Just me, at three and a half years old, with my brother and mother. My dad is taking the picture. My mom is looking very content here, partly because of the antics it took to get a picture like this (that was a one time use suit coat I was wearing) and mostly because this was right after my father decided to proceed along a path of conversion to all that is good. Those are the special boots I’m wearing. Above the laces, there were more hooks if you really wanted the extra ankle support.
Chapter 4 of the autobiography
~ He’s dead! He’s dead! – And the divorce my parents didn’t get. ~
Climbing up everything in the house was my specialty. I was not in my terrible twos; I had my own category for a two year old. I was going through my acrobatic twos. I would shock my family with my agility in being able to climb out of even the highest cage-like cribs. One of my half-sisters seems to have thought that it was all very cute when I was successful in my climbing, and decided not to stop me from shoving a low coffee table next to one of our tall, wrought iron bar stools, four of which stood in a row along a tall kitchen counter. Surely, thought I, there were things to eat up there.
The kind of bar stool we had was tall like this, but had a simple wooden seat and wrought iron legs that went straight down, making the stool a bit tippy.
I climbed up the coffee table and then up the stool. As I went up, the coffee table was pushed slightly away, a fatal mistake, well, almost. I was flat on my stomach on top of the stool, holding on for dear life. I had to go through some rather amazing acrobatics to get in a seated position. Not finding any food I wanted to eat, and not content to just sit there, I started to rock back and forth, stool and all, until I was reprimanded, only to do it again. Before long I rocked back and kept going back… and back… I still remember the sinking feeling… Crack. Crash. Thud. I had cracked my skull on the sharp corner of the coffee table just above the center of my neck. The stool had gone flying, and I was sprawled out on the floor, blood, of course, was everywhere.
“He’s dead! He’s dead!” shouted one half-sister. “He’s just a baby! Why did you have him sitting up on a bar stool?” shouted the other half-sister, running into the room. Sibling rivalry continues, apparently, even in the face of death. A similar scene was to play itself out later in Rome, blood everywhere. I hadn’t been knocked out, but it looked pretty dire.
I blame that early incident on my not having an absolutely perfect memory. When I was a younger student I had a photographic memory for what little I studied, that is, if I wanted to remember what I was looking at. That wasn’t very frequently. Now I would really have to work at it. Perhaps that precipitous fall is just a convenient excuse. I am getting older. Anyway, this was the occasion for my first experience back in Saint Cloud Hospital after getting dismissed from the neo-natal unit. Perhaps it was in surviving this incident that I was inspired to say, “I’m still alive!” to anyone who asks me how I am, to this very day. I know that’s annoying, and people think that this is somehow a pessimistic statement, that I am merely surviving. Instead, it is a cry of victory: “I’m still alive!” Having an experience of one’s mortality at such a tender age does make an impression. Of course, that’s all been helped along through the decades, what with having dozens of very near brushes with death for any number of reasons.
* * *
It would be another year, when I was now three and a half years old, before I had two more experiences of death. Blessed Pope John XXIII died, and then the President of my own country, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. More on Kennedy in another chapter, please God.
Good Pope John, now declared “blessed”, died on June 3, 1963. His funeral three days later didn’t visually impress me at this young age as much as the fact that it was the Pope who had died. I was devastated. No one was running the Church! God is God, but what about our having a Pope?! What were we to do?! Mine was not a complex worry filled with the implications of such a death. It was a very simple, but to me, important grief.
Pope Paul VI in the Sedia Gestatoria
I was so torn apart by this that it didn’t quite sink in that the election of Pope Paul VI just a couple of weeks later on June 21 meant that there was a new Pope, and that all was well with the world once again. I do vividly remember Paul VI being carried on the sedia gestatoria and my being filled with awe. Everyone was all excited, putting their faces almost into the little black and white, perhaps ten inch, UHF/5 channel, snow-static scrolling screen television that we had just bought some months earlier. It was sitting on top of another one of the bar stools, jostled by the onlookers of my family, rocking back and forth as they tried to adjust the broadcast reception with a dial. With the new Pope about to fall off the bar stool as I had done, I knew right then that I was a no-apologies papist. Even so, I was still in such grief for Pope John XXIII that, as I say, it didn’t strike me that we had a new Pope who was actually governing the Church. My ecclesiological feelings would change in some months, but not yet.
