As almost everyone can probably relate, high school had a profound affect on me. In so many ways, my experiences there changed my life. Some in not so good ways; in other ways, it made me the man I am today. Most importantly, Cretin High School started me on the path that led to a mostly successful life. I think that is the ultimate testament to a high school experience.
My 40th high school reunion is later this Summer. That landmark is merely happenstance, not the reason I am writing this now. Rather, as a regular reader knows, this blog is basically a chronological catalog of influences in my life. Though I wasn’t particularly a fan of Cretin High School at the time, it provided me with fond memories, great friendships, and of course, profound life lessons. The very best thing about Cretin, for me, was stability. Up to that point, I had attended four different grade schools, none for more than three years. Finally, at Cretin, I was a member of the same class from grades 9-12.
My start at Cretin was hardly the greatest way to impress my new classmates. Though I’d never played organized football, my dad convinced me to try out for the team. I was rather small for my age (and young for a Freshman), but I could kick. I signed up and showed up – albeit late – for the first fall practice. I remember being all alone in the locker room trying to figure out how to put the uniform together. There seemed to be too many pads and I had no clue how they went into the pants. Same with the shoulder pads. The biggest problem was when I finally got all the pad and pants on. I didn’t know I was supposed to buy a practice jersey to wear over the pads, so I ended up stretching and pulling my t-shirt over the pads.
I suspect I was quite the spectacle as I staggered out to the field. I was met by a coach who stifled a chuckle and asked me what position I played. When I said, “kicker,” he lost it. He chewed me out and told me to head over with the defense. It was brutal. I was picked on by both the other players and the coaches. I think that was the first and only time ever I showed up for football!
Classes were okay. I was actually pretty good at most of the subjects that first year, except for military. For some reason, I never took to subjects of rifle marksmanship, first aid, and the other basic military topics. Our teacher, 1SG Stephens knew my sister Pam because he also worked with the band. He liked her, so I think he gave me every break he could. Ultimately, I got a “D” that first semester in military. In just about everything else I got “A’s” and “B’s,” so I figured that this military stuff was just not for me!
Based partially on general geekiness, as well as the football fiasco and the non-military bearing, I did not fit in too well at school. I was glad I had my two friends from St. Luke’s, Pat and Jim. We remained fast friends throughout high school , and even college, until we all ended up leaving town to make our starts in life outside of Minnesota. Up until then, we did almost everything together. For the most part, we were good kids, but I can tell you that we got into things that kids nowadays just don’t do. They were mostly juvenile types of things, such as bumper skiing, hitchhiking, drinking beer, and smoking cheap cigars. Oh yes, and checking out girls. Girls we had absolutely no chance at dating!
There were a number of others who came in an out of our circle during our high school years, including Dave, Dan, Larry, Tom, Mike, Bic, the Weiss brothers, . . . but most often it was just me, Jim, and Pat.
Cretin High School was a MUCH different school than the Cretin-Derham Hall (CDH) we know of today. Back then it was all boys. Girls were across an expansive field to the West. They could join the Cretin band and one or two joint classes, but that was rather rare. We just didn’t see girls around campus. We wore modified Army uniforms EVERY DAY! They consisted of tan shirts, black tie, Army green pants, black socks (except for Pat’s occasional white socks), and shined black Oxford shoes. We wore these to and from school, and even played intramural sports, without changing out of the uniforms. As a result, everyone in town knew what school we were from. There was no getting into trouble either before or after school without someone making a report to the school.
The other thing different from today’s CDH was the composition of the students. There was no fighting to get into the school. Everyone I knew from just about any Catholic grade school in the city got in; many others from public schools as well. The guys in our class included sons of bakers, mechanics, secretaries, car dealers, engineers, lawyers, and just about every blue and white collar occupation you could think of. We were a true melting pot of society, except for racial diversity. We had Hispanics and Lebanese, but very few African American or Asian classmates. I think Cretin in those days pretty much matched the demographics of St. Paul. We did have great intellectual diversity. We had highly intelligent classmates, those of average intelligence, and even some guys who really would have been better off at a different school where they had special programs. Still, we were all Cretin Raiders!
