Death and Texas

which comes first?

Religion being a topic that knows no season, I think I might have figured out a way to make Jews's lives more productive, and it took a Catholic upbringing to make it happen.

Raised as a Catholic (whatever that meant at the time) I was obligated to go to confession every week like clockwork. But as a child, how many "sins" can one accumulate in 7 days? I get up, have breakfast, go to school, come home, do my homework, watch a little TV, then go to bed who has time to commit any sins?

So I figured that if I had to go to confession, I might as well make it interesting for the poor priest that had to sit in that little room all day and be bored to tears listening to everyone's so-called sins. It took a while to build up the courage, but I finally managed to keep it together long enough to confess that I had [supposedly] killed several people. When pressed for details, I was caught off guard, but miraculously came up with the scenario that I had killed some neighborhood children, then, to add some drama, finished by calmly stating that I not only killed them, but cut their heads off and set fire to them, and lastly I ran over their headless bodies with my bike, just to make sure that they were dead.

An absolute silence followed, during which I suddenly lost all of my pent up bravado and began to ponder my next move. Still no reply from the other side of the little screen between the rooms, but I could hear the sound of movement and, in a split second, I jumped up and threw open the door to the confessional, blind-siding a passing parishioner, and ran out of the church and down the street for an entire block before I even looked back. This little event caused me to have to disguise my voice through very ingenious methods for months every time I would have to go to confession, and my "sins" were now few and boring as boring as I could make up something and still have it qualify as a "sin".

Getting back to the Jew thing, it seems to me that they take this "confess your sins" thing way too seriously. You always see them walking around and praying (I assume to have their sins forgiven) and they do this stuff all the time heck, they even close down their stores to go somewhere else and pray. Don't they realize at some point that this "praying" routine isn't working?

As a child, if I kept telling my parents that I would study hard and get good grades, then keep coming home with poor ones, they would sense that I was bullshitting them and ramp up my punishment in hopes of me ever keeping my word again. This being said, if a priest kept hearing the same line of crap every week from people supposedly ashamed of their sins, his only recourse would be to ramp up the number of Hail Mary's they would have to say in order to be forgiven. He would seem to have little interest in "correcting" their improper behavior just increase the "fine", so to speak.

Meandering back to the Jew thing again, suppose that they were to accept the fact that praying is ineffective at best, and [and here is where my plan comes in] we get them somehow to believe that praying itself is a sin! Get it? If they're so determined to rid themselves of sin, then just stop praying... period. Is this genius or what? They'll all have lots of free time time that used to be spent praying, but could now be spent puttering around the house, or getting a second job, or going hiking or whatever. I suppose the same could be said for Catholics, but they'd probably only be able to free up about 5 minutes every week, where the Jews could probably look forward to saving maybe several hours each day.

My Catholic upbringing, productive as it may appear, had an overabundance of low points. After spending 5 days in Public School, it seemed like you'd have 2 consecutive days to do whatever you wanted to do, but such was not the case. Sunday was pretty much screwed as a "me" day because of the necessity of attending church. Even though the Mass itself lasted maybe only an hour (which was about 55 minutes too long in my opinion), it was the events that preceded going to church that irritated me the most.

First, you had to wake up early for some reason. Irritation number one. Then you couldn't even think about going outside for fear of getting dirty. Number two. Then, after washing up, brushing my teeth [all of them], combing my hair (using some gel crap that would hold it in place during a hurricane), and getting dressed in the absolute stupidest looking suit ever conceived. The shirt was starched so stiff that it couldn't be bent once it was put on, and was required to be tucked into a pair of pants that seemed like they were made from 1" thick wool, and extended an inch or two past my feet. Once the top button of my shirt was fastened it would have been impossible to bend over and put my shoes on, so that was left to my Dad.

The shoes, even though I only wore them to and from church, once a week, and were kept in a plastic bag when they weren't being used, still had to be polished every Sunday. This event left such a bad feeling for the remainder of my life I can't bring myself to dwell on it any further.

No matter how early we got started with the getting-ready-for-church routine, it seemed like every Sunday was an out and out race to get to the church on time, fearing some sort of natural cataclysm if we were to be a minute or so late. Of course there was the endless repetition of standing and kneeling, standing and kneeling, and never knowing how anyone could figure out when to do what. I got by with keen observation of those sitting around me, but to this day I can't figure out the choreography of it all.

Whatever event it was that signaled the end of the Mass produced a feeling of euphoria in me that could not be matched even into adulthood. But as exuberant as I was to get out into the fresh air of the parking lot, my day had not yet returned to me, as now it was time for the "Sunday Drive". For who knows what reason my parents would pick some destination in Southern California that had some degree of significance to them and we would drive over there. I don't remember ever being asked to suggest a destination myself I was just along for the ride. As a small child, the "ride" consisted of seeing an endless parade of telephone poles and tops of buildings pass by, until I was old enough (and tall enough) to actually be able to sit upright at window height and see pretty much the same telephone poles and buildings going by, but now they were joined by sidewalks and cars.

