Oh, Sugarbunnies!

I had almost completed my first week of kindergarten at St. Joseph’s Catholic school and I had a question for my Mother.

“Mom. I head some words at school and wondered if they were bad. Can I tell you what they were?”

My mother put down what she was doing and looked at me. “Yes, you can tell me the words you heard at school. It’s alright.”

With permission granted, I happily ran through an extensive and well rounded list of epithets and interjections that one would normally associate with bars and pool halls rather than Mrs. Jobin’s AM kindergarten class. As my mother sucked in a long breath, he eyebrows rose up her forehead as if she was inflating. “Yes,” she added as evenly as she could, “those are bad words.”

I was thrilled to have my assumptions affirmed and before the special moment was lost, asked, “Does Dad know any worse ones?”

“No. Your father doesn’t use that kind of language.” Was the reply. Happy for what I had but wishing I had found more, I left the kitchen and headed out into my five year old world to hunt down what ever knowledge I could find. After all, I had some swear words in my quiver now!

swearing

The best part of this conversation to me wasn’t the fact that I had been sent to a religious school and immediately discovered the world of blue language, but rather my mother’s response to if Dad hand any other gems that I might not yet know about. My Father, though a good and kind man, was also a platoon sergeant and must have been at the nexus of foul language for much of the time he was in uniform. Oh, if I had only known.

My Kindergarten discoveries were not however, my first dip into the swearing pool. The very first cuss word to escape my little mouth was a time honored favorite. It rhymes with “fit.” I don’t recall what made me say it, but I’ve been told about the conversation that occurred after I said it. Dad looked up and my Mother and simply uttered, “He didn’t learn it from me!” Dad had worked very, very hard at cleaning up what he said at home since when he was at the barracks, swearing was a necessary part of every sentence. You didn’t ask some one to pass the salt. You asked then to pass the fu**ing salt. You didn’t get into the jeep, but rather got into the godd**n jeep. Not using the swear word would have been like serving a burger with out the ketchup. He lived in fear of sitting down to dinner with his wife, child or in-laws of and asking for the “d**n gravy.”

No, my initial venture into the world of expletives came, much to her embarrassment, from my very straight laced Mom. The fecal swear was perhaps her one real vice. It was not used loosely about the house but came out only in once geographical local, and from this it derived it’s nickname. We referred to it as “the kitchen word” and when you heard it, you knew that things were not going well in there. Often, it was used following the sound of pots and pans hitting the floor.

My Mother has never been the swearing type and her mother, famously in family lore, once castigated her for using “Bull Tickies” when something didn’t work right. She glared at her adult daughter and replied sharply, “That’s pretty close to something I don’t like!” Grandma was hardly unfamiliar with swearing in the house she grew up in and reportedly, when he Father let loose with his ultimate, “God D*mn it all to Hell”, you knew that he had reached the end of whatever rope he was currently hanging from. To this day, that particular sentence still carried weight within the family.

Having apparently taken her Mother’s admonishment to heart, my Mom came up with her own fill-in swear. One that could never be tisked at by Gramma: Sugarbunnies.

This wasn’t the family’s first foray into renaming dirty words. For what ever reason, my Grandmother, the same one who wasn’t fond of “Bull Tickies” decided that she needed to come up with something else to call poop. For some strange reason, she settled on “Bunkie.”

I have no idea why.

What it meant though was that I grew up surrounded by an extensive family of aunts, uncles and cosigns who all used the word, “bunkie” to describe a bowel movement. It was normal to hear and for one of my more rambunctious cosigns, served as his vehicle for his first full on tirade. Confronted one day by our Grandfather and having been told by him in no uncertain terms that things were not, in fact, going to go the way he was demanding, the young and aggrieved party squared his jaw and told Gramp, “Your name is Bunkie and you live on Bunkie Street!”

This, naturally lead to peels of laughter. Not what he was hoping for. Later that week, my parents made a fake street sign reading, “Bunkie Street,” placed it at the end of their road and took a photo to give as a gift to my Grandparents. It was well received.

