There are, I suppose, a good many reasons to avoid both drinking and churches. One might be a teetotalling atheist, for example, although the problem I have always had with atheists, whether they are teetotalling or positively blotto six days a week and twice on Sunday, is that I can find no credible proof of their actual existence. There are plenty of atheists on television these days; one can hardly turn on the TV nowadays without someone or other peddling their newest atheistical tome and proudly proclaiming their disbelief, daring the Almighty to strike them down with a well-placed thunderbolt for their blasphemy, but you only see these people on the television, and I hesitate to point out that I also see Lucy Ricardo on my television and I know that she’s not real, either. If they want me to believe in their untelevised reality then they will have to come up with some better philosophical argument than their saying that they exist. The Bible says that God exists too, and you can see how much ice that argument is cutting. The other problem with TV atheists is that all they want to talk about is God. If I wanted to talk about God as much as they do, I would just go to church and listen to an expert on the subject. I mean, really, whose medical advice do you trust, Hawkeye Pierce’s or your family doctor’s? No, the reason I avoid churches is that bad things happen to me in churches. It has always been that way; on my next birthday, I’ll turn 50, and yet for large numbers of my friends and relations, I will always be the boy at the wedding.
Now, you must understand that I do not remember this incident at all; it happened when I was three or four years old and like a lot of stuff that happens to you at that age, it has long since vanished from the conscious memory. My parents went to a wedding with two of my brothers and me; the youngest two brothers hadn’t arrived yet. The wedding was a pretty standard one, as weddings go, or so people keep telling me. It was hot that day and, in that era before the ubiquity of air conditioning, the front doors of the church were open to catch the breeze, if there were any breezes available to catch. The happy couple were up at the altar getting ready to exchange vows when the youngest brother at the time, the Navy lifer, although at this time the Navy was still a future prospect and not something he was actively seeking out, rolled his big red fire truck up the main aisle of the church. My mother was embarrassed at this behavior, as you might imagine, went up the aisle to retrieve the brother.
The brother did not wish to return to the hard pew or be quiet; small children are uniformly uncooperative in such matters; and when presented with a physical attempt to remove them from where they want to be, they squirm like grafting pols caught red-handed in mid-peculation on 60 Minutes. He also did not want to leave his fire truck in the middle of the church’s main aisle lest some grown-up decide to appropriate the toy for himself. Small children regard all adults except their own mothers as untrustworthy at best and potential felons at worst, and the brother decided that he wanted his fire-truck back before some larcenous adult made off with it. The brother squirmed for all he was worth; he did not want to leave that fire-truck; and suddenly broke free. He ran down the main aisle, with my mother in hot pursuit. He grabbed the truck, stared wide-eyed towards the back of the church, and loudly announced before God and the assembled congregation, “Look, Mommy, Akaky wee-wee.” At this stunning piece of news the congregation, the wedding party, the bride and groom, and the priest all looked to the back of the church to see just what was going on back there.
What was going on is fairly simple to describe, since people have been telling me this story for most of my life. While my mother went up to collect my brother the Navy lifer and my father talked politics with the person sitting next to us in the pew I had taken the opportunity to wander outside and was, at that very moment and purely in a spirit of theological and scientific inquiry, urinating on a statue of the Blessed Virgin and trying to see how high I could get the stream to go. I was about to inundate the Holy Mother’s knees when my mother grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and dragged me off to one side of the church so no one could see her not spare the rod on my backside.
The story lives on, of course, and if everyone who has ever told me over the years that they were in the church that day had actually been in the church, the place would have to be the size of Yankee Stadium. I don’t remember any of this at all, neither my excretory assault on the statue nor the spanking afterwards. I am told that it caused a huge sensation in the church followed by waves of hysterical laughter, so much so that the priest held the wedding up for fifteen minutes so the bride could go into the sacristy and redo her makeup. Apparently she cried so hard her mascara ran down her face and she needed to clean up so as to look presentable in the wedding pictures.
As for the not drinking, well, that happened a few years later, when I was about twelve or so and on the cusp of adolescence, an always precarious place to be. At that age you want to try new things, experience new sensations, and one of the best ways of doing both, I found, was to raid my father’s liquor cabinet when no one else was around. It was Easter Saturday when disaster finally caught up with me. My father brought the brothers and me to church so that we could go to Confession, and when we were done confessing our sins and saying our penitential prayers my father brought us all home, whereupon they all disappeared like wallets at a pickpocket convention, leaving me with the unenviable task of clearing out the gutters. I did not want to clean gutters, but my mother was going shopping and she wanted the gutters cleared by the time she got back and she made it plain that she would brook no opposition to her desire for cleared gutters. So, I went and did it. Clearing gutters is not fun at the best of times, but clearing gutters when the leaves in the gutters are wet, sticky, and both loathsome and noisome to behold is just disgusting, and I was incredibly happy when I tossed the last of that vile-smelling gunk over into our neighbor’s heavily wooded back yard. Then I went inside, where Nemesis awaited me.
