Friday, March 15, 2013

On St. Patrick's Day weekend, I ponder the possibility of a Pope Howdy Doody I

As a kid, I bore a startling resemblance to TV's Howdy Doody.
Each St. Patrick’s Day, I ponder what it means to be an Irish-American. This year, as a new pope takes the reins of Mother Church, I’m also pondering about what it means to be Irish Catholic.

I just had a flashback. I get those occasionally. I wonder if it’s my damaged heart playing tricks on my brain.

Back in those black-and-white days of the 1950s, my younger brother Dan and I found ourselves in the same ward at Denver Mercy Hospital. We had double pneumonia, which is twice as troublesome as single pneumonia. It sound worse, too, doesn’t it? Our mother was a nurse at Mercy, a graduate of the hospital’s nurses’ training program at the tail end of World War II. 

The Mercy nuns were in charge. They wore full habits back then, which lent them an air of authority and mystery seasoned with a dollop of menace. They were neither the horror of the nuns portrayed in some books or plays written by lapsed Catholics. Nor were they the sweethearts portrayed in “Sister Act” or “The Sound of Music.” They were tough yet fair. They seemed to treat Dan and I a bit better than the others. This was probably due to our mother.

One day, Dan seemed to have a brainstorm. He waited until one of the nuns was in the ward, and he sat up and said, “I want to be a priest.”

The nun scurried over. “A priest, is it?” The Mercy nuns all spoke with an Irish brogue, yet another import from that benighted isle. 

“Yes, sister.” Dan beamed angelically. 

“That’s a good boy,” said the good sister, patting Dan on the arm. “And how would you like some ice cream, Daniel boy?”

“Thank you, sister.” More of the beaming. My brother had black hair and blue eyes, Black Irish like my mother. I had bright orange hair and was covered with freckles from head to toe. The kids at school called me Howdy Doody, who was a red-haired, freckle-faced TV puppet. He was an agreeable sort but dopey looking. I didn’t like him.

The nun returned with Dan’s ice cream. None for us. After all, we didn’t want to be priests. This was the highest calling a kid could attain. Parish priests ruled the Catholic roost. We know now that some of them were less than saintly. But back in those patriarchal days, they could do no wrong.

The next time a nun entered the room, Tommy piped up: “I want to be a priest.” The nun came over, patted Tommy on the head and said he was getting some ice cream too. So half of the kids in the ward now had ice cream and I had none. Before the fourth kid, the one in the bed by the wall, could speak up, I also said: “I want to be a priest.”

The nun walked over, put her hands on her hips sand said, “I suppose you want to be a priest so you can have some ice cream.”

“No sister.” I was no dummy, although I looked like one. “I had a dream. In it, I was a priest.” 

This got her attention.  “A dream?”

I nodded. “Yes sister.”

“And in this dream were you eating ice cream?”

“No sister. I was dressed like a priest and was saying mass.”

“You’re a fine lad, saying mass in a dream.  You almost could call that a vision.”

“Yes, sister.” 

She looked down at me. “We’re out of ice cream. I’ll get you a popsicle.” She frowned and walked out.

“Copycat,” said Dan.

“Not,” I said.

“Popsicle.” Tommy snickered. He bit into his ice cream bar.

I got a cherry popsicle. The nun broke it in two so the kid in the far bed could have some. 

As I ate the popsicle and stared at the two ice cream eaters, I vowed that next time I would be quicker on the draw and fake my priestly calling with much more alacrity than I had earlier. Perhaps I should be a bishop? Or pope? Too grandiose, perhaps. But imagine the world’s surprise when Howdy Doody the First donned the papal garments and those bitchin’ red shoes.

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