Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Growing Up Catholic - an epic three-part essay on accidentally setting your church on fire and saying "F***!" by accident the first time

It's been nearly 3 weeks since i last posted, but had a little writer's block on this baby, a rare problem for me...But I've wanted to write a comedic epic on my growing up Catholic years for ages and it finally poured out of me last night: 4617 words in 8 hours. It's divided by **** marks into three sections if you need to split it up...Please lemme know your thoughts!


I’ll never forget the time T.J. Hargett spilled the Precious Blood of Christ on his white Adidas sneakers while pulling altar boy duty in front of 400 classmates at St. Edward’s Catholic School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

It was a typical morning during my 3rd grade year, during which we had to go to Mass twice a week before class. Depending on the day, Mass was an alternately mystical or boring experience that at the very least killed off the first half-hour of the school day.

Sure, you could say I’m being slightly blasphemous for admitting we were often bored in church. But if Isaid it was great, I’d be slightly lying – ok, not slightly. Gimme a break – I was 8! I’d rather be out doodling pictures of fast cars and Superman in my notebook at class!

On this day, however, EVERYONE perked up and paid attention. T.J. had done the unthinkable and perhaps even the unforgivable. Father Peter – sweet old octogenarian Father Peter – had just invoked a blessing on a chalice full of wine, transforming it into what we believed was the Sacred Blood of Christ – when T.J. sneezed and wham! The chalice slipped and the Blood was everywhere!

Now thankfully, it doesn’t REALLY turn into blood as we know it, or T.J. would’ve REALLY been freaking out. Not to mention, the carpeting would have been a lot more difficult to clean. But because of the sacred nature of this divine mistake, every one of the 425 students of St. Edward’s let out a collective gasp of horror.

Father Peter looked like HE was going to have a stroke himself. He was paralyzed by fear and confusion. He couldn’t just LEAVE it there, staining the carpet, and he couldn’t sop it up and expect people to drink it. He finally ran backstage to the sacristy and - I imagine - flipped through a big priestly guidebook like “Mass for Dummies” or “The Idiot’s Guide to Mass Mishaps”. And there he found the answer….grab a towel and soak up as much of the Blood as possible before having to re-consecrate another chalice of wine. I wound up getting whacked in the back of the head by my teacher when I snorted loudly at the sight of TJ crying as Father Peter sopped up the situation.

Of course, that wasn’t the only moment of Holy Bloopers and High Drama I ever encountered during Mass at St. Edwards’s. There was the time when I myself almost burned the church down to the ground in 4th grade, when I was lighting the altar candles and accidentally caught my altar boy robe on fire. I ran to the backstage area and proceeded to put out the flame-maker by dousing it into a trash can – a trash can filled with paper and dead roses.

As the flames shot heavenward from the top of the garbage, Father Peter once again had to save the day with a combination of priestly prayer and firefighting heroics. Of course, everyone in my class laughed at me afterwards – especially TJ Hargett, who was returning the favor for my loudly snorting at him during the Blood On the Sneakers incident.

There were also moments worse than those, which thankfully happened to other people. Like the time a guy named Brian (who begged me to take his name out when he found this online) brought the St. Edward’s communion line to a standstill when the Communion host – the Precious Body of Christ! – fell off his tongue and onto the floor. That time, Father Peter made him pick it up off the floor and swallow it as I tried not to giggle at the sheer EWWWW! GROSS!-ness of the moment.

And how could I forget the time little Tracy Shollmeier got sick in the middle of St. Edward’s giant old church and had to run for it, her shoes click-clacking down the seemingly mile-long center aisle towards the back of the church, racing futilely against time as Father Peter froze to see what all the racket was, and giving the rest of us a clear earshot of little Tracy making it to the lobby – but not out the door – before she puked up her breakfast all over the Precious Marble Flooring?

At least it was easier to clean than carpet and she got sick BEFORE communion, sparing Father Peter from another desperate round of searching for answers on what to do over a piece of Christ being unexpectedly desecrated.

These are the moments I recall when people ask me with surprise about why I’m still a practicing Catholic a full 15 years after leaving my home and my parents’ rock-hard rule over my life. Ok, I’m naturally pre-disposed to seeking spiritual pursuits, but could any other church invoke the guilt necessary to turning a worship service into a masterful display of schadenfreude?

