God Bless You, Father Shine

The Cincinnati archdiocese assigned Father Shine to our parish as an assistant pastor around 1970.  He had been acting as a hospital chaplain, and before that served as a teacher in a boys high school.  A thin man with a large nose, pale skin, jet-black hair and sunken eyes, he trembled at the pulpit when he delivered sermons.  Sweat slicked his forehead and his hands shook when he raised the host at consecration.  He stammered, “B-b-body, body of Christ,” when he handed out communion.

Most of the congregation understood his terror of speaking in public and forgave him his faltering interpretations of Holy Scripture.  We felt sorry for a well-meaning man trapped in a job that ran contrary to his nature.  We also sensed a sweet nature hidden behind the nerves.  The man was ready to forgive sins in the confessional before a penitent uttered the first word.  He never spoke harshly or with cold judgment, and remained unfailingly patient and kind when dealing with folks one on one.

No one knew how the nuns and head pastor viewed Father Shine, but someone with a cruel streak gave him an assignment designed to torture him:  a sex-ed lecture for the eighth-graders.

We were ushered into the library and told to sit on the carpet.  No one told us the purpose of the assembly, but whenever our two classes gathered it usually meant a tongue lashing from the principal.  We were somewhat rebellious, and our budding sexuality sent one of the nuns into spasms.

It didn’t take much to bring Sister M.M. to her knees to pray for our immortal souls.  One flagrant problem that raised her blood pressure:  some of the eighth grade girls had tired of us boys and decided to take up with seventh graders.  Older hussies were seen walking with younger boys on the playground at lunch.  They held hands.  The horror.  The utter horror.

We were surprised when Father Shine shuffled into the room.  He sat down in front of us, but didn’t say anything for several minutes.  He appeared to be morbidly fascinated by the texture of the carpet.  A nun standing nearby whispered a few urgent words to spur him into action.  He looked up for a split second, returned his gaze to the floor, and wiped his forehead with a trembling hand. The nun whispered again, and Father Shine began his address.

“I taught for a few years at a Catholic school for boys in Cincinnati… Cin-Cin-cin-cin…nati…I, uh, the boys, uh….One day there was a dance.  The boys invited girls from a nearby high school for…girls.  Girls…Uh…I taught boys in Cincinnati…dance…There was this dance and girls were invited to come to our gym and…dance…And the boys, the boys…I taught at this school and…”

At this point Father flushed deep red and slumped to one side.  He covered his face with his hands and his shoulders shook.  I feared that he verged on a nervous breakdown.  The nun stepped in, put a hand on his shoulder and helped him to his feet.  She led him from the room.  End of assembly.

Father Shine recovered and returned to his duties as assistant pastor.  He said masses, heard confessions and visited the sick.  I was glad that his attempt to speak to us about sexual morality hadn’t damaged him in any permanent way, and relieved that we had escaped another tirade about a subject I found troubling enough when contemplating it on my own.  My feelings of relief were premature.

Eighth-grade classes usual went on a spiritual retreat to a park-like Catholic center south of town.  Sister told us, to our chagrin, that our retreat would take place on campus.  Her stern look and threatening tone warned me that my classmates and I would probably need a retreat from our retreat.

A balding priest wearing a black cassock, black shoes and socks, and black plastic framed glasses met with us in the library one morning.  He wasn’t afraid, shy, or embarrassed.  He appeared, instead, to be driven by outrage.  He barked at us for an hour about our sinful natures, and his face turned purple with anger.  He scorned our obsession with sex.  He sentenced us to eternal damnation if we thought about it, masturbated, or allowed ourselves to enjoy accidental sexual feelings that occurred at random moments.  The only Catholics allowed to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh were married couples (heterosexual, it went without saying).  And even these lucky few were supposed to reluctantly engage in the act for the sole purpose of making more Catholics.

He spent the rest of the day with us, “celebrated” a mass featuring a sermon that underlined the grimmest points made in the prior assembly, and glared at us with arms crossed at his chest during a break at lunch time.  Father Damnation appeared to be standing in for a watchful, vengeful God.

