Friday, April 14, 2006

So I Pop the Alka Seltzers and: Is This the Way Tommy Will Die?

[Continuation of memoirs for my four kids and 13 grandchildren who one day may read this].

When we, the Knights of Columbus St. Cloud Degree Initiation Team got to Duluth, we mingled with the incoming group of freshmen, huge, barrel-chested men from the Iron Range, most working in the ore mines, most either from eastern Europe or second generation. When I modestly inquired of a mountain-sized man with rolled up sleeves on his plaid, workman’s shirt, and tufts of black chest hair peeping through his open-necked collar why he wanted to join the Knights, he said: “Wha’ you wanna know fer?” I quickly ducked for cover because I didn’t want him to think me nosy so I responded with a kind of rudeness he might understand: “Okay, forget it. I was just trying to pass the time while we’re waiting.”

“Naw,” he said, becoming quite nice, chuckling. “I just hadda fight wit’ my wife. She don’t want me to join dis.” Why not?

“Aw,” he said, “somthin’ to do wit her church thoughts. She’s nothin’. Not me. I see the kids go to church and I go to church and once in a while I make her go to church whether she lik it or not. She’ll say `I do what I want on Sunday’ I say, ‘the hell wit dat. You’re an `sample for da kids and if you don’ go dey won’ go someday. So you go. She says `get your hands off me’ and I say I will when you get dressed and go wit’ us. That kind of ting.”

Fascinated, I said, “You feel that strongly about church, huh?”

“Yeah. I come from da Ukraine; she don’, she come from here. She no know what we went throo. Stalin said no church. We went throo years wit’out prest [priest]. My mother die wit’out prest. I get out soon as can. Nevermore no prest. Nevermore no church. Anyone fight church I fight `im. Wot’s wrong with hand?”

“Oh, this? Funny thing. I was outside and a stray dog ran up and bit me on the fleshy part of the hand—right here. My wife bandaged it up.”

“Bad,” he said. “Don’ have wife fool with dat. Go to doc.”

“Yeah, I think I will. I’ve been sorta feeling bum ever since.”

“Bum how?”

“Oh, feel feverish once in a while.”

“Bad. You could get—could get, ra-ra-ra…”

“Rabies. It comes from a dog bite.”

“That’s it. Does it hurt?”

“Yeah, actually.”

After he left, the decoy Darry; Hurd floated by. “I think,” he said, “after looking that guy over you want to watch yourself on who you spit the suds on.”

Matter of fact, I decided, there are no chickens in this room at all. These massive brutes will kill poor George Stotko if they get their hands on him. Nobody will be hanging back after he hits the priest so I won’t have to use the tablets.

That’s what I decided to do but you know how twenty-six year olds are. I had the raw Alka Seltzers in my pocket and was itching to try them out. So the grumbling starts which we instigated, the convert becomes the hero, the Captain of the Guard insults the convert (“I got into this church the right way, not like you getting an Irish girl in trouble!”—and the room goes hot with fury. They’re trying to go up and over the wall of our guards. One guy runs from the back and tries to go through like a football player charging the line. Our guards start to buckle, standing in front of Stotko, shouting at him but all the time protecting him, having all they can do to ward off the fists, from the guy who talked to me earlier and others. Then the sick man goes into a tirade, pounds on the door, his eyes bug out and he tumbles, his mouth agape with blood. The decoy guards marshal their weight at the door and the insurgents are linking arms to blasting into them. The line starts to give way and Stotko almost catches one on his ear. The priest decides to go now and shouting, demands they make a path for him to confront the Captain of the Guard. At his sign, I drop to the back of the room.

No one’s thinking about me: the action’s all upfront and how I wish I was in it. “Who’re you?” Stotko shouts at the priest as the line almost gives breaks away again with huge bodies squirming to get at him. Then the key line and action: “At least I buy my liquor, I don’t sneak behind the altar and drink it!” The decoys jump up to hide the action, Stotko swings with the flat of his hand, the sound of a keen slap—splatt!—and they go over the guards, narrowly missing Stotko who’s running for all his worth, the entire room after him. The initiation is out of control with the gang of 35 or so circling around the room after Stotko—so there’s a need for me after all.

So I pop the tablets, go: eeeeeeooooowwww!...and start after them, trying to divert them from Stotko. Which I do. My friend the human mountain, eyes me, grabs me by the throat and slams me down, holding my jaws tightly closed—thank God I didn’t have my tongue in the way, his huge hands tightening in a vise around me head to keep my mouth closed, the Alka Seltzer suds going down my throat, me choking which adds to the excitement. Merciful Jesus, is this how Tommy will die? With some crazed idiot gripping my jaws with his huge hands? My mother will be informed of my death and will say “You say he drowned of Alka Seltzer with some Ukrainian holding his jaws shut so he strangled to death? Why? Why?” But then the lights go out, mercifully and the shots ring out. He relaxes his grip on me and I slip out and around the group in the dark, find my way to a back room and get dressed in another suit. Wow, I really have a pain in my back from when that guy tossed me down!

But such is the resilience of a twenty-six year old that the pain vanishes with the story telling, the reapproachment with the group when the story is unfolded and the long drive back to St. Cloud with all of us telling stories, including Stotko who thought surely he was going to be slugged this time for sure.

“Next time,” said Marty Nilan, “you’re going to be the priest. Our priest has to retire, his wife is getting after him to stay home on Sundays.”

Next time, the priest! Wow! Fun doesn’t get better than this!

The next trip, several Sundays later, is to Minneapolis where I make my debut as a distinguished young priest, in an immaculately pressed black suit with superb celluloid collar, rehearsing on how to reel back from the slap, fall back with all the dignity of a clergyman under assault and dislodge my collar at the same time.

1 comment:

  1. Tom- You are a National Treasure! The last two almost busted my gut. Keep 'em coming. They are the first thing I look for online each day. Cordially,
    Frank Nofsinger
    North Haven, CT