I have worked hard at keeping my own language in a realm that would keep both my Mother and Grandmother happy with me and for the most part, I succeed. I do slip from time to time, but it’s fairly rare. I never thought of my lack of swearing as terribly noticeable, and as it turned out, it isn’t… until I swear.

The time that struck this home to me was back in college. My roommate at the time was of the “thick” variety and had a habit of doing knuckleheaded things. Sometimes to me, sometimes to others. He wasn’t bad, just numb. One night, I had come home to find that he had ruined some of my things though his all to often, careless behavior. I had liked these things he had ruined and was justifiably mad. I had also had a really rotten day. Apparently, the other folks on the hall were so caught off guard by my litany of swearing and vitriol that one of them was dispatched to find my roommate and instruct him that he was not to come home that night, lest he loose a major body part or several quarts of blood. Now, I’m not the violent type and I truly doubt that many would find me imposing but these fellows whom I lived with were so caught off guard by the nice, quiet guy letting loose with his best profanity that they the consensus was that I had snapped. From this episode, I learned that swearing needs to be used carefully. Measure it out and place it well and your point will carry that much more weight. Just don’t do it when Gandma is within earshot.

Working by my self for years made keeping my language clean pretty easy for me. Action Girl has had a rougher time. She works as a sea captain, longshoreman and is a card carrying Teamster. The vocabulary of a sailor is a colorful thing and it has taken a good deal of effort, discipline and glares from me over the dinner table, lest Short Stack catch on, to keep her more dynamic speech in check. She works hard at it and I’ve become an excellent covert glarer.

My Mom also has worked hard to overwrite “the kitchen word” with “Sugarbunnies” and she has pretty much succeeded. It tumbles off her tongue without a thought and now, Short Stack has picked up on it. He thinks it’s hilarious. As she stands in the counter making a meal, she drops a fork to the floor and utters an exasperated sigh. Short Stack is making a pass thought the kitchen at the time with his toy dump truck and stops to examine the fork and the situation. He looks up at his Grandmother and in true Short Stack fashion, asks a question.

“Gramma. Why did you not say ‘Sugarbunnies’?”

With a little luck, he should be swear free until Kindergarten. Then all bets are off.

Standing on Tradition

There is no point in me denying that I’m a hopeless romantic. Freely, I will admit to having a rose tinted view of things that I have done or seen in the past. Hind sight might be 20/20, but perception can be heavily altered when viewed through the filter of nostalgia. The bad times fall away and only the interesting and fun tend to float to the surface; especially if that reflected time is of the simplicity of youth, now being viewed from under the worries of adulthood, covering us like a heavy bearskin on a hot summer day.

Such are my memories of primary school. I was fortunate enough to spend the first seven years of my scholastic life at Saint Joseph’s, a fairly small, private, Catholic school in south western New Hampshire. The building its self matched pretty closely to what most of you are thinking when I say “Catholic School”. Built of red brick with concrete, decorative touches, the structure was two stories tall and monolithic in appearance. Inside, the rooms had impossibly high ceilings with plasterwork that rounded flawlessly down to the vertical and became walls, creating a beautiful vaulted feel. The windows were of the type that were so common in the schools of old. Huge expanses of glass made up of dozens of individual, leaky panes with an opening portion at the bottom. These are never seen in public buildings anymore, all having long since been bricked up or covered over with depressing slabs of plywood in an effort to reduce heating bills with the added effect of sentencing the occupants to life under blinking florescent tubes.

The steps leading up to the massive, oak double doors are huge slabs of granite and though the thousands upon thousands of small feet from generations past barely shows, the black internal stairs are deeply rutted on either side, looking for all the world like they have been shaped by two endless waterfalls, now run dry. I can clearly recall walking them and wondering how many others had climbed them. Even as a little kid with the requisite lack of enthusiasm for all things scholastic, I had a very special fondness for this place. There was a lot to feel good about when it came to my attendance. My Mom had gone here as did all her sisters. Not only that, but this was my Grandfather’s school as well. The impossibly old and venerable man who I revered as the head of the extended family had been just another small boy here, walking these exact stairs just like I did. It was a fantastic thought.

