Up, down, sideways. My emotions are all over the place after the terrorist attack. First I’m angry, then depressed, then angry again — this time at something else. One day I’m mad at the terrorists, the next at the FAA, then at our foreign policy, and finally at myself for second-guessing.
Is patriotism the last refuge of scoundrels? Or is it hindsight?
My friend Leonard and I argue each morning on our daily walks. “Nuke ’em,” Leonard says. “No more land wars in countries where we don’t belong.” Leonard, a Vietnam vet, is suspicious of government policy.
I share his skepticism about our leadership until I read an article I find on the Internet about the major players in our state department and their preparations for a response to the attack.
They seem to know what they are doing, I tell Leonard, and I sketch out an outline of what I have read. Leonard is unimpressed. The article comforts me, though. It’s nice to know we have a plan.
I ask my wife what she thinks of all this, and she replies that she is in denial.
I tell my wife to go shopping. “Shop ’til you drop,” I say. “It’s patriotic.” She goes shopping for things we need. Groceries. I tell her to look for flags, and she does, but she can’t find any.
We borrow a flag from a neighbor. It’s sitting on top of the TV in the den. We haven’t figured out where to display it yet. One of our neighbors has spray-painted God Bless America in red, white, and blue on his garage door. The other neighbors are abuzz because very faintly you can see other words underneath. “Go Home” something. The first two words are all you can read.
Of course the psychiatrists and counselors are thick as flies on the talk shows, talking about what we can do with our anger, but I think instead we should be talking about what we can do.
What can we do? I send money to the Red Cross and other relief agencies, and vow not to join the mental masturbators who are critical of our country’s past policy mistakes. What’s done is done. After that, I draw a blank. What else can I do? Remember, maybe. Remember what it was like during the cold war. Remember what it was like after Pearl Harbor. The Cold War lasted for forty-five years. After Pearl Harbor, it was a year and a half before there was any good news. Day after day we heard on the radio and read in the newspaper how the U.S. was getting its ass kicked. It wasn’t until the battle of Midway that we had anything to cheer about.
Meanwhile, my wife and I get tipsy, figuratively speaking. We grow giddy. We talk about mobilizing the cats in the new war on terrorism. I go outside one morning, and the raccoons have torn up the grass in our front lawn. I claim it was the work of terrorists. We begin assigning each of our animals a job. Simba, an antisocial Maine Coon who lives in our garage at night and roams the property outside by day, is given the title of Minister of Homeland Security. Frank, our smartest cat, is named the new Director of the CIA. (I figure that replacing the old one is no great loss.) Mouse and Turtle, who spend hours on our back porch watching the birds, are made air raid wardens. Pee Wee is put in charge of rounding up terrorist flies and moths. Pee Wee, an adolescent gray tabby, relishes his job. He eats what he catches. Barbaric? Yes, but fight fire with fire.
Spot wants to join Simba in securing the perimeter of our property, but he proves to be unqualified. A muscular tom with the mottled black and white coloring of a Holstein cow, Spot tangles with a stray, a red tabby, whom because of the red hair Spot mistakes for a member of the IRA, and Spot gets his clock cleaned. I tell Spot that he has no sense of history. “Don’t fight old battles,” I say. Spot crawls up into my lap, and when I stroke his head, he purrs.
All of our cats, all nine of them, seem to be needy these days. Spot had never been a lap cat before. And now, when one of them flops on the carpet, begging for attention, two or three more will appear out of nowhere, circling close as we kneel down to administer pats and scratches.
Or perhaps it isn’t the cats’ need but an instinctive recognition of our need that explains the change in behavior. Something is wrong in their world, and they are dealing with it the best way that they can, by radiating a kind of fuzzy love.
Doc came prepared. He was wearing a parka and a heavy sweater when he got off the airplane. He had two big carry on bags and a huge duffle. Why did you bring all this stuff? I asked him. Doc looked puzzled. I left half of it at home, he said.
The next morning, we got up early and drove up to the property that Jake and I owned in the foothills of the Sierras. Our cabin was on the edge of the forest high above a lake. From the deck, we had a panoramic view oft he lake and the surrounding hills.
