By Tim Murphy:
One summer day back in 5th or 6th grade, the Rohrer boys and I decided to go see our buddy, Billy Guilfoyle. It was mid to late summer, and we hadn’t seen him since school was out, so we figured we would walk over to his house. He lived about 4 miles away, and that was pretty far to walk back then. The Rohrer boys didn’t have bikes, so we had to walk. It meant crossing 159th Street, which was a busy four-lane highway. It also meant that we had to walk along Kedzie Avenue, which was also four lanes part of the way. We had never taken a road trip like that, and our moms would never allow it before; but we were older now. I can't remember if we got permission, but we took the trip nonetheless.
Billy lived in a different subdivision but went to St. Gerard Majella with us. His subdivision was a little fancier than ours; it even had a fancy name—Bel Aire. Our subdivision didn’t have a name. It was just Old Markham (there wasn’t a New Markham). Billy's subdivision had sidewalks—ours didn’t; but we had ditches—his didn’t.
Billy was one of the kids in our grade who was smaller than me, but he was a gymnast. We didn’t know that’s what it was called back then. We just knew he could do flips and walk on his hands. He could climb flagpoles and wave his body like he was a flag. The Rohrer boys and I couldn’t do any of that, but we liked watching him do it. He also had a pool in his backyard—just in case we happened to get invited to swim. We didn’t call to let him know we were coming. We just decided we wanted to see him, and that it would break up the boredom of that part of the summer.
So, after lunch we set out on our journey. We wore our swimsuits just in case, our white undershirts that doubled as tee shirts in the summer and our baseball hats—that was the standard dress of the summer. We headed out. The walk was kind of an adventure. We were very mindful of the traffic, where we walked, and the signs and stoplights. We kicked a few rocks, told some stories, picked up pieces of wood to see what was underneath—good adventure stuff.
The Rohrer boys were good conversationalists, especially Mike. He was a talker. I remember once sleeping over at their house, and he was telling a story. Then he fell asleep in the middle of it—his own story! When he woke up the next morning, he immediately started where he'd left off 8 hours before—like he didn’t know he'd fallen asleep.
There was an undeveloped section north of 159th Street that was just about a mile or so of prairie. No sidewalk there, just ditch and prairie. The weeds by this time of the summer were up over our heads, and we had to move away from the road and make a little path through weeds and bushes. It added to the adventure, walking these new pathways. As we walked and picked up stuff along the way, we tried to determine if we'd found any treasures. Suddenly, we spotted a magazine and opened it up.
It was a naughty magazine . . . with pictures of things we had never seen before.
Page after page of pictures. To be honest, this was the 60’s, and the magazine wasn’t much worse than network TV nowadays, but at the time it was really something. I don’t think the three of us said a word. We just went page after page with our mouths open. We knew we shouldn’t be looking at it. Our moms would have a fit if they knew. The nuns would have a field day with their punishment—but we kept looking at it. It was so exciting, and it was so naughty. Intoxicating—and we didn't even know what that word meant yet.
This may have been the most exciting thing of the summer—maybe the last couple of summers combined.
Finally, we moved farther away from the road because we didn’t want people driving by to see what we were doing. They would quickly figure out that we were up to no good, because we were.
We quickly realized that we had to figure out what to do with it. On one hand, it was a treasure—better than finding a nickel or even a quarter. Better than finding a candy bar or gum still in the wrapper. We knew we would get in terrible trouble if our moms found out, but we couldn’t just leave it. We couldn’t be seen with it, but we didn’t want anyone else to see it—except a few more of our buddies who could be trusted. We couldn’t take it to Billy Guilfoyle’s house. We knew Billy would like it, but his mom sure wouldn’t—and she was part of the network of moms. If we left it there, it would be littering. What if it got into the wrong hands? What if some kids who weren't responsible like us got their hands on it? Someone might steal it. It was so exciting!
There was no way we could bring it to our houses—way too risky. The nuns would say this proved what they had said all along—all boys are full of naughty thoughts. They would put it on our permanent record, and we would be put on the Permanent Record List, and maybe worse . . .
“Wait until your dad gets home.”
We decided to bring it with us, closer to home where we could hide it and examine it again, because . . . well, because. There was a little tiny part of our conscience that said to get rid of it, to stop looking, but who was gonna listen to that? This had triggered a world we hadn’t even known existed.
We forgot about all else—our morals, our ethics, our upbringing, Billy Guilfoyle, his pool. All was forgotten. All that mattered was what to do with the naughty magazine.
Eventually, one of us came up with the idea of bring it back to another prairie closer to home. Prairies were perfect for exploring and hiding things and doing things that you didn’t want to get caught doing. There was another one only two blocks from the Rohrer boys’ house. It was a whole two square blocks of prairie right in our neighborhood. The weeds were taller than us and there were all kinds of dirt paths and hidden forts, both kid-made and nature made. In the late summer, there were bushy areas that you could crawl into that opened up into hidden forts. They were good secret rendezvous spots for kids to hide out and take refuge. We knew a couple of these secret places that we thought no one else knew about. It would be perfect.
