Deacon Tim’s Ghost Degree
I recently went on a weekend retreat for liturgical folk/rock musicians with my All Humans’ Mass Band (formerly the Four-Man Mass Band) bandmate, Deacon Tim Carroll. Deacon Tim, as he is known, was also my high school algebra teacher. He also serves as my unwilling spiritual advisor. I think I can call him a friend.
Late on Saturday night, we sat around a pretend felt fire (the monastery had a no-flame rule due to its proximity to acres of bone-dry chaparral) and sang lots of songs with the two other members of the AHMB and our friends One Bread, who “specialize in the soft-rock Mass.” I made everyone sing “Space Oddity” and then Randy from One Bread picked “On Eagle’s Wings” just to spite me since he didn’t think that “overly secular” songs were appropriate and I argued that Major Tom’s crisis is not dissimilar to spiritual alienation experienced by humans every day, each in our our own psychic “tin can” far, far away from “ground control” or God, in other words. Also, that “secular” and “holy” are arbitrary distinctions because everything is sacred. Randy began to sputter and threatened to leave the retreat, but Deacon Tim intervened and led everyone in a rousing rendition of “I Am the Resurrection.”
As the pretend fire died down, we began to speak from our hearts, to tell things that were troubling us. To confess, to seek absolution, and to pass around a large bag of M&M’s. Encouraged by the spirit of sharing, I told of my tendency to let non-Catholic friends take Communion. I’m a magnet for people who “just want to see what it’s like.” I do a lot of ride-alongs. Protocol demands that said friends would get left in the pew leaving others to wonder what horrible sin is holding them back from the Body of Christ, or to go up, cross their arms and receive a blessing, which I haven’t done since I was in first grade.
I was surprised, considering the other kinds of things that my fellow musicians were horking up, by the attacks that followed. “They haven’t earned it!” “You mock eternity!” “Why would anyone go through RCIA if you’re just going to give it away!” “You’re the reason for the fall of Christendom!” etc. I merely stated that our Lord welcomes everyone to His table, and that “Communion” is something far beyond our tiny human imaginings. I trailed off into talk of the Omega Point.
Our little felt-campfire circle had become a nightmare scene of angry faces and pointing fingers. I wanted to crawl off into the night, except that everyone would have seen me since we were in a well-lit multipurpose room. I stuffed a handful of M & M’s into my mouth and immediately regretted it. My eyes began to water and someone thought I was crying and tried to hug me or possibly strangle me. I fell off of my chair and almost right into the felt fire, then I began to kick the “caring friend” who was kind of subduing me with his concern. This “friend” was taking advantage of the fact that I had to keep one other hand over my mouth so as to not let any chocolate drool escape.
Deacon Tim came to my rescue by telling the person (Randy) that he wasn’t following proper fire safety protocol — and to get back on his log (folding chair) with both feet on the ground.
Randy began to protest and Deacon Tim said “I’ve got something to share.”
What Deacon Tim shared is this. I’d like to thank Deacon Tim for allowing me to share his story, too.
DT: OK, you want to talk about it.
MV: Yes, that’s what we’re here for. What did you tell us that night?
DT: When you’re in the fire ring, keep your hair tied back if it’s long?
MV: The other thing.
DT: OK. So. What I told you, what I told all of you, is this. I didn’t go to Our Lady of the Lake College in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.
MV: (gasps) It’s like I just heard it for the first time. And what else?
DT: There is no Our Lady of the Lake College.
DT: There is no lake in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.
MV: One…more…thing… (gulping water sound)
DT: I attended the now-defunct Arcus College, which was in an unincorporated piece of Los Angeles County down near Santa Fe Springs.
MV: Arcus College. Mother. In. Heaven! Tell us about that.
DT: As I understand it, apparently there was an oilman who donated his mansion to the archdiocese. It had been used as a residential school for troubled boys and a maternity home—
MV: Not at the same time, I hope?
DT: (Sighs.) And was sitting vacant. A retired professor from Santa Sangre College in Angel’s Fire, New Mexico, happened to be chatting with the archbishop’s great-nephew, Alby, at his First Communion—
MV: Alby?!?!!? He became Msgr. Slevin. He’s my sixth cousin.
DT: I know.
MV: What the heck, Deacon Tim? Did everyone know about this except for me? Grrrah! I hate that! (sound of recycling bin getting kicked)
DT: No. Calm down. Anyway, this professor, Frank Stewart, was really worried about all the “dropouts” and “runaways” and “hippies” that were “milling around everywhere” and Alby said there was an empty house he could use and somehow the archbishop ended up letting him have the Bancroft mansion and property to open a new kind of Catholic college. That was Arcus.
