A PIECE OF THE BANNER

 

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Foreword

I remember well our catechism lessons in the quiet precincts of Saint John the Evangelist Elementary School in Buffalo, New York. The nuns would lead us in a daily progression of the tenets of the faithful.

“Who made me?” the book would ask.

“God made me,” was the book’s answer.

The rota continued through a progression of what we were programmed to believe in the Catholic faith.

At home, the process was more subtle but similar in its direction.

My parents and older siblings had an endless array of do’s and don’ts with which we were to conduct ourselves at dinner, in church and in the crowded streets around us on Seneca Parkside in South Buffalo. It seemed to a small child that there were rules for just about everything. And the penalties for not adhering to any of the various codes of conduct were quantifiable. No dinner, stay after class, a whack on the knuckles with a ruler, a dusting on the seat of the pants. Each was a pointed encouragement to “follow the rules.” It worked on us for a while until we got old enough to swallow the occasional negative reinforcement with a shrug and a casual comeback.

“Don’t mean nothing,” you would hear. Even though it might have.

Family, religion and the society around us were crafting junior versions of themselves in the smaller people who were in their charge. It wasn’t anything sinister. It was simply the only way they knew how to do things.

For some reason or other, the Martins were different. At least this one was anyway. The old man (dad) had instilled in us from birth the notion that we were as good as anyone on the planet. Maybe we were not as wealthy or as bright or any of a dozen other qualifiers, but he taught us that we were innately as worthy as anyone who arrived on the earth. This was both a radical and a powerful notion to teach blue-collar working class kids. I believed him and carried the notion with me into politics and life in general. In later years, in dozens of situations where the wealthy and the powerful expected obeisance, they got from me the ordinary collegial respect due any fellow inhabitant of the planet. And I expected the same accord from them in return. My father had equipped me with a unique armor that has served me well throughout my entire life. Thanks, dad.

From my mother, Eileen May Carney, I was given the love of reading and learning that has enriched my life immeasurably these last 62 years. Thanks, mom.

After setting down what I knew of the first four generations of my family’s history in America in Westward From Eire, I thought that I would take a hard look at the circumstances and events that gave rise to people born in a tight knit, Irish-Catholic, working class community. I wanted to examine and depict the formative influences that gave rise to patterns of behavior (mine) as they occurred in the political arena of Buffalo and Erie County, New York.

I started with my earliest memories and walked up through high school and college, trying to note the many influences that crafted the final persona that was Joe Martin.

I don’t know if I succeeded, but I had fun dredging up all of the wonderful memories and setting them down for others to read and hopefully enjoy. We are all unique creatures possessed of complex personalities and intellects. The final product that becomes the adult is often not what was expected.

If you accept the Baltimore Catechism premise that “God made us,” then surely our family, schools and friends around us helped create “who we are,” for better or worse.

I have used the temporal divider of the decades to set out a logical progression of the times and events that surrounded me. Even though all politics is local, as former House Speaker Tip O’Neil maintained, I tried to employ the various progression of American presidents as a means of advancing the story through the last six decades. My comments about them are brief. Many thousands of books are written about each and every one of them. I offer but brief glimpses I had of them as they and their actions impacted upon myself and those around me.

In chapter V, “The Creations of Legends,” I have set down a fable that encompasses dozens of experiences surrounding that magical time of childhood. And as I said in that chapter, if the events set down aren't completely true, then they ought to be. Similarly in the chapter, “The Holy Cross Vote,” the events depicted are not literal but an amalgam of fears and wishes that “urban legend” had devised in the grand galleries of gossip surrounding the government and political centers in Buffalo and Erie County, New York. Those who came before me could and probably had committed many of the election infractions that I have mentioned in those days long past when rules were what those in power wished them to be. I thought a fable here would say more than a complex discussion of what actually does go on in an election process.

In setting down these memories, my chief technical adviser, editor, writing consultant and producer was my lovely wife Mary. Thanks as always Mary. It wouldn’t happen without you.

After I finished a first draft of A Piece of the Banner, I mailed out copies to some of the “usual suspects” for their considered review. My sister Mary Eileen read it first and offered her helpful comments on reorganizing the flow of the story. Thanks, Mary.

A very good friend from Wisconsin, Richard Goff read the manuscript over carefully for non-sequiturs, logical flaws and just plain goofy mistakes. Thanks, Dick for your attention to detail.

