ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Hank Nuwer is a journalist and author. His main in-progress projects are a biography of Kurt Vonnegut for Indiana University Press and his second historical novel set in the American West. He maintains the Hazing Deaths database.
His public life stems from his journalism teaching and for his young adult and scholarly books on the topic of hazing in society including Hazing: Destroying Young Lives, Wrongs of Passage, High School Hazing, Broken Pledges, and The Hazing Reader. Early in his career, he worked as a freelance writer with photographer Max Aguilera-Hellweg, now a contributor to National Geographic magazine. His early book, Rendezvousing with Contemporary Authors has interviews with David Mamet, William Least Heat Moon, Kurt Vonnegut, Rosemary Rogers, James Dickey, John Jakes, Maurice Sendak and many other writers. He has written books suitable for teens including Sons of the Dawn, High School Hazing, The Legend of Jesse Owens, Steroids and To the Young Writer.
Hank graduated from Buffalo State College (B.S.) and New Mexico Highlands University (M.A.); he has an honorary doctorate from the State University of New York (Buffalo State, 2006) and taken additional graduate coursework at the University of Nevada and Hamline University. Ball State University awarded him its doctoral equivalency for his research and publications in 1986 and elected him in 2010 to the BSU Journalism Hall of Fame. He is married to Malgorzata (Gosia) Wroblewska-Nuwer, an accountant executive for an international firm. He has two grown sons and two grandchildren. Gosia has one grown daughter named Natalia, a Ph.D. in biology and researcher. Hank and Gosia’s black Labrador retriever named Casey died peacefully on April 17, 2018. The couple lives in Indiana and Warsaw, Poland.
Charitable work: He contributes regularly to the Buffalo State College Hank Nuwer Collection and BSC Hazing Collection under BSC archivist Daniel DiLandro
A founding board member of HazingPrevention.org, he contributes to its annual Hank Nuwer antihazing hero awards. Hank contributes to the Hank Nuwer Antihazing Hero Awards for HazingPrevention.org
An Autobiography by Hank Nuwer
“No matter how piercing and appalling his insights, the desolation creeping over his outer world, the lurid lights and shadows of his inner world, the writer must live with hope, work in faith.” –playwright J.B. Priestly
“The great writers arrived by achieving the impossible. They did such blazing, glorious work as to burn to ashes those that opposed them. They arrived by course of miracle, by winning a thousand-to-one wager against them. They arrived because they were Carlyle’s battle-scarred giants who will not be kept down.” –novelist and journalist Jack London
My home in rural Indiana is in a small town, about one thousand feet from cornfields. Yet life is anything but placid in Middle America.
Once upon a time I lived in Middletown.
Across the street, from the time I moved in, my neighbor Don Shannon raged in open battle with a bottle, his family, and unknown enemies. “I’ll kill your ass dead,” he bellowed time and again into his cell phone, often after midnight. I cringed when he came on our porch, though always when sober, and I worried even more when his visits came on my trips out of town. Stocky like a rodeo bull, he could be surprisingly charming, too. His older son and my younger son tried out for Little League together, and inside an old gym, as coaches hit grounders on a wood floor, we cheered our sons on, until they signaled that they wanted us to stay quiet.
Don is dead now. He threatened his mother with a weapon and his own father shot him down like an attacking bear. Left fatherless, one of his sons died drag racing and the other is in jail for attacking a female motorist after an Interstate accident.
I now teach journalism in another small town.
I prefer taking asphalt roads to Franklin College. Interstate travel deadens my mind and makes me want to snack on high-calorie goodies in foil wrappers. One grey morning, I pulled over on a narrow road to watch a leggy coyote run across a farm field. Flattening its grey- and brown-banded body, the canine scooted under a wire fence, ignored my pickup, and conquered the opposite fence. As the coyote crossed open pasture, I waited for it to turn as Mark Twain assured me all of this species did in his book Roughing It . After ninety yards it did stop, looking over the top of its projecting nose. Another uninteresting human, it decided, trotting toward a stand of woods.
I make a living writing freelance articles and books, and the money helps me write journalistic books on hazing, which pay very little, but have been my passion since winning a Gannett grant to study the subject in the late 1980s. I also have published articles about celebrities who some consider glorious, but because achievements and ignominies alike intrigue me, I also keep a notebook about people that are burdened, disgraced, and failures, but who have redeemed themselves later in life. As a writer I am compelled to hear and write stories, put into context with proper analysis and an artist’s awareness that we human beings need to pay attention to microcosms. Men and women need stories to get a sense of life and to get control, because everyday reality is senseless and chaotic. The best writers cut carefully into onyx to create scenes in cameo, the worst pile details like stones on the consciousness of the reader. In the defeated lives bound in my notebook pages, I often find forgiveness, courage, and dignity. As astonishing numbers of species and resources vanish, and human beings continue to deny our arrogance in allowing them to disappear, a world with frightening shortages is inevitable. We need books that teach lessons that syrupy celebrity articles cannot provide.
