It was the first week of September, must have been. I was 13 and it was 1964. JFK was dead less than a year, but the Beatles were making us feel better about it. I caught the school bus on Lake Street, and as I climbed aboard I noticed with relief that all the guys were wearing the same kind of shirt, tie, and sports jacket, more or less. I was not the only homo. A homo was a guy who wore white sox, ties, and had to be home by ten o'clock.
On a transistor radio Alan Price's organ howled with pain on "The House of the Rising Sun," a really interesting record.
On the way to St. Joe's in Westchester, Illinois, I tried to read my Ace paperback of Beau Geste, but I was too nervous or excited. It would be my first day of high school. My parents wanted to send me out to Saint Joseph's to "Broaden my horizons," which meant go to school somewhere I didn't have to fight my way home through Irish kids. I had split Bobby Finch's lip and reshaped his finger along with Marty McGee's ear and left eye for most of the summer. James Cunningham would spend a lot of time at the orthodontist thanks to me. I had dropped in on each of them one at a time at their homes on the last day of eighth grade.
We passed Maywood, Melrose Park, and some alien suburbs. St. Joe's would later have brief cinematic fame in the movie Hoop Dreams, but I had only heard of it as a distant outpost of the Christian Brothers. "The Christian Brothers," I was told, "are filled with guys that used to join the Foreign Legion." That sounded cool.
Later, I would be grateful to Brother Stanislaw and Father Ed for Great Tales of Action and Adventure, which settled the business of my being a writer and for blues records in art class, which settled both my art and music career for many years. That is no art career and many years of music. But before I got to know those men, I had to get past a lunatic named Brother Crispin or Crispian.
Brother C was the main speaker at freshman orientation in the gymnasium. For some reason I got there late, couldn't find it maybe. When I walked in, there were at least a thousand guys seated in the bleachers. Brother C was at a podium beneath what would later be a famous basketball hoop.
"Don't think I don't know how you spent your summer!" His voice was hoarse -- I would later discover -- from habitual yelling for no apparent reason. "In as much sin as you could find! Am I right?"
No response but mumbling.
"Gin and Seagrams 7 and Hamm's beer, eh? Marijuana cigarettes and nudie cutie magazines and the white thighs of Catholic girls, eh?"
I know it sounds as though I'm making this up, but I swear.
"I don't ask you to write an essay on 'How I Spent My Summer Vacation' because I know! Hmmm...?
"When you weren't sinning with some pimply girl, you were humping up and down, undulating on your pillows! Your athletic little buttocks sweating, mother naked, spilling your seed!" His toaster-sized fist pummeled the surface of the makeshift portable pulpit/lectern, striking the wood with resounding echoes through the gymnasium. Each gerund ending a dull mortar round echoing, ricocheting: SINNING! UNDULATING! SWEATING! SPILLING!
I was, of course, horrified. How did he know? He was right, naturally, but the man was deranged, a nut case. Was he in charge here? The principal?
"I am the disciplinarian, and your summer of sin is at an end!"
God. Yes, of course. I'm sorry. I'll never do it again. Just keep me away from this madman.
"Let me introduce Paddy. Paddy is my partner. You will all know Paddy because you will all sin. That is your nature." He was brandishing a wooden paddle like something you used to bake long, thin loaves of bread. It was stained, I could have sworn, with blood and sweat and God knows what else. It gleamed in the harsh gymnasium light, reflecting back the sun on the glistening entrails and bodily fluids of its recent victims. Likely it was just stained with ordinary wood stain and shone with ordinary varnish, but you could not have convinced me at that moment.
"You all bear the outward signs of your fleshly sins, do you know that? Is it a mark on your forehead? A mark of the beast? No. Oh, no. Maybe you think it's the constant stretching of your trousers at the crotch when you think of these things, these white thighs and nudie magazines -- and you think of them constantly, don't you? But no, it's not a sign around your neck. It's not goat horns protruding from your long Beatles hair! Do you know what it is? I'll tell you what it is, all you Elvis the Pelvises out there. They're called sideburns! Say goodbye to them. There will be no SIDEBURNS here!"
It was at that moment I knew I was doomed. Actually it was another word that occurred to me in place of "doomed," but I dare not think it because I was sure to be dead before the day was out, and if I went to Hell, I knew who would be there with Paddy.