Category Archives: Memoir
I learned the Bible, the first two books of it at least, if not at my mother’s knee, then up close on our old maroon sofa a couple years before I started Catholic school. That sofa was also where she read me the story of Little Black Sambo, who started out as a boy but ended up as a pancake; “Water Babies,” of which I have no memory but the strange title; “Tom Thumb,” as well as dozens of nursery rimes, all out of a set of handsome faux-leather red volumes called Journeys through Bookland.
The Bible stories came from another place, probably an abridged version for children. I have no memory of the book itself. What I do recall after all these years like old sepia family portraits are images of Noah’s wife turning into a pillar of salt for disobeying God’s command not to look back on the destruction of Sodom; the great flood Noah escaped by building an ark to save two of every living creature; the mugging of Benjamin by his brothers for his beautiful coat; and of course the bondage and rescue of the Israelites from Egypt. I was especially impressed by the plagues God inflicted on the Egyptians until the pharaoh relented—the frogs, the duel between the Jewish and Egyptian magicians that ended with the Jews’ team turning their staffs into snakes that ate up the Egyptians’, and of course the slaughter of all non-Jewish first-borns by the Angel of Death.
Then I turned five and my mother enrolled me in the parish school, where I never heard any of those Bible stories again….
“Chris Wallenska, Mister Wallenska (or, the preferred form, plain Mister) was fresh out of seven years of classics and philosophy. He was all of 24, although he seemed centuries beyond us in his knowledge of the world—the ancient Greek and Roman world, the only one that mattered. He taught us their languages as well as English and religion, a catechism class he deplored as theologically neanderthal. I remember him actually throwing the book, a thicker, more Jesuitical version of my elementary school’s, onto the floor in disgust when we reached the question regarding the effects of masturbation, which ranged from acne to sudden death. Any sign of rebellion in those days, a few years before Vatican II convened, seemed scandalously heroic, or just plain scandalous, depending on how much inclined you were toward nailing theses to church doors. I was no Martin Luther, but I thrilled at any display of dissent. …”
I grew up in Fort Lee, then still a small town in northern New Jersey. Apart from its original site as headquarters for a routed American Revolutionary force, its main claims to fame were two: It was the original home of the movie industry in the early decades of the twentieth century, and it holds up the western end of the George Washington Bridge. In the 1940s and ’50s it consisted of about 2,000 people and might have been located in Ohio or Indiana instead of just across the river from one of the largest cities in the world. Today it houses many tens of thousands, including large immigrant populations, most notably Koreans.
In my childhood much of the town was still undeveloped land, the largest tract of which was a couple hundred acres of woodland known as the Great North Woods. Boy Scout troops could camp there without any sign of their being just a short walk to civilization. The Woods abounded in what to me was exotic flora and fauna: tadpoles and rare birds – rare at least for that part of the world. It was also the place I went when I wanted to take pond samples to look at under my toy microscope. In a single drop of water I discovered a world even more densely populated by paramecia and other microscopic wildlife than was the woodland itself by their larger relatives.
Most of my time was spent in the local Catholic school. My explorations occurred after 3:00 p.m. and on weekends, and those were usually in areas closer by than the Woods: a few acres of untouched land where garter snakes abounded in July and August, sunning themselves on the reeds in a small pond. My friends and I tried without success to shoot them with bows and arrows. There were also the immense oaks next to the town athletic field (now a parking lot solemnly blessed by one of the local curates, I’m told). We could climb to dizzying heights in those trees before they were pulled down to make room for a strip mall on Main Street. We could also explore the overgrown trolley route that once ran from north of town to a ferry on the Hudson across from 125th Street in Manhattan a couple hundred feet below the skyscraping Palisades. We gathered wild cherries in summer, caught poison ivy searching for baseballs in the big vacant lot we used for our daily game, and in winter discovered frozen carcasses of dogs and cats in the melting snow.
But it was the Great North Woods that most held my imagination, as much by its name as by the reality. It was the only place I could go where I was unlikely to see, never mind confront, another human being. There was a rumor, perhaps more than that, of a murder having been committed there, or perhaps just a body dumped. In those days Fort Lee was run by a police force indistinguishable from the Italian mafia. Police chiefs who failed to cooperate were found dead, officially suicides, their service revolver lying beside them. A widow of one such lived in an apartment across from our building – “lived” only in the strictest sense because she had tried unsuccessfully to end her own life and was permanently paralyzed.
