Every now and then, I look at this picture. It was taken in 1969 during my senior prom. It was supposed to be of my date and me – one for the ages, one of those stunning photos that you marvel at forty or fifty years later. But just before it was snapped something landed on my shoulder. I turned to see someone’s chin. Then, that wide grin I’d come to know over four years at Archbishop Williams High School. It belonged to Phil Rando, photo-crasher.
“Archies” was a Catholic High School in Braintree, Massachusetts, run by nuns with long, black, flowing robes and cloud-white wimples. In 1965, when I was a freshman, several of the more intimidating sisters patrolled the school auditorium during Mass, eyeballing the crowd for mischief-makers.
I first met Phil at one of these Masses. I remember taking the end-row seat next to him as a vigilant nun studied us. “Careful, he warned.”Deputy Dog is watching you.”
It was at that Mass that a stolen communion host was being passed up and down the rows. I hesitated in taking it when it reached me; I knew this was one of those venial-bordering-on-mortal-sin moments. Yet, caving to the pressure, I reluctantly took it and stared at the freshly snatched bread.
For a few seconds, I was hypnotized; time stood still. Even the rattle of rapidly approaching rosary beads could not break the spell; I was like a deer in headlights. It was an all-points nun alert and they were headed my way. That’s when Rando scooped up the white-hot loot from my hand and popped it into his mouth. When the dust had finally settled, he grinned and said, “I was hungry.”
Truth is, Phil Rando was always hungry. Like a magician, he’d pull a sandwich out of his suit coat pocket every morning and eat it in Spanish class. And, at lunch in the cafeteria, he’d get a full tray of hot food with two desserts. When the dessert was cake, however, frosting would mysteriously appear in last-period chemistry class between the pages of science books – sometimes mine.
We spent our after-lunch break walking around the school building in those days. We talked about all kinds of things like boat shows, the Red Sox, or what we’d do after graduation.
One time, we talked about Spanish class. I was having a difficult time trilling my “r”s.
“All you have to know about Spanish, Ricardo,” he’d say, the r rolling perfectly off his tongue, “is que pasa. Know that and you’ll always know ‘what’s happening’.”
Months later, he surprised me when I had gotten to school early to prepare for a class presentation. I was practicing my speech when a desk moved in the back of the room.
“Que pasa, Ricardo,” he said, his head rising from behind a chair. I remember his grin and a powdered cruller.
Phil Rando loved boating and the ocean. Those loves, along with his family and friends, kept him in the Kingston area most of his life. I admired his loyal ties to the South Shore.
Unlike Phil, I jumped around from place to place after graduation. We didn’t see each other much after our twenties. Before email, there were long stretches of time between our talks. Whenever he called me, though, it was just what I needed – a laugh, some advice or encouraging words. And he always opened with: “Hey, Ricardo, que pasa?”
When I’d tell him of a new job in Arizona or Texas or Oklahoma, he’d say, “I don’t know how you do it. I could never move like that.”
Yet, he was always interested in where I was and what I was doing. Earlier this year, we didn’t really talk about my latest endeavor of teaching at a college. Instead, we spoke of his determination to beat his cancer – and when he did, how he and his wife would retire to Florida for some serious boating.
In a few days, I’ll show up early to a classroom in Nebraska to prepare for my first class of the semester. No, I’m not expecting to find frosting in a book or desks that move. But I have a feeling he’ll be around, over my shoulder, in my thoughts…
Que pasa, Felipe? I’ll miss you.