I was told that when my name appeared on the
roster of new first graders at Saint Norbert's, one of the
oldest nuns proclaimed "Mother of God, not another Theobald?"
Ten of Lil and Cookie's children preceded me into that school
gaining a varety of reputations, ranging from almost-perfect
to distastrous. Number eleven would be somewhere near the median.
Things have definitely changed over
the years, but at that time my appearance lived up to my mum's
glowing descriptions of her "Peter Lamb". I looked almost angelic
in my bright starched white shirt, white shorts and socks and
patent leather shoes. Little Lord Fauntelroy had nothing on me!
My sister Theresa was then in fourth grade making her own unique
contribution, but the other Theobalds had long since moved on.
During my very first week in this Catholic school, an unfortunate
incident would establish a benchmark from which to build the
final Theobald student dossier.
In those days we never attended Kindergarten, so I was naturally
nervous and apprehensive. One of the first things we were told
was to raise our hand if we wanted to go to the bathroom. As was
usual before school one morning I was well-fortified with a large bowl
of hot "Mother's Oats", and it was working as advertised. Our
stern leader in black and white took no notice of the tiny hand
raised in the back of the room until it was too late. Suffice to
say that somewhere between my desk and the door nature took
its course, uncontained by those little white shorts. For a child
totally potty-trained at about one year old, it was an embarrassment that
haunted me for a very long time. During the remainder of first grade
I occupied a desk in the front row.
Fortunately for me, others of my class would soon suffer similar
humiliations and mine would take its place among the forgotten
As with my brothers before me, It was expected that I would become
an Altar Boy, and my training started in the second grade. In addition to our
regular schoolwork, altar boys were required to memorize all of
the Latin responses used in the Mass. The rote method must have worked well,
as I can recite most of them to this day. Along with Latin, we were
drilled in our duties for the ceremony and were expected to perform
flawlessly. Tell that to a nervous eight year-old at six oclock Mass,
with his sainted mother in the very first pew! This tiny cherub in long
black cassock and white surplice spilled more than his share of wine,
water and incense during his first few months. The priests were
very patient with me, but the nun's debriefings were often verbally brutal.
I soon became proficient to the point that some couples would request
that I serve at their Nuptual Masses. This was considered "extra duty"
and a nice tip was usually slipped to us by the groom. Alright!
Our teachers were members of the order Sisters of Divine Providence.
Many of these moulders of pliable and naive minds seemed never to
"suffer the little children" as sermonized just over nineteen-hundred
years earlier by their Espoused. I seem to recall that
the one time Jesus became enraged was when he whipped the Money
Lenders out of the temple. I never had any money to lend as a child,
so there must have been some other holy reason that I was
flailed upon so often by His representatives. For certain I availed myself of every
opportunity to liven up a dull situation. Throughout grammar
school back then the nuns taught in a dry and mechanical
manner, with religion liberally injected into each subject. Although
my academic grades were good, I was bored
much of the time and easily distracted. I wouldn't
classify myself as a bad kid, just a little mischievous. On any
given Spring day throughout my first three or four grades I might
have a small live turtle or snake in my desk,
or perhaps a stray kitten. These infractions as well as simple
things like talking or inattention, were often dealt
with angrily and violently. Most of these pius sisters were
armed with the traditional Hickory Stick, but for quick emphasis a large book
to the head or a swift slap in the face would do just as well.
I should be a great ballet dancer today, with all my practice at
walking tiptoe while being lifted by the short hairs on the
back of my neck. If my mum got wind of my misbehavior,
I would get it again at home. To Lil the nuns all were saints that
just hadn't yet died and gone to heaven, so I was always
"guilty as charged"! I must say that there were many kind and
compassionate nuns with ultimate patience, and as you might guess
they and their charges were the happiest.
The threat and actuality of physical punishment were not the only
instruments in the clerical toolbox. Later I would find humor in
the Catholic views on our ultimate reward, but believe that these
were not funny to us wee folk. Now what in the world could a
seven or eight year-old possibly do that would send him unforgiven by a priest,
straight to the fires of Hell? I remember being afraid to go to sleep
many nights following an unconfessed infraction, fearing the devil
would take me away before morning. We were also taught that only
Catholics would be allowed in Heaven. All other good people, Protestants, Jews,
Muslims, etc would forever languish in Limbo, and their punishment
for not being baptized Catholics would be to "never see God".
As youngsters, we felt that unfair. As adults it became arrogant
propaganda. At a very early age we were
instructed on how to baptize so that if it ever became necessary, we
might save a dying baby from eternal Limbo. What a heavy load for a young child!
I must mention at this point the corruption of our surname during
our school days. We were nicknamed "Tablelegs", "Teabags",
"Teaballs", "Tater Balls", or "Three Balls" depending on gender.
My euphemistic given name only added fuel to the taunts.