Let’s face it, though. Being an altar boy is a heavy trip and a lot of responsibility. You have to put on fancy robes and stand next to the priest at the altar throughout Mass and help with the mystical transformation of bread and wine into the Lord Himself, then be asked not a drop anything – and an 8 year old boy is ALWAYS dropping SOMETHING!!!

And then add in the fact that once Mass starts and you’re seated or standing next to the priest, there’s no chance to get away to the bathroom. I always managed to hold it, but I’ll never forget the time an altar boy named John who was a year younger than me had to, as he so succinctly put it, “go wee.” There was no way for him to get up and go, so in my best older-brother mode of sage, year-older, veteran altar boy wisdom whispered back, “It’s OK. Just go. No one will even notice. Your robe will hide it.”

I didn’t really know if that was true – hell, I wanted to find out for myself what would happen if an altar boy took a whiz while on duty! But I figured his robes would hide any telltale mark of shame.

Well, maybe they WOULD have – if his robes were black. Instead, they were red.

Whoops! Wrong choice of fashion that day!

Not only did an undeniable trickling noise occur, but John soon had a giant circle of shameful wet urine soaking the front of his robes. As we were asked to stand and deliver Communion to the congregation that day, John mysteriously stayed back in his seat, crying and refusing to stand again until the entire church except for his family were gone.

At least I know John learned an indelible lesson that day. About eight years later, he was a year behind me at Little Rock Catholic High, but had grown into a giant bully. I once saw him as a sophomore shoving a freshman around until I stepped up to him and whispered, “You gotta wee?” He teared up, ran away and never bullied anyone again.

Actually, the John Peeing Incident happened at my other favorite Catholic place – the chapel up at the VA hospital where my dad worked and where we actually lived amid a row of special doctors’ housing for a couple years. On weekdays, we’d have the bizarre joy of our mom warning us not to look out the kitchen window because a mental patient had wandered into our yard, was standing outside with his pants down, and was watering the lawn without a garden hose.

On weekends, we’d go to the most unpredictable Mass ever – where you had dozens of mentally disabled war vets seeming to compete for the title of who would do the craziest thing each week.

That title was almost invariably taken by one James Keever, a 55 year old man who had bipolar disorder and excitedly insisted on reading the Scripture passages from the pulpit whenever he was attending Mass.

That approval was something that the VA priest would come to regret.

Most weeks, he was fine, but once in a while, he’d be so filled with Christ’s joy that he’d apparently forget to put a belt on before he took to the pulpit. Yet he also wasn’t spontaneous enough to adapt when surprises overtook him. On at least three occasions, months apart, Keever stood up to read the week’s Gospel passage only to find that his unbuckled pants had fallen down around his ankles.

At least he still was wearing patriotic, flag-colored boxers – or it would’ve really been awkward watching as he acted like his pants had never fallen in the first place. That self-denial – or perhaps, an overdeveloped yet misplaced sense of propriety – meant that James Keever wouldn’t acknowledge his collapsed pants until he was done wit h a Scripture passage and had blessed the congregation. Then he’d hike up his pants and stumble in embarrassment out the back of the church, vowing never to be seen again but nonetheless guaranteed to come bug the priest for another chance within another two weeks.

After the third time James Keever’s pants fell, however, the VA priest instituted a strict must-wear-belt policy on James if he hoped to ever read publicly again. And in a masterstroke move, the priest actually told him that pants were now an Official Vatican Policy. James had no option, and from then on managed to keep his pants up around his waist rather than down around his ankles. It made Mass a lot less entertaining, but thankfully ensured I’d never get whacked by my Mom again for laughing at James from the altar.
Now, I had a colorful imagination as a kid about how the world works. And I was in trouble a lot in Catholic school, as you might imagine. While I was well-acquainted with the classroom corner of seemingly every grade I went through at St. Edward’s – having been forced to stand in the corner any time I made a disruptive wisecrack in class – I always was a little too clever for my own good when it came to taking notes home to my parents from the teacher.

Mrs. Weinzimer was my 2nd grade teacher and she sent home plenty of notes with me. Unfortunately, she also had a sense of trust in me to actually BRING my parents the notes and have them read them.