As a "reward" for putting up with the boredom of the endless automobile journey we would stop at some burger joint and get hamburgers, fries, and milk shakes. Often times the "waitress", or whatever the woman was called that came out and took our order, would hook a tray to the open window of the passenger side door, and my Mom would dole out the food. This is where a terrifying event would rear its ugly head if I was to get the slightest, smallest, most minute morsel of food or drink on my clothes there would be [and was] Hell to pay.

The milk shake came in a huge [to me] cup and felt like it had been cooled to Absolute Zero, because every time I attempted to take a sip as carefully as I could I would invariably get an ice cream headache. The shake being too cold to drink, I switched to the fries, but they immediately burned the shit out of my fingers, so I set them down to have a go at my burger. It wasn't just a burger, but a burger patty with a thick slice of onion on top, then an even thicker slice of tomato, then a wad of lettuce... there was no way I could fit any part of it into my juvenile mouth. I would set it on a pile of napkins and squish it with my hand until all of the sauce and most of the non-meat ingredients flowed out the side, leaving a thin enough burger to be eaten with little danger of spilling onto my clothes. By this time the fries had cooled down considerably so they were dispatched as quickly as possible because as soon as my parents were finished with their food it was time to go.

This usually left me with a large amount of milk shake that was now more or less room temperature but, in a moving car, not the easiest thing to drink. I would wait for us to come to a stop at a signal light, then quickly guzzle down as much as I could before we sped away. This was repeated a few times until we got on the freeway, and here is were disasters could [and did] happen.

I remember one time in particular when I had almost finished my milk shake, but there was still a chunk of ice cream stuck to the bottom of the cup. I was so proud of myself for not spilling so much as an atom of food or drink on my clothing, but I really wanted that ice cream, so I carefully tilted the cup upward until it was almost vertical, then gently tapped on the cup with my fingers. I'd like to state that we hit a bump in the road or something but I really don't remember... what I do remember is the ice cream suddenly sliding down the inside of the cup and lodging in my mouth. To compound my predicament, during our "drive" we must have passed by some field of flowers or grass because my allergies were acting up and I could only breathe out of my mouth, which was now blocked by the ice cream. Before I could even react to the situation I involuntarily coughed and the ice cream was launched into a gentle arc that stretched from my mouth to the back of my Mom's head. Any details that might have arisen immediately afterward are now long forgotten, and the next time we stopped at a burger joint I was allowed to finish all of my meal before we left.

So with Sunday taken up with church and the "drive", when did I get any time for myself? Saturday, you say? Not so, because on Saturday I had to go to Catechism, a sort of Public School for Catholics, but with no recess. Again I had to dress up like Little Lord Fauntleroy and pretend that I was interested in what was being taught. There was actually very little learning it was all memorization, which fortunately I was pretty good at. Given enough time I probably could have memorized a German cookbook and orated its contents from beginning to end, not understanding anything of what I was saying.

But all of this isn't meant to portray my childhood in a poor light... no, it would take the family "vacation" to accomplish that. When I was around 6 years old or so my family embarked on a cross-country drive to visit "relatives", whatever they were. Our first extended stop was in Texas, a state that I subsequently associate with almost everything that's bad in the world.

Heading east from California we passed through several "states" that consisted of sand, mountains and sand, and possibly sand and mountains, but when we finally got to Texas there were neither sand nor mountains just flat dirt. It was like all of the cool scenery had been used up in the previous states and there wasn't any left for Texas. I became disoriented almost to the point of feeling nauseous. There were no landforms on the horizon to give a sense of direction or movement. If I were to get out of the car, close my eyes, and turn around several times, I could never figure out in which direction we should be going.

After a bit of backtracking (and bad language by my Father) we finally stopped at an old house that looked like somebody had filmed a Western around it was the first time that I had seen a real "farm". I wandered around by myself while the grownups talked, always keeping a keen ear out for the sound of Indians or cattle rustlers approaching. Shortly another group of people drove up, consisting of more adults and a boy around my age, who I was to learn was my "cousin", whatever that meant.

My cousin and I hit it off right away, even though I had a hard time understanding him. I figured that he might be like the "slow" kids we had at school, who had their own classes and acted funny. Sitting around the house was creepy, because the old lady who was my Dad's mother had so many wrinkles on her face that when she wasn't talking I couldn't figure out where her mouth was. At some point she actually reached in her mouth and took out her teeth! I came very close to peeing in my pants, but then, averting my eyes in case she planned on removing an eyeball or something, I glanced down at their dog, who had been leaning against my feet so long that they were starting to tingle a bit. Suddenly, a long white worm slithered out of his butt and landed on my shoe, and I couldn't take it anymore, so I told my Mom that I had to go to the bathroom (which I did) and my cousin got up to show me where it was.