We gave up on Billy Guilfoyle’s house; he didn’t know we were coming anyway. We had to get this back to safety and quick before someone spotted us with it. Mike Rohrer stuffed the magazine under his white tee shirt. The magazine covered his whole torso, and it was pretty obvious he had a magazine under there. We pulled our baseball hats down over our faces, over our ears, so that we wouldn't look like us. We started our walk back home along Kedzie.
We thought that every car that went by knew what we were doing. Mike got a little panicky and didn’t want it under his shirt anymore. Jackie Rohrer took it and put it under his white tee shirt. Jackie was skinnier than Mike, so it kind of wrapped around his torso and looked like he was in an upper body cast from his arm pits to his waist. He got it across 159th Street, but as we moved into our neighborhood, he panicked too. It went under my white undershirt next. I was shorter than both of them and skinnier than both of them, so it wrapped around my torso and stuck up out of the collar like a body cast with a turtleneck. We made sure no pictures were showing.
Once in the prairie, we were pretty well hidden, and we knew the prairie pretty well—at least Mike and Jackie did. I was new to this prairie. We had to watch out for other kids playing. We didn’t want them to track us to our hiding spot, so we split up and worked our way over to one of the bush forts. One drawback to the prairie and the bush forts this time in the summer was there were a lot of Banana Spiders. I wasn’t too keen on those. I thought they were poisonous. Mike and Jackie said that wasn’t true. They said that they were Garden Spiders and that they weren’t poisonous, but I wasn’t buying it. They looked poisonous to me. So, we knocked down their webs and crawled under the bushes into the clearing in the middle. I was a little concerned that we had knocked down the spiderwebs but didn’t know where the spiders went as we crawled along the ground, but the magazine was that good and that naughty.
We tucked the magazine under a board after reviewing it a couple more times to make sure it was all good. And it was good, because it was bad.
We worked our way out of the prairie, taking a different path out than the way we came in, but as we came around a corner, we saw smoke, and as we got closer, there was a fire—some rags and what looked like a rug were on fire. We didn’t know why it was on fire, but we knew this was trouble. Prairie fires were not to be taken lightly, and we knew it.
Our Catholic upbringing made us know that seeing fire after looking at and hiding a naughty magazine—well, this was not very good at all. We had to do something, because the prairie, the neighborhood, and the naughty magazine were all at stake.
We tried to put the fire out, but everything we did made it worse. The fire got bigger, getting more dangerous by the minute—dangerous enough to forget about the naughty magazine. We ran out of the prairie to the nearest house, knocked on the door, and breathlessly tried to tell the lady who answered that the prairie was on fire and to call the fire department. She asked us what we were doing in the prairie, like she knew we were up to no good, but we hadn’t walked by that house with the naughty magazine under our shirts, so she shouldn’t have known we were up to no good—and we weren’t about to tell her THAT.
We made up some story about taking an adventure in there on the paths. It wasn’t not true, but the story was kind of choppy.
”Oh, yeah and then we did this . . . ,” and I would say something and Jackie would say something and Mike would say something and we all kept saying, “Yeah . . . yeah . . . yeah.”
So, she didn’t believe us, but we pointed to the smoke, so she called the Fire Department. She made us stay there until the Fire Department showed up. That didn’t seem very good. But while we waited, the three of us huddled up to get the story straight.
Without the naughty magazine part, we thought we should be heroes, saving the prairie and the neighborhood. We thought when the Fire Department got there, they would recognize our contribution and give us medals—as long as the naughty magazine thing didn’t come up. And if the fire department happened to find the naughty magazine that was hidden in there, nobody saw us put it there, so we wouldn't bring up the magazine and just focus on the hero stuff.
The Rohrer boys could be trusted. I wasn’t so good under pressure, but they were, so we went with the hero theory, and I was supposed to mostly shut up. I started thinking how proud my grandpa would be. He was a Chicago Fireman—actually a fire chief. He used to go on TV on the Ray Raynor Show at Christmastime and talk about the dangers of fire. Maybe I could go on the Ray Raynor Show with him and tell the story—part of the story—just the discovering the fire part of the story. Not the naughty magazine part. He wouldn’t have been so proud of me if he knew about that part.
This could be big as long as not too many questions were asked and if I could just tell the part of the story that didn’t include why we were in the prairie. Yep, it could be big.
When the Firemen got the fire out, they talked to the lady first. There was a pretty big crowd now. We had our story straight, so when they asked us what we saw, we would told them the adventure thing and the discovering the smoke and fire.
But then the lady said, "These boys set the fire."
Well, that’s not what happened at all. We didn’t do that. Sure, there was a naughty magazine that we shouldn’t have been looking at, but nobody knew that yet. We discovered the fire and saved everyone. All of Markham was saved. We didn’t set it, but this grown-up lady accused us, and the firemen believed her. Grownups always believe other grown-ups over kids. We tried to tell our story, but the firemen would have none of it. They wanted our names and addresses to tell our parents that we started the fire in the prairie. I tried to tell them that I understood about the danger of fire and that my grandpa was a fireman—a fire chief. They asked what his name was. I said, “Chief Murphy.” They said they never heard of him, because they were Markham volunteer firemen, not Chicago firemen, but I didn’t really figure that out right away.
