An Alma Mater of Ghosts
February 15, 2013
From Thursday February the 14th in the evening to Monday, February the 18th I was in Austin, Texas at my high school Alma Mater (Latin for nourishing mother), St. Edward’s High School, which ceased to exist around 1967 to accommodate the ever increasing in size St. Edward’s University. But this university is still small enough to be one of the best 20 small institutions in the United States according to U.S. World Report Magazine.
Still big is the old 19th century neo-Gothic building that we all call the Old Main. It was here that between 1957 and the beginning of 1961 I lived, slept, ate, played and studied. Old Main never seems smaller. Perhaps as I stoop in old age it seems to grow bigger and taller.
As soon as I had put my suitcase in my room (216) in St. Joseph Hall that houses mostly the retired (but some active) Brothers and two Fathers of Holy Cross, I walked out into the evening up to Old Main. I am not quite sure on his or her sex. Is he or she a nourishing mother? I feel contentment, nostalgia and peace when I walk around it. It is surrounded by great Garry oaks, Quercus garryana, and its red roof is visible as red even at night as there are lights that emphasize the imposing structure.
On my last day before my friend and former classmate John Arnold arrived to take me to the airport I had to make one last pedestrian “circumnavigation” of Old Main, a sort of drink of water for the road.
Between that first glimpse on Thursday evening and the last on Monday noon I spent many hours talking to Brothers and Priests of Holy Cross. I attended daily Mass, and had breakfast and other meals. In some cases our sobremesa (a beautiful Spanish word for table conversation) lingered for two hours.
Walking one time with Father Michael Sarker, CSC (the Bangladeshi I have nicknamed the Happy Priest) as we approached Old Main I stopped. I told him that any minute I would be walking through my ghost of 1958 or 59, 60 00r 61. Father Michael is a fan of the Holy Ghost so he took me seriously, as he should.
My friend Mexican poet and novelist Homero Aridjis likes to frequent the old zócalo or main square of Mexico City. He walks a street between the Catedral Metropolitana and some very old buildings that lead to ruins of the old Aztec Templo Mayor. He says he can feel the presence of Aztec priests, Spanish soldiers, and members of the army of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. The latter hordes of the Mexican Revolution lingered outside while Villa and Zapata tried the presidential chair up in the main government palace and decided not to take advantage of the circumstances to keep it. They went off with their army.
Like Aridjis I believe in the presence of old spirits, myself, my former classmates, Brothers and priests.
The feeling is much like the beginning of that fine 1949 WW-II war film Twelve O’clock High with Gregory Peck. Dean Jagger, as Major Harvey Stovall returns after the war to the small town where during the war he was part of an American squadron of B-17s that participated in the first of the brutal daylight bombing raids over Germany. In a bicycle he arrives at what seems to be a field in the country until he stands on a concrete landing field almost covered by weeds. Jagger soon hears sounds, and the vegetation seems to not to be windblown as much as reacting to the roars of the B-17s landing, all shot up.
This same feeling fills me as I walk Old Main. The Happy Priest became very serious. He will have to wait a couple of years, return to Bangladesh to then come back to feel what I feel.
The sensing of ghosts is even more intense as I walk up the stairs (by the back way you enter in the ground floor basement) so that you climb up three floors. Most don’t take the stairs as an elevator has been installed. On the second floor the elevator shaft passes where my 11th grade room (four of us slept and studied in it) was. Going up the stairs is lonely and quiet, unlike in my youth when we ran up and down, between classes, shouting while avoiding Brother Francis Solano Barrett, CSC who would grab us by the neck to stop us.
In the silence of walking up I can hear all those voices. The silence seems to make my hearing that much more acute. I can hear the bell telling us we must drag ourselves out of our bunk beds or the bell that signaled lights out.
There is a smell as I walk up (I puff a bit, the stairs are long and steep) that I think it is an amalgamation of old books and students with a whiff of unwashed bodies after a game of touch football.
On another day, at the Golden Guard Luncheon (for those who graduated from the high school or the university in 1963) a chorus sings:
Forever SEU — St. Edward’s University Words and music by Brother Edwin Reggio, CSC
Atop the hill our Alma Mater
Symbol to all
Of truth and wisdom, faith and honor,
Proudly, she stands tall.
St. Edward’s blue and gold
Gaze and behold…
Our Alma Mater, hail to thee
I cry. This is the first occasion in memory that the author of the song is not present. He is room-bound at St. Joseph, waiting for papers that will take him to special facilities in South Bend, Indiana where he will receive 24 hour care. Months back while walking by Old Main, at certain precise hours of the day, you would have spotted Brother Edwin making his rounds.
The next time I visit Old Main I will have to settle for the presence of his ghost. And I will hear him say, “Gosh.”