A typical Sunday morning, roughly 8:15, a long time ago. My father stands in the doorway to my room, extends his thumb to his lips, curls his fingers as if holding a bugle, and sounds out the military wake-up call of Reveille. God, that was annoying!

I was eight, and it was time to get up and get ready for church. All the kids who attended St. Bernardine’s parochial school were “encouraged” to attend the nine o’clock Mass on Sunday. While not a strict requirement, my fellow third-graders and I were well aware that any absence would be duly noted by the eagle-eyed Sister Mary Eustacius and met with a syrupy snippet on Monday morning on the order of: I don’t believe we had the pleasure of Mr. Riesett’s company yesterday at the 9. It never bode well for an eight-year old to be called out as a “mister,” especially in the regimented obedience of the 1950s.

Fortunately, thanks to my dad’s faux bugle call, I was a regular at “the 9,” virtually always officiated by Monsignor Louie Vaeth, a great character of a man with a crusty exterior and a unique talent for memory. Standing in the pulpit from which he would deliver his sermon, he would first read that day’s Gospel selection…except he never actually read it. Rather, he would open the Bible to the appropriate page, hold it out in front of him in his left hand, and recite it word-for-word without ever glancing at the page.

In those days, the Monsignor of a Catholic parish was essentially a benevolent dictator, and Louie Vaeth played his part to the hilt. Once an amateur boxing champion, now a gruff old shepherd of one of the city’s fastest growing congregations, he loved to play poker and smoke cigars with the faithful on Friday nights, attend the local fights on Saturday, and shepherd his flock to higher heights of holiness on Sunday. The story was told about the night that Monsignor Louie, at that point well into his 60s, attended a local fight card and was invited into the ring to offer a blessing. Suddenly, a voice called out from the well-lubricated crowd, Go back to your church, you penguin-suited bum. A hush fell hard over the arena. Glaring out from the ring, Louie Vaeth immediately removed the white clerical collar at the throat of his otherwise black priestly garb and called out to the faceless voice: “Forget this Roman collar. Come down here and say that to me as a man.” That no one moved (or probably breathed for the next minute) undoubtedly deprived the crowd of a Main Event they would have never forgotten.

As tough and hard-nosed as Monsignor Louie could be (nobody dared, for example, leaving “the 9” a little early, for fear of being called out in no uncertain terms by the good padre), he was a complete softie when it came to the children. He loved making impromptu visits to class, having us introduce ourselves, and trying to figure out our nationalities based on our surnames. (He pegged me for a Frenchman, which confused the heck out of me, as my parents insisted we were German.) Louie’s greatest love, however, (and the thing he never got wrong) was announcing NO SCHOOL TODAY because of snow or “problems with the heating system”—the latter I’m now convinced was his personal default, if not enough snow materialized in a given winter. I can only imagine the kick the old man must have gotten to see 400 kids, lined up numbly, ready to dutifully file into the school, suddenly and exuberantly burst to life with his announcement of NO SCHOOL TODAY.

After the 9, it was back home where my mom, who was fortunately not a Catholic, thereby allowing her plenty of heathen time to prepare a Sunday morning barnyard breakfast for my dad and me, would have pancakes, French toast, eggs and sausage stacked and steaming…the pancakes ready for topping with Baltimore’s own King Syrup; the French Toast with Domino powdered sugar. When you got up from that table, you knew you had been fed!

“Can I go change now for the field?” I’d ask my dad. “Yep, then round up the boys,” was his reply. I was an only child, but on Sundays around noon, I became part of a much larger brotherhood, as my dad (Mr. Harry to the others) would take a bunch of us kids to the ball field about five blocks away where he’d teach us the basics of the two games we loved most.

Every boy in the neighborhood knew that 12 o’clock on Sunday was round-up time. The Warfield boys—Skip and Bobby, the Loovis’—Mike and Jeffrey, little Paul Parsons and big Lee Hiller, and always a few “ringers,” like Johnny Appelt, Bobby Edwards, and even the borderline juvenile delinquent, Tommy Gue, from surrounding row house blocks…would roughly assemble in our back alley about 11:45, baseball gloves or football helmets in hand depending on the season. We’d all head up to the grassy open space overlooking Leakin Park where, for the next couple hours, my dad would patiently teach us how to hit and field, pass, catch and run, learn the rules, and be a team—even as each of us individually fantasized being “a star.” We might have been little kids on that field, but in our minds we were Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Y.A. Tittle, or maybe the Colts’ diminutive “Bronze Bullet,” Buddy Young.

By about 2:30, we were back home. Around that time, Granny and Pop Griese would usually arrive. My maternal grandparents had their own Sunday ritual, the lynchpin being a country church supper. They would drive all over the state of Maryland, and occasionally beyond, to enjoy small town church suppers, with their attendant flea markets and bake sales. The suppers generally ran from noon to about three, and my grandparents were always among the first ones through the door.

Pop just loved driving—a love affair that undoubtedly had its origins when he signed on as a member of the Baltimore Police Department’s first ever motorcycle brigade. After pounding a beat for a long time, the motorized division must have been the equivalent for him of being able to fly. Ironically, despite his years as a city cop and his love affair with the automobile, Pop’s only work-related injury came when a car hit him as he was directing traffic one day.

After the church supper, Granny and Pop would make their way to our house for a brief visit (hopefully accompanied by some yummy homemade bakery product they’d purchased at the church bake sale). Pop would sit in the living room while Granny visited with my mom in the kitchen. “Hey Bunk,” Pop would say, “Ask your mother if she has anything sweet.” Another of Pop’s great loves was the Hershey Bar! I’d deliver the goods and we’d talk for a minute before I’d run out to play with my friends some more. Meanwhile, Granny—my favorite lady of all time—would sit at the kitchen table, watching my mom prepare dinner (Sunday dinner was an early affair for us—usually not later than four o’clock.), talking about anything and everything, despite the fact that they might have done the very same thing the day before. Many Saturdays would also include a visit from Granny and Pop, so my mom could “set” my grandmother’s hair. But Saturdays are another story.

Invariably, before my grandparents would leave to return to their house (our old house in Pigtown), my grandmother would call me over. In her chunky little fist was a bunched up dollar bill which she would transfer to my palm. My feeble opening line: “No, Grandmother, I can’t take that.” Her indignant retort: “What do you mean? Take it.” My sheepish closer: “OK, thanks Grandmother.” It was dialogue from which we never varied.

Sometimes they’d stay for dinner with us, sometimes not. But regardless, Sunday dinner was the one meal we had each week in the dining room. I never really thought about it then, but as I look back, it was a nice piece of what made the seventh day special.

The after-dinner wrap-up to the Sunday ritual was entirely dependent on the season. Spring to late summer generally allowed for more back alley games with the neighborhood kids. But come mid-September, it was homework, an episode of Lassie or The Wonderful World of Disney, then up to my bedroom to do the Rear Window routine with Bobby across the alley.

Idyllic? Yeh. The early ‘50s were the definition of idyllic and innocent. Not for everyone, to be sure, but definitely for me.

*  *  *

Writing pieces like this always makes me question myself. Was it really that good, or am I just channeling Tennessee Williams’ perceptive line: In memory, everything seems to happen to music? I can’t deny that a few musical notes play in my head when I look back on those long ago days.  But I also know, from firsthand involvement, how challenging and far-from-idyllic the young lives of so many kids are these days. By that measure, I had it great. By any measure, I had it pretty damn good. And Sundays, well they were special.


T H E  E N D

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