Lying in bed, regaling me with tales about his father’s morgue, Bird rocked his head back and forth, led by the birdlike beak of a snow-white nose. I watched and listened from my bunk in the closet-sized room we shared in Breen Phillips Hall on the Notre Dame campus in 1956.
Brad, called “Bird” for how he pecked at food as well as for his nose, soon let fly his scorn and hatred for living on campus, especially for the horrible food at every meal. He had a point. My stomach growled assent. After several weeks that fall, the full Dining Hall rebelled in a food riot that actually got attention after dried-out pizza slices became ballistic Frisbees (a fad soon to be massively popular). A bit of genius, started by several hall-length flings by Bird and catches by known confederates.
Our reaction was certainly justified, considering the huge cost of attending ND, God’s gift to the Irish, the temple of football’s “Golden Boy” Paul Hornung (some said Paul was represented by the golden stature atop the Golden Dome!). The administration soon announced that there would be baked potatoes and steak next Sunday. Well, the potatoes were chalky and the steak so sour and tough that when my meaty bone bounced off the floor, a sneaky dog, who usually ate what I dropped, sniffed it and backed away whining.
Unlike Bird, I didn’t want to live off campus in South Bend but, rather, anyplace but Notre Dame, which treated us like children. Getting desperate, on a football weekend I brought my girlfriend, visiting from Michigan State, to the room and Bird helped us drink and stack a pyramid of Bud beer cans on a window sill to taunt the fates. We even left the door open. I’d heard about a student expelled for sneaking a six-pack of last year’s Frankenmuth Bock beer into the dorm along with an overaged townie girl and figured this might work. Hornung beat the Spartans. But nope. No win for me or Bird.
Bad food was just one of several reasons Bird offered the administration for moving off campus. He finally went directly to the president, Father Hesburgh, by hijacking the great man’s confessional booth and calling attention to his personal issues, not sins. Bird insisted he should not go to mass every morning at 6:45. Father Hesburgh chuckled, told Bird to get used to it and that Breen Phillips Rector, Fr. Kelly, would monitor and resolve the situation. In those dark but carefree pre-PC days, Bird could comfortably be called “Bird” rather than Brad. I, for obvious reasons, had been christened “Chief Thunder Ass.” And all of our Hall denizens called Fr. Kelly “Jug Ears” due to the rosy flaps that would have made Dumbo proud—but never to his freckled, all-too-elfish malevolent mug.
“Jug” would periodically burst into our room to catch Bird in bed rather than at required morning chapel, chalking up demerits, administering “Dawn Patrol” (a trek twice around the huge campus rain, snow, smoke or shine), requiring Bird to dine at the Dining Hall, and doubling punishments for his missing mass on Sundays. Jug would sniff, slam open a window, hold his nose, look at me and mutter, eyes watering, “No one will ever marry you.”
The Sunday after I’d last listened to Bird’s revised litany of complaints proved crucial. Mostly at night, Fr. Kelly wore just one tennis shoe and a basic black hard-heeled wing-tip—why? So he could trot down the hall and sound like he was walking. A nasty but effective trick to catch us studying with flashlights after automatic Lights Out! at 10:00 pm, or with hands still on our dicks. Kelly was very sensitive about the new maids, refugees from the recently failed Hungarian Revolution. Emese, our maid, had complained about “the boys blowing their noses on the sheets.” Bird denied that and added sexual harassment to his argument for moving.
We finally figured out Kelly’s shoe ruse, a curse for the oft-caught Bird. That Sunday, Kelly arrived at our room at noon, expecting to find Bird in bed. And he was, covered up to his snow-white neck, exposing pallid face and shiv-sharp nose, suggesting the head of a corpse in a casket. Kelly silently ripped the blanket off Bird, whose eyes were closed, body dressed in his black Sunday suit, white shirt, silver tie and shiny double-soled black Bostonians. A Holy Missile in one hand, a rosary twined on the fingers of the other, he looked sincerely dead. Jug Ears shuddered, blanched, teetered back. Bird’s eyes snapped open, he sat up, cawed like a crow, and shouted, “Gotcha Jug Ears!” Bird had attended an early mass.
I farted a congratulatory volley of double blips, laughed my ass off, even echoed “Gotcha,” but the priest (probably a pedophile) sniffed and ignored me. I had the room to myself from then on, but often ate and got drunk at Bird’s very cool off-campus apartment. With a pool. Bless you, Bird.
Having published work on American authors and written for film, Ralph La Rosa now devotes himself to poetry and prose. Publications appear on the Internet, in print journals, in the chapbook Sonnet Stanzas, and in the full-length Ghost Trees and My Miscellaneous Muse: Poem Pastiches & Whimsical Words.