By Fred Owens
I am greatly concerned about the conflicts and multiple wars in the Middle East. I am greatly concerned about the rising seas, and the thousands of homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks of Los Angeles. I believe that an important part of moving forward and overcoming these daunting problems is to elect a new President in 2020. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts seems to have the buzz and the fury and the momentum, at least right now. I say let her run with it and let us see if she can overcome. She is not the only candidate and we are blessed to have an abundance of choices, but I say give her this week and join the chorus that is cheering her on. In the meantime, I pulled this old story out of the vault. It wakes you back to Saint Joseph grade school in Wilmette, Illinois, in 1956. Just a sketch, or a glimpse of another time and place. I hope you enjoy reading this.
This week's installment features sketches of our three parish priests when I was ten, that being the first part. The second part of this story was an embarrassment for Judy Muench in the third grade and later on it was a greater embarrassment for me. The third part describes Miss Marshall, our lay teacher in fourth grade. Not a nun. You could see her legs.
The cemetery was a key component of my landscape, being right up the street from our house. Dead people lying under slabs of marble with their names and dates chiseled. You could walk in there anytime and wander around. You didn’t have to be respectful like in church. You could run up and down the grassy aisles. And if we hit a ball into the cemetery we just hoisted ourselves up and over the cement wall onto the grounds and searched for the ball. You didn’t have to cross yourself or kneel or make an Act of Contrition. Maybe teenagers wandered in there at night and did things we never even thought of. I don’t know. I only know it wasn’t spooky.
Up the street from our house on Forest Avenue, two blocks to the convent, then the cemetery, and on the same block was the playground and the grade school, and across Lake Street was the mighty, towering, brick church of Saint Joseph. The church was too awesome with stained glass and divine majesty.
Next to the church was the Rectory where Monsignor Newman lived with his bull dog and two assistant priests. Monsignor Newman was somewhere between God’s best friend and God Himself. Either way he was a most elevated person, and not a mean fellow. Even in admonishment he did not strike terror into the hearts of small children. It only seemed extremely important to do what he said, if he actually spoke to you, which he did several times a year when he came into the class, with the bulldog, and handed out report cards from the sister’s desk in the front.
I always got a check mark for “practices self control,” meaning I was behaving like a whippersnapper, not totally out of control, but possibly subject to closer disciplinary attention. Monsignor Newman would kindly point that out as he handed you the card, “Owens, it seems you have another check mark after your name. What can we do about that?”
I was too respectful even to answer back. I just took the card and walked back to my seat. Fortunately my parents didn’t care. It was times like that when I knew I had a good mom and dad. Or they just knew that I didn’t “practice self control” too well at home either. However, they also knew I didn’t torture stray cats and I was not headed for the penitentiary.
Back to the rectory. The other priests were Father Sauer and Father Bosen. We never, ever went inside the Rectory. It was a grand brick edifice, about the same size as the convent which held twenty nuns, while the Rectory held three priests plus a housekeeper who cooked and cleaned and fussed. Those three priests never had to lift a finger except they had to wear a black dress – cassock – coming down to their ankles – and hear confessions two or three times a week in a dark cubicle on the side of the church. Can you imagine how boring that might have been for Fr. Sauer, who enjoyed playing golf, to sit in the dark confessional booth several hours a week and hear the same old petty sins over and over again -- I stole, I lied, I cheated, I had impure thoughts?
Impure thoughts was the good one, when they taught us to go to Confession in the second grade, because if you didn’t kick your little sister in the nose, or steal candy bars at the grocery store, then you had to come up with something. I had no idea what impure thoughts were, but it came in handy to fill out your quota of sins for the past month or so, because they made you go to confession. It was not like you had a choice.
So there was Fr. Sauer, dreaming of the golf course, but now hidden from view and sitting in the dark. You stepped in the door into this cubicle black as night and knelt down on the kneeler, and the priest slid open the wooden little door at the chin high opening, and then you had to confess something. You must have done something wrong.
“Bless me father, I have sinned. My last confession was two months ago. I was mean to my little sister although I didn’t really hurt her. I stole a candy bar at the drugstore, and I had five Impure Thoughts.”
That was good enough for a pass. Fr. Sauer, if it was him and you surely couldn’t know which priest it was sitting in the dark, would say, “Make an act of contrition and say five Hail Marys.”
Out the door and into the light. I knelt down on the padded riser in the pew and said my prayers of penance. I was willing to accept the general case of doing something wrong. I once said to Fitz Higgins, who read books in his leisure time, who played baseball poorly and didn’t even care that he played poorly, who began slouching even before fifth grade, who became an altar boy and seemed to enjoy that task, I said to him, “I know I did some bad things, but I can never remember what they were, so I just make up stuff when I go to confession, and then I think that’s wrong too – to make up stuff in confession. So what do I do about that?’ I asked Fitz like he would know the answer. He didn’t know answer.
