Looking Back on a Good Year: 2013

2013 to 2014

A New Year is an opportunity to look back and to look forward and like many people I like to look at the year just completed to assess and to remember, especially the good times. Here, in no particular order, except for the first one, are the highlights of 2013:

1. Birth of Lucia

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The year 2013 started with a bang as Lucia Rose was born on January 3. She was a bit late, missing the tax year deadline by 72 hours, but nevertheless we were just happy to have her arrive. It’s been a year now, but like with all the kids, it’s hard to imagine a time before her.

2. Secrets of Star Wars podcast with Fr. Roderick

In the spring, Fr. Roderick Vonhogen of the powerhouse Catholic podcasting network SQPN asked me if I’d be interested in co-hosting a podcast about the new, upcoming Star Wars movies with him. Fr. Roderick and I are the same age and we were both captivated by Star Wars when it first appeared in 1977 and it’s been a part of each of our lives since then so I naturally leaped at the chance. Plus, I’ve been looking for a podcasting project for a while now and why not start with the master? We’ve only had a handful of episodes of the Secrets of Star Wars so far, partly due to Father’s madcap calendar, but also because there’s not a whole lot to talk about yet with the first movie due out in 2015.

3. Hosting the CNMC

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Boston holds the distinction of being the only city to host the Catholic New Media Conference twice (apart from Atlanta, where it was started as an adjunct of their annual Eucharistic Congress). The Archdiocese welcomed SQPN and the conference in 2010 and then we hosted again in October, 2013. A highlight of the event was the keynote by Msgr. Paul Tighe, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, whose address on the Vatican’s efforts in social media garnered international attention. The VIP day which included a tour of Boston and hands-on workshops in the city added to the awesomeness.

4. Vacation to Maine

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In August, we took a family vacation to Maine. Wanting our kids to experience the whole package, we bought a family-sized tent and camping gear for our kids. We took the long way by driving up through the White Mountains and then east into Maine to arrive at my sister’s house. We picked up my mom there as well as her camper and then continued on to the Camden/Rockland area where we camped out, cooked outdoors, had campfires and made s’mores. They had such a great time that they wanted me to set up the tent in our backyard when we got home so they could continue to camp out.

5. Coverage of the resignation of Pope Benedict and election of Pope Francis

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While I didn’t actually get to go to Rome like my colleagues George Martell and Scot Landry, I was the point man back here editing and posting all the content they were sending back, including audio interviews, YouTube videos, blog posts, and hundreds and hundreds of photos. Much of it ended up on the website of The Good Catholic Life. With all the attention being paid to Cardinal Seán as papabile, the intimate access we had to him proved to be compelling for our many social media readers and listeners.

6. Coverage of Cardinal Seán going to the Holy Land

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Hard on the heels of his return from Rome and the conclave, Cardinal Seán headed back out again on a long-planned pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a large group of Boston priests. Once again, I wasn’t able to go so I stayed here editing and posting all the photos and blog posts he sent back. It was so compelling and interesting, that–at the risk of sounding clichéd–I felt like I was there. I was especially moved by the photos of them celebrating Mass in the Tomb of the Holy Sepulcher, although the FaceTime call from a boat floating on the Sea of Galilee was a lot of fun too.

The joy of the pilgrimage was cut short, however, by the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing that occured on the last day of the pilgrimage. I had to shift quickly from joyful pilgrimage photos to our prayerful response to the bombings, including the ecumenical prayer service attended by the President in Holy Cross Cathedral.

7. Isabella’s First Confession

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We’ve known that the time is approaching for Isabella to receive the next sacraments in the sacraments of iniation–First Confession and First Communion. She hasn’t been in any religious education class; we’ve just been forming her at home. But we hadn’t made any formal plans yet.

A few weeks ago, in early December, we were at Mass and stopped to chat with Fr. Matt Williams, who lives in residence at our parish and is the Archdiocesan director of the Office for the New Evangelization of Youth and Young Adults. We mentioned that Isabella was preparing for her First Confession and he jokingly asked her, “Would you like to go now?” I think he expected her to recoil at the thought, but instead she chirped, “Sure!” The adults were taken aback at her readiness and after making sure that she was really sure, off she went to the sanctuary (Fr. Currie, the pastor, was hearing confessions in the confessional already) and there she had her first confession. I have to admit to being a bit emotional at my daughter receiving this sacrament, the first sacrament she sought for herself, and that she was so grown-up.

We’re looking forward to her First Communion on the Feast of the Presentation.

8. Family visits: Granddad, Grandma, Theresa

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Until recently, all of my family lived close by us. The furthest was my mom and my sister Francesca who lived in Maine, but that was only a couple hours drive. (This fall, though, they moved to Virginia where my sister has a new job.) Melanie’s family, however, are all in Texas and while in 2012 we were able to fly down for her brother’s wedding, it is cost prohibitive and just plain difficult, especially now that we have five kids. (Much to my chagrin, because I really do enjoy Texas, especially in the winter.)

Thus her family–mainly her mom, dad, and sister–come to visit us. Melanie’s mom, as is the custom now, came right when Lucia was born in order to help as Melanie recovered from the c-section. Then her dad came after that. Theresa came to visit around Easter. Their visits are always times of joy, especially for the kids, who love getting stories read whenever they request and to go on walks and all the rest.

