LAPD in the 1970’s – Recollections

There are only two people in your life you should lie to… the police and your girlfriend.  Jack Nicholson

I mentioned in an earlier post that I worked for the LAPD for seven years (1970-1977). Although I eventually decided that police work was not for me, I had some amazing experiences during this period of my life. Many things I witnessed seemed insignificant at the time, while others were immediately profound. But all of them changed me in some way and helped prepare me for the business world where I would spend most of my working life.

In the years I that worked “Patrol” I was assigned to the Harbor Division of the LAPD. This included the districts of San Pedro, Wilmington and the Port of Los Angeles. My partner during this period was a police officer named George. He was so skilled at handling family disputes that before we left  the scene of a domestic disturbance, the couple having the fight would be ready to renew their wedding vows. George was with me during many of my adventures and I’ll have more to say about him in later posts. In the meantime, here are a few of my recollections.

The Gypsies

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In 1971, downtown San Pedro had a lot of bars on its main thoroughfare (Pacific Avenue) and many of our calls originated from there. One call that was fairly common had to do with young, pretty Gypsy girls selling flowers to inebriated men inside the bars, defrauding (short-changing) them in the process. When we responded to these calls we could easily spot the Gypsies walking down the street, dressed in colorful, bohemian-style dresses while laughing and flirting with men walking by. After a brief conversation we usually let them move on. They were doing no serious harm, just stealing a dollar or two from old men who had too much to drink. During these encounters we were careful though to keep one hand on our own wallets, which could be snatched in the blink of an eye if we looked the other way.

On a (slightly) more serious note, if young Gypsies were in town it meant that their fathers and uncles were too. We often received calls from homeowners who told us they paid some men to waterproof their roof. However, the first time it rained the roof leaked. It turned out the repair people were Gypsies who sprayed a mixture of sugar and water on the roofs. The treated roofs would sparkle in the sun, which gave the homeowners the feeling that they got their money’s worth. Until it rained that is.

Taxi!!

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The Harbor Division of the LAPD included the Port of Los Angeles, better known as Terminal Island. Not a whole lot happened there but if we weren’t too busy we would occasionally drive along the waterfront. On more than one occasion while near the docks we heard someone shout, “Taxi!!” Foreign seaman, usually from eastern Europe, often mistook our 1970-era police cars for taxis. We would let them pile into the backseat and drove them to downtown San Pedro. When we told them there was no charge they would shout, “We love America!!”

Jumper there now!

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To get from San Pedro to Terminal Island you had to drive across the Vincent Thomas suspension bridge. With a deck 187′ above the water the bridge at times attracted desperate people who wanted to end it all by taking a fatal plunge to the water below. One night we got the call of a “Jumper there now.” We raced to the top of the bridge and found a car parked against the side rail, with a door opened and a suicide note on the seat. We looked down and thought we could see something bobbing around in the water.  After contacting authorities who could respond with a boat we drove down to the base of the bridge. A short time later a boat approached us with a shivering man inside. Our suicide victim was cold, wet and disoriented. Despite a 187′ drop into the shipping channel, he was just fine. Another jumper around that same time was not so lucky though. He jumped off the bridge and landed (fatally) on the deck of a passing ship.

Officers, could you drive me home?

One night we got a call that young burglars were seen running through an elementary school.  Three other police cars were at the scene as we drove up. Just before we got out of the car a 14 year-old girl with bright red hair and wearing a baseball cap approached us and asked, “Officers, could you drive me home? All these police cars are scaring me.” We had her jump in the back and drove her to her house, lecturing her on the way about being out alone at night. Arriving back at the school, our sergeant approached us and said, “It looks like we got them all, except for a young redhead wearing a baseball cap.”

Roof job

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One night we got a call that burglars were on the roof of a corner drug store. As we approached the location we saw someone scampering across the roof. We drove to the back of the store and noticed that a telephone pole was conveniently abutting the building. I climbed the pole (the junior officer often got the dirty work) and stepped onto the roof. In those days the illumination from flashlights was puny, so as I walked across the dark roof I was basically blind. I kept taking small steps, then suddenly I fell. The burglars had chopped a hole in the roof and I dropped right through it into merchandise racks 12′ below. In the process I dropped my flashlight and my gun fell out of my holster. So there I was, flat on my back inside an unlit drug store, with bad guys maybe right next to me, with no flashlight and no gun. Somehow however this misadventure ended well for me, with only some minor bruises and injured pride.

