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John Nippolt
Father Reagan's Children
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      I don't compare my crew, my set, my list of acquaintances, my comrades-in-arms, shipmates, side-kicks, and partners in crime, with anyone else's, but I'm certain that my circle of friends includes a significant number of your not so ordinary people. Why have so many unique individuals become my friends? What was it that hooked me up with certain types of people and them with me? Have you ever wondered how your identity really began to take shape? Was it education? What about fate? Do you believe in magic? Flat-out luck? Don't forget destiny? These options take on perceived outcomes, good and bad. I have a hunch about what happened to me, and we have to go back to my first years to begin painting this picture for you.
      I moved into a naval housing project on the west side of Long Beach during my early childhood more than a half century ago.
      If you've never lived in a housing project it's difficult to grasp the dynamics of life and communication within such a tight-knit enclave. Everyone knows everyone, and also where they live. If something worthy of note takes place, good or bad, word gets around.
      It's easy for me to close my eyes and conjure up the white billowing bed sheets, in stark contrast against the blue Southern California sky of yore, folding and snapping in the breeze above me while I lay beneath the drying laundry. My mom put me out there on wash days. She spread a quilt on the grass for me to nap and crawl about safely, until I eventually learned to stand and walk. Meanwhile she attended to her household chores. She could see me from the kitchen window, or check from the kitchen porch to make sure I was alright.
      I became the "Great Houdini" of our neighborhood. It took me about six months to learn how to get out of the harness I was in, attached to the clothesline.
      I was almost two years old when I performed my first "escape." It was easier than you think, although I had everybody wondering how I did it. As soon as I knew my mom was in the house, getting the next load of wash to hang, I pulled my little arms out of my sleeves, and voila! I was loose from the crossing chest and shoulder straps. Next, I disengaged myself from my diapers and I was home free. I avoided the safety pins at all cost. All that was needed for me to get out of the harness was to undress.
      That's me, the naked little boy playing with all the other kids, down near the street, in the puddles on the other side of the incinerator. Clothes don't make the man.
      I loved my freedom; I was a summertime child. As I grew older, when my mother called out, "It's time to come in," I turned and ran the opposite way. This was my favorite game. Sometimes it was not the best game to play. I still recall her voice through the years, on the days I came home late. It would be dark in the kitchen and the dinner table was deserted, cleared; everyone had eaten already. "Where have you been? We were so worried! We were about to call the police!" You need to understand that from the beginning of my memory, like it or not, I wanted adventure. It just never turned out the way I would have planned it.
      James A. Garfield Elementary school was where I had attended kindergarten the previous year. I liked that place with the nice young lady teachers. It was a public school.
      Here I was, experiencing my first day in the first grade at a brand new school. Nuns in strict black habits. Where were the sand boxes? Why weren't there finger paints? Where was the stack of mattresses for our afternoon naps? This did not look good. The morning dragged on and I spent my time trying to see what was being written on the chalkboard. It didn't take long for Sister Valerian to discover I needed glasses.
      I had a hard time paying attention to all the rules we had to remember. Then came a short break for morning recess and it was back inside to sit still in up to that point the most boring place I'd ever been.
      Finally, it was time to eat lunch. We ate and played until the bell rang, ending our noon recess. We practiced lining up on the blacktop in front of the compact two-story brick building. There were stairwells at each end of the building with bathrooms located off to the side of each entrance to the stairwells. Four classrooms on the bottom floor and four more on the top. Welcome to St. Lucy's grade school, the newest addition to the Long Beach parochial school system.
      Over and over we had to march back inside the classroom. Just before going back in for good, I tapped the shoulder of Mike K., (lines formed in alphabetical order, K before N), the boy in front of me who I just met during recess. He seemed nice enough and we had been playing together in a small cul-de-sac between the end of the school and the rectory which were connected by a brick wall. The wall was almost six feet high and it separated the school grounds from the surrounding neighborhood.
      "Hey, you want to go around the corner where we were playing and take a rest?"
      Mike was totally against the idea and he said as much. "No, we will get into trouble."
