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For the first three years of my life I lived in Monongahela. Then we moved to a tiny brick house in Swissvale, an urban village despite its bucolic name, a gritty part of industrial Pittsburgh. We lived near Union Switch and Signal Corporation, a favorite goal of exploratory probes among the street urchins on Calumet to which I quickly pledged my loyalty.
On rainy days I would stand on the porch watching raindrops. It was a next best to my lost river, I suppose. Sometimes on the porch of the next house, two enchanting little girls, Marilyn and Beverly, played. Because our porch was somewhat higher than theirs I could watch them unobserved (at least they pretended not to see me). Thus it was that I fell in love.
Marilyn was a year older than me, already in first grade. Even in 1939 that placed her impossibly beyond me in every regard. Still, as my next door neighbor, she spoke to me from time to time in that friendly but distant fashion grand ladies adopt with gardeners and chauffeurs. You would have to see how humble both our homes were to realize the peculiarity of my analogy.
Beverly, her sister, was a year younger. By the invisible code of the young in well-schooled areas she might well not have existed. Her presence on the social periphery merited the same attention you might give a barking puppy, but at the age of four I found myself helplessly in love with her older sister in the pure fashion the spiritual side of nature reserves as a sign, I think, that materiality isnt the whole or even the most important part.
The next year, when I matriculated at McKelvy elementary, first graders and second were kept rigidly separated from each other even on the playground. The first heartbreak of my life, and the most profound, was the blinding epiphany I experienced as I hung on the heavy wire fence separating the first grade compound from the combined second-/third-grade play area. From the metal mesh that I peered through astigmatically, I could see Marilyn laughing and playing with strange older boys, oblivious to my yearning. Each sound she made tore at my insides. The sobs I choked back were as deep at age five as ever again I felt in grief, their traces etched in my mind six decades later.
So this was what being a year younger had to mean? My sister was two years older and she hardly ever spoke to me. Why should Marilyn? I slunk around to avoid being near her ever again after that horrible sight seared my little soul. I mention this epiphany of age-grading because of the striking contradiction to it Monongahela posed in presenting a universe where all ages co-mingled, cross-fertilizing each other in a dynamic fashion that I suddenly recognized one day was very like the colonial world described by Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography.
Swissvale taught me also that Mother and Father were at war with each othera sorry lesson to learn at five. That the battles were over differences of culture which have no rational solution, I couldnt know. Each couple who tries to merge strong traditions, as my parents did, must accept the challenge as vast, one not to be undertaken lightly or quit on easily. The voices of timeless generations are permanently merged in offspring. Marriage is a legal fiction, but marriage in ones children is not. There is no way to divorce inside the kids cells. When parents war on each other, they set the child to warring against himself, a contest which can never be won. It places an implacable enemy deep inside which cant be killed or exorcised, and from whose revenge there is no escape.
I thank God my parents chose the middle road, the endless dialectic. Dad, the liberal thinker (even though his party affiliation was Republican and his attitude conservative) always willing to concede the opposition some points; Mom, the arch conservative even though her voice was always liberal Democrat, full of prickly principles she was prepared to fight for, like Beau Geste, to the bitter end.
For all the hardly bearable stresses this endless combat generated, their choice to fight it out for fifty years saved me from even harsher grief. I love them both for struggling so hard without quitting. I know it was better for sister and me that way; it gave us a chance to understand both sides of our own nature, to make some accurate guesses about the gifts we possessed. It prepared us to be comfortable with ourselves. I think they were better for the fifty-year war, too. Better than each would have been alone.
[Interlude while the lump in my throat subsides]
I remember FDR on the radio in our postage-stamp living room announcing Pearl Harbor, eight days before my sixth birthday. I remember the uneasy feeling I harbored for a long time over war reports from the Far East that played out of the old Philco. I thought the Japanese would cut off my hands because the war news said thats what Japs did to prisoners.
The high point of the Swissvale years for me wasnt the war or the phenomenal array of wax lips, sugar dot licorice, Fleers Dubble Bubble, and other penny candies which seemed to vanish all at once just a short time after the war ended, like dinosaurs. It wasnt leaping from a high wall with a Green Hornet cape streaming behind as I fell like a stone, scarring my knees for eternity. It wasnt even Marilyn herself. The hinge in all my years, separating what went before from all that followed, was the night sister and I awakened to the shrieking contralto of Mothers voice and the quieter second tenor of Fathers, intermingling in the downstairs entrance hall.
