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Bucky F#@king Dent

Say the name, “Bucky Dent” aloud in Boston and you will stop any conversation cold. No one ever says, “Bucky Dent” in Boston. They say, “Bucky Fucking Dent.”

Some might think it odd that the name of a New York Yankee short stop would be so universally recognized in Beantown, but to almost any Bostonian Dent’s name symbolizes eighty-four years of anger and frustration at the Red Sox’s inability to win a World Series.

It was in Boston, October 2, 1978; the Red Sox were playing the Yankees in a tie-breaking playoff game for the American League East Championship. Dent, who was not known for his hitting, batted ninth and had very few homeruns to his name. Yet that night, Dent hit a three-run homer over the Green Monster to give the Yankees a 3-2 lead. They went on to win the game and afterwards the World Series. It was yet another close call with no reward in a city desperate for satisfaction. Worse it was a loss to their perennial rivals from New York.

In Boston, they hate New York. After that night, they hated Bucky Dent.

And, I was there.

Not at the baseball game – I was in town with my older brother Goose. Despite the fact that we are both from New York, we had come for the Harvard v. Dartmouth football game that Saturday and were staying at our fraternity’s headquarters on Bay State Road, commonly known as “The Grand Lodge.”

We had met up with a bunch of Dartmouth guys for the night and ended up in the wee hours at Kenmore Square, only about six blocks from the Grand Lodge. The place was packed with a sea of people, almost all of who were drunk and hungry for an early morning hoagie. There were maybe ten of us, striving to make our way through the crush of bodies to the counter. There were so many people, like Times Square on New Year’s Eve, you couldn’t move anywhere in a straight line. You had to move with the ebb and flow of the crowd’s tide to make your way.

I was about ten yards into the fray when I heard shouting behind me.

“New York sucks! New York SUCKS!” Clearly, the post play-off game fury had set in and some of the folks by the door were taking it personally.

I turned around just in time to see my brother sucker punched in the face by a guy with a buzz cut. Fists started flying and I realized Goose was grossly outnumbered. I looked for my Dartmouth friends to call for help, but they were too far away. I shouted, but they didn’t hear me and I knew if I tried to reach them it would be too late to help Goose.

I headed back. By the time I got to him, a cop had arrived. He was African American. There were about six or seven guys from Boston on one side of him and Goose on the other. I stood next to Goose.

“What’s going on here?” The cop demanded.

“That guy,” shouted Buzz Cut, “shit on Boston.”

“All I said was, “I’m from New York.” Goose wiped his nose to see if there was blood.

Someone in the crowd started taunting the cop, using the N-word.

“Are you going to let him shit on Boston?” Buzz Cut asked.

The cop looked worried. He, like Goose, was outnumbered and the crowd was turning ugly. Again, I heard the N-word.

“I want all of you out of here!” The cop waved his Billy club. “If you aren’t off this street corner in ten seconds, you’ll be arrested.”

I looked at the guys from Boston. They were itching for a fight.

“I’m out.” Goose walked away.

I knew they would follow.

“Wait. Goose! Let’s get arrested.”

“What? No. We’re done here. It’s over.”

“Please, Goose. Stay here. It won’t be so bad.”

I watched him walk away. The Boston guys were laughing. The cop was gone and Goose was heading back towards Bay State Road. I didn’t have a choice. I went with him.

“You know they’re coming.”

“Nah. It’s over.”

But, I could see them in the shadows behind us. I reached into my pocket. I had a lot of loose change. I shook the coins into my hand to give my fist weight and prayed I wouldn’t need it.

We walked the two blocks to Bay State Road and turned left. There was a streetlight on the corner and a party across the street in one of the row houses. People had spilled out of the front door into the yard.

They were still behind us. Four blocks to go. Three. I saw some movement across the street. It looked like a couple of them were running ahead of us.

“Hey, New York.” It was Buzz Cut.

“It’s over.” We kept walking.

“Hey, New York! Talk to me.” They were right behind us.

We turned. “Look –

Both Goose and I got hit from behind.

Now, I don’t know why I didn’t go down. The guy who tried to tackle me hit high and I instinctively bent at the waist. His momentum flipped him over me and he landed on the ground in front of me. I punched him in the face.

Goose had gone down, but I had other worries. I was surrounded.

Now, I’m not going to lie; I was scared. I felt my bowels start to give. (That’s right, I almost literally shit my pants). It was a “fight or flee moment” and it looked like I was going to fight.

They were taunting me. “Fuck you, New York.”

“We are going beat the shit out of you.”

