One of my early blogging goals was to become the "Tom Sawyer" of blogging by getting other people to create material for me. Sadly one of the occasional edicts from forbes.com put an end to that plan on my primary blog, but I have carried it on here and on Your Tax Matters Partner.. And I have had some luck on my Xavier High School series.
So I am very pleased to feature this Xavier post by Tom Burns. The first time I ever wrote at length about Xavier it was a story about Tom. That was many years ago in the preblogging days so all I could do was share it with a few people I knew, included Tom, who conceded it was mostly true. An abbreviated version of it appeared as part of this series under the original title - The Final Revenge of Corporal Burns.
I have kept up with Tom more than any other classmate, so I am really pleased that he is sharing this.
A Xavier Vignette
Thomas A. Burns, Jr.
Thomas A. Burns, Jr.
“You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the
name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That
book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.
There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.” – Huckleberry Finn
I don’t remember exactly how it was decided that I would attend summer school at Xavier before I actually attended as a freshman. It wasn’t remedial work - my grades in grammar school were pretty good. I think someone sold Aunt Helen on the idea that I could get a head start if I took the summer courses, so, of course, I had to. I signed up for both Math and English. There was no military in summer school; we wore dress pants and white shirts with no tie.
My English teacher that summer was a rotund, fairly jovial fellow who was not a Jesuit. He was pretty laid back, but occasionally took some pains to remind us where we were. Witness the following interchange between us during the first week of the summer course. He had asked me a question, the substance of which I don’t remember, to which I answered:
Teacher: “Yes, what?”
Me: “Yes.” (No, I’m not stupid, just stubborn. I’m still that way.)
Teacher: “Burns, the proper form of address from student to teacher at this institution is yes, sir!”
Boink on the back of the head with his college ring to reinforce the lesson. Oh brother! It was going to be a long four years.
However, the summer courses at Xavier were not representative of the normal atmosphere. Neither of my teachers was a Jesuit, and we saw little of them that summer. There were no upperclassmen present, and no military obligations. When school started for real, it wasn’t long before I wished I was at Seton Hall Prep.
The first assembly. I’m not sure now, but I think the frosh came in a day or two before the upperclassmen for orientation. We wore the summer gray uniform, the one that had a slit in the top of the shirt pocket just perfect to place a pen in except that it wasn’t allowed. One or two screw-ups wore the dress blues, the winter uniform. Talk about starting off on the wrong foot! We are assembled in the new gym with Father Rector, Father Headmaster, Father Prefect and the Vice -prefect presiding. We get a version of the “look-at-the-man-next-to-you-he-won’t-be-here-in-four-years” speech, as well as some general pointers on behavior expected of freshmen. I don’t really remember that assembly as being too intimidating. We even have a question and answer, open discussion with the various Fathers. It looked like this place wasn’t going to be so bad after all. Ha!
Xavier didn’t have a fourth class system like West Point or the Citadel no cadre, no hell week, no manual full of stupid questions and even dumber answers to be memorized verbatim. The Jebs probably figured that was too much to subject thirteen-year olds to, although I’m sure the army would have loved it. However, we still learned quite rapidly that we were freshmen slime who couldn’t behave in civilized company. The venue used to drive that lesson home was the second assembly.
We are all assembled in the new gym again. This time, the upperclassmen are present. I don’t remember what was discussed at the assembly. What I do remember is Father Prefect suddenly rearing up like a rattlesnake preparing to strike and pointing to an anonymous group of freshmen, accusing them of creating a nuisance. For punishment, the entire freshman class had to remain at attention for about two hours, after school had ended, with Father Prefect and his lackey the Vice-prefect stalking back and forth in front of us, just daring anyone to move. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we had just received our first session of Jug (Justice Under God) en masse.
It wasn’t long before the less-than privileged status of freshman at Xavier was again made apparent, in case we missed the point the first time. After all, repetition is an essential part of any successful teaching method.
We had to stand for a formal inspection once a week. This occurred first thing in the morning, in homeroom. Getting ready for that first inspection was much like trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Our shoes had to be spit shined (and nobody ever told you exactly how that was accomplished, except that it involved an arcane process involving shoe polish, water, cotton balls and a woman’s nylon stocking. Sounds like something that could get you twenty years. Our brass had to be polished to gleaming radiance and affixed precisely on the shirt collar with the use of a tape measure, and your hair could not touch either the collar or the ears and had to be less than two inches long on the top of the head.
