APTITUDE/ATTITUDE

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Back in the day when Cretin High School was it’s complete name, and it’s only students were teenage boys, and it was affordable to working class families, and the great majority of it’s teachers were Christian Brothers, the school had a program to help steer the students toward a good vocation in later life. This program was the bailiwick of a kindly, soft spoken, elderly Brother we fondly referred to as Brother Aptitude.

During your first three years of schooling, Brother Aptitude would periodically pop into your Home Room and give aptitude tests. During your last year, he would have three private sessions with you in which he would explain the results of the aptitude tests and combined with your academic achievements, would try to steer you towards a good vocation in life that would also interest you. I never got passed the first few minutes of the first session with Brother Aptitude.

I often thought that if I had completed the program, I wouldn’t have wandered from job to job until I finally found a good paying one I was suited for and interested me. Like the one that I worked at for 45 enjoyable years, some of them past the time I could have retired.

And why didn’t I complete this important program? Because I was a smart-alec who spoke before I thought!

For three years I had looked forward to my enlightening sessions with Brother Aptitude. I liked him and his tests. I liked his smile when we passed in the hall. I admired the old man. And finally when the day of the first private session came, I was so excited.

Brother Aptitude’s ‘office’ was in a far corner of the Principal’s outer office. Like all the desks of the Christian Brothers, his sat on an 8” riser with the front of the desk about 6” from the front of the platform. The building’s wall was the his back wall. His one side wall was the wall of the main office, with enough space between it and the platform to allow for entrance and exit. The front and 4th side were just bamboo screens. It wasn’t much of an office, but it did provide a small measure of privacy from the work that went on in the rest of the main office.

At the first of my sessions, Brother Aptitude met me at the outer office door and escorted me to his private domain. I sat in a chair on the floor in front of the platform and his desk, which was piled high with stacks of aptitude tests. He began by telling me what the tests showed what I was most interested in.

I placed highest in ‘literary appreciation’, which was no surprise. I always like to read books and write stories. Next he pointed out that I also placed high in ‘music appreciation’, which was also no surprise to me. It was the 50’s, the beginning of Rock & Roll. Not only did ;we teenagers have tour very own music, there was actually radio stations dedicated to play it. Elvis was King and the Top 40 our playlist.

Brother Aptitude made note of the fact, that I even though I liked music, I was not in the school band. I said that I was into sports. Plus, I had never learned to play a musical instrument.

He argued and told me that I shouldn’t be modest about not playing an instrument just because I might not play one as well as I would like. And he asked again what instrument did I play. This time he was much more forceful.

‘Well, Brother,’ I answered, with a smart-alec quip, ‘I do fool around with the phonograph.’

‘There now,’ he said, looking down at his notes on me, ‘I knew you played an instrument. Now if you are going to get anything out of…’Suddenly it dawned on him what I had actually said.

‘A phonograph!’ he shouted. For such a soft spoken old man, he sure could yell when he wanted to. ‘A phonograph!’ he shouted again.

He leapt to his feet and slammed his hands on the desk, trying to push his chair back at the same time. The slap was more of a push and the front legs of the desk fell off the platform which caused the stacks of papers to spill all over the floor, which caused more yelling from Brother Aptitude, which caused me to stand and jump backwards, which caused the screen behind me to fall over, which caused the side screen to follow suit, which caused the principal’s secretary typing away behind the big office counter to scream and jump up, which caused the principal to rush out of his office, and stand there, hands on hips, staring at the mess.

Poor old Brother Aptitude. His face was beet red. He wasn’t screaming anymore but he was stammering trying to explain his anger. The secretary brought him a glass of water, which caused him to cough and choke and spill on his robe as he tried to get it down.

I just stood there shivering, afraid that my action might trigger a heart attack or a nervous breakdown in the old man. I glanced sideways at the principal waiting for whatever he had in store for me. Corporal punishment and/ or tons of homework were a way of life in the school. Finally, the principal spoke in a calm, low voice. He told me I had better go back to my home room. Then he took Brother Aptitude’s arm and led him slowly into the Principal’s office.

