The Catholic Church vs - MY MOM


OR

CATHOLIC CHURCH: 0 – MY MOM: 47 alias Cool Granny ---

I don’t know about other schools, but in my Catholic universe if you were a pain in the ass. . .Your ass received pain.

My dad died in a horrible car accident several weeks before my fourth birthday. Death and dying were obviously beyond my grasp, though a few memories remain vivid. My brother and I questioned for awhile.

“Will daddy be home tonight?” My mom started to cry. Neither Jerry nor I was stupid. When your mother started to cry; quickly you stopped asking the “Will daddy be home tonight?” question.

Again and again my mother would remind my brother and me that we were now the men of the family. “You boys represent the Spolter name. What you do or do not do reflects on me. What you do or do not do reflects on your Father.”

One night, five years later, about three weeks after I’d almost cut off my brother’s thumb with a butcher knife, (We’d seen a movie called the Black Knight – with jousting, chivalry, and sword fights. If you’re 9 and 7 year old boys, it’s hard to get your hands on real swashbuckling sabers, so you reach into the dishwasher and pull out butcher knives.) my mom used the de-stitching of Jerry’s thumb to reinforce family loyalty. She had us kneel on the kitchen floor (the scene of Jerry’s almost dismemberment) and with much pomp and circumstance, and a white spatula, dubbed us Sir’s Jerry and Tucker Spolter official Knights of Queen Annette’s Square Table.

As we grew, my mom often reminded us of our responsibility to the Spolter name. More than once, someone or something set her Irish blood a-boil. She’d don boxing gloves and go to war for her boys and the Spolter name. The following is one of those occasions.

I don’t remember being a bad kid. A bit of mischief and mayhem, sure – though nothing mean-spirited, cruel or evil. Up until the sixth grade I really liked school. Although short, I’d had big hair, red, curly and big. Back in the day more than one woman would run a fat, well manicured finger through my hair and say, “Oh, what I’d give to have that color. Why can’t Lady Clairol make something this shade for me? I’d just die for some of those curls.”

Adults never got it. Kids hate these comments! Or, at least, this kid did. Many a night, beside my bed, I prayed for baldness. I thought it would be so cool; the only kid in fifth grade completely bald. Maybe with one of those Caesar scarfs of hair running around the edge of my skull. Ah, but I digress………….

Having the first name Tucker is a difficult moniker to begin with. When Shirley Ellis belted out the hit tune “Name Game”. . . I got into a few fistfights. For those of you

familiar with the tune here’s a refresher. For those of you unfamiliar with the tune check it out on YouTube.com.

Without a big guitar riff, or a catchy drum roll, Shirley just kicks into the song …

Come on everybody! I say now let's play a game I betcha I can make a rhyme out of anybody's name The first letter of the name, I treat it like it wasn't there But a B or an F or an M will appear And then I say bo add a B then I say the name and Bonana fanna and a fo And then I say the name again with an F very plain (can anyone see where this is going?) and a fee fy and a mo And then I say the name again with an M this time And there isn't any name that I can't rhyme

Here Ms. Ellis starts with a common name and brings it into rhyme.

Arnold?

Arnold, Arnold bo Barnold Bonana Fanna fo Farnold

Fee fy mo Marnold Arnold!

Let’s skip the next couple of verses and get right to Tucker and you’ll have an immediate taste of all of the fun I was having in grammar school.

Now Tucker, Tucker bo Bucker

Bonana Fanna fo Bucker,

Then you say the name again with an F very plain.

The first day of school, September 3, my sixth year of education, I carried my name and big red hair up the corridor to room 6. Room 6 was for the sixth grade students…. Room 7 was for seventh grade students…. Now there’s always been a big trumpet blare about the advantages of a Catholic education….. But if the Catholic Church believes that sixth graders cannot find their classroom unless it is branded with THREE 6’s.

They may want to take a new look at their lesson plans.

Our door had a big 6 above the door jam.

Another 6 next to the door knob.

And a third 6 on the door about --- a 6th grader’s eye high.

I loved 5th grade. Our teacher was Ms. Katherine Falice. During the lunch hour of my entire 4th grade I’d watched her dance through the lunch yard; blond, dark-brown doe-like eyes, beautiful. (Finally I had something to confess in confession. Impure thoughts! In a religion class a priest assured me that my “Impure Thoughts” were just like doing the real thing. In the 4th grade, I was a bit fuzzy on the “Real Thing.” But even then, I suspected I would really enjoy it.)