Almost always, during my long drives, I seize the opportunity to go back into my own arrogant past to find out who I was, not who I had dreamed of becoming. I cut into my psyche as if conducting an autopsy on my own existence. I cut into my own brain to pull out humiliating events, self-doubts and frailties.
My quest for spiritual renewal in time shaped the story I tell now into narrative of hope and love. It could, as easily, be told with despair.
“The writer of originality, unless dead, is always shocking, scandalous; novelty disturbs and repels.”
–Simone de Beauvoir
My pregnant mother walked into Louise de Merillec Hospital in Buffalo, New York, and walked out with me in a blue blanket. Someday I may enter a hospital alive but will not leave that way. I was born nine months after my parents wed, heaping responsibilities on a father who had come back from horrific fighting in Europe and North Africa to seek normalcy with my mother after five years spent killing.
My birth certificate makes me chuckle. I am my own father, married to my mother, my name mistakenly placed on the certificate where his should be. Perhaps some psychiatrist may tell me that my downfall started with this Oedipal slip-up. It would be nice to attach blame to someone other than myself.
I share my birth date, August 19, 1946, with Bill Clinton. While he dreamed of the White House, my career ambitions went from one unattainable goal, pro baseball, to another that was attainable, though not for me, the priesthood. At twelve I also discovered a secret ambition. I wanted to express my outrage over social travesties by writing books similar to The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. Even today, I have never lost admiration for Sinclair, though I now have read maybe a thousand pages of his hack nonfiction that is unbecoming to his genius.
My father Henry Robert Nuwer was a delivery driver. He left his beloved, but failing, family farm in Alden for a job in Buffalo he thought had security. Not so. Our first house on Riley Street was condemned by the city, and so was our second on Fillmore Avenue in low-cost housing called “The Buffalo Veterans Project.” When I was three I kissed my friend Linda when she came to say farewell because her family was moving from the Fillmore projects to a better home.
Small and dressed too often in clothes passed down from relatives little better off than my family, I became a target for abusive older boys who had been reared by their mothers, while their fathers were in Europe or the South Pacific. When I argued with a boy named David, years older than I, he held my face in a mud puddle to smother me until my father pulled him off like a tic. When an African-American teenager stole my basketball, I chased him into a dump alongside the Projects, and when he easily loped away, I had to wait for my mother to find me because I was lost some ten blocks from home.
I learned quickly that outside my home was savagery. My parents were quite unlike the screamers whose anger seemed to rise like heat waves off the Project sidewalks. My parents resisted showing affection, but they had good hearts. Both unwillingly left school after the eighth grade because my two grandfathers valued strong backs over developed minds. But both appreciated words, loved Scrabble and pinochle and the Buffalo Courier Express, and told jokes and funny stories that gave me giggling fits.
My little sister and I learned that snitching on one another was futile. “I’ll punish you both so that I know I have the right one,” my dad would say, putting us nose to wallpaper. “Stay until I learn you a lesson.”
But he only hit me once in his life, a too-quick show of temper when I walked on the goop he had put on our shack’s floor, then ruined the brand new linoleum in one corner by walking over it. Before I could cry he was holding me in his large arms. I saw fear in his face that I saw again late in his life when he squeezed my hand and tried to smile, in spite of hospital tubes penetrating his body like St. Stephen’s arrows. I can say without a doubt I had a heroic, sweet man for a father.
It wasn’t long before I realized that I could use my father’s fear of his own strength and temper to my advantage. Because I parroted any profane words he used, he was forced to use a non-profane German expression that I would comically mispronounce to make him laugh when he was angry. Somehow, wrongly, I interpreted his gentleness his weakness, until gradually it occurred to me that the real weaklings were the angry brutes some of my classmates had for fathers. He could make me laugh and stop inappropriate behavior by scolding me with one of his funny expressions. “I’ll tear off your arm and hit you with the wet end,” he once said.
The worst thing my father called anyone was a “bullshit artist,” a slang term he rarely used and reserved for labor fakers, con artists, and Buffalo mayors. He wasn’t joking when he used that expression. Contempt narrowed his eyes and made the corners of his mouth twitch.
My mother became the family disciplinarian, spanking me when I threw a fit or broke a window, but all I had to do was accompany her to church once or twice a day and she too was controllable. Without money or luxuries, I nonetheless found ways for her to spoil me with pastries made weekly, and songs of the day she would sing to me in English and in Polish until I had the words memorized. I’ve never forgotten many lyrics. I also had a great mother.
Four years younger than my dad, born in the year of the great influenza epidemic of 1919, Teresa lived on an egg and dairy farm one mile from the Nuwer place. She spun a crush on my father in parochial school and liked to run after him to taunt him and to make him blush with some doggeral she created: Hank, Hank, turn the crank; his mother came out and gave him a spank.