Freshman year went well overall. Except for 1SG Stephens’ Military class, I did quite well. Algebra, with the infamous Harvey Buron started quite well, but once he became a cheerleader for the S.P.A.F.F tickets, I lost interest. My grades suffered as a result. Besides, the second half of algebra was just pretty darn hard! Despite my experience with football, I did try baseball in the Spring. Unfortunately, work got in the way. My new boss, Don Ryan, at The Lexington didn’t care about my practice schedule, so I eventually quit the team. The Lex became my second (or third) home throughout my high school years. It, too, provided me many life lessons. More about that in a future blog post.
The worst part of Freshman year for me was Spanish class. For some reason, that class was extremely difficult for me. The teacher, Brother James Saiz, was okay, but he spent most of the second half of the year relying on audiotapes to teach the class. The entire class was hooked to headphones, complete with microphones. Kids would regularly “comment” on things even if it wasn’t their turn. Brother James rarely knew where the comments were coming from. Admittedly, some came from me, but by no means was I the most disruptive. For some reason, though, Brother James always seemed to think it was me. As a result of this – and my poor comprehension – I got my first “F.” Yup, I failed Freshman Spanish, My penance was to make it up in Summer School.
I took Spanish that Summer at Highland High School. The teacher was a cute young lady, who clearly piqued my interest. Even though school in the Summer was a real bummer, I did well enough to score an A! Take that, Brother James.
If Freshman year ended poorly, Sophomore year started dreadfully. The primary event that is still in my mind was the continual practicing for the annual Federal inspection. That is when someone from the “real” Army comes to the high school JROTC programs to inspect the program. This was a BIG deal for Cretin in those days – we need to keep the yellow star that signified “honor unit with distinction.” I hated the Federal inspection. Not only did we need to dress up in the full uniform, complete with the Army suit coat (we called it our “blouse”), spit shined shoes, and highly polished brass accoutrements, but we had to stand for what seemed like hours at attention as the Army Brass inspected the “troops.”
During one particular afternoon “practice,” someone made a snide comment in the ranks. It was something rather innocent like, “I hope I don’t pass out during the formation like a St. Thomas weenie.” I laughed. Oops! 1SG Stephens thought I was the one who cracked the comment. Even worse, he thought I made a racial comment about him (he was black). Though that was a different time in our society, to this day I swear that I never said (or heard) a racial epithet that day. 1SG Stephens was not convinced. He told me to meet him after school that day. When I did, he directed me to show up early in the morning with all my Army uniforms to turn them in to him. Yes, he was telling me that, in essence, I was being expelled from school. I was aghast. I didn’t know what to do. Some buddies encouraged me to call his bluff. I did show up early the next day, but without the uniforms. I again told 1SG Stephens that I never said, nor heard any racial comment. Reluctantly, he “allowed” me to stay. He said it was due to his fond feelings for my sister.
I suspect 1SG Stephens didn’t have the authority to expel me, but that did not change how much I worried for an entire night! Truth be told, I greatly respected 1SG Stephens. Though I didn’t do well in his class, he definitely instilled in me the need to treat all people with dignity. At that time in my life, except for first aid, I just wasn’t very interested in the military subjects he taught.
Sophomore year was an influential year for me in another, more positive way. I don’t remember the teacher’s name, but he was a Christian Brother who was at the school for only a couple of years. One of the classes we took with him was a speech class. As one would expect, almost all of us teenage boys were mortally afraid to get up in front of the class to speak. We’d talk okay, but get us alone in front of the class and it became a different story. My first speech, like that of most of my classmates, was a bomb. The second was a bit more interesting. The assignment was a persuasive speech.
