ran into Father Fergus last week. I hadn't seen him in years
and was happy to see that he hadn't changed much. Oh, he's lost a little
hair and gained a few pounds, but he still looks enviably young for
someone pushing fifty. If that shaggy red beard is an effort to look
his age, it isn't working. He just looks like Eddie Haskell playing
a bit part in Fiddler on the Roof.
Yet despite his cheerful manner, his red, puffy eyes gave him away.
Father Fergus looked like someone who hadn't managed a full night's
sleep in weeks. I suppose these days every Catholic priest is feeling
the weight of public scrutiny and the anxiety of an uncertain future.
But I didn't want to say the wrong thing, so avoided the subject entirely.
Later, I wished I'd been more forthright, had taken advantage of the
opportunity to voice my support.
I've always felt indebted to Father Fergus. He might not even remember
it, but that time he helped me out when I was a kid was really a turning
point for me. I never even thanked him. Who knows what might have
happened had he not been there to come between me and my baser nature?
No, Gutter Mind, not that baser nature. Well, if you're going
to be like that, maybe I should simply explain what I'm talking
about, tell the whole story. It is about time, I suppose. I don't
think I've ever actually told it to anyone. It's one thing to remember
one's most humiliating memory. It's quite another to intentionally share
it with the world. But if some good comes of it, perhaps I will, in
some small measure, have returned the favor.
Unfortunately, to do it right, I'll have to start with that cursed
dream really more of a nightmare that regularly plagued
me during my formative years.
In the dream, I'm floating down an immense river on a modest Huck Finn
raft. After landing at a large island, and setting up camp, I
make a fire and hunt up a good wiener-roasting stick, just like
a regular Boy Scout. Then, when the first dog is starting to pop
and hiss, I hear a roaring noise behind me. When I turn around,
the river is bubbling and roiling like warm Coke poured over ice.
Then, to my astonishment, a sturdy, toga-draped matron perched
on an oversized half shell emerges from the churning water. Naturally,
she's gasping for air and spraying water in all directions, so
at first I can't tell who exactly it is that's crashing my Huck
Finn party. But as soon as she gets a handle on her dripping and
spluttering and starts to sing, it becomes clear enough. Only
one person can belt one out of the ballpark quite like that:"There's
no business like show business, like no business I know..." Then,
as if I haven't been through this same scenario twice a week for
years, I demand, "Ethel Merman? What are you
Naturally, it's unnerving for a hormonal young boy to find a brassy
Broadway diva haunting his dreams. But if my youthful imagination had
left it at that, it wouldn't have been so bad. Unfortunately, that wasn't
the end of if, not by a long shot.
After clubbing my eardrums with a couple of numbers (she seemed
to prefer "I Got Rhythm" and "Second Hand Rose"), Ms. Merman
steps from her shell and splashes clumsily to shore. She then
pulls an enormous squeeze bottle of ketchup from the folds of
her toga and walks over to where I'm sitting by the fire with
my wiener and offers "some ketchup w'th 'at, kid?"
It's not easy to deny the Queen of Broadway, so despite my reservations,
I hold out my dog and Ms. Merman starts squirting.
At such a tender age, I wasn't yet able to appreciate, let alone make
use of, the motherlode of Freudian nuggets my generous psyche was offering
up in this dream. But any progress a competent psychiatrist and I might
have made with Ms. Merman's help could not possibly have made up for
the price this dream exacted. For when Ethel let loose with the dream
"ketchup," my very real bladder would follow suit.
In other words, every time Ms. Merman paid me a nocturnal visit, I wet
If you guessed that my bedwetting did not win me any sympathy
at home, you're right. In fact, my own mother took to calling
me Niagara, and the nickname stuck for years. No mind, by this
point in my life, I had learned to deal with a little family shame.
But Ms. Merman's true pound of flesh was extracted at St.
Bernard's Preparatory Academy.
Besides the fact that we are Catholic, my parents sent me to St. Bernard's
for the excellence of its educational program. And I did get a first-class
education of sorts. I've always had a more intimate understanding of
the seed of evil that bides its time within every human heart. And I
suppose I have St. Bernard's to thank. And, of course, the Kennedys.
No I don't mean the Kennedys. But, if familial character is
any indication, the vast Irish clan of the same name who sent
each of their future fraternity presidents and captains of industry
to St. Bernard's was probably a distant branch of the same lineage.
