Your Hand Will Stick out of the Grave!


Anyone who attended a Catholic School has a wealth of stories in their back pocket. It’s not that those who attended public school have any less, it is just the Catholic system seemed to produce the “unusual” stories.

Many attending Catholic schools prior to the early seventies, were trained by holy sisters. Notice I said trained over taught. There was ample amount of teaching going on. We learned our times tables, history facts and English grammar just the same as any normal pupil. The training came in much more subtle ways and in some cases not so subtle.

For example, training in Sister Number 1’s class (I changed the name to protect the innocent, me, just in case she is still lurking in the halls of a convent somewhere.) As a boy, you didn’t walk into Sister’s class without a belt. I am sure it was not part of a fashion accessory model that she lived by. She truly believed that a boy without a belt was walking around advertising himself to the young ladies. If you didn’t have a belt, you were marched to the boy’s bathroom. Sister stood outside like Sergeant Schultz from Hogan Hero’s, while you were inside, feeding toilet paper through the loops for your missing belt. When you stepped out, she tied a big bow with the toilet paper so all could see you left the house without being fully dressed. To this day, I would never think of wearing slacks or jeans without a belt. I am trained.

The sisters, as well as the priest, were held in the highest respect. Not always by the students, but always by the family leaders. The old stories about getting into trouble in school, meant double trouble when you arrived home are true. If an incident occurred in school, it didn’t take long for your parents to find out about it. When a fellow student bit the dust of discipline, a collective gasp went up like a crowd watching fireworks. Everyone knew the poor student was in for a double whammy.

One of the most saintly of all the nuns was our third grade teacher Sister Marie. Sister was not much taller than the average third grader. Her Sister of Charity habit added an extra five or six inches to her but that still did not do much to make her stand out in a crowd of students. Sister Marie would remind you of Father Fitzgibbon played by Barry Fitzgerald in the classic movie, “Going My Way,” only in a habit.

Because I went home every day for lunch and my route took me past the convent I was assigned to walk Sister Marie across the parking lot to the convent for her lunch. This would usually shave about ten minutes off my lunch time but during those walks, sister shared some of her stories and thoughts. It was on one of those walks I found out that sister for years was the seamstress of the convent. This devout woman was content to mend and sew for her sisters and prepare vestments for the priest. It was only in the later years that she was allowed to pursue her lifelong ambition to teach. There are times when I can still feel sister’s tight grip on my arm.

Sister Marie was a great organizer of playground sports. During recess she would send the girls to play tether ball or jump rope, while she umpired the baseball game with the boys. Sister assigned the positions and teams. I suspect she was raised in a family of boys judging from her knowledge of the sporting world and the rules of the game.

During one recess softball game my fate was determined for my end time. It was my turn at bat and I approached the plate with a confidence that from this day on I was never to find again. I don’t know how many pitches it took to set the scenario up, but it only took one misguided swing to seal the deal.

The ball connected with the bat, but not in a way that sent it forward. Instead a foul ball was sent back in line drive fashion to the umpire, Sister Marie. The ball connected squarely on Sister’s habit. The ball ripped the habit from her head revealing a compressed clump of wiry gray hair and immediately shaving five inches off her height. Of course as the batter, I had no idea what was happening behind me but what I could see in front of me was a look of shock on every defensive player. When I turned around, I saw sister hurriedly fumbling with the habit dangling behind her. She was like a mother caught half undressed by her children. Immediately other nuns came running from all ends of the playground to sister’s aid. It was like watching a flock of crows descending on a fresh ear of corn.

No one paid any attention to me. I stood alone in my shame. The batter’s box was now a prison which held my feet solid to the ground. I knew at that point my life was set on a path of doom and gloom with the final end advertising to the world for all eternity my indiscretion. It didn’t matter who said it, but it might as well have been a chorus from the heavens, “You hit a Nun. Your hand is going to stick out of the grave for all eternity.” That was the rule. If you hit a nun or priest you knew that was the fate of the offending hand.

