Tuesday, September 07, 2010

POPS, HEROES, AND LESSONS LEARNED AT ST. THOMAS HIGH SCHOOL, 1963

I am about to tell a true story exactly as I remember it. I won't embellish or embroider the facts but will retell the incidents exactly as I remember them.

I entered the ninth grade at an all-boys' college preparatory school run firmly but fairly by the Order of Basilian priests.

The year was 1962. At that time in our country's history, unruly and undisciplined boys were given "pops," the popular and common expression for a smack on the rear end. Freshmen, or ninth graders, or "fish," as they were commonly referred to, were given "pops" sometimes on general principles.

There were legendary "pops" that lifted big boys, almost men, completely off the ground. "Pops" that left red stripes across the cheeks. And the most mystifying and brutal? The legendary "pops" given out by Father Matzinger, the baseball coach. The strong looking, big man who was always grabbing his chest, squeezing it, and sayin', "Awright yoose guys. Ya better straighten up." He had a baseball bat hanging way up on the wall above the chalkboard that had been sawed down the middle of the meat of the bat, leaving the handle intact. Holes were drilled through the bat. The flat, fat end of this bat landed on the poor boy's rear, leaving legendary red circles where the holes impacted the flesh. When he was finished, there would be a new notch on the bat the next day. Sure enough, there were notches. But a bat? Nonsense. I knew something about baseball, and it was a 38 ounce bat, fer cryin' out loud. There was no way he'd use that thing on a kid's rear.

During the first Latin test of the year, what was surely referred to by Father Matzinger as a "pop quiz," the boy sitting directly in front of me, Gerald, was peeping at other test papers and not being very subtle about it, either. Suddenly Father Matzinger and his huge black cassock loomed beside me, and he was staring intently at Gerald. He suddenly swung his huge hand, landed it smack in the middle of Gerald, and lifted him up out of his desk by the very skin of his back. I'll never forget Gerald dangling there, helpless, like a minnow on a hook.

Gerald was lowered to the ground, marched up to the front of the room, bent over, and the bat was rapidly removed off the wall (without using a ladder! Matzinger was a big man). Father Matzinger went into a quick batting stance, and a powerfully delivered swing to the rear lifted Gerald off the ground. Now some who were not there would suggest it was Gerald's leg muscles flinching in agony that lifted him off the ground, but I promise much of it was an uplift, a Babe Ruthian, Sultan of Swat swing that lifted poor Gerald right off the ground. The next day the bat had a new notch. No more pops were dispensed, and no more notches were required.

I was not going to be given a pop. I was going to go popless. This was my goal. This was my ambition. And I succeeded. The entire year I received nary a single smack on the rear. One day I heard that Coach McDonald was giving every boy in the school a pop. Not me! I had sixth period P.E., and by that time I had checked out every P.E. period, and Coach McDonald was definitely handin' out pops to everyone. I went to gym class early, and sure enough, Coach McDonald was yellin' at everybody to suit up and line up for pops.

I had suited up early, mosied over to the bleachers, carefully slipped inside, snuck deeper inside them, and then held my breath. Another student thought of the same thing. His name? "Doogie". I still remember Doogie and the white house with green trim he was raised in, and the look on his face while we listened to everyone receive their pops, the shouts and hoots and hollers of the onlookers, and the look on Doogie's face when Coach McDonald yelled out, "I'm sure there is an idiot hiding in the bleachers, so you better come out now or I'm comin' in to get you." Doogie and I looked at each other and we knew one of us had to go. Without much hesitation, Doogie headed out to his moment of glory, always to be remembered by me as the brave one, the sacrificial lamb so to speak, my hero, Doogie. When he stepped out of the bleachers, the gym was in an uproar, and for all the bedlam I never heard the pop on Doogie's rear.

