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.

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Snow Days

When I was a kid growing up in Dayton, Ohio in the sixties it didn’t snow all that often.  Winters were inclement, cold and wet, and dull to look at.  The predominant colors from late October to the beginning of April were black, brown, tan and gray.  The grown ups, if they leaned in that direction, usually began to drink more heavily come the February thaw that promised so much and delivered so little.  It teased us with a glimpse of spring, but quickly withdrew its offer of false hope  and slammed us with more ice, sleet, muck and misery.  The days when it snowed stood out as a relief from dreary monotony even when the temperatures dropped down near zero.  Sunlight on fresh, pure, crystalline snow looked quite lovely, especially when the viewer was too young to shovel, too young to have to drive in dangerous conditions.

1.  When I was in eighth grade it snowed fairly heavily in late January, and it stayed cold long enough for us to fully exploit the opportunity.  One day at recess three of my friends and I decided to play king of the hill on a slope leading from a ditch up to the baseball field.  Jerry and I dominated the throne, and I remember happily tossing Angelo and Mark down to the bottom several times.  Jerry was more of a problem.  He was about my height, was stronger and weighed more.  He got the better of me in most of our wrestling matches, and I had to fight my way back to the top over, through and around Mark and Angelo.  We got hot and sweaty from our combat even though the temperatures hovered near freezing.  My coat and hat were smeared with mud and snow, and I knew that my mother would have a fit if she saw me rough housing.  That was part of the delight.

A few minutes before the bell rang I was at the crest of the hill with Angelo in my grip.  He dared to challenge me, so I grabbed his coat collar, twisted and pushed him down the hill.  It was satisfying to watch him slide to the bottom on his ass.  Jerry decided to take advantage of my moment of gloating to circle behind me.  I sensed some movement, had a premonition of imminent danger, and crouched down abruptly.  Jerry sailed head first over me.  I watched his body glide through the air as it passed three feet above my head, and it seemed that I was watching him move past in slow motion.  His eyes were popped wide with dismay and surprise as he looked back at me while yelling my last name, “Schmalstigggggg,” as he made his long descent to the bottom of the ditch.  He must have sailed fifteen feet through the air before hitting a mound of snow.

My triumph was sweet.  He had decided to spear me in the back by launching himself at me at full speed like a football safety trying to take out a receiver.  His attempt to humiliate and possibly hurt me backfired on him.  At that moment it was good to be king.

2.  In 1977 I was a senior in high school and the winter was unusually cold and snowy.  The temperatures were twenty below at night and didn’t rise much above zero during the day for a whole week.  To make matters worse, there was a coal shortage and the utilities ordered their customers to turn down their thermostats to 65 degrees.  The Kettering school board decided to shut down the schools until the weather changed for the better, and we got five days off.  I missed half of my senior exams, including a test in physics that, based on the reports of students who took it early in the week before the closure, was impossibly difficult.

A few weeks later when we were back in school it began to snow heavily mid morning.  We hoped that the administration would let us go early before it got hard to travel home, but the principal held out until after lunch.  We had already burned through our allotment of bad weather days, and if we made it past the halfway mark of the school day we wouldn’t be forced to make it up at the end of the school year.

We heard an announcement that we could leave at 1:00.  I lived about two miles away and was driven back and forth to school every day by my mother.  I considered calling her but didn’t have a quarter to my name, and finally decided to trudge my way home through the rapidly accumulating snow.  I made it through a park, a sprawling neighborhood of two-story split level houses and across Woodman Drive.  I decide to take a short cut through an old corn field behind Bell Telephone, and there the going got rougher.  The snow had blown off the field and onto the path that ran alongside it, and soon I was slogging through two foot high drifts without boots.  I jumped a fence and cut through the back yard of the house that was across the street from my parents’, and the dogs in nearby yards barked at me.  When I got to my street I stopped to look around before crossing.  The snow fall had dwindled to a stop and start flurry.  The sun came out and I felt that I had stumbled out of a dark and dreary world into a crystalline fairy land unmarked and unspoiled except for my tracks.

