SIC SEMPER TYRANNUS
Surviving Catholic Education
By Shaun Costello
This story is excerpted from my childhood memoir
THE LAST TIME I SAW JESUS
Surviving God and Elvis in the time of ‘Duck and Cover’
I suppose I could blame all subsequent events, and ill advised decisions I made in my life on the eight years I spent as a victim of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, but I don’t. I sensed, even as a child, that they were no more or less than a necessary evil (at least my parents thought they were necessary) placed in my path to overcome by what whatever means was at my disposal. Back then little thought was given by Catholic families regarding their participation in the selection process available to them in choosing a primary school for their children. They just found the nearest Catholic school, packed a lunch, and off we went. Off to the welcoming arms of a sociopathetic cult of psychological misfits who had been cloistered away from the evils of an all too real world that, even on their best days, they seemed powerless to inhabit. During my eight years of ecclesiastical incarceration I never saw anyone who remotely resembled Ingrid Bergman, not to mention Father Crosby.
Early on, I came to the conclusion that the two most important elements in a Catholic education were penmanship, and lining up in silence. Ball point pens were strictly forbidden, because only a true fountain pen could produce the perfect script demanded by the good sisters. As for the silent line up, the merry cacophony of lunchtime playground mischief came to an abrupt halt the moment the dour penguin shook her hand bell. The shuffle of feet was the only sound as the children found their classmates and silently lined up, awaiting the signal to march off to an afternoon’s lesson in history, which probably included the torture and martyrdom of Saint Isaac Jogues at the hands of the evil Huron Indians. They pulled out his fingernails, and he would not renounce his faith. They pulled out his toenails, and he would not renounce his faith. They gouged out his eyes, and he still would not renounce his faith. Finally, an exasperated Big Chief Huron, fed up with Isaac’s saintliness, cut out his heart and ate it, hoping to ingest some of the holy man’s courage. And old Isaac stood there, bound and gagged, without fingernails or toenails, a big hole in his chest where his heart used to be, and Big Chief Huron, picking pieces of Isaac’s aorta from between his teeth, again demanded spiritual surrender. Not this time Tonto. The old man simply shook his head in a bold expression of saintly triumph over the heathen redskin. Tears in her eyes, Sister Immaculata stopped reading and put down the third grade American History text from which she had read this lesson in God’s victory over the great unwashed.
It was at this point that she noticed the behavior of three arch criminals; myself, Jim Freeney, and Joe Arrico, who had obviously paid no attention to this valuable lesson and instead, had been engaged in spitball wars in the back row. With these three felons in tow, Sister Immaculata made haste for the music room, where every afternoon the Fur Elise was played badly for hours. The music room doubled as punishment chamber during school hours, and was the only room in the building where nuns noticeably smiled. The young hooligans were instructed to lean against the wall with the backs of their legs extended, awaiting Sister’s caress. Reaching into the closet, Sister Immaculata took out a pointer. It was 36 inches long, round, and pointed at the tip, resembling almost exactly the canes used to administer corporal punishment in the third world, much to the horror of self righteous Americana. It came down with a loud whack on the back of poor Joe Arrico’s thigh, as he screamed in pain and begged her to stop. She ignored his screaming pleas and promises of good behavior, and the pointer came down again. I’m not sure how many times she hit him, but it was several, and all the time she smiled. Her screaming, pleading victim was nine years old. Jim Freeney was next with the same result. When it came my turn I was half way to the door before she caught on to the fact that I was not going to be this woman’s pointer fodder. Safely through the door I ran down the hall and all the way home.
Out of breath, I told my mother what had happened, and her reaction was puzzling. She told me that Sister was always right, and that I must have done something to deserve the punishment I had escaped, and that the only course open to me was to go right back to school, lean on that music room wall and take my punishment like the little criminal I undoubtedly was. I refused. This resulted in a tumultuous few days between my family and the school which, after some posturing, was legally bound to take me back, even though I had not behaved up to the standard of the church’s willing martyrs. Isaac, eat your heart out, or someone else will.
The daily routine at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs school began at 8:30AM, as children began assembling in the school’s playground. At precisely 8:45, each and every morning, Sister’s hand bell would announce the end of playground hi-jinks, and the beginning of the serious business of lining up in silence. The children lined up by class, and began the silent shuffle into the school building, with the little ones entering first, and the eighth graders bringing up the rear.
There was a uniform dress code at the school. Boys wore navy blue trousers, a white long sleeved shirt, and a navy blue tie, usually restrained by a tie clasp. Competition for the coolest tie clasp was intense. Girls wore blue jumpers, a white short sleeved blouse, and navy blue knee socks. The supreme beings at the school, the eighth graders, were distinguished from the rest of the lower flotsam by the addition of blue blazers for the boys, and some kind of pin, probably something like “The Order of the Eternal Virgin” for the girls. Eighth graders were looked up to by the rest of us as perfect examples of children who, through diligence and prayer, walked in lock step with the Holy Trinity. They were also bigger than we were and stole our baseball cards and lunch money, but I guess that’s another issue.
Children at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs were divided into three separate and distinct groups. The first were God’s favorites. These kids all had 98 academic averages, spotless uniforms, heavenly singing voices, inkless fingers, wrote in perfect script, got the best parts in the school play, made speeches at school assemblies, and were generally thought of by the faculty as, “Saints of the Future.” The second group were the kids that God tolerated. They were probably not heaven bound but, through hard work and sacrifice, they might just make it to the next level; even though they had ink stained fingers, couldn’t remember latin lyrics, spent too much time looking out the window, wrote illegibly, occasionally suffered from “ring around the collar”, were easily confused by the rituals of the Catholic Liturgy, and would probably wind up mowing the lawns of the “Saints of the Future.” Then there was the third group. These were the kids to whom God’s back was turned. The lepers of the Liturgy. They had no shot whatsoever at salvation, and were destined for the big barbeque, to burn in the fires of hell for all eternity. They had dirty finger nails, unkempt hair, ink stains covering their hands and clothes, had close relatives who spoke a foreign languge, ate paste in art class, threw up in hallways, had no reverence for the sainthood, and were to be generally pitied as hopeless creatures, destined for a life outside of God’s plan.
