You hear about people going to Reunions: high school, college, family, war vets, et cetera. Well, not me. For example, my high school, St. Augustine’s Diocesan on Sterling Place in Park Slope, Brooklyn, was already out of business when the passenger jet made an unscheduled crash landing on its doorstep in the late 1960’s, erasing all prospect of reunions. No matter, I wouldn’t have been attending anyhow. As for St. John’s University College, whose ‘campus’ was in a seven-story former bank building on Schermerhorn St. in Downtown Brooklyn --- it’s condos now and even if the doorman would let me in for old times’sake, I’d pass.
I spent all of 1956 and half of 1957 at St. Augustine’s as a transfer student, having come from a low-rent seminary that was supposed to prepare you to become a member of the Franciscan Order of Teaching Brothers. St. Anthony’s ‘Juniorate’ (odd name for a high school, right?), no doubt why we boys simply referred to it as ‘Smithtown’, located as it was in the Town of Smithtown on Long Island, among the potato fields of Suffolk County. My short story: I got kicked out after two years, told I was mistaken in thinking I had a ‘vocation’ (I won’t bore you with my sins). So how’d I get there in the first place? Well, you’re graduating from eighth grade in St. Anthony of Padua grammar school (same ‘St. Anthony’, no coincidence); you’re twelve years old and, since the age of five-and-one-half, been shuttled from the school to the looming red brick Church next door when the steeple bells summoned us to prayer. There, all us boys, in our dark-blue worsted trousers, white shirt and clip-on black tie, have been kneeling for all eternity on the hard wood kneelers in the pews in the Lower (basement) Church, interminably humming the five Decades of the Rosary amidst the fourteen Stations of the Cross, as the priest parades up and down the marble-floored aisles spewing swirls of sweet smoke from his incense-burner. No surprise then: After the Good Franciscan Brother reveals to our class that some among us may be ‘called’, on Easter Sunday, at Mass in the Upper Church, drunk on incense fumes, I actually see God point a long index finger at me through the fog, and over the swell of the organ while the choir pounds out the Hallelujah Chorus, I hear Him say to me, clear as a bell: “You! You! Pack your bags!” Upon graduation in February, 1954, I boarded the LIRR, Ronkonkoma Branch, with my ticket punched for Smithtown.
One recent Sunday, in the grip of an irresistible impulse to see Smithtown once more, I get on the LIE and head for the North Shore of Long Island. To get to the school, you must drive through the hamlet of Kings Park, once home to the Kings Park Psychiatric Center, which I see from my car on Route 25A, is still there, sprawling on top of a hill but empty, decommissioned. And I remember then being aboard the ancient yellow school bus, the name ‘St. Anthony’s’ painted in black on its sides--captive boys being taken to the movies in Kings Park on a Sunday afternoon more than half-a-century ago – the hospital full of life, the inmates hooting and hollering to us from their barred windows as we speed past. It’s a high point of the trip, riding past the Looney Bin: a happy feeling, I remember, as if them up there and us in our bus were connected.
No more acres of potato fields as far as the eye could see along Rte. 25A now – replaced by row upon row of suburban tracts, Divisions and Sub-Divisions.
I drive onto the grounds of St. Anthony’s. It is not a functioning school, it’s obvious.
There are some broken windows in the elongated two-story structure, and the white paint is peeling. I think of Iroquois Longhouses, I suppose because of the stretch of the building. I get out of the car and what strikes me is how small-scale everything appears: the buildings, the playing fields behind the main house, the grass badly in need of cutting. The chicken coops are gone as well as the fenced-in execution ground where I beheaded and plucked my first chicken for the Sunday dinner, on orders from the Brother in charge of the Refectory. Everything smaller than I remember it. For it’s vivid, larger-than-life in my memory. Jerome Megna, the pool shark; Joe Rogus, the polio-stricken basketball star; Bill Cullen, the gay librarian from Brooklyn and my best friend; the school’s principal Brother Henry, vain about his PhD in history; Brother Patrick “The Claw’, who taught Latin, had a crippled left hand and the DTs from drink; Brother Linus, the math teacher, who’d feel you up if you weren’t fast on your feet. I swear I remember them all, the faces and their names.
Funny how it all stays with you. The important stuff.