“Who is whistling?” Spoken with a Transylvanian accent and the imperious inflection of a person with the habit of command. I’m guessing Fall 1964. On the steps of gym in some Godforsaken place called Devon PA. Little did my 13-year old self know this would be a life-changing day for me. Damn good thing. I might have gotten the Hell out of there while I could. You know, like, for want of a nail? That kind of thing.
It was different, alright. I was a kind of more or less normal adolescent, give or take a trumpet. And my taste in music was stuck in the 1930s, but otherwise, whatever passed for normal. Definitely not cool, but sane, if Catholic. Man, Devon Preparatory School put an end To All That. In the end, I guess, it’s all worked out. But I wonder what would have happened had I gone to the garden variety public high school (Lower Merion) where an early heartthrob had proceeded me. I might have played. Maybe I would have been marginally less neurotic. I could have been a contender. You know the story. Or maybe I would have ended up in Viet Nam. Who knows? And gotten killed or truly screwed up. At least two guys from Lower Merion died in Vietnam. I think Devon was spared.
Nobody used the word “nerd” in 1965, but had they used it, Devon would have been nerdy. When you got their propaganda, the class photos had guys with short hair and white socks who looked like the should be working in some accounting firm in Reading. Actually, the “dork” was common, and you could be sitting in Latin class and hear someone yell “McNally, you dork” on the way to the gym. I actually did. Poor guy. Devon was a dorky place. It did not have the social prestige of Episcopal or Haverford. Or the cafone pretensions of Malvern, Devon’s Catholic arch rival, who actually had a football team (I think) and played in the Interac League. No, we were the “bookish” ones. Supposedly. Supposedly, we were all, umm, not very masculine. I once had a girl from a Catholic school sing me a ditty
I used to go to Malvern Prep and I was quite contrary
Now I go to Devon Prep. Whoops, I'm a fairy.
I was thrilled, needless to say. Remember, this was 1965. Pre-Stonewall. So I spent a good deal of time working against stereotype. It wasn’t difficult, believe me. Devon wasn’t Georgetown Prep, by any means, but any female presence on campus was apt to cause much disorder. Guys with cute sisters were popular.
Anyway, Devon was weird. Not everyone liked it, for sure, and the rules and discipline could be medieval. No smoking. No cigarettes. You got caught, you were out. No appeal. I recently learned one of my deceased classmates used to sneak smokes behind the gym. Thank God I didn’t know; I would have joined him. And got tossed. If I was taking the Pennsylvania Railroad home, I’d get down to Devon station, wait for the train, and light up once I was on a car. Or get well away from campus, usually much closer to Philly, and then smoke. Big deal, right? I did run into one of the Spanish priests on a Friday afternoon at a nearby shopping center where I was indulging. I froze. He froze. “What brand?” Then he bummed a smoke from me. The rebels just seemed to find each other at Devon. Priests included.
And there were rebels. One of the priests, Luis Arsuaga, was Basque. He was a good dude. By the time we were Freshmen, we knew, thanks to his religion class, that nobody took the Bible literally. 1965. Conservative Catholic school. You wonder why the South drives me crazy? I was 14 and we were talking metaphors, fables, and symbols in the Bible. Literally true? C’mon man. It might have been right-wing, but it wasn’t check your brain at the door. Luis also got into a famous public dispute with the Headmaster (of whom more below) in which he made public reference to intimate relations between the Headmaster and his Secretary. Luis was gone at the end of the year. To Colombia. Where he eventually died. As a Basque, Luis had no time for fascists. Wrong place, Luis. Even then Devon had its quota, and I didn’t call it Trump Prep then.
Since there were still priests then, we had quite a few, of the Piarist Order. No, not the Jesuits, much less the Agustinians. Their motto was Pietas et Litterae and it fit. Ours were a remnant of the old Hapsburgh Empire, Hungarians and Spanish. At best, as in the Empire, they tolerated each other. The order was founded by St Joseph Calasanctius, whom we regarded with due reserve. And when we got into hot water–frequently–we got to kneel in front of his portrait.
Yeah, that one. Know it well.
The priests were mostly known by nicknames: Chico, Tony, Stubby, The Big O, Ripple, Wheels, Stan, Paz, and, fearsomely, for obvious reasons upon viewing, Nose, aka Steven Senye, Sch.P. A lot of people thought Nose was a bastard. You’ll remember I met him whistling on the steps on the way to the entrance exam. He was no pussycat, for sure. Dour, severe, hair-trigger temper, domineering. I believe he was founding Headmaster in 1956 (I may well be wrong). Notice the date. 1956. As in Hungarian Uprising against the Soviets. Well, the Hungarians had to go somewhere after we didn’t liberate them, poor fools. So some of them came to the US, and to Devon, Pennsylvania. Lucky us. They were sort of po’d at the US, not surprisingly, and sometimes, we caught a whiff of Anti-Americanism. I never saw anyone actually get slugged, but we all knew a well placed Piarist index finger jabbed in the solar plexus could put a dude out of commission. That I saw. Along with plenty of yelling, when stuff got tacky. It wasn’t an everyday thing, but it happened. Different times, you know? Were the Hungarians Horthyite fascists? God, who knew? They weren’t Liberals.
