SPRING TIME, HORSE MANURE AND THE END OF SCHOOL DAYS – More 62-15

Another installment of Growing Up on a Flower Farm in Queens

 

May was one of the busiest months at Frank, Florist and Gardener (62-15). The summer flowers had to be grown and set for transport to the cemetery. The pansies had to be pulled from the plots, and not thrown away but set aside for the women folk to harvest the seeds for next year’s crop. The bag of seeds hung in the basement to dry over the summer.

Some of the cold frames were prepared for Gramma’s vegetable garden. If I close my eyes I can conjure the delicious odors of the manure, the pansy seeds, and the tomatoes soon to hang from their vines.

Machinery needed to be serviced for a season of grass cutting and shrub trimming.

Amid all these busy, busy activities another yearly event would come to pass in the form of a dump truck loaded with horse manure deposited in a redolent pile near the cold frames. The earthy pungent miasma it would give off in the increasingly warm days of May signaled the most important event of the year to me, the end of school was just around the corner.

At that age, I hated school. On my best days, drowning in boredom, I just wished we could move on to the next thing, a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g. I didn’t know there was something different from sixty kids in a classroom with a nun, God bless her, who never went to college to learn the secrets of classroom management and good lessons. Discipline came in the form of going to Hell for any infraction. Good lessons shouldn’t bore you into becoming a minor league juvenile delinquent.

She was doing her best to control the lot of us, while drumming something into our thick skulls.

To teach the kids who had some difficulty with the 3R’s, Sister sat the class according to grades. So, there we were, the ten to fifteen “smarties”, all sitting together with an assignment we finished in fifteen minutes. Trouble, here we come.

We hatched various schemes, wrapping our jump rope (a staple of city school kids) around whole rows of chairs in the lunchroom. It created a racket that was music to our ears. We made unauthorized visits to the church where we lit candles. Oh boy, did that get Sister’s attention. She was probably worried we would burn the church down and she’d be blamed for it. Silly stuff, you say. Sure, but that was Catholic school in the 1940’s.

June was on the way.

Meanwhile, back at the farm, horsey doo was spread in the cold frames with a layer of sand over it. Very tiny plants of red Alternanthera and blue Lobelia rooted in neat rows, filling the cold frames with new stock. Things grow really fast in horse manure. Try it sometime.

The white Sweet Alyssum was already in tiny pots ready for transport. Soon the Alts and Lobelia would follow them. There were referred to as the “decoration day” (old term for Memorial Day) flowers, red, white and blue.

The long hot days of summer and no school were soon to come with the sweet smell of mown grass wafting through the neighborhood of florists, gardeners, and cemeteries. The sound of baseball bats smashing balls would dominate the murmur of the stadium crowds as the radio blared the major league games to millions of fans.

Every afternoon the Bungalow Bar ice cream truck would make its way along the side streets tinkling its bell, bringing my favorite treat, a toasted almond ice cream pop. Life could be sweet and simple in Middle Village in 1949.

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READ THE FIRST CHAPTER OF THE BUCCANEERS OF ST. FREDERICK ISLAND

ST. FREDERICK ISLAND

 

1947

 

SCHOOL DAYS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

ON THE MOVE

 

How do those turtles do it? Pull their heads into their bodies? Here comes Sr. JoAnn. My head stubbornly remained on top of my neck.

If you think it’s easy writing a note to the kid in the seat next to you when the rattling of Sr. JoAnn’s rosary is announcing her slow walk down my aisle at this moment, you’ve never been to Catholic school. The room is silent. You can hear pen nibs scratching across the pages of our black and white composition books, leaving a trail of ink blots. 

Pen nibs, you say. Ink blots? You won’t believe this about the ink and the inkwell. Will you? We all learned to master a form of writing called the Palmer method. This is just another aspect of toughening the backbone here at St. BeSillius’s. As I look at my permanently stained right middle finger, I wonder if I will be done in by something lurking in the ink and become St. Sprocket, patron saint of calligraphy.

The smell of chalk and old tempera paints barely covers the tinge of pine-scented urine coming from the old radiators. My mom went to this school and tells the story of kids leaning their wet behinds against the radiators to let their underwear dry if they had an accident. Going to the bathroom in those days was a privilege reserved for the Pope.  Thank God things have changed, and St. BeSillius has hired a nurse, and given her an office where this kind of thing could be taken care of.

A floorboard squeaks. I hear the faint clink of keys as if Sr. has reached into the stygian depths of her pocket for something. I slide my ruler over the words I’ve just written and peer cautiously from the side of my vision trying to locate Sr. JoAnn. My stomach bunches. She is reading Eddie O’Malley’s entire page. Eddie’s not one of us, so there is nothing out of the ordinary to see in his notebook.