I struggled to control my fear. There was a fence nearby and I figured if I could get my back to it, at least I would see the attacks coming. Unfortunately, one of them stood in my way. I hit him in the face and ran past him to the fence. I turned back – and realized my mistake. Now, I had nowhere to run. They stood in a semi-circle around me.

“How brave. Seven against one.”

Buzz Cut smiled. “That’s right. But, we’re going to kick the shit out of you.”

It was then I remembered the house party down the street. Maybe if I could fight my way there, someone would help. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was a plan. I sized up the guys on that side of the semi-circle and picked the smallest one. I ran right at him and punched him in the face. To my surprise, he went right down and I sprinted past him.

They were on my heels. I got to the sidewalk and felt someone grab my shoulder. I turned. It was Buzz Cut. We threw a flurry of punches, none of which seemed to land, but it gave me some space. I back-pedaled. Another flurry and I ran to the corner. They followed, The streetlight was one block up. It was Buzz Cut doing all the fighting. He chased as I back-pedaled. We’d exchange blows and I’d keep moving. One more block to go. I got about halfway down the street when Buzz Cut picked up a garbage can and threw it at my head. I lifted a hand to block it and Buzz Cut tackled me. As I went down, the others descended on me and started kicking. I covered up my head and hoped someone from the party would see us.

They did.

“Hey! What the fuck?! What are you doing to that guy?”

After a few moments the kicking stopped and a hand pulled me up. It was Goose.

“You all right?”

“Yeah.” The guys from the party had Buzz Cut, both arms behind his back and none of his friends in sight. He was younger than I expected. And, it was clear he was scared, expecting me to hit him.

“Get the fuck out of here.”

They let him go and he disappeared into the night. I turned back to Goose.

“What happened to you?” He looked untouched.

“The guy who tackled me, hit me in the head. I think he broke his hand. When I got up, he ran away. I followed you down here.”

And that was it. Other than a cut on my cheek and some bruised ribs, I was okay. Our buddies caught up with us later. They wanted to chase down the Boston guys, but I knew they were long gone.

After that, I never had any sympathy for Boston’s losing streak.   Although I have friends from Boston, I didn’t cheer for them in 2004 when they finally won the Series.

If asked where I stood on the rivalry between the Red Sox and the Yankees, I would pause and smile and then say I was with Bucky Dent…Bucky Fucking Dent.

That always ended the conversation.

Pre-existing Condition Part II. Fear and Loathing in the Nation’s Capitol

Merging your company with another can be a nightmare. And I was living one.

Sure, on paper it made sense. After downsizing our office to put us back in the black, it was easier to reclaim our standing in the marketplace through acquisition than trusting a slow, incremental-growth strategy. But, a merger-gone-wrong had been what started our troubles in the beginning, so I had little enthusiasm for another. I advocated for going it alone.

But it wasn’t my company and there were few other jobs out in the marketplace, so I acquiesced to our New York patrons and chose to make it work. My office was folded into a new firm, which was to operate as a separate stand-alone company. Given that our newly acquired partners were on an earn-out, I would no longer be in charge.

It wasn’t the best of circumstances but I had lived through worse. I made only one stipulation; due to my experience with another small, independent company, I insisted that the folks in our office have the option to keep their retirement and health insurance with the parent company in New York. They agreed and with the stroke of pen, I had a new boss and worked for a new company. We packed up our desks, moved into their space and began the process of integrating our business.

To make a long story short, it didn’t work. We had different business models, different management styles and different approaches to the marketplace. And, as happens in these types of cases, the internal politics grew uglier as the situation deteriorated.

Unfortunately, I was the guy caught in the middle. The management of the new venture treated me as an outsider – potentially, even a spy for the parent company – while the folks in New York were suspicious of my up-front opposition and worried about my commitment to the project. It was a no-win situation.

It didn’t take me long to realize just how vulnerable I was. I was a convenient foil for everyone to blame as the merger struggled forward. It was like I had the word “scapegoat” stamped on my forehead. One misstep and I was out of a job.

And I could not afford to lose it. I had a wife, three kids, a dog and a mortgage. I had to work. In truth, I wanted the merger to succeed. It had to succeed.

Then I found out I had Rheumatoid Arthritis.

I had gone out for a run around the block with my oldest son to work off some of my extra weight. As a former athlete, I was shocked when I couldn’t keep up with him. I pushed it, trying to chase him down, but nothing I could do would close the gap. I came home stunned. My son was only ten years old.

Other problems surfaced. After my ninety-minute, morning commute into town, I had trouble getting out of my car and walking to the elevator. On a business trip, I couldn’t lift my suit bag out of the trunk of my car. I thought I had slipped a disk. That summer, I couldn’t push myself out of a beach chair. It was as if I had turned ninety over night.