I remember crawling to the upstairs landing bathed in shadows to find Sister already there. The next five minutes were the closest we ever came to each other emotionally, the most important experience we ever shared. Bootie was threatening to leave Andy if something important wasnt done. She was so upset that efforts to calm her down (so the neighbors wouldnt hear) only fanned the flames. With the hindsight of better than a half century, Im able to conclude now that they were arguing over an abortion for what would have been her third child, my never-to-be brother or sister.
Mother was tired of being poor and didnt want to be any poorer. She was tired of constant work when she had grown up with servants. She was overwhelmed by the unfairness of being confined with children, day in, day out, when her husband drove off to the outside world in a suit and tie, often to be gone for days at a time, living in hotels, seeing exciting things. She would have implied (because I was to hear the insinuation many times in their marriage) that he was living the life of Riley while she slaved.
Bootie wanted an abortion, and the angry words that went back and forth discussing what was then a crime wafted up the stairwell to where two little children sat huddled in uncomprehending disbelief. It was the end of our childhood. I was seven, Joan was nine. Finally Mother shouted, "Im leaving!" and ran out the front door, slamming it so hard it made my ears hurt and the glass ring. "If thats the way you want it, Im locking the door," my father said with a trace of humor in his voice, trying to defuse mothers anger, I think.
A few seconds of silence, and then we heard a pounding and pounding upon the locked door. "Open the door! Open the door! Open the door or Ill break it down!" An instant later her fist and entire arm smashed through the glass panes in the front door. I saw bright arterial blood flying everywhere and bathing that disembodied hand and arm. I would rather be dead than see such a sight again. But as I write, I see Mothers bleeding arm in front of my eyes.
Do such things happen to nice people? Of course, and much more often than we acknowledge in our sanitized, wildly unrealistic human relations courses. It was the end of the world. Without waiting to see the next development, I ran back to bed and pulled the pillow tightly over my ears. If I had known what was coming next, I would have hid in the cellar and prayed.
A week later, Swissvale was gone for good. Just like that, without any warning, like the blinking light of fireflies in our long, narrow, weed-overgrown backyard, it stopped abruptly on a secret firefly signal, on a secret tragic signalMarilyn and Tinker, penny candy, McKelvy school and contact with my Italian relatives stopped for the next six years. With those familiar things gone, my parents went too. I never allowed myself to have parents again. Without any good-byes they shipped us off to Catholic boarding school in the mountains near Latrobe, placed us in the hands of Ursuline nuns who accepted the old road to wisdom and maturity, a road reached through pain long and strong.
There was no explanation for this catastrophe, none at least that I could understand. In my fiftieth year Mother told me offhandedly in an unguarded moment about the abortion. She wasnt apologetic, only in a rare mood of candor, glad to be unburdened of this weight on her spirit at last. "I couldnt take another child," she said. We stopped for a hamburger and the subject changed, but I knew a part of the mystery of my own spirit had been unlocked.
Boarding school was a harsh and stark contrast with my former life. I had never made a bed in my life. Now I was forced to make one every morning, and the made bed was inspected! Used to the privacy of my own room, now I slept in a dormitory with fifteen other boys, some of whom would cry far into the night, every night. Sometimes I cried with them. Shortly after arrival, I was assigned a part in an assembly about roasting in Hell, complete with stage sets where we dressed up like flames. As the sinner unrepentant was tormented by devils, I jumped up and down to make it hot for the reprobate. I can hear my own reedy falsetto squeezing out these parentless verses:
Know ye not the burning anguish,
Of thee-eese souls, they-er hearts dee-zire?
I dont want to beat up on the sisters as if I were Fellini in Juliet of the Spirits. This was all kosher according to their lights, and it made a certain amount of sense to me, too. By that point in time, although nominally Roman Catholic, I probably hadnt been to church more than ten times, counting Baptism and First Communion. Just walking around, though, is enough to make a kid conscious of good and evil, conscious, too, of the arbitrary nature of human justice. Even a little boy sees rottenness rewarded and good people smacked down. Unctuous rationalizations of this by otherwise sensible adults disgust little children. The sisters had a story that gave satisfying human sense to these matters. For all the things I hated about Xavier, I actually liked being a flame and many other aspects of the religious narrative. They felt right somehow in a way the dead universe of Newton, Darwin, or Marx never did.
I carried the status of exile around morning, noon, and night, the question never out of mindwhat had I done to be sent here? Only a small part of me actually showed up in class or playground or dining hall each day, the rest of my being taking up residence in the lost Oz of Monongahela, even though Swissvale should have logically been the more proximate yearning, since that was where we lived when I was sent away. I missed the green river, I think.
