Midnight 911

If you have never attended Midnight Mass you are missing a beautiful event. Next to Easter it is one of the most anticipated celebrations on the calendar. Regardless of the denomination, Easter and Christmas are the two days when the churches are packed with parishioners spilling out to the aisles.

Midnight Mass is also one of the most decorated of all the Masses. The sanctuary is adorned with pine, poinsettias, trees and other trappings of Christmas. In many churches, the transformation from the repentant Advent season morphs into the beauty of the season almost overnight by an army of volunteers. Those volunteers are proud, rightfully so, of their accomplishment. All of this work adds to the beauty of the celebration.

As a young altar server, to be selected to serve at this pinnacle of the season was an honor and as you can imagine…my story unfolds from here.

I started my career on the altar when we were still required to memorize the Latin prayers. Sister Marie, (from the blog “Your Hand will Stick out of the Grave 10/10/14 fame) was the examiner testing our proficiency with the prayers. You didn’t step on the altar until she gave her approval.

Once you mastered the Latin responses and went through the drills to learn your duties and positions on the altar, you were placed on the schedule of Sunday and weekly morning Masses. The early morning Masses were the real challenge. It meant getting up well before normal school time and then walking up the four blocks to church in the dark. If you were dependable in these early mornings, it wasn’t long before you were moved up the scale of serving at funerals, which got you out of a couple hours of class and put you in line for an occasional wedding on the weekends.

I soon turned altar serving into a for profit position. I was the server called on for funerals, weddings and special occasions. The pastors, of which I went through three in my tenure, soon turned to me as their master of ceremonies for all of the liturgical events. It was my responsibility to make sure everyone knew their place, the altar was ready to go, and we had enough personnel to carry out the celebration. For this service, I was usually slipped a few bucks by the priest, the family of the bride or the local funeral director.

Not a bad part-time job.

The first Midnight Mass of my MC career arrived. The church was decorated with Christmas trees on each of the side altars. Poinsettias were in every nook and cranny of St. Peter and Paul. The back altar with a carved wood back drop climbed to the ceiling. Injected at each level was a shelf holding a candelabra surrounded by poinsettias and the statues of the patron saints, Peter and Paul.

As midnight drew closer the church filled from front to back, quite opposite of the usual pattern of Sunday mornings. The church was dark with the exception of the red sanctuary light which cast a strange glow on those in the first pews. Around 11:30 the tradition of the living Rosary started. Students from the high school would walk in carrying blue or red votive candles depicting their role in the rosary decades. When it was over, the church took on the warm glow of mixed colors blended with the soft sounds of the choir. The atmosphere that inspired “Silent Night” settled on the whole congregation.

The time to light up the altar arrived. As the oldest server, and also the tallest, the honor and duty of lighting all of the candles fell to me. The candles on the lower front altar were no challenge. As the candle flames multiplied, so did the light cast from the sanctuary.

The next task was the candles on the back altar. Again, those on the lower back altar proved to be easy to light. Now it was time to tackle those on the next level.

With the candle lighter extended to maximum length, I was able to reach the highest candle by stretching myself out to my longest length.

Now if you employ a little knowledge of physics you can understand some of the dynamics of the actions that follow. When you have a pole reaching out six or seven feet, movement of several inches at one end transmits to twelve inches or better on the other end. If you stick a flame on the end of it, it now looks like a bouncing tongue of flame in the darkness.

With a full church behind me and nothing more for them to do than watch this process, I had the congregation’s full attention. Mothers grasped fathers with vise grip fear while they covered the eyes of sleepy little children with their free hand. The bouncing flame moved from one candle to the next each time coming closer to the dry wooden altar façade. Each level up required more of a stretch and with each stretch the ability to hit the target candle lessened.

With one miss swing the flame touched the leaf of the closest Christmas flower. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that poinsettias are not flammable. A collection of ooOOs and aaAAHHs rose from the crowd behind me. You would think they were attending the July 4th fireworks, not the December 24th holy celebration. The poinsettia went up in a flash and in my mind I pictured the entire back altar going up in a blazing apocalypse.

