Wild Thing . . . You Make My Heart Sing

My friend, Jill, and I found out about the 17/18 Sign at Jones Beach as we were eating ice cream called Mello-Rolls. It was the ice cream of our youth but not without its hazards.

ice cream cone jb

You knew you weren’t a kid anymore when you could peel the paper away from the cylinder of ice cream without having it land in the sand. When you were young, this happened all the time. Then you cried. Then your dad trudged back to the concession stand to get you another one.

We were 16 now, and we wouldn’t think of being seen at the beach with our parents. And we never dropped our Mello-Rolls any more.

We were just back at our towels when a boy named B.J. Farley sauntered over and plopped himself down on the sand by Jill’s feet.

“So, I don’t think we’ve been introduced,” he said.

We were flattered because this kind of thing wasn’t happening much yet. We also laughed a little because we thought his opening line sounded like something Dean Martin would say.

“Where are you girls from? I know you’re not from Seaford or I would have seen you around.” Apparently, B.J. had an entire repertoire of lines the Rat Pack had tired of, and they were now public domain.

B.J. Farley was from the next town over. He was one of the St. William the Abbot boys we’d spied at Mass the week before. He called his church “St. Willie’s,” all at once adorable and blasphemous. We sat up straighter and listened intently. I concentrated on not dropping my Mello-Roll.

“Why are you all the way down here?” he said after a while. “Come on over and meet my friends at the 17/18 Sign.”

Jones Beach’s creators thought of everything. A theater, a band shell, a little golf course, paddle tennis. There were even numbered signs to help you negotiate the acres of white sand. The signs helped old people who might get lost looking for their umbrella. They helped little kids from getting separated from their parents. All good ideas. But now the 17/18 Sign gave us a geographical focus for making our summer memorable. To the self-absorbed teenage girls we were, that was much more important than dehydrated old people or lost children. So thank you to the sign inventor.

 

jones beach 3

We arrived at the 17/18 Sign like it was base camp for the last good-looking boys in the universe. We recognized many of the boys from Mass the week before. I’d had the good fortune to tag along as a non-Catholic girl. Apparently, I was just in it for the boys in blue blazers and madras ties because I remembered their faces vividly.

We stayed there all afternoon. The Seaford boys played a card game called Hearts and sang along to the radio. They jumped in the ocean when it got too hot, and they thwacked their towels at each other. In other words, they were exactly like boys their age from any town on Long Island. Just not to us. There was something exotic about this bunch of (mostly) Irish Catholic boys who lived two miles away and had been forced to take Latin in school.

“Are you going to the dance at St. Willie’s tonight?”

That was one of the Fitzpatrick brothers, the group that had stolen my heart simply by walking down the aisle at church the week before. It would take some sorting out of names to know which one was talking — John, Joe, Kevin, or Brian — since they all looked like the same boy, just an inch shorter or taller.

Jill and I leaped at our chance for summer romance. We promised ourselves that once we got back to school in September, we would pay attention to Massapequa boys again. We had this discussion on the bus going home. We were perfectly serious about it, too.

The Beach Boys were our moral barometer, and they had been telling us for years to “be true to your school.” And we would. In September. Until then a few summer dances in another town wouldn’t hurt. Had we been given the chance to let the Massapequa boys know our decision, their response would have probably been, “Who are you?” Jill and I were working on our brand back then, still operating pretty much in obscurity.

The Nun at the door said, “Welcome to St. William the Abbot School.” She was smiling, but it seemed forced.

I felt at any second she would ask me for my card that proved I was Catholic. Then she shot a glance at my skirt hem, and I realized what she really cared about. Her face relaxed a little. I knew I had passed her short-skirt criteria for not tempting boys into a life of sin.

The Nuns were doing their best as the dance progressed, but let’s face it. These were not The Sound of Music Nuns, just waiting it out until a rich Colonel came and scooped them up. They were sensible-shoed, wide-faced women of God. I think they were wishing they were back at the Convent House watching The Man from U.N.C.L.E. instead of being called on to supervise teenage lust.

Summer took on a sort of Lewis and Clark charm. By day we camped out at the 17/18 Sign, being charmed and doing our best to be charming. In the evenings, Jill and I walked around for miles, in the dark, in a sometimes complicated route — often barefoot because I thought my feet looked smaller that way. There was a lot of roaming involved.

My friends and I might get to the corner of Park Boulevard and Franklin Avenue after a half hour’s walk. And then as if we were in some sort of hormonal relay race, three girls we knew would give us the metaphorical hand off: “Gary Sullivan and Mark Doyle were just here and they were asking about you!” Heading off in that direction, we might or might not ever find them. And even if we found them, it didn’t mean we would necessarily talk to them.

Sometimes there was a final destination. It was called Hubies, a hamburger stand on Sunrise Highway. For reasons unknown, it attracted hordes of teenagers who swarmed the parking lot night after night. We acted like it was one giant coincidence that we all ended up standing under that neon. I don’t ever remember eating anything.

These summer nights got replayed a lot when I became the mother of teenagers myself many years later. I wondered how, in 1966, our parents ever trusted us to stand on the side of a 4-lane highway, flirting so vigorously that our heads were probably spinning, and then top it all off by walking home in the dark. They had no way of contacting us, which now seems unbearable. I wondered if they worried. That’s not true. I wondered how much.

Now my kids are parents themselves. I’m one generation removed from the nail-biting years. My memories of the summer at the 17/18 Sign and Hubies are all carefree now. And I remember the sweetest moments.

Like the evening someone turned up his car radio as “Wild Thing” was playing. We started dancing in the parking lot. Tommy Henshaw was my partner. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt that was much too big for him, and he sang along as we danced.

