In the snows of my altar-boy childhood, the earth seemed like a surplice, the night a cassock. The streets were gloomy and dark, but they had a kind of otherly magic, too. Cars came lumbering by on the avenue barnacled with snow cinders, their chains making a thin, strange music: clinkety, clinkety, clink.

Why, I wonder now, do I seem to remember getting up and going to serve 6:30 mass only through tunnels of winter dark and whitened landscape? Surely, I must have served in summertime, too, but somehow all I can picture are the huge snowbanks and lighted streets of predawn February mornings.

Yesterday I absentmindedly let myself out the back door of our town house on Capitol Hill about 9 a.m. and took one step into the alley toward the Metro two blocks away. Suddenly, with that strange capacity of memory to take us in an instant to another time and place, I found myself back on South Harrison Street in Kankakee, Illinois, trudging toward 6:30 mass. I suppose what transported me was the flashing recognition of what it is like to try to walk through heavy, new snow--how hard it always was when you were just 10 and weighted down by black Vulcan rubber boots. Those damn boots had a half-dozen metal buckles on each foot.

I would set my alarm for 5:45 those mornings.

The house is still, cold, a ship creaking under my feet. Everyone else is asleep, including my older brother, Marty, who is one bed over. Marty is an altar boy, too, but somehow he manages to avoid the early mass assignments. He always gets the 8 o'clock school mass. Marty is on his back right now, mouth knocked open, snoring. I tiptoe past him.

I dress, go softly down the back stairs, let myself out through the door the milkman uses, get into my coat and boots, walk the the icy five minutes down South Harrison, kick off crusted snow at the sacristy door, go in, get the lights. I take down from the rack one of the worn, half-buttonless cassocks, one of the blousey starched surplices. I get the candle lighter from its hook in the hall. I inspect the taper. It is gunked with yesterday's wax. I light it and go out into the still-dark sanctuary. Fire drips from my stick. The sanctuary light is aglow in its red casing; it burns 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and this is comfort. I look up at the altar. Plaster saints with wet faces gleam down at me.

At 6:25, Father McNamara arrives. He faces his dressing table, shoelace untied, face pulpy with sleep. He robes, puts one hand on the throat of the draped chalice, turns, nods at me. Neither of us speaks. I take my place in front of him, yank the cord on the warning bell. Together we step into the sanctuary. The Sacrifice of the Mass, time's endless celebration, has begun.

"Introibo ad altare Dei," he says. (I will go unto the altar of God.)

"Ad day-oom quee lay-tee-fee-kat you-vane-too-tame may-am," I answer, the weird Latin phonetics bobbing out of me like a devout taunt. They mean: To God, who gives joy to my youth.

Thirty-five minutes later, candles extinguished, having gotten Father McNamara's blessing, back into my coat and boots, I am headed up South Harrison to collect my breakfast and school books. The world is different now. It has light. Cars are moving on the avenue. Lamps gleam from windows. People are stirring within.

The sun will stay low on the horizon all day, casting long shadows on dull colors, but I am not to be gloomy. No, I have done something good, true, like a runner getting in predawn miles. I have made it through the snow to serve mass.