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Manuel L. Ponte


SYMPOSIA


The poor man didn't know what to do. His shack had little space for his family of eleven, and, although he had heard of birth control, neither he nor his wife knew what it was. The more he worked, the less he had and, if it weren't for the cow in the small open area behind the shack and her generosity with her milk, chances are that some of them would soon starve.

In desperation he consulted the local priest, a man so old that even his bishop had forgotten he existed. Everyone in the village knew him to have already lost it, but, since he was the only priest that they'd probably ever have for years to come, they hung on to him as if his pronouncements still mattered.

"Father," the man said. "You know my position and only a miracle can save me. What can I do to better my family's situation?"

"Son," the priest replied. "Bring your cow into the shack."

The man did as instructed. Within a month and, in greater desperation, he approached the priest once again.
"Father," he said. "You can't imagine what happened. What once was a dirt floor is now covered with cow dung. There is no room to walk, or to sit. My children at one time had a bed. Now they have none, for the cow has also defecated on it. She urinates wherever she wants. The stink is unbearable. Please, Father, tell me what to do. Please."

The priest looked at him. "Damn it, man," he shouted. "Get the damned cow out of the shack."

From a Brazilian Story (Source Unknown)

Years ago I attended a one-evening symposium at St. Louis University sponsored by the local Italian Consulate and the Italian Cultural Society. It was not a large event. In fact, we only had five speakers - the Italian consul, a local lawyer who had escaped from Italy during World War II, a local doctor involved with Italian cultural affairs dealing particularly with its culinary aspects, an Italian businessman from out of town, and a professor of Italian studies at the university itself.

There was little said that was worth remembering, although the professor did leave me wondering about the books he had read and how he had reached the conclusions of his topic, THE SEXUAL INFLUENCE OF FLORENTINE ARCHITECTURE ON 17th CENTURY ITALIAN THOUGHT. Fortunately a former colleague, Al Volland, sat next to me while the professor spoke and, during a brief pause, suddenly whispered in a voice that several could hear: "Thank God there are universities, or we wouldn't know where to lock up these nuts."

Volland was much older than I. He and my father were about the same age. He had also spent time in the Army during World War II, where he had been assigned to India and Italy, and to several other places he had never talked about. In spite of his French Canadian ancestry, and the fact that he had been born and lived in northern New York State, Volland possessed some of the qualities often found in the central part of the United States. One of those, as his remark indicated, centered on the belief that universities are many times not the place to find very intelligent people. "If you really want to see brain fakery," he once told me as we were having lunch, "listen to the average academician as he recites the throw-away materials that he could not incorporate in his Ph.D. thesis." Or, "if you want to see a true whitewash, read a New York Times book review by a former good grade getter in history with a Harvard doctorate as he comments on a historical novel. You may rest assured that the only part of the book he read was the publicity blurb sent by the publisher."

Volland prided himself on being a political conservative. There were many times, therefore, when he and I would clash, although we never stopped being friends. He was always good for a laugh. Ironically, it wasn't until my son-in-law, J. C. Corcoran, the most iconoclastic radio personality ever to hit the St. Louis radio scene, gave me a subscription to SPY magazine that I concluded that, perhaps, Volland had not been a conservative after all, but only someone with loads of common sense carefully disguised as non-offensive sarcasm, if it's possible for such behavior to exist. For that reason, I wish he were still alive so I could apologize for all the hard times I gave him as I defended the academe and its alleged greatness. I'm certain he would have forgiven me and then moved on with some other comment that would make me laugh and sneer at the same time.

Thanks to Volland's comment about the St. Louis University professor, however, I have been able to withstand the temptation of attending further symposia and any other gathering presided over by so-called experts - unless my wife drags me. Instead, I would rather have a group of intelligent people gather at my house who, after starting from a disorganized premise, eventually make the evening the type of session from which one occasionally does learn something useful. People like Harry Fisher, for example.

Harry is a lawyer by profession who years ago gave up practicing to dedicate himself to becoming a most accomplished pianist, religious researcher, teacher, reader for the blind, and lover of the theater. No one I know has the capacity to take a momentary pause in any discussion to catch an audience with a joke the way Harry does. I have often appropriated one of his stories to illustrate a serious point. Someday, if the occasion permits, I shall reveal it.

Or people like Luis Schwarz, a Peruvian-born, St. Louis psychiatrist. Luis is the only person I know who, while taking himself seriously, at the same time projects a warmth that very few people possess. A pacifist, Luis can't understand why I, a vociferous Azorean, haven't yet joined the hot revolution that will separate my native land from Portugal. Whenever he comes in a room, Luis takes almost no time to make his presence known, for he embraces almost everyone who comes near him regardless of sex. I am certain many women more than welcome the gesture. Luis is a handsome rascal. His wife, Rosa, on the other hand, is often even more interesting. Amongst her many duties, she teaches flamenco, Spanish, gives wonderful dinner parties, and, just for relaxation, is the Honorary Consul for the Republic of Peru in the St. Louis Metropolitan Area.

I have many other similar friends, and getting them together in a room is sometimes more than mere sanity can stand. I have no doubt that if they were all to agree to speak on a specific subject of their choice they would do it justice. Which is what's often done at symposia. The only difference, however, is that people at symposia take themselves seriously, often forcing the cynics to sneer when all is said and done just as Volland sneered at the professor's comments. Now, if the same man had been in my living room uttering the same nonsense as he did at St. Louis University, chances are that he would have found some converts instead of cynics. And, because what he said would not be "official", chances are there would be no harm done. He would have been just a simple man - one of us uttering views and opinions. On the other hand, the moment he stood at the podium and his talk became official, the situation changed altogether. Instead of being just a nut, he became a professorial nut whose word carried knowledge and responsilbility. Somewhat like that of the old priest in the Brazilian story. Had the desperate cow owner asked any other man for a solution, instead of asking a priest, and gotten the original advice, chances are he would have walked away. But he did not ask a simple man. He asked a priest - a person in the know.

And look at what he got all over the house...

Manuel L. Ponte
St. Louis, Missouri
April 28, 1993


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