Sunday, May 18, 2014

For Those Who Serve

Foreword: If you are a pagan, agnostic, wiccan, atheist or any other tribe, relax. This piece does not exist to shove papism down yer throats. It's just effluent from my memory banks. Read on—laughs, etc. may ensue.

In fourth grade, an announcement came for The Office seeking to recruit altar boys. Females need not apply. Sister George Raft scanned the males, her eyes twin weapons of Mass instruction. Without a word, she was saying, "If any boy doesn't sign up for this, he will suffer the flames of Gehenna and—worse yet—my wrath until June."

So, I went along. A couple of kids had excuses, such as "terminally ill." Their parents had to write multiple documents, signed and notarized, to get their sons out of this hazardous duty.

First we had to memorize reams of Latin. Father Hefferduster said, "There are two grades for your Latin, 100% or zero." Hmmmm, fair enough.

Most of the responses were short: "Ad Deum qui laetificat, juventutem meum." ("[I will go] To [the altar of] God, the joy of my youth.") And no, I didn't have to look this up. Still know the official phone number, too: Et cum spiri 2-2-0. Yes, this is a totally inside joke.

The Confiteor (I confess...) was a bitc-, bast-, er, toughie. We had to race through this, kneeling down, beating our chests when we said, "Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa" ("Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault"). Heck we already knew back then that everything was our fault.

This easily could have been us.Your narrator, far left.
Our unis were black or red cassocks, depending whether a typical or Big Cheese Mass, with an overgarment of white called a surplice. These had to be spotless and ironed to Kevlar consistency. My grandmother had a merit badge in this.

We'd suit up in an anteroom off the sacristy, where the priests robed. Then someone had to light the candles. I avoided this like the plague, due to my height disadvantage. Although we had a long pole with a wick at the end, I still couldn't even reach the tops of the highest ones, much less see them. So, I'd be out there, before Mass, carrying out a fishing expedition with a flaming torch. Not wise. Wilt would have a had a problem with this task.
You try to light these suckers.
Then there came the great divider. Each server had a distinct job: he Book or the Bells. Everyone wanted the Bells. They were cool. Embedded into the riser on one of the steps leading to the altar was a brass plate with five buttons, each connected to a glorified, one-pitch doorbell. The Bell kid had to press the right buttons at the right time. Since the whole shebang was carried out in Latin, with the priest NOT facing the congregation, the Bells were aural cues to the crowd. Stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight.

Plus the Book.
Of course, the bigger servers claimed the bells, so Lilliputians like myself were forced to do the grunt work. The Book was the priest's road map, in case he forgot his lines. Roughly the size of the OED, it lay on an ornate metal stand. The ensemble weighed approximately 384 pounds. The Book kid had to go up the steps to father's left, pick up the duo from the top of altar (which, in my case, was larynx-high), pull a one-eighty, come down the steps, then genuflect (the one-knee thingy), climb the four steps again and place it on the right.

On my first attempt. I would have done better with Herc at the Augean Stables. I teetered like a Wallenda the whole way. When I finally got back up the right side, Issac Newton kicked in, and I began to list ... backwards. I was lucky that Father Scanlon, the Good Guy, was celebrating. He steadied my shoulder and helped me get the Book back it belonged. Except it landed on the blousy sleeve of my surplice. As I returned to position, I heard (and felt) the ominous rrrrrip! Father quickly raised the corner of the stand to free me. And yes, giggles and finger-pointing were rife.

I raced home from church with my damaged goods. My gram wiped my tears, got out her needle and thread and worked her own miracle.

In gradual fashion, I perfected the clean-and-jerk of this maneuver. By that time, however, I had paid enough dues to sentence younger kids to the Book.

As one might expect, hijinx abounded. Except extreme care had to be taken. If the nuns had radar, priests had sat-cams. Punishments were often severe. Even for the smallest infraction.

The most popular was the make-me-laugh scenario. Slats Duffy would stick out his tongue, whose length rivaled that of a tube-lipped nectar bat. Noises imitating flatulence were also top-of-the-list. The slightest titter would usually evoke stern glances from father.

Once, a First Communion kid left a fecal remnant (from the Caddyshack lexicon) right by the altar railing. Tell a dozen grammar-school boys not to laugh at that.

