I was throwing pebbles across the church lawn to see if I could hit the road from the steps. My arm had never been all that good. I'd been accused of "throwing like a girl" on the baseball field during gym class. Something had to be done.
So I was throwing rocks.
My father sat on the stone steps resting his arms on his kness, his hands folded in front of him as if in prayer. He was thirty years old. I was ten.
All around us the sky was bleeding salmon and orange. Reds of a dying day. Inside the church, my mother went through the motions with one of my sisters. Rehearsal for some ceremony or another. A sacrament. Communion. We were Catholic.
My father told me to stop throwing rocks, as fathers are wont to do. It made no sense to try to explain the whole issue of learning how not to throw like a girl. Anyway, I wasn't making much progress. I couldn't tell how I was throwing without a mirror, just that the rocks weren't going as far as John Olsen could get them to go.
"Do you believe in reincarnation?"
Fathers that ask kids to stop something often feel the need to provide alternative activities. My dad's way was to propose thought experiments. Only I didn't know at the time that's what they were. The word had too many letters. I asked him what it was.
"It means that after you die you come back as another person."
The thought scared me, a bit. Death wasn't on my mind all that frequently, and so I was hardly worried about coming back from it. I sat on the step next to his feet. I was no fan of those intimate father-son talks like Fred McMurray had with the Douglas boys. They gave me the same feeling as scratching your nails on a blackboard. Who knew why?
"Why would you have to come back?" I asked him. "Wouldn't you just go to heaven?"
"Some people think you keep coming back until you get it right. Over and over."
"Like a hundred times?" I asked.
"Does God kick you out of heaven for not doing it right?" I asked him, and then something else, "Would you just be you when you come back?"
"Maybe you don't ever get to heaven. They just turn you around on the way there and send you back."
"Like down with the devil?"
"Not really. Just back here."
"That's not what Sister Emmeric says." I needed to let him have it with the words of the authority. Now I was remembering the term from my seventh-grade religion class. "She says there's no such thing."
"Does she tell you you're one of the chosen people?"
I had to think about that one. When I was younger, in first grade back in St. John the Apostle school in Linden, New Jersey, I remember being told that by the Dominican nuns who taught me. We were chosen. We were special. The world was pretty much safe for us who believed what we did, who got baptised the way we were, but woe unto them who happened to die without believing.
Maybe they were the ones who were going to have to come back.
My father didn't think so, mostly because he didn't think anyone was specialer than anyone else.
"There are no chosen people and when you get older, you're going to find the most difficult problem with talking to people about that is faith. They teach you about that, right?"
They did, indeed.
"Faith is belief without proof. You believe in God even though you've never seen him, right? You believe the sun is going to rise tomorrow, even though you can't say for sure that it will. Faith makes people stop thinking when they should start."
Now I knew something was wrong. My father was no Fred McMurray and we were not the Sicilian version of the Douglas family. It wasn't that he was just bored sitting on those church steps. He took me there for a reason.
I moved up a few steps till I was sitting next to him. He put his arm around my shoulders. I could smell his breath and cheap aftershave. The hairs on his face were starting to go gray.
He did something he only ever did one other time in his life, and that was on his last day alive. He looked me square in the eyes.
He said, "When I die, I'm going to come back. Wait a few years, you'll see. I'll come back and you're the first person I'm going to find. No matter what. I'll find you."
And frankly, as I think any ten-year old would react, I was scared beyond comprehension. What the hell was going on?
I pulled away. I may have started to cry, as I was liable to do in those days when something confused me beyond my abilities.
"Cut it out," I can remember him saying. "I'm not dying now. Don't tell your mother I told you. She'll be all over me."
But the thought of my ghostly father returning from the grave to haunt me, was too much.
"Who will you be?" I tried to ask him.
"I don't know," he said. Then he climbed off the stairs and went down to the sidewalk by the church lawn. He picked up a rock and flung it so far it disappeared into the azure sky. "Like this," he said. "Commere. You hold it like this."
And so I don't throw like a girl anymore.
That evening, after we kids were all home in bed, I tossed under the covers, upset by the thought of my dead father coming back to haunt me, upset by the idea he would die.
I heard my parents talking downstairs in the kitchen with one of my father's friends who'd come over unexpectedly.
My father was in charge of a large factory that made glass bottles in Dolton, Illinois. Two days earlier, he'd sent one of his employees out to fix something, or to yell at someone. The man hadn't wanted to go, but my dad, being the boss, flexed his managerial muscles and ordered him out.
The man got to the part of the factory he was supposed to go to, and then collapsed. By the time my father heard about it, it was already too late. They'd called the ambulances, and the senior staff rushed to his side, but none of them knew CPR, and in those days before the 911 emergency system, it took quite a while for the fire department to figure out how to get an ambulance somewhere.
Being the responsible party, Dad wound up next to the dying man. He pulled him upright, to where he was sitting on the floor, my father next to him, his arms around the man's shoulders and chest.
And the guy died in my father's arms. Though he'd been in the army, he'd never been in a war. Nobody had ever died so close to him before, and certainly, never under his responsibility.
I remember him describing how the man's eyes didn't close, and how he turned blue, and then purple clots formed around his neck.
I wondered if he was going to come back and how. Would he become a zombie? The living dead? Or would he be born again, a tiny baby in a hospital somewhere?
I didn't fall asleep that night, but instead, wondered who I might have been before I became me, and very glad I had the luck to do it.