We were all ushered back to the classroom. Sister Marie was nowhere. I don’t know who filled in for her but my afternoon was lost anyway. All I could think about was how I was going to tell my folks. The shame I brought to the household was never going to be erased. I knew I would be buried in some far corner of the cemetery where the grass was never trimmed that way my hand would not show above the thistles and buffalo grass. The family secret would be hidden forever.

When the final bell of the day rang, I had no desire to charge down 18th street towards home. The longer I could stay in school, the longer I could delay the news to mom. We weren’t so well connected in those days, so the news was on me to share. All the way down the hill to the house I could feel the push of fate on my back like a grubby prison guard shoving me to move faster as I stumbled to find the next step.

When I got home, mom was upstairs ironing. She was sprinkling clothes with her coke bottle sprinkler. A pile of clothes rolled up beside her which had just come out of the refrigerator where they were stored to prevent mold. She had no idea the level of my sinfulness but she could tell something was wrong from the minute the screen door closed behind me. Mothers are like that. I confessed my sin to her. She didn’t seem to see the seriousness of the hit. To me, I would never see mom and dad in eternity because I was most likely going in the opposite direction while my hand stayed behind and waved a warning to all would be offenders. Then she uttered the words no kid wants to hear. “We will just wait until your dad comes home.”

This put a stamp on my salvation that I knew would not be erased. Dad, who the nuns thought was next to God himself, would now have to suffer in the shame of his son, the nun basher. When dad came home mom shared the story so that I did not have to relive it again. I can remember dad, still in his postal uniform, telling me to get ready to go see Sister Marie. “Did you apologize?” he asked. At that point I could not remember if I did or not. He loaded me in “Black Beauty” the family DeSoto and up the hill to the convent we went.

With dad standing behind me, I knocked on the back door of the convent, the one that led to the kitchen. The first nun to the door was Sister Number 1. I am sure I turned whiter than the white of her habit. Maybe they were going to eat me for supper, which would have saved my life at that point. We were invited in by Sister and led through the kitchen to a long dining hall. Waiting there for what seemed like a thousand seconds of silence, Sister Marie finally appeared. She walked in a determined cadence towards me and I prepared myself for a slap or a wrap across the knuckles. Instead, I was pulled close to her in an embrace that was so motherly for a woman who never knew that joy. I could smell the fragrance of Ben-Gay or some type of salve smeared on her forehead. Through scared tears I uttered “I am sorry” and to this day I can’t remember her response.

Until Sister was sent back to the Mother House, I continued to walk her across the parking lot, rain or shine. We never spoke of that incident again. But, I have this suspicion when I finally move on from this world I might be greeted by this little old nun at the gate smelling of Ben-Gay looking for help across the golden way.

All part of growing up.



The Bad Speller’s Dicshonary

The Bad Speller’s Dicshonary


 I am a victim. I am, however, not alone in my victimized state. You might be one also. Many suffer in silence shouldering the shame and heartache of imposed phonics. We are…bad spellers.

In Sister Marie’s third grade class it was drilled into us, “If you don’t know how to spell a word, sound it out.” That was a cruel hoax played on those of us across the English speaking world who carry the scars of that phrase. In my early years, I thought a system for written expression was the answer to book reports, essays, and letters to Santa. Following Sister’s instructions there were no words which I needed to shy away from. But, the academics would not leave well enough alone. After teaching us the master key to literary greatness, they came along and added another phrase. “Well if you don’t know how to spell it, just look it up.”

What a death blow to a struggling phonetically challenged young man. If I could not spell a word I would sound it out but no one told me I was also pronouncing the word wrong. What I was saying and what I heard were two different sounds. “Sound it out or look it up,” did not even connect in my world.

I was a freshman in the seminary when I realized The Lord’s Prayer, The Our Father, was not the Are Father as I had been spelling it. I sounded it out. This mistake was made clear to me on my first trip to Connecticut for Sunday Mass with my sister. I was the only person saying the “R’s” through the whole prayer. I was a Nebraska boy surrounded by a bunch of Kennedy sounding locals.