I guess that I was a member of group number two; tolerated by God, a distant possibility for salvation, a perpetrator of the ink stain, a barely average student, and a liturgical numbskull, but if I played my cards right I just might make it to the next level, wherever that was.
As kids filtered into their classrooms, the first stop was the Cloak Room. This was a large closet in the back, the full width of the classroom (about thirty feet) and about six feet deep, lined with shelves, under which were coat hooks, and plenty of space to deposit lunch boxes, galoshes, and whatever else kids brought to school. No one wore cloaks of course, but that’s what the sisters called it, so we did too. The hanging up of hats and coats was followed by a short but robust period of hair pulling, name calling, tripping, strangling, head locking, eye gouging, and general mayhem, after which the little innocents would emerge from the cloak room ready for a morning of inspiration and enlightenment, much to the delight of the good sisters.
The school building, a kind of quasi American gothic structure, had eight classrooms of identical size and layout. The classrooms were large, about 60×30, with three walls covered with blackboards and one with windows. About six rows of desks, ten deep, all faced Sister’s large wooden desk, which was centered in front of the class. A student/teacher ratio of 60 to 1. Tough numbers. The student’s desks had hinged tops, allowing for storage inside, an indentation at the front where pencils and pens could lie undisturbed, and a working inkwell. No one really used the inkwells, other than for pranks, but they had always been there, so there they would stay. Until the day when Petey Cataldo, a kid who didn’t talk much and threw up a lot, pissed in each and every inkwell in our class. Sixty inkwells is a lot of piss, and there were many versions of Petey’s triumph. One had Petey sneaking in after school and actually pissing in all our inkwells. The other, and generally accepted version, had Petey peeing in a container for a week. Then when he felt he had enough for the job at hand, he slipped into school after closing, and filled all the inkwells with the product of his efforts. Anyway, no one ever saw Petey again. The rumor was that he had been sent to some kind of special school for kids who threw up a lot. Another rumor had him incarcerated in an institution for recalcitrant Catholics, but no one really believed that. His image lived on in the folklore of the school as a revered personage, a crusader, the boy who had an answer. Of course none of us knew what the question had been, but that didn’t matter. Petey had guts, and for us that was enough.
Throughout the morning the subjects taught by Sister would change at Sister’s whim. In the middle of a History lesson, Sister would suddenly announce,” We will now take out our Arithmetic textbooks.” And this was sister’s segue to the world of mathematics. As the big institutional clock on the classroom wall neared 12 noon all eyes followed the second hand, until that magical moment that happened each and every school day at exactly noon, when the opening chords of the most famous of all John Philip Sousa Marches would play at a decible level that could have awakened the Saints from their eternal sleep, the classroom doors were thrown open and the lunchtime march of the children would begin. Three hundred little kiddies for Christ would stomp down the stairwells and hallways of the school until they were deposited, music still playing, outside the huge front doors, to the delight and chagrin of the terrified lunch counters of Austin Street.
Austin Street was the main commercial drag in Forest Hills. Supermarkets, clothing stores, Woolworths Five and Dime, the Cameo Bowling Alley, drug stores, florists, Pinsky’s Stationary, a travel agency, Glindermann’s German Delicatessen, Vincent’s Shoe Repair, and various spots where lunch could be had cheaply, if you knew what to order. Most kids brought their own lunch to school in little metal lunch boxes. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and a banana, or maybe a few cookies, was pretty typical. The school provided half pint containers of milk, free of charge, to kids who brought their own lunch. If you had some money in your pocket, Austin Street’s menu was varied. The Sutton Hall Pharmacy offered an order of rye toast for 10 cents which could be washed down with a lemon coke, also priced at 10 cents. The newly opened Pizza Prince offered a slice for 20 cents, but kids were still suspicious of pizza. The various lunch counters along the Street offered a variety of cheap filler. An order of french fries was 20 cents, cream cheese on date nut bread could be had for as much as 40 cents, a burger with a hole in the middle from White Tower was a quarter, and various other offerings were priced accordingly. If you were really flush, and I’m talking over a dollar here, and you were up for some serious adventure, Austin Street offered “Hamburger Express”. A huge success from the day it opened, “Hamburger Express” delivered your Burger DeLux Platter right to your hungry little face on the flatbed rolling stock of Lionel model trains. The walls were covered with train posters and train photographs, and along the inside part of the counter ran the tracks themselves. The tracks that carried the trains that towed the flatbed cars that brought your lunch. The waitresses wore little train engineer caps that said “Hamburger Express” across the brim, and train whistles and bells and authentic trainlike noises of all sorts could be heard throughout the place. If you could afford it “Hamburger Express” was definitely the lunchtime venue of choice.
The boys at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs knew about trains. They knew from their earlier days in The Painted Mountains, where they buried their compadres in the Cemetery of unnamed men. They lived without food and water, and became tempered like steel; sinewy leathery boys, whose sole purpose in life was blowing up trains for Pancho Villa, and the glory of the revolution. They knew just how many sticks of dynamite it took to blow a munitions train to hell and gone. And just how many toothpicks it took to cause a derailment that would dump a Cheeseburger DeLuxe into some unsuspecting woman’s lap. These boys knew about trains. And how to stop them.
