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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Getting to Notre Dame

Chapter 34

University of Notre Dame – 1943

Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that one day this old Ozark boy would walk onto the campus of fabled Notre Dame as a student.  When I alighted from the bus and walked through the main gate under the huge leafy trees of the big quadrangle, I was walking as if in a dream.  There before me was the gold leaf covered dome of the administration building and surrounding the main quadrangle were traditional old dormitory and classroom buildings.  Some were of stone and some of ivy-covered brick.  In the distance to the right I could see the football stadium that was familiar from newsreels of triumphs of the “Fighting Irish”.  (The famous Knute Rockne had passed on and it was the era of coach Frank Leahy.)

When I reported to the executive officer of the V-12 unit, a lieutenant commander, he was delighted to find that I was an experienced fleet sailor. Most of my classmates would be youngsters recruited fresh out of high schools.  The Exec promptly pu me to work helping to form the class.  (It also turned out that I was one of the older men in the class and it was no me who became known as “Pappy” Frieze, a cognomen I would carry all the way through V-12 and midshipman’s school until commissioning when I would become just another young ensign.)

It was on the morning of my second day at Notre Dame that I swore at a Naval officer for the second, and last, time.  (The first was that young ensign who didn’t know where the master switch was on PBY 71-P-7 starting out the “Hogan’s Goat” flight.)  I came into the V-12 office to assist with the class “Watch, Quarter, and Station Bill”.  When I appeared, the Exec’s yeoman casually said, “Hey, Frieze—too bad about that second set of orders.  Would have liked to have those myself.”

I stopped dean in my tracks.  What second set of orders?!”

“Geez,” the yeoman said, “thought you knew about it.  Your orders to flight school came yesterday.  The exec sent ‘em back.

“He WHAT?!”

Sent ‘em back.  He said that your orders to V-12 too precedence even though the orders to AP flight school were dated first.”

Without hesitation I bolted into the exec’s office.  He was working on some papers at his desk.  I do not recall my words but they spilled in a torrent, some as purple as my face no doubt was, to the effect that I should have had a choice in the matter.  The lieutenant commander carefully laid down his yellow pencil, leaned back in his chair, ad heard me out.  He did not speak until I ran out of breath then his words were terse.”

“You through, sailor?”

“Yessir—I guess so.”

“Then sit down!”

I did so, clutching my white hat between my knees and knowing I had lost my temper.

“Now look, I will only tell you this once.  If you went to flight school, you would wind up this war nothing but a journeyman throttle jockey.  If you didn’t get your butt shot off by a Zero—and the woods are going to be full of ex-service pilots when the world is over.

“On the other hand, if you can hack it in V-12—and about one out of three of you won’t—you are going to get a fine college education in the major of your choice—all paid for by Uncle Sam.  If you took those flight school orders instead of V-12, you would be a whole lot dumber than I think you are!  Besides, once you get your commission you can apply for flight school as an officer if you are bound and determined to fly.  War will likely be over by then—we hope—but I do believe it can be won without you out there.  Any questions?”

The officer waited patiently while I fiddled with my white hat and thought about it.  I knew he was right.  I suddenly flet stupid about my tirade.  It would have been a dumb old country boy mistake.  I came to my feet, stood at attention, and said simply, “Nossir!”

The lieutenant commander smiled faintly as he picked up his pencil and turned back to his papers.  “All right, Frieze, we’ll have men arriving all day.  Get out there and help Williams figure out the which dorm to put them in.  By the way, you know that you have to revert to apprentice seaman in the V-12 program so get that first class “crow” off your uniforms.  Carry on, seaman!”

That evening I sat in my room in one of Notre Dame’s ivied dormitories and, with a razor blade, took off both the first class AMM badges and two of the three white strips on the cuff of my dress blues.  I also had to find a tailor to put the white seaman’s stripe around the left shoulder of my blues and the blue one on my whites.  It was difficult to adjust to being a “boot” once more—especially on payday when I would drop from more than a hundred dollars back to the apprentice seaman’s pay of twenty-one dollars a month!

Coming as I had almost directly from the war in the Pacific and the crude living conditions in Dallas hut C-4 on Ile Nou, Notre Dame was a dream come true.  We bunked tow men to a room in the first brick dormitory building to the left of the main campus gate.  My roommate was a slender, black-haired New Yorker named Rossi.  He was a pleasant young fellow and we explored the campus and went on liberties together.

