By Brian Patrick Higgins
I was informed shortly after birth that I had two primary purposes on this planet: to root for the Ohio State Buckeyes and to get to heaven (the good one, where the Catholics go).
The former came naturally to me; I still bleed Scarlet and Gray. I had to work at eternal salvation.
But given little choice, I decided to embrace the challenge. As soon as I was old enough to become an altar boy, I donned the uniform – a white surplice and black cassock that had lost none of its fashion sense since the Middle Ages – and went to work serving God through his branch office at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church on the blighted corner of Fifth and Cassidy in Columbus, Ohio.
I rose quickly through the ranks. By fifth grade, I was training rookie altar boys how to genuflect without tripping over superfluous polyester and pointing out which angles on the raised altar provided the best views of the budding cleavages of our fairer classmates during Holy Communion. So when word came down that some nuances and accoutrements were being added to the litany of rituals that comprise the Mass, it was a foregone conclusion that I would be chosen for the trio of altar boys who would roll out the prototype at the noon service on Sunday.
Joining me on the A-Team were two of my classmates, Mark and Kermit Bradshaw. Mark was one of my best friends and a burgeoning psychopath who would matriculate to prison shortly after his 18th birthday for a point-blank murder. Kermit had long since rejected charm and chosen a militant attitude and a quick temper as his coping mechanism for being a black kid named Kermit.
Kermit’s ambition was to become the first elementary school-aged member of the Black Panthers. One of the liquor stores in the area had a poster in the window depicting one of the seminal moments in the Black Power Movement: U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising a gloved fist on the medal stand at the 1968 Summer Olympics. Henceforth, Kermit would raise a fist to call attention to such white conspiracies as chalk on a blackboard or snow on our blacktop playground. He once got a week’s detention for questioning the motives of a harried cafeteria worker who placed his mashed potatoes on top of his gravy.
On the Sunday that came to live in infamy at St. Thomas, Kermit, as always, was hogging the mirror in the church’s basement. Possessed of a magnificent afro, it wasn’t uncommon for him to spend 20 minutes staring at his own reflection while picking and oiling his foot-high mane into a perfectly symmetrical, Afro Sheen-ed work of art. As was his custom, Kermit finalized his ritual upstairs, in the vestibule mirror, as we were waiting in the wings for Mass to begin.
It was Monsignor Eastadt who finally convinced Kermit to line up for the procession that signaled the start of the service. The pews, as always, were packed. Monsignor Eastadt, whose age was the subject of a pool among the altar boys (the speculation ranged from 68 to 117), tended to drift so far astray of his script that he quickly lost sight of the shore. His M.O. was to stare blankly at his notes for a few seconds, contemplate the distance back to the harbor, then abruptly terminate the voyage with the magic words, “This is the Word of the Lord.”
His aborted sermons were wildly popular among the men in the congregation, who could sleep in, hit the midday service and still get home in time for the kickoff of the Browns’ or Bengals’ game.
The good Monsignor huddled us together for a final run-through of the new playbook. He reminded us, among other details, that we would now be pausing in front of the altar and bowing to the bloodied, life-size figure of Dying Jesus on the crucifix behind the altar. Mark and I fixed our gazes on Kermit, who had been lukewarm on his bows during our practice sessions. Kermit didn’t buy into the new program until one of the seminary students helping with the training pulled him aside and assured him that Jesus, being from Nazareth and all, wasn’t really white.
Thus did we march off toward our sordid fate.
All went according to plan for about a minute, the time it took our little procession to parade up the main aisle of the church as the St. Thomas parishioners launched into the opening hymn. Mark was designated, largely on the basis of his bulk, to carry a freshly minted brass crucifix that could have doubled for a battering ram. Kermit and I shuffled in tandem two steps behind, trying to find our sea legs with our new apparatuses: four-foot high candles.
