Author Nick Sweet amuses with a tale of a young joker named Varrone.
“The nuns appeared in black and white and so did every rule. Things were either wrong or right at St. Clare’s Catholic School.”
This line from a song featured in the musical, Nunsense, crystallized my own years of Catholic schooling. At Christ the King School in Lexington, KY, there were no shades of gray – no situational ethics. The nuns meant business, and their business was learning. However, this is no tale of “taught to the tune of the hickory stick.” The nuns never touched us. They never had to. Anytime you got “too big for your britches,” the verbal dressing down you received was far worse and lasted longer than any corporal punishment.
The verse from Ecclesiastes which stated, “There is a time for every purpose under heaven,” was the nuns’ credo. They knew when to play and when to work and never confused the two. Their angelic singing or the wonderful stories or poetry they read to us marked playtime. The work time objective was intense scholarship – no shenanigans. The lines between work time and playtime were seldom blurred, and the nuns had little trouble keeping students “on-task” – except for Robert Varrone. My best buddy since fourth grade was, quite simply, the quickest witted person I have ever known, a world class wiseacre with a knack for cracking up the class and even our most taciturn teacher at the most inappropriate times.
The students at Christ The King attended daily Mass Monday through Friday during the school day and again on Sunday with our parents. Because our church services were mostly in Latin and had a certain sameness to them, Varrone and I became accomplished daydreamers. I usually opted for doodles in my prayer book, while Varrone busied himself surreptitiously carving his initials into the pew in front of him. Though it took him several weeks, he completed a small but impressive “R.V.” in the wooden bench. Unfortunately, someone from another class saw it and ratted him out to our teacher.
The next morning the inquisition began. “Robert Varrone,” Sister grimly intoned, and the classroom went quiet as a tomb. “Did you carve your initials into one of the church pews?” Caught completely off guard, Varrone resorted to that time-honored Catholic schoolboy tradition: deny, deny, deny.
“No, Sister,” he replied timidly.
“Then I had better have my eyes examined, or you had better examine your conscience, Mr. Varrone. I just came from the church,” Sister continued. She had him on the ropes and was going for the knockout. “I’m sure I saw the initials ‘R.V.’ on one of the church pews. Now, who else could that possibly be?”
“Rudolph Valentino,” he quickly responded, and the class exploded with laughter, Sister Paul Marie included.
There was always a swarm of “bees” at Christ The King School – spelling bees, Catechism bees, parts-of-speech bees and Latin bees. In the seventh grade Latin bee, the nun would spell the Latin word and the student would give the meaning. For example, the nun would say, “P-A-X,” and the student would respond, “peace.” Varrone’s word was ‘salve,’ pronounced ‘sol-vay,’ meaning ‘hail’ such as in the hymn title, “Salve Regina,” (Hail Queen).
The nun spelled, “S-A-L-V-E.” Varrone replied, “An ointment that you put on cuts and burns.” Even our teacher enjoyed that one.
Later that same year, we were having a bee involving word usage. The nun would give the word, and the student would have to use it correctly in a sentence. The stakes were a little higher for this particular bee. If you were incorrect, not only were you eliminated, but you also had to stay after school writing sentences for an hour. Varrone’s word was ‘heretofore.’ His response was, “If I miss this word, I will be heretofore o’clock,” and, indeed, he was there until four o’clock writing sentences.
Spring break of my senior year Varrone and I took a trip with my dad. We owned a cabin on a lake about thirty-five miles from my home. My mother had orchestrated this “boys week out.” My relationship with my dad had been somewhat stormy during my high school years, and Mom hoped he and I could mend a few fences before I went off to college in the fall. She sent Varrone along as the referee.
This was fine with my dad, who was no slouch himself when it came to the quick quip or perfect squelch. He welcomed the chance to play verbal volleyball with Varrone. They had traded barbs for years and were pretty evenly matched. The week went well – full of “manly” activities like water skiing for hours on end and then digging the foundation and pouring concrete for a new porch. But, by Saturday night, Varrone and I were ready for a little action sans Dad.
We persuaded him to let us take the car to the nearest town, about ten miles away, to the drive-in movie theater. Before we left, Dad laid down the law, “I don’t care what time you get in,” he exclaimed. Varrone and I exchanged dumbfounded glances. I’d always had a curfew. “But, you’re both going to eight o’clock Mass with me in the morning,” he continued, “no excuses, no alibis. “You’re getting up and going to church!” He handed me the keys and walked away. Varrone and I jumped in the car and headed for the drive-in before Dad could change his mind. What I recall of that evening is hazy but threefold: 1) Too much beer. 2) Trying to pick up girls at the drive-in who wanted nothing to do with us. 3) Both of us passing out and waking up at about 3:30 a.m., the only car in the lot. We returned to the cabin about four a.m. and stumbled into bed.
At seven a.m., Dad was shaking us awake and telling us to get ready for church. We weren’t hung over. We were still intoxicated. We staggered around, bleary-eyed, searching for our clothes. Varrone pulled on a pair of madras shorts, and my father was on him immediately.
“Don’t think you’re wearing shorts to church, Varrone,” Dad huffed. “That’s disrespectful.” Though nearly comatose, Varrone rallied.
“Look at you. You’ve got that gross beard. That’s just as disrespectful as these shorts.” It was true. My dad hadn’t shaved the whole week and was sporting a gnarly, unkempt mass of Robinson Crusoe whiskers. Dad and Varrone hammered away at each other with variations of, “Those shorts are disrespectful” and “that beard is disrespectful.” I was sure my pounding head would explode at any moment.
Finally, I saw a glint in my father’s eye. It was match point and he was positioning himself for an overhead smash. “Varrone, I’ll tell you what you do.” Dad smiled smugly, “When you walk into that church today, take a good look at the guy up there on the cross. You’ll see that he has a beard.”
Varrone quickly replied, “Yeah, well, he’s wearin’ shorts, too.”
About Nick Sweet
I have been a freelance stage director for over 40 years, with most of my productions being in Oklahoma. I also have written a musical, Nanyehi, The Story of Nancy Ward, with singer/songwriter Becky Hobbs, which is being produced this year on May 4th & 5th at the Hard Rock Casino Theatre (The Joint) in Tulsa, Okla. In 2001 I directed the outdoor drama, Trail of Tears in Talequah, OK, written by my friend, Joe Sears, native Oklahoman and Tony nominated actor/writer for the Greater Tuna series. I have been writing poetry and short stories for most of the last 40 years as well. I teach a yearly specialty theatre/literature enrichment program for 4th graders in the Bartlesville School system called Spotlight.
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