At first I resisted the siren’s call; I wanted to clean myself up first, but the impulse to taste some of my father’s brandy got the better of me and so I hied me hence to the liquor cabinet, where I took a sip of his good brandy straight out of the bottle. Then I took another sip…and another…and another…and another…until I had sipped about half the bottle away. Realizing the sudden fall in the brandy level might cause some consternation should someone notice it, I immediately raised the level to its pre-binge point by pouring grape soda into the bottle, which I reasoned was, like brandy, made out of something reasonably grapish and so would cause no notice should someone decide to have a brandy that day, which was not likely. My father was not a drinker and he only opened the liquor cabinet for St. Patrick’s Day and New Year’s, so I had about eight months to come up with a convincing story explaining how come his good brandy tasted like grape soda. After I covered my tracks, I went into the living room and flopped down on the couch to read the local paper. They were running a story on the dangers of teenage drug abuse, especially, as I remember it, barbiturates, and I read the story with great interest.
It was at this point that my mother came in from shopping. We said hello, and she told me later that I appeared fine to her at that point. She went into the kitchen and asked if anyone had called and I said not a soul called, not even my aunt Ellen, who telephones complete strangers at all hours of the day and night and keeps them on the phone for hours at a time while she complains about her health and how her evil guttersnipe children (they’re actually very nice, for relatives, that is; it’s just that she really is that much of a pain) were driving her to the poorhouse, and then my mother asked me to put the toilet paper in the bathroom. I said okay; I always try to be accommodating; and started into the kitchen.
The reader will have to take this next part on faith, since I don’t remember any of this at all, given the total blackout I was then operating in. I remember getting up, and then the veil descended. It appears that I staggered into the kitchen, took the toilet paper, and then staggered again into the bathroom, where I promptly fell face-first into the bathtub. My mother, frightened by this unexpected turn of events, came into the bathroom and asked if I was all right. I said I was, and then attempted to tell her what I’d just read in the paper about the dangers of barbiturates; what I actually said was Reds…reds…reds... Apparently, I was not clear in my explanation, because once my mother deduced that I was not talking about the threat from the international Communist conspiracy or the eponymous Cincinnati baseball team, which, for those of you who don’t follow such things, is the oldest professional baseball team in the United States, beginning its first season in 1876, she thought I had actually taken some barbiturates and immediately called for an ambulance. I was not happy about this and I must say now that I am glad that the only thing I hit with my Little League Louisville Slugger was the kitchen table and the living room wall and that no emergency medical technicians were injured trying to get me into the ambulance. They succeeded, of course, without too much bother; I was having gravity and balance issues at the time and so posed no real threat to anyone except myself.
Upon arrival at the hospital, the doctors pumped my stomach, something I would have preferred them not to do, as it revealed the full extent of my crime to all and sundry, including my waiting and anxious parents, who, afraid that they had a drug overdose on their hands, found to their chagrin just another drunken Irish-American roaring boy and therefore nothing to get really worried about. My brothers tell me it was incredible the way the emphasis shifted from anxiety about my health to outright anger about how much my little hospital jaunt was going to cost them. Parents can be like that, I hear.
And so the conquering debauchee returned home, draped over his father’s shoulder while this very same father announced to the entire neighborhood his son’s transgressions (Neighbor: Barney, how is the boy? Father: the little son of a bitch is drunk, that’s all; nothing wrong with him otherwise). And then I was washed in cold water like colors and then in hot like whites, none of which made any impression, and then I was parked in a chair and left to sleep it off.
The veil ascended and the fog cleared in the middle of the Mary Tyler Moor Show. I came to with a splitting headache and more than a little surprised that my hair, which had been dirty, was now clean; it’s strange the things that stick in your mind, isn’t it? The other thing that sticks in the mind is the reproachful glares of my mother and the snickering of my brothers. My response to both glare and snickers was to deny I was or had ever been drunk. It’s not much of an excuse, I know, but I didn’t know about my stomach being pumped at that time and so total denial of everything seemed a good idea until I could figure out what the hell was going on. Much of life, I’ve found since then, is just making it up as you go along and denying everything is usually a smart idea, except, of course, if you haven’t had your stomach pumped first.
