Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Christmas Memory

At Christmas time in 1966, my brother and I were at St. Joseph's Home for Boys in Washington, Georgia. We were not there as orphans - I cannot speak for my brother, but for me it was more like a year at summer camp. Run with an iron fist by a group of Catholic nuns, in their old-style habits that exposed only their faces and their hands, the home was situated on an enormous (or so it seemed to an eight-year-old) estate in an old manor house. The year after my brother and I left the home, it was moved to a new premises in Atlanta.

Some of the nuns provided elementary school instruction for the boys, and for children from the nearby town of Washington. I was then in the third grade, and my brother in the sixth. One of the nuns, younger than the others, taught us music. Some time before Christmas we were singing Christmas carols, and we were good enough to persuade a man who had connections in Augusta to arrange a taping of us for possible television broadcast. I should add that nobody at the home thought to consult any of the boys' parents or guardians (those of us who had them) about this boondoggle. On the appointed day, we were loaded onto a bus and taken to Augusta, about a half-hour's drive east on Interstate 20.

At the studio we were shown into a large room with high ceilings from which big lights were suspended. The boys were arranged in bleachers, the "little" ones on one side and the "big" ones on the other. (This segregation of the boys was also enforced at the home. My brother was placed with the other big boys, and I rarely saw him.) Time being money in television, we were given no time to rehearse and, once we were all in our places, the taping commenced. I don't recall how long the taping lasted but it was stopped prematurely. Someone had made the miscalculation of using a large monitor TV that , unfortunately it turned out, was facing us. What happened next depended on the age of the boys and their degree of self-discipline. The big boys kept their composure on seeing themselves - for the first time in their lives - on television, despite their sometimes fixated staring at the monitor.

The Christmas carols continued unabated until the camera reached the little boys' faces, when there was an instantaneous breakdown in discipline. Concentrating their full attention on the faces they were pulling for the camera, caroling was quickly replaced by laughter and screams from the little boys section. A few minutes later the taping was halted, and without explanation everyone was shown out of the studio and back onto the bus.

Without formally reprimanding us on the way back to Washington, those of us who had momentarily forgotten the reason why we had gone to the TV studio, and I was one of them, were given an earful of the nuns' extreme displeasure over the next several days. The nuns had studied the video tape and had made note of the boys who had disrupted their plans to use our singing talents, such as they were, to publicize themselves and their boys' home.

We were told that some of the boys were going into town for Christmas caroling, but many of us whom the nuns had singled out were not allowed to go. I remember feeling pleased that I was not required to go hiking around in the cold, singing for strangers. Whoever it was that made the decision to use the TV monitor during the taping in Augusta had made a big mistake, but he had spared me, thanks to a bunch of spiteful nuns denied a chance at stardom, an otherwise disagreeable evening exploring the back streets of a small Southern town in December.

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