The year was 1953. The Korean war was finally over, Stalin was no more and Mt. Everest had been conquered.
The inaugural issues of the Corvette and Playboy were produced, Matisse was innovating with cut out paper and Picasso was creating ceramics in southern France.
It was a good time to be born and no question Seattle was a good town to be born in.
Awash with magnificent natural beauty, nestled between 2 mountain ranges, Seattle purrs like a cat that's just been stroked. The brief but beautiful summers give way to brisk and colorful autumns and this is the season that brought me forth.I was born the second of 5 sons to Robert and Dorothy. My first name, Victor, which I went by only briefly when I changed schools, came from Father Victor Hinderer, the Catholic priest who converted my father and married my parents. My middle name, Brom, has it's early origins in Abram, but is more closely associated in the Washington Irving story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow".
Brom Bones is the antagonist to Ichabod Crane for the affections of Katrina, the rich burgomaster's daughter. He disguises himself as the headless horseman to scare off his rival. Thus, my nickname has always been Brom Bones and since I've always been tall and slim it seems to fit.
My parents chose Seattle to live because it lies halfway between her family in Spokane, in eastern Washington and his family in Ketchikan, Alaska. Besides, it was boom times economically and an artist of my father's ability had no problem securing a position as illustrator at Boeing, the region's largest employer.
He was invited to join the Puget Sound Group of Northwest Painters, a nonprofit art group founded in 1928 by one of the most respected artists in the region, Eustace Zeigler. This group, still going strong, hosts exhibitions and sponsors scholarships and prizes in area schools and competitions.
As an active member in this illustrious art group he was able to attend sketch trips around the Puget Sound and join with other professional artists in capturing the majesty and unique beauty of the pacific northwest.
My earliest memories are from these outings and I remember not being so surprised that images would appear on paper and canvas indicating mountains, rivers, meadows and lush forests. With a few quick strokes I could immediately recognize a freighter lumbering out of the harbor, it's decks loaded with material bound for some distant shore.
With each new child our growing family would move to slightly larger quarters but it wasn't until 1959 that my parents could afford the down payment on a modest home situated at the top of Magnolia Hill on the West side of Seattle. In days gone by Magnolia was an island and is still connected to the rest of town by bridges. The marsh that marked the boundary was filled in and railroad tracks lain for the Great Northern Railroad whose cars slamming together in the freight yards would echo all the way to our home 8 blocks away.
St. Margarets Elementary School
Although baptized at St. Alphonsus in nearby Ballard, my brothers and I would attend St. Margaret's School on Queen Anne Hill, just over a mile away. We wore the standard parochial uniform of salt and pepper corduroy pants, white shirt and navy blue cotton sweater. Those wealthier students could wear wool sweaters and this became my introduction to a distinction of classes.
Sister Mary Anne, my first grade teacher, seemed gentle enough in manner but her appearance was most unsettling. Over 200 pounds with her floor length black habit and starched white collar and wimple, she seemed to glide rather than walk. Her heavy silver crucifix hung from her neck and her ample waist was circled by a band of dark beads. She had in her hand a yardstick, held with the authority of a scepter, that she would strike into the palm of her other hand or lay across the desk of an unruly student to emphasize a point or issue a warning.
I had observed these Sisters of St. Joseph at Mass on Sundays together in the front pews, reciting their Latin prayers in unison and performing their choreographed devotions. Many mysteries were evoked by these pseudo saints and they seemed to do everything in their considerable power to encourage bewilderment. So much so that when Sister Anne would be writing a lesson on the blackboard with her back to the class and announced that she had eyes in the back of her head in order to watch everyone it was believed by all to be the absolute truth.
One incident stands out in my recollection of this time. Each classroom at St. Maggie's had a crucifix above the blackboard in front of the room. Many were simple crosses with no figure of the Redeemer upon it. This one however was larger than most and had a hand painted plaster image of Christ in solemn suffering. It was a disturbing image and I tried to reconcile the Love of Christ and the hatred visited upon him.
It was recess and Sister Anne and most of the other students were out on the playground. I stayed behind with a few others collecting our play materials. We had been expressly directed to never play with balls in the classroom but in my exuberance I had disregarded this command and was bouncing the bright red, over inflated kick ball in the room.
