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  Current Issue: Summer 2003

At Twilight

For more than half a century the students’ favorite beer hall has been the shaggy, colorful, funny, eccentric Twilight Room, on Lombard Avenue. An alumnus wanders back in, years later.

By Father Patrick Hannon, C.S.C.

I first stepped through the door of the T-Room on my twenty-first birthday. Mom and Dad had driven up on a Saturday and surprised me. We sat in one of the wooden booths. The moment we sat down a wizened woman with a vodka grin sat down next to my father and put her arms around him and said in a sultry Lauren Bacall voice, hey, big fella, where you been my whole life? My mom took a drag on her cigarette and gave her a look that said oh for heaven’s sake, my dad grinned, and I decided then and there that the T-Room was the greatest place on earth.

Jim McKenna, one of the owners, tells the story of how Thursday Dime Beer Night came to an ignominious end, years ago. Back then, as now, Navy ships would dock in Portland in summer. Without fail thirty or forty sailors would show up at the T-Room, their favorite beer hole in all the city. But in summer, the T-Room was filled with local Lombard boys, many of them pool sharks. Eventually a sailor took umbrage at being hustled, a fight ensued, the sailors slammed their glasses against the sides of the pool tables to create sharp and handy weapons, the Lombard boys raised their fists for battle, bartenders leaped over the bar to calm everyone down, and Dime Night began to seem like a terrible idea.

A string of Christmas lights snakes along the top of the walls of the T-Room. Each light has a small card taped beneath it with someone’s name. There must be a couple hundred of them. Some are still lit. Some have gone out. The person whose name is beneath the last one to flicker out will win a whole lot of money, is my guess. I have no idea how long that string of lights has been there. But when there are only two lights left, I want to be there, with a hundred of my closest friends, singing, laughing, shooting pool, waiting for one light to finally go out. That will be a night to remember.

My name is there, on the ceiling. It’ll be there as long as the ceiling lasts. I wrote it there on a Thursday evening in late April of 1982. It was Senior Signing Night and I was there with Lori and Janie and Helen and Mike and Steve and a hundred other seniors. Each of us climbed a rickety ladder and wrote our names on the ceiling. There are hundreds and hundreds of names there, each one telling a story of friends and classmates, wishes and wounds, of beer and Bluff, of kisses and tears. Nomines in pulvere. Names etched in white chalk, ephemeral dust that sticks around forever. Each one tells a tale. If you listen very carefully, you will hear them trickle down Stanford Street, past the Holy Cross School playground, past Portsmouth Park, past one sleepy University Park bungalow after another, until they cross Willamette Boulevard and return to The Bluff, to a school built of brick and stone. But the real mortar that holds those bricks and stones together? Stories.

One Thursday night in the spring of my senior year I went to the T-Room with some friends. We found a free table in the back, fed the jukebox a dozen quarters, ordered pitchers of beer and commenced with the time-honored, male bonding ritual of giving each other grief. Paul was there — a spry, delightful don who could regale us with stories that left us doubled over in teary laughter — Paul the friend always first to arrive and last to leave. Steve and Mike and Randy were there, and Regina, Janie, and Helen showed up later. In my memory we are all there those last Thursdays of our senior year, soaking it all in, trying to hold on to each other as the centrifugal force of impatient dreams and restless futures begins to pull us apart. Charlie was there too, a young Holy Cross priest we had all come to love. He joined us late. He probably came to check up on us, God love him. He sat there sipping his soda and chuckling at us. Remember the time we filled your office with newspapers? I asked him, and we roared at the memory, that early morning when we snuck into Saint Mary’s and spent two hours stuffing his office to the ceiling... He wasn’t too pleased with us when it happened, but time heals most wounds. Charlie laughed and laughed at that memory, and his laugh was absolution.

