It’s a Catholic Thing
ByMarilyn (Niemann) Kinsella
My Eighth Grade Catholic School Reunion
It was our 50th Eighth Grade Reunion. Yes, I said Eighth Grade Reunion. I think… "It’s a Catholic Thing." You see, our class at St. Albert the Great in "old" Fairview was a lot closer to our grade school classmates than to our high school friends. For one thing, we were all together – as one class – from first grade to eighth. Our class blossomed from a mere twenty-five students to well over fifty by our 1961 graduation. Another reason we stayed so close – our class was splintered after graduation. We went to ten different high schools in the surrounding area. And so, we have eighth grade reunions.
Our 50th reunion was held at the home of the only love birds from our class – Karen and Ron. As you entered their foyer there was a buffet table that displayed all the memorabilia that many had stored away in their attic spaces for the past fifty years. There were class pictures, report cards, scouting awards, rosaries, St. Joseph Missals, and a smattering of holy cards. Yes…it’s a Catholic thing.
One picture in particular caught my eye. It was a black and white photo of three boys from our class dressed in their Boy Scouts uniforms. There stood Roland, Stanley, and Eugene – all named after Catholic saints. Yes, it is yet another… Catholic thing. I smiled as I looked at each boy –. Roland looking like he just stepped right out of the pages of "Boy’s Life" - the official Boy Scout Magazine. Roland was a perfectionist. His uniform was always immaculate and dutifully pressed. His hair was clipped into the modern buzz style of the day. Stanley, whose uniform was stretched across his ample belly, his scarf was askew, and his shirt tails half in/half out. And then, Eugene with his dark hair, dark eyes, and shy smile. As I looked at that photo, more memories of eighth grade came flooding in.
Eight Grade Bums
When we were in eighth grade, we had Sister Mary Anthony (or "Tony the Tiger" as the class called her…behind her back).
She placed the four of us in the back far left of the room – about as far away from her desk as she could get us. All the smart, popular, athletic, good-looking, goody-two-shoes were front and center.
I guess you could say that we were "the misfits." Good kids – just odd.
Eugene, who sat to my left always had a perpetual, Mona Lisa smile.
If Tony the Ti…er, Sister, asked him a question, he just smiled. The thing about Eugene was he was Monsignor Schindler’s Number One Altar Boy. He always got out of class to serve daily mass and especially for the long Requiem Masses. He lived only a few houses away from the church. So all summer long, if Monsignor needed him – Eugene was on call!
Even as a young child Eugene had a calling
Roland sat to my left – three of four seats ahead of me. Now, Roland was smart – knowledgeable. He just knew stuff! If Sister made some error (albeit quite rare), Roland, actually, I kid you not… he actually corrected her! I think that was the reason Roland sat back in the back-back! You see, Roland was light years ahead of us – especially in science.
At the end of our Science Book chapters there were questions and often an experiment. This was Roland’s stage. He put up a folding table for his display and then gave a talk…very impressive, even if I didn’t understand half of what he was saying. One day, during science class Roland led the class outside where he set up a rocket. This was early 1960s, during the very earliest stage of the Space Program, and Roland was not going to be left behind. He dutifully counted down….3, 2, 1…blastoff! And it did – a full 20 feet into the air! From then on, Roland was called "Rocky!"
Stanley – or Stanley the Steamer as the boys un-affectionately called him, sat in his seat like a lump in his disheveled clothes, uncombed hair, and woofy odor…aka the name – Stanley the Steamer.
Sister never called on Stanley. He was sort of a pariah…except on field days – on field days Stan was the Stan the Man! He was always chosen first. As anchor, he always won the tug-of-war. Yes, Stanley was as strong as an ox. Something else you should know… he was always around to give a helping hand.