As if things couldn't have gotten any weirder, I was led outside to a small shed. Thinking that I had been misunderstood, I repeated to my cousin that I needed to pee, and he merely pointed at the shed and said something that sounded like "In sod". In sod, I thought? What the heck did that mean? I turned and opened the door and in the darkness saw only a bench with a hole in it, and the smell of... bathroom everywhere. From outside I heard a faint "Pee in the hole" from my cousin, so after a moment or two of letting my eyes adjust to the darkness, I did as he suggested.

Emerging from the shed I was momentarily blinded by the glaring sunlight, and as I held my eyes tightly closed my cousin asked if I wanted to go down to the "tank". Again I had no idea of what he was talking about, but anything had to be better than hanging around in the house with the grownups, so I followed him along a faint road until we got to a nasty-looking fence, which I was to learn was made of "barbed wire", something I had never seen before. He showed me how to pass through the fence safely by lifting up the top strand carefully, then bending over and climbing through underneath. At first I sensed a practical joke in the making he would lift up the wire and stretch it tight like he was drawing back a bow to shoot an arrow, then, when I was crouched down with my butt in the air he would let go and I would be slammed into the ground and impaled on the barbs.

He must have sensed my apprehension because I was assured that he does this every day and there's no harm whatsoever. At least that's what I think he said as I still had a difficult time understanding what he was saying. I remembered that all of the grownups seemed to have that same speech impediment, and I figured that they were all "slow" somehow and made a point when I got back home to ask some of the slow kids at my school if they were from Texas. I made it through the fence safely and soon we stood at the bank of a large pond, although I didn't see any tanks anywhere.

We sat down on a sandy beach that he described as his "fort", although it was really just a sandy beach. I looked around and saw what looked like a small rubber dinosaur toy, and remembered seeing something like it in one of my dinosaur books at home. When I reached over and picked it up it moved, and I involuntarily threw it in the air, causing my cousin to begin a laughing fit that seemed to last dangerously long. I was soon to learn that it was in fact a real creature called a "horny toad", or at least that's what it sounded like. As I scanned my surroundings for other "objects" that were new to me he rigged up a fishing pole and said he was going to try and catch what I took to mean a snapping turtle.

Here was a subject that I could relate to, as I had a turtle of my own at home. He was about the size of a half-dollar and lived in a bowl on the kitchen table. I certainly wouldn't call him a "snapping" turtle, but he did sort of bite me once when I was feeding him, but it didn't hurt at all. Suddenly I was enveloped in fear that the handfull of turtle food I dumped in the bowl before we left would last until we got back from vacation. My thoughts were interrupted when I saw that my cousin had baited the fishing line with an entire chicken leg that he smuggled from the house in his pocket! I was aghast... how was he going to reel in a turtle that was probably half the size of his bait? He tied the end of the line around a piece of metal and threw it out into the pond.

He walked up the bank a bit, then stood his pole up in a bush with lots of thorns on it, then perched an empty coffee can on top. My first thought was... he's never going to feel the turtle when it starts eating the chicken, and if he somehow does feel it, how is he going to reel it all the way out of the pond without the turtle letting go? My second thought was why does everything in Texas have barbs or thorns? We amused ourselves with this and that until we heard the sound of the coffee can falling off the pole, when my cousin ran over, took the pole in his hands, and began to strenuously "battle" whatever was on the end of the line.

OK, I thought this was just a game and the object was to pretend that some giant sea monster was attached to the end of the fishing line. My cousin gave a very convincing appearance of a fisherman fighting with a huge fish the pole would actually bend sharply from time to time, as if there was a great weight on the other end. Since there was no "reel" on the pole, in order to beach whatever monster he was supposedly doing battle with, he would simply walk away from the water. As he reached the top of the embankment, I was caught up in the play-acting and began my own rendition of an excited spectator awaiting the appearance of his demonic foe, although I fully expected to see a large clump of grass or a small log as the real "prize".

At last there was a commotion at the surface and I was startled, to say the least, to see a huge turtle being dragged up the sand. This wasn't any ordinary turtle it had the strangest shell I had ever seen and a beak, just like a bird! Before I could move closer for a better look the turtle opened it's mouth and spit out what was left of the chicken leg, then turned and calmly waddled back into the water. My cousin turned to me and said something like "Let's go for a swim", then started into one of his lengthy laughing fits. Before too long I joined in, relieved to find that his thought of swimming in the pond was about as far-fetched as I felt.

I don't remember the events that followed I think that my young brain was overloaded with information at this point, but when we finally returned home after driving all the way to New York and back, I felt very comfortable living in my own boring house, with a bathroom inside (and a light!), clearly identifiable insects and reptiles, turtles small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, no thorns or barbs (other than roses), and people whose faces didn't look like they've been deflated. Heck, I might even go over and strike up a conversation with one of the "slow" kids when school starts again in the Fall... I might even learn something!

to part 2