Fr. Sauer was dreaming about the putting green at the Evanston Country Club. Par four and a whiskey sour after 18 holes. He was a handsome man and athletic. In summertime, on his day off, one time I saw him come down the Rectory steps from the front door, wearing a bright Hawaiian shirt over shiny pressed slacks. I bet he had a girl friend somewhere.
Father Bosen was older and bald and not athletic and a bit detached from rambunctious school children. He had a smile which he put on his face for the children, and a warm chuckle.
He was probably gay, and probably celibate too, and cerebral. A private man, although he gave a good sermon at Sunday Mass.
I’m not done writing about the priests in the Rectory or the nuns in the Convent, or the school and the playground in between the Rectory and the Convent. Or the drugstore across the street from playground which was next to the cemetery. The drugstore where I bought candy bars for a nickel. And not, to be perfectly honest, where I stole the candy bars. I stole the candy bars from the grocery store. Does it matter that I didn’t tell the literal truth to the priest at confession?
Look, I had to come up with at least three sins. Stealing, being mean to my little sister and Impure Thoughts. Years later I began having Impure Thoughts by the bucket.
By fifth grade we were still making jokes about Sister Beatina, the principal. She was enormously fat. Fifth grade boys can make a lot of fat jokes.
Another lunchtime classic that kept us laughing from third grade on was the Judy Muench disaster. In third grade we had Sister Laverna. She was a small-sized bundle of energy who almost danced around the classroom. Such a lovely and lively women, we all adored her. Which was good because there were 63 kids in our class. This was a St. Joe’s school record that we took some pride in – the most kids in one class. It was a split class, the outer two rows by the window were fourth graders, and the inner four rows were third graders. It was controlled mayhem.
Judy Muench was a perfectly pretty little girl. I kind of liked her. She had brown hair in pig tails and a bouncy, hopeful smile. She wore a red and green plaid dress that day when Sister Laverna called her up to the front of the class for a recital. She came up to the front, a little nervous. She turned and faced her class mates in a rigid posture with her arms tensed. And she began peeing. Right through her dress and making a noisy puddle on the floor. “Sister, I’m going to the bathroom!” she cried with anguish, loud enough for the whole class to hear, and then she ran out the door and off to the girl’s room.
We dared not laugh. This was very awkward. Sister Laverna fetched a towel and wiped up the small puddle. Wasn’t this awful?
Little boys are not kind creatures. Put four of us at the lunch table in the cafeteria, four trays, four cartons of chocolate milk. All the children laughing and talking. We told the Judy Muench joke for two years. Over and over again. “Sister, I’m going to the bathroom!” Laughing till we snorted. But at least we never teased her to her face. I always liked her. I walked by her house on the way to play with Fitz Higgins and if I saw her outside I said hello.
Just to balance this embarrassing episode, I will recount my own folly. Years later, in our senior year at high school, me and Doug Serwich and Nick Marsch got drunk on Country Club malt liquor. We broke into a duplex apartment under construction, just howling and throwing stuff around. The cops came and took us in to the station and called our parents. It was very shameful. Doug’s parents and Nick’s parents decided that I was the bad influence in this trio and forbad me from social contact with their precious sons.
My parents did not blame some other kids for my stupidity. The figured I was smart enough or dumb enough to make my own mistakes, so they said nothing about my choice of companions.
Truly, it was Nick Marsch who inspired this mini-crime spree. Nick was the second oldest of ten children from a very wealthy family. His Dad rode to work in a limousine. But Nick, who was smart enough to know better, became a midnight vandal, cruising the public junior high school near his house, breaking windows and tipping things over. Nick invited me and Doug to join him the night we got caught. Nick was basically responsible for the vandalism. Me and Doug could take credit for the drunkenness. Malt liquor – ugh!
But this was high school, many years after the Judy Muench incident in third grade, which was never mentioned but not forgotten. The Muench family was large. Mr. and Mrs. Muench were warm friendly parents. I really liked them.
So it was our turn to be embarrassed and ashamed. We got hauled into the police station in Winnetka. Our parents collected us. Two weeks later we had a juvenile hearing, and our lawyer was Mr. Muench himself, in a grey three-piece suit with rimless spectacles on his nose and speckled grey hair around his ears, the epitome of dignity, standing before the judge, like a ritual repeated often enough in these leafy suburbs.
“These are not bad boys, your honor, but let this be a lesson to them, let them seriously consider how wrong it was that they acted. How careless it was to bring this shame on themselves and their families. We ask the court to be lenient because this was a first time offense. I know these boys and it will not happen again.” So we got off easy.