The next day was Easter Sunday and I spent the first few hours of the most important day in the Christian year kneeling in peristaltic penance before the toilet, convinced that there were large groups of malicious people inside my head trying to get out and using whatever power tools were at hand to accomplish just that. It amazed me then, as it does now, that I was able to think at all, much less that there was still anything in my system to spew forth, given the pumping I’d gotten the day before, but the proof of the pumping was in the bowl. At the same time, I now reeked like the Bowery was my home address, the sour stench of alcohol exuding from every pore no matter how hard I tried to wash it off. I tried to get out of going to Easter Mass, telling my parents that I was too sick to go, but I noticed that my father was controlling his temper and I quickly backed away from what I still feel was a reasonable request. My father’s reaction, though, convinced me that this was probably not the best time to bring the subject up. My father seldom controlled his temper; displays of wrath were fairly common when I was growing up; and so we knew that when he controlled his temper it was because he was mad enough to put his fist through one of our heads. As much as I wanted the people inside my head at the time to stop banging, I didn’t want it that much.
My father’s one concession to me that day was his letting me sit in the back of the church, on a folding chair next to the table of the guy who handed out the church bulletins. That way I had a clear run at the bathroom, if I needed to use it. I remember that Easter Mass primarily as a horror of heat and the heavy scent of flowers. The church was packed with people and the closeness and the smell of the flowers and the heat made me incredibly nauseous and caused the sweat to pour off like I’d sprung a million little leaky beer taps; even with the smell of the flowers I can still remember the people standing in the back behind the pews sniffing and then looking at me strangely. After the passage of several years, during which time neither the Yankees nor the Cubs won the World Series, the destiny of man on earth was not affected in any way by the rise and fall of the price of tea in China, and tone deaf dwarves played Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen backwards using kazoos and whoopee cushions, the Mass finally arrived at Communion, which for most of the parishioners means the end of Mass, since the partaking of the Body of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, was and still is, I’m told, followed by a hundred yard dash to get to the parking lot and on the road before the inevitable traffic jam begins. Religion should be inspirational, I think, and there’s nothing more inspirational than beating the traffic.
I just want to say, at this point, that going up to Communion was not my idea; my father made me do it. All I wanted to do was to get out of the church and into the fresh air as soon as possible, but the sight of my father looking at me like Abraham getting ready to sacrifice Isaac (or Ishmael, if you prefer) and not at all keen to take up the Lord’s offer of a free ram instead of the son convinced me to head up to the altar rail. I remember people looking at me oddly in my sweat-soaked blue suit and my distillery stench, and I remember Monsignor Riordan look at me even more oddly, as if he couldn’t make up his mind to give me Communion or not, but he did and moved on, casting a frown my way as he went down the altar rail. I blessed myself and stood up, and then foundered in a tsunami of nausea. I realized, to my horror, that I had no time to stand on ceremony, and so I bolted down the main aisle, almost knocking some of my classmates over as they waited on line for the Sacrament. I had to get to the bathroom, there was no denying the urge, I had to get there, I had to make it, I had to make it…
I didn’t make it—I threw up in the baptismal font in the back of the church, heaving the transubstantiated Body of Christ into the holy water as if He was in a huge hurry to get out of such a low rent personage as myself. This was an especially poor choice of receptacle, as a young couple was standing next to the font waiting to have their first-born, a boy, baptized, the mother reacting to my defiling the holy water with a loud scream. I felt the outraged young man punch me in the ribs, which knocked the breath out of me for a moment, and then he tried to pry me away from the font; I still remember him holding me by my shirt collar and my choking because he’d cut off my windpipe. Then my father, as he was wont to do in situations like this, knocked the guy on his ass and dragged me out of the church. I don’t remember how my mother and brothers got home from church that day; I was too busy getting my ass kicked from one end of the house to the other and back again. Pop wasn’t happy that day, not at all.
Since that day, then, I have avoided strong drink and churches, the first because I don’t like the feeling of not being in control of myself, and the second because embarrassing things happen to me on a regular basis in churches and I would just as soon avoid these situations whenever possible. I do resent the fact that my brothers, who have found themselves in the drink taken more than once since then, will bring this discreditable tale up whenever they need a good laugh, even though that was the last time I ever got drunk, but there doesn’t seem to be anything I can do about this now except live with it. It happened and they’re never going to let me forget it. Having brothers can be a royal pain in the ass sometimes. I did go to my father’s funeral Mass, which was in the same church as my misadventure all those years before and I managed to get through the Mass without embarrassing myself. I noticed on the way out that the baptismal font still has a big spot where my stomach acid ate away the finish on the stone. I don’t know why seeing that spot cheered me up; just a reminder of my father in the good old days, I guess. And I occasionally see that young couple whose son’s baptism I so rudely interrupted; I think they’re Presbyterians now.