Jill and I walked home. In the dark. Giggling and chatting. No cell phones. No Sacajewea. I was home by 10. And I was sure I’d be young forever.

St. William the Abbot, the Seaford Boys, and a Change of Heart

I was jealous of my friend, Brenda, and I can admit it now. We were sophomores at Massapequa High School, a year that was neither fish nor fowl for all of us, except her. She was athletic, could sing harmony and play guitar, and proved herself to be absolutely fearless in social situations. And on top of it all, she was Catholic.

I had been shuttled to Presbyterian Sunday School until my confirmation, and after that my parents seemed pretty much done with anything organized on Sundays. I must have been a fiction-writer kind of child — that’s all I can come up with — to explain how I loved to make up stories that supplanted everyday life. Maybe I loved mystery, too. I sort of fell into my love of a religion I knew practically nothing about thanks to weekend sleepovers at Brenda’s house.

Brenda’s mother seemed okay with my tagging along to Mass, but I sometimes got the feeling I was making her bend a rule.

She’d say, “Remember, Linda, you have to stay in the pew when Brenda takes Communion.” She’d remind me not to touch the Holy Water. And she insisted I wear a white borrowed mantilla, when I would have far preferred the more dramatic black.

I longed for all the have-to’s the Church required of Brenda. She had to go to Confession. There were things called Holy Days of Obligation, a phrase that let you know right off the bat that Catholics didn’t fool around. Before we could go to the movies, her mother had to look up the title in the Legion of Decency. She couldn’t eat meat on Fridays. She fasted on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. In our house we had the Golden Rule, which was a disappointing second place to everything Brenda got to do.

I wangled an invitation to Mass whenever I could. I learned the Hail Mary and Apostles Creed, never saying it aloud, of course, but watching Brenda recite it with a confidence I envied. And then there were the occasional young priests or seminarians up in front, for whom I’d invent an elaborate back-story. My favorite was that they’d suffered a heartbreak for which there was no other cure. They had given their lives to the Church in an act that was noble and final, but always caused them to look pensive and wistful during the Our Father.

Earlier in my childhood, I’d gone through a period where I’d been in love with the Nun side of Catholicism, too. My mother had a cousin who had taken her final vows in her early 20s, and we would visit her a few times a year at the Convent. Her name had gone from Bonnie to Sister Mary Benedict in what was something of a jolt for me, as if overnight she had reinvented herself. She dressed in full habit with only her face and hands showing. I was enamored. She was graceful and paid attention to me. She seemed perfectly serene. She wore a slim gold band on her left hand, which she told me meant she was married to Jesus.

True to my bent for fiction and drama, when Vatican II came along and raised Sister Mary Benedict’s hemline and let us see her hair for the first time, these visits seemed to have less of an emotional pull on me. A few years later, when she left the Order entirely, her father blamed her decision on the changes that John XXIII had brought about — mostly her shrinking habit and the fact that she could now drive a car.

“Well, you know, you can’t keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree,” my uncle said at Sunday dinner. I nodded solemnly though I had no idea what he was talking about.

After she became Bonnie again, I would still see her at family gatherings, and she was still lovely to me, but it would never be the same. I wonder if Maria von Trapp noticed people treating her differently after she made the big move.

One weekend when I was sleeping over at Brenda’s, logistics demanded that we go to Mass on a Saturday night, so her mom said she would drop us off at St. William the Abbot Church, in Seaford. On the drive over, I tried to think of something Catholic to say because that always put Brenda’s mother in a good mood. I mentioned that I’d seen the Pietà at the World’s Fair two years before. It was pretty dated content, I agree, but it was all the Catholic I had.

“Wasn’t it magnificent?” she asked.

I said, “Yes,” but the truth was that the experience had left me confused. I had gone with my grandmother, a woman who loved art but was suspicious of all religion. It started out well, with Mary and Jesus lit up in front of the blue velvet curtain, and you got to pass the statue on a moving walkway, something I’d never seen before. But I started watching a group of old Italian widows in front of us, all dressed in black. They began making the sign of the cross and praying aloud. Overcome with the moment, I crossed myself, too. My grandmother’s purse grazed the side of my head.

“We don’t do that!” she said in my ear.

It was true. We didn’t. But I couldn’t see any reason why we shouldn’t.

On the way to St. William the Abbot with Brenda and her mom, I was relieved that my grandmother was at home in Queens and had no idea I was on my way to Mass, where I fully intended to make the sign of the cross as many times as possible.

Brenda opened the big wooden door of the stucco church, and the smell of candles and incense and the old wood swept me up. St. William’s was smaller, older, and somehow more Catholic than her regular parish church. We sat toward the back. The kneeling bench was sticky, and I had some trouble getting it down so I could talk to God about how much I wanted to be Catholic and getting to the logistics of how we could make that happen.

My eyes must have been open because I knew the moment the McNamara brothers strolled in. They were followed a moment later by the Fitzpatrick boys — all four of them like perfect Irish nesting dolls — in navy blue blazers, madras ties, and khakis. They knelt and crossed themselves in one fluid motion and then sat down a few pews in front of us. Then they nudged each other about something hilarious in the row in front of them. It was my first inkling that I had a “type,” and apparently most of them lived in Seaford and went to St. William the Abbot Church.

Just a few minutes before, I’d been thinking that maybe I’d given up prematurely on following in Bonnie’s footsteps. Though becoming a Nun hadn’t exactly dovetailed with my way of thinking lately as I practiced kissing boys in the mirror in my bedroom, perhaps it deserved a second look.

Two minutes after pondering a life of sacrifice and piety and chastity, the Seaford boys walked in. And by the time the Priest said, “Go in peace,” the door on that career had slammed shut forever.