Every day during lunch break at Saint Mary’s High in Seattle, a group of boys gathered at a public park across from the school. They’d shoot the breeze, talk sports, and discuss mysteries of the universe. Today’s mystery centered on the old man who coughed up blue spit into his hanky at Sunday Mass. The first to speak was Bud Hanrahan, also known as Boastful Bud because, well, that’s what Bud liked to do. Boast.
“My sister Mary Catherine is the president of her senior class,” boasted Bud, “and a straight-A student. She says that old man got that way because he masturbates all the time. She says when you masturbate, your guts start to rot, and you cough up blue spit.”
Paddy Callahan shuddered at the statement. He’d never heard of turbation. If that old man turbated during Mass, it must be really sinful.
“Bone ya’,” said Phil O’Malley, aspiring to become the school’s most admired foul mouth. “Your sister’s bullshittin’ you. Girls don’t know nothin’ about jerkin’ off. They got nothin’ to jerk. Only boys do it.”
“Bone you, Foulmouth Phil,” replied Bud. “Mary Catherine said Ann Landers says if you do it too much, you go crazy.”
“Bone Ann Landers,” replied Phil. “Hell, if masturbatin’ made you crazy, I’d’ve been committed to the funny farm years ago! So, bone ya’, Hanrahan, and bone Ann Landers and bone your sister too.”
“I wouldn’t mind bonin’ your sister myself,” added Jack McCann, leader of the Renton Rat Finks, a group of four boys distinguished primarily by living in a suburb well-known for cultivating the next generation of juvenile felons.
“That’s a mortal sin outside of marriage, McCann,” replied Francis Farnum, the class cleric. Francis (never Frank) had dreamed of becoming the Pope (or at least a Cardinal) ever since he was six. Mortal sin had become an area of special interest to him.
“Christ Almighty, Saint Francis,” said Phil.
“It’s in the Baltimore Catechism,” shouted Francis. “You’re not even supposed to touch your tallywhacker. And, if you don’t already know it, it’s a mortal sin to masturbate. You go to hell for doing it.”
“Bone the Baltimore Catechism,” replied Phil. “Masturbation ain’t a mortal sin. Nobody goes to hell for stroking his tallywhacker now and then. Damn, you’d go crazy if you didn’t.”
Paddy’s face reddened at the mention of tallywhackers. He knew about them. After all, he’d completely lost control over his own personal one. It seemed to have a mind of its own, frequently at the most inconvenient times and places. Nothing he could do, except for one thing, would help regain control of it, which brings us back to the issue of inconvenient times and places.
Once, Paddy was giving a speech class on rise and fall of the Third Reich when he noticed Darlene Barnhart was wearing a very tight sweater highlighting…well, let’s just say that there was one highlight for each of Paddy’s eyes. All the confidence he’d put into his presentation vanished under an outbreak of hormones. He realized that more than the Third Reich was rising, so he quickly moved from page 2 to the end on page 5.
“Then there was World War Two, and Hitler lost. The end. Thank you.” He held his paper in front of his pants and hurried to his seat.
“As far as I’m concerned,” yelled Phil, “masturbatin’s worth goin’ to hell for!”
Phil’s outburst brought Paddy back to reality. It sounded a lot like Mass turbation was actually just one word. The rest of the boys started laughing, but Paddy had heard enough. What he’d thought for months was a harmless and very pleasurable way to engage in fantasies about rescuing Annette Funicello from bandits and receiving a reward had suddenly turned into a state of cataclysmic danger and damnation. Mass had nothing to do with Mass-turbation!
He walked away from the group, looking left and right and up into the sky to make sure he wasn’t accidently killed by a car or a random meteorite before he had a chance to go to Confession and be absolved of his sins…actually, hundreds of sins. Paddy now had one word for what he’d been doing with gusto for months. He was worried. Even though he had not known it was a sin, ignorance of its foulness was no excuse. It was a mortal sin. God must be really mad at him. Paddy needed to go to Confession quick, or he figured he’d soon find himself seated next to that old man in church, and no one could hear Mass over their coughing and hacking up blue spit.
