By Tim Hayes

Every now and then, you just get skunked. With no time for adequate preparation, you end up improvising, making do with what’s on hand. Occasionally you get lucky and it works out, but most times the resulting lack of quality pretty much matches the lack of foresight and forethought.

This dictum holds true in business, government, families, relationships, and – recalling one rather memorable instance – even in an otherwise harmless classroom assignment.

Somewhere around the midpoint of my eight years of Catholic grade school education, Sister gave us a rather interesting project to complete for homework. She granted a two-week period in which to get the thing done, so you knew this was going to require some planning and careful execution.

The assignment? To build a complete rosary, using anything we wanted for the beads. That didn’t sound so tough.

As background, a Roman Catholic rosary – derived from the Latin for “ring of roses” – has been used for centuries to help believers pray and meditate on events from the Gospel. It has 59 beads and a crucifix, arranged in a set order, each representing a prayer to be said in sequence until the rosary has been completed.

As standard-issue, 10-year-old American boys at the time, my buddies and I got the assignment from Sister, went home from school, and promptly and completely forgot about it.

Forgot about it until the Sunday afternoon when, while playing touch football in the field behind the houses in our neighborhood, one of us Geniuses for Jesus remembered that Sister expected to collect our homemade rosaries the next morning, that is. At which point we scattered in panic, each Goomba of the Gospel left to his own devices in creating this last-minute masterpiece.

Running toward a neighbor’s back yard gate (cutting through the yard representing the quickest way to my house), I stopped to look at the tree just next to the fence. We had climbed this tree countless times, but I viewed it this day in an entirely new way.

The tree grew a red berry of some sort. You couldn’t eat it, a lesson we had learned the hard way. They carried sort of a strange, bitter smell, as well. We called them hozzleberries. Don’t ask me why; I couldn’t tell you. The name just seemed to fit, is all.

Scads of them hung on scores of branches above me, and at the time of year this adventure happened, the hozzleberries looked nice and firm. Certainly I could harvest 59 of them and find a way to string them together to make my all-natural, environmentally friendly rosary. A couple of Popsicle sticks for the crucifix, and I’d be golden, baby.

And best of all, it would blow Sister’s doors off Monday morning. I’d be the talk of St. Joe’s School for weeks.

Five hours in the cellar, an unbelievable and unwashable red-stained mess, and a hell of lot more than 59 hozzleberries, later – the thing finally got finished. I dumped the hozzleberry rosary into a Kroger’s grocery paper bag, rolled the top of the bag to close it up tight, and went to bed.

Monday morning as I took my seat, sealed-up Kroger’s bag on the floor beside me, little did I suspect the bedlam soon to be unleashed. Sister asked each student to stand up, display their rosary, describe the material used for the beads, and explain why that material had been chosen.

Some girls had used cotton balls or yarn. Some guys used bottle caps or pennies. Pshaw! Kid stuff. Rookies. Amateurs. Wait ‘til everybody gets a load of THIS stunner. Grade school greatness, here I come. Glistening with eager expectation, at last my big moment had arrived.

As I picked up that Kroger’s bag, I noticed a huge stain across the bottom. Hmm, that’s weird. Wonder what that’s about. But hey, too late now. Here we go!

When I got to the front of the room and opened that dripping paper sack, the reason for the goop instantly became apparent to the 30-plus Catholic children and lone adult in that room.

The hozzleberries had fermented overnight, decomposing with alarming speed. My awesome rosary had turned into something you wanted to take out behind the barn and shoot in the head. The stink became suffocating. The punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah come to life in a Pittsburgh parochial school classroom!

Sister instructed me to immediately take my project down to the basement incinerator for proper burial.

It blew Sister’s doors off, all right. And they sure were talking about me in the halls of St. Joe’s for weeks. The stench may have lasted even longer than that.

Even the incinerator looked pissed when I tossed the sack of rotting rosary beads into its flames. Either that, or I had drifted into some psychedelic hallucinogenic mind trip from inhaling hozzleberry fumes wafting out of that Kroger’s bag while on the way down to the basement.

Good thing this happened in the early ‘70s, or else Father up at the rectory may have been visited with an airborne pollution emissions violation from the EPA, as the hozzlesmoke went up the chimney. Good God, did those things stink.

Moral of the story? Prepare, prepare, prepare. Unless you want to achieve legendary status for all the wrong reasons.

And, by all means, leave those hozzleberries be, up in a tree.

Copyright 2020 Tim Hayes