Ms. Falice was/is my favorite teacher of all time. The 5th grade class and everyone else at St. Agnes loved her. Well, until the non-announcement!

And, at the end of fifth grade our entire class said a prayer. We crossed our hearts and hoped to die, {believe it or not this is a common prayer among believers} that Ms. Falice would be our 6th grade teacher.

The class before us had had Sister “Rat Face” for two whole years, why couldn’t our class have Ms. Falice for two whole years?

Ms. Falice had taught us about Egypt, Greece and the Roman Empire. As we cleaned out our desk last June, the fiifty-two kids in her class had given her a Caesar Augustus --- Roman Coliseum Style “Thumbs-up.” We wanted her to teach us again. We wanted her to teach us forever. We wanted Ms. Falice. We would have made banners. We would have bought T.V. spots.

And it all could have happened……………But Sadly:

The Sisters’ of Presentation gave Ms. Falice a unanimous Roman Emperor “ Nero” like thumbs-down when she arrived for the fall semester unmarried and five months pregnant. * see below

Before I could amble into Room 6 - “The Room of the 3 Sixes;”

Before I could enjoy my gratified status of being a sixth grader;

Before I could park my rear in a large, “because your maturing” sixth grade desk; complete with 1 box of extra crayons, a bright orange eraser: ‘SHARPENED’ scissors, {Later we would be told that in 6th grader we’re older and could be trusted with honed scissors}

Before I took one step through the door of Room 6 with the 3 sixes,

Ms. Falice’s surrogate (soon to be unanimously dubbed, Sister Mary Merciless) seized my wrist with a strong, curved, ominous talon. “Ah, the ‘Red Head.’” She had beautiful grey eyes, which regrettably matched her severely grey pallor. “Mr. Tucker Spolter. I do not tolerate disruption or interruption in my classroom. I understand you think you have quite a sense of humor. A red-headed clown. You’re a funny man.” Those grey eyes pierced. Zombie-like. Hungry Zombie-like. Hungry for a kid. A kid with red hair.

“You are not funny are you, Tucker. You are not even amusing, Mr. Spolter. And laughter does not contribute to educations, does it. Do we understand each other?”

Okay, the game had changed, Ms. Falice was gone….. But what happened to “Sister Mary Rat Face?” Most of the kids said that even though she had a rodent like face, she wasn’t really too bad.

Sister Mary Merciless and I had already met. It was a brief encounter the previous semester in the basement of the Saint Agnes School, when Stan ‘The Man’ Halverson and I had almost burned the school down over a piece of chocolate cake.

[Please refer to chapter 7 – or skip it entirely]

“Mr. Spolter, are you listening?”

“Do you understand me?” It was a rattle snake hissssssssss.

I stood blank. Terrified. She was tall. I was small. With freckles. I was not a sixth grade genius or a Mensa candidate. She squeezed my wrist harder. It hurt. My Batman lunch pail involuntarily clanked against one knee.

“I do not condone nonsense at any time in my classroom, Mr. Spolter. So, we will have none of your nonsense. Shall we?”

Her lips were made of a toxic form of cellophane, wrinkled, crinkled and cackled an inch from my ear. Her last salvo left a bit of cackle-spittle drooling from my right earlobe. How could I possibly miss such a sweet hello? Such a welcome to my sixth year of education.

She put a thumb high on my left cheek and a forefinger a bit lower. Slowly she joined them. She pinched. Then harder. My lips puckered open; a human large mouth bass. It hurt.

“Do you understand me?” She pulled my hair up and down in affirmation.

I had a sneaky suspicion sixth grade might be more difficult than fifth. How difficult grade sixth grade was going to be was revealed a few weeks later when I didn’t raise my hand but shouted out the name of the largest lake in South America. The kids started to laugh. Sister Mary Merciless did not. As she brought out her perforated paddle, my mind raced backward in time.

I’ve always loved geography. By third grade, I’d memorized every capital city of every state in the United States. Of course as I grew older I discovered very little happens in our state capitals and our national capital? Forget it. As Edward Langley (1928-1995) so aptly stated, “What this country needs are more unemployed politicians.” Ah, but I digress.

Before my tenth birthday, my mom drew a few dollars from a meager family budget and gifted me a cool National Geographic Atlas. Immediately, I immersed myself in her gift. I memorized deserts, lakes, and bays. I traced rivers from high mountains to massive deltas and gulfs.