There were no uniforms to wear, but dress code was closely adhered to. No jeans, no sneakers, No shorts and undershirts were just that; to be worn under a shirt. Decorated t-shirts were not acceptable attire. For what it was, the code was quite lax, really. Ties were not required for the boys and skirts, though often worn by the girls, were not mandated over slacks. Every kid simply had two drawers in their room: school clothes and play clothes and never the twain did meet. We thought nothing of it and to my knowledge, no one ever chafed under the rule.

The first floor contained the smaller grades, going from kindergarten up to second. Even with the expansive rooms and unreachable ceilings, it was a friendly place and made you feel safe. Every morning after attendance we would pile out into the hall way and sit down on the floor, one small butt per linoleum square, and the teachers would start the daily program. This was usually made up of announcements for upcoming special events, kids birthdays, or simply talking about the changing seasons. It was always concluded with songs and heartfelt prayer. That was my morning routine. Quite a nice way to start the day, if you ask me.

Upstairs, were the higher grades. Third and fourth, a small but well run library, the music room and the principal’s office took up the space. I believe that the administration for the entire school was simply the principal and his secretary. As I recall, the secretary also doubled as the receptionist and school announcer. No councilors, no vice principals, no department of redundancy department. It was all overseen by one principal, the school secretary and the teachers. I might also add that it ran very, very smoothly.

The central hallway off the second floor let to the “big kids” wing. There were swinging, double doors to this hallway and they were always closed. We feared it. They might as well have scrawled, “Here be giants!” over the doors. Little kids had no reason to be there and we craned our necks in tense curiosity to get a peek through the glass when walking single file, to the library. When they opened with a groan, we jumped and moved faster.

The day I was finally old enough to walk through those squeaking gates was memorable. It was a very literal right of passage. Nothing remarkable was down there of course. Just fifth and sixth grades, but it had grown huge in our imaginations over the last five years. Below these class rooms on the first floor was our double duty gym/auditorium where I had the chance to humiliate my self both on the basket ball court and the stage. It was a place for equal opportunity childhood embarrassment. Ah, the memories.

The last important part of this place was the church. Across a shared parking lot is the cornerstone Catholic church for the city. Every Wednesday, we would line up and head over for an hour or so for a private… well, I was going to say lesson, but it was somewhere between a lesson and a mass. What ever it was, it meant that I didn’t have to go to spend my precious Sunday afternoons in a classroom, and for that, I shall always be thankful.

With one exception (there’s always one, isn’t there), I had wonderful teachers there and over all, received a really top notch education at St. Joe’s. The school was never wealthy and I vividly remember cracks in the plasterwork and a finicky boiler that sometimes didn’t heat the place as it should have, but I never minded that. The tuition was not expensive but it was there and need to be paid. It was a sacrifice which all of our classmate’s parents made and I think it made us better students in the process.

There were no school vouchers, there was no support from the government and I firmly believe that it made the place better. They were beholden to no one except their beliefs and the parent’s of the students. If a student was a bad behavior, they were gone, and gone permanently. I wonder what ever happened to Shawn “The Toy Smasher”? He was history by second grade. Elitist? No, I don’t think so. It was a place of rules though, and if a kid couldn’t follow them, well… That was your problem, not theirs.

A lot of things have changed as time has marched along. First, there was my own personal break from The Church. A decision that was not made lightly. I harbor the institution no ill will but it no longer fits my world view. I do, however, miss the place it occupied in my life, though. I’ve also moved away. This is something that really eats at me sometimes because I would like nothing more then to see my own children get dressed up and head off to this wonderful place. They would be the fourth generation to do so in my family and the missed opportunity leaves me sad sometimes.

The last change is a happy one though. Not only is Saint Joseph’s School still there, but it had expanded to seventh and eighth grade as well. I have no idea where they have made the rooms, but it pleases me to know that it’s healthy and vibrant. On an impromptu visit I made a year or so ago, I noted that much is the same and much has been improved. The peeling paint and cracked plaster has been repaired beautifully and the stage where I had stood in school productions long past has seen a complete refurbishing. The massive and leaky windows were replaced with equally massive, brand new expanses of glass and steel, changing the look not one bit.

