The Gospel Truth

Going Home

July 14, 2015
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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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With Apologies to Abe

February 17, 2012
8 Comments

I have quipped that I had only two real identifiable talents in life–a very good memory and a very big mouth.

During my many years on radio they have both served me well.

I just loved that song from the 1950’s that was on the weekly Hit Parade TV show that we watched as a family when I was growing up in Queens.

Al Stillman and Robert Allen composed Moments to Remember, which was recorded by Four Lads in 1955.

The song also features a woman, who is not credited in the song, whose voice is first heard in the introduction to the song:

January though December/We’ll have Moments to Remember

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Stirred the echoes of my past

The line I remember most was–the day we tore the goal post down–we will have these moments to remember.

While I seriously doubt the width of my mouth will shrink, I worry a lot about losing my memory.

My mother died of Alzheimer’s disease.

I watched her lose her entire ability to communicate with me and anyone around over the last 12 years of a disease that probably started 18-20 years before her death on 3/11.*

First it was speech.

Then it was her ability to walk and stand up

Then it was her inability to care for herself and get out of bed.

The good news was that she was pretty much unaware of her memory loss and ultimately her life ebbing away from us all.

My obsession  with memory loss runs very deeply within my soul.

It was her illness that prompted me to write my first produced play, The Last Memory of an Ol’ Brownie Fan.

Actor Tom Kelly personified my fears

This was my cathartic way of dealing with my latent fears.

I didn’t know a great deal about my mother.

She was not as sharing with personal information as I am–I doubt if anyone talks as much about him or herself as I do but I often wish she had because she would have given me a lot more to remember her by and more importantly to pass down to her grandchildren and as many generations as I can make.

But by comparison with my mother, my dad was a mute.

He was an introvert almost to the point of being shy, except when he had a Manhattan or two.

Unfortunately I learned way too few things about him.

He never mentioned his mother, except to say her name had been Louisa Stiehl.

My mother, the blabbermouth, told me that her mother-in-law had hanged herself when he was 12.

She told me that in an Alexanders’ Department store  parking lot 44 years ago.

I often wish that they had told me that when I was younger because I would have cut my dad a lot more slack than I ever did.

For all I knew he found his mother hanging there.

Deserved some slack

Maybe that explained his adult demeanor.

My mom did say that it was menopausal.

To think that was in 1909 and had it happened two generations later, with modern medicine, I would probably have gotten to know her.

His father was another story.

Even as a boy I could tell there was almost a latent anger in his voice about his father.

Perhaps he blamed him for the loss of his mother.

My dad’s mother was my grandfather’s second wife.

He was the one who took the family out of the Catholic Church after a tiff with a priest in the Confessional.

He was just 12 years old.

My father never joined the Church but his two sisters did.

His oldest sister was the devout one whose close relationship with a Jesuit was largely responsible for my getting into Xavier HS.

He didn’t think he was a good businessman after an injury forced his retirement from the NYPD.

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NYC’s finest around the time of my grandfather’s service

He died of heart disease at the age of 75 in 1937 the same year my dad got married.

But so many questions about my parents remained unasked and unanswered.

Their answers could have provided more information about roots that might have given more clarity to my own life.

I also wished I had asked him more about his business knowledge–after a short-lived medical career of just 18 years my father went into private investments and was very good at it.

My mother’s mother died in 1957 when I was 14.

I really did not know much about her.

I think she got her husband, who was not a Catholic to convert.

She was very morally strict and hard on my mother.

She was also my Irish connection, having been a Dolan.

She also had a lot of family in New Jersey.

They are all just distant names to me.

My grandfather died in 1984.

I have to say that he was the opposite of me–taciturn.

I think he only said four things to me in my 19 years as his grandson that I remember.

The most memorable was that Ty Cobb was a dirty player.

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He even sharpened his spikes

Evidently he was a baseball fan.

I wish I had that to share with him then but the subject never came up again.

He did teach me to tell time–I’ll bet most kids today can only do digital–and tie my own shoelaces–I can still do both.

There is a lesson for all of us in this post.

What  I did learn is that it is so important we tell our kids and their kids about ourselves–who we are, what we hoped to have been and where we made our mistakes.

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Tell them about yourself

This includes even the blemishes but without gilding them.

But we should always tell our stories with the utmost of human respect and empathy for what they did, tried to do or failed to do.

Kids need to have that connection with the past, since the schools don’t provide that anymore.

You and I and the millions like us are walking encyclopedias of the past.

That’s how we advance the human family.

That’s how we validate our own humanity.

As we grow older, we add even more pages of memory for our children and their children and so on down the line.

We need to pass on our stories before we pass on ourselves.

Do this before the mystic chords of our memories** become nothing more than faint echoes without detail, substance or meaning.

It is probably the best legacy we can guarantee them.

* They don’t give the year for 9/11, so why should I give the year for my mother’s death?

** Paraphrased from Abraham Lincoln’s 1st Inaugural Address, given in March of 1861.


Empty Shelves

April 12, 2011
8 Comments

There is nothing more sad than walking into a home or a chain book store and seeing a stack of empty shelves.

The current decline of the mom and pop book store is disheartening.

One need only see the movie, with Meg Ryan, You Got Mail, which is a remake of the The Little Shop Around the Corner to feel the sadness that permeates the closing of a woman’s neighborhood bookstore.

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A sad sight

Losing a familiar bookstore is like losing a good friend.

