I have a overpowering memory of my first night at Holy Rosary Academy. I was assigned to the bed most adjacent to the external fire escape that doubled backed down to the ground and to prefect Sister Mary Veronica’s enclosed bedroom. Sometime after midnight, Tarzan quietly opened the window that gave on the fire escape and grabbed me gently but firmly in his arms and proceeded to kidnap me down the staircase to the third floor.
As we were halfway down the staircase, Sister Veronica suddenly turned the corner and started climbing the staircase. Tarzan spun on his heel, put me back on my new bed, and disappeared through the window to the fire escape. The nun gave her dorm full of sleeping boys a visual once over, ending her supervision by tucking me in and chiding me softly for not already being asleep. I can see her now as clearly as I did in my fantasy over fifty years ago.
She was a lovely looking young woman, a dead ringer for Bing Crosby’s colleague in “Going My Way.” There is one other angst I was already beginning to feel: my abandonment by my father. Eventually I became so threatened by my fear of “being exposed” that whenever, after holidays, for example, when palaver invariably turned to family relations I would engage in non sequiturs by switching the topic of conversation to the Detroit Tigers or Lions.
Oddly this shtick peaked the year I was eleven, when Detroit peaked psychologically if not economically: our teams won the World Series, the NFL title, the Stanley Cup—and Joe Louis creamed Max Schmeling. This fear of disclosing a family secret never really disappeared: I attribute it to this day to my inability to maintain long term friendships strangely combined with a deft ability to quickly open such relationships. Heh, Tarzan where are you when I could use you?
The four story, red brick High Victorian Holy Rosary Academy structure put its students dormitories on the top floor. The Junior dormitory (first through fourth grades) was on the south western part of the building. It was separated from the Senior Dorm (fifth through eighth) on the far eastern side by a set of bath tubs paralleled to a set of johns. The northern edge had a set of large multipurpose rooms, mostly used for recreation, except for the Sick Bay on the far eastern corner.
A spooky enclosed set of stairs led into the pitch dark attic, sometimes used to punish refractory students. Steep staircases at each end of the floor led to the third floor. The nuns lived under the students on the third floor, between the study hall/theater under the Senior Dorm and the Chapel under the Junior Dorm. Double classrooms (seventh and eighth grades , Far North,) presided over by Sister Charles Borromeo, as tall and threatening as principal Sister Alexis was short and bristly, (third and fourth grades with Sister Marie Bernadette, a young, good looking nun we tended to project the Lourdes saint onto) and fifth and sixth grades presided over by Sister Mary Somebody.
The second floor began with music practice rooms (where I practiced being trumpet bandleader Charlie Spivak, mainly because his theme song, “Stardreams” was so easy to simulate. Across the hall the ectomorphic Sister John ran a tough music program, where she rapped my knuckles one afternoon because I let my fingers dribble over the keys instead of primly putting them on top of each key. “You look like a jazz musician,” she snarled, I still being too innocent to take that as a compliment. Sister John had the skills of a night club owner, however, using the Depression to poor talk musical celebrities like touring British pianist Alec Templeton into freebie concerts.
That floor also had lounges for visiting parents, as well as the Principal’s Office, next to the Chapel. Sister Alexis was my first contact with a holy fascist, who whipped our butts in autos de fe held in the Refectory before an audience of students who realized they might be the next to lower their shorts for such a beating. That dining room is also responsible for my bad table manners. It was the Depression after all, and the cuisine was so marginal we often mocked ourselves as going to the Hungry Rats Association, HRA, Rah Rah. To this day I consider eating macaroni a mortal sin.
Across from the Refectory was Sister Felicia’s first and second grade classroom, where faute de mieux I hung out for two years as a kindergarten singleton. In the basement there was the laundry and heating complexes, plus a too low-ceilinged excuse for a basketball floor and where we were taught to dance: day student girls made that possible, and as I got ready in 1940 to go off to a minor seminary in Detroit, I created a minor scandal for my very public crush on Geraldine Kirchman—whose older brother had just been ordained!