Thursday, July 20, 2006

Sister Sandy Koufax, a short story about life & baseball by Hymie Laredo [PART TWO]

Because I attended primarily parochial schools throughout my pre-college educational career, I absorbed more than my share of physical abuse from my instructors, primarily priests and nuns, who never seemed to fully appreciate or tolerate my quick wit and incredible comic insight.
In public school, where I was always certain the administration would have more easily grasped my unique style of satire if given the chance, physically assaulting disruptive students as a way to keep them in line was discouraged and, in fact, illegal. The Catholics, however, had no problem with it.
My parents realized early on that public school was not going to be the solution to my varied range of behavioral problems. I needed the discipline of the Catholic school system. In public school, hooliganism was rampant – in parochial school, it was just as bad, but Catholic kids over the years had learned to hide it better.
It wasn’t like my parents were Catholic. My folks sent me to Catholic schools for the discipline and nothing else. These nuns and priests who had essentially made my life a living hell for a good portion of my life didn’t know it, but they had been hired for their disciplinary muscle, and that’s all. Bodyguards in habits and collars, basically.
Conversely, every adult in authority at St. Basil’s the Venerable -- where I matriculated during my elementary and middle school years -- all the way from the bearded cafeteria lady to the blind crossing guard, to the grizzled old alcoholic janitor who was later fired for drinking all the holy wine, had free rein to smack me when provoked. They were not only permitted to do so, but encouraged, and, in fact, this aspect of the school was one of the primary reasons my parents had sent me there in the first place.
It was a reign of terror and violence that would shadow me throughout my schooling. It was a basic lesson -- open your mouth, get whacked upside the head. It was a simple process of association, a sick experiment not unlike the horrible things Pavlov did to his poor dogs. At least the pooches got fed every now and then. All I got was pummeled. I was hearing bells, all right, but I wasn’t salivating. The ringing in my ears was from the quick lefts and roundhouse rights I was on the business-side of almost hourly at St. Basil’s.
It’s amusing in a way to think that of all the things that happened to me in Catholic school, both good and bad, the only times I can clearly remember are the numerous instances where I got whacked around for some silly prank I pulled or some smart-ass remark I made. Like a punchy old boxer long retired from the ring, the countless beatings I took; those fleeting instances of extreme discomfort and humiliation; appear in my mind just like they happened only yesterday. They play themselves out in slow motion sometimes, blow-by-blow, blood and pieces of flesh flying everywhere, just like those great fight scenes in “Raging Bull".
Initially, during the pre-confirmation years, the nuns were the ones who took on the arduous chore of administering to me the discipline I was evidently so much in need of. Over time, their forms of torture evolved as they became more sophisticated and increasingly frustrated by my antics.
The first form of this was the old wooden ruler over the knuckles routine. This hurt considerably, and could have been a marvelous deterrent if it wasn’t so logistically impractical. For example, you couldn’t perform it on an unwilling victim without dragging them kicking and screaming. And then good luck trying to subdue someone long enough to crack ‘em a good one. Anyone who was dumb enough to stand there while they got whacked with a piece of wood with a metal rod in the middle, like the newer rulers had, was deserving of such a punishment anyway.
The simple truth was that this once reliable behavior modifier may have worked in the past when kids were more in awe of authority, but in the seventies, it was passé. Like trying to get the country to switch over to the metric system, it was a noble gesture, they gave it a solid effort, but in the end, it was unsuccessful. The priests and nuns eventually abandoned the ruler method of punishment, and began to look elsewhere in pursuit of the perfect deterrent for smart asses like myself.
The second method of retribution I encountered was the flying blackboard eraser, familiar to anyone who has ever gone to Catholic school. About the size of a small brick, I soon learned that this missile made of cloth and wood, when thrown by a seasoned professional, flew across the classroom with amazing speed and accuracy. And, upon reaching its destination -- which, in most instances, consisted of my large, crew cut head, and enormous, fan-like Alfred E. Neuman ear lobes, -- consistently inflicted extreme pain.
Eventually, I was made aware of the fact that the blackboard eraser was the sisterhood’s primary weapon of choice at St. Basil’s. Each and every nun threw it well, like it was something they taught in the convent, right along with the classes in chastity and the scriptures.
There wasn’t a slouch in the bunch--all of them, from Sister Astor to Sister Gertrude (though she was a little older and nursed a bad case of bursitis), could throw the thing fast and true.
To this day, I still hold one particular nun, Sister Sandy Koufax, in total awe. Her real name was Sister Sandy, but the Koufax was added many years before I came to St. Basil’s. And it was certainly well-deserved.
Sister Sandy had all the qualities of a truly great eraser thrower, natural abilities you can’t teach, like dead-on aim and the kind of velocity they can only gauge with a speed gun. But, the most amazing thing about Sister Sandy was her incredible stamina. She finished better than the great Cy Young, never wavering or showing a hint of fatigue.
Heat, cold, rain, wind, sleet, hail, old reliable Sister Sandy was rock solid and undeterred day after day, from the moment morning bell sounded, all the way through after-school sports. She seemed to get stronger rather than tire after lunch. I always felt that she relished the competition I provided, and I was prepared to test her at every turn.
Sometimes, if they got lucky, students could take control of a classroom late in the afternoon when it was hot and humid and they sensed that a young, rookie nun’s arm was tiring and concentration waning. A couple of limp, errant throws of the eraser told you that this particular nun could be had – that she was vulnerable and you could get away with any misbehavior you fancied. Like an injured gazelle being subdued by a pack of hungry lions, the prey was yours.