Some of my siblings saw humor in this, but others didn't. For a while
I sided with the latter, and put my brother Chuck's boxing tutelage
to effective use. Regardless of the reason, this too added to my grief
in school, but in this case my family was more understanding.
I matured somewhat in the seventh and eighth grades
as my involvement in sports and interest in the opposite sex
became an every day activity, and physical punishment ended.
We were just getting too big to slap around any more!
It was during the eighth grade that Monk Brothers from a nearby
monestary were brought in occasionally, to attempt to hone the boys' characters.
To put it in today's vernacular, these guys were pretty cool.
They spoke our language and played our sports, and they knew
how to get into our minds. I admired them and for a brief time I even
considered attending high school in Gerard Pennsylvania,
at a prep school for the priesthood. A priest in the family would
have fulfilled my mother's long-time dream. Sorry mum! The
brothers' heartfelt lectures on chastity and pure thought probably
came a little too late to rambunctious 14 year-olds. They only
tended to increase the guilt level, and not decrease the activity.
But then guilt was the Catholic clergy's "stock in trade",
unrefuted by our parents lest they too suffer eternal
damnation. My father was a bystander in these issues, but
the truth we discovered much later was that my mother had a fairly
liberal view of our developing sexuality. The problem being that
guidance responsibilities in such matters were delegated by default
to those who knew the least about them; the celibate!
None of Cookie's children were able to attend college. In fact to my
knowledge, the possibility was never even mentioned. Before leaving the nest,
it was expected that the major portion of any earnings went to help the
family. This requirement was understood and never questioned. My contribution
began with a Pittsburgh Post Gazette paper route when I was 12. The pay
was 1/2 cent per paper each day, and I only had 36 customers. For eighteen
cents a day in rain sleet or snow, I was up at 3:30 every morning to
walk a four-mile route. In the Winter I was usually the first to plow
through the night's snowfall, often hurrying back to serve six A.M. Mass. Oh
how I hated that job, but it was a character builder. Sunday was a better day,
as I also made a penny each selling papers after each Mass and at our busy
Five-Points intersection. During my last two years
of grammar school I worked as a caddy at the local country club, and that
was more to my liking!
The Sisters Of Mercy
Ready For The New Ninth Graders
I certainly didn't graduate with honors, but I did matriculate and became
the only Theobald to attend a Catholic High School. "Oh woe
is me!", I thought. Life at Saint Justin High was somewhat more tolerable
and even though our teachers were members of the order
Sisters of Mercy, religion took a back seat to academics.
One of the first items on the agenda of a ninth-grader was to
establish his position in the "pecking order". It didn't take
too long to discover who were the peckers, and who
would be the peckees. Each class had it's bullies, usually bigger
and more seasoned boys held over from the previous year or
raised in tougher neighborhoods. I wasn't a very big guy
and because I would never take abuse from any bully,
I received more than my share of lumps. I couldn't quite give
as well as I got, but nevertheless I gained respect through the effort.
One day during this process, two of the bully-boys were
pummeling each other when our teacher entered the classroom.
She was a small nun who had been nicknamed "the squirrel".
Sister Mary Francis stepped between them at just the wrong time, and was
accidentally knocked to the floor on her back. We all knew that
surely these two guys were dead meat! She raised herself up, dusted
off her robes and said "now you boys shake hands and promise
that this won't happen again". The incident was never reported,
and from then on this most-respected lady had the best disciplined
class in Saint Justin's.
Way Back When
High school proceded rather normally, with the usual shenanigans as with others our age.
My circle of friends included Dave Merkel, Mike Magrini, Phil Cavato and the Forgey boys Bill and
Vernon. None of us ever got into serious trouble, but we never lost our playful attitude.
As a typical example, some of us had to take a streetcar four miles to school. Occasionally
on warm Spring days, we would create an acceptable reason for
arriving late. There was a slow-speed one-way track a short
distance from home where the streetcars had to wait their turn
for passage. We found that by shorting between the two tracks
with a wire, the red stoplight would go on at both ends of the one-way.
Another trick was to open the back window of the streetcar and
pull down on the rope attached to the power cable roller,
dislodging the roller from the wire. The interurban cars would
often reach 70 MPH, so the resulting sparks were magnificent!
It wasn't dangerous, as the "dead man" brakes were automatically
applied. (Motormen needed the patience of Job.)
As Juniors and Seniors, automobiles played a leading role in
our lives. They became absolutely necessary for relating to females,
and were an important symbol of machismo. When a friend would acquire wheels
of his own, it had to be tested for capacity. Ray's jeep carried 19
of us seven miles to the South Park swimming pool, and George's
Ford convertable barely made it up Southern Blvd to school with
23 aboard. From a window that morning, our principal viewed a crowd; a ball of youngsters
floating into the parking lot. As the throng disembarked, the image of a vehicle
gradually emerged and was promptly banned from school property for the
remainder of the year.
You'll find more of my adventures and misadventures in
other "Cookie" stories, so I'll end this by saying that these
were great times!
Return To Cookie Thumbs