This song still holds (grabs?) people, even though it was written in the 12th century. This is The Brendon Consort, from their Gregorian Christmas CD, released in '04 on the Smith & Co. label. (3:02) I should note here that all photos in this chapter, including the stained glass windows, were taken at St. Pat's in El Paso, except of course the publicity pics of Bing and Bergman.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear. Refrain: Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, thou Wisdom from on high, who orderest all things mightily; to us the path of knowledge show, and teach us in her ways to go. Refrain
O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free thine own from Satan's tyranny; from depths of hell thy people save, and give them victory over the grave. Refrain
O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by thine advent here; disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death's dark shadows put to flight. Refrain
O come, thou Key of David, come, and open wide our heavenly home; make safe the way that leads on high, and close the path to misery. Refrain
O come, O come, great Lord of might, who to thy tribes on Sinai's height in ancient times once gave the law in cloud and majesty and awe. Refrain
O come, thou Root of Jesse's tree, an ensign of thy people be; before thee rulers silent fall; all peoples on thy mercy call. Refrain
O come, Desire of nations, bind in one the hearts of all mankind; bid thou our sad divisions cease, and be thyself our King of Peace. Refrain
O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear. Refrain
Words: Latin, twelfth century; trans. John Mason Neale (1818-1866), 1851
When it came time to leave for Midnight Mass, my mother gave us a last onceover - straightening a collar, running a comb through my hair again, and again. She was smiling. This whole thing, her boys serving at a Christmas Midnight Pontifical Mass at St. Patrick's, I knew, pleased her no end. And it was all logical that it did. This was the world she had been raised in. Irish/German Catholic, her brother a priest, her sister a nun, and now here's her youngest - about to carry the bishop's train - well, this had to be even better than watching Father O'Malley in The Bells of St. Mary's, which she loved (that swine Crosby, the child beater with the real smooth voice, but of course in 1957 no one knew a thing, or, to be more accurate, no one said a thing).
When we showed up at the altar boy room in the rear of the church, adjacent to the sacristy, a dozen kids or better were in various stages of getting ready for "show time." While I was buttoning-up my cassock Father Hay came in the room. "Hurry up, Shorty. You're coming with me." I finished buttoning-up, and reached for a surplice, the white top, from the racks we generally pulled from. "No, no, no," came a voice. I looked over and Mrs. Rike, the sacristan, a severe a woman as ever I've known, thrust a surplice at me. "You'll wear this." "Yes ma'am." I started to put my arms in it and pull it over, but I couldn't get it "open," couldn't get my hands into it. It had been starched and ironed to the point where it was glued together, like an old peanut butter and jelly sandwich that had dropped out of a kid's lunch bag, and gotten run over by a truck, last week. I clumsily tried to peel it apart, without luck.
"Here, here," she said impatiently, snatching it out of my hands, and deftly opening up the material with long, polished fingernails. "Put your arms up," she snapped. I did, and she pulled the surplice over and down, tuggging a bit here and there to open things up, and getting it to hang as loosely as would allow, so I didn't look quite like a four-foot high sandwich board sign waiting for the painter. The surplice itself was amazing - Irish lace around the boat-shaped collar, and four or five inches more of it being the "cuffs" of the 3/4 length sleeves, and more at the bottom. The altar boy equivalent of a "Bowl unform." I was in awe. This was definitely the Catholic big leagues. "You'll do," Mrs. Rike said, without further comment. With Mrs. Rike, there was almost never any further comment, but if there was, you knew there was probably deep trouble in Altarboyland. "Come on Shorty, let's go!" Father Hay was all business. I had never been "backstage" at one of these affairs. Where were we going?
