Monday, July 17, 2006

Easter Sunday, 1972

The picture on the left is cropped down to only me from the original family shot taken on Easter Sunday, 1972. This is primarily to shelter family members from the embarrassment of having their images on the internet, but in this case, it's also to focus in on a memorable incident that occurred earlier that morning.

If you could see the family members, they’d be dressed in their Sunday finest, fresh from church, even my mom, the filthy Protestant who was always on the outside of the Catholic stronghold my grandmother (who lived with us) enforced with an iron hand. (A few years later, we would learn the full extent of her anti-Protestantism after she had a debilitating stroke, which allowed her to make some extremely revealing comments regarding her thoughts on this topic … which were in bad form as my mother was her caretaker … but none of us took it too personally, especially Mom, who had every right to blow her top, but didn’t. Grandma was a good person who did a hell of a job raising five kids in the Depression, and most of my memories of her are nothing but fine. I recall her once picking turds out of my very full diaper and dropping them into the toilet by hand -- that's what you call unconditional, tough love of a kind many people are incapable of!)

The simple fact that I’m wearing a USA t-shirt while the rest of the family is dressed up is a tip-off that something is off here. That t-shirt says a lot to me. As some of you may recall, 1972 was a Summer Olympics year, this one encompassing the infamous Munich terrorist incident. But Easter was long before the start of these olympics. For some odd reason, all the kids in the neighborhood had caught olympic fever early, and we spent a lot of time that spring staging our own olympics: runs around the cemetery, throwing impromptu javelins and shot-puts, wrestling. All kinds of shit. No organization. Just a bunch of kids getting together and having their own olympics. The long run winner was usually determined by the last kid standing, as kids have no concept of distance and would conk out after a few hundred yards.

I was wearing that t-shirt because my Sunday’s finest was, uh, soiled. Why were my clothes soiled?

The story starts early Easter morning, which began as it always did for us as kids. Easter was behind only Christmas and Halloween in terms of childhood excitement. That’s because we knew we’d wake up to find the Easter Bunny had visited overnight and left us with baskets filled with goodies: all sorts of chocolate, jelly beans, our painted eggs, etc. Tons of candy. All to celebrate Christ rising from dead. We never quite made the connection between chocolate Easter rabbits and Jesus. Shouldn’t we have been eating chocolate crucifixes and such? But we gathered that Easter also represented some type of spring/renewal ritual, and the major joy wasn’t Christ’s resurrection – it was gorging ourselves on candy.

And that’s exactly what we did. Every year, we made pigs of ourselves. One of the few things my parents did wrong was indulge us with sugar products. Our youths were filled with junk food, and to this day, I can go back home and have a hard time finding real food anywhere in the kitchen. We normally had shitty diets and as a result were chubby kids. I think it was two things: junk food was cheaper and within the budget, and our Depression-era parents knew how to eat only small portions of junk, whereas we didn’t.

Easter was an all-out chocolate frenzy. Our parents would warn us not to eat too much, but that was fruitless. We’d go crazy on the Hershey’s and other candy bars thrown in haphazardly with the more Easter-styled chocolate products: rabbits and flowers that came in special boxes made for the holiday.

My undoing that morning was a gigantic solid chocolate rabbit’s head. This thing was the size of a doberman’s head, solid milk chocolate and must have weighed a pound or two. The whole thing went in my belly, along with about half a jar of peanut butter I kept dipping chunks of the rabbit head in. I’m sure I ate other junk on top of that, but that big head sticks in my memory. I must have been waddling around like the child version of Orson Welles after that.

That was the first part of the morning. The next was to go Easter mass, which meant getting dressed up in our best clothes and walking across the cemetery to our Catholic church for a long, special mass. Even Dad would go with us. (Dad was a different kind of Catholic – the kind who would get dressed up in a suit and tie, tell us all he was going to mass in the next town over, then he’d drive off, and no doubt cruise around for 45 minutes, listening to a Big Band station on the radio, over-joyed to have that much time to himself, probably his only “alone” time aside from driving to and from work, and then he’d come back with Sunday papers, and often treats like Tastycakes and such.) To judge by the photo, even Mom must have gone with us on Easter, even though I’m sure everyone understood she was a dirty Protestant who had no business in our church.

