Friday, September 6, 2013

Sister Margaret (and Rossini) Save the Day

A pretty-close-to-true story (as well as I can remember it)

We had an unusual second-grade day at St. Ann's, highlighted by an unexpected visitor. An almost-dapper, brillantined man came in, speaking loudly. Sister Margaret was our boss, and she scowled in disapproval as the stranger set up shop at her desk and went into his spiel.

"Hello kids, I am Mr. Bentpenny of the Acme Flute Company. [Okay, I am making up the name]. He then produced a plastic flute-type object and started tootling it. Something at breakneck pace. Something awfully familiar. From a TV show! I remembered watching it with my dad. He would count the number of consecutive shots from Clayton Moore's six-shooter.

"Seven, eight, nine ... jumpin' Jes- er-geeze-jay-al-bleeding-mighty," he would say. I was always amazed at the number of ways Dad could circumlocute a curse.

"How many bloody bullets can he have in that gun? Mary Ellen, see who produces this show. I'm gonna call them from work tomorrow. The son of a Bridgeport has one gun. Six bullets. SIX MUTHER A GOSH BULLETS."

Mom came into the parlor from the kitchen nodding, "Yes, Dennis," and then return and set about cleaning the seemingly endless supply of dishes and flatware that we had sullied.

I digress.

Mr. Bentpenny finished with a flourish. He looked fairly pleased with himself. Sister stared at him, a faint hiss seemingly emanating from her eyes, mere slits under the massive white wings that the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent DePaul wore. I could almost read her mind: "I've got Palmer script to teach, mister. Get outta my room, moneychanger!"

"Now, for the cost of only one dollar..." The class gasped in concert. A dollar? We could go to the movies four times for that; buy 25 packs of baseball cards at Nick's ("How many Yankees ya got?). 

The interloper backed off. "Of course," he said, "a portion of this goes to your school."

This did little to mollify Sister, who was brandishing her yardstick, as lethal as Nike-site missile—and twice as accurate.

The man continued. "AND, I will give away a free flute to any student who can name the song I just played."

A massive inhale from the sixty students (yes, 60). Another withering glare from Sister, who was tapping her graduated machete against her voluminous skirts.

Dark Mark Longeuil jumped right up, "THE LONE RANGER!" he boomed. Sister looked at Mr. Bentpenny, who beamed beneficently, "No, young man, that is incorrect."

A gray groan filled the room. Inky Rondino whispered, "It is too. I seent it last night. Da Long Ranger shot his gun umpteen times! My Dad said so." Evidently my father was not the only man in Black Rock who counted broadcast ordnance.

Sister said, "Well, does anybody else have a different answer?" Arms became flaccid; hands drifted lazily to desks. Mr. Bentpenny smiled even wider.

Being the most height-disadvantaged in the room, I managed to lift my palm above the desk. Sister, who had remarkable rearward vision, wheeled, then daggered me with a baleful scowl. It said, "Mr. Holleran, you'd better get this right. I want to see this malefactor shamed. Woe betide you if you fail."

I don't why, but I gave her a small nod. I was stunned when she moved her head ever so slightly. She announced, "Sir, Mr. Timothy has a different answer. Stand up, please."

Of course, the desk top came up to the "SAS" on my school tie as I stood, so I edged out into the aisle, smelling the fetid aroma of Maggot McBride, who kept a full larder of desiccated treats in his desk."

Mr. Bentpenny grinned. "Okay, kid. What is it?"

I tried not to yammer, to bring my squeaky soprano down to an alto.


I never knew it was anatomically possible for a standing adult's chin to hit the floor, but this almost occurred. I could hear a few tiny whoa's back by the cloakroom.

He Ralph Kramdened a couple of homina homina's and dribbled other mumblings.

Sister tapped her yardstick against her free hand. Staccato slaps. Unhappy sounds. "That is correct, is not, MR. BENTPENNY?"

I think the man quivered. He said, "Well uh, Sister, I don't see how the young man could--"

Still standing, I added, "By Gioachino Rossini!" Feeling the Arctic stare from Sister, I sat while the sitting was good.