Thank God, this was pre-cell phone days. I am sure the thumbs would have been hitting 911 before the first leaf went up. Once again my guardian angel was tested. He must have flown up and with one mighty blow, extinguished the flower as quickly as it erupted. A blackened pot sat there as obvious as a black dog in a snow storm. This was fortunately the last of the candles to be lit. There was nowhere for me to hide. I only had one recourse and that was to retreat to the sacristy with the hope that Fr. Chonta was not paying attention to the congregation’s reactions.

All was fine until the opening procession for the Mass. As we approached the altar Fr. Chonta had to be blind not to see the glaring charred pot sitting under the statue of St. Peter. Being the saintly man that he was, he never mentioned the obvious eyesore. I think we were both secretly thankful St. Peter was a rock and not one of the wooden statues of the side altars.

Midnight Mass was…all part of growing up.

Altar Boy

By James Metcalfe

“Garden of my Heart”

(One my mother’s meditation books)

 In cassock and surplice white…He takes his privileged place…To serve the priest at Holy Mass…With reverence and grace…He kneels and stands with folded hands…And piously he shares…The Latin words and phrases of… Profound liturgical prayers… He moves the missal and the cloth… He sounds the altar chimes…The designated times…At benedictions he is there…To swing the censer high…And waft the fragrant incense to…The angels in the sky…He is the acolyte of God…Whose special time is spent…In serving Mass and being near…The Blessed Sacrament.

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Behind Closed Doors

The stories many could tell about what went on behind the closed doors of their homes could fill volumes. To select which of those stories to share or better yet, which stories are shareable is a delicate task. Parents cringe when children start to tell a story that borders on “too much information.” I have little doubt people wondered what went on behind the doors of 1804 Morton Street. Few stories leaked out through the cracks of casual conversation because as kids we were well trained in the art of what happened in the house stayed in the house.

Mom and dad were not real social butterflies. I can’t recall people coming by the house for parties or the folks visiting friends just for the sake of a visit. Mom never worked outside of the house so there was never a meeting of work colleagues or business meeting in the house. She did a stint as a 4-H moderator which at times filled the house with an occasional ban of teenage girls. During these meetings I was required to stay in the basement. I don’t know if this was my mom’s rule or my sister’s request. There must have been an Igor like quality about me that they wanted to hide.

Dad worked a split shift at the Post Office and was a member of the local National Guard unit. Like mom, he never had a reason to have work buddies at the house. We heard the names of the other carriers but never really put a face to them. While dad was with the guards he helped with the Explorer Scouts sponsored by the guard company. This pretty much sums up the extent of the community outreach from the Casey household.

A visit by a relative to our house was a rare event. Even the few that lived in Falls City were only seen at Sunday Mass, funerals and an occasional catch up conversation at the local Hinky Dinky grocery store. The exception to this was mom’s sister Aunt Betty. She was good for a weekly visit to the house. Aunt Betty would pull up and I knew for the next two hours the house would be filled with the smell of cigarette smoke and coffee. Betty would go through numerous cigarettes while mom downed cups of coffee poured from the green glass percolator on the stove. While this was going on, I would sit listening to these two sisters complain about their siblings, recall stories about their parents and share recipes back and forth.

Neither mom nor dad’s families were big on reunions. Mom’s family tried to have a few reunions but that soon fizzled out or maybe they just stopped telling us when and where they were having them. If you asked me to pick out relatives in a line up, I would be hard pressed to identify the right suspects.

Allow me to illustrate:

One summer day while home alone, the phone rang with the disturbing ring characteristic of the old rotary dial phones. The caller said, “We are from California and we are just passing through Falls City and Rose Schlosser said to give you a call and say hi.”

I politely informed the caller that they must have the wrong number, and that we did not know any Rose Schlosser.

Within minutes the caller rang again. This time they verified they were calling the right number. In the most polite way I could muster, I assured them that we did not know anyone by that name.

