Now, before some of you blow a gasket, let me just say that obviously the title is tongue-in-cheek. Although I have noticed there does seem to be a correlation between the number of years a boy spends in Catholic School and just how gay he appears. I myself only went through sixth grade, while those fellas who went all the way through High School really seem to be your over the top gays. The ones my friend Tom says, “Even Helen Keller would be able to tell they’re gay”. (Of course he usually says this in reference to me, but I, being fully confident in my masculinity know he’s only joking….right?)
Anyway, back in the 1960’s and 70’s when I was growing up, sexuality was not something that was discussed in polite society. To say nothing of homosexuality, it was literally the love that dared not speak its name.
This was before Stonewall when entrapment and police harassment were just par for the course if you were gay. The Psychological Association had not yet taken homosexuality off their list of mental illnesses. Consequently, most people believe we were pedophiles or had some other criminal element in our makeup. I was light years away from accepting my own sexuality. I knew I was different from other boys and had already discovered the beauty of the male physique, but what that all meant I had no idea.
Because my family was Roman Catholic, I attended Parochial schools where the nuns and priests tried their best to indoctrinate me into the Catholic religion. Fortunately it didn’t take. I remember having to go to the Confession on Friday afternoons so that I would be able to attend Mass on Sunday. Even back then it never made sense to me why we had to confess our sins to a man when God was available 24/7.
In fact, the entire Catholic system seems to be built upon guilt and shame. Of course, being the eldest child I was already a perfectionist and a big-time people pleaser. So I took it like a pig takes to mud. I felt in order to be loved and accepted, I had to be the very model of a perfect little gentlemen.
Somewhere along the way, I had come to believe that my worth was based upon my performance. I struggle with this even today. It was how I was raised. If I got good grades at school and if I kept my room clean and did as I was told and didn’t sass back, then I was acceptable and then I was loved. If may be a good way to train your dog but a terrible way to raise a child.
But that’s how things were back then. It was a different era. As you can probably imagine, adults thought I was wonderful; and why not? I did everything they asked without complaint. In fact, I went above and beyond what was expected. I lived to please the adults in my life. At school I naturally became “Teacher’s Pet”. And naturally this did not do much for my social standing with the other kids. No, it was the kiss of death which I couldn’t understand because I was just doing what I was supposed to do. I spent many sleepless nights wondering why my classmates didn’t like me and why I didn’t have more friends. But like they say, hindsight is 20/20. If I’d only know then what I know now.
To conform myself, I threw myself into religion. I’d heard that many of the saints had also been misunderstood. So I figured I’d be up for sainthood by at least age twelve or thirteen. I set-up an altar in my room complete with candles and the biggest statue of the Virgin Mary you’d ever seen. (See, even back then I knew that bigger was better!)
I became the self-appointed peacemaker of the neighborhood. If there was a fight or argument going on, I immediately shipped-out my ever present rosary beads looked heavenward and prayed to God for their poor heathen souls.
It was about this time I made a decision regarding my life’s’ calling. Like every good Catholic boy, I had decided to become a priest and what better way to get an up close and personal look than to become an altar boy. It’s sort of like being a priest mini-me.
So at the age of ten, that’s just what I did. I became one of the few; one of the proud; a St. Pius X altar boy. It was great! I got to assist the priest in the Mass every Sunday. I carried the Bible to the pulpit, I poured the wine into the chalice to be blessed, and I even got to ring the bells every time the priest raised the Eucharist heavenward. But the best thing about being an altar boy was, #1, I got to wear one of those nifty white dresses the pries wore and #2, I got to be up on the altar in front of everyone; and I loved it!
I can still remember looking out into the congregation for the first time and seeing all those eyes looking back at me. It’s funny, but I wasn’t nervous at all. I felt that this was where I was supposed to be, onstage in front of an audience. Forget that back in the classroom I was just a shy, chubby, sissy-boy. Here on the altar, under the lights, I felt special. I felt that what I was doing was very important and I took my role very seriously – that’s why I felt so bad the morning of the incident.
It was just like any other Sunday morning. I was getting dressed when Father Fogharty came in to speak with me. He told me that it was my turn to light the candles on the altar before Mass started. I said “ok”, even though I’d never done it before. How hard could it be? I’d watched my mother light the candles on my birthday cake for years now. The candles were contained in two five-foot candelabras that flanked both sides of the altar. To light the candles, I had a long four foot staff make of brass that had a wick on the end of it. Once it was lit, I held it aloft and proceeded to fulfill my mission. It was no small task, but I was determined.
All at once, I found myself at the back of the church. It was only about half full as people continued to enter in. I could feel every eye upon me as I slowly made my way up the aisle. With my head held erect and my shoulders back, I felt like a Sergeant at Arms getting ready to go into battle. I kept repeating to myself “step right, step left, step together”, “step right, step left, step together”.
Actually, if the truth were told, my real inspiration came from “The Sound of Music” where Maria gets married in the grand cathedral and she’s wearing a beautiful, full length wedding dress.
“How do you solve a problem like Maria”? “How do you catch a cloud and pin it down”? Eat your heart out Julie Andrews because today I’m the star! I’m the one walking down the aisle! Everybody is looking at me! “Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up”! And just as the Good Book says, “Pride goeth before a fall”.
The trouble came from the fact that I was not terribly tall; so I found it much harder to light hose blasted candles than I’d anticipated. It was while I was trying to light one particularly stubborn candle that the unthinkable happened. A piece of the lighted wick fell to the floor and before I knew it, had set the carpet on fire.
I stared in disbelief not knowing what to do. It was one of those moments where everything goes into slow motion. My heart seemed to have stopped while my mind raced ahead searching for any possible course of action.
- I could pretend I hadn’t noticed and just walk off the platform and hope one of the adults takes care of it, or…
- I could discreetly stand over the fire and try to put it out with my foot. There is a distinct possibility, however that my freshly starched robe would ignite into a burst of flames which would be very showy but I don’t think I’m ready for martyrdom just yet.
At that moment, I glanced out into the congregation. I saw them staring back at me, anxiously waiting to see what I was going to do next. And that’s when it came to me. You see, I have never been shy about performing in front of people. I guess it’s the natural “ham in me”. So I hiked up my skirts and proceeded to do the Mexican hat dance all over that floor! “ La cucaracha, La cucaracha, la-la-la-la-la-la-la, La cucaracha, la cucaracha, la-la-la-la-la-la-la”. The fire never stood a chance!
I heard a few chuckles coming from the congregation which only made me increase my vigor. You should have seen me; I was dancing like nobody’s business! When all of a sudden, I spied Father Fogharty standing right behind me. He must have crept up in the middle of my performance.
I immediately stopped dead in my tracks. I offered an apology and rather lame explanation. Father Fogharty never said a word but his expression said it all. He was NOT amused. Geez – some people have just no appreciation for the arts!
As it turned out, that was my last performance as an altar boy. Father Fogharty made me turn in my white robe for good. Oh well, as the perennial Southern Belle Scarlett O’Hara once said, “Fiddle dee dee”. Why should I worry about that now? After all, Tomorrow is another day. “Truer words have never been spoken”. Besides, there was always my mothers’ wedding dress at home!