All year long I was charmed like this. Oh I wasn't a perfect angel. In fact, for the first time in my life I got into a lot of trouble, and I had trouble getting along with others. I was constantly in fights. I was always meeting some fellow after school on Jackson Hill to settle a score. Jackson Hill meant fists, and that meant blood, lots of it, and that meant blowing smoke at my parents when I got home to explain away the blood. They always bought my story because they couldn't picture me as a tough guy in fights.

I received and gave bloody mouths and noses. There is more blood in a real fist fight than on TV and in the movies, but it wasn't the blood flying and flowing that stopped my bare-knuckled fights. Loose teeth is what stopped me from brawling at Jackson Hill. I switched to challenging or accepting challenges of, "I'll meet you in the gym." That meant trying to punch out some guy with the boxing gloves. Coach McDoanld wisely provided sixteen ounce gloves that were so heavy and soft no one could get hurt. After quite a few fights I learned to let guys pound on me until they were tired, wait for their fists to drop, then I'd try to land three good blows to the face. You only had about ten good pumps in you, and I learned how to knock a guy down. All of them were bigger than me.

Everybody was bigger than me. I got into a fight with Luke because we were the shortest boys in the whole darn school, and that meant one of us had to "rise" to the occasion in some weird, manly, macho manner, and I told him that if he thought he was so tough, go ahead and punch me, but I wasn't gonna go down 'cause he was a puny little @$$h0*8, and when he finished punching me, I was gonna tear him a new one. He punched. Sure enough, I took it. Then a bunch of well-meaning, dadburned heroes stepped in and broke up the fight, thus saving Luke from receiving a new one, and both of us from getting a pop in the office (the worst place). We never did settle that score. I felt horrible later because Luke transferred to another school, which meant I was now the shortest kid in the school.

On and on this went until finally the last day of school arrived. By this time I considered myself invincible. Sure enough, some guy on the Green Slab ( a place designated for smoking cigarettes) referred to my sexual orientation based on the color of my outfit. I'll never forget his claim: red and black on Friday....definitely a sign of homosexuality. Well how was I to know? I disagreed with the sophomoric morphodite and got into a fight that wound up a wrestling match. He was bigger than me so I fought so hard I ripped my pants from the bottom of the zipper all the way around to the belt. When it was over, Father Cooper was watching us and grinning! He was laughing! He thought it was funny! He looked right at me and walked off. He wasn't going to give me a pop! I saw him mumble something to the effect that he was "......going to leave us to our own devices" and ".....summer's almost here..." or something like that. Then he was gone! I was charmed! Untouchable! I untucked my shirt to hide the tear in the entire crotch of my pants and went on to the next class.

The last academic period of my day was fifth period English with a dapper gentleman named Mr. Ribbeck. Everyone loved and respected Mr. Ribbeck, and so did I. I was sittin' in his class and we're all just talkin' about the school year and reminiscing, and suddenly Jim, a mature fellow with an astute sense of observation said, "Mr. Ribbeck, all year long we've all gotten pops. Everybody. But I don't remember Walter ever getting a pop. I've thought about this a lot. I think Walter's gone the whole year without a pop."

All eyes turned on me. Mr. Ribbeck strutted over to his desk, opened the right front top drawer of his desk, removed the white gloves he wore when he gave out pops, and started to put them on. I knew I was had, and I said nothing. Mr. Ribbeck "warmed up the crowd" with remarks like, "He's never had a pop? Never? Not once has he ever ever had a pop?" The crowd started hooting and screaming. He quieted them down with a wave of his white-gloved hand. "Not one pop? It's a virgin butt?" More yelling and screaming. He quieted them down again with a wave of his prim paddle. "A virgin butt? A virgin butt.............................for me?"

