During the past weeks I’ve become addicted to C-Span, a public- affairs TV station originating in Congress. Each morning “Washington Journal” features a guest, usually a member of Congress, who fields phone calls. If you’re a Democrat, use this number; if Republican, dial this number, etc.
No matter what Republican guest appears, Democrat callers are sure to attack the war in Iraq. Similarly, Republican callers have a weakness for Democratic jugulars. And so it went this week, when a caller asked, rhetorically, “Why do you hate Bush?” “Why are all Democrats cowards?” and “Don’t you realize that criticism of the war on ‘tear’ demoralizes our troops and emboldens the enemy?”
Much of it is a diversion. The caller — not just this one but virtually anyone with a strong opinion — tends to equate criticism of the war with the lack of patriotism.
But lest this column become a Iraqi diatribe, let me explain how young my two classmates and I were when we conjured up elaborate plans to put the art of diversion to good use.
The method is simple: distract the other person.
The three of us had a simplistic view of religion, growing up in the ‘40s and attending Immaculate Conception School. Rightly or wrongly, we imagined our purpose in life, our goal, as something we acquire through indulgences.
Our world picture was of the path to heaven as a filling station- convenience store, which we needed to visit often.
Appropriately, Allsup’s, a filling station-convenience store, sits on the exact location of the original I.C. church, at Grand, University and Fifth Street. The nuns at our school, especially Sister Mary Assassinata, implored us to “make a visit,” to utter a few prayers and thereby earn some indulgences which, Sister assured us, “will earn you a higher place in heaven.”
But what if I go to the other place? “That’s your problem, Arthur.”
Though a lot of what I write at this moment seems trivial, even frivolous and a bit sacrilegious, to a 10-year-old old enough to remember the horrors of World War II, it was no laughing matter.
One afternoon, our teacher selected Fred, Charlie and me to bang out the erasers, which meant leaning over the second- or third-story window and whacking the dust off the erasers. That delayed my arrival at home, which demanded a star-chamber type questioning.
Mom wanted to know exactly what I’d been up to. Caked in chalk dust, I figured she knew. “What did you do to deserve that punishment?” she asked, trying to coerce me into admitting I had lied, stolen something or had impure thoughts, or all of the above.
Actually, Fred, Charlie and I thought we’d been accorded an honor, imagining the effort we exerted in banging the erasers as the vicarious pounding of the faces of Gilbert, Jack and Jerry, the school’s biggest bullies.
Finally convinced I wasn’t guilty of apostasy, Mom went easy on me. And that break taught me how to get mileage out of the heretofore me tioned diversion.
One afternoon a week, several of us gathered for after-school discussions of religion, sometimes with a nun in charge, sometimes solo. The rest of the days I was expected home immediately after the final bell. So I learned to make a pit-spot at the I.C. church on the way home. Saying a few prayers generally didn’t take long, but that became my excuse for arriving home late. It was fun to run through sprinklers in people’s yards, walk up and down Douglas, watch older boys play pinball and generally amuse myself.
In church after school, I rehearsed my game plan:
When Mom would ask why I was a half hour late, my answer would be, “I was in chur-urch.” I’d give it an extra syllable for emphasis. I hoped that would suffice. Had she asked, “And exactly how long were you in chur-urch?” I would have been in even deeper trouble.
My plan was to appear so credible that Mom would assume I’d qualified for canonization, and she was not to ask whether part of the lateness was due to horsing around, entering pool halls and engaging in debauchery.
Whether through fatigue or preoccupation, Mom ended Day One of interrogation peacefully, and that emboldened me to do it again. Charlie and Fred relayed similar diversions of their tardiness to their parents but never seemed to suffer any consequences.
The second day I went to Plan B. In church after school, I decided that if challenged, I’d throw the book at Mom. By book, obviously I meant the Bible, and surely in the New Testament there must be something about spending time in church. Yet, this fifth-grader
imagined the crime of using the chur-urch as an excuse for frolicking around. I imagined a bevy of pious ladies kneeling behind me, reading my devious, guilt-ridden mind, speed-dialing my parents’ phone number as each one whipped out her BlackBerry 8800, which was not to appear on the Verizon for another 50 years.
Will I get away with it this time? Should I abort my diversion?
Even before Mom inquired as to why I was late this time, I blurted out something like, “I was in chur-urch.” “Everybody should go to chur-urch.” “Don’t you want your son to go to heaven?” “What do you have against religion?” “Why do you hate nuns?”
All of these charges and questions, and Mom hadn’t even turned on the heat. Was she doing a one-woman version of the good cop-bad cop routine?
Fact is, she told me years later, she’d become amused by my violent protestations in which I implied something was wrong with her if she objected in the slightest way to my church visits.
Up until her last years, we had a private joke in which I’d ask, “Why do you hate (fill in the blank)?” any time she criticized anything. If she were around today to listen to C-Span or to read opinion pieces about the Iraq war, I have no doubt she’d say, “Those people have probably just gotten out of chur-urch.”