Catholic School, Part II


The best way to really appreciate and understand my Catholic School experience is to first watch the following four-minute clip from the movie, The Blues Brothers. It sets everything up nicely.

Ok, now that you have an idea of where I’m coming from, I’ll tell a few more stories about my incarceration at St. Matthew’s Catholic elementary school. We’ll start with the “Dirty Words Incident” from the 5th grade.

When you were in a Catholic school in the 50’s and 60’s, you were peppered all day long about things that were sins. Disobeying your parents, having impure thoughts, stealing, not going to mass, using bad language and on and on. While it was paradoxical, my friends and I seemed compelled to want to do the very things that we were told were sinful. The risk was low. We might go to hell or purgatory, but to avoid that all we needed to do was go to confession. It was a get out of jail free pass and you could go as often as you wanted.

One day the boys in the class decided to pass around a note listing dirty words. Each boy would add a word then pass it on. By the time it got to me all of the best words were taken. And I’m not talking about “pee” or “butt.” Our fathers served in WWII so by age three most of us had probably heard all of the really bad words. But I was stumped, then suddenly I had a stroke of genius! I wrote, “Sister Mary Mother of Mercy” on the note. This was the name of our teacher of course and I knew the shock effect would earn me praise from my friends at recess. I tapped the shoulder of the boy in front of me and he reached back to grab the note. Suddenly, out of nowhere came the bony, pasty-white hand of Sister Mary Mother of Mercy, who slapped my wrist with a ruler as she snatched the note. She unfolded the note in front of the entire class and I swear, her normally ruddy Irish face turned purple. I’m sure the words embarrassed her but seeing her name on the list of dirty words meant that I was toast.

This offense was so serious that the immediate beating that ensued was not going to be the end of it. For starters, I was kicked out the altar boy society. This was a big deal. St. Matthew’s was an older parish so I got to leave the classroom a couple of times a week to serve at a funeral. The funerals usually occurred in the morning which allowed me to escape the dreaded catechism question and answer period. And of course, there was another phone call by the Sister Superior to my mother. As I mentioned in an earlier post, my mom was a closet Presbyterian and while she tired of the constant phone calls about my misbehavior, there were never any real consequences at home because of them.

By 7th grade there had been enough turnover in the convent to allow me to get reinstated as an altar boy. Going again for shock value, one day I stole (yes, I know – a sin) a bunch of the “hosts” which were little round pieces of bread given out at communion. I walked around the school yard “giving communion” to my friends. Suddenly I was grabbed by the back of the neck by the pastor (Monsignor Lynch, a very cranky Irishman) and hauled into the principal’s office. He screamed, “Were these consecrated hosts (blessed by a priest at mass) or were they unconsecrated?!” Not being one to ever study the catechism, I looked up, terrified and said, “What’s the difference again?” Well, needless to say that would be it for my altar boy service. I was out for good.

I could go on and on with these stories. Looking back, I think at times I was intentionally trying to be the mirror-opposite of my older brother. Larry was four years ahead of me and there was no way I could compete with him. Larry got straight A’s and I got, well, all of the other letters. Larry was always well-behaved. For some reason I couldn’t sit still. But despite all the acting up, I did learn one thing in Catholic school. I learned to write, which helped me all through my working years and now allows me to publish this blog. To all of my former sisters who are looking down at me from heaven, I want to say thanks for that, and sorry for all the trouble.

Shots Fired at the Tiki Girl Lounge

From 1970 – 1977 I worked for the Los Angeles Police Department. This wasn’t something that I ever really wanted to do, rather it was a job of necessity. Let me explain.

When I came home from Vietnam at the age of 22 I quickly learned that I had a wonderful benefit waiting for me. The Veteran’s Administration would pay me $211 a month to go to college! In 1968 that was pretty good money so of course I immediately enrolled in school. The easiest path was to attend Long Beach Community College, a two-year school where I could acquire all of my undergraduate requirements. I should add that in this point of time in California college was free (there was no tuition). So the $211 was all gravy.

Almost three years later I was still attending this two-year college and collecting $211 a month. But then something unexpected happened. Terri told me she was pregnant. I was 24 years old. I had no job and I needed one ASAP.

A few days later we were sitting on the beach near our apartment when an airplane flew by towing a banner. It said, “Call 486-LAPD.” We walked home (we had an apartment one block from the beach that cost a huge $85 a month) and I immediately called the number. In the ensuing six weeks I went through a myriad of tests. I (miraculously) passed the MMPI (a psych test). I also passed the drug screen (another miracle). But I flunked the medical test. I was told that I had high blood pressure. At that time Terri was a very lovely (my apologies) competent medical assistant and she asked the vascular surgeons who she worked for how I might pass the blood pressure test. They sent her home with a formidable concoction of pills including barbiturates that I was supposed to take just before my blood pressure re-test. Well, I have no recollection of it but somehow I passed.

Fast forward through the five month police academy and I was now working in the Harbor Division of the LAPD. This part of Los Angeles consisted of two distinct areas: The good part of town (where I was assigned) and the bad part of town, where every officer, including me spent 99% of our time.

Anyway, one night at about 11:00pm my car got a radio call. The dispatcher said, “Shots fired at the Tiki Girl Lounge.” My partner, George (who was driving) looked at me with an “Oh $hit”expression. We were stopped at a red light at 19th and Pacific in San Pedro (a district in LA) and the Tiki Girl Lounge was just 20 feet away.

I grabbed the shotgun in the police car, opened the door, pumped a shell into the chamber and ran to the entrance of the bar. I knew George would be 5 seconds behind me but I didn’t wait for him –  I kicked open the door and went in. I saw two men on the floor, bleeding out. They were dying. Another bar patron who was shot ran out the back door. He was later found collapsed (dead) a block away.

I looked around the room and there was the suspect, a very small man with a deformed arm. He was trying to reload a .22 rifle, dropping bullets to the floor as he fumbled with the gun. I walked up to him, grabbed the .22 and knocked him down. My partner quickly handcuffed him and the incident was over.

It turned out that the suspect had been at the bar earlier and had been taunted and ridiculed by several men. He went home, got his rifle and came back.  I guess he had the last say.

After the shooting I took some flak for not “wasting” the suspect. It would have been a good shooting. People were dying and he was very close to firing another salvo. But for one brief moment, just as I entered the bar, there was no immediate threat. I didn’t need to shoot him.

This particular event didn’t upset me, but the job itself took its toll on my well-being over time. Police work was not for me. After seven years and seven days I left the LAPD. It was a great experience and the job became a springboard for other opportunities that would soon come my way. I have a few more stories about this stage of my life and I’ll share them here someday. Most won’t be this dramatic. For example, I once checked out a shotgun at the start of my shift and drove all over town with it on the roof of my police car. A frantic motorist waved at me as he tried to tell me about it at a red light. I thought he was just saying hello and I waved back and drove on.