One forceful bounce got away from me and struck the crucifix which came crashing to the floor shattering into a thousand pieces. Sheer horror gripped me as I raced to the playground behind 2 girls who were to report what happened although they were unsure who had done the deed. I tried to cover my actions with feeble lies but the truth won out and punishment was swift.
The cloakroom in each class was the repository for coats, books and lunches but on this occasion also served as execution chamber. Sister Anne escorted me into the darkened confines and ordered me to bend over. Then, while the class listened with suspended breath, the first strokes of the royal yardstick were laid across my guilty rear end.
Mr. Auve, an odd fellow who gave me the creeps was the school's janitor. He came in and swept up the blood red shards scattered across the front of the room. And Victor, a fellow student, volunteered his small plastic crucifix that he had earned for selling the most Christmas Seal stamps as a suitable replacement.
2 priests provided the ultimate authority at our parish. Father Ogrodowski, a young, well meaning man, showed great conviction to his calling and was respected by all as the embodiment of Christ's example of the Good Shepherd.
Father Corboy on the other hand, was the exact antithesis. A stern, old, Irish Catholic disciplinarian, he evoked so much fear that he was avoided whenever possible. His masses were never as well attended as Father Ogroidowski's and the lines to his confessional were always much shorter. Father Corboy was the senior priest however and his rule was law.
One roitual I will never understand.He would come to each class and read off the grades of each student's report card in front of the class. He would assume the teacher's desk and each victim would rise as he upbraided their low marks and praised them if their contributions to the collection plate were adequate enough. Since my last name begins with W, I was always one of the last to endure this humiliation and the anxiety would build in me until I was nearly overcome with dread.
After school, those of us living on Magnolia would be escorted across the bridge over the tracks to the base of one of the steepest climbs in Seattle by patrol boys, in their white strap uniforms and carrying bright orange flags. I always lingered towards the back of the line and would look down on the railyard activity below. A group of hoboes was always huddled around a campfire, so blackened with dirt that they seemed to meld with their surroundings.
Their language was nearly as arcane as the latin I was learning and their movements were the essence of brevity, usually limited to the reluctant passing of a bottle or intimate gestures while in dialogue. I studied these men thoughtfully from my secure perch above, wondering where they had come from, where were they going and how they came to take up this marginal existence.
On occasion one would look up, discover me peering at them and wave or gesture for me to join them. Naturally, I would flush with embarrassment and run to catch up with my mates but my curiosity was aroused. Doubly so when I would see them rise from their musings and cardboard in hand retreat into the recesses of some open boxcar which would mysteriously begin rolling with a jerk and slowly retreat into the distance.
I had decided I wanted to become a priest. I believed that they were closer to God and received special holy instructions that were forbidden to the laity. I began by receiving training to become an altar boy. The latin was an extreme challenge to learn, especially the long prayer the Confiteor. Our various motions resembled close order drill. After many practice sessions with a seasoned veteran, my first Mass was scheduled. The rookies served the least desirable Mass, 6:30 A.M.. Normally, the Wikstrom clan would attend the 11:00 Mass, occupying the first or second pew on the right side of the church, the boy's side.
On this auspicious occasion, we all got up extra early so that I would be properly prepared. Father Corboy was to serve the Mass and my mounting fear was making me ill. I was the first to enter the sacristy from a special side door. The altar boy's cassocks and surplices hung on a rack to one side while the priest's dressing area was opposite.
The holiest area to me was where the incense and charcoal was kept. Nearby, was a gas burner, blackened by many years of use which contrasted sharply with the glittering censor that would be ignited during benediction. The mingled smells of incense, gas and charcoal was enough to transport one out of the physical realm towards the utterly spiritual.
As this inner sanctum was only for the ordained, decorations were sparse. The most impressive being a huge, gold trimmed banner displaying the resurrected Christ. It was suspended on a long, wooden pole and would be shown in the sanctuary on special holy days.
I trembled in the darkness, not knowing where the light switch was, and could not take my eyes off the banner. Traces of morning light began to filter through the yellowed window panes as Christ's delicate compassion returned my gaze, His hands presenting His flaming, Sacred Heart.
