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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Conversions

I became close with Eddie O'Fallon over the ensuing summer. He grew up with seven other siblings, yet despite (or because of) this cramped atmosphere, Eddie remained generally unfazed by the world’s inconveniences. He wasn’t very good at his studies, but that didn’t seem to bother him very much either. While I frustrated our third grade teacher with being uninterested in Halloween, Eddie inspired similar feelings because of his reluctance to study. But he wasn’t dumb.

He actually possessed a near-photographic memory. He was certainly as obsessive about football I was; he had memorized the names of all the Vikings' starting receivers, dating back to the early 1960s. He loved the Minnesota Vikings (which was strange for a Long Island boy) in a way that was more spiritual and sincere than Jake Walsh’s ephemeral interest in the Denver Broncos. Mrs. Donato didn’t ask him why he never concentrated such skills on learning the names of Spanish explorers, but then I don’t think she knew he had such a great memory.


Eddie loved the Vikings’ receivers, Ahmad Rashad and Sammy White. He loved to say the name Ahmad Rashad. I kept asking him what it meant, the name. Ahmad Rashad.

“It’s Mothlem,” he said, ssing a little through his very pronounced lisp. The school regarded it as a speech impediment, one that had so far defied every form of academic treatment. It seems funny to imagine blithely happy Eddie O’Fallon as the toughest case in speech therapy.

“He uthed to have a different name,” Eddie said. “Like Cathius Clay did.”

“Like who?” I asked, thumbing through his older brother’s copy of a 1972 NFL stamp collector’s book. That book was amazing.
“Whathtamatta with you? Don’t you know Cathius Clay?”
I wasn’t looking.

Lookit me,” he said.
I did. Eddie said things with such sincerity it was impossible not to respond.
“Muhammad Ali?” he asked.
“Yeah?” I asked.
“Was a guy named Cathius Clay. Don’t you know that?”

I didn’t. It was utterly startling. I must have sat there speechless for a moment.
“Are you OK?” Eddie asked.
“Why?” I asked.
“Why what?”
“Why’d he change his name?” I asked.
“Because he became Mothlem,” Eddie said.
“What’s that?”

He circled his eyes round the room in despair. “I told you. Ittha religion. Like Jeethuth.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Only different.”

Neither Eddie nor I were at liberty to discuss how Christ did not play a part in Ithlam. However, the concept of changing one’s name to suit a religious transformation fascinated us, so he and I experimented with changing religions and, therefore, names. I said I would change my name to Origami Sylvester. I loved the word origami, and there was no better name than Sylvester.
Eddie chose Ahmad Orenthal. He couldn’t let go of Ahmad, while the surname was the “O” in "O.J." Simpson, of course. There was nothing to besmirch O.J.’s name in 1978, other than the fact that he was literally on his last legs in the 49ers’ backfield.

“What religion do we change to?” I asked once we signed our new names in blood.

It was a good question. Then Eddie gave me a look that conveyed that the answer was in front of us the whole time. He slapped my arm. His look was Why didn't I think of this earlier?

“Jehovath Witneth!”

A friend at school named Oscar Sanchez had brought in what looked like little pink Bibles, and we quietly read these together in class during “USSR” time, which stood for “Uninterrupted, Sustained, Silent Reading.” Oscar told us they were Bibles, at least. In the back of the class, he sometimes read stories to us about Jehovah, which he said was another name for Jesus. Sounded great. Even Paul Pacelli got into the act.

Although small, Pauly Pacelli had the physique of a rugged 30 year-old Sicilian fisherman. In gym class, I noticed that each of the muscles of his arms, shoulder and stomach were already well defined. He had a potentially emasculating name, but if you decided to point that out to him he would put you in a headlock until you passed out. However, Pauly's home life was problematic. While riding my bike one afternoon, I passed by Pauly’s house and saw his father - a slightly taller, slightly more muscular version of Pauly - standing on a stepladder against the house. I heard him make a noise of discontent. Aaaarrrgghh. At the bottom of the ladder were Pauly's mother and Pauly himself.

Mrs. Pacelli called up to her husband, saying, “I know you see her so just admit it!” I reckoned this meant Pauly's father could actually see a woman on the other side of the house from where he stood.

Pauly's dad responded by looking down toward his son. “Pauly?” he said with some relish, “Tell your mother she's fuckin’ paranoid."

And this Pauly did, probably knowing as little of its meaning as I. This little window into Pauly's world made me feel mysteriously sad for him, even if he had sometimes used my head as a knuckle sharpener at recess. I knew that Dad would never have spoken to Mom that way. And perhaps because of his sufferings, Pauly seemed to take to Oscar’s “Bible” teachings with real openness.


Our reading circle came to an end however when Eddie went to his Mom and told her that he was changing his name in order to become a Jehovah’s Witness, despite the fact that such a thing was not a requirement for conversion. He assumed that he’d be respected for making a sincere religious choice, just as Ahmad Rashad had been. This was America, after all. I had warned him that informing his mother about our reading group wouldn’t be a good idea, for I was learning that letting mothers in on plans generally didn’t result in anything good. Sure enough, Mrs. O’Fallon called both Mom and Mrs. Pacelli to report the scandal of secret Jehovah’s Witnesses proselytizing in the public schools. Eddie and I had to keep our Christian names, and Pauly Pacelli - who years later would spend a decade at Riker’s Island for attempted robbery, assault and possession of cocaine with intent to sell - was probably deprived of his only real chance at a spiritually edifying life.

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