I had borrowed Jake’s truck so that I could transport several four by eight foot siding panels to replace the ones on the north end of the cabin that the porcupines had chewed up. Doc asked what porcupines found that was good to eat in wood siding, and I said it was the glue.
We worked all afternoon getting the old siding off and the new panels up. When we finished, it was getting dark. We drove into town and had dinner, and when we came out of the restaurant, it was raining. We got in the truck and headed back to the cabin, and up the grade a few hundred yards the rain had turned to snow. A mile or so out of town, the Highway Patrol had set up a road block. They weren’t letting anybody go through. I stopped and talked to one of the troopers. I told him where the cabin was. We had to go back and shut off the water or the pipes would freeze, I said. The trooper didn’t like it, but he moved one of the saw horses aside so we could pass.
It was snowing hard, but it wasn’t cold, and the snow flakes melted as they hit the surface of the highway. At the roadhouse, five miles north of town, I turned onto a gravel road. At the end of the road, by the lake, I parked the truck. The logging trail that led up the hill past the cabin was a crease in a blanket of snow.
When we got to the cabin, I was muddy and wet. Doc peeled off his rubber boots. He was wearing heavy woolen sox. He was wearing long underwear, too. I could see the hems of the white leggings when he turned up his cuffs to pull up his sox.
Doc built a fire in the Franklin stove while I changed clothes. When I came downstairs, he was making coffee. He pulled a chair up to the fire and put his big feet on the bricks in front of the stove.
I brought a chair over and sat down. I told Doc that there was a bottle of brandy in one of the cupboards in the kitchen. Doc got the bottle and poured some of the brandy into his coffee cup. The brandy smelled like apples and cough syrup.
I went into the kitchen to get the coffee pot. I put the pot on top of the Franklin stove and sat down again. I picked up my coffee cup and held it in front of me with both hands.
It’s cold in here, Doc said.
Fifty degrees, I said. I had looked at the thermometer on the wall by the door when I was in the kitchen.
It’ll warm up, Doc said. This old stove throws a lot of heat.
I shuddered. I hate cold weather, I said.
You have to dress for it, Doc said.
Doc took a sip of his coffee. You look better, Doc said. You’ve got some color in your cheeks. When we got stuck, you were shaking when you got back in the truck.
I should have let you push, I said.
It’s stress, Doc said. You get beat up, and after a while, your body quits. You feel like you don’t have any skin.
Doc wanted to talk. He talked and I listened. I wasn’t listening carefully, though, because after a while, Doc asked me what I was thinking.
I smiled. I was thinking about Mona, I said.
Forget about Mona, Doc said. Put her out of your mind.
No, it’s okay, I said. I told you what she said, that she liked me better when I was drinking. Well, that’s the way I feel, too. I liked her better when I was drinking.
Mona’s a twit, Doc said.
Mona’s Mona, I said.
Let’s talk about something else, Doc said.
What do you want to talk about? I asked.
Tell me about the meetings.
I told Doc what the meetings were like. People sit around and talk, I said, and then everybody stands up, holds hands, and says the Lord’s Prayer.
Is it boring? Doc asked.
Sometimes, I said. Some people don’t know when to shut up.
What about the women? Doc asked. I’ve heard that there are a lot of good looking women in AA.
I told Doc that you got a little bit of everything in AA.
Doc sighed. He didn’t say anything for a while. I didn’t say anything, either. Doc looked as if he had something on his mind. Finally, he spit it out.
I’ve been thinking that maybe I should quit, too, he said.
Drinking? I asked.
Yes, Doc said.
I was surprised. Why would you want to do that? I asked.
I think I’m an alcoholic, Doc said.
I asked Doc what made him think he was an alcoholic, and he said that when he started drinking, he couldn’t stop.
Look, Doc said, we don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to.
I said it was all right, that I didn’t mind. I told Doc that sometimes I thought that talking about not drinking was almost as much fun as drinking.
Doc said he thought he would be a good alcoholic. He smoked cigarettes, he liked coffee, and he didn’t like to do what he was told.
