WINTER 2016-2017 / VOL. 16 ISSUE 1
When Danny Murphy was in kindergarten, just about every Saturday afternoon in autumn, he would go down to the basement and listen to the Notre Dame game with his father. That was back in the 1940s when Notre Dame had great teams. Few teams beat Notre Dame back then.
"How come Notre Dame wins all the time, Dad," little Danny would ask his father.
And the answer was always the same:
"Danny, I think the good Lord keeps an eye out for Notre Dame. Especially when they play Southern Methodist."
All through grammar school and high school, Danny hoped Notre Dame would win every game. But he didn't want to go to school there, despite his father's wishes.
"Notre Dame will make a man out of you, Danny. It'll put hair on your chest."
Instead, Danny wanted to go to a small school, St. Sava College, because he figured it would be easier to get good grades. St. "Save" was out in farm country, far enough from Chicago to avoid monitoring by his parents but close enough to get home on weekends. Besides, St. Sava had never had a good basketball team. Danny figured he would probably start at guard for St. Sava as a freshman.
Danny wanted to go to college to play basketball, have a few beers and get grades good enough to get into law school. He figured he would have to study hard once he got into law school so why not have a little fun as an undergraduate. St. Sava, although a small school, had a strong record of placing its students in some fine law schools and medical schools. Danny figured he'd get the necessary grades and then ace the law school entrance exam. But first he wanted to have some fun.
Things went well for Danny in his freshman and sophomore years at St. Sava, although whenever he came home for a weekend his father would try to talk him into transferring to Notre Dame.
"With your grades, Danny, you'll get into Notre Dame without a problem," his father kept saying. "A degree from Notre Dame is a ticket to success. It won't stop you from getting into heaven either."
Danny not only earned great grades but he averaged more than 20 points a game for the basketball team. Twenty points a game was a good scoring average in 1956. Some kids were still shooting two-handed set shots. Danny had learned the jump shot in Chicago, playing against older kids and he used it to advantage playing for St. Sava.
Many of the other kids had come from families whose parents had emigrated from Bohemia and Slovakia. They had been sent to St. Sava to get an education but also to soak up their cultural heritage. Most of the monks who taught at the school were of Slavic ancestry. Some had emigrated from Europe.
Being of Irish ancestry, Danny needed a little time to get used to the Bohemian and Slovak food served in the cafeteria. He had never eaten lentils and lentils seemed to be on the menu every day fixed one way or another. At least one day a week, brown lentils were served alongside breaded "mystery meat," as it was known to many students. It took Danny a while to figure out that the "mystery meat" was breaded eggplant served in a preparation that was a mainstay in Bohemia and Slovakia. It wasn't that bad once Danny got used to it.
The summer after his sophomore year Danny decided to stay on campus and work in the farm fields for the monks. The pay was poor but with free room and board, how could he go wrong? He'd have money to go to town and have a few beers some nights and a chance to read novels and poetry on other nights. An English major, he had to keep reading to get a head start on the syllabi for courses he would take in his junior year.
Then one hot August afternoon, Brother Raphael came down the row of corn to tell crouching Danny that Father Bohumil wanted to talk with him in his office.
"Get a move on, Danny," Brother Vladimir said. He was a man who could do anything with his hands and he didn't trust students, especially those from the city as incompetent in the fields as Danny was.
"Pull the weeds, Danny, not the carrots" were the first words Danny ever heard from Brother Vladimir.
Danny figured Father Bohumil, Dean of Student Affairs, wanted to discuss some events for the upcoming school year. Danny had been elected vice president of student government so maybe Father wanted his help on some project. So Danny washed up and headed for Fr. Bohumil's office.
"Hello, Father," Danny said as he walked through the office door. "I bet you have big plans for Homecoming already."
But it wasn't Homecoming that Father Bohumil wanted to talk about.
"Danny, we've got a problem. Some student has been sending live chickens and ducks to Dr. Compton. I think you had him for French last year. He lives not far from here and the post office there is loaded with crates of live poultry that he never ordered. He figured some student played a trick on him."
"Well," Danny said, "even if I knew who would did it, it would be hard to tell on him. If the other kids found out, I'd really catch it when they got back to campus."
Father Bohumil then told Danny that Dr. Compton, prior to coming to St. Sava, had worked for the FBI for 20 years doing intelligence work.
"Danny, he called the companies that sent the ducks and chickens and they sent him a copies of the orders. He brought the orders to school and compared the handwriting with his final exams from last year. That's how we found out it was you who ordered the chickens and ducks. He's not a happy man, Danny, and neither are we."
Danny realized immediately his time at St. Sava was limited. He thought he was about to be expelled. But Father Bohumil had other ideas.
