Nearer, My GodWILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR.
This essay is drawn from the first chapter of Mr.
Buckley's Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith, just published by Doubleday.
Copyright ©1997 William F. Buckley Jr.
IT was during the summer of 1938 that we were given the dreadful news. I forget from whose hands it came. Probably from ``Mademoiselle,'' our governess. She was the authority in residence at Great Elm, given that my mother, my father, and three of my older siblings were traveling in Europe. That left six children to romp happily through one more summer in Father's large house in Sharon, the village designated by the Garden Club of America two years before as the most beautiful town in Connecticut after Litchfield. The six of us left behind ranged in age from Jim (15) to Maureen (5). We were superintended by Mademoiselle Jeanne Bouchex and by three Mexican nurses; fed and looked after by a cook, a butler, and two maids; trained and entertained in equestrian sport by a groom and an assistant, making use of Father's eight horses; instructed in piano by a 23-year-old New Yorker who came and stayed with us three days of every week, giving us each a lesson every day on one of the five pianos in the house; and instructed in the guitar or banjo or mandolin (we were allowed our pick) by a Spanish-born violinist who traveled once a week from Poughkeepsie.
It might have been Mademoiselle who told us what Father had decided, or it might have been Miss Hembdt, Father's secretary. She lived in Yorktown Heights and regularly relayed to us bulletins from Father, transcriptions of letters he would mail her, mostly to do with his business affairs but now and then including something directed to one or more of his absent children, supplementing what we would learn from letters received from Mother or from one of our siblings traveling with them. With these notes came our monthly allowances, a directive or so touching on this or that subject, references to a book Father had just read which we should know about, or read ourselves. . . . That dreadful day in August the directive, however transmitted, was as horrifying an edict my two afflicted sisters and I agreed as had ever been sent to three healthy and happy children from their father. The directive was to the effect that the next school year Jane, Trish, and I would pass in boarding schools near London, the girls at St. Mary's in Ascot, I at St. John's Beaumont, in Old Windsor.
The news fractured the arcadian spirit of our summer. We had got used to quite another routine, where summer vacations evolved almost seamlessly into a return to school, where academic life required no radical departures from our way of life and none at all from our surroundings, because we were taught by tutors right there in the same rooms in which we played when indoors during the summer. When school began for us at the end of September we continued to ride on horseback every afternoon, we swam two or three times every day until the water got too cold, our musical tutors continued to come to us just as they had done during the summer, and some of us would rise early and hunt pheasant before school; our classes began at 8:30, ended at 12, and there would be study hall and music appreciation between 4 and 6. Three or four neighborhood children joined our school, and though we sorely regretted the summer's end, the academic regimen was light, and at our ages Jane had turned 14 that summer, Trish was 11, I was 12 the schooling we got was as tolerable as schoolwork could be. Now, suddenly, we were to go to boarding schools in England. Why?
We fled to Aunt Priscilla. She lived with her maiden sister in a house nearby, returning home to Austin, Texas, in the fall. We went to her: Why? Why? Why? Aunt Priscilla was infinitely affectionate, sublimely humorous, but also absolutely self-disciplined. After hearing out our outrage, she agreed to write to Father in Europe to put our case before him: What really was the point in going to England to school? We had all already been to England to school . . . only five years ago it was there that Trish and I had first learned English. Jane, Trish, and I had gone to Catholic day schools in London, the oldest four to boarding schools, the two girls to that same St. Mary's, Ascot, where now Jane and Trish would go.
