Survival Till Seventeen

When one is seated in a dentist’s chair, with one’s mouth full of dentist’s fingers and dentist’s instruments, it is difficult to hold a conversation. One becomes all yawn, and the only word it would seem possible to pronounce is the name of the town in the Tyrol where they put on the Passion Play.

“How old are you?” said the dentist, while he elongated my mouth to suit his convenience.

“Oberammergau!” I replied.

“What!” he exclaimed, withdrawing all his tools at once.

“Seventeen!” I answered clearly, as I rinsed my throat with water and spat into a little silver whirlpool on the arm of the chair.

“That third tooth from the front never came down, I see. It’s embedded in the gum. I’d give it a few more years though. It may grow down yet!”


I rose from my chair, paid him his bill, and bade him adieu.

“What’s this I hear about you?” the dentist said, as I was getting my hat.

“It’s true,” I replied. “That’s why I came to have my teeth examined.”

“Well, good luck!”


Then I went to the doctor’s for a more protracted investigation.

“What’s this I hear about you?” said the doctor.

“It’s true.”

“You’re young.”

“I’m seventeen!’

“Are you sure you know your own mind?”

“I think so,” I said, expanding my chest. “But how about my physical condition?”

He examined me a long time, required me to remove my shirt and take many deep breaths, and then said: “You’re fit!”

“Good-bye, doctor!”


Then there was the clothier’s to go to for a couple of black suits. And the shoe store for extra pairs of shoes. And the haberdasher’s for shirts, stockings and linen. And the parish rectory for my Baptismal certificate. And the baggage store for a trunk. And, oh yes!, to the men’s furnishings shop for an umbrella.

It was my first unborrowed umbrella.

I was about three weeks in getting everything I needed.

Finally, all washed, dressed and packed, I stood one day at the top of our front stairs, ready to knock on the door of my mother’s room.

Good God, what was I doing? Was this the result of a classical education? Or is there a sense in which a boy does not know his own mind?

I knocked on my mother’s door.

She was dressed in bright colors, endeavoring to please me.

She kissed me one, twice, a dozen times, saying nothing.

My father, speaking for both of them, embraced me and said: “Good-bye, dear!”

My little brothers looked unhappy, and my little sister wept and would not be consoled with a million kisses.

I took a last look at all the rooms in our home. A last look at our neighbors’ houses, and the traffic going to and fro in the street. A last look at our lawn and our lovely verandah. A last look at the number on our front door. A last look at the beaches below us, where I used to swim.

The by-gone beaches and limbs of brown,

When hoops were rolling around the town,

And London Bridges were falling down!

The car was ready, and my belongings packed in the rear. The gears shifted, and we were off.

The next day I was in New York. It was September 7, 1914. I received Holy Communion at the Church of St. Francis Xavier. I ate breakfast in an automat lunch. I took a walk on Riverside Drive and visited Grant’s Tomb.

At noon I took the boat that sails up the Hudson.

I arrived in Poughkeepsie at five-thirty.

A short auto ride brought me to the Novitiate of St. Andrew-on-Hudson, the training school for young Jesuits in the Eastern States. It was just six o’clock, Angelus time, on the Eve of Our Lady’s Nativity.

We were fourteen novices entering on that day, and pretty raw recruits we were, and looked, even to each other. We were first brought to the chapel to say a prayer. Then we went to the dormitories and were shown the hard beds on which we were to sleep. Then to the cubby-holes where we were to put our clothes. Then to the washrooms, where each was given a small washbowl for himself, with one spigot in it, spouting a stream of icy cold water. I had brought a safety razor, and my first blade lasted me two years, and my first cake of shaving soap, four.

We were taken to the refectory for supper.

After supper we were brought to the Master of Novices for a first inspection. We entered his room individually. He was a short, slight man, about five feet, two inches in height, and weighed not more than a hundred pounds. His name, appropriately, was Father Pettit. He was little Father Pettit to us all from then until he died. And it was not I who coined him the adjective.

This is the story of what I chose to be at the age of seventeen, and exactly the story of what I would want to be again, were the choice once more to be mine.

But I forgot to tell what the Jesuit Master of Novices said to me when I visited him that first night in his room.

“I see you have a tooth missing!” he said. “We’ll have to have that fixed!”