The Gospel Truth

Going Home | July 14, 2015

In his posthumous novel, You Can’t Going Home Again author Thomas Wolfe tells the story of George Webber, a fledgling author, who writes a book about his hometown of Libya Hill. The book is a best seller but the town is unhappy with Webber’s critical depiction of them. He receives many menacing letters and death threats.

Wolfe took the title from a conversation with writer Ella Winter, who remarked to Wolfe: Don’t you know you can’t go home again! Wolfe had already addressed a similar theme in his autobiographical first novel Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life in 1929. It was Wolfe’s first novel, and is considered an autobiographical American Bildungsroman.

You Can’t’s title is reinforced in the denouement of the novel in which Webber realizes You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time…

Similarly the phrase you can’t go home again has entered American lexicon to mean that once you have left your country town or provincial backwater city for a sophisticated metropolis you cannot return to the narrow confines of your previous way of life. More generally any attempt to relive youthful memories will always fail.

For the last number of years I have tried to give lie to Wolfe’s theme by exploring the memories of my past life with the renewal of some old acquaintances, who have been most influential in my life. In throwing caution to wind, I was aware that I could suffer emotional rejection, withdrawal and the knowledge of some painful truths.

But as Socrates warned, the unexplored life is not worth living and at my age I needed to bathe in the sweetened waters of my memories in order to energize my present before cognizance fades from my mind. I am running, not from my life but for it.

Reunions are like microscopic homecomings.   In the month of June my wife and I attended, not one but two of my 50-year reunions. The first one was more familiar to us since it was at Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts where we have attended all their five-year reunions since the 25th in 1990.

Consequently it was simple to trace the subtle changes of each half-decade so that seeing many of my friends from those years was no great shock to me. The big disappointment was the fact that many could not or did not attend. This was a lost opportunity that I regret a great deal. Sixty-eight had perished over the years, including my dear roommate, Peter L. Lawrence who has been gone for nine years now. I still grieve over his loss

The Class published its 50th Anniversary yearbook that had a special section eulogizing the deceased in truth and dignity. It was a fine addition to one’s memory bank. The biggest disappointment was many of the living had not submitted any record of their lives this past half century, cheating us of contexting their memories with theirs.

On the other side of the equation, at least half-dozen friends came back whom I had not seen since graduation.   There were only four other members of my high school class there.   Sixteen of us had motored up from New York’s Xavier High School.

One of them brought has wife whom I had known at a Summer Sodality that we had both joined at Chaminade high school on Long Island during our college years. There was one high school friend whom I did not remember seeing since Xavier. His wife laughed at that thought. But I countered if she had any proof that he actually attended. Perhaps Jesuits had sequestered him for those four years.

Like most reunions the pace was frenetic but well oiled and things moved very smoothly. I especially enjoyed the class Mass on Saturday, officiated by our Father Paul Sughrue. His acolyte was his twin brother, Peter.  Seeing them on the same altar gave me a warm glow that I will always treasure.

The refrain from one of the hymns provided me with a new prayer: Day by Day: Lord let me know you more clearly…love you more dearly…and follow you more nearly…

I did not miss the last statement’s Jesuitical nuance.   It is reminiscent of St. Augustine’s prayer: Lord make me chaste…just not now!

It was my membership in the Holy Cross Sodality that caused the second reunion. While at Holy Cross, an energetic priest from Chicago, Father John Sullivan, who later became the Archbishop of Kansas City, Kansas, spoke each and every year I was there. He was a representative of the Catholic Lay Extension over the years sent over 2000 laymen and women, mostly women to the mission dioceses in the country. I had been so impressed by Father Sullivan that I joined my senior year.   It was arguably the most important decision in my life because as an ELV I was sent to Charleston, Missouri to teach at St. Henry’s High School and coach the basketball team. It was there I met my future wife.

I have been trying to let that reunion weekend in Deerfield, IL. sink in.  Unlike Holy Cross it was a quick trip in and out.  They had it so well-organized that we did not wear down.  I was surprised that I did not know anyone there at all, save the women I had talked with over the phone.  My wife knew more people than I did–one woman who had preceded me to Charleston.   The two of them really hit it off so my shy little wife was fully occupied.  I have no trouble meeting new people.