Yes, I can tell you altar wine was not a perky Gamay Noir, but a molasses-y sherry of some sort.

One time, Hubby Howard forgot that he had worn his snow boots to serve. They were the industrial strength, impossible-to-unbuckle kind. As he clanked onto the altar, Father Bundock—our nemesis—throttled Hubby by the ear and sat him on the bench, where newer boys would observe the goings-on. Father then grabbed a neophyte and pulled him into the game. I did the kid a favor and quickly switched spots with him so he'd have the Bells, leaving a blubbering Hubby on the sidelines.

Bundock was no one's friend. He might be the most ill-humored, self-absorbed grownup I've ever known, much less cleric. He had his own way of altar-boy rubrics, which were apart from what we had been taught. He once boxed my ears, on the altar, for supposedly facing the wrong way. He even swatted Iodine Connolly while he was serving at his own grandfather's funeral. More on this later.

Some of the fancy Masses were cool. There were even honoraria involved. One of the best such opps were with best men. We'd approach them—usually half in the bag—looking like Dickensian waifs after the ceremony. Funerals could also carry some hefty pay days.

Sometimes we'd trot out the censer, which was for mega-Masses. An impossible tangle of chains and brass, this device was jangled about by priests after they dosed it with incense. We had to prep it backstage by toasting a special briquet over a candle and then dropping it in the bottom compartment of the censer. We also carried a small boat with a spoon for the powdered incense. It smelled almost like my dorm room about a decade later.

A fringe benefit was that all altar boys learned to play with matches. Bet the clergy never thought about this.

A finely-honed paten is an excellent weapon.
Another duty was to hold a plate called a paten under the chins of communicants as they received, to prevent any mishap with the Host. If it was a kid we knew and they had their hands folded too close to their mouth, we'd give 'em a good rap with the side of the gizmo. And that hurt. I don't want to go into too much detail here because if you had to look at old people sticking out their rheumy tongues at 7:15 am ... well, it's not a happy sight.

However, serving was a sacred duty—an honor. I always felt better after Mass, even if my ears were sore. I admired most of the men who celebrated the Eucharist. Once, I served a priest's first Mass. This was truly a Big Deal. I saw Father Conlisk bend over the Host at the consecration, the "money" part of the Mass. I will never forget the look of thanks, adoration and supplication he wore as he said "Hoc est corpus meum" for the first time.

And sometimes, justice prevailed. Once, about a half-dozen of us were suiting up for an K2-high Mass with guest star: THE BISHOP! This was like Mantle turning out for a Little League game. Several priests-to-be came and laid out the Big Guy's ornate vestments in the sacristy. Father Bundock, of course, saw fit to come hector us about leaving the bishop's kit alone.

This was all Iodine Connolly had to hear. As soon as he could, he ducked into the sacristy and donned the chasuble (the fancy outer garment) and miter (peaked hat) and grabbed the crozier (staff). He went out the door of the sacristy and stood on a stoop about ten feet off the ground. As luck would have it, a group of little ones was passing by on the side walk.

With a lit Viceroy clamped in his yap, Iodine banged the crozier on the cement and said, "Bow down, children. I AM YOUR LEADER!" Which the kids did.

Of course, Iodine got snagged. But so did Bundock. Called on the carpet by The Boss. Cool.

Nowadays, these kids are called altar servers, since the gig is gender-neutral. No Latin to learn, no paten to rap kids' knuckles. Measly, tinkly hand bells. The priest carries the Book, a featherweight Cliff's Notes version. I've seen kids serve in flip-flops. Mass in English. Wireless mikes amp up off-key vocals without Swiftian pitch-controllers. This last invention has led to Father Filibuster giving twenty-minute diatribes on politics, Martha Stewart and the eighth sacrament, the annual raffle.

Truly, sic transit gloria mundi.


  1. Well done Ace! Brought back those parochial pains and pleasures. St.Michael's Bpt. & St.Anthony's Ffld.
    Regina Coeli Albuquerque (expelled)
    Long story. I'll put it on my blog...when I get one. And

  2. .....I look forward to reading more. Tales from Black Rock and elsewhere.