* * *
There was much to do that Summer, such as learning how to ride a toy tractor and a trike. The world had to wait another year to be terrorized by me riding a tiny little bicycle with training wheels.
The Summer after this Christmas I would be 3 1/2 years old, and would take over driving the tricycle which was made to look like a farm tractor. In this picture, I’m in a wheel barrow, totally distracted by the silliness of my sisters.
I was very often chasing about, but one of the quiet times I had with the Lord that Summer was the day my mom brought home something special. She said she had something for me, but didn’t tell me what it was. When I wasn’t looking, she simply put a large paper bag with a box in it next to the bedroom of my brother and me. For some reason, perhaps from the loving but too solicitous tone of voice she used, I was apprehensive, which developed into a sinking feeling that all was not well.
I sat down near the top of the steps, leaving some space in front of me to take the package out of the bag and spread out its mysterious contents. If I investigated this package on top of the steps, perhaps I would hear another comment from my mother from downstairs. My heart sank all the more as I took everything out of the package. There were some very special shoes, boots really, which fit right over my ankles, and were reddish brown. I put them on. They fit perfectly, although they felt strange when walking in them. They had multi-level “saddles”, if you will, meant to realign my rather mal-formed heels. I remember having been measured for them some weeks previously. I didn’t know quite what to do with the metal bars which went along the sides of the legs. “You won’t have to wear them forever, just for a while, that’s all,” said my mom in a gentle voice from downstairs, not in view. She couldn’t bear seeing the expression on my face as I realized that I was a cripple of sorts and hadn’t even known about it.
Forrest Gump running his braces right off his legs.
After cracking my head open earlier on, this special footwear was another hint of my own mortality. Paradoxically, this experience ultimately of the effects of original sin in my own body did not in the least alienate me from God, but rather affirmed all that I knew about His love for me. I just knew that, before His love, it was not His fault, but the fault of man as to why any of us might suffer in such a way, and this made His effort to reach down and touch my little soul all the more special. It’s not that I knew about original sin. I just knew before God’s majesty that we all were found wanting, and that that was not at all His fault. Again, this wasn’t discursive reasoning, simply an understanding that was alive in reverence before God.
Isn’t it just so awesome that the more we embrace the fact of our fallen human condition in our lives, the more we can rejoice in the love of God, and truly live in hope? Little kids can be truly amazing in their capacity to look to the Most High. It’s not their fault! It’s a matter of love.
Just me, in Rome, with some old friends, back in the late 1990s
Having said that, little kids can also be oblivious to what is right in front of them, getting used to anything. I hadn’t paid any attention to the condition of my legs, but just found a way around the difficulty. I could walk just fine, and even run and jump like any other kid, for a minute or two, when the strain would become all too much for my feet and legs. Bike riding and swimming and climbing and just plain getting into trouble were what I could do best. My mom didn’t make me wear the bars. So I didn’t. The special shoes were part of the good times I had as a child. They were a sign of concern for my well being.
I do walk a bit funny to this day, as I am sometimes reminded by any impertinent acquaintance. I have been compared to a donkey. I love that. Donkeys are intelligent, can sing at will, and only do what they understand. Who of us can say that about ourselves? I can get around perfectly, but start to limp if I walk very fast or for any great distance. But that’s more than enough for this world, isn’t it? Decades later, for a year or two, because of a traffic accident, I would become an expert in Canadian crutches and wheelchairs, as if these were meant for some strange, extreme sport.
