In Kindergarten and First Grade at Lafayette Elementary School in the mid 1950s I recall being served graham crackers with the small square carton of milk as AB mentioned. There was a big comfort factor in that daily snack ritual. The texture of the graham cracker washed down with a chug of milk was better than eating the white paste or chewing on the modeling clay. Though the small opening at the top of the carton prevented the development of dunking even a quarter square of Graham Cracker into the milk. That habit had to be perfected after school in the privacy of one’s home. I recall with great delight my younger sister and I dunking and fishing out soggy Graham Crackers from our milk glasses. Sometimes things degenerated into a sort of soupy orgy where we experimented by finding out how many Graham Crackers we could stuff into a small glass of milk until the glass turned to the consistency of porridge. Then we’d enjoy spooning it out and eating it.
Those small square milk cartons provided another wonderful challenge. I remember in the primary grades, first at Lafayette and then Saint Thomas the Apostle, being really impressed by the older kids who had mastered the art of being able to create a distinct and loud pop when they crushed their empty milk cartons with a stomp of their foot. As we matriculated through the elementary grades the skill level and volume produced from stomping cartons correspondingly increased. It was a distinct act of achievement for the person, usually a guy, who managed to create the noisiest pop. Though I do recall a lunch period once, in 4th or 5th grade, when either Maureen Lennon or Kathleen Connolly landed her foot just right, and with the acoustics conditions perfect, produced the ‘atomic bomb’ of all POPS! The noise that was generated stopped everyone at play, in the immediate vicinity, in their tracks. We turned and looked in the direction of this great explosion and saw someone in a white blouse and plaid skirt, her white socks and brown on white saddle shoe still resting upon the squashed carton. A small squirt of milk dribbled across the pavement. When we lined up at the end of lunch recess you could sense that the boys in our class had a new appreciation for a classmate they never even realized was a contender. We already knew and respected the girls for their prowess in Dodge Ball, Four Square, and Relay Racing. But, finding out that they could flatten a milk carton with the best of them was cause for needing to redefine the nature of our universe.
What was done with the flattened milk carton? Convention had it that the act was followed up with a ritualized picking up of the flattened carton and a slightly exaggerated walk to the garbage can and thoughtful dropping of it over the rim and into a rusted, smelly, 55 gallon drum. This theatrical act had to be performed lacking any skulky attitude usually mitigated any feathers that may have been ruffled among the powers that be. The noise created by stomping the carton flat regularly earned a wary glance from the nuns who were on yard duty. In that era, the very act of a public disruption at a Catholic school by simply popping a milk carton brought the perpetrator right to the close edge of what was considered poor conduct. So long as a student didn’t pop their carton too close to deaf, dumb, and blind Sister Florentine, who was at least two and a half centuries old, they could expect at worst a glance of warning disapproval. But it is human nature to push the margins of the known and approved standards of performance. History shows that for those who try many earn only the wages of their excessive sinfulness. In our small world at that time Terry Collins set a level of persistence that was both admirable and horrifying to the rest of us plebeians. Terry mastered the art of launching flattened milk cartons with a wicked side armed throw that sent them sailing with line drive accuracy across the entire black top from the 8th Grade play area to the 1st Grade yard. Most of the time Terry launched his payload and immediately turned his back and reengaged with his alibi activity. Thus he didn’t witness himself the beauty and touchdown of his mission. His reward was in the reputation that he earned among his mates at play. The nuns never suffered fools nor tricksters lightly. They had Terry on their radar for a number of behavioral infractions.
So it came to pass that one day a milk carton was frisbeed across the yard to plunk one of the nuns on their white breast plate. The yard whistle to “freeze in your tracks” was blown and the nuns culled the likely suspects from among a population of white shirted, salt & pepper trousered boys. I didn’t know and never wanted to find out what went on when the penguins sequestered their prey in the confines of the principal’s office. Darkness sets in and the mind lurches into a mode of anguished fear. One moment the world was relatively happy and free and then instantly the abyss of despair clouded over everything. Many of my six years of parochial education felt like that each and every day. My social behavior was tempered differently and among the strict authority and structure set by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet I learned stealth and flew below the radar of their troubling attention. I honed my skill craft to a level of cleverness such that even when I did rarely host ‘bad thoughts’ and perpetrated a small act of trespass I could bank on my innocent reputation and remain above suspicion. As is true of many arts, when you really know the rules then, maybe, you can successfully break them.
As my classmates and I trudged back up the stairs after the roundup of suspects we all knew what was coming. Whether the perpetrator fessed up to flinging the carton that had bopped the nun or not all the boys in my class knew that we’d be staying after school in detention. It was only a matter of how long our sentence would be. For two weeks we watched the girls at the 3:10 dismissal bell settle books back beneath the lift tops of their desks, place their homework into their Pee-Chee folio folders and walk out the classroom door to freedom. The boys were punished for being boys, we stayed until 4:00 with our hands folded on our desk, our feet square on the tile floor, and our back flat against the back of our desk seat. We couldn’t talk nor could we do our homework. Those of us who had sports, service activities, or paper routes to attend to had the shame of explaining our collective culpability. In the minds of the nuns this form of group punishment was somehow supposed to develop individual character and create a peer group of the innocent into coercing the troublemakers into better behavior. It never worked, not once, ever! We all sucked it up and suffered together. It was bad enough how slow time passed during the school day, but that hour of detention defied the physical science of time. Not even Jack “Dragnet” Webb with his greasy hands on the clanging hammer and stamp of his production logo could have perpetrated a greater hell than those countless lost hours of our young lives. “In the matter of the boy who flung the crushed milk carton that smashed into the breast plate of ‘a member of the community’ the sentence passed by the court of penguins is: “Anyone in the 4th grade wearing salt & pepper pants in the vicinity of the said crime is guilty and should stay after school for 2 weeks.”
What actually happened in this case seeped out in dribs and drabs over the course of a couple of recess periods. Frank Ordaz, one of the quietest and nicest guys in the class, had been shown by his uncles how to stomp and fling a milk carton. Frank was only sharing his new skills with a couple of pals after they’d eaten their baloney sandwiches at lunch on that fateful day. It was with utter horror to Frank and his friends that they watched his first public fling of a milk carton fly on a collision trajectory with Sister Patricia Hell-on-Earth.