The Lost Year…or was it?

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The Lost Year…or was it?

Nazareth Regional High School

It was a photograph of the school’s entrance or, should I say, the concrete steps leading to the entrance of a Catholic boys’ high school that liberated memories dormant for more than fifty years.

In the small hours, in the shape shifting shadows of my bedroom ceiling searching for sense in the immutable past did I find myself revisiting those steps.  As a freshman, my journey would begin every day by walking nearly a mile and waiting for a bus on Flatbush Avenue and King’s Highway.  Across the street, high school girls in their navy blue pleated uniform skirts waited for a bus to take them in the opposite direction– to St. Edmunds.

Usually bursting at the seams with teenage passengers, the city bus deposited us on 57th Street and Avenue D in the neighborhood of Canarsie, a one or two block walk to those steps leading to the doorway of Nazareth High School, and once inside to the Catholic lay teachers and Xaverian Brothers awaiting us.

The recollections of my freshman year in high school, although seemingly awkward and without corroboration, are strikingly vivid.

FACULTY AND STAFFAND A MOTHER’S WISH

The school’s principal, Brother Matthew Burke, was a tall imposing figure with wavy black hair and a furrowed brow.  I was lucky if I could get within twenty feet of the man. He seemed to enjoy more protection from his fellow monks than a President does with the Secret Service. I cannot recall ever exchanging more than two words with Brother Matthew.

I fulfilled my mother’s wish and studied Latin that freshman year with a gregarious lay teacher named Marty Doyle.  Doyle, endowed with a large forehead and drooping sideburns, made Cesar’s Gallic Wars jump off the pages.

FIRST BLOOD–MORATORIUM TO END THE WAR

Our novice English teacher Mr. O’ Connell, wore his near shoulder length black hair proudly and was not shy to express his anti-war views in the classroom.  He was the first adult I knew who questioned the status quo and proclaimed he would not only honor the Moratorium on October 15, 1969 but would participate in the event.  His political views overshadowed his teaching skills which showed much promise.

On that day, it was the crowd and a resultant pandemonium and chaos. We were met by a phalanx of activist students who blocked our way up the school steps.  Wielding a megaphone , the protestors urged us to join them in boycotting classes and protesting the Vietnam War.  Some of us, disinterested in the strike, ignored the request and pushed forward.  I was suddenly punched in the face by one of these students.  Teetering on platform shoes, this upper classman nicknamed ‘Charlie Brown’ was scrawny but had received a transfusion of courage that morning from his friends.  I was stunned by the violent reaction, perhaps more embarrased than hurt.  Joining the protestors in plain view was Mr. O’Connell who was wearing a “Peace” armband in solidarity.  Call it a political awakening.

BULLIES AND SCHOOL DANCES

It was a Saturday school dance at Nazareth HS. A pretty freshman girl named Marie was surrounded by her girlfriends and one boy.  I was introduced to Marie by her on and off again boyfriend–a classmate named Liam.  At 15, Marie was already a woman. We had a slow dance together and to this day I can recall her perfume, her red lipstick and rouge.  It was the first time I felt such a strong desire to be with a girl. I know she liked me, she told me as much. However, she was my classmate’s girlfriend so it was ‘one and done’ at the dance.  But that didn’t stop me from dreaming about her and reliving our dance and conversation.

That Monday, McGrath (Not His Real Name) was waiting for me at my locker.  McGrath was the indisputable freshman class bully and wore a perpetual frown to school.  His hobby, his passion was pushing people to the ground, into other people or into the open steel lockers.  He especially took pleasure in roughing up Frank, an autistic classmate, causing uneasy laughter from the other students.  I took pity on Frank and began shielding him as best I could from McGrath.  In truth, I would hide Frank! McGrath, however, was particulary upset that morning.  He berated me, “I saw you dancing with Marie.  You remember this Strange, Marie is Liam’s girl.  If I catch you dancing with her, you know what I’ll do.  Stay away from her!”  

With the survival instinct kicking in, I backed down hating myself for doing so, and agreed to keep my distance.  However, I never forgot Marie.  

DESTINED FOR HOLLYWOOD PLUS THE STORY OF JOHN RYAN

I had several friends in gym class-Kenny McAndrew, Brian Twibel, and Dick Moran as well as a talkative, burly freshman named Forsythe who, although you’d never know it, was destined for greater things—such as Hollywood.  

Classmate Bill Forsythe (Second from left)

My best friend, Johnny C. and his cousin Carol, invited me to my first high school basketball game.  It was a home game pitting Nazareth against our Brooklyn cross town rivals—Xaverian High School. I had only recently begun playing basketball. I considered myself clumsy and awkard but was  growing taller by the day.  Then I saw him—the most handsome, the most confident and talented basketball player I had ever seen.  His name was John Ryan and, on that day, he put on a show.  A Senior, Ryan exuded a supreme confidence as he dribbled the ball up the court.  The Irish American hoopster would go on that year to become an “All Brooklyn” All Star in the NYC newspapers earning him a full scholarship to Fairfield University. In college, Ryan would go on to play in two NIT tournaments and holds that school’s all time record in “Assists.”  John Ryan was all the motivation I needed to play high school basketball during the next three years!  

Basketball All Star John Ryan

THE SCIENCE TEACHER TURNED FBI AGENT

Frank Lorenzetti was a tall man, a Physical Science teacher who, given his dark mustache and lengthy sideburns, looked much older than his mid-twenties.   This teacher could dish it out as well as anyone and elicited respect from the students.  One of the fondest memories of that class was scoring a 95 on a Final Science Project (regrettably, 5 points were subtracted for omission of footnotes). I could never have imagined our paths would cross again twenty years later at an FBI Terrorism Conference in Washington, DC.  Lorenzetti was now a veteran FBI supervisor assigned to the Houston, TX office while I was a fledgling FBI JTTF Agent in Newark, NJ.  Jokingly, I asked him why he deducted the points from my science project and he floored me with his recollection—“because you failed to include the footnotes Strange!”

SMALL FISH IN AN OCEAN OF BASEBALL PLAYERS

Oddly, so many years later, the yearbook photos of the freshman and JV baseball teams saddened me.  After school one day in early spring, at a cold and windy ball park near Jamaica Bay I showed up for team tryouts and instead was handed a baseball shirt (there were not enough uniforms to go around) and told I wouldn’t play that season but could travel with the team.  

The coach, Brother Antonio, had so many players trying out for the team that some of us were never afforded the opportunity to take swings or even field the ball.  However, I was pleased to see my elementary school teammate, Peter Sasso, make the team.  He was one of the best young ballplayers in Brooklyn and not only would he go on to set baseball records at Nazareth but he would head off to St. Francis College on a baseball scholarship.  The last I heard Pete was a successful stand-up comic in the New York City metropolitan area.

NO PROOF I WAS THERE

On the Internet is a PDF copy of the Nazareth High School 1970 school yearbook.  I took great joy in recognizing my teachers and calling out the names of fellow classmates.  However, there was a palpable disappointment—no freshman class picture appears, just random black and white shapshots of a handful of classmates in frivolous poses.  In those pictures, I am nowhere to be seen…as if I had never existed. 

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