My page is full of writing, but not what I think I want Sister to see. So far, I’ve jotted a list: LOOK FOR CLUES, including the narvex, the sacristy, the side entrance, the choir loft, and the bushes around the church. I’ve signed it, Sprocket.

Sprocket? Is that a Christian name? Of course not, silly reader. We all have code names to protect the guilty. We are the Buccaneers of St. BeSillius School, a secret society dedicated to solving the mysteries and misdeeds of our little parish school and the island where it’s located.

Uh-oh. Here she comes. If I rip the page out and crumple it, she’ll just grab it. And, I’ll have to explain why there’s nothing on the page, in longhand mind you, about the characteristics that would have made George Washington a good Catholic, if only he had known better.

George was an Anglican having once been a colonial loyal to the King of England, also a George. But that’s another story.

Eddie, not the sharpest pencil in the box, is getting the Spanish Inquisition treatment about his lack of inspiration on the topic. I wonder if the nuns get a special course in interrogation techniques.

Eddie, I love him dearly, is buying me time. Could I quietly turn the page and jot a quick sentence or two? I pick up the notebook and turn the page, knocking a pen full of ink onto the floor along with the ink well. As you can imagine, this was not a silent maneuver. Sr. JoAnn, Eddie and the whole class look at me. I feel my face burn. I get up to clean the mess and knock the composition book on the floor with my note showing plainly on top. Sister reaches for it. I’M DEAD!

The fire drill siren shrieks. Sister turns to move the class to the fire exit, and I kick the composition book under the desk. It obliges me, closing with a snap.

          “I’ll clean this later, Sister.” I smile.

          “And I will be checking your essay.” She smiles back.

          “Yes, Sister,” I say, noting that the proverbial glove his been tossed onto the floor like they did in those ancient duels. I file past her.

**********************************************************

Are you wondering why a bunch of Catholic school kids are searching for clues in what looks like a church and the yard around it?

Let me digress for a bit and fill you in on some details about why we are listing clues and what all this skullduggery (Great word, isn’t it?) is about.

Well, before I fill you in on what happened when we found those clues, let me explain who we are. We call ourselves The Secret Crime-Stoppers of Sts. Christopher and Michael, but I wanted a shorter title like Buccaneers of St. BeSillius. I thought calling on both St. Christopher and St. Michael was pushing the envelope of sponsorship. And who even knows who St. BeSillius is? So, just think of us as the Buccaneers.

For the past year, our class has been raising money for a class trip to visit seven churches on the mainland and distribute toys to the children’s day care centers in those parishes. We did bake sales, car washes, leaf-raking, snow shoveling. We cleaned attics for old ladies, cut lawns and pulled weeds. Some ill-informed parents even let us do fence-painting. Don’t worry! Those shrubs will come back in a year or two.

A whole year of those earnings went into the fund. We kept it in the vestry. That’s the room behind the altar in the church where the priest keeps his vestments. Get it? Vestry, vestments? The box with the money disappeared the day Father Felix was supposed to open a bank account for us. We never got the money back, never found out who did it, and we’re pi….. Whoops! Sorry. I’m just angry. Not mad. Sister Priscilla said that mad means crazy. Well, she hasn’t been paying attention to her students.

Anyway, even though the sisters and priests said we should offer it up to God. I’m not sure what that means, the money or the cursing we did. And, we should learn a lesson. Next time lock it up! And where were we supposed to lock it up? It was in the vestry! With Father Felix, the parish priest!

This didn’t go down too well with some of us, and one night last summer at our club house which is just a shack on the beach, we decided to form our own little PI group, that’s Private Investigator. We voted on and accepted our official title, Buccaneers of St.Besillius. Look. You can’t beat our creativity in naming the group. We even researched St. BS. She’s the patron saint of mimes.

As we gathered around the fire, we wrote up a charter including the following:

·        Each member is sworn to secrecy, under pain of . . .what? Oh, I don’t know.

·        All clues are to be shared by everyone.

·        All communications would be done using our code names. Mine is Sprocket.

·        Our meeting place would be the old fishing shack on the beach.

We made a list of our code names.

Lily code name Sprocket, all around smarty, leader, that’s me.

Ryan: code name Bletch, general genius.

Frank: code name Wingnut, mechanical genius, and a bit dippy.

Leon: code name Snap Shackle, math genius, can put two and two together.

Amalie: code name Ratchet, electronic surveillance, or just plain snoop, meaning she can use a camera.

And so, the story begins.

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