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GROWING UP

BY: JAMES F. O’NEIL

HRH Elizabeth Queen of England will “turn” 95 years old on 21 April, this year–coming up soon.

April 21, 2021

Mr. James Francis O’Neil, BA, MA, will “turn” 80 years old–still fifteen years younger than the Queen.

BABY JIMMY

. . .

“A man is sane morally at 30, rich mentally at 40, wise spiritually at 50–or never.”–Sir William Osler (1849–1919) [Quoted in Forbes Magazine, June 1961]

. . .

Is any one birthday more important than another?  Is any one particular birthday more significant than another? 

Certain days of our lives, calendar days, occurring but annually, come to be celebrated (or not celebrated, or tried-to-be-forgotten): our BIRTH-DAY, anniversary of our birth.  For some, it is important not to forget, not to be forgotten, as in Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, Emily Webb’s twelfth birthday.  Was that birthday important or significant?  (Is there a significant difference?)

In a lifetime, certain calendar birth anniversary days (beginning with #1, the 1st, the First) are regarded more highly and celebrated–by others and by the “celebrant.”

21–I could not wait until I turned twenty-one, to have my first legal alcoholic–spirits drink.  Oh, I had drinks years before that special “21st,” but not legally in Illinois.  So, there I was, in the club car of the Illinois Central RR, April 1962, returning to classes after the Spring-Easter Break.

My Uncle Bill had taught me the best about cigars (“That’s what I do: I smoke cigars.  And I know things.”)  and was teaching me about single malts and sour mash.  He made good Manhattans.  “I’ll have a Manhattan,” I told the railroad waiter, nonchalantly.  (I was not about to venture “a Rob Roy, please.”)  “I need some proof of age,” he retorted.

Oh, I had that birthday gift, how important that April date was on my driver’s license (gotten on another important birthday in April, #16)) 1962 minus 1941 equals: BINGO: 21!)  What power!  What meaning!  What significance!   A date to be remembered–for life!

65–I skipped over a few years to here.  I don’t need to retell about “The Big 4-0” or “Half Century” (really?).  I did have a wonderful 60th Surprise Party that genuinely surprised me.  Family and friends, great foods, and a well-decorated cake, in the shape and design of an airport runway.  (I am an avid aircraft-lover.)  That birthday had special significance for me.  It was special.  (Hallmark says 60 is diamonds; I received none.)

So, the years 1–ONE–FIRST to 65 brought me surprise birth anniversaries, parties, gifts, and memoriesofatime, but not, of course, gifts in the Hallmark “official” list for anniversaries.  (Those are mostly for weddings, especially 5/wood; 10/tin/; 15/crystal/; 19/jade; and 25/silver/, 50/gold/, and 75/diamond.)

Then came the BIGGIE, the real BIGGIE: 65 . . . and important significant MEDICARE.  What can I say now?  Incredible!  I cannot believe I have partaken of that great social program . . . for fifteen (15) years!

Where has the time gone?  Who knows where the time has gone?

* * *

Her: “Thank you, Mr. O’Neil, Professor O’Neil, for your time–which is so important to you–and your willingness to talk about your 80th Birthday.  How do you feel as you approach that 80th April Day?”

Me: “Growing old isn’t easy.  But I do not regret growing older.  ‘It’s a privilege denied to many.’”

Her: “Have you learned anything special in the recent past, say five or ten years, which prepared you for this time?” 

Me: “Lifting.  I used to lift, unload box cars when I was twenty-two.  It is harder now to lift a 20-pound bag of mulch.  I am aware of not being able to go fast, but I have clocks in every room, I am so aware of time.  More time needed to plan for activities.  And, yes, being forgetful: Being in a room and wondering, ‘Why did I come into here?  Oh, yes.’”

Her: “What would you say is your greatest achievement in your eighty years?”

Me: “Sobriety: To accept the things I cannot change; to have the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.  Powerful stuff here.”

Her: “Aside from all your friends and family, is there someone special you would like to invite to your birthday party?”

Me: “The author and essayist Joseph Epstein whom I have admired for a long time, for his essays of wit, thought, wisdom, and history.”  (“If I am allowed another special guest, I would like Henry David Thoreau, too.  And if there is one more extra chair, I would like to hear the barbaric yawp of Walt Whitman.”)

