It may have been the devil himself who prompted the kids in my schoolyard back in 1947 to chant "Patsy Foley's roly-poly from eating too much ravioli."
At first, no one could remember who started the chant. Patsy, a sweet and ample child, was in the third grade. As happenstance would have it, I was in that same third grade, infamous already as the only boy wearing spectacles in our class. After I got the glasses, I had three schoolyard fights in three days to prove to Larry Moore, Billy Gallagher and Fred Ham that I hadn't changed a bit. You would think I would have forgotten their names by now. Not a chance. I didn't like being messed with in third grade.
Since the chant would often begin and gather volume during recess, the nuns who ran the school eventually heard it and did their best to put a stop to it. This was a time when nuns, God bless them, were empowered by parents to swat the butts of little miscreants if any of them interrupted the educational process. Despite their voluminous habits, the nuns were adept at administering discipline, let me tell you, as my butt, on more than one occasion, could attest.
Now, 65 years later, when the chant pops into my mind, I begin to wonder what prompted me to say it. Early on, I certainly loved to hear the sound of words bouncing off each other--as if words were pool balls scattered by a cue. Later on I would use words to earn a living. They were the only tools I was any good with.
As I remember it now, the chant started one day after a school practice in church involving Gregorian chant. Some of the other kids later alleged that they had heard me, of all people, on the way back to class, chanting "Patsy Foley's roly-poly from eating too much ravioli."
I probably had some idea of the problem my chant might cause. But I loved the sound of it too much to stop.
If Dick Clark had been on American Bandstand back in 1947, he might have said the chant had "a nice beat" to it, but kids weren't dancing much in 1947. World War II had just ended and school was a serious matter. Even kids who didn't like books usually tried their best.
Since I was only in third grade, one might think that I might have had some emotional or mental problem that caused me to chant that phrase over and over. That could be. If a child did something like that today, he or she might be examined for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Maybe I had something like that. But in my mind the reason I chanted about Patsy Foley is that I liked the sound. It didn't hurt that my father was always saying things at home that had a bit of a turn to them. I remember how I used to enjoy the cadence of what he said and repeating it when he wasn't around. He used words differently than other fathers in the neighborhood and he delivered them in a melodic Irish brogue.
My mother, who was bereft of verbal rhythm, would sometimes ask my father a serious question when he was fresh home from a hard day's work, climbing alley poles as an electrician. Usually her question would pertain to some family matter that she had been fretting about all day. And my father, sitting on a chair in our little kitchen while stripping off his gear, might say in response, "And what would Mary Supple say to that?"
It's a shame that over the years my mother, sister and I never found out who Mary Supple was because her name was frequently invoked. Nor did we ever find out who John Godley was, either, even though my father would sometimes substitute John Godley for Mary Supple in that same response. He never said these things in anger, although he did have a terrific temper. He could erupt at any time and you didn't want to get in the way of the lava.
At other times, when my father was asked a question by my mother at an inconvenient time, he might look her in the eye and say, "Ten thousand Swedes ran through the weeds chased by one Norwegian," a line that did not originate with him but was one that he repeated with a special flair. The words certainly sounded good to me, whatever they meant. We didn't know any Swedes or Norwegians and had no idea if there might be some conflict going on between them. True, World War II had just ended but we didn't think the Swedes and Norwegians had been actively involved.
Sometimes my mother on a Sunday morning would ask my father if he was going to get dressed for church. He might have been taking a sip of his fifth cup of tea at the time. He wouldn't get angry but he sometimes would lean back and sonorously intone one of the many Burma Shave billboard slogans that dotted highways in that era: "Whiskers tough old Adam had 'em. Does your husband have whiskers like Adam, Madam?" I liked the sound of that slogan as well. Today, it still pops into my mind during arid moments. And as my wife will attest, she has heard it frequently over the years.
I think it's pretty easy to see, then, why I, as a third-grader, instead of concentrating on multiplication and division, preferred to chant "Patsy Foley's roly-poly from eating too much ravioli." I am glad, however, that the nuns took it upon themselves to discipline me and did not call my parents instead. After all, my father was paying tuition to send me to that fine school to get a good education. He did not send me there to engage in tom-foolery, a pursuit that he, of course, would have known nothing about even if his legacy among relatives said otherwise.
Besides, in my mind, no nun, no matter how mountainous she may have been, was a match for my father. He had been a boxer after he had emigrated to America from Ireland, a relocation occasioned by the British army after they had imprisoned him as a young man for activities in the Irish Republican Army. My mother said he loved boxing and had won eight straight matches before "some big black guy" broke his nose. After that, he never boxed again, she said, because he "didn't want to lose his good looks." He was a handsome man indeed, despite a nose that looked as though at any moment it might call geese to fly lower.
Years later, some neighbor ladies at a block party made some nice comments to my mother about my father's appearance. When she came home, she told my sister what they had said and forewarned her that "handsome is as handsome does." In many ways, that's quite true, even though that line didn't originate with my mother. Come to think of it, though, I like the sound of that line as well and might have chanted it more than once had I heard it in third grade.