The Last Time I Saw Jesus
Surviving puberty in the time of Mickey Mouse Club.
By Shaun Costello
Two months before my twelfth birthday I found myself overwhelmed by the physical and emotional chaos of puberty, while all around me everything else seemed to go on as usual. America’s obsession with the television screen was rewarded with Sunday night visits by Ed Sullivan and his variety show, not to mention after-school broadcasts of Mickey Mouse Club, and a weekly half hour spent with the country’s favorite family on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Elvis Presley had gyrated his way into the hearts of teenagers – much to the bewilderment of their parents, the Eisenhowers were America’s first family, and everybody seemed to be wondering ‘How much was that doggie in the window?”. The Fifties were in full swing, but to me, none of that mattered very much. It was the early Fall of 1955, and life as I knew it had suffered an unexpected interruption.
My new obsession seemed to replace all previous forms of amusement or interest. The daily war games that I had played with my friends, reenacting battles of World War II, pretending to be Audie Murphy charging up the hill against all odds, mowing down Jap or Kraut aggressors with my trusty sub-machine gun seemed silly now. My miniature Fort Apache, with its watch towers and little metal soldiers, had lost its luster. There would be no more adventures with the Knights of the Round Table, righting the wrongs of medieval society. No more helping Flash Gordon and Doctor Zarkoff fend off Emperor Ming’s terrifying death ray. Even my bike had turned from adventure to simply transportation. All my energy and focus seemed centered on one thing, and one thing only – waking up in the middle of the night thinking about naked girls.
And then one morning it happened. I woke up with a strange sensation in my pajama bottoms. Something about my body was different. My penis, which until now had been an efficient instrument for urination, had taken on a life of its own. I had a boner. So now I was confused, obsessed, and deformed. This was not fun. Girls, who I had previously tolerated as annoying, noisy creatures, who could never be quite as much fun as a Weegee water pistol, or a Duncan yo-yo, were now the center of my universe, and they were everywhere. In school in their knee socks, at Sutton Hall Pharmacy sipping their lemon cokes, at the Community House pool in their Speedo racing suits, there was just no avoiding them. I hated this whole phenomenon. The girl obsession, the boner business, none of it made me feel good, and all of it got in the way. There were Friday night dances at the Community House and, being eleven I was at the entry level age for parcipation, but there were two problems; first I had very little experience at dancing, and second (this is the important part) the idea of slow dancing with a pretty girl was exciting, but that excitement would surely translate itself into the growth of something in my pants that the girl would feel happening, and she would jump back pointing at me screeching, “Pervert, pervert”, and run screaming from the hall, and an unruly crowd would form demanding my exit from the building. When the word got out angry townspeople, carrying torches, would chase me through the streets like “Bill Sikes” in Oliver Twist, or the unfortunate Frankenstein monster. They would recognize me for the degenerate that I was and demand my exclusion from their community. And none of this was my fault. I was happy playing soldier. I wanted my childhood back. I wanted my bike to be my bike again.
Boys, being the sociable creatures that they are, began discussing their common affliction with the hope of some kind of solution. I suggested that we enlist the guidance of my neighbor Charles, who possessed the wisdom and knowledge that came with being twelve, a full year older than the rest of us. So a sizable group of disgruntled, confused, boner-afflicted kids, sat around Charles’ room seeking his counsel, and awaiting a solution to their predicament. And Charles, as always, did not disappoint. His older brother, who went to High School and knew just about everything, had helped him when he suffered a similar fate, only a year before. His brother had told him that there was something called “jerking off” that provided temporary but real relief from the discomfort we suffered, and even yielded a pleasant sensation. I’m not going to go into the details here, but Charles explained this process to his bewildered audience, who were receptive to anything that might help.
So it was discovering the act of masturbation that enlightened me to the potential of the boner as an integral element in a new, and rewarding form of recreational activity, and as usual the Catholic Church got in the way. Why was it that every time I found something that was fun to do I was told it was a sin? The Church, knowing the age at which boys become horny, was prepared to fight the ‘Battle of Chastity’ with all the tools at its disposal. Sister Innocent, appropriately named for the task at hand, explained how Satan placed impure thoughts in the minds of children in order to lead them, like the Pied Piper, into the fires of hell, and any interaction with Satan not confessed, could produce only one result, spending eternity at the big barbecue. Confession was the answer.