All the buildings were old, but they and the spacious campus grounds were immaculately kept.  Down a slope from the main quadrangle was the grotto with a statue of the Virgin Mary overlooking a lake beyond which lay Saint Mary’s, the Catholic female equivalent of Notre Dame.

Except for the specialized Navy classes conducted in a new building west of the main quadrangle, our classes were taught by either priests or lay brothers in their black robes and crucifixes.  They showed no bias about we non-Catholics and at no time during my two stays at Notre Dame was any effort made to convert me to Catholicism.  [It is possible that the conversion had happened the other direction 350 years before.  Rumor has it that our earliest ancestor coming to the New World, Francis Perkins, was a part of the Gunpowder Plot in England and hence had to flee.]

The only daily reminder we had that Notre Dame was a Catholic university was that each class was begun by an “Our Father” recited in unison.  To me, of course, it was the Lord’s Prayer and thoroughly familiar, with one exception that embarrassed me the first morning of classes.  The “Our Father” does not include the last line of the Lord’s Prayer, “For Thine is the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory forever and ever.  Ah-men.”  When we got to that point in Brother Justin’s English class, I rattled right on with the last line loud and clear causing everyone to turn and look at me.

Mortified, I muttered something like “I’m sorry, Brother Justin, you see I am a Protestant.”

Brother Justin, whose huge bulk in the black robe made him resemble Friar Tuck in the stories about Robin Hood, simply smiled kindly and said, “You will find, Mr. Frieze, that will not be held against you here.”  Then he eyed my slender frame, patted his fat belly, and added, “We shall get together sometime and perhaps you can pass along your secret of girth control!”

In actual fact, I did spend some non-class time with Brother Justin.  He and many others of the staff were quartered in an English motif grey stone building during that semester and later when I came back to Notre Dame for midshipman’s school, I sat in the lounge there with him and Brother Justin introduced me to the game of chess.

Our Saturday night and weekend liberties in South Bend were not as raucous as those in Chicago but it did not take Rossi and I long to find a favorite “watering hole”.  The South Bend of those days centered around the LaSalle Hotel, the largest in town.  It was conveniently situated downtown.  A block north was a bowling alley which we frequented.  One block west was a street having some bars and taverns.

Our watering hole to replace the Crown Propeller Lounge in Chicago was one called “The Music Box”.  It featured a long bar behind which was a small red-draped stage containing an organ.  The organist on Friday and Saturday nights was a pleasant elderly lady who had an extensive repertoire and was pleased at requests, most especially when they were accompanied by a fresh drink.  The first couple of evenings we spent there, I promptly requested my favorite, “Sentimental Journey”.  That lady had a memory for more than music.  From then on, like the combo at the Crown, when she saw me come through the door she would welcome me by swinging into that song.  (No, doubt it was the campaign bars on my blouse because, on twenty-one dollars a month, I did not have much extra money to buy her drinks.)

Our meager funds were another reason we frequented The Music Box.  They had an ex-pug in the kitchen that cooked the best bar chicken I ever tasted and, with a drink, it was dirt cheap.  That was often our supper.  Of course the fact that the Bendix Company had a factory near South Bend that employed a lot of the “Rosie the Riveters” during the war and some of them were regular patrons of the Music Box did nothing to scare us away!

We did not spend all our liberty time in bars or the bowling alley.  Depending on our finances, we often took in a movie, went to a ball game, or accepted home visit invitations form South Bend residents willing to entertain servicemen far from home for dinner or a picnic.  (We found to our glee that sometimes the latter would be some “Rosie the Riveter” types looking for men and some dandy parties resulted!)

There were also afternoon or evening USO dances.  At one of those I met a delightful little blonde tomboyish twenty-one-year-old whose name, I regret to say, I have forgotten.  I persuaded her to give me her telephone number to let me see her home.  She was from a home similar to mine back on the west side of Vancouver and we enjoyed each other’s company.  She belonged to a girls’ softball team and I spent a couple of Saturday afternoons watching her play.  There was, however, still Shirly waiting back in Vancouver and no real sparks flew between us so nothing ever came from that relationship except some innocent and enjoyable companionship.