I followed in his wake, passing through a short hallway and into the sacristy, where there was all sorts of goings-on, and then into the long narrow hallway that connected the sacristy to the new rectory. We were headed where no nine-year olds, and almost no altar boys, period, had ever gone before - into the inner sanctum, the living quarters of the five priests who staffed St. Pat's, forbidden territory unless you had business there, and apparently I did. All was hushed and dim as Father and I glided along, the only sound being our footsteps and the faint rustle and whoosh of our centuries-old outfits. We came to the wide stairway that led upstairs, and with one hand Father hitched up his cassock a bit, a manuever cassock-wearers learn to keep from tripping, especially if they're taking the stairs two at a time, which he did. I tried to follow suit. On the second floor we walked down a wide hallway into an open area with windows on two sides, furnished with some couches and easy chairs, and a 50's-style stereo console with television. Obviously, the clerical rumpus room. It was still subdued lighting, but there was bright light coming from a doorway adjacent to this, and voices within. "You wait here, Shorty, OK?" "Yes Father." "One more thing. Don't speak to the bishop unless you're spoken to. And when you meet, he'll probably put his hand out. If he does, genuflect, and kiss his ring, OK?" "Yes Father." "And Shorty, don't be nervous." "Yes Father." He turned and walked toward the light, and the voices. I walked over to a window and looked down on Mesa Street, where the traffic consisted mostly of cars manuevering into a parking spot, or looking for one, and pedestrians hurrying across the street, and down the sidewalks, all arrivals for Midnight Mass. St. Pat's holds eight-hundred-plus, and Midnight Masses were always packed. The immensity (well, to a nine-year old's mind) of what I had gotten myself into was beginning to sink in. God help me. If I wasn't nervous before, I definitely was now. How do you pucker-up to a ring?
"All right Shorty, come on." Father Hay was standing in the doorway. I walked over to him and he stepped back, gesturing to me with a quick flick of his index finger to come on in. There before me was His Excellency, Sidney Matthew Metzger, in full regalia except for the pointed hat, the mitre, which came later, presently wearing a red beanie (called a zucchetto in ecclaesiastical language) minus any propeller on top. The bishop looked down on me with a faint smile. I just knew he was sizing me up - would this young twirp do? "Bishop, this is Shorty, your train bearer," Father Hay said. "Shorty?" the bishop replied. "Shorty?" He gave Father Hay a questioning look, but Father Hay was non-plussed. No reaction. It took a lot to rattle that old bear's cage. He had decided I was "Shorty," and that was that, and I was to remain "Shorty" for the next two-and-a-half years I served under him. The bishop then turned and focused on me, looking slightly frustrated. "What's your given name?" "Matthew. . . Middleton. . . Your Excellency." He nodded approvingly. "Who calls you Shorty? Your friends?" "No, Your Excellency, just Father Hay." He mulled that one over a second or two, glancing at Father Hay, and then back to me, and put his hand down and out. Father Hay poked me lightly in the back. I went down on one knee and lightly, just barely, kissed the ring. What it looked like exactly I can't remember, except that there was gold involved. I stood up and Father Hay steered me around behind the bishop where a major seminarian from the diocese was holding the train, most of it in his arms. He passed it on to me with a grin. "There you go, Shorty," Father Hay said. "Now, until we get out of the rectory and sacristy, and get outside in the rear of the church, keep the train lightly bundled, just like this. Stay a few feet behind His Excellency; we don't need you stepping on his heels. Don't stretch it out behind him until we're outside. Understood?" "Yes Father." He turned, and moved past the bishop and a couple of other clerics, and out the door. We were on our way. Something happend to me after I had kissed the bishop's ring - my childish fears vanished, replaced by a euphoria of sorts, a feeling that I had gone through some kind of initiation, and been allowed in. Boy, was this exciting. My little nine-year old's brain was just a'buzzin'. If ever, at that age, I had heard the expression - "IT'S SHOWTIME!" - I would probably have blurted it out, with childish gusto and glee, and God-only-knows what consequences.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL
Above and below are stills from the 1951 film adaptation, starring Alastair Sim, the definitive version, which I've seen I don't know how many times. As a child I was overwhelmed by the story - I couldn't get enough of it - be it the film, the book, or even on radio. And so, in the spirit of the season, I'm including an old Decca Records version here, one that I'm quite sure was played on El Paso AM radio (KTSM) in the 50's. Below is a review with some interesting sidelights, written by "A. Moreno," who contributes reviews on a regular basis with Amazon. The story is brief, a little over 20 minutes, cut up into five "chapters." The "Pickwick" material mentioned isn't here, it's missing the opening chapter as a download, and without it, well,. . . . The illustrations below are by John Leech, from the original as published by Dickens. For those who are as obsessed by this whole thing as I am, there's a great book that came out in '08 titled: The Man Who Invented CHRISTMAS - How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits.
C Lately, Deutsche Grammophon has been releasing on CD some of the old American Decca mono recordings of the 1940's and '50's. While the original 78-RPM Broadway cast albums of "Oklahoma!", "Carousel", "The King and I" and "Annie Get Your Gun" found their way to CD years ago, some of these Decca recordings have inexplicably been ignored by American CD labels, including Decca itself, and now DGG has taken up the slack and is doing a splendid job.
