Can an old man presume to forgive the boy he was? Let us hope that the old man’s friends own warmth enough to answer him, “Yes.”
The boy thought the world an unkind place, and so he treated those who suffered his presence to the ugliness and anger that fed on his flesh and blood. He was sullen and arrogant. Unforgiving and rigid, although for lack of wisdom he considered himself wise.
As an old man he feels sorry for the sins he committed, sins that the elders of his church never imagined might exist inside a young boy’s heart.
At age seven I was both ignorant and cynical enough to conclude that all boys who were students of Catholic elementary schools sported rusty-toned buzz cuts, a mad battalion of freckles that resembled a retreating case of chicken pox, and a gooey clot of wax inside each ear.
I was God’s original angry young man. The Lord of Heaven was my four-star general, and I committed treason at every opportunity.
As well, I was a Public. Our denomination was composed of ridiculed boys and girls who each Sunday were forced by our guilt-ridden parents to attend Mass and catechism class because our blue-collar fathers earned too little money to afford Catholic school tuition. And so Monday through Friday we attended public schools. Thank poverty for its minor blessings.
We Publics were forced by the parish nuns to sit, gender-separated, on benches directly behind the pews where our Catholic school counterparts sat; thus my telescopic view of shaved, freckled necks and oily middle-ear canals.
The ostensible reason for this innocent arrangement of unwashed sinners’ souls was to allow the more cleansed among the youthful congregation to depart, once Mass wound down its Latin symphony, before the rest of us were shepherded toward and into drafty classrooms for indoctrination ceremonies. A mere tactical movement of troops.
Of course, to my mind at that time, my exposed position on the field of battle was cause to consider the possibility of claiming accidental friendly fire.
We were commanded to march, single file, first down two wooden steps and across a wide tract of orange clay bordered by a weed-choked fringe of grass, then next through a corridor designed in a particular Spanish style — and so open to the world beyond Our Lord’s Asylum by way of intermittent archways — and finally up a dark and narrow staircase that landed the faithful, captive and obsequious, before the crucifix of Catholic education.
I attended two classes as best I can recall, both taught by a Sister of The Eerie Order named Jacqueline who stood no more than four feet, eleven inches tall, but who commanded more than seven feet of fear’s worth of aura.
Sister Jacqueline always cloaked her body in full regalia, as was the only acceptable practice for nuns during the years of my youth. Square cap held high by a stiff, white forehead shield; dark train flowing down her back; formless black dress designed to hide body fat; self-flagellant rope knotted around her non-existent waist; rosary beads dangling to keep the cord company.
And a pure-white bib across her chest.
I will never forget that bib.
Sister Jacqueline’s first lecture focused on the notion of a human being’s soul. “For every sin you commit, you leave a little black mark upon your soul,” she said to us.
And so the very next Monday morning I awoke to find myself drenched in sweat. I was not yet old enough to shave my face, but inside my nightmare I imagined that my soul, at one time a starched-white bib, had become so splattered and speckled with the scars of my sins — lustful thoughts ranking first place among my transgressions — that its hue had become more black than that of a moonless night. I felt that my veins were full of an oily pitch of tar so thick that no sweet medicine or mean solvent could hope to dilute the collected catastrophe of my lifetime.
Sister Jacqueline’s lecture of the following Sunday morning proved even more significant to my development as a saint than did the first. Her topic centered itself inside the structure of a fairytale titled “Our Lady of Fatima.” Our Lady, I surmised, was quite the wandering traveler; one never knew where one would next cross paths with her.
At what was for me the pivotal point of this tale of grue, Our Lady splits open the Earth to show three young Portuguese kids the fires of Hell. Not just flames, embers and smoke, mind you. Oh, no. Our Lady’s ghostwriter knew well how to elicit a reader’s reaction on several sensory levels. Shrieks of agony. Groans of hopelessness. Curled apparitions of writhing demons. The unpredictable trembling of aftershocks that knocked an audience to its knees. Sulfuric emanations more powerful than those that rise inside a gasoline station’s restroom. The taste of bitter almond on a dying man’s tongue.
