Southern Legitimacy Statement: Born in Chicago with maternal grandparents, who went back to the drawing board for childcare, probably saved me from a stint in Joliet. Mom was a “wild-child” in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. Nana solved that by hiring two strong-willed black nannies from the South. Miss Roberta then Miss Betty were given total authority over mom and her sister. These ladies were rehired when I showed up. Well before the Marine Corps, the first words out of my mouth were Sir, Ma’am, Please, Thank-you, You’re most welcome, and May I?. Miss Betty taught me to cook oatmeal, grits, “dirty gravy” with greens over toast, and a myriad of vegetables for entree’s. We had garnet yams growing on the South-facing kitchen window 13 floors up. I learned the classic variations of “Uhn, huh, hmm…” with accents like Chinese to have a conversation or show you were paying attention before it was known as Black English. I was a Yankee boy lucky to be “Raised and Praised up right.”
In September of 1960, the first day at St. Joseph’s Military Academy consisted of checking in, a proper haircut, and an initial indoctrination. I lugged my duffle bag with a complete uniform issue through check-in. A senior eighth grade cadet pointed to a doorway for my next station.
Inside, a line of new cadets aged from first to eighth grade formed along the wall. At the far end of the hall, a barber snipped away clumps of wavy hair from a startled newbie. His clippers buzzed as a cadet swept the scattered locks up from the dull green linoleum floor into a waste bin.
Quiet conversations droned among the boys in line. A number of new wee tykes had tears in their eyes. A young novitiate in a black-over-deep-blue habit consoled them. They were homesick already. Subjecting first and second grade children to a military boarding school seemed odd to me. Maybe they were Spartans who survived the mountaintop.
Experienced returning cadets were already in their recreation halls by grade level. They had arrived in uniform with military haircuts. Small groups of them with their parents and siblings were chatting among teaching nuns. Smiles, shoulder pats, and occasional laughter trickling throughout the hallways helped the time pass. Observing the black and white habited Sisters bantering informally with cadets and parents assuaged some of my fears.
However, one caveat kept me on guard. These friendly dialogues surrounding me were among Roman Catholic families and the Vatican’s own version of Women Marines, the teaching order of the Sisters of St. Joseph. My parentage was half Irish and half Brit/Canuck. I was also an Episcopalian. That sort of made me an Irish wolfhound among the Vatican lions.
* * *
My priest, Father Mainor, had been appalled at my parents’ decision to send my brother Ricky and me to a Catholic military boarding school. Since we were already enrolled and our complete uniform issues were packed, he went ahead with a game plan to ease my transition. It rivaled any strategies the Chicago Blackhawks had to handle the Toronto Maple Leafs.
For a couple of hours a day during my remaining week before leaving, we reviewed prior catechism lessons and New Testament highlights. Since my little brother was going into fourth grade, he was too young for any religious academics. On the other hand, I was already confirmed.
I was also considered a bit iconoclastic due to my questioning some of the religious authority and historical events. Father Mainor welcomed these exchanges in our discussions. But he cautioned me that any such inquisitiveness during, or even outside of, classes at St. Joseph’s would be viewed dimly.
On our last day, Father gave me a folded note to study before arrival at the academy. He told me it contained two important things to learn and remember about the Sisters.
“First, Flip, always remember they really do love you. These women have taken a lifetime vow to ensure your well-being…whether you want it or not.”
He smiled, winked at me, and dipped his head to signal if I’d understood his meaning. I nodded in agreement, so Father Mainor continued,
“Ah, that brings us to the second issue you’ll deal with. You already know Roman Catholics consider Episcopalians, along with Lutherans, to be temporarily astray theologically. Many of the Catholic clergy are convinced it is their primary duty in life to help us return to the Vatican family. Because you’re confirmed, they’ll ask if you want to be excused from any catechism classes. Do not take that option, Flip. Tell them you wish to stay in those classes. It will help you to understand our faith. It will also earn you respect from your teaching nuns. Hold your doctrinal questions until weekends for discussions here. The Sisters of St. Joseph won’t be receptive to any contrasting viewpoints evolved from the Protestant Reformation. Don’t even think about it. Got that, kid?”
“Good. Now that note…don’t deviate from the two scripted responses I’ve written for you. They already know you’re confirmed as an Episcopalian. Soon after your arrival an experienced Sister will contact you. It will be just light conversation for introductions. Once that’s done, the real purpose will come out. This Sister will politely let you know about their duty to help you return to the authentic or true teachings. Don’t get miffed about it. It’s just her sworn duty.