I, on the other hand, had my own diabolical plans for her handwritten screeds against my behavior. I figured, if she’s not going to make them sign them, then why bring them the letters at all? Instead, I would accept the note from her, looking sorrowful, then take the note home in my backpack, read it in the bathroom located in the attic of our giant old doctor’s mansion on the VA grounds, and flush it down that toilet – somehow assuring myself that if it was flushed from an attic toilet, it was even more protected from ever being seen and read again.

Each time I flushed down a letter, I would be nervous for about two weeks afterward. The reason is that I thought there were special city employees who worked in the sewers and sorted through all the papers that floated their way – with a special crew assigned to finding the letters that teachers sent home with their troublemaking students. I figured if these mysterious men hadn’t found my flushed letters within two weeks, I was in the clear.

(Yes, I know that sounds nutty for a kid to be conjuring up those wild flights of fancy about how a city works. But I was a weird kid. And yes, I had an ulcer by the time I was 12.)

But there was one time I got in so much trouble, it changed everything.

I was in 2nd grade, still under the oppressive regime of Ms. Weinzimer. One day I’m sitting at Mass when the kid next to me, Harlan (again, all names are true), does something that makes me laugh. I mean, we are giggling HARD, as in cover your mouth and turn red from clamping on yourself.

It is the carefree laugh of a child, a child filled with such 2nd grade joy that he needs not have a reason, but as we snort, giggle and guffaw suddenly the Hand of Justice – aka Miss Virginia Weinzimer – clamped down on each of us, grabbing us by the back collars of our little blue uniform shirts and virtually lifting us over the back of our pews an d into seats right next to her.

Laugh Time is over.

We wound up being marched back to class at the front of the line, led by Ms. Weinzimer herself, and forced to stand in front of the class as she gave us a her own modern version of the Spanish Inquisition.

“Why were you laughing?”

I didn’t know. It was amazing to experience an Alzheimer’s-worthy blackout at such a young age, I’ll admit, but that’s what happened. I had literally no idea what we were laugh ing at. Her grabbing us so suddenly had knocked the memory out of me, apparently. And Harlan – poor, rednecky Harlan (come on, I can call him a redneck; his name was HARLAN) – was just standing there, apparently unable to muster a syllable of English under such duress.

It was up to me to answer, and Ms. Weinzimer was bearing down. Hard.

“Tell me! Tell us! Why. Were. You. Laughing??? Tell me, or I’ll send you to the principal’s office and have Sister Hermana beat an answer out of you with her paddle.”

I had to summon an answer. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking, but I said…

“Father Peter was coughing a lot…” I whimpered.

“And that’s funny to you?!”

Holy crap! I realized then that I had said just about the Dumbest Thing of My Entire Seven Years on the Planet. What WAS I thinking?! Of course an 80-something year-old priest hacking his way through a Mass in front of a bunch of children wasn’t funny!!!

As my peers eyed me with venom worthy of staring down the Devil himself, I knew nothing good was going to come of this. And sure enough, Mrs. Weinzimer was quaking with anger as she said what came=2 0next.

“Boys and girls, this word may shock you, but it’s in the Bible!”

Everyone hunched forward to hear what was about to fly out of her mouth.

“Carl, you…are…a…jackass!”


A seismic gasp shot thr ough the room, as every kid in the place also heaved with shock. I was horrified, because I was only a 7 year old Catholic school kid, and as bad as I was, no one ever used the “A-double-S” word on me before. I didn’t know whether to cry or shriek or just shut up and take it. So I shut up and took it.

Amazingly, Ms. Weinzimer didn’t send me out of the office. Instead, she wrote my parents a letter, which I was once again expected to hand to them. This time it was stapled shut. I still didn’t care. I was gonna read it and flush it right down the drain like usual.

The next day, I came back to school, filled with my usual ulcer-inducing fear of having my note caught by the hard-working fellows in the city’s Sanitation Department. But I resolved to put on a better show of my contrition than usual for Ms. Weinzimer.

“So, did you show your parents my note last night, Carl?” she asked, smirking with self-satisfaction.

I not only answered, I rubbed my butt for show. The stakes were high, you know.

“Yeah, my dad whipped me good!” I replied, wincing as I touched the supposedly affected area.

Mrs. Weinzimer said “I’m glad you learned your lesson,” and moved on to teaching our class! I had gotten away with it!!!!

Or so I thought.

Over the next month, I was a friggin’ saint. I figured that this note had been so bad that it wouldn’t just take two weeks to be safe from the Sanitation Department’s investigative work, but a full month. So I was polite, friendly, respectful, and hard-working: all traits that had long been foreign to me.

