a child's garden of toadstools

by Charles Bowen
February 13, 1959, Scholastic #13

I have been requested (entreated might come closer) not to present anything of a highly intellectual nature so soon after the midyear debacle. This comes as something of a disappointment, since I had prepared a complete critique of the cosmos for this week, but perhaps it belongs on some subsequent Back Page anyway. There are plenty of small but important items that come sailing onto my desk every week, only to settle fatly into the slime along with the ashtrays, banjo picks, and volumes of Henry James. I have pulled a few out and scraped them off, and with my apologies for the lack of organization, here they are:

The public is invited to the South Bend Airport next Thursday to witness the departure of Brother Sententious for the foreign missions. The occasion promises to be more than ordinarily interesting, because Brother Sententious has absolutely no intention of going. He claims he is being railroaded because he kept playing Billy Graham records over the loudspeaker in the Bookstore.

* * *

At the height of last month's snowstorm, a half-frozen man was found wandering around the shores of Lake Marian. He claimed, to the astonishment of one and all, to be Capt. Sir Robert Huddleston-Fewkes, K.C.B., of the Royal Navy. According to Sir Robert, he was in command of the British atomic submarine, H.M.S. Unspeakable, and couldn't remember a thing since setting out from Baffin Land in the general direction of the polar ice cap. He is now in the Infirmary, under treatment with monkey vaccine, and would like it awfully if some student who is fond of Darwin would come in and read to him afternoons.

* * *

Hilarity was the order of the day as senior engineers gathered for tea last Friday. Duane Runcible gave a report on "How to Convert Your Slide Rule Into a Doorstop," and members of the faculty, with many a lighthearted jest, distributed copies of "You and Your National Guard."

* * *

I have been asked by the Senate Commission for Levelheadedness and Right Thinking to publish an official denial of a rumor that has been spreading perniciously during the last few weeks. No matter what anybody says, when the holy water in the vestibule of Sacred Heart Church freezes solid, knocking on it three times is not a guarantee of seven years' good luck.

* * *

(The following is excerpted from the record review section of Hawg & Hominy, The Hillbillys' Home 'Companion. I wonder if it looks familiar to you, too, or is it just my imagination?)

"AH SHOULDA KNEW HIT WAS OVER WHEN YEW FLANG ME DOWN THE WELL," by Otey Gaptooth and the Skonk Skinners - At last I have found a steel guitarist who is both a musician and a technician. (Otey is employed part-time at the Pellagra Point Garage.) This smacks of a Utopia, a Paradise, a phagocytic exudite! I wondered when they were going to wise up. I said as much to Hank Williams when I met him in Chattanooga the other day. He had lost a little weight, and was slightly green in the face, but aside from his knee breeches he was Hank Williams all right. I defy time, space, heaven, and earth to contradict me! Otey's ElectroTone drizzles obligato magnificently. I don't expect anyone else to have attained this profound insight, so I am quite prepared for your puny disagreement. Hah! I sneer! En Garde! Swoosh! Snick-snick! Too quick for you, eh? Perhaps you didn't realize you were dealing with the greatest swordsman in all France! Poor fools! As far as I am concerned, you are autonomously, or unanimously, or something ending in -mously, a bunch of - of - Oh, where is that Roget? - a bunch of deciduous bituminates."

(There follow several paragraphs of highly significant punctuation marks.)

* * *

Those who missed the Library's exciting display on the history of dandruff last fall will be delighted to know that it is being repeated as part of a series which will include The Chilblain Story, The Saga of the Hangnail, and the Acneid.

* * *

Miss Desiree Fulp, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Nimrod Fulp of West Warburton, Ohio, was seriously injured last Friday night after leaving the Mardi Gras when she sat down without remembering to remove the champagne glasses she had smuggled out of the dance in her hoopskirt. The members of the refreshment committee, who had to pay 50¢ each for the glasses, expressed disappointment that they could not have witnessed the incident.

* * *

Quote of the week: (An anonymous professor in the College of Commerce) "I never flunk graduating seniors - if I flunk 'em, they don't graduate."