As for me…well, I suffered from a severe case of inferiority. I never wanted Sister to call on me. I was perfectly happy to sit in the back and daydream… Sometimes, when I was in the woods, ready to annihilate the enemy as they attacked my hideout…sister called on me. There was never any way out of this so…I became the class clown stumbling out of my desk, overturning books, letting papers fly. I did anything for a laugh. The kids laughed…but not Sister Mary Anthony – oh no, not Sister Mary Anthony!
Our nun was not only the eighth grade teacher, she was also the principal of the school. She often had to leave our class of 54 students to walk across the hall to take a phone call or take care of an "issue." Before she left room, she always gave us a mimeographed paper with some nonsense work to do. She stopped at the door and gave us "the look". The one that brought Attila the Hun to his knees. "I don’t want to hear one word!" And, she swept out of the room.
After taking the mimeographed paper and sniffing the blue right off the page, the ripple began – a soft tsunami of whispers and giggles. It was during this time that I discovered my most enduring "stupid human trick." It was always a surefire way to ignite a burst of laughter.
You see, our desks in eighth grade were "cool." We could lift the top of the desks up, and we could hide our heads in the inner well. This one day, Tony…er Sister left the room, I stuck my head inside and made my baby cry. The class erupted into laughter. I told you - I’d do anything for a laugh. Soon all 54 of us were into a raucous laugh. The noise, the baby cry and the laughter wafted across the hall and into, yes, the ears of Tony the Tiger. The second we heard the familiar "click" of the door, every student immediately became stone-cold silent. They had their #2 Ticonderoga pencil in hand writing furiously on their crumbled papers.
Sister’s steel gray eyes scanned across the room like laser beams of light. She walked slowly down our aisle, her long Precious Blood black veil billowing behind her. She stopped at our desks and looked at each of us misfits like we were devil’s spawn. She hissed, "Did anyone hear a baby cry?" A couple of snorts escaped from the goody-two-shoes, as we misfits shrugged our shoulders with a look of pure innocence. And, so it went throughout our 8th grade – "some days you get the bear and some days the bear gets you."
Back at the 50th reunion I stood there in the foyer still looking fondly at the pictures of my three friends, I wondered if I would see them tonight. I began meandering from room to room at the reunion. I listened in on conversations hoping to find the seeds of a new story, Finally, I came to a small sitting room with a couch and a few chairs. There sat three old men – gray, thinning hair (or no hair at all). Deep lines etched into their well-worn faces. Who were these old people…somebody’s fathers?
I said my howdy-dos and sat down to listen. And, as soon as I heard their voices and their distinctive laughs, I cried out, "It’s you!"
And it was – Eugene, Stanley and Roland! "Look what someone brought."
And, I showed them the picture.
Roland said, "Why that was the first day at Boy Scout Camp!"
And, then the stories flowed on and on. They all three laughed as each kept remembering small vignettes from the Boy Scout Summer Camp. I listened intently, mentally recording every little story. I wondered if they were all true – or glazed with a golden patina of time. Perhaps, a little of both. Their voices intertwined as the storytelling began:
"I was scared to death. We didn’t know anybody else at camp. We were like the three Mouseketeers – without our swords."
"Yea, 100’s of campers, most of them bigger than the three of us put together."
"Do you remember when they gathered us all together and assigned us to units? The Scout Master told us that during the week we could earn points and whichever unit earned the most points could win the coveted "Father Marquette Explorer’s Award." And, the cabin with the most points…each scout won "The Golden Eagle Award."
"Yea, I remember that, and the Scout Master told us that no one knew when or where points were given – It was a BIG secret. Then, he said ‘Just keep in mind, boys, to follow the Boy Scout slogan ‘Do a good turn daily’."
"Well we tried, we really did, but when the scouts are bigger and more experienced…and, more intimidating…we thought we didn’t have a snow cone’s chance in a bonfire of winning."