I will be sure to bring the kids there someday, just to show them where Great Grandpa, Grandma, and their Dad spent so much time in their youth. I doubt very seriously that they will ever have the chance to attend school there but hey, you can’t have everything.

Every tradition meets its end sometime and from that end, new ones begin.

Click, click, click… Bang!

Today Action Girl asked me a question that lead to another question that led to a show tune. The show was “Oliver”. The tune was “Wouldn’t it be Loverly”. The questions that got us there aren’t terribly important, but the fact that I could summon up small facts about this moldy oldie made Action Girl give me a look that said, “And you know this… why?”. I love knowing obscure and mostly useless facts, and Action Girl knows this, but my ability to pull up character names and individual scenes from a Dickens’ classic come musical was a bit extreme, even for me. The reason I know so much about Oliver, is that I was in a limited, off Broadway production of it. Very off Broadway, in fact. It went for three nights only at St. Joseph’s primary school. Admission was, I believe, free or perhaps a dollar. I was in 5th grade and I got the roll of “Fagin’s boy #6” and “Bystander”. I also had another crucial roll. I was a prop provider.

I won’t go through the whole story. You may or may not know it so I’ll just skim through the characters and setting.

Setting: Victorian era London
Hero: Oliver (duh!)
Anti-hero and father figure: Fagin
Evil Bastard: Bill Sikes
Heroin: Nancy

So to cut right to the chase, right at the end of the story after being dragged through so much merriment and mirth like most of Dickens’s writing, Bill Sikes (the evil bastard) is hell bent on killing Oliver for various reasons possibly including stolen… cakes, or jewels or… something. My memory fails me here. It’s not really important. The scene however, I recall. Bill, mad with bastardness, lunges at Oliver with a knife and Nancy, who has been the only really nice person in the story other than Oliver himself, leaps in his path to shield our favorite little street urchin. Nancy skillfully blocks about 5 inches of rubber stage knife with her chest at the moment the police come on the scene and shoot the murderer as he turns to face them. Oliver escapes and becomes Prime Minister… or possibly a super hero.

The run down of of the props needed for the scene goes something like, “Bobby uniform? Check. Rubber knife? Check. Fake gun? Hmmm.” Keep in mind, this is all taking place at a small Catholic school and having a cap gun, if not actively forbidden, was defiantly frowned upon. Even at this age though, I had a thing for firearms. I would never have brought a toy gun to school but this was my chance to save the day! I didn’t have a cap gun that looked like something a 1850’s bobby might have, but I did have a fairly realistic snub nosed .38! I loved it! It looked like the real thing and best of all, it had a cylinder that actually rotated. It took those special caps that looked like little, red plastic cups and fit over a metal bit in the cylinder. It didn’t fit the Dickensian era exactly, but it was the one that would be used for our play. I was so proud.
38-snub.jpgcaps.jpg

Back in the dressing room (actually the second grade classroom), they would have the P.A. speaker on and switched to the microphones in the auditorium. As various “actors” got ready for different scenes, we could all listen to the play for our cues and hear how it was going. By the time the final scenes were being played out, most of us were in the dressing room listening and waiting for our chance to go take a bow with all the others. I was listing for my cap gun. Finally, I heard Nancy’s shriek, the police barge in and then nothing… more nothing… BANG! Then stifled laughter from bemused parents. I didn’t know what happened but I knew something unplanned for had transpired.

After our bows and grateful applause, I found out what the deal was. A very unhappy school mate who played the bobby came up to me and reported that there was something wrong with my “stupid gun”. Apparently the cylinder had gotten off time with the alignment of the hammer and it wouldn’t hit the cap. What the audience had witnessed was the murder of Nancy, right on schedule followed buy the police breaking down the door and pulling their gun. Sikes recoils and… click. The bobby advances, aims and… click. He advances again, Sikes is now prone on the floor and… BANG! What the audience saw was in essence, Sikes getting a cap popped in his head Dirty Harry style. Rather changes the flavor of the story a bit. It took a while to live down, but I was still proud of my cap gun. She might not be 100% reliable in a fire fight, but if you need to whack a bad guy, she did the trick. You might just need to get closer than you planned. It also helps if he’s armed with a rubber knife.

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