This past summer, Melanie’s dad had a stroke and his recovery was nearly miraculous. He was home within a couple days and the only lingering effects were trouble with hearing conversations and speaking, which were treated with speech therapy and a hearing aid. Still, it was quite nice to have him come back to visit us again this fall, especially for Melanie who so wished she could have been there with him when he was in the hospital.

9. Museums and zoos

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It has become our custom to purchase one or two museum or zoo or other memberships each year. With a family our size, the cost of a yearly family membership is only slightly more than one trip to these places and with the membership the opportunity cost to go is pretty low. We can pack up at a moment’s notice, go for half a day and come home again without worrying about getting our money’s worth.

This year we had a membership to the Museum of Fine Arts at the beginning of 2013. When that expired, we got one for the Museum of Science. We also bought a membership at the Franklin Park Zoo. We were able to go to the MFA for some excellent exhibits, including one of Audobon prints and another of Japanese culture, including samurai arms and armor. At the Museum of Science, we saw the incredible Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit that included some of the actual scrolls, as well as a two-ton block of stone from the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. At the end of the year, we made another visit, this time seeing the new Global Kitchen exhibit that discusses food production, geopolitical issues surrounding food, personal nutrition, the ways that different cultures prepare food and more. It was quite good.

We also like to take advantage of deals available from the likes of Groupon and Living Social, which let us go to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a truly quirky but excellent museum, the legacy of Ms. Gardner who was an amazing collector of art and who upon her death left her Italianate palazzo and all the art in it as a permanent gift to posterity.

The zoo was another kind of outing for us. It is a short trip for us from our home and nearly all outdoors so it’s almost like going to the park, just with lions and tigers and gorillas, oh my. We went a few times and I even took the four of them on my own once while Melanie stayed home with Lucia.

10. Going to Denver for the Catholic Media Conference

I had been invited to go to the Catholic Media Conference in 2013 and give a presentation on diocesan social media. It was just around the same time I was suddenly given the additional responsibilities of producing The Good Catholic Life, our daily radio program, so I almost cancelled. I’m glad I didn’t. While the conference itself was okay, I really appreciated the opportunity to catch up with friends, including some at the conference like Greg and Jennifer Willits (Greg works for the Archdiocese of Denver now and helped organize the event) and those who just happen to live in Denver like Jim and Meg Beckman, who I went to Steubenville with and who I hadn’t seen in more than 15 years. A highlight of the trip was getting a tour of the Augustine Institute, a very impressive place. I was drooling over the high-tech media production they have going there.

What might have been the best part of the trip was the most unexpected. I had an amazing conversation with my driver on the way to the airport. I believe he was Ethiopian Orthodox and he had a lot of questions about Catholicism and what I do for the Church. By the time we got to the airport, I feel like we had connected, not to proselytize one another, but like long-lost brothers getting to know one another again.

Looking Forward

It’s not a bad way to spend New Year’s Eve, looking back on the year that’s just concluded and this exercise has reminded me of some good times. I hope to do this again as 2015 dawns and, the good Lord willing, a tradition for years to come. And if I don’t make it that far, well, I hope and pray that the time I have is spent wisely and wonderfully.

8 Life Lessons I Learned from Navy ROTC

After graduating high school in 1986, I attended Boston University and was a member of their Navy ROTC[1] program in a non-scholarship status. I only lasted at BU for a year (long story, short: I was not mature enough for college yet), but I learned some important lessons in that brief time wearing the uniform of our nation’s Armed Forces. Ironically, while I wasn’t mature enough to handle the responsibility of college, my ROTC experience did give me some valuable life experience that I’ve tried to keep with me in the intervening three decades.

The 8 Important Life Lessons I Learned from ROTC are:

  1. Don’t make excuses.
  2. Apologize sincerely.
  3. Get it done.
  4. Stick together.
  5. Earn your honors and respect those earned by others.
  6. Discipline leads to success.
  7. A quick wit can turn a negative to a positive.
  8. Ultimately, success isn’t always what you think it is.

Don’t make excuses

One of the first lessons I learned was to not offer excuses when confronted with an error or challenged by a superior. Rarely does anyone care why you did what you did, and if they do that’s a question that they will ask you later. What they want to hear from you in the moment is how you will fix the error.

The first element of my ROTC experience was indoctrination week. We were loaded on a bus outside the ROTC house at BU and transported to the US Navy’s Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island, about a week or so before the start of my freshman year. As we arrived, the senior midshipmen– the upperclassmen who have leadership roles in the battalion–greeted us by running us off the bus and into formation standing at attention through the effective method of yelling in our faces. That was nothing compared to what we experienced next, which was a real-life US Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant[2], giving us an idea of the challenges we’d meet in the next week.

As for the lesson, I noticed right away that whenever even the smallest violation was brought to the attention of a 4th class (i.e. one of us freshmen), if the unfortunate soul tried to offer an excuse, the questioner would fly into an affected rage. “Bettinelli, you’re shirt is untucked.” “I’m sorry, sir, but I was dressing when you called us into the hall…” “WHAT?!!!! Drop and give me 20!” But if we just apologized and kept our mouths shut otherwise, well, we might still get punishment, but the reaction was milder: “Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”

Even after Indoc week was over, and the boot camp atmosphere dissipated, the lesson was still clear. If you do something wrong, take responsibility and don’t make excuses. Even if it’s not your fault, suck it up and make it right.