Then there was the Great Fire. I don’t recall anyone referring to it as such, but I don’t think the name is an exaggeration. I don’t know how it started or how long it lasted, but it was unlike any fire I’ve come close to since, not just because of its extent over hundreds of acres but because it became at some point invisible. After devastating everything above ground it continued to burn beneath the surface, at least in the Great North Woods. The ground smoked like the cone of an active volcano or the roof of hell. Only occasionally did it show itself by a sudden outburst of flame. I had seen it consume the frame of a new house on the periphery of the Woods, one moment looking perfectly alright, the next flaring up in tall flames until nothing was left. But that had taken place far from where I was walking that afternoon. I couldn’t feel the heat through my leather-soled shoes, but plumes of smoke were visible all around me.
I should point out that my religious experience, though rigorously Roman Catholic, had started early on my mother’s lap with what I later realized was a Protestant emphasis. She had read me all the nursery rimes as well as “Tom Thumb” and much else from a collection of volumes called Journeys through Bookland. But she also read me Old Testament stories, all of Genesis and Exodus. I knew as well as I knew “Cinderella” or “Jack and the Beanstalk,” but took much more to heart, the story of Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of his son Isaac, Jacob’s pretending to be his brother Esau so as to cheat him out of his inheritance, even Sarah’s laughing at the two angels who told her she was going to conceive a child at the age of ninety, though I had no clue yet how children were conceived. And the account of the Jews’ exile in Egypt, the plagues visited on the Pharaoh and his people for his delay in freeing them (especially the slaughter of the first-born), the long trek across the desert to the Promised Land and Moses’s acceptance of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, all this was as familiar and as memorable as the Gospel stories I would later hear on an almost daily basis. I have since marveled how little of this Old Testament lore most Catholics and even the average Jew I have known is familiar with. I assumed these tales were basic stuff for any Jewish boy or girl. It was only much later, when I learned something about Protestantism (heresy pure and simple in our history books) that I discovered the importance Protestants placed on the Old Testament.
All the vegetation had been leveled by the fire that had swept through the Woods several days earlier. The landscape was as barren as the mountains of the moon, except that on the moon there is no smoke and no remnants of burnt trees. But one small bit of flora did remain in the midst of gray devastation, miraculously untouched, a short bushy thing with its foliage still intact. I stopped my trek to wonder at it. And almost as soon as I did it burst into flame as if it had only been waiting for me to show up to do so. It didn’t burn bottom to top as would be expected given the source of the fire in the ground beneath. It ignited all at once like an exploding firework, and almost as quickly as a skyrocket bursts and quickly disappears the tree disintegrated into a piece of char-wood in a matter of seconds.
I was too literal-minded to associate this burning bush/tree with the one through which Yahweh spoke to Moses on Sinai. I was no Moses. If I identified with anyone in the Bible it was with one of the minor characters no one names their children after. But what I had just witnessed was biblical in its drama. By that point in my education I knew miracles were more or less common place, at least for believing Catholics, but despite the preservation of this tree in the midst of burnt-out wilderness and its spectacular immolation in front of my eyes, I knew what I had seen did not qualify as a miracle. No one had been cured of a terminal disease, no supernatural being had appeared. And so I went home, had dinner and began to memorize the capitals of all the South American nations and the next three questions in the Baltimore catechism where it was understood that real miracles could occur because for the God who made me to “love, honor and serve him in this life and to be happy with Him in the next” “nothing is hard or impossible.”
These catechism lessons may not have accounted for the burning bush in the Great North Woods, but they didn’t need to. I lived happily in the natural, not the supernatural, world. Here the ordinary – not just burning bushes but love (I had been in love since I was seven), snow falling at night through the dim glow of street lamps (“Lord, I love the beauty of Thy house and the place where Thy glory dwelleth”), the exquisite plumage and impossible levitations of hummingbirds that visited the overgrown gully where those trolleys once rain, these and so much else of this material world were all the miracles I needed.