That evening, we were sitting around the supper table just having casual conversation. I shared with the folks the strange phone call I intercepted while they were gone. I told mom and dad I reassured the caller that we did not know any Rose Schlosser.

Mom, sitting to the left of me, was getting that look on her face of, “Oh no, my special son has struck again.” With her typical calm but you knew your where in trouble look she said, “you idiot, (this was the only time I ever heard mom use this word) that is my sister in California!”

How was I to know? I never heard about her and I certainly never met her.

You know, I don’t ever recall hearing about her from that point on either.

When holidays came around we never had to round up extra chairs and there was no such thing as needing an extra freezer or refrigerator to store large amounts of food. Occasionally we were visited by one or both of the grandmothers but even that was a rare event. Most often it was the six of us around the table enjoying a simple holiday meal. Mom was not into any fancy dishes and it wasn’t until I married into my wife’s Italian family that I found out there was more food than turkey and ham for holidays.

We did however celebrate holidays and special occasions in ways that would make those around us wonder what was going on in our house. St. Patrick’s Day was always a special day in the house. On St. Patrick’s Day the house was loaded with shamrocks, leprechauns and green top hats. Dad would bake his special Irish tea bread served with orange marmalade. Mom would set out cold cuts, cheese and crackers and we were allowed to drink a whole bottle of root beer or cream soda. To make the day even more special, dad would fly the Irish flag from the back porch and place stereo speakers in the upstairs window with the goal of filling the neighborhood with Irish melodies.

Halloween was another special day in the Casey house. Dad was always cooking up something special for the day. One year between the characters he created and the sound effects produced by Tom, there was very little candy passed out. You could see mothers and fathers moving their little goblins across the street to safety.

For several years in a row, the Casey kids took top costume prize in the annual Halloween Parade. The costumes that dad created in his basement workshop were some of the most anticipated creations of the season. Of course we won’t go in to the details of dads little disturbing the peace incident years ago at a local parade. Let’s just say it involved a costume that the horses didn’t like. His defense, the riders should have had more control of their horses.

Two of dads Halloween creations. Teresa and Brian

Two of dads Halloween creations.
Teresa and Brian

Despite some of the evil and twisted tendency you might be attributing to the Casey clan from the previous stories, we were for the most part a spiritual family. Prayer was always a part of life and I am sure it is what inspired my years in the seminary.

The four weeks of Advent season leading up to Christmas was probably the most solemn and challenging for the Casey spirituality. Every year at the start of Advent mom would drag the Advent wreath from storage. She took special care in decorating the base with pine and pine-cones gather from the area. Once it was set up, every evening after supper, we would retreat to the living room to pray the rosary. All the lights were out but as the weeks progressed, the room was filled with more light as additional candles were lit marking off the days till Christmas. Dad would lead the rosary saying the first half of the prayers in a droning monotone, (that I wish I could hear today) followed by our response to the second half of the prayer.

This appeared to be a very pious ritual. If someone was spying through the windows they would see this religious family gathered together around the holy candles praying.

That is what they would see.

What they didn’t see was Tom, who was quite adept at making shadow puppets, expressing his talents on the opposite wall. They couldn’t hear the snickers which we were able to contain until about the third decade of the rosary. From that point, an infectious laugh caught us all and no one could stop laughing in the darkness. I don’t remember if it was dad’s determination to get through one full rosary that broke us up or if it was Tom’s wall antics. If the peeping tom stayed at the window, they would see there were very few times when the rosary was completed in one sitting.

These are memories we share as a family. Memories that people outside the walls maybe suspected but never had enough courage to ask about. For us, it is what made home so special and leaving it so hard.

Years ago I thanked the folks for creating a childhood filled with so many memories that it was painful to leave behind. I always felt a little sorry for my friends when they claimed never to be homesick.

For me, being homesick was the best compliment I could give to my parents.

It was after all, all part of growing up.

 

The Last Leaving

 Our old house watches as we pull away for the last time.

The furniture is gone.

Mom and Dad are gone,

Their souls stand at the window.

