With the release of Denis Villeneuve’s new movie Dune, I’m thrown back to a time when I met the novel’s author, Frank Herbert. Once named the best-selling fiction novel in the world, Dune won both the Nebula and Hugo awards for science fiction and placed Herbert among the pantheon of science fiction authors like Asimov, Heinlein and Tolkien.
I was then a young upwardly mobile professional and there still existed a Borders Bookstore chain. I used to spend my lunch hour there combing through new releases and haunting the Middle Ages history aisle.
One day I noticed a display in the window of God Emperor of Dune. As a devoted (and huge) fan of the Dune trilogy, the book was a surprise to me. Herbert had already completed his trilogy with Children of Dune and Dune Messiah. No one expected a fourth book.
I hurried inside and found the book, (oddly in paperback) and scooped up a copy. It was then that I saw, sitting by himself at a card table in the corner, an elderly man with a white beard.
“You’re Frank Herbert,” I said.
I froze, unsure of what to do next. As the sweat beaded on my forehead, I grabbed one of the copies and held it out to him.
“I believe you are supposed to buy it first,” he replied. Embarrassed, I took it back, ran to the front desk and paid for the copy.
When I returned, he smiled and asked who it should be dedicated to. I hadn’t considered that. I blurted out, “me” wondering if that was appropriate. I’d never been to a book signing. Was there a protocol to these things? Would it be better to suggest someone else?
There was no one around. We had the bookstore largely to ourselves and I wish I had had the nerve to strike up a conversation and ask him the hundreds of questions I have thought up since then. But, in my tongue-tied youth, all I could come up with at the time was a feeble, “thanks” and that was it. I’ve regretted the lost opportunity – and cherished the memory – ever since.
It started as a day laborer job. The folks who were the caretakers of “The Alamo” (our ancient high school building) were regularly trying to keep the place from falling down and needed a couple of young guys to carry fifty-pound cement bags and cinderblocks up three flights of stairs.
Football players proved to be just the ticket they needed. My brother John (who had the job before me) greased the skids with the janitor corps and before I knew it my buddy Pags and I were employed. And in those knuckleheaded days of our youth, we loved hauling cinderblocks. We carried two at a time, racing up the stairs to prove our worth. It was good, exhausting work; we were happy for the money; and we enjoyed the grown up banter of the workmen.
They were a jovial group with a somewhat jaded view of life and a penchant for dirty jokes. The top guy for the whole school district was Richard Collachio (I’m sure I’m spelling his name wrong). He was a red-haired Italian American who was always in such a hurry that he was perpetually out of breath and covered in sweat.
No one could move fast enough for Richard; he was always pushing our deadlines. But for all his hyper expectations, he always protected his “guys” (us) from the “folks upstairs” (the administration). And since most of the janitors hated dealing with the people who wore suits, they were happy for him to shoulder the burden.
Our immediate boss, Joe Bednar, was Richard’s polar opposite. Joe worked hard, but was done rushing around to impress anyone. He liked to enjoy life and was kind enough to bring doughnuts to our coffee break most days. And if we were having a slow one, sometimes he’d let those fifteen minutes slide into twenty, especially if we were having a good time.
He and Richard had a love/hate relationship. Richard was always pushing Joe to work harder, always sweating the details and Joe was as calm a cucumber as God could make. As cuss words go, their discussions were really impressive, but I always had the sense that they liked each other and much of what went on was for show. Joe always delivered the work on time, never said a cross word to us (save one time – but that’s a different story), and still found a way to smell the roses that crossed his path.
Our high school was an old behemoth of a building built in a by-gone era when people made things as a testament to their labor.
Our high school was an old behemoth of a building, built in a by-gone era when people made things as a testament to their labor. Originally built in 1911, it was enlarged with a second building (united by a corridor between them) in 1928. It had Spanish style architecture, (hence the Alamo moniker), huge windows and a nice-sized auditorium.
To keep the place in shape for the six hundred or so students or who occupied it, (from grades seven through twelve) Pags and I were employed to work summers, holidays, and through every spring break. Most of the time, we spackled and painted our days away, as there was always something to spackle and paint. (Think of those hundreds of little gymnasium windows that every gym has. Guess who had to re-caulk and paint those insidious monsters? Yeah that was an entire summer).