My mom used to say the first thing I ever saw on television was Alan Shepard's space flight. Whether it was true or not is a matter for the long lost historical record, and completely irrelevant to the reality of the world as I came to know it. The idea of space flight was the propulsion for my imagination for all of my life. It was probably her words that did it. That notion that my first moving pictures were of Freedom 7 lifting off the pad.
It was positive reinforcement. My mother's enthusiasm for my rocket lust turned me into an engineer and sent me to far off places. Were it not for my horrible eyesight, I would have tried for the space program. I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be an astronaut.
In Catholic schools in the late 60's and early 70's there was a lot of backlash, probably driven by the spirit of protest and civil disobedience televised across the nation. I remember the nuns in my Catholic school praying for the return of a Catholic president like Kennedy was, and they got all of us grammar school kids to do it, too. We prayed for the missions. For an increase in vocations, meaning more priests and nuns. We prayed for the poor and that the pope be guided by wisdom in these quite turbulent times.
Secretly I prayed to become an astronaut. I prayed for space stations and moon landings and that I'd get to live on Mars someday. I worried that God would smite me dead for praying against the rest of class, but only a little. Mostly, I was afraid one of the nuns would overhear my murmuring about rockets and lunar landers, because I knew that praying in silent did no good. You had to say it to make it real.
When the Apollo 13 service module exploded en route to the moon, I was glued to the news sources like everyone else. Already, the television coverage on moon landings had subsided, and so the wall-to-wall coverage I craved was replaced by soap operas and "Love American Style".
I wasn't getting my dose of space and I was hurting. So when Sister Theresa Marie proclaimed that the explosion was a "clear message from God" that "man does not belong in space", that he should take care of business on earth before spending all that money to go to a dead place with no use, I was livid.
Something had to be said, and so I did. I told her she was wrong. I raised my hand first, of course. And she called on me to speak, because as a normally timid child, she had no idea the blasphemy I would proclaim to the entire class that, not only was she wrong, but she shouldn't be saying things like that with hurt astronauts in space who needed our prayers.
For that, I got my knuckles slapped with a steel ruler. I was made to sit beside her desk with my thumb in my mouth like a baby, in front of the entire classroom.
When she sent me home, she gave me a note to give my parents about my behavior. I was in big trouble, and would not be allowed out for recess for the rest of the month.
My mother knew something was wrong when she picked up me and my siblings that day. And I saved showing her the letter till we got home. She banished me to my room. I was going to "get it" when Dad came home. So I sat in loathing of life itself until I heard his car pull into the driveway. And then I nearly puked in fear.
Mom showed him the note when he sat down to his dinner. And as I expected, he instantly called me to his side.
I must have been an absolutely horrific sight, standing there awaiting my punishment.
Instead, my dad mussed my hair and made me sit down next to him.
"You told her, what? That she was wrong about God?"
I tried to make some excuse. He knew it was a lie.
Then he grinned until I thought his teeth would fall out. My mother chastised him for "encouraging me", but he was loving every minute of it.
"You stood up to her?" he said. "This is what you care about? You actually care about something?"
It was space. Of course I cared about it. How could you not?
I remember him laughing. Bits of mashed potato flew across the table top.
"I'm going to school tomorrow to have a talk with this teacher," he said. My mother begged him not to, but it was going to happen.
"Son," he said. He was fond of prefacing his utterances to me with the term when he was about to pontificate. "We send you to a Catholic school so that you can get a good education, but also so that you learn something about our religion. Religion gets twisted up in the brains of the people who believe in it. Every person has a slightly different version, even though we're all supposed to have the same one. It never works that way, though."
He guzzled down a glass of Hawaiian Punch and finished the rest of his pork chop.
"God wants us to explore, kiddo," he said. "He wouldn't have put us in the middle of a universe that's bigger than infinity if he didn't want us up there looking around. You follow?"
I nodded. It was plain as the nose on my face.
He sighed. "She made you sit beside her desk with your thumb in your mouth?"
I nodded again.
"And you did it?" he said. And for the first time I realized that the seemingly infinite, God given authority of my teachers extended no further than my father.
"Yes," I said.
And over my mother's protests, he said, "Well, you shouldn't have. Because you were right."
The next day my father drove me to school. He went directly to the office with the note Sister Theresa Marie gave me the day before. I wasn't allowed in while he spoke with the principal. I had to wait in the anteroom with the secretary, and I had to stay there when Sister Theresa Marie walked past me, glaring.
But I looked at my feet as she went by. And I listened to my father's voice get louder and louder as he worked himself into a lather, quoting the bible and John Kennedy, and mentioning the money he paid to send me to that school. When they said the word "discipline", he yelled something about common sense and lawyers.
Then the meeting ended. I was called in with the adults and told never to disrupt Sister's class again. But I was free to think whatever I wanted.
It was, after all, a free country.
The principal told me my punishment had been necessary, but had been too severe and would not happen again. Where one would have expected an apology from the nuns, none came.
I received straight 'C' grades from that teacher for the rest of my 5th grade career. She managed to find fault with nearly everything I did. My father felt this was a character building experience for me, but I found it living hell.
She never punished me again for any reason. I was allowed out at recess for the rest of the year.
When Apollo 13 splashed down safely, my mother bought me an Apollo lunchbox, with pictures of Jim Lovell, Frank Borman, and Wally Schirra on it, and I made sure to leave it on my desktop every chance I got.
My future was safe. One day, a kid was going to bring in a lunch box with my picture on it.