Teresa’s father, Josef Lysiak, was a Pole who had been conscripted into the Russian army with his older brother. They deserted and were nearly caught by officers. “We ran with bullets all around,” my grandfather once told me, his accent thick as porridge. He made it to America in 1913, worked for Pierce Arrow in Buffalo until he could afford a farm, and wed Stella Mary Golota, whose parents had emigrated from that part of Poland wrested away by Germany.
Thus, the people of my origins are people from captured lands, and I love them for choosing to run rather than submit. My own fear of capture is why, or the only explanation I can give, for moves that have taken me to live in New York, New Mexico, Nevada, California, Idaho, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia. My self-assessment, wrong or right, was that I became what sociologists called a “marginal” person. Having left behind my Polish neighborhood, I was comfortable making conversations in small groups only, and I demonstrated textbook personality traits of self-consciousness, boastfulness to hide my insecurity, and nervous strain resulting in hives and spastic colon.
All my boyhood I wished my parents would move back to either of their farms, but though they discussed it, my mother wanted no part of going back under either patriarch’s roof. Both sets of grandparents had farms doomed to fail in the 1950s, although their ability to raise livestock and vegetables for self-consumption kept us from the despairing poverty affecting failed farmers who lose their property to banks. My mother’s father was able to sell his farm for a profit; my father’s father’s farm was no longer worked but nonetheless was kept in park-like condition by my aunt and uncle.
Grandpa Lysiak’s farm was cut in two by a set of railroad tracks, leaving farmland on one side and tangled shrubbery and woods on the other where red fox built their dens and I came to dream and imprison butterflies in jars. One time when I was four or five, I snuck out of the farmhouse, walked through a single row of corn that went on for acres, and crossed the railroad tracks. To my delight, a train–not one of the old-fashioned steam engines but a gleaming modern engine–came toward me, and I giggled in near hysteria as a roaring whistle and tremors from the passing train enveloped me. In between cars there were gaps, of course, and at some point I became aware of my mother on the other side, her mouth open in what looked like a shriek, although I could not hear her.
Although Grandpa used to anger me by watching television all afternoon on Sundays and then shutting it off in the evening when my Lassie Show came on (“Don’t waste ‘lectricity,” he would say), he also showed me how to milk a cow, to guide a plow behind a team of horses, to sharpen an axe on a stone wheel, to turn an errant cow with a wave of a switch, to pull an egg out of a hen’s nest without getting pecked, to scald a duck carcass before plucking its feathers, and to set out salt blocks as a treat for the milk cows.
Grandma Lysiak was a large woman with rolled-down stockings and flowered dresses who kept all the toys from her own brood of nine around for my cousins and me, but I preferred reading adventure books like Owen Wister’s The Virginian or bringing back the Sears & Roebuck catalogs from the outhouse to pester my mother with requests to buy things I neither needed nor could she afford. I was fascinated by Grandma’s treadle sewing machine that had a needle capable of going through canvas. My mother warned me what that needle could do to a finger, and I imagined that the pain of a needle through a thumbnail must be akin to what sinners experienced in hell.
If there was a logical starting point for the beginnings of angst, it was 1950 when I learned that others regarded me as an enemy. That year my family left the Projects for Cheektowaga just over the Buffalo city line on the East Side. My father bought the house in the Polish ghetto to please my mother. Our move was too soon after the war. Both the Polish-speaking nuns and my classmates at St. John Gualbert’s reminded me over and over that I was a “Kraut,” because I had a German-sounding last name. (Not until my father was the age I am now did he learn from a distant relative that the Nuwers are actually descended from German-speaking weavers of linen from Alsace-Lorraine.) My father was out of place on cabbage-stinking Hedwig Street, making few friends, and engaging in verbal warfare with one set of neighbors until he died. I too was a marginal being, not fitting in at all. The only place I felt comfortable was in St. John Gualbert’s Church where I could pray and daydream and imagine myself dying and ascending to heaven as the saint I knew I was destined to become. A nun told me I should strive for piety, and for my first four grades of school, I did.
But when the nun who taught me in the seventh grade went too far with her anti-German comments, I retaliated by chalking caricatures of her on the blackboard and fighting. I sometimes took on opponents up to thirty pounds heavier than I, using rocks and ice chunks to level the playing field, but still, I lost more fights than I won. When a walleyed redhead named Jim, later to spend time in prison for theft of mail, punched me brutally behind the teacher’s back, I caved in his head with a hard-cover textbook until she came to his aid as he whimpered. The day after I won a spelling bee and was supposed to receive a dictionary, I watched a nun give the second-place winner, the son of a Polish funeral director, a dictionary in my place. I erupted with resentment and spent some time after school for being a bold little boy.
