Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Magic of Rye Playland

I smile when youngsters of family and friends mention school graduation trips to places like Europe, the Mediterranean, and yes, Australia! Surely these are wonderful places to visit, and I'm happy for the kids that they have this opportunity. No kid in the 1950's dreamed of traveling to such places. I can remember just one excursion we were permitted to take, and that came in eighth grade. Our destination was Rye Playland in Rye, New York, where we would take a boat ride on Long Island Sound. This may sound pretty tame compared to today's junkets, but we were thrilled. Most of us had never traveled outside the boundaries of New York City, so Westchester County seemed like an exotic destination that promised action and adventure.

Our Lady of Lourdes secured a bus for the trip. If you can imagine this, for a bunch of city kids, even a bus ride was something to look forward to. What made this outing special was that boys and girls would be on the same bus. Again, not a big deal today, but back in the dark days of strict separation of the sexes in Catholic school, it was as if the inmates of the friary were let loose in the convent yard. There was a palpable buzz in the air as the sound of crackling testosterone and hormones filled the air. Brothers and nuns chaperoned, and the look of grim determination on their faces told the world that they knew the mission before them would not be easy. Whiffs of Brylcreme and Old Spice were carried on the breeze, further evidence that the boys on this trip were in full makeout mode.

Another plus was that students were not required to wear school uniforms on the trip. This was probably due less to the school's willingness to relax the rules than it was to preventing the Rye police from quickly identifying any boy who might be arrested. A six-page set of dress guidelines was issued by the school, and as all eighth graders will, we pushed the envelope hard. The guys wore pegged pants, pointy-toed shoes and shirts with flared collars (a sure sign of a future in and out of prison for the wearer). The girls wore dangerously short skirts, Mom's Jean Nate perfume, and yes, lipstick...all clearly meant to inflame boys who were already lusting in their hearts and elsewhere.

The screws managed to keep the throng in check while we were on the bus, but when we arrived at Rye Beach and prepared to board the boat, the wheels began to come off. The boat was a large one and once aboard, we scattered like bugs when the lights went on. Girls broke out the forbidden high heels that were secreted in their bags, and guys whipped out their combs and defiantly swept the backs of their hair into the dreaded D.A. (duck's ass) style that was cause for 10 whacks if you wore it within five blocks of school. Couples began pairing off as if by prearranged signal. Any hidden alcove on the boat became a place to make out. The screws did their best, but they were no match for young love. By the time we got back to the dock, the girls' lipstick was gone and the guys' flare-collared shirts were blotched with Maybelline Plum Perfect.

The return trip on the bus was a subdued one. The chaperones sulked, knowing how miserably they had failed to halt nature's course. Girls wore guys' jackets, as if in open defiance of the "no fraternization" rules. Hands were surreptitiously held across the bus aisle, and even the nuns, God's guardians of feminine chastity, were too tired to rap their knuckles on unsuspecting skulls. It was a liberation of sorts for us kids. It seemed to me that the nuns and brothers treated eighth graders a little differently after the trip. Maybe they set up the whole thing as a kind of rite of passage, kind of like the prison guard who goes out for a cigarette during a conjugal visit.

It may not have been a trip to Europe, but in some way that trip to Rye Playland was special. A bus load of children left in the morning, but a bus full of young adults returned at night.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Old School

Sometimes we hear the term 'old school' applied in a pejorative way as in: "Oh ignore him, he's just old school. It bothers me a little because, as I understand it, being old school should be something to make one proud.

Old school people understand the absolute necessity of one generation sacrificing for the next. This was illustrated so well by the immigrants to this country from all races and ethnic groups who worked hard despite an often harsh reception at the hands of their neighbors. They endured prejudice and unfair treatment, worked at menial jobs (often more than one) and by so doing, earned the grudging respect of those around them. Their children received the education they never had, and as a result, their way in the world was made a little easier. So anxious were they to assimilate that they sometimes left behind the rich cultural heritage of their homeland so that nothing would stand in the way of the Americanization of their families. Happily, their children and grandchildren are rediscovering their roots and restoring the old traditions that define who they are.

Old school people know that you can't rely on the government or anyone else to take care of your family. They raise their children to live by the values they themselves learned from their parents. They teach by example such principles as respecting those around you unless they give reason to be treated otherwise; working hard to get what you want in life; extending a helping hand to those less fortunate; living as a responsible citizen by obeying our laws and fighting injustice; and by living within their means, setting something aside for that rainy day we know will come.