In life, there are plenty of screw-ups who make excuses, but everybody remembers the guy who doesn’t make excuses, fixes his mistakes, and doesn’t make the same mistake twice.

Apologize sincerely

When you do make a mistake, make your apology sincere. Don’t just offer some weak, pro forma apology that crosses your lips without a second thought. As a corollary, just because you’re dressed down doesn’t mean you have to apologize. Sometimes the best response is “Yes” or “OK” rather than “Sorry”, if the apology would be unwelcome or meaningless.

I saw several instances where a midshipman crossed a superior or, heaven forbid, the Gunny, and when his response was a weak, “Oh sorry,” receiving a full measure in return because it shows such a lack of respect. In an attitude of respect there’s always a hint of fear, not necessarily fear of injury to your self, but fear of injury to the other. There should be a fear of offending, of letting the other person down, or of appearing not to give them their due. Respect is always earned and if you don’t pay what is due, then don’t be surprised if the person comes to collect.

On the other hand, a sincere and swift apology often mollified the offended party quickly, letting you go on about your business without further repercussions.

Get it done

A task or a deadline isn’t to be taken lightly. If you have a job to do, then do it. No excuses. You will be judged not necessarily on your capacity to do work, but on your willingness and tenaciousness in doing it.

This goes right along with making no excuses. My experience in NROTC was that the battalion’s midshipman officers expected that when you were given an order that it would be carried out. They didn’t come back to check on you to make sure you were doing it and when it was time for it to be done they assumed it would be. If you’re unable to finish the task, for whatever reason, then say so forthrightly, no excuses, with the proper sense of regret and apology.

Then if your failure to complete was the result of circumstances beyond your control, well, sometimes he didn’t care and took it out on you anyway. Life’s not fair, Francis. But don’t make excuses and make it worse. Certainly, don’t whine and snivel about it.

Stick together

No matter what, you stand with your teammates. One of the training games they liked to play was to find fault with one guy and make the entire squad or platoon do some sort of punishment for it. It’s not designed to make us resent the one who screwed up. After all, sooner or later, we’re all going to take a turn as the screwup. No, it tells us that we’re all in the same mess together and that we’re only as strong as the weakest among us so we better damn well make up for the weaknesses of each other.

There was one guy in my class who got under the Gunny’s skin for some reason. Maybe he was just a little too cocksure at first, a little too physically fit. Maybe Gunny just didn’t like his looks. Maybe he saw potential in him and wanted to test him. Whatever the reason, Gunny was constantly finding fault with him and that meant we all suffered a bit. But that didn’t lead to resentment. In fact, we ended up banding together behind him, boosting his spirits and helping him to overcome whatever deficits came his way.

I remember that on one of our last days in Newport, they marched us out to a field after a week of drills and standing at attention and not daring to express any emotion but eagerness. As we arrived, we saw a barbecue set up and we were ordered to “Have fun!” After determining this wasn’t just another training trick, we all fell to easy camaraderie and laughter. Pretty soon we were gabbing about our experiences and especially those of our classmate who’d suffered under Gunny. It wasn’t long before we were laughing hysterically over our friend’s misfortunes and vowing to stand beside him come what may.

That lesson would bear fruit throughout our year together as we helped each other, whether it was ensuring everyone got to drill on time, or helping with uniform troubles, or providing extra studying assistance in difficult classes.

Earn your honors and respect those earned by others

My goal when entering ROTC was to become a Naval Aviator and eventually go on to become an astronaut. When I was in high school, I found at an Army-Navy surplus store a pin that depicted the insignia of a Naval astronaut; which were the regular gold wings of the aviator with a comet flying through them. I put the pin in a plain ball cap and took to wearing it around as a sign of my ambition. Eventually, I just took it for granted.

So one day, I’m walking down the street at school and meet one of the officers in the NROTC unit, a US Marine major who happened to be a Naval Aviator. He gave me an odd look as he greeted me, but I didn’t think anything of it. Later on, I received a summons to a meeting with another of the officers. He asked me about the pin and showed it to him.

He explained to me that only those who’ve earned the right should wear insignia. I had not finished flight training, never mind been commissioned an officer in the Navy and so had no right to wear the wings of an aviator. Looking back now, it’s improper for stores to even be selling them.

It’s good to aspire to a goal and to have reminders that encourage you on the path, but that’s different from appropriating that which is earned by those who wear it. An aviator puts in many grueling hours of training to win his wings and then risks his life every day in the duty which they signify. An astronaut puts in even more training and takes even greater risks. If just anyone can wear those wings then it cheapens their meaning. When I see someone wearing the wings, it should be a sign of something.

A priest wears a Roman collar and it means something. If just anyone were to wear the collar, then it would lose its sign value. If I wanted to wear the wings, I would have to earn them.

