I grew up in a two-bedroom house with four sisters and the regular allotment of parents. We all attended the local Catholic School and Church along with nearly all of the others of our neighbors, most of them first and second generation Irish, Italian, German or Poles. The ethnicities had more colorful names in the ’50’s and ’60’s of my childhood. Yes, the good old days.
Pittsburgh has pretty cold winters. Our little house had three registers to supply heat. My mother would routinely close off the one in the tiny hall between the two bedrooms to save on heat. Our church and our elementary school were old and drafty with high ceilings and huge windows that required poles to open and close them. The classrooms were bright and airy, the Church soaring, but tough to heat.
We learned this lesson of the cost of heat long before the “energy crisis”. We learned this at four or five. January 1st is a holy day of obligation, one of the eight days in the year where it is required that Catholics attend mass. Our pastor, Father Sullivan, was never the most compelling sermonizer. I really cannot remember that any of them were all that great, but he was the weakest in a poor lot. To this day, all my peers can remember Father Sullivan’s Circumcision Day sermon, because it was the same every year. It was when he would deliver the Financial Report in painful detail to the dutiful parishioners honoring their responsibility to attend Mass.
It might have been that our fiscal year was aligned with the calendar year. Or, it might have been that Father Sullivan choose this moment when the adult congregants would be hung over and feeling guiltier than usual, and the children knew that they were facing a long winter with no more breaks. Whatever his rationale, while we all sat there hunched in our heavy woolens staring at the gold fleur de lis painted along the neo-gothic arches, we got the message that it was damned expensive to heat this church and the schools we attended. Of course, being Catholic, this was somehow our fault. Forget original sin and Adam and Eve, keeping us warm in winter was a burden the parish could hardly bear.
The nuns, ever adept at reinforcing the lessons coming from the priests, got the message, too. One oddly warm early spring day, the boiler in our elementary school couldn’t be turned off. All the glorious sunshine spilling into our classrooms heated them to a miserable level. Our custodian Mr. Link was doing his level best to stop the beast of a boiler from spewing more heat into the classrooms to no avail. As we sat, pink-cheeked and over-heated we pleaded with Sister if we could please open the windows. There was a conference among the nuns in the hallway where it was decided that no, we couldn’t let all the unnecessary heat being produced literally fly out the windows. That would be WASTING HEAT!!! As a concession, we did get to have a drink of water from the hall fountain and put our heads down on our desks for a few minutes before we returned to our lessons.
I shouldn’t then say that Father Sullivan was not a compelling orator, I guess. I took this lesson and my resentment of having it hammered into me the first of every year when I went away to college. I sat in my new dorm room where the heating unit was located under the sliding window. It was warm in there and rather than trying to determine how I could turn the heat off I opened the window and called out to the heavens, “Take that, Father Sullivan.” Not an ecologically defensible position, but a moment of urgent satisfaction.