 

We all know this is the last leaving, but no one has the courage to speak.

 

The old girl knows she will be alone on cold Nebraska nights.

Her eves droop as she wonders;

Who will watch out for me when the storms blow?

Who will I protect?

Who will dress me for the change of seasons?

 

She stares at the back of the car like a kindergarten student left on the corner waiting for the bus.

She knows we won’t be back for her and life will be different.

She has done her job well.

The flowers around the foundation reach up to hug her trying to convince “it will be okay.”

The new oak in the front lawn doesn’t understand.He is too young to know what is happening and giggles his leaves as he waves his lower branch, “good bye, see you again.”

As we pass the last block before the highway, her handkerchief shade flaps reluctantly like a loved one waving good-bye.  She dips the shade back occasionally to wipe a tear from the corner of her door.

Good-bye kids she whispers through screens.

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Christmas or Bust

Christmas, Yom Kippur, U-Haul, Terra Haute, IN

Try mixing these four elements in a bag and come up with a story. It’s true, that seemingly unrelated events scattered across the globe can funnel into one life changing event. This is the old butterfly effect. If a butterfly flaps its’ wings in China does it cause a breeze in California? December 1973 must have witnessed the largest flock of butterfly wing flapping in history because their wind hit hard in eastern Kentucky.

Christmas

The first semester of seminary life was coming to an end. Along with my fellow Nebraska seminarians I was looking forward to Christmas vacation. This was the first extended time away from home for most of us and as you can imagine, the desire for a Christmas homecoming was strong. Each person was responsible for finding their own way home for vacation. I was blessed in many ways while in the seminary. One such way was by kind people from the parish along with a few other benefactors who supplied me with enough cash to fly home for Christmas. My reservation were set and I was to fly out of the Cincinnati airport on the last day of classes.

Yom Kippur

October 6, 1973 Syria and Egypt launched an attack on Israel on the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur. This moment in the history of the Arab and Israeli conflicts intensified the already pressured oil prices. Gas prices began to soar as the oil embargo squeezed the supply to drips in the United States.

You didn’t know you were going to get a history lesson through all of this did you?

Back to Christmas

With my airline reservations set, the end of the semester with the first round of finals is all I had to worry about.

Seminary life tended to isolate you. You didn’t have ready access to newspaper, TV and of course, there was no internet. Most of us were not aware of what was happening outside the walls; the gas prices were rising faster than the December temperatures were dropping. Gas stations were closing all around the states and people were worrying how they were ever going to be able to drive to work.

We didn’t realize until travel plans were canceled the impact the events of October 6 would have on this small group of Nebraskans wanting to get home from Kentucky. One by one bus tickets were voided and plane routes scrapped. Finally, I received the call that my flight, which was only days away, was cancelled.

When the dust settled, there was not one Nebraska seminarian that had a ride home for the holidays. Twelve men ranging in ages from eighteen to twenty-two were stuck and none of us felt like spending Christmas in Kentucky.

Enter the bright idea!

Someone came up with the clever idea of renting a van. This made all the sense in the world. We would pool our resources and cut back on luggage. There was little doubt we could do it. As a group we dispatched the over twenty-on year old guys to rent our van while the rest of us stayed behind completing final exams and packing for the trip. The building slowly started to empty as other students finished exams and packed up to head home.

By mid-day only ten Nebraskans were left in the building; two were off searching for a van.

U-Haul

The two oldest seminarians returned with our ride, proud of their accomplishment. Our ride home was a U-Haul box truck. Our assigned negotiators explained that this was “a take it or leave it deal.” All other forms of traditional transportation was either on the road or non-existent.

On a snowy Kentucky afternoon (sounds like an Elvis song) ten men, luggage and food packed by the nuns in the kitchen, climbed in the back of the truck. The two older guys of course had the up-front cab. It was only when the door closed down on us, that we realized we would be making the almost thousand mile trip, in…total…darkness. With the gate closed, you could not see your hand in front of your face. We might as well have been dropped into a black hole of time and space.