Mark stopped on cue when he reached the foot of the altar. Kermit and I halted in perfect unison behind him. We cast a sideways glance at one another to coordinate our bow. As we had practiced in private minutes earlier, we silently mouthed a quick “one-two-three” and cast our heads forward.
Heeding the words of one of the altar boys who had reported back after nearly losing his balance with the new torch-candles at the Saturday evening Mass, I made my bow a cursory one. Kermit, however, was feeling the heat of the eyeballs at his back. Word of our practice sessions had apparently filtered up the chain of command; as we were strolling around the side of the church to take our places for the opening procession, Monsignor Eastadt pulled Kermit aside and made it known, in no uncertain terms, that there was to be no malarkey with his bow—Caucasian Jesus or not.
So it was with great conviction that Kermit bent from the waist, like a peasant to an emperor.
What happened next passed into the great locomotive of legend at St. Thomas, interpreted and retold by the hundreds who were there to witness it, as well as the legions who later claimed to be.
Lifting my head from my own bow, I stole a glance in Kermit’s direction to make sure we were in step for the final part of our processional journey onto the altar. I sensed a trick of the light, as if the midday sun and the stained-glass windows were conspiring to cast him a blinding halo.
Kermit, whose suspicions already were elevated by the general lack of pigmentation among the assembled, began to panic when he saw my squint of confusion turn to wide-eyed shock. He had scarcely mouthed the words “What’s wrong?” when I blurted out my assessment of the situation:
“Kermit! Your hair’s on fire!”
Coming to the quick realization that this critical exchange of information was being drowned in a sea of voices accompanying a pipe organ to “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow,” I ratcheted it up a few decibels, making sure to over-enunciate every syllable.
“YOUR … HAIR … IS … JESUS CHRIST!!”
I’m not sure whose face drained of color more quickly: Kermit, when he realized that I wouldn’t dare utter such blasphemy with my mother camped in the second row of pews unless something had gone horribly awry; or me when I came to the quick realization that my mother was, indeed, camped in the second row of pews. Stout from childbearing with short dark hair and blue eyes that could throw laser beams, mom considered the second row the ideal scouting location for detecting stifled yawning or other facial transgressions that might indicate I wasn’t giving the Lord his due focus.
Fortunately for me, shrieks of horror from assorted female parishioners were now vying with the organ and the off-key singing to form a cacophony that transformed the mere six feet between us into an acoustical canyon. Nobody, including Kermit (who had merely read the reference to the Son of God on my lips) had heard a word I’d uttered. Moreover, I had tremendously understated the situation: Kermit’s head was a bonfire.
I was trying to calculate if I had time to plant my ponderous candle in its base unit on the altar and return to Kermit’s aid before his skull melted. That’s when I was tossed aside by a set of bear-sized paws.
At 6-feet-5, Bill Hoffman was a gentle, pale, red-headed giant of a man whose eloquence made him a natural for delivering the readings of the Corinthians, Ephesians and other biblical gangs. The single women in the congregation could sometimes be seen applying lipstick when Mr. Hoffman patted down his hair, adjusted his tie and strode to the lectern at noon Mass.
On that Sunday, however, he was diverted from his mission. Dropping the parish’s elephantine bible to the wooden floor with a crack that resonated above the din like a shotgun, Mr. Hoffman rushed to the rescue.
Kermit, who was quickly approaching Level Red on the panic scale despite being clueless of what all the fuss was about, heard the horrific thud of the Good Book and looked up to see the biggest, whitest man in the parish pushing me aside and bearing down on him with grim determination. The racial uprising about which Kermit had dreamed appeared to be upon him, and he, like General Custer at Little Big Horn, was coming to the quick realization that the enemy was holding all the cards.