Of course, somehow the three, not-completely-innocent children survive the terror of Our Lady’s kind revelation because Her Majesty had promised them that if they believed her fantastic story to be non-fictional in nature, then soon after the dreadful shivering wore off she would sweep them off to Heaven.
“Enough of this tortured hallucination named Sister Jacqueline,” I said to myself. “No more stories starring virgin mothers who would scare the Hell out of young children by kicking them into Hell.”
Over the course of the next few Sunday mornings, I perfected the escape method that I named, “Bold, Brave and Defiant.”
I continued to sit on my assigned bench, to suffer the Latin mumbling coming from the altar, and to study the waxy inhabitants of Catholic schoolboys’ ears. But once down the two wooden steps, across the orange clay battlefield and into the Spanish corridor, I passed under and through one or another of the corridor’s archways — staring, with an imperious air of insolence inside my eyes, at Sister Jacqueline’s face — and walked at a slow and deliberate pace toward the avenues beyond Our Lord’s Asylum.
And there on those avenues, each week I discovered my own sense of holy monuments.
On Decatur Avenue, immediately behind the church, my first stop was at a Mom and Pop store. Back then we called these places markets. Supermarkets were yet to be invented, and shopping malls existed light years into a future that we of The Atom Bomb Era never wasted time considering.
I’d saved the change my mother had given me to place inside the collection basket. As the church usher delivered that metal basket, by way of a long handle, to a point just beneath my nose, I plunked my fist into the trap and touched its contents so as to cause the coins already deposited by other parishioners to play a jingle.
With the money I stole from Our Lady of Fatima and her crucified son I bought penny candy. Licorice Teddy Bears were my favorite confection, and to this day they remain so.
My next stop was a hideaway in the woods. My hometown was then still surrounded by the woodlands whence it rose after World War II. I played soldiers with my brothers there. On Saturday afternoons I sometimes threw clods of moist soil mixed with gravel stones at Vera Thompson, because with pubic hair still living close to, yet somehow far beneath, the surface layers of my skin, I knew no better way to express the sexual urge that Vera inspired inside the beast who begged for freedom. Within those woodland chambers on certain mornings I laid my body down on a bed of rotting maple leaves. The aroma of that bed urged me to touch myself and so defy Sister Jacqueline’s warnings of the cost to my decaying soul.
And there, hidden by branches, leaves and twigs, I ate my licorice Teddy Bears.
Now that’s some holy monument.
Next signpost along the road led me to a house hugged by shade and shadows. Perhaps the vehement priests and nuns had had their way, even so far back in a young boy’s life; because in some way that remains a mystery to me even now, at an early age I associated the heat of sunlight sprayed across my back with the fires of Hell and the coolness of shade with the relief of Heaven. As I walked, I oftentimes stopped to catch the cover of a tree’s protection.
There were, of course, more holy monuments I found, at least enough to fill a thick book’s worth of pages.
Railroad tracks I followed until I reached a graveled bed across the street from my first love, whereupon my arrival there I’d immediately turn around and head home, afraid that my shy occupation of that spot on Earth would be misinterpreted.
The long stretch of Main Street that fronted the local insane asylum. A two-story, red-brick building the interior rooms of which I then feared that someday I might inhabit.
The clapboard house where my then favorite school teacher lived. Wide, wraparound porch. Flagstone path leading to a three-step climb to her front door. She who lived beyond that door, Mrs. Ambruster, had pulled me close to her soft stomach when I cried my way into her classroom on my first day of school. She owned a butterscotch-colored Buick sedan. As a graduate of her class I oftentimes stared at that automobile and understood that Mrs. Ambruster was far more a holy monument to maternity than either Sister Jacqueline or Our Lady of Fatima could ever hope to become.
So many holy monuments; and each one holds the same message: that the world is indeed a kind place, if one cares to search for kindness.