Discipline leads to success

This was more of a negative lesson for me. My freshman year in college ended up essentially as a disaster, because the part of school I enjoyed and worked hard at was the military training, while the rest of my studies were neglected. In high school, I had skated by in my classes with only half efforts. I didn’t get all As, but mainly Bs, even though I know with more work I could have got As. Unfortunately, that didn’t work in college. You have to do all the work.

You also have to go to class. I was still living at home and commuting to school so it was a lot like high school still. But I was now responsible for myself. I had to get on the train and go to school. And once at school I had to go to the classes. I didn’t. I spent a lot of time in the computer labs on the primitive version of social networking they had in 1987. (One day I’ll tell the tale of how I romanced the beautiful upperclass girl through my words, and how shocked she was to find I was just a shy freshman in person.) I spent plenty of time reading novels and hanging out in the wardroom at the ROTC unit.

Eventually I crashed and burned. I flunked nearly every course. I was put on suspension from NROTC which didn’t matter because I also lost all my financial aid and had to drop out.

If I’d had the discipline and stuck to my studies with half the zeal I did drill and studied the military science topics, I might not have graduated at the top of my class, but I would have succeeded. I might even have won an NROTC scholarship.

A quick wit can turn a negative into a positive

One of the tricks the upperclassmen liked to play on the freshman during Indoctrination week involved some late night sneaking. As part of our formation as military men, each room of two freshmen on each floor of the barracks spent one hour per night on watch, walking up and down the empty hallway.

On this particular morning, my roommate and I woke up to something peculiar. There was trash all around me on my bed and on my roommate’s bed. Empty potato chip bags, candy wrappers, and soda cans. Even worse, our door was closed, which was a clear violation of regulations. In my sleep-addled state, I did recall that after our watch our door had been left open as required.

As we stared uncomprehending at the mess in our room, the door banged open and in rushed a gaggle of senior midshipmen, all screaming at us to stand at attention and then berating us for holding a party, for smuggling in contraband, for violating the orders about the door. Of course, this was all a ploy to rattle us and to have an excuse to mete out more disciplinary and character-building punishment.

It worked a little bit and we were on the verge of something unpleasant when one of the seniors asked me a fortuitous question:

“Do you deny all this, Bettinelli?”
“Yes, sir!”
“Really, so am I to assume instead that some Commie spies snuck in here last night, had a party while you slept, and left all this evidence behind?”
“That would be logical, sir!”

That was the fateful line that turned the day. While his tone remained outraged and perhaps his voice went up a few octaves, I could tell this amused the midshipman a bit.

“Logical! Who are you? Mr. Spock?” Before I could respond, he gave me an order. “I want you to grab the tips of your ears and go stand in the hall. And every time I call out for Mr. Spock, I want you to grab your ears and come running!”

And that’s how I was the first freshman to receive an official call sign, a cool nickname that could only be bestowed by an upperclassman. It’s a pretty cool call sign too, because often they’re determined by something stupid you do, a prominent physical trait, or even an embarrassing pun on your name. I thought being Mr. Spock was cool!

Ultimately, success isn’t always what you think it is

The most important lesson I learned comes from having dropped out of NROTC and college after all. For a long time, I’d had my life’s journey mapped. From the beginning of high school I’d known I wanted to become an astronaut and the way I’d do that would be by getting an engineering degree, becoming a Naval Aviator, eventually making my way to test pilot, then applying for NASA’s astronaut program, and so on. I didn’t even get out of the starting gate.

The next five years after that were not good ones for me. While all my friends were at college and then graduating, I was working in a factory in a dysfunctional work environment, getting drunk when I could, ditching work, barely socializing. I’d come home from work, and wouldn’t bother to change into something clean. I was wallowing.

After that, I got a job at a Christian bookstore and church supply store where my mother worked. That was a nice place for a few years, but I still wasn’t going anywhere. I couldn’t figure out what God wanted from me. I didn’t understand why He’d let me fail so spectacularly.

Let’s leap ahead to the end: If I’d stayed on my original path, I’d never have met Melanie and we wouldn’t have my five beautiful kids. My sister would never have met her husband and their eight kids wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have my job working in social media for the Archdiocese. I doubt I’d have had the time to discover a joy in writing and a talent for it that could be honed.

In my freshman year at BU, I thought I knew what success looked like for me. It turns out that God had a better plan for me, something that I couldn’t imagine, and although I had to travel a dark road to get here (and I still have a long, undoubtedly bumpy road ahead), it’s well worth it.

So why did I have to endure all that in the first place then? I figure it’s because I needed to learn these eight lessons from my time in NROTC. I haven’t always correctly applied them, but they’ve been helpful nonetheless. And while I still experience a tinge of regret now and then, I’m grateful to have had the experience and that my life took the path it eventually did.


  1. ROTC is short for Reserve Officer Training Corps, a program by which college students study to become reserve officers in the military while attending school and taking a normal course load.  ↩
  2. As part of the Department of the Navy and the Naval Service, the Marines train their officer-candidates alongside the Navy’s in the Naval Academy and NROTC, although they have a separate Officer Candidate School for post-college officer training.  ↩

The Curry Favor

Ever since my bachelor days I’ve been a fan of Indian curries made at home for dinner. Back then, it was not unknown for me to eat tikka masala, vindaloo, or korma four or five times a week.

