What you are about to read may contain statements that are not politically correct and deemed offensive to todays sensitive society. Keep in mind that this story took place sixty years ago and we said and did things then that are unacceptable now.
I don’t remember whose idea it
was. It might have been mine, although,
Danny O’Toole is a more likely suspect due to
his intense hatred of the nuns. I’m Martin
Esposito but my best friends called me
Marty. Danny and I and Joey Jackson were
the “Unholy Three” who had been together since
kindergarten and were now in the eighth grade at
St Alexis’s middle school. Having moved
into puberty, we worked very hard at getting bad
grades and disrupting the classroom as much as
possible. All this paid for by our poor
parents. Actually my tuition was funded by
my Aunt Rosa since both my parents were
dead. (Sorry I was such a pain in the ass,
We would roll our uniform pants
up to the knees or powder the back of our
navy-blue jackets with chalk dust. One of our
favorite ploys was to make strange squeaking
noises, while Sister Mary Benita was trying to
explain the mysteries of algebra. I think, due
to our unique approach to education, we actually
spent more time in the Mother Superior’s office
than in any of the classrooms.
In school, holidays were always
a welcome diversion and Christmas was one of the
bigger ones and maybe the best. All that
music and the sugary treats, the gifts and the
TV shows and the promise of ‘Peace on Earth,’
(an impossible promise that has never been
kept.) At St Alexis’s there were chorus
and band rehearsals and the casting of the
nativity play. Danny, Joe and I were
not the actor type so we weren’t really
interested in wearing a bathrobe and wrapping a
dish towel around our head so we could embarrass
ourselves in front of friends and family.
I, on the other hand, had a sort of artistic
bent so one year I volunteered to help paint the
scenery, anything to get me out of going to
class. But Sister Mary Lumena, the
director of the pageant, didn’t think my choice
of hot pink was appropriate for the cow barn
that the Holy Family was going to be stuck in,
so my career in show business was cut short and
it was back to Religious Studies with Sister
December, 1964 found us, the “Unholy Three,”
without any assigned role in the Christmas
festivities. Now, you have to understand
that this was alright with us. Sitting
behind the handball court, where Sister Mary
Ermengarde, the Physical Ed Punisher, couldn’t
see what we were up to, was just fine with us.
We smoked our Kool cigarettes and talked about
sex---and other less important things.
the next few days, during our lunch break
and after school, we threw out our
ideas---literally. They were all
pretty weak. There was the plan of
using the P.A. system to announce that, as a
gift from the diocese, school was closed
until February 31st. Then Danny came
up with the idea of giving all the nuns, as
a Christmas present, s’mores made with
Exlax. Joey had the impractical
suggestion of switching the bags of salt,
used to de-ice the front sidewalk, with
sacks of sugar. “It’ll turn to syrup
when it mixes with the water in the ice,”
was his rationale.
St Casimir’s Polish
Roman Catholic Church (its full name is chiseled
in stone above the front doors) is a beautiful
old church sitting on a slight hill in Polish
Town. They really do a whizbang Christmas
there with big boughs of fir and giant red bows
and enough lights to create a glow seen all the
way to the moon. Danny, Joey and I did
reconnaissance there one afternoon, after
school, and discovered several things.
“So, here’s the plan,”
I said quietly, to the other members of the
“Unholy Three” as we spread out in my
bedroom. “Danny, you’re in charge of the
baby carriage. Did you round one up?”
“Great! Now, Joey, after you help Danny and me get the carriage up the church steps, you’ll stand watch outside for any trouble on the street.”
“What trouble? Why can’t I be with you guys?”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the brown color of his face would make him stand out in a church full of pale white Poles. “There might be cops or a patrol car and you may need to alert us. Okay?”
“No okay. You guys get to have all the fun. I wanna---”
“Joey, we’re depending on you. We can’t do this if you won’t be our lookout. It’s probably the most important job in the plan. Our success depends entirely on you.”
“Well, only if you---”
“Great! Now, Danny, you got those clothes I asked you to find?”
We decided that
Wednesday’s 12:00 afternoon mass would give us
the best opportunity to achieve our goal.
It wouldn’t be too crowded but there would be
enough attendees there to help add to the
confusion, most of them being older women. We
agreed to meet in front of the church at exactly
11:55 so as to be the last parishioners to enter
What I’ve just described to you was what one of the witnesses told the police officer.