But which priest should he confess to? Before now, he’d only had to confess venial sins, like lying or stealing or cussing. He’d never had to confess a mortal sin, like mass murder or eating meat on Friday, so he wasn’t sure how to handle it. He wouldn’t go to Father Murphy, the stern old pastor. He’d once made Paddy say a rosary just for lying. The visiting Chinese priest might be OK. He didn’t speak English very well and might not understand what Paddy was confessing. Then again, he might, and God knew what kind of punishments Chinese priests gave out for mortal sins. Paddy settled on Father Sullivan, the new Irish assistant pastor with wine breath. A great guy. He was also the only other choice.
People were lined up at all the confessionals when Paddy arrived on Saturday. He knelt down and said a few Hail Marys while gazing at a stained-glass window depicting the entire history of Mankind from the Garden of Eden down to Our Lord and Savior who suffered and died for our sins. Especially the mortal sins like those of that old blue-spit man. And me, thought Paddy.
He was next in line when a familiar coughing sound reverberated through the church. Paddy saw the old man shuffling down the aisle, moving from the Fifth Station of the Cross and towards the Sixth, reciting the opening prayer it.
“My Jesus,” he whispered, “loaded with contempt, nail my heart to your feet, that it may ever remain there, to love you and never to quit you again.”
Before the old man could finish, he broke into a fit of coughing, took out his handkerchief and spit into it. It was so gross Paddy tried to sneak away.
“Boy?” Paddy looked around to see who the old man was talking to.
“No, you.” The finger pointing at Paddy’s chest looked like the Grim Reaper’s.
“Would you get me some water?” said the old man, sliding into a pew.
Paddy felt like his feet were glued to the floor. The old man looked up, and Paddy saw two watery blue eyes filled with pain.
“Please?” asked the old man.
Paddy ran to the drinking fountain at the back of the church and filled a paper cup with water. He rushed back and watched the man wash down two small pills.
“Thank you,” said the old man, smiling. He smelled of Old Spice, like Paddy’s grandfather. Slowly his breathing eased.
“Don’t worry, boy. It’s not contagious.”
The puzzled look on Paddy’s face brought a chuckle from the old man.
“World War I,” he said. “France.”
World War I? thought Paddy. And why did he start in France?
“You know what mustard gas is, son?”
“Well, stay the hell away from it and don’t ever go to war, unless you want to spend thirty-eight years like me.”
As the old man coughed again into his handkerchief, Paddy became curious.
“You were a soldier?” he asked.
The old man looked at him a long time before speaking.
“Not a very good one. Took my mask off to scratch my nose, inhaled a little gas, and ended up like this.”
The old man arched his back and sighed deeply.
“Lucky to be alive. I always wondered if this was my punishment for killing other people.” He chuckled. “Guess I’ll know soon enough.”
Paddy liked the old man’s gentle voice. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“That’s OK. I get by.”
“Do you want some more water?”
“Thank you, no.” The old man looked at Paddy for several seconds before speaking again.
“It was brave of you to come and help me, boy. My cough scares most people.”
The old man took a dollar from his wallet and offered it to Paddy.
“I appreciate what you did for me.”
Paddy shook his head.
“OK. Maybe I can return the favor sometime.”
“You kinda have already, sir,” said Paddy.
The old man smiled. “Ok. See you around.” The old man stood up, saluted Paddy, then shuffled off to the next Station of the Cross. He spoke without looking back, “You’re a good kid.”
Ten minutes later, Paddy was huddled in the confessional with a pissed-off Father Sullivan hurling alcohol-flavored fire and brimstone. Not only did he compare Paddy to lower primates with no control over their animal passions, but he also made it clear that masturbating young boys might not be welcome on the soccer team in the spring.
Paddy felt conflicted. He knew it would be a struggle to overcome his primate animal passions. He was also relieved, knowing that coughing up rotting blue intestines were not in his immediate future.
Armed with this new knowledge about the old man, Paddy couldn’t wait to share it with his friends on Monday.
“What the hell is mustard gas?” yelled Foulmouth Phil.
“My sister Mary Catherine probably knows about it,” responded Boastful Bud. “I’ll ask her about it tonight, but I betcha’ it’s that kind of mustard the Chinese put on their food.”
Paddy broke out laughing, remembering his worried thoughts the other day about what kind of punishment a Chinese priest might give.