The Kennedys at St. Bernard's carried their preppy nicknames and
blonde good-looks with Hyannis Port confidence, disinterested
condescension, and the social ease reserved for Old Money. Teachers
loved them, other children's parents coveted them, and fellow
students fought to be the butt of their rakish jokes.
However, though I never knew anyone to admit it, I suspected that not
everyone adored the Kennedys as much as they let on. It was reasonable
to assume that there were those who didn't appreciate being ignored
every time Sister Mary Margaret O'Malley wanted to hear a Kennedy
and only a Kennedy sloppily recite his Latin
conjugations; that more than one boy hoped to throw off the cloak
of invisibility that fell over the rest of us every time a Kennedy
entered Father Liam Lonnigan's Algebra class; or that once in
a while a boy fantasized about getting dramatic revenge for one
of the Kennedy boys' incessant pranks. I suppose it's possible
that I was the only one, but I doubt it.
Let me be the first to admit publicly that I loathed the Kennedys.
Call it envy, or sour grapes, if you like, but ever since the
incident in Father Fergus's history class, I have felt more than
justified in my feelings.
Father Fergus was no ordinary St. Bernard teacher. In my day, he still
had fresh-out-of-the-seminary freckles and the quaint faith that sullen
adolescents would respond to sincerity and enthusiasm. And Father Fergus
was sincere and enthusiastic. He was also smart, witty, and, we whispered
incredulously, actually owned a copy of Aqualung. He told us
that we were the best hope for the future and tried to instill in us
the strong sense of personal responsibility that arises from both a
love for the world and a hatred of its injustices. We were still boys,
but Father Fergus insisted on treating us like men (even those of us
who preferred jazz choir to football). Though the Kennedy boys took
this in stride, the rest of us were unused to someone else thinking
more of us than we did ourselves. Father Fergus made us both proud and
We were studying the twentieth century that month. Our assignment
was to make a visual presentation of one of the great ideas of
the century. For example, one boy demonstrated racial integration
by reading aloud the names of every "Pollack" St. Bernard's
was open-minded enough to admit. Another used baseball cards to
demonstrate the principles of Keynesian economics. But by far
the most memorable presentation was orchestrated by that Kennedy
Which Kennedy boy? To be quite honest, I was never quite sure. I should
explain at this point that there were two or three Kennedys in each
grade, and that it was rare to be in a class without at least one. I
never understood how this was biologically possible. Mrs. Kennedy must
have produced offspring in litters, like a cat (I'll bet she could have
sold her story to the Enquirer).
The Kennedys at St. Bernard's were like snowflakes. Everyone knows
that each one is unique, but you try telling one from the other.
From our vantage, the Kennedys were indistinguishable, like the Doublemint
Twins, or the Boys from Brazil. The point is, I can't tell you with
any certainty which one Ian? Sean? Killian? came up with
the following reprehensible presentation and possessed a heart black
enough to carry it out.
The cocky golden boy sauntered to the front of the class carrying
a plain brown box. He informed the class that he was going to demonstrate
one of the fundamental insights of twentieth century psychology. He
told the class that he would need a volunteer. Every sycophant in the
class raised his hand so fast he nearly ripped his shirt. He scanned
the room as though surveying his options, but then turned, as though
randomly, to me and said, "How about you, Carlisle?" It is
tribute to his cunning that I suspected nothing and, lowering my hand,
naively accepted his offer at face value, the little creep.
After I joined him in front, he pulled from his box a McDonald's
hamburger, handed it to me, and told me to unwrap it. Though I
complied, I began to get nervous. It wasn't the hamburger itself
that set my heart to pounding, but its close association with...ketchup
squeeze bottles...like the one he was now pulling from his box!
Now, even though I despise the game, I had some time ago joined the
chess club just to avoid the school cafeteria. The brainy members brought
sack lunches and played chess in Father Derick O'Devlin's home room
every day. Why? The cafeteria was swimming in ketchup, and my Ethel
Merman dream had left me terrified of the stuff. Still unclear? Keep
Once the brat had the ketchup out of the box, I began to panic: "N..n..no
thanks, I don't want any ke..ke..ketchup." But he wasn't asking. Before
I could finish my protest, he had ripped the top bun off the burger,
raised his squirt bottle, and begun to pour. Oooh, I remember it like
it was this morning: the warm liquid pouring down my leg, the cold wet
spot rapidly darkening the crotch of my trousers, the shame of wetting
my pants in front of twenty classmates, Father Fergus, and one indistinguishable
"And that, class, is a demonstration of Pavlov's conditioned response."