The favorite place for many Xavier cadets to get a haircut was the Jolo Barber Shop. It was located in the subterranean bowels of the Port Authority Bus Terminal near Times Square. The place had about a dozen chairs and was staffed with white-coated Spanish-speaking immigrants, all who seemed to be about 5’3” and 200 lbs and were mostly from Brazil, I think. None of these jokers likely had any formal tonsorial training, but they could get you in and out of the chair in about thirty-five seconds, a great virtue when you’re running late for work or school. Most of them spoke no English, so you couldn’t tell them how you wanted your hair cut, but that didn’t matter because they knew the Xavier uniform and wielded the clippers accordingly. Some of them weren’t such bad barbers, but every once in a while you’d draw a guy who had just gotten off of the boat. In that case you could come out looking like you’d lost a fight with a lawn mower.
Another piece of equipment used to prepare for inspection was a curious thing called a caddy cloth, which was orange on one side and maroon on the other. I had no idea of what in hell to do with the goddam thing – polish my brass, shine my shoes or stuff it in my shorts. An additional problem, unique to freshmen, was the lacquer on the brass.
The brass consisted of an ornate insignia for the visored cap, two crossed rifles with a “X” surmounting the junction (to be placed on the shirt collars) and a buckle for the black web belt that held up the trousers. When newly purchased, these were covered with a transparent substance called lacquer that conferred a subdued golden shine and had been applied to keep the brass forever sparkling and untarnished. So naturally, we were told to strip the goddamn stuff off so we could shine the brass. (You get used to thinking this way after you’ve been around the military for a while.) Supposedly, the best method for lacquer removal was boiling the brass in vinegar. One of my most vivid memories will always be of Ma and me in the basement on the Wednesday night before that first inspection, weeping and choking on vinegar fumes, working Brasso into our bloodstreams via the fingernails.
So Thursday morning arrives. I arrive at school with some trepidation, but basically, I am OK. I have a fresh Jolo haircut (not too bad!), my shoes have a muted gleam and I spent a good bit of time with a ruler and protractor placing my shiny, delacquered brass. Name tag is in place. As I head for my homeroom, I pass an upperclassman who is carrying a clipboard. Obviously, he is one of the inspecting officers. My eyes travel down his body, to his shoes.
HOLY SHIT! I can see my teeth reflected in this guy’s shoes from ten feet away! I am in trouble!
I slink to my desk in homeroom and await the worst.
The class beadle hollers, “Class a ten-hutt!”
In stride two officers, one with hands empty, the other carrying a clipboard. Yes, he’s the same one I saw a little while ago, the guy with the shoes. They begin the inspection with the beadle, who has the first seat in the first row. I am three or four students back. I can’t tell how those in front of me have fared, because the officers speak in low tones, like Mafia hitman. The guy in front of me goes white. Oh shit, he looks better than I do! Now the officer is in front of me. He smells of Old Spice and tobacco. His hat is pulled down so I can barely see his eyes under the brim as they travel the length of my body. He grunts:
I obediently take off my hat with my right hand and place it under my left arm, displaying my Jolo coiffure to the world at large.
Plunk! The hat goes back on the head.
He glances at my shoes for a millisecond, then growls:
“Fail. Get the lacquer off your brass, mister!”
WTF? I am totally incredulous! If he failed me for shoes I could see it, but he failed me for the one thing I have done right! Later I find out that only a couple of guys out of thirty or so passed (both have brothers who are upperclassmen). One will go on to win Cadet of the Month.
When it’s all over, the officers tell us we have one more chance, at re-inspection tomorrow morning. If we fail that one, we get a session of SATURDAY jug!
It’s about 5:30 that night when I get home from school. Ma and Aunt Helen are in the basement, from which the aroma of dinner arises. I go up to my room to get out of my uniform, then slink downstairs to face the music.
Aunt Helen is sitting there with her omnipresent scotch and soda. “Well, how was the inspection?” she asks.
I briefly consider a lie. “I failed,” I tell her.
“You failed! You failed your first inspection! Don’t you realize what a bad first impression can do to you…”
Aunt Helen’s diatribe continues for several minutes. It covers my future for the next ten years or so, and ends with me living on welfare in the projects in Newark, all because I failed my first inspection at Xavier. Finished, she stomps upstairs with a fresh scotch and soda to wait for dinner, unable to tolerate my odious presence further.
Ma has been silent throughout. She knows better than to interrupt Aunt Helen when she’s on a roll. But now she moves away from the stove and comes over to the table where I’m sitting. I’m dreading this one more than telling Helen, because I know what’s coming.