They thought we were lying even more, but all of what we said was the truth, leaving out the naughty magazine part, which had not come up. It was all true so far. The firemen brought over a policeman, which I didn’t think was very good at all. I tried to tell the policeman and the firemen about spontaneous combustion, because I had read about it in science, but it's a possibility that I may not have pronounced it correctly. The Rohrer boys were a little faster on their feet than me.
"There were other kids in the prairie," said Mike.
"Did they set the fire?" asked the policeman.
"Probably," said Jackie.
"Did you see them set the fire?" asked the policeman.
"No, but did she see us set the fire?" asked Jackie.
"Well, no," said the lady.
"There's always a bunch of kids in this prairie," said Mike and Jack at the same time.
“There is, and they are all up to no good,” said the lady.
"You're right," said the policeman. "No kids should be in that prairie."
So, nobody believed us, but they couldn’t prove it was us.
The policeman took our names and addresses and told us to stay out of the prairie. Now both the police and the fire department had our names and addresses, and they put us on a list.
On the way home, the Irish Catholic Guilt set in. We were being punished for looking at the naughty magazine. Even worse, we'd hidden it and not thrown it away. God was giving us a sign; fire is one of his big signs. He used it a lot in the Bible when he wasn’t very happy. He'd bypassed the priests and the nuns and decided to give us the sign himself.
This was bad. God giving the signs directly. That’s really bad.
The Banana Spiders were a sign too. And this was the prairie where they caught the snake that bit me a couple of years before, so there were snakes too—another one of God's serious signs. He was getting my attention: Fire. Banana Spiders. Snakes. This was Biblical.
The whole rest of the day and night I waited for the police and the firemen to show up at my door to tell my mom and dad, but they never came. I suppose there were bigger criminals on the South Side of Chicago. It didn’t matter though. The Irish Guilt consumed me. It had gone from guilt to shame. I was starting to go a little crazy—even thinking of ratting myself out.
The next day, the Rohrer boys told me they didn’t get a visit either, and they gave me a talking to about not ratting, because if I ratted on myself I would be ratting on them too. Well, I couldn’t do that. That was breaking the Ratting Code, and that’s super serious. We agreed to never go back to the prairie and to never look at that naughty magazine again.
I thought about telling it in Confession, because that is supposed to stay a secret in the Confessional. What goes on in the Confessional stays in the Confessional. But the next time I went to Confession, I got Father Boyd—the priest who yells out your sins after you say them and then yells, “What’s the matter with you?” Plus, my dad was at Confession with me, and I couldn’t risk all of that getting yelled out with him standing in line. I'd made the mistake a year or two before confessing impure thoughts to Father Boyd because my cousin Tommy Burke tricked me into saying it. I didn’t know what impure thoughts were back then, but after the naughty magazine, I knew what they were now. Back then, Father Boyd started yelling and scared me into saying Agnes Synwelski’s name. Now I could just imagine him yelling out my new sins.
“What do you mean you were looking at a naughty magazine? What were the pictures of?”
“What did they have on?”
“Not very much.”
“What do you mean not very much?”
“Some of them had on outfits.”
“What are you talking about? How many times did you look at the filthy magazine?”
“Four . . . five . . . nine times.”
“Nine times? What’s the matter with you?”
Even though you are not supposed to see who is in the Confessional because there is supposed to be an invisible shield, Father Boyd always knew, and with the impure thoughts and Agnes and now a naughty magazine, well it seemed prudent to hold that one back.
I never went back to that prairie again. That naughty magazine was a guilty pleasure, and the keyword in Guilty Pleasure is Guilty. Sometimes the pleasure gets the better of us, but it always leads back to the guilt.
I guess times haven’t changed so much. Watching the TV news nowadays, somebody is always trying to accuse somebody of doing something—even if they didn’t do it, but justifying it with predisposed, “They were up to no good.” They probably were guilty of something else, but somebody is always trying to make them guilty of what they want them to be guilty of, and we are all guilty until proven innocent—that’s for sure. Like the nuns used to say, boys were guilty of something even if they couldn’t prove it.
I’m thinking of telling the story to Father Pat. It should be past the Statute of Limitations by now, although I am not sure that that principle applies to sins. I think sins have "born on" dates but no "expiration dates." I am a little concerned, though. Father Pat has been blocking my emails. I don’t know why. I must be on some kind of list.
Aw, no. The nuns said there was a list. The Permanent Record List. Fire . . . banana spiders
. . . snakes. There is going to be hell to pay. Damn.
Tim Murphy grew up on the south side of Chicago in a home filled with Catholic Irish traditions. He has kissed the Blarney Stone and been given the gift of storytelling. He attended Catholic Grade School, public high school and a Lutheran College—which perhaps has shaped his somewhat irreverent style. In his sixty-four years, he has received many blessings, and despite his misbehavior, they seem to keep coming.