How I ever convinced a
15-year-old testosterone-riddled teenager to put
on his sister’s clothes was the miracle of the
century. He resisted at first but once I
pointed out that this was going to happen
outside of our neighborhood and that nobody
would ever know it was him, and that if he did
this he could borrow any of my old Playboy
magazines, it was a green light all the way.
Once we were seated inside, with Joey outside on lookout duty, it was hard for us to hold still while the priest droned on in Latin and Polish. When the mass, which seemed to go on for hours, was over and the parishioners got up to leave I went into my act.
I had a cousin who was epileptic. The poor guy took medications but every once in a while he would slip into a seizure where he would fall down and jerk and flail and foam at the mouth. It scared the shit out of me then but now, when I was trying to come up with a way to create a distraction, I realized I could use this behavior to help shift the focus off of the Danny/mother. So, the pale little school boy, working his way up the aisle, on his way to the exit, was seen to slide down to the stone floor and begin thrashing around like a person having a grand mal seizure.
While the sweet little old Polish ladies gathered around me to help me recover from my fake convulsions, the Danny/mother completed his task and, with the now-occupied buggy, exited one of the doors and descended the stairs with Joey’s help.
After a few minutes I assured the ladies that I was feeling better and, politely refusing the offer of a ride home, I slowly walked to the big open entrance.
“Young man,” came a elderly female voice behind me, “where is your mama?”
My heart and I stopped at the top of the steps. I looked out at the sidewalk and then pointed down the street.
“She’s there waiting for me,” I shouted as I stumbled down the steps, heading as fast as I could to where Danny and Joey where speeding away.
A witness told the officer that the poor boy’s mother was obviously a bad mother.
Later that day we all reconvened
at Danny’s garage which stood
about twenty feet away from his
family’s house. The baby
Jesus lay in the buggy, covered
in Shannon’s black cardigan, and
Joey hovered over it, like an
expectant father, nervously
puffing on one of his
Kools. Danny was pacing
back and forth on the
oil-stained cement floor.
I worked on an alternative plan, Danny and
Joey went next door to Dan’s sister’s house
to return the baby carriage to the attic and
her clothes to her closet.
Fortunately, Shannon was still at work as
was Dan’s mom and dad. They ran a
family business downtown; ‘O’Toole’s TV and
I struggled to lift the figure, not wanting to drop it and have it break into a hundred pieces. I had already noticed earlier a few chips here and there, exposing the white plaster, that were evidence of many years of loving use. Wrapping my winter coat around the infant I placed the heavy bundle on a wooden crate. It was at that moment that I heard a car pull into the driveway.
“It’s my mom,” Danny whispered as he and Joey slipped back into the garage using the side door, “She comes home early to start fixing dinner. We gotta get the baby outta here, NOW!”
It seems that while working out our master plan we hadn’t really spent much time on what we were actually going to do with the hot item once we had it in our possession. Fortunately, Danny’s mom and dad didn’t park their cars in the junk-filled garage so we had a little time to figure out our next step.
“I guess we could put him in my cellar,” Joey volunteered, “My mom never goes down there. Too many spiders.” Joey lived in a bungalow over in the colored section of town with his mom who was a single parent. She worked as a cleaning lady and was one of the nicest persons I had ever met. She made the best oatmeal cookies ever, better than my aunt.
“The entrance is over there,”
Joey explained, pointing to a
beat-up double door resting at a
45 degree angle against the side
of the house. “I’ll open
it. Be careful on the steps
going down, they’re kinda
We were just coming up
from the dungeon-like cellar when we heard a
“Ah---uh---just playin a game, ma. Me and the guys.”
“Playing in that filthy old cellar? Are those your friends from school?”
“Well, I’m starting supper so best that they head home for their dinners. It’s getting late. And wash up good after being down in that nasty cellar. Honestly. Sometimes I wonder!”
Danny and I trundled off, dragging his little red wagon, as Joey shut the cellar doors and followed his mother into the house.
Two days later became
the start of the ‘where do we hide the baby next’
game. Joey whispered to me, in Sister Mary
Carmella’s history class, that we had to find
another place for the baby Jesus because the
furnace at his house went on the
fritz. “A repairman is coming
tomorrow to fix it so we got to move the little
kid somewhere else.”