THEY hadn't liked St. Mary's, hadn't liked it one bit. Aloďse, the oldest, had been 14, possibly the most spirited girl the dear nuns at St. Mary's had ever come across, with her singular, provocative independence. They had got on at Ascot because by nature Aloise and Priscilla (11) were irrepressible; but they had never pretended to like their school. John (13) and Jim (10) had gone to the Oratory Preparatory School in Reading. John had kept a diary at the school and was manifestly amused by his foreign experiences, which he depicted in words and in drawings. But the entire family had been shocked and infuriated to learn that not once but t-w-i-c-e our brother Jim had been caned! Called into the headmaster's study and told to lean over. The first time, he had received one ``swipe.'' The second time, two swipes. Not quite the stuff of Nicholas Nickleby's Dotheboys Hall, but news of the punishment was received as such in the family corridors, and the rumor spread about the nursery in our house in London that Father and Mother even considered withdrawing the boys. It did not come to that, but Jim was for at least a year after the event regarded by his brothers and sisters as a mutilated object. He, being sunny by nature and serenely preoccupied with his interest in flora and fauna, hadn't actually thought very much about the episode. For the rest of us, it was the mark of Cain, discoloring our year of English schooling.
And now we were headed back for more of the same kind of thing? We needed to know Why? Surely Aunt Priscilla would set things right.
The Word came, about two weeks later. A letter from Father. She didn't read it to us, but she explained that Father ``and your Mother'' this was a blatant invention, we knew; it would never have occurred to Mother to impose any such ordeal on us believed it would be a very fine educational experience for us. ``Besides'' Aunt Priscilla winked ``as you know, your father has complained that five years have gone by since he understood 'a single word''' Aunt Priscilla did a light imitation of Father, elongating a word or phrase, to give it emphasis ``uttered by any one of his children.'' In England we would learn to open our mouths when we spoke. We moaned our dismay at one of Father's typical exaggerations. It is true that Father was a nut on elocution, and true that his nine children, on returning from five years in Europe, had quickly adapted to lazy vocalisms which Father, then nearing sixty, had a progressively more difficult time deciphering in the din of the three-tiered dining room, the main table for the older children and the adults, the middle table for those roughly 9 to 13, the third, little table for the incumbent baby(ies).
We felt certain that his objective wasn't merely to put us into Catholic schools. Such a thing, in our household, would have been supererogatory. Mother was a daily communicant. Father's faith was not extrovert, but if you happened on him just before he left his bedroom in the morning you would find him on his knees, praying. Our older brothers and sisters, here in the States, were not at Catholic schools. So we ruled that out as one of Father's objectives.
We dimly understood that Father had always stressed the value of cosmopolitan experience. We lived now in Connecticut rather than in Mexico City, where, bilingual, he had gone to practice law after graduating from the University of Texas, intending to raise his family there. But he had been exiled from Mexico in 1921, pronounced by the President of Mexico an ``extranjero pernicioso'' a pernicious foreigner. Which indeed he was, having backed a revolution against President Obregón which, among other things, sought to restore religious freedom to Mexican Catholics. He bought the house in Connecticut, but soon, pursuing business concerns, he moved the family to France, Switzerland, and England. It was in Paris that I first went to school, speaking only Spanish. Was Father simply seeking out further exposure to another culture?
It was much much later, after the war, that we learned the hidden reason Father thought it prudent to have three of his children of sensitive age away from home. It was why Aunt Priscilla hadn't read to us out loud the explanatory letter she had received from him: Mother had become pregnant again, against her doctor's advice. It was not known if she would survive the birth of her eleventh child (one baby had died at birth, ten years earlier). At the time, we knew only enough to be vaguely apprehensive about Mother. We did not know how dangerous the doctors thought the birth, due the following November, could be.
But whatever speculation we engaged in, however horrified we were at the very thought of the ordeal ahead, there was never any doubt, in my father's house, what his children would be doing at any given time, i.e., what Father said we would be doing at any given time. So that, on September 18, 1938, after an indulgent 24 hours in New York City shepherded about by our beloved young piano teacher to movies, a concert, and Horn & Hardart Automats, we Mademoiselle, Jane, Trish, and I boarded the S.S. Europa for Southampton.
THERE was much political tension. We couldn't fail to note it immediately on landing in Southampton. British sentiment was divided between those who favored standing up to Hitler who had just occupied the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia and those who opposed any move that might threaten war. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was scheduled to return the next day from his meeting with Adolf Hitler in Munich. Before boarding the train for London we were fitted out with gas masks.
