a sentimental column

by Charles Bowen
April 17, 1959, Scholastic # 19

Mr. Bascomb is the University Custodian of Custom and Tradition.

A few golden hours spent in his cozy office and listening to tales of the glory that was and is Notre Dame is enough to restore the pride and dignity of any man; to make him walk tall and proud in the sun; to make his back straight, his eyes bright, his chest deep, his coat glossy, and his nose cold and wet.

Mr. Bascomb is a kindly little old gentleman with white hair, twinkling eyes behind rimless spectacles, and a habit of prefacing everything he says to you with "Well, shonny ..." which serves to heighten his already strong resemblance to Walter Brennan. His office is furnished with comfortable leather furniture, walnut paneling, a little statue of Fr. Sorin, and over the fireplace one of the University's 427 oil portraits of Knute Rockne. The walls are lined with many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, all bound in blue and gold leather. Of course there is an outer office and a secretary with the omnipresent electric typewriter, but she seems part of another world altogether. And actually she is. Mr. Bascomb has in recent years turned over one-half of his duties, those dealing with the production of new traditions, to his secretary, a bright young lady named Miss Ichabod, and has himself concentrated exclusively on the rich past.

You must have seen Miss Ichabod's work. She's very efficient. Suppose Fr. Cumberback is disturbed because he discovers a footprint in the peat moss of his tulip bed as he is setting bulbs one afternoon. One brief phone call is all it takes, and within a day or two at most the following bulletin is contributing to the campus-wide thumbtack shortage:

Notice: It is traditional for Notre Dame Men to express their reverence for living things by staying on the sidewalks and not stomping on the grass or traipsing through flower beds, especially the one immediately north of the front entrance of Pangborn Hall. This tradition will be effective immediately.

But however fascinating this work is, and in spite of its obvious importance to the University, it is in the inner office of our kindly Custodian of Custom and Tradition that the real treasures of spirit are to be garnered.

An afternoon visit, for instance, might include tea with dear, sweet, 104-year-old Fr. Wimple, who came here in 1861 as a minim. and has never left the University grounds since that time. He can spin out endless fascinating stories about men that are just awesome names to us today, and his reminiscences of Fr. Sorin are lumps of pure gold, dropped in a pond of pleasantness and placidity, to ripple there at will as the shadows in the room slowly lengthen and the pile of scones disappears from the teacart. But you see I am allowing myself to become subjective and gushy.

Anyway, I visited Mr. Bascomb just the other day and our talk was even more interesting and inspiring than usual, so I thought I would pass along the story he told me. I can't hope to duplicate his inimitable narrative style, but that's all right, because he made the scene so present to me that I can easily see it as a drama. In that form I am presenting it, and I hope to have it produced as a pageant sometime before I graduate (which may well be a distinct possibility).

(Our scene is our beloved campus, "somewhere north of Vincennes," on a balmy morning in 1879. A motley horde of amateur and professional stonemasons, bricklayers, carpenters, priests, brothers, students, etc., are swarming over a vast and shapeless mass of piled bricks which gives promise of someday becoming the Main Building. Supervising the construction are Fathers Sorin, Corby, and Dillon.)

CORBY: Well, what do you think of it, Father?

SORIN: Bah.

DILLON: Well, we're sorry, but we're doing the best we can.

SORIN: Oh, I know. Eet ees not your fault. We should have known better zan to start out weezout an architect. But oh! Quel miserable!

CORBY: You've been working pretty hard, . you know, Father.

SORIN: I know. Nevair mind zat. (aside) But ze breakfasts zey serve here! Agh! Le morte yellow again zis morning! Ees no wonder I feel lousy. Pfui!

DILLON (to Corby): Say, Father, doesn't the left wing look a little off-balance? I don't think they'll ever meet the right at that rate.

CORBY: I was wondering myself. Isn't Brother Innocentius supposed to be watching from the front to take care of that?

DILLON: Yes, but ever since he broke his glasses he's been having trouble lining things up. We'd .better put in another turret over on the left there to even things up.

(They are interrupted by an excited professor who rushes up to exclaim):
Fathers! Fathers! The back wall just fell off and the class of '81 is buried alive!

SORIN: Everyw'ere I turn - Incompetence!

CORBY: Well, we ought to have enough marble left over for a small memorial. Save as many' bricks as you can. (Exit the professor.)

SORIN: I am geeving up on zis whole crummy beeziness. You said you could do eet. I lat you try. Zis is ze result! Eet looks like a set for Seven Keys to Baldpate!

DILLON: Well, perhaps I did speak a little too enthusiastically. But you mustn't judge until we've finished, Father. True, there have been setbacks....

SORIN: (sarcastically) Oui, zere have been setbacks. Like for instance ze front door getting put on ze second story.

DILLON: (nervously) Well, don't you think the porch looks nice there now?

Sorin: Oh, sure. Ees so good I may keel myself.

Corby: Well, Father, we've come this far pretty successfully, and there isn't time for much of anything else to go wrong.

Dillon: (After frantic gestures to Corby which are missed:) Uhhh . . .

Sorin: (groaning) Oh, no, Father, what ees eet now?

Dillon: Well, er, it isn't really so much, but it's just that, um, well, you see I didn't quite get the orders straight and there's this like, well, see, running right up the middle and we don't know what to put on top of it.

(Sorin is temporarily incapable of speech, reverting to a series of inchoate babblings interspersed with groans, and kicking an occasional rock.)

CORBY: Um, why not just some more chimney pots and things?