Finally, “Hamburger Express”, in an effort to keep their trains on the tracks, and to put a stop to the mischief of the boys from the Painted Mountains, hired its own security guard. They dressed him up as a train engineer, and although he greeted customers as they came in, and his demeanor was friendly, even jovial, he was definitely railroad security. This new addition created a more challenging atmosphere. And if that wasn’t enough, possible anti railroad weaponry; ketchup, mustard, toothpicks, pickles, were all removed from the counter until the arrival of your meal, and scooped up the minute they were used. These, and other counter-revolutionary tactics were employed by management in an all-out effort to put a stop to the work of Pancho Villa’s little heros. Additional security didn’t stop Butch and Sundance, and by God it wouldn’t stop Villa’s boys. So, like their days back in the Painted Mountains, they simply brought their own stuff. Toothpicks, gum, silly putty, pencils were all imported from home. And with the advent of watchful railroad security, diversionary tactics were required, usually in the form of a vomiting boy. A kid throwing up in a restaurant was very bad for business, so the boy who was assigned the job of “Diversion Puker” was picked up by the railroad security guy the minute he pretended to throw up on the counter, and carried outside to the sidewalk. With security outside, the bedlam of the entire revolution was free to take place right there inside “Hamburger Express”. Four to five derailments could happen in a matter of seconds, with burgers, milkshakes, banana Splits, and lemon cokes all flying helter-skelter, from their respective flatbeds to the laps of unsuspecting and shrieking customers, as total chaos reigned supreme in the little restaurant. Villa’s vigilantes had struck again.
With the revolution going well, it was time to return to Our Lady Queen of Martyrs for an afternoon of guessing just how many arrows Saint Sebastian was stuck with, and what it all meant anyway. At exactly 3 PM the Sousa march would begin, the classroom doors would be thrown open and the afternoon version of “The March of the Children” would take place. The daily schedule at OLQM was identical except for Wednesdays. On Wednesdays class would end at 2:30 and the entire student body would be marched a short distance to the church, where something mysterious called Benediction took place. This was a wealthy parish and the church looked it. The building was a kind of neo gothic mini-cathedral, with pictures and statues of people with their internal organs revealed, and candles burning everywhere. The shared public Catholic ritual is a theatrical assault on the senses, and Benediction was a perfect example. The church’s altar was fronted by a large proscenium, pretty much like the stage at Radio City Music Hall, where men wearing colorful satin outfits spoke, chanted, and sang in a dead language, and shook ornate little balls filled with incense (usually frankincense or myrrh), as the organ began the prelude to yet another hymn in Latin. I have no more clue today, than I did back then, as to the meaning or significance of Benediction, but I never forgot the music. The main hymn was something called “Tantum Ergo” and, although, at the time, I have no idea what it meant, it was a catchy tune that seemed to go well with the accompanying visuals and incense. In Latin (the only way I ever heard it) it went like this:
“Tantum ergo Sacramentum Ve-ne-remur cernu-I
Et antiquum documentum Novo cedat ri-tu-I
Praestat fi-des supplementum sensu-um de fectu-I”
(exotically entertaining in a dead language kind of way)
The English translation of this stanza goes like this:
“So great a sacrament, therefore let us worship
Bowed down; And let the ancient example give way
To a new rite; Let faith bestow a support
To the defect of the senses.”
Not much better in English, is it? Anyway that was Benediction, and when it was over we silently filed out of the church and back into the community.
I want to go on record here as having hated Richard O’Leary. I hated him then and I probably still do. In between the end of the afternoon March of the Children and the beginning of whatever came next, there was a certain amount of after school lingering. I was never privy to what girls talked about, but boys talked about gory stuff like beheadings and general human dismemberment, fights they had heard about that were really bloody, movie star suicides they learned about listening to their parents, local gossip like somebody’s mother who was arrested for shoplifting, and when they ran out of the juicy stuff there was always sports. Richard O’Leary was one of these kids who wanted you to think that no matter what you knew, he knew more. He always knew more, and it really didn’t matter about what. I liked sports. I liked to watch sports on TV. I liked to go Yankee games. But I was just not one of these kids who memorized stats. I knew that Whitey Ford was a good pitcher, but I didn’t know his lifetime record against lefty hitting. And, for the record, I have to confess to not caring. But Richard O’Leary knew, or at least pretended he did. Anyway, on this particular afternoon I had been accidentally equipped with a valuable statistic, Willie Mays’ career batting average. I read it in a magazine the day before, and knew that it was 321. Valuable information to have at my disposal, in between beheadings and shop lifting arrests. So when the opportunity presented itself, and I spoke right up, “Mays has got to be the best pure hitter in baseball, his career batting average is 321.” And without skipping a beat that rotten Richard O’Leary jumped right in. “Not against right handed pitching it’s not. Against righties he only hits 289. The man is a loser.” I had suffered a moment of psychological castration. I went from a kid who knew something to a kid who knew nothing. And not only that, but Willie Mays was now a loser. By the time I was wondering if I had anything in my pocket sharp enough to gouge out O’leary’s eyes he was already correcting some other kid on some other statistic. Another psychological castration. Another disappointed kid. Another triumph for that little weasel. Later that night, in between the light’s going out in my room and falling asleep, I fantasized about a proper vengeance. About an appropriate fate for that little know it all. About justice.
Death Row at Sing Sing Prison is in a separate and cloistered part of the facility. A long dark hallway where only one cell is lit. Outside the cell is the head guard and Father Spinelli, the prison Chaplain. Inside that one lit cell is a kid in striped prison garb, shackled hands and feet, and a terrified look on his face. It’s Richard O’Leary.
