My life at Notre Dame began in the fall of 1962. My parents and I were met by an upperclassman who pointed out a few sites, described what ND was like and explained the undergraduate tradition of not ascending the front steps of the administration building until after graduation. Although it was thoroughly discouraged by the administration, the penalty for being caught on those steps was to be thrown into Saint Mary’s Lake by the rest of the student body. I embraced the tradition immediately. As far as I know, I was the last member of my class to climb those steps.
In 1962, the Cold War was on. Students had been dealing with simulated air raids and fallout shelters since grade school. Yet we were still naïve. The nation, jolted by Sputnik, had rejected Nixon and elected its first Catholic president in 1960. The mood was upbeat. The White House was Camelot. We were going to the moon.
It wasn’t long before serious events began to mar our innocence. In October 1962, Pope John XXIII decided to open the windows at the Roman Curia and let in the fresh air of Vatican II. That October also brought the Cuban missile crisis. I remember students commenting, “If the world’s going to end, I hope it comes before Tuesday night’s physics test.” In 1963, the pope died of natural causes (some of us bought into the pool in Zahm hall trying to predict when this beloved prelate would take his last breath), and Kennedy was assassinated (John Sawyer and I were studying the humidity section of Chemical Process Principles in Walsh Hall when an architecture major named Steve told us the president had been shot). In 1964, the Beatles invaded America. America invaded Vietnam. The world has never been the same.
I was never the same either. After two years toughing it out in Chemical Engineering, I began to doubt that I was suited to that kind of lifestyle. I was drinking too much, sleeping too late and missing too many classes. I survived junior year but was put on academic probation after failing three courses. I was sure I didn’t want to become a chemical engineer, so I stopped going to classes. My plan was to change majors from engineering to music, where I wouldn’t need any of those engineering credits.
Music was always my great love. I inherited my singing ability from my mother, whose voice was clear and perfect. She could harmonize with any song, and often did so as she listened to the radio while doing kitchen chores. Our family sometimes spent whole evenings with friends singing barbershop numbers or old standards.
Dear old girl, the robin sings above you.
Dear old girl, it speaks of how I love you.
Mom had given up a professional career to marry and raise a family, but during her melancholy times, I believe she may have harbored some regrets. I wanted to dispel those regrets from my own future. I would study music and dedicate my career to my mother, thus repaying her for giving her life to her family.
But I procrastinated. By the time I contacted the engineering dean about changing majors, the semester was over. I had missed most of my finals.
“It’s okay,” I told him. “I won’t need any of these courses as a music major.”
“That may be true,” the dean responded, “but before you can change majors, you will flunk out.”
“Oh,” I said, suddenly stunned by my own ignorance. Grabbing at the only straw handy, I said, “What if I see my professors and try to get out of this mess?”
“You’ve got about three days until grades are due,” said the dean.
So began some of the most frenetic days of my life. The first professor I visited threw me out of his office. Deep down I knew it was what I deserved. Nevertheless, I pressed on, and eventually met the rest of my professors individually. I told each of them the truth and asked that I be allowed to make up my finals. For the most part, they said yes, forcing me to cram a whole semester of work into the next few days and nights. Incredibly, I managed to pass 11 of 19 credits with 3 Cs and a B. In spite of my heroic effort, I was dismissed from the University in January 1966. I felt like a fool, but it was worse than that. I had squandered my talent and deliberately chosen to throw away the hard-won resources my family had provided for my education. Completely spent, I called my dad to have him come and pick me up.
When I look back on that intense period of begging and cramming and praying, I see it as one of my greatest accomplishments. At the time, of course, I had to face the fact that my last-ditch effort had failed. I also had to face my dad. He didn’t say much during the four hour ride home, knowing instinctively that I had already been beaten pretty badly. For once, I didn’t empathize with the older brother in the parable; I had become the prodigal son.
The University reinstated me a few days later, but I dropped out of school anyway. I would take the last semester of my senior year off, earn some money and return in the fall. Or so I thought.
I got a job working construction and wrote the draft board to tell them of my plan to return to school. In spite of my letter, or perhaps because of it, I was drafted into the Army in June. To avoid or postpone that trip to sunny Southeast Asia, I signed up for an extra year’s duty in order to get a long course in electronics. This allowed me to spend most of the next year in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.
While at Fort Monmouth, I spent my weekends in New York City, where I met a pretty, bubbly girl named Liz at Cardinal Spellman’s Servicemen’s Club. We dated through most of 1967, as I learned about cipher equipment in top-secret, caged-in classrooms during the week, and commuted to the Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen’s Club in Manhattan on weekends. In October, when I received orders for Germany, I was hospitalized with what must have been the most serious case of mononucleosis ever recorded. When I recovered weeks later, my orders had been changed to Vietnam. I was given 30 days leave and a ticket from my home in Milwaukee to San Francisco, where I would be flown to the Far East.