I was interrupted from my transfixation by the abrupt opening and closing of the sacristy door and the scraping footsteps of Father Corboy ascending the stairs. He appeared somewhat alarmed to see me as he switched on the light and I was unable to say a word beyond "Good morning Father".
Disregarding me, he went about his functions, kissing each item as he donned his vestments. Again, the side door opened and closed and my partner came running up the steps. "Get dressed immediately" he nearly shouted as I realized that Mass was to begin in 5 minutes. I still had to light the candles and make sure the water and wine cruets were filled and in place. It was at this point that I made a fatal error, I put the heavy cassock and the blousy surplice on over my shirt and sweater.
At first, there wasn't much of a problem, but when I entered the illuminated altar to light the candles the lights started heating me up right away. My telescoping pole could barely reach the highest candles but the first 3 lit right away. My family smiled reassuringly as I carefully genuflected in front of the tabernacle before lighting the 3 candles on the other side. Whoever had snuffed out the candles previously had smashed the wick into the melted top and I couldn't get the thing to catch fire.
I was really getting hot now, beads of sweat lining my brow. Finally, the other altar boy appeared with his own light and we got it sparked. We were late in beginning so I didn't have time to redress. Father Corboy gave me a scowl as I hurried into position and we were ready to start the service. With majestic dignity, we preceded him into the sanctuary and everyone rose to their feet.
This being the early Mass, there was no choir. The organist made up for this by playing with extra vigor. With the notes ringing in the back of my head, I assumed my place and tried to mimic the actions of my partner. The Congregation had the luxury of sitting occasionally but we were obliged to kneel or stand for the first half of Mass. We then got a break during the sermon when we sat on richly carved chairs flanking the Father's opulent throne. During the long sermon I was able to catch my breath but I continued to cook under all my clothes. I still had to recite the Confiteor and Communion lay ahead also.
At one point I had to transfer the unabridged Bible from one side of the altar to the other so that Father could read the incantation during the consecration of the Host.
It rested on an ornate podium that unknown to me was collapsible. Instead of reaching under the whole thing, I reached under the Book and it unfolded onto my knees. With concerted effort I made my way to the other side, only managing a slight bow as I crossed the tabernacle this time.
My partner was off to the side, preparing the water and wine for consecration and couldn't witness my dilemma. I lifted one knee to raise the base to where I might reach it but my cassock kept getting caught on my heels.
The Bible began to slip off and I nearly dumped the whole thing. Finally, I decided all I could do was kneel with it and reposition my hands.
My partner hurried over and helped me hoist it upon the altar properly. I was nearly faint as I descended the steps and knelt on the bottom step to await Father and the other boy in recitation of the Confeteor. Father looked rather hot under his collar too and came to his place between us. He began the prayer "Confiteor Deo omnipotenti, beatae Mariae semper Virgini, beato Michaeli Archangelo... We both joined in along with those few parishioners who knew latin and the nuns. About half way through this long prayer Father Corboy started speeding up and I couldn't stay with him. I lowered my voice and began mumbling in a latin dialect until I was virtually speaking in tongues.
The heat, the stress, the height of spiritual uplift was all carrying me well beyond my limits and I thought I was going to pass out.
The senior altar boy would assist the priest with Communion, holding the gold plated paten under the chin of the communicant in case the Host fell from the outstretched tongue or crumbled in any way. Parishioners began lining along the railing to receive the Body of Christ. At first I knelt in my space by the altar and even sat back on my heels a bit. The dizziness was getting worse and I finally rose as quietly as I could and retreated back into the sacristy.
I sat myself in the Father's large chair and put my head between my legs. Deep breaths quieted the ringing in my head and relieved my nausea. Slowly, I looked up and rested my eyes on the Banner. A serene peace filled my soul and a Loving Presence restored me to calm.
Through a small peephole, I could see that Communion was nearly over, so I gathered myself and rejoined the congregation. After the last person had received, the other altar boy and I came to the center and took in the host. Kneeling there, as Father put the chalice and other instruments back into the tabernacle, I turned inward and meditated on Christ within me, dissolving against the roof of my mouth.
We spoke our final prayers and reentered the sacristy on the other side. The most complete feeling of relief overcame me and I hurried out of my vestments and rejoined my family, happy to return to normal.
I served many masses after that one but with that went any further desire to become a priest.