Some of life’s lessons are not learned in a timely fashion. This does not mean, however, that the recipient – or shall we say, the beneficiary – at some point in later life doesn’t think back and smile to himself at the thought of them.
The year was 1960 and life was good on the West Side of Buffalo. In the shadow of City Hall, the church of St. Anthony of Padua and the adjoining streets of Upper and Lower Terrace were places familiar to all. Some of us attended parochial school there. Like most sixth-graders, my friend Sam and I walked to school each day. But unlike some other students, we, because of the distance from our homes, were allowed to bring our lunches to school and left to our own devices during this time.
One day after finishing our lunches, Sam and I began to play in the hallway. I distinctly remember picking up one of the fire extinguishers hanging on the wall and playfully aiming the hose at Sam. He tried to wrestle the extinguisher from me and during the struggle, we tipped it past its horizontal plane. The second that the water and chemicals inside were mixed, out came the contents in full – and in a very powerful way.
At the point of “ignition,” Sam let go and I was left trying to hopelessly stop the contents from spewing on the walls, ceiling and floor. After what seemed to be an eternity, all was quiet. We quickly replaced the extinguisher and ran back to our homeroom where Sam and I let our imagination get the better of us, envisioning the real possibility of expulsion and/or excommunication that would bring eternal shame on both families.
After lunch, when the good Sisters of Mercy returned and beheld the mess that was made, the school went into what we would now call “lockdown.” The janitorial staff was apprised of the situation and the cleaning began.
The principal, Sister Mary Carmelita, called a huddle of all the sisters to try to find the culprits.
Our homeroom teacher, Sister Miriam Joseph, repeatedly implored the class that it was imperative that those responsible for the deed come forward and then left the room so that everyone could think about it. The same scene was repeated in each room.
During her absence Sam and I agreed that the next time the question was asked, we would simultaneously stand, admit to our crime and take our punishment like good Catholic youth. Sister soon re-entered the room and again posed the question. I looked over to Sam and while we both made the move to stand, he did a feint and as a result I stood alone. After trading a few glances he broke into the faintest of smiles and I was left to think about the punishment that was surely to come.
It took some time for the shock to leave Sister’s face. I was then escorted to the principal’s office where I was made to take ownership of the crime and was then sent back to my room. What happened next I still consider to be extraordinary. Sisters Carmelita and Miriam walked me to every room in the school, where I repeated the admission of the deed, after which the sisters lavishly praised me in front of each class for having the courage to come forth with the truth. And much to Sam’s displeasure, after school I was taken to the convent and treated to a large bowl of ice cream. Some of life’s lessons are never forgotten.
In memory of Salvatore “Sam” Cammarata, who was killed in Vietnam in 1967, two days after his 20th birthday.