The guard speaks as he puts a key in the door, “Its Time son. Get a hold of yourself. Father Spinelli is here to hear your confession.”
“Son, are you sorry for all the sins of your past life and……”
“What confession? I’m not confessing anything. This is someboby’s dream. I’m a kid. You can’t execute kids. You can’t do anything to me.”
“Et ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine…..”
“Te absolvo a peccatis tuis….”
“I’m a kid, you jerk. You can’t do anything to me.”
“Ordinarily I’d agree with you son, but not after what you said in court.”
“Deus Pater misericordiarum…..”
“What do you mean? What are you talking about? What did I say in court?”
“About Willie Mays.”
“In nomine Patris, et filii………”
The guard, the Priest, and O’Leary are now slowly walking down the long dark hallway toward the brightly lit execution chamber, where the Warden stands, with a paper in his hand.
“About Willie Mays being a loser. About his average against right handed pitching.”
“ego te absolvo a peccatis….”
“So?….I’m right. He IS a loser.”
“You forgot about the judge son. Big Giants fan. Huge. Big Mays fan. You shouldn’t have said that son.”
“In deus Pater nostrum tuum…….”
“I’m a kid. I can say anything I want.”
“The Warden will ask you if you want your head shaved, son. I’d do it. The last kid, Old Sparky set his hair on fire. That was just before his head melted. What a stink. Two of the witnesses puked.”
“In Nomine Patris, et filii, et spiritus sancti……..”
The threesome is now passing the Tombstone Shop on their way to the Execution Chamber, and O’Leary’s eyes are as big as half dollars as he sees the worker carving an epitaph on a Tombstone that reads; “HERE LIES RICHARD O’LEARY WHO KNEW WILLIE MAYS’ BATTING AVERAGE AGAINST RIGHT HANDED PITCHING. LOOK WHERE IT GOT HIM.”
“Te absolvo a peccatis….”
“Mommie……I want my Mommie………Mommieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee..”
“You Richard O’Leary, having been found guilty of crimes beyond the pale, are heretofore to be put to death by means of electrocution, on this day……
In excelsis deo ordo paenitintiae…..”
“Get a hold of yourself son……..Ohhhhhh, he pooped his pants, What a stink…….”
As the clock strikes midnight the Warden nods to the Executioner, who throws the switch that sends the room into a tumult of buzzes and screams and shrieks and stinking hair, while outside house lights all over Dutchess County dim slightly as the life is fried out of Richard O’Leary’s melting body, leaving his lifeless form hanging, suspended by “Old Sparky’s” leather straps. Dead, and finally silent.
My bedroom ceiling never looked so good. Smiling, I could feel my lips moving before I heard the words. Those appropriate words. Those final words – “Sic semper tyrannus”.
© 2008 Shaun Costello
Surviving God, Elvis and Nazis in the time of Duck and Cover
by Shaun Costello
I grew up in the Forest Hills Gardens, a small, incestuous, semi-gated community in the New York borough of Queens, about a twenty five minute subway ride from midtown Manhattan. The community surrounded the West Side Tennis Club, which was for years the Mecca of country club tennis in America. The ancient and famous came to compete here, dressed in their “Tennis Whites” and blue blazers, and wielding their wooden racquets. Bill Tildon, Don Budge, Pancho Gonzales, Fred Perry, Tony Trabert, Jack Kramer, all came and conquered here. Then the Aussies arrived in the fifties; Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver, and Roy Emerson. Even the modern “Open” era began here with Chris Evert, Jimmy Conners, Bjorn Borg, and John McEnroe, all competing in the Great American Tennis Tournament right here at the West Side Tennis Club. But by then the sport, and consequently the tournament, had outgrown the venue, and moved to Flushing, just a few stops away on the Long Island Railroad, leaving the ghosts of a golden era to compete on the grass courts of a decaying facility.
By the Sixties “The Gardens” had become a tawdry shadow of its former self. Dutch Elm Disease had taken hundreds of magnificent trees, planted early in the century by the community’s designers, and slowly but surely, the Gardens Corporation was losing its hold on the local demographics, which, up until then, had been its trump card. The little hamlet had been created before the outbreak of WW I, based on the design of British suburban communities just outside London. A series of row houses, arranged in Lanes and Circles, where everyone knew their neighbors and could walk in safety amongst trees and gardens, greeting friends, and breathing the flower-scented air, without fear of bumping into undesirables like Jews, Negroes, or Communists. The Gardens, you see, was a deeded community, which meant that the Gardens Corporation held a kind of lien on each property, preventing resale to the aforementioned, or any other member of the wretched refuse who had accumulated enough money to buy into a community where they obviously did not belong.
The Gardens became a magnet for recently socially unacceptable socialites. Old money families with a scandal on their hands, or the nouveau riche, who the old money could not condone. These were the families that first populated the Gardens. If society didn’t want them, they would create their own society. If their darling debutantes were persona non grata at the Manhattan Cotillions, they would create their own Cotillion, right here in the Forest Hills Gardens.
The son of the Steel Baron who married the daughter of the Mafia Don lived right across the street from the Bank President whose career was cut short by the embezzling scandal. This is where they came to live, right here in the comfort and safety of the little Hamlet that existed under the threat of the race-lien, which prevented the horror of waking up one morning with a Jewish neighbor.