I was hoping to see the people from Missouri from our year—all women except for my roommate, Father Ernie Marquart, who has suffered from Rocky Mt. fever I believe.  It totally wiped out his memories of our year. I saw him at a convent with a couple of the sisters we had worked with maybe 10-15 years ago and he did not remember me at all.  I had even brought some photos from that year with me.  I AM a hard person to forget.  At Holy Cross I didn’t wear a nametag once!

The old pictures they displayed were fantastic! I found one of all the Missourians. Like the pictures of us in the newsletter they sent, we all looked so young, innocent and alive with the joys of the faith in 1965. I was hoping Barbara Berlsman would be there.   She was a nurse, who had given me one of my favorite lines that I have used over the years–she had gone to a public school in Ohio that had nuns teaching there.  I immediately quipped: so you went to a nun-Catholic school!

I had been unaware that they stopped the volunteer program in 1971–after just 10 years!  Now they serve primarily as a conduit for funding that they use to support existing volunteer programs in 95 mission dioceses in the country.

During our 48 hours there I had occasion to think deeply as to why I had joined the organization. It dawned on me during one of the discussions that I had joined Extension because I was a Sodalist and they always stressed personal service. I also thought it would be a good way to get some teaching experience and serve the Church.

I also noticed that our group of about 150 had lost some of its internal spiritual and intellectual unity that was prevalent in 1965.  I felt a bifurcation during some of the group’s general discussions that showed a wide variance of opinions on many different subjects.

This was to be expected since 50 years of life experiences had intervened, militating against the Ray Repp uplifting and emotive hymns we sang at Barat College during training, the emerging spirit of Vatican II, and the wonderful and joyful camaraderie, and the residual influence of Kennedy’s New Frontier.  In 1965 we were a Catholic vanguard that was going to make the world a better place. Reality hit us all and hard—the Vietnam War, a fury of racial unrest, urban violence, political assassinations and just trying to find out where we belonged in this life—all took their toll.

During one of the public forums I stood up and said that because of Extension seven new people existed that would not be around had I not gone to Chicago in 1965.  I am speaking of my three children and four grandchildren.

My exploration into my past is nearly complete. My journey serves as an elaborate metaphor of our pilgrimage on earth. Poets, dramatists, authors and essayists have written about this impulse for centuries. It is a universal urgency that cannot be denied, ignored or medicated out of one’s subconscious. It drives us, goads us and pursues us like British poet Francis Thompson’s Hound of Heaven.

Wolfe was metaphysically incorrect! We can go home, not to the environs of our early lives but to the place the Father has prepared for in Heaven.

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About author

After graduating from Holy Cross, Bill Borst earned an MA in Asian History from St. John's University and a Ph.D in American History from St. Louis University. (1972) A former New Yorker, he taught for many years in the St. Louis area, while also hosting a weekly radio show on WGNU from 1984-2006. He currently is a regular substitute for conservative Phyllis Schlafly on KSIV radio. (1320) He is the author of two books on social history, "Liberalism: Fatal Consequences," and "The Scorpion and the Frog: A Natural Conspiracy." He just retired as the Features editor of the Mindszenty Foundation Monthly Report. In his 11 years from 2003-2013 he wrote nearly 130 essays on Catholic culture and world affairs. Many in St. Louis also know him as the "Baseball Professor," because of a course that he offered at Maryville College from 1973-74. It was arguably the first fully-accredited baseball history course in the Midwest.The author of several short books on the old St. Louis Browns, he started the St. Louis Browns Historical Society in 1984. In 2009 his first two plays were produced on the local stage. "The Last Memory of an Ol' Brownie Fan," ran six performances at the Sound Stage in Crestwood and "A Perfect Choice" ran for two performances at the Rigali Center Theater in Shrewsberry. His third play, "A Moment of Grace," ran six performances at DeSmet High School in January of 2011with First Run Theater in January of 2011. He is currently working on a 4th play, "A Family Way," which is a comedy about a happy dysfunctional family. He can reached at bbprof@sbcglobal.net

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