In fact, I was so well-behaved that Ms. Weinzimer was downright excited to see my Mom when she one day wasn’t able to make it to school in time to pick me up like normal. Nope, Mom was half an hour late and the principal asked Ms. Weinzimer to wait after school for me to get picked up safely.

So20my mom walked in and she and Ms. Weinzimer exchanged excessive, smile-filled pleasantries. I couldn’t hear what they were talking about, but as long as they were Chatty Cathies, I figured I was fine. In fact, I myself had forgotten what a demon I had once been.

But after a few minutes, it became apparent that they hadn’t forgotten. For suddenly, the tone of their conversation had changed and their smiles had disappeared. Now they were speaking fast and furious to each other in a series of whispers, while also scowling at me and gradually working their way into being downright pissed-looking.

All I knew was, I was in trouble.

My mom stormed over, took my hand and said “You’re coming with me!”

Well, no kidding, mom. Who else was gonna be allowed to take me?

We got to the outside parking lot, and she said “I just learned all about those letters you were supposed to be showing me.”
Holy crap, again! I looked around frantically for a means of escape, a safe house, a concerned and friendly adult who could save me from the emotional agony to come.

But there was no one to save me from my mother, and I got in the car with her. I knew this would be ugly, and sure enough I was proven right.

“No lollipop today!”

WHAT?! I thought, but I was afraid to verbalize it.

“And maybe not ever!!!”

Oh my God! This was like being assigned to an eternity in Purgatory for a 7 year old!

But it all turned out ok. Looking back, I feel like a prisoner who stared down hard time. No lollipop for a month? I can handle 20 years, bro! At least that ’s what my inner gangbanger says.

But having TV taken away for a week – THAT was a bitch.


There still was one thing that happened that trumps all my memories of growing up Catholic. It was the first time I said the word “Fuck.”

Now, that isn’t something one normally remembers, I don’t think. You kind of blurt it out to sound tough, or you slam something into your toe, scream it out and voila you’ve sworn and it’s not a big deal anymore and you keep on swearing.

But my first time saying the “F word” was when I was six.

Yes, you read right. Six.

It seemed to be an innocent enough day. The sky was sun-dappled, the air filled with a light breeze, and I was playing a rousing yet wholesome game of Monopoly around an outdoor picnic table across the street from my home.

This was at the giant, old, cool but creepy Addams Family/Munsters-style mansion that my dad rented on the grounds of the VA during our first two years in Arkansas. My mom was outside the house watering plants. You couldn’t ask for a more perfect day – and it helped that I was winning the game. Clobbering everyone in sight, in fact.

“Everyone” consisted of four neighbor kids and my sister, Krystyna, who is a year and a half older than me and actually pretty cool in her a dulthood. She was cool then, too, but each of us had been bred with a streak of goody-two-shoes-ness that made each of us want to rat out the other over the slightest indiscretion, in the hopes of scoring points with our hard-to-please parents.

So when I said “THE WORD”, all hell broke loose.

Now how, you might ask, does the word “Fuck” come into play when one is, well, playing a board game at age six?

Well I was so thrilled at my latest show of domination in Monopoly – perhaps it was the placement of a hotel on Park Avenue – that I reared back and yelped out, “This is fun!”

Only, instead of saying “fun,” I said that…other…word.

Yep, Big Ol’ Moronic Me actually said “This is fuck!”

I knew the second I said it that I was headed for trouble. This was nuke-the-world kind of trouble for a strictly raised Catholic kid. And my sister, after her initial shock and the utter silence that both she and our playmates displayed, knew that she was sitting on a gold mine of a problem for me.

She knew that if she could report me she’d be Queen of the House for eternity, with her choice of TV programs accepted without question for all time. I would be seen as so awful, and she would be seen as so holy, that I would never get to pick a movie or vacation destination ever again.

I somehow concluded, in that split second of shock, that it would be wiser for me to run up and tell my mom what I’d done rather than let my sister beat me to it. So after a three-second staredown in which both our intentions became wildly apparent, we both leaped up and ran towards my mom.

My sister just called out “Mom! Mom!” She was smart.

I blurted out, under a veil of tears, “Mom, I said fuck! I said fuck!”