Grandma’s demise

My partner and I were working the Day Shift in San Pedro when we got a radio call to contact the front desk at Harbor Division. The sergeant on duty said that a man from Boston had called and said that he hadn’t been able to reach his elderly mother on the phone for several weeks. My partner and I both knew what that meant. As was often the case with these types of calls, all the doors were locked tight and we had to find an open window to get inside the house. Once inside we came upon grandma, who should have never suffered such an indignity: alone, dying and finally decomposing in her own home. The moral of the story is simple. Sons and daughters – call your elderly parents frequently and if they don’t answer, don’t wait two weeks to escalate your concerns.

The dying declaration

One night we got a “Shots Fired” call at an apartment building in San Pedro. We arrived at the scene to find a man in his 20’s who had been shot at point-blank range in his chest with a .357 revolver. The bullet was “through and through,” entering the front of his chest and exiting out his back. We quickly determined that the shooting was over a drug payment dispute. We also assumed that the guy with the bullet hole was going to die. Our sergeant arrived and told me to ride in the ambulance with the victim to see if I could get a “dying declaration” from him. In legal terms this refers to obtaining a verbal statement from a dying individual regarding the circumstances of their impending death (who shot them?). If the shooting victim gave me a statement and then he expired, I could testify in court as if the words were coming directly from him, and they would not be considered hearsay. Despite my best efforts the victim wouldn’t say anything on the way to the hospital. I assumed he was reflecting on his last moments and my efforts to get him to talk were not important to him.

About a week later we were driving down the street where the shooting occurred and we saw the victim washing his car. We stopped and asked him how it was possible that he was able to walk around, let alone wash his car? He smiled and replied, “It turns out that the bullet missed everything. It nicked my heart, slipped past my lungs and brushed by my spinal column. I’m fine.” He then thanked us for helping him out that night. As we drove away I was thinking that there was probably someone else he should be thanking.

That’s all for now. I’ll exchange some notes with my partner George and write another chapter in a few weeks.

 

I Remember, Part III

Abruptly the poker of memory stirs the ashes of recollection and uncovers a forgotten ember, still smoldering down there, still hot, still glowing, still red as red. William Manchester

I remember when Asians were called “Orientals” and the only time I saw one was when a Japanese gardener mowed my neighbor’s lawn. And African-Americans/Blacks were called Negroes until about 1970. There were no Asians or African-Americans in my classrooms from grades 1 through 8. Same for Terri at her school. We did have one Hispanic kid at my school and we teased him at times (with no repercussions in those days) for being a “beaner.”

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I remember when my mom ironed our bed sheets. She used an appliance called a mangle that was popular in the 1940’s and 50’s. And when it came to individual items such as pants and shirts, they were dampened using water from a sprinkler bottle and rolled up before they were ironed. Steam irons and spray starch would eventually change that.

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My brother Larry remembers when the mail was delivered twice a day. This practice ended in 1950 but continued during the holidays for another 10 years.

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My brother also remembers when pennies were made of steel, not copper. This was due to metal shortages during WWII. I looked at my penny collection that I kept as a child and sure enough, the pennies from 1943 are steel, and one is starting to rust.

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In the 1950’s nothing was yummier than Jello. It was so popular that housewives started to experiment with molds, creating unique and at times scary concoctions with fruit, vegetables and even cold cuts. When people finally looked up where Jello came from the fad died a justifiable death.

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I remember when cars didn’t have seat belts. They were first introduced around 1960 when some car makers offered them as an option. By 1966 they were standard equipment in all cars and Americans hated them, with only about 10% of drivers/riders buckling up. The fatality rate due to car accidents was soaring however (60,000+ a year in the 1970’s) and gradually seat belts became accepted as a safety necessity.

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I remember when there were no paramedics. Ambulances were often Cadillacs that resembled the car the Ghostbusters drove. When called to the scene of an accident the ambulance driver and his helper, often with dubious medical and first aid skills would toss you in the back and take you to the hospital. The first paramedics came on the scene in Seattle Washington in 1970.

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I remember when a dinner salad in the 1950’s was iceberg lettuce with mayonnaise as the dressing. That’s it. If you added a little ketchup to the mayo the salad actually had some color.