A Mercator projection of a circular world grew in my brain. Soon, I could draw and recognize most of the outlines of most of the countries on Earth. Sure, I may have been a bit weak in math or conjugating irregular verbs, but my atlas brought me the entire world. I wanted to swim it’s lakes; canoe down rivers and dive over waterfalls, crawl across the sands of the Sahara in search of water, scale tall mountains, scuba seas and oceans. Surviving it all, I would come home to write my adventures.

At 10, I was just becoming aware of the wonders of the female anatomy,

Though I still squealed over a good farting joke..

Most twelve year old boys haven’t quite outgrown farting jokes and caca humor. When I discovered a huge lake in the middle of the South American continent called ‘Titicaca’ I was dumbfounded. Lake Titicaca rolled off my tongue. It echoed through my brain. I practiced saying it in the shower. And when Sister Mary Merciless asked the class what was the largest lake in North America I didn’t even think. Sure, I knew Lake Superior was the largest lake.

Superior, duh? I knew the HOMES trick to memorize the Great Lakes: HOMES: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior.

But Lake Titicaca? Lake Titicaca? Lake Titicaca has a ring….. Lake Titicaca just spat out my mouth. A verbal spitball. Lake Titicaca and the class went wild. And so did Sister Mary Merciless, though admittedly, in an entirely different way.

She offered a choice of punishment options for my indiscretion. I could take a short walk down the corridors of doom to the principal’s office where she would call my mom. My mom would be terribly disappointed and the Spolter name dishonored well into the 24th century or I could take a swat. I chose swat over dishonor. I’d chosen the swat before.

There were other swat victims but probably one of the most famous was Alan O. He roosted one desk behind me. We became really good friends after he gave me a bloody nose at a well-witnessed fist fight during a basketball game.

Back to the Alan’s visit with the paddle.

A few weeks earlier he’d become a legend at Saint A among most of the members of the male student body. For over forty minutes Alan had begged and pleaded in his soft Spanish accent to be excused to go to the bathroom WHACK. Sister Merciless slammed the palm of her hand down on her desk. This was the first time her mask really vanished. Her curtain of calm and her smiling facial façade disappeared and was replaced by the belittling and condescending Sister Merciless stare we all grew to fear. In her abrupt Bostonian accent she countered “Any strong man could and would control his bowels until recess!”

Within hours, Alan O’s name tidal waved through our hallways and reached heroic status well before lunch. James Bond-like . . . dum, tada dum tada dum tada dum, tada dum tada dum . . . Alan had miraculously managed to maneuver out of his seat and avoid the Alcatraz floodlight like beams of Merciless eyes, through a labyrinth of three rows of desks into our fifth grade cloakroom where he deposited a prodigious dump.

At lunch I experienced my first taste of fame by association. Kids from upper and lower grades badgered me at recess, in the play yard, in the hallways and the bathroom.

“Tuck, did someone in your class really take a crap in the cloakroom?”

“Yep.”

“Cool.”

“Did anyone see him? Come on, Tuck someone had to see him. Did you see him?”

“Man, I’ve always wanted to do that. I mean take a shit right in a classroom.”

“Whoa, he did it in Merciless’s classroom? Alan’s going straight to hell. No limbo.”

Sister Mary Merciless was not Sherlock Homes, but a common garden slug could have solved the appearance of the deposit and the depositor.

“Mr. Spolter? Mr. Potty mouth?”

“Lake Titicaca” still echoed around the chalk boards of my sixth grade class room.

“Mr. Spolter!” Merciless’s second summons broke my reverie. I rose and moved dutifully toward her desk, which over the semester had been dubbed the ‘Desk of Pain’. Two small, convoluted human hands were painted on the oak top of Merciless’ desk. Small, student sized hands. The left hand Mortal Sin Black and the right hand in Skull and Crossbones white. The original white hand drawing was blurry, perhaps compromised by the sweat of this nun’s previous pubescent victims. . . ‘Justice’ came swift and deliberate in the confines of Room 6.

I placed my left hand on the Mortal Sin Black, and my right hand on the Skull and Crossbones white. Legs were spread. The disciplinarian always approached the sinner from the rear. I noticed flab’s of white skin dangling in the open sleeves of her black robes. Her paddle was perforated. A lean mean machine. Designed to inflict pain. Pain on the tender, young flesh of the most recent offending twelve year old buttox.