* * *

Speaking of seniors, our informant in the Placement office asks me to assure my classmates that reports about the scarcity of jobs are greatly exaggerated. Openings for scientists and engineers exist all over the country, from Fraser, Col., to New Carlisle, Ind., and Caribou, Me. Nor are AB students neglected, in spite of reports. The Acme Door-to-Door Sales Co. (Slogan: Our frontier is the American threshold, also Salary is a Fool's Paradise) is interviewing philosophy majors right now. There are even some jobs that haven't been applied for. Puce County, Ark., has been in the market for a migratory bird commissioner for a month now with no takers.

* * *

It was announced today that the complete works of Simeon Prawl have been placed on the Index. This came as a surprise to Ignatius Sweeney, president of the Simeon Prawl Club, and he has suspended meetings until somebody figures something out. There is talk of replacing the old group with a new one dedicated to the study and discussion of A. J. Cronin.

* * *

Joanie O'Bryan has given me a quarter to say something about her in this column. Since she is the first to make this gesture, it occurred to me that I ought to say something nice. I have been thinking about it all day and have asked everyone I know. If anybody has anything nice to say about Joanie O'Bryan, will they contact this column immediately?


Commentary

The "midyear debacle" mentioned at the beginning is of course the exams and break at the end of the first semester. As regards the items on my desk, I don't know why I mentioned ashtrays, unless this was during one of my premature attempts to start smoking a pipe. I didn't take up cigarettes until a year later, in graduate school. (Fortunately this addiction lasted only three or four years.) I did play a banjo, but I didn't use picks. Henry James did belong on the desk, however, because I was writing my senior thesis on him.

The item about Brother Sententious was entirely unrelated to anything real. The same goes for the next item, about the sub commander, except that his sub had apparently reached Lake Marian, which was the name of an artificial pond on the St. Mary's campus. (It was rectangular in shape, which is why I related it in an earlier column to an unsuccessful experiment with the wheel.).

There was a minor panic among seniors that winter about the employment situation, which had been extremely favorable (mainly for engineers) but was suddenly turning sour. It was the onset of the recession that attended Ike's last year in office and helped get Kennedy elected. That's the reference for the next item, about the engineers' tea (a risible thought in itself), and for another item later on. It's funny now to think of how inseparable the notion of a slide rule was from the notion of an engineering student in those days.

There was never any rumor that knocking on frozen holy water gave you seven years' good luck, but we had found the holy water frozen on several occasions that winter. Catholic churches used to (and presumably still do) have shallow trays of holy water near the front entrance into which worshippers would dip their fingers before crossing themselves when they entered. Sounds like superstitious hocus-pocus, I dare say, but it was just a pious (and relatively unimportant) custom that was supposed to remind us of our baptism.

One pretty much needs to be a reader of the Scholastic to comprehend the "record review." I was satirizing the writing of a student who had recently begun reviewing musical performances in the Scholastic under the pseudonym "G. P. Scarpia." (I know that Scarpia is a character in Verdi's opera "Tosca," but I'm no opera buff and do not know his initials, if any.) The critic was equally lavish in praise and dispraise, and his opinions may have been good ones -- he certainly appeared to know more about classical music than I did, which would not have been difficult -- but in expressing them he took on the mantle of the fearless iconoclast, and used language (sometimes abused it) with a flamboyance that I found absurd. I wasn't interested in disputing his judgments, which may or may not have been correct, but were certainly better informed than mine would have been. However, I did find his fondness for self-dramatization and his frequent misuse of words provocative, and I made several unflattering references to him in my columns. There's an obvious satirical purpose in making this a review of a country music recording (a form of music that real and would-be urbanites of the time loved to despise), but I'm embarrassed now by the cheap and unfunny jokes about hillbillies. (I've learned more about Appalachia and its music than I knew at that time).