One of the sacred sacraments of Catholicism, and an integral element in its Catechism, Confession was the conduit to forgiveness, and The Catholic Church was in the forgiveness business. Other than the Fifth Commandment, they really didn’t spend much time telling you not to murder anyone, but if you did, confessing this heinous act would erase it from your sin-sheet, and you could start over with a clean slate. They seemed to be saying, “Come one, come all, step right up and be forgiven, and when the collection basket comes your way remember to give generously. What’s that Herr Hitler, you incinerated six million Jews? No problem. God forgives you. And by the way, make that check out to His Holiness Pope Moneybags. Next…..”.
Heaven was a very exclusive destination, and only obtainable if you were both Catholic and good. Protestants, Jews, Buddhists, Moslems, Hindus had no shot at salvation, regardless of their goodness, and would be forever excluded from God’s eternal benevolence, not to mention being cooked on Satan’s rotisserie until they were just the right temperature to experience eternal agony, which was the just fate of anyone who had not sought absolution in The Catholic Church’s forgiveness machine.
Confessing the simple sins like taking the name of Our Lord in vain (whatever that means), or using curse words in the playground, was easy, and we had practice in this area, but telling some priest that last night you jerked off three times while thinking about Grant Sommerville’s older sister Wendy, who was naked and kissing you all over, is another matter entirely, and would require consultation and rehearsal. In the days leading up to Saturday afternoon’s confrontation with absolution, the afflicted discussed strategy. It was a tradition among boys to gather outside the church about fifteen minutes before confession began, and go through the process together, after which penance’s would be compared to determine the greatest offender. The bigger the sin the bigger the penance, and the biggest penance would determine the biggest sinner, and the biggest sinner was the baddest boy, revered and envied by his peers. There was an honor code among sinners, no one lied about penance. You could lie about the size of the fish you caught, or how far you hit the ball in last week’s game, but when it came to your penance you always told the truth. Outside the church, nervously preparing to reveal this new and embarrassing offense were the usual suspects: Eddie Mann, Tommy Cook, Joe Arrico, Jim Freeny, Todd DeFronzo, Frank Kopecki, Tony Kausman, sinners all, and each one the beneficiary of my neighbor Charles’ wisdom.
So in we went, taking a pew next to the confessional in order to catch a glimpse of each kid’s face as he left the booth. The confessional itself was an ornately carved wooden structure, about eight feet wide and containing a door in the center, where Father Absolvo forgave everybody, and thick red velvet curtains on either side, where the offenders entered as sinners and exited as saints. Joe Arrico went first, as the rest of us poked each other with our elbows, nervously giggled, and began gazing at the huge, ornate, stained glass windows that adorned the walls of the building. The entire Catholic story book seemed revealed in the colorful glass. The Adoration of the Magi, the visitation of the Archangel to announce the mysterious pregnancy of the virgin mother, the ascension of Jesus into heaven three days after his crucifixion, the last supper, and out from behind the red curtain came a cowering and confused looking Joe Arrico. He skipped the usual giddy eye contact with his buddies and, looking morosely down at the floor, slowly walked out of the church. Tommy Cook was next, and made the same mournful exit, as did Jim Freeny, and Eddie Mann, and Todd DeFronzo. What was going on? Then it dawned on me that confessing this masturbation thing was serious business, with serious consequences.
As I pushed the velvet curtain aside, and knelt down in the sinner’s box, I could hear the mumbling from the sinner on the other side, the priest absolving him in Latin, and the screen between myself and Father suddenly slid open. I could see the silhouette of his head, tilted slightly forward, and I began:
“Father forgive me for I have sinned. It has been one week since my last confession”
“Yes, my son. Go on”
“I used curse words in the playground”
“I took the Lord’s name in vain”
“I stole an Esterbrook pen from Pinsky’s stationary store”
“That’s a very serious sin, my son”
“Yes Father. I’m very sorry that I did it”
“Well……I uh, what I mean is, I um……..had impure thoughts”
“And what were these thoughts about?”
(I’m dying here)
“Uh, well…..um, they were uh, they were thoughts about naked people, Father”
“I see. And were these people boys or girls?”
(The question is disorienting)
“Never father, only girls”
“Of course. And when you have these thoughts is there any physical change that takes place?”
“Does any part of your body change form in any way?”
(I think I’m going to faint)
“Well, yes Father. Uh, my um, my………my penis gets big and swollen”
“How unusual. How big does it become?”
“I don’t know Father. I mean, I didn’t measure it or anything”
“And did you touch your swollen penis?”
“With your left hand or your right hand?”