On occasion, as an extreme measure, Sister Superior would call for a reliever, like a novice priest or a nun-in-training, to stop the barrage of unruliness that always took place when some poor nun couldn’t throw strikes anymore.
But, even a steady stopper knew that by then it was too late. The convicts were in charge now. The suddenly harmless erasers sat helplessly on the ledge below the chalkboard, untested and about as intimidating as Bambi.
Chaos reigned supreme during those rare sweet moments of childish revolt, the air filled was with freedom and a sea of spit balls, sticking to anything and everything, including the crucifix above the door and the traditional picture of the Last Supper, making it appear for a moment as though Christ and the twelve disciples were dining on wet clumps of notebook paper instead of bread and wine.
Mischievous little boys snapping the girls’ bra straps amid shrieks of horror, giving each other melvins in a huge, out-of-control snuggy frenzy, finally turning on the fat, sweaty, kid with the glasses, just like poor “Piggy” in “Lord of The Flies”.
That never happened in Sister Sandy’s class, though. Not with Koufax. She was a closer, a workhouse, and because we knew she’d be sharp every day, she was always unquestionably in charge.
Just when you thought you’d gotten over on her, she’d fool you. Sister Sandy had a curve just like Koufax, a sneaky pitch that looked like it was going to hit someone two rows of desks over, when suddenly, it veered viciously in your direction , and “whap”, you got it!
Her accuracy was uncanny -- she reminded me a lot of Jim “Catfish” Hunter that way. Her strike zone went from the base of the neck to the top of the cranium. But, her favorite target was right in the middle of the forehead, which left a white chalky circle that looked kind of like the ash spot they gave you in the same location every Ash Wednesday.
It was her signature move, and when it was done just right, she got you precisely between the eyes. You’d leave the mark there on your skull as long as you could, even though it would disgrace you with the good kids, like the big “A” they used to give to adulterers in the early days of the American colonies.
But, the goof offs and cut-ups thought it was neat -- like a tattoo that said, “Bad to the Bone” or something. But, you wouldn’t wipe it off as a show of respect to Sandy, as if to say begrudgingly, “I got nailed by the very best.” Because when Sister Sandy hit you with a blackboard eraser, it was like striking out against Bob Feller -- there was absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.
Sister Sandy had little things she’d do when she’d throw too. She’d hide Vaseline under her nun’s hat and sneak some onto the eraser, causing it to dip and hop just like Gaylord Perry’s legendary spitball. She’d stare you down with that petrifying scowl, like Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale used to do in the sixties.
You see, Sister Sandy was an avid baseball fan and borrowed many the idiosyncrasies of all her favorite pitchers. She fidgeted and stalked around the podium at the front of the classroom and talked to herself, the same way Mark “The Bird” Fidrych used to act out on the mound.
During her windup, she turned her back to the class and briefly faced the blackboard, her bare, unshaven, vericous vein-riddled leg emerging from under her habit and hanging suspended in mid-air for a split-second. Then, suddenly she’d spin around and throw heat, just like Luis Tiant.
Sometimes, late in the afternoon when the shadows grew long on the walls and floor of the classroom, it was virtually impossible to pick up the flight of a pitched eraser, especially as it emerged at mach one from a background of black and white robes and flailing rosary. That’s when you kept your mouth shut and paid attention in Sister Sandy’s class, knowing full well that that was when she was at her most dangerous.
Sister Sandy took the best moves from all her baseball heroes -- she had Marichal’s high kick, Valenzuela’s eyes-to-the-sky, and even incorporated some of Satchel Paige’s tongue-in-cheek word of advice. And with Clemens’s fastball, Wilhelm’s knuckler, Spahn’s scroogie -- she even had a split-finger pitch -- Sister Sandy was a worthy opponent, a relentless competitor and a pleasure to watch.
She was so good at firing erasers, that most of the time you overlooked how very hard Sister Sandy was on the eyes. She was blessed with a great arm, and was a more than adequate history teacher, but she looked like Ernest Borgnine in a dress, and I’m being kind. It didn’t matter. To me, she was something really special, and I honestly believe that if she had been born a man, she would have made it all the way to the show, most likely as a middle reliever.
As you progressed at St. Basil’s, you got used to being bombarded by blackboard erasers, and it lost its effectiveness after awhile. A puff of chalk dust, some nervous laughter from your classmates, a moment of mild embarrassment, and it was over.
The nuns would quickly have to devise a more potent form of punishment if they ever hoped to break me. For about two weeks, I was actually convinced I had them on the ropes, but they were simply re-grouping quietly, behind the chapel, methodically re-assembling their troops secretly in the rectory while bringing in a couple of specialists from the Vatican.
Those crafty penguins were not fazed one bit, and had only just begun the process of breaking and muzzling me. Sister Sandy would soon seem as formidable and tough as a wrinkled, shrinking Mother Teresa, when compared to the ball breakers I’d be butting heads with at St. Basil’s in the days to come.
Eventually I found out there were many much more drastic forms of control within these nuns’ repertoires of discipline and pain, and naturally I was destined to be on the receiving end of all of them more than once.
I look back now and I realize I never even had a chance. After all, these holy warriors battled daily with the Ultimate Evil, The Big Bad One, Beelzebub, Satan Himself. Do you really think they felt even mildly threatened by a sixth grader whose entire arsenal consisted of the fake-fart-under-the-armpit gag, a few dirty limericks, an old routine of bad knock-knock jokes, and whose best comeback line was “I know you are but what am I?”
I was seriously outnumbered and overmatched, on the verge of a Holy War I could never win. I had a few more tricks up my sleeve, sure, but hey -- they had God on their side. Did I really think I had a chance?
Well, I made it out of St. Basil’s alive and the damage those erasers ultimately did to me is debatable. I heard many years later that Sister Sandy died in 1999, after living a good long life. I’m told she could still throw those erasers better than any nun who ever lived right up until the day she died, and you know what – I believe it.

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