“We can’t take a chance. My mom said she saw something on the eleven o’clock news about the stealing of the baby Jesus from the Polish church. She’ll kill me if---”
The strident tones of Sister Mary Carmella’s voice interrupted our conversation.
“Joseph Jackson, do you have something you want to share with the class?”
Joey leaned away from me and, lowering his head, replied, “No sister.”
“Then please turn your attention to what we are trying to learn.”
Joey looked like he’d swallowed a gopher. I hissed in his ear, “The war of 1812!”
After a short pause he answered, “The war of the Angry Twelve.”
The whole class became a noisy sea of snickers and guffaws.
There wasn’t room in my
overstuffed closet, between the stacks of
Playboy magazines and DC comics and my
collection of rocks, for baby Jesus to lay down
his sweet head. It was only after Danny
and I carefully lifted up one end of my bed that
Joey was able to slide the figure into a safe
position. We lowered the twin bed slowly
until the slats almost touched the baby’s little
pink fingers. Thankfully the bedspread
reached the floor so he was hidden and that was
the best we could do for now.
“She’s at the church for a meeting of the Daughters’ of Isabella. They’re setting up for some sort of Christmas charity dinner.” I lowered myself to the floor where Danny joined me.
“My dad’s newspaper had a story about the kidnapping of Jesus. That’s what they’re calling it, Marty, a kidnapping,” Danny related, “They make it sound like it was a real live baby. I think we’re in deep doodoo.”
“Yeah,” Joey repeated, like a frigging parrot, “deep deep doodoo.”
“No, no, guys! This is exactly what we wanted to happen,” I explained, although I too was beginning to have some doubts. “People are going to be talking about this and remembering it forever!”
“But what happens if they search here and find the kid, under your bed?” Danny asked.
“Yeah,” echoed Joey.
“Come on guys,” I answered, defensively, “no one is going to come storming into my aunt’s house and running upstairs to search my room.”
“But what are we finally doing with the kid?” Danny asked, “Are we going to keep it forever?”
“Of course not,” I assured him, “Christmas is next week and we’ll be on holiday break so we’ll return him then.”
“Return him where? Back to the church?”
“How will we do that?” asked Joey, fingering one of his cigarettes. He couldn’t light up in the house because the smell would alert Aunt Rosa. “We can’t go back there. They’ll be waiting for us.”
Joey was right but I didn’t have an alternative plan yet so I bluffed an answer.
“I’ve got it under control. As soon as all the pieces of the plan are in place I’ll fill you in.”
“Okay, double-oh-seven,” Dan responded, “It’s mighty big of you to include us.”
“Yeah,” Joey added, “who made you the leader?”
“Well, someone has to take charge,” I answered, defensive once more, “You want the job, Joey? How about you Danny boy? You wanna be the leader?” I took the silence that followed as a no.
After playing a couple rounds of Risk, the guys headed on home. I put the game away and went downstairs to watch some TV to take my mind off of what had to be done. I found myself staring at the Johnny Quest show but not really seeing it. I was too worried about the problem that was lying under my bed and how to resolve it. To say I was having second thoughts about the whole stupid thing would be an understatement. I’d say I was stuck somewhere between anxious and panicky.
phone,” my aunt shouted at the base of the
stairs, “It’s Daniel!”
“Hey, Marty. You weren’t at school today. Break isn’t until next week.
“Yeah, well, I woke up feeling sick---” Aunt Rosa gave me the evil eye, as she started back to the kitchen, because she knew I had been faking it. “Probably just a bug of some kind,” I explained weakly.
“Is auntie standing next to you?”
“No, she’s in the kitchen. Why?”
“They’re offering a reward,” he whispered.
“500 dollars! Five C-notes for the return of the Holy Child!”
This was not at all
what I had imagined would happen. I
thought that all there would be would be a
mention, maybe, in one of the back pages of the
newspaper or a quick news-brief on
television. After all, there was all that
civil rights stuff going on and the Beatles and
the trouble in Viet Nam. Who would pay any
attention to a missing plaster Jesus? Oh,
boy, was I wrong!
That night, when I went to bed, I couldn’t sleep. I mean, there I was lying inches above the outstretched hands of the Christ child, who was the focus of a city-wide search. What if someone ratted us out? What if the police matched the finger prints, that must be all over the creche and the figure, to Danny, Joey and me?