In London we were greeted with Mother's distinctive affection and Father's firm embraces. Little was said, that I can remember, about where we would be taken the next day, but Father did tell me that he had found Fr. Sharkey, the headmaster of St. John's, a ``fine'' person, and Jane and Trish were told that the Mother Superior at Ascot was someone other than the Mother Superior, so disliked by our older sisters, who had presided five years earlier.
Mother drove in one car with Jane and Trish and their bags to Ascot; Father and I, in another car to St. John's.
It was late on a cold English afternoon (Father instructed the driver to detour to the landing field and we saw Neville Chamberlain descend from the airplane that had flown him from Munich to announce that he had brought ``peace in our time''). A half-hour later, we turned into the long driveway that took us to the pillared entrance to the school, the whole of it contained in one large square brick three-story building.
We were taken by a maid to a primly decorated salon, and Fr. Sharkey, short, stubby, his hair grey-white, came in, took my hand, and chatted with Father for a few minutes about the international situation. Tearfully, I bid goodbye to my Father and was led up with my two bags to a cubicle, halfway along a line of identical cubicles on either side of a long hallway that held about thirty. To enter you needed to slide open a white curtain that hung down from a rod going across the cubicle's width, about eight feet up from the floor. The rooms had no ceiling of their own looking straight up, you saw the ceiling of the large hallway, perhaps ten feet up. To your right and to your left were white wooden partitions. On the right, a dresser two or three drawers and a hanging locker. To the left, your bed. A small table of sorts stood near the bed, and on it I quickly placed pictures of my family. On the window ledge, which I could reach only by standing on my bed I placed one end of a huge Old Glory I had bought that last day in New York, holding it down with two weights I contrived from something or another so that the United States flag could hang down behind my bed, all five feet of it. The dormitory master, Fr. Ferguson, knocked on the wooden partition, drew the curtain to one side, introduced himself, and told me he would lead me to the refectory, as it was time for supper.
The dining hall was crowded with the eighty boys who boarded at St. John's. The youngest were aged 9, the oldest, 14. After supper, we went to the study hall. I was three weeks late in arriving for the fall term and so without any homework to do, pending my introduction the next day to my form master.
I don't remember how I passed the two hours. In due course we were summoned to evening prayers. We knelt along two of the quadrangular corridors in the building, a priest at the corner, boys at a right angle to his right, and to his left. He led us in prayers, to which we gave the responses. Fr. Sharkey then materialized, and the boys filed by him. He shook hands with each of us and said goodnight. When it was my turn, he said, ``Goodnight, Billy. You are very welcome at St. John's.'' We walked up the circular staircase to our cubicles and were given 15 minutes before Lights Out. Just before the light was switched off, the dormitory master read the psalm (#129) ``De Profundis,'' to which we gave the responses in Latin. These were thumbtacked behind one of the dresser doors. The first two verses exactly echoed my thoughts. ``Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice: Let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.''
I DON'T remember very much about the period of acclimation. I do remember the quite awful homesickness (I had never before spent a night away from my family). It lasted about ten evenings, during which, smothering my face with the collar of my pyjamas so that I would not be heard by my neighbors, I wept.
I think I remember praying for war, confident that if war came, Father would take us home. Mother had warned us that we would be homesick, that this would go away after a while, and that until then we should offer up our pain to God in return for any private intentions. In a closed conference, back in London, Jane and Trish and I had decided we would offer up our forthcoming torment for the safe and happy birth of Mother's baby in November.
The routine was extremely severe, up against what I had been used to. Rising in the morning always came as a wrenchingly disagreeable surprise. I remember ten years later reading C. S. Lewis's Surprised by Joy, in which he told that throughout his early schooldays in England he remembered primarily how tired he always was. I assume Mr. Lewis had a special problem because once awake I was all right, but getting up was for me then for some reason more difficult than rising, six years later, at 5:30 in the Infantry, or, a few years after that, at 4 A.M. to do watch duty racing my sailboats. Once or twice every month the school Matron, as she was called, would ordain that this boy or that should have a ``late sleep,'' which meant we would sleep an extra 45 minutes, rejoining our classmates at breakfast, after Mass. In those preconciliar days Catholics could not take Communion unless they had fasted since midnight. For that reason alone, breakfast could not have preceded Mass.
