Many words has been written about growing up in a Catholic neighborhood during the 1950’s and most of those words were wasted. The entire experience can be collapsed into a single word: no.
We had a no for everything.
We had venial no’s to cover the minor stuff. These were the things that were mostly ignored because everyone got away with them all the time.
We had the mortal no’s to cover all the major stuff. These were the things that could ruin your life and hound you for eternity, so we deferred them until our teenage years.
But wedged firmly between the venial and mortal no’s were all the things you were not supposed to do but which were so utterly compelling, you just had to try to get away with doing them.
Like raiding apple trees.
Eating an apple was the original sin, or so says Genesis. But I don’t think so. After all, an apple is no big deal. What made it a big deal was that Adam and Eve snuck around and stole it – and in the 1950’s Catholic mind the thought of sneaking around and stealing anything fired every synapse into a flaming fury of NO!
Could you think of anything more compelling?
So there we were, Stan and I, the era’s two children most compelled to explore the region that lay beyond the word no. Before us glistened a chain-link fence and behind the fence a lush lawn stretched toward an apple tree with fruit so tart it could make you kiss your tonsils.
“Here is the plan,” Stan said, “you climb the fence, knock down a couple fresh apples and toss them out. I’ll be waiting here.”
Like all of Stan’s plan, something seemed a little off.
“Why don’t I wait here while you go in?” I asked.
This would be the wise choice. The owner of the tree was a certain Mr. Gruber. a hot headed old German, whose temper was legendary. We knew he was home but we also knew he was in the front room because the sound of the ball game drifted across the house.
“Because I’m not scared and you are,” Stan said.
It made no sense but it made perfect Stan-sense which he explained. “You’re faster than me when you’re scared.”
What could I say to that?
So I hopped the fence, scurried across the lawn, picked up a dead-fall and launched it into the tree.
I didn’t miss the tree. I missed everything in the tree. The apple, with nary a whisper among the leaves, arced gracefully through the tree and ended its flight against the glass of Mr. Gruber’s kitchen window.
It didn’t break but it sounded like it did. An instant later, a furious, beet-faced Mr. Gruber burst through his door in hot pursuit.
Stan was quite right about one thing and absolutely wrong about another. I was fast when I was scared. I took the fence in one leap and sprinted up the alley but when Stan was scared, he was a whole lot faster than me. In the time it took to reach the end of the alley, Stan was out of sight but Mr. Gruber was not.
In fact, I made distressingly little headway against Mr. Gruber. He was close enough on my heels for me to hear his breathing but try as I might, I could not outrun him.
As we sprinted across a side street, Mr. Gruber started to fade and fearing that he might lose me, he called to another neighbor who was mowing his lawn and without hesitation or explanation, the neighbor joined the chase. Now I had two adults on my tail and it wasn’t long until I picked up a third. Within a block, I was dragging half a dozen neighbors, a milkman and several dogs.
Confident that the chase was in good hands, old man Gruber allowed himself to collapse against a power pole. It was the last we saw of him.
As we ran through the streets, the hubbub of the pursuing crowd roused more neighbors and by the time I made it to my street, I was leading a very large mob
Rounding the corner, I spotted my father.
He was doing what he always did on summer evenings, crawling around on his hands and knees with a butter-knife digging up dandelion roots. It is the kind of thing people did in our neighborhood.
When he looked up and saw his son pursued by a mob, without hesitation or explanation, he whipped off his belt and thrashed me with it.
After he was done, he asked the crowd what it was I did. No one knew and no one thought to ask me.
The next day, I ran into Stan.
“I hear you got away with it,” he said, grinning that big Stan smile of his.
“What!” I cried, “I got a whipping.”
“Yeah,” Stan said, “but your dad didn’t know why he was whipping you, so you got away with it.”
It made sense, perfect Stan-sense.