MV: Arcus College. (exhales.) OK. Note to self: rake Alby over the coals later. Deacon Tim, before we get into that, I have to ask why you lied about going to Arcus? Because that’s a really important part of the story.
DT: It wasn’t the most popular idea while it existed, frankly. I mean, people who got it were few and far between. Secular experimental types had never heard of it and would snort derisively once they heard it was Catholic. It’s like you weren’t allowed to be religious and creative at the same time. And Catholics, if they had heard of it, pretty much thought it was just a freak depository or the Devil’s supermarket.
MV: Supermarket? Like if Satan had his own Ralph’s? That only stocked, like, deviled eggs and deviled ham? And devil’s food cake?
DT: Mary, do you want to do this or not? ‘Cause I really and truly have better things to do. Like grading a two-inch thick pile of algebra tests.
MV: OK, OK, I’m sorry.
DT: And once it ceased to exist, it was either the butt of a joke or some kind of terrible secret that you couldn’t even talk about. We felt really isolated and kind of scared, like even existing as graduates of Arcus College was putting us in some kind of danger, but the times were kind of paranoid. Anyway, my friend Kathy came up with Our Lady of the Lake and a few of us just decided to say that. Oddly, once we started saying it, people just accepted it and even began to believe that OLL was a real school.
MV: I totally did. You know, people sometimes just pointed to you and said “He went to Our Lady of the Lake College. In Illinois.” There was a note of awe in their voices. I never told anyone this, but I thought it sounded really kind of exotic and beautiful and that maybe your school colors were celestial blue and cloud white.
DT: They were, in my head.
MV: I used to wish I could go there but it just seemed too far away. I didn’t really know where Illinois was.
DT: No one expected you to. Everyone just accepted my story. But in my heart, something was really hurting. Because I had been to a great Catholic college and I couldn’t really talk about it.
MV: Did you ever get together with your Arcus friends and hang out? Do you still talk to them?
DT: A bit, but it was difficult. A lot of us just scattered to the winds. People disappeared in Hawaii or Central America. Those of us still around tried to stay in touch but somehow seeing each other just made it harder so we just let go. An unusual amount of former Arcus students have officially died, too. Mostly of cancer.
MV: Freaky. So let’s talk about Arcus.
DT: (exhales) I’m not sure we can cover this in one interview.
MV: Let’s take a break.
MV: Where were we? Oh yes. Arcus.
DT: Frank Stewart, that professor I mentioned earlier, had seen a need for a kind of Catholic college for your more “creative” types. After all, there were already slots for athletes, and mediocre kids, and ones that were going to become lawyers, etc.
MV: Sure, sure. There’s a whole hierarchy there. No Catholic gets left behind.
DT: Layers of colleges.
MV: Super Smart, Smart, Regular, Stupid, Really Stupid and Holding Tank.
DT: There’s a place for everyone. But there wasn’t, Stewart thought, a place for the creative. And creativity, he thought, was endowed by the Maker. By expressing ourselves artistically, we’re acting in conjunction with God, he thought. He wanted writers, painters, dancers. Actors. Filmmakers. Musicians. And people who were doing other kinds of art that didn’t even fit the categories. So the motto was “Ecce Gloria.”
MV: Behold the Glory.
DT: Right. The glory of creation that we, as God’s creations, already have.
MV: Wow. It’s like Catholicism had this rare moment of complete—for lack of a better word—awesomeness.
DT: There have been over 2,000 years of awesomeness, so it wasn’t just a moment, Mary. But I can understand how you feel.
DT: So, I sort of hate to even tell you this, but Stewart needed a logo and since Alby had been so helpful in putting the deal together in the first place, he asked Alby to do the honors, since he thought it should come from a young person, anyway. And frankly, Alby had a lot of rich relatives. Stewart was about 85 at the time.
MV: (shrieks) Alby designed the logo????!?!?! (crashing) Ow! My foot! (Garbled) I think it’s broken!
DT: Shh. Shh. Shh. It’s OK. It’s OK.
MV: What did it look like?
DT: The weird thing, and I have talked to Kathy about this, is that no one seems to have a picture of it. The sign is long gone, and the t-shirts and any folders or notebooks we had have just disappeared.
MV: What about the archdiocese? Surely they must have records?
DT: I think they regard Arcus as an official nonentity.
MV: What did it look like?
DT: I was a sort of rainbow—
MV: Of course. Let’s draw it out.
DT: What? No. I don’t draw.
MV: You talk, and I’ll draw. This is forensic art.
DT: That’s it.
I decided to call Monsignor Slevin, pretending to be Cardinal Bellaire. For some reason his secretary is always fooled by my “man” voice.
AS: Yes, Your Eminence?
MV: Hi? Monsignor?
MV: I am taping this conversation.
AS: No, you are not.