“Whatcha’ laughin’ at, Callahan?” asked Phil.
“I was just thinking how painful Chinese mustard would be if you put it on your tallywhacker.”
All the boys found the thought hysterical (ironic, given they all thought only girls got hysterical).
“I read all about it from the Encyclopedia Britannica in the library,” continued Paddy. “It was a chemical weapon the Germans used in World War I. It caused terrible blisters in the body. A lot of soldiers died from breathing it in.
“But if it was mustard, gas, why isn’t the spit yellow instead of blue?” asked Saint Francis.
“I don’t know,” replied Paddy.
The recess bell rang from the school, and all the boys started back to class.
“Phil,” said Paddy. “Could you stay back for a minute?”
“I just want to ask you a question.”
Phil looked at Paddy with a combination of curiosity and disdain.
“OK. Spit it out.”
“Last week you said you didn’t believe the Baltimore Catechism when it says that masturbation is a mortal sin. Is that what you really think?”
The fear and anguish in Paddy’s face looked quite familiar to Phil. He’d seen it in his own face a couple of years back when he attended St. Joseph’s Elementary School.
“Callahan,” started Phil. “Paddy…there was a priest named Father Bowman who I used to go to Confession to in my parish. He told me the Baltimore Catechism got a lot of things wrong, including masturbation. He told me not to worry, that it was normal, but not to do it in public.”
“Father Bowman said ‘and remember that it’s also not a competition sport. They don’t give Gold Medals at the Olympics for it.’”
Both boys started to giggle.
“I’d train hard for the Olympics if it was,” said Paddy. Both boys fell to the ground laughing uncontrollably. Finally, Paddy had one last question.
“What did he say about confessing it?”
“He said I don’t have to.” Laughter formed in Phil’s eyes. “He said not to bring it up in Confession if it’s a priest other than him.”
“Does he still do Confession at St. Joe’s?”
“No. Father Bowman decided to leave the priesthood six months ago.” Phil’s voice dropped to a whisper. “They said he was getting married to one of the nuns here in your parish.”
“I wonder,” Paddy whispered back. “Sister Lawrence Marie left last year, and nobody would talk about it. She was really pretty and could throw a baseball better than anybody in the eighth grade.”
“I remember her,” replied Phil. “She was kinda hot.”
“Really?” Secretly, Paddy was relieved when she left because he was beginning to entertain about Sister Lawrence Marie that would have made Confession terrifying.
“But what if the priest asks you about it?”
“Easy,” replied Phil. “Lie. It’s only a venial sin.”
“Hey, you two,” yelled a voice from the school. “Recess is over. Go to your classes, or I’ll give you detentions.”
“Thank you, Phil,” said Paddy, putting his hand out for a handshake.
“You’re welcome.” Grabbing Paddy’s hand, Phil continued “and if you tell anybody about this, I will find the hottest Chinese mustard in the world and spread it on your tallywhacker.”
Both boys laughed as they rushed back to their classrooms.
In the weeks following, Paddy and the old man exchanged smiles and salutes from a distance. One Saturday morning, they bumped into each other at the front door of the church. Paddy had just finished serving as an altar boy for the morning Mass.
“Hello, boy,” said the old man. “How are you doing?”
“Fine, sir. How’s your cough?”
“About the same.”
Paddy paused briefly before blurting out, “I told my friends you were a soldier who got hurt.”
“Hmmm. What’d they say?”
“They all felt bad for you.” And kinda relieved, thought Paddy.
Smiling, the old man took out a package of cough drops. “Well, thank you for thinking of me.” Paddy watched him put a blue lozenge in his mouth.
“Time to go in and do the Stations of the Cross. Goodbye, boy.”
“Goodbye, sir.” Paddy turned away, then stopped.
“Sir,” he said. The man looked back to see the boy saluting.
“Your coughs don’t bother me anymore.”
The old man’s eyes seemed more watery than usual.
“Thanks, boy,” he said. He returned Paddy’s salute and continued into the church.
Paddy smiled and hustled down the stairs. He had to hurry. Soccer practice began in half an hour. Unless the priest asked him, he did not bring up the issue of Mass-turbation. And if the priest asked about it, he found out that lying was easy. After all, it was only a venial sin.