* * *
As well as very joyful times, there were also some rather dark moments in these years. Sometimes my mother and father would have a disagreement, though hardly ever do I remember them saying anything in front of us kids.
Yet, there were a couple of times when, as just a little boy, I asked my mom if she was O.K., for she was sitting all alone on the couch of our tiny living room, weeping quietly. God bless them that they did not divorce, staying married, and, happily, growing old contentedly together. That was a great lesson for me, a good one, an excellent one.
We had a print of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna hanging above the couch in our living room.
During one of their few falling out periods, I think when I was just three and a half years old, my dad went off to Sunday Mass and I thought that we were all going together. I grabbed my little jacket and was running out the door, but my mom grabbed me saying that we were staying home that day. I didn’t know what this was all about and said that we all had to go to Mass. Perhaps I was rather brave here, but it just seemed to me that the love of God that I had experienced the previous year would be offended if we all did not go. I just couldn’t see the reason why we shouldn’t all go. I truly was distressed. We must not offend God’s love! My mom prevailed. That was only temporary, thanks be to God.
Maybe we kids kept them together. I think the presence of children helps to save marriages and the parents themselves. The presence of children can make a huge difference if… if… the parents have at least a shred of decency and faith. I don’t know what couples who have no children do when the going gets tough and they have no faith. Divorce, I guess. That’s a tough life.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are reasons for a separation, and from what I am about to relate here, you’ll agree with me. I don’t think that there were any shelters in my hometown back in the day. There should be shelters in which to take refuge. Mom and us kids should have left and tried to find refuge elsewhere.
Yet, I wonder what would have happened to me if there had been a refuge. There certainly would have been an avalanche effect. I would surely have ended up with mom and had no father from then on.
Having said that, I must also add that their staying together had a most profoundly positive effect on me, which continues, I’m sure, until this day, decades after their deaths. I imagine there will be some readers who will be frantic that I would be so obtuse as to think my father himself could ever be a blessing after the stories that I will now tell, but I would ask them to hold their breath for a minute and then breathe deeply and then just get over it, re-reading the bit about what happened following their decision to stay together. Yikes!
Dad was a heavy smoker, with two packs being a slow day. He also drank heavily, though only with others. I myself sat at the bar of the 1929 Club near the Court House for lunch on many occasions, especially in my younger days, when I was hardly able to climb up on those tall bar stools. I was proud that my dad was very popular among all the customers, who, back in the day, were the political, legal and upper-end business crowd of central Minnesota. Those were the days when some of the older gents would crack raw eggs into their beer and load up their steins with salt.
My mom was rightly worried that dad would get violent when he drank, though never with her. He was frustrated with himself, precisely, I think, because of his drinking, and didn’t know on whom he could take this out, as if it had to be taken out on someone. When he would drink, he thought the answer was to attack my elder brother. It’s always the elder brother. I was the baby of the family. It might as well have been me, so much was I sympathetic with my brother.
A family institution which has by and large disappeared from the American experience is the evening family meal. In my neighborhood, whether Catholic, Jewish or Protestant, the evening meal was sacrosanct. The neighborhood would be lost to uncontrollable, joyful mayhem of children playing together – this being the early sixties – until it was time for the evening meal, when all the kids would disappear to their own homes without even thinking to complain. It’s just the way it was, a Leave It to Beaver kind of thing.
I remember a couple of times when my brother was late to sit down at the table. He liked to hide in the basement when dad was due home from work. He lost track of time and my dad got really upset, and was yelling at him to come upstairs. Of course, that made him hide all the more efficiently. Since there was no response from the depths below, my dad threw one of the metal bar stools down the stairs, as if this would get my brother into action. That didn’t work. So some heavy glass salt and pepper shakers, thrown with such ferocity that surely my brother would have died had they hit him on the side of the head. Luckily, he was not yet on the steps. He appeared sheepishly some seconds later, and was severely spanked when he came up, scared out of his mind, as was I, as was mom.