Old school people take full responsibility for themselves. They recognize that like no other country, America affords opportunity for those bold enough to grasp it. They don't squander their God-given talent but rather enhance it through formal education and by learning well the lessons taught in the streets. They don't expect to start at the top but are willing to pay their dues until they are worthy of greater things. Setbacks and failures are not things to be laid at the doorstep of others but challenges to be overcome. They are generous enough to lend a helping hand to younger people the same way they were helped on their way up. They do not make excuses and most of all they do not quit

Finally, old schoolers are courteous in an age when manners and civility are taking a beating. When women rightly asserted their right to equal employment and equal treatment under the law, many men abandoned chivalrous behavior toward women as the price to be paid for their equality. This is wrong. Holding a door open or surrendering your seat to a woman or older person is simply common courtesy. I think chivalry, if not done in a condescending manner, is still something most women welcome. Pulling out a chair in a restaurant or respecting elders should not be customs that are abandoned as our society moves toward full equality. Southerners are still old school. They may have lost the Civil War but they have, so much more successfully than northerners, retained the gift of civil behavior.

If these are the things that old school people are derided for, then I am proud to stand with them and suffer the slings and arrows. Old school rules.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association


Wednesday, December 7, 2011


If you grew up as I did attending a Catholic grammar school, then you are familiar with nuns. My school was Our Lady of Lourdes in Brooklyn. Children were taught by lay teachers from first to fourth grade. These were formidable women who ranged from saintly (the kind and placid Miss Baumann who exerted such an influence over the young boys in her charge that they would line up on her doorstep in the rain bearing umbrellas, and fight for the honor of escorting her the short distance to school), to malicious (the white-haired, permanently scowling Miss Wall whose special punishment for misbehaving lads was to grasp us firmly by the hair and bang our heads against the slate blackboards.)

Starting in grade five, boys were turned over to the Franciscan Brothers, and girls to the Sisters of Saint Joseph, a community of nuns founded in France in the year 1650. In 1836, a request came from the Bishop of St. Louis, Missouri for Sisters to teach deaf children. He had been advised by a friend in France to "…get the Sisters of St. Joseph because they will do anything". Truer words were never spoken. These nuns were not your modern-day religious women who walk around in pastel colors and penny loafers, no, the nuns at Our Lady of Lourdes were "old school" in the harshest sense of that term. They wore habits that might only be described as starched straight-jackets. And they were feared.

Nuns have been portrayed in movies (Lilies of the Field), plays (Nunsense) and TV shows (The Flying Nun), but I think the characterization that comes closest to the nuns I remember was in the movie Doubt. Meryl Streep plays the forbidding Sister Aloysius Beauvier, a grimly determined grade school principal bent on exposing a priest she believes to be a pedoplile. What made Streep's performance so brilliant was  that she showed us not only the iron will and discipline of  Sister Aloysius, but her repressed softer side that reflects a true love of the children in her care. Girls I knew in school who got to know the nuns saw this side of them, but to us boys, they were all like Rosa Klebb, the villianess with the knife blade in the toe of her boot in the James Bond movie, From Russia with Love.

Our school wisely separated the girls from the boys. Separate classrooms and separate schoolyards...there would be no fraternization while all those young hormones were raging. That was fine with the boys, because we knew that the Sisters of St. Joseph were the Lord's appointed guardians of feminine purity. To them, boys were testosterone-crazed lunatics whose sole mission in life was to sully innocent young girls. (They should only have seen their innocent girls in action in the balcony of the Colonial Theater.) If we wandered too close to one of the girls a watchful nun might just flick us with a left jab that Sugar Ray Leonard would have envied. The guys in my class were more afraid of them than we were of the brothers. I've told this story before, but I'll repeat it here since it fits the theme.

The worst beating I ever got was in 8th grade. Another boy (Michael Miller) and I were carrying a ceramic-like statue of the Blessed Mother balanced on a small table into the 8th grade girls' room down the hall. As we shuffled slowly into the room trying to keep the statue from falling, I craned my neck to get a look at a particular girl when I tripped over the bench seat of a desk that had been left folded down. The statue hung agonizingly in mid-air for a split second before shattering into a thousand pieces. Sister Bonaventura, the most feared nun in the school, had a look of horror on her face and was momentarily frozen like the rest of us. She recovered quickly though and proceeded too beat the hell out of me, all five feet of her. My cheeks redden to this day when I think of my humiliation.

Despite their combativeness, I believe that most nuns, and brothers for that matter, played an important part in educating young people in Catholic schools. People will always cite exceptions to try to demonize them, but most, like Sister Aloysius in the movie Doubt, were good people who took their calling seriously, even if it meant occasionally swatting a malcontent.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association