I could never figure out the signs which demanded, “Do Not Litter.” I thought it was illegal to throw out your cat droppings. If you didn’t want me to trash your roadway then why not put up a sign, “Do Not Lidder.” My personal nemeses is the word history. I just saw in a hymnal at Sunday Mass, the word spelled in a way familiar to me, histry, makes sense to me. As a matter of fact, I have experimented with spelling it as, histery which is how I hear it or my favorite, histary, they all work for me.

Write now, my spell chek is reddy to blow up. I am saving a few of these words to my dictionary for future use.

My brother Tom, who will always be an influence in my life, was an amateur radio operator or “Ham,” as they are called. I wanted to be one also and join him communicating with people around the world. The first license required the mastery of Morse code. I had no problem committing the dots and dashes to memory and recognizing them tapped out on the key. To pass the test required the sending and receiving correctly of so many words in a measured time frame. Piece of cake, until it came to sending back a message. You really needed to be able to spell to communicate effectively in code. The person on the other end of the dots and dashes would receive a message that was more like code than the code they were trying to decipher. It didn’t take long for Tom to encourage me to pursue a different hobby.

Mom came to the rescue. She must have noticed that her special child was struggling and racing rapidly to a life of flop houses and bread lines with his inability to master the written word. She found what was to save my life and lead me to a somewhat successful educational experience. Random House publishing company, recognizing that there is more than one way to spell a word, published The Bad Speller’s Dictionary.

The volume was a God send in the form of a little pocket book. It was affirmation that those who can only spell a word one way, lack any form of creativity.  Within this gem one can find philosophy under the “f’s” where it has a place right next to philanthropy and fizicks. (See, you knew what I just spelled.) The manual has followed me to job interviews where I knew I would need to write in a way that is accepted by the general hiring climate. It is in my briefcase before my computer and never out of reach when I am working from home.

Those of us who suffer from Ortographobia, the fear of misspelling, also know that there are trick words hiding in every sentence. Words such as to, two and too, there and their, and countless others.  The Bad Speller’s Dictionary has me covered in this area also.  At the end of each alphabet section there is a listing of words that look alike or sound alike.  As a self-diagnosed ortographic, I cringe whenever I need to write away from spell check, or my trusty Random House book. Those trick words without any conscience on their part, rear their ugly heads and bring my writing to a grinding halt.

Many who suffer from bad speller’s affliction will just ask someone how to spell a word. That is great if you are in the presence of a retired grammar teacher, or a saintly nun who recognizes the signs of this crippling phobia. Otherwise you are on your own. What you find when you issue the challenge; “Does anyone here know how to spell Cincinnati?” (Which if you ever lived in Cincinnati, you soon learn they pronounce it Cincinnata) this just further compounds the problem. The question only serves to bring out the closet Ortographics. People begin to stumble over their letters and you soon learn it is better to resort to a different city or find a new way around the word.

I spent five and half years studying in the seminary. I regret not one day living and learning behind those holy walls. I have no doubt, God led me there for the salvation of my soul, although I am still waiting to see if His plan worked. However, as they say, the devil is in the details. While there, my phobia reached a clinically dangerous level which could only be comforted with occasional retreats to the local pubs. I had steeped to the lowest point in my spelling life.

The introduction of foreign and classical languages did me in. I gave up. I admitted I had a problem. I couldn’t take the constant correction, the embarrassment and shame among my peers. My downward spiral was brought on by violent contrast such as; my Latin instructor, who was female, Jewish and a Doctor of Classical Languages; my Greek instructor, a German Lutheran minister. My ability to keep any proper spelling was lost. Then, the condition grew worse, Spanish was introduced. The devil of spelling won.