Let me take a moment to explain a few things to those of you reading this who weren’t around in the 1960s. Very few places had CCTV back then; banks, a few 7 Elevens, the large department stores but there were certainly no cameras in St Casimir and no cameras on every street corner, like today. DNA had yet to be used to identify a suspect, although, typing of blood was sometimes employed to narrow down the number of possible perpetrators. No facial recognition APS, no vocal recognition APS, in fact no APS at all. The only real tool that the authorities had in 1964 was fingerprinting and that had been around in the United States since 1902. So, I lay in bed, sweating, on that cold December night, not with visions of sugar plums dancing around in my head but with images of the ‘Unholy Three’ of us spending the rest of our lives in jail. And all because of our fingerprints.
Why did we do this? What were we thinking? What was I thinking?
When Aunt Rosa left on
Saturday, for her weekly grocery shopping, I
moved the baby Jesus out from under my bed and
slowly, step by step, lowered him down the
stairs. Then, wrapped in a large
beach-towel, printed with a picture of Casper
the Friendly Ghost, I dragged him out the back
door, down the porch steps and across the frozen
yard to the garden shed. By the time I got
him hidden behind a bag of fertilizer and the
lawn mower I was covered in sweat and breathing
like a steam engine. I don’t know how I
was able to move that forty-pound icon all that
way into the garden when I myself only weighed
about 100 pounds. I guess it was like one
of those stories you hear about some desperate
father lifting a two-ton car off the top of his
kid---gallons of adrenaline.
“I went to confession
today, Marty.” It was Joey on the phone, “It was
so hard not to spill the beans. Have you
come up with a plan yet? I’m so scared
I’ll slip up and---and blurt out the truth!”
“I can’t. I’m taking my cousin Nina down to Bamberger’s to see Santa.”
“Geez, aren’t you a little old to be visiting Santa?”
“I’m babysitting for my aunt. She and mom are working an extra gig at some rich lady’s house. A big party or somethin so they are payin me to look after Nina.”
“Well, I hope they’re paying you a lot,” I admonished. “You want company?” I was up for anything that would get me away from the house---and the shed of shame.
The line to visit Santa
was long and Nina, who was a four-year old and
therefore very impatient, was bouncing around
like kangaroo. There were a couple of
elves dressed in green tights and red vests
trying to practice crowd control but with not
much success. One elf, tall, skinny and
waging a battle with teenage acne, kept trying
to herd Nina back into line. The other
elf, short and chubby, was singing a song about
Santa liking to see everyone being a ‘Smiley
Riley’ who follows all the rules and eats his
“Why do we celebrate Christmas?” asked the youngest of the two ladies.
“Sometimes I think you only have half a brain, Denise,” chided the other woman, chewing on what I only hoped was some Wrigley’s gum, “It’s Santy Claus’s birthday.”
So much for a mother’s wisdom. I felt bad for the Yoyo kid.
When we finally reached the Sacred Throne of Santa, Nina started to cry. Joey’s aunt had given him some money to pay for a photograph of Nina on Santa’s lap. In those days the elves just took a photo automatically, gave you a slip and you turned it in to another elf if you wanted to pay for a lousy, blurry photo. But you didn’t have to, no obligation. Joey chose not to, with good reason. Nina screamed bloody murder, beat Santa with her tiny fists, pulled his fake beard, which almost came off, and ended up upside down with her head in his crotch and her shiny black Mary Janes in his face. Now, all these years later, I kind of wish we had purchased the photo. What a hoot!
On the bus ride home Nina fell asleep in Joey’s arms, exhausted from her terrifying visit to Saint Nick. The two of us were silent for most of the trip. Finally, Joey spoke up when we got close to my stop.
“So, what’s the plan, Marty? What are we goin to do?”
“I’ve got it under control.”
“What’s the plan?”
“I’ll tell you tomorrow, you and Danny.”
I hesitated. Aunt Rosa said never make a promise you can’t keep.
When I got home Aunt
Rosa yelled from the kitchen that Danny had
called and wanted me to call him back. “He
sounded serious so you better phone him right
away.” Which I did.
“They’re comin for us!” he hissed, “We are in such trouble!”