The best laid plans of mice and racists came crashing to its inevitable conclusion, a victim of its own self fulfilled destiny, when Ralph Bunche Jr. applied for membership at the West Side Tennis Club. Bunche, winner of the 1949 Nobel Peace Prize, and a career public servant and diplomat, who was an Undersecretary General at the United Nations, had been taking tennis lessons at the club. After a few weeks the club pro suggested that he apply for membership. After all, he was an educated, elegant man, not to mention a famous career diplomat, favored by Presidents, just the kind of man the club wanted. But appearances can be deceiving. Just before welcoming him to their bosom the club’s membership committee discovered, to their horror, that Ralph Bunche Jr. was something else again. Something they had been successful in avoiding since their charter, many years before. Ralph Bunche Jr. was black. His light skinned appearance and elegant demeanor had fooled the club pro, as well as members he had contact with. The unthinkable had happened. A colored man at the West Side. A world turned inside out. Of course, his membership was turned down.
When the news got out the scandal was global. Headlines around the world all said pretty much the same thing: NEGRO DIPLOMAT REJECTED BY RACIST AMERICAN CLUB. There were, of course, many variations of this headline, each one driving another nail into the coffin that housed the remains of a once perfect little community. A place where a man knew his neighbors. A place where a man could walk in safety. A place where a man could go to sleep at night without the fear of waking up with a next-door neighbor of questionable heritage.
This was the end of the Forest Hills Gardens as its inhabitants knew it to be, and the beginning of a new world of racial flux and forced cohabitation, where Addison Wainwright lived right across the street from Morris Weintraub, much to Mr. Wainwright’s chagrin, and there was nothing he could do about it, other than taking a stroll over to the West Side Tennis Club, ordering a dry martini in the Gentleman’s Lounge, and conversing with cronies about the good old days when things were as things should be, and how a little circling of the wagons can be a good thing, and raising his glass with his comrades to someone’s toast of, “Well, at least we kept that god damned nigger out of here.”
It was at this point that my family moved to the Gardens from Nassau County, Forest Hills being recommended to my father by a Jewish friend of his who worked with him in Manhattan’s garment center. Recommended as a nice place to live, and you could take the subway to work, something that appealed to my father who was tired of commuting by railroad from Long Island. So we moved right in and looked for the nearest Catholic school.
During the Fifties the citizens of the Gardens, like most Americans, were preoccupied with watching Mickey Mouse Club and Ed Sullivan, listening to Elvis, building bomb shelters, and staying alert to the possibility that their next door neighbor might be a Communist agent. Daily ‘Duck and Cover’ drills were all the rage in primary schools, kids prompted by the emergency bell, jumping under their desks, and covering their little faces with their hands, as though a wooden school desk could prevent them from being vaporized by thermo-nuclear holocaust. The idea was to remain alert. You just never knew when the Ruskies would drop the big one.
I guess it has always been the case that girls, driven by estrogen, have played with dolls, as some kind of subliminal rehearsal for their maternal futures, just as boys, driven by testosterone, have played at war; carefully honing their skills for their future roles as hunters, gatherers, warriors, conquerors, slaughterers, debauchers, soldiers, sailors, kings, and whatever other glorious, and sometimes dubious endeavors men have created for themselves. When I was a kid boys played at war with toy guns, sighting the enemy in their crosshairs, and making gunshot sounds with their mouths; while their victim, playing the part of the wounded Jap or Kraut soldier, made the most realistic “ooph” bullet-wound sound that he could muster, and fell to the ground, trembling in the throes of the of death-dance, until finally still, he was called to the bosom of the almighty.
The victorious GI might go through the personal belongings of his victim, finding out that his name was Klaus Dornhoffer, or Akira Sato, and that the dead soldier had a wife and three kids back home. He might even sit down and write them a letter.
Dear Mrs. Dornhoffer/Sato, This morning I had the dubious honor of shooting your husband, Klaus/Akira, and I regret having to tell you this, but war is war, and your husband died a hero’s death and did not suffer.
Your faithful enemy, Audie Murphy.
On a rainy day, when it was too wet for the ‘Battle of the Backyard’, boys created warfare in miniature. I had a wooden model of a frontier outpost, complete with watchtowers at the corners, and little metal soldiers to man them. It was called Fort Apache, and no firewater-gulping, scalp-snatching redskin would ever get past its walls alive. My friend Dolphy had a great model of Camelot, complete with jousting knights in armor, ready for swordplay, and the slaughter of evil-doers. The future was not ignored, as recreations of Flash Gordon’s struggle against the Planet Mongo’s Emperor Ming, and his terrifying “Death Ray”, were played out in basements and backyards across America. The imaginary carnage created by boys prepared them for the struggle ahead, as they were told, almost on a daily basis, that the Russians were planning to drop an atomic bomb right in their backyards, and they had better be ready. By the summer of 1956, the bellicose boys of the Forest Hills Gardens were ready for anything.
It was into this atmosphere of military playacting, where nine-year-old boys had secret identities as Lieutenants, Captains, Naval Commanders, Fighter Pilots, and Drill Sergeants that George Leggett, a lifetime Nazi, worshipper of Hitler, creator of The American Nazi Youth Bund, and holocaust enthusiast made his appearance. He was twenty three years old, and had sought out the most racist American community he could find, trolling for accomplices. Sitting in a booth at the Sutton Hall Pharmacy, sipping coffee and chain-smoking Camels, he would expound on his fascist philosophies to mesmerized groups of ten-year-olds. He didn’t talk down to us, regardless of our age. Sometimes he spoke like a grown-up, and sometimes like a kid, but he always treated us as equals, an unusual experience for boys our age.
His grandiose plans included the creation of training camps in rural areas, where the youth of America, kids just like us, would receive the proper indoctrination and training that would prepare them for their military participation in something called “The America-First Brigade” that, when fully financed and armed, would take over the government of The United States, creating a new and stronger America, unhindered by the influence of the Jew-devils. An America to be proud of. An America for Americans. He told us not to worry, that we would all have a place in this new America, and he turned to me:
“Have you ever ridden in a tank?”