My mother stood this tension for years, although she chafed when I brought home bruises that were visible. Then one day she put on her rouge and marched into school to “tell off” the nuns, stressing that I was half-Polish. Her tactic infuriated me not only because it gave my tormentors’ the wrong out to stop their mean-spiritedness, but it turned my mother into their collaborator and exacerbated my growing dislike for the Polish blood within me. I continued starting the day by singing the required Polish national anthem, but I resented the daily instruction in the Polish language and questioned the nuns as to why we couldn’t learn more songs in English. This becomes even more remarkable when you know that I now am married to a Polish citizen and spend hours each week studying the language.
At some point I ceased to learn and in time I ceased to care. Although I still read books by Jack London and magazines like True and Argosy in Novak’s corner drugstore indiscriminately and passionately, I closed my mind to math and science, diagramming and grammar. The nuns, many non-native speakers, laughed at my mispronunciations such as “Our Kansas” for Arkansas. My h’s became “hay-ches” and e’s indistinguishable from i’s so that “pen” became pin in my mouth
The Felician nuns were brutal at times, loving at others. If I was especially good they let me kiss the wooden cross hanging between their white starched bosoms or gave me holy pictures, scapulars and biographies of the good popes (never the bad ones whose stories I investigated and relished on my own). Overhead on pedestals in church and school were glamorous saints and the lovely Virgin Mary, and I wondered even as a young man if we Catholic students chose mates that either were similar to these icons or the stark opposite of them. Was it the insistence of nuns on total conformity and piety that made me as an adolescent feel so breakaway free when I laughed at classmates’ sexual innuendos and coarse jokes?
The sisters hit my protruding bottom with hand brooms for making fart noises under my desk during civil defense drills and also mashed my knuckles with rulers for bad penmanship. They taunted a first-grader named Katherine for making a pee puddle under her chair after she had been denied a bathroom visit. They hit Paul Majewski’s left hand with a ruler in a losing effort to turn him into a right-handed writer. On one occasion, a boy named Gary Bergman who was my clone, pudgy and greasy-haired, snuck out of the classroom for a few minutes and then came back. A nun came into the room hot on his trail and accused me of the crime. When I denied it she forced me to stand on the desk in front of the room while the class shouted “Liar, liar, liar.” Although it upset me, I gained status for the first time with several tough boys in the class who appreciated that I hadn’t snitched on Gary.
Another nun screamed at me in chapel for cracking jokes, and this time, because I was guilty, I broke into tears after she made the class scream “crybaby, crybaby.” Instead of stopping I lapsed into hysterics, and she ordered a friend to get away when he tried putting an arm around me to calm me. To my recollection, it was almost thirty years, at my father’s funeral in 1984, before I cried again, and until that occasion I thought I’d become pathologically incapable of crying. On occasion after occasion, I instead substituted intense feelings of rage for tears.
Other memories of growing up Catholic are astonishingly pleasant. I loved serving Mass and lighting the beeswax candles, loved the voices in the choir and my many opportunities to sing until my voice changed at thirteen. Although I giggled, I liked getting our Easter baskets blessed by the priest, mainly for the feel of the Polish community coming together as one with a sense of purpose and connection, but also for quaint customs like buying butter molded in the shape of a lamb, a red flag on a toothpick imbedded in one thigh of the beast. I liked getting back home and eating, as if the blessing with water could somehow improve the taste of the slices of ham, sugar-sprinkled breads, and dyed eggs in the basket.
[Stop at the Corner]
Because my mother worried about me walking alone through our neighborhood just outside Buffalo’s semi-tough East Side, she had to take me to friends’ homes. I was not allowed to go past the stop signs on either end of Hedwig Street (going to the drugstore to read magazines and to the library for books were wonderful exceptions) until my constant pestering forced her to extend my boundary lines a few weeks before my twelfth birthday. Since my mother, petrified of traffic and then without a driver’s license, would not permit me to ride a bicycle, I walked to Cheektowaga Town Park and joined sandlot games.
One weekend day, finding no game, I walked to a dairy store to request a paper cup of water. A tall, broad street predator wouldn’t let me go in. Dale August was a loner, not one of the Walden Gang hoodlums from my neighborhood who would crush my face like a pomegranate with their boots when I was seventeen, but he nonetheless looked psychotic, and I had stayed clear of him.
“Hello, Lips,” he said. He wrestled away my baseball glove, a $5 Sunshine that my comrades with name-brand mitts mocked, and threw it over a concrete wall that divided the store’s property from Squajacquada Creek–nicknamed “Shit’s Creek” by locals for its fetid stench. Enraged because the purchase had been made by my mother who could not know what a bad product Sunshine made, I vaulted over the wall to get it. In another second I was in Dale’s control, my nose pressed tight against one foul armpit.
In one hand I held the 34-inch Ted Williams-model Wilson bat that my mother bought me at Sears; it was about four inches too long for me to swing effectively at the plate, but my mother said I would grow into it. Dale threw me to my knees, and he told me to use my lips, cooing softly a command I did not understand.
Frightened and knowing what he wanted was not what I wanted, I jabbed the bat at his open zipper like a lance. He took the Wilson from me, slamming it into my arms and chest until I thought I’d explode from the pain.