But, we also were regularly tasked with janitorial duties: mopping the floors, oiling down the gymnasium floors, cleaning the bathrooms, incinerating the trash, (ah, the good old days), scraping gum off the underside of chairs and desks (my least favorite job) and washing the windows.
The bathrooms, too, were always challenging. The graffiti in the boys’ and girls’ bathrooms (yes, we had to clean both of them) always shocked me. The graphic nature of the caricatures, the commentary and – yes – the medium was almost always beyond my belief system.
It made me question the sanity (and the sexual predilections) of many of my classmates.
Some were funny (at least to the juvenile me). “Here I sit broken hearted, have to shit, but only farted.” Most, however, were just gross. It made me question the sanity (and the sexual predilections) of many of my classmates. People used everything: pen and ink, used tampons, and soiled toilet paper to perfect their art. And Pags and I had to clean it all up, sometimes painting the stalls over three and four times (those indelible ink markers showed through everything).
We kept those jobs all the way through high school and got to know all the ins and outs of the place. I knew, for example, just how to kick the boy’s locker room door from the outside to yank it open without a key. On our breaks, we hung out in the teachers lounge, explored the hidden passageways between buildings, and got to know all the janitors and administrative staff on a first-name basis.
Mid-way through my sophomore year, the school district opened a new high school. Sam Brown became head janitor of the high school. He was a quiet soft-spoken man with a pencil thin mustache. Joe stayed at the Alamo (which had become the middle school), so Pags and I stayed with him. Over time, we took great ownership in the place.
Every fall, when the teachers arrived a week ahead of classes, I’d get a kick out of their reactions to the newly restored building. I remember the surprised look on their faces when we took off the walls of the library to give it, what today is called, an “open concept.”
As students, most kids start off resenting school. They are forced to get up early, take classes, in which, they have little choice, respond to bells like they are prison inmates, and are assigned homework that takes up whatever time is left in their day. The lucky ones find a coach, a teacher, or two who can inspire them, make them think, or awaken an unknown talent or interest. But rarely do students think about the administrative staff that also makes their education possible. It’s like they are on the other side of the looking glass. We know they are there, but that’s about it.
Pags and I had the rare opportunity to see the school from both sides of the glass.
Pags and I had the rare opportunity to see the school from both sides of the glass. We saw the effort required to keep an old building functioning while hundreds of students daily pushed it to its limits. We got to know the staff as good, kind-hearted people who earned their living each and every day. We saw the pride they took in keeping the place clean and the disdain they felt for the purposeful destruction of the property.
During the school year, Pags and I inevitably returned to the other side of the glass as students. The admin staff left us alone with our classmates. We were, once again, no longer part of their community, but of a community they served. Sure, they would smile or wink when we passed them in the hallway but it wasn’t the same.
Kids can be rebellious during their adolescence and I did a lot of things for which I am not proud (again, another story). But, for all the things I would do, I never left a mess in the cafeteria or trash on the school lawn. I never stuck gum to the underside of a desk or wrote graffiti on the bathroom walls – not because I might have to clean it up – but out of respect for those I knew who would.
I was raised Catholic. And while that sentence sounds fairly passive, my life with the church was not. Although we did not go to Catholic school (my parents were public school teachers) much of my youth revolved around activity at St. Theresa’s Church.
St. Theresa’s was a small, stone church located on a steep hill at the edge of town. It had great wide steps leading up to two large wooden doors. Inside the church were the customary wooden pews facing the altar. Stained glass windows graced the walls as well as fourteen wooden carvings representing the Stations of the Cross. A main altar with two smaller side altars filled the front of the church. Across the back was a choir loft that held the organ.
We were one of many Irish- and Italian-Catholic families living in Briarcliff. You could always tell the Catholic families by the number of children. There were families with twelve and thirteen kids apiece. The Gleasons had six and were considered a small to mid-sized family at St. Theresa’s.
Every Sunday we attended Mass. There were CCD classes on Monday afternoons and confessions on Saturday. But those were the basics; everyone who was Catholic did that.
My brothers and I were also tapped for such things as shoveling the nuns’ driveway and running errands for the priests – usually to and from Weldon’s Deli and the town’s liquor store. (I know, the thought of a kid picking up liquor seems foreign now, but back then, no one thought much about it). Once we had received our Confirmation it also was expected that we become altar boys. This last was considered an honor in my family. And it was.
