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John Palcewski's Journal

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At the kitchen table, in the winter of 1947. It’s crowded in that small space. Someone tells me I must eat my bread. I hate bread. So I secretly slip my slice into the framework under the table. I repeat the process as necessary. Then someone discovers all the stale bread jammed up there. Oh, my God! Look at this! They are hysterical, in an escalating frenzy. They are absolutely shocked that a skinny little kid like me would do such a crazy thing. It’s so….so WRONG. And yet staying out all night long getting drunk and coming home and puking into the bathtub is not. Nope. That’s different. You know?

Another uproar among these faceless giants. Loud footsteps, the scraping of chairs, a babble of shouts. In the tumult I sense fear, indecision. It’s scary when adults run around like that, VERY scary. More shouting, mostly from my grandmother. Alec—or is it Stanley?—springs to action. He gets the shovel from the basement’s coal bin. He runs from one room to the next.

Bang, bang, bang. BANG! He got it! He got it!

A fat dark brown rat with a disgusting long hairless gray tail. Can you imagine?

Look at the rat, Johnny! Rats eat the eyelashes of little boys, did you know that? They come up into your bed and chew the tips of your toes and fingers. And then they bite off your little wee-wee. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.

The coal truck arrives. My grandmother pulls open the basement window. A huge rattling roar as the coal tumbles from a chute into the wood-sided bin. In a shaft of sunlight appear a million glistening specks, and she coughs. I watch tall, gangly grandma shovel coal into the furnace, coughing. Where is her son Chester? Or Alec? Or Stanley?

On the floor’s heating ducts upstairs she has placed muslin rectangles that billow like sails when the coal fire’s heat rises. After a while those flimsy cloths turn gray, then black.

While I am at the hospital, or unconscious, or in the care of Aunt Jane, they remove the coal furnace and put in one fired by gas. No more coal comes rattling down the chute. Grandma no longer wields the big heavy shovel.

I open the door of the new furnace. A wave of heat strikes my face, and I move backward. There’s a cast iron disc that looks like the caved-in top of a big mushroom, and yellow flames curl up around its perimeter. It looks like the woodcut in a book I saw at the parish house of St. Xavier’s. Standing on one of the rings of hell, Virgil and Dante look down at the souls of the wrathful, and they contemplate these condemned who are writhing and screaming in agony. Yes. Burning fire awaits us all.

I crush a piece of paper into a ball. This man, a drunk and a fornicator, is condemned because he refuses to repent. With cool insouciance I toss him on the top of the flame-encircled mushroom. The wretch immediately turns brown, and a darker brown, then suddenly ignites and is quickly consumed.

I toss in another sinner. But this time, with God-like compassion, I squirt a narrow stream of water onto the poor wretch from a plastic bottle I’d found in the trash. It’s exactly like standing at the toilet and pissing. It’s easy to direct that stream of fluid. It goes exactly where you want it to go. As long as the water lasts I can keep the sinner white and safe. But then, finally, the water runs out. In three seconds the condemned is transformed into a delicate fragile black ash.

After a while a lot of black ash covers the mushroom. There is no end of sinners who need to be punished. But then I’m afraid that grandma will come down to the basement and open the furnace door. She’ll discover this unmistakable evidence of my craziness.

I can imagine the look on her face and on the others’ faces. Jesus, you just won’t believe what the kid has done now!

But she no longer has any reason to open that door. After all, there is no more coal in the bin for her to shovel. I refill the plastic bottle with water. I zap the scattering of ash.

The water pools, boils, and disappears. So does the evidence. They will never know what I have done to them.

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It's so odd that the Lj users were so interested to your entry about the "haircut" (20 comments)and here 0 comments... there'd be a lot to think about what you wrote, as well as our comments at Elio's fly in the air, but... Strange, very strange world...

I am always surprised by what will bring comments from LJers and what will not. But I believe there is a certain element of chance or luck involved here. For example, at times I read my friends posts every day. But then at others I miss a day, or two, or three, and obviously some of my friends posts are lost to me forever.