The eighth-grade girls stayed away from the seventh graders that day, but resumed their assignations the next week.  We knew that Father Damnation wasn’t coming back.  And most of us had figured out that his reign of terror had been one more attempt to bludgeon us back in line.  There had been plenty of those, and we had grown used to threats and hysteria.

Looking back, I have to say that I’m grateful to both priests.  Father Shine showed me that there were some clerics in the church who genuinely cared for their congregants, who tried their best even when stretched beyond their natural limits.  Father Damnation showed me that the church ranks had their share of crazies and militants that were best ignored.

God bless you, Father Shine.  Get bent, Father Damnation.

Little Bird

bird

I paused on my banana seat bike by a creek that meandered east into a narrow wood.  A dash of color flashed across in front of me.  I turned and saw a little bird gripping a front tire spoke.  He must have been a fledgling:  he stared at me with fearless curiosity and grew agitated only when I reached for him.  Then he pecked at my hand but missed.  Instead of flying away he held on tighter to his perch.  I moved my bike forward an inch to shoo him away, but he flitted to another spoke.  He wasn’t going anywhere.

I was six, old enough to worry about getting pecked, old enough to worry about catching the baby bird in the spokes and hurting it if I rode on, and old enough to envision being trapped at that spot indefinitely.  I had no idea what to do.

Five minutes dragged by.  A teenager lived in the house by the creek.  He came outside and asked me what I was doing.  I pointed to the bird and said, “I can’t move.”  He slowly knelt down beside my front tire, gently cupped his hands around the bird, and set him down in the grass.  The fledgling looked up at us for a second or two pleased that someone had finally discovered a satisfactory conclusion to our drama.  He flew away.  I said, “Thanks!” to the boy, and he smiled at me.

Whenever I saw the boy after that he greeted me as a friend.  Sometimes he asked if I’d trapped any more birds lately.  I laughed when he teased and felt flattered by his attention…I had always wanted an older brother.  Mine had died a few hours after birth, and I sometimes felt the absence of a protective guide.

One day I stood at the edge of the ditch that led down to the creek.  I wanted to wade for minnows and tadpoles, but the slope looked steep and treacherous.  I feared a misstep and a fall onto the rocks that poked up in the shallows.  My older friend crossed the street and stood behind me.  I smiled at him and expected a joke and some help.  Instead he grabbed my shoulders and said, “Want to go down there?”  He pushed hard, but held on so that I didn’t fall.  My head whip lashed, and I yelped in fear.  I looked over my shoulder as I teetered on the brink.  He smiled with his usual warmth and said, “You don’t think that I’d actually throw you in the creek, do you?”

I saw that he was only teasing and relaxed.  He let go of my shoulders and shoved.  I tumbled down the side of the ditch and landed on my knees in the gravel and mud bordering the stream.  The teenager pointed at me and laughed when I looked up.  The confused look on my face must have been hilarious.  I waited for him to stop jeering and leave, and then I crawled up the side of the ditch and squidged home in wet sneakers.

I saw the boy from time to time when I played outside with Lee, George and Robbie. I shied away from the teenager if he came close and didn’t answer if he said something to me.  He looked puzzled the first time I withdrew from him, but then he remembered his treachery and laughed at my caution.

I feared that I might become his source of constant amusement and avoided his house and the stream.  But he soon discovered cars and girls and no longer bothered with me.  He drove around the neighborhood with young women in his red convertible.  They looked bright and innocent.

I hope they knew when to fly away.

birds

Come Up and See My Etchings

Rosemary, the printmaking instructor at the University of Delaware, insisted on taking as many students as possible to visit an artist in Philadelphia.   The grad students in her class knew they had no choice, but she even pressured a few undergrads to come along.  One offered the excuse that he had other classes on the day of the trip, but Rosemary dismissed it saying, “This trip is more important for your growth as an artist.”

