The summer of 1968, I finally quit the seminary.
I walked into the office of the Rector, Father McCormick, an ascetic Irishman from Boston, and told him I wanted out. I wasn’t sure about God, and celibacy was nuts. He didn’t argue with me because he never believed I would make much of a priest anyway. “Well, then it’s settled,” he said brusquely. “I wish you well.” And he turned his attention back to the stack of papers on his desk.
I walked back to the dorm along the silent corridors, in and out of sun and shadows. Outside the window, in the August heat, the rest of my year was assembling on the front steps of the school for a new class photo.
Father Vincent, the Dean of Discipline, knocked on my door as I was packing up. “I understand you’re leaving us,” he said. He was clutching his breviary, a thin smile on his face. “May I come in?” I gestured to a chair. “You’ll have to move the clothes to the bed, father.” I didn’t dislike him; I didn’t like him either. He was always prowling the halls, reading his Hours and looking for sin. He found it everywhere, and we sparred often. His eyes swept the room, lingering on the posters I had tacked to my wall.
“Che Guevara. Is he a hero of yours?”
“He’s a hero to a lot of people, father.”
Fr. Vincent grimaced. He moved on to another poster. “And the Beatles?”
“Great music. You should listen to them sometime.” I continued to pack.
“I prefer Bach,” he replied.
He sat down in the chair, sweeping up his cassock before he sat down, like a girl does a dress. Most of the fathers had adopted slacks and a dog collar; Father Vincent clung to tradition in both his clothes and his theology. “No room for a crucifix on your wall?”
I ignored him. Now that I was leaving, we were equals and I didn’t have to suffer through his lectures – not that I did anyway. All that Spring I routinely slept in, skipping morning prayers and Mass, cutting classes, repeatedly sending Fr. Vincent scurrying to Father McCormick to seek my expulsion. But Father McCormick had bigger problems to wrestle with. Each week, it seemed another Maryknoll missionary was bailing out to become a labor organizer in Hong Kong, or join a leftist guerilla movement in the mountains of Peru, or marry a nun. Fr. Vincent blamed it all on Vatican II, as he did folk songs at Mass, the disappearance of Latin, and my running into New York City every weekend for another anti-war protest. He didn’t buy the Jesus-as-revolutionary, social gospel.
“May I ask you a question?”
“Be my guest,” I replied, sorting through my bookshelf, picking out the ones I wanted to keep and tossing them in my suitcase – Hemingway, Debray, McLuhan, Cahiers du Cinema. I had promised Dan next door whatever I left behind.
“Why did you come to the seminary?” He cleaned his eyeglasses with the sleeve of his cassock, and carefully put them back on. “I’m sincerely curious.” He sounded like an entomologist puzzled by a strange bug.
“You really want to know?”
“Yes, I do. I was never able to understand why you came here.”
“Because I wanted to see China.”
“Fr. Tennian gave a talk at my school. He had just come back from a mission in Peking, and talked about chopsticks and warlords and the Yangtze and spoke in sing-song Chinese. It sounded so exotic. I wanted to see it.”
“You don’t have to become a missionary to see China.”
"I know, but I was a 14-year-old kid from a Catholic family. My parents were happy I was thinking of becoming a priest. So were my teachers. Everybody got what they wanted.”
“No other reason? Perhaps to save souls?”
“Father, when you’re fourteen, you don’t even know what salvation means.”
“And you still don’t.”
It was a cheap shot. I should have let it pass, but I was tired of theological gobbledygook and angry at him bothering me when I was just trying to pack my bags and get out of there. I walked over and stood in front of him, my face flushed. “No, it’s you that doesn’t get it,” I said. I removed the breviary from his grasp and tossed it on the desk, then leaned in real close. He sunk back into his chair.
“Let’s see – how do I explain this to you, Vinnie? Salvation, damnation, original sin, Adam and Eve – it’s all nonsense. Fables. Nobody cares about your mumbo-jumbo. I don’t care, the world doesn’t care, God if he exists doesn’t care. Only you care.”
