It was not that I was a bad child, but it was clear early on that I seemed to have a gift for mischief. Consider, for instance, the quiet summer morning in 1944, a day when my father was probably busy taking out machine gun positions in the forests of Germany, while my mother was attempting to hold down the front lines at home. I had just been sent to bed for disturbing the peace. We all had to pitch in and do our part.
Only two and still in diapers, I had been incarcerated for over-reacting to an injustice perpetrated on me by my older brother: he had thrown my stuffed monkey off the front porch. Outraged that insult had been added to injury, I chose this moment to escape from my crib and climb out the bedroom window to rescue my little comrade, still lying, broken, on the sidewalk below.
Hanging only by my fingertips, I seemed to have no fear I’d come tumbling down, apparently lacking a grip on the gravity of the situation. Once out the window, I couldn’t quite figure out how to get down; but I wasn’t about to let that stop me: rock-a-bye baby be damned, I was going to retrieve that monkey.
Fortunately for me, though, my mother had grown suspicious when the bedroom suddenly grew silent, and after discovering the empty crib she spied my tiny fingers digging into the second-story windowsill and reeled me in. It would prove to be the beginning of a lifelong pattern.
I must have been staring at that page for a good ten minutes. It was as blank as my mind, except for name, date, subject, school, up there at the top. Nothing else to add. Or subtract. Or multiply. An algebra test may work for others, but it sure didn’t work for me. I walked up and handed the empty page to Sister Ann Marie, walked out into the hallways of Cardinal McCloskey High, and who do I bump into but the Principal, Father Turner, on his way to mail some letters.
“What are you doing out here, son? Class just started ten minutes ago.”
“Well, Father, I finished my algebra test early.”
“Come with me,” he said. “I’m going out to mail some letters.” Father Turner, a man given to few words, was utterly silent as we walked all the way down the hill to the mailbox. We then walked back up the hill in the deepening silence, and as we approached the school steps, he turned to me and said, “Go empty your locker, and don’t come back again.”, an eerie echo of Jesus’ words to the adulterous woman, “Go, and sin no more.”, except for the complete absence of Christ’s love. It would be my last day as a Roman Catholic.
Bag in hand, all earthly possessions but my Gretsch drums and Zildjian cymbals inside, I kiss my mother goodbye and, in what would prove to be my final (and least convincing) James Dean walk, head down the filthy housing project hallway to the stairs. Just before descending into the inferno, I turn to see my mother crying in the doorway, now reduced to a sagging silhouette.
Both boys now in the Air Force, off to God knows where. It was a near-fatal blow for her, I knew; all the men in her life were now gone. No one left at home now but my thirteen-year old sister, Suzi, and her. I was leaving on a silver plane.