I am sitting in a small classroom in one of those World War II Quonset huts that line the hill along the rim of Manhattan College in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. It is the spring of 1962—the semester I will graduate—and this is Brother Luke Salm’s religion class. We are blue-booking one of his quizzes, and he is off to one side, reading what looks like endless reams of galleys while the students in the class chew their pencil erasers or scratch their heads before plunging back into the abstruse questions on church doctrine glaring up at them from the page.
For a moment my attention is focused on Brother Luke’s absorption in those galleys of small print, and I am thinking: Yes, this is what I want to do someday. Forget myself and the humdrum world around me and, like some student of the Torah, study the world of words and someday—God willing—my own galleys. Ah, to become lost like him in the cosmic dance of literature, art, music, philosophy and religion, to watch as words form the mica chips of the infinite Word.
Then it is back again to the quiz in front of me whose questions long ago evaporated into the ether of history. In the late afternoon, I will walk through the tree-lined quad, past the chapel and the brick arcade, and head for my friend John Monahan’s ’57 hearse-gray Ford to make the trip back over the Throgs Neck Bridge and Northern Boulevard to Mineola, grab a bite to eat, then head down to the Garden City A&P, where I will stack shelves from 6 to 11, then head home to get my homework done before grabbing five hours of sleep. And then it will be up again and back to Manhattan College.
“What a blessing those Christian Brothers in their black soutanes and my other teachers were as they taught so many young men like myself.”
What a blessing those Christian Brothers in their black soutanes and my other teachers were as they taught so many young men like myself. Mostly we hailed from Irish-American working-class or lower-income middle-class families. There were Italian-Americans, too, and Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans. We studied engineering, pre-med or pre-law, or took classes in the Great Books, beginning with the Egyptians and Greeks and Romans through the Middle Ages, then on to the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment and through the Romantics and Victorians and the Modernists. How often the brothers were there for me, though I feared some of them a bit, especially after I joined a frat that made “Animal House” look tame. Most of them were gentle or funny and gave me sound advice by their example. There was Brother Anthony, for one, who volunteered to teach a group of us basic Greek to supplement our Latin. Once he heard me swearing as I ascended the steps of the library and suggested I refrain from what he called that “sub-Chaucerian” lingo.