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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on December 24, 2006 1:25 AM. The previous post in this blog was Wesolych Swiat Bozego Narodzenia. The next post in this blog is A reading from the Book of Ken. Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Red boy

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.

Comments (14)

For me, Jack, this piece is highly redolent and opens a thick album of images in my mind's eye from the eight years I spent in a Catholic grade school in the 50's here in Oregon.

Our nuns were Benedictines and their faces are still embossed in my thoughts. Paradoxically, each was best distinguished by her characteristic smell: one mint, another smokey incense, another mustiness, another faint perfume, another Old Spice, and so on and so forth.

Anyway, should I live long enough to spend my last years in a nursing home, I'm certain I'll become lost in that album, especially reliving what we all did for play and joy at recess.

Nice reminiscing, Jack. But at age 7, you would have been in second grade, not fourth. Unless, that is, you were really, really precocious.

I was indeed in fourth grade. I was "skipped ahead" twice. Not something I would recommend, but that's how it happened back then.

Being of that time and place I will say that Jack was really, really precocious.

As I remember, singing at Midnight Mass was the duty of Red Choir Boys drawn from the 4th, 5th, and maybe 6th grade. The Girls' Choir sang at the masses on Christmas Day. Your brother's white cassock should place him in the 3rd grade and get him a candle to carry.

Merry Christmas.

The photo must be of my second year as a red boy, which would be fifth grade, age 8, 1962. I think the solos happened only once, in the fourth grade, but my memory's fading like a Jenny McLoughlin high note.

anyone who has witnessed the whirlwind that is jack bogdanski will not be surprised to learn that he was precocious. and still is, if precocious is a term you can apply to grown-ups...

They're calling it "neurotic" now.

Jack,
A very merry Christmas to you and all you love!

Two notes: 1) Jenny "McLoughlin" taught my grandfather, my mother, me, and my younger brother Jack, but retired before my youngest brother Chris was subjected to her. Quote "I'll box your ears for you!" or "That's fahr, fahr, not fi-er. Spell it F-I-R-E: fahr. It's one syllable: fahr." She was indeed a piece of work.
2) The Hippest Nun was a most memorable woman. I was in her 6th grade class when she left very abruptly in the late Fall. I cried. The previous year, I was in the Glee Club, too. I didn't understand the division of parts (in Jenny's choir, everyone sang the same thing!). so in the middle of one song in our performance, I decided to sing the part I liked rather than the part my section sang. WELL!! The eyes of Sr. Michael Charles bore straight through me with an intensity I had never experienced. I guess I went back to singing the right stuff, because I'm still alive. She was without a doubt the smartest and most energetic woman ever to grace St. Al's. Our loss was some lucky guy's gain.
~Bernadette

Merry Christmas to the Jusinskis, the Montferrets, and any other of the Down Neck crew you may encounter tonight or tomorrow.

Oh, wow! Jenny McLoughlin!! I had forgotten about her. When Grandpa died, Jenny sang at the church service. Afterwards, Granny said, "It's a wonder that John [our grandfather] didn't turn over in the coffin." It seems he couldn't stand Jenny's singing. It really was quite other-worldly.

Great pictures of the "choich".

I stood waiting nervous in the back of the sanctuary, or outside of our country-road Presbyterian church, after Christmas Massiness, hoping to walk home the organist, who was the exact opposite in every aspect of your Jenny, except gender. None hipper.

They may be calling it 'neurotic' but it's not, Jack. It is 'formative.' Neural formative. (And for wordpicky pete's sake, maybe try 'mimeograph' for 'ditto' in the copy.) The great thing about the brain growing memories in hard-wired cells, not that you can erase any of them but that: You can always grow more. Neural formalive.

Jack, your noel nostalgia in a parochial past arrives coincident with this news item: Rockefeller Center Ice Rink Turns 70, AP, Dec. 24, "NEW YORK (AP) -- Happy 70th birthday, Rockefeller Center ice skating rink. The rink, which sits next to the famous Christmas tree in midtown Manhattan, opened on Dec. 25, 1936, as the premiere artificial outdoor skating pond built in the city ..." Around the corner from, in the 'hood with, St. Pat's.

And I think of the expenditure for the landheart's demise during the agronomic mail-order '30s Depression, as a toast to the town of Christmas bygone from Currier & Ives on a New England Puritan pond, the almanac of farmstead in Rockefeller's roots being commemorated as urbanity, from the country's formative life during time before 1880 Wanamaker made Christmas the calendar of gotham retailing.

And the old picture shows me an 8-year-old Fred Stickel, coming to witness new Rockefeller largesse, from St. Pat's sometime after midnight -- Christmas wide-eyed amid couples in skating-rink wonder, in bright-lighted night dispelling the stars watched long round the world over shepard's and sentry's fires. Wide-eyed and wise-formed to hard-wire heritage from back before tree stands and ornaments snd gifts, when Christmas was made in a midnight moon troth, or a husband's fair cloth, and Gaelic homes kept fires in the heather.

It must seem only natural expecting Currier & Ives in Pioneer Courthouse Square, when there isn't some other memory there, upon the engraved brick names from the graveyard. Paving over the charred flint-lit sticks from First People's antedeluvian fires, now covered in flood mud at river's bank, where dry fire in night rain stood watch down below for the moon and the stars reflecting the ice-free Willamette. In excelsis Deo.

Not to sell Jennie McLoughlin short, it should be remembered that she ruled music class with an iron fist. I remember her sneaking up behind me during choir practice, when I was goofing off, when she clocked me in my right ear with a roundhouse punch. Like getting hit by a train.

Sort of like a Smoking Joe Frazier with a big shoe. She was singing so bad at Granny's funeral, Uncle Billy tried to get up to the Church choir to choke her during the funeral mass. I can still remember Daddy and Uncle Bill Naughton wrestling Uncle Billy back to his seat at Church. She saw the whole thing and didn't miss one screaching note. Tough as nails.

she clocked me in my right ear with a roundhouse punch. Like getting hit by a train.

Like she said, she boxed your ears for you.

My dad was skipped ahead twice in Our Lady of Pompeii in NYC. Maybe it was a Catholic thing.
But that's not the point of my comment, which is: great writing, great story. Also, I laughed uncontrollably not once but twice saying aloud the name Crappse.


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