My haircut entry was popular because it was above all else a neutral, safe topic. Saying I cut my hair elicited interest, not controversy. And since this act was not a threat to anyone's dearly held religious or political beliefs, many felt free to comment because they knew their comments, too, would pose no challenge to anyone's thinking on important matters.

Now, as for Augustine I simply don't share his perceptions of the behavior of infants.


"St. Augustine's thought on the status of childhood comes through the lens of his conversion. Because of this, he viewed childhood as being two things: both a revealing of the non-innocence of humanity and the symbol of humility that should characterize the Christian life. His final interpretation of childhood, the result of his controversy with the Pelagians (420-430) had three main points: 1) even infants show sinful tendencies, 2) Adam's transgression, which implanted an alien attitude of sin into his descendants, accounted for these tendencies, and 3) baptism, the link between non-innocence and the humility of the Christian life, remedies these tendencies and should be administered as early as possible. His moral viewpoint to childhood took the approach of compassionate training in nurturing the development of children (Stortz 78-79)."

When I was 13 or 14 I got into an argument with a young priest at St. Casimir’s (renamed St. Xavier’s in MN), and I insisted with conviction that babies's behavior resembled kittens I saw suckling their mother.

They were, in my view, totally vulnerable and blind and were groping for the teats, nudging the others aside, and being nudged aside themselves.

“Where’s the evidence of evil here?” I asked. “I just don’t see it.”

The priest smiled. “Tell me, John,” he said. “Why are you so desperate to eliminate sin?”

I didn’t hesitate, my words just sprang out. “And why, father, are you so desperate to preserve it?”

The look on the young priest’s face said: “Well, here’s still another headstrong heretic and blasphemer to deal with! As if my day were not long enough!”

Re: Hair & St. Augustine

Ok, as we know during your life there were a sum of events and meetings that disoriented you and I wonder you are still alive :) The priest was one of these unlucky meetings and I don't know if he was the same Monsignor I read in your MEMORIA NERA, but it seems that the Catholic Church in America has a lot of problems not only into the relationships with the other confessions, but even with its own believers (and the recent facts I read on the International Press and the Pope's worries about the American clergy confirme it).

Regarding St. Augustin: we must not confound St. Augustine's private authority with the living magisterium of the Catholic Church. As you said, this is the point of view of the Hypponian Bishop, and we are in disagreement with him, but it isn't the teaching of the Church that views in the childhood the real innocence of a pure soul, taking as model the words of Jesus: "If you will not be like the children, you will not be able to inherit the God's Kingdom". There isn't any evidence of evil, if not, being the children like a blank page, they are more fragile, and it is more easy for a child to partecipate to a sin of an adult, without consciousness, but in this case we are unable to say "sin", and if for the human court the law doesn't allow ignorance, for God, who read deep in our hearts, it isn't the same.

EDIT: I didn't receive your comment into my mailbox, I don't know why, but reading your LJ I found this comment.

Re: Hair & St. Augustine

But Erikson was far from the first to consider childhood development as a series of struggles to be resolved. St. Augustine (354-430), presbyter of the North African city of Hippo for thirty-four years (Stortz 78), saw childhood development in a similar light. He "realized and articulated the necessity of examining the human psyche from the first months of its existence in order to understand its dynamics and change its deficit patterns" (Miles 351). St. Augustine also saw infancy as the foundational basis of one's lifelong identity.

Bleahh... this could be one of the thousand reasons of an Adult's behaviour, but not the unique or the first.

Re: Hair & St. Augustine

Yes, of course! A balance of nurture and nature.

The priest I mentioned is not Monsignor, but rather a much younger man who had recently graduated from the seminary in South Bend, Indiana, the one Monsignor urged me to attend on full scholarship!

Anyway the priest had a haunted look in his eyes and he chain-smoked unfiltered cigaretes.

At St. Casimir's we boys were obliged to attend his classes on The Church And Its Doctrines. One of his lessons remain vivid in my memory. It was about masturbation, clearly a sin that required confession. He did not use that word, but referred to the practice as "self abuse."

"Did you know," he said one day, "that those who abuse themselves grow very tiny hairs on the palms of their hands?"

We all looked down at our palms, then looked back up at him. He smiled broadly at his own cleverness and also at the flush of profound embarrassment that covered our faces.

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