Needless to say, my first session to help me find my vocation, ended. And needless to say, the other two sessions never happened. And needless to say, it took me years to find a vocation I was suited for. Three years of taking aptitude tests right down the drain. I never did receive any type of school punishment for my actions except whenever I happened to meet Brother Aptitude in the hall, he looked the other way. That hurt. I really liked the kindly old man and I never even got a chance to apologize to him.

It wasn’t the first time, nor the last, I must admit, that my smart-alec tongue got me in trouble. Sometimes you live and you still never learn.

Published – BB and Beyond  3/12/17

One of the readers wanted to know what occupation I worked at enjoyable for 45 years. Stage hand.  I figured it out that I had worked a mixture of thousands of happenings in those years, most of them in the field of arts and entertainment, although there were some that were in the fields of politics and athletics. In addition I worked on some movies that were filmed locally and did a bit of touring. While I would never say that everyone of those events were enjoyable, as a whole it was an occupation that I liked very much. And Brother Aptitude did steer me the right way when he said that my interests were in literary and musical appreciation.

There was one big downside, the long hours, the having to work weekends, robbed me of watching my  5 sons grow up. I was so fortunate to have a wife who raised them right, with so little help from me.

There was one big upside though, as soon as they reached the age of being able to work as stagehands, I got to work with them, teach them, learn from them, both as a father and a coworker. The 3 oldest paid their way through college as stagehands and have excellent professions. The 2 youngest stayed in the business, their specialty is high steel riggers..

In addition to working with my 5 sons, I also worked with a daughter-in-law, 4 nephews, and a young cousin. Like they say, nepotism is alright as long as you keep it in the family.   

FIRST FANCY DANCE

prom corsage

 

The Old Hand

Seeing all the kids in their prom outfits always remind me of my first fancy dress dance, and how I had to prepare for it.

First, I needed a suit. The only suit I ever had before, was for my First Communion. Since my folks were paying for it, Mom went along. I wanted a charcoal grey suit so I could wear a pink shirt with it – the cool combo back in those days.

The clerk said they had charcoal grey pants, but no suits. He showed us several other choices of suits. None which pleased both Mom and myself. Then he suggested a sport coat instead of a suit. When he pointed out I’d get more use out of a sport coat because it would go with practically anything, Mom was all for it. After all we didn’t get much use out of my First Communion suit. I wore it once and each of my two brothers wore it once. And since the sport coat would go with practically anything, and the anything could mean a pink shirt and charcoal grey pants, so was I.

Next on my to-do list was ordering a corsage, so I went to my friend Jack, whose father was the town florist. He asked me a lot of questions that I couldn’t answer, like the color of her gown, the color of her eyes, the color of her hair. I explained it was a blind date thing. She went to an all girls school. I never met her, just talked to her once, over the phone.

‘If it would help,’ I offered, ‘Her name is Mary Margaret.’ It didn’t help.

‘Well,’ Jack said, ‘Why don’t I just make up a nice corsage that will go with practically anything.’

‘Sounds good. I’ll pick it up Saturday.’

‘Wait,’ he said, ‘How about I give you a boutonnière? On the house.’

‘A boot in the ear! How about I give you a cuff in the mouth? On the house.’

Jack laughed and laughed. He thought I was making a joke. Finally he stopped laughing and I told him I didn’t know what he was talking about. He explained that a boutonnière a small corsage a man wore in his lapel. Sounded okay to me.

‘Now just a few questions. What color ……?’

‘Whoa, whoa, Jack. Tell you what. I got a sports coat that will go with practically anything. I just bought a corsage that will go with practically anything. How about you just make up a boutonnière that will go with practically anything.’

Jack did and my date loved her corsage and my boutonnière. We had a couple of dates afterwards, but then we drifted apart. I forgot about her, but Jack never forgot about me ordering her flowers. Several years later when I was ordering the wedding corsage for my bride-to-be, Jack told me what he thought would look the best with the color of her gown, the color of her eyes, and the color of her hair. Something specific for my lovely lady, and not just something that would go with practically anything.

