“He wants to what?”
“There’s no explaining it Mama” replied my mother to her mother, Bessie Weinstein. “He wants to go to St. Thomas Military Academy.”
“Our grandson… a catholic school? It’s a shanda (shame in Yiddish),” replied Bessie! “Only a few months after his bar mitzvah, and he wants to go to a Catholic school? What will we tell Rabbi Gordon?”
Rabbi Al Gordon was married to my mother’s cousin and he, of course, had officiated at my bar mitzvah several months before this “shanda.”
“Mama” said my mother. “What can I say? Geoffrey says, “the Bar Mitzvah made him a ‘man’, so he can “make his own decisions.”
“Oh a ‘man yet’… and who feeds him? And who clothes him? And who is going to pay to send him to that “goyisha” (non-Jewish) school?”
“Mama, maybe it’s the uniform,” my mother replied, “We’re at war… I don’t know…”
“Uniform,” her mother interrupted, “He’s a boy scout. That should be enough. Did I make a magillah (big fuss) when I heard he joined the boy scouts at that ‘Piscopal’ church? What does Gilbert say? What does his mother say?”
“I don’t know Mama. Most of Geoffrey’s class is going to Lincoln Junior High. He could walk to that school. St. Thomas is in St. Paul. He will have to take a street car. It’s a long ride. I don’t think Gilbert’s mother knows. Anyway, after raising six sons of her own and three of her sister’s boys, she’s learned to live with these things.”
The truth of the matter is that, as Rose Nathanson’s first grandson, I could do no wrong. Her response to my mother was “What’s so terrible? He’s not joining the Marines.”
So off I went to Military School. Isadore Weinstein, my mother’s father, never said a word.
At the time St. Thomas Military Academy was located across the Mississippi River in St. Paul on the St. Thomas College campus. The Academy educated boys from the seventh through the twelfth grade. The student body of the college at that time was composed primarily of young sailors enrolled in the Navy’s V-12 program.
So comes fall my mother drove me to St Thomas to purchase my uniform and then to a tailor for a fitting and pictures. Some people said I was dressed like a Marine. Others said I look more like a Chinese General.
As it turned out I wasn’t the only 14 year old boy from my grade school class to go to St Thomas that year. There were six of us; four of the others were Catholic. The other boy’s application read “unaffiliated.”
John White, my fellow “paper boy” (See Blog #1) was part of our group. As it turned out, one of John’s older brothers was a senior at St. Thomas and drove our little carpool when the weather was decent. Most of the time however, we had to take the street car back which took us only part of the way home, which was OK about eight months of the year when the walk around the lake from the street car was beautiful. However, it was a real challenge during those famous Minnesota winters.
I will never forget my first day at St. Thomas Military Academy.
The high school building was very old and dark looking. After freshman orientation in the gym, we headed to our designated home rooms. None of my buddies were in that home room. I didn’t know anyone. Suddenly a man, obviously a priest, walked in and someone shouted “Class Attention” at which everybody jumped up, turned to the front of the classroom, and together started loudly mumbling something I didn’t understand.
I didn’t want to appear stupid so I just mumbled along incoherently. When they finished, the priest added quietly, “Amen… Be seated boys. Welcome to your home room. Do we have any new cadets with us today? Three hands rose, including my own. “Well for you new boys, I’m Father O’Brien. I teach Latin. Your other courses this semester will include English, Algebra, Religion, and Ancient History. There will be a special indoctrination meeting at 3:00pm in the Armory where you will be officially welcomed by the head of our school and assigned to your respective companies. When Cadet Rayley calls your name come up and get your class schedules for this, your first semester.”
“For you new cadets,” he added, “classes start on the hour. You are expected to be at your seats at five minutes to the hour. We operate on a merit and demerit system at St. Thomas. There are rewards for merits and penalties for demerits, so be on time boys, and play by our school rules. For those new cadets who have some questions I will be available here in this classroom from 4:00 to 5:00 this afternoon.”
As if on cue someone in the class, probably the same guy, yelled “Class Attention!” Everybody stood up and began the mumbling again. Once more I mumbled along, of course not really saying anything.
After a day or two, I found out that every class opened with the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ and ended with the ‘Hail Mary.’ In time I learned them both, though I could never mumble as fast as the rest of my classmates. My only problem was with the “Hail Mary.” As a nice Jewish boy, I was not taught to believe that Jesus was God, or even the son of God. Jesus had regular parents like the rest of us, so I continued to mumble that part too, and nobody complained.
The 3:00 PM assembly was held in the Armory which also doubled as the high school gym. I was assigned to a company and a platoon. Because I was new to the school, however, I was initially remanded to a beginner’s group to learn how to drill and march, both of which came easy to me, having been in the Boy Scouts.