I asked Doc how he knew so much about AA, and he said that half his friends were in some kind of program.
An hour later, Doc was telling war stories. The bottle of brandy, half full to begin with, was nearly empty. Doc was telling about the time that he and Ed had picked up a girl in a bar in Minneapolis. I had heard the story before. I got up and wandered around the room while Doc talked.
Doc had put some books on a table in one corner, and I picked them up and looked at the titles. One was a book about geology, and the other was about the first world war.
I went over to a window and looked out. The snow was coming down every which way, like confetti, as if someone were tearing pieces out of the sky.
So then I asked her to do something else, Doc said, and she said, ‘Oh, no. I’m saving that for my husband.’ She was going to be married in two or three weeks!
Doc laughed and laughed.
I told Doc that I was going to bed. Doc looked at his watch. What time is it getting to be? he asked.
Upstairs in the loft, I lay on my back and watched the shadows cast by the fire on the angled ceiling. I wondered if I would be able to sleep. If not, I would lie there and rest. Before, I had worried about not sleeping. Then I had learned that the way to fight it was to stop fighting.
I shut my eyes and listened to Doc downstairs poking at the fire.
We finally figured out what to do with my wife’s father. We locked him up. “Shoulda done it years ago,” was Kermit’s opinion, expressed at a family meeting called to decide the old boy’s fate. Really, there was nothing else to do. His wife, no spring chicken herself, couldn’t deal with him anymore. Who else was going to take him in? His brothers and sisters were either dead or as crazy as he was, Kermit, the youngest, being the exception. But Kermit, a bachelor, wasn’t caretaker material. Kermit and Earl didn’t get along anyway. “Never did, never will, “Kermit said. I once asked Kermit why he didn’t like his brother. “Because He’s a jackass,” Kermit replied.
Earl’s children couldn’t take him in either. My wife Kat worked, and Billy and Dot had kids. “Keeping track of somebody with Alzheimers is a full-time job,” Kat said. Kat wouldn’t have volunteered even if she weren’t working. Her relationship with her father was only slightly more cordial than Earl and Kermit’s.
After the powwow, I asked Kat if we knew for sure that Earl had Alzheimers. “What do you call it,” Kat said, “when somebody tries to call his old school friend, who’s been dead for twenty years, to tell him He’s in Colorado, and He’s coming to see him? And he’s right here in California when he picks up the phone.”
Earl was bonkers; there was no doubt about that. And Edith, his wife, was a nervous wreck. So we put Earl in a home. “The Lodge,” Billy called it, hoping it would make Earl feel better about the move.
Earl didn’t want to go, of course, but he went peacefully enough when the big day came. At first he was pretty confused, but after a week or so he settled down. The home was nice, as such places go, not luxurious but pleasant, and the staff was cheery and seemingly competent. To his delight, Earl found that his musical talents were greatly appreciated at the evening entertainments. Earl sang in a reedy tenor and accompanied himself on the ukulele. He knew dozens of old songs. He might not know what day it was or whether he was in California or North Dakota, but he knew every word to “The Sheik of Araby” and “Oh, Susanna.”
One Sunday, several months after we parked Earl in the home, Kat popped in for a visit. When she got home, she headed straight for the kitchen and poured herself a glass of wine. I found her in a sling chair on the back deck, her feet propped up on a canvas foot rest.
“That place is a zoo!” Kat said. Kat said that when she got there, she found Earl wandering around the hall outside his room. He couldn’t get in, he said. The door was locked. Kat tried the door, and sure enough, it was locked. She fetched the charge nurse who unlocked the door. When they got inside, they found some other old timer in Earl’s bed. The nurse rousted him, and he wasn’t happy about it. “He don’t use it anyway,” the old boy groused as he was led away.
Kat said that Edith told her that the previous week she had spotted one of the other patients, a woman, walking down the hall with Earl’s laundry bag. Edith knew it was Earl’s because it had a pattern of flowers at the top that she had sewed on herself. Edith marched up to the woman and took the bag away from her. She surprised herself, she said, but it made her mad. “That’s my husband’s laundry bag!” she said. When she opened the bag, she found Earl’s soiled socks and shorts, but there were some of the lady’s things in there, too. “Can you believe it?” Edith asked.
