Having no interest in joining the military let alone being drafted to fight what appeared to me to be a senseless war in Vietnam, I took a position as a 7th grade teacher and basketball coach at St. Mary’s in Lafayette, Indiana from 1968 to 1972.
I must confess that the career choice wasn’t the least bit noble. Quite to the contrary, it was totally self-serving because it was based on the knowledge that full time teachers were exempted from the draft. The school itself was co-located with the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception on South St. which overlooks the downtown central business district.
The morning of the first day sticks in my mind for two reasons. First, I remember Sister Ann Claire, the principal, escorting me to the teacher’s lounge at the western end of the hallway on the second floor to introduce me to Mrs. Wagner, the 6th grade teacher, a woman who had taught at the school for several decades. When she learned that I was a first year teacher she offered me the following words of wisdom.
“Your first challenge will be to maintain proper order in your classroom and I would simply advise you to avoid smiling until after Christmas,” she said.
I took her advice to heart and quickly discovered that a stern demeanor — albeit rehearsed because it was out of character for me — goes a long way in maintaining a high standard of classroom decorum.
The second thing that happened that day occurred when I took my class to Mass for it was after that Mass that one of the priests there introduced me to the organist whose name escapes me.
“Mr. Scott, please allow me to introduce you to the Bishop’s wife,” he said without breaking a smile. A non-catholic, I reached out to shake her hand but I really didn’t get the joke until she started laughing.
“Welcome to St. Marys,” she said taking notice that I had obviously failed to grasp that my ignorance was the source of his amusement. “Pay him no mind.”
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I remember talking with a postulant — a young woman considering the possibility of taking vows and becoming a nun — about theology one day after school. She had said something in religion class about the importance of free will and I couldn’t help but ask her if she believed in fate because in an earlier lesson she had talked at length about God’s omnipresence.
“If God is omnipresent — existing in the past, present and future — then aren’t our actions a predetermined fact? And, if this is the case, aren’t the decisions we make really just an illusion? Can we do anything to change what God already knows to be a matter of historical record?”” I asked.
As I recall, we talked about this at some length and she seemed pretty convinced that we do control our individual fates. I was, therefore, taken aback when she abandoned the idea of taking her vows. I’ve often wondered if the conversation we had had anything to do with that.
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The fourth year I taught there (1971-72) I finally got up the nerve to ask Monsignor Pothoff if I could play the cathedral organ. Since I rarely heard it played by anyone but Sister Agnes and the church organist, I was both surprised and delighted to get his quick and unconditional approval.
The following day after basketball practice I made my way up to the loft. The acoustics of the empty cathedral were such that even the smallest sounds would resonate throughout the church. That comes to mind because I remember that the carpeting on the steps leading to the loft was not thick enough to muffle the creaking sounds emanating from the floor boards it covered.
The sun had gone down and the only light in the church apart from the one I’d turned on were the devotional candles that had been lighted adjacent to the western entrance in the church below. Turning on the light above the music stand it only took me a few seconds to find the “ON/OFF” switch and when it was depressed I was immediately surrounded by the sound of the air filling the organ’s baffles. At the same time I recall looking up to marvel at the height of the pipes leading to the bell tower above. The longest must have been at last 30 feet.
Bringing a few classical selections along to complement the church hymnal I dove right in starting with Bach’s Little Notebook changing stops as I worked through each piece. Gradually, it became apparent that the organ’s volume was completely dependent on the number and type of stops that were pulled and then, an hour or so into the session, “IT” happened. I discovered a single, white ivory button beneath the lower keyboard that, when depressed, opened or closed each and every stop. Needless to say, I couldn’t resist spending the rest of the evening playing at full throttle.
I can’t begin to put in words the awe inspiring sound that organ produced but I just now discovered that the sounds it produced 44 years ago continue to fill the cathedral today. Check out the wedding video taken there a few months ago. Opening with a short violin and flute duet, the organ takes over as the bride is escorted to the altar.
The following day Sister Agnes, a short, frail woman in her 70s who had long ago been not so affectionately nicknamed Prune, took her seat at the organ humming the opening hymn to herself in preparation for Mass. A few seconds transpired before we saw Monsignor Pothoff making his way to the pulpit and that’s when we heard the organ belt out an extraordinarily loud introductory chord followed by a high pitched shriek, the rapid cadence of footsteps down the stairs and out the front entrance. Simultaneously, Monsignor returned to the sacristy for a minute (I’m guessing to regain his composure) and soon thereafter returned to the pulpit. That morning the kids were left to sing the opening and closing hymns a cappella (without accompaniment).
At the end of the school day Monsignor appeared at my classroom door and asked me to join him in the rectory office after school. When I entered his office a few minutes later, I had a nagging feeling that my organ privileges were about to be put on hold.
Invited to sit down in the chair opposite his desk, he leaned back in his chair hands beneath his chin in a prayerful, contemplative manner and said. “I really enjoyed the concert last night but I have a small problem. When you leave would you please make sure you close the stops? Sister Agnes nearly had a heart attack this morning and I can ill afford to lose another nun.”
I was at once relieved to know that my privileges had not been revoked and subsequently made doubly sure the stops were closed before I turned out the lights.
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In early 1971 I realized that at the end of the school year I would once again be subject to the draft so I decided to “pick my poison” putting in an application to join the Navy. Having a bachelor’s degree I was afforded the opportunity to take its officer qualification exam but when I left the testing room, I was fairly well convinced I had failed it. I had absolutely no idea what a backwards capital E meant so later in the afternoon I walked to an office a block down the street and applied to take the Air Force Officer’s exam (AFQT).
The day after I took that exam the Air Force recruiter called me to let me know that I’d aced the exam exam and then told me that the only thing I needed to do was pass a physical which he had alrelady scheduled for the following week in Indianapolis. Needless to say, I passed the physical with flying colors, took the oath, signed up for a delayed enlistment which meant that I could finish out the school year, and was sent home the same day.
Much to my surprise and chagrin, a week or so after I was sworn in, I received a call from the Navy recruiter informing me that I’d passed their exam as well. That was a bit of a bummer because up until I joined the Air Force, everyone in the family who had been in the military had been Navy. I took a good natured ribbing from my brother, Richard, over that.