Another Florida friend and former Buffalonian Pat Fox gave the manuscript a final review and helped refine the text. Thanks, Pat.

The final product emerged tentatively at the end of 2010. The smoky penumbra of memories, trailing back over 60 years, are sometimes both sketchy and sometimes necessarily of dubious accuracy. I learned early on in politics that there weren’t only two sides to a story but several versions depending on where you were sitting in the great card game of life. Perception is indeed reality.

These events herein set down are the way that I saw things as I progressed through the last six decades. I hope they offer a portrait of the life and times of that era and all of the many influences that made us who and what we are. And I hope that my reflections dredge up for you the many happy memories that family, schools, and friends made for you. People for the most part are wonderfully generous and good-natured. I was blessed to meet many whom I came to much admire. As for the others, I hope you spend eternity with a room full of people just like yourselves.



Chapter VI

The Education of the Rascals




All of the kids in our neighborhood went to the local Catholic grammar school, St. John the Evangelist. There, in addition to our regular studies, we were instructed in the perils of life and the damnation of sinners by a community of nuns from the Order of The Sisters of Mercy.

The nuns were always a mystery to us. They existed in a total vacuum of “school.” We never saw them outside of church or school. Our sisterhood lived in a small green convent immediately adjacent to the elementary school. What they did for recreation, and whether or not they ate real food, smoked cigarettes or sipped an occasional glass of beer were things that we speculated about but never had any hard evidence. They lived in relative poverty and tended to their flock with all of their attention whether we liked it or not. Some were more popular than others and it wasn’t until later in life that we realized that they were indeed real people, not some mystical persona enveloped under those black robes in the uniform of God’s personal army.

Every morning, weather permitting, we would line up in rows in the schoolyard, smallest to tallest, like cadets in a military academy. The American flag would be raised and the pledge of allegiance recited by youthful idealists. We would then be marched to our classrooms for the morning’s instructions. Talkers in line might expect the discouraging scowl or a light tap on the back of the head. In class the admonition might be a ruler across the knuckles. You didn’t mess around with God’s personal army. They were serious of mien and purpose and always retained the power of the dreaded “call home.”

The nuns were pretty much adjunct mothers and, although inclined to be crotchety, cared about us and looked after us. It wasn't unusual for them to step in quietly and help with clothing and food where the situation warranted it. They did this with the finesse of experienced diplomats, in a blue-collar community that prided itself on accepting charity from no one.

“Lisa, would you please stay after class?” Sister Josita one day asked of a classmate. “I need to see you about one of your assignments.”

“Yes, Sister,” said Lisa, who sat down as we were all dismissed.

We had all felt badly for Lisa. Her house had sustained a fire and her family lost everything. Insurance and things like that were not something any of us had in reserve.

“We have a few items of clothing that other families brought in to help, Lisa,” the nun said. “Would you try on a few of these outfits to see if they help?”

“Yes, Sister,” Lisa replied eyes brimming with tears. Children had already noticed and commented on her lack of different clothing at school. Children often suffered for the pride of their parents. In this manner the good sisters discretely helped those in need.

Going to a Catholic grammar school was like being raised by a churlish maiden aunt. You spent all day with these religious women. Their authority and concerns encompassed your whole life. If they got wind of mischief or bad habits after school, they were on you like a detective the next day. No hardened policeman ever perfected the third degree as finely as these women had. One way or another, they managed to extract the details of the transgression from you with threats of hellfire and damnation. Then, the call would go home to your parents, and things would be decidedly unpleasant there as well.

“Mr. Martin?” Sister Mary Susannah would say into the phone.

“Yes, Sister,” my father would reply concerned.

“Young Joey (or Billy or Jimmy) is not bringing in his assignments. He is also acting up in class. Is there something wrong at home?” the good Sister would ask.

“Say no more Sister. I will speak to the lad this evening and you will have no more trouble from him,” said my father. “If you do, please call us again and I will put the fear of God into him.”

“Thank you, Mr. Martin,” said the sister.

That would be the end of that. A good dusting on the seat of the pants and some extra chores would usually instruct the errant young rascal to change his ways. We all feared that telephone call home more than we did any punishment from the sisters themselves.