Of course I doubt that Edith drew the same conclusion from the laundry bag story that we did. Edith is a nice lady, but she’s not the sharpest tool in the shed. I asked Kat if Edith knew about the “Colorado Connection.” Kat said that she had to; they all grew up together. Earl had been married four times. He met his first wife, Kat’s mother, in San Francisco. Lydia and Daisy were from Colorado. Edith wasn’t from Colorado, but her husband was. Like Lydia and Daisy, he was one of Earl’s high school classmates.
The story of Earl’s Rocky Mountain brides was a family joke. Billy referred to Earl’s periodic trips home for his high school reunions as “fishing trips.”
Earl was fifty when Kat’s mother died. He hooked up with Lydia, his second wife, in 1985, ten years later. Some years after that, Lydia left him, taking the furniture with her. Earl was in Scotland at the time. Lydia was supposed to go on the trip, too, but at the last minute, she backed out. Earl returned to an empty house.
Earl moped for a while, but the following summer, he was back in action. Once again he traveled to Colorado for his class reunion, and this time he struck gold.
Earl’s courtship of Daisy was storybook material. They had been high school sweethearts. After graduating, they put their wedding plans on hold, and Earl went off to college. There wasn’t enough money for both to go, so Daisy stayed home. That’s the last she heard from Earl.
“He took the money and ran,” was Kermit’s sour comment.
I don’t know what lame story he told her fifty years later, but apparently Daisy bought it. They got married, and Earl packed up and moved to Texas where Daisy had a home. Daisy had married a Texas oilman. The oilman had died the previous year. He was struck by lightning while fishing for bass on Lake Arrowhead. Once again, Earl’s luck turned sour. Daisy got sick a year later, and the doctors found a tumor in her gall bladder. A few months later she was dead. Earl didn’t get her money this time, however. Not a nickel. She left it to her kids.
A short time later, Earl left Texas and headed back to California. On the way, he stopped to see his old friends Al and Edith in Arizona. He called us from Sun City. Al wasn’t doing too well, Earl said. He had cancer, and the docs had given him only a few months to live. Earl said he was going to stay a few days longer than he had planned.
Kat hung up the phone and reported the conversation. “You don’t suppose …?” I said. Kat said she didn’t want to talk about it.
This year it was our turn to host the family get-together on Father’s Day. Kat cooked dinner, and Dot picked up Earl at the home on her way over from the coast. When the doorbell rang, I went to the door, and there was Earl, looking fit as a fiddle. Earl is a big, pear-shaped man, bald as a teapot. He is moonfaced and rosy, a cherub with wattles. Earl had dressed up for the occasion. He was sporting a bow tie to go with his fresh white shirt and crisp flannels.
“Come in, come in!” I said.
Earl shook my hand. “Happy birthday,” he said.
Without much difficulty, Kat and Dot persuaded Earl to lead a sing-along after dinner. Earl had his trusty ukulele with him, of course.
I joined Kermit and Billy on the landing between our living room and the family room where the entertainment was taking place.
“What’s the matter?” I said to Kermit. “Aren’t you a music lover?
We watched and listened for a while, and finally Kermit said to me, “I don’t know. Maybe I’m too hard on the old boy. All he ever wanted was somebody to wash his clothes and darn his socks.”
Earl picked away at his uke and sang tune after tune for his appreciative audience in a voice that was once, I’m told, a rich tenor, now grown rusty with age. He was having a wonderful time.
Wanda here. I’m the director of Social Services at the Lutheran Home. I do a little bit of everything around here. I’m the chief cook and bottle washer, so to speak. Mainly I’m in charge of patient welfare. I see to it that the gals get new undies when they need them and that the guys get to the grocery store when they run out of oatmeal or prunes. It’s a good job. Busy, busy. But that’s the way I like it. And George and Ida are good people to work for.