MV: It’s about Arcus College.
AS: Is that Carroll fellow there?
DT: Hi, Monsignor.
AS: Mr. Carroll can tell you anything you want to know.
MV: So you brokered the deal? At your First Communion?
AS: I wouldn’t go that far. I was merely a child with a keen interest in diocesan properties and holdings.
MV: Let’s talk about the logo.
AS: The what?
MV: You heard me. The rainbow.
MV: Have Rosalie check your email. It might jog your imagination.
AS: All right. Hold on. Rosalie? Could you check my email? (Minutes pass.) Is there a picture? Could you make a copy and bring it in here? (Minutes pass.) Lamb of God! Where did you get that—I thought it all had been burned!
MV: I drew it from Deacon Tim’s memory.
AS: Oh, well then. What a lovely drawing, Mary. You should teach art to the girls at the maternity home.
MV: That’s it, isn’t it? The logo that you designed for Arcus College?
AS: I must go, my dear. Fervent blessings!
MV: Wait, I was thinking of having a house Mass for the Assumption—do you want to officiate?
AS: Yes, yes, just send Rosalie the details.
MV: Wait! Just a few more questions, Monsignor.
We needed to take a trip out to the old Bancroft mansion site to have a look around. Deacon Tim really didn’t want to go, but I convinced him to do it even though I suspected it might be a possibly damaging trip down memory lane. People like to talk a lot about “closure” these days but I just don’t buy it. I knew I might be putting Deacon Tim in harm’s way, but it was for the greater good, I thought. Truth and all that.
We drove down to unincorporated L.A. County near Santa Fe Springs in Deacon Tim’s beige Datsun B210, which was the convent car at my high school until the last one nun died. She left it to Deacon Tim, since he regularly rode his bike five miles each way to school and it was really bad for his asthma, what with the smog and all. When we got to the site of the old Bancroft mansion there was nothing there but a barbed wire fence with a sign saying “KEEP OUT BY ORDER OF ARCHDIOCESE OF LOS ANGELES” and, in the distance, oil dinosaurs pumping away.
“You know those skipjacks aren’t even getting any oil any more but it would cost more to shut them down than to let them keep going?”
“Yeah,” said Deacon Tim.
I squinted in the pee-white light.
Deacon Tim looked solemnly out on the patch of blackish-brownish land, which had a fine layer of dust blowing off of it.
“Deacon Tim/do you remember/when the sky was blue?” I said.
“Sky’s been/doom-white/as long as I/remember,” said Deacon Tim.
We were quiet. There was so much I wanted to know about what it was like at Arcus, but somehow, I already did. I decided to ask him only one question and leave it at that.
“Deacon Tim?” I said. “What’s the first memory that pops into your head right now?”
“Fr. Carroll (no relation,) who lived in a room on my floor, always had a flask in his pocket and would always give us a snort. We used to joke that it was the Flask of Cana since it never seemed to run out, ever. Fr. Carroll told us not to raise too much hell since we weren’t in an incorporated city and therefore, were under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff’s Department, and they really didn’t take too kindly to hippies, especially Catholic ones.”
“He sounds great,” I sighed. “I guess what Alby told us was true,” I said.
“Yeah, looks like it,” said Deacon Tim.
What Monsignor Slevin had told us was that the Archdiocese was happy to let Stewart have his little college on the Bancroft land since no one else wanted it any more due to rumors. The water was red down there, people said. The little bastard babies were coming out wrong. Arcus was shut down after only five years (“just after Reagan was elected,” recalled Deacon Tim) because some lawsuits forced the county’s hand. That’s why so many of the graduates apparently died of cancer, some people think, said Monsignor Slevin. “No way to prove that, of course.” But nobody knew any better, he said. Everyone thought the rumors were just that. Plus, he was only a kid at the time he suggested it—what did he know about environmental contamination?
What happened to the building after the college was shut down? The property sat vacant for quite some time until it burst into flames one October and kept burning for about a week. I found a paragraph about it buried in the L.A. Times—“Fire Burns for Week in County, Destroys Vacant Mansion.” There was no mention of Arcus at all.
Deacon Tim looked away from the singed earth where his alma mater had been and said, “Let’s get out of here.”
I stayed for a moment longer, looking through the fence. Maybe it was a heat mirage, but I swore I could make out the ghostly outlines of the old Bancroft mansion in the afternoon’s dirty glare.
Don’t look for Deacon Tim’s memoir of his time at Arcus College, The Earth-Toned Rainbow, anywhere, because he won’t write it.
Mary Valle lives in Baltimore and is the author of Cancer Doesn't Give a Shit About Your Stupid Attitude: Reflections on Cancer and Catholicism. She blogs on KtB as The Communicant. For more Mary, check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.