Editor's note: This is an excerpt--and a true story--from my forthcoming book, "Disturbers' Row," about how a friend and I almost nailed a kid to a cross in fourth grade. The book is about growing up in a working-class neighborhood in the city of Chicago in the 1960s, and about the crazy and abusive nuns in our Catholic school.
One of their greatest adventures also occurred in fourth grade and was inspired by the Catholic Church and the nuns.
One Friday, while Jim and Dennis were walking home for lunch, Daniel Bernas, a kid who lived two doors down from Dennis, and whose dad raised pigeons in a space underneath his home’s covered back porch, wanted to walk with them. The two agreed at once that they didn’t want to walk with Daniel, who merely wanted someone to walk with and talk to. They told the kid to get lost and that he couldn’t walk with them. When Daniel persisted, they crossed the street to the other side of Altgeld. Daniel followed, which annoyed them.
To show their annoyance, Dennis and Jim crossed back to the other side of the street. Daniel followed, at which point the two boys ran to get away from the kid who wanted their company and friendship. They parted at the alley between Springfield and Harding with the words that Daniel would need to be punished for trying to be their friend.
On the walk back home after school in the afternoon, Daniel again tried to walk with the two boys. They grew even more annoyed and determined to make him pay for wanting their company. They discussed and agreed on the proper punishment, and at the alley parted with the words, “See you back here in fifteen minutes.”
After changing into their play clothes, which were old, worn-out school clothes, or hand-me-downs from their older brothers that didn’t fit well, Jim and Dennis met at the alley and started on their plan of terrible retribution. They went to Dennis’ basement, which was loaded with his dad’s tools and building materials—hammers, nails, wrenches, vices, pipe cutters, screws, screwdrivers, pliers, levels, straightedges, saws, hand and electric drills, rose clippers, hedge shears, rope, string, wire, electrical tape, light bulbs, rakes, shovels, oil, grease and pretty much everything a man needed to take care of his home. They took a hammer, saw, garden spade and a pocket full of nails and began roaming the alleys for what they needed most: lumber.
There were plenty of discarded two-by-fours and other wood by the fifty-five-gallon metal garbage cans that stood guard to peoples’ back yards by the alleys. The men in the working-class neighborhood were tireless workers who did their own home repairs and remodeling. Dennis’s dad, George, had transformed their wooden, two-flat frame house that had been built in 1886 into something that resembled a modern 1950s home.
Within thirty minutes, Dennis and Jim had all the wood they needed, and they dragged the pieces to the front lawn of the apartment building at Altgeld and the alley, where they set to designing, sawing and hammering. In another half hour they had completed their masterpiece: a cross.
The two kids, in the finest Catholic tradition, were going to nail Daniel Bernas to a cross. The plan had been hatched on the walk home from school that afternoon when Daniel had again tried to walk and talk with them.
“I can’t stand this kid,” Jim said.
“Neither can I,” Dennis added.
“We gotta do something to him.”
“I know, but what?”
The words came without hesitation out of both of their mouths at once:
That seemed like a perfectly logical solution to the boys. They were in their fifth year at OLG, and every school day of those five years they had sat at their desks and gazed upon large crucifixes affixed to the walls above the nuns’ and lay teachers’ desks. It was the same when they went to mass on Sundays, except more so. In church they were confronted by huge crosses everywhere with Jesus nailed to them. Their religion books and their Sunday missals, with the Stations of the Cross, always showed Romans nailing Jesus to a cross. Jesus was always in excruciating pain and agony on those crosses, and to many OLG kids, based on what the nuns had taught them and how they had acted, there were only a few ways to punish people: by beating them with wooden pointers and rungs of chairs for minor offenses, and for major transgressions, crucifying them.
As Dennis and Jim saw it, Daniel’s desire to befriend them was a major crime, and if Jesus could be nailed to a cross, so could Daniel Bernas.
The boys stood their cross up and leaned it against the thick trunk of a cottonwood tree and admired their work. It was about five feet tall and sturdy enough to hold a kid. And like the crosses in church and school, it had a wooden foot pad to which they could nail Daniel’s feet.
“Okay, we gotta dig a hole so we can stand this thing up in,” Jim said. “And it’s gotta be deep.”
While Dennis was digging, he realized that they were missing something that was crucial to Daniel’s punishment.
“We don’t have a crown of thorns,” he said.
“Shit. Where we gonna get one of those?” Jim asked while realizing the seriousness of their omission. “We gotta have a crown of thorns. It’s required.”
“I know. There’s a rose bush in my yard,” Dennis said with the enthusiasm of someone who has just solved a terrible problem. “The branches got thorns. We’ll cut some of the branches and make them into a crown.”