From the bridge above the creek a woman in a cloth coat and a scarf on her head shouted, “What are you boys doing, what are you boys doing?”
Dale cursed her, and his words directed toward an adult shocked me. He strode away cockily, and I squinted to find my low-budget, amber-rimmed glasses in the dirt. Dazed, I approached the woman on the bridge but she waved me away. “Shame, shame,” she said.
I went to a lavatory in the park to wash up, but I could only get so clean. My mother, looking for me through the front window, stepped onto the porch as I walked past the dying elm on our sidewalk. Her vigilance made me abandon my plan to open the coal chute window and crawl into the basement laundry room to change into other clothes as I had done when Danny Kowalczyk, our paperboy, pulled me, choking and sobbing, out of the flooded basement of a nearby unfinished house that I had entered against my mother’s strict admonitions.
I told my mother I had been in a fight. The bruises on my cheeks where Dale squeezed my head in one big hand scared her. How could I do this? she asked.
Days later I saw Dale August walking with a fellow hooligan named Gene through the park. I thought of running, but in my neighborhood that was not an option. Dale delivered a twisting martial arts punch to my sternum, a message that I was not to tell anyone about the earlier attack, but I did anyway.
My confidante was Frank Szachta, a small but powerfully built boy with a spit-curl in his eyebrows, who was a fellow altar boy. Frank recently had taught me the rules of baseball so that I did not have to always get stuck being the official catcher for both teams, a job that meant I never got to bat. His father had died suddenly, and he had become one of the poorer boys in the parish, even poorer than us.
I asked Frank what “blow me” meant, and he chuckled. I told him about Dale. “He wanted to put his ____ into your mouth.” Revulsion went through my system like strychnine.
My friend Frank, to my knowledge, never told anyone in the neighborhood or ever threw it back in my face. His father’s death and boyhood poverty made Frank tough on the outside, even tougher than I tried to look when I wore a leather jacket in high school, but he was kind.
In 1960, perhaps because Frank had decided to attend a Catholic seminary, or because I had decided to respond to the cajoling of the Polish nuns who taught me in grade school, I enrolled in Buffalo’s Diocesan Preparatory Seminary to see if I had a calling to the priesthood. “You have nothing to lose,” the nuns said.
They were misinformed. I was a misfit there except in English class where the priest/teacher allowed me to write funny stories instead of dull compositions. Unprepared for high school, I wrote Len Kaspyrzak’s themes and book reports in exchange for his math and science homework. He traded with someone else who was good at Latin and Religion. Len got caught with three copies of the same homework assignment on his desk, and he was expelled. A big fellow named Tom was caught one noon hour easing a Coke out of an old machine at school without putting in a coin, and he was on the street and out of school before his lunch settled. Jim Bursey, an amiable African-American student who taught me wrestling holds, made the mistake of drawing women with bare breasts while doodling during a lecture. The priest started to tear up the art work, then kept it as evidence, and marched Bursey out the door. I never saw him again. The Catholic Church then had so many boys wanting to become priests that they could afford to throw some on a conveyor belt out the door.
Religion was the worst torture for me, because a priest named Father Doyle resented questions he considered impertinent. How could he be sure Mary and Joseph had not had relations before the birth of Jesus? I asked. Actually, I really wanted to know. But I could be a real pain, too, making ribald comments under my breath when Rev. Pluto told a roomful of freshmen and sophomores how to wash our penises without sinning. Unfortunately, all the laughter circumnavigating me tipped him off, and he lit into me like a terrier with a mouse.
In a few weeks, Father Daniel Duggan put me permanently into what he called the Plumbers Row (Don’t ask me why he called it that.) of notorious bad-boy students–right behind Sczachta and a boy named Arthur who would leave after making a girl pregnant–in the row by the open windows. “Easier for us to throw you out,” said Duggan, my Latin teacher. I didn’t care, I told myself, because it made it easier to throw my paper airplanes out the window onto the beckoning grass.
I also baited him. “Have you taught Cicero?” I asked him in Latin One.
“Explains all those wrinkles of yours,” I said, cracking up, and then I thought it was worth the trip to “jug” for detention that the comment earned.
At the seminary my family heritage haunted me. The priests compared me to the family hero, Monsignor Roman Nuwer, and found me wanting. Monsignor Nuwer was a writer and priest. He filed dispatches from the South Pacific in World War Two for a Catholic paper. His pieces showed his human, unaffected nature. One time he offered a mass outdoors for the troops, and when he bowed low over the altar a dog ran up and licked his nose, said a relative of mine who wrote her master’s thesis on our family’s history.
A chaplain in both World Wars and a personal friend of two popes, he was famous within the church for spiriting the remains of the martyred St. Josephat from Vienna to the Vatican, while dressed as a coal deliveryman to fool guards in the Russian sector of Vienna. If that wasn’t bad enough, he helped oversee the relief fund begun by the exiled Trapp Family of Sound of Music fame, and Maria even wrote about him in her autobiography. In my mind he was both as big a hero as Fighting Father Duffy, a priest whose biography I read and treasured, and also a horrible pain in the butt because his last name and heroics made my priest-teachers highlight my own academic and behavior deficiencies all the more.
