Chapter III: The Altar Boy Disaster
Electricity and electric lights in the house were things you dreamed about. All the houses in my neighborhood had neither gas nor electricity. Our illumination came from the kerosene lamp. A lamp stood in the hallway and on the stairwell. When the wind blew through the hallway, the lamp danced a shadow off the wall. If it was strong, it would blow out the light. To me, the shadows were ghosts dancing around the hallway, and when the light was blown out, it meant that the ghosts were standing by, ready to trap a victim. My little world was made up of ghosts and bogey men. It wasn't cruelty on my mother's part; she just didn't know any better way to make the kids come in before dark than by saying, "You better get in the house before it gets dark and the bogey man comes looking for you." Perhaps her family had said the same thing to her when she was a youngster in Ireland.
Any of the kids in the area could point to a house and say it was haunted or say they saw a spook. I was convinced the spooks were waiting for me on the stairs. Nothing could persuade me to climb those stairs once it got dark, no matter how much my mother yelled out of the window for me to come up. Sometimes she came down to fetch me. Other times someone older was going up, and they would hold my hand all the way. Every now and then Officer Kelley would come by around eight o'clock, and up those stairs we would go. One thing I was sure of--no ghost in his right mind would attack a policeman. No sir, no way. I was safe, and the spooks were foiled by the arm of the law.
There were many times that my mother was away in New York City looking for work. During those times my sisters were in charge. They dragged out their old school books and read and reread stories to me. All the stories stayed with me, adding to my fantasies.
As part of our class work, once in a while one of the kids was called to the front of the class to sit in a special chair and tell a story. I had not been called upon yet. One day our regular teacher was sick and we had a relief teacher in her place. It was storytelling day. She looked around the class as I shrank in my seat, wishing I could crawl into a hole. She pointed to me. My legs felt like lead weights as I slowly walked up and sat in the storyteller's chair. There was no way out. I was trapped, so I told them one of the stories my sisters had read to me. My sisters' stories were ones that belonged in classes several grades higher than the one I was cutting my teeth in. I talked for 35 minutes, exceeding a 20-minute limit. My storytelling so impressed the nun that she let me go on past the time. Everybody was taken by surprise. The story was a hit, and my self-esteem improved vastly.
The following week my regular teacher returned. Again it was storytelling day. She pointed to me. "I hear that you tell good stories. Come. Let me hear one." I told another of my stories, this time with more confidence and less stage fright. It went over well. The nun started to have more respect for me. She knew that someone at home was tutoring me. Even my homework was always attended to. The new image brought fewer raps on the knuckles and red palms from the strap. However, a couple of months later, I ran out of stories. The last one I told in class was a disaster. I had to make it up as I went along, and I shocked everyone, including the nun, with a tale of heads floating through the air in search of their bodies. It was enough to send me back to my seat feeling that I had lost a possible career as a storyteller in addition to my place on the teacher's pet list.
St. Peter's Church, with its school, was big. It served the spiritual needs of a large part of Jersey City. The staff of nuns and priests was enormous. Wedged on one side of the church was a large rectory. At least fifteen people were employed in the kitchen. My mother managed to get a job there. She was on the bottom rung of the ladder, peeling potatoes and onions and washing the pots and dishes. When the food was ready, she changed her apron and served the food, cleaned off the tables, washed some more pots and dishes, mopped the floors and took care of a dozen other jobs.
The tables were stacked with the best foods and wines. She would watch some of the priests drink wine and gorge themselves with food, then belch and go staggering out of the dining room. In the meantime, she was watching out for her own brood. She would fill up a tin can she brought with her with soup or stew or whatever she could lay her hands on, clamp on the lid and hand it to me as I left school to go home for lunch. I would share the little pail of warm food with the rest of the brood and return to school. In the evenings, I could hear my mother grumbling about the job to some of her friends who came to the house. While playing with an old toy in the front room, I could hear her belligerent tones: "Drunken pigs! That's all they are, just pigs! They fall all over that table from drinking all that wine. They pinch and make grabs at the nuns. They carry on like they were in a cat house! It's a disgrace to the Savior." Of course, all this talk left me with the impression that the rectory was a madhouse, with drunken priests running amok, chasing the poor nuns from pillar to post. My mom was a religious person. She respected God and said her prayers often. Even though she was filled with all the myths, beliefs and superstitions of religion, she thought nothing of belting some priest or shoving a nun against the wall when, in her opinion, they deserved it. To her, they were just people assigned to carry out the Lord's work, and they did it rather poorly while making sure that they lived high on the hog. She could not find time to attend church regularly, but she made sure that the rest of the family went to mass on Sunday.
In Ireland, the greatest honor that can be bestowed upon a family is to have one of the sons ordained as a priest. That ensures special social status for the family and a safe-conduct pass into heaven. If priesthood was desirable in Ireland, it was even more desirable in America. The only factor that prevented more of the Irish from choosing the ecclesiastical pursuit was poverty. Most families could not afford to have one of their number taken away from the production lines; it meant less pay flowing into the family coffers. The larger the family, the easier the sacrifice. But the Church kept its eyes open for anyone who might make a good candidate for priesthood.
One day I was told to report to the Mother Superior after class. In her office I found five schoolmates. I took my seat and waited to hear what disaster I had created. I'm sure the others felt the same way. Mother Superior was a tough old gal. We feared her more than anyone else in the school. She was a strict disciplinarian who would go so far as to box your ears even if you were kneeling at the altar and she thought you weren't paying enough attention. She looked up from her desk over her pince-nez. "You six boys have been chosen as candidates for altar boys."