On what was a cold November night (probably not but we will use it for effect) I grabbed my Bad Speller’s Dictionary, retreated to my room, huddled in the corner, a broken man, I surrendered my spelling soul to the gods of grammar, dictionaries and thesauruses, where ever they might be.

Of course none of it was that dramatic but it makes for a good story. The truth is though, I am free. No longer trapped by the chains that bound me with fear and embarrassment. I welcome the corrections. I rally in the variety of ways I can approach a word and not feel like I am the only one that has the same view.

Today, individuals who have no knowledge of my condition will ask, “How do you spell history?” That my friends is a very different questions from, “What is the proper way to spell history?” I respond with every bit of honesty I can muster, “This is how I spell it.”

I appreciate that embracing my weakness is, all part of growing up.

If you would like to know what ghoughpteighbteau really is, you will only find it in The Bad Speller’s Dictionary.  Send me a request using the comment section and I will tell you what ghoughpteighbteau really spells. Once you find out, you will never raise your eyebrow to a misspelled word again.


The Battle of 1962

Belly crawling through thick dew covered grass I was one with the spiders and the bees jumping from one clover flower to the next. The fragrance of fresh grapes hanging above me hugged the ground tighter than me. With each slither I moved closer to the enemy that I knew was waiting for me at the end of the arbor. My rifle, a constant companion, was slung over my back secured with the sling. We share the same battle scars from a recent 18th street fire fight. A bayonet was secured to the end in case I needed it for unexpected close combat. Three bullets were loaded in the clip, and three more were stuck in the band of my helmet.

I finally reached the end of the arbor. Grape juice stained my shirt and arms giving me the appearance of already being in a thick encounter. I could see the enemy clearly. He had no idea I was coming up behind him. I decided he was not worth wasting a bullet on. I reached around, slid my friend off my back, checked the bayonet, making sure it was secure. My next move would either free the hostages or would bring me to a swift end. Either way, I had to try. Raising up slowly and about to lunge forward the attack took a terrible and abrupt turn. I heard the voice of my commander, “Brian, don’t you dare hit Butch with that knife, get in here right now and get cleaned up for lunch.”

Butch, aka the enemy, headed across the lawn to his grandmother’s house for his lunch break while I sulked through the back screen door smelling more like a wine-o than an eight year old soldier. I am sure I spent the next few minutes explaining to mom that I had no real intention of stabbing my best friend in the back with a rubber bayonet. There is little doubt she believed me. Of course it should also be mentioned that she was a contributor to this behavior so she was not entirely blameless. It started with her part in the Christmas gift of ’62.

Christmas 1962 was not unlike my previous eight. Although I have little recollection of one, two and three, four and up start to register with me. Christmas morning always started with Mass. A waste of time for a child. Any parent that takes more than one child to church on Christmas morning deserves some type of special dispensation for future sins. The worst torture for us kids was having to pass the tree, surrounded by irrefutable evidence of Santa and not even being allowed to walk into the same room as this splash of gifts.

Making things worse, Santa always left one special gift sitting on top the gifts. I know he did this just to torture us and make us feel like Msgr. Oberst Christmas sermon was longer than it really was. Once home, we dutifully ate breakfast, waited for dad to get off work from the Post Office and then we all finally gathered around the tree.

After Teresa opened countless toys geared for a three year old it was my turn. Sitting on top of my gifts was an official replica M1 Garand rifle equipped with a rubber bayonet and three wooden bullets in the clip. There was also helmet that somehow followed dad home from the Armory. Putting on the helmet and holding the rifle I assumed my best Vic Marrow pose. You can date yourself if you remember Vic as Sarge on Combat.

Dad had to be the one that snapped the picture with mom desperately trying to get out the picture. There is my evidence she must have known what this gift would lead to. The caption on the back of the snapshot says, “Brian pointing his new gun at Teresa.” To this day Teresa displays no visible effects from this incident.

Brian's new rrifle

Brian’s new rifle

The new rifle replaced a one piece rifle made by dad out of plywood. It was modeled after the guns carried by Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Unfortunately the gun was broken in one of the fierce battles over possession of the grape vine hedge that ran along the alley.

