Monday, January 10, 2011

Once Upon a Time in New England


It occurred to me that, in my telling of my Catholic School education (which, in all seriousness, I count as an outstanding one), I had completely neglected to tell of my graduation from that august institution. So, in an attempt to complete your understanding of what it meant to be an alumnus of the Barnum Avenue Penguin Academy, I present the below, to be completed in several parts.  The events you will read of are true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent. And prevent me from being sued....

    Saint Stanislaus Catholic Church never passed up a chance to hold a Mass:  weddings, funerals, baptisms, First Communions, Confirmations, Sweet Sixteen parties, getting a driver’s license, lunar eclipses, having wisdom teeth pulled, Bar Mitzvahs, you name it.
    So it was no surprise that, since our 8th grade graduation ceremony was going to be held inside the church itself, a Mass would be thrown in for good measure.
    That way, the parish priest, Father Karl, could drone on about our first steps into adulthood, the life lessons we learned at St. Stan's, and how Jesus hated hippies.
    “Plus,” my father groused, “it gives them another chance to pass the collection plate.”
    My father was as devout a churchgoer as Hugh Hefner.  No longer considering himself a practicing Catholic (“I got good at it, so why do I have to ‘practice’ anymore?”), he doesn’t see the need to be a frequent flyer for God. 
    The quintessential twice a year Christian, he chooses to attend Mass only on Christmas and Easter.  Although, ever since Easter of 1971, he proclaimed that watching King of Kings on Holy Saturday gave him a divine pass that year.
    That’s not to say he thought his children should be denied benefits of grace.  No, no, far from it.  Somebody from the family had to be present for Father Karl’s roll call.  Otherwise, our family ran the risk of being shunned at Spaghetti Night.
    Each Sunday morning he dropped us off scant minutes before the next service.  Then, with a happy wave and grave “Say a prayer for the starving kids in China,” he quickly motored off.  To Dad, missing a single minute of the Giants pre-game show on channel 2 was the only real blasphemy of the Lord’s Day.
    There weren’t a lot of things that energized my father quite like football.  Oh, sure, he tolerated baseball because it gave him a chance to drink beer and take a nap during the middle innings.  But, he grew impatient with the game’s leisurely pace. 
    “If I wanted to watch grass grow,” the philosopher would complain, “I’d go outside to watch grass grow.”
    Except around the tree where he tied up our dog, Duke.
    You could forget about basketball and hockey, too.  Those sports, he declared, were only for freakish beanpoles in their “skivvies” and toothless foreigners who wore sweaters.
    My father reveled in all things football from preseason to the playoffs.  Eschewing all else, like work around the house, family commitments or pants, he’d commandeer our only television to watch his beloved Giants try to “win a friggin’ game before I die.”
    Thank goodness our birthdays were in the spring and summer-I shudder to think what would have happened if our mother went into labor anytime from September to January.  I never confirmed it, but I strongly suspect she carried the numbers for taxi companies in her purse for just such an emergency.
    Whenever football’s biggest fan sprawled on the couch like a manatee with white socks, no one was allowed to disturb the psychological linkage he had achieved with “his” Giants.  Unless it was to adjust the rabbit ear antenna to coax a better signal out of New York, that is.
    Even though my mother reminded him that church would be over long before the game came on, Dad insisted that it was a risk he wasn’t willing to take.  It was far better to drop us off so we got credit with the Almighty than take a chance on missing any bit of the football game. 
    Sometimes, Father Karl would be standing at the front door, greeting worshippers as they filed past.  Noticing the stern look of disapproval from the priest, my father loudly said, “OK, kids, you get one of the pews up front while I park the car.”
    Then, with a smile, he disappeared around the corner towards the church parking lot.  Before speeding out the rear entrance and back home.
    After a while, we made a racket out of this mock devotion.  Sporting cherubic smiles, we watched until Dad turned the corner.  Then, like noble soldiers for God, we’d march past the beaming Father Karl into the vestibule. 
    Pausing to grab a church bulletin (to prove we were there) and sprinkle ourselves with holy water (which I usually splashed in my brother’s face), we’d duck out the side door and walk across the street to Martin’s Newsstand.
    Where we’d buy doughnuts with the collection money the old man gave us.
    So, it was something along the lines of the miraculous that my father was even in church the night of my graduation.  I never for one minute doubted he was proud of me.  It’s just that I knew he would have been just as proud watching the whole shebang on TV without having to actually put on a tie.  Or a shirt.
    Having already rehearsed several times that week, my class knew exactly what to do.  At Sister Gregory’s cue, we proceeded down the center aisle while the church organist launched into that snappy little 12th century ditty, Paeniteo Ye Sinners Vel Intereo, better known as Repent Ye Sinners or Die.  

Next:  Gypsy curses, sacred flatulence, and naked Richard Nixon...

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