Many words have been written about growing up Catholic in the 1950’s and most of those words have gone wasted.
The entire experience can be collapsed into a single word: NO.
We had a NO for everything.
Minor NOs were called venial sins. These were the things that we mostly ignored because everyone got away with them all the time.
Major NOs were called mortal sins. These were things that could 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 that you had to at least 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 sneaked 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 made 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 because the sound of a ball game echoed from his radio on the far side of the house.
“Because I’m not scared as you,” 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 and scurried across the lawn to pick up a dead-fall and launch it into the tree.
I didn’t miss the tree. I missed everything in the tree. The projectile with nary a whisper among the leaves, arced gracefully through the branches and ended its flight against the glass of Mr. Gruber’s kitchen window.
It didn’t break the glass but it sounded like it did. An instant later, a 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 couldn’t lose him.
As we sprinted across a side street, Mr. Gruber started to fade and fearing 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 I was guilty of. 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.