Like many who grew up Catholic in the '60s I was convinced I was going to hell. That was the bad news. The good news was that all my friends would be there. A lot of my friends were altar boys and I was too. These days it is very popular to make fun of altar boys but in the old days of the Latin Mass you had to have your act together to be an altar boy.
Those unfamiliar with the Catholic faith probably don't know what a big job that was. After you learned Latin you were in charge of the water, wine, bread, candles, incense, bells, and a medieval wardrobe and in some cases crowd control in everything from baptisms to funerals.
Meanwhile there was no slouching, fidgeting or worse, sleeping, allowed. Well maybe that wasn't the worst thing you could do as an altar boy. The worst thing would be dropping the bread which represents the body of Christ. Go dropping Jesus during communion and you'd find yourself serving 6 am Mass with the new guys for the rest of your altar-boy career. Screw-ups who couldn't light the candles, fire up the incense or pour water were never going to fast-track their way up to the big time, the Holiday High Masses. That's where you made the big bucks. You could make up to five dollars for a midnight Mass. Then there was that other special perk that few realized. Being an altar boy meant you could skip a lot of school on religious grounds. People died all the time so there were funerals during the week. We called it “the graveyard shift”. I would have skipped school to go frog hunting at the time if I could get away with it, but serving Mass at funerals was the only alibi that would pass the parental guidance committee. It didn't take long for the money and the free pass out of class to go right to our heads. We thought we were better than everyone. We could look down our nose at the drunks who only came to church once a year at midnight on Christmas Eve or Easter, while we went almost every day. Never mind we were sneaking the sacramental wine, what the heck. We smoked and chewed so pounding a little vino first thing in the morning was no big deal.
Still, being an altar boy was not without its special challenges and humbling episodes that confirmed our worst suspicions, that we were as rotten as anyone.
People talk about seven deadly sins but they never mention the one that might have been worse than all the others put together to an altar boy: flatulence. You had only one chance to get away with it. You wanted to be ringing the bells during the attack and maybe move along and light off a big lump of incense real quick before the guilty party could be identified. I often think of this when people refer to Catholic Mass as, “bells and smells”
Eventually I started going to a bigger church. It contained one of the Earths greatest treasures, silence. This church was so big it had mountains, giant trees and a river running through it. I took my priest friend out to my church on the Queets River and confessed I was a poor excuse for an altar boy. He caught a nice silver and all my sins were forgiven.