We sat together with our class, row after row of pews filled with sleepy but prayerful children listening for the next click of the nun's "froggie" that told you when to stand, kneel or sit. For some reason I remember the nuns (the Sisters of St. Joseph) always pulled church duty on Sundays, even though we were taught by lay teachers up to the fourth grade and Franciscan Brothers (nuns for the girls) from the fifth grade on. The nuns were not like the nuns of today who walk around in Land's End slacks and stylish blouses, these ladies were in full uniform. All black habits from head to toe, with a heavily starched headdress that framed their faces. They must have been extremely uncomfortable, and this discomfort was taken out on any kid who dared misbehave.
We were like ten year old Rockettes, moving in unison to the nun's froggie clicker. Standing, kneeling, sitting...the United States Marine Corps drill team had nothing on us. Filing out of the pews to march up to the altar to receive Communion, at the time taken on the tongue while kneeling at the altar, and not in the hand while standing, like we do today. If you ever reached out to take the host in your hand, a flying squad of nuns would tackle you like the "fearsome foursome" from the old L.A. Rams. We were told that you couldn't even touch the host with your tongue while it was in your mouth! If the dry wafer stuck to the roof of your mouth, it had to stay there until it dissolved. Even if it lodged in your airway, a martyr's death was preferable to putting your tongue on the host.
The good Sisters patrolled those aisles like tireless sentries looking for any excuse to give you a knuckle to the head. They were pros...it hurt like hell but the marks never showed. Putting your hands in your pocket, sleeping, talking, slouching, trading baseball cards, no infraction was ever missed by their predator's eyes. Occasionally someone would break out in a fit of smothered laughter if the kid sitting next to them did something clever like wipe a bogger off on their pants. Asking a couple of hundred kids to sit still for an hour was a lot, but the nuns managed us like Texas wranglers manage a herd, using the whip freely.
We had a few kids in our class who took it upon themselves to test the good Sisters resolve to keep order in church. One capital offense was chewing gum, the penalty for which, depending on which nun was in the machine gun tower that day, ranged from a "punish lesson" like writing: "I will not chew gum in church" 100 times, or a more drastic punishment like having the gum stuck in your hair until you got home. Most parents today would storm the school with their lawyer in tow if this happened to any of their precious babies. When we got home and told our mothers what happened, they calmly got a pair of scissors, cut the gum along with a handful of hair out of your head, and then beat the crap out of you for embarrassing them in front of the nuns.
One boy, let's call him Robert K., would not be tamed. He took his lumps from whatever nun was on pew patrol, and kept coming back for more. One day in the classroom he turned around to show us that he drank from his bottle of aquamarine ink (we used fountain pens in those pre-Bic days) and his lips and teeth were stained a lovely Caribbean blue. The effect this produced on the class, to his simple mind, was worth the beating he took. Back to church...Robert's crowning stunt came one morning during a quiet Sunday Mass, and involved one of those flat rubber noise makers with the wooden mouthpiece that produced rude, razzing sounds something like...well, you know.
On duty that day was a nun we'll call Sister B., five feet of dynamite who had a right cross better than Rocky Graziano's. The first time "the noise" was heard, everybody held their breath. This couldn't be happening in church! Sister B. cocked her head to one side like a drowsy lion who picks up the faint scent of a wildebeest off in the distance. The flatulent noise came again, this time louder. Sister B. was homing in. The third and final time the noise sounded, she had him. Robert's hunched shoulders were shaking as he tried to stifle his laughter, but the game was up. Sister had him by the hair of his sideburns, a technique so painful that you'll follow whoever is pulling you that way to the gates of hell! We never saw him again. Some say he was expelled from school, but others still believe Sister B. dragged him out into the churchyard and devoured him whole.
I'm a creature of habit; I like my routines. I often wonder if this craving for predictability and order arose while spending those Sunday mornings under the watchful eyes of the Sisters of Saint Joseph, who let you know in no uncertain terms when you had stepped over the line.
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