“Would you like to?”
“Well, you will son, you will. You see boys, here’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about. This young man has “Tank Commander” written all over him. What’s your name son?”
“Well Shaun, when we’re ready I’m going to give you the command of the ‘First American SS Panzer Division’. What do you think of that?”
So I was to be a Tank Commander. I had never done that before. I had been a lonely infantry soldier, manning his foxhole out on the perimeter. I had flown fighters for the “Flying Tigers”, out gunned and out manned by the Zeroes, defending Nanking against the Jap hordes. I had even smoked a peace pipe with Cochese, in an attempt to put an end to the war on the frontier. And now I would lead the First American SS Panzer Division in the Battle of Washington. How cool is that? Leggett told my friend Jimmy, “I can tell a fighter jock when I see one son, and you’re it”. He was giving Jimmy a Messerschmidt 109, with instructions to, “Take on the enemy wherever you find him”. So this new guy, George Leggett, would create games for us to play. He would lead us in fun battles against a make believe enemy. We would each have a military rank that would befit our station in his imaginary new nation. We might even get to go to summer camp, where we would learn the military techniques that would help us defend our neighborhood against the inevitable Soviet invasion. George Leggett would lead us in the best war games we had ever played. At least, that’s what we thought.
We were to refer to him as Commandant, and after a short while he seemed to know us all by name. We were instructed to tell our older brothers and their friends about his plans. They would be given important jobs in The New American Reich, and when the time came, provided with uniforms, weapons, tanks, planes, ships, and all the training necessary to learn how to use them. Leggett seemed to be using the younger kids as a conduit to the teenagers, who seemed to be his main target. The younger kids thought he was a crazy guy who would create games for them to play, but the teenagers of the Gardens saw him for what he was; a nigger hating, Jew bating fanatic, who was bent on creating a Nazi society right here in the USA. Leggett had heard the Forest Hills Gardens described as one of the most racially restricted communities in America, and came here assuming that he could sow the seeds of Nazism in its fertile, racist soil, and reap a rich harvest of accomplices, and financial donations. He was so lost in his zealous Nazi rapture that he had forgotten that the appeal of the National Socialist Party in Germany, back in the 1920’s, was to the unemployed, the disenfranchised, the hungry masses of a crumbling society. Hardly an accurate description of the citizenry of the Gardens, who were financially comfortable, and in some cases downright wealthy. George Leggett had made a major miscalculation.
Most of the population of the Forest Hills Gardens, who were taught right-from-wrong by parents who had long since circled their wagons, hated Jews as much as he did, but racism in America took on another form entirely, the subtlety of which Leggett could not comprehend. They owned the neighborhood, and controlled its demographics. They owned its clubs and organizations, and controlled their membership. Their war against the Jews was not a war of violence, it was a war of exclusion. They had created a closed society, and had no intention of allowing admission to anyone they deemed to be racially inferior. The Nazis were crude, vulgar gangsters whose idea of dealing with their enemies was genocide. The citizens of the Gardens simply denied them membership in their clubs. So George Leggett’s two-month recruitment drive, which he expected would provide his cause with a Brigade of swastika-wearing, goose-stepping, sig-heiling teenage studs, not to mention the financial donations of their wealthy, racist parents, yielded instead a small squad of ten-year-olds, who couldn’t wait to play tank commander, and fighter pilot. Not quite the Nordic supermen he anticipated leading in the overthrow of America.
I hadn’t seen the Commandant for a week or so when he appeared one evening involved in animated conversation with a group more receptive to his message. These were the teenage loser-morons who spent most of their time leaning against parked cars outside the Sutton Hall Pharmacy, smoking Lucky Strikes, and hoping to look tough. They were blue-collar kids, whose families lived in apartment buildings on the outer fringe of Forest Hills. Pissed off have-nots, who lived on the edge of an upscale community, whose kids enjoyed benefits they knew in their hearts they would never share. Angry kids from angry families, whose fathers probably beat their mothers and took their frustrations out on them, before slipping into an alcoholic stupor, possibly the happiest moment of their day. There were always fights. They fought with each other constantly, and sometimes even picked fights with passers by. They were scary, angry kids, fascinating to watch, like a traffic accident happening right before your eyes. I was only nine, too little to bother with, so they paid no attention to me. Concealed by my age, I was able to get close enough to listen, and it never took long to hear that all the troubles with the world were caused by Niggers, Puerto Ricans, and Jews. Leggett finally had an appropriate audience, who hung on his every hateful word, no matter how ridiculous. For the next few weeks the Commandant and his idiot teenage storm troopers could be seen marching around the neighborhood, spouting racial epithets, and promising the elimination of the Nigger and the Jew, not only from American society, but from existence on earth.
I was sitting in a booth with my friend Jimmy, sipping a coke at Sutton Hall when a few of Leggett’s teenage goons approached us. Jimmy’s family had moved to the Gardens from Brooklyn a few years earlier, and lived in a big Tudor house on Greenway South, one of the nicest streets in the community. His father was a famous photographer who took pictures of movie stars, and had emigrated from Austria before the Nazis took over in the Thirties. No one in the Gardens except me knew very much about his family, and I knew purely by accident. A year earlier I had learned his secret, and never said a word about it, even to him.