We always had the same pew in church – the first one on the right. It was ours. I don’t know how this happened. I think it was our grandmother was so fanatical about church attendance that we’d always get there early and stake out the pew. Not just that – we’re talking a small town of a few hundred people, and it was mostly the same people attending each week. So most people had their prime spots staked out, the smart ones in the back, near Sharon M, wearing her huge peace-sign necklace as she pumped out religious numbers on her Wurlitzer. It was a rare experience that we didn’t get that front right pew.

You better believe we got it Easter Sunday, which was no small feat, as Easter, along with Christmas, was that mass where all the part-time Catholics made sure to put in a cameo appearance, an SRO experience. I stopped going to church all together in my late teens and don’t regret it. (When Grandma had her stroke, she could no longer attend church, and brothers J, M and I would "bag" church in the cemetery, hanging out in front of one of the mausoleums, talking about David Bowie and school for 45 minutes before hearing the church bells ring, signifying the end of mass and the time for us to haul ass back home. This was a bit of a town scandal, but what the fuck, you better believe kids got up to much worse than what we were doing, occasionally to the tune of time in jail.)

I never liked church, wasn’t particularly enthused by the mass itself (I often hear more artistically-inclined folk harping on “the beauty of the mass” as their reason for attending) and had a boat-load of issues related to Grandma forcing us to go constantly when we were kids, to the point where it felt like not so much a chore, but a punishment we had to endure. I certainly don’t fault anyone who does attend mass and feels some sense of spiritual enlightenment and duty from it – in fact, I praise people like that and respect the fact that they have this thing in their lives that serves as a rock of stability. But it just wasn’t for me, and I find myself getting just as spiritually cleansed on Sundays popping a heavy bag in a gym.

So, we got to Mass, and it began. Father B was the new priest in town, replacing old stand-by Father M, who was well-loved and had been the parish priest for decades. I remember him once grabbing me and wailing, “Sing, child, sing” when he noticed none of us kids was going along with the hymns – probably “Faith of Our Fathers” or something. He was a good old guy. Father B seemed like an all right guy, too. But years later, while he was serving in another parish near Allentown, PA, a break-in at his rectory lead police investigators to uncover a photo album packed with pictures of Father B cavorting in the buff with underage boys. You hear about this stuff, think it’s anti-Catholic bullshit, but as I well know, sometimes it isn’t, and I thank God for not letting the dirty old bastard get his hooks into me. Despite my grandmother’s burning desire to make all us kids altar boys, my parents put the ix-nay on that, possibly sensing that Father B was chickenhawking his way through life. We came to call him “Father Bendover” – a ghoulish play on his last name. It really wasn’t all that funny to learn this about him all those years later, and I hope he never got to indulge his sick fantasies with the kids from my neighborhood.

But that revelation was years in the future, and all was well that Easter Sunday morning in 1972. Save for one thing. I was starting to feel nauseous. Feverish. Dizzy. Not good. Not good in a way that suggested I should get the fuck out of there. Now. It came over me in a hurry. No doubt, I was white as a sheet and sweating profusely. Easter Sundays were weird in that one year we’d have a blizzard, the next it could be 70 degrees. This one was a typically moderate spring day. I knew I had an upset stomach from eating all that candy.

I communicated this to my grandmother, who was sitting a few people down. I was on the end of the pew, near the stained-glass window, brothers J and M were next to me. They let my grandmother know I wasn’t doing well, and her response was to pass me her hanky. But under no circumstances was I to leave. Just couldn’t happen on Easter Sunday. Probably wouldn’t happen on any Sunday, but certainly not this one. I was told to tough it out, that this spell would pass, and I’d feel fine in a few minutes.

Well, my stomach had other plans. I don’t know how I did this, but I somehow managed to choke up a sample puke into that hanky. A little stream of dark-brown bile. I held it out in front of me, like an offering, and quietly pleaded with Grandma to let me get out of there. She still shook her head no. I could see J and M getting queasy, like a pair of inmates in a cell with a lunatic who was about to have a psychotic episode.