The pews were stacked along the sides of the chapel. Twenty boys sat and kneeled in the top right pew, looking down on the heads of twenty boys a foot beneath them. Then across the little aisle, to the faces of twenty boys at the lower level, and another twenty above them. To view the altar one needed to turn one's head. There was no sermon, except a brief one on Sundays. The Mass lasted about 25 minutes.
I have always been impatient, and so it was I suppose surprising that I came so quickly to feel at ease with the daily Mass and then became gradually engrossed in the words and the ritual. We were studying second-year Latin and I was dreadful at it, incapable of understanding why, while they were at it, the Romans hadn't simply settled for Spanish. But I paid increasing attention to the Ordinary of the Mass, which is to say that part of it that doesn't change from Sunday to Sunday. It was easy to follow the right-hand column of the missals carried the English translation. The liturgy took hold of me, and I suppose that this means that liturgy has theatrical properties. Yes, but something more, I reasonably supposed, and suppose so now. Thirty years later I would write a scorching denunciation of the changes authorized by Vatican II and of the heartbreakingly awful English translations that accompanied the jettisoning of the Latin. The Mass, in Latin, had got to me.
I had of course attended Mass every Sunday for as long as I could remember and thought myself something of a pro in the business, inasmuch as I had been trained, in Sharon, to do duty as an altar boy. I very nearly became a godfather I remember the thrill, followed by the humiliation. Our devout black butler, Ben Whittaker (he was a first cousin of Fats Waller), became a special friend of mine at Great Elm. After his wife gave birth to quadruplets, he told me excitedly that he wished me to serve as godfather. It transpired that I could not act as godfather, not having yet been confirmed. The honor fell to my older brother John, though by the time the formal event took place, only one of Ben's poor babies was still alive.
It was then that I was told about emergency baptisms, extemporaneously given to anyone in danger of dying. I once improvised on this privilege. Mother had a friend who visited often at Great Elm, sometimes bringing along her two daughters, one in her late twenties, the second a few years older. On overhearing a conversation between Mother and Mademoiselle, I learned that the two ladies had never been baptized. I thought this shocking and talked the matter over with my sister Trish: we devised our strategy, and knocked at their guest-room door early one morning, after establishing that they had both been brought breakfast, in bed, on trays. I knocked and told them that Trish and I were looking for my dog. They welcomed us in to search the room. I knelt down to see if he was under the first bed and, a drop of water on my forefinger, touched it on Arlie's forehead as if reaching to maintain my balance, silently inducting her into the Christian community, while Trish, emerging from under the other bed in search of the dog, did as much for her older sister.
My mother was solemnly attentive when I whispered to her the happy consummation of our Christian evangelism. She did not betray her amusement: that was a part of her magic as a mother. She would never permit herself anything that might suggest belittlement whatever her child's fancy. And then, too, she was as devoted a child of God as I have ever known, and perhaps she permitted herself to believe that her friend's two grown-up daughters, neither one of them at death's door, had in fact been baptized. When in England I found myself going to Mass every day and offering every Mass for the health of my mother, I felt a closeness to her that helped diminish the pain of separation.
In those days I remember a special reverence for Our Lady, to whom I appealed as a mother herself. I hadn't the capacity (even now I am not comfortable with the abstraction) to imagine infinity. I accepted it as a gospel truth that the Mother of God was ``infinitely'' wonderful, which meant to me that she was many times more wonderful than my own mother, but this hypothesis I had difficulty with: How was it possible to be many times more wonderful than my mother? I never asked any of the priests for help with that one. After all, I reasoned, they did not know Mother, so they might find the question surprising, impudent even. I knew that would not be the case if they had known Mother. But Our Lady became in my mind an indispensable character of the heavenly cloister. A long time after that I learned that a thing called Mariolatry had been especially contemned by noisy iconoclasts like Charles Kingsley. My first instincts were not combative, but sad: that someone so much like my mother should be disdained was incomprehensible.