Jim had to give his speech before mine. It was awesome! His attempt to persuade the class that he could light a fire with random items found in nature was both interesting and entertaining. His argument that he could (or at least someone could) start a fire with an ice cube was hilarious. I think we all loosened up a bit after that. Pat always gave funny speeches, but I don’t remember any of the topics! My speech of persuasion, though was more difficult than either Pat’s or Jim’s. I chose to suggest to the class that the Minnesota Twins would win the pennant that year. The best part about that choice of topic was that I knew it through and through. My classmates seemed to be entertained and engaged, asking lots of questions, which I easily answered. Unfortunately, I don’t think I convinced too many of my premise! I did, though, gain a lot of confidence in public speaking that day and throughout the remainder of that class. That has served me well throughout my adult life. Oh, and by the way, the Twins did NOT win the pennant that year, though they did finish seven games over .500.
Sometime early in high school Pat, Jim, and I started hitchhiking home from school every day. We would walk down Randolph Avenue after school and hitchhike from the corner of Randolph and Lexington. Most days we got a ride down Lexington to Grand or Summit Avenue. Pat and Jim both lived within a half block of Lexington, so we typically stopped at one of their houses for a quick snack or to pick up some baseball or football gear, depending upon the season. Then we’d play catch and just hang out like normal teenagers would do. Before long, though, we all had shifts in the dishwasher dungeon at The Lex, so our lazy after-school time was interrupted. It wasn’t until Jim got a car that we stopped hitchhiking daily.
Everything from Junior and Senior years at Cretin pretty much blend together for me. Between school and working at The Lex, we didn’t have a whole lot of time for anything else. We worked almost every weekend evening. The biggest difference between the two years was that my sister Pam was away my entire Senior year. She was a Rotary Youth Exchange student to South Africa. Most kids went abroad either their Junior or Senior year, but Pam waited until she graduated from Derham Hall. Jon and Jen were still in grade school, so I was the only teenager in the house. That meant that during my Senior year, I didn’t have to share access to Mom’s car with my sister.
In my group of friends, no one had a steady girlfriend. Probably because we were just a bunch of geeks. We didn’t party at the Mississippi River or “the valley” like many of our classmates. Instead, we mostly kept to ourselves and drank crappy beer in beer cellar caves beneath the former Schmidt’s brewery in St. Paul. Truly, the worst thing that we did from a criminality sense was to surreptitiously move a case of Heineken beer from The Lex’s storage room into the alleyway dumpster late one night. Another of us retrieved said case from the trash and transferred it to an ice chest for the evening’s after work festivities. My recollection is that many years later, Pat felt guilty and replaced the case in a similar way. Of course by that time, he could legally buy the stuff! I can attest that neither Pat nor Jim had anything to do with the stolen car(s) escapades. That was all me. Perhaps I can write about that another time. And the Great Golf Cart Caper actually occurred, I believe, after graduation, so that, too, is another story.
Though we were not in the class of jocks, we did play football, baseball, basketball, and softball. We played hard! We always played intramural sports at school and were often as good as – if not better – than the class jocks. We actually played all year. In the Summer months, we scrapped together neighborhood teams to play baseball and football (depending upon the season) at the local Summit School. Since school was out, we had little competition for the field, but we did have some harrowing moments when someone blasted a baseball into the nearby tennis courts. For some of us, that was more often than was comfortable. I can only imagine playing a round of tennis, just to be interrupted buy a hard baseball jettisoning into the court. Sometimes we tried to talk our way out of it. Other times, we ran!
Football during those Summers was brutal. We played with at least ten to twelve players and almost always played tackle. No pads or helmets, just us, a ball, and the hard autumn ground. We were actually quite good. Pat was the best quarterback; Jim could have been nicknamed “sticky fingers” as our best receiver; and I was the guy who would run the ball up the gut. My stocky frame and low center of gravity made it very difficult for would-be tacklers. There is no doubt in my mind that we left many concussions on that field every Summer. Even so, we were almost always back the next day or the next week for another battle. Nope, we weren’t jocks, but we were certainly tough!
