Tales of a Brother Errant
You’ve lived a pretty adventurous life so far?
Yes, much to my surprise. I never expected to leave California when I was young. People just didn’t do that then. But Brother Alfred Brousseau asked me to go study at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. I thought I’d come back to California and that’s the end of that. Then I was asked to go to the second novitiate in Rome in 1955–56. I had a wonderful time traveling all over Europe and the Near East. That sort of started me off.
What would you say is the secret to a successful traveling life?
I always plan, but not too precisely. People will arrange every detail of their trip with every minute accounted for. But I think you should go to the start and stay there. When you get into a place, you sort of have to feel it in some way, get comfortable with it. You meet people; things happen. Then you plan your next move. It’s better to travel to a lot of places, but do less travel in a place.
You’ve done a lot of solo travel. If you travel with someone, you’re kind of traveling in a bubble, aren’t you?
Yes, unless you make some kind of arrangement. For example, years ago I traveled with a Brother Francis. If what we wanted to see coincided, we went together. If we each wanted to do something different, we just did it. But we always met for supper. That’s a great way to travel with people.
Did you ever feel unsafe because of human beings?
No. I have found ordinary people to always be generous, helpful and hospitable. I once met a little kid on the street in the Iranian city of Shiraz. He wanted to talk because he was learning English at school. So, we walked around and then he invited me to his home to have tea with his parents, who didn’t speak any English at all. But we got along just fine. It’s kind of amazing. You don’t know a language and somehow or other you can communicate. It just works. You must not fill yourself with fears.
You’ve done a lot of travel on freighters. What is life like on those ships?
It’s wonderful. They don’t do anything for you except give you room and board. There are usually 8–12 passengers, in a confined space. You eat with the officers, but your time is your own. That’s what I liked. But you’d better have something very interesting to do or to think about. I was always writing or working on some project. I remember one person who brought along a piano and learned to play it. You get together with people when you want to, but don’t have to. A nice little social life develops among the passengers and after 40 days, it’s so friendly and just feels like home. You hate to say good-bye.
Did you ever get seasick?
Very little, except for the time when the ship, the President Polk, hit the edge of a typhoon. The captain ordered us all to go to bed, strap ourselves in and stay put until it was over. That ship went every which way you could imagine. It rocked back and forth and when it went over it went very slowly, creaking, then trembled, slowly righted itself and went over to the other side, creaking. I think that’s the one time I was really scared.
I’ll bet you develop a different relationship with the ocean?
In one sense, it’s just there. It goes on and on, timeless, vast, its very presence impressive. You don’t really have to think about it. But it is a kind of spiritual or mystical experience—a wonderful metaphor for eternity.
You’re pretty fearless, aren’t you?
I sort of like the “What’s Next?” in life. What’s the next adventure? Then I just go into it. Like now, I think a lot about death. After all, I’m 95 years old. I think it’s going to be a great adventure. I want nothing to do with fear.
-Brother S. Dominic (John A.) Ruegg, FSC, Ph.D.
Brother Dominic Ruegg is a classics scholar and archeologist. He has written a book, Tales of a Brother Errant, about a lifetime of travel, adventure and archeology.