Ma's big surprise

... her Sonny Boy comes home with some delightful news.

by Joe Sullivan

How Fred knew the grades, or more correctly, how he found out about them, was something that
Joe Rattigan never determined. But there he would be, after every test  with all the
information needed for a nasty little harangue about the test questions  that you had not
answered correctly. In some cases it could be about a lot of questions you hadn’t answered
correctly. He employed a  phony concern, and a trumped-up sympathy,  to deliver his miserable
zinger about your academic shortcoming. Fred would  screw up his face into an expression of
pained empathy while he delivered his mean little jab, like, “Boy, Rats, dropped the ball on
the Economics test, huh?” This would be followed with a wistful, contrived,
sympathetic shake of the head and a soft, low whistle.

Joe hoped he concealed his seething rage and the feeling of how he would love to pop this guy
one. The suppressions were well worthwhile considering that  Fred was a head taller than Joe
and would look down into his face while he talked to him. Instead of  lashing out, Joe would
respond with a wry shrug, a lift of his eyebrows and a grim little smile. “Guess so, Fred.” he
would say hoping that he was not giving away his true feelings
Group participation

Joe was far from the only one to get this treatment. Fred’s field of operation was the group
of guys who would be milling around outside the classroom just before the start of class.
Bouncing around like a nervous sparrow, he delivered his little packets of syrupy fakery to
those eligible. He was a manipulator of disappointment; no misery was too small for Fred. What
he got out of reminding people of their failures was something Joe could never figure out. It
would be different if Fred was an outstanding student, but he wasn’t. Maybe it’s a way he
justifies his own screw-ups, Joe speculated.

Like most of the other guys in the group Fred was a veteran. The vets were in an  accelerated
course at BC’s business school. Once they got through freshman year, which included attending
class all summer, they would become integrated into  the Class of 1957 in the upcoming fall
semester. It was less than an easy go for a lot of guys. Like Joe, most of them had been out
of school for five years; becoming a student again wasn’t all that easy. There had been very
few dropouts, though, since the class started in January.

The very serious old guys.

The maturity of the group was very much in it’s favor. It was made up of guys who took their
studies seriously. You could almost see a collective dogged determination
that they quietly expressed in pursuit of the opportunity that the G.I. Bill was making
possible. That’s what made Fred’s behavior so strange. It wasn’t as though he was harassing a
pack of indifferent hangers on. He survived all attempts of being pinned with a derogatory
nickname. Not because he did something to prevent it, it was just that nothing stuck. Attempts
such as, “Fred the weasel” or “Fred the friendly ferret,” never caught on. “Here comes, Fred,”
carried an implication that made nasty nicknames superfluous.

Joe wasn’t the only one who contained  hidden resentment. Bill Canfield was back to school
after four years in the Navy. He was sort of a big guy who had a very deep
voice. On the other hand he never had too much to say. He had been standing next to Joe when
Fred was sweetly working him over about the Economics test. After Fred bounced away they both  
stood there in silence. Joe was so furious that he was afraid that Bill could feel his
resentment radiating .

Breaking the spell, Bill, in his laconic almost drawling voice said, “Ya know, it
isn’t as if I wish the guy any bad luck. But if he ever falls down a flight of stairs I hope
I’m there to see it.” Joe was not quite ashamed of the vengeance that tinged his gleeful
little giggle.
Different strokes,

Joe really liked Bill Canfield. When it came to their studies however, they were like chalk
and cheese. Rattigan was the grinder, Bill had another view. On Thursdays, during the two-hour
break before the next class Rattigan would be in the library banging the books. Bill, on the
other hand, would take off with Danny Finnerty, another Navy guy, to the One Gentleman where
they would have a couple of beers or so to better face the rest of the afternoon. When they
were back, before the start of class, Joe would saunter over to Bill who’s beery smell left no
doubt as to where he had been. Joe would feign sniffing the air and say, “I see you’ve been

The end of the first semester saw a marked change in Joe Rattigan. He had started the year in
gnawing anxiety. He had been less than stellar as a student in High School, okay, the Honor
Roll a couple of times but nothing to write home about. He had visions of  being overwhelmed
by his studies; finally surrendering to something that he just could not do. He was encouraged
when he saw the other guys he’d be studying with. They were veterans like him, old guys in
their twenties, older even than the BC Seniors who would be graduating that year.

Joe had attacked his studies motivated by fear, living and dieing with every exam and test.
After a couple of months he noticed a change. It was a realization that came almost all at
once…. he wasn’t fearful of his studies any more; he was actually interested in them. Tests
and exams weren’t ending up in the disaster he had anticipated. He laughed when he realized he
wasn’t happy with an exam’s results if he didn’t get at least an 80. There were some
surprises, too. The Philosophy courses; he wasn’t just getting by, he was acing them.