Joan was there, too, but we were in separate dormitories. In the year we spent at Xavier I cant remember holding a single conversation with my sister. Like soldiers broken apart in dangerous terrain, we struggled alone looking for some private way out of homelessness. It couldnt have helped that Sister was two years older than I. By that time she had been carefully indoctrinated, I think, as I had been, that every age hangs separately. Sticks to its own class. You see how the trick is done?
At Xavier Academy, scarcely a week passed without a beating. I was publicly whipped for wetting the bed, whipped for mispronouncing French verbs, whipped for hiding beets inside my apple pie (I hated beets, but the house rule was that vegetables had to be eaten, dessert did not). Some telltale beet corner where a brown apple should have been must have given me away to a sharp-eyed stooliethe kapo who bussed away dessert. I was nabbed at exactly the moment dining hall loudspeakers blared the wartime hit, "Coming in on a wing and a prayer. With one motor gone we can still carry on, coming in on a wing and a prayer." Most dramatic of all the beatings I endured, however, was the one following my apprehension by the Latrobe police.
The spirit that came over Mother when she shattered the glass must have revived in me to set the stage for that whipping. One night after bed check, I set out to get home to my river. I felt sure my grandparents wouldnt turn me away. I planned the break for weeks, and took no one into my confidence. I had a dozen bags of salted peanuts from the commissary, a thin wool blanket and a pillow, and the leather football Uncle Bud gave me when he went away to war.
Most of the first night I walked, hiding in the tall grass away from the road all the next day, eating peanuts. I had gotten away full of determination. I would make it home, I knew, if I could only figure out what direction Monongahela was in! But by midafternoon the following day, I made a fatal mistake. Tired of walking and hiding, I decided to hitch a ride as I had once seen Clark Gable do in a famous movie with Claudette Colbert. I was picked up by two matronly ladies whom I regaled deceitfully with a story of my falling out of the back of Granddads pickup truck where dog Nappy and I had been riding on the way back to Mon City. "He didnt notice I was gone and he probably thinks I jumped out when we got home and went to play."
I had not calculated the fatal football that would give me away. As a precaution against theft (so they said) the Ursulines stamped "St. Xavier" many times on every possession. My football hadnt escaped the accusatory stencil. As we chatted like old comrades about how wonderful it was to be going to Monongahela, a town out of legend we all agreed, the nice ladies took me directly to the Latrobe police, who took me directlyheedless of my hot tears and promises to even let them have my footballback to the ladies in black.
The whole school assembled to witness my disgrace. Boys and girls arranged in a long gauntlet through which I was forced on hands and knees to crawl the length of the administration building to where Mother Superior stood exhorting the throng to avoid my sorry example. When I arrived in front of her, she slapped my face. I suppose my sister must have been there watching, too. Sister and I never discussed Xavier, not once, then or afterwards.
The intellectual program at Xavier, influenced heavily by a Jesuit college nearby, constituted a massive refutation of the watery brain diet of government schooling. I learned so much in a single year I was nearly in high school before I had to think very hard about any particular idea or procedure presented in public school. I learned how to separate pertinent stuff from dross; I learned what the difference between primary and secondary data was, and the significance of each; I learned how to evaluate separate witnesses to an event; I learned how to reach conclusions a half-dozen ways and the potential for distortion inherent in the dynamics of each method of reasoning. I dont mean to imply at all that I became a professional thinker. I remained very much a seven- and eight-year-old boy. But I moved far enough in that year to become comfortable with matters of mind and intellect.
Unlike the harsh treatment of our bodies at Xavier, even the worst boy there was assumed to have dignity, free will, and a power to choose right over wrong. Materialistic schooling, which is all public schooling even at its best can ever hope to be, operates as if personality changes are ultimately caused externally, by applications of theory and by a skillful balancing of rewards and punishments. The idea that individuals have free will which supersedes any social programming is anathema to the very concept of forced schooling.1 Was the Xavier year valuable or damaging? If the Ursulines and Jesuits hadnt forced me to see the gulf between intelligence and intellect, between thinking and disciplined thinking, who would have taken that responsibility?
The greatest intellectual event of my life occurred early in third grade before I was yanked out of Xavier and deposited back in Monongahela. From time to time a Jesuit brother from St. Vincents College would cross the road to give a class at Xavier. The coming of a Jesuit to Xavier was always considered a big-time event even though there was constant tension between the Ursuline ladies and the Jesuit men. One lesson I received at the visiting brothers hands2 altered my consciousness forever. By contemporary standards, the class might seem impossibly advanced in concept for third grade, but if you keep in mind the global war that claimed major attention at that moment, then the fact that Brother Michael came to discuss causes of WWI as a prelude to its continuation in WWII is not so far-fetched.3 After a brief lecture on each combatant and its cultural and historical characteristics, an outline of incitements to conflict was chalked on the board.