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I remember when a woman had a baby she didn’t have to come home from the hospital the next day.

 

I Remember, Part II..

“My mind lets go a thousand things, Like dates of wars and deaths of kings. T.B. Aldrich

Let’s try this one more time:

I remember when a car dashboard had an instrument called a “choke.” Pulling back on the choke adjusted the carburetor’s air/fuel mixture,  making it easier to start your car.

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And speaking of… I remember when cars had carburetors instead of today’s fuel injection systems. And most teenage boys could repair them, along with just about anything else that could go wrong with a car.

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Keeping with the car theme, I remember when most people thought Japanese cars, including Honda, Datsun (Nissan) and Toyota were crap. We Baby Boomers changed that, nearly bankrupting Detroit automakers in the process.

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I remember walking down my street as a young boy with a lawnmower asking people if I could cut their grass. I earned a dollar a lawn but sometimes I got two $.

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I grew up in an older part of town and I remember seeing Gold Star banners in windows. This meant that a mom lost a son in the war. I once saw a window banner with three gold stars and I remember feeling bad.

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I remember seeing old men sitting on the sidewalk selling pencils. They were WWI veterans. My mom said, “Don’t point.” “Don’t stare.” But I couldn’t help it and I stared anyway.

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I remember when gas stations and convenience stores didn’t sell bottled water. If you were thirsty you bought a soda or found a drinking fountain.

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In 1959 Terri flew with her parents from L.A. to Chicago on one of the first Boeing 707’s. She remembers being offered a choice of entrees, which was customary in the early days of commercial jet aviation. Passengers were pampered throughout the flight and given moist warm finger towels to clean up as the plane was about to land.

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Terri was so impressed by what she saw on her trip that when she got older she looked into what was required to be a stewardess. It turned out that you had to be unmarried, not wear glasses or contacts and you had to be pretty. Terri was blind as a bat with 20/400 vision. Her flying days ended before they could even begin.


Terri remembers how women were treated in the workplace in the 1960’s. She once saw an unmarried co-worker announce that she was pregnant. She was let go immediately.

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That will do it for round two. I’ll think about doing one more, but I’m running out of stuff that I remember. Feel free to send me your own recollections.

I Remember..

“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”  Mark Twain

In October I’m going to be 68 years old. While I can think of a lot of things I don’t like about getting older, age does have some advantages. For example, young people need to read a history book or go on the Internet to learn about the past. But when you’re in your late 60’s you have accumulated so many life experiences and memories that you’re able to rattle them off endlessly to your spouse, co-workers or bored grandkids. So while I still have all of my mental faculties (which some people might dispute), I’m going to start listing some of those recollections on my blog. Here we go:

I remember going into a restroom and having to insert a nickel or dime into a lock to get into a stall. While some restrooms had a free stall, if the one you were in didn’t and you had no money, you were out of luck.

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I remember going to Sears and looking at the bones in my feet using a fluoroscope. Fluoroscopes were really just x-ray machines and in the 1950’s most shoe stores in America had them. They were finally banned when it was realized that the radiation they emitted was probably killing people.

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I remember that to make a long distance telephone call, you would need to call the operator to have her do it for you. If you said, “I would like to make a person-to-person call..” it would cost extra. But if the person you were calling wasn’t home, there would be no charge. And speaking of telephones, I recall when you needed to report an emergency you called the operator, not “911.” 911 dispatch centers were not widely in place until the 1970’s. Most telephone operators were women btw. Why? Because the job paid so little.

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One more thing about phones. Back in the 1960’s most people had a “party line.” This meant that two or three families all shared one phone line. When you picked up your phone to make a call it wasn’t unusual to hear another person on your party line talking. If someone hogged the phone it could turn into a running battle with a nearby neighbor.

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I remember when margarine was white. It turned people off however because it looked like lard (pig fat, which was used in cooking). So manufacturers decided to color it yellow. The dairy industry protested of course so in some states you had to mix in the food dye yourself (which came with the margarine) to make it look like butter.

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I remember when Americans ate horse meat. Yes, horse meat. During World War II and the post war years beef and pork were rationed and Americans turned to this stringy red meat as an alternative. While even suggesting eating it today would horrify a lot of people, back then it was no big deal.

