The Basics

by Jim Underwood, 1968

I attended public schools from kindergarten through 8th grade, and 8th grade at Del Vallejo Junior High was a disaster – I was on the verge of flunking out. Despite having spent my Saturday mornings memorizing the Baltimore Catechism with Mrs. Murphy, I needed a miracle.  Fortunately, a bunch of guys in the neighborhood would get together to play sports… especially, “blood and guts” football  and volleyball – at least three of the older ones attended Aquinas - Robin Bryant, Dennis Melchior, and Bruce Flahaven. Their stories and friendships gave me the hope that maybe Aquinas would develop within me the self-discipline needed to succeed in life – the miracle I needed.


So I went to Aquinas in the fall of 1964. I remember sitting in my first class on the first day of the rest of my life, more than a little nervous, not knowing any of my classmates, and anxious to fit in. I am turned around talking to the guy behind me when the bell rings….And before I could face the front of the room this huge hand grabs me by the collar, lifts me out of my chair, and shakes me like a rag doll. The priest behind the hand shouts at me, the public school kid example to everyone, “CAN’T YOU READ?” On the blackboard, Fr. Earl La Riviere had written the first of the basics – “SIT DOWN and SHUT UP.”


And that worked well until it was time to recite the Latin, English or Religious memorization lesson for the day…. This required me to stand in the aisle next to my desk with Fr. La Riviere standing at my side – his arms outstretched with the left fist in front of my chest, and the right fist at my back. A little intimidating for the public school kid who was struggling to remember Kipling’s “If” or Shakespeare’s “To be….” I don’t remember even getting through the first line, when his fists would pound together on my torso like a bass drummer in a marching band as he delivered the second of the basics – “SPEAK SLOWLY, LOUDLY and DISTINCTLY.”


A lot of water has passed under the bridge since 1968. I have enjoyed the blessings of a rich, adventurous life. Knowing when and how to listen has been an important element in my life – a basic. Listening to friends, to my wife and daughter, to my coworkers, my military seniors and subordinates alike – most of all, listening to God answering my prayers – has taught me to wait in joyful hope, and given me the voice and knowledge of when to stand and speak out when necessary.