You had to know how to handle these guys. Having been around Sicilians and various crazy Italians most of my life, I knew better than to confront them head on. So I sort of humored them, basically, and, for the most part, it worked. I learned to imitate the accents, one or two of them especially well. Chico caught me once chewing out a class in his inimitable Spanglish. He only glared, but afterward, allowed as how I did him very very well. He later left the priesthood, so, you know not all these guys were with the program. It was figuring out who you could mess with. Nose wasn’t one of them. For most, the assistant head, Fr. Magyar (Wheels, as in Mag wheels…..) wasn’t either. The rest was situational, which some of my dimmer classmates never quite got.
The academics were tough. Man, they didn’t mess around. I figure Devon probably ended my budding career as a trumpet player in two ways. I wasn’t a natural player as a kid, and I did practice. A lot. Usually an hour or so a day in grade school, and more in the Summer. My first teacher was the Band Director at the Catholic diocesan high school, and he had big plans for me. Cause I had some technique and some range, so he figured he had a lead even if it turned out I couldn’t play jazz. But I didn’t go to his school. My Mother wanted me at Devon, because she was afraid I had hoodlum potential. So, long story short, commuting about an hour and a half a day to Devon from just outside West Philly cut into practice time. And then Devon’s academic demands did the rest. I just wasn’t talented enough or bright enough to cut corners with the horn or the books. And I found I sort of liked history, literature and languages, surprise. And even matrix algebra. My God. This was HIGH SCHOOL. But it took a lot of work.
Devon had no music program then. I started to fall behind because I cut back on practice because of time constraints, which made my teacher unhappy. So Salvucci Aspiring Trumpet player got canned as a trumpet student by this guy. If I wasn’t gonna play for him, well, he wasn’t interested. That wasn’t exactly that. I continued private lessons with another teacher (who was a better player, frankly), but he got sick, and I took a break from instruction. I figured I knew enough to continue on my own, which was, like, wrong path. Playing backup to some Martha and the Vandellas stuff wasn’t exactly working on Haydn or Charlier. So I stopped really practicing, developing, and even though I was playing, got to college and quit. To this day, I think Devon was a big factor in my not playing. Or so I tell myself. I think I already sensed my limits. You could still buy Harry James’ solos, and they made for, well…..painful self-discovery.
Truth was, I also discovered I liked Dante. And Tudor-Stuart history. And, Lord, Spanish and Latin. And James Joyce. And John Donne. Weird, man. Who likes that stuff at 15? Guilty. So I spent more and more time on my studies. Which didn’t exactly produce Super Chops. So if you wonder why I worship Roy and Dizzy, wonder not. I come by it honestly. Every instrument is tough, but the trumpet is a killer. Very few can get on top of the damn thing without a lot of very hard work. I sure as Hell couldn’t. Two hours of practice a day was out if I wanted to even be a B student. Opportunity cost, you know.
But Devon also did something else for me, or to me. I came from a working class family. I watched my father put himself through Penn at night even though he worked during the day. My Mother worked. Everyone worked. That’s just the way it was. You wanted something, you worked for it. Period. Devon was the same way. I did well enough, but I never thought I was particularly smart. That isn’t false modesty. I wasn’t an idiot–those I had seen at Prisontation, but I was no genius. So how good did you want to be meant how hard did you want to work? This has always served me well, other than in my last 15 years of teaching. I rarely taught a kid who could have cut it at Devon. Even the graduates of the so-called elite Texas high schools. Especially the Jesuit ones. The worst ones. Smug and self-satisfied. Like that guy on the Supreme Court. Frank is a big exception, and the Jezzies mostly hate him.
What about this “Dare to Be Different” stuff? Well, that was Nose’s motto. Oh, I took it to heart. Fr. Senye took off with his secretary after my senior year, so all the tongue wagging that went on, well. No, I don’t think they were getting it on and I don’t think he was a hypocrite. I’m not even going to speculate what was going. Who knows what he saw in Hungary growing up? Dare to be different for sure. Nose’s motto could have been “get your ass and your brain in gear.” Or I’ll do it for you.
There was a lot more to Devon. Maybe some other time. I think it ended my career as a musician. Ironically, even though I stopped going to Church, I stayed Catholic. Piarists married me and buried my Mom. We’ll figure that out one of these days. I think Luis Arsuaga had a lot to do with it.