Be polite, articulate, and go by the script. You were in theater at Parker so you’ll know your lines. Give the nun your best Irish smile, look her right in the running lights, dot your ‘i’s, and cross those‘t’s. So, are you ready for tomorrow?”
“Yeah, Father, I guess so.”
“Flip, I know what you’re thinking. Look at the bright side. Not having any young ladies to chase for the school year will have you all rested up for next summer.”
“Yeah, and there’s always the benefit of my having fewer adventures to bore you with during Saturday confession, huh, Father?”
He smiled and then we shook hands. I put the note in my blue jeans’ pocket and headed up the block for my last supper of a cheeseburger, crispy fries, and a black-and-white malt from Johnny at Cotler Drugs on the corner.
* * *
I leaned against the wall, pulled out my steel comb, and realigned my blond
Brill-Creamed mane. My attire consisted of cuffed blue jeans, high-topped black and white Converse sneakers, and a leather jacket. My father wasn’t too keen on the James Dean look so the jacket was a dark orange-red Western-styled affair.
I grinned at a punch line for an Irish joke whispered by a seasoned Polish cadet beside me. He decided to forego the required haircut and was promptly sent to our line. I learned later this, and other rebellious endeavors, had been his modus vivendi since his parents dropped him off in first grade. He definitely was a Spartan survivor and was also in my sixth grade class.
An elderly nun in black and white strolled toward us with her arms clasped behind her. My clothing and pompadour must have prompted her attention. She stopped and turned with military precision to face me. The Sister looked me up and down then broke into a broad smile. Her aquamarine eyes glittered like Austrian crystal through her wire-rimmed spectacles.
I smiled back at her.
The Sister rocked back and forth on her feet then spoke, “Well, Cadet Hollywood, it looks like you’re finally going to get a decent haircut.”
The reception hall fell silent except for the buzzing of the barber’s clippers at the far end. The veteran Polish cadet next to me sidestepped two strides away quietly while looking down.
I grinned and replied, “Yeah.”
I came to, after a sharp crack accompanied by a white flash, on the floor by the wall with one leg over my duffle bag. The other cadets snickered along their line.
The nun stood over me with her arms again clasped behind her. Her head tilted while she still grinned. The left side of my face throbbed and burned.
She leaned down toward me and whispered, “It is Yeah, SISTER.”
I was still holding my face and replied, “Yes, Sister.”
She nodded and quipped, “Ah, and you’re a quick study, too. What is your name?”
I jumped up and faced her. I wasn’t really angry. Curiosity overtook any reactions I may have had. Just who was this lady? This Sister strolled up to me and joked about my hairstyle like Pat O’Brien.
Then I came to at her feet as she grinned down at me like James Cagney. Funny…she didn’t look Irish, but she hit like one.
I smiled and told her my name, making darned sure to add the Sister.
The nun nodded again then spoke, “I’m Sister Pietro. My class is the eighth grade and I have other duties regarding behavior throughout the upper grades. Your name is on the sixth grade roster. You and your younger brother are listed as non-Catholics. May I be impertinent in asking what faith your family is?”
In my best formal use of the King’s English, I answered according to my script,
“My pleasure, Sister. We are Episcopalian and I am confirmed in the records of
The Church of Our Saviour at Fullerton and Clark Street on the North Side.
My priest is the Right Reverend Father Mainor from Toronto, Canada.”
Sister Pietro chuckled, “… and a bright heretic, to boot. You are probably aware it is my sworn obligation to attempt your conversion back into our community.”
I paused, remembering those dotted ‘i’s and crossed ‘t’s, served up my deepest stare right into her aqua crystals, and repeated the second phrase of Father’s note, “Oh, yes, Sister. I am looking forward to any ecumenical challenges.”
Her eyes twinkled as she laughed. She reached up with her right hand and gave a gentle tug on my left ear lobe followed by a faint tap on my left cheek. Then Sister Pietro murmured, “Me too, Cadet Hollywood. I’ll introduce you to your teacher, Sister John Mary, after all these formalities are concluded.”
In that moment, we became joined at the theological hip.
Sister Pietro turned on her heels, stepped off, and resumed patrolling the haircut line. The other newbies stared at me. By the end of the afternoon, my nomme de guerre would be The Heretic to many of the cadets.
Sister Pietro called me Cadet Hollywood the rest of that year.