Something occurred to me that night as Charlie drove us back to Kenna: nothing is ever lost or forgotten. There is an eternal memory that every story seeks to give voice to. That’s why we remember these stories and tell them: the raucous ones and the wistful ones and even the ones that sting and wound. Lathered in laughter or soaked in tears, it doesn’t matter. The stories hold us together. They trumpet a triumphant truth: even bruised and broken memories can heal. I said thanks to Charlie for the ride home, and as I climbed through the window into my dorm — I had as usual forgotten my key — I remember saying to God, if you make me a priest, make me one like Charlie.

I bumped into a couple of alumni from the early 1950s the other day at the T-Room, men with slower gaits and tilting frames now, but mischievous glints in their eyes still. We swapped stories like baseball cards. We talked of priests and professors we knew. They remembered the likes of Father Charlie Hamel, who taught them at Columbia Prep and then at the University of Portland. A grand priest, and a good teacher, they said.

How was his eyesight back then? I asked.

Too fine, said one of the men, and they both laughed. You could never get away with anything when Father Hamel was in the room, they said.
I told them of the time when I was I was a wee freshman and walking on campus and Father Hamel was riding his monster-of-a-bike down the path, his chin jutting as he rode, and I had to dive out of his way onto the good grass. Good evening, good evening, said Father Hamel as he rode past, good evening, good evening... The men laughed. I treated them to another round as I departed. Now, Father Hamel..., I heard one of them say as I left. Lord, I thought as I walked back to campus, that bar is haunted by Holy Cross ghosts.

Doug Penner has bad knees and a hearing aid. Seventy-eight years on the planet can do that to a man. But he’s got a glint in his eye and a ready smile and there’s still a bit of the boy in him still. See him as the young buck he was in the UP freshman football team photo of 1949. There’s Doug, back row, four players down from his twin brother Dean. Doug tried like heck to get into the T-Room when he was just a lad and living in Christie Hall. Never could get past the bar, Doug said. The bartenders, all former GIs and now back in the classroom, knew who he was. They played football together. Doug was recruited out of Mount Angel, Oregon, along with his brother, to play football. He still remembers the game when the Babes beat the hide off of the Rooks of Oregon State. He remembered the score: 40-0. I looked it up; he was right.

Ah, Doug, I say, I remember thirty years ago, when I was a sophomore at the Memorial Coliseum and saw the Pilots knock off Ralph Miller’s vaunted Oregon State Beavers, who only lost three games all year, and I remember that score very well indeed, 94-86. We toast the Pilots of ’49, and the Pilots of ’79, and then we toast the Pilots of 2009, for good measure. I note that our women’s soccer team knocked off the Beavers recently. Beaver pelts make for warm winters on the Bluff.

Doug never did graduate from the University. He came back from the Navy in 1951 to find that Pilot football was no more and neither was his major, physical education. Eventually he made his way back to the T-Room, where he has worked since 1961. He owns the place now along with Jim McKenna. When he’s not at the T-Room chatting with his managers or the regulars, he’s at home on Portsmouth, or up at the University, cheering for the Pilots. For sixty years kids from the University have been congregating in this pub and Doug cannot say a disparaging word about any one of them. I’m a bit suspicious, but Doug doesn’t budge, and he should know.

Sometimes on cool early autumn evenings, at twilight, I take my time walking back to Christie Hall from dinner, and I see students making their way back to their dorms or to Howard Hall to work out or to an evening class or to a night of studying in the library, each of them wonderfully impervious to the exacting tribute time will eventually demand of them. And this is as it should be for these young women and men of limber limb, of nimble mind, of audacious heart. And sometimes passing through them and by them are the faint shadows of young men and women now grown old or gone. I see Doug Penner and his twin brother Dean lacing their cleats on the steps of Christie Hall and then racing each other to the football field, where they will meet up with Moose and Joe and Dick and the rest of the Babes for practice. They’re all young, those ghosts, tilting toward the future unafraid...

Father Pat Hannon, C.S.C., ’82, teaches theology on The Bluff and is the author of three collections of essays, most recently The Long Yearning’s End, available in the University bookstore.