The new weapon elevated me to the rank of Sargent in the local NRA, (Neighborhood Recreational Army.) I was ready to defend the block. But there was more to come with more gifts to open. Opening a tin that smelled of dad’s pipe tobacco three more wooden bullets were revealed. These were fashioned by dad at his basement workbench. They were painted with gold lacquer and looked just like the ones Sarge kept in his front pocket. I was locked and loaded with ammo to spare.

This was the dawn of the great Christmas battle of 1962. Few history books every recorded it but it was a turning point in the history of urban warfare. My buddy Butch this same Christmas received a bazooka that launched plastic shells on the enemy. We spent the afternoon defending the block against an unsuccessful attack by a real enemy…adulthood. We were able to fight it off for several more years. There were numerous  battles which were eventually won by grass cutting jobs, homework and puberty, forces more powerful than wooden bullets, rubber knives and plastic shells.

In the end, it was all part of growing up.


The Falls City Dribbling Idiot

Every person growing up has those moments when they wish they could crawl back into the womb and start all over again. Visualize that for a moment. Anyway, some of us have more of these situations than others. As you follow my blog, you will realize I should have started over a long time ago. Again, for many, these situations seem to pop up during our teenage years. You remember them, the days when you thought you were mature and sophisticated only to find that you were still just an over grown baby stumbling over your feet.

There were numerous traits that followed me into the teen years which I wish would have disappeared. Two of them were crooked teeth and gagging. Real qualities every teenage boy wants, especially if he is trying to impress any one of the opposite sex unless it was the girl next door that you grew up with and was more like a sister. Of course, she was probably going through the same transition period.

Crooked teeth. Today, kids get braces as soon as their baby teeth are out and I guess even sooner in some cases. When I was growing up I think they were hoping that gravity or a fist would straighten them out before money needed to be spent to do the job. In my case, neither of the mentioned options worked. My front teeth were crossed like two scissor blades. You guessed it, I was the famous “scissor tooth” I am sure you’ve heard of me. The formation was great for one thing. I could launch water out through the hole made by the crossing. Unfortunately, this was not a talent that was in high demand.

Dr. Hoban finally convinced the folks that if this boy is going to have any kind of acceptable social life or career, it might not be a bad idea to fix those teeth. I also think Dr. Hoban knew priesthood was in my future and he did not want to be looking at his potential future pastor and know that he could have fixed a major distraction to Sunday’s homily.

There were several options presented by Doc to the folks. Pull some teeth to make room for the expansion and then place permanent wires all through my mouth. An expensive option at that time. The other option, the “dime store” version, (remember Dime Stores) was a removable retainer that would slowly move the teeth into a somewhat respectable position.

Now the folks loved me. Mom would often say I was her special child. She passed without ever clarifying what she meant by that. Dad, never seemed to argue with her on that description. Anyway, they chose the Dime Store route for their special child, only because that is what resources allowed.

Most kids today, as mentioned before are getting their braces at seven or eight, but not me nooo, they waited until those transition years of the teens. Like I needed one more thing to add to my scissor toothed fame. What I did possess at this time was a job. When most kids my age were running newspapers or car hops and Mutt and Jeff’s, I had a real job with a major corporation. I was the after school floor sweeper at the J.C. Penny store. I walked the four blocks down the hill, not really a hill but we called it that, drop my books off at home, and walk the four blocks up in the opposite direction to the Penny store. I stayed there until closing time, sweeping the floors, dumping trash, cleaning windows and whatever Mr. Comfort assigned me to do.

I was good at my job and the work ethics instilled by the folks soon earned me a promotion to weekend shoe salesman. I loved my Penny’s family. I was a kid in an adult world and they depended on me. I was so important that for my weekend work, I wore a tie and took breaks with the rest of the employees in the break room, which was really just a table in the stockroom next to an old refrigerator. You bought your pop right out of the fridge, leaving your fifty cents in the coffee can on top.

