Ten A.M. Mass was my least favorite. It was called “high” mass, but for the life of me I don’t know why because it was nothing like being high. It was longer than all other masses and was said entirely in Latin. At the start the priest and altar boys would come down the center aisle in a procession. There was an altar boy in the front holding a golden Jesus on a long crucifix. Bloody, beaten Jesus was all prettied up and covered in gold. Then the priest would come behind swinging a big round incense burner on a long chain. The smoke of myrrh would pour out and make you choke the more he swung it. The worst thing about high mass was that you could not eat before going. This was some kind of fast and you couldn’t eat until after it was all done.
In 1964 I was seven years old. For a kid like me regular mass was sheer torture. Over an hour where you had to sit and then stand and then kneel and then sit again. And there was no moving and no talking other than reciting the liturgies and creeds. High mass took this torture to another level. No food before, choking incense smoke and an extra-long homily from the priest. On one particularly hot day we had to go to ten a.m. mass. It was my brothers, my dad and I. I was the youngest of five kids. My oldest sister was already off to college. My other sister was away somewhere and so that left me and my two brothers to suffer through the eternal mass. My dad was a veteran of WWII an air force sergeant, a radio man who flew bombing missions from England to Germany. My dad never really said much about the war or his time in the air force. I remember one time we were talking about it and he just said,
“Well we dropped a lot of bombs. We didn’t know where those bombs were going. Some were hitting the Nazis and some were landing on people’s homes. We had no way of knowing.”
My dad was a tough guy. And he didn’t take any nonsense from us boys. He ruled us with a brick thick hand that if you got spanked or hit with it you didn’t soon forget. My dad was an electrician and he spent a lot of time crawling into attics and replacing wiring. He had jet black hair that was cut short with a wave that he combed neatly over the top. He kept his hair combed with Vitalis hair tonic to hold it in place. Whenever I sat next to my dad in mass there was always the familiar smell of Skin Bracer and Vitalis. The Vitalis smelled like a savory mix of alcohol, spices and oil. It was a very memorable smell that I always associated with my dad. Much later in my life after my mom and dad had divorced, I was living with my mom. She had some useless drunk living with us and he managed to get us kicked out of the apartment and then he bailed. It was just my mom and I so I went to my dad for some money to get into another apartment. I remember seeing him and running towards him as tears streamed down my face. I grabbed him and hugged up against his rough work uniform. He smelled like burnt wires, dusty attics and Vitalis hair tonic.
On this hot Sunday in 1964, we had barely got to the homily. Father McGee was saying mass and if anything could be worse he was one of the most boring priests ever. I always wished for Father Falby to be the one saying mass because he was younger and more energetic and even made jokes during his homily. On this day we had Father McGee and as he was approaching the podium, I was dying from lack of food, the smell of the myrrh incense was oppressing me and all at once white spots began accumulating in front of my eyes and the room started spinning around me. Stained glass, holy statues and plaster pillars were swirling and I forced my head down to try and get blood back. Next I felt one of my dad’s brick thick hands grab my arm. Before I knew it I was sitting outside on the steps by the side door to the sanctuary.
“Just stay out here until you feel better, you probably just need some air” my dad was shaking his head like he was disappointed in me for almost passing out.
I had passed out once before in mass. It was at one of my uncle’s wedding and I was the ring bearer. I was five years old. It is customary for catholic weddings to have a mass before the vows. It was another hot day and no food because it was another high mass. I was dressed in a penguin suit tuxedo complete with a cumber-bun and a tie that was cutting off all circulation to my head. Before the bride and groom even got to the I-dos the room went black and the next thing I knew I was outside in my dad’s arms and he was gently slapping my cheeks and saying my name over and over. My mom was standing bent over looking at me and crying. My brother Tom told me later that when I passed out my head hit the wooden pew and that in the high domed catholic sanctuary it sounded like a gun shot and that it echoed forever.
Now I was sitting on the cool concrete steps across from the rectory. A rectory is the building where the priests live. To a catholic kid the rectory was as mysterious and as unapproachable as area 51. My dad had gone back into the church and told me he would come back to get me when mass was over.
As I sat in the warm sunlight I heard a voice behind me.
“Well what seems to be the reason you are not in Mass?” It was the gentle Irish voice of Father Falby.
Before I could say anything he was standing over me and had my face in his hand and was looking at me. He was wearing a short sleeved black shirt with the collar buttoned up and the small white square of his priest collar at the top. He had curly black and grey hair above a thin pasty face with smiling blue eyes.
“You don’t look well. No food before the mass?”
I just looked up and shook my head.
“You need to come with me and we will see what we can do about that”
He helped me up and walked me towards area 51 also known as the rectory. I couldn’t believe that little old me was going in to the secret holy of holies. Once I was inside it looked pretty ordinary, except it was really clean. The kitchen was filled with all the latest most modern things for 1964. The refrigerator wasn’t white, but was a light brown color and had a freezer door on top. I had never seen that before.
Father Falby opened the refrigerator and pulled out a big cold glass pitcher of fresh orange juice. He poured a big glass and set it in front of me. I looked at him bashfully and was afraid to drink it.
“Go ahead son it’s ok” He said kindly. “I am going to have some too. This is fresh squeezed orange juice. It’s the best you can get.” He poured himself a glass and took a drink. “Aaah! Absolutely perfect. Go ahead give it a try.”
So, I picked up the glass and took a big drink. It was probably the coldest and best orange juice I had ever had. When I took a drink I was like a plant sucking up sunlight for photosynthesis and creating my own energy. The orange juice seemed to pump through my veins and before I knew it I was sitting up in the stool at the kitchen counter in the top secret rectory and I was laughing and talking with Father Falby about everything from my first communion to the church carnival.
The next thing I know there was my dad standing at the entry to the kitchen and he had the proverbial deer in the headlights look on his face.
Father Falby walked around the counter and put his hand on my shoulder while he said to my dad,
“You’ve got a smart young boy here Frank. He knows his catechism very well.”
My dad’s jaw was dropped open and he came and took my hand. He politely thanked Father Falby and said he hoped I wasn’t too much trouble.
“It was fine Frank, the boy helped me pass time before the next mass.”
We walked out the door from the rectory and got to our car with my two brothers there waiting with that same deer in the headlights look. I could see that they were thinking about the fact that I had just come out of area 51 with my dad. I walked with my head high and didn’t say nothing and I know it was making them both crazy.
I never said anything to my dad or my brothers about being in the rectory with Father Falby and how fun it was. One thing I know, on that day I learned more about love and kindness having orange juice with Father Falby than I ever could have at the ten a.m. high mass.
I live in the Pacific Northwest. A small community with farms and antique shops. Lots of rivers and lakes and these are some of the themes I like. I am a technical writer by trade so poetry offers me an escape from the more mundane industrial articles I work on day to day. I love music and am a classic rock fanatic. Love good books and stories too.