"Yea, you guys know how particular I am…and I really tried to keep our cabins in ship-shape. But, after inspection, we were marked down! Finally, I figured it out. Some of the boys from Camp Joliet snuck in and unloaded a bucket of turtles from the lake. What a mess! Of course, we couldn’t tell anyone – that would be snitchin’!"
"The day I dreaded was field day. I just knew that we weren’t going to make any points that day. We came in last at every event – except one – chopping the log in the fewest swings. Stan, you surprised everyone when you took hold of that ax and "wham!" One felled swoop and that log exploded like a cannon!"
"No one was more surprised than me. But, you know, we tried for the rest of field day – nada! It was hard to have to go up to the winning teams, smile, and then give the Boy Scout handshake – left had to left hand…especially when they laughed at us! It was the hardest thing I had to do."
"Hard? What about the last day, when they plopped us down in different parts of the forest, gave us some supplies, and told us to make our way back to camp! Now, that was hard…and scary.
"By the way, did you know that those fishermen, hunters, and hikers we saw, were actually ex-campers from long ago? They came back disguised to keep an eye on us. Did you know that?"
"Well, yeah, I did. I recognized one of those hunters – my dad! I never let anyone know…not even my dad."
"That was the best and worst day of my life! Stan, if it hadn’t been for you moving those logs and brush out of our way, we would have had to take a much longer path to get back."
"Thanks, but I really have to thank you, Rocky. You took the motto "Be Prepared" to heart – and you were PRE-pared…matches, Boy Scout knife, and compass. I’ll never forget…when I dropped you compass over the cliff – you were still able to find our way back."
"Science, my good man…science!"
"Then, just when we thought we had a chance to get back first, we saw that kid from another unit on the side of the road. He broke his leg and his unit just left him there!
"Yup, it was Rocky to the Rescue! He got some branches and vines and made a splint for his leg. Stan carried him back to camp. But instead of first, we came in dead last!"
"That last night around the campfire the Scout Master brought in a huge board with all the ways the scouts could have made points and the unit names were across the top. As he announced the points earned, he put them under the unit’s name."
"Just as we thought, Camp Joliet got a jillion points for field day. But, ole Stan here, got a ba-billion points for splitting that log. The Scout Master said that no one had ever in the history of the camp – ever split that log with one swing. We scored big time on that one."
"Yea, but we took a beating on canoeing, swimming, archery…oh, the list goes on… "And the winner of The Father Marquette award is Camp Joliet!" "Oh yay."
"But then, the biggest surprise of all. It seems that somebody noticed that Stanley had signed up for mess duty…and showed up every day. And, a father reported on Roland’s willingness to help the scout who broke his leg by using First Aid skills from our scouting book and then reported how we carried him back and then came in last. Then, the camp priest told everyone that Eugene showed up every day for the 5 am mass to help serve."
"I couldn’t believe what happened next. Our cabin was awarded the Golden Eagle Award!
After I heard that I stood up and applauded. "Wait," I said. "I saw three golden eagle awards on the memory table. Was that you?"
We all laughed at the stories, but that was then…what about now? The story continues:
Stanley became a security guard at a local factory, but in his spare time he donated his skills at his old parish, St. Albert the Great. There were always odd jobs to be done. For his dedication and hard work, he became a Fourth Degree Knight in the Knights of Columbus in Belleville, IL.
Roland, or Rocky, as he still likes to be called, enlisted in the Air Force and became deeply involved in the US Space Program as the NASA Spokesman. You probably heard his voice on TV – 10, 9, 8, 7…that was our Rocky!https://www.csmonitor.com/1981/0114/011437.html
Eugene or Very Reverend Gene Wojcik is the beloved pastor at St. Mary’s Church in Chester, IL. He became quite a Latin scholar over his years of study at the seminary and beyond.http://www.dailyregister.com/lifestyle/20171212/chesters-wojcik-preparing-to-celebrate-44th-year-in-priesthood
And me? Well, I became a keeper of memories and a teller of tales – some true and some colored with the golden patina of time.