      I reasoned that we couldn't get into trouble, we were in school. Mike shook his head. "No" he said flatly and he started to trudge off. "Wait," I said with my most logical final plea, "they don't even know our names yet." He didn't look back as he stepped over the lip of the portico and followed the others through the door. I didn't care if those behind me saw me go, I couldn't imagine getting in trouble for being a good boy and going directly to take my afternoon nap, no matter that it wasn't in the classroom. I made a quick exit, stage left, ran down to the corner of the building, made a right turn and went and sat down. I leaned my back into the warm brick wall and drank in the afternoon. It was September, the Santa Ana winds were blowing and I could smell the magnolia blossoms in full bloom on the other side of the brick wall. It was perfect here and now. I didn't give a second thought to my absence from that hot, stuffy classroom. I wouldn't be missed.
There is one stage on the way to falling asleep, a moment of clarity that allows us the freedom to enter the realm of unconscious. I'm talking about that instant say, when we drop a book out of our hands if we are reading in bed.
      So there I was, totally immersed into the fabric of the afternoon when I hear something for my ears only.
I performed some research with a colleague of mine at the University of Hawaii, Manoa campus. We were both studying in the master of art program there and we were outside in one of the upper stairwell entrances to the art department. From a distance of fifty yards, we determined whether or not we could make certain women turn to look at us by whistling with the intention of catching that particular woman's ear. We picked different girls out and whistled for her ears only. Seven out of ten turned to look our way.
      The point I'm trying to make here is just at that moment back at St. Lucy's, I was turning everything off, a distinct voice came into my ear. "Hey you!" the tiny voice said. He must have seen me flinch. "Yeah, you!" The voice had grown. "You little son of a bitch!" Someone was yelling at me.
      I opened my eyes just in time to see a man running toward me, his cassock unbuttoned to his belly, bright crimson complexion apoplectic with the veins on his forehead about to burst, swoop down on me, foul wine breath and spittle raining on top of me.
      He grabbed me by my hair with one fist, and yanked me to my feet. His grip only tightened as he dragged me out of my reverie, jerking me around the corner and back down the hall into the first grade classroom, where he threw me to the floor at the feet of a very concerned nun. I had to have done something very bad to be man-handled the way that priest did me. I looked up from the floor at my classmates, all of whom were witnessing treatment to a child unlike anything they had seen before. Some turned their heads away in embarrassment for me, their faces red. All their eyes were wide with shock. That priest re-introduced me to all my classmates that afternoon, kids I would have to go to school with for the remainder of my youth. From that day forward, I'd been branded a bad boy. I was not to be trusted, don't hang around with me if you knew what was good for you. I would be shunned by most of those who witnessed my grand entrance that fateful day. It had begun. Trust Father Reagan, he knew about boys like me.
      The children went home with news of their first day at school. My name was the main topic. The women gossipers of the parish bad-mouthed me even though they didn't know me. Rumors spread about me and soon enough my only friends would be outside of school. That priest went to great lengths to hurt and embarrass me. I paid dearly for the eight years I was stuck in that purgatory. Not one person ever believed my side of the story. Who would against the word of the pastor of our little parish? I had never experienced such cruel treatment at the hands of anyone, let alone my parents, before that time in my life. The lesson learned? "As good be hanged for an old sheep as a young lamb." That priest never failed to remind me of who he thought I was and he always made that extra effort to put me in my place.
      From time to time he would appear in our classroom to question us on our catechism studies. In my naiveté I would often be the first to shoot my hand up anxious to answer. He rewarded the students who answered his questions correctly with a shiny new quarter or even a half dollar. He would purposely wait until others hands went up and then call on somebody close so he could toss that shiny spinning coin for me to see. He always made a point of leering at me after he tossed his silver, making sure I understood his intentions. He never called on me once, and he never would. Never. I stopped raising my hand. This is what I learned in Catholic grade school.
      I found out a lot more from that monster than he suspected. I got a good glimpse of the type of men I despise. Those who pretend to be who they say they are. I'd try to use this knowledge to my advantage throughout my life, hoping to spot his type with their hidden agendas. You might say I gained a feeling about behaviors people like him display. I did not try to hide the fact that I knew he was my enemy. He didn't either.
