The Manhood of Robbie Binter
Matthias Robert Binter, known as Robbie, turned fourteen on May 1, 1968. That same day, after Fr. D’Amour’s Wednesday morning Mass at St. Luke’s, Robbie’s little sister Julie placed a crown of flowers on the Mary statue. The oldest of six, Robbie was born into a modest rural life. His dad, Karl Binter III, came from a line of pious but simple farmhands. He drove a 1942 Ford pickup, given to him by his father. By his own skill and hands, he kept the engine like new because he hadn’t the money for a new truck. Karl married Elsa Mittenbrenner, a farmer’s daughter, in 1953. They bought a simple country house along Lake Iroquois Road, or County Road 778. After the War, the previous owners plumbed the house with running water and put it on the grid. Before Robbie was born, Mr. Binter bought a green 1954 Rambler station wagon for Elsa to get around. When Robbie was two, the Binters purchased a small RCA television. By ‘58, they equipped the kitchen with a GE fridge and oven range. The two storied house had a square floor space, about 30’ X 30’, with three small upstairs bedrooms, two baths and a basement. It was sided with tan shingles, some falling off, and shutterless windows. There was a front porch and a small octagonal window beneath the gently sloping roof awnings. They had chickens out back. From dawn to dusk in summers, and sometimes after school during fall harvests, Robbie did farm work with his dad. He was honest and plainspoken, a self-assured but sensitive soul.
In the mid-60s, Mr. Binter left farm work for better paying construction jobs in the nearby Township of Lake Iroquois. Beautifully situated on hill-studded Lake Iroquois, for which the Township was named when the lake was dammed in 1923, it was once a vacation spot for wealthy city folks. The Township boomed after the feds built a four-lane just three miles to the south in the mid ‘50s. Executives and airline pilots moved in and built expensive ultra-modern homes, many in Frank Lloyd Wright style, with huge windows overlooking the Lake. By the mid ‘60s, strip malls lined the Lake Iroquois Road starting about a mile from the Binter house.
In 1958, the Catholic diocese built St. Francis High School, well reputed and run by the Brothers of St. Francis. Elsa wanted Robbie to go there, as almost all St. Francis grads went to college. She managed a deli at an A&P for tuition money. While Elsa worked, her mother watched the young children at home. On that August after Robbie’s fourteenth birthday, Elsa drove Robbie to St. Francis for the first time on the way to work. Robbie always remembered that nervous ride, as he didn’t know a soul at St. Francis or what a “Brother” was. The Seekers were singing “I’ll Never Find Another You” on the Rambler’s AM radio as they approached the school: “There’s a new world somewhere / They call the promised land / And I’ll be there someday / If you could hold my hand….” Elsa shed a tear as she confided her hopes to Robbie. “I caint do this for all a’ ya. I’m sendin’ you to Saint Francis not just for you but for lil’ Johnny. You gonna’ support that boy someday. What if somethin’ happen to me or daddy? Study for him, not just for you.” The tear streamed as she kissed Robbie before he stepped from the car. That departure was as uncertain for Elsa as it was for Robbie. It was an act of hope, a plunge into Providence. Johnny was her youngest, a three-year-old deaf boy with muscular dystrophy. “It's a long, long journey / So stay by my side / When I walk through the storm / You'll be my guide, be my guide….”
When Robbie stepped from the weathered green station wagon, he entered a new world and a long, long journey. He faltered on his first day at St. Francis. Back home, there was no concept of first impressions based on appearances. His longish disheveled blond hair, which covered his ears and waved down against his neck, drooped almost to his shoulders. It was a bit greasy, as he shampooed twice a week. Robbie’s country grammar and the peach fuzz on his upper lip set him apart from his polished classmates. He didn’t brush his teeth that morning – Elsa rarely pushed that point – so his morning breath suggested pancake syrup and cigarettes. He’d smoke his mother’s Pall Malls, and she didn’t object. Though healthy and tall – he was pushing 5’ 11” – he played no sports. He had no time for that, save during middle school PE. Nor did he watch TV. There was little point to that on the fuzzy black-and-white mosaic images of the little RCA in a cramped noisy house. He played the banjo well. But that meant nothing to the Lake Iroquois crowd. Robbie wasn’t self-conscious, as he had little awareness of anything that wasn’t obvious. He only saw outside of himself. He had an eye for the St. Francis girls but was unaware that, among themselves, they talked meanly about him. Secretly, a few loved him, but they’d never admit it. He had no pretentions, no put-ons, no need to impress. It was a grace. Robbie was as innocent as any son of Adam. He felt misplaced and lonely at St. Francis. But he wasn’t bitter, and he’d make a go of it because mom worked hard to put him through, for Johnny.
