Posted by: M. J. Arcangelini | January 5, 2010

PNIGNOPHOBIA

St. Colman's Roman Catholic Church - Cleveland, Ohio - Thanksgiving morning, 2010

Even though I was raised a meatless Friday Catholic, I did not like fish and would avoid eating it whenever I could, including Fridays. I didn’t like any fish. Not fish sticks. Not salmon patties nor loaf. Not even the baked or fried fish Nana made for certain holidays. (Somehow canned tuna didn’t count. I liked that.) This could have had to do with the fact that I had never, at that point, been presented with a piece of fish which hadn’t been canned, chopped-n-formed, frozen or in some other way dramatically processed. I didn’t have what I consider to be my first real taste of fresh, swimming-in-the-ocean-this-morning fish until Oregon in 1973.*

Then again, this aversion could have been due to my terror of choking on a fish bone.  Pnignophobia** (the unnatural fear of choking, in my case on a fish bone) was yet another gift from the catholic church, along with internalized homophobia, my sense of innate superiority over other people, and my fear that my grandfather was in hell because he never went to mass on Sunday.

St. Colman's - Cleveland - Thanksgiving morning, 2010

Here’s how it went: once a year, on February 3, the Feast of Saint Blase, we had to get up extra early and go to church before school. I remember St. Colman’s most clearly for this ritual, although I was only there for grades 1-3 (1958-61) and I’m sure it continued after I transferred to Annunciation.  St. Colman’s was an old, concrete and stone church on West 65th Street in Cleveland.  It was full of shadows and dark corners which held the winter cold almost affectionately against all attempts to introduce warmth. There we would kneel at the periphery of the altar area, where we knelt for communion, and the priest would come down the line with two altar boys. The altar boys each carried a long white candle with gold designs on it, stylized crucifixes, and they would cross them at our throats. The priest would briefly touch the place where the crossed candles met our throats, would mumble some Latin (they probably use English now***, if it is still done at all) and thereby bless our throats to protect them from deadly fishbones. This is all there was too it except, of course, for the fishbone story, which the priest would tell before he began the ritual blessing.

CatholicCulture.org says:  “Saint Blase was the bishop of Sebaste in Armenia during the fourth century. Very little is known about his life. According to various accounts he was a physician before becoming a bishop. His cult spread throughout the entire Church in the Middle Ages because he was reputed to have miraculously cured a little boy who nearly died because of a fishbone in his throat. From the eighth century he has been invoked on behalf of the sick, especially those afflicted with illnesses of the throat.”

The Roman Martyrology seems to be more interested in the graphic details of martyrdom than miracles: “At Sebaste in Armenia, in the time of the governor Agricolaus, the passion of St. Blase, bishop and martyr, who, after working many miracles, was scourged for a long time, suspended from a tree where his flesh was lacerated with iron combs.  He was then imprisoned in a dark dungeon, thrown into a lake from which he came out safe, and finally, by order of the judge, he and two boys were beheaded.  Before him, seven women who were gathering the drops of his blood during his torture, were recognized as Christians, and after undergoing severe torments, were put to death by the sword.”

“He and two boys…”?  Oh, well…

The priest could milk the story for all it was worth: the pitiful young boy choking on a fish bone in front of friends and family, including his helpless mother (this being well before Heimlich); the arrival of the strong, virtuous holy man who takes pity on the dying youth, who had always been such a good boy.   Saint Blase appealing eloquently to Jesus as he places his hand on the young boy’s smooth throat.  I could see the poor boy, writhing in convulsing, panicked anguish, being calmed by the mere touch of the priestly hand; and the relief of all present when the boy stopped thrashing about, stopped crying and, the fish bone having disappeared, looked up at the Saint with beatific gratitude.  I could almost hear the hushed responses of onlookers as the legend of this great miracle was already beginning to coalesce in their minds.

Sometimes my wandering mind would cast myself as the unfortunate boy being rescued by a movie star handsome saint; it would be an event which linked us together for life. None-the-less, the story was enough to put me off fish.  Of course, if the church thought fish bones were so dangerous that a special ritual had to be devised to protect us from them, why did they try to make us eat fish every Friday? Maybe the fishbone story was just a convenient coincidence. Maybe it was simply that the dead of winter in northern Ohio seemed as good a time as any to be blessing people’s throats against illness; there being enough colds, flues and strep to keep busy doctors and holy men alike.

I’ve spoken to other people who were raised catholic, not all of them remember this little ritual. So it is possible that it was localized to our parishes or maybe just to Cleveland. To us at the time it was part of the calendar of annual rituals like Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday and we never questioned it.