I returned to the bed, gathered up the last of my shirts and stuffed them into the suitcase. “I feel sorry for you. You’re Father McKenzie, writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear.”
I shook my head in disgust. He was clueless.“It’s a song. By the Beatles – the guys over there on the wall. As I said, you really ought to listen to them sometime.” I closed my bag and locked it. Fr. Vincent had retrieved his breviary and retreated to the door.
“Did you ever believe?”
“The Catholic faith.”
“Once upon a time. But I don’t now.”
“Then I fear for your soul.”
“Right. Well, gotta catch a train.”
Fr. Vincent hesitantly extended his hand in a final act of pious Christian charity. Turn the other cheek. I couldn’t bring myself to shake it.
“I’ll be praying for you,” he said.
“Whatever makes you feel good, father.” I grabbed my bags and hurried down the back stairs to my waiting taxi. As we drove off, I looked back one last time. Four years wasted. I should have quit long before, but better late than never.
Mom met me at the Bethel station when I arrived back home. She broke into a big smile when she spotted me and hurried over to give me a warm hug.
“Mmm. So good to have you home, Michael. I missed you.”
“Sorry, mom. I hope you’re not too disappointed.” I knew having a priest in the family would have made her very proud.
“You have to follow your heart,” she replied simply. I loaded my suitcase and duffel in the trunk of the car, she handed me the keys, and I slid behind the wheel. I pulled out into traffic and we headed up Greenwood Avenue.
“Who’s at home?”
“The old house is pretty empty. John left for college last week. Jody found an apartment near the hospital. It’s just Tom and Jean and us now. Dad and I want you to know you can stay at the house for as long as you need while you sort things out.”
“That’s great, mom. I appreciate it.”
“So what’s next for you?” she said cheerily. Mom’s parents were dirt-poor farmers in Arkansas during the Depression and she had survived on beans and dreams. She had unshakeable faith in herself and her kids.
“I want to be a writer, mom.”
“You’ve always wanted to do that, haven’t you?” She reached over and patted my shoulder. “Funny, when I was cleaning up your old room yesterday, I came across your Gold Key. It was in a box on a shelf in your closet. Maybe it’s an omen.”
I won it in a National Scholastic writing contest in eighth grade. It was the first time I ever got noticed for something I did. It must have been a slow news day because the News Times sent a photographer over to St. Peter’s School to record the emergence of the next Ernest Hemingway.
“Do you still have that dumb photo?” I laughed.
She grinned. “I like it.”
“I look goofy as hell, mom. Father Martin, Sister Theresa, and me in the middle with my coke-bottle glasses, holding up that tiny gold key. Throw it in the fireplace.”
We turned up Farnam Hill and I pulled into the driveway. Mom had her tomatoes and roses growing down by the barn and the house, sitting in the shade of the tall horse chestnut trees, looked as beautiful as ever. Mom fell in love with the 1760 colonial the first time she laid eyes on it. The two elderly spinsters who ran Farnam House as a bed and breakfast discovered mom had six kids and decided they wanted her to have it when they sold it. Dad was worried about the mortgage payment; mom usually deferred to him, but this time she refused to back down. We were meant to have the house, she told him, and he finally relented and signed the papers. It was the first time in my life I didn’t have to share a room.
I didn’t live in the house long but I loved it as much as her. I left for a Catholic boarding school in Pennsylvania that fall. I was 14 years old. The morning I left home, I awoke an hour before the alarm clock went off. It was still dark outside. I sat on my bed, dressed in my new suit and shoes, and watched the clock hands creep towards six. When my mom came up to get me, I was standing at the door, holding my bag. It was a long, quiet trip and I stared out the window at the rain, getting myself ready. We stopped once somewhere and my dad filled up gas and my mom looked like she was going to cry but I said everything was great, really mom. When they left me at the school that afternoon, Dad gave me a polaroid of the house and I scotch-taped it to the inside of my dormitory locker next to the calendar. I looked at it each morning when I got up at 5:30 to fight for a sink, and each night just before bed check and lights out, counting down the days until Christmas vacation. It would always be home. And Mom was hoping this time I’d stay home. To her, I was always the “one who got away.”