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I remember being paid $1.25 an hour in my first job in 1964, which was the minimum wage at the time. Two years later I joined the Marine Corps and was paid $86 a month, or $0.41 an hour. Two years after that I made it all the way up to $0.81 an hour, but still not close to where I had started.

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Terri remembers when grocery store meat departments and butcher shops had sawdust on the floor. This allowed blood and fat to be absorbed and made for easy cleanup at the end of the day.

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I remember when you were at the movies and the main feature ended everyone clapped.audience[1]

 

 

 

 

 

 


That will do it for now. Much more to come later before I begin to forget.

 

Catholic School, Part II

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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.

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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.

Catholic School

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I went to Catholic elementary school in the 50’s and early 60’s and I know much has been written by people who had that same experience. But I have stories that must be told about the horrors I lived through if only to help prevent something like this from ever happening again. We’ll start with 2nd grade, my first year in what I look back on now as the beginning of a 7 year sentence at a penal colony for children.

My first teacher was a Franciscan nun. She wore a brown habit with a rope for a belt. She also wore sandals. She was very old and I was certain she was a witch. On the first day of class she spent an hour using colored chalk to draw a picture of hell on the blackboard. Then she drew a little child dangling from a rope over the image of hell. She turned to us and said, “If any of you die while you have a mortal sin on your soul God will send an angel to cut the rope and plunge you into the everlasting fires of hell!” We’ll, that pretty much did it for me. I needed to find out what a mortal sin was ASAP to avoid this terrifying fate. Unfortunately, there seemed be a lot of things that fell into this category, so I started to list them. Here are three.

1.    Eating meat on Fridays

This explained why we had to always have creamed tuna on toast every Friday for dinner. As long as my mom kept making this terrible meal I was ok. However, I later learned that she was really a Presbyterian so who knows when or if she slipped some meat into our Friday dinner.

2.   Not going to mass on Sunday or on a Holy Day of Obligation

This was not a problem in the 2nd grade but by the time I was in 5th grade it would become one. By then I considered going to church as something that wrecked a perfectly good day off. But I was dangling from that rope so I usually attended.

3.   Stealing

I think there are degrees on this one. Kind of like a misdemeanor versus a felony. So stealing a pencil was just a venial sin but stealing a bike was very likely a mortal sin. As people at my work know, I have always coveted other people’s property. In some kind of perverse way that’s probably what got me interested in police work and security. But anyway, if anything was going to get me into hell it would probably be this one.

Speaking of venial sins, I learned that while they won’t get you into hell you were not quite off the hook. If you died with venial sins on your soul you were sent to Purgatory for a very long time instead. It was a place very much like hell (fire everywhere) but with one important difference. You had an expiration date. Someday you were going to get out.

The Baltimore Catechism was my nemesis in my Catholic school years. We were often required to memorize the answers to questions in this book and if picked on the next day, stand up and recite them. I never memorized the answers of course so I had to take my chances and hope for an easy one. Like, “Who made us?” Answer – “God made us.” Or, “Where is God? Answer – “God is everywhere.” But then there were the very long answers that in my mind were impossible to memorize. Here is an example: “Is there any difference between the sacrifice of the Cross and the sacrifice of the Mass?” Answer – “Yes; the manner in which the sacrifice is offered is different. On the Cross Christ really shed His blood and was really slain; in the Mass there is no real shedding of blood nor real death, because Christ can die no more; but the sacrifice of the Mass, through the separate consecration of the bread and the wine, represents His death on the Cross.” There was just no way I was going to try and memorize this so I didn’t. And when I was called on and couldn’t answer questions like this there were very painful consequences.

My greatest trial in all my time at Catholic school came in the 7th grade. I spent the entire nine months trying to avoid being beaten to death by my 7th grade teacher, Sister Stephanie. She ruled with an iron yardstick and I was her #1 target. I once asked her if nuns wore underwear and she had the pastor come to the classroom and paddle my rear end in front of the whole class. But I won – I didn’t cry, which just pissed her off all the more. Finally the last day of school came and I was free! I survived Sister Stephanie! I thought if I could do that then my last year would be a breeze.

Summer came and went in a blur and in September my classmates and I were back at St. Matthew’s Catholic school. We were all sitting in the classroom talking and showing off our new shoes when the door opened. The room got quiet. I looked up. Our 8th grade teacher had walked into the room. It was Sister Stephanie.