The public elementary school close to our house wasn’t good enough for the Minicozzi kids, according to our Grandma McNeely. They didn’t teach the Catholic religion there. So off to Catholic school we went.
The closest Catholic school was St. Joseph’s Elementary School, in the nearby city of Yakima, Washington. Instead of a 10-minute walk (15 if you stopped to exchange insults with those stupid kids on 2nd Street), getting to St. Joe’s involved a 45-minute bus ride.
Our school bus was a yellow relic that had a habit of breaking down unexpectedly. It was driven by Archie, who doubled as the school janitor. Archie probably tortured small animals and stole lunch money from First Graders when he was a kid. He probably still did it. If he could find a mean way to tease one of us, he would do it. His special nemeses were some of the boys, who had too much kid energy and no place to go. Archie once threw Johnny G., the noisiest of the boys, off the bus halfway through his trip home. This didn’t help much, and Johnny G. was a folk hero for a few days. Then he went back to just being an obnoxious nuisance.
Yakima was the local metropolis, with its population of 45,000 and its “downtown” business district. They had a Newberry’s (a kind of imitation Woolworth’s), a Nordstrom’s, a Sears Roebuck and a Bon Marche, as well as a couple of record stores and a handful of other mercantile establishments that I don’t remember too well. They also had two hotels and two movie theaters that could only show one movie at a time, one of which, the Capitol Theater, was an old vaudeville house.* The Capitol Theater is still standing as a restored historic building, and is now a concert hall.
A favorite sport of local teens was dragging the avenue that ran through the business district. We had no Internet or cell phones back then. We were forced to look for other ways to be stupid. We had to take what we could get. Drag racing on a main street could get you arrested, if it didn’t kill you and whoever you might bump into, but that didn’t stop some of our idiot contemporaries from trying it.
St. Joseph’s Elementary School was an ugly one-story building a few blocks from the business district. It had kids. And nuns. The kids were the ones in the uniforms walking two abreast. The nuns were the ones in black with starched white headdresses who acted like drill sergeants in drag. No kid would dare disobey a nun. We would be publically punished at school and finished off by our parents at home.
Speaking of uniforms, we girls had what could probably have made the Guinness Book of World Records as the ugliest school uniform in the world. It consisted of a shapeless navy blue jumper worn over a short-sleeved white blouse. On our feet we wore saddle oxfords and white socks.** There was no way to look good in that. If the idea was to discourage vanity and make all of us equal, the school succeeded. We were all equally frumpy.
We were required to attend mass at St. Joseph’s Church every day before school. The church was on the same block as the school, so we didn’t have far to go. We had to line up in front of the church before mass, with girls on one side and boys on the other. Then we would file in and take our places in the pews, sitting according to what grade we were in. Again, boys were on one side and girls on the other. There was no mixing of the sexes, even though most of us were way too young to have any dirty intentions. First Graders sat in the front pews and Eighth Graders sat the farthest back. The pews that were not reserved for us would be occupied by 4 or 5 elderly parishioners who were pious or desperate enough to show up early on a weekday morning.
We were expected to be quiet and prayerful during mass. One day I was bringing some cookies to school for some kind of celebration our class was going to have. They were in a paper bag, which I was swinging against the pew in front of me. The nun on duty, who was pissed off, came up the aisle and spotted me as the source of the noise. She had to lean over a few kids to hiss at me, but she did: “You put your lunch on the floor and you leave it down there!” Of course, I obeyed, but I had the last laugh. It wasn’t my lunch, it was cookies. I fooled her!
After mass, we would file out of the church and over to the school, walking two abreast and trying to look holy so we wouldn’t get yelled at. The boys took a short cut across the playground. The girls had to go around the long way on the other side. The boys always beat us to the classrooms, but these were the days before Women’s Liberation, so nobody protested.
Our school day consisted of prayers, lessons, recess, more prayer, more lessons, lunchtime recess, even more prayers, more lessons, more prayer and dismissal. We not only saluted the flag, we saluted the cross. Religion was a regular class, like arithmetic, reading or spelling. We were taught from The Baltimore Catechism, an instrument of Satan designed to make sure a lot of us would end up hating organized religion. It took grand, cosmic concepts that Christian theologians had been pondering for centuries and still didn’t fully comprehend and boiled them down into stock questions and answers, many of which we were required to memorize. We were told that these would help us defend our faith against any atheists, Protestants or assorted heathens who might question it. Actually, they were designed to make sure the ideas got stuck firmly into our brain cells so thatwe would never question them. When any of us finally did meet some questioning unbelievers, we quickly found that spouting catechism answers was about as helpful as trying to put out a fire with gasoline.
Aside from the drill sergeant act, most of the nuns who taught us were nice women. Still, mild corporal punishment was expected in those days. This almost always consisted of slapping a kid on the hand with a yardstick, which was known as “giving hacks.” Only boys got hacks. Girls who acted up in class were punished in other ways, such as having passed-around notes posted on the bulletin board for all of us to read and enjoy. For the boys, getting hacks, although it could be embarrassing, was a badge of honor and a way to get noticed. Some of them would even grin while their hands were being smacked.
We learned our subjects well. No kid came out of that school illiterate. Not only did we learn how to read, we had English grammar drilled into our heads until they exploded. There was no sentence that we couldn’t diagram. We memorized multiplication tables, worked on penmanship until our hands were sore, and had spelling drills. We prided ourselves at always being at least a little bit ahead of the public school kids with our academics. The public school kids just jeered and called us “cat lickers.”
That was okay with us. We took their scorn like the good Christian martyrs we were expected to be if we got the chance.
Most of us hoped we would never get the chance to be martyrs for the faith, but it didn’t hurt to get in a little bit of practice, as long as there was no pain involved.
*We were all encouraged to take the Catholic Legion of Decency pledge, where we promised only to go to movies listed as “A,” or “morally unobjectionable.” We were supposed to avoid any “B” or “C” (for “condemned”) movies. The guy who owned all the movie theaters in town was a Catholic, but that didn’t stop him from showing a lot of “B” movies and even a couple of “C” rated ones. As a public service, when he showed the movie “The French Line,” which was rated “C,” he had this fact broadcast on television, so that people who objected could stay away. That’s known as the best cheap publicity in the world.
**We were forbidden to wear patent leather shoes. They were shiny, said the nuns, and they would reflect up and show everyone our underwear. Some of us actually believed this.