October 28 - November 4, 1998

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Nobody Asked Me...But

by Bill Ryan

I sympathize with President Bill Clinton. Back in 1945, when I was in the fourth grade, I too committed adultery. At least, I thought I did. And as we know: perception is often the reality.

In the fourth grade our religion textbook was the Baltimore Catechism, a paperback about the size of the Readers Digest. By mid-October 1945 most 9-year-old scholars in our class at Hartford's St. Joseph's School had mastered the mystery of the Trinity, and could distinguish between original sin, mortal sin, and its lackluster second cousin, venial sin. We had even pondered case studies of the good angels and the bad angels. (Clearly, Guardian Angels were the good guys.)

By November of 1945 we had not as yet begun the Baltimore Catechism's in-depth explanation of the Ten Commandments. But some 9-year-old male scholars jumped ahead and privately read about the Commandments. The Sixth Commandment "Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery" we gave special notice to.

The Baltimore Catechism explained about immodest thoughts, words, and actions. (And in the blandest language possible; no Starr Report, this.) It cautioned that dangers to chastity were indecent books, motion pictures and stage performances.

In 1945 The National Legion of Decency published a listing of what movies were : Unobjectionable; Objectional in Part; and finally, flat-out Condemned. These movie ratings were often clipped from The Catholic Transcript and posted on the classroom bulletin board by our teacher, Sister Miriam. As to indecent stage performances: likely the word had passed to the Catechism's publishers about the Dow burlesque theater in Hartford; it was located on Main St., just around the corner from the upscale Strand Theater. During the morally relaxed WWII years The Dow Theater featured such tender, deciduous plants as Ann Corio, Rose LaRose, and Peaches, Queen of Shake as they travelled their bumpy-grindy road to success.

But wait. The Baltimore Catechism had more to report about the Sixth Commandment. Important, it warned, avoid bad companions and immodest dress. What was immodest dress? Particularly as practiced by a 9-year-old boy. I was confused. And then it hit me. The new corduroy knickers my mother had purchased for me weeks earlier at G. Fox & Company. They were immodest.

Most boys wore knickers in the 4th grade in 1945; it was a transition garment between short pants and long pants; just another rite of passage. My mother had purchased the corduroy knickers at the end of October, after the opening of school and before the high-priced Christmas sales began. Although a devout Catholic, my mother in her purchasing practices favored Calvinism.

The knickers were hideous. I hated them on sight (they were olive green) and sound (they squeaked when I walked in them). Their wide-whale corduroy texture sent out a sound like a cage full of laboratory mice overdosed with nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Certainly they fitted the Baltimore Catechism's definition of immodest dress. Certainly to wear them was to sin against the Sixth Commandment, perhaps mortally; certainly, at least venially.

I had postponed wearing them on the grounds that the brown woolen knickers that I daily wore to school were still serviceable. Would do nicely. My postponing to wear them had been based on sound aesthetics: they were ugly; loud in color and sound. But now the ante was raised: not only were they ugly to wear, they were sinful, moreover a sin against the Sixth Commandment, the Adultery Commandment.

Finally, one morning in early November my mother presented me with the olive green corduroy knickers, still folded in her G. Fox & Company grey cardboard box. When I protested that I wanted to wear the brown woolen knickers, I was told they were in the washing machine and soon would be hung out on the line to dry. Rats, I was trapped. Now hurry or you'll be late for school said my mother. Hurry I did, gulping down breakfast and racing up to Asylum Avenue before I would meet my friends and have to walk, squeaking my way with them, the route to school.

The first day in class passed slowly. There were plenty of stares at my green knickers from classmates; even some back-of-the-hand giggles, mostly from girls. And during recess the class bully a pug-nosed, big kid named Donovan yanked me aside and said, Ryan, you not only stink, you squeak. (I was pleased to read about a dozen years later that Donovan (name changed here) was discovered by the police in a package store at about 2 am. The police court news reported that he failed to post bond and would remain in jail awaiting his trial date for breaking and entering.)

By mid-week the giggles were fewer. I had developed a method of walking in the knicker a combination sailor's roll and bow-legged cowboy gait that reduced the squeaking. But I knew the giggles would build to a roar in a few weeks when we studied the Sixth Commandment and its strictures against immodest dress. I then lighted upon a plan.

Each classroom desk had its own fitted inkwell. Periodically, they were filled with ink from a giant, half-gallon-size bottle of ink. On Friday I asked Sister Miriam if I could remain after school and fill the inkwells. Yes, I could, she said. After I filled the final inkwell I upended the ink bottle and poured a black stream of ink into my lap. A large stain, roughly the shape of the map of Texas, grew on the corduroy trousers. I then walked up to sister Miriam and contritely reported the accident. She looked at my ink-stained knickers and then looked up to the ceiling and likely to the Divine Providence that hovered beyond it. She then sat down, wrote a note to my mother, and enclosed it in an envelope.

Arriving home I quickly gave my mother the note. She read it, folded it and placed it in her apron pocket. We're having mackerel for supper, she said, and turned away. Of course mackerel, it was Friday. What Sister Miriam wrote in that note I'm unaware. But in my mother's pantheon of Saints, the Sisters of Mercy were high up indeed. Right up there shoulder to shoulder with St. Patrick.

I can today feel President Bill Clinton's pain. Because I once walked in Bill Clinton's shoes, although mine were a size 6 and purchased in 1945 at Thom McCann's Shoe Store on Asylum Street.

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