My date with earthly ruin and eternal damnation coincided with my Baccalaureate in youthful debauchery, followed by my Master's degree in Catholic guilt and eventually my Ph.D. in salvation.
The quote above is from my novel Getting There and it pretty much sums up my misbegotten youth. It also the reason why whenever I try to muster up some old-guy righteous indignation that today's youth would be better people if they just listened to me/us… I remember what actually happened in my heydays!
While my friends and I may have some jaw-dropping stories, we were rolling fireball of disaster careening towards the gates of hell...or at least purgatory or limbo!
Exhibit One: The Cornerstone Caper.
Like most escapades dreamed up by wayward youths, this one was born out of boredom. Our hangout was the parish parking lot. The good priests of St. Mary's tried to discourage their youth from congregating at the lot with the inspired choice of convincing Jack Bell (a parent we both respected and feared) to act as chief enforcer and lot patroller. Jack could alternately scare the bejeezus out of teenagers with his hi-beam flashlight and then laugh with us truants. My own view was that he figured it was better for him to police the lot then have the cops do it. But Mr. Bell was only one person and we were many, with overactive imaginations, so it didn’t work and the loitering continued.
The lot was adjacent to the church and rectory and across Lafayette Avenue from the High School and the recently demolished Elementary School. The old school used to be a combination church and school and was built somewhere around the early 1920’s. In 1973 it was rubble of bricks, having lived out its high ceilings, creaky wood floors and long staircase located at both the south and north ends of the building. For decades, the Dominican nuns had taught the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic to over 800 kids per year in grades one through eight. All that was left was the rubble for the demolition crew to remove.
But in the ruins was a prize: the original St. Mary’s Church cornerstone. And so, a possessed quartet had determined it was a good idea to steal this orphaned 500 pound block of grey cement with its one foot tall numbers stating:1924. It stood out in the piles of bricks like something from a George Orwell novel.
Mark, the youngest brother of the musically gifted Ouellette brothers was the lead engineer of the caper and he was joined by Tom Lama, Gary Ryniak and John Fitzpatrick. They had been working hard and were sweating through their t-shirts on a traditional muggy August Michigan night. For the past three and half hours they had taken shifts clearing bricks and mortar away from the their quarry. They were using tools misappropriated from Mark’s Dad, Joe Ouellette and his meticulously maintained workshop.
They were still arguing whether the cornerstone contained the relics of a Saint or valuable coins. Church lore had taught them both. But whether the group was trying to make off with bones or treasure, after hours of work, the challenge of successfully moving a 500 pound rectangular chunk of cement became quest.
They had finally dislodged the cornerstone and had ascertained that the four of them could roll the giant block with the help of long planks used as wooden fulcrums, over to the street. The plan was to extend the planks into the trunk of a car, and because the incline would then be slightly downhill, it would be easy-peasy to finish the job by rolling the holy bones into the trunk. This logic may not be apparent to the ordinary observer.
There was just one problem. None of these guys had a car. But, as if on cue, Jimmy Piche, another classmate, pulled up in his recently acquired, used but in cherry condition, Ford Custom 500. It was his first car and as the youngest of the Piche brothers, he was particular about its appearance and care. (The Piche brothers were renowned gear heads and if you needed your engine pulled or just tuned up, their garage off the Lafayette alley behind their house was the place to go.)
Jim, who married his high school sweetheart Vicky and resulting in three fine sons and more grandchildren, recounted what he was thinking back then.
“I had no idea what I was thinking back then. I guess I lacked a sense that there were limits in life.”
I guess that would explain why Jim backed his Ford up to the curb, popped the trunk and watched in his rearview mirror as his pals extended two 2 x 8's from a ledge where the cornerstone was perched, to the now open trunk.
"Rock and roll!" commanded Mark O. and that's what they did. I suppose rolling is bit of a misnomer, but the group muscled the albatross of a cornerstone onto the planks and while the wood groaned a swayed, it held. The mighty Tom Lama and silver toothed Gary Ryniak gave the stone one last oomph and it dropped like…well, fat unwieldy cornerstone, into the Custom 500's trunk.
This is where the plan turned 'vicky-verky.' Our intrepid engineer-thieves hadn't really thought about what exactly happens when you deposit that much cement into a used car's trunk, or any trunk for that matter.
The rear bumper plummeted into the curb as the front end shot skyward, like the car was trying to fly. No one had calculated that the suspension and springs of Jimmy's car were not a match for the consecrated cornerstone.
The bumper was now pinned to the curb. The hood ornament beckoned skyward.
Jimmy tried to pull away, giving the big V-8 the gas. The Ford's engine groaned, the tires squealed like dying chickens and created a smokescreen that covered the car, but it was no dice. The car was still hung up down in salute position.
