I was born into an Irish family, and as in most cases, that means Catholic. We were typical nominal Catholics, though. We’d usually go to church when my then rather fucked up parents decided to get themselves together and find a little spiritual direction.
My two earliest memories of church aren’t really my own. They were provided me by my mother and late father, on different occasions, so I think these are pretty fair accounts.
The first was apparently the first time they decided to take me since I’d been Christened as a baby. I was maybe three years old. I kept asking my mother where we were going. She answered, “We’re going to see God.”
Finally, we got to church, all slicked back and pressed. The service started, altar boys rambling about and ringing bells. Finally, the very impressive priest in his grand priestly robes approached the altar, at which point I blared:
MOM, IS THAT GOD?!?!
At least they got a laugh out of it that morning.
The second one is a little more symbolic. Somewhere around the same time period, we were in church, near that back. The sanctuary was sort of an auditorium, so that the dais and altar were at the bottom, and the congregational seating was on a slight slope upwards and away.
As would become a pattern throughout my life, I wouldn’t sit quietly and shut my mouth, so my mom, having nothing else to entertain me, let me play with her wedding ring. It wasn’t long before she heard *plink* – *rollrollrollrollroll* as her wedding ring rolled clear down to the front of the church where, search as they might afterwards, it was never seen again.
I think my mom later looked back on that as poignantly symbolic, as that marriage was never going to last anyway.
Church never was central to our lives, but dysfunction was. My parents were both alcoholics, and soon split up when I was six, going on seven. We ended up in the little town of Fallon, Nevada, which today is a bustling metropolis compared to the podunk ranch town it was when we arrived in the spring of 1973.
After a few years of ranch living, we moved into town, across the street from Church Row, which was like a smorgasbord of faith. On three adjacent lots, you had the Mormons, the Catholics, and the Baptists – take your pick. Mom was getting herself sober (37 or 38 years strong now, that woman) and decided us boys needed some religious instruction.
Since I was behind the curve, I was put in with the second graders, along with my little brother, so we could go through the classes and have our first communion. The priest was this really old Irish guy (go figure), Father Sheehy, who had glasses like the proverbial coke bottles. They made his eyes look like huge behind those thick bubbles of glass. He was pretty nice and quiet, and I seem to remember him rambling from time to time. The nuns who taught the classes were nice enough too. No rulers on the knuckles, no mean retorts and nasty names. Just straight up teaching of religious nonsense. Really, the worst part of it was it was like another hour and a half of school after school, mostly about the stuff you didn’t want to sit through on Sunday either.
The weirdest part, other than being a 10 year old sitting through classes with second graders – I felt like Shaq at a horseracing jockey’s convention – was the first confession leading up to that first communion. The unworthiness started early, learning the Act of Contrition, then trying to come up with something worth Father Sheehy’s vision-impaired time to confess. I’m pretty sure I confessed fighting with my brother. The rampant shoplifting would come a year or two later.
I don’t even think I got anything more interesting than the St. Christopher’s medal I wore for years after that.
But being the human sponge I’ve been for most of my life, a lot of the biblical stories we were taught sunk in. I was actually pretty impressed with all the ritual, truth be told, and I decided, in the wake of that First Communion, that I wanted to be a priest when I grew up.
That aspiration vanished right around the time the girls around me started growing boobs.
Also during this time, before all the boobs, I have one other vivid memory that would come boldly into play early in my journey through Fundamentalism. My mother had to go to the local hospital for some reason I can’t remember when I was around nine, maybe ten years old. I was left in the waiting room while she did whatever it was she was doing.
On the little end table next to me was one of those infamous Chick Tracts. If I recall correctly, it’s one of their most read/printed tracts in their history:
Give that a read. How’s that for a lightsaber of fucked-up on a young, malleable mind?
The images of the giant, faceless god condemning the whimpering man to hell, then of the angel standing there, having just tossed that poor guy into the flames to suffer forever – well, those images were emblazoned on my mind, and honestly, are still there today.