"Danny, in your two years here you have been an excellent student, a fine athlete and a student leader. Normally, we would expel someone for doing something like this. But I talked with the abbot and he said to deny you registration for next semester and for every semester after that. You can never come back here, Danny. But at least you can apply elsewhere and know that nothing negative will appear on your record. You still have a chance at having a very good academic career."
Danny was shaking but he thanked Father Bohumil for the leniency. He said he would pack his bags, get a lift into town and take the next train back to Chicago.
"Stop in the kitchen, Danny," Father Bohumil said, "and the nuns will give you a bag of sandwiches. You might get hungry on the train. I hope things work out for you. Never do anything this stupid again."
Danny apologized again and headed for the kitchen for his sandwiches. It wouldn't take long to pack. But it would be long ride home. And what would he tell his parents, especially his father? That was the question.
Danny got home around supper time. His mother had put together a big feed of corned beef and cabbage for his father's 50th birthday. But first his father wanted to know why Danny had come home in the middle of the week.
"Well, Dad, I've been thinking it over and I think you were right all along. I want to transfer to Notre Dame. I should have gone there in the first place. A degree from Notre Dame will get me into law school anywhere."
"Now you're talking, son," his father said.
His mother had little to say, She was busy dishing up the steaming corned beef and cabbage. It turned out to be a great meal what with Danny's father congratulating his son every bite or two about transferring to Notre Dame.
After dessert, Danny promised to call the registrar at Notre Dame the next day to start the paperwork for his transfer. There was less than a month left before the new school year would start. And Danny wanted to be on campus, sitting in the stands with his father and watching Notre Dame pound the daylights out of Purdue.
Later on, before he went to bed, Danny told his mother he might try out for the basketball team at Notre Dame if his courses weren't too hard.
"Good luck," his mother said without looking up from her knitting.
(Editorís Note: Donal Mahoney has worked as an editor for U.S. Catholic
Magazine, Loyola University Press, and The Chicago Sun-Times.
Retired now, he keeps busy writing poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Some
of his work can be found at http://eyeonlifemag.com/the-poetry-locksmith/donal-mahoney-poet.html#sthash.
Although Cheer, Cheer for Old Notre Dame is a mixture of fiction and what really happened. what really happened at home was touch and go. He thought his father might give him the IRA treatment. But he was dead set on his son getting a degree, he recalled. Broke his heart when it was in English.
After admitting that he spent 19 consecutive years in Catholic school, Mahoney confessed that he was never tempted to be a priest. "I loved the Benedictines but the Jesuits taught me how to think. I thank them for that still."
Mahoney related that much of his tale was rue and some fiction. "I went to Loyola in Chicago, not Notre Dame, after the monks tossed me and somehow I took a couple of degrees in English. But I always missed the Benedictines at then St. Procopius College in Lisle, Illinois."
"I should never have sent those chickens and ducks to that lay professor. I didnít know he once worked for the secret service. The odd thing is that one of my cohorts who I did not tell on became a monk out there and recently died," said Mahoney.
"In the long run, though, the degrees from Loyola helped me get jobs a degree from St. Procopius might not have. Today, it is called Benedictine University and is run by laymen with the monks in the abbey aging in place. Maybe two or three remain from my time on campus. I was never an angel, just a devil who this time at least got caught. Godís been good and I am always amazed as to why that good to the likes of me. In the meantime Iíll keep typing till the shades go down," he chuckled.)
In 1920, my father, 16, was a guest of the British government. He was a prisoner of their forces occupying Ireland at the time, a group called the Black and Tans.
One day, he and seven other prisoners were brought out of their makeshift cells to dig their own graves in a small walled compound. As tradition would have it, they would be shot into their graves and other prisoners would be brought out to bury them.
By prearranged signal, the eight men dropped their shovels and broke for the wall. Bullets stopped five of them but the other three climbed over the wall and made it through the rural Irish countryside to freedom. One of the escapees eventually went to Australia, another to Canada. My father made it to America.
The story doesnít end there, of course, and he only told it once. But even if you were only in eighth grade, as I was at the time, itís not a story you forget.
Ironically, his first job in America was digging graves in New Jersey. Then he boxed professionally in New York and sang in Irish nightclubs. A sober Irishman, he never drank. He was an odd fellow in that respect and perhaps in some others as well.
After another boxer broke his nose, he stopped fighting and emigrated from New York, this time to Chicago, where without skills or experience, he was hired by the Commonwealth Edison Company. He spent 35 years there as an electrical lineman who specialized as a troubleshooter called out during big storms whenever they occurred anywhere in the State of Illinois. He had to retire earlier than he would have liked after absorbing 12,000 volts of electricity trying to save a rookie he was training from touching the hot wire that got him.
