I already had three brothers before me attend the place.  The parish organized a bus to take a whole bunch of interested eighth graders out to Wisconsin (maybe a seven hour drive) in the spring for a weekend to get an idea of what the place was like.

From what I can remember, I was looking forward to going there.  Of course, once you were there, it was a slightly different story.  There was the expected homesickness, but nothing intolerable.  I don’t think the fathers made us write home every so often, but I do remember writing home fairly regularly that first year.  Some years later, I remember Mom telling me those letters were some of the nicest things she ever got from us – just a few short pages every so often from her boys telling her about the latest goings on, how they missed her and loved her and was looking forward to coming home for Christmas or summer break.

It was a small high school.  There were around seventy, eighty students that fall, maybe sixteen seniors, and a lot of freshmen, forty of ‘em.  As far as priests and brothers go, these are the folks I remember:

Father Leo was rector.  His brother Robert was also a priest, stationed in my home parish in Detroit; he recruited many Holy Redeemer eighth graders for seminary.  I didn’t know Father Leo very well; I think we thought of the rector as CEO, president and king of the joint all wrapped into one.  He might have been approachable, but how would you ever know?

Father Walt was second in command, the school principal.  He was fun to know; very friendly, a full melodious FM radio kind of voice, pleasant to hear.  Occasionally he would dress students down every so often for unacceptable behavior – part of his job.  I’ll tell you more about Father Walt in the senior year Parents’ Weekend story.

Father Martin was the school bursar; he handled the money for both the school and the religious community.  He wasn’t unfriendly, but he didn’t have much interaction with the students, so it was difficult to get to know him.  Father Marty was a tall guy, very sturdy too – not heavy, not thin, sturdy.