If you have to be in a nursing home, this is a good place to be. Nobody volunteers to get in here, I suppose, but we take good care of the residents. We go the extra mile. The food is good, and we give the seniors lots to do. There’s something going on all the time. Talks, music, Bible study, exercise classes, bingo. Nobody gets a chance to sit around feeling sorry for himself.
Did I see trouble coming when Mack and Archie moved in? No, I didn’t. Mack was okay until Archie showed up. Mack got along with people, and he didn’t complain. It was the two of them together that caused the problem. They egged each other on.
Oh, Mack had an eye for the ladies, so I should have seen that coming, I suppose. But when he started mooning over Rose, it seemed innocent enough.
About the other, I didn’t have a clue.
Mack was popular with the other residents, especially the ladies. He was a tall, lanky fellow with a full head of white hair. “The Silver Fox” was a nickname that one of the women gave him. They didn’t call him that to his face, of course. Archie was tall and bony, all arms and legs. He had kind of a gloomy personality, whereas Mack was more upbeat. Archie got along well with the others, too, once he settled in. Both of them liked to talk, and they were both good listeners.
Mack and Archie hit it off right away. After a few weeks, they were the best of friends. Every day they would have coffee together in the afternoon, and they’d sit for hours in the day room arguing about politics and talking about the old days.
When Rose moved in, and Mack started acting like a love-sick teenager, I thought it would put a crimp in their friendship, but Archie seemed amused by his friend’s behavior. If anybody asked, he’d just shrug and explain that Mack was “twitterpated.”
It’s my fault that the two old boys got in trouble, I suppose. One of the other residents, Otto, came into my office one day. He wanted to have a party, and he wondered if the staff would help him set it up. I asked him what the occasion was, and he said he had won some money. “Oh, yeah?” I said. “How much?” “Two thousand dollars,” Otto said. I whistled. “That’s a lot of money,” I said. Otto nodded. He was all excited. “I won it betting on the horses,” he said. Otto said that Archie had made the bet for him.
When I talked to Archie, he was perfectly honest about it. Yes, he made the bet. He made bets for a lot of the residents, he said. Mack was helping him. Mack collected the money, and Archie called in the bets. A friend of his in Minneapolis made the actual wagers. Or if the race was in another state, he’d call another friend who lived in Reno, and he would buy the tickets at a sports book.
Then it hit me. I had been wondering why the residents had taken such a sudden interest in football! In the past, during football season, three or four of the men might sit in the day room and stare at the TV during the Vikings game, but this year there were fifteen or twenty people in there every Sunday. They were a noisy bunch, too! One day the weekend charge nurse had to go in there and tell them to pipe down.
We all thought it was pretty funny. The staff, that is. All of those old Norwegians and Swedes suddenly becoming football fans!
I asked Archie if they were betting on football, too, and he said yes. Football, basketball, hockey. Whatever anybody wanted to bet on.
Well, I had to tell Ida about it because I knew that if George found out that there was gambling going on in his nursing home, I’d be in trouble–we’d all be in trouble. Ida, George’s wife, is a very sweet lady. When I finished telling Ida the tale, she clapped her hand over her mouth to keep from laughing.
Ida had to tell George, though. I could see her point. If the state got wind of what was going on, they could close the place down. And it would be bad for business if people in town found out. Very bad.
So George had a talk with Archie and Mack, and the upshot of that was that the two old men had to move out. Archie went back to California, and Mack moved into one of the new apartments down by the river.
I had a talk with Mack before he left, and he didn’t seem too upset. “Hey,” he said. “We’re lucky. We’re walking out of here. Most people leave this place in a box.”
I told Mack that it was none of my business, but I was curious how they got started betting in the first place.
It grew out of an idea that Archie had, Mack said. One day Archie said that some of them ought to get together and bet on which one would live the longest. They could all throw some money in the pot and buy a bottle of good booze, and the last one to go would get to drink it.
The idea just took off from there, Mack said. They started talking about how they used to bet on the horses, and on football and basketball games, when they were younger, and one day they said, why not? So they asked around to see if there was any interest, and there was, so Archie made the call to his friends, and they were in business.
Some of the folks around here were pretty down in the mouth when Mack and Archie left. Mack stops by to have coffee with his old friends every once in a while, and he always gets a big welcome.