“Who’s coming for us?” I asked, feeling a cold lump forming in my stomach.
“The cops! They’ve been going from house to house asking questions. My folks are at work so I didn’t answer the door when they rang the doorbell.
“Jesus Christ! What the hell is going on? It was just a joke, a prank! It’s not like we stole the Crown Jewels!”
“Somebody reported seeing three guys wheeling a red wagon the other day, with a body in it.”
“A body? There was no body! It wasn’t a friggin body!” I exclaimed, “How did you hear about this?”
“It was on the noon news. They’re asking people to call in if they have any information!”
I was so ready to call in and send them on a wild goose chase to somewhere far away like Mexico or Alaska. This had turned into such a ridiculous ‘mountain out of a molehill’ event and we had to put an end to it---I had to put an end to it.
“I’ll have a plan all worked out tomorrow. You and Joey come over in the morning. Just hold tight for now.”
A plan. I needed
a plan. Okay, one idea was to just return
the baby Jesus to St Casimir, apologize, and
face the music. However, it looked like
facing the music in this case meant a jail term
for the ‘Unholy Three.’ Looking back at it
now I realize that this was what we really
should have done. We would have ended up
with a mere slap on the hands, several lectures
on the evil of stealing, an embarrassing ‘walk
of shame’ back into school and being grounded
for a few months, but no jail time. And we
would have felt better about ourselves.
I kept running scenarios through my tired brain as I lay in bed watching, on my clock-radio, the time rushing its way into the dawn. I don’t know at what hour I finally fell asleep but when I did I had an extraordinary dream, a dream I remember vividly to this day.
You know how in dreams everything seems so real and seems to make sense even when it doesn’t? That’s what happened that night when I entered the land of nod.
I found myself in the middle of the back yard and facing the tool shed. The grass was so green, like an ocean of neon emerald, and it felt like a velvet bedspread under my bare feet. The sky above was bruised purple with puffs of pink cotton candy and there were silver stars here and there, blinking off and on, like the star that topped our Christmas tree. The tool shed, which in the waking world was made of gray-weathered wood, was the color of antique silver. The door was painted a deep wine red and, as I stepped slowly forward, it began to open.
As it says in the bible, I was suddenly ‘sore afraid’ and fell on my knees. The light around the edges of the door was a golden yellow increasing in intensity as the door swung completely open. It was like staring into the sun.
Now that I am in my so-called golden years and being a lapsed Catholic, an agnostic, bordering on an atheist, you’d think that I would have written off what I saw in my dream, all those years ago, as nonsense. Well, I don’t. It was like those visions I read about in Sister Mary Felician’s class; the three little kids in Fatima or Bernadette in Lourdes. Yeah, like that. I know it was only a dream but it felt like so much more.
In front of this blinding light appeared a silhouette, the shadow of a small figure. As it waddled towards me I could see it was him, the baby Jesus, and he was glowing like a candle, white and translucent. He was holding his arms out to me and, eventually, he reached to where I was kneeling and clasped me in a warm hug. All fear and anxiety melted away. And he spoke to me in a soft and loving grownup voice.
“You are forgiven. What you have done is a blessing. It has revealed how much love there is in the world. That so many could care about one lost child. Now it is time for you to return this symbol of eternal love to its proper place.”
And he told me what the plan was.
Nativity Figure Returned
Found in Wrong Creche
In what played out like a Christmas miracle, a missing figure of the infant Christ was found safe and sound this Christmas morning, resting in a manger. But it was not the manger he was used to. Instead of residing in the elaborate Baroque creche, that has been part of the St Casimir Polish Roman Catholic Church’s holiday display for over a century, it was left in a simple plywood cradle on the steps of the St Alexis Catholic School.
Authorities from both the church and the school have no clue as to where the figure has been for the last fourteen days or the circumstances of its return.
“We are just pleased that it has been found,” said Sister Mary Humilitas, Mother Superior, at St Alexis. “We have returned the blessed infant to Father Kosinski over at St Casimir. All is well.”
However, an unnamed source revealed to this reporter that the figure of the holy child belonging to St Alexis is now missing. It is described as a silhouette cut out of plywood and painted white which they are hoping will be found shortly.
And it was, under the tired old Christmas tree at the side of the school. Written on the back in pencil were the words “Merry Xmas, from the Unholy Three.”
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