(His questions are becoming almost unanswerable)
“I’m right handed, Father”
“Of course. The next time this happens I want you to take a ruler and measure your enlarged penis. The bigger it gets the bigger the sin. And next week you will tell me the size here in the confessional”
(I was really freaked out by these questions, and the silhouette of his head seemed to be shaking, and I could hear him breathing)
“And here’s the most important thing. When you touch yourself is there a secretion of a creamy substance that shoots from your penis?”
I was too flipped out to answer, and I could hear his breathing, which was even louder now, and it had become obvious that this priest was jerking off in his little cubicle while listening to little boys describing their genitals. He was desecrating this sacred chamber with his outrageous, libidinous behavior, and perverting everything anyone had ever told me about the tenets of Catholicism. This twisted, perverted creature on the other side of the screen, with his trembling and heavy breathing had just stolen my childhood which, once gone, is gone forever, and with it any semblance of the blind faith demanded by the Pope’s minions. The blind faith that the church claimed was its due, a necessary ingredient in the obedience of the faithful. Believe what they tell you and heaven is in your future. Question their catechism, no matter how ridiculous it seems, and into the oven you go, to cook with the Buddhists and Hindus. The blessed sacraments of Catholicism were the highway to salvation. You must believe in them, trust in them. Well, this priestly pederast had just showed me exactly how blessed these sacraments really were, sitting in his allegedly sacred chamber, jerking off while listening to his adolescent flock revealing their innermost secrets. I was beyond devastated. As Father Pederasty began his absolution in Latin with, “Te absolvo a peccatis tuis…..”, I opened the velvet curtain and slipped out of the confessional. I found myself walking, head down out of the church, just like the others. He had done it to us all.
Outside the church the usual mirthful competition for “baddest boy” was not happening. No one said anything, and the group gradually, and silently dispersed. I stood there for a while, a fractured shadow of the boy who had entered that same church an hour earlier, and went back in to have a look at the charade I had so fervently believed in. I walked around the outside aisle, following the stations of the cross, which depicted the torture and execution of Christ by the Romans. I studied the magnificent stained glass windows, which told the Church’s story to the faithful. To the right of the altar stood a life sized plaster statue of Jesus, painted in the appropriate colors, and vacantly staring out into the empty interior of the enormous church. His right hand was raised, revealing the stigmata of the wound from the nails of his crucifixion. His left hand, equally traumatized, held his heart, upon which sat a crown. Here was the man who Christians believed to be the son of God, and who other religions believed to be a prophet, to be revered, even worshipped. Here was the man on whose life and deeds Christianity was based. Here was the man who started it all, the man whose martyrdom opened the gates of heaven to a frightened humanity looking for salvation. Here was the man whose combination of humanity and deity was the basis for the beliefs of Catholicism, the same Catholicism through which the exclusive road to heaven could be trod. The same Catholicism that spoke to a humanity who lived with fear of dying and said, “Come with us. We have the answer. The way to heaven is open for those who believe, for all who follow the teachings of the Catholic Church, for the faithful”. And somehow along the way, this organization that was begun with the zeal of true believers became corrupted by its own success, and its power, and its wealth. The cloistered structure of its priesthood, which excluded active hetero-sexuality, became a haven for misfits and homosexuals, who could thrive in the secret societies of the monastic tradition. And here was Jesus, who started it all, waving to his flock and holding his heart, just a few feet from the sacred confessional, where Father Pederasty jerked off while listening to the sins of young boys.
As I reached the doors of the building I turned and looked once more at the inside of the church, particularly at the statue of Jesus waving to his fans, and I turned and walked through the door. It would be the last time I experienced the sensory assault of Catholicism. The last time I breathed the frankincense and myrrh. The last time I heard the echo of my footsteps against the interior stone walls of the enormous building. The last time I saw the visual symbolism in the huge windows, and the statues, and the paintings. The last time I touched the cool, smoothness of the wooden pews. It was the last time I entered a Catholic Church. The last time I saw Jesus.
The walk home from the church that day was as dark and gloomy a journey as I had yet taken. I was still the same age in years, and months, and days as when I awoke that morning but somehow, in a way that’s difficult to explain, I felt a good deal older. I had been betrayed by the now-obvious fallacy of my own beliefs, and was experiencing disappointment in a new and bitter way. Unprotected by my parents, or teachers, or any representative of adulthood, who had all conspired, one way or another, in the broken promise of the false myth, I began to understand the painful process of growing into a creature responsible for his own truths. Like the disfigurement of the boner, this new revelation was part of what I assumed was growing up. I was standing on the threshold of the next phase of my life, and not at all happy about my prospects.
