Bad memories: St. Catherine’s Military Academy

I endured ages 11 through 13 at a Catholic military boarding school in Anaheim, Calif. It’s right across the freeway from Disneyland, and I still remember watching the fireworks through barred windows. (No, I am not crying right now.) A few weeks ago as I drove south on I-5, I something told me to turn left on Harbor Blvd.

Twenty-three years after I graduated, St. Catherine’s is a kinder, gentler hell. The kids no longer wear uniforms every day, and corporal punishment is a big no-no. Back in 1983 we’d do 100 pushups and get our asses kicked on a normal day. If you only got the pushups or the ass-kicking, it was a special day.

Cadets prepare for afternoon drill. Thankfully, I played trumpet in the band, so I got to stay inside. I can still feel every military march in my lips and fingers.

My need for external validation started here. I won the circled awards, including the school’s highest honor, the American Legion award. The other awards didn’t exist in my time. “Am I worthy? … What about now?” (No, I’m not crying.)

So you’re 6 or 7 or 11 years old, and your parents drop you off here. “See you next week.” (OK, now I’m crying.)

Unspeakable horrors. How about lining everyone up and awarding points to the company that undressed fastest.

As the batallion bugler, I played reveille every morning and taps every night. The way taps echoed down these halls … haunting.

On his first day, every cadet pees in these sinks. They look like urinals, don’t they?
9 replies
  1. FMJeff says:

    Ok..looked at this a couple of times now and still can’t figure out what to say, other than your one hell of a guy to hang out with and one of the few I consider a true friend. Some achive greatness because, and others in spite of.

  2. scott says:

    New Mexico Military institute sophmore year of high school (oh to be labeled a “discipline problem”), learned just how much trouble 600 school age kids can get into. To say nothing of becoming an expert at manufacturing mortars our of tin budweiser cans and lighter fluid, a neccessary skill for the Denver suburbans in the 70’s. Scott

  3. Kerry Wood says:

    approximately 1300 words
    ©Kerry M. Wood

    Whenever I tell people about having been sent off to a Catholic military boarding school at the age of four, they make assumptions. The first is that my parents were cruel and heartless. The other is that my brother and I must have been children of monstrous depravity and in need of the harshest course of remediation. Neither assumption is accurate.
    In September of l942, our family was living in what was then Lakewood Village, a suburb of Long Beach. To me at first the war meant only lots of searchlights in the night sky, blackout curtains, and a huge camouflage tent covering Douglas Aircraft Company and the section of Lakewood Boulevard that ran through it. A few forts with anti-aircraft weapons and bored soldiers occupied some of the previously vacant lots of Lakewood. Dad was issued a tin hat, a whistle, and a gas mask, all of which hung in the front closet and never moved for the Duration.
    Both Mom and Dad had to work—often on different shifts. There was a succession of housekeeper/baby sitters who looked after Kevin and me during my parents’ working hours, but such arrangements were fraught with problems. The solution arrived at may seem odd at this remove in time, but wartime logic was then at work. Signal Hill oil, the Long Beach Naval Air Station and Douglas Aircraft Company, and the Port of Long Beach were considered reasonable targets for Japanese aggression. Kevin was ready to start first grade, and St. Catherine’s Military School was located in the safe orange groves of Anaheim some fifteen miles away. Both Mom and Dad were convinced of the superiority of Catholic Schooling over public schooling, and being able to board us under the care of the nuns was an answer to the child care problems. So Kevin and I were outfitted in uniforms at Desmond’s department store and sent off to boarding school– I at the age of four! We would be able to go home on Sundays, except for month-end, when we would be free both Saturday and Sunday. Kevin, age six, would begin first grade. Arrangements were made so that I could remain for the first year in the dormitory with the nun in charge of “the Juniors.” I would start first grade the following year at age five..
    The novelty of uniforms and learning to march wore off quickly. I lived for Sundays when I could be with my parents. They would pick Kevin and me up in the morning after mass, and often we would ride the rides at the Pike, Long Beach’s amusement park, or go to a war movie. Joy would ebb rapidly during the evening ride back to the school. I would listen to Eddie Cantor and Jimmy Fidler on the car radio but pretend to be asleep. I always thought that if I was asleep Mom and Dad wouldn’t wake me and make me go back. Tears would commence as I left the car and we all walked to the school reception building. Jolly Captain Murphy, the school’s commandant, would try to cajole me but would fail. Murphy was succeeded in my second year by a stern, Major Schmitt. He had dark, burning eyes and deep lines down his cheeks. They were smile lines when he spoke to the parents, but he never smiled at us.
    In later years my mother would claim that eventually I got used to the situation and would return to the dorm laughing gaily. My memory is of four years of tearful Sunday nights. Mom and Dad would lean out from the ground floor balcony area so that Kevin and I could wave a last goodbye to them after climbing the stairs to the third floor dormitory, where eventually I would sob myself to sleep.
    Time has dimmed my memory, but one incident lives on and I may not have fully recovered from its effects. I was five and had finally started first grade. The dress uniforms no longer had the heavy leather belt with the big brass buckle that I see in 1942 pictures. In 1943 they went to a cloth belt matching the color and material of the uniform. Otherwise this all wouldn’t have happened.
    It was a glorious Sunday morning. I would be going home for the day! We would be having a huge midday dinner at Grandpa and Grandma’s. There would be special treats and presents because my birthday was coming up the next week while I would be at school, so this was the day to celebrate it.. And there would be brand new kittens to play with—if I was very careful. When I was home last Sunday I had noticed how fat Smokey was, and Daddy had told me she would be having babies any day. I couldn’t wait to see them!
    As always happened when I was excited, I got a knot in my shoe lace when I was putting on my uniform shoes. But Sister Sophia with her long fingernails was able to get it out and I was dressed in time to get in formation and march to mass in the chapel. I filed into a pew with the others and waited impatiently for the ceremony to begin. I heard Mommy cough from the rear of the church behind the rows of nuns where there was space for the parents who had come to collect their children for the day. I knew she had coughed on purpose so I would know she was there. Daddy was not a Catholic and would be waiting outside in Old Betsy and reading a pocketbook.
    Finally mass started and it seemed to drag more than usual because I was so excited to be on my way with Kevin and my parents. Communion always took a long time. The eighth graders marched to the railing in groups, hands clasped in front of their belts and elbows swinging in rhythm. They were followed by the seventh graders and on down the grades. My grade had not yet made First Communion. Then the nuns all took communion, walking to and from the altar rail with heads bowed and without the swagger of the students.
    Ten or fifteen minutes later I heard my favorite Latin phrase. Ite missa est. The mass is ended. And I whispered with feeling, “Deo gratias.” Thanks be to God. Filing out of the chapel, I heard Mommy cough again and caught a glimpse of her smiling first at Kevin and then at me. Now all that remained was inspection by Major Schmitt and we were free for the day.
    Being among the youngest and shortest of the Juniors, I was in the first rank of our company. Our commander called us to attention and we clicked our heels and stood as we had been taught—shoulders back, chest out, stomach in, feet at a forty-five degree angle. Major Schmitt started walking toward me from the end of the first file, looking at each student with that frowning face. He paused when he came to my position. I saw a muscle jerking in his jaw. He seemed to be thinking hard about something. Then he stuck out his arm and his finger touched my uniform belt at my side. I looked down and saw that the belt was twisted.“Step out,” he ordered.
    I was sent back to the dorm. Mommy and Daddy begged Major Schmitt to let me go home, but he said that I had to learn to be a soldier. Mommy and Daddy decided that if I couldn’t go home, then Kevin should stay at school too so maybe I wouldn’t feel so bad.. .Kevin was not pleased.
    I stood at the third floor dormitory window until I saw our blue Plymouth drive out the school driveway. I wondered if Mommy was crying too. I hoped she was.

