Never taking our eyes off the back of the person in front of us, we marched solemnly past family members whose faces were beaming with pride (or bored resignation, in the case of one Mr. Penwasser). At the same time, Father Karl took his place in front of the altar, flanked by a half dozen altar boys from the 7th grade.
As we slid into the first pew, I glanced to the left of the church. Planted in front like so many mummies was a group of nine stern-faced elderly women. Not related to anyone in the graduating class (or the 20th century), these ladies never missed a chance to attend church.
Deeply religious children of Slovak immigrants, they were all that remained of the original parishioners of Saint Stanislaus. Speaking in heavily accented English, they spoke lovingly of the Old Country while at the same time bitterly bemoaned the erosion of their culture by “outsiders” with their “blue jeans and rock and roll.”
My father, ever the diplomat, scoffed at such venomous bile, “Aw, screw them old Polack broads. If they didn’t make such great cabbage rolls and pierogies, nobody’d have nothing to do with them.”
Their attention momentarily distracted from the altar, the old “broads” glowered at us in harsh disapproval. Clutching their rosaries in a death grip, I saw their lips moving slightly as they whispered a prayer. Or a gypsy curse.
Keeping a wary eye on the Babushka Nine, I quietly settled into my spot. I looked over my right shoulder and saw my best friend, Tommy Spagnoula (“Spags”), take his place next to the Spadaforo girls in the pew behind us.
Taking up station in the third pew was the entire faculty of the school. Even though this was supposed to be a happy occasion, their grim demeanor sent a chill through us all. They made the dour Slovak church gals look like the Brady Bunch at Disneyland.
I doubted even that Tommy Spagnoula (“Spags”), the class clown, would be able to get away with much considering that Sister Gregory and her knuckles loomed behind his back.
Suddenly, “May the glory of our Lord take us into his loving arms...”
I looked up to behold a glowing Father Karl as he stepped to the pulpit amidst an organ fanfare which would do a ballgame proud. Clutching their chests, the crones on our left breathed a barely audible sigh of synchronized rapture.
Strike up the band. Showtime.
Ninety minutes later, we were in the home stretch. An hour and a half of church announcements, preparatory prayers, sermon, offering, and Communion finally brought us to the reason we were gathered there on a weeknight. All that remained was the blessing of the graduating class followed by distribution of diplomas.
Sister Gregory, as principal and warden, left her place to join Father Karl at the altar. Together they silently set forty documents on the prayer rail. Once done, they stepped backward, their hands clasped and heads bowed in silent reverence.
Father Karl slowly began to raise his hands in blessing.
Spags saw his chance. He edged forward slightly in the wooden pew and closed his eyes. Scrunching his face tightly, he looked as if he was giving birth to some unholy thing.
What followed next reverberated deafeningly in the hushed building. Its echoes bounced off the stained glass and ricocheted from the massive stone pillars like the harsh bellow of a monstrous, gored duck.
Spags immediately turned to his left and, with as much mock outrage as he could muster, shouted, “Eew! Frances!”
Each person in my row turned around in sadistic glee to watch a mortified Frances Spadaforo writhe in agonized dismay. Spags, of course, grinned from ear to ear and maintained an air of shocked indignation at her counter-accusations.
As for the rest of the congregation, I heard more than a few chuckles from families lulled into narcoleptic comas by the grueling service. What’s more, I could have sworn I heard a muffled “Jesus!” coming from the direction of my father, Saint Michael the Blasphemer.
I heard an enraged snarl coming from the front. Not fooled by Spags’ dramatics one iota, Sister Gregory lunged from the altar, her eyes little yellow flames. A look of murder darkened the face of this woman of God.
Just as I was turning to warn my friend to save himself, I heard gasps of shock and alarm over to the left. Now what?
I quickly pivoted. To my amazement, I saw a burst of pink roar past nine old ladies who gasped in horror and flashed their arms like semaphores in a frantic sign of the cross.
Astonishingly, a naked kid, clothed only in light blue Converse sneakers and a rubber Richard Nixon mask, sped across the center of the church. Pausing briefly at the center, he spun and raised both his hands in a peace sign.
With a cry of “Four more years!” he quickly turned and dashed out the side door.
My classmates and I collapsed into fits of uncontrollable laughter. We had no clue what had just happened, but the sight of Sister Gregory frozen in her tracks was the funniest thing we’d ever seen. We almost felt sorry for her as she was paralyzed between a desire to remove Tommy Spagnoula’s head or tackle a nude Tricky Dick.
Nobody ever found out who the night’s entertainment was, although Sister Gregory lit a candle for guidance and Father Karl included it in his sermon the following Sunday. But, we kids had a pretty good idea.
He never admitted it, but we swore it was Ralph Martone from the 7th grade. Known parish-wide as a prankster, it was just the type of thing he’d do. After all, he once had swapped communion wine for prune juice and put sneezing powder in the Good Friday incense.
Plus, he owned a pair of light blue “Cons.”
It wasn’t until a couple years later, during the Academy Awards, that we saw a man wearing nothing but a smile dash by a bemused David Niven. With great pride, we knew that our “streaker” was the cutting edge of a crazy fad which would sweep the nation.
The next night, my diploma safely nestled among the rest of my prized possessions (in the top drawer of my dresser), I was passing by the bathroom when I heard “Anglo-Saxon expressions of goodwill” emanating from within.
Evidently, my father found something shocking in the newspaper.
Then, when I heard laughter, I figured it would be safe to wait for him to emerge. When he did so, I asked, “What was so funny?”
Still chuckling, he shook his head and handed me the Community section of the paper. “This,” he said and walked off to his bedroom.
Holding the bathroom-despoiled paper by the tips of my fingers, I looked at a full-frontal picture of a naked Richard Nixon (with a black bar strategically placed for decency, of course), both arms held triumphantly aloft.
It was titled: “Flop and Circumstance as Saint Stanislaus Graduates Forty.”