Like General Custer, he would go down swinging. His first roundhouse glanced harmlessly off the thigh of Mr. Hoffman, who as far as Kermit could determine was trying to unscrew his neck and pound an opening in the top of his skull. Now Mr. Hoffman was nearly as befuddled as the altar boy that he was attempting to extinguish. Not only was Kermit not cooperating in stamping out the brushfire that he himself had set, but he was apparently trying to establish a perimeter, with his fists, to keep would-be firefighters clear of the scene. The tighter Mr. Hoffman squeezed with his right arm in an attempt to contain Kermit in a headlock while he risked the very skin on his left hand to beat out the flames, the more furious and desperate my classmate’s resistance became. As the bible Mr. Hoffman had just discarded occasionally noted, few good deeds go unpunished.
With a front-row seat to our church’s first-ever pyrotechnical cage match, I was a bit too captivated by the action to survey the general reaction of my fellow parishioners, an act of negligence I have long regretted. It would have been nice to place a few faces with the venue-inappropriate shrieks, profanities and high-decibel expressions of disbelief arising from my fellow parishioners.
Although time warped like a Salvador Dali painting, we later pieced together that it probably took Mr. Hoffman well under 30 seconds to contain the situation. As any smoke jumper knows, fires burn considerably faster uphill than down, and the forensic evidence would reveal that the flashpoint of the Great Kermit Fire of 1974 was six inches above his eyebrows. From there, the flames raced upward, seeking the summit of Mount Afro Sheen. Kermit emerged from the headlock, ironically, whiter than Mr. Hoffman. But with the exception of his dignity and the well-tended garden atop his head, he was none the worse for wear. He would, however, forever have to wrestle with the conundrum that he had been rescued by The Man.
The show must go on, even after venturing to the outer limits of surreality. As Mark pointed out in the post-game debriefing that day, Jesus was probably pretty freaked out about the whole nails-through-the-extremities thing that he knew was coming, but he didn’t call in sick on the original Good Friday. Kermit, too, was a gamer. After taking some time to regroup in the vestibule and figure out what the hell had just happened, he returned to the altar as Monsignor Eastadt was delivering the gospel.
Unfortunately, he timed his reappearance to coincide with the precise moment when Mark and I had finally pulled our acts together. With snot pouring from our noses and tears from our eyes, we spent the first 15 minutes of Mass desperately trying to repress the spasms of laughter that were racking our bodies. Even the stoic monsignor appeared to be unusually hard at work imploring the Lord to prevail over the demons that were tugging at the corners of his lips.
I was in hell, unable to look straight ahead for fear of re-establishing eye contact with Mark or the monsignor, but mortified by the thought of glancing in the direction of the congregation, where I was sure my mother was amassing evidence for what would be my ultimate come-uppance. But every time one of the parishioners gagged on a piece of afro—countless swatches of which were floating through the church like pollen—I surrendered more acreage in the battle for composure.
I was forcing myself to focus on a piece of chipped paint 10 feet above Monsignor Eastadt’s chair when Kermit slipped in from the vestibule. His afro, previously as round as a basketball, resembled a field of corn stalks after the harvest.
It was too much for Mark, who let loose with a rollicking howl as a torrent of mucous escaped from his diaphragm.
With a genuine fear that my head would explode from the internalized pressure, I, too, lost my shit in front of the entire congregation.
As always, my parents were waiting for me after Mass near the grotto of St. Mary at the back entrance to the church. My father, a jackhammer of a man who was approaching 40 and no longer sported a military haircut nor the physique of the ferocious football player he was in his youth, had put some distance between himself and my mother. It became apparent, upon closer inspection, that he didn’t want any witnesses while he was doubled over in laughter. So much for my glimmer of hope that he would hustle us into the car in the name of the Cleveland Browns.
I had been bracing myself for the whirlwind of her wrath for the past half-hour, in part because the terror helped divert my attention from Kermit’s head. Now that the moment was at hand, I simply lowered my head and took what I was pretty sure was going to be one of my last breaths.
“Lord help us all,” mom said, crossing herself as a closing salutation to the statue of the Blessed Mother, “but I’m pretty sure God Himself was peeing his holy pants over that one.”