That too seemed logical, and the boys rushed to Dennis’s basement four doors away, found his dad’s rose clippers and set about destroying a perfectly trimmed rose bush.
Back at their cross, they tried to twist and braid the rose stems into a crown, but it wasn’t working. The thorns repeatedly pierced their bare hands and they quickly gave up on the project.
Dejected, they sat down on the curb and talked about the setback.
“How we gonna crucify him without a crown of thorns?” Jim asked.
Dennis was glum and didn’t answer. But after a moment or two he jumped to his feet and proclaimed:
“We’ll just tie some nails to a string and pound the nails into his head!”
They made another trip to Dennis’s basement for string and more nails and soon had their strange, but acceptable, crown of thorns.
Their next step was to go to Daniel’s house two doors away, call him out to play, lure him to the cross and nail him to it. Dennis was a little hesitant.
“Maybe we should just tie him to the thing instead of nailing him to it. Ain’t the nails gonna hurt him?” he asked his partner.
“Naah. Don’t you remember this stuff? The nuns said that the Romans didn’t break any bones in Jesus’ hands with the nails. From the pictures, it looks like they used pretty fat nails. Ours ain’t half that fat. We won’t break any bones in his hands.”
“How about his feet?”
“I don’t know. We can just tie his feet.”
Cheered by the news that nailing Daniel to a cross wouldn’t break the bones in his hands, Dennis led the race to Daniel’s backyard. They rang the doorbell to his covered back porch. His mother peered out from behind a white curtain that covered the door’s small window and asked what the boys wanted.
“Can Daniel come out and play?” they asked.
“Why do you want to play with him?” his mother asked.
“Because,” they answered.
“Because is no answer. He can’t come out. He has homework to do. Go away.”
“Please let him come out. We want to play and we’ve got a big surprise for him,” Jim said, not willing to give up.
“What kind of surprise?”
“A big one.”
“No. Go away.”
The boys shuffled dejectedly out Daniel’s backyard, into the alley and onto Altgeld and their cross. They sat on the curb and tried to figure out what to do next.
“Let’s just hide this thing between some garages, and next time we see him we’ll get it out and nail him to it,” Dennis offered.
“Good idea. I gotta get home anyway for supper. I’ll meet you here after supper.”
It wasn’t to be.
It was Friday evening—shopping day for Dennis’ family and a drive to the A&P grocery store on Diversey near Milwaukee Avenue in the heart of Logan Square’s shopping district. Dennis’ dad and ma pulled up to the corner in their 1962 blue Chevy Impala four-door sedan.
George saw the cross, his hammer, saw, rose clippers and nails scattered around the lawn and was outraged. He cherished and loved his tools and kept them clean and rust-free and knew where every single tool was in his basement. He hated it when the kids used them because they usually ruined or lost them. Seeing his tools scattered on a lawn four doors down from his home simply enraged him and made him wonder to himself why he had bothered to have kids at all because all they did was ruin and lose things, cost money and cause trouble. He rolled down the car’s front window and yelled:
“What the hell are youse doing? What goes on here?”
“We’re just building a cross,” Dennis answered.
The boys hadn’t thought about how they would answer that question had any of the adults who walked past them on the sidewalk bothered to ask what they were doing and why they were building a cross.
Dennis was about to answer “Because,” which would have gotten him hit, when his quick-witted pal stepped forward.
“Sir,” Jim started as he stood stiff and in front of the car window, a sign that he was showing respect to a grownup, “it’s because we want to practice the Stations of the Cross. We figured a real cross would make it holier. We’re gonna carry it on our shoulders.”
“Are you kids crazy?” George said as he buried his face in one of his hands and shook it in disbelief. He raised his head—reluctantly so, for he was aghast at seeing his precious tools scattered about, and because he didn’t believe the kids and didn’t even want to think about what crazy things they were up to—and shouted to Dennis:
“Get in the car, and get those tools in here.”
Dennis gathered up the tools, laid them on the car’s back floor and slouched dejected and humiliated in the car’s back, bench-like seat.
Two hours later, after having finished shopping, the blue Impala pulled into the alley at Altgeld. Out of the backseat window, Dennis could see that the cross was still standing upright against the tree. He was thrilled that it was still there, that it could be saved and that one day soon he and Jim would be able to crucify Daniel Bernas.
Early the next morning Dennis raced out the door and down the alley to Altgeld. The cross was gone. He ran to Jim’s house, called him out and they talked about their bad luck. They wouldn’t be able to make a new cross any time soon because George had given strict orders that Dennis not use his tools ever again. Dennis knew that violating that order, at least for a couple of weeks, would get him whipped with a belt.
The boys found something else to occupy their active minds, and in an hour had long forgotten about wanting to nail Daniel Bernas to a cross.