The bus ride took us through grimy neighborhoods of trash strewn streets and boarded up buildings on the south side and dropped us off in Center City.  Fifteen would be artists dutifully trooped up the steps of a two story brick row house.  A quiet man in his late thirties opened the door slowly and greeted Rosemary in a monotone.  He waved his hand for us to pass inside, but left us milling around in the entryway.  He seemed reluctant to let us into his inner sanctum.  Rosemary said, “Can we see your studio?” He led us up a narrow, dark stairway to a room crowded with work tables, flat files of paper, and storage cabinets with wide, flat drawers.  Recently pulled prints hung by clothes pins on thin wires strung from one wall to another.

“So, am I right in assuming that you’ve all seen my work?” he asked us.  No one answered.  I barely remembered his name, and Rosemary had said nothing about the style and subject matter of his prints.  She simply told us that he was a etcher who showed his work at an important gallery in Philly.  He stared and waited, shoulders slumping lower.  He sighed:  another defeat.  “Then why are you here?” he asked.

Rosemary flattered him until he was sufficiently mollified.  He put on white gloves and laid out prints on a long, white table.  He combined imagery from several photographs to create interiors and landscapes that looked real but subtly wrong.  The perspective wasn’t completely consistent, but the individual details looked so accurate that the eye accepted the spaces as dry depictions of an uncanny world.  They reminded me of dreams I had of my Midwestern home town:  familiar streets and houses recombined with landmarks from other places.

I asked the print maker about his technique.  He told us that he achieved his photorealistic effects by pointillism.  He used a needle to meticulously prick tiny holes in the asphaltum covering his copper plates.  I asked him how long it took him to work on a plate.  I expected him to say months, but he replied, “Oh, about a day.  That’s the easy part.”  I followed up with, “But how many times do you etch the plate?  What about revisions?”  “I do it all in one layer, no revisions.  What takes the most time is designing them.”  He opened a drawer and took out a sheaf of preparatory sketches.  Each one looked like finished works of art.

Rosemary asked him to show us works in progress.  He laid out another pile of exquisitely rendered drawings and said, “These aren’t very good yet.  I hate showing you these things.”  We protested, and Rosemary said, “Really, these are wonderful.”  The man mumbled, “If you say so.”

He showed us a few more prints, an etched plate or two, and then escorted us down the stairs.  He stood on his porch and stared at his shoes as we walked away.  He retreated inside and firmly shut the door after he had said a quick goodbye to Rosemary.

On the ride home students chattered about classes at Delaware and argued about politics (Reagan’s Iran/Contra scandal dominated the news).  Some wore Walkman’s and listened to music.  I thought about the print maker and wondered if the effort he put into his images paid him back in the end.  How could a man with that much ability and accomplishment feel so discouraged? I had a tenth of his talent.  Was there any hope for me?

I was too young to realize that happiness often had little to do with success.

 

Class Ring

My Dad did independent contracting jobs in the 1970s to earn extra money.  When I turned thirteen he drafted me as his laborer for glorified donkey work.  I dug ditches for foundations, scraped wood siding on houses before painting them, hauled bundles of shingles up ladders, trundled wet cement in wheel barrows, and cleaned trash and discarded belongings out of abandoned rental units.  He paid fifty cents less than minimum wage, but I knew better than to complain.

Dad landed a cement job the summer before my junior year.  A man who owned a frame house in east Dayton wanted a front porch.  I helped dig a trench for the foundation.  The project was on time and profitable until a neighbor saw that my father hadn’t posted a work permit on the site.  He reported us to the authorities, and they did a surprise inspection after the foundation of concrete blocks had been laid.  They fined Dad and told him that the foundation was a few inches too shallow.  We had to pull out the blocks and dig deeper.  The foundation was reset, and a cement mixer truck rumbled up the street early one morning and poured a load into the wooden forms Dad had built around the foundation.  He and I spread and smoothed the heavy, gray sludge with shovels, rakes and trowels until we had a fairly uniform slab.  The cool, overcast weather kept the cement from hardening quickly.  Dad decided to knock off for lunch figuring that we’d have plenty of time to do the final surfacing work that afternoon.