"No problem," said Mark, he directed his comrades to leap onto the hood of the car with him. They proceeded to jump up and down like they were at a Led Zeppelin concert at the East-town Theatre until the bumper edged off the curb and Jim gunned the engine popping the car free as his friend bounced off the hood like popcorn.
By this time they were all laughing (alright, maybe not Jimmy) as they determined that the best course of action was take the captured prize over to our mutual friends, Jerry and John McEntee, whose parents were gone for the weekend.
"We'll stash it in the McEntee's shed until we figure out what to do next."
I happened to show up at this time after walking from Garland's Party Store (now the Mid-nite Party Store on Main Street) with a 16 ounce Pepsi and pack of Newport's in hand. I marveled as they told what they had accomplished. I remember thinking this caper was particularly astounding because this had all occurred right in front of the Rectory where the good fathers apparently were asleep, about 200 feet away.
I watched as the team hopped in the Custom 500 and headed north on Lafayette, my mouth agape as the bumper of the car bounced off the asphalt creating sparks on every down stroke like it was in bizarro world Looney-tune cartoon.
Let's let John Fitzpatrick take it from here. John was the youngest brother of the ingenious and legendary Fitzpatrick brothers: Michael, Patrick, Dean, David, Stephen and then John. (I'm thinking psychologists would have a field day with the prevalence of youngest brothers in this story, don’t you think?)
"As it turned out, the McEntee's parents weren't leaving their house until the next day, so the cornerstone remained in Jimmy's car, bouncing around town getting about 3 miles to the gallon. Jim figured out if he drove below 15 miles an hour it lessened the problem of the bumper bouncing off the road.
We finally were able to unload our quarry the next afternoon, using a makeshift fulcrum and six volunteers to pull it out of the trunk and into the McEntee's shed.
But it turns out we had created a firestorm up at St. Mary's. Somehow the priests got wind that the cornerstone was gone and they sprang into action. At Sunday mass and in the weekly Forecaster they announced that if the cornerstone wasn't returned pronto, big trouble was going to follow, namely with the police. I found all this out when my Mom woke me up on Sunday morning after she came home from an early Mass.
"John, wake up now! What do you know about this cornerstone theft? Father Cairns told me he wants to talk to you. Oh, you better not be involved in this one!"
It wasn't long before I was face-to-face with Fr. Cairns in his office. He had a look that could burn a hole in your head.
"Young man, I know you were in on this. Let me be clear. You and your fellow conspirators have 24 hours to return the missing item. Are we clear?"
I didn't stop sweating for hours.
As it turned out, a neighbor of the McEntee's had seen us pushing the cornerstone into the shed and put two-and-two together after attending Mass. It wasn't long before the Royal Oak Fire Department showed with a fire truck and a bevy of large firemen removed and returned the lost booty.
And that was the end of it. Except I got grounded for a week just out of general principal.
That should have been the end of the story, but much like when a group of us came so close to stealing The Bell of St. Mary off the roof of the same Elementary School prior to its demolition. But once again, Catholic Karma intervened.
With the cornerstone safely back in the hands of the Parish, the heat was off. But the young associate pastor at St. Mary's, Father Bill, was smarter than then rest of us. He couldn't quite reconcile that the church's relics would be encased in a piece of cement. His curiosity made him walk over the where the cornerstone had been removed. He kicked some loose debris around with his shoes, bent down, dug a little with fingers and touched metal. It didn't take long for him to dislodge a small tin box. He carefully opened it and found: I didn't get this part of the story verified, but legend holds that holy relics were indeed in the box, along with...well, like I said, we weren't exactly on the A list at the parish and we never really learned what else was in the box.
Father Bill later became Monsignor Easton, the Pastor of Royal Oak Shrine, who unfortunately passed away suddenly about a month ago. I'm reasonably confident that this story will somehow reach him and he'll smile.
I called St. Mary's recently and asked if by any chance the cornerstone was anywhere to be found. The answer was no, except one lead was offered, maybe it was taken to the St Mary's Cemetery between Main and Rochester Road.
I'm thinking this story is: To be continued.
But yep, that's Exhibit One on why it's tough sledding for me to provide much commentary or judgment on how today's youth should comport themselves toward a life of fulfillment and happiness.
That truth is that I and most of my friends made it through to other side, although not all of us. We became responsible, held jobs and became husbands, fathers, grandfathers and contributors to our community. Just like our parents wanted us to be, only after we playing catch with live grenades. And we became very good sons to our parents as they aged and died because of instilled Catholic guilt and we finally saw what-in god's-name we had put them through!
I know I stand among many who say to our parent living and gone: Thanks, Mom and Dad.
It’s Monday: Let’s go!
Gerry Boylan is the author of the novel, Getting There and the short story collection, Gerry Tales. Both books can be found at Posey in Royal Oak or the Yellow Door in Berkeley or at Amazon.com. The link is: