I’ve always wanted to write my story for my children and for their children’s sake and for anyone else who’d care to know. I’ve told it to those who asked or were willing to listen if they had the time it takes to do so, but I’ve never put it down, on paper, to be stored, and perhaps read years afterwards by my family yet to be. Or by anyone else who would care to read it. It’s a story I often return to when my faith gets shaky. In some respects it’s a painful story. There are parts of it that I do not like to recall. But it is my story, and without every part, even the painful ones, I would not be the person I am today. All things work together for good, the Bible tells us, and I firmly believe that. I firmly believe too that God had a plan for my life that would refine from an ugly mess something useful for His purposes.
I was the oldest of ten children. Dad was an alcoholic and physically violent, especially towards mom who was powerless and perhaps, in retrospect, even enabling. We were poor, though not destitute. We rented a tiny home from dad’s parents. Because of dad’s technical training in electronics, he was usually able to find work, though keeping a job was not easy because of his often irrational behavior, quirky personality and alcohol abuse. We depended on surplus government food to keep us all fed.
One thing that I did respect about dad was his strong convictions about quality education, something he said he was intentionally denied by his own parents, and so as a pre-adolescent, I spent most of my free time absorbed in reading the astronomy books dad regularly purchased. I fed my curiosity on the World Book Encyclopedia which I read through from cover to cover.
The former saved me from being known simply as the son of the town drunk. “Too bad about his father,” people would say, “but that boy sure knows his astronomy. Yes sir, fine boy that Joseph.” The latter took me to places and people beyond the meager 75 square miles of my existence in parochial NE PA. It was probably this reading, not my self-discipline which helped me get through St. Mary’s elementary school with grades that qualified me for a local Jesuit Preparatory High School.
I detested that school. The headmaster-priest was a man with the compassion of Ghenhis Kahn. His hatchet-man was another priest known as “Chopper” but who wore the official label of “Prefect of Discipline.” They, along with dad, represented all the theology I had of God. At Prep, I felt as out-of-place as a zircon at Tiffany’s. Surely all of the stereotype preppie jokes must have originated because of this place. At the time it was an all-boy’s school, which was probably a blessing because girls would no doubt have noticed me wearing the same old tired clothing far quicker than the guys.
I failed miserably there. Literally. Every quarter showed failed courses, all except science. I was a whiz at science. The counselors at the school never thought to ask about my home life. It was unrelated to academics. No one seemed to care. However I was informed that my low grades would ruin the school’s chances at statewide academics recognition. Dad’s solution to the problem was to just beat me up some more. Or beat up mom some more for trying to protect me.
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