  4. Daniel Almada says:

    I actually had a great time in SCMS.

    I attended the 7th and 8th grade and was the S-1 (I forgot what it stands for) so I got to sleep in HQ Company (Headquarters, formerly known as Echo Company) where there were only members of the staff.

    I made a lot of friends, some of whom I still talk to by MSN or email and still 13 years later still have great memories of that hellhole.

  5. Hynes says:

    I’ve been a teacher at SCMA for more than 10 years now. I have found that the cadets who hate us had problems with discipline. If you were brigade bugler, you had a great opportunity to take advantage of a great education. You had priviledges others did not. It’s too bad you can’t remember the good. Remember…your parents sent you to us for a reason!

  6. leelikesbikes says:

    Thanks for sharing that perspective.

    I didn’t have problems with discipline/authority. On the contrary, I worked very hard to please my superiors. Hence the rank of Band Lieutenant (before I came along band members topped out at Master Sergeant) — and a lifetime of trying to please others. 24 years later I’m just starting to untangle that stuff.

    I did learn a lot at SCMA, and it helped make me what I am. Both the healthy and the not-so-healthy.

    Thanks again,

    — Lee

  7. NomadMan says:

    Hey Mr. Haynes
    I guess being a teacher would make you right in your own mind especially when your trying to protect a system that fortunately out of date. I hope your not endorsing what was done during that time. I’m not surprised that you put all the blame on a five year old and not even consider what year he’s speaking of. I’m interested in what few privileges you would think a five year old would have in those years. I don’t know Kerry but I thank him for sharing something so personal that it still feels like yesterday to him …


  8. Joe Granda says:

    I have to say my childhood wasnt like most other kids so when i showed up at SCMS it took me about 1 year there to figure out how to get away with “almost” anything “was cought more than once” that being said i had some of the best times of my youth at SCMS. Not many kids can say that they had a target range on campus and cant wait to get out of class to go shoot with friends or that there was a ghost in their hallways/boiler room/elevator”nun was crushed by this elevator i was there!”. Or the joy of going to take a piss before formation and having the great misfortune of happening to see all the nuns in the pool 🙁 Yes, SCMS was a character builder for sure! In the end SCMS was a great experience and i would never trade it for anything else. Thank you SCMS i got straightened out. HYNES if the cadets hate you theres probably something wrong with you that they see and dont like”kids see through adults”.. even the craziest cadets dont a have problem with authority just ppl..its whos telling you to not do something that is the problem “this does not work with kids who are mentally unstable, only normal crazy”.. knowing this has helped me a lot at work

    P.S Anyone remember walking to chapel and seeing 8 bottles of empty cheep church wine outside Monsignor Keynans room that he solo finished?

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