I walked past the school playground where kids, who seemed a great deal younger than I was, were playing at the familiar games of childhood with a noisy energy that now seemed slightly annoying. Soaking each other in a battle of dueling Weegee water pistols; laughing, chasing, grabbing, escaping, tearing, catching, yelling, and finally collapsing into a pile of mirthful exhaustion. As I walked past the florist shop, Tommy Cook, who had been at the church that afternoon, came out holding a small white box containing what he said was a boutinier. He opened the box and revealed a single white carnation with a pin through its stem. “It goes on your jacket”, he said, “on the lapel. My mom say’s that girls like them. I’m wearing it to the party tonight”. Lost in the confusion of the day’s events, I had completely forgotten about Beth Neilsen’s birthday party.
Beth was the smartest and prettiest girl in school and, for a reason totally beyond my comprehension, treated me like I was human. During my pre-boner days, which was all of my little life until very recently, boys and girls rarely socialized, and paid little attention to each other, but Beth was different. She always said hello when our paths crossed, and made small talk that I never attempted to avoid. Her party had been the talk of the school for several weeks, and was the first of its kind for a bunch of boys who were about to unwittingly trade-in their slingshots for dancing shoes.
Beth’s mother was making her daughter’s twelfth birthday a major event. The entire class had been invited, and the invitation had mentioned that “Live Music” would be provided. This made me nervous, since the obvious reason for a live band was to provide the kids with music to dance to and, although I sort of knew basic dance steps, I had inherited my father’s awkward gracelessness, and was terrified of making a fool of myself.
I made the trek to Beth’s house in as well-scrubbed a condition as was possible for a boy of my age. I had taken extra time to make sure that my fingernails were clean, and that my tie matched my jacket, not that I had much choice, having only one, and that my hair was plastered to my scalp with Wildroot “A little dab’ll do ya” hair tonic. I carried a small gift-wrapped box containing the present my mother had picked out and, as I took the five-minute walk to the Neilsen house, was joined one-at-a-time, by other similarly dressed and coifed and present-carrying boys, all marching toward the sound of the music, which could now be heard off in the distance.
Mrs. Neilsen greeted us at the front door, shaking our outstretched hands, and addressing each of us by name. I suppose that inviting everyone in the class was the democratic thing to do, but it also meant that you got stuck with that opinionated weasel Richard O’Leary, not to mention kids like Vincent Averna, who aspired to the priesthood and constantly labeled whatever fun activity the rest of us might be involved in as either venial or mortal sins. Or John Bovi, who lived with his finger up his nose and smelled awful. Or Paul Yamulkowski, who idolized police officers and ratted out kids who shop-lifted candy at the drug store. Paul would not be above walking right up to Beth’s mom and reporting some kid who took a third slice of birthday cake, reminding her that if that kid’s behavior went unchecked that he was destined for a life of crime.
The music was playing in Beth’s basement, which was the center of the party; the boys congregating on one side of the room, and the girls on the other, as the band played “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White”, that only the bravest, usually girls, dared to dance to. There were three musicians; a trumpet player, a guitarist, and a drummer who struck his cow-bell a lot during Latin numbers, and they featured the rhythm of a new dance called the “Cha-Cha-Cha”. Some of the girls knew the steps and were teaching the others, and even dragging unwilling boys to their side of the room for impromptu lessons, to the cat-calls from their peers, who remained triumphantly steadfast in their unwillingness to submit to such humiliation. But it was no use. The girls outnumbered the boys and, by sheer force of numbers, had their way with them chanting, “One two cha-cha-cha, one two cha-cha-cha”, and the boys tried their best to follow the girls’ lead, and the band kept playing “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White”, and the chanting of “one, two cha-cha-cha, one two cha-cha-cha” grew louder, and giggling boys tripped over awkward feet, and the whole room was engulfed in a cacophony of music and chanting and laughter and I discovered at that moment the skin on Betsy Ryan’s neck.
In my eleven years and ten months on earth I had never experienced such a day. I had been confronted by the inevitable betrayal of my most fervent beliefs, and Betsy Ryan’s epidermal epiphany. My childhood ended in the soiled corruption of that confessional, and the rest of my life began in that joyous moment of discovery on the dance floor at Beth Neilsen’s twelfth birthday party. I still think of that party now and again. Of Beth, and Betsy, and Tommy, and Eddie, and Dolphy, and Jimmy, and Billy Beggs, and the Bullock twins, and of endings and beginnings. The cycle of the endings and the beginnings that would sometimes roughly, sometimes gently transport me from one moment to the next for the rest of my life. And every once in a great while, when I least expect it, I can still hear the heavenly sounds of that awful band playing “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White”.
© 2008 Shaun Costello