For those who don’t know it, RA is a horrible, painful, autoimmune disease that slowly disfigures and cripples those it afflicts. RA sends the immune system into overdrive until it attacks and destroys the joints of the body itself. There is no cure.

I found a doctor who told me what was wrong and was given the standard treatment for the disease: a regular dose of methotrexate (a cancer drug) and an anti-inflammatory in an effort to slow the progress of the disease.

It didn’t work. My body ignored the benefits of most of the drugs they gave me (and we ran through a number). My doctor said I should contact a patient group and perhaps get some counseling. My body felt like it was rusting. My movements started to slow. I had trouble with simple things like turning a doorknob, climbing the stairs and even walking across a room.

I was thirty-eight, felt ninety and was scared out of my mind. How much longer would I be able to work? How would I pay for my kids’ education? How would I pay the mortgage, the medical bills, our day-to-day expenses?

But, for the moment, I couldn’t focus on the bigger questions.  I had more immediate concerns.  I had to keep this job. I knew what a pre-existing condition meant and was suddenly stuck with the knowledge I would always have one.

I chose to keep the illness a secret.  I refused to tell anyone at work. I didn’t dare trust them. It would be too easy to isolate me – leave me out of new business meetings, or take away my direct reports – all in the name of being “compassionate about my suffering.”

It wasn’t being paranoid. It was being realistic. I couldn’t afford a gap in coverage. If I lost my job I would be uninsurable unless I found an employer large enough to wave the restriction – and one magnanimous enough ignore the implications of my disease.

I was stuck. So, I suffered in silence, steeled myself against the pain every time I shook someone’s hand or opened a heavy door. I made an art out of “sauntering” to disguise the slowness of my walk.

As to the merger, I had to find a way to de-escalate my vulnerability. There is an old business saying, “Keep your head down and let the elephants fight.” It became my mantra for the next two years. I took myself out of the role of middleman by suggesting that the folks in New York deal directly with our new partners. I kept away from the firm politics, kept my clients happy and kept the business coming in.

It took two years, but my luck finally turned. The five-year earn out was up and the folks in New York had come to see the merger for what it was. They jettisoned the acquisition of their own accord and asked me to retake the lead of the Washington office.

I had outlived the merger. And because I had kept my health insurance with the parent company, I did not have to reapply for coverage after the acquisition failed.

I was also fortunate that new medicines were discovered to treat and manage RA. Wonderful drugs like Enbrel and Humira gave me a new lease on life. I was like the Tin Man after Dorothy applied the oil. It was a miracle of modern medicine, albeit an expensive one as it cost an additional $1,500/month. But compared to a wheel chair it was not much of a choice at all.

I worked for the same company for twenty-five years. Now, there are several reasons for such loyalty. I was challenged often and made pretty steady progress up the corporate ladder (the above situation excepted). I liked the people I worked with and trusted their skills. But, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to being afraid of losing my insurance. As long as I was employed where I was employed, I’d be safe.

Many years after the merger, I left the company and struck out on my own with a couple of clients. I was able to skirt the pre-existing condition issue by keeping my company’s insurance through COBRA. And due to a change in the law under the Clinton Administration, I was able to keep my COBRA past its one-year limitation – as long as I agreed to pay both the company’s share of the bill and mine. It was incredibly expensive, but with a family still dependent on me, it was the only option I had.

After nearly a quarter century with a pre-existing condition hanging over my head, the issue became moot under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). I finally was able to purchase insurance in the open market. It was a huge relief – a stunning relief.   Free at last!

When I let go of my COBRA-created insurance plan, I received a notice advising me that that once the plan ended, it was gone; I wouldn’t be able to get it back. But, I was confident that Congress wouldn’t take back a program they had extended to all Americans, especially, since it is so much like the benefit they receive under their federal employee health insurance.

Now, of course, I’m beginning to have some doubts. Will I be able to continue my coverage if Congress and the President repeal the ACA as promised?  It hasn’t gone unnoticed that I have to “reapply” for my insurance every year in the open market.

They have vowed to replace ACA with a better plan. The question I have is, “Better for whom?” Believe me. It’s not a paranoid question; it’s a realistic one.

Pre-existing Condition – Part I

In October of 1982 I was all of twenty-seven years old and living a good life. I was two years into my marriage; my wife was six months pregnant; I had a good job with an up and coming public affairs firm in town and we had just bought a townhouse in the suburbs where we lived with a one-year-old puppy named Sophie.