Jimmy spent as much time at my house as I did at his, and became well liked by both my parents. He was a funny, smart, engaging kid, with a total lack of pretension of any kind. He was smarter than I was, but I was more self-assured, so it was a workable trade-off. Beyond the chemistry, I’m not exactly sure what attracts one person to another, but Jimmy was more fun to be around than anyone I knew, and we spent endless hours engaged in the curiosity, exploration, and mischief that was the stuff of kids. On a Saturday afternoon, we were leaving my house for a bike adventure when we saw Irving Appleman, an old friend of my father’s, who had made the same journey as my dad, from the outer boroughs to the garment center, and lived across Queens Boulevard, in the Jewish section of Forest Hills, near the High School. He and my dad were sitting in the dining room having coffee and talking politics. Mr. Apppleman was a friendly, jovial man, who I had known all my life, and I was proud to show off my friend Jimmy to my father’s old pal. “Where you from Jimmy?”, asked Mr. Appleman. “Brooklyn. We moved here about a year ago.” “Yeah? Me Too. I like it better here though. You boys go have some fun.”
A few hours later I returned home by myself, and was waylaid by my father and Mr. Appleman, who seemed still engaged in the same conversation about Stevenson’s chances against Eisenhower in the November election, but had moved their discussion to the living room. My father asked me to join them, a request so unusual that I knew something was up. “Your friend seems like a nice boy”, said Mr. Appleman. “What’s his family like?” “Oh, his dad’s a famous photographer. Takes pictures of movie stars. They live in a big house on Greenway South, and go to the Congregational Church. I went to a service there with him. Everybody was really friendly. They just sang a few songs, and the Pastor spoke about the importance of voting. Really different than Catholics.”
“You know Shaun”, said Mr. Appleman, “I knew his family in Brooklyn. I knew his father pretty well. A talented man. A brilliant man. Did you know that your friend’s family was Jewish?”
“Oh no, Mr. Appleman, they’re Prostestants. I went to church with him.”
“You know son, a lot of Jews came to America before the war. They were scared stiff, believe me. Back in the Thirties Jews were rounded up in Europe and arrested, just for being Jews. Did you know that?” I shrugged it off. “Well, it’s true. They were arrested, and some of them were sent to camps, and some of them were murdered. Millions of people, murdered. So a lot of them escaped and came to America, but they didn’t know what to expect when they got here, so some of them changed their names to make them sound more American, and some of them even pretended they were Catholics or Protestants. They were scared that if people found out they were Jews that they would be sent to camps. They didn’t know that couldn’t happen here. These were frightened people, trying to protect their families. Would you like to know about Jimmy’s dad?”
So Irving Appleman began the story of my friend’s father’s great odyssey; from Vienna, to Brooklyn, to the Forest Hills Gardens. In Vienna, back in the early thirties, Jimmy’s dad had made a name for himself as an up-and-coming photographer. He was a talented young man whose portraits were in demand. He wasn’t rich, but his career seemed promising, and life was good. By 1936 the mood in Vienna was changing. In Neighboring Germany Hitler had been made Chancellor, and Crystal Nacht was just around the corner. Nazi gangs roamed the streets of Vienna, breaking the windows of Jewish shops, and beating up the owners. The Nazis had gotten their fingers into the Austrian government, and Jews began disappearing in the night. As time went on the great fear among Austrian Jewry was their country being annexed by Germany. Should that happen not a Jew in Austria was safe from murder. Jimmy’s dad had lost friends and family to the camps, and was determined to get out of Austria while he still could. He had enough money saved to make the appropriate bribes, and in the Summer of 1938 he found himself safe at last, living in Brooklyn, and with a promising career as, “that talented young European photographer”.
He had added an extra “n” to his name to make it seem more Germanic than Jewish, and filled in “Lutheran” as his religion on the immigration form. His safety, and the safety of the family he planned to have, was more important than his Jewishness. He was determined that the horrors of Nazi Europe would never touch him again. When it came time to marry he chose the most goyishe looking woman he could find, an ivory skinned redhead, who belonged on the cover of a waspy magazine. During the War he managed to secure a position for himself as a middle-man merchant between the Army Signal Corps and the manufacturers of photographic chemicals. He made only a few cents on a gallon traded, but the volume was enormous, and this was how he made his fortune. By the early Fifties he was a rich man. He had become quite famous as a theatrical photographer, with an enormous studio on Times Square. He had a gorgeous wife, and three boys, and it was time to make the move from Brooklyn, but he had one last piece of slight-of-hand left to do in the charade he had created. One last brick to add to the wall so that no one would ever suspect his Jewish past. He would move his family to the most anti-semitic neighborhood he could find, and become a pillar of the community. He would not necessarily become an open Jew-hater, but he certainly wouldn’t let his children marry one. So he bought the big Tudor house on Greenway South, one of the nicest streets in the Forest Hills Gardens, joined the local Congregational Parish, and settled in to life in Fortress Goyim. He was finally safe. His family was finally safe. Safe from anti-Semitism. Safe from danger. Safe from hate. Right here in the nurturing little community that existed under the threat of the race lien, which prevented him from selling his house to a Jew.
No one said anything for a few minutes, before Irving Appleman added, “You know, he meant well. He was frightened. He wanted to protect his family from what he went through in Austria. But he did a bad thing. Your friend Jimmy is growing up in a Jew hating neighborhood. In order to make friends, to be accepted, he will start calling Jews kikes, and hebes, and Jew-boys, and how long will it be before he discovers that he himself is a kike, a hebe, a Jew-boy. That is, if he doesn’t already know, which is probably the case. Jimmy’s a smart boy. He has uncles in Brooklyn who go to Temple and observe the Holy Days. You think he doesn’t notice? He knows, believe me. And one day, probably soon this is all going to come to a terrible crisis, when he just can’t pretend anymore, and when that happens he’s going to need a friend. He’s going to need a friend just like you, Shaun. Are you going to be his friend?”
Leggett’s teenage goons were hovering over the table at Sutton Hall where Jimmy and I were sipping our cokes.
