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The Grave Digger’s Son. By Donal Mahoney.


In 1948 Booger McNulty's coal yard stirred constant gossip among the citizens who lived in the little bungalows on the narrow blocks in my far corner of Chicago. That was more than 60 years ago, a time when families took Sunday walks and went back home in time to hear Jack Benny on the radio. A Sunday walk didn't cost a cent, a price my parents could afford.

My sister and I always had to tag along when my parents took their Sunday walk, and every time we'd pass Booger's place, I'd hear my mother ask my father what could possibly be on the other side of Booger's 10-foot fence. Hoping to avoid a conversation, my father would always say he didn't know but he believed it couldn't just be coal.

Back then, every kid in the neighborhood wanted to climb that fence and look around. But Booger didn't tolerate visitors. According to the boy whose buttocks caught a chunk of coal from Booger's slingshot, there was nothing on the other side of that tall fence except for pigeons and a lot of coal.

In the bungalows surrounding Booger's place, immigrants from everywhere slept off beer and garlic when they weren't working, which was pretty often, according to my mother. My father always worked, digging graves with the other men, most of them, like him, from Ireland. He dug graves because in his previous profession some big Bulgarian broke his nose, after which my mother ruled no more boxing. He'd been undefeated until then.

I was ten in 1948 and I'd climb Booger's fence whenever I was certain he was gone for the night. Once inside the yard I'd climb the piles of coal until I got tired and then I'd go home and take a bath before my father saw me. My mother never let my father see me cloaked in the soot of Booger's coal and she always made me promise never to go back to Booger's again.

But on Easter Sunday in 1948, I went over Booger's fence a final time. My mother had taken pains that morning to get me dressed for the Children's Mass and sent me off with a caution to be good. I always went to Mass, every Sunday, and I would pray and sing the hymns and usually I was good. This time the weather was so nice I decided to go to Booger's instead. He wouldn't be there on Easter. It would just be the pigeons and me. I was gone for hours that day, and since no one knew where I was, a family furor flared.

At school on Monday, Timmy Duffy, unlike me a favorite of the nuns who taught us, told me that every other boy in our class had made it to the Children's Mass on Easter.

"And where were you?" he asked. I told him I'd been sick and that I figured with all the polio going around, I didn't want to cripple anyone on Easter. Timmy accepted my explanation because we were all still praying in school for our classmate Mickey Kane, who had spent a year, so far, in an Iron Lung.

"And so," said Timmy, "even though you weren't there to help, we sang as loud as we could on Easter," but that was something our class always did to keep the nuns in the aisle from paying us a visit.

I may have sung no hymns that Easter but I probably looked pretty spiffy scrambling over Booger's fence in my new blue suit, white shirt and tie. I had a wonderful time in the sun with the pigeons careening in the air and my imagination soaring up there with them.

I was free to climb my favorite pile of coal, toboggan down on my duff, and then climb a different pile and toboggan down again, far more fun than any sled in winter. Hours later when I got hungry, I went back over the fence and headed home for dinner.

Every Easter Sunday that I can remember, we'd have ham and yams, Brussels sprouts and rutabaga, favorites of my father from his youth in Ireland. But when I got home that day, we didn't eat right away after my father saw me. As I recall, his reaction was more Neanderthal than usual.

"Molly," he roared to my mother, with his hand gripping the back of my neck, "the little bastid says he went to Booger's! He never went to Mass!"

And then, despite my mother's protests, he grabbed a belt from behind the attic door that had been hanging there for years, waiting for a felony like mine to occur. I knew right away what I had to do and so I dropped my pants and bent over at the waist as far as possible. Without a word, he stropped my arse.

I didn't cry, gosh no, since tears would have brought additional licks. We were Irish, don'tcha know, so we didn't cry and we didn't watch English movies on TV, either. The accents of the actors would remind my father of the Black and Tans, the English soldiers sent to fight in Ireland after the uprising. They imprisoned him on Spike Island, off the coast of Ireland, when he was just 16. They grabbed him barefoot in a stream sneaking guns to the IRA. In 1920, Irish boys ran guns for the IRA barefoot through the bogs and streams, provided they were big enough to carry them.

Decades later in Chicago, a stranger, dressed like a Mormon on an urban mission, rang our bell and told my father he was from the IRA and had a medal for him in honor of his service 40 years earlier. The man said "It took a while for us to find you."

My father hung the medal in his closet next to the tan fedora he wore to Irish wakes. He always went to Irish wakes, even if he didn’t know the deceased, hoping to meet someone "from home."

So there I was that Easter Sunday, standing in our tiny parlor with my pants napping at my ankles, bent over at the waist and with my arse in the air, like a small zeppelin at moor. My predicament was the result of a wonderful morning at Booger's and a terrible afternoon at home. Now, 60 years later, when that Easter Sunday comes to mind, no matter where I am, I whisper, just in case he still can hear me, "Pops, I haven't missed a Mass on Sunday since I got that Easter stropping. I guess I learned my lesson."

And then I tell him, as politely as I can, that if he can get a pass from wherever the Lord has stored him, he can verify my Mass attendance with my wife and kids, the last of whom, a son, moved out on us last Christmas Eve, 2010, even though the boy had promised his mother and me a ride to Midnight Mass in his new Hummer. Two feet of snow we got that evening.

My father would have loved that snow. Back in '67, when we got 30 inches of it, some of it in drifts as high as Booger's coal, he was just delighted by the winter scene, so much so that he had the two of us shovel frantically for hours, albeit in our usual Trappist silence.

When we got back in the house, he told my mother, with more than a dollop of flair, that the hairs in his nose were frozen. Thank God my mother had his tea ready, steaming hot, as it should be, in its cozy next to his favorite chair. And she gave me lots of cocoa, swirling hot with a zillion marshmallows floating on the top.

Now every New Year's Eve at midnight (and this has been going on for years), I can see in the labyrinth of my mind those same marshmallows swirling when it's time for me to raise my glass and toast the past--Holy Week 1948, the week my butt survived Booger's slingshot and my father's belt.

"Praise the Lord," I shout, "and pass the ammunition."

As the years go by, fewer guests know what I mean when I offer my toast. But most of them never had a chance to hear Jack Benny on the radio. The young ones always ask where I got my old fedora. A couple of them have even said I should have it cleaned and blocked. But most of them, I'm certain, even though they went to college, never saw a relic. They think this old fedora is just a hat.



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