It was also a challenge. Before Vatican II, priests still faced the altar and the Mass was a ceremony filled with conventions and rites that were a mystery to all but the few of us initiated. The entire Mass was said in Latin so we had to memorize all sixty minutes of it. I remember sitting in a pew with Donny O’Hagan, Craig Hoffman and two of the Luke brothers on Saturday afternoons trying to pronounce the opening phrases of the Mass.
Ad Deum qui Laetúíficat juventútem meam
“Ah day-um kwee la feechi cot. U van too too may–um.”
Although laborious, there was something cool about reciting prayers the same way they had been said for over sixteen hundred years. It took us months to get our parts down and then we had to learn how to serve on the altar. It was like a choreographed play. We had to know where we were needed and for what, when we were supposed to stand, kneel or bow, and all the rules of the altar. “Never pass the tabernacle with out genuflecting, unless you are holding the Bible or the Cross, in which case, you bow.” “When holding the Bible for the priest, keep it at arms length in front of you with your head down. Keep the Bible steady and don’t cover the pages with your fingers.”
My favorite task was to ring the chimes. These were reserved for honoring the Holy Trinity at the start of the Mass and at the Offering of the Eucharist before Communion. (There were three of these chimes and if you hit them in the right order they sounded just like the tones used by NBC Television. But, only the bravest of us ever used them in that order during Mass.)
We dressed in black cassocks (long-sleeved robes that reached our shoes) and a white surplice (a kind of tunic that draped over our shoulders to the waist). There was a dressing room to the right side of the altar where we could change. This was connected to the priest’s vestibule (on the left side) by a narrow tunnel that ran behind the altar. We were expected to prep the altar for Mass (light the candles, fill and place the cruets with the water and wine, and ensure that the readings were marked in the Bible).
Mass was said three times on Sunday and once each day at 5:30 a.m. Weddings and funerals were usually scheduled for Saturdays as were confessions. One altar boy was always assigned to serve at each daily Mass, two at each on Sundays and up to ten on the high holy days of Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter.
The older boys got to do the cooler stuff like carry the cross and lead the procession into the church. They also got to light the incense and clink the chain of the thurible to spew smoke throughout the church. The rest of us mainly brought stuff for the priest to use during mass: the Bible, the water and wine, and water to wash his hands after Communion.
In those days, people knelt at a railing in the front of the church to receive Communion and the priest would move left to right across the altar to dispense the Eucharist. An altar boy would precede him, walking backwards with a plate made of brass. We were told to hold the plate under the chins of the recipients in case someone slipped; the Eucharist was never allowed to hit the floor. Because of this, I had the great pleasure of looking deep into the mouths of every Catholic in the village of Briarcliff for about two years.
There were three priests of note at St. Theresa’s: Monsignor Harrington, Father MacInnerny, and Father Dan Sullivan. Harrington ruled the roost. MacInnerny taught us the Mass. And Sullivan scared the Hell out of us.
Father Dan was a rough and in your face, tough Irish guy from the Bronx, who never lost his street smarts. One of ten kids, and brother to actor Barry Sullivan, he was big, bald, loud and as coarse a man as I had known to that point in my life. I never saw him smoke, but he always had a stogie in one corner of his mouth, which he chewed and ground down to a slimy stub. When he got tired of carrying it around in his mouth, he would hand it to the nearest altar boy, saying, “Here, hold this.”
He had it in for the Irish kids in the parish, because he thought we all shared his underlying demonic nature. I remember once, Frank Scully was in line for confession before me. He went into the booth and closed the curtain. I waited for about thirty seconds, imagining the small sliding door opening for him so he could unburden his soul.
“WHAT?” Father Dan’s shout pierced the quiet of the church. I was so scared I decided to wait another week to confess my sins.
Father Sullivan was a devout man who believed that, through the force of his personality alone, he could move the congregation. This was especially true when it came time to sing the hymns. Unfortunately, he couldn’t carry a tune. He sounded like a baritone Archie Bunker trying to lead the congregation.
“HAH LEY LUUUU YAAA! He would wave his arms to signal the congregation. HA-AH-AH LEY LUUU – YAH!” When no one responded, he would yell at my mother, who was playing the organ in the choir loft. “JAN! Pick it up, up there WILLYA?”