Yesterday I got a card in the mail from Mack. It was in a fancy envelope, and I knew right away what it was. It was a wedding invitation. Mack and Rose were getting married the week after Christmas. Mack had written in black ink at the bottom of the card, “Honeymoon in Vegas. Tell the boys.”
I met my first wife in an art gallery in Paris. She was an American girl who had carefully saved her pennies for a trip to Europe after graduating from college. That was my story, too. We spent a month together in the City of Lights. All we did was argue.
When we returned to the States, we went our separate ways, but we hooked up again later in San Francisco. We got married in 1962. We were often at odds, but our contentiousness took on a different pattern after we were married. Periods of peace and calm were followed by stormy disputes. We let disagreements fester, then released our feelings in a torrent of angry words.
Our marriage wasn’t all feud. We had some good times. Our wedding was a hoot. My wife’s family lived in Las Vegas. My bride’s sister was a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed reporter for a local newspaper. Her two brothers were blackjack dealers. They lived at the fringes of Las Vegas society, one foot in the middle class milieu of apple pie and church on Sunday, and the other in the glitz and sleaze of casino life.
We got married in my sister-in-law’s house. The mayor and the governor of the state were there. I got drunk the morning of the ceremony, and I didn’t sober up until the second day of our honeymoon.
I remember my brother-in-laws showing me some of the tricks of the trade in the gambling business the night before the wedding. They taught me how to play blackjack the way it should be played. Only players cheated, they said, but they showed me what a dealer could do with a deck of cards in his hands, and the demonstration cured me of the gambling bug.
One Thanksgiving, the whole troop drove up from Las Vegas to our house in northern California. When Joe and Raymond, my wife’s brothers, walked through the door, they were each carrying a bottle of booze as big as a cattle car. The bottle of scotch–good stuff, too, as I recall–had a cradle that you set it in. It operated like an oil rig. You tilted it to pour.
My wife’s sister and her husband were there, too, and my wife’s mother, a frail and terrified elderly woman. Her husband, a famous band leader in days gone by, had not been invited. He wasn’t at the wedding, either. He was persona-non-grata with the family. He ran a pawnshop in Palm Springs.
It was a memorable turkey day. We had two turkeys in the oven, and midmorning the oven blew a fuse. I couldn’t find a spare fuse. I went outside and lit a fire in the barbecue in the back yard, and we loaded one of the turkeys onto that. Joe and Raymond set off to see if they could find a fuse. They called a short while later and reported that everything was closed.
The problem with the barbecue was that I couldn’t regulate the temperature. It was one of those barrel kinds, and when I closed the top, the temperature climbed to well over what my wife said was the proper cooking temperature. I had to keep opening and closing the lid to keep the reading within a reasonable range.
Then it started to rain. I got an umbrella and held it over the barrel of the barbecue and watched the temperature climb to five hundred degrees. I took away the umbrella. The rain pelted the hissing metal, and the temperature dropped like a stone.
An hour later the brothers returned. Joe, a big grin on his face, held two fuses in the palm of his hand. They were the size and shape of shotgun shells.
Raymond told the story. They had walked into a Laundromat, told the customers that they were from the utility company, and said that the power would be out for a few minutes while they made some needed repairs. They filched the fuses and escaped through the back door.
Guess which turkey turned out the best? They were both good, but the one I cooked in the back yard was the best. It was as moist and tender as any bird I’ve eaten before or since.
My wife and I were divorced in 1971. She has remarried, happily, I hope. I have remarried, too; twice, as a matter of fact.
I lost track of Raymond but got bits and pieces of information about the rest of the family as time went on. The sister and her husband both died of cancer. Joe ended up in jail. Joe hated dealing; he was always hatching a get-rich-quick scheme, but his plans always failed. I’m not sure what he did to end up in prison; possibly robbery.
I’ll never forget what Joe said to me after his mother died. Carrie and I were still married at the time, and we had gone to Las Vegas for the old lady’s funeral. I was having a drink with Joe at the Flamingo. He was working that day, and I had moseyed around the casino, playing the nickel slot machines, until it was time for his break.