The other topic at the cafeteria lunch table was Miss Marshall the fourth grade teacher. She had legs. This was astounding. She had legs because she wore a skirt and she wasn’t a nun. She was a lay teacher, the only one in the school, and you could see her legs. This was a matter of great fascination and discussion at lunch time.
She did not wear a habit. She didn’t live in the convent. She had her own home somewhere nearby and drove to school in her own car. This was unusual. Her dress came down below her knees, and there they were – legs, bare legs, which was no different than what our mothers wore or what our older sisters wore, but at St. Joseph school, with all those nuns, Miss Marshall was different. She wasn’t pretty, none of the kids said she was. But she was likable, far less stern than the average nun. I could tell her I needed to go to the bathroom and she would just nod her head, and then I could hang out in the john with my friends, because she didn’t keep track of how many boys had gone to the bathroom and didn’t come back. We had a way of making water balloons and throwing them out the window from the second floor. The nuns would never have let us get away with that, but Miss Marshall wasn’t strict and we liked her for that. And nobody talked back to her, because she stayed calm, and because the nuns would have found out and murdered us for that. Talking back was not done.
I loved the cafeteria. I loved the food. It was down in the basement. When class started at 8:45, the sisters took the milk order in each class room and everybody always wanted chocolate milk. It was a ritual – who wants chocolate milk? Everybody.
Down to the basement at 11:30, in line to check off our lunch cards, then grabbing a tray to go up to the steam counter. Mrs. Tallman ran the kitchen. She never smiled like she was having fun or like she was glad to see us, but her heart was in it. Feeding all those kids, she was a saint, a stout woman in her late forties in a print dress, brushing a loose hair off her face, near to perspiration with running back and forth into the kitchen and coming back out with steaming trays – spaghetti, hot dogs, chicken, beef stew, grilled cheese sandwiches. I loved the food except for the beef stew. I loved the heaping trays of buttered French bread. They cut the slices on the diagonal from fresh-baked loaves and smeared them thick with butter and you could take two or three pieces. I ate a lot of French bread.
My life at ten was bound by Green Bay Road, Lake Street, the Ridge and the boundary with Kenilworth, another village. I became geographically fixed on the grid. All the streets in all the towns and cities of the Midwest are fixed on a grid of even rectangles and squares. There are no hills to go around. No curves and very few diagonals. It is literally plane geometry and I always knew where I was. Being lost was not conceivable. As far as I knew the grid went on forever, out to the square corn fields to the west, and to the plane shore of Lake Michigan. In 1956 I had not yet become bored with this landscape.
To the north was Kenilworth, only three blocks that way, but a different town, not off limits strictly speaking but way, way uptown rich. My little sister Katy went there to visit Molly Packel. The Packels were a large parish family and lived in a huge house with an expansive lawn. Rene Packel was in my class. Rene was an exotic name for one thing, not Susan or Mary or Ann. She was Rene. And she was big and bulky, not fat, not stout, but just larger, so I liked her that way, plus she was smart. Like you could say something to her and it was all right, and she didn’t look back at you like you were stupid and stop bothering her. No, I had actual conversations with her, and I never tried to tease her. She was too big for that.
Those were my boundaries in 1956. Kenilworth, Green Bay Road, Lake Street, and the Ridge.
If you lived in someplace with mountains or even hills, you would not notice the Ridge because it was scarcely a rise in the landscape. Not higher than a two story building. You couldn’t even notice it was there, except everywhere else it was so flat. To me, at age ten, that was the hill and you could ride your bike down the hill without pedaling, even going a little fast. I never saw such a thing as a hill or mountain except in books or on TV.
The Ridge was a water divide. Water to the west flowed down the Desplaines River, which joined the Illinois River, and on to the Mississippi River and then all the way to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. Little rain drops flowed all that way to the ocean. And then if the rain drop fell on the other side of the Ridge, then it flowed into Lake Michigan only one mile to the east, flowed into Lake Michigan and then slowly flowed through the straits of Mackinac to Lake Huron and then south to the St. Clair river past Detroit with Canada on the other side, and then to Lake Erie with Cleveland on its southern shore, and then over the Niagara Falls thundering to Lake Ontario. From there, past Montreal, through Quebec, down the St. Lawrence River, always going east and trending to the north, that little drop of water flowed in to the Atlantic Ocean in the cold north country.
But the divider was the Ridge in our village of Wilmette, and one way flowed to New Orleans and one way flowed to Quebec.
Thank you for reading this little story. Next time I will write about Leroy the class bully. Leroy was his name. I'm not making this up. He was a large kid with a big wicked grin like Ernest Borgnine in From Here to Eternity.