With Vatican II, everything changed. The priests turned to face the congregation. The Mass was said in English. (Yes, we had to relearn the whole thing). The choreography was simplified. At the offering, congregants brought forward the “gifts” of water and wine. At Communion, they stood in a line with their hands cupped to receive the Eucharist. Gone were our little brass trays. There wasn’t much use for altar boys anymore. We mainly served as guides to the congregation, demonstrating when they should stand and sit and kneel.
Strange things began to happen. We had folk Masses where kids with guitars and cymbals rocked the church with more contemporary music. Non-Catholics were invited to join us at Mass (but not Communion). And during one Mass, Father McInnerny gave a Homily (the priest’s lecture on what the Gospel means in today’s world) on divorce and a couple from the congregation spoke up.
“What if we don’t agree?”
Thunderous silence. No one ever talked back to a priest, let alone interrupted Mass.
Father McInnerny had the presence of mind to suggest that anyone interested in further discussion should stay after Mass. About thirty people showed up. I did too. It was just sounprecedented.
I don’t remember stopping my service as an altar boy. It somehow just drifted away from my life. I never got to carry the cross at high Mass or light the incense or clink the chains of the thurible. I simply remember standing in the back of the church with the older boys and men (we were expected to stand when it was crowded). I often was tapped to do the collection – which was still a great honor. But other activities began to crowd into my life: high school, girls, sports. When I graduated, I went off to college and my folks moved away. I returned to St. Theresa’s twice as an adult. Both times for weddings. It seemed impossibly smaller than I remembered it.
Today, I am nowhere near the Catholic my mother raised me to be, but still, all these decades years later, when the priest begins the Mass and offers his prayers, I sometimes find myself whispering the responses in Latin.
In Briarcliff Manor High School, this was not an altogether laudatory term in the four years between 1969-1973. The cultural/generational divide of the late sixties had a cascading effect on the years that followed, creating a backlash against all things conventional. Short hair was out; long hair was in. Dress codes were out; jeans and tie-dyed shirts were in. Following the rules was out; protests and sit-ins were in. Gin was out; smoking pot was in. Jocks were out; hippies were in.
Much to my consternation, I attended high school during the one brief moment in time when being on the football team did not enhance one’s social status.Jocks were considered by many to be square, boring, and one-dimensional, if not intellectually slow.I didn’t mind this too much.I embraced the role of being a jock whole-heartedly and did nothing to defy the mold.I played a sport every season (whether I was good at it or not) and was comfortable in my conventional-ness.When Deryl Seemayer nominated me for student council president, he began his speech saying, “What’s wrong with a jock?He works hard, ‘round the clock…” (My speech wasn’t half as good as his and I lost in a landslide).
In part, being a conventional jock was a factor of my upbringing.My dad was a Marine, a strict disciplinarian who had clear ideas about how my brothers and I should look and behave.Every Saturday morning, when we were younger, my Dad would line us up in the kitchen to buzz-cut our hair.The Gleasons played football.We worshiped Vince Lombardi, a strong work ethic, and those who kept their noses to the grindstone.My two older brothers were also a significant influence.Although I never would have admitted it at the time, I revered them.I wanted to be just like them.To me, they were more than role models; they were larger than life.
So I became a jock and was happy to be one.But I had a secret – one that I guarded religiously and never disclosed to my friends in high school.
I could sing.
I don’t mean I could just carry a tune.I could really sing.When I was ten, I was invited to join the Columbus Boys Choir (think of it as the American version of the Vienna Boys Choir) one of two elite travelling boys choirs in the country.
Here is why it became a secret:
In elementary school, our music teacher, Mrs. Kuch, recommended me to the Columbus Boys Choir and urged my parents to have me apply for admission. My parents had always encouraged musical endeavors, and so were happy to give me this opportunity.
To be invited to the choir, aspirants attended a summer camp that served as a four-week tryout.We sang eight hours a day, seven days a week and were drilled in unrelenting exercises to perfect our range, breathing and control.One of those exercises was described like this, “Imagine you are holding an extremely hot cup of tea to your lips – so hot that if the tea touches you, it will scald.I want you to breathe in and sing so carefully that you don’t disturb the tea.It must never touch your lips.”And then we’d practice our scales, breathing ever so carefully over our imaginary cups of tea. “Oo – oo – oo – oo –oo – oo –oo.”We did this at the start of every practice, every day.