Robbie made one friend at St. Francis that fall, Stan Willoughberry. Stan was an only child, raised by a Welsh nanny. Unlike Robbie, he was insecure but well groomed. His father flew 707s for TWA, and his mother was a transatlantic stewardess. They lived in a Bauhaus home with windowed walls, extended from an embankment overlooking Lake Iroquois, supported by pilings decorated as totem poles. A 25’ mahogany Chris-Craft was docked in the lake beneath the house. When Stan spent a weekend at Robbie’s house, he was unprepared for the experience. Robbie sensed the disdain of Stan, who seemed loath to touch or eat anything. For the first time ever, Robbie felt the weight of rejection. From then on, he feared taking anyone from St. Francis to his home.
One lunch period, Robbie was spontaneously moved to sit with Wendy Renner, whom he’d never met before. She was a pretty brown-eyed sophomore wearing a yellow dandelion in her long sheening hair, like an iconic flower child. Her looks made Robbie happy. When he sat at her table, she and her two friends froze up and went silent. After an awkward, speechless lunch – for he didn’t leave until he was done eating – Robbie held back his tears and went on. He recalled his mom’s words.
After school, Robbie would sit alone on a bench under a tree at the edge of the school’s property, doing homework until his mom picked him up after work. One afternoon, from a distance, he saw some recent St. Francis grads holding antiwar signs and burning draft cards on the sidewalk in front of school. The TV news was there. But the prospect of going to Vietnam was too remote for Robbie.
It was a cold, overcast February morning when a police officer came to see Brother Bernadine, the Principal of St. Francis. The officer reported that Robbie’s mother collapsed at the A&P and was dead when the ambulance arrived. Supposedly an aneurism. Robbie was pulled from class, and the officer delivered the news. For Robbie, it was like being pulled down by an undertow, not knowing where he’d come out. The next few days were a surreal and grievous blur. He surfaced from the current into the front pew of St. Luke’s, with Fr. D’Amour saying his mom’s funeral Mass. His red eyes were locked on the Pascal candle over the casket, as his arms wrapped tightly around little Johnny and Julie. All of the Franciscan Brothers were there. Stan was the only student present, the last time he paid Robbie any attention.
That evening, after dark, Robbie drove the Rambler back to St. Luke’s. The church was open. He sat in the front pew, drooping his head almost between his legs. His tears wet the floor. Fr. D’Amour came in to lock up and heard sobbing. Robbie was a mess. His bloodshot eyes revealed speechless grief. Fr. D’Amour sat beside him. After a minute of silence, save for the quivers of weeping, Fr. D’Amour said, “God bless you, my boy. Stay as long as you want.” He left Robbie in the pew, turned out the lights and locked up.
Robbie felt a vertigo fear, as if he were standing on the edge of a cliff called The Future. He raised his head and looked up at the sanctuary lamp’s candlelight dancing on Jesus’ crucified face. He stared thoughtlessly. He lit a Pall Mall and watched the smoke rise into the shadows. Lost in inarticulate grief and uncertainty – and an adolescent haze – he stood before Tomorrow’s frightful gaze. He didn’t know that, before sunrise, something would happen to him. It would set him even farther apart from his St. Francis peers. But for now, he wept loudly and deeply. He looked at Christ-crucified and yelled, “Mom! Where are ya’!?” Breaking down uncontrollably, with forceful but faltering words he cried again, “What ya’ want me ta’ do!?” Silence. Troubling questions came to mind. Could he go back to St. Francis without mom’s money? If he could, would he find a friend there? Could he carry on with the pain? Would he have to quit school for work? Do construction like dad? Who’ll take care of lil’ Johnny? Would he be drafted to Vietnam? Die there? No answers. He lit another cigarette and fell asleep on the pew.
Cigarette smoke still lingered when Fr. D’Amour unlocked the church at 5:30 AM. Robbie was asleep. “I told your father you were here.” Robbie woke reluctantly. “Come, my boy. I’ll show you something.” Robbie groggily took Father’s hand and was led to Mary’s statue. Her eyes gleamed tenderly in the candlelight. She looked at him, like he mattered. “Kneel here,” said Father. He took a wooden taper from a little sandbox on the wall, lit it off another candle and gave it to Robbie. He lit a candle. And he was left there, kneeling before his Mother, as Father’s footsteps faded into the distance.
Fr. Frederick Edlefsen, Pastor