Now lets get back to that first real taste of fresh fish. I was staying at Laurie’s place out on Carpenterville Rd. north of Brookings, Oregon. Must have been 1973, the first time I was up there. We were all out of work, collecting food stamps and such, and Laurie had the two kids to support. Laurie had some friends who were professional fishermen. They occasionally gave her some work helping out and she came home one night with a big plastic bag full of the freshest fish on the planet – sole, I believe it was. We’d been eating a lot of Federal Government Commodity program handouts (cheese day was particularly popular) and whatever else we could scrape together. Here was fresh food and there I was turning it down. Laurie and Danny couldn’t understand it. So I explained about my fear of getting a fish bone stuck in my throat.

They didn’t laugh at me.  Laurie told me not to worry, she would trim it really well and make sure there weren’t any bones left in my portion.

Well it sure smelled awful good while she was cooking it. And it looked really good when it was ready.  When the four of them sat down and started eating they couldn’t say enough about how good it was, even the kids.  Finally hunger won out and I sat down to sheepishly try some.

First I carefully pulled a piece apart with my fork to inspect it for bones. Then I forked the piece into my mouth – it tasted wonderful. I’d never thought fish could taste good. I swallowed and almost immediately felt a small fish bone get stuck in my throat. One of those little, invisible, flexible and entirely edible fish bones one would never notice if one actually chewed the fish before swallowing – a simple thing I had apparently neglected to do.

I panicked, the bone growing in my imagination to impossible size, convinced I would now die choking on this evil fish bone which had haunted me since childhood. I’m sure my presentation was wholly melodramatic. Some part, deep inside me, was no doubt hoping for a movie star saint to appear and rescue me with his strong, gentle touch. But it was Laurie who calmed me down, telling me to just take a bite of bread and swallow it.  I did. The tiny bone disappeared, dislodged by the bread as it passed.  Eventually the rest of the fish on my plate disappeared too, and more besides. Having faced my fishy nightmare and survived, I was now free to eat all I wanted.

I am picky about what kind of fish I eat, and I trim for bones much closer than the fishmongers do. I tend to avoid fish with small easily missed bones (like sole) and go more for the larger breeds with easily identified and removable bones like albacore, snapper and cod.  I love sashimi sushi. And I love the way a certain Thai restaurant in Santa Rosa cooks tilapia whole, which I eat enthusiastically, with little concern for the many tiny bones.

completed 01/05/10

footnotes:

*I do remember Uncle Chuck taking us (Mom, Bonnie and me) fishing on Lake Erie in his boat; this would have been the early 60’s.  Many perch were caught (mostly by Uncle Chuck), which, later that same day, were cooked for dinner on the bar-b-que grill in the back yard on Bennington. I probably ate some of that, but not much and only reluctantly. Mostly the fish put before me was either canned or frozen.

** Also spelled Pnigophobia or Pnigerophobia.

***According to CatholicCulture.org, the celebrant, with the crossed candles touched to the throat of each person, says: “Through the intercession of Saint Blase, bishop and martyr, may God deliver you from every disease of the throat and from every other illness:  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” How much better it would be if the Catholic Church stuck to such quaint mumbo-jumbo practices and kept their hands, and their money, out of politics and my civil rights; but I guess that is asking too much.

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Responses

  1. Mysteries are now solved! Why is there a road in Sumner County, Tennessee, named after a famous horse titled “St. Blaise”? Why did my boyhood friends and constant companions Jimmy and Bobby next door have to stop playing on such a great day outdoors to go get their throats blessed? And once again, why was my substance abuse or other dysfunction to such an extreme degree that I have no memory of yet another wonderful story from 1973? Oh well, as Bob Hope would say, thanks for the memories….

    • Danny: 1973 was a real watershed year for me — there will be more stories from that year coming, I’m already working on some of them — 1973 takes up three and a half volumes of my diary – there is no other period of time that inspired so much scribbling — we all place different levels of importance on the same events depending on our relationship to the event — the fact that you do not remember all of these stories only means that the events I describe were not as important to you as they were to me — for instance, me choking on that fishbone — it is no reflection on your possibly altered states during that period — we all put quite a bit of energy into altering our consciousness during that time — I do want you to know that I really appreciate your reading the stories and the comments you leave — especially when they lead you to tell stories of your own — Joe

  2. Hey Joe,
    Didn’t know you were in for surgery…. so glad you’re on the mend. Still wanting to get together for lunch and have this great seafood place we need to try…….. or maybe not:)
    Get well soon.

    • Yes – lets schedule a lunch. I’m off work until at least 1/13/10 when i next see the surgeon and so have a pretty clear calendar until then. And seafood is just fine with me…


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