HEADLINE: “LOCAL 5TH GRADER SAVES NUN”

BY: JAMES F. O’NEIL

“The Witch fell down . . . and . . . melted away to nothing, . . . Dorothy . . . being at last free to do as she chose, she ran out to the courtyard to tell . . . that the Wicked Witch of the West had come to an end, . . . There was great rejoicing. . . .” — L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz

If memory serves me right…in 5th grade…

Sister Mary Dolorita (a pretty face, all the flesh that showed–except for two hands–and a smile) taught my classroom of 5th and 6th grade boys and girls.

I liked our school on the South Side of Chicago. The building faced Honore, near 72nd Street. The structure, mostly one story, in a U-shape, was built around a beautiful church.

saint justin photo 2Saint Justin Martyr School and Church

Near the front of the building (at the south end), a stairway made its way up to a landing, with a second-floor classroom and the principal’s office. At the top of the stairs, on each side of the building, a door led to the choir loft. The church organ was situated in the center of the loft.

From 1949-1955 (my 8th grade graduation), a considerable part of my life was bound to these structures. Much I remember, yet so much I have forgotten.

However, I will never ever forget standing in front of church, lined up by grade, standing outside in the rain “Until there is quiet!” The principalshouted at us from under her umbrella. That year, my 5th grade, was the year from hell with her as principal, with

D-I-S-C-I-P-L-I-N-E
O-R-D-E-R
Q-U-I-E-T
O-B-E-D-I-E-N-C-E.

She was in absolute charge of the school. Nevertheless, we endured.

With the School Year nearly over, including nice Chicago weather, school activities included packing unused schoolbooks to be sent off to the missions. One morning, while we were quietly doing our seat-work tasks, Sister called upon me (always the acquiescing “Go-for”) to bring boxes from storage. Where was the storage for boxes?

Next to the choir loft. Of course….

Leaving my busy classmates, I entered the Silence of the Hall, looked both ways, and then headed to The Stairway.

(“Abandon hope, all ye who climb these stairs….”)

Looming at the top of the stairs, “Door Number One [left]: Choir Loft.” “Door Number Two [ahead]: Storage.”

Quickly–and softly–I moved to the top of the stairs, one linoleum-covered step at a time. I saw: “Door Number Three [right–and open]: Sanctum Sanctorum Principal.”

I opened Door Number Two. Absolute Darkness. Yet from the light of the open hall area surrounding me, I saw inside. Certainly, against extant Chicago fire codes, cardboard and corrugated boxes of all types and sizes were stacked un-neatly in this small storage facility.

And the one naked light bulb, in a socket, hanging down from the ceiling on a dark black fuzzy cord, with a barely-visible chain hanging across the bulb.

light bulb fotosearchLight Bulb. Credit: fotosearch

I pulled the chain, turning on the light bulb. At that very instant, the pump motor for the church organ began to run. The organist had begun to practice. With the light on, I could now see the green metal-mesh cage over the large black belt connected to a motor and flywheel. This motor ran the pump to operate the bellows–making the church music we so liked to hear. Noise and light nearly overwhelmed me in my Quest-for-Cardboard. So which one box would be perfect, would show my Dear Sister Dolorita I could do the job?

Of course, The Beautiful Perfect Cardboard Box on top of a pile near the back of the small room.

Behind me, while I made my way to the boxes-taller-than-I-was, The Voice of Principal shrilled: “What are you doing?” Frozen, I turned and blurted out, “Getting a box for Sister.” Then, something like, “Well, get on with it. Go on!” I pointed and tried to reach. “Never mind!” Pulling a step stool, then reaching for…all in slow motion (of course): She reached. She fell. She tumbled. She went down. Down. Down. Screaming. She screamed: “Oh!” as she went down, down, down into the depths, behind the metal cage.

Then I saw two laced high-top black shoes, pointing upwards, connected to two skinny lower legs, and ankles covered by dark black nylons.

“Help me! Help me!” she cried out, behind the running motor. “Turn it off! Turn it off!” (Turn what off?)

So I reached for and grabbed onto the bulb socket and chain, receiving a shocker! I pulled the chain. The motor kept running. Music continued from the church organ.

I barely saw the legs as I turned and ran to the classroom on the landing. I pulled open its door, shouting to the nun-like silence inside, all eyes on me: “Hurry! Sister fell into the organ!” In a flash, the good nun was pushing me aside, out of her way–and making headway to the space emitting music and motor sounds.

“JESUS! MARY! JOSEPH!” (They would certainly come to help when they heard their names shouted out in helplessness.) “Get Mr. Joe [the janitor]!” He would come for sure when I found him. I found him somewhere. Wherever he had his hangout. I went with him, but was told to go back to my classroom.

I arrived there empty-handed, but memory-traumatized. Forever. I retold the story–tearfully (almost). Lunchtime bell. Dismissed for lunch. Saved by the bell.

Adults running. Rumors. Ambulance. Congratulations.

Congratulations? Yes, I was to be congratulated. I was a childhood hero–to my schoolmates. “You tried to knock off the Old Witch. Is that true?”

Of course, it was true.

More likely, however, I probably did cry, knowing how fragile I was then.

The Principal never returned. Summer came. Then 6th grade. No mention of The Fall. I entered 6th grade, like all my other classmates, hearing from Sister Mary Georgine:

“YOU BOLD BRASSY THINGS!”
“YOU DON’T KNOW BEANS IN THE BAG OPEN!”

freshly roasted coffee beans in a jute bagBeans in the Bag Open

And we were now happy in school, lining up in good weather, a few times a week.  I was never again sent to find another storage box. Besides, they moved them–and, as far as I know, locked forever that Dantesque Doorgate.

(I bet Mr. Joe and the organist could get in if they wanted….)

© James F. O’Neil 2014

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2 comments
  1. I graduate from St. Justin Martyr in 1963. I was on the committee formed for a reunion Mass. It was great to see everyone there. When the school board was going to close St. Justin’s, I was active in trying to keep it open. I loved St. Justin’s and still stay in close contact with my classmate friends. I love those guys.

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