Her: “At present, what is your greatest desire?”

Me: “My 81st birthday, at home, with my family, virus free.”

Her: “You were in education for nearly fifty years.  You taught writing and literature, and were a school administrator for seven years, too.  Do you have any special words of wisdom that you can share that have had an influence upon your career?”

Me: “‘To err is human; to forgive, divine’ is one of my favorites.  ‘The Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose’ is one I learned early on, from Shakespeare.  And it still has meaning for me.  ‘They also serve who only stand and wait’ from Milton.  Profound.  ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’ One more?  ‘Know thyself.’ Something I learned long ago in Greek class.”

Her: “I know you have done much reading in all those years, surely from Aristotle and Plato, to Proust, and Kurt Vonnegut.  But you must have some ‘favorite’ or special author or book that you return to for guidance or inspiration.”

Me: “I don’t have a special author whom I can often quote from, like lines or words from Shakespeare, or the poetry of Milton, or Emily Dickinson.  But if I were on that imaginary deserted island with only one book to read over and over, I would have to choose my black leather-bound Book of Common PrayerAll I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten would be a great choice–or Paradise Lost.  But I’ll keep the prayer book. 

Her: “Of the 80 years, what would you say was the ‘Best Year of Your Life’?”

Me: “My 80th, for sure, considering all my high school classmates who have passed on.  But that is a difficult question to answer.  Year of Courtship, marriage, having children, career, graduate school, travel to Europe; moving years: Chicago, to Minnesota to Florida.  There cannot be a ‘Best Year of My Life.’”

Her: “Well, then, is there a ‘worst’?”

Me: “This is not so difficult to answer, for it always comes up the same: 10th grade!  No matter whenever I think about it.  My surgeries: appendix and tonsils.  Nearly flunking geometry: A=B, B=C, ergo A=C. Theorems and proofs.  Pythagoras and c2 = a2 + b2.  How tough that was!  In addition to learning Latin in 9th grade, I began the study of Greek in 10th grade! α β γ δ ε ζ η κ π φ ω and more–I forget the exact order.”

Her: “Professor, you have allowed me a unique opportunity to hear about you and some of your history.  Thank you again.  Would you like to add anything else now?”

Me: “Thank you, and you’re welcome.  Yes, a few more words, if I might read from Walt Whitman Sands at Seventy, “After the Supper and Talk”: ‘“. . . after the day is done . . . Good-bye . . . O so loth to depart!  Garrulous to the very last.’”

Walt Whitman, circa 1887

© JAMES F O’NEIL  2021

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 Tom enlisted into the Navy, serving on the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown during the Vietnam War.  (He inherited Agent Orange illness.)

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.)

QUIGLEY SEMINARY in CHICAGO

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). 

Acne Pic of Me in High School Photo

Thus, I carried on, for four years, until college–where all changed: “You’re in the Army now!”  Well, not really.

DAILY SCHEDULE

0530 Rise

Great Silence (Magnum Silentium) until post breakfast, 0730

0800 classes until 1530

Dinner

Magnum Silentium

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.”

Pic of Me in My Service Uniform Cassock

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    

 

 

 

 

BY:  JAMES F. O’NEIL

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few are to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” –Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

* * *

Carlos Ruiz Zafon [born 25 September 1964, in Barcelona, Spain] is a Spanish novelist who began his working life by making money in advertising.  In the 1990s Ruiz Zafón moved to Los Angeles where he worked briefly in screen writing.  He had written some young adult fiction and young adult novels.  Yet in 2001 he published his first adult novel La sombra del viento (The Shadow of the Wind), a Gothic mystery that involves Daniel Sempere’s quest to track down the man responsible for destroying every book written by author Julian Carax.  The novel has sold millions of copies worldwide and more than a million copies in the UK alone.  Since its publication, La sombra del viento has garnered critical acclaim around the world and has won many international awards.