Now, I didn’t even know what the word meant. I had barely ever heard it before either – I was six. But it was one of those mysterious things that a kid can somehow understand at a preternaturally young age: there are some words that you know are seen as inherently awful and even evil.

And “fuck” was one of them.

My mom reacted in what was both an utterly insane and yet utterly expected manner. She dropped both her jaw and her garden hose and proceeded to grab me by the back of my pants and start slapping my bottom while shrieking “Why?” and “Wait til your father gets home!”

I know that “Wait til your father gets home!” is, or at least was, the Great American Threat to Childhood. It was the ultimate early warning that your ass was gonna get beat, and you’d better make a run for it with whatever you had in your piggy bank.

The Joads had made a go of it. And they were in the midst of the Great Depression. What was holding your sorry ass back?

I made plans to move out of my house, but then reality struck me when I realized I had about 42 cents to my name. Why couldn’t I lose more teeth? I wondered. That would make me a few bucks from the Tooth Fairy.

But eventually my dad did get home, and my mom found a way to share my new linguistic prowess with him. He ordered me down to the bathroom, where he proceeded to ask me to uncover my backside while he slipped off his belt.

This wasn’t going to end well.

Thankfully, my dad was a sensitive European man of culture, rather than an ass-beating American cretin. He actually said, “This will hurt me more than it hurts you,” and MEANT it. He had me bend over, reared back with his belt a little bit (seriously, just a smidge) and let me have it at about half-speed velocity.

Sure, it still hurt. But sure enough, it seemed to hurt him more. He actually started crying. And he also stopped after two whacks. I couldn’t believe my good fortune! But I did feel bad for hurting his feelings and hugged him anyway.

But he still wanted to know: where did I hear that word?

And, strangely enough, I had an answer for him: I didn’t even know what it meant, or that it was necessarily a bad word. But I did know that I’d seen it etched into the wall of a bathroom stall in the boys’ room for 1st through 4th graders. So I told him I saw it on the bathroom wall at school.

He couldn’t believe it. Not at a Catholic school! (Well, looking back, it probably WAS hard to believe.)

So the next morning, Dad wound up driving me to school. This was a rare occasion - but one befitting the importance of the moment. He had shocking news to deliver to our principal, and he was going to deliver it personally.

We walked into the principal’s office as an odd pair, for sure. I looked nauseously afraid, while he looked mournful yet outraged. The principal was an ancient and, of course, stern-faced nun named Sister Hermana – aka Sister Sister for the Hispanically inclined. This was about a decade before hip-hop took over the culture, so I never got as much comedic mileage out of her as I should have.

My dad was afraid to tell her what was up, so when she asked, he said he would write her a note. She said “Well couldn’t you have done that without leaving home?”

She clearly wasn’t aware of the d ire implications of what she was about to read.

My dad said, “My son saw a bad word here.”

Sister Hermana would have none of it.

“What word?”

I kinda wanted to see if my dad would actually say it. But instead, he asked for a sheet of paper and a pen, and he wrote it out – those four horrid letters, f,u,c,k.

Then he slipped it back to her on her desk. Sister Herman turned ashen with shame and fired up with fury, all in one fell swoop. It must have been her super nun powers.

“WHERE did you see this, Carl?!”

“In the bathroom,” I replied.

“Not in MY bathroom!” she shrieked.

“No, not yours! The boys room!” I whined. I didn’t realize she meant none of the bathrooms under her supervision, which would include the boys’ room.
But about five seconds later, we were marching down the hallway as fast as we could towards the 1st through 4th graders’ boys’ room. Sister knocked furiously to make sure it was empty, then poked her head in and drove a lone fearful kid out.

Finally, it was time to show the evidence. I was so nervous, I actually wondered, what would happen if it wasn’t there? Did I just invent where I saw it, to cover my tracks when my dad asked? Was I a pathological liar?

Thankfully for me, the word WAS there, carved high up near the top door jamb of a toilet stall. I pointed at it fearfully, wondering what would happen next.

What did happen next was that my dad again cried a little, because he didn’t quite understand that this was a normal thing to see in our often coarse and callous American culture. But he put his arm around my shoulder to let me know that he didn’t blame me for saying it anymore, and we walked to the car while Sister Hermana frantically called Jewel, the school janitor, to paint over the bathroom stall, right that instant.

I don’t know what Jewel had to say about that, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he muttered a certain word as she walked away.