I’d picked up the habit after a series of priests from India had come for several summers and stayed in the rectory where I lived. At least a few were cooks and they introduced me to their native cuisine.

Now when I make curry it’s rarely from scratch but it’s also never straight from a box or jar. I use commercial curry paste but add other ingredients as well. And I almost never make it exactly the same way twice.

Lately I’ve been adding curry powder at the simmer stage. In order to boost that flavor. At the end I always add the traditional garam masala, which boosts the flavor depth. And tonight I grated a chunk of ginger and added with onions to sauté.

I love curry, as you might guess. Melanie claims I’m addicted. All I know is that on nights when I make it, the leftovers begin to call to me about 9pm and I can’t resist.

But who can blame me? I wish I could properly thank those priests who introduced me to homemade curry those summers. You might say they “curried” favor from me.

  Posted via email  from Domenico’s posterous 

 

Julia and me

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There’s a new movie out about Julia Child, the famous (and some would say the best-ever) TV cook. Julia Child graced the airwaves of PBS for decades without pretentiousness, famed for her wit and easygoing style, especially in the face of culinary errors. The movie, “Julie & Julia”, is half biography of Julia child, half the story of a woman who cooks every recipe in her most famous cookbook, “Mastering The Art of French Cooking”, in one year.

I have special memories from my youth of Julia Child. My mom worked outside the home when I was in high school and as a single mom of 5 kids she would struggle to come home from work and cook a meal for us all. So the cooking duties began to devolve upon us. We’d come home from school, find a package of defrosting chicken in the sink and a note of instructions. It was during this time that my TV watching habits began to turn from typical teenage boy fare to PBS and the specifically to Julia Child. In the days before the Food Network, PBS was the place for televised cooking instruction, from Julia to “Yan Can Cook” to the Frugal Gourmet. But Julia was queen of them all.

I didn’t learn all my cooking skills from Julia—working in an Italian restaurant kitchen helped as well—but she was instrumental as inspiration. My very first cookbook was not “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” which I think I found too intimidating, but another cookbook, “From Julia Child’s Kitchen”. I can’t say I cooked many recipes from it; despite being French cooking for the average American housewife, I was a teenager and our pantry was somewhat more limited than even her simplified recipes called for.

Yet there is one recipe from the book that brings back pleasant memories because it was the first major holiday dish I ever cooked for my family. I can’t say exactly what year it was, but I’d guess it was toward the end of my high school years. I’d seen an episode of Julia’s show in she made it and I told my mom that I would like to try to make it for the family. It was a roast leg of lamb— gigot d’agneau roti—and I would cook it for Easter dinner. I was determined to follow every instruction to the letter and prepare every ingredient as instructed, right down to getting the proper “whole” leg, including hip bone, main leg bone, and shank bone. Most supermarkets only sold them without the shank bone, but my mom went to the effort to find a butcher who could provide the proper lamb.

Long story, short—mainly because I don’t really remember most of the details—the lamb and its sauce were delicious. I made it every year after that until I moved to Steubenville for college and then made it a few times there for friends, but I don’t think I’ve made it more than once or twice since then. I recently picked a new hardbound copy of “From Julia Child’s Kitchen” on Bookmooch, to replace my now falling-apart original copy so it may be time to bring back that old favorite and to try some of those recipes I never had a chance to try back then.

And when I do I will lift a glass of wine in tribute to the dear lady who launched a love of food and cooking in a teenage boy those decades ago.

An update on the Msgr Kerr, Ted Bundy, and Rosary story

When I wrote back in May about Msgr. William Kerr, how I met him, and his connection to Ted Bundy and one of his victims, I never imagined it would be spread throughout the Internet. I’ve seen people claim it’s a falsehood and an urban legend. I can only respond that I do acknowledge I heard it third-hand, but that it was transmitted from Msgr. Kerr to my friend Fr. Gabriel and then to me, and I trust them implicitly.

On the other hand, I’ve seen the post lifted in its entirety with a false Associated Press dateline added to it, as if to end more credibility to the story. If you think you’re helping Our Lady and the Holy Spirit with this falsehood, don’t. God doesn’t need any lies to spread the Good News.

In any case, I’ve made a few corrections and updates to the original post. For one thing, I don’t know why I wrote that Msgr. Kerr administered last rites, as I don’t recall Fr. Gabriel telling me that. Everything else I wrote was pretty much spot-on, but I edited a bit to clean up emphases. I also added a section on Msgr. Kerr’s later contacts with Bundy and Bundy’s parents, and the forgiveness of the parents of one victim.

If I’d know how much interest there was in the story, I would have checked my facts with Fr. Gabriel first, but I’m glad he’s contacted me to reassure me on the facts I got right and to nudge me on the bits that needed nudging.

 

How a typo ruined my day

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Most days you wake up and you think it’s just going to be an ordinary day. And once in a while, it just takes a left turn. Yesterday was one of those days.

I’d made an appointment with our excellent mechanic to bring in Melanie’s minivan for an oil change and state inspection sticker. About mid-morning I got a call from them, which I had expected was a notice that the work was done and they were delivering the car to my house. (Did I mention how excellent they are? Abington Sunoco. Tell them I sent you.)

