I used to be an altar boy. The prerequisites weren’t complicated. Attending a Catholic grade school, being male and having a pulse were the basic requirements. Most boys who’d made their first communion were expected to become altar boys and most parents expected their boys would serve. We were called Knights of the Altar.
Sister Mary Marcelia was adviser to the Knights of the Altar. Under her guidance, prospective altar boys memorized Latin responses to numerous prayers comprising the Mass. We’d stand before Sister and repeat Latin supplications from memory until they were flawless. Woe unto any boy who didn’t learn the correct responses. Long, solitary sessions raising random three-digit numbers to the twelfth power were typical reparations for serious Latin infractions.
My neighbor Jim was a year younger than me. He was my partner on this Good Friday, the most solemn day on any liturgical calendar. I was in the eighth grade and a seasoned altar boy by that time. Together, Jim and I were to process into the church nave and proceed to a side altar. Once there, our task was to kneel for half an hour in vigil, relieving two of our fellow Knights who were finishing their thirty-minute shift. This ceremony had begun earlier and was repeated throughout the day.
The church and the school were adjacent, the school hallway extending through double doors into the church narthex. On this Good Friday afternoon, Jim and I donned red cassocks and white surplices in the school library which was the furthest point from the doors leading into the narthex. Our robes had been moved into the library from their regular closet behind the altar. With altar boys shuffling around every half hour, it was thought the potential for noisy traffic behind the altar might distract the dozen or so faithful parishioners praying, dozing or daydreaming in the pews.
Jim and I arrived separately for our shift. Upon robing in the library, we trotted down the long school hallway and through the double doors of the church narthex where we immediately slowed our pace, folded our hands and solemnly processed side-by-side down the center aisle. As rehearsed previously, we approached a kneeler in front of the side altar where, in a series of well-choreographed genuflections, we relieved our two colleagues.
Our shift ended without incident. After thirty minutes, Jim and I were relieved. A few more genuflections and we soberly processed out of the church. Upon exciting, we raced up the school hallway and back into the library to hang up our robes among the others on a portable chrome rack stationed there.
Our first mistake was to explore the open door at one end of the library from which we could see only darkness in the room beyond. Naturally, we walked over and flipped on the light switch just to see what was in there. In an instant we spotted a massive, gray desk and control panel with switches and dials. An office chair on wheels was tucked under the desk. Upon that desk stood a glorious public address microphone on a stand into which was set a large, black push button.
By virtue of some careless adult leaving this door ajar, Jim and I had stumbled into an inner sanctum where bus announcements, accolades, admonitions and daily prayers were broadcast daily. Eyes wide, we approached the control panel with a level of curiosity unmatched before or since. “Let’s see how it works.” I suggested. “Okay!” Jim agreed.
We depressed the main power button, flipped a couple of numbered switches and turned up a dial. The panel lit up and meters began to glow. “Let’s sing something,” I said. I was a showman even then. We decided on the biggest hit song of the day. If we could get through one chorus, we’d quickly shut everything down, grab our jackets and hustle out the door.
Pressing down the microphone button, we crooned, “She loves you. Yeah, yeah, yeah! She loves you. Yeah, yeah, yeah! She loves you. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeaaaaah!” Whoa! We could hear our voices echoing over speakers in the deserted school hallway. Releasing the button, we shouted “Let’s get outta here!”
We hadn’t yet removed our cassocks and surplices. It was a crucial oversight. We tore off our robes and flung them on the mobile rack, chattering madly about hearing ourselves sing over the school P.A. system. Jim walked out, heading toward home. I stalled a few seconds to peruse the library bookshelves for nothing in particular. In a flash, Father Fagan burst through the door, red-faced and bellowing “Who did that?” He stared directly into my face.
Given time to find my composure, I might have responded more contritely. Instead, I blurted out, “He did!” pointing out the window toward the parking lot where Jim was scurrying away. For a second, I thought Father believed I wasn’t involved. He stomped out without another word. I buttoned up my jacket and hurried out, following Jim’s route.
On Saturday morning my mother answered the phone. I watched as the expression on her face changed from day-before-Easter, dye-the-eggs pleasantness, into a formidable scowl. The cat was out of the bag and Sister Marcelia was informing Mom of our indiscreet vocal performance. You see, the school P.A. system also broadcast into the church.
I spent much of the following week mindlessly raising random three-digit numbers to the twelfth power after school, under the watchful eye of Sister Marcelia. It provided an opportunity to reflect upon the seriousness of what I’d done… also to hum Beatles songs and consider what a great name Knights of the Altar would be for a band.