By 2017 he had completed four novels in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, the last being The Labyrinth of Spirits (original title: El laberinto de los espíritus), initially released on 17 November 2016 in Spain and Latin America.  HarperCollins published the English translation by Lucia Graves, releasing on September 18, 2018.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s works have been published in 45 countries and have been translated into more than 40 different languages.  [More in Wikipedia and found on Google Search]

* * * 

“Once, in my father’s bookshop, I heard a regular customer say that few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his [or her] heart.  Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later–no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn or forget–we will return.  For me those enchanted pages will always be the ones I found among the passageways of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.”  Daniel in The Shadow of the Wind

***

The first book that found its way into my heart is/was _____.

“Of all that I have read, . . . The Robe, The Human Comedy [8th grade]; A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man [high school]; Othello [college] . . ..”

“And the Winner, #1, is . . . no doubt: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce 

*** Please, refresh your memory, fill in the blank, have some great memoriesofatime.

 

 

 

BY: JAMES F. O’NEIL

Rosebud…”

* * *

I remember Buttercup Yellow (my favorite paint color for walls); Joe Fontana (my boss as Visitation parish); cool concrete steps (inside the elementary school)—and silverfish.

I remember gummy white bread (probably Wonder bread), white cheese, sliced tomatoes, and mayonnaise sandwiches—and cold “pop”—for lunches.

I remember mirror-like varnished classroom floors (which I was taught how to varnish, and before the Our Lady of the Angels fire), painted woodwork (done while I was seated and as I scooched along those varnished floors), and paint-splattered white coveralls (which fit, gotten from one of my sister’s boyfriends who drove a beautiful ’57 Mercury convertible).

I remember learning how to paint; I had to learn the fineries and delicacies of “cutting in” and “loading on” with brush (1/2-inch or 3/4-inch, with 1/4-inch for window frames.  I was a master of that: window frames), or the handling of a roller and roller pan, even while on a 12-foot ladder.  Colored paint on walls; white paint on ceilings: not the reverse.  (I admit, I was not–ever–good with ceilings; so, I demurred, and let my partners handle those jobs.)

I remember “Uncle” Joe Fontana, my boss.  Weathered, bent over, shuffling along (it seemed), cigarette always lighted in his mouth, teaching us, raising his voice hardly ever unless we deserved it for silliness or goofiness, or horseplay–or for some egregious errors (in painting walls?).  What did we high school kids do to make him angry?  Not working hard enough.  Not completing enough work within a certain amount of time–sticking to a work schedule.

I remember well, more than the paint and the rollers but the scrubbing machine.   I remember becoming proficient with that Monster, difficult to tame at first, with its three different pads: one steel wool for removing old varnish and a school-year’s dirt; one heavy duty bristle brush for washing the floors clean; one soft pad for polishing waxed floors.  Yes, I became keenly adept in the use of all three attachments.

Joe Fontana was a gentle soul.  Why did he choose me to master the scrubber?

He took the mop from the bucket of soapy water, spreading a soap solution over an area of the floor.  Then he called me over, placing (gently) his hands over mine, like a kindly father.  Left hand, right hand.

Then he gripped my hands and fingers over the handle and triggers of the machine.  Off we went: left, right, straight, left, around, him laughing, me frightening.  He stopped us.  “Not easy,” he commented in his Italian-accented voice, cigarette butt still held between his lips.

FLOOR SCRUBBER

“Are you-a ready?”  He told me to scrub.  To do it.  While he watched, and smiled, and smoked.  And I learned well.  I was Mr. Scrubber, for all classroom floors, school halls–and Waxer, too.  I was good.  And less painting.

Yes, I remember those high-school summers in Chicago, working at the parish school, getting up early, making and eating those sandwiches; painting and scrubbing and waxing–all those little details, little things: memoriesofatime…

Part of this past summer’s vacation I did time painting, was on a ladder, was even remembering, not “Rosebud” but “Buttercup Yellow” –one of my favorite colors for those long-ago classroom walls.  I felt Joe Fontana’s “spirit” around me from time to time, my memory of him while I climbed a ladder or kept my brush steady, helping me not forget all he graciously taught me so many years ago.

I hear sometimes, “You’re such a good painter.”  “Thank you (Joe).”

© James F. O’Neil 2019

BUTTERCUP YELLOW
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