I don’t know what happened next. I’m sure I did everything I could to stop it. But there was no stopping it. Moments later, I vomited. And when I say vomited, I don’t mean some tasteful little ralph into my lap. I exploded, a gushing brown fountain of stomach bile. Projectile vomiting of all the chocolate I had gorged myself on that morning, along with whatever I had stored up from the night before. Nose and mouth. It nearly came out of my eyes. Some went straight into the pew, some went over the dark mahogany railing.

Until you’re doing it, you tend to forget how traumatic vomiting is. It’s a really awful experience under any circumstance – frightening, painful and jarring. To do so in the front pew of Easter Mass was mind-blowing. If a naked savage had burst into the church and heaved a spear into a statue of the Virgin Mary, it would have been less shocking. This was during a quiet part of the Mass, just Father B talking and parishioners silently praying, so the full effect of my groaning, sobbing and splashing was heard, seen and smelled by all.

I recall directly afterwards, looking up, brown chocolaty shit still oozing from my nose and mouth, like blood, and seeing the altar boy Joey C laughing so hard he was doubled over. (Joey was quite a character. The youngest of a very odd, volatile family. I thought his older brother Larry was Satan – everyone did, as Larry was totally nuts and frightening. Joey was much more friendly and gregarious than that, and would much later come out of the closet, a surprise to nobody. I still recall that when we played baseball in the summer, he preferred hanging out with the girls near-by who were practicing their cheerleader routines for the upcoming football season. If any guy made fun of Joey for doing the routines, Joey would run over and literally kick the guy’s ass. You didn’t mess with anyone in their family, and just because the guy was geared that way didn’t mean jack shit.)

Joey C was laughing so hard that he screwed up that part of the mass where one of the altar boys rings a small xylophone-type instrument three times. He just couldn’t get it right, as I sat there with my Sunday’s finest coated with dark brown vomit, which had the appearance of shit and blood mixed together. I turned to see brother J in absolute shock, and trying hard not to vomit himself. Brother M was much like Joey – in total, crying hysterics, cackling away, and trying to push J into my very large pool of vomit, in which, no doubt, one could still pick up chunks of that rabbit’s head, an ear here, an eye there, a half-digested marshmallow chick also in the mix.

Well, I finally got out of there. No one stopped me! The strange thing was, aside from J and Grandma coming out the front door with me, nobody moved. Father B didn’t skip a beat – he’d probably seen stuff like this many times before. Those were some hard-core Catholics. That church must have smelled like a dead dog’s asshole – I had unloaded the contents of my stomach, and it’s always unbelievable how much strange substance that entails. But not one of those people left, although I recall making eye contact with a few people who had hankies and tissues pressed over their noses and mouths. The look wasn’t so much outrage or pity as “you little asshole.” If I were them, I would have fled that church as if it was on fire. Anyone with half an ounce of common sense would have bolted. But not on Easter Sunday! No one flinched, the mass went on, people stepped around the brown, stinking puddle after receiving holy communion. I guess a real show would have been me blowing chunks directly after receviving communion, but I couldn't hold out that long.

I can’t recall exactly what happened next. Grandma probably yelled at me, not realizing that I had given her full warning, pleaded with her to let me go, and all I gave her was payback for not recognizing the gravity of the situation. (She was the one who would later clean up my mess with mop and bucket.) J was still too freaked out to do anything. Grandma simply asked if I could walk home. I could – I felt great, as does anyone who has one of those life-affirming pukes where it feels like every negative thing in your life has just been expelled from your body. So, I pretty much just skipped home through the cemetery on that sunny day in my puke-stained suit, actually feeling pretty good about life.

There was no punishment afterwards. I got sick – I surely hadn’t intended to. Just one of those freaky kid things. Went back to church the next week, and all was fine after that. But you better believe this act took on legendary proportions in my childhood. I was the kid who puked in church on Easter Sunday, and this had a large cartel of coolness attached to it. I recall at the time playing this up as some grand statement of how I felt about church, and when movies like The Exorcist and The Omen came out, I would always tie in this act with and Regan and Damien’s anti-religious acts in both movies. But the truth is, it was just one of those things, something that could have been easily avoided if my grandmother hadn’t been so adamant about making me stay the course that day. Otherwise, it would have been a kid blowing chunks into a bush by the side of the road and coming back into church. But a combination of events turned it into one of those mythical childhood exploits that I’m never going to forget.

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