To make this item a little more comprehensible, I have excerpted a few passages from columns of his that had appeared before my column was published. "Scarpia, Before God!" (Tosca, Act III) was the heading of one column. Unfortunately, however, I don't have the most extravagant one, which must have been in the issue I'm missing. That was where he actually did call the music of Liszt "a phagocytic exudite." (Based on the context, this was a Bad Thing.) I quoted that memorable phrase in my parody, but "deciduous bituminate" is my own contribution. One of his first reviews began as follows:

Time and space must be banned from the world, for they do not permit me to extol fully something which should be extolled. Bach and Kodaly secreted from O'Laughlin Auditorium Monday evening, and secreted gloriously. The cause of the whole affair was a bald, bespectacled man who will never earn the title of genius because it has been his musically since birth. Daniel Pedtke sang a glorious Magnificat, stocked with surging choruses, exquisite orchestra, a cast of hundreds, and a harpsichord. (Baldwin or Steinway?)

Weak moments it had. The soloists, particularly Thomas the tenor, swallowed notes all too eagerly. But the strong moments, among them a fugue (Sicult Locutus Est) which dazzled the audience with its loquacious clarity, were absolute pinnacles of college art. Kodaly never sounded better. He screamed, wept, laughed, and played the big bad wolf wonderfully, while simultaneously weaving a massive thanksgiving hymn to God [etc., etc.]

In another column, he is apparently describing his encounters with the music of various composers in the performances he attends, and commenting on the reluctance of his friends to accept his judgments on them:
Each time I meet Brahms I silently shudder. This is also true of my meetings with Chopin. And Bach. And Purcell. Perhaps it is because of the circumstances that follow each meeting.

Take Brahms for instance. Just the other day I met him. He was clearly visible, and looked exceptionally well. I remarked to my friends that I thought Brahms never looked better. Immediately my friends took deep offense. They were sure that he had taken a definite turn for the worse. I was sure that he hadn't.

And Chopin. He was quite badly off the last time I saw him. Had a terrible shortness of breath. Again I told my friends. Again they were sure I wasn't sure.

I met Bach over at Saint Mary's last month. He had gained weight, I admit, but if nothing else, he looked remarkably like Bach. Kodaly was with him, and I distinctly remember his saying that he intended to come over to Notre Dame. One of the music faculty was going to give him a tour de force. Do you know that no one would believe me. I almost resorted to using a pseudonym. [...]

The Library item is mere silliness.

The one about Miss Desiree Fulp refers to an actual story I heard at the time about students stealing "champagne" glasses from the Mardi Gras dance and the refreshment committee having to pay for them. There was no instance of poetic justice such as the one I have described, however.

As far as I know, some professor in the College of Commerce did utter the quotation that is attributed to him. I was unfamiliar with the Commerce faculty and don't recall the name, if I ever knew it; this was just something I heard in the dorm. Perhaps Al Myers may remember who said it.

The second "unemployment" item has the same explanation as the first. "AB students" means majors in liberal arts. Their employment prospects haven't changed much in 42 years, as the "opportunities" in the column indicate. (No doubt you've heard recent version, in which the science major asks "why does it work?" and the engineer asks "how does it work?" (ect., etc.) and the liberal arts major asks "would you like fries with that?"

The Simeon Prawl on the Index item doesn't refer to anything in particular. (I think we've already talked about the Index Librorum Prohibitorum or "Index of Prohibited Books." It vanished after Vatican II, but was still alive and well in 1959.) There was no Simeon Prawl. There were probably lots of Ignatius Sweeneys, though I didn't know any personally. A. J. Cronin was quite real. Not having read any of his books, I thought he was an author of pious works, which suited my purpose but seems to have been a bit of an injustice. (Not that I have read any of the books even now, you understand, but I saw a couple dramatized on Masterpiece Theater.)

Final item: this is historical. Joanie O'Bryan was St. Mary's student whom I knew slightly. She was the only person who ever took me up on my offer to print anyone's name in the column for a quarter, reserving the right to choose the context. What she didn't know when she gave me the 25c was that I didn't like her a bit. The reason went back to the previous year, when my then girlfriend had come from Smith for the Junior Prom weekend. I forget who dated Joanie, but we were part of the same large group at various times over the weekend, and my girlfriend (who was somewhat insecure and easily hurt) had overheard Joanie mocking her to the other girls. That romance had ended by now, but my pique at Ms O'Bryan had survived it, and when she gave me the quarter I did not behave as a gentleman and give it back; I accepted it and done her dirty. Nothing to be proud of, but I admit it felt good at the time.