Story Time With Bomb: The Day Pope John Paul II Rolled Past Our Place In Roland Park
The fall of 1995 was an exciting time to be alive in Baltimore, Maryland.
It was doubly interesting if you were 19 years old, living in a house in Roland Park with four of your good friends, that doubled as the off-campus recreational host of record for many of the neighboring Loyola College students, despite the fact that only 2 of its 5 residents were actually enrolled in school there.
It was a year of a few personal, as well as public, milestones in the city.
On the personal front, it was the first full calendar year after graduating from high school, and still the only year to date in which I wore my hair long throughout.
On the provincial and public front, the Fall of ’95 was big in Baltimore for other, considerably more notable reasons.
It was the fall Cal Ripken Jr. “saved baseball” by breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak in front of an adoring crowd at Camden Yards in September that included President Clinton, as well as millions watching the national broadcast on ESPN across the country.
A month to the day later, Camden Yards would play world host to an icon of a different kind.
One arguably less revered locally, than the Sainted-in-Maryland status given to the aforementioned Ripken.
But a man viewed by most Catholics across the globe at the time in a saintlier light, with the notable exception of our girl Sinead O’Connor, Pope John Paul II.
PJPII was only passing thru Charm City, his stay would be less than 10 hours.
But he was busy in that small window, performing a public mass in front of a capacity crowd at Camden Yards, as well as being the main attraction in a parade down Charles Street in the city, a parade later said to include a few less than the one Ripken headlined a month earlier.
But his first stop after flying into BWI Airport around 9 AM, zipping up 83 North in his Pope mobile and getting off at the Northern Parkway exit, was a smaller one.
And considering where that exit spills out onto at Cold Spring Road, with Northern Parkway being completely blocked off to drivers or residents living directly on it for papal visit purposes all the way up to Charles Street, it is entirely possible that the first Baltimoreans Pope John Paul lied eyes on that day, were five young lovable morons, of which Bomb was one.
That fatefully fortuitous weekend morning began, or should I say never ended, the way many others did during that era.
Based on the time in which the Pope’s mobile had to have passed, coupled with the fact that we would have rarely all been up at the same time so early without having to go to class, I’m gonna venture to guess we may have been still up.
Or perhaps just all a bit groggy, awoken by a rare but palpable quiet outside our windows, which typically raged with the sound of cars ripping past a four-lane thruway directly in front of our front yard, at well over 45 miles per hour.
The soundtrack, pumping at Ungodly levels from three-foot high Sony speakers when they didn’t blow out, was typically one of a few compilation albums with unintentionally appropriate anthems:
Parliament’s Tear The Roof Off 1974-1980, featuring “Mothership Connection (Star Child)” aka “Swing Down, Sweet Chariot, Stop & Let Me Ride”.
Jimi Hendrix’s Blues, led off electrically by his epic instrumental version of “Born Under A Bad Sign”.
Run-DMC’s Together Forever: Greatest Hits 1983-1991, with “Peter Piper” on repeat.
Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Greatest Hits, with SRV’s blistering instrumental long-form take on Jimi’s “Little Wing”.
Or maybe in one of those groggy-early-AM-cleaning-up-from-the-prior-evening’s-festive-melee moods, Onyx’s “Throw Ya Gunz”, with Bomb still testing out his roommates’ patience as well as the speaker system, with his half-baked theory that the louder and more wildly ignorant the music, the quicker it wakes you up, and shakes you out of a hangover.
Whatever the case may be that morning, as music cascaded upstairs from the unattended makeshift barroom, Bomb, Walsh, Shields, G-Man & Colman were up to their usual shenanigans in the living room of the split-level home situated directly along Northern Parkway.
They were still oblivious to the lack of outside noise competing with the inside noise, until the quite-jarring sight of Secret Service men came running thru the back yard.
In a state of shock that could be accurately described as akin to hallucinogenic-like levels of paranoia, panic set in among the couch-bound Fab Five.