Ok, let’s jump back to the teeth, just keep in mind the Penny store duties. Dr. Hoban prepared the retainer that would eventually stretch my teeth like a muscle man pulling apart the bars of a jail cell. This was accomplished after several attempts at sticking oozing globs of paste in my mouth to construct molds for the oral device. This process was agonizing for me and Doc. Remember, I was a gagger. He would stick that glob in my mouth and leave the room while it harden. Meanwhile, I could feel my little toe trying to work its way out of the back of my throat. When he came back in the room, moving slow t do to his advancing age, I was all but standing on my head trying to ward off the impending gut wrenching that was coming. After two or three attempts, we got it done.

Early on a Saturday morning, the device was ready. I walked up to Docs office prior to going to work to sell shoes. He wanted to fit me with the retainer and make the final adjustments. A great plan until I walked out of the office.

The office was two blocks south of the store. It was early Saturday morning, the sidewalks were busy with shoppers and people just out to socialize. Even to this day, downtown Falls City is a hub of activity compared to other small towns. I am one player in this crowd. Dressed in the best style of the day, white shoes, white belt, plaid slacks, probably a silky shirt and a tie wide enough to use as a tablecloth. I didn’t stand out at all next to the bib overall, blue jeans and chambray shirts.

Now, let’s go back to the gagging bit. I am walking up the street with this new gizmo stuck in my mouth pulling at my teeth. Right about in front of Brown’s Shoe Store the gag kicks in. I look like someone mid-way between and epileptic seizure and being shocked by a cattle prod. I am hanging on to the light pole talking myself out of losing breakfast right there in front of all of Falls City. Sweat is dripping from every available pore as well as drool coming from both corners of my mouth. Mothers were moving their kids away from me, politely ducking into stores they never intended to visit. Thank God cell phones and You Tube was not even imagined at this time. I would have been trending social media for sure.

I finally composed myself and made it to work. My tongue was bloody from being cut from all the wires in my mouth and my whole mouth felt like a fist was shoved inside of it.

So you think this is the worst of it. Not even close.

I was standing at my post, just inside the shoe department. I am practicing the slow breathing exercises Doc taught me to ward off the gags. I sounded like a man practicing to make obscene phone calls. In walked probably one of the prettiest girls I had seen up to this time. She was definitely and out of town girl, most likely a college girl and all she had on were bib overalls. Let that sink in, only bib overalls! Make things worse, she was walking directly towards the shoe department. Now you have a heavy breathing, gagging teenage boy, dressed like a seventies used car salesman being approached by what looked like a girl right out of the pages of Playboy, the College Coed edition. Now we have a story.

With half a gag being suppressed I was able to mouth, “Can I help you?”

She told me her size and what she was after. In those days, shoes were stored in backrooms with racks of shoes from floor to ceiling. You could always kill some time looking for a pair of shoes which gave you the advantage to plan your conversation with the customer, a sales trick taught to us by our manager. I needed the time to compose myself, let alone figure out what I was going to say.

I found her size and style and made my way back out. Again, these were the days when the sales person actually fit the shoes on the customer. We positioned ourselves in front of the customer so that we could slide the shoes on with our ever handy shoe horns. Okay, now on this stool I am level with the bib portion of this Delilah’s overalls. When she bent down to inspect her new slides, my treat was, well you can imagine, remember nothing but bib overalls.

So far I was able to maintain a level of professionalism required by the code of shoe salesmen. But then, I was painfully reminded that I had an extra piece of plastic in my mouth.  The saliva that was being held back by the second artificial roof of my mouth needed somewhere to go.  In a very professional manner, I leaned over to check the fit of her shoe, the gag kicked in. With a gaping open mouth providing the exit, the biggest wad of spit slid out from behind the plastic, trailed down in a long stream and landed perfectly on her beautiful bare ankle.

It’s all part of growing up.

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