With luggage as cushions and head props, we started down the highway like blind men at the mercy of their guide dogs. We felt the sway of the truck as it hit icy sections of the road. We would collectively slide towards the cab of the truck on sudden stops and then back to the tailgate as the drivers accelerated. The drivers seemed to ignore the effects of their actions on the living cargo behind them.

As you can imagine a variety of stories, jokes and comments flew with ease in the darkness. Also, there numerous exchange of gases which no one would ever claim or was it even necessary to do so. The air inside became a mixture of body odor, dirty laundry traveling home for mothers to work their magic on and Murphy’s smelly feet which no one had trouble identifying.

Terra Haute, IN

The farther west on Interstate 70 we traveled the colder it was getting inside the truck and the more slips we could feel as the truck plowed through a now snow covered interstate. More than once the truck came to a stop as holiday traffic combined with the snow storm formed mile long traffic jams. Finally relief came with the first gas stop just outside of Terra Haute, IN.

We could feel the truck pulling up an incline then slide back. Another run was made at the same slope with the same effect. After the last attempt, the tailgate was flung up. Much to the surprise of two senior citizens in the car directly behind the truck, ten bleary eyed and wrinkled men jumped out of the back of the truck. We must have looked like a band of escapees from the local pen.

Ten men put their shoulders to the back of the truck and we pushed it up the hill.

OH, I failed to mention, the temperature was now down to fourteen.

When we looked around after our pushing detail, we found ourselves in a superb truck stop. Amber lights combined with the multicolored lights on countless idling diesels filled the air with an illuminated fog of light and sound. It looked like a mecca of warmth and salvation.

We must have looked desperate because as we entered the truck stop restaurant it seemed as if they had a table waiting for us. In a back corner we sat around a massive round table fit for Arthur and his Knights.

The leader of our band ordered the same plate of food for everyone, which is what you do when you have been living in a community. Choices are taken from you and accept what is given to you. This probably also confirmed the escapee impression.

Our bodies warmed and our bellies full we reluctantly climbed back in the truck. I think a few considered walking from this point but we convinced them this was just the claustrophobia over taking their common sense.

Neither the road conditions nor the weather improved as we drove west.

Somewhere outside of St. Louis we hit another traffic jam. By this time the sun was high overhead. The moisture from our breath had unexpectedly been forming icicles on the ceiling of our box. They must have been hanging like stalactites on a cave roof. As the sun warmed the stationary U-Haul, the ice started to melt dripping on us like rain. After repeated banging on the wall next to the cab, one of the front seat passengers came to our rescue. As the gate opened, we were blinded by a scene that looked like they took a wrong turn and we were on the Arctic continent.

Once our eyes focused, we could see a line of snowbound traffic for miles behind us and a line just as long ahead. On both sides of the road were jackknifed trucks and ditched cars. One old grizzly trucker was talking to our driver and sharing what he knew about the road ahead.

“I think you boys have reached the end of your ride until they can clear the interstate. There is a hill up the road that is solid ice. Trucks a trying to take a run at it and ending up sliding backwards.”

I can’t remember how long we sat there or how cold it really was but I can tell you it was long enough to freeze a jug of apple cider and to send the sun lower in the western sky.  When we finally started to move we could have walked faster to St. Louis than were rolling.

Sometime after midnight, a day and half after we left Kentucky the trip for the two of us from Falls City came to an end. We were lucky enough to be the first stop. The others had another two hours to Lincoln traveling on a snow covered two lane highway. The last one to bring this fiasco to an end was one of the two adult drivers. He parked the truck in his driveway and I am sure, crawled to a warm homecoming.

The next day we checked on one another to make sure we all woke up with no body parts requiring amputation from frostbite. There were no casualties except for the truck. When the driver went to return the truck to the rental it wouldn’t move from his driveway. The transmission had locked. Further inspection revealed…there was barely any fluid remaining in the transmission.

I guess God wanted us all home for Christmas.

It was all part of growing up.

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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.

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