“That for Which I Give Thanks”
Let’s go beyond the turkey and dressing, the eggnog and pumpkin pie, family and friends, and football games. It’s time for reflection on those people, those chance events and Providence for which one can be truly thankful.
I believe in Providence. I believe there is a Spiritual Force which somehow causes dire events to work out for the best in the long run. This is not to say I believe in predetermination or predestination where events are already set in stone, but rather that, upon reflection, our reaction to events at the time were negative but over time, more often than not, led to a good outcome. So, with deep humility, permit me to share just a few events in my life for which I am thankful looking back with the evidence of an unpredictable positive outcome.
My father died when I was twelve years old leaving my mother and two sisters without a breadwinner, a guardian and family leader. It was devastating at the time. Nevertheless, I am thankful that it drew our entire family together just to survive. My mother did not even graduate from high school. She did whatever she could to put food on the table and to keep up the house payments. She made our clothes, she took in babysitting, she took in ironing and she borrowed money from family when the widow’s pension ran out each month. I began working for money by carrying things for an old man who ran a garden center. I didn’t say salary, I worked for tips. I cut grass, raked leaves, cleaned out gutters and shoveled snow in winter for money. In retrospect, the sympathetic neighbors were very generous. The generosity extended to Mr.Nabb who owned the local grocery store who would put four pork chops in the package and charge me for two. And we survived with lessons learned about hard work, the generosity of others and how a tragedy could lead to good fortune in the long run.
I was told by my mother, my uncles and aunts, and the dedicated Sisters of Loretto who staffed the schools I attended that getting a good education would be the path out of poverty and lead to a better life. It was more than just the “telling”, it was constantly pounded into my head? I took their advice to heart and applied myself to school work. l wore “coke bottle”glasses as I was very nearsighted. (You wouldn’t know it now as I had ocular implants restoring perfect vision except for the need of reading glasses.) I would always sit near the front of the classroom (where all the girls sat) so I could see the blackboard. So, unlike the “back row” of boys, I excelled in school work and curried favor with the nuns and lay teachers. So much so that when it came time to select a high school, I chose DeAndrius at first. The good Sisters had a different plan for me. They called my mother and me to their Parlor at the Convent for a meeting. My mother wanted to know what I had done wrong and why the nuns wanted to see her in their inner sanctum. Our fears were relieved when the discussion surrounded my choice for high school. They wanted me to attend William Cullen McBride High School taught by the Brothers of Mary (the Marianist Order). It was a private, A-track school known for their academic programs which were designed to prepare students for college. Of course, my mother informed the Sisters that she could not afford the tuition and fees. The Sisters informed her that they had a small scholarship program and would pay my tuition and fees provided I could maintain a 3.2 point GPA. So, I changed my high school selection and was accepted by the Brothers. I kept on with the habit of seeking a front row seat so I could see the blackboard.
I graduated third in my senior class of 120 boys with a 3.96 GPA and competed for and won a full tuition scholarship to St. Louis University. I graduated with twelve Advanced Placement Credits in History, Literature and Latin so I skipped most of the required freshman courses and was able to take electives in philosophy and fine arts appreciation. St. Louis University and the Jesuits required two years of Latin (Cicero, Levy, and Aquinas) as a discipline of studying the original source for ideas. Luckily, I had four years of Latin and two years of Greek at McBride taught by Professor Irwin Arkin who shared the unique distinction of translating the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Pius XII Library (not the originals, but the microfilm copies).
And for the rest of the story. A friend of my father, a Marine Corp veteran, whose wife was a member of the American Legion Auxiliary, entered my life. I was encouraged to enter an essay contest where the prize was $300 per semester for college expense including books and other fees (like cafeteria lunches, carfare, supplies and so on). Well, I won the contest and delivered my acceptance speech to an audience of 300 women at their annual scholarship awards banquet at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel. I mumbled and fumbled though my speech but still got a big ovation and a lot of encouragement from the ladies.
Commencement exercises from Universilas Santi Ludivici (Saint Louis University) was May 30th, Memorial Day in 1967. If you will recall, that was the era of the Viet Nam War and the military draft was in effect. Five days after graduation, I was reclassified from S-2 to A-1 (that is, student deferral to immediately draft-able). I was drafted and ordered to report to the AFEES Station for testing and a physical. Shortly thereafter, I was ordered by President Johnson to report for induction into the Army. To my surprise, I was sent to Fort Bliss, Texas for basic training. (Most everyone else was sent to Fort Leonard Wood. Winters in Missouri were much more cruel than sunny El Paso, Texas.) After basic I was reassigned to Fort Bliss in the security clearance and background check function of the personnel assignment department. It was a desk job. After a year I was ordered to Viet Nam. I wound up in the 38l st Replacement Company, processing officers in and out of the country. I did get to see the Bob Hope Show live that Thanksgiving Season. I even got to salute and shake hands with the Commanding General while serving guard duty in a sandbagged bunker on the perimeter on Christmas Eve. He was accompanied by a support contingent of nurses passing out eggnog and cookies. What a thrill! My duty was from 6PM to 6AM, seven days a week. I lived on midnight chow at the 90th Battalion Headquarters and “care packages” from home. I left the Army with a 32 inch waist and I weighed much less than I do now.
And so now you know why I am so thankful for the events of my early life that have led me to this point. And the story goes on. I believe that I can discern the workings of Providence in these events which confirms my Faith and appreciation for the people and decisions which affected my life in a positive way for which I am thankful. Rotary is now part of my life story for which I am grateful.