Monday, August 27, 2001

Remembrances: Norbert Geier

Recent comments from Norbert Geier:
I knew John during the two years that he taught at the College of Saint Teresa in Winona and, if I remember correctly, I was Chairman of the English Department during his second year.

I don't recall that John talked about his family or much about his life in Marshall, Michigan. I do remember that he talked about the nuns in the parochial school, especially how they made the children practice life-saving maneuvers should the Russians deiced to bomb Marshall. The children had to practice hiding under their desks.

I also remember that John was working on Saint Fidgeta and Other Phenomenal Matters. Saint Fidgeta's icon was the red imprint of a hand, relating to the fact that fidgeting future saint had endured many a slap across her cheek administrated by an exasperated nun.

I don't recall that John spoke very much about his life as a student at Notre Dame. The English major program was quite different from the time that I had been there eleven years earlier. I remember John's telling me that one of the outstanding professors in the English Department, Frank O'Malley, was no longer very effectual or much admired by the students. In my day, O'Malley was one of the department's luminaries. He was a great influence on my life and one of the reasons that I became a college professor of English. He drank too much, even when I knew him in the 1940's. His living quarters in one of the dorms was a sanctuary where one could always find intelligent conversation and a glass of wine. However, by John Bellairs' time, O'Malley had become a besotted shadow of his former self, according to John. The story of Frank O'Malley at Notre Dame can be found in John W. Meaney's O'Malley of Notre Dame (University of Notre Dame press, 1991).

I remember too that John told me that he and another Notre Dame student had a hilarious time with some passages in the Bible. The passages amused them greatly, and when they met, one of the other would simply say the name of the book of the Bible, and the chapter and verse numbers, sending them both into paroxysms of laughter. The other students around would be mystified by these antics; they saw nothing funny in the expression "Deuteronomy 25:11-12." John showed me this passage in the Bible and I too found it amusing.
When two men are fighting and the wife of one of them intervenes to drag her husband clear of his opponent, if she puts out her hand and catches hold of the man by genitals, you must cut off her hand and show no mercy.
That's the Revised English Bible; the Douay–Rheims version is as follows:
If two men have words together, and one begins to fight against the other, and the other's wife willing to deliver her husband out of the hand of the stronger, shall put forth her hand, and take him by the secrets, thou shalt cut off her hand, neither shalt though be moved with any pity in her regard.
John didn't point out this passage from Deuteronomy (Revised English Bible, 23:9-13), but he probably read it and also found it funny:
When you are encamped against an enemy, you must be careful to avoid any foulness. When one of your numbers is unclean because of an emission of seed at night, he must go outside the camp; he may not come into it. Toward evening he is to wash himself in water, and at sunset he may re-enter camp. You may have a sign outside the camp showing where you can withdraw to relieve yourself. As part of your equipment you are to have a trowel, and when you squat outside, you are to scrape a hole with it and then turn and cover your excrement.
I remember too that, for an English teacher, John's spelling of English had a few gaps. He was much better in Latin. While he was at Saint Teresa's he apparently had begun working on a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. I remember that he took a language exam in Latin. I proctored the exam, which had been sent to me to administer to him. I vaguely remember him saying at the time that he was a better speller in Latin than in English.

All in all, I remember John as a witty colleague with an unusual sense of humor — unusual because he saw in many cases the irony that escaped most people. For instance, I vaguely remember his relating to me the time that he observed one of the "housekeeping nuns" reading the headlines of the daily newspaper that was conspicuously posted in the main building of the college. The news had something to with the Communists putting down an uprising somewhere. At any rate, the sister turned to John and said with evident relish, "Do you know what they do with their opponents? They tear out their guts!"

John got a kick out of that.

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