Thursday, June 24, 2010

Why not the best?

Listening to the rapid patter of a radio announcer the other morning as she rattled off facts that were never worth knowing about movies I’ll never see, reminded me of Charlie.

I met Charlie 40 years ago, when we were both freshmen at Evangel College in Springfield, Missouri. I was standing in the men’s washroom shaving, when Charlie came in on his crutches; as he prepared to shower, he introduced himself. I was struck both by the extraordinarily deep resonance of his voice and the grotesque twisting of his frame. A genetic defect and a difficult birth had left Charlie at about the height of a 9-year old, with twisted legs that hung useless and a spine that would never allow his entire body to face in the same direction at once, surmounted with powerful shoulders and a head that was rather too large for his frame. Raised by his father in a small Missouri town, Charlie relied on a friendly personality and his remarkable voice for any hopes he had of worldly advancement.

My own voice had matured early. My late father had an operatic baritone voice, but when I was growing up, my voice was so deep for my age that adults blinked in amazement when I spoke, and my 8th-grade classmates called me “Lurch.” When we did a Sunday school play, I was always the voice of God. All this stood me in good stead in public speaking and debate, and some were heard to comment on my “radio announcer” voice, but I didn’t have the hunger or need for whatever it might bring me, that Charlie did.

I had also had educational advantages that someone from Charlie’s background probably couldn’t have had. My mother was always an avid reader, and I became one too, at an early age. When I was 11, my parents moved to a rather well-off community in the suburbs of northern New Jersey where we really couldn’t afford to live and found a place there only by virtue of a cheap rental house, but the taxpayers believed in having a school system second to none and paid for it. Our public schools were like private schools, and some of my teachers might have distinguished themselves equally as college professors, had they chosen to. The written word was always easily and rapidly accessible.

I’m not sure I fully realized how little this was true for many others. Of course I understood that when my late paternal grandparents would take my brothers and me during the summer to the small town in Arkansas where they pastored a Pentecostal church, there were what we called “country people” who could barely read a newspaper editorial and stumbled over passages in Scripture. Two of them got into an argument once, when one read the passage from the Gospels that says that one cannot serve God and mammon, and another cried out, “Now hold on! What about manna from above?”

But they were not alone. Years later, attending the Episcopal church with urban professionals, I noted with exasperation that every Pentecost Sunday, when the lectors read (what they must have known for a whole year they would have to read) the passage from Acts chapter 2 that records the astonishment of men from all nations upon seeing the descent of the Holy Spirit—“Parthians and Medes and Elamites and dwellers in Mesopotamia and Cappadocia,” etc.—they would look sheepish and stumble through the passage as though someone had suddenly required them to juggle flaming torches while changing their underclothes. I think a lot of this was just laziness, of the same kind that makes some people unable to distinguish between “mitigate” and “militate” or between “access” and “assess.”

Charlie, in any case, worked hard, not only at his lessons, but as an announcer at the campus radio station. One afternoon, a professor in the Speech and Theatre Department asked Charlie and me to come to his office. He had been contacted by two local businessmen who needed young men with good reading voices to record a radio ad, and he thought of the two of us. One of the businessmen came for us in his car, and we rode downtown to the recording studio, agreeing that we would both simply audition on the spot—may the best man win.

The businessmen handed us a script and asked us to take turns reading. I thought we did about equally well, but the businessmen kept prompting us to “read it with more enthusiasm.” We kept modifying our approach until we had both reached a level of dramatic expression that sounded absurdly overdone, but our prospective clients were still not satisfied. Finally, they offered to play us a tape of another announcer who had the sound they wanted. It turned out that what they had really wanted the whole time (but somehow couldn’t figure out how to say!) was that they wanted us to read more rapidly—again, at a rate that approached the absurd.

This changed everything. Charlie began to attempt rapid reading but began stumbling at once; something quite like this had probably never been expected of him before. He stopped after about 15 seconds, and the men asked me to try. All my early advantages stood me in good stead, and although I felt silly doing so, I picked up the script and began to read loudly and at a ridiculously fast rate, fluently and without stumbling.

As I did so, I happened to catch a glimpse of Charlie. Unnoticed by anyone else, his face was set in mortification, and a large tear rolled down his cheek. This opportunity represented all he really expected from life, and he hadn’t succeeded.

I continued reading, but I would have given anything at that moment, to be anywhere else.

As it happened, neither of us got the assignment. The two men thanked us for our time, drove us back to campus, and I never heard from them again.

Charlie continued his studies and his radio announcing. I returned to school one year and learned that he was no longer there. Whatever he had hoped for at Evangel didn’t happen; his spirits sank,and he began to do things that were not only considered rude but that violated the school’s religious standards. He was asked to leave.

