While on the topic of fathers and sons, I post for your delight this week another guest post from my high school classmate Ned McDonnell.

Drinking alcohol was against the rules at our boarding high school.  Transgression resulted in an 10 days unanticipated visit home for the first offense.  You could surprise the folks by coming home!!!  And permanent banishment on the second.  Since I was on my way to Theologian studies at the Vatican, I was never subjected to this harsh process.

Unfortunately for Ned, he got busted.

This is his story about going home and the reception that awaited him there.

My Far-away Father

My father, John Gordon McDonnell, was an engineer by training and a World War II Navy drill instructor. That made him a tenacious disciplinarian with a very cut-and-dried view of life. After we moved back to Pittsburgh from Sydney in 1968, my father and I did little together since he no longer needed a jib-man on his week-end sailing adventures. For a perfect snap-shot of our ‘rapport’, listen to “Earache My Eye” by Cheech and Chong.

Big Bambu

The Plane! The Plane!

“Good afternoon, we are approaching Pittsburgh International Airport. Please make sure your seat-belts are fastened, seats upright and cigarettes extinguished. Skies are clear at thirty-five degrees. Thank you for travelling with Allegheny Airlines and we wish you a Happy Thanksgiving 1975. Go Steelers!”

As DC-9s were wont to do, this smaller jet rocked in the coming winter’s wind. That weaving legitimated a creeping, contingent nausea. No, I was physically in good shape after the extra day on campus laying down the varsity basketball court and the wrestling mats, etc. in the School’s gym. My defiant manner of that moment failed to hide my gnawing shame of letting my family down by facing expulsion from prep school and dishonoring my family.

Landfall or Last Call?

My physical unease reflected two great uncertainties looming over me that day as a high school senior. First, I did not know if I would return to the School. Busted twice in two weeks for sloppy drinking, but let off the hook the first time, I was arguably in line for expulsion. That Fall semester I had earned good marks; lettered in a varsity sport (finally!); and, aced the SATs.

But possibly, all for naught.

The second bust had proven to be the stuff of comedy. Trying to show off my presumed senior year sophistication with Schlitz and grenadine – which my saner friends had politely refused – I stubbornly consumed eight or ten of these perversions, after which I decided to go ‘do’ a Camel non-filter inside the enclosed fire escape. When the surge came, I hurled so quickly and violently, I had no chance to get close to the bathroom.

Instead, I splattered the rough stucco wall with pink stained beer. Two years later, when I brought a college class-mate curious about the School to that dorm, I showed him the scene of the crime. The swish mark was still there since the rough stucco had been impossible to clean. So I wagged my finger at my private mark of manhood and declared, “President so-and-so left his mark on the School and so did Ned McDonnell!”

My academic future weighed on me. The bigger deal was how my parents would react, particularly my father. Would my mother break down in tears? That would be tough to take.

But Dad would be the killer. The worst he could ever do was to simply stare at me mournfully and say softly, “Ned, I am disappointed in you. You are better than this…” Whatever ‘this’ was, I did my damnedest not to do it again…ever!  At least up to that moment.

The Reckoning

As I disembarked, I recalled my two conversations with Dad earlier that week, before and after he spoke with the School. Mom, to be sure, had expressed her dismay directly to me which was a lingering sting.  That was only a prelude. Dad had been a sphynx, a pissy one. Walking over to the pay phones, I shuddered as I reluctantly called my father – as he had made clear – at his office to come to the Airport and pick me up.

The usual drill was for me to take an airport bus into town for a hero’s greeting. This exception-to-policy did not bode well. My car was a goner – but what else? Dad would surely pillory me in front of my cousins and various family friends during Thanksgiving dinner. Nausea burned through me, even after three Winstons.

When he pulled up, Dad simply waved and smiled; maybe there was some lingering hope for me after all. So, I put my suitcase in the back-seat and took the passenger seat adjacent to him. Dad quickly kissed me hello in his warm and enduring way. Otherwise he said little, looked ahead and filled me in on the Steelers and the Pitt Panthers, both having big years.

As we pulled onto the back-way into town, a business route brimming with billboards, Dad said something odd. “Son…” Yikes! He had never used that word! He continued, after his pause, “Ned, I want you to look carefully at the advertisements on our way in.”

At least he gave me something to do prior to the blind-fold and last cigarette.

The fateful moment approached as we pulled up to the house – lots of leaves still in the yard. Good! A chance for me to work off my penance. As he backed the car into the garage, Dad stopped the car and paused for a moment.

He asked me with an even-tempered voice, “Ned, of all those billboards you saw, how many involved alcohol?” Now, I started getting an inkling where this was headed; I answered at least half a dozen.

“That’s the point. Alcohol is only 1% of the G.N.P.”  My father looked at me for dramatic effect.

“Think about that for the rest of the time you’re home, ole timer…” He winked, patted me on the knee, and backed the car into the garage.

That magic moment was the one that made me realize that I had lucked out with my Dad. Thus started an unexpectedly mirthful Thanksgiving and the beginning of the end of my career as a heavy social drinker, where something wasn’t right, anyway.