I don’t know if this happens to captured spies just before bad guys are about to shove thin shards of glass underneath their finger nails or activate the electrodes clamped on their testes; but there I was with my legs spread and my rear awaiting her swat when two things spilled through my mind:

My first thought: Where does a nun get such a paddle? Once she has a paddle where would she find a sadistic carpenter willing to drill a series of minute holes into the center to make it more aerodynamic? Merciless’ paddle was the size of a Wilson tennis racket, but made out of sterner stuff, ash, maybe hickory. I doubt that Mother Superiors’ pass these out on graduation day from nun school.

I can’t imagine a parent giving such a gift. “Here my darling daughter. Congratulations for spending five years in silence. Now you can move ahead and spend the rest of your life inflicting pain. Children have created so much of what is wrong with our world. Never hesitate to whack away.”

My second thought: I’d already spent three months under Merciless’ tutelage and just as she lifted her paddle I realized she was a south paw. A lefty! Unbelievable. All other considerations were interrupted by a burst of pain.

Today, that swat would be interpreted as child abuse. Today with my hyper-personality I would have been put on Ritalin on the first day, during the first hour, probably the first few minutes of preschool. As the shock of pain coursed through my body I vowed that I would not cry. I would not cry. I did not cry.

For several weeks it seemed that we’d established a silent truce. Hell! I’d never declared war. Sister Mary Merciless initiated the pre-emptive strike in our relationship. Twelve years old, I was neither trained for, nor able to contend with her sort of adult combat.

The next wrinkle in our cuddly relationship? Religion homework. In all fairness, this was not Merciless’s mandate. It wasn’t just my assignment nor that of our fifth grade class. Maybe with a clap of thunder and an accompanying trumpet blare God sent a dictate down from the cosmos to the current Pope who declared everyone who attended St. A. or any Catholic school on planet earth and its immediate environs, (under the threat of eternal damnation, excommunication and a greater mortal sin than eating a hot dog on Friday if they didn’t ) was obligated to watch Bishop Fulton J Sheen every Thursday night at 8:00 p.m on Channel 4.

In our house, this edict caused two problems:

1.The reception from channel four sucked. The black and white image blinked, samba like, fading in and out, up and down, right and left.

2. The Groucho Marx, “You Bet Your Life,” show came on channel five every Thursday night at 8:00 pm. Our reception was clear as a bell. Go figure. My mom loved “You Bet Your Life.” I believe she had a crush on the announcer George Fennemen. I loved the Duck that dropped out of the sky with a SECRET WORD in its bill. For three months I prayed the SECRET WORD would be the largest lake in South America.

Along with my mom, my brother and I thought Groucho was a crack-up, though most of his double entendres went over our head. That’s not to say that Bishop Sheen lacked a sense of humor. One heckler asked him a question about a relative who died. The Bishop replied, "I will ask him when I get to heaven." The heckler replied, "What if he isn't in Heaven?" The Bishop replied, "Well then you ask him.”

For awhile Jerry, my mom and I religiously watched Bishop Sheen on Thursday nights. My mom was not happy… But when Sister Mary Merciless gave us a short quiz in religion class Friday morning I got most of the answers right.

Then it happened.

I don’t remember why I got a swat from Merciless on that December morning. I do remember THAT SWAT. It was a no nonsense swat. No. More like God and I are tired of your nonsense SWAT. Well delivered. A strong, left handed forehand down the line, a sure point winner at Wimbledon.

My infraction may have been my red hair. My youth. Not raising my hand. Perhaps my hyperactivity. We “A” personalities usually know it. We’re prone to laugh at nothing and break into song whenever/wherever we’re so inclined. Years later I still can’t help skipping down a sidewalk. I’m not quite sure what my problem is . . . Or, whether I really have a problem. I suspect I enjoy life more than most of the world. And I believe everyone would have more fun if they skipped along with me or simply clicked their heels on occasion.

“Mr. Spolter,” the inquisitor summoned me to the ‘Desk of Pain.”

I knew the drill. I knew my options. Take the swat or there would be the phone call home. The dreaded phone call home would mean embarrassment to my mother and shame to the Spolter name. I would have none of that.

My options were nonexistent. I’d been there before. Seven times so far. I took the swat. I didn’t expect any surprises. I braced myself. Spolters do not cry. The blow was horrific. My eyes glassed over. Spolter’s do not cry. I coughed as loud as I could to cover my anguish. Snot poured out of my nostrils. Better snot from my nose than tears from my eyes.