The priest I could never please was my algebra teacher, Rev. Paul Belzer, destined to gain fame late in life as the testy counselor to mass murderer Timothy McVeigh’s family in Niagara Falls, New York. My worst crime that I couldn’t take back was opening the window in class to make a snowball and missing Vincent Gidzinski. The snowball landed on the old-fashioned ledge above the door, paused there a second as all eyes in the class watched it, then plopped down on Father Belzer as he entered the room. All my “I didn’t mean its” carried no weight.
“We think he is gifted-disturbed,” one of my priests, Rev. Paul Juenker, told my mother on parents night, though I had never been tested for any emotional problems. She came home and woke me to chew me out. She would be in her mid-seventies before admitting to me that she took my side against the priest that meeting and gave him “a piece of her mind.” Thanks, Ma.
I’ll pass on the gifted, but if I was disturbed I think the problem was that I had bought into the Polish neighborhood mindset that you avenged all wrongs done against you. As a teen, sitting in the passenger side of a blond, foul-mouthed kid I knew named Al, I sat mesmerized and shocked as a driver who had cut him off swung their big boats of older cars back and forth into one another’s sides. The other driver was an older male, and the female in his passenger seat screamed and pounded on his arms.
So, at the seminary, when Tom Turici put a chocolate bar in a side pocket of my only sportscoat and it melted, I felt justified in throwing him into a locker until strapping Father Caligiuri picked me up and dangled me until I stopped struggling.
One of my classmates was Edward Michael Grosz, unmemorable and docile. He became auxilary bishop of Buffalo.
Right before I was expelled, the sister of a classmate came to the seminary, and somehow we ended up in an empty classroom kissing, just as the school rector flung open the door for an eyeful. What followed was sheer torment. Rector Monsignor Miller, the girl’s mother, and her brother screamed at us in the corridor.
The day Greg Fabianski, seated in the pew behind mine in chapel, took off my penny loafer and threw it onto the altar, I somehow felt justified to take a pointless wild swing that was spotted by Monsignor Miller, and meant immediate, no-appeals expulsions for Greg and me. It took less than an hour for the rector to write up my dismissal papers and stand beside me as I cleaned out my locker. I walked in disgrace through the gates of the seminary like the fallen son of a fallen Adam and marched through a poor neighborhood where several seminarians had been pummeled or skewered on pointy iron fence posts by teens on the block.
The day I was expelled, I boarded a Buffalo NFT bus and rode past my stop . I stayed on to the end of the line and went back for a return trip until I finally went home to face disaster.
Rather than tell my parents individually that I had been bounced for fighting in chapel, I broke the news at the dinner table. I had humiliated the family, and my father used plain English to tell me so. After my mother lost her status in the parish as the future mother of a priest, I was to lose whatever closeness she and I once had.
This disgrace of mine at fifteen for my parents was good practice for them, foreshadowing what they needed to endure from me for twenty more years.
Since no Catholic high school would take me, I ended up at Cheektowaga Central High School. The guidance counselor told me I wasn’t college material, and signed me up for auto mechanics and shop. I filibustered and won, getting to take college entrance classes. Because the seminary records showed that my grades overall were D and that my disciplinary record was, well, what it was, I was given fair warning that no nonsense was tolerated. That first lunch period, a kid from my neighborhood that used to fight with me named Dave Winiarz, decided it would be great sport to hit the cafeteria prefect with an orange. I was aghast, this was over the line, but grew defiant when the prefect grabbed me by the arm and hauled me to the principal’s office. I refused to snitch, and I came but a hair from earning my second expulsion in a week.
In high school I discovered the passionate voices of many authors, and I mowed down their works in bunches. Most of the animal novels of Jim Kjelgaard and M. Henry at fourteen. Dickens’ David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, and Oliver Twist at fifteen. Most of Hemingway’s fiction at sixteen. Rereading Hemingway at seventeen. Bolting down for dessert the works of Jack London, J.D. Salinger, D.H. Lawrence. “Don’t miss the underlined parts in the library books,” a friend advised
As a teen, and now, the bible and church books were also important to me. I was religious but mainly I was drawn to religious teachings because they show common people like myself ways to live. Like the theories of learned scientists and cosmologists, the tales of authors and theologians alike are constructed out of nothing more solid than hope and hearsay, logic and human evidence, consolation and dread, but the best outlast both rock and mortar. Unlike the frail human race, I learned from the masterful poet Robinson Jeffers, stories can live hundreds and thousands of years.