Now the same malady is infecting even the big chains, like Borders, which declared bankruptcy this year and Barnes and Noble, which looms large, yet even B&N seems to be struggling.

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Forced to declare bankruptcy

Is it that people don’t read books anymore or is it that they just don’t buy them anymore.

Part of the recent is the switch from print information, both for news and recreation and the loss of an inquiring literate population which seems to have lost its curiosity about the meaning of life.

The digital age has also impacted traditional book reading.  I saw  my first Kindle on an airplane and from where I was sitting it looked like a large video game.

Then there is also something called the Nook that sounds more fitting for the first meal of the day. And then my daughter got an her first I-Pad.

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A video game for books

These were all new ways to read a book…virtually any book.

Now maybe I will be the last hold-out.  I never want to use these alternate reading methods.

I still read newspapers–home delivered.  Three in the morning  and later I but the New York Times but only for the pictures.

I want to be the Last Bibliophile who has the last book in the world.  I like to buy my books and take them home with me.  I like the interchange of having a real person wait on me.

I love the feel, the smell and the physical presence of a book.

Like so many people who wish they owned their own restaurant or race horse, owning a bookstore or even working in one has always been on my dream list.

Being surrounded by stack of books entrances me like a beautiful sunset.

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An enchantment

It is like having the world’s wisdom at your fingertips…if you know where to look.

Sometimes I just stand in the middle of a line of book shelves and drink in the ideas and facts emanating from the colorful array of new titles.

I do have to confess that I never go into a library any more because the Internet is easier and while time may be money to some, to me it allows me to have more time for my personal reading.

Reading is a mental form of exercise that may help me fight the ravages of age, which often starts in the brain.

I Read about a 100 pages a day–sometimes more.

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A dual work out

I have been logging each book I finish with the date finished , the author, title and number of pages.

A couple of years ago, I read 128 books, my best ever.  Most years I can count on reading anywhere from 105-120.

Some times I can read as many as 250 pages while other days, reading 50 can be a chore.

When we go on vacation, my wife shops and I am content to sit and read one of my traveling books.

I judge the quality of a store by the comfort of its seats for waiting men.

I have sat on cold marble, dirty stairs and sometimes stood in a corner, just to get my fix.

I read all kinds of books–many of them novels.

James Paterson tells a good story.  I buy his books not for their literary content but for their swift-moving pace.

Jonathan Kellerman and Michael Connolly are much better writers.

The later developed a character over the course of several books.

A detective, named Harry Bosch–short for Hieronymus Bosch, the 15th century Dutch painter, appeared in several of his books.

Connolly named Harry after this Dutch artist

Harry was a tunnel rat in Vietnam and was getting a little too old to feature.

He now writes about Mickey Haller, the Lincoln Lawyer.

I read a lot of non-fiction as well…especially current events, memoirs and history.

Of the later I read everything about the ideas that have launched our own culture, especially from the French Revolution, the Civil War and the early 20th century.

Right now I am reading John Thorn’s Baseball in the Garden of Eden, Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth II, and David Goldfield’s civil war epic,  America Aflame.

I was inspired to do much of this reading by a history professor at St. Louis University, named Ed Maguire.

Dr. Maguire had a terrible stutter that affected his presentation but that didn’t stop him from teaching or passing on the secret of all education: Read books.  And I have ever since.

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Sage advice

I read exactly four books during my first eight years of primary school.  And my mother had to finish two of them for me.

I remember trying to read Black Beauty and could never get past the fourth chapter.

I did start reading just before graduation–Xavier H. S. had given us a book list and I read 11 books.

But in high school I did only the required amount of reading.

What changed my life was the advice from the recruiter from Boston College who told me that with a Verbal score of 417 (before it was inflated 20 years later) I could not get into his school.

And BC was where I wanted to go at that time.

So I got serious.  Like Cool Hand Luke said, I can eat 50 eggs.

Well I digested 50 books and the next time I took the SAT, my verbal had modestly increased to a 509.  Strangely my math score went from a 522 to 647.

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But could he read 50 books?

Forget BC, I could now go to Holy Cross.

By the way my verbal on the Grad Record Exam right after college was a 650, which placed me in the 92 percentile.

I can use words like sesquipedalian and polymath with comfort.

Books have paved the way for my life.

Since then I have always liked to have books around me.

They are my friends, my companions for a lonely night and my teachers.

I now have about 3000 books in my home–my wife calls them a nuisance.  I call them my library.

My book habit is getting expensive.  I collect discount coupons that I hate to waste.I have to buy at least one a day.  Sometimes, I load up with 5-6 books.

Right now I have more books than I will ever be able to read.  I am more like a collector or even a horder.

But for now my motto is so many books…so little time.

My wife says that some day she is going to bury me and my books in an 80′ hole.

I have become akin to the Fireman in Ray Bradbury’s classic,  Fahrenheit 451–the degree of temperature when paper burns–who did not put fires out but burned books–all books.  This lead to a cult that memorized the great books and passed them on.

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The end of books?

But during one such job he became curious and kept one of the books, which he then read.  Like me, he became hooked on books and started stashing them all over the house.

I do that now.  He put them in a fake TV, overhead lights, closets, under floor boards and any where that would store his treasure.

Books are essential for man’s right to know I fear that someday, despite all the electronic book-reading devices, people will be so dulled by their education, they will use these devices, merely for the distracting contentment of bread and circuses.

And what of the bookstores?  They will be nothing empty shelves which is like a world without lovea sad testament to the self-destruction of our civilization.

 


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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