FEBRUARY 1, 2018 EXCERPT:
THE BELL TOWER
My favorite sport was handball. I was a pretty good player, and I could hold
my own with the best of them, but I had to work at it. Finn, who was a natural
athlete, was my regular opponent in singles, and my partner when we played
doubles. He was good. I seldom beat him, but I kept him on his toes and learned a
lot playing with him. After our last class on Monday, we had a couple of hours off
until Vespers. I asked Finn, “Do you want a game of handball?”
We changed and ambled down the hill to the courts. We sat on a log and
watched Scooter beat Chubs three straight sets while we waited for a court. It was
like watching David beat up on Goliath. As they finished and left the court, we
gave Scooter the thumbs-up sign. He just smiled. We ignored Chubs.
It was nearly three-thirty when we finally entered the court. I was determined
to beat Finn, who had been kicking my butt for way too long. We did an easy
five- minute warm up, and I said, “Okay little man. Are you ready to get your ass
“I don’t see anybody around here that could do that. Do you?”
“Let’s get going. We’re running out of time.”
We played three brutal sets, with the lead see-sawing back and forth. There
was never more than a point spread. Finn, who was close to the ground and very
quick, could return those tough low shots with little trouble. By comparison, I was
a big guy, not as fast as Finn, and it was difficult for me to return some of the low
ones. He knew that and played to my weakness. However, my greater height and
strength, accompanied by a killer power shot, often gave me the advantage.
Finn won the first set by two points, and there was no way I was going to let
him win the next one. I gave it all I had, and a couple of lucky power shots helped
me win the second set. We were even in the third set, until the ball careened off
the edge of Finn’s glove, went high up the wall and took an easy slow bounce
right in front of me. I stepped aside, like a bullfighter, and let it go out of bounds.
The third game was mine.
When we took a minute to catch our breath, I noticed we had an audience.
Four majors, who had just finished playing, were hanging around and seemed to
be enjoying watching Finn and I slug it out. Being noticed by Major seminarians
was a big deal since the Sulpician House rules dictated that we ignore each other.
When we re-entered the court, Finn’s no-nonsense ‘let’s get this over with
attitude’ told me that he was embarrassed by not only losing two sets to me but
doing so in front of an audience of Majors. As he stepped up to serve, he hesitated
and announced in a voice loud enough for all to hear, “Zeke. Let’s bet tonight’s
dessert on this series, okay?”
“Since I am going to whip your ass anyway, let’s make it two night’s
“How about three, Sport?”
“Okay sucker, you’re on; serve the damn ball!” We were both on our game this afternoon, and now our reputations and three desserts were at stake. We were gladiators who had something to prove, and we would show no mercy in this three-wall court that was our coliseum. We played several long rallies with incredible shots and unbelievable returns. Sweat was pouring off of me and running into my eyes, but I fought on. When the five o’clock bell rang for Vespers, our audience disappeared, but we kept playing. As the sun started to slip below the tree line, we played on. Although it was becoming hard to see the ball, neither of us was willing to call the game and default on our bet.
By five-thirty, the score was twenty to twenty, and I was just about out of
steam. I laid a fast, low shot an inch off the corner and the floor. I knew it was an
impossible shot to return, and I had him. Somehow, Finn returned it with an
equally difficult shot for me! That wiped the smile off my face; I reversed
direction and lunged across the court on my belly and returned it. Despite my
heroics, I knew the game was over. I was flat on my stomach as Finn spiked the
winning shot at the wall and let out an ear-shattering victory shriek that could
have been heard clear up to the bell tower.
We hurried up the hill and quickly changed into our day uniforms. I was
nursing a pain in the part of my left hand between my thumb and wrist, which was
my sweet spot for whacking that little black ball. After a few hundred returns the
glove didn’t help much. When we reported late for Vespers, Scooter who was the monitor that evening noted our flushed and sweaty faces and gave us ‘the look’, but didn’t say
As I was leaving the refectory after dinner, Smokey beckoned me over to the
store window, and asked, “Who won?”
“What do you mean, who won? Who won what?”
“Your handball game this afternoon, sport.”
“Finn won, by a point. Why do you ask?”
Smokey motioned to a couple of Majors over by the steps, who were watching
us. He said, “They have a bet on your game.”
I took a closer look, and I recognized them as part of our audience that
afternoon. I smiled, and they gave me back a friendly, conspiratorial smile. I told
Smokey, “See yah later, Man.” I headed for the stairs, and as I passed the two
Majors, I said to nobody in particular, “Finn beat me by one point,” and I walked
out into the Quad to catch up with Brody.
That night about midnight, my mind was racing wildly, and I couldn’t sleep. I
got up, grabbed a pack of smokes, a can of Millers and made my way up to the
bell tower. I needed to make some sense out of my life, understand who I was,
and where my life’s journey was headed. I would soon be leaving my comfort
zone here at St. Edward’s and facing the summer of ’56 with all the distractions
the outside world had to offer a fifteen-year-old adventurous kid.
I had a pretty good idea about whom I was, although I wasn’t at all that sure
about where my life was going. I was a smart, fun-loving, mischievous kid
determined to be the best that I could be at whatever was important to me. I was
an achiever, not an over-achiever. I wanted what I wanted, and I was going to get
it. I was at St. Edward’s hiding out from my abusive father and getting a proper
education the only way I knew how. I wasn’t proud of this. It was actually
pathetic, but that was who I was.
To be honest, I had no idea what my ultimate career choice would be. As long
as I could remember, I had wanted to be a world-class builder, and I thought that I
still did. However, after two years of living within the cloistered walls of St.
Edward Seminary, I was becoming attracted to the religious life. I thought, I guess
I need to keep an open mind and see where this goes.
Smokey sent out the word that the last of The Gatherings, this year would be
on Sunday. We were to bring all the goodies we had left. It was going to be a
blowout. Even though I was an eager participant in many of the early events, my
confrontation with Chubs pretty much put an end to my participation in The
Gatherings, and it had been a while since I had attended one. I decided I would
show up for the last one of the year and have a farewell drink with my fellow
After lunch, I left the building and headed for the Gym. If Chubs or Ichabod
were watching me, they would assume I was there for a game. I entered the
building, and immediately exited through the side door and slipped into the woods
and disappeared. Fifteen minutes later, as I neared The Gathering Place, I came
across Billy Wilson. He waved as I passed him and whispered something into a
cheap walkietalkie. I guessed that Smokey had him standing guard, and that was
not a good omen.
When I entered the shack, I counted eight seminarians perched on the bench
puffing on cigarettes. Smokey was standing at the table loaded down with all
kinds of stuff, from canned peaches and cookies to a couple of half-empty
whiskey bottles. He was pontificating about how unfair it was that we, the
church’s future priests, had to hide in the woods like fugitives to speak our minds,
enjoy a drink and a smoke with friends. He lamented that our teenage counterparts
in the outside world did so routinely without recrimination.
I helped myself to a smoke and a shot of whiskey and listened to Smokey’s
rant. I had outgrown this crap, and the reward was no longer worth the risk. I
interrupted Smokey’s rant, and said, “I have something to say.” I freshened
everybody’s drink, raised my paper cup and said, “I propose a toast to the noble
concepts of questioning authority, embracing the real world that we live in, and to
friendship. I have mastered that doctrine, and I’m moving on. It’s been a hoot,
thanks for the memories, farewell my good friends, and God bless.” I swallowed
my shot, turned on my heels, and walked out the door for the last time.