The rock I throw misses the boy’s head and hits the wooden fence behind him with such force that all the tenement mothers thrust their bobby-pinned heads out of their windows. Tenement mothers instinctively know the sound of one child trying to murder another with a rock. I don’t even know who he is. I am seven. I know this because my mother has sent me into the backyard to check on my infant sister who is sleeping in her carriage. I’m seven years older than she so…
I am seven and it is a sunny day in 1957 and I am walking into our tenement’s backyard when I spot a strange little boy sitting next to my sister’s carriage. I can’t tell if he is talking to her or reading to her. But, I know he isn’t harming her. I know it. But, a twisted, heroic, righteous rage rises in me. No Red Devil whispers in my ear. This is all my doing. This is me. Evil Me. This is the first time the Red Mist engulfs me. I know the story of David and Goliath so I know all about smiting someone with a stone. I decide that I will be a tough guy like David or, even better, the local gang leader, Tony Unbatz. Man, will he and his gang be proud of me? They’ll throw me into the air and buy me a frozen Coke. These are my thoughts as I pick up the largest rock I can throw and hurl it at the boy. Rock in the eye – I blind him. Rock in the temple – I kill him. No Guardian Angel stays my hand. But, maybe his Angel is watching because the rock misses his head. Just. He looks at me with shocked, innocent eyes and runs away.
Many nights, as my not-so-innocent eyes close, I see that boy. I hear the rock. I sit up. I shudder. What if? I am too ashamed and ascared to raise this sin at my First Confession or my last or any in between. But, I do seek forgiveness from that boy. I hope he has enjoyed the life that could so easily have been ruined by me. I hope that, like me, he survived Vietnam and AIDS and 9/11. I hope he accepts my apology.
I’ve mentioned Guardian Angels several times so, for you latecomers, I better explain who they are. I have to remind myself that not every boy had hanging over his bed a painting of a Guardian Angel escorting a little boy through a dark wood while the horned, hoofed Devil lurked behind a tree. Not every boy prayed at bedtime –
Angel of God, my guardian dear, To whom God’s love commits me here,
Ever this day be at my side, To light and guard, to rule and guide.
Here’s the straight skinny, straight out of the catechism: Catholics believe that we are all assigned a Guardian Angel at birth. These invisible, winged creatures are not dimple-buttocked cherubs but flaming-sword waving bruisers who have our backs from “Womb to Tomb.” It’s their mission to keep us out of trouble and out of live sexxx shows. But, they don’t always do a good job. I don’t know if mine was sitting next to me watching Babysitters In Bondage with his head in his hands or if he waited outside smoking a cigarette. But, supposedly, where I go, he goes.
Some Catholics find having an angelic shadow comforting. It makes my flesh crawl. Always has. And, what perplexes me no end is why these heavenly bodyguards let so many kids get hit by cars and fall off fire escapes. Why didn’t Carrie’s Guardian Angel tell her not to go into that vestibule? And, if my murdered friend Carrie wasn’t a Catholic maybe her murderer was and why didn’t his Guardian Angel warn her? You expect me to believe that Carrie didn’t pass a single Guardian Angel the night she was slaughtered?
I am standing in a long line of young men, all in our underwear, all shivering and all ascared to be in a long hallway waiting for our physicals, waiting for our fates.
So, this is the Army, I muse.
Shivering before I die, I muse.
Nixon can shove it up Kissinger’s ass, I muse.
Then, I hear a voice. Faint. It comes from mid-air just above and to the left of my head. The voice says, “Walk out.” The voice repeats, “Walk out.” Like a good soldier, I obey orders. I get dressed. I walk out. No one says, “Hey, you.” No sentry shouts, “Stop or I’ll shoot.” I go home. I wait for another letter pushed under my door. I wait for the knock of the MPs. Nothing. Then, a week later, the Lottery brings deliverance in the form of a life-saving high number. And, just like that, it’s over. Over. I have slipped through the cracks. I have avoided Vietnam – avoided the Draft, dismemberment, death. I feel joy, of course, but it’s tempered by survivor’s guilt – I know young men who have lost the Lottery. Most of all I give thanks to that Voice. How? What? Why? Who was that Voice? Was it the voice of my Guardian Angel? I didn’t believe I had a Guardian Angel but I’d been hedging my Catholic bets and sorta-kinda hoping he was there.