To us in the moment, the men in uniforms that we’d never seen in person before, may as well have repelled in from high atop the neighboring trees, while federal agents might as well have commenced to “kick in the door, waving the four-four”.
The initial reaction of each varied.
Exclaimed alerts, ducking, moving out of outside sight lines, securing the room of undesirable discovery, and inching toward windows for closer view followed.
After a matter of few minutes that felt like hours, it dawned on the group collectively when they saw no cars driving by out front:
Oh yeah, this is the day the Pope’s in town!
Waves of relief that the back door would not soon be busted down gave way to laughter, then childlike curiosity.
Before long, brave volunteers were sent to check around outside.
Conversation with Secret Service was carefully avoided, however we were thru whatever deductive reasoning powers we had collectively, figure out that the whole block, with one side of it residential starting at our house, was blocked off.
Pope John Paul II would soon be coming to Baltimore.
And he was rolling past our house in Roland Park first.
The cacophony from the music in the bar room continued because there'd been no time to turn it down or off.
With all signs, including the secret service making their way up to the Charles Street corner where the BPD road-block signs were, pointing towards His Eminence’s arrival being eminent, we hastily attended to our communal first order of business:
Go down to the barroom, to fill up five Red Solo cups.
Call the cups a small nod to ritualistic discretion, in that din of inequity.
As someone baptized, communicated and confirmed in the Catholic church in my youth, who always felt slightly unmoved or conflicted about it once reaching "the age of reason", I can’t say “seeing the Pope from a bird’s eye view” had been on my must-do list.
I do recall in my earliest childhood, hearing members of my family recount the day PJPII visited my birth city of Philadelphia in the Fall of ’79, as well as the graffiti that memorialized it near Center City later.
But it was less-impactful than say, jumping up and down in the den with my folks, while watching Tug McGraw do the same after striking out Willie Wilson to win the Phillies’ their first-ever Word Series in the Fall of '80, which is one of my first life memories.
I don’t imagine the other four, despite being raised in similar circumstances, while now living around the corner from a Jesuit college where two of them attended, really had given it much thought either.
But a funny thing happens when that motorcade starts heading your way.
The hoots and hollers signifying HERE HE COMES began to crescendo, the group leaped up from the front steps or the lawn, to rush up to the edge of the curb.
There may have been sirens as the lead police and security cars headed up to first emerge from the hill by the start of Gilman School across the street.
But after they had passed, about 25 yards of empty space came, and then there it was, like a Jetsons space-whip on wheels.
And then there he was, Pope John Paul II, standing up in his ride, with no one else standing on the start of our block in sight.
I can’t say that my girl Sinead, who you can look forward to me focusing on in greater detail as a contributor at Albumism later this year, hasn’t been vindicated by history, following her infamous SNL appearance where she tore his picture up.
I also can’t say that the good ole Catholic guilt instilled hasn’t crept up into the cranium, at times for illogical reasons, even though the sin-soaked teenagers in that house, did all evolve into something resembling good, upstanding citizens.
But a funny thing happens when the Pope is looking you directly in the eye from about 15 yards away.
The hoots and hollers give way to silence, despite there being a vehicle on Northern Parkway for the first time all day.
Time seems to slow down a bit supernaturally.
And then you get that little, smiling “Pope Wave”.
Next thing you know, the Pope is getting five of those smiling waves right back.
Five otherwise loud young guys, momentarily hypnotized.
And in a matter of moments, the Papal posse had passed.
But the memory of the moment they did so, is one that shall last.
There are certainly many times in the subsequent decades, when I’ve missed those guys, that house, that city, our shared misplaced youth, and the rest.
But for that party of five, and the City of Baltimore, the Fall of ’95 was one of our best.
This was a little wave back to that era, and another reminder that we’ve been blessed.
This Edition of “Story Time With Bomb” is Dedicated to Athena