Instead, the mechanic was telling me that when they went to do the inspection, the state computers came back that my registration wasn’t valid. That can’t be right, I thought. I renewed the registration this past February. It should be good until 2011. The mechanic suggested I call my insurance agent—which turned out to be excellent advice—and my agent (who is also excellent; Ahmed Insurance; tell them I sent you too) looked up my registration on the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, i.e. the DMV, computer system, which told him that my license plates had been returned on May 14 and the registration canceled!

A quick check with the mechanic confirmed that, yes, both license plates were still on the car. So what was going on? The working theory was—and still is—that some clerk at the DMV mistyped someone else’s plate number and canceled mine instead of someone else’s. All I could do was to take my plates and a verification from my insurance agent to the closest DMV office and try to hash it out. The problem is that the car was 30 minutes away in one direction in Abington and my agent was over an hour away in the other direction in Salem! But because I have such an excellent agent and mechanic, it turned out to be less of a problem. My mechanic drove the plates and registration to my office in Braintree; did I mention how excellent he is? And the agent found a local independent agent near my office to whom he could send my information so he could fill out and sign my form.

So once I had my plates in hand, I sought out the local insurance agent. This guy is not so excellent. For one thing, he charged me $20 to sign this form. I later confirmed with my agent that this was somewhat sleazy since it’s generally accepted that agents will do this sort of thing for each others’ customers as a courtesy. It took all of 5 minutes to complete the form, if that. Then this guy tried to advise me to leave my old plates in my car and go in to the DMV and just register my car from scratch, which would have cost me at least another $40. Talking to my own agent after he told, “You can do whatever you want, but my advice is to take the plates and have them fix their mistake.” In the end I followed his advice and I’m glad I did.

In the meantime, I drove to the Braintree DMV office and got in line to wait. And wait. And wait. I waited over an hour. When I finally got to the window, I put on my nicest, happiest customer face. I was pleasant and self-deprecatory and understanding and turned my puppy dog eyes to the woman. Where the baseline level of hostility at the DMV is usually around 6 out of 10, I think I managed to bring it down to about 3. She confirmed that the plates had been canceled in the Reading office, miles and miles away from my home and someplace I’ve never been, and that the system claimed that the plates had been turned in, which was obviously not true. So she quickly reinstated the plates. That’s it! No rigamarole and no additional fee. After that, I drove to Abington to drop off the plates and registration so they could finish the inspection, then back to work to try to salvage what was left of the day, and then home to pick up my sister-in-law, and then to the mechanic to pick up the car (by this time it was too late for them to drop the car off; I don’t blame them), and then home.

In the end, I was out $20 and a half-day of lost work. But I acknowledge it could have been a lot worse. If the police had pulled us over and discovered the canceled registration, they would have towed it on the spot and fined us. If it were Melanie and the kids, they could have been left standing by the road. And the fact that the cancelation happened in the same month as the inspection sticker expired was also a small miracle. If the inspection hadn’t been required now, we could have driven around for months and months on an expired registration.

As much of a hassle as this was, I am grateful that it wasn’t much, much worse. But it just goes to show how one innocuous typo in the wrong place can ruin the day of someone you never know about somewhere else.

Photo credit: Flickr.com user M.V. Jantzen. Used under a Creative Commons license.

How I knew the priest who ministered to Ted Bundy & his victims

[Update: Corrections and updates made throughout the post based on corrections from my friend, Fr. Gabriel. If I’d known this was going to get as much attention as it did, I would have contacted him first to have him vet the story. In particular, Msgr. Kerr did not administer last rites to anyone. Not sure where in my memory that came from. Nearly everything else was essentially correct.]

Monsignor William Kerr has died. Among other things, he was famous for having administered the last rites come to the spiritual aid of one of serial killer Ted Bundy’s lastvictims and then became a spiritual counselor for Bundy on death row.

I met Monsignor Kerr in 1994, I believe, when he was president of La Roche College, outside Pittsburgh. I was a student at Franciscan University of Steubenville and I’d been preparing for the Total Consecration to Mary according to St. Louis de Montfort with some of my friends. One of them was my roommate, Kevin Gillen, now Fr. Gabriel Gillen, OP, who knew the monsignor. Kevin arranged for Msgr. Kerr to lead us in the final consecration following Mass at La Roche. I don’t remember too much about the day, but I do remember Msgr. Kerr was kind and gracious to us.

Kevin told us the story Msgr. Kerr told him about that awful night in Gainesville Tallahassee, Florida, in 1978. He said Kerr got the call from the police in the middle of the night to rush out to the sorority house. When he arrived he was told that all but one of the girls in the house were dead or near death, killed by a serial killer who was later to be known to the world as Ted Bundy. After giving those last rites to the dying college girl, then-Fr. Kerr was asked by the police on the scene to talk to the girl who survived unscathed. They wanted to know how she survived the brutal attacks, because Bundy had stopped right inside the door to her room, dropped his weapon, and left without touching her. But the girl would talk to no one but a priest. [To Clarify: The girl wouldn’t speak to police without a priest present. They called Msgr. Kerr and she told her story. Interestingly, Msgr. Kerr was not on call that night, but the phone rang in his room, not the other priest’s for some reason.]

