Happy St. Pat’s (Belated)

By Jeffrey Page

This is the story of how I scandalized some senior officers and non-coms of the 69thInfantry on a St. Patrick’s Day during the Sixties. The 69th is the military unit whose forebears have led the St. Pat parade every year since around 1766.

Not many people were aware of it in the Sixties, but there actually were two St. Patrick’s Day parades up Fifth Avenue every year. The second was the big one, the procession of bands playing “Garryowen,” “The Wearin’ of the Green,” and “Danny Boy,” of men in kilts playing the pipes, of soldiers of the 69th occasionally breaking ranks to shake an onlooker’s hand. It was floats and beer, and students from Catholic high schools striding behind their schools’ banners. It was some otherwise sensible young people with green hair. It was pins declaring “Kiss Me, I’m Irish.”

The earlier parade, which stepped off at 7 a.m., had no musicians but for a lone drummer who beat a steady rhythm so we could maintain a unified leftstep-rightstep-leftstep. There were no rifles, no steel helmets, no gas masks. And no onlookers, as we marched quietly from the 69th’s armory at Lexington and 26th to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where Francis Cardinal Spellman would conduct a military mass.

The battalion knew I was a newspaper reporter and ordered me to bring my camera and take pictures of the men on the march and of senior officers and non-coms being greeted by Cardinal Spellman. I told the major issuing this order that I was a writer, not a photographer, but he wasn’t listening.

And so, early on March 17 the two battalions of the 69th formed on Lexington Avenue. Sgt. Bates blew a whistle. The drummer began to drum. The sergeant major cried out “Forward march!” and we were off.

(Ahh, Sgt. Bates. When I enlisted three years earlier, having passed the draft board’s pre-induction physical, Sgt. Bates told me my obligations including marching in the parade every year of my six-year enlistment. What if I’m not Irish? I asked. This seemed like an exquisitely reasonable question. It was no such thing. Sgt. Bates, in words that live in my family to this day, declared in a voice you could hear in Hoboken, “Page, I don’t care if you’re a god damned Bolshevik, you will march in that parade.” And so I did.)

Now, three years into my enlistment, I tailed behind Lt. Col. Klauz – the battalion commander – into the cathedral and stayed for the mass to avoid missing the meeting with Cardinal Spellman. We were taken to a private room, and there was Spellman, the hawkish archbishop of New York, who had blessed Army weaponry and who had reduced the war in Vietnam to a battle between the North Vietnamese and Jesus Christ.

One by one, he blessed the officers and non-coms, and all appeared pleased. I kept snapping pictures of these small meetings, praying that they would come out well.

At the end, Spellman gestured toward me and asked, “Who is this young soldier?”

“Our photographer, your eminence,” Col. Klauz said.

Spellman waited a moment and then stuck out his hand to me. I guess I should have noticed that it was palm down.

I extended my hand and said, “Nice to meet you, Cardinal Spellman.” Silence for a moment and then the sound of 15 or 20 officers gasping slightly.

Spellman smiled and departed. One of the non-coms – I think it was the sergeant major – grabbed me by the arm and demanded to know what the hell I thought I was doing, which didn’t sound like the kind of talk you’re supposed to hear in a church.

“You do not shake hands with a cardinal of the church,” he said in a military lockjaw that was pure sputtering rage, “you kiss his ring. And you do not call him ‘Cardinal Spellman’ you call him ‘your eminence.’ And you do not say to a cardinal of the church ‘Nice to meet you.’ He’s not exactly your new drinking buddy,” he explained as he growled.

I guess I should have known, but I didn’t. How I was expected to know all this was beyond me, I said in a voice devoid of sputter – one does not ever sputter to a sergeant major – adding that I was Jewish. At which point his face turned a deep shade of red I have not seen since. It was much like the color of a beet – a bleeding beet.

All was forgiven, although with three years left in my enlistment, they never again asked me to shoot pictures of the parade. Funny how things work out.

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3 Responses to “Happy St. Pat’s (Belated)”

  1. R C Taplin Says:

    I suppose he could have told the major “I’m a Protestant, how should I have known about strange protocols?

  2. Jean Webster Says:

    Ah, the intricacies of the Catholic church, and its blessed hierarchy. I chuckled throughout the whole piece, Jeff, just picturing it all. Who says we don’t have kings and princes in this country?!


  3. Jo Galante Cicale Says:

    catholic kids lived in fear of breaking protocol. glad u survived!

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