I remember one incident in particular that involved throwing snowballs. The principal, Sister Susannah, lined up about twenty of us in a row and methodically questioned each of us as to our culpability in the incident. Anyone dumb enough to admit guilt got a backhand across the face. Nobody had to tell us about the theory behind the self-incrimination principle of the fifth-amendment. We had already figured that out for ourselves.

“Did you throw any of those snowballs, Joey?” Sister Susannah asked with the wrathful face that only an inquisitor in the Lord’s employ could manage.

“Oh no, Sister. Not me,” I replied with an innocent and earnest expression and a set of very wet gloves in my coat pocket. George Washington, the whole chopping down of a cherry tree incident and later fessing up to it was something we had all hooted about when we read of it during our study of American History.

“Washington must have been a real sap,” Eddie Gorman said.

“Can you imagine the knucklehead getting busted for chopping down a tree?” asked Billie Pierce. “He must have been a real pansy.”

In the local streets children didn’t develop an advanced appreciation for the lofty ethics of morality or other such highly esteemed principles until much later in life, when a good education, the military or run-ins with the local constabulary intervened.

As far as education went, the nuns did a pretty fair job with limited resources. We weren’t allowed to “not do the work,” or we faced hellfire and brimstone. It was pretty intimidating at that age.

“You are going to burn in the fires of hell if you don’t change your ways, Joey,” Sister Mary Susannah said to me one day.

“Yes, Sister,” I replied penitently.

It was important to have the right hangdog look of complete repentance about you in one of these exchanges if you wished to come out of the interview well.

“God gave you these abilities and he expects you to make the most of them, you know,” the sister would continue.

“Yes, Sister,” I said with a forlorn look.

At this point if you weren’t prone to make any smart replies and looked mournful enough, the sister would soften and let you off the hook without a call to your home.

“Well then, try harder and make better use of your talents Mr.

Martin,” she would say with a smile.

“The children in China are all starving, you know. They would only hope to have half the things you have.”

“Yes, Sister,” I would say trying not to make a face.

‘I bet the kids in China don’t have to put up with half of this shit,’ I thought to myself.

“Well, get on with you then. I have other things to do,” Sister

Susannah would say with a dismissive smile.

Most of the members of this Order of Mercy were of Irish-American extraction. Guilt then, as a behavioral modifier, was honed to a fine science. To this day, I still have uncomfortable memories of threats and exhortations promising eternal damnation over minor transgressions.

One of the major spiritual responsibilities of the nuns was to indoctrinate us in the mysteries of the Catholic religion and prepare us to join the spiritual community of St. John the Evangelist. The opening initiation into this age-old society was the ceremony called  “the receipt of First Holy Communion.”

For the ceremony, the families arrived early at the huge St. John the Evangelist Church. Most walked from their homes in the surrounding neighborhood streets. We were about to make our first Holy Communion.

The receipt of Holy Communion is an esoteric ritual, clouded in antiquity. It represents to the faithful the transubstantiation of matter into spiritual being. Most of us never understood the concept, but it was a rite of passage that each of us went through in turn, uncomplaining, generation after generation, reaffirming a two thousand year old ideology.

Inside the church, the pews were crowded with parents, grandparents and beaming relatives. Our own seats were a glimmer of polished and contoured wood, with red-padded kneelers and racks for hymnals and bulletins. The aura in the church was solemn and thoughtful.

The surrounding pews contained the proud parents, grandparents and observant representatives of a generation past. The godparents, finished out the row. Many, many families stood similarly, row upon expectant row of communal celebrants, participating in a familiar and age-old ritual. Thoughts of their own First Communions, and the accompanying wellspring of memories, lent an air of nostalgia to the proceedings.                                                                                  We, the communicants, were bedecked in a patterned array of white lace dresses for the girls and sober blue broadcloth suits for the boys. We looked like miniature brides and grooms marching two by two, down the aisle of tomorrow.

Anxious parents, equipped with a dazzling array of expensive photographic equipment, jockeyed for line of sight positions to capture, in celluloid, a moment of memory. The mood was festive and the occasional squawk of younger siblings seemed to punctuate and enhance the familial and communal nature of the event.

The Mass, the most arcane and mystic of Catholic rituals, proceeded through its time-encrusted stages. The language has since evolved from Latin to English, but the ceremony itself was little changed from antiquity. The kiss of peace and a handshake with those nearest you, was a pleasant and modern addition to the rite.