NO doubt my religious ardor was stimulated by the circumstances we lived in. St. John's was run by Jesuit priests. They were, as members of the Society of Jesus tend to be, thoroughly educated. It required 13 years to become a member of the Jesuit Order, and the training was exacting, the regimen spare. Fr. Manning was our form master. At the end of each hour, at every other school I would ever encounter, a fresh master moves in to teach the class his specialty. Fr. Manning did not teach us French, for which purpose a layman was brought in whose British accent, when he was speaking in French, I would ostentatiously mock, my own being so superior, as anyone's would be who learned French at age six in Paris. But excepting French, Fr. Manning taught every subject in ``Figures IIA'' the equivalent, roughly, of first-year junior high. Geography, History, Maths [sic], Latin, Doctrine. Each of the six school years at St. John's (grades three to eight) had a single form master. Two of these were pre-ordination Jesuits, climbing up the long ladder to priesthood serving now, so to speak, as field instructors at a boys' boarding school. They were addressed as ``Mr.'' But they met with the priests at faculty conferences, which were conducted in Latin, and I often wondered when did they sleep, since they were always up and around before we rose, and never appeared ready to retire when our lights went out.
I remember once being handed a corrected paper by Fr. Manning in his study. I leaned over to retrieve it and accidentally overturned his can of pipe tobacco. I heard the slightest whinny of alarm and then the majestic Fr. Manning was on his hands and knees, picking up each tobacco grain, one after another, replacing them in his can. ``That is my month's allowance, Billy. I cannot afford to let any go unsmoked!'' I thought this extraordinary. That this . . . seer should have less than all the tobacco he wanted.
On those rare afternoons when we did not do school sports, we would be taken for long walks in that historic countryside. We were within a few hundred yards of Runnymede, where King John had signed the Magna Carta. Striding alongside Fr. Paine, a tall, angular priest, about 35 years old, I'd guess he was the administrative coordinator at the school and also its disciplinarian I asked about Fr. Manning's tobacco, and he told me that Jesuits took a vow of poverty and that therefore they were given a monthly allowance which had to suffice for all their needs. I asked whether it would be permitted for a friend to give tobacco to a Jesuit priest and he said no, this was permitted only in the case of food, when it was in short supply. (After the war, for several years, meat was very scarce, and Father sent meat every month to the Fathers.) Ten years later, at the wedding of my sister Trish, the Jesuit priest who officiated, a lifetime friend of the groom, told my father not to make the mistake of offering him a stipend in return for his services ``because under Jesuit rules, we cannot turn down a donation, which in any event goes to the Order, not to the priest to whom it is offered.'' Fr. Paine told me that Jesuit priests needed frequently to check themselves, to guard against the sin of pride, because Jesuits were in fact very proud of the Jesuit Order and very happy in it. One inevitably wonders whether that pride is quite whole after the strains of the 1960s.
Fr. Paine would regularly check individual cubicles at night to say goodnight to each of the boys. When November came I confided to him that my mother was soon to bear a child, her tenth, and that I was anxiously awaiting a telegram confirming that the baby had come and that my mother was well. He leaned over and embraced me warmly and did so again extemporaneously after the baby came, and once finally seven months later when my father wrote to say that because of the lowering clouds of war, my sisters and I would be withdrawn from our schools after the winter term. Fr. Paine's warmth did not affect what I judged the extreme severity of the punishment I was twice sentenced to, for whatever social infraction. The first time it was a single ferule stroke, smacked down on my open hand; the second, two strokes, one on each hand, the cumulative experience with corporal punishment in my lifetime, if you leave out an unsuccessful fistfight with the strongest and biggest boy at St. John's, a rite of passage for any potential new-boy challenger (his name was Burns I forget his first name, though first names were universally used among the boys). Many years later when as a magazine editor I contracted for the services of European correspondent Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, I learned from him that while I was a student at St. John's he was teaching the senior boys down the hill at Beaumont College, and that on learning, soon after arriving from Austria, that the ferule was the regular instrument of discipline, he had gone to the priest-executioner and demanded to receive six ferule strokes, the conventional ration for grave infractions, exactly as they were inflicted on student miscreants. He made his demand even after being reassured that, at his age, with adult, callused hands, he would hardly feel any smart. But he persisted, and after receiving the blows reported clinically that far from negligible, six ferule strokes, even for a husky Austrian in his twenties, was a singularly painful experience. I heard that for extreme acts of misbehavior the birch rod was used on the buttocks, but I never knew any boy who received this punishment at St. John's. Fr. Paine and I exchanged a half-dozen letters in the ensuing thirty years, and we spoke once in London over the telephone in the Seventies he was retired and had difficulty in breathing. He told me among other things that the young rowdies in London who were disturbing the peace should be given a good beating.
