Monday, May 20, 2013

How I Got my Vocation

When I was 13-years-old and away at a Catholic boarding school among the potato fields on the North Shore of Long Island, I would read (under the covers after lights-out) the novels of Leslie Charteris, detailing the adventures of Simon Templar, a/k/a The Saint, scourge of the Ungodly. Half-a-Century later, I don’t remember the plots but I remember that the Saint’s right hand man was Hoppy Uniatz and that it was okay (not a Mortal Sin) to kill bad men, “the Ungodly,” as the Saint did regularly to those who needed it. As I fell asleep in my top bunk in the dormitory, I remember thinking, I could do that. That’s how I considered “crime” for the first time and set my future course.

The school, St. Anthony’s Juniorate, prepared high-school age boys to enter the Novitiate, the next step to becoming a member of the Friars Minor, an Order of Teaching Brothers founded by St. Francis of Assisi in Italy in 1212. St. Francis loved animals, the poor, Christ and St. Clare, a nun (not necessarily in that order). How I got there, I went to St. Anthony of Padua Grammar School in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, for eight years. I got in early, age 5-1/2, because my grandmother was the Cleaning Lady at the school. (They owed her, they didn’t pay much.) I didn’t meet a Franciscan Brother face-to-face until Fifth Grade; before that, I had lay teachers (middle-aged ladies) and nuns from the Order of St. Joseph. That I never understood: how a bunch of nuns got named after St. Joseph, the stepfather of Jesus sure, but a guy, still and all.

Brother Dismas was our teacher in Class 5-A and the next semester in 5-B. I think he’d fought in the ring before he got his vocation, judging by how he liked to knock us around in his classroom. The dumb guys had it the worst, the more he whacked them the less they could remember about the lesson. Years later, I met one of them, Patrick, in a bar, and as we got to talking about school days, Patrick, more than a little drunk, got off his stool announcing that he was going up to the Brothers’ Residence next to the school to have a word with Dismas. I managed to dissuade Patrick and bought another round. Whether the Brothers’ House was still standing, and if it was, whether Dismas was still in it, I hadn’t a clue, but who knew? Dismas was definitely not in the same class as his namesake, the Good Thief, but it was a long time ago. And I was, at that time, a New York City Patrolman, and as such expected to keep the peace.

Besides, I had good feelings for that time of my life in St Anthony of Padua, Dismas aside. I was a religious kid, even a bit on the scrupulous side. Never missed Mass on Sundays and Holy Days and went to Confession with my class every Friday afternoon (not that I had a choice) in the Lower Church below the Main Altar upstairs. I did my best to examine my conscience, agonizing whether the impure thoughts that assailed me constantly were mortal sins, the decision turning on whether I had “entertained” them or not. Fidgeting on the hard-wood kneeler in a pew just outside the purple-shrouded Confessional in the darkened Church basement as I tried to decide, I’d break out in a sweat under my school uniform and lock eyes on the Station of the Cross affixed to the wall next to the Confessional, depicting Jesus sweating blood as He prays in the Garden of Gethsemane while His enemies hide nearby, waiting to pounce. When my turn came, I’d enter the dim Box, kneel facing Fr. O’Connor, just a silhouette behind a mesh screen—it was always red-faced Fr. O’Connor—and disgorge everything in my head as if I’d eaten a bad clam, just to be on the safe side. Once, driven by fear of eternal damnation, I dared to ask Fr. O’Connor if I was doing it wrong and that was why I was having trouble. It was he who told me, in his thick Galway accent, that I had this scrupulosity and a good thing it was. Never was able to warm to Fr. O’Connor, nor Brother Dismas for that matter, but choosing the Franciscans was the better way to go. Thing is, given my particular mind-set and having been exposed to the regular recruitment pitches of the Brothers during the four years they had me, it was foreordained that I would discover I had “a vocation”. Almost like, I owed Him.

I didn’t last but two years in the Juniorate in Smithtown, L.I. No regrets, though. It was an eye-opener living in the country for a City boy like myself. Maybe you can’t see a clear link from reading ‘Saint’ novels under the covers in Smithtown, L.I., to joining the NYPD (and it’s true I never had occasion to dispatch any bad guys)—but I see it, a dead-on connection down to becoming a criminal trials lawyer and, finally, a mystery author. Writing the novels and stories somehow imposes structure on the whole business whereas, in the event, I just put one foot in front of the other, keeping on.

When I was a rascally 20-year-old in the Army, flouting the rules in the fleshpots of Old San Juan and drawing short stints in the ‘brig’, a fellow English Language Instructor once asked me, genuinely concerned: “Don’t you ever think about goals?” I didn’t understand the question then, but would reply now that I was simply living, collecting experiences into a great compost heap of material, รก la Jack London and my hero of that day, the Irish playwright Brendan Beehan. It worked out.

Robert Knightly


  1. Bob--
    This was just deightful. It makes me want to dig out my old "The Saint" omnibus. So many of my most interesting friends and colleagues either left the priesthood or stopped just shy of getting there.
    What a life!

  2. Bob, I have always told you that we went to different schools together. This proves it. There is a scene in The Once and Future King where Merlin changes Wart, the young Arthur, into an ant so he can live a while in an ant colony and learn the evils of a police state. Over the door of the colony was a sign that said, "Everything that is not compulsory is forbidden." After Our Lady of Lourdes School, I understood completely.

  3. This is so well-done! I hope you will/or have already .. expand it into a memoir full-length OR a whoppingly clever novel!!! There is very little difference between the Roman Catholic system and the High Church Episcopalian/Anglican system, ( many would say, only the Vatican! ) where education of the young and prep for religious life are concerned. After working as an adult in schools of the latter for many years, I have seen YOUR characters in different costumes, but the same mental and psychological features and problems! T. J. S.

  4. Hi, Robert Knightly, I just read your piece for the Edgars Bulletin - very funny! Keep up the saucy tone - it is very clever! Thelma Jacqueline Straw