The communicants filed solemnly to the altar and received, for the first time, a small wafer of bread, which was reverently placed onto our tongues by a be-robed and properly officious member of the clergy. The children responded, each in turn, “Amen” to the incantation “Body of Christ.” In later years the priests would place the host into the communicants’ hands and they would put it into their mouths but that wasn’t how it was done for millennium. It represented a receiving in spiritual form of the body of Christ. Each of these junior Catholics was nervous and expectant. They did not fully understand the ceremony, but were aware in a visceral sense of the import and seriousness of the rite in which they were collectively engaged. They sang, in the clear ringing pitch of young children, a song of happiness and devotion.

The flicker of photographic flashes and the whirring of motorized camera drives added a background of subdued, high-tech opera that curiously complemented the solemnity of the ritual.

Next, the congregation proceeded in a similar fashion to the children, and partook of the spiritual banquet offered. It had a swaying and familiar regularity, not unlike many primitive American Indian ceremonies.

Lastly, a small loaf of bread was distributed to each child to share with family. It was a poignant reminder of Jesus the Nazarene and his last supper, where he asked each of his followers to share with him the bread of life in a spiritual communion. The service concluded with a round of applause for the communicants and we parted, in tributaries of steel, to the many family celebrations at various homes and restaurants throughout the area.

The parish priest who inducted us into these various ceremonies in our community was a figure to be reckoned with. He was the unquestioned arbiter of the moral code that ruled our daily lives. He was the top banana of a tight knit Catholic community. If he put the finger on you, you were in for it good. You could count on a pretty fiery sermon the following Sunday at Mass, detailing the particular infraction involved. You also squirmed like hell in your seat praying that he wouldn’t name names. It was a very real and much feared threat.

One Sunday at Mass, I and several other miscreants sat fidgeting in our seats. The cops had broken up a crap game at the city line bus shelter a few days before. Though most of us had melted into the crowds and escaped, several had been detained by the local police. Father Coyle, our parish priest, had stepped in and asked that the errant lads be released into his custody. The cops had better things to do and released the boys to Father Coyle. Of course that wasn’t the end of the incident. The calls home had wreaked a terrible havoc amongst the lads. All were serving some kind of temporal penance at home with much sorer seats in their pants.

And now we had to sit and listen to a replay of the incident before an entire congregation of friends and neighbors. Luckily for us, Father Coyle’s wrath that day omitted mentioning names. We left the church much chastened. We had dodged a very real bullet that would have been lethal in a small community like this.

The nuns and priests loomed rather large in our young lives. They did care for us however, and spent their lives in relative poverty, looking after the well being of other people’s children. They were special people.

You learned early on however, how to con the religious community. Contributing your paper route money to the Catholic Charity’s drive at school and selling a bunch of subscriptions to the local diocesan newspaper were good ploys for openers. Then, you would try to sell as many fund raising raffle tickets and candy bars as you could to defenseless relatives and friends of the family. After that, you could get away with almost anything, short of skipping Mass and Communion. Throw in support for a few pagan babies in the far missionary stations of that religious order for insurance, and you were practically untouchable.

It wasn’t really bribery in the worst sense of the word. Like my brother Eddie before me, we had just figured out early that our actions could be viewed through a different prism when one’s frequent acts of charity were the lens on that filter. The Lord never worked in mysterious ways to us. You just had to figure out how to help Him and His representatives reach certain conclusions, is the reasoning that we adopted. It was an important primer for me in local politics.

A lot of the slack you got at school depended upon the amount your parents kicked into the weekly collection or whether or not they helped out at the weekly bingo sessions. If you were covered on those ends, the road to heaven was illuminated with plenary indulgences, dispensed locally. Overall, it gave you a pretty fair understanding that whoever paid the piper called the tune.

When you weren’t awarded a plenary indulgence at Mass, you had to seek absolution weekly for the array of sins that burdened a young heart, both real and imagined. We did this by seeking forgiveness at Confession.

The good nuns would troop the entire class across the walk to the cavernous and empty St. John the Evangelist Church for our weekly search for penance and atonement. We sat in a group and tried to be serious as each classmate entered one side of the three-celled wooden confessional. An occasional tap on the back of a talker’s head would refocus his attentions on the serious business at hand.