Senior year was a bit of a surprise. We all progressed steadily and were making decent grades! Pat was the freest thinker of the group, so he appeared less concerned with grades than Jim and I, but he also did pretty well in class. Jim was clearly the student. I think he may have tried to play dumb, but he was far from it. Jim was almost always the one who got his homework done. Pat occasionally did his. I did my homework rarely, instead relying on my innate abilities that consistently let me down. As a result, when homework was due, Pat and I begged Jim to share his homework on the morning it was due. Jim almost always relented. I still laugh today when I recall how one of our teachers routinely annotated all of our last names at the top of our homework and test pages. He was obviously on to the gig, but didn’t know who was doing the work and who the cheaters were.
All of our grades improved by Senior year, whether from study, shared homework, or simply by figuring out the system. As they do as you near the end of school, things started getting a bit more serious. College was near. No more of the BS we did in high school. It was time to put up. We all did. Interestingly, by the end of my Junior year, I was taken under the wing of a military instructor, Master Sergeant (MSG) Stock. MSG Stock apparently saw something in me that one might call potential, since it was highly unlikely that he saw many examples of achievement from me. Anyway, MSG Stock encouraged me like no one else at the school had done. For some reason, his encouragement stuck and he became somewhat of a mentor for me.
JROTC student officers were generally appointed at the end of Junior year. We had a number of great officers, including our friend, Larry, who became the “Cadet Colonel,” the highest student rank at the school. Jim and I made it to the sergeant ranks, yet for some reason Pat remained a private (probably due to his habit of wearing white socks). I was rather proud, but still a bit jealous of those appointed as officers. That, plus the specter of college, caused me put my nose to the grindstone some more. As a result, I had an excellent first semester of my Senior year. Just before Christmas break I was promoted, along with a small cadre of other Seniors, including Jim, to the officer rank. MSG Stock’s faith in me seemed to be taking fruit.
As an officer, we had to set the example. Now I had to do well. With the increased attention, I guess I must have rose to the challenge. I was finishing high school on a high note (our graduation hijinks notwithstanding). The best thing about being an officer, though, was being able to attend the highly anticipated formal Officer’s Ball. Unfortunately, I had no date. Gone were the days when my sister would arrange a date with one of her friends. Now I had to find my own date and it wasn’t easy!
I catalogued all the girls that I knew and got recommendations from my friends. Since they were basically in the same boat I was, we simply didn’t have much of a pool of dates. I was somewhat friendly with a salad girl at work – she made the salads and sandwiches at The Lex. She was nice, pretty, petite, but a little shy (as, of course, was I). I really didn’t know much about her, but knew that I liked her. I asked about her of my friends at The Lex. Most said she was the nicest girls around – probably too nice for me! One guy recommended that I stay away because he had dated her for months and couldn’t even get to first base.
After deliberation and summoning all the courage I could, I stopped her just as she was leaving one night. I stammered while asking if she’d like to go to the Officer’s Ball. I was thrown for a loop with her reply. “With who?,” she asked. Flummoxed, I finally spit out, “Well, with me!” She quickly answered, “Sure” then turned and flitted away down the stairs. I called through the darkness, “okay, I’ll give you details later.” No reply as she was gone into the women’s locker room.
We had a marvelous time at the Officer’s Ball. To me, this young lady was truly the Belle of the Ball. I haven’t looked back. Second base (or more) was not an issue for me. Forty years later (35 of them married to her), that was the single best decision I’ve ever made in my life. In a roundabout way, Cretin High School gave that to me. As I’ll write about later, Cretin also set me on a path – the United States Army – that would be a central part of who I am today. Things don’t always happen the way you plan them, but my experience with Cretin High School tells me that God’s plan is a whole lot better than any plan I could have made. Thank you, Cretin! Go Raiders!
By the way, if you like stories about Cretin High School, keep a lookout for my friend Jim’s upcoming book, “Cretin Boy.” Check out his (much superior) writing at: http://jimlandwehr.com