When Fr. Kerr approached the near-catatonic girl, she told him that her grandmother had made her promise before going off to college for the first time that she would pray the Rosary every night before bed for protection; even if she fell asleep praying the Rosary, which she had that night so that when Bundy came into her room with murder on his mind, the beads were still clutched in her hands.

Later, Bundy would tell Monsignor that when he entered the girl’s room, he just couldn’t go on, he dropped his weapon, and he fled. She awoke to a man standing over her with a bat. She opened her hands, Bundy looked at the rosary beads in them, and fled. Such is the power of our Mother’s protective mantle.

[ Fr. Gabriel reminded me of this part:] Several weeks/months? later, Msgr. Kerr phone rang (again when he was not on call). This time it was the warden of a prison. They had just caught Bundy and he wanted to speak to a priest. Msgr. Kerr did not offer details of the conversation but Bundy would call him on a regular basis.

Bundy called from Florida the night before he was going to be executed (Msgr. was stationed in D.C. at the time) and thanked him for all he had done. Msgr. said he would offer a Mass for him the next morning, which would be at the same time of the execution. Msgr. said it was difficult listening to the radio as he drove to the church to say Mass. Everyone was doing a countdown on the radio, excited about the execution. The Mass was intense and on the way home again it was difficult hearing everyone rejoice at the death of Ted Bundy.

Ted Bundy’s mother called Msgr. (they had been in contact over the previous several years) that morning. She wanted to share something with him. She said: “I just got a call from one of the parents of Ted’s victims. They told me that ‘you’re experiencing the losd of a child today and we’ve experienced the losd of a child. We just want you to know that you are in our prayers and we love you.’”

Msgr. marvelled at the parents’ strength to let love have the last word.

Rest in peace, Msgr. Kerr, and thank you for your small part in my faith journey and for your witness.

 

The 7-year-old political operative

cartercampaignbuttons.jpg

I remember my first political thought. I was seven years old and it was 1976. We were on the school bus, presumably taking us to 2nd grade, and for some reason we were talking the presidential election. Of course, most children that age are influenced by their parents’ choices, as overheard at home, but we made them our own. Since this was Massachusetts, more kids voiced support for Jimmy Carter than for Gerald Ford, but not me.

No, I had a clear preference that was not the Democratic presidential candidate. It’s not that I was a big Gerry Ford fan. My reasons were much more personal. I warned my classmates that if Carter was elected they would feel the difference in their lunch bags.

I was convinced that, as a peanut farmer, Jimmy Carter would see to it that peanut prices would go up and we’d all see less peanut butter in our PB&J sandwiches in the future.

Okay, so I was a muckraking ideologue back then. I’m much more subtle now.

Photo credit: Richard B. Russel Library for Political Research and Studies, University of Georgia.

Wings of gold

Naval astronaut

The pin you see in that photo is a unique specimen. At first glance it looks like the pin a Naval Aviator wears on his uniform, but that shooting star gives us pause. This is, in fact, the official uniform pin of a US Navy officer who also happens to be an astronaut.

I’ve had this pin for about 25 years. I bought at an Army-Navy store in Stoughton, Mass. (long gone now) around my senior year in high school. At the time I was certain that I wanted to be an astronaut and would attain that goal by first becoming a Naval Aviator. So I bought the pin and affixed to a cap that I wore everywhere, as an aspirational sign to myself and everyone else.

My dream took me as far as joining Navy ROTC my freshman year in college at Boston University. I would eventually drop out after that one year because I was too immature for the responsibility of college and do the work I was supposed to do. But at one point in the year, I ran into one of the officers running the NROTC unit. He was a Marine colonel and an actual Naval Aviator and I looked up to him like a puppy dog looks to his master. When he called me aside one day, I thought he wanted to give me a pep talk or congratulate me on my military bearing.

Instead he told me that since I hadn’t earned the wings I was wearing on my cap—and since wearing insignia wings on a cap was forbidden anyway—I needed to remove them and never do it again. I pleaded ignorance—only partially true since I suspected they were authentic wings—and obeyed. He was given pause upon closer inspection, however, at the shooting star, which he didn’t recognize. I proudly explained the significance and told him of my dream. He humored me and repeated his admonition.

And so for the last 25 years, the wings have sat in a succession of desk drawers and closet-bound boxes, waiting for what I know not. Maybe for the day I can pull them out and show my sons or daughters or grandchildren about how I once wanted to be an astronaut and how they should follow their dreams even if there’s the possibility of failure. Because a fear of failure is sometimes worse than the failure itself.

Meanwhile, the wings go back in a drawer until the next time I bring them out and think about how different my life would have been. And realize that I wouldn’t trade my life now for the thrill of spaceflight or flying high-performance jets.

 

Preserving Scout camp for new generations

Wow, this brought back memories. The Boy Scout council where I grew up is renovating Camp Squanto, their summer camp in Plymouth, Massachusetts. They plan to spend about $3 million building a new dining hall, a welcome lodge, and other improvements.

I spent a couple of weeks over a few summers there in my youth in the early 80s. Usually, I would spend a week with my troop and then a second week with a couple of friends in the “provisional” troop, which was a catch-all group for scouts whose troop wasn’t at the camp.