Then he asked me, ‘And what would you like? A boutonnière – or maybe a cuff in the mouth? On the house, of course.”

Published St. Paul Dispatch BB  5/30/14

 

While that was the end of my article in the Bulletin Board, it wasn’t the end of the story.

The evening of the dance, I got all spiffed up, had Mom pin my boutonnière on my go-with-anything sport coat and set out. Drove the mile to the Mendota Bridge, drove the almost – mile over the bridge, then over the very short Fort Snelling Bridge, turned left on the River Road for a half mile, pulled into the long driveway of the very nice house which would have had a nice view of the river if it wasn’t for the large trees on the river bluff. It was five minutes to the appointed time when I rang the doorbell. The younger brother answered the door, turned and yelled to his sister that her date was here.

‘Oops!’ I said. ‘Ah, tell your sister, I’ll be right back.’ Went back to the car, got in, backed out of the driveway, drove down River Road, crossed the two bridges, and drove into our driveway. Ran in the house and, sure enough, the box with my date’s corsage was just where I left it, on the kitchen table. Reversed the route and made it back to the big house on the River Road about a half hour after I had left.

This time her father answered the door. In reality, he was about six inches shorter than me; but standing in the doorway, staring at me, he seemed ten feet tall with a look on his face that could curdle milk. He didn’t say a word. Instead, he just let me talk my way out of the embarrassing situation that I found myself in. Finally he turned to his wife, who was standing behind him, and told her to tell Mary Margaret to finish dressing. He let me in the house and pointed to the couch.

‘I was told it was to be a double date,’ he said in a rough voice. ‘I don’t see anybody out in your car.’

I explained that we had to pick up my friend and his date next. He shook his head okay. His daughter came down the stairs. I stood up, the corsage box in my hands. While I was saying hello and offering the explanation for my weird behavior, he jerked the box from my hands. ‘Here,’ he said, handing the box to his wife. ‘You pin this on her.’ The last thing he wanted to see was a strange, very strange, boy fumbling around his daughter’s bodice. Actually, he did me a big favor. My hands were trembling so much, I might have stuck her with the pin and gotten a boot in the ear from her father.

I apologized again, walking to the car, and again as soon as I started to back out the driveway, and again as we headed out. She kept telling me not to worry about it. Those things happen. She did confess that she had set a time limit to how long she was going to wait until she undressed and wrote me off. We made small talk and laughed about it. My hands were still trembling.

We had gone several blocks when I noticed she made a small Sign of the Cross. I tried to pretend I didn’t notice it, but a little later, she made another Sign of the Cross. This time I looked at her. She smiled and continued to talk. We were just a few blocks from picking up my buddy when she made yet another Sign of the Cross.

‘Okay!’ I said, pulling the car to the curb, ‘I didn’t think I was driving bad; but if I’m scaring you, you can drive.’ I pulled the key out of the ignition and tried to hand it to her.

She had no idea what I was talking about. I told her. ‘You keep praying, making the Sign of the Cross. If you’re so scared to ride with me…..’

She smiled hesitantly, and gave a quick laugh. She explained that it was something all the girls in her school did. Every time they drove past a church, they made a small Sign of the Cross. It was just a ritual and had nothing to do with my driving.

Oops! I wondered if my sport coat that went-with-almost-anything went with my red face. The rest of the evening went off without any more disasters, unless you count a couple times I stepped on her toes while we were dancing.

Pink shirts and charcoal grey pants were definitely the uniform of the day. Some of the guys had charcoal grey suits. Some wore just a pink shirt and charcoal grey pants without a jacket or tie. Some, like me, had a sport coat to finish off the look; but unlike me, their jackets didn’t quite have a  go – with – almost – anything look. And nobody had a boutonnière to equal mine.

 

P.S. My wife, after reading the newspaper article, asked me if I remembered what kind of flowers made up her bridal corsage; and then quickly told me, they were gardenias that had to ordered special. As if I didn’t know the answer!      

