I learned about hell as a kid. It was a word that parents used when they spilled a drink; it was a modifier they slipped into conversation. It was a benign word that didn’t hold a lot of menace.
“He had one Hell of a hangover.”
“I’m going to give him Hell when he gets home.”
“Hell’s bells, Joe, what the Hell is wrong with you?”
Then I met the nuns. The Sisters. Handmaidens of Our Lord.
And, man, did they understand Hell. Plus, they practiced all day; suffering, celibate, lonely, angry, no skin products, wearing uncomfortable clothing, waiting until some dopey little kid spoke out of turn, laughed out of turn, thought, moved, picked his nose out of turn. Then they would wail on him and rehearse for their next life. They communicated the agony of the underworld to us. Some of those women were clever, too; they had creative minds bubbling under the wimple.
I couldn’t get my head around the idea of God, the Trinity, The Holy Spirit, which was either a ghost or a conscious light or something else that was impossible to understand. If we didn’t or couldn’t or wouldn’t understand the concept of The Holy Spirit, we were condemned to Hell. Automatic. It was in the Bible.
I was seven for Christ’s sake. Biblical and Christian and religious scholars have been struggling to figure out this crap for ages, and I was expected to get it all, without question, by the time I was seven.
The punishment for not getting it? Hell.
Deep, dark and hot. Not just hot. Hot was sunburn and the nuns tried convince me that neverending sunburn times 1,000 was considered a treat, a pleasure, in hell. How about skinning me alive, over and over for, oh fuck, Eternity? How would you like that? And remember having a splinter? Well, lost boy, can you conceive of splinters the size of a pencil wedged under every square inch of your skin, infected, pus-filled, tormenting and they will be there forever? Eternity.
Barbecued alive. Snakes. Maniac demons.
Bad smells. They kept talking about bad smells. I didn’t know sulphur or chemical waste but I knew the bathroom, the toilet. I think that convinced me, the fear of everlasting stink. I’d better do what I could to avoid perdition because entering the boys bathroom during a stomach flu epidemic, that smell, magnified by a million, tangible and surrounding me, everywhere, for ever, was really something that I could sense, literally. I imagined the horror of thick, cloying bathroom smells and gagged. For Eternity.
Which, like the Holy Spirit, was pretty goddamned hard to grasp. I could barely tell time. I had to look at my feet to figure left from right. So I had to have an absolute grasp of Eternity, Infinity, and advanced Physics in order to avoid everlasting, unending bad assed torment.
Most of what frightens people is bullshit. What makes them anxious, disturbs their peace, is generally something they’ve learned to be afraid of. None, or little, of it is real. I learned to be afraid of the same stuff that frightened my family. When I was a kid I worried about foul balls at baseball games, rattlesnakes, getting locked in a refrigerator and suffocating, swallowing glass or nails, being torn apart by animals, other people, burning up, losing a body part, being dragged behind a bus. Looking back over my life I’ve only been hit by one foul ball; I have not experienced the rest of the stuff on the list. Most of what I learned in school and at home was not true. I get that now. It was made up in order to keep me in line, make me obey, or to scare me into submission. They were stories and examples and tortures that were the result of generations of unexamined fear.
I had a hard time believing. I think everyone did, but we were taught Faith. That is, I was encouraged to believe things I knew weren’t true. The scary tales of hell, rattlesnakes and foul balls were made up by frightened people and repeated to convince kids to stay out of the way, obey, and do what we were told and not to ask questions.
I don’t know where all the legends and anecdotes and warnings originated, but the combined fertile imaginations of the nuns and the dire warnings from parents kept me on edge.
Until I was around eleven.
I’d spent four or five years looking over my shoulder, watching my language around adults, trying not to steal, hardly every touching myself in the bathtub and then one day it all became clear.
When I was eleven years old I was in the sixth grade at St. Anselm’s school. I sat in the back of the class at the end of the row, and, for a few weeks, my desk was turned around so that the rest of the student’s couldn’t see me. I suppose I was being punished, again, for not maintaining the code of fear and silence.
The nun, Sister Mary Timothy, a tall woman with a well-trimmed mustache, was blathering on about God, The Trinity, or some other concept that was losing its grip.
I heard a car accelerating, fast, loud, and I looked out the window. Some guy with greasy hair was skidding in a beat up car with a broken windshield around the corner just outside of the school playground. He bumped up on the curb and a hubcap bounced off of the tire, rolled along the sidewalk, wobbled into the schoolyard and came to rest. As the driver was speeding away, another car, a cop car, black and white with lights flashing, slid around the corner and followed at increasing speed.
Sister Timothy continued her lecture, a few of the kids glanced up, momentarily distracted from her tales of horror and misery.
But I was changed forever. I’d just had a clear demonstration of the difference between fantasy and reality.
Sister Tim, Hell, someone’s concept of obedience and fear, were all fantasy. All bullshit.
But a guy in a car, probably stolen, trying to out run a cop through a residential neighborhood, losing a hubcap and disappearing up the road and into my imagination. Absolutely true. Observable and measurable.
At recess I got out of class before anyone else, ran through the schoolyard and picked up the hubcap. It was about eight inches across, dented, and the chrome was scratched. I put it in my book bag and took it home. Later, when I started smoking, I used is as an ashtray. It’s gone now, but it sat in the middle of my coffee table for years, full of cigarette butts, matches and the unsmoked ends of joints.
It was a small monument to truth.