WHEN Lent came we were given a retreat by the brother of Fr. Sharkey, also a Jesuit. He was short, like his older brother, irradiating a singular charm on this 13-year-old (I had had a birthday soon after my sister Carol was born, and Father had redeemed his promise to make me the godfather). I thought back to this retreat twenty years later when I went to Washington with my brother-in-law for a retreat conducted by the president-emeritus of Fordham University, Fr. Robert Gannon, whose short, electrifying sermons I begged him to put on tape, eliciting an assurance that one day he would certainly do this (RIP, he never did). They were cognate skills, Fr. Sharkey's and Fr. Gannon's: dramatic, but never melodramatic; persuasive; poignant; inspiriting. I recall only a single parable, if that is the right word for it, from that retreat at St. John's, six months before the world war. I put it in an essay I wrote on my boat during a transatlantic sail. Esquire had asked me to write about where, that I had never been, I would most wish to visit. I wrote, on that sunny, breezy day in the mid-Atlantic, that I would most like to visit Heaven because it was there I would be made most happy. I gave Fr. Sharkey's exegesis: He had been approached some weeks earlier, he told us, by a devout elderly woman who asked him whether dogs would be admitted into Heaven. No, he had replied, there was no scriptural authority for animals getting into Heaven. ``In that case,'' the lady had said to him, ``I can never be happy in Heaven. I can only be happy if Brownie is also there.''
``I told her'' Fr. Sharkey spoke with mesmerizing authority ``that if that were the case that she could not be happy without Brownie why then Brownie would in fact go to Heaven. Because what is absolutely certain is that, in Heaven, you will be happy.'' That answer, I am sure, sophisticated readers of Esquire dismissed, however indulgently, as jesuitical. Yes. But I have never found the fault in the syllogism.
My sisters in nearby Ascot were in regular contact by mail. Trish, with whom I had been paired since infancy, wrote me twice every week, always always closing, ``I hope you are well and that I will see you soon.'' We did in fact see each other every week. Father had rented an apartment (50 Portland Place, I still recall) where Mademoiselle would stay, looked after by James Cole, a New Orleans - born black cook-butler, a man of enormous spirits, a devout Catholic. Mademoiselle, driven by a chauffeur his name was McCormack would come to see us every Saturday afternoon, beginning after the two-week embargo against visiting new boys and girls. My sisters would be picked up at Ascot and driven to pick me up at St. John's, where I could be found sitting, waiting, at the end of the long driveway. We would all go off to Windsor, which, of course, is where Windsor Castle and Eton College are located. I remember, breathless with pride and pleasure, recounting to my sisters the tale I had heard about when in 1855, five years after the founding of Beaumont, the headmaster had issued a challenge to the headmaster of Eton to a football match, and got back a note, ``What is Beaumont?'' to which the fabled answer had been, ``Beaumont is what Eton used to be, a school for Catholic gentlemen.'' We would eat and talk and laugh and then sadly go back to our schools in time for supper. We were allowed, if I remember, two hours away.