That passed, but there was one other occasion, the last, just a few days later, when my brother was again in the basement, late for the evening meal. This time he came up pretty quickly, but as he appeared, dad yelled at him, standing up. With all his might, he threw a full pint jar of rhubarb jam at him. My brother was just able to duck out of the way. It barely missed his head. The jar had done real damage to the door jam at the top of the staircase and also made a terrible mess. The jar broke, exploding its contents in every which direction, staining the walls upstairs and down.
My mom yelled, commanding him to stop, “Don’t do that! You’re going to kill him! Don’t kill him! Stop that! You could have killed him!” She was ignored. She had been too stunned to move. He had another clear shot. He threw something else, I think his water glass, again just missing him, shattering the glass. My mom repeated her words, frantically, half crying, half shrieking. Mom was great, a true mulier fortis in the midst of adversity. She was a total bookworm, but never to the detriment of her strong maternal instincts. But before she could move to my brother’s side – my brother having been too scared to move – my dad moved in on him and gave him another spanking, sitting him down, then, in his chair at the table.
Salvador Dali getting surreal. He had nothing on my efforts.
I felt so very, very sorry for my brother, in total solidarity with him. I knew it could have just as easily been me, but I really felt for him. As we began to eat, I learned I could play-act calmly eating like nothing had happened, worried only that I was too good at it, that this calmness would seem like some sort of mockery. I was better at being surreal than anything Salvador Dali could ever dream of coming up with.
For some reason, I was never to be the object of the wrath of my father. Outside of these two incidents, there was no other violence that I can remember. Things only got better after that, much, much better. Many good times were on their way. Thank God.
After this spat of violence, my dad went to get advice from some of the priests of the diocese. He made remarkable progress, stunning, really. Some years later, he decided on one Ash Wednesday that he would never drink or smoke again, counting on the grace of God. He never did drink or smoke again. For much of this time, he became a daily communicant. I often attended midday Mass with him at the Cathedral. He was amazing.
Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Saint Cloud, Minnesota.
Sometimes people have the idea that such incidents “damage” one for life, that religion is an escape from reality, that one will go through hell for one’s entire life, that one will necessarily compensate for a lack of proper familial formation in this way and that, always in reaction, never in growth, forever in a vortex of a mind-game of figuring things out at the expense of both self and others.
I would certainly grant that such can be the course of affairs for some, particularly for those who have no faith, for those who turn to themselves for answers, even in the face of our desperate weakness, becoming ever more frustrated, ever more angry, ever more looking to explode in misbehavior in what myriad ways that one’s fallen human emotions are trying to protect one without any guidance amid all the repeatable circumstances in which one goes from hour to hour, day to day. Even in such cases, this mind-game swirl, there is hope, if one but let oneself be found by that most tender solicitation of God’s love for us. If it doesn’t happen sooner, it can most certainly happen later.
That this can be later than sooner merely speaks to the providence and permissive will of God in a world where He permits us all the use of free will for good or evil, with those decisions affecting both self and others. The Lord can and does bring a much greater good out of even the worst evil if one is but open to seeing this. In that case, one has to look to Him instead of to oneself. One has to reach out in what one can consider a relationship which, because it is a relationship, seems to be dangerous.
In my own life, the intervention of God came about much sooner than later, quite immediately. My father was very much to become the hero for me, especially for the reason that things were an uphill battle for him, but a battle won in the Lord. All of this was an introduction to the reality of what we can be like without the grace of our Lord, but was very quickly also an introduction to the reality of the strength of grace to change one’s life. The very few, though certainly intense, negative experiences mentioned above did not turn out to be a disadvantage for me.
On the contrary, coupled with my father’s subsequent transformation and the innumerable good experiences which were spread throughout all the following years (and also and especially during those early years), my relationship with my father became an occasion of great strength in the Lord, a launching point for me, an entry into plumbing the depths of the economy of salvation that our Lord holds out to all of us. My father, so incredibly weak, nevertheless took up the Lord’s invitation to goodness and kindness, which takes quite a bit of humility, for there will be a difference in one’s life, which is a confession that the way things were, were not good. It take’s a man’s man to live goodness and kindness after one has fallen from goodness and kindness.