THE RELEVATION

The night of the SWAT, just as I stepped into the shower my mom pulled open the bathroom door. We shared a moment of mutual embarrassment.

“Jeez, mom!?”

“Sorry, honey.” She started to retreat pulling the bathroom door shut behind her.

What followed was one of the moments when all time seems suspended. In monstrous clocks, second hands stop ticking, the shadows on a sundial pause. Our bathroom door exploded open again. My mom burst back inside and stared at my bare rear.

Ask any twelve year old boy. Nope, I’ll speak for them. At twelve the birthing processes and the growing up processes are a bit bewildering. Having my very own mother looking at my nakedness, transcends most twelve year olds experiences and borders on being the most embarrassing moment in your life. A few months later, one of my friends informed me that we are ALL born naked. Horrific! Hundreds of doctors and nurses staring down at your naked parts and I was certain they all remembered mine.

“Where did you get those marks?” My mom demanded as she moved in for a closer inspection of my rear end. I only hesitated for a moment, then quickly explained THE SWAT process and reminded her of the Spolter family honor and proudly professed, “I didn’t even cry.”

“YOU ARE COMING WITH ME. Get your clothes on.” She slammed the door behind her. I didn’t know how much trouble I was in.

Within five minutes, I’d dressed and we were driving back to St. A’s. Except for one question we rode in silence which was odd. My mom liked the radio loud no matter her mood and this mood I could not read.

“This Nun?” she asked. “This Nun that swatted you, is she the same one who said we have to watch Bishop Fulton Sheen?” I nodded. She ‘ummed. But it wasn’t one of those um ums. It was hard to tell if it was an "I see" um or an "I’ll be damned" um.

Mom pulled an illegal U-turn on Ashbury Street right in front of the rectory, dragged me out of the car and up the stairs to the convent door. I’d never climbed these stairs before. I didn’t know any kid that ever did. This was uncharted, scary territory. The landing was cold and dank. Mom lifted one of the round knockers. They were huge. Bigger than a NBA basketball hoop. She dropped it against the oaken door. A THUD exploded off the wood. A resounding echo repeated through the corridors of the nunnery.

Nothing. She thudded the knocker again.

A few moments passed before the door creaked open and a young novitiate queried, “May I help you?”

“I would like to speak to Sister Mary---“ My mother turned to me. “What’s that woman’s name?”

Up until that moment events had transpired too quickly. Until, I heard that question. When I digested the tone of that question then I knew. I knew this was not going to be my trial. I said Merciless’ name aloud surprising myself with the volume.

“Sister is in the chapel at Vespers.”

“Go to the chapel and get Sister out of Vespers,” My mother said. “Tell her a very angry parent would like to speak with her.” The novitiate hesitated. My Mother did not. She brandished a forefinger: “Move it, dearie.” My Mother warned.

The Novitiate got the message and sprinted down the corridor. Merciless appeared a few moments later. “Ah, Mrs. Spolter,” she nodded her wimple toward me, “and Tucker. Am I to understand we have a problem?” She smiled the most unctuous smile the world had ever seen.

“We do not have a problem,” my mother countered. “You, Sister, have a problem. And that problem is me.” My mom leaned in close. When ever my mom leaned in close it meant trouble for the leanee. Sister Merciless’s inner senses kicked in. Some primeval voice warned. She backed off. My Mother leaned in again. Merciless backed into a coat rack and could back no futher..

My Mother stuck out a long, tapered finger. She conducted the brief, one-sided conversation with the bravado of a symphony conductor. “Never, ever touch either of my sons again!” Her voice careened through the convent. “Never touch either my sons again, or may God strike me dead I’ll come back here and touch you.” She pointed her finger at the middle of Merciless forehead. “Do you understand me?”

Sister Mary Merciless had suddenly gone mute.

“Incidentally,” my Mother continued, “the Spolter family will no longer be watching Bishop Fulton Sheen. In the future, we will be tuned to Groucho Marx. If you want to give Tucker an F in religion, so be it. In my eyes, you’ve got an F in understanding and compassion and an A+ in child abuse.”

My Mom took my hand and we sauntered down the convent steps.

I scored the whole encounter Catholic Church 0 - Mom 47

And may god bless Lake Titicaca.

*Miss Falice gave birth to twin girls. Married Glen Masco and wrote two articles on atheism for the New Yorker Magazine.


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