  1. Whew, lucky break for you! I can totally relate. My Dad, too was a strict, disciplinarian; his motto: “speak softly and carry a big stick.” All he had to do was look at us, lol. Ah, the good ol’ 70’s, listening to Cheech and Chong and smoking on airplanes…fun read!!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lucky break indeed, Ned!! Back then this sort of expulsion was cause for horror & panic… really & sincerely. If we knew then what small potatoes that was compared to older days & age stuff we’ve all faced (insert roll eyes). I was half way through this post & was remembering my own (years earlier) “caught drinking on campus & suspended” situation. While yours went well, my girly one did not. I left (ie: ran away) for a few weeks, into the city (mine being Old Town in Chicago). I’d have been killed (ok, maybe that’s harsh but truth be told, I’d have been beaten) and my curfew that was intolerable (as a senior I had to be home from Senior Prom at 9PM, I stayed out until 10:30 & was grounded… because it wasn’t a church function. Yeah, that really happened. Under My Thumb was never a fav sing of mine) And yet somehow we all turned out as somewhat normal, productive, well behaved adults in spite of our upbringings so kudos to us all!!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Although we didn’t get beaten, we certainly got grounded a lot. Bed time in high school was 9:00 p.m. while our friends curfews were 11:00 p.m.! My dad’s other favorite motto: “early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Needless to say, I moved out the house as soon as I could. I signed my first lease fresh out of high school. Although in hindsight, my dad was truly a great father. He taught us discipline, honesty, humility and integrity. I wouldn’t have traded him for the world!!!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Cathy, I smile with a tear in the eye as I read your comment; l hope you did not suffer too much. I really thought I was headed for ‘getting the rounds’. Four years later, when the sipping of the fire-water slipped out of control, I called home from college because my G.P.A. was headed for a cliff. Accordingly, I made what I deemed an unbeatable case for my dropping out and taking ‘incompletes’ instead of Ds (on the good courses). Then I would work until the next fall in the steel mill ‘to get it together’.

      Finally, I would head out to his school, the University of Michigan, where I would change my major to philosophy and graduate after five years of college. Cathy, I thought the Ann Arbor touch would clinch the escape deal. Time for another change-up. Dad said, “Great plan, Ned. So how are you going to pay for that?” Not what I wanted to hear, obviously. Yet the best advice my Dad ever gave me. I was in my twenties and overdue for facing consequences.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You got that right! lol Those of us whose parents were too strict, became rebels. And those of us who were overindulged with volatile parents, well ya’ know… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for the comments; I cannot hit the ‘like’ button for some reason and thus the slow response. Neverthless, l am grateful to you and to James for honouring me. I am most assurèdly with my high school chum in his assertion that some of us are not normal. Personally, I spent years trying not to be normal. When I finally decided that a return to normality made sense, I discovered that I had no clue what normal really was — and never had.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. “Normal” is highly overrated. Those of us not so privileged paid our own way way in life; as well as paid for our own college. Perhaps our fathers did us a huge favor; another quote my Dad often said, “to spoil a child is to kill it.” As Cathy said, “kudos to us all.”


    1. Great comment. I wish my like button would work. I paid for graduate school and, by golly, I never missed a class and I worked at it. On the other hand, one of the great fortunes of my life was the privilege of attending The Choate School. There were teachers and deans there who made me a much better human being. Then, of course, there was James reminding me to quit being so serious and laugh once in a while.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I had the privilege (yes, teaching is a privilege) of being the Dean of the Class of ‘76. Accordingly, I would have been the one to have delivered the news to a terribly hungover Ned that he was suspended. Today, almost 42 years later, I am so very proud of the men James and Ned became. And there is the true compensation for a career spent in the classroom.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s great that there are teachers who consider teaching to be a privilege.I agree a good education is so important. What is sad to me, is the concept of people sending their children away at a young age to be raised by someone else. (or are they left to raise themselves?). In my opinion, seems a cold and lonely existence; it’s no wonder they drank.


      1. I was never sent away. I drove the process of applying to schools with challenge and opportunities. They were highly competitive places to gain admittance. The drinking was no different than back home. In fact, it was at my day school in 8th grade that my old buddy Bob Anderson drank himself to death. RIP buddy, I remember you with much sadness.


      2. Your comment sounds very pretentious. (Especially for a 12 or 13 yr-old.) I have met an elderly woman who graduated from Choate many, many years ago. She orders people around like she is a Queen; everyone is her subject and her entire staff is afraid of her. Could it be possible Choate is pumping out future narcissists?


      3. It’s a pity your elderly friend from Choate forgot to order you to drive into a ditch somewhere. Aren’t there other blogs out there for you to spray Va-poo-rize? Wear gloves.


    2. Dean Maddox, you are a class act — and some of that rubbed off on me. When I returned to Choate, I snuck into the faculty lounge and saw the posting, “Edward J. McDonnell III has been suspended for violations of major school rules….” Felt like I was making my debut! Honestly, I was pretty sure I would not be expelled; you had been stern but kind. Dad, ’til the day he died, claimed up and down that he had told you all to make me sweat bullets….hah! So, I wasn’t entirely sure. Hope Cotuit is as pretty as it looks and that you are reading some nice book by the fire.

      Liked by 1 person

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