             

 

FIRST HORSE

 

 

SergeantSergeant was my first horse. He was three when I bought him from my mother’s cousin, Ector. It was the summer between the sixth and seventh grade. I paid $110 for him. Gave Ector $18.20 down. Got my horse. Worked off the rest during the next two summers, 35 cents an hour, weeding, hoeing, selling vegetables at a roadside stand.

Sarg lived way past the expected age of horses. Over the years scores of children, including my five sons, got their very first horseback ride sitting on his back. He was gentle. He loved people. But I was the only one he would kiss on the cheek.

He was always well behaved. Except for one time. And that wasn’t his fault.

The Old Hand of Oakdale:

My grandfather had a hobby that a lot of people today have. He brewed beer, and he made wine.

He made a dandelion wine that would take your breath away. One sniff of its bouquet would clear up your sinus congestion. It was definitely a sipping wine. Too big a swallow would be akin to taking a gulp of Tabasco sauce. He also made a more refined rhubarb wine.

I came home from school one day and noticed that my horse, Sergeant, was not in the pasture. I found him in his stall, and he was acting strangely. When I unsnapped the rope from his halter, he backed out of the stall and ran out the barn door. As soon as he was outside, he began to rear up, buck, jackknife — things I had never seen him do except in the early spring. He ran around and around. Finally he stopped on the high hill in the summer pasture. And just stood there. And I could tell he was on shaky legs. I whistled, but he wasn’t coming.

I went back in the barn and could smell a strange tart odor coming from the oats box in the stall. Grandpa walked in, and I found out what the problem was. He had made some wheat wine, and, being one who never wasted anything, had fed the fermented wheat mash to Sarg. My poor horse was drunk.

I didn’t know how to cure a horse of a hangover or a headache. I just left Sarg standing on that hill and let nature take its course. I did make sure that there was plenty of water in the trough, because I knew the horse would be thirsty when he decided to come back to the barnyard.

Actually, the word was that the wheat wine wasn’t too bad. But Grandpa never bothered to make wheat wine again.

Published SPPP Bulletin Board – Pub 6/4/13

Having a horse of one’s own is a dream many kids have. I was fortunate. I had Sergeant. But he was more than just a horse. He was a friend. A confidant. And many times, a baby sitter. We explored the woods and fields. Hot summer days we went into the lake and he was my diving board. Cold winter days, he gave me warmth because I always rode bareback.  We grew up together. A boy and his horse.  

ODE TO OLD JOE

Of all the teachers I have had in my life, Old Joe stands out. He was an excellent teacher, a  kind and caring person, and highly unusual. He had a perpetual twinkle in his eye, even when angry. He taught basically a boring subject and made it fun.  Like I said, he was highly unusual.  

Brother B. Josephus was a Christian Brother at CretinHigh School. (The school was founded in 1871 and named after Bishop Cretin, not the malady or the insult.)  We called him Old Joe for two reasons. One, he was old, a little one side or the other of seventy. And, two, to differentiate from the other Brother Josephus, who we called Young Joe.

Old Joe taught Latin. I had him my freshman year for basics. My sophomore year, Virgil’s Aeneid. My junior year, Caesar’s Gallic Wars.

At first I was lost. Amo! Amas! Amat! Conjugation. Declension. And the verb ‘to be’. To be what? In my first 5 years in the one-room schoolhouse, we were taught the basic 3R’s, reading, riting, ritmatic. I don’t remember anything about the verb ‘to be’ in my 3 years in the city school. As far as Latin was concerned, I never made a mistake as an altar boy reciting the responses in Latin during the Mass. But I just memorized them. I didn’t have to translate them! I was lost!

Old Joe suggested that I and a few others eat our lunch in his classroom so he could, in effect, tutor us. After the first hour, I had the verb ‘to be’ down pat, and wondered how stupid I was, not to know what they were talking about. It didn’t take too many of these lunch hours to get me caught up to the class. He had done this private tutoring before and after. That is the kind of teacher, person, that he was.