At some point, he met and married my mother, an illegal immigrant from Ireland. She arrived in 1926 or so, got off the boat and found herself, for reasons she could never recall, in the middle of Harlem among the first black people she had ever seen. They helped her locate her cousin elsewhere in New York. In time, she used her cousin's paperwork to find jobs cleaning the houses of others who could afford to hire her.
My father, apparently illegal as well, didnít stop for documentation, perhaps because the Black and Tans might have delayed his trip had they found him.
My mother was reared in rural Ireland with eight siblings in a thatched-roof cottage in the middle of a cabbage field. An English landlord owned the field.
My mother didnít know she needed papers to come to America. She had just grown weary of harvesting cabbage and thought she might try her luck in America. Apparently she had no problem getting on the boat.
These two illegal immigrants had a good if not perfect life in Chicago compared with the life they might have had if they had remained in Ireland.
My father earned good money as an electrician and saved a lot of it to make it possible for his son to earn two degrees. He and my mother died, however, before seeing their first grandson win a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University.
Itís just as well because my father would have been very unhappy to have a grandson studying in England.
Almost as unhappy as he was to learn many years earlier that he had spent all his hard-earned money to send his own son to a university and have him come home with two degrees in English.
Once again, my father had proof that life isnít fair.
Jim Daley and Joe McCarthy had something in common. They died at 80 going to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Walt O'Brien, their protégé, found this out when he called the homes of both men on New Year's Day, an annual custom for Walt, something he started doing years ago just to find out how his old mentors were doing.
Jim's widow spoke to Walt on the phone and told him Jim had died from a stroke on Halloween. They had found his body in the morning, half in the bathroom and half in the hallway, cold as a mackerel fresh out of the sea. Jim's widow said she was a sound sleeper. Walt thought she should have heard his body fall since Jim was a big man, all belly and buttocks, as Jim himself would put it.
Joe's widow said her Joe had tripped on the bathroom rug on All Soul's Day, banged his head on the commode and died in intensive care a week later, never emerging from his coma. She was happy the priest got there in time to administer the last rites before Joe stopped breathing. His last breath, she said, was a gurgle.
Jim and Joe had been more like uncles to Walt than mentors. They came into his life when Walt was in grammar school. It was just after his dad had been killed in Korea and Walt needed all the support he could get.
Over the next 50 years, Walt had stayed in touch with both men, calling them on New Year's Day from different cities. Their advice over the years helped Walt survive three job losses, a foreclosure, two car wrecks and four divorces. Sometimes their advice dealt with the big issues of life. But sometimes they commented on smaller phenomena as well.
Last year, for example, Jim had warned Walt that growing old meant not being able to put your underwear on standing up.
"I have to sit on the bed now," Jim had said, sounding almost depressed for a man known for his jocularity.
Right after Jim told him about the underwear problem, Walt called Joe and asked if Jim was right. Joe too confirmed he now had to sit on the bed to get his underwear on. He told Walt every man has to sit down at some point in life, provided he lives long enough.
"Age has its requirements," Joe said. "There's a happy medium, I suppose. If I had died a few years ago, I wouldn't be having this problem right now."
At 60, Walt could still put his underwear on standing up but it was getting more difficult. He had to hop on one leg, pogo-stick style, to get the job done. But sitting down was not an option. Walt was a proud man who had overcome bigger problems in life and he'd keep hopping for as long as he could.
One time, however, he almost fell but landed in a chair. His fourth wife Belinda still laughs about it even though they're no longer married. She even called two of his ex-wives and told them about it. They couldn't stop laughing.
Walt knows that one day he will have to sit down to put his underwear on unless he dies before that. He figures he has at least a few good years left. But after hearing that Jim and Joe had died trying to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night, Walt decided to take certain steps to avoid a similar mishap in his own life.
First, he installed night lights along the baseboards going from the bedroom to the bathroom. At midnight, the hallway now shines like a small expressway with no traffic at all.
Then Walt made some New Year's resolutions, a step he had never taken before. As a result he now eats salads and fruit plates instead of double cheeseburgers and lots of ice cream. What's more he reads the Bible now and then in the morning. He's even quit drinking beer late into the night.
The new Walt now sits back in his leather recliner, sips wine coolers out of old jelly jars and listens, over and over, to his favorite recording of an old Irish reel called "Toss the Feathers." Itís played beautifully, he says, by the McNulty Family, most of whose members, he figures, are by now dead.
When he was a boy, Jim and Joe had introduced Walt to traditional Irish music and even taught him a few steps of the reel, jig and hornpipe.
Once in awhile, when he's had enough wine, Walt tries to do a few of those steps and he succeeds to his own satisfaction.
And, of course, he still puts his underwear on standing up, one hop
at a time.
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