The memorization of Latin for the Catholic mass and other special religious occasions was non-negotiable, and was a major requirement for being elevated to that exclusive vocation. Being an altar boy in the fifties required chanting certain Latin phrases in response to the priest as he went through the litany in that ancient tongue. Upon signing up for my new career in celestial show business, I immediately received a set of stock cards with the verses written in English and their Latin subtitles to study. Not being one to take much of anything seriously, I gave the cards a few quick reads and stashed them in my school lunch box, the old style carry-all soup and sandwich containers so popular in that era. They were tin-like cases with leaky thermos jars that all children carried in the innocent days of Elvis and other bubble gum idols. My lunch box had a picture of a favorite movie serial hero, Rocket-man. Most boys had Hop-along Cassidy, but I was a cool fifties kid. Only a few of us had Rocket-man cases. The best thing about the Rocket-man case was that the thermos was in the shape of a rocket. The seals on those thermos bottles were thick rubber and did not leak. The only problem I ever had was with the top of the thermos. It doubled as a cup for soup or drinks. It was cone shaped with reversed fins that acted as a base for a cup. It was not particularly stable, and I lost a lot of hot soup from that flimsy top and its flawed design. But it was a small price to pay for being a cool kid.
Three days after receiving the Latin cards, my friend Bernie and I were summoned to meet with the priest in charge of the alter boys. His name was Father Callahan, and we were to meet him at the rectory across the street from the church on Lakewood Avenue. We were each asked to recite from memory, the first card in Latin. Things did not go well from the beginning. I was a total basket case, bungling my lines big time. What made it worse was my feeble attempt to fake it. Bernie was trying to whisper corrections each time I stumbled while Father Callahan cringed at my attempts to get through the lines. The priest expected me to give up and slink away in utter shame, but there I stood, trying my best to get over on him. On my fifth attempt to make it through the refrains, he sternly interrupted my attempt at the ‘Christ have mercy’ response.
“No, no, no, it’s not ‘Cripso make some’, it’s “Christi Elaison. I’ve heard enough for today. Return to class and come back Friday with your lines studied.”
He then moved me out of the way and gave Bernie a confident smile.
“OK Bernie, now it’s your turn. I know that you won’t disappoint me like Bonadio.”
Avoiding further humiliation in the eyes of God and Father Callahan, I turned to leave. But as I retreated out of earshot, I could hear Bernie spouting the Latin smoothly and clearly. That night Bernie tutored me in the fine art of Latin pronunciations. I returned on Friday and aced that card, and every one thereafter. Within a week, I was elevated to the elite status of altar boy in service to the clergy at St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church.
Being an altar boy had its perks, but there was a dark side to the power granted to the servants of Christ. Being somewhat a rebel, I had my share of dark thoughts on how I would use this new power. Girls had not yet entered my prepubescent mind. They were the clean, sanitized, and sickly sweet antichrists that our mothers told us to avoid like the plague. They sat in church on the right side pews, their neatly pressed knee length navy blue skirts contrasting virginal white cotton blouses. Of course, the little nymphs were properly buttoned up and hiding those budding mammary glands under training bras made from three ply Goodyear radials. It was also strange that most Catholic girls of that day wore their hair in pig tales or pony tails. Their mothers may have been unconsciously jealous of Ava Gardner, wanting to avoid the stigma of their little darlings looking like a screen harlot.
The boys at St. Elizabeth’s school dressed in blue gabardines, white shirts and plaid ties. We squirmed incessantly in our pews on the left side of the church during morning mass. It was as if we all suffered from undersized jockey shorts. The segregation of the sexes was mandatory in all school and church activities, and it furthered my resolve to steer clear of those devils in pigtails and ponytails. But in forth grade I remember a petite brunette and her Scarlet O’Hara hairstyle standing out against a sea of braided curtain ties. Evidently, her mother didn’t have the same pig tail neurosis as other mothers with daughters attending St. Elizabeth’s school. She probably grew up without the typical Catholic schoolgirl psychosis. I have a suspicion that those rubber band and bobby pin laden hairstyles of middle grade Catholic school girls constricted oxygen flow to their brains, causing irreparable damage to the area controlling post marital sexuality. Well, at least one future husband may have survived that awful fate. It’s funny what one remembers nearly fifty years removed from the forth grade.
My fellow males were of all shapes, sizes, and nationalities with a prominent number hailing from the Germanic tribes of Europe. There was a smattering of Italians like myself and, unlike our European classmates, our ethnicity was more noticeable. I had many good friends with last names ending in SKI. One was a square jawed Polish kid named Eddie. He lived on the next city block over, nearer to the schools iron-gated playground. Like me, he hated to be called Eddie and we ganged up on anyone who dared to taunt us with silly rhymes and double meanings. I remember, someone taunting me by calling out “Eddie Spaghetti”.
One day while separated from me on the school playground, Eddie got into a fight with a notorious group of toughs. He definitely got the worst of it. Upon hearing this, I conspired with the aggrieved party on how we might exact retribution. It was to be a carefully planned vendetta, unconventional in methodology and flawless in its execution. Eddie was impressed with the deviousness of my plan and the commitment to see it through to a successful conclusion. I figured to call in his debt of gratitude at a later date to exact some service on my behalf. This was well before the screening of the Godfather movie, and I have since thought of suing Mr. Coppola for stealing my ideas.
The plan was simple. It required a bit of luck and deception but I was determined to get major payback for my friend’s unwarranted harassment. The target was a fellow forth grader named Gus. I think back on this now with mixed feelings for anyone so named. If I’m not mistaken, Disney made a movie about a mule named Gus. But our forth grade Gus was a real punk. He traveled with a trio of goons for protection. The only way I could get to him would be on neutral ground. My insidious adolescent brain conjured up church as the perfect spot for his punishment. Gus’s friends could not intercept me and there could be no immediate retaliation. Besides, it would be an accident. I devised the plan just as if it were a military operation, bound by secrecy, stealth and valor. This I learned, along with other lessons about heroic characters from the myriad of comic books collected over my early school years. In them were stories of real fighting men; soldiers from the battlefields of Korea and mercenaries fighting along side the ‘Free Chinese’ off the straights of Formosa. They were fascinating books filled with stories of courageous men with nerves of steel and the stealth of a cat. With this valuable background inspiration, I was primed and ready to take on Gus.
The operation was scheduled to take place on Tuesday. Eddie had been accosted that previous Thursday and I was itching to get revenge while the poker was still hot. I learned later on to be patient in my revenge. As the saying goes,“Revenge is a dish best served cold!”
Story Continues in the book New-Age Renaissance Man.