Two weeks into the term, we had parents’ day.Having never lived away from home prior to this, I couldn’t wait to see my folks.The school, of course, put on a show for them to demonstrate what we had learned under the choirmaster’s care.My parents proudly sat in the front row of the audience, with my two older brothers seated next to them.
And then, disaster struck.After performing two songs, the choirmaster turned to address the parents and started to describe our daily regimen of practice.“Imagine you are holding an extremely hot cup of tea to your lips…”Staring out from my place in the third row, I could see my older brothers clearly and I knew what was coming.A trickle of sweat rolled down my back and it wasn’t because the weather was warm. The choirmaster turned to us to perform our scales and elevated his hand to match the rising pitch of our voices.“Oo – oo – oo – oo –oo – oo –oo.”
My two older brothers fell off their chairs.They howled with laughter.To this day, they still tell this story, mimicking the choirmaster’s hand and singing in falsetto. “Oo – oo – oo – oo –oo – oo –oo.”When I came home from camp, the misery was unrelenting.By the end of the summer, I concluded that singing was not a manly thing to do and vowed never to sing again.
And I didn’t.I made my way through junior high and the first three years of high school without uttering a note.Those who knew I could sing forgot and my two older brothers eventually went away to school.
Which brings me to how Bobby Thompson changed my life.Bobby Thompson went to Phillips Exeter Academy, a prestigious prep school in New Hampshire that one of my brothers attended the last two years of high school. I went to visit him for a weekend and got to meet his newfound friends, most of who were on the wrestling team.Bobby Thompson was easily the most memorable.An African American from Blueville, West Virginia, Bobby weighed 300 pounds and was rumored to have broken an opponent’s leg in the ring.
In May of my junior year I attended my brother’s graduation from Exeter.Bobby was the student selected to give the commencement speech.He stood and, after some brief remarks for his teachers and classmates, acknowledged the benefactors who made his education possible and thanked them for the opportunity that it would provide him. And then, he did something unexpected.
Bobby sang Amazing Grace.
St. Augustine is credited with saying, “He who sings prays twice.”If that is true, Bobby’s hymn that day was worth a thousand prayers.Big, full-throated, passionate, his voice swept the room away with him on journey that humbled everyone in its unabashed grace and humility.He sang without accompaniment.He sang from the heart.And when he was done, the entire auditorium wept as one.
I had never experienced anything like it.It wasn’t a performance; it was an act of love and gratitude.I was riveted.And I was ashamed.Bobby’s hymn had laid bare for me my cowardice.He had never been embarrassed – could never be embarrassed – by the gift he had been given.In many ways it defined him, far more than his weight or his prowess in the wrestling ring.His confidence and his joy transcended ridicule.I, on the other hand, had been weak and afraid.
I returned home, went back to high school, and fell into my regular routine.But I couldn’t escape the shame that dogged me.I was so furious at how easily I had been cowed into silence.I vowed to do something about it.
Every spring, Briarcliff had a student variety show.It always was a funny mish-mash of talent featuring whatever the students that year could bring to bear.In my years, there was a plethora of singing talent.Billie Nininger, his sister Annie, Clay Callihan, Pat Moffett.I wasn’t sure that I could measure up.Their talents had progressed with the years. They played instruments.I was stuck with what I had learned up to the age of ten.My voice had changed.Old fears filtered through my anger and I panicked.My voice cracked during tryouts and I was so embarrassed that I stopped singing mid-song and walked away.
They let me in anyway.Two weeks later I was standing on stage behind the curtain, just me and my demons.It should be no surprise that I chose to sing the one song that had gotten me on that stage in the first place. I heard the announcer say, “And now Joe Gleason, singing Amazing Grace.”
The curtain opened.There was just me and a microphone.And the crowd started to laugh.I was a jock, after all, and jocks were supposed to be funny – they were not supposed to sing.I took a deep breath, thought of Bobby Thompson, and hit the first note.After a few more, no one was laughing.And then I let myself go. I don’t remember much after that; it became more of a prayer for me than anything else.
So, thank you, Bobby for redeeming me.“I once was lost, but now am found.Was blind, but now I see.”