Aha. I gulped. At least I wasn't going to get lumped up or blamed for some crisis which I knew nothing about. Still, I wasn't too happy at the thought of becoming an altar boy. It meant more time in church after school, and less time playing and having fun in the streets. I went home and told my mother the news. She showed no hostility nor any great elation about it, taking it as a matter of course. I knew that in the back of her mind she figured it would help to keep me out of trouble.
I discovered that the great task of the altar boy was memorizing, as an actor does his part on the stage, the various words the priest will use to be followed by some specific motion. In the training sessions I attended, I was told to watch the action of the priest celebrating mass and to listen to the cue in Latin. To me, trying to understand Latin was like trying to understand the Italian pushcart dealers--impossible. If the priest did the same thing over and over without altering his physical movements in any way, I had no difficulty. I was already learning the names of the garments that are worn, as well as some of the terms and meanings of the rites and mass itself: the bread and wine, the body and blood, the wafer, the altar, the consecrated bread.
One Sunday, while in training, the six of us were permitted to sit to one side of the altar during mass. We were to observe and get the true feeling by closely watching the priest at work, as well as watching the altar boys who were all well-versed professionals. Father McIntyre was conducting the mass. He was a little, frail man with a crop of silvery hair that stuck out unmanageably from the sides of his head. Everyone in the church hierarchy knew that Father McIntyre was always a little tipsy from sampling too much of the grape. Since he was considered one of the best when it came to handling the mass, he was used on weekdays to visit homes to help chase away the devil and shake up parents into making their children attend mass.
As he passed me upon entering to walk to the altar from the wing where we were seated, the strong odor of wine was on his breath. He conducted the mass on shaky legs, and anyone in the front pews could not have failed to recognize that he was "under the influence." Ordinarily, the amount of wine used on the altar was less than a petite wine glass. But Father McIntyre always insisted that the chalice used in the Sacrament of the Lord's supper be filled to the brim. The chalice held a pint of wine. After Father McIntyre downed the wine, his small-boned body would straighten up with a little jerk and a warm glow of contentment would pass his face. Once mass was over, he staggered off the altar in a rush to "refresh himself."
One afternoon I and a chum named Tommy and another named Connell were told to practice some more. We dressed up in the altar boy's attire and set about our assignment. Everything had to be the same as if the actual mass were being held--except, of course, there was no live organ, no choir, priest or flock. The chalice had been filled with wine, just as Father McIntyre would have wanted it, right up to the brim. Since we were on our own, with no one watching us, we started to play around. Soon I was imitating Father McIntyre and his staggering walk across the altar. Then Tommy tasted the wine and handed me the chalice. I drank some, then some more, and Tommy and I finished the whole pint in no time. I remember the tomb-like atmosphere of the smaller church, located in the basement of the main church, with candles serving as lights. Our heads started to spin and we became noisier and rowdier as we chased each other around and across the altar, now and again hiding in the confessional box, and having lots of fun. We should have known that since Connell did not take part in the drinking of the wine or the running around the altar, he would not see the humor of the episode. Suddenly, doors were banging and lights came on all over the place. What had been a vast darkness only seconds before was now lit up with hundreds of little lights. I stood up, reeling to and fro, and faced at least three priests, several nuns-including Mother Superior, and Connell.
"Why, the little devils are drunk!" Mother Superior shouted after she came face to face with us and smelled our breaths. I was defrocked right then and there, under a torrent of words I did not understand. I felt several slaps to the ear, and a kick in the fanny from one of the priests. By the time I reached home, I was terribly sick, vomiting all the way down the street.
That was the end of my ecclesiastical career. Somehow I always looked at that episode as blowing my chance for an easy way to heaven, or even sainthood.
Word got around that I had been found drunk on the altar. Some people passed me by in the neighborhood as if I were some sort of monster about to take a bite out of them. Someone said, "He's Irish. What can you expect?" A few weeks later, when our class got promoted and moved onto a higher grade, Tommy and I were not among the lucky ones. We were held back as punishment.
Shortly thereafter, I was awakened on a Saturday morning by a sprinkling of cold water on my face. I looked up from my bed on the floor to stare into the face of Father McIntyre, who was walking through all the rooms, throwing holy water around and making with the words in Latin to chase away demons and devils. I pulled an old coat over my head and continued sleeping, feeling that I was well-protected against all evil.
It was St. Patrick's Day. The money my mother had been saving for a ham was spent instead on a flagstaff that extended some ten feet from the window sill. The biggest flag I ever saw dropped from the pole. You could see it several blocks away. It was as green as the new grass in the meadow. A harp and an angel with outspread wings, surrounded by a mass of shamrocks, filled the flag. Beneath it all were the words "Erin Go Bragh."
It was my mother's way of shouting her defiance of the New World, which had promised so much but delivered so little. She flew the flag of Ireland's new freedom. I suppose it was also her way of paying her respects to her brother Patrick, who was killed by the Black and Tans during the Easter uprising. She hated the British with a vengeance. In one of her melancholy moments, when she had sipped a beer or two, she would allow the tears to roll down her face and tell of the letter from her sister Bridget which related how the Black and Tans forced their way into their mother's house, dragging out the younger brother Patrick and accusing him of being a member of the Irish Republican Army. With their dear mother imploring the British officers to let her son be, they stood him up against the door on the outside of the house and shot him dead. The bullet went through Patrick and then through the door.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book One