“Hey”(to Jimmy) I hear you’re gonna be a fighter pilot”
“Yeah, I guess”
“You Guess? You gonna be a fighter pilot, or what?”
“Your plane gonna have machine guns?”
“All fighter planes have machine guns”
“Your plane gonna have bombs?”
“What do you think?”
“You gonna bomb Jew-boys?”
At this point I interrupted. “Look, we’ve got to head home. Lot’s of homework”.
“You shut up. I want any shit out of you I’ll squeeze your head. Hey, I asked you a question. You gonna fire-bomb hymie-town or what. You gonna burn those kike mother fuckers out? You gonna turn those hebes into charcoal or what? Hey, you’re starting to piss me off. I want an answer you little faggot. Do you hear me? Are you gonna kill Jews?” He was menacing now and Jimmy was frightened. “Answer me.”
“Yes” (almost a whisper)
“I can’t hear you.”
“Yes” (slightly louder)
“Speak like a man, you little homo.”
Jimmy looked up and screamed at him, “Yes. Yes. I’m going out and killing as many Jews as I can get my hands on. Does that make you happy?”
“Hey. That’s all I wanted to hear. Good boy.” And they turned and left.
Jimmy had tears in his eyes and his whole body was shaking. He put a quarter on the table and ran out. It was here. The moment Irving Appleman had predicted a year ago. Jimmy had taken all he was going to take. His father’s charade had caught up with him. He just couldn’t pretend anymore. I phoned him an hour later, but his mother said that he wasn’t feeling well, and hung up.
The greatest scandal the Gardens had ever seen, even greater than Ralph Bunche Jr’s denial of admission to the West Side Tennis Club, hit the papers the next morning. George Leggett, along with five of his loser-moron storm troopers had been arrested and remained in jail. They were charged with illegal weapons possession, attempted bank robbery, sedition, and the attempted overthrow of the government of the United States. Holy Moly, and right in my own neighborhood. The guy we thought wanted to play games with us had actually intended on committing violent crimes in order to finance his very real overthrow of America, and he had talked five of the loser-morons from the Sutton Hall Pharmacy into going along for the ride. He had promised them that they would take the proceeds from robbing several banks, and buy land upstate New York for a training camp, as well as weapons to train with. Nigger-splattering, Jew-killing weapons. And now they were all in jail. Bill Schutz, Arnie Dietrich, kids I knew, and they were in jail, their names and photographs all over the newspapers. Reporters and photographers scoured the neighborhood, asking about Leggett’s conspiracy, hoping to find some dirt, and everybody had something to say; Lou the florist, Bill at the Sutton Hall soda fountain, Sal at the Pizza Prince, all spilling their guts to the reporters, hoping to get their names in the newspapers.
George Leggett, who had promised fighter planes to ten-year-olds, had actually meant it all along. He didn’t just want to play war with little kids, which is what we all thought. He wanted to declare war on America, and have our parents pay for it. And poor Jimmy, who had reached the limit of his make believe, playing out the farce created by his father’s fears, and had told morons that he intended on turning Jews into charcoal, was sitting at home in his room, not quite knowing how to maintain his sanity. It was time to have the conversation with my friend that I should have had a year ago. There had been a silent understanding between us. I’m certain that he had guessed that I knew his family’s past, but we never discussed it. He had recognized Irving Appleman that afternoon, a year ago, and surely knew that it was only a matter of time before I knew everything. It was time to tell him. To tell him that I’ve known all along. To tell him that I didn’t care that he was Jewish. To tell him that he meant more to me than anyone did. To tell him that he was my best friend, no matter what. To tell him that the truth behind his family’s great charade, born of his father’s paranoia, was a secret not worth keeping.
After a few weeks had passed, and the press coverage caused by George Leggett’s attempted overthrow of America began to fade, life in the Forest Hills Gardens seemed to return to normal. Lou at the florist shop was working overtime, pinning carnations on the lapels of the white dinner jackets worn by teenage boys, whose parents had rented them earlier in the day just for tonight’s festivities. All over the community, the formally attired young men of the Gardens, carrying little white boxes, each containing an orchid corsage, were knocking on the doors of the debutantes who were to be presented that evening at the first-ever Forest Hills Cotillion. Proud fathers, escorting their carefully gowned and coifed daughters, stood ready to present their little girls to local society. From the open windows of the ballroom at the Forest Hills Inn, the syrupy sound of the Lester Lanin Orchestra drifted across the little community, fading as it floated over the cherry blossoms in Station Square, until finally dissolving into the hubbub of street traffic at the Gardens’ edge. Around the Ballroom, nervous boys, mingling in twos and threes, could be seen practicing dance steps, before working up the courage to join the debutantes out on the floor. At the bar, the parents toasted their good fortune, to live in such a place. A place where everyone knew their neighbors, and could walk in safety amongst trees and gardens, greeting friends and breathing the flower-scented air, without fear of bumping into obvious undesirables – well, almost. And even though they no longer controlled the community’s demographics, on this night, here in the Ballroom at the Forest Hills Inn, as their darling debutantes danced the night away, there was not a single face of questionable heritage to be seen. Their wagons remained circled, at least for now.
Just across the Hamlet’s border, well beyond the sound of the Cotillion’s orchestra, those of the teenage loser-morons who were not presently under interrogation by the FBI, maintained their usual position, leaning against parked cars outside the Sutton Hall Pharmacy, smoking Lucky Strikes, and attempting to appear as menacing as possible. There was the usual pushing and shoving, threatening passers-by, and idiotic, hateful banter, until they became united by somebody’s cry of, “Hey, let’s go beat up some Jews.”
© Shaun Costello 2014