I remember that my first time there, I had to take my swimming test at the beginning of the week so they would know my proficiency and where I could swim. Unfortunately, the tests took forever and I happened to be the last kid to go. Also unfortunately, they had a problem that year with eels living under the swim docks and a few boys got bit. Nothing serious, mind you, but somewhat painful. It added an air of … challenge to the swim tests. In fact, just before my turn, the boy before me was bit in the arm and had to be taken up to the aid station.

They had a problem that year with eels living under the swim docks. It added an air of … challenge to the swim tests.

The lifeguard who remained looked at me and said, “Well, you’re the last one, so you may as well try it.” Wait, what?! From his point of view, I was the last kid left so the worst that could happen is that I got nipped too. From my point of view … I could get nipped too!

As an accommodation, he allowed me to swim closer to shore and further from the dock. Gee, thanks. As a result it was the fastest swim test on record. I barely even got wet, I swam so fast. I jumped in and did the required manuevers as fast as possible: crawl, butterfly, hold my breath under water, tread water. Mark Spitz had nothing on me. And I did it the whole time with my eyes closed. I didn’t dare open them under water for fear of seeing the gaping maw of an eel coming at me. Did I mention the little buggers were just a couple of inches long? But in my imagination they were six-foot Moray eels.

Oh, I passed, by the way.

Fighting naval battles for glory and honor

One of my years there, our troop partnered with a Scout troop from a neighboring town. The best part of the arrangement was that this other troop had brought a whaleboat to camp. Yep, a real whaleboat with rows of benches and oarlocks and a rudder at the back and everything. Camp Squanto surrounds Fawn Pond and our troop’s campsite that year was located on the far side from the main buildings, including the dining hall. Rather than tramping along the lakeside trail like the rest of the Scouts, we could row our way across in style as a whole troop, a couple of kids to an oar. And as usual, whatever sets you apart from the other boys quickly becomes an object of dispute.

It didn’t take long for it to become a point of competition for the other troops to try to steal our whaleboat from us. One day, at lunch, one of our Scouts burst into the dining hall: “They’re taking the boat!” Our tables were abandoned immediately, leaving overturned benches and half-eaten meals behind, and we rushed down to the nearby dock to cast ourselves at the “pirates” attempting to abscond with our craft. Much pushing and shoving and bodily throwing into the lake ensued, accompanied by shrieks and laughter because it was all in good-natured fun. Of course, we were reprimanded for our discourteous exit from the hall, but I think our troop leaders secretly were pleased with our esprit de corps.

Eventually we awoke one morning to find our boat all the way across the lake, pulled up on shore by the swimming beach, but we maintained that since everyone knew it was impossible for another troop to steal our boat—and none attempted to take credit—that it had to have been moved by the Indian spirits who haunted the lake.

Helicopter hunting

The rifle and archery ranges were located near one another, a bit separate from the rest of the camp, of course, but unwisely they were just under the flight path of the helicopters flying to and from the nearby US Coast Guard station. They often flew overhead just above the treetops, yet in retrospect they were perhaps higher than we reazlied. Now, we all had enough sense not to do anything stupid with the rifles, and the instructors were much too vigilant to allow chicanery with firearms. Yet, they were a little more lax at the archery range. (I’m not sure why that was.) Thus, occasionally some juvenile delinquent (one fellow in particular, now that I think about it) would pause in his attempt to impale a hay bale down the range to fire up at a passing helicopter. I shudder to think of the possible consequences of such recklessness, although I’ve never heard of anything untoward resulting. I doubt the puny bows could even throw an arrow that high. Still, it might be amusing to think of some Coast Guardsman wondering where the arrow sticking out of the bottom of his aircraft had originated.

Obviously, this is well before 9/11. I think such hijinks would not be overlooked today.

Then there were the camp-wide games like capture the flag and counselor hunts. Those were often so much fun as the whole place was turned out and the hundreds of kids spent hours running through the woods and buildings. I recall the time we made one of our fellow Scouts seasick at the dinner table by swaying back and forth while he was eating. The poor guy had a weak stomach and we were merciless. Speaking of food, I can still taste the gallons of “bug juice” (i.e. flavored sugar water) we inhaled and the ubiquitous peanut butter & jelly on white bread sandwiches we practically lived on, not to mention the luxury of the weekly steak dinner. Those were the days when simple food had the allure of a royal feast if only because of the company we kept and the place we ate it.

We spent a weekend up there, playing in the snow during the day and learning to play cards and gamble at night.

It should be noted that it wasn’t only a “summer” camp. Camp Squanto offers year-round activities, and our troop took advantage of that one winter. They have a one-room cabin on the lake with a bunch of triple-decker bunk beds, a big fireplace, and a large table and not much else, like electricity. We spent a weekend up there, playing in the snow during the day and drying by the fire and learning to play cards and gamble at night. (I learned many useful skills in Scouting.) We used matches in place of poker chips and I recall that a friend kept lighting up my “bank”. You’d think putting a couple dozen boys in one-room cabin for a snowy weekend would be a recipe for disaster, but in fact it was great fun.

Anyway, I’m happy to know that future generations of Scouts will continue to make memories at Camp Squanto that will last their lifetime. I hope my own sons one day can experience the same.

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