Dec. 16, 1960, was my 14th birthday, and death day for 135 as United collided with TWA in the sky over New York. The United DC-8 screamed like a giant buzz-bomb into Sterling Place, near Seventh Avenue, a block of brownstone homes in the Park Slope section of the greatest borough on earth – Brooklyn – smashing Pillar of Fire Church to kingdom come.
All 50 freshmen in Room 205 at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School leapt in unison from their seats, rushing to the windows above Vanderbilt Avenue in a hopeless effort to see, at that moment, the worst air disaster in history. The plane had crashed about a dozen long blocks away.
The rest of the day is a blur but for the rock-jawed principal, La Salle Christian Brother Stephen Basil, leading the 800 young men scattered throughout school in prayer for the possible recovery _ but if not that, for the eternal repose _ of those poor souls. His deep tones resonating through the public-address system sounded to me like the voice of Moses. Brother Stephen spoke with authority always.
Loughlin was extraordinary. It had nothing and everything all at once. Four stories of that blond brick that the American Catholic Church must’ve bought on special – since it seemed that every Catholic edifice erected after 1930 was made of the stuff – Loughlin was private and free. Despite its dearth of facilities, it was a scholarship school that, nearly every time in nearly every arena, would lift its head triumphantly. No matter if it were the math club, the school paper, track, basketball or bowling, when the points were counted, Loughlin finished at the top, or a breath behind.
Here’s a quick example: Water polo. The guys from my class played in a league otherwise composed of college teams. They played West Point, for crying out loud! Loughlin won the championship. They didn’t even have a school pool; they used the one down at the Y on Hanson Place. The Olympics invited the entire team to try out! If you made it through Loughlin, you graduated a winner. I didn’t, but that’s another story.
Loughlin faculty required respect but infused responsibility. Senior student councilors each sported a name-tag badge of office. They carried citation books, to issue tickets to anyone caught breaking school rules. Getting a ticket meant appearing in student court to plead your case before student judges, who determined culpability and who either cut you loose or imposed sentence. Punishment usually meant writing out the relevant page of the school handbook an impressive number of times.
Egregious offenses required doing so in Technicolor, where every other word must be written in different colored ink, using a minimum of three colors.
My brother Chip graduated from Loughlin the year before I enrolled. I idolized and emulated my brother to the point of trying to pass myself off to new friends as “Skip.”
Fear struck suddenly, the very first week of freshmen year, when two badged seniors strode into Mr. Gehm’s algebra class. They asked for FitzGerald. Walking slowly from my desk to meet the two seniors waiting in the hall, I desperately plowed my memory to discover what offense I had committed for which I now faced reckoning.
While I generally carried a guilty conscience at any random moment, I could think of nothing and, therefore, of no excuse.
Too late; we were now face-to-face in the hall. One guy did all the talking.
“You Jerry FitzGerald?”
Pointing to his badge, he said, “You know what this is?”
“Chip FitzGerald’s a very good friend of mine. You ever see any guy wearing one of these badges give you a hard time, or try to give you a ticket, tell him come see me.”
Then he told me his name, despite my having immediately memorized it off his badge.
We shook hands and I returned to class walking on air, holding in my rebellious heart what amounted to a free pass through June.
Forty-one years later, to the week, on Sept. 11, 2001, I thought of that boy in the hall as I watched news reports of two airliners deliberately slammed by chanting fanatics into the Twin Towers, murdering thousands. The face of that boy in the hall became familiar throughout the entire world for his exemplary leadership of the City of New York following the worst air disaster in history. He was knighted by the queen of England.
Sir Rudy Giuliani.
(Gerald FitzGerald is a writer and a Massachusetts state prosecutor.)