      At the time my mother forced me to practice to be an altarboy, she didn't believe what I told her about that priest. Yes, I hated him for how bad he physically hurt me, but that was nothing compared to the mental torment I experienced at his hands. As I said, I was just a little boy.
      Every Saturday the boys in my class had to study Latin responses and practice the proper order and sequence of movements that must be performed during the delivery of the Mass. Real holy stuff.
      One of those mornings, he tried to get me alone, inviting me into the vestibule, a small room behind our church's altar, under some false pretense about helping him to reach for a chalice. I knew he wouldn't ask me for favors, something was not right. He was acting strange, trying to cover the hidden menace towards me that was always so obvious. We had already established our lines and we knew who each other was. I moved away from him, dodged his grasp and managed to get out the church. No more altarboy lessons for me; I was done with the Church. Talk about a guilt trip.
This wasn't the last of such bizarre incidents I experienced with this priest. The fourth grade saw his friend, our school custodian, try to take advantage of me while giving me a ride to my paper corner one day when my bicycle had a flat tire. (court records would later show he was a convicted pedophile) I just couldn't make anybody believe that Father Reagan had sent him after me. I was fast becoming the person people had falsely accused me of being. That's how nurturing works, be it positive or negative.
      I would get my revenge on this priest.
      It came just before Easter week when I was in the sixth grade. I chose my battlefield well. Sixth graders were scheduled to line up for his confessional that day. We would make our way into the pews by his booth and say our penances. When it came time for me to enter the box, I was in the middle (the letter "N") of the line. Kids in the pews praying already, kids behind me, anxious. It was church quiet. A cough or slight clearing of the throat could be heard easily throughout the church. The acoustics were phenomenal.
      I entered the box and the miniature door slid back. "Bless me father, for I have sinned," I began, and then I let him have it. I moved my head closer while squinting my eyes to try and see through the fabric of the screen. I wanted to see his reaction; the look on his face. This was going to be good. I used rudimentary profanity to describe the sins I confessed to that day, sins I committed on myself, others, the daughters and mothers, (those who talked stink about me) all names he had to know well. He let out his first bellow of rage, his shrieks, music to my ears. I wasn't very far into my confession before he was up and out into the aisle faster than you could say Jackie Robinson, yanking on the door to my section of the booth. The whole school was watching as he screamed at me at the top of his lungs, "Goddamn you! Get out of my confessional! Get out of my church!", as if he were exorcising some demon as he advanced on me. I was older now and faster. He couldn't catch me. I ran down the aisle past the children waiting in line and raced out into the street. The nuns, mortified that Father Reagan had taken God's name in vain blamed me for causing him to do it. I was suspended from school for a week. This was the second and last time he would chase me out of that church. It was the last time we crossed paths. He was being sent to another diocese. Good riddance.
      I hit the mark in the confessional that afternoon, and in truth I meant him to suffer for what he had done to me. I had baited him on purpose. I knew how to make him react under those circumstances and it was easy to push his buttons. I was hoping to get him so mad, he would have a heart attack. I was now the full blown product that he and those gossips had claimed me to be. Not yet a teenager, my eyes had already been opened to the hypocrisy that men like this lived, hiding under the protection of the Church and the faithful who believed such men could do no wrong.
      This was how I learned to recognize others and be recognized by those who suffered a fate similar to mine. If I hadn't gone to take that nap on that afternoon, which way would my life had gone? By the end of the first grade I had already learned lessons from experience in a reality most people never see, know about, or have to participate in. The effects of events in our early lives mark us in such a way that we become recognizable to others of the same ilk as we grow.
      The painting I started for you is almost complete. I tried to flesh out for you a picture that shows some of us who were hell-raisers in our youth were not bad. Just because a boy misbehaves as a child does not mean he should be treated as incorrigible. No surprise here, my friends would have never met Father Reagan's approval.

      Someone else builds the web and we become stuck in it.