Growing up Catholic in "Down Neck" Newark in the late '50s and early '60s, a lot of us boys were placed on the low rungs of the ladder to the Vatican. You started as a "torchbearer" in second or third grade, and by fifth grade, you made it to altar boy. Years later, they came up with "lectors," who read some of the scriptures, out loud, in English, facing the audience, from the inner sanctum beyond the altar rail -- you had to be at least in high school to draw that duty. But when I was a precocious seven-year old in fourth grade, there was no such thing. What you qualified for in fourth grade, if you were male, was to be one of the "red boys." That's me on the left as a red boy, and that's my brother, "a white boy," or torchbearer, beside me.
Now, to be a red boy, you had to be able to sing. Singing was what it was all about. And if I'm recalling this correctly, there was just one event that it was all about, and that was Christmas Eve midnight Mass. There was a lot of pageantry around Easter, but I don't remember the red boys having anything to do with that one. Red boys was Christmas.
The program was quite simple. As the crowd packed in for midnight Mass, along about 11:45 the red boys would come into the church in a nice procession. I'd say there were 15 or 20 of us, decked out in a full-length red gown, with a cape that sported a golden fringe. We also wore a large, stiff white collar, and a large white bow. We'd croon out a half dozen or so carols, and then take a seat up front for the rest of the show (led by the white boys). We'd be under the direction of the parish's trusty musical director, Jenny McLoughlin.
Jenny McLoughlin (it may have been spelled McLaughlin, but I know for sure we all pronounced it ma-GLOCK-lin) was a grand old gal -- a little like my dad's mom, nee Alice McCann. Strong Irish gals with New York backgrounds, they were. Jenny was older than Granny -- I want to say by 10 years or so. Gee, when you're seven, everything over 60 seems the same, but I think that when Jenny was directing us, she was north of 70. She certainly seemed so. Jenny was the parish's sole organist, director of the girls' choir, and high priestess of the red boys. They probably paid her 10 bucks a week. She was a spinster -- never married, as I recall. She'd come down to our church in the Ironbound section on the no. 1 or 34 bus, from some unknown place that we kids only knew was "uptown." When there was no one else around to sing the responses in the frequent high Masses in the church, Jenny would do it alone, from up in the choir loft. She sat facing the back of the church, pumping it all out on the organ and watching the proceedings below through a giant mirror that was set right above her keyboard. (Here, for example, is what she saw when she played a wedding.)
Now, Jenny McLoughlin may have had quite the operatic voice back in her prime, but by the time we arrived on the scene, God bless her, her voice wasn't what it once had been. She had a vibrato large enough to lose your keys in. Between that and the fact that a lot of what she was yelping out was in Latin, you didn't catch too much of what she was singing. But the giant pipes of the organ were loud as all get-out, and with the faint ring of the nearby Ballantine Beer cannery in the background, the Jenny sound was what we kids identified as holy music. It was certainly other-worldly enough.
For red boy tryouts, she'd have each of us fourth grade boys step up to a piano in the school and see if we could sing a scale halfway on key -- if so, we were in. From there it was a few weeks of rehearsal on the school auditorium stage with Jenny on piano. She'd hand out some lyric sheets, run off on one of those purple ditto machines, and off we'd go at 10 on a December morning (taking time off from the classroom, which was a total red boy perk).
One of the things that a young boy would notice right away about Jenny was her limp. One of her legs was shorter than the other, and she had one of those special boots on the shorter one, but it didn't fully compensate, and thus the limp. Both feet worked well on the piano pedals, though, as she took us through the numbers we'd be performing at the big show.
Jenny had also reached that age where her muscle tone was less than Greek. When she'd wave her arms or point at something, there were masses of flesh on the undersides of her arms that would jiggle around for a while after the arm stopped moving. And like my grandparents, she was full of metaphors that sometimes went over our little heads. "Where are you going?!" she'd croak as she interrupted one of our numbers. "You're all the way up to Broad and Market Streets already!" Apparently this meant that we were singing faster than she was playing.
In retrospect, our act must have been hilarious, if for no other reason than the way we picked up Jenny's heavy Brooklyn accent. Like my grandma, she'd call a toilet a "turlet" and oysters "ersters." And she had an almost Kennedy-esque way with word endings, which we kids picked up -- especially when singing in Latin, which we were learning for the first time. Learning it from Jenny, we'd finish up "Angels We Have Heard on High" with a rousing chorus of "Glo-o-o-o-o-o o-o-o-o-o o-o-o-o-o-ri-er."
After a bunch of practices in the auditorium, the big morning came when we'd head over to the church for a run-through. We'd walk down the aisle, two by two, then step up into the sanctuary, and stand on three or four rows on the altar steps, facing the congregation. Jenny had decided that I and a classmate named Tommy Crappse (I kid you not) would be the featured soloists, and we each got our own microphone, which would be waiting on the steps exactly where the two of us would be standing.
I don't know where Jenny found some of the songs that we sang. There were some time-worn classics like "Adeste Fideles" and "Silent Night," but there were some other numbers that I've never heard before or since. We did a version of "Glory to God in the Highest" that had kind of a tin-pan-alley character to it -- who knows its origin or current whereabouts? Tommy Crappse would get to belt out his solo during a number called "The Birthday of a King." Don't wait for that one to come around on Love Songs 103. In looking around recently, I managed to find the lyrics to the song here, but my recollection of the melody is vague at best.
My own solo was on a number called "O Jesu Mi." The rest of the kids would sing a line, and then I'd sing "O Jesu Mi." Other than the first line -- "A child to us is born this day" -- and my "O Jesu mi" in response, I can't remember a thing about that song. And if you try to find it on the web nowadays, you come up with a lot of other, more serious stuff about "Jesu" that wasn't in, or near, our repertoire with Jenny. I've given that one up for lost.
As best I recall, our midnight Christmas Eve on the altar steps went off without a hitch. I remember that it was lot different doing the show to a packed, brightly lit church than it was rehearsing it to an empty, dark one. In the rehearsals, it felt as if Jenny McLoughlin was close enough to breathe on us; on Christmas Eve, she was miles away, and we were clearly on our own. But I got through my solo, Tommy got through his, and our parents got us all home at the nice, convenient hour of 1:15 a.m., when they could start doing the Santa stuff. Lucky them.
When the hippest nun arrived at the school shortly thereafter, the school glee club -- a co-ed affair -- became the center of our musical worlds. There were countless mock Beatles shows in the schoolyard, even a talent show or two. And our religious fervor was soon taken up with the big-boy world of the altar boys. But in fourth grade, we were the red boys. O Jesu mi.