surrounded by a circle of six early pubescent girls dressed as though they were a wedding party and one pint-sized red haired photographer clutching his Argus C-3 and flash attachment.
The ceremony had begun with a "living rosary" in the gravel coated school yard next to the church. The student body was arranged in the form of a rosary, six children in each bead. At the head of the cross stood the May crowning party, Rosie in a white bridal dress, her four attendants in baby blue, and two of the tiniest first communion tots in their veils carrying Rosie's train.
The recitation of' the rosary moved from bead to bead, the kids in the bead saying the first part of the Pater or the Ave and the rest of the school responding, accompanied with not too much enthusiasm by parents who had come to the ceremony with about as much cheerfulness as that which marked their attendance at school music recitals.
I lurked on the fringes of the "living rosary" automatically reciting the prayers and capturing with my camera the most comic expressions I could find. It wasn't hard to discover funny faces, especially when a warning breeze stirred the humid air and the bright sky turned dull grey.
The voices of seventh and eighth grade hinted at the possibility of adolescent bass. The younger kids chanted in a sing song which might have been just right in a Tibetan monastery. The little kids piped like tiny squeaking birds.
The spectacle was silly, phoney, artificial and, oddly, at the same time devout, impressive and memorable.
As we moved from the "Fourth Glorious Mystery, The Assumption of Mary into Heaven" to the verses of the Lourdes Hymn which would introduce the "Fifth Glorious Mystery, the Crowning of Mary as Queen of Heaven," the first faint drops of rain fell on the crowded school yard. The voices of mothers gasped in protest.
It was decision time. John Raven drifted over to the War Admiral, nodded towards the sky, and then towards the church. Fingers caressing her hand bell, she shook her head firmly. We would finish the rosary. God would not permit it to rain.
Father Raven raised an eyebrow at Mugsy, resplendent in the full choir robes of a Domestic Prelate.
"Looks as pretty," my father had remarked of the robes, "as doctoral robes from Harvard."
Mugsy peered at the sky through his thick glasses, as if he really couldn't see that far, and nodded.
John Raven shrugged: you're the pastor, pastor.
Mugsy stepped to the primitive public address microphone and said," I think God wants us to go inside."
Obediently the altar boys in white cassock and red capes — cross bearer and two acolytes with candles long since extinguished by the stiffening wind — began to process towards the church. The girls in the crowning party fell in behind.
The War Admiral's bell rang out in protest. Several other bells responded. A couple of nuns rushed forward and pushed the kids in the first decade of the rosary into line behind the altar boys: the rosary would unlink itself into a straight processional line with the crowning party at the very end, like it was supposed to be, instead of at the beginning.
In which position it was most likely to be drenched since the rain clouds were closing in on us.
I snapped a wonderful shot of the War Admiral twisting a little girl's shoulder back in line and another of her shoving Peg to a dead halt as my sister challenged the ringing of the bells and began to cut in front of the procession and dodged the rain drops which were even now falling rapidly.
Irresistible force met immovable object.
The conundrum was resolved by the push of parents. Not bound by the wishes of Mother Superior they rushed for the church door — despite the outraged cries of the hand bells.
Peg simply ducked around the War Admiral, snatched up into her arms one of the first communion tots and, followed by Rosie who had seized the other tot, raced for the church door in the midst of a crowd of parents.
I still have the prints on my desk as I write this story. Peg was not to be stopped.
God may not have been sufficiently afraid of the War Admiral to hold off the rain. But He (or She if you wish) was enough enchanted by Peg to stay the shower until the crowning party had pushed its way into the shelter of the church.
Peg reassembled her crew in the vestibule at the foot of the steps leading to the basement church, waited tilt everyone was inside and then led the crowning party solemnly down the aisle towards the altar.
The nuns were too busy pushing and shoving kids and glaring at parents in a doomed effort to restore the "ranks" to cope with a determined young woman who knew exactly what she intended to do.
Peg would have made a good Mother Superior in her own right.
Doubtless given a signal by John Raven, the organ struck up a chintzy version of Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance, an exaggeration if there ever were one for this scene.
Only about half the school kids were soaking wet when they finally struggled into their pews. The War Admiral's determined efforts to restore order had deprived the kids of the "sense to come in out of the rain!"
If Sister says you stay out in the rain, then you stay out in the rain.
The nuns all had miraculously produced umbrellas from the folds of their black robes and had stayed dry if not cool.
When the Admiral and her aids could turn their attention to the crowning party, Peg had herded them safely to the front of the church, where they waited patiently under the protection of Monsignor Branigan and Father Raven — and naturally in the presence of your and my favourite red head photo journalist.
I still laugh at the pictures of the nuns turning misfortune into calamity.
Monsignor nodded to the younger priest, who strolled over the the lectern which served
as a pulpit and began, "to make up for the rain, we will have a very short sermon. My text seems appropriate for the circumstances — 'Man proposes, God disposes,' — I almost said 'Sister proposes, God disposes"
Laughter broke the tension in the congregation and drowned out the clanging hand bells. We were no longer wet and angry we were wet and giddy.
I could imagine Mom and Dad arguing whether Father Raven had gone "too far". Mom would giggle and lose the argument.
The air was thick with spring humidity, girlish perfume, and the scent of mums, always favoured by the War Admiral because, as I had argued, they reminded her of funeral homes.
The crowning party fidgeted through the five minute and thirty second sermon. Eighth grade girls were too young for such finery, some of them not physically mature enough to wear it and all of them not emotionally mature enough.