It was good that I took some time to look around.  Some guys from my high school came down the street driving too fast in a muscle car with jacked up rear tires.  As they swerved and shimmied between parked cars on either side of the street, narrowly missing them when the driver came close to losing control, one of the backseat guys leaned halfway out of the window and shouted an obscenity at me.  I didn’t take offense.  He did it for pure joy, and I wanted them to stop and take me with them.

3.  It was the winter of 1978.  I got home early from classes at the University of Dayton at around 4:00.  The sun was still up and the sky was partly cloudy.  My Mom was cooking supper in the kitchen and I was looking through my class notes when my Dad came home from work.  I happened to look out the door before he closed it and saw that it had begun to snow lightly.  A few minutes later I looked out the living room window and saw the snow blowing horizontally in a high wind.  The storm howled and thickened until I couldn’t see more than five feet beyond the front porch.  It snowed hard for a couple of hours beyond sunset.  I had never seen a blizzard before, and was very glad that my family had made it home before it hit.  It came down upon us without warning.

When we woke up the next day the world outside had been transformed.  Two or three feet of snow had fallen, and the ground and streets outside had such a thick, general covering that I couldn’t figure out where the road started and our lawn ended.  Many of the familiar landmarks were buried in deep, windblown drifts, and our section of the neighborhood, a clump of houses, yards and streets that I knew by heart, was unrecognizable.

Schools cancelled and most businesses shut down for the day, but my father got a call from work.  He was a general maintenance and fix-it man for a plant that made windows for motor homes.  One of his supervisors told him that he had to go out to the plant and make sure that the furnaces were still running.  Dad asked me to come along with him.  We shoveled out the driveway, swept snow off the car and warmed it up.  I cleared off some of the road in front of our house to give some space for the car to get up to a decent speed before it began to plow through the drifts.  We threw the shovel onto the back seat and dumped a bag of salt in the trunk to give the rear wheels more traction.

It was hard going through the deep snow as we forced our way up the street.  Woodman Drive was a little better.  Passing cars had packed the snow down along some stretches of the road and gave us a track to follow.  The shopping centers, apartment complexes and businesses set further back from the road looked like the abandoned buildings of a town that had been lost to the encroachment of a desert of white, quartzite sand.  It was still difficult to figure out the boundary lines between road and sidewalk and grass, and I was afraid that if we drifted a bit too far off to the right we might bang into a fire hydrant.  We drove all the way to north Dayton to Dad’s plant.  He fooled with some valves on the furnaces, made sure that the oil hadn’t frozen into sludge and checked the water lines.  Everything was copasetic, and we began the long journey home.  The car’s heater finally kicked in and the interior became warm and toasty.

Dad decided to stop for groceries at Bob’s Food Warehouse.  He was a Depression baby and loved the store for its low prices.  The high ceilings, dim fluorescent lights and boxes of generic food on the gray painted shelves depressed the hell out of me, and I was glad when we left.  We still had a half mile to go to reach home.  We traveled five feet across the partially cleared parking lot and got stuck in a drift.  I reached for the door handle to get out and shovel, but stopped when I heard a shout. Four guys came up to our car and started to push.  My Dad honked his horn in thanks when we broke free, and our gang of helpers gave us a little cheer.  When we got home we made some hot chocolate, eggs and bacon.  We were glad to be out of the storm, so to speak, holed up in a warm, cozy house.

I realized that we had been very lucky to make it there and back without getting stuck along a deserted stretch of road.  It would have been tough to find shelter if we had to abandon the car somewhere in north Dayton, and too far to slog it back home on foot.  My Dad was resourceful in a pinch, but I wondered what we would have done.

I heard a few days later, when the snow had nearly melted and the curbside remainder was a few inches of gritty, black slush, that one of our neighbors nearly died during the blizzard.  She had walked out to her mailbox as the first few flakes fell wearing just a shift, a bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, and was caught by the storm before she could make it 20 yards back to her door.  She got lost in the blast and wandered around her yard looking for her house.  It should have been hard to lose, but the whipping wind swirled the snow in contrary directions and she couldn’t find any points of reference that lasted more than a few seconds.  She eventually found her front door, but had to be hospitalized for frost bite and the effects of hypothermia.  I’m not sure how long she had to wait  huddled under a blanket in her living room for an ambulance to arrive, but she ended up losing a couple of toes and a finger.