How on earth did he even know about my little affliction? I had only
ever told one other person my Ethel Merman dream, my sister who,
come to think of it, had a crush on Malachy Kennedy (or was it Michael?
or Martin?). Ooohh, I was going to get her. But first, I had someone
else to take care of.
I knew it would not work in my favor to make a move there and then.
I took the Jets in West Side Story for my model and played it
cool, boy. But after walking in tennis shoes squishy with urine down
a hallway full of hysterical adolescents, I was quite certain that this
would not be the end of the matter.
There was one small problem. Who was the target of my revenge? I wasn't
even sure which Kennedy had just become my arch nemesis. Who cares!
One would do as well as another, right? I would just have to pick one,
and go for it. As it turned out, the perfect opportunity presented itself
The elections for senior class president were the next day, and there
would be a school assembly to inaugurate the victor at the end of the
week. As usual, there was no question that it would be a Kennedy, so
I set to work.
I got myself a copy of Stephen King's Carrie, one of the greatest
revenge stories of all time, and took a few notes. I was unsure where
I might get my hands on a quantity of pig's blood. But then I realized
that I could simply substitute ketchup for pig's blood which
was more appropriate, anyway and you can buy that by the gallon
After doing the lighting for the previous year's all male production
of Brigadoon, I knew that auditorium like the back of my hand.
So I had no problem hanging a plastic bag from the scaffolding -- right
over the podium where the new president would stand to give his speech
-- and tying it off in the wings to a nail in the wall. One turn of
the nail would release the rope, which would release the "bladder,"
which would send five gallons of sticky sweet tomato sauce pouring down
over my target. Delicious.
I was tackling injustice head on. Father Fergus would be proud. And
next time, those damned Kennedys would think twice before messing with
me, their very own Lee Harvey Oswald.
When the time came, I was ready. Of course, a Kennedy did win the election.
It was Owen. Or Ryan. Or was it Nolan? hell, who knows? After
the assembly began, I made as if desperate for the bathroom and got
permission to leave the auditorium. I headed straight to the back stage
door and crept in. I slunk through the curtains until I found the place
where I had tied off my little inaugural present. Everything was ready.
When Owen/Ryan/Nolan stepped up to the podium, I reached for the nail
in order to be ready as soon as the perfect moment presented itself.
But as soon as I felt the cold steel under my fingers, a hand grabbed
my shoulder. It was Father Fergus. Uh oh.
"What are you doing here, Carlisle?"
"Oh…nothing…I was just…getting a good view of our new president."
"I see." He casually adjusted his white collar while letting his gaze
travel from the nail in my hand up the rope leading into the rafters,
then gave me a quizzical look. "You know, Carlisle, justice requires
that every sin have consequences. But it's even more important that
the punishment go to the right person." He gave his collar a more
vigorous tug. "And though it's true, if it weren't for the name
in the program, I wouldn't know which of those Kennedys that was out
there I hate to admit it, but to me they're as indistinguishable
as fleas but I do know that the boy out there is not the one
who pulled that little stunt in class last week. I saw him off to the
nursing home just an hour ago. He's doing community service to make
up for what he did to you." When he took me by the shoulder and
guided me back toward the state door, I knew that game was over. "You
know, I saw Mrs. Kennedy sitting out there in the front row. Boy, I
bet she has a lot of laundry to do. Don't you think she deserves to
see her son become school president in a clean shirt?"
Immediately I regretted filling my sister's shampoo bottle with Nair,
for suddenly I understood that every action we take has effects far
beyond those we might have intended, that we must therefore act with
extreme caution that the extraordinary gift of free will comes
at a high price. And that was it. I never thought about taking revenge
on the Kennedys again.
Then, as if a bonus, one day a few weeks later I realized that I hadn't
had a single ketchup dream since that day in the auditorium. And I never
have since. I have no sensible reason to believe that Father Fergus
was responsible, though I've never doubted that it was so.
So, if you're reading this Father Fergus, I would like to finally thank
you. I would also like to suggest you take a bit of your own medicine.
Even though people may lump all Catholic priests into one amorphous
group, you are in fact only accountable for your own actions, which
I know to be entirely honorable.