While we were away the sun came out and the temperature shot up five degrees in an hour.  We discovered when we returned that the cement was nearly rock solid.  He and I worked frantically with our tools but couldn’t properly trowel and edge the slab.  Dad swore at the concrete, at me, at his edger, at the sun.  We all had conspired against him.

The owner refused to pay for the porch.  He knew a shoddy job when he saw one, and so did my Dad.  The next week we took sledge hammers, broke it up and hauled away the debris.  Then we hired a cement mixer to dump another load into rebuilt forms.  This time we stayed on the job until the surfaces were slickly finished on the edges and across the whole expanse of the porch.  At the end of the day the owner finally handed my Dad a wad of cash.

I hadn’t gotten a cent up to that point, but when we got home Dad kept his wallet firmly wedged in his pants pocket.  A few weeks later school started, and the juniors got order forms for class rings.  My sister had gotten one, bought and paid for by my parents a few years earlier.  But Dad’s company was in the process of laying off workers, and our family finances were about to take a severe blow.  I didn’t know how my parents would react when I showed them the photo of the gold and garnet ring I favored.  A few days went by before my Dad spoke to me about the ring.  He grumphed, “I took a loss on that porch job.  That’s why I didn’t pay you.  I’m going to buy you your class ring, and we’ll call it even.”  I nodded in agreement even though I knew that he was shortchanging me.  I figured that something was better than nothing.

Dad got laid off in November right before Thanksgiving.  His former employer mailed him his twenty year pin a few days after giving him a pink slip.  The pin came with a letter thanking him for his loyal service.  Dad decided to turn his back on finding another factory job and attempted to grow his part time work into a full time business.  We scraped along for the next eight months on savings and the cash he brought in from remodeling and light construction projects.

I got the ring and enjoyed wearing it until I lost it midwinter.  It snowed one night in January, and on the following day the weather stayed frigid and dry.  My brother and I fought a snowball battle in the side yard after school, and we had to take off our gloves and use the heat of our bare hands to pack snowballs that held together when thrown.  I bombarded Tony for as long as he was willing and taunted him when he retreated inside.  That evening I noticed that my ring was gone.  I searched my bed covers, the kitchen counter and table, under my bed, on my dresser.  Then I remembered the fight, how cold my fingers had been, how my ring slid up and down easily on my wet finger.  I realized that I must have thrown it off my hand when I whipped a snowball at Tony.

I desperately searched the yard the next morning but couldn’t find it in the melting snow, mud, and needles from a nearby evergreen.  When I went to school I noticed guys twiddling their rings on their fingers, tapping them on tables.  I saw girls wearing their boyfriends’ rings on chains around their necks.

I reported the lost ring to my parents that evening and asked them if it could be replaced.  I wasn’t surprised when the answer was “no”.  They weren’t going to pay for a second ring when I had been stupid enough to lose the first.  I didn’t argue that I had paid for the first with my labor. At that time our grocery supplies came up short by the end of each week, our cars were old and dying, and Mom wore a strained look on her face whenever the topic of finances came up.  A ring could wait.

That spring my Dad gave up on his dream of self-employment.  He couldn’t afford the necessary equipment to make his business profitable enough to support a family.  He took the first of a series of dangerous and unpleasant factory jobs while still doing small projects on the side.  I continued to work for him in the summer.  He bought us lunch and cheap beer for the end of the day, and he paid me fifty cents less than minimum wage.  I took it, saved it.  Something was better than nothing.

I met my first girlfriend while working with Dad building another concrete porch.  Marge brought me lemonade and asked if I wanted a radio to listen to as I shoveled and hauled.  Dad let me off early one afternoon a few weeks later when she invited me to come with her to a swimming pool.  I gave him a look of stunned disbelief as we pulled out of her driveway, and he grinned back.

I spent all the money I earned that summer on dates with Marge and forgot all about buying myself another ring.