My wife worked on Capitol Hill. Her boss, unfortunately, had just lost his reelection bid in a tough Republican primary, but since my wife had expressed a desire to be a stay-at-home mom, we took his loss as a sign and redid our budget using just my salary. We had enough – just enough – for us to make ends meet.

My wife’s pregnancy had been a bit challenging due to an undiagnosed bout with gestational diabetes. But thanks to the help of a specialist from NIH and a competent nutritionist, she was able to severely restrict her diet and get her sugar levels under control. Her health rebounded. All was good and the future looked bright.

That is, until November.

It started one day with a dunning notice from my wife’s doctor saying that our health insurance company had rejected his invoice. I assured him it was a misunderstanding and that I would take care of it. My firm had great health insurance coverage; it was one of the bigger perks used to recruit new employees. When I called the insurance company, however, I was told my company had failed to maintain its insurance premiums for the past several months and had been dropped from coverage.

There had to be some mistake. I called upstairs to the CFO and was told he would have to check it out. The next morning, I was summoned to an emergency meeting of our senior managers and told that the firm was going out of business. There would be no year-end bonus, no severance and no further salary distribution. Our doors were closing and the bank had frozen all the company’s assets. We were asked to continue to work for our clients in the hopes that a white knight investor might buy up the company’s debt and save all our jobs.

That, of course, didn’t happen.

So, let me recap. My wife and I had both just lost our jobs. She was seven months into a difficult pregnancy and we were no longer covered by our health insurance. Oh, and on top of that, we were likely just months away from losing our home.

That’s when I first learned the term, “pre-existing condition.” I called every insurance agent in town begging to find coverage. Although every one of them seemed reasonable they all gave me the same answer. Regardless of whose fault it was, my wife’s pregnancy was now uninsurable. Even if I were to get a new job, the pregnancy itself was “pre-existing” and wouldn’t be covered under the new policy.

I started to panic. We had enough saved to cover the cost of the delivery, but if there was a problem – if she needed a C-section or there was a complication with the baby – we had no means to cover the additional cost. We were – to put it mildly – screwed. I told my wife I would figure something out, but I knew in my heart there was little I could do.

I started using one credit card to pay as many bills as I could in an effort to horde cash. I kept the second one clear so I could pay off the first one when its bill came due at the end of the month.   I figured I could rinse and repeat for one more month, but only had two months to find another job.

And it takes time to find a job. I updated my resume and set up lunches with anyone who could help me. News hadn’t yet gotten out about the firm’s closing and I knew enough not to share how financially vulnerable I was. Employers can smell desperation in a job interview. I would have to bluff my way through this crisis.

And then, an amazing thing happened. I got a call from my wife’s chief of staff.

It turns out that Members of Congress hold their jobs until the new congress is seated. My wife’s boss – and therefore my wife – had a job through January 4th of the New Year. And because Members of Congress and their staff participate in the Federal Employee Health Care Program, she was eligible for coverage during the up-coming “open season.”

“How does that help?” I asked. “She has a pre-existing condition.”

I was told that the pool of federal employees is so large, the health insurance companies wave the pre-existing condition clause as a means to compete for customers.

So, even though my wife would be employed for only four days in the New Year, she was eligible for coverage under the federal employees’ open season. The coverage would only last a month, but all the plans offered a month-long grace period. Our baby was due at the end of January. Even if we delivered late, we would be covered.

As it turns out, my oldest was born by C-section on January 25th after a grueling and difficult delivery. Although exhausted, the mother and baby were fine. I too, counted myself lucky in that I found a job in January. Although saddled with three months worth of debt, I was happy to keep the roof over our heads.

In the years that followed, the U.S. health care system would be fiercely debated on Capitol Hill by both the left and the right. Hyperbole was rampant as each side tried to position itself as “holier than thou” alternately calling for universal coverage and keeping the government from stepping between patients and their doctors.

In all these debates, I was frustrated by the fact that Members of Congress never had a true picture of what our health care was like. They never had to worry about their health care coverage. For them it was always an abstract problem not a personal one. They had great coverage under a great plan. I didn’t begrudge them for that; I envied them.

But, for me, my problems with pre-existing conditions were only just beginning.

Next up: Pre-existing Condition – Part II.


A Janitor’s Work…

Photo Courtesy of Briarcliff Manor – Scarborough Historical Society

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.

Photo courtesy of Briarcliff Manor – Scarborough Historical Society

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.

Once an altar boy…

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.

Photo by Mike Feist

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 so unprecedented.

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.

“Confiteor Deo, omnipoténti…”