"Okay, kid," yammered the salesman. He picked up the pennywhistle he had been playing and proferred it.


The sound richocheted like a report from a bullwhip. The yardstick found home. It nicked the flute only, sending it flying. Mr. Bentpenny recoiled in horror, clutching his unscathed hand.

Sister's voice deepened into a feral growl. We all knew she meant business. "Not THAT one, sir. You have already soiled it. He gets a new one--IN A BOX, PLEASE!"

The man fumbled in his case. After an impatient few seconds, Sister smote the desk. Was that an M-16 yardstick?  She bellowed: "NOW MEANS NOW, MISTER!"

The stranger cowered, his hair flailing wildly, spiking his shoddy combover.

He withdrew a box. Sister motioned to me with her yardstick, which I thought was now smoking, to advance and accept. I averted my eyes, save for a furtive glance at my seating, disheveled donor. I remembered to thank him to avoid Sister's Richter-quality wrath.

"Now," said Sister, shaking her head from side to side, "does anyone want to buy one of these so-called instruments?" None dared raise a hand, which she would have probably detached at the wrist.

"Very well, then. Mister, you will now leave the classroom."

Mr. Bentpenny wordlessly stumbled out of the door. Sister slammed it behind him, which may have struck his gluteal area. None dared laugh. In fact, we all expected a tongue-lashing, for no particular reason.

Sister turned and miraculously shifted gears. In a calm voice, she said, "Now, the Palmer capital 'F' is one of the most difficult letters to form ..."

As we adjourned for lunch, Sister pointed a finger at me, then at the floor in front of her desk. I awaited my abasement. I could sense the gang crowding at the door. But they could escape Sisters world-class radar (was it in the wings?). With one, brief, very dark look, she dispersed my classmates.

Sister said, "Well, Mr. Timothy, we seem to have some knowledge of classical music, don't we?"

"I dunno, 'ster. Once when we were watching that show, my Dad told me about the song."

"Your Dad. I see. Hmmmm." A hmmmm from Sister meant almost anything could ensue, little of it good. Plus, I must add that all the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent DePaul were in a cabal with my father. He would give them rides, fix stuff around the convent. They adored him.

She said, "Well, you seemed to have gotten lucky to day with that ... that ... that man." Then the porcelain palm hit the desk with yet another crack. "BUT NOBODY LIKES A KNOW-IT-ALL."

"No, 'ster."

"Now go to lunch."

Then she winked at me and almost smiled. The corners of her mouth, I imagined, turned upward by a nanometer. Were nuns allowed to wink?

On the playground, I proudly displayed my newfound wealth. I even tried to play it, without much success. The kicker was that Lucille LaRosa came over and asked me if she could see the flute. It is impossible to describe what it felt like to actually have her look at me ... and then TALK to me. Lucille was undoubtedly the prettiest girl in our class, which meant—for me—the entire universe.

I didn't bother to tell anyone that Sister winked (and perhaps smiled) at me. No one would have bought it.

When my father arrived home from work, I couldn't wait to show him my prize.

"How much was THAT?" he said.

"No, Dad. I got it, for free."


I told him the story.

"Hmmmm," he said, almost nun-worthy. "And you told the man about Rossini, too?"


"Well, you better practice the gosh-danged-flippin' thing." This was about as close to an affirmation as I would get from him.


I didn't really take to the pennywhistle. In fifth grade, I started on the drums. I eventually lost the flute, or my brother broke it, I forget which.

Sister Margaret left St. Ann's after that year. Inky Rondino died a hero in Viet Nam. Dark Mark Longeuil beat me up in sixth grade, and then we became best of friends. Maggot McBride made a career as a sanitation professional. Lucille LaRosa is still beautiful.

My father saw me play exactly once before God took him from us. After the show, he came over to me, looking stern, his thumb and pointer perhaps a half-inch apart. "When Buddy Rich does that press roll, his sticks are only THAT FAR off the drum."

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