"Who will volunteer to face the back of the room and tell us the causes of World War One?"
"I will, Brother Michael," I said. And I did.
"Why did you say what you did?"
"Because thats what you wrote."
"Do you accept my explanation as correct?"
"Yes, sir." I expected a compliment would soon follow, as it did with our regular teacher.
"Then you must be a fool, Mr. Gatto. I lied to you. Those are not the causes at all." It was like being flattened by a steamroller. I had the sensation of being struck and losing the power of speech. Nothing remotely similar had ever happened to me.
"Listen carefully, Mr. Gatto, and I shall show you the true causes of the war which men of bad character try to hide," and so saying he rapidly erased the board and in swift fashion another list of reasons appeared. As each was written, a short, clear explanation followed in a scholarly tone of voice.
"Now do you see, Mr. Gatto, why you must be careful when you accept the explanation of another? Dont these new reasons make much more sense?"
"And could you now face the back of the room and repeat what you just learned?"
"I could, sir." And I knew I could because I had a strong memory, but he never gave me that chance.
"Why are you so gullible? Why do you believe my lies? Is it because I wear clothing you associate with men of God? I despair you are so easy to fool. What will happen to you if you let others do your thinking for you?"
You see, like a great magician he had shifted that commonplace school lesson we would have forgotten by the next morning into a formidable challenge to the entire contents of our private minds, raising the important question, Who can we believe? At the age of eight, while public school children were reading stories about talking animals, we had been escorted to the eggshell-thin foundation upon which authoritarian vanity rests and asked to inspect it.
There are many reasons to lie to children, the Jesuit said, and these seem to be good reasons to older men. Some truth you will know by divine intuition, he told us, but for the rest you must learn what tests to apply. Even then be cautious. It is not hard to fool human intelligence.
Later I told the nun in charge of my dorm what had happened because my head was swimming and I needed a second opinion from someone older. "Jesuits!" she snapped, shaking her head, but would say no more.
Now that Xavier is reduced to a historical marker on Route 30 near Latrobe, I go back to it in imagination trying to determine how much of the panic I felt there was caused by the school itself, how much by the chemical fallout from my parents troubled marriage, how much from the aftershock of exile. In wrestling with this, one thing comes clear: those nuns were the only people who ever tried to make me think seriously about questions of religion. Had it not been for Xavier, I might have passed my years as a kind of freethinker by default, vaguely aware that an overwhelming percentage of the entire human race did and said things about a God I couldnt fathom. How can I reconcile that the worst year of my life left behind a dimension I should certainly have been poorer to have missed?
One day it was over. The night before it happened, Mother Superior told me to pack; that I would be leaving the next morning. Strong, silent, unsentimental Pappy showed up the next day, threw my bag into the car, and drove me back to Monongahela. It was over, just like that.
Back home I went as if Id never left, though now it was to a home without a father. Mother was waiting, friendly and smiling as I had last seen her. We were installed, the three of us, in a double bed in a back room over the printing office. Our room was reached through the kitchen and had another door opening onto an angled tarpaper roof from which on clear nights the stars could be seen, the green river scented. It was the happiest day of my life.
Where father was, nobody ever told me, and I never asked. This indifference wasnt entirely generated by anger, but from a distinct sense that time was rapidly passing while I was still ignorant of important lessons I had to learn.
1In her best seller of the 1990s, It Takes a Village, Hillary Clinton expressed puzzlement over the fact thatWestern conservative thought emphasizes innate qualities of individual children in contrast to Oriental concepts which stress the efficacy of correct procedure. There are a number of paths which led to this vital difference between West and East, but Western spiritual tradition, which insists that salvation is a individual matter and that individual responsibility must be accepted is the most important influence by far. See Chapter 14, "Absolute Absolution."
2Traditions of intellectual refinement have long been associated with Jesuit orders. Jesuits were school-masters to the elites of Europe well before "school" was a common notion. Not long ago it was discovered that the rules of conduct George Washington carried with him were actually an English translation of a Jesuit manual, Decency Among the Conversations of Men, compiled by French Jesuits in 1595.
3Its almost impossible these days to chart the enormous gulf between schooling of the past and that of the present, in intellectual terms, but a good way to get a quick measure of what might be missing is to read two autobiographies: the first that of John Stuart Mill, covering a nineteenth-century home education of a philosopher, the second by Norbert Wiener, father of, cybernetics, dealing with the home education of a scientist. When you read what an eight-year-olds mind is capable of you will find my account pretty weak tea.
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