Their latest is not a classical or popular music release. It is a spoken word album - a very overdue American release of two Charles Dickens classics, "A Christmas Carol" and "Mr. Pickwick's Christmas". Both were previously available on an Australian CD which was never released in the U.S. Each Dickens tale was originally released by American Decca as a single item on 78 RPM before the age of LP's. "Carol" was recorded in October 1941, and released in November of that year, a sobering thought considering the fact that Pearl Harbor was soon to be attacked, ushering the United States into World War II. "Pickwick" followed three years later, in November of 1944. Both were later included on a single 33 1/3 RPM LP, one of the most popular Decca albums ever made, selling well into the late 1960's. The LP version of "A Christmas Carol", however, omitted two characters (the charity collectors) heard in the 78 RPM version, and that moment has not been restored on this CD. (Ferdinand Munier, who played one of them, is erroneously credited as appearing on this album. He does not.) The sound is quite good, especially for recordings made before the age of real hi-fi, though, of course, it is not stereo.
Both stories are beautifully done. In "A Christmas Carol", renowned film actor Ronald Colman stars as Ebenezer Scrooge, and while he would have seemed miscast if he had ever done a film version of the story, he is quite excellent on records, his beautiful voice not only acting the role of Scrooge, but, in a very imaginative touch, narrating the story to the listener in character, as if Scrooge were reminiscing about his misspent life. He makes no attempt to sound "old", but is nonetheless completely convincing - better than Laurence Olivier is in *his* recorded version (and I, an Olivier fan, once never imagined I'd say that).
A further testament to the excellence of this production is that, although it is only twenty minutes or so long, each actor convinces completely in his role, and the story never seems rushed, because director George Wells has known exactly how to edit it. The supporting cast includes few familiar names, although all were noted screen character actors of the period; the most familiar names are Hans Conried (Captain Hook in Disney's animated "Peter Pan") as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Gale Gordon ("The Lucy Show"'s Mr. Mooney) as a *speaking* Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
This "Carol" certainly won't replace Alastair Sim's 1951 film, but it will certainly do on records.
It's by The Elegants, and is from The Best of The Elegants, a reissue from '91 on the Rhino label. They were white guys from New York, amazingly enough. (2:42)
The Future Destiny of Some Altar Boys
Certainly the most famous former altar boys ever to have served at Saint Patrick's Cathedral were the Chagra boys, three sons of Lebanese ancestry, who received more national media attention than any other native sons of The Sun City, past or present. Lee, the oldest, became a high-flying criminal defense attorney, who made headlines and big bucks successfully defending drug traffickers and other shady characters across the southwest.
My oldest brother Mike was about Lee's age, and knew him from El Paso High School, where they both graduated in the 50's, while the younger brothers were still grade school tadpoles under the nuns. In later years Mike associated with some of the same crowd Lee hung out with - gamblers, hustlers, thieves, con-artists, and "persons of interest" that populated Mesa Street bars, Juarez pool rooms, and the various courtrooms downtown.
Lee had been an altar boy at St. Pat's, but was quite a bit older than his younger brothers, Jimmy and Joe, who both attended St. Pat's Elementary, and were altar boys, at the same time my brother Mark and I were there. Jimmy was in the same class as my brother Mark, Joe a year after that. I was two years behind Joe, but knew them both from Alterboyland. More on this in the next chapter.
Below is the opening text from a book about the Chagra boys, published in '84, written by Gary Cartwright, Senior Editor of Texas Monthly, titled Dirty Dealing - Drug Smuggling on the Mexican Border and the Assassination of a Federal Judge - AN AMERICAN PARABLE.
On the night before he was murdered, Lee Chagra flew home to El Paso flushed with the euphoria a gambler feels when he belives his luck is changing. Lee had been in Tucson trying a case for most of the past two weeks, and the verdict had been sublime: in a highly publicized multicount bank-fraud indictment, Lee had walked his man on every count. It was his most important vistory in months - and his most profitable. It was three days before Christmas, 1978; when the Friday-night plane began its approach over the Upper Valley and through the Pass, he caught a glimpse of the lighted Christmas star on the slope of Mount Franklin.
1978 had been the worst year of Lee Chagra's life. Worse than 1973, the year the federal government indicted him on a trumped-up marijuana trafficking charge in Nashville and nearly destroyed his law practice. Worse even than the chain reaction of disasters in 1977 - the year one of his brother Jimmy's planes crashed trying to take off from a makeshift field in Columbia with a load of marijuana, an episode that foreshadowed the doom of the entire Chagra family.