About ten or 12 years later, I learned somehow that Charlie had died in an automobile accident, after returning to the town where he had grown up and lived there for the rest of his brief and frustrated life.

I hadn’t thought of that incident of the recording audition in years until I heard the announcer just the other morning. What happened to Charlie and me took me by surprise, and I couldn’t have pretended to read badly in the hopes they would pick Charlie instead—I doubt it would have fooled anyone, and besides, Charlie simply couldn’t do what they wanted, even had he been their only candidate.

Hopefully, we all believe in striving to be the best we can, and life sorts us out, sometimes ruthlessly. I once applied for a job as a sewing machine operator at a factory, and the two male owners gave me a small board and some pins to insert in slots in a timed test, to measure my manual dexterity. I had the kind that would enable me to play the violin, but not the kind to do justice to those pins, and the two men had to try very hard not to laugh in my face. I’m sure they were grateful that I had provided them with an entertaining break in their busy day.

Life sorts us out, but some overcome, astonishingly so. As a child, I knew a boy named Gary, whose body appeared as twisted as Charlie’s, also from a difficult birth. Gary was a sort of pathetic “Tiny Tim” figure at our church.

Years later, visting the same church for my father’s memorial service, I was startled when a deep, confident voice called my name, but I couldn’t see anyone. “Down here!” the voice said.

I looked down and saw a well-muscled man who radiated confidence and strength, though his misshapen legs would not support him, but he got about by using his arms, instead of sitting in a wheelchair. “It’s Gary,” the man said. “I own a chain of weight-lifting studios.” I was just about speechless with amazement.

In a way, I’m rather glad that I didn’t get that announcer assignment and only wish I had taken the trouble later to offer to help Charlie with rapid reading aloud, though who knows but that such an attempt might have seemed clumsy and patronizing. The moment when fortune takes us by surprise and sometimes forces us to face things in ourselves where we never even suspected a lack, can be a severe test, and some don’t pass. We who see it happen may be equally surprised and can only hope to have the tact and presence of mind to offer what help we can until the other person’s balance is restored. The rest, of course, has to be up to the other and what he makes of his experience.

© Michael Huggins, 2010. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

We which are alive and remain

Edith’s funeral was held today. She died 37 days ago; three more days and, were she Greek Orthodox, they would be chanting the Trisagion (“thrice blessed”) prayers in her memory.

Edith’s epilogue was different; the drama began when she was being taken to the hospital morgue, where she remained another 10 days before anyone would claim her. Edith had been at odds with her only surviving brother, whose daughter, not on the best of terms with Edith herself, thought Edith’s friend, Steve, should bury her out of the proceeds of a small insurance policy on Edith’s life, of which Steve was named as beneficiary. Steve, who is disabled, on oxygen, and the survivor of a serious automobile accident from a few months ago, needed the money to tide him over until the other driver’s insurance settles. And in any case, Edith’s policy has not paid off.

Thus Edith, who in life was a very giving person, remained unclaimed in death, literally frozen until something should happen to resolve the standoff. Her two children were dead years ago, her surviving brother is himself not long for this world, the rest of her family was estranged from her, and her friends lacked funds or legal standing to proceed at all. I’m not sure who blinked first, but she was cremated last week, and I learned two days ago that a brief memorial service would be held today.

It was the first funeral I had ever attended that had to be postponed a half hour because the family was late, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Her long-time friend and neighbor, Tim, who lives across the street and made sure Edith wasn’t bothered by the local drug pushers, sat patiently with his daughter. Tiffany, for whom Edith cared when Tiffany was an infant, sat there alternately attending to her own one-year-old son and weeping disconsolately. Mary, Tiffany’s mother, who had been Edith’s friend until Edith caught Mary helping herself to small sums from Edith’s checking account, was heard to say that “Anyone who cain’t even put Miz Edith’s ashes in the ground and put a marker over her don’t deserve to be here.” Steve stayed away.

Several friends of Edith attended. Carol, a woman in her early 50s, told me she had known Edith since Carol herself was 16; she called her “Mom.” Carol’s own adult daughter is dead of leukemia, and Carol introduced her 9-year-old granddaughter. Two other ladies told me that they had visited Edith in the hospital and helped her find a wrestling match to watch on television the last night of her life; deathbed or not, Edith was not going to miss her favorite lifelong entertainment.

Someone played a recording of Elvis singing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” A young Baptist minister got up and gave a standard appeal: “If you know Jesus, you will meet Miss Edith in heaven, and if you don’t know Him, Miss Edith would want you to.” I don’t doubt his sincerity, but he had never met Edith and was young