“Bless me Father for I have sinned,” was the opening incantation of the penitent. “Ego te absolve, in nomine Patris, Filie, Spiritu, Sancti” was the muffled reply. It came both as an admonition and an inquiry, through the wooden lattice panel of the confessional. For ease of purpose, the priest in the middle was able to hear confessions from booths on both sides. He had but to slide back the wooden shutter to speak with either of the waiting penitents. Anonymity was hoped for by everyone, but sometimes voices had a way of carrying in the larger churches with older members whose hearing wasn’t very good.

We were performing the age-old, Catholic ritual of “Confession.” It is a simple concept really, though shrouded in mysticism and secrecy. It is sort of like putting a spiritual quarter into a celestial pay phone and dialing up God, using his private number. Or at least that is what we believed in Catholic grammar school. And like the obligatory call to distant grandparents, we were expected to make the effort at least once a week.

Of course when you made the connection, you had to fess up to all the mischief that you had been involved in since the last call. If your calls were infrequent, the session could seem long indeed.

The penalties were quantifiable. Several “Hail Mary’s” and “Our Father’s” were the usual penance. If you got nailed with a few decades of the rosary or, heaven forbid, the whole enchilada, there was much speculation from your peers as to the level of malfeasance involved.

We stood in line on either side of the wooden confessional and waited our turn. We had to artfully construct the right balance of venial sins, to lend credibility to the whole. Otherwise, the third degree could be considerable. And if, God forbid, we were carrying around an unconfessed and unabsolved mortal sin, the weight could seem oppressive. Of course, we just knew, at that tender age, that the indiscretions were indelibly printed on our face, for all to read. The nuns of course were telepathic, or so it seemed to us at the time. We learned early the value of a good poker face.

I remember once when I dropped the ball completely. I forgot the words to the Act of Contrition, a final prayer by the penitent in the ritual. It may not seem like much to the uninitiated, but picture Whitney Houston forgetting the second verse to the Star Spangled Banner during the opening game at Yankee Stadium. It wasn’t life threatening, but it was pretty embarrassing. I was summarily remanded to the supervising nun and advised to admit the full enormity of my transgression. It was pretty heavy stuff for a ten-year old kid.

The kindly sister, who had the heart of a giant, gently prodded my memory until the entire text came roaring back to me in a flood of youthful  relief. Thus armed, I returned to face the anonymous avenger who had sent me to the spiritual netherlands.

As we grew older, the enormity of our sins grew with our exposure to the mortal world. Most of the priests were philosophical in the face of this endless parade of human weakness. Their penances were perfunctory and their admonitions generic. They knew, in their heart of hearts, that mere mortals are imperfect souls in need of spiritual solace. Some, however, never lost their indignant righteousness and would lecture the luckless penitent at length. The chain of penance thus dispensed would make Jacob Marley and Ebeneezer Scrooge seem unburdened and light-footed by comparison.

There was of course a natural correction to this type of behavior. We went “priest shopping,” like the canniest lawyer looking for a sympathetic judge. It could be comical at times. One of the sterner priests would have but a few “customers” and his more genial colleague across the aisle would have a crowd that stretched all the way back to the entrance of the church.

Sometimes, the best-laid plans went awry. The stern confessor would emerge and order several of the people in the longer line to form up in his line. It is like the barbershop, where you were too polite to say “no,” when the scalper asked, “Who is next?" You often got drawn into the wrong chair despite your best intentions.

Whatever the motivation or machination that got you into the booth, we all felt a catharsis of sorts when we left it. Spiritually and emotionally, we felt better. Whether it was the power of suggestion or a real communion with the Almighty, it worked for us. Some religions have “Sin Eaters.” Others are more physical in their spiritual flagellations. We novice Catholics unburdened ourselves in innocence and asked forgiveness from a loving God.

Years later, the absolutions were made more general and given to the faithful at weekly Mass. But it didn’t seem to have the same quality of ritual. Perhaps it was the mysticism that enticed us in the former, more private conversation with the deity. More likely, it is the memory of innocence from that time and the feelings of paradise lost, as we grew older and more jaded.


A Piece of the Banner is available on amazon.com as a Kindle book or by contacting Joe at jxmartin1@mac.com


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