I was quickly promoted and returned to my platoon where I was issued a very heavy old World War I rifle with which I was to learn the Manual of Arms. The M of A was not too difficult to pick up, however I can’t say the same for those old British Enfields; they weighed a ton. There was one cardinal rule; Do not drop your rifle. A cadet who dropped his rifle got a demerit. If he got a demerit he was required to “march it off” around a circle in the Parade Ground for one hour with that big Enfield on his shoulder.
With five different classes I had five different teachers. Three of the courses were taught by priests. Latin, as mentioned, with Father O’Brien, Religion with Father Murray, and Algebra with Father Morgan. Charles something, a younger man who had been classified 4F, meaning he had some medical problem and couldn’t be drafted into the Army, taught English. My Ancient History teacher was an older gentleman named Feinberg. How about that? A Jewish teacher in a Catholic High School. After all, we were at war.
They didn’t give letter grades at St. Thomas. Your grade was based on your class standing in each course. For the most part I scored pretty high, except in Algebra. Father Morgan was a terrible teacher, and I just couldn’t keep up or catch up. I was in the top ten in English and Ancient History and I did ok in Latin. But in Religion I killed ‘em, especially that first semester when we were studying the Old Testament. As a nice Jewish boy who had just recently been confirmed at Sunday School, I knew the Old Testament like the back of my hand. I was number one in my class both semesters.
With the exception of Algebra, which I flunked, I had no problem with the academic side of my St. Thomas experience.
Much to my surprise, I really got into the military thing. One hour a day was devoted to drilling and marching with a little military history thrown in. Every Friday we had a parade complete with marching band on the school’s parade ground. “Colonel Bogey” and Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” were my favorites. For some reason the Enfield rifle didn’t seem so heavy during those parades.
I was proud of my uniform. It was war time. I felt sorta patriotic, like I was doing my best for my country, training to become a soldier.
Young men and women in military dress were all over town in those days. Businesses as well as private citizens went out-of-their-way for our servicemen and women.
GI’s in uniform always received special treatment, including free admission to the movies. My friend John White’s older brother bragged that his St. Thomas uniform was a free pass to any theatre in town.
John and I tried it one day at the Orpheum. The girl in the ticket booth looked down at me, this chubby little 5 foot 3 inch soldier-to-be, and his freckle faced buddy and broke into laughter. She called over the ticket taker and an usher to share in our embarrassment as did several other adults in line. We couldn’t get away from that movie fast enough.
Unfortunately those Minnesota winters were once more my undoing. The months went by, and through no fault of my own, I was becoming a serious disciplinary problem for St. Thomas Military Academy. I have to blame that miserable Minnesota winter and John White’s big brother’s old Chevy. Just getting it started on those below zero mornings was a sometime-thing. Also, the long drive down Lake Street was loaded with hazards, including heavy snow drifts and icy streets. Many times I had to take the streetcar.
My chances of making it to my Algebra class on time during those winter months were, at best, 50/50 which, of course, triggered demerits.
In the winter demerits were worked off by doing calisthenics in the “Field House,” something this fat little cadet hated. In the spring a demerit called for an hour’s march on the Parade Ground in a circle, carrying that heavy Enfield where everyone could see you. It was not only hard work, but also very embarrassing. The penalty for failing to march off a demerit was double demerits. Soon my demerits began piling up. I was an OK student, but obviously had a discipline problem.
I was called before General Blaze (retired), the head of the school, who looked a lot like Clark Gable in “Command Decision”.
“Cadet Nathanson,” said the General, “it appears that you have set a St. Thomas school record for demerits. It would take years for you to march them off.”
“Yes sir,” I mumbled in response.
“With the exception of one course your grades are rather good. You can retake algebra in summer school. The demerit problem is something else however, especially if you wish to return to St. Thomas next year. In serious discipline cases such as yours, we offer our delinquent cadets the opportunity to work the demerits off by assisting our groundskeeper and maintenance crew each day after summer school when your classroom work is concluded. Our summer school runs five days a week for six weeks. You can expect to work two hours each day after class.
“Oh yes,” he added, “you will be pleased to know that our summer school students are permitted to wear civilian clothes.”
“Will that be all, sir?” I asked, remembering that Oak Ridge Country Club would pay me sixty cents an hour to mow their grass.
“Yes, that will be all Nathanson. You are dismissed.”
“Dismissed” was the appropriate word because I never returned to St. Thomas Military Academy. I made up my Algebra course that summer at nearby West High School and spent my afternoons on our local beaches learning how to make conversation and maybe a little more with those pretty little Minnesota co-eds.
Relative to today’s sexual harassment issues involving Catholic priests and young students; I have no recollection of any rumor to that effect during my year at St. Thomas. Teenage boys gossip just like everyone else. We all knew that Father Digidio was making out with the beautiful librarian. But as I remember it, ‘priests molesting little boys’… never made the whisper mill during my year at a Catholic Military School.