DILLON: Nothing to hold them up with.

SORIN: (recovering himself with an effort) I wash my 'ands of zis whole sing right 'ere and now. I don't care w'at you do. I'm going home and sack out. Wake me up for Gunsmoke.

CORBY: A steeple?

DILLON: Got one already. Might try a dome.

SORIN: A dome. A dome! C'est assez ridicule! Ohhhhhh. I just don't care any more - do whatever you want, but don' bozzair me again. (He walks away.)

Dillon: Have you any suggestions for the color, Father?

SORIN: (turning around) Ze color! Bah! Paint eet peenk! Paint eet gold for all I care! Get gold leaf! Ohhhhh! (muttering) A dome! Zat I should see ze day . . . (exit.)

CORBY: Did he say gold leaf?

DILLON: (shrugs) That's what he said. Jehosaphat!

CORBY: I'm not going to be able to stand this much longer. I wish somebody would hurry up and invent football.


Commentary

This is a travesty on Notre Dame history and tradition, focused on the famous Main Building with its much-venerated Golden Dome. The Dome has always served as a symbol of the university, and it was during my senior year that I first saw someone (in one of the Scholastic's innumerable opinion pieces) refer to Notre Dame students as "Domers." This usage struck me at the time, and still does, as grotesque, but it seems to have become common in the subsequent eons.

However, it wasn't because of this that I picked on the Main Building in my column -- it might well have been written before the offending usage caught my eye -- but because the Main Building was fun to pick on. You have seen John's description in "Decline and Fall of the Main Building," so I won't dwell on that. Its architecture was Victorian Grotesque, and there was a large and imposing stairway leading to a large and imposing porch before the large and imposing front door at the second-story level -- WHICH NO ONE WAS EVER ALLOWED TO USE! You entered the building by passing through archways under the sides of the large, imposing porch and thence through a small and distinctly unimposing door onto the ground floor. Although there were five stories, only the first three were used, the upper stories being (or at least so we believed) too rickety for safety. I had heard two stories about the Main Building -- quite possibly one or both of them were from John, whose enthusiasm for the grotesqueries of this esoteric structure knew no bounds. One story, alleged to come from the Geology Department, which had its office on the third floor, was that the spaces under the floors were stuffed with a mixture of gunpowder and oily rags, on some 19th-century theory that this made the building safer. The other story was that the Main Building had been constructed without the services of an architect, using volunteer labor, and that someone had been detailed to watch the progress of the construction from a distance, to make sure that the crews building the two sides of it managed to keep it in some kind of symmetry.

The second story is the one I based my little drama on. It seems very unlikely; I have no idea whether there can be any truth whatsoever in it, but at the time I wrote the column I thought there was at least some. Fr. Sorin, the founder of the university, was French, but I have no idea what his English sounded like. I decided to give him a burlesque French accent for purposes of humor, and it was for the same reason that I chose to fill him with deep disgust at everything being done. Hallowed Notre Dame tradition insisted that virtually everything we inherited from the 19th century came straight from the loving heart of our revered founder, and I cherished -- as only a callow youth of 21 can -- the irony of standing this tradition on its head.

Frs. Dillon and Corby were historical; in fact, Fr. Corby is in the history books. During the Civil War, he served as chaplain to the Irish Brigade, and on the second day of Gettysburg he gave a general absolution to the troops before they went into action in the Wheat Field -- something that had (according to the historians of Gettysburg, at least) not been done since the Middle Ages. It was what is called a conditional absolution, meaning that a soldier's sins were forgiven if he should die in battle that day, but that if he survived he was obliged to confess them in the usual way before they would be absolved. I don't know what Fr. Dillon did; probably just stayed around the campus and administered. (Of course, my portraits of them were not intended to be any more historical than Fr. Sorin's.)

Detail notes: Walter Brennan (youngsters) was a well-known character actor who always played old men, even when he was young. His career lasted from the silent film era through three television series up to 1969, and he won the Oscar for best supporting actor three times. He was usually in Westerns, though he was born in Massachusetts and this was not difficult to detect in his speech.

Miss Ichabod's "traditions" -- I stole the line "this tradition will be effective immediately" from Max Shulman's comic novel, "Rally Round the Flag Boys." However, the idea of manufacturing traditions for behavior-controlling purposes was something I had observed more than once at ND, so the basic idea wasn't Shulman's -- his line just fit the campus perfectly.

The surname "Cumberback" came from an anecdote I had once read about Samuel Taylor Coleridge running away and joining the British Army when he was young. I think his father fetched him back, or something -- anyway, the adventure didn't last long. He enrolled under the pseudonym "Silas Cumberback" and I liked the clumsy sound of the name.

"Somewhere north of Vincennes" - when Fr. Sorin got the grant of land for what was to become Notre Dame, in 1840 or 1841, northern Indiana was apparently still relatively unsettled, and the grant specified the location as "north of Vincennes." (I think I added the "somewhere" myself.) If you look at a map of Indiana, you'll see that this is a longish way south of South Bend.

"Le morte yellow" - as you may well surmise, students referred to the Dining Hall's unappetizing version of scrambled eggs as "the Yellow Death."

"Seven Keys to Baldpate" - a mystery/farce adapted for the stage (from a novel) by none other than George M. Cohan (Mr. "Yankee Doodle Dandy" himself) and made into a movie during the thirties. It was apparently set in a spooky inn called the Baldpate Inn. I had seen a trailer for this movie, but not the film itself, and I remembered a Gothic horror of a building not unlike the one that supported our beloved Dome.