Stories have meaning, and meaning has to be conveyed in stories, I believe, or why does the writer bother. Ministers and philosophers tell us that life without meaning produces catastrophic effects for both the individual and society. As a child I tuned in every week to the TV lectures of Fulton J. Sheen, D.D., a religious leader who inspired me with his thoughtful teachings. Somewhere I read and put in a notebook a quotation from Sheen when he wrote that anarchy is society’s self-inflicted punishment for not supplying the goal of life. According to Sheen, the disconnected among us often plunge into carnality to replace an
And what do many individuals do to compensate for a deprival of purpose? intense need for purpose and direction.
I attended Buffalo State College 1964-1968, for no more noble reason than to play baseball my freshman year. Not only did I risk expulsion after getting in a tussle with a campus policeman that ended with me on the bottom of a stack of angry officers, but I also was savagely beaten in front of my date by two Buffalo detectives after I intervened while they stomped an old man they were arresting. “That teach you anything, kid?” asked the one who pulled down my sportcoat to pin my arms, while the other battered my face.
While at Buffalo State I was humiliated in class by my philosophy teacher, Russell C. Vannoy, after I raised my hand when he asked for a volunteer who believed in the existence of God. He asked me question after question about God, and I gave him the stock answers that the nuns of St. John Gualbert’s had given me. “Who made the birds?” I demanded to know. “Who rose from the grave and ascended into heaven?” I added, knowing I had him there.
It took Professor Vannoy seconds to demolish me in front of the class, and if you gave me a choice of reliving the less painful of two beatings, I’d take the one by the Buffalo cops over his. Nonetheless, his class was terribly important for a future journalist, although it was the eighties before I realized he was teaching me that skepticism was healthy and that my beliefs were only valid if they could withstand probing questions.
The only thing I hold against the professor was a comment I likely misinterpreted and should take the blame for myself. Speaking about existentialism, he led us into a discussion about suicide, and how every sane man must contemplate it at some time. Like the lyrics to an especially bad 50s song, I try to shake those words from my mind each time they crawl into my head uninvited.
Before New York’s Buffalo State would let me graduate,I had to purge from my speech ungrammatical constructions and Polish inflections thick as my grandmother’s duck’s blood soup. I bought a grammar book and a tape recorder with two reels the size of 45 RPM records. All the summer of ’67 I spun those reels in my room. Instead of sophisticated, I sounded breathless – and still do. But the supervisor of student teaching was satisfied and let me student teach – a requirement for graduation. I hold no resentment against Buffalo State. As if atoning for the obliteration of my speaking voice, it introduced me to the teacher who helped me find my voice on paper.
During the 1964-1965 school year, while I played right field sparingly on State’s freshman baseball team, Professor Fraser Drew went to Ireland and hopped a steamer from Galway to the Aran Islands, his face blistering from wind and salt. Trim, lithe and commanding in a classroom, although paralyzed when speaking elsewhere, Drew had a crewcut that he mowed often. He was half Irish, the English and Scots in him splitting the difference. In 1966 1 signed up for his introductory literature course. He was an honorary brother in my fraternity, andI thought he might be a pushover, an impression I’d formed when he signed my pledge plaque. On my first day, I flirted with an oblivious Sue Paterno. Drew stopped lecturing and pointed to a seat in front of him. I collected my books, cheeks glowing like oven burners. Some pushover
Drew had been reared in Vermont, a country boy much like Robert Frost’s swinger of birches. He was mad about horses, accompanying an aunt and uncle to the track to watch their trotter compete. Later, his love shifted to wolves, foxes, jays, and hawks. He came to admire the writings of John Masefield and Robinson Jeffers who used animals as metaphors in their poetry. His early learning came from books, and he prayed that he pronounced words properly the first time he said them.
As an adult he combined scholarship with his love for adventure. In 1955 Drew had an audience with Ernest Hemingway, the novelist whose books moved him the most. Hemingway seemed shy until the visitor pleased him by recognizing Joan Miro’s painting, The Farm, across a dining table. The writer took Drew to his office and pointed out his typewriter atop a bookshelf where he typed while standing. Hemingway gave Drew a sackful of signed books for himself, his father,and three students. Drew had come up with the idea of starting an annual contemporary literature award, giving his best students copies of signed volumes by writers and Hemingway applauded such generosity.
The writer talked about his convalescence from a plane crash and wished that he could have taken Drew on a fishing cruise. “Writers are always a disappointment when you meet them,” Hemingway said. “All the good in them goes into their books, and they are dull themselves.”
It was fashionable then to separate the work from the artist. Some colleagues dismissed him for emphasizing the biographies of authors when he taught. He fought back, telling them that such teaching would be soulless and sterile.
In 1953 he maneuvered to spend an afternoon in Robert Frost’s Vermont cabin. Frost was prideful enough to inquire how his poems were being taught. He sent the teacher away with an admonition:: “Don’t teach them a lesson, show them a lesson.”