I was called to the front of the room, and Mr. Ribbeck made me turn around and face the chalkboard so the entire class could see "....the very first impact of my paddle on a "virgin butt." That was when Mr. Ribbeck lifted up my shirttails so as to expose my pants, and there was my underwear for all to see. Remember? I had really ripped the hell out of my pants. I had to stay bent over as Mr. Ribbeck cracked good joke after pun after good joke, all of them regarding my crotchless pants, my white briefs, possible brown streaks, and lastly, my virgin butt, and after much hooting and hollering and bellowing and chanting by my classmates, Mr. Ribbeck finally delivered the blow.

What was amazing to me was that afterwards everyone was pounding me on the back and acting like I was someone important. Then, to my surprise, during the next P.E. period I was the center of attention. The Virgin Butt. Captain Underwear. I was like a hero.

Somehow, in some mysterious way, I felt that I had, though reluctantly, finally joined a weird fraternity of sorts. Prior to the pop I thought they were all masochists and sadists. Afterwards I finally realized that we were all now part of an ancient tradition that recognized all adolescents and teenagers as, at times, miscreants and ne'er-do-wells deserving of punishment and direction, and what had seemed awful wasn't really awful at all.

That is something our society has lost. Somewhere along the line some teacher probably lost control and went overboard. Some student tried to fight back against the truth because they felt awful being punished. I know how they felt, but it wasn't awful. Awful is not pain. Awful is not shame. Awful is not having anyone care enough to guide your life.

Corporal punishment was an ancient tradition that I lived to see die a legal death in my country. No more would students suffer. The only ones who had to suffer were those of the old order who were caught in that transitional period: those who were sued, fired, ruined, their reputations destroyed, or worse, convicted and jailed. I see them as Priests of Punishment defeated by the noninterference of laissez faire lawyers and replaced by handcuffed bureaucrats who have no other recourse than to treat all ne'er-do-wells as juvenile delinquents, potential lawbreakers, and criminals. The long-term outcome has not been the mere elimination of corporal punishment. We have witnessed the abdication of authority by adults. We have given children the right to make decisions about their own life, and some of them are choosing to avoid work without any costs or repercussions.

I do not know if corporal punishment is effective. Research claims it isn't. Corporal punishment sure gets your attention, though. Those who felt the sting of a paddle held by a white-gloved gentleman are an aging breed of alleged victims of a cruel era, and a fraternity of gentlemen who know better.

2 comments:

Mick said...

Walter, I also attended STHS from 1964-1968 and well remember Matzinger, Coach McDonald (and Burr Davis) and Mr Ribbeck - and the infamous "pops" - remember the end-of-year farewell pops from McDonald/Davis? No one, though, could deliver a beating like Fr. Canning (Latin teacher) - and he had a TEMPER, until girls from St Agnes turned up, then he was all smiles! Loved reading your article!

Mick Brown

Walter Rich said...

Mick, we never met, or at least didn't get to know each other. The thought that you were in a different graduating class came to mind when I saw the years you attended. I was 1962-1966.

Maybe, possibly, you remember me as "Supercheerleader." It was a moniker I had for being a cheerleader and having either the stupidity or guts (you choose) for wearing a Supercheerleader outfit during pep rallies. The outfit included my cheerleader sweater with a big S on it, and the loetards that belonged to the loveliest cheerleader of them all Adrienne. At least I was enthusiastic, a commodity that was not popular until I came along, apparently, and probably fell out of favor as soon as I graduated. I look back on it and realize a bunch o' guys must have thought I was a geeky, nerdy, gay idiot, and some would still say I was and some would say I still am. I'm not. I just lived that school. I loved them all. Always did. Still do.

Thanks for the comment. It is quite apparent you went there. I remember Fr. Canning. He had no shoulders and so his career as a pirate would have been hampered because there was no room for a parrot, but he could have flogged every miscreant on ship. Where he got his physical strength is beyond me. It wasn't an external strength that came from muscles. It must have been some form of internal strength, a chi power, if you will.

The worst grinner of them all when the girls came around was Fr. Iforgothisname, who would douse himself in Jade East, the cologne of choice at that time in our country's history.

Thanks again for the comment.


Walter