Peg, however, looked like a youthful queen empress, albeit a self-satisfied one.
She was shaking nervously and deadly pale.
And, yes, I'll have to admit it, gorgeous.
She kept glancing anxiously at me, as if I were supposed to provide reassurance.
I ignored her, naturally. Well, I did smile at her once. I might even have winked, because she grinned quickly and seemed to calm down.
The santuary of the "basement church" was in fact a stage. The statue of Mary had been moved for the event to the front of the stage on the left (or "epistle") side. A dubious step ladder, draped in white, leaned against the pedestal. Of all those in church only the statue was not sweating.
After the sermon it was time for the congregation to belt out, "Bring flowers of the rarest" — "from garden and woodland and hillside and dale" as I remember the lyrics. Rosie bounded up the shaky white ladder, still the rushing timber wolf. The ladder, next to my shoulder, trembled.
Anyone who attended such spring rituals in those days will remember that the congregation was required to sing two times, "Oh Mary we crown thee with blossoms today, queen of the angels, queen of the May!" During the second refrain, much louder than the first (which itself was pretty loud) the ring of flowers was placed on the head of the statue.
Ihad been charged to take "a truly good picture, darling. For her parents, who won't be able to come". Given the state of flash bulb technology in those days, that meant I had one and one chance only.
Just as Rosie raised the circle of blossoms, I saw an absolutely perfect shot frozen in my viewfinder. I pushed the shutter button, the bulb exploded, the ladder swayed, and Rosemarie Helen Clancy fell off it.
I found myself dazed and sore, on the santuary floor, buried in a swirl of bridal lace and disordered feminine limbs.
"Are you all right?" she demanded. "Did I hurt you?"
"I'm dead, you clumsy goof."
"It's all your fault," Peg snarled pulling Rosie off me. "You exploded that flash thing deliberately."
I struggled to my feet to be greeted by an explosion of laughter.
What's so funny, I wondered as every hand bell in every nunnish hand in the church clanged in dismay.
Then I felt the flowers on my head. Rosie had crowned not the Blessed Mother, but me.
Even the frightened little train bearers were snickering.
I knew I had better rise to the occasion or I was dead in the neighbourhood and at Fenwick High School.
Forever and ever.
So I bowed deeply to the giggling Rosie, and with a single motion, swept the flowers off my wire-brush hair and into her hand. She bowed back.
She may have winked too, for which God forgive her, These days Catholic congregations applaud in church on almost any occasion, even for that rare event, the good sermon. In those days applause in the sacred confines was unthinkable.
Nonetheless, led by Monsignor Branigan and Father Raven, the whole church applauded.
Except for the nuns who were pounding frantically on their hand bells.
Rosie looped the somewhat battered crown around her fingers and joined the applause.
Then someone, my mother I'm sure, began, "Oh Mary we crown thee with blossoms today
Rosie darted up the ladder just in time to put the crown where it belonged. As she turned to descent, the ladder tottered again. I steadied it with my left hand and helped her down with my right.
She blushed and smiled at me. She owned the whole world. There was, God help me and the bell-pounding nuns, more applause.
Rosie raised her right hand shyly, acknowledging the acclaim.
The monsignor stepped to the lecturn.
"I think we'd better quit when we're ahead."
More laughter. Oh Lord, we were giddy.
"Father Raven, who has better eyes than I do," he continued, "tells me that the rain has stopped so we'll skip Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and end the service now, with special congratulations to the May crowner and her, uh, agile court. First we'll let you parents out of church, then our bright young altar boys will lead the school children out, then, Chucky, you can lead out the wedding, uh crowning, party. It won't be necessary for the children to go to their classrooms. We want to get everyone home before the rains start again."
It was a total rout or the War Admiral. To dismiss the kids from church without requiring that they return to their classrooms was to undo the work of Creation and unleash for forces of Chaos and Disorder. Indeed to invite the gates of hell to triumph against the Church.
The clanging hand bells displayed a remarkable lack of spirit.
Afterwards, back in our apartment, the sun shining brightly again, Mom insisted that I was hero of the day. Peg did a complete turn around, a tactic at which she excelled, and told everyone that "Rosie would have been badly hurt if Chucky hadn't caught her," a generous description of my role. Dad, returned from Washington in time for the show, affirmed that at last St Ursula's had a real pastor.
"Joe Meany is now in his grave permanently."
"And War Admiral has been put out to stud."
I was old enough to know vaguely what that meant.
My prediction was accurate. The following year, Sister Angela Marie, even older it was said than the War Admiral, appeared at our parish and governed with happy laughter instead of a hand bell.
And what was the instant I captured on my plus x film? That night, when the apartment had settled down, I crept off to my make-shift dark room in the basement of our building. After developing the film and exposing the paper, I watched the magic instant come up in the print solution.
What I saw scared me: two shrewd young women, one of them recognizable as a marble statue only if you looked closely, making a deal, like a buyer and seller at the Maxwell Street flea market. Rosie was about to offer the crown in return for . . .
Well, it wasn't clear what she expected from the deal. But she expected something. No she was confident she would get it.
I hung the picture to dry, thought about claiming that the film had been ruined, and then reluctantly decided that I wouldn't get away with it.
"You could call the picture," Mom would say, "the way Time magazine does, Rosemarie and friend."
None of them would see the deal being consummated in the photo. They would say that it was all in my imagination.