A Knight of the Altar


The winters of his youth were remembered as colder, deeper with snow, and friendlier than today's.  He remembered fondly, the week in January, the January when he was nine or ten and Father Mc Dermott appointed him seven o'clock Mass server for the entire month.  He woke at six, washed, brushed his teeth, combed his hair then bundled into his winter clothes and thick boots and walked half a mile through the snow to the Church.  There was no thought of breakfast, an altar boy, especially one of Mc Dermott's, was expected to be in an eternal state of grace and proud to have the opportunity to receive the body and blood of his saviour before the rest of the town was awake.

The experience toughened him up.  He had been sickly through kindergarten and first grade and the priest had arranged his schedule with his parents.  So it was, that the altar boy got stronger and stronger, until, at the age of eighteen, he served his last mass.  It was the day before he left home for the first time. The next day, he traded his cassock and surplice for fatigues and combat boots and for the next three years, he didn't see much of priests or altars. 
It was the last week in August.  He was packed, the old Volvo was tuned, polished, gassed, and ready to go.  He would drive through Ohio and Indiana the following day and turn south to Texas after a night's sleep.  In the meantime, it was down to the corner for a few last beers with the boys from the block. 

Nothing went wrong, he was in good shape when he left, and the other four recruits were on time, and waiting for him when he got there.  They got to Texas with no problems, got through the eight weeks of training, with the exception of Aldo, whose feet were judged too flat for military service.  Because they couldn't separate the feet from the man, he was discharged and sent home, where he worked happily everafter in a grocery store, stocking shelves, cleaning vegetable coolers, and singing the last four songs he'd heard on the radio the day they left for Texas.

The altar boy survived basic training and after four weeks of picking up cigarette butts and scorpions, received his orders for advanced training.  He ended up in Princeton, NJ to study Chinese for the next nine months.  He couldn't figure it out, but he was only two hours from home, had received his second stripe, and was eligible for forty-eight hour passes on weekends when he didn't have duty assignments.  It seemed like the perfect assignment.  In his third month there, it was the perfect assignment.  He met a woman from Lower Manhattan, with a perfect body and a mind to match.  They were yin and yang, Catholic and Jew, naive and sophisticated,  country mouse and city mouse, and there was more, but you probably get the idea by now.  He was, afterall, an altar boy.  He spent the next six months in her company, her bed, and her mind.  He was shipped to Texas to learn about radios and commies and automatic weapons.  After three months, he had a thirty day leave.  He spent half of it at home and half of it with her.  Then it was time for a permanent duty assigment.

He went overseas.  The destination is unimportant.  It lasted for two years and generated its own stories.  He grew a moustache and read alot.  He had, for six or eight months, considered reenlisting, but gave up the idea after his sergeant retired and his replacement turned out to be an asshole.  There was a lot of that and he wouldn't survive it.  At the end of his overseas tour, he was mustered out in New Jersey and tried to call her.  Her old roomate was there and with no pretense of kindness or gentleness, informed that the love of his life was married.  He didn't get upset, he got drunk, spent the night in a hotel, and took a Greyhound across the river to Pennsylvania in the morning.


He wasn't a kid anymore.  He wasn't an altar boy, and he wasn't a Catholic, except for the note on his papers.  His plan was to get into the biggest university he could afford and qualify for and disappear in the crowd.  He settled on one half a continent away from the coal mines and a hundred years away from the corner bar. 




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