I missed but one class, though I worked nights in blue-collar jobs, because I never knew what treasure Drew might bring in next: a signed letter sent to him by Masefield or Jeffers, the rare books and magazines he collected, and personal photographs taken of authors that they themselves had given him. He was so enthusiastic that his voice skipped octaves when he lectured – except when he recited poetry and ancient ballads with the skill of an orator.
My attention shifted from the joys of hitting a fastball to literature. I changed my major from history to English, checked out books by the sackful from the library, and put the same manic energy into study that had gone into batting practice and fraternity mischief.
In 1967, John Maseficld passed away, and I took Drew’s class in contemporary literature, paying tuition and partial expenses selling my plasma twice weekly and working nights in a coal coking plant. I worked hard with many breaks and read or slept on a sooty bench; I began writing to the authors Drew recommended me to read, telling them how their work moved me. Replies came from novelist Thornton Wilder, poet Archibald MacLeish, and humorist Ogden Nash. I would show these to Drew as they arrived. He seemed excited by my excitement, never letting on that he had cultivated similar enthusiasms in hundreds of students.
I don’t recall if my school had a creative writing class then, but after the female editor of the collegiate literary magazine laughed at the love poem I submitted for publication, I know I wouldn’t have taken one. One day I bushwhacked Drew in a grassy quad after class and asked him if he would read some poems I had written. He returned them with a few encouraging remarks. His guarded approval made the arranging and rearranging of words a satisfaction, something constant in my life that I’ve kept to this day
I began sending poems to magazines. A few were published, but in time all I could see in them were defects. I destroyed them as I closed in tight on my 30th birthday. Perhaps I recalled Drew’s praise of Housman’s flawless use of language and his “happy faculty of selecting the exact, the inevitable word and phrase.” The author of “A Shropshire Lad” (which Drew bought in a first edition for 510 pounds sterling) concealed the labor in his work, never showing chisel marks in stone. My poems had been sculpted with a heavy hand, dulling the chisel and fragmenting the stone.
Right before graduation my father called me into the living room and said that my name was in the Buffalo Evening News. I froze, because it had just been in there for speeding down Main Street, a fact that I’d kept from him until the paper printed my conviction. He showed me a notice that said Buffalo State had named the winners of Drew’s 1968 contemporary literature award. I’d been awarded a first edition signed by Drew and poet Louise Townsend Nicholl. She wrote him 1,056 letters in her lifetime.
Rarely would I see Drew again, but we continue to write to this day. In 1973 the chancellor of the State University of New York named Drew a Distinguished Teaching Professor. In 1982 then-mandatory retirement at 70 forced him to leave Buffalo State after 38 years. He did not go gently into retirement, taking trips to Ireland and paddling a red canoe in Lake Erie. As he edged into his nineties, Buffalo State’s Butler Library offered to print our correspondence of thirty-plus years. We titled it One Long Wild Conversation.
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Quotes from Hank Nuwer:
–“As with most hazing incidents, when a death occurs, both reckless disregard and the absence of common sense are to blame.” Hank Nuwer
–If a judge sentenced a hazer condemned to death to drink Everclear until he died, it would be cruel & unusual punishment. Can’t a hazer see asking a pledge to drink is cruel, unusual? –Hank Nuwer
–The worst hazers have always, to me, looked upon pledges as property, not precious human beings eager to be accepted and mentored.
“There is no acceptable level” of hazing in high school or college sports, says Hank Nuwer, who has written several books about hazing as a social problem and lectured on the subject at colleges nationwide. What sometimes is referred to as good-natured hazing “is an oxymoron,” said Nuwer, 71, professor of journalism at Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana. “It only takes one player to have that permission to take things out of bounds.”
–We pull for characters in a book because they really want something. The club/team that really doesn’t want to end hazing will never stop.–Hank Nuwer from new book: Hazing, Destroying Young Lives (Indiana Univ. Press, 2018).
–How to KNOW if a fraternity is responsible? Trust Aristotle who wrote: What are their habitual actions? Know the actions, know the chapter. –Hank Nuwer
–You and I one day will die sober. Sadly, that’s a gift that parents of hazing victims cannot say about their lost precious children. –Hank Nuwer, Statehousebureau.com
–Why do so many young people literally die to belong to fraternities, sororities, and other college social organizations? The answer is complicated, but here is a starting point: Ever since the medieval universities were founded, young people have done whatever it takes to gain acceptance, to break with their past lives, to achieve a sense of power, to carve out a society of their own that isn’t quite what their tutors and teachers had in mind. In the United States, hazing and drinking have been endemic since colonial days. From Hank Nuwer, Wrongs of Passage.
–Hazing is an extraordinary activity that, when it occurs often enough, becomes perversely ordinary as those who engage in it grow desensitized to its inhumanity. From Hank Nuwer, Wrongs of Passage.
–Few of us go through life without taking part in some kind of rite of passage. From Hank Nuwer, Wrongs of Passage
–In 2019, unless college students wake up and police their own kind, North America will experience 60 nonstop years of hazing deaths. From Hank Nuwer, the Statehouse Bureau.com