The Grand Tetons from Jackson Hole. We also saw these from the razor edges on the top, just a hundred yards out or so, in a little Piper airplane. Very cool.
Perhaps I should include a chapter on all the wonderful things we did together, traveling about the country year after year on two-week vacations every Summer in our iconic station wagon, driving to most major and minor tourist destinations in the U.S.A., in more than forty states. If you can name it, I was probably there. This started when I was but four years old, after my dad’s conversion to looking to the Lord.
What wonderful family memories I have of marching around in the mountains, flying over the Tetons above Jackson Hole, standing next to Old Faithful just before an eruption, climbing on the dinosaurs in the Black Hills, naming the presidents on Mount Rushmore, pointing to the bears on the Appalachian Trail, getting lost in Mammoth Cave, standing in the wind on top of Mount Washington, watching the waves threaten to close in on us inside a seaside cliff cave in Acadia National Park. I was surely the best beach comber on all of Cape Cod, throwing myself into crushing and crashing waves twelve feet high and coming up with handfuls of seashells. The dinosaurs at the Smithsonian were even cooler than the ones in the Black Hills. Key West was already a bit strange even then, so we didn’t stay long there. Swimming with my family at the many motels at which we would stop for the night was a favorite event, not to mention family mini-golf, if it was available. Ice cream A&W Rootbeer floats were a real treat. But best of all was looking for a Catholic Church on a Sunday morning in the middle of absolutely nowhere. This was an education in the universality of the faith.
Was my father a role model for me? By all means, yes. He even wanted me to follow in his steps as an attorney, and would speak to me of his aspirations to do as much good for mankind and his immediate neighbor as he could. He practiced what he preached. He was quite the politician, always hobnobbing with the local Minnesota politicians and those in Washington, D.C. Perhaps I would also move in that direction? But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Suffice it to say that he was an inspiration to me in my own human, intellectual, spiritual and, indeed, pastoral formation. I am totally indebted to him.
My mom was totally in love with him, especially after he figured out how to look to the Lord instead of to himself. Later in life they would attend retreats together. Exercises in those retreats including writing down petitions. Here’s one from my dad, which was recopied if once then a dozen times by my mother, particularly after he died.
Another bit that my mom liked to copy out was from my dad’s war journal, which he started while in fly school at the Marine Corps Air Station Edenton, when he was not yet twenty years old. This is from the original diary:
A bit idealistic you say? Here’s how that developed later:
My dad learned many toasts in his day, of course, and would still use them later in life, even if what he was drinking was ice-water. His all time favorite, at which people have to blink once or twice before they understand its benevolent nature, is this:
My father died within weeks of the the closing of Myrtle Beach Air Force Base. They both liked to spend time in their retirement at Myrtle Beach as snow-birds, watching the fighter jets take off and land. They breathed the military for so much of their lives. When the base closed, it was a real shock. Colonel Moen put some words to this. My mom copied them out. It reflects, of course, what she was feeling about the passing her husband, my father:
Grief comes from love. Don’t ever forget that. Grief means hope, because of the love. Don’t ever forget that. I told my mom that when a loved one dies, it is like they take our hearts with them, just to make sure that we will follow so as to meet up again in life eternal. They are cheering us on. Don’t ever forget that.
While we’re at it, I’ll put in a few shreds of letters that I’ve saved from over the years. I have seen some hard times. I did get encouragement:
Now that’s good Catholic theology if I ever saw it. My dad was no Pelagian heretic. He got it right about humility, about the power of God’s grace to move us and keep us in His good graces. Ooo-Rah!!!