THE principal extracurricular enthusiasm in my childhood was horses. Accordingly, as we neared the great day in March at Aintree, I wrote to my father in London he and Mother had come to London in January, bringing the baby and her immediately older sister and brother and their nurse. Maureen and Reid were now the same age Trish and I had been when we had gone to day school in London in 1932, when we attended the same schools they now attended. I asked my father if I might be taken to the Grand National. We spent winters in Camden, South Carolina, which is the steeplechase center of the region, and I would hear nothing, during the first two weeks in March, from horse owners and their grooms but talk about who would win the Grand National, in which one or more Camden thoroughbreds would be competing. Father wrote back that I would need the permission of Fr. Sharkey. I sought it. He said, No, such exceptions to school rules could not be made. I wrote back to my father with the sad news. He then wrote a letter to Fr. Sharkey, a copy of which he sent me. Dire signs were visible on the horizon, my father wrote, and if I did not get to see the Grand National now, I might never have the opportunity again. Would Fr. Sharkey, under the circumstances, bend the rule to permit an American boy this experience?
I was summoned to his study. He had changed his mind, he said. I might go to the steeplechase.
Three days later Father's chauffeur drove up. Fr. Sharkey led me to the car and stopped me just as I was about to enter it. He reached into his pocket and withdrew a florin, a two-shilling piece. He leaned over and whispered to me, ``Billy, put this on a horse called Workman, to win.''
I was driven to 50 Portland Place, where my father and his close friend, his lawyer George Montgomery, got into the car, and together we went to the station at Euston and into a private compartment.
I spent the three hours poring over the tabloid coverage of the 36 horses who would compete, carefully apportioning the ten shillings my father had given me among the horses I thought likeliest to prevail. I was startled, on reaching Aintree, by the appearance of the famous track: it seemed as though all of Liverpool squatted on the infield. It was impossible to see the horses after the first turn. They would reappear, after a minute or two, on the left turn. I was in a frenzy of excitement. Finally, they were off.
Of the 36 horses that competed in the race, 6 finished. On none of them had I bet. The winner was Workman. He paid 18 to 1.
And I had neglected to place Fr. Sharkey's bet.
I didn't dare tell my father about this . . . egregious, unspeakable delinquency. It passed through my mind to ``borrow'' the 36 shillings from him, but I was too ashamed. I was preternaturally silent on the train ride back and altogether silent in the car with McCormack, on the hour's drive to St. John's. It was nearly midnight when we reached the door. Fr. Sharkey opened it, exultant over the news he had got on the radio about the horse that won the Grand National.
``Father,'' I said, looking down at the stone steps, ``I forgot. I didn't place your bet.''
His dismay was acute. Then, suddenly, he smiled. ``Those things happen. Now get to bed.'' I fell quickly asleep, but not before praying that God would forgive me, that God should find a devious means of transmitting 36 shillings to Fr. Sharkey, that God should suspend the vow of poverty for long enough to permit Fr. Sharkey full and indulgent use of those 36 shillings. But I awoke in panic, fearing the obloquy of my schoolmates, already jealous about the privilege I had been given.
The scandal was stillborn, aborted by Fr. Sharkey. All that I heard the next day was from Fr. Manning, who wished to know what it had been like at Aintree, and had I been told that Fr. Sharkey had picked the winner? Yes, I said just that, ``Yes.'' We had a secret, Fr. Sharkey and I, and I wondered whether, by his confessional vows, he was bound to silence about my sin.
WHEN my boy, Christopher, was 10 I took him to see St. John's. I had no intention of sending him there, but I was curious about what we now call his chemical reaction. My father was wonderful with children (up until they were adolescents, at which point he took to addressing them primarily by mail; until we were safe again at 18). He loved especially about them that they were incapable of deception. ``You can always tell,'' he said to me one day in his wheelchair, after a stroke, his grandson on his lap, ``whether they really like something or if they don't.'' Perhaps my son, who was much taken by what he saw, was reflecting my own irradiations. I had been, notwithstanding my distance from home, very happy there, and I knew absolutely about this there simply was no doubt that I had a deep and permanent involvement in Catholic Christianity. They say about alcoholics that they are never ``cured.'' I am a senior citizen and my faith has never left me, and I must suppose that Fr. Sharkey and Fr. Paine and Fr. Manning had something to do with it; they, and the closeness I felt, every morning, to the mystical things that were taking place at the altar.