In my junior year, he entered me and a few others into a Twin City Latin contest. A few months prior he offered an A for the quarter to anyone who would do the extra credit and translate, what he considered the hardest part of Caesar’s Gallic Wars. It concerned the building of a bridge. I was the only one to take him up on it. He was ecstatic. He said that every now and then, this would be the article to be translated, and if they picked it this year, he knew I could snow it.

But it wasn’t picked. Our team did okay, but the girls from Our Lady Of Peace took the championship. I felt sorry for Old Joe and apologized for letting him down. He just laughed and said he was proud of us. After all, he explained, we beat the team from Minneapolis DeLaSalle taught by his old rival, Brother Eustice.

He never talked about his past, but other brothers told us that Old Joe had been an AllState athlete in high school and All Conference in college. I remember how one kid found out the hard way, that Old Joe hadn’t lost it, even at his age.

The kid told Old Joe to perform an act that was anatomical impossible, and then made a run for the back door of the classroom. He had a good head start on the old man, who was further handicapped by the heavy cossack he was wearing. But Old Joe bulldogged him before he made it to the door. Then he marched the lad to the washroom and washed his mouth out with soap.

Old Joe also had a wonderful sense of humor.

The Old Hand:

It was about ten minutes into the class when the boy in the third desk, row closest to the front door, succumbed to Morpheus, (It was freshman Latin.), and began to mumble in his sleep. Old Joe motioned us to leave the boy sleep, and then, while conjugating a Latin verb in a dull monotone; he went to the blackboard and wrote out our next assignment.

We were to silently remove everything from our desk tops and go stand in the back of the room. And not make any noise until given permission! We did as ordered. The lad continued to mumble in his sleep.

Old Joe, wiped the blackboard clean, then took the eraser and threw a high- hard strike that bounced off Sleeping Beauty’s forehead.

The boy jumped, said something he shouldn’t have, and began to cough from the chalk dust. Somehow we managed to remain silent. Desks in front of him were empty as were the ones to his immediate left. The ominous black clad figure of Old Joe, arms folded, was starring down at him. He mumbled some sort of apology, scooped up his book and notebook and ran out of the door.

The boy told me later that he didn’t stop running until he had burst into the room where his next class was to be held. He went right to the desk where he usually sat. Someone was sitting in it. He looked around, expecting to see his classmates and saw only the faces of upper classmen. The class exploded in laughter; but Brother Wilfred, whose history lecture had just been disrupted by this crazy freshman, found nothing amusing in the intrusion.

Brother Wilfred grabbed the boy by the ear and dragged him out in the hall, where he gave him a promise of umpteen hours of extra homework, a direct order to get to his proper class, and a boot in the rear to help him on his way.

In the meantime, Old Joe had given us a few minutes to laugh and get back to our desks, before he held up his hand for silence and gave us further instructions. When the door slowly opened, and the lad looked inside, all he saw was class going on as usual. He went to his desk and sat back down. Old Joe continued his teaching. None of us even looked his way. The class ended as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. Old Joe had proved his point, nothing more to say.

I did well in Latin. I think for two reasons: Old Joe was a great teacher, and I never fell asleep in his class.

Those of us who attended Cretin in those long ago years, are now at an age where it is hard to remember all those dedicated teachers we were blessed with; but I can safely say, not many of us will ever forget Old Joe.

Published 9/29/04 – St. Paul Pioneer Press, Bulletin Board

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In those days, Cretin was an all-boy high school. The students took 4 years of Junior ROTC and wore Army uniforms. It took a high test score to enter the school. To leave was much easier. You could quit on your own accord, if the scholastic requirements proved to be too much, or if you couldn’t take the discipline. Or you could get the boot by the Brothers.

Now it is a coed school. Cretin-Derham Hall. The school is cosponsored by Christian Brothers and St. Joseph Sisters. And because, religious vocations are not too popular now, the majority of teachers are lay people. The scholastic requirements are the same, but I imagine that the discipline has been toned back.

I know one thing though, there’s nobody like Old Joe on the staff.