BY: JAMES F O’NEIL
“Many are called, but few are chosen.”
. . .
Let me tell you: My cousin Leonard was a Marine in the Pacific in WWII. (He never told me war stories when I was young, but he showed me his samurai sword and a Japanese flag.) My cousins Ed, Bill, and Dick were all Marines. (They all had pretty neat tattoos.) My cousin Jim O’Neil was Army. (When I first went into scouting, I inherited his sleeping bag.)
My brother-in-law Dave was an Army tanker. (He patrolled in Europe during the Cold War.) My other brother-in-law served in the USAAF long before I met his sister, my wife-to-be. (He was based in Newfoundland.)
My one son became an Army career officer with 30-years’ service, a bird colonel. (He’s got medals and ribbons.) His son, my grandson, follows in the Army. (He moves and transports people and tanks.) My other son learned the ways of the military in Navy ROTC in high school. (It helped him win an Air Force scholarship.)
Me? Here I am, how I turned out. That’s the story here.
“Many are called but few are chosen”: I heard this mantra weekly–sometimes more than once a day–when I entered the high school seminary in Chicago in 1955. I was fourteen years old, a 9th grader. (At present there exist fewer than 10–maybe 5–high school seminaries in the United States. Check Wikipedia.)
I was marked, though, during 7th and 8th grades as one of the chosen ones to attend the “minor” seminary: high school, grades 9-12. I was “special” to the nuns and priests.
But during this time, I still had the right toys and guns, leftovers from my Previous Age. I lived, however, during The Cold War, The Red Menace, The Yellow Peril: the war in Indochina and the Korean War. Additionally, I still had a close intimate cinematic relationship with William Holden in the film The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), and with John Wayne and Kirk Douglas and old war movies and war comics.
When I was a child, I played soldier. In high school, I planned priest-to-be. Not quite enough time for war stories and movies, though I did manage to squeeze them in whenever I could, especially during the summer months. Now I was, however, “putting on the armor of Christ.” I was a different kid. Oh, I rode the city bus and had a school bus pass; I studied physics and trig, English and rhetoric, but Latin and Greek, too. And “the spiritual life.” Up at “oh five thirty,” church attendance, off to school-classes at 0830, and the day schedule, in the uniform of the day: suitcoat and tie (never mind that they didn’t match).
Thus, I carried on, for four years, until college–where all changed: “You’re in the Army now!” Well, not really.
Great Silence (Magnum Silentium) until post breakfast, 0730
0800 classes until 1530
2230 Lights Out
[with all other duties and activities]
And so it went.
Instead of “Eat-Pray-Love” it was “Pray-Study-Pray” for the most part. During this (college) time, I had little exposure to war-related items except for studying history or translating the Aeneid from Latin or the Iliad from the Greek. Singing of arms and men or singing of the wrath of Achilles: it was war.
In 1962 I was able to see the film about the D-Day invasion, The Longest Day. (I had read the book in my “free time.”) Somehow, I was able to make my way through the great–and large book–The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960) by William Shirer. . . .
“In the world, but not of the world.”
In November 1962, I had completed full three years of “service.” At that time, I decided to leave my position of prayer and studies, turn in my “uniform” by which I was recognized: Roman collar, cassock, and my three-cornered biretta hat, with pom-pom. No need for those items as I became part “of the world.”
I left the ecclesiastical service with no regrets. I was disappointed, at times, with myself that I did not remain longer: for more studies, for strengthening of friendships, and for a bit more maturity and discipline that I was obtaining.
DISCIPLINE: training that produces obedience or self-control, often in the form of rules. The word “discipline” is from the Latin word disciplina meaning “instruction and training.” Discipline is to study, learn, train, and apply a system of standards. It’s training, especially moral or character. And, of course, rules (with “punishments”) and followers (“disciples”). If I can use ONE word to sum up my experience in my years of training during the years of service, in preparation to go into the world to do work, that word would have to be DISCIPLINE.
Wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord–these are the gifts taught to us for us to learn as we became good soldiers. (The last one was really inculcated during room inspection by the Dean of Men, the “Lord.”) But by our daily lives, we were highly disciplined, made to learn organizational skills, use of time, even good manners.
I must add, though, we had no firearms, no weapons training. We did march, sometimes, in line (not on a parade ground), stood and sat to the sound of a bell in the refectory (dining hall), had times of the Great Silence (sometimes for days at a time).
We made our beds (racks?), a habit I continue, kept our rooms clean, our lockers in order, and our desks neat and tidy (I am not good at that today). A luxury we did have, though, was laundry service: we dropped off and picked up weekly. This laundry business I had to learn on my own at home after my separation. Later, my new wife, thankfully, knew all the intricacies of “whites, lights, and darks” –which I soon mastered, and later taught to our boys when they were able to learn this discipline.
And that, basically, is the end of my story. That’s all that I’m going to say about it, some sixty years later. Writing this, I have a tiny inkling of what a WWII Mustang fighter pilot must feel when answering questions about his war exploits or war record during the time of his years of service, no matter how long or short. “What was it like?” “Were you ever scared?” “Are you glad you joined the Army Air Force?” “Any regrets about leaving the service?”
These are some actual questions that I have asked fighter pilots whom I have met in the not-so-distant past. On the other hand, I have many of my own “war stories,” as it were, memoriesofatime, that I can share about my time together with classmates in hallowed halls, classmates who still reminisce about “duty stations” (classes and work details), “officers” (deans), the “general” (the rector); “S.O.S.” (creamed chipped beef on toast). But I am not so naïve to make comparisons, to say that academia was completely like military service.
Though, at times, recalling an instance or event that I lived through, I’ll comment, “That’s no different from the Army way.” And so it goes.
Was I ever in the Army? Nah. But note that I did have a draft card when I turned 18. . . . “Many are called, but few are chosen.” Some of my “comrades in arms” were called and chosen . . . some have already “slipped the surly bonds of earth.”
© JAMES F O’NEIL 2020