We were gabbing about this and that: marriage, work, life in general. I remember saying something about the funeral and Joe nodding his head. He didn’t like funerals, Joe said, but he wasn’t afraid of dying. “What’s so bad?” he asked. “You die, your troubles are over.” He wouldn’t mind going to sleep some night and not waking up, he said.
When my cousin decided to marry a Catholic, my family was horrified. Her parents tried to talk her out of it, to no avail. The wedding was in a Catholic church, of course, and on the appointed day, family and friends made the trek from my hometown to Fargo for the ceremony.
We gathered in small, uncomfortable groups in front of the wood framed building. Most of us had never been in a Catholic church before. We didn’t know what to expect. We conversed gloomily, making small talk, boring each other to death as Lutherans will.
I recalled the stories I heard when I was a child about the arsenal of weapons that the Catholics had hidden away in the basement of their churches, preparing against an attack, perhaps, or possibly a coup d’etat. Even then I doubted that there was any truth to the rumor, but growing up, I was as wary of Catholics as the rest of my Scandinavian brethren.
Catholics prayed to the Virgin Mary, for goodness sakes! How could they put a mortal woman on an equal footing with Jesus and God?
We filed into the church, escorted by ushers resplendent in their tuxedos and took our seats in the pews on the left hand side of the center aisle. The audience proved to be about equally divided between Catholics and Protestants, the former on the right, the latter on the left. The bride’s entourage gawked at the candles and statuary and eyed the Catholics suspiciously.
It was cold in the room, I noted, and I recalled hearing that the Catholics didn’t heat their churches.
We were all right until the service began, but when the group on the groom’s side began to stand and sit again and sometimes kneel at unexpected and unpredictable moments, the huddled masses on the left side of the aisle were thrown into confusion. We stood when we should be sitting and sat when we were apparently supposed to stand. Up, down, up, down. For a time, the service became a comic opera.
There was one couple sitting up front on the bride’s side that seemed to know the routine. Catholics obviously. It occurred to me that if I watched those two, I would know what to do and when to do it. The stratagem worked like a charm.
The ceremony was mercifully brief. After the vows, the organ rose in its throaty chorus of joy, the bride and groom promenaded down the aisle, and a bevy of witnesses, some grinning, some tearful, escaped into the meager sunshine of a midwestern spring day.
We milled about on the lawn for a time before the happy couple got into their car and drove off to a chorus of shouts and catcalls from the well-wishers. The newly wedded were spending their honeymoon at Big Pine Lake.
Before they left, I kissed my cousin on the cheek and shook hands with her husband. The bridegroom was a big, red-faced young man. His head was the size and shape of a bowling ball. He had a hand like a ham. I wished them both good luck.
I stuck my hands in my pockets and wandered back to the church. My father and my uncle, the bride’s father, were standing by the steps. My uncle looked spiffy in his new Hart, Schafner, and Marx suit, but he had a stricken look on his face.
“Where did I go wrong?” he asked me. What could I say? That he should have given his approval? Knowing my cousin, she would have called off the wedding if he’d done that. I couldn’t think of anything to say that would make the poor man feel any better, so I didn’t say anything.
Food was served in the church basement a little later, and the company dug into the spareribs and chicken with gusto. There was jello, of course, and a bewildering assortment of home baked cookies, cakes, and pies.
On the way out, after the meal, my father’s friend Leland buttonholed me. Leland Foss was a real estate and insurance agent in my hometown. He was a fat, jovial fellow with a somewhat mixed standing in the community. He was a good Christian on Sunday, a pillar of the Lutheran church, but the rest of the week he was a businessman of the kind that gave widows and orphans nightmares. “Larceny Leland” was his nickname, although I never heard him called that in my father’s hearing.
Leland had just come out of the men’s room, and he bumped up against me and whispered into my ear. “Smells as bad in their can as it does in the one in our church,” he said. Leland clapped his hand on my shoulder and headed for the door, presumably to get some fresh air.
I don’t know if Leland thought of what he said as anything more than a joke, but to this day I consider it a profound observation.