“Maybe you can get a job writing for the News Times,” Mom said. “Forrest Palmer is the publisher now.”
Dad’s friend Mr. Palmer put me to work covering criminal court and I enrolled in night classes at Fairfield University until I passed that damn pre-induction physical. I thought my life was over.
I expected an induction notice any day.
Instead, a week before Christmas, I got a long-distance phone call.
“For you,” Mom yelled up the stairs.
“Who is it?”
“The Peace Corps, I think.”
I whooped for joy, raced down the stairs and grabbed the receiver from her.
“Michael, the government of Thailand is requesting an educational television specialist for the City of Bangkok,” chirped a cheerful voice on the other end of the line. “Your background in film caught our attention.”
My heart skipped a beat. Mom hovered nervously nearby.
“You’ll teach English to Thai middle school kids your first year, then switch to the Municipality your second year to write and produce TV programs. You'll join Thai Group 27. The group stages in three weeks for orientation in Escondido, California before flying to Hawaii for training. Can you make it?”
I shot Mom a huge smile and a thumbs-up. “I’m packing now.”
I hung up, my head spinning. My mom hugged me. I spent the rest of the morning in a happy daze before trekking down to the Bethel library to find Thailand on a map.
Not even Nixon’s inauguration the next day could spoil my giddy elation. On January 20th, 1969, we sat in the den and watched as President Nixon declared “the greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker. This honor now beckons America...” Mom still didn’t trust him. “That man’s a natural born liar,” she declared, and headed to the kitchen for a cup of tea.
Peace Corps hustled to process my paperwork while I pleaded my case before my local draft board. Five of them sat at a folding table under fluorescent lights in an overheated room that evening and called us up one by one to tell them why we shouldn’t go. I was the last to speak, it was getting late and, as the lone lady in the board noted, like Jesus I was trained to love people not kill them. The majority voted to give me a two-year deferment, but the chairman, a pot-bellied plumbing contractor who fought the Huns hand-to-hand at Bastogne, was disgusted I wasn’t enlisting.
“You understand you are postponing your military duty, not escaping it?” Mr. Pipe Wrench glowered at me.
“That when you complete your Peace Corps tour, you will automatically return to 1-A status and be draft eligible again – at which time you will most likely be drafted?
“And you also understand that if you don’t complete your Peace Corps training, or leave the Peace Corps at any time for any reason during the next two years, you will automatically be inducted?
“We’ll see you back here in two years,” he said, dismissing me with a grunt.
The day before I left home, I stopped by O’Donnell’s service station to fill up gas. Joe took care of the family car, and I inherited him when I got my own. Joe served in the Army in Korea and still sported a crew cut and cracked leather bomber jacket. I told him I was going to Thailand with the Peace Corps.
“Really?” he said, wiping the dipstick with a dirty rag.
“Really,” I said.
He swiped a greasy glove under his runny nose, red and raw from the frigid weather, and carefully examined the dipstick.
“Where the hell is Thailand?”
“It’s in southeast Asia, right next to Vietnam,” I explained.
He stuck the dipstick back in the hole and dropped the hood. He took my ten bucks, looked around, leaned in the window and winked. “Those slit-eye girls are something else. Send me some pictures when you get there.”
The February morning I left my dad's house in Bethel for the ride to Kennedy, a blizzard dumped two feet of snow on metro New York. I switched on WLAD, worried they would close the roads. I could miss my flight, miss orientation, and Uncle Sam the bogeyman would get me. It was a dumb thought, but I couldn’t drive it out of my head. Mom was already up when I came downstairs, sitting in the kitchen holding a cup of coffee. Her eyes were puffy. I gave her a big hug.
“I’m gonna miss you, Michael,” she said. “I just got you back, and now you’re off again.”
Outside, Dad already had the car warming up, snow chains on, ice scraped off the windshield. Mom gave me a small, wrapped present. It was a book of E.B. White’s essays.
“Keep writing,” she said. “I know you will.”
(More to come)