“Why did they fail you?” Ma asks. “I thought you looked pretty good when you went out of here this morning.”
I should have lied, but I didn’t. Aunt Helen I could snow in a minute, but not Ma. “They said I had lacquer on my brass,” I told her.
I saw her eyes go cold. Oh, shit! Trouble!
“There was no lacquer on that brass,” she said.
“I know it.”
“Well, did you tell them so?”
“Ma, it wouldn’t of made any difference. They failed everybody for something. You couldn’t pass!”
“I sat here last night for two hours helping you polish that brass. Maybe I’d just better call them up and tell them so!”
This is what I’ve been dreading. She has no idea of the shitstorm she’ll bring down on my head if she does this. All she knows is that, by God, there was no lacquer on that brass!
“Ma, please, don’t do that!”, I say as she reaches for the phone.
“And why not?” she asks.
“Because it won’t make any difference! And it’ll just get me in more trouble!”
“I thought I raised you to stand up for yourself when you were right.”
“They don’t want me to stand up for myself! They want to knock me down! And if you call them up, they’ll just make it worse for me!”
“So you’ll just go along? When you know you’re right and they’re wrong?” The contempt in her voice is obvious.
“I have to, goddamn it! I told you, you should of sent me to Seton Hall!”
That is a low blow. I see her face tighten. “Maybe I should of,” she says finally, “but you picked Xavier. Not your Aunt Helen and not me. You. I was just trying to teach you, you have to stick with decisions you make.”
Gotcha! “Then let me stick with this one. I’ll deal with it. Don’t call them up.”
She doesn’t like it, not one bit, but she says, “Okay. You deal with it.” She goes back to the stove to check on the meat, shaking her head. Thank Christ!
So that night, I make with the vinegar, the Brasso and the caddy cloth, which I finally found out was for polishing the brass after the laquer had been removed. When I am done, the brass looks the same as before I started. Ma is upstairs watching TV; she will have no part in it. I resign myself to spend the first Saturday of the school year marching around on the roof with a rifle.
The next day, at reinspection, it seems like the entire freshman class is there. I fall in on the roof with the rest of the failures and wait resignedly for the boom to be lowered. Up comes the same officer who failed me yesterday. The beady eyes, under the hat, scan my body like those of an automaton
“Your shoes look like shit, mister, but I’ll let you by, this time!”
Much later I would learn to answer that with, “Must be the reflection, sir!”
“At least you got the lacquer off your brass. You should have done that yesterday.”
As I leave the roof, I reflect on what has occurred. There was no visible difference between my appearance on Thursday and on Friday. Thursday, I flunk; Friday, I pass. But I’ve figured out their game the scene with Ma helped me do that. I’m a freshman, lower than slime, and they want me to think I can’t do anything right. They want me to work my ass off for their approval, then deny it to me, so that when I finally get it, I will be so grateful I’ll do anything they want for more. Right there, I resolve not to play anymore. No, I won’t show up for inspection looking like shit, but neither will I slave for hours to be perfect.
The 90% failure rate for freshmen lasted a while longer, maybe a month or so. It taught me some valuable lessons. Don’t try to buck an arbitrary system. You can’t. Don’t rely on the approval of that system as a measure of your self worth. It isn’t. Some of my peers spent the next several weeks getting shinier and shiner. A few made Cadet of the Month and were promoted to the lofty heights of PFC for the last month of freshman year, but most faded into obscurity. I never failed another inspection until senior year (and that’s another story!) and that was good enough for me.
It is worth noting that our classmate Scott O'Connell, who had a career as an Army officer thought the obsession with brass and shoes was excessive. In his contribution "How Real Is Junior ROTC?", he wrote:
The "Mickey Mouse" stuff such as short haircuts and the obnoxious focus on brass and shoes is more extreme than the ROTC or the army, other than real Army Basic Training (or any given day in the USMC). But it was good training and helped build character - I hated it though. I hated worrying about my spit shine and brass more than whether I had prepared myself enough for Latin class. But it is a military academy tradition such as West Point, VMI, and the Citadel put their cadets though. Although I'd say Xavier then was harsher than they are now.
Tom Burns is a scientist, writer and editor and the Managing Member of Tekrighter Scientific and Medical Writing Services LLC in Wendell NC.
Peter J Reilly CPA mainly writes about taxes.
This video will indicate that some of the old bs still goes on.