Now, for those who doubt that my father would ever speak to me of goodness and kindness, here it is in writing, just like he would say it to me:
* * *
That Summer, though I could hardly read, I simply reckoned, like a thunderbolt, that I knew how to write, putting one letter after another. I grabbed a handful of things with which to write along with some paper and some examples of the writing of my family, and fell to the floor where I was. I threw the pencils off to the side and took up a nice pen, one like my dad would use, and practiced his fancy penmanship, doing this perfectly, at least to my own mind. To my amazement, I noticed that I could, at will, write with the style of any individual in my family, with all the myriad intricacies proper to this or that person. I showed this to my mom, who was equally pleased, much to the disgruntlement of my older brother, who couldn’t believe I was writing when he hadn’t yet tried. When I’ve told this to people who make psychological studies of penmanship, they just look at me as if I were from Mars. I don’t know if that is good or bad or indifferent. The latter I think.
Yet, this all made a rather great impression on me. I wanted to take on the whole academic world. But no one wanted to encourage or tutor me. I begged and begged. My hopes were dashed, though I knew my turn for school would come soon enough. I had my hopes up for Pre-Kindergarten Day Care, but was again disheartened. I was to psych myself up again in a huge way on the night before my first day of real school in Kindergarten. I had pens and pencils and pads of paper at the ready. I was utterly dismayed. Sitting in circles and playing silly games that we boys avoided at home was no way to learn to read and write and immerse oneself into mathematics.
I just sat alone, forlorn, for weeks before I became a bit more integrated into the class. This was truly a painful time of my life. I had expected competitions with the others in real subjects. I guess I was a brat. This marked me deeply. It killed something within me. I became cynical, annoyed and bored. I hated school even into my early seminary years, hardly paying attention to anything with which I couldn’t be creative, meaning study, thinking, instead of just giving back pre-made answers. I excelled in industrial arts and arts of all kinds, from kindergarten onward, but it was only in the years of my doctoral studies, when I was given total freedom to do the most outrageously scientific bit of research that had been done for millennia on a certain topic — Genesis — that I came back to myself and enjoyed learning once again.
Having said that, I do not regret not having excelled at academics from the beginning. Who knows how I would have turned out? The way things happened, I had time to reflect, not introspectively, but in the most extroverted way that reflection can happen, by seeing a situation and hypothesizing how things would have to work out with any given circumstances. I became really good at guessing just where a situation would have to end up if a course of events should continue to take place. That talent would do me immense good, especially in my priesthood, especially in teaching, seeing trends and being able to pit them against the love of God, the truth of God, the goodness and kindness of God.
* * *
Being from Minnesota, I have countless fishing tales, from as near as the real Lake Wobegon of Prairie Home Companion fame, but also Leech Lake, the Lake of the Woods and its Burnt Island, to a more remote area of the Lake of the Woods, deep into Canada, and even to another area of that “lake”, so remote that it could only be reached by sea-plane.
Once our family and the family of our cousins were out for the day at that Lake Wobegon. I guess they knew it was fish spawning season. As soon as we arrived, they immediately busied themselves setting up a field stove, heating up an enormous griddle, and setting up a long plank on which to scale, behead, de-fin and gut the fish soon to be caught. The women were setting up chairs and tables and getting out knives and forks and paper plates. The coolers, full of Hamm’s Beer of the Sky Blue Waters and other refreshments, were already in use.
When everyone was ready, they set me down at the end of the dock with a stick, a string, and a barbless hook with no bait. I was the “baby”, so I had the honors. As soon as I put the hook in the water, I caught a fish and yanked it out, flinging it right on to the beach, where it would flip about as if doing a dance until the other children, squealing with glee, would catch it and hand it over to be prepared to eat. I easily caught a dozen fish this way in just a few minutes before the other children wanted to give it a try.
It was all like an assembly line, bringing together potato salad, cole slaw with apples, and the best tasting, freshest fish possible. We were eating what had been swimming just a few minutes previously. Good times! These good times are so important for us as well as all the other things. These times help to sustain our hope, complementing God’s love for us.