I remember vividly the words my mother spoke to me in late December just before I boarded the plane at Billy Mitchell field. “Merry Christmas, happy birthday,” she said; her eyes misty as she remembered the Christmas Eve, 24 years earlier, that she had spent bringing me into the world. I kissed my mom and dad goodbye and boarded the plane for the West Coast, where I would be greeted by my grandparents, and my aunt and uncle, whom I hadn’t seen in over 10 years. We saw some of the sites of San Francisco and caught up on the years we’d lost by living so far apart. After I was processed, I said goodbye again and boarded the World Airways jet for the 18-hour flight to Saigon by way of Anchorage and Tokyo.
The descent into Tan Son Nhut airport was steep and scary. Instead of gradually reducing its altitude as it approached the city, as normal flights do, this flight stayed at 40,000 feet until directly over Saigon and then glided down in a tight spiral to the airport. On the tarmac, the heat was oppressive, causing me to doubt I could stand it for more than a day, let alone a year, the length of my assignment. After processing, a guy named Paul and I were assigned to a signal corps unit at the airport and driven to our quarters in Cho Lon. I was put on the 12-hour night shift; Paul was put on days. The next day, on his way to breakfast, Paul was hit by a homemade grenade thrown from a pedobike. He lived. But yeah, they were playing for keeps out there.
The bad news
My job in Vietnam was superfluous. Whenever the Army had a serious problem, it brought in civilian engineers. The real point of having all of us stationed at Saigon airport was to have a ready group of trained technicians to send up country to places like Hue and Phu Bai. Before I was sent into the real war, the Tet offensive came. We were pinned down at our Cho Lon quarters with little to do but drink beer and smoke pot. After one particularly long and stuporous night watching helicopter gunships fire their rockets, I went to bed late, only to be awakened by the company clerk. Something about the Red Cross wanting to talk to me. I staggered downstairs and put the phone to my ear. “Are you sitting down?” asked the voice. I sat down. “Your mother is very sick and has only three weeks to live.”
For 34 years that’s almost all I have remembered from that conversation. The CO told me to pack my bags; I was leaving the next day. An armed guard accompanied me on a fast Jeep ride through the back streets to the airport. I boarded a C130 transport and strapped myself into the rope webbing on the side wall with a few other GIs. We didn’t speak. I spent the trip back quietly sobbing.
Mom didn’t die in three weeks. Stricken with cancer of the colon, she held on over twice that long, finally succumbing on July 28, 1968. We have a picture of her during her last days, sitting in her flower-printed housecoat, smiling through the pain, looking gaunt and ready to be taken. She died at home, with family and friends close at hand. Why did it have to happen? The only explanation I can muster is that this simple woman of faith had to die young in order to save my life. Would that it had been the other way.
The Army gave me a compassionate reassignment to Fort Sheridan, Illinois, just close enough to my home in Wisconsin to allow me to live off base with my father, two brothers and 11-year-old sister. The Democratic convention was held in Chicago to the tune of rock & roll & riots. I got a hardship discharge and started working at Schlitz brewery. In the middle of a January blizzard, my pretty New York girl, Liz, and I were married. We honeymooned in Chicago and took a side trip to Notre Dame. I once again visited my old professors. Dr. Banchero, then head of the Chemical Engineering department, said I was about two semesters short of a degree. I introduced him to my wife and told him we’d be back in the fall.
Liz and I saved our money, signed up for the GI Bill, took out a loan and moved to South Bend in September 1969. I grew a beard and studied philosophy, theology and chemistry with vigor and purpose. On Sundays, I thanked God for having brought me back home.
The war wasn’t over yet. Nor were the demonstrations, the riots, the killing. Just before graduation, on May 4, 1970, four students were killed at Kent State. Notre Dame had its own demonstration that day, and Father Hesburgh spoke on the main quad. As I listened, I wondered if I was right for having served when I was called. Sometimes I’m still not sure.
The administration canceled our finals that year. I didn’t stay for my graduation. I didn’t walk up the steps of the Main building either. Liz and I packed up our meager belongings and headed for New York to start our life together. Over the next 30 years, we raised four children and sent three of them to Notre Dame.
Along the way, we have made many trips back to the campus: moving our kids in and out, football games, junior-parent weekends. Sometimes we’d just stop in if we were passing by on the Interstate.
I finally climbed the steps to the Main Building after my oldest son’s graduation in 1993. I snuck away when nobody was looking. No big deal. I simply thought about the events that brought me there and wondered at the complexity and richness of it all. Sometimes, inexplicably, God holds us in his hand and keeps us well in spite of ourselves. Soren Kierkegaard once said that life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. So it is with me.