In a moment of reflection he admitted to himself with a little satisfied chuckle, “Hey, I’m doing
okay.” In an effort not to change his anxiety-driven mindset which he felt was the reason
behind his good fortune he immediately attacked his self congratulations. He admonished
himself that he shouldn’t feel so good about his unexpected success. “Look at how old you are;
these classes are designed for kids five years younger. You should expect to get these grades.
Get back to work.” Rattigan the Worrier was not about to give Rattigan the Student one goddam

Back to the books.

When the first semester was over, there was a short break after exams and now they were back.
As usual, the guys were milling around out in front of the class room where their first
accounting class  would begin in about five minutes. It was ordinary conversation until
someone said, “Oh, oh. Here comes Fred.” Joe Rattigan looked up to see Fred coming straight at
him, something that was making Joe both annoyed and apprehensive.

Fred wasted no time. With an intense frown he delivered his news with a head-shaking ferocity,
“Skinnah  yah’ teeth, Rats. Skinnah yah’ teeth!”Joe was mystified, “Skin of my teeth, what?”
he asked. “Dean’s List.” answered Fred as though it were a distasteful penalty. Joe was
incredulous, “Dean’s List? Who?” Placing his finger in Joe’s chest like he was delivering an accusation,
he almost shouted, “You!” “How the hell do you know?’ Joe countered with an accusation of his own.

Waving his right arm as though giving a direction Fred said, “It’s on the bulletin board
outside of the student lounge!” “I don’t believe it,” Joe said almost matter of factly as he
felt Billy Canfield, who was laughing delightedly, wrap his arm around his shoulders and lift
him off the ground in a congratulatory hug. With that the bell rang indicating the start of
class and Mr. Dunn, the instructor, came out into the hallway, and with a shooshing wave of
his arm said, “Okay, inside please, gentlemen.” Joe Rattigan was going to have to wait in a
high simmer for the entire hour before he would be able to get a look at something he still
could not believe.

When class was over Joe was, as his old pal Elmer D. Meyer would say in his Texas twang, “Off
like a scalded dawg!” As he was scurrying down the stairs to the student
lounge it had occurred to him how he hadn’t thought about Elmer D. or any of the other guys in
the 8th Field Artillery for a long time. He hadn’t even been home a year. Boy, he said to himself, how
things have changed.

Confronting  the evidence.

There were a number of guys looking at the lists behind the sliding glass doors of the
bulletin board. Not exactly a crowd, but he had to find a  spot. His gaze went  
immediately to the typewritten list headed “Dean’s List Class of 1957”.  Just underneath was a
sub head saying “High Honors”, then another line that said, “Name” and then over to the side,
“Grade”. There were four, maybe five names underneath. The lowest mark was 89.5. Then beneath
those names another sub head that said simply, “Honors” . Then, same deal “Name” “Grade”.
There were a lot more names under this one, twelve, fifteen, maybe, surmised Joe. It was as
Fred had said, there it was, the very last name, Rattigan, Joseph A., then another few spaces, and
the grade 84.5., the lowest grade that marked eligibility for the Dean’s List. Skinnah’ yah
teeth Rats, for goddam sure.

Rattigan was absolutely astonished. He looked at his own name in total awe. He was soaring
in the enthralling thrill of it. He came back down from the zenith to float in sheer  
pleasure. He felt like he was glowing. He had no expectation of such a thing happening. When
he left home for class that morning anything like this never even occurred to him. He had
heard of the Dean’s List but in no way did he ever connect it to himself. And now there it

Rattigan the Worrier was slowly emerging in to put things into perspective He had a litany of  
the usual items to show that this was no big deal. “A tenth of a point less and you’d be
sucking wind.” You’re one of the oldest students, you’re a veteran, you’re a sergeant, you‘re…
whatever.” On and on went the admonishments. Rattigan the Worrier was merciless, the sunnauvabitch
never left anything out.
Suddenly in the most rude of interruptions the Worrier was silenced. “Stop!” yet another inner
voice said. “Stop! Go a goddam way! There was a pause as Joe collected
himself. Now calm, even  the Worrier, he said to himself, knew that the happiest moment was
yet to be realized. The moment wouldn’t be for the 23-year old former Staff Sergeant not yet a
year home from Korea.. This was the little boy with  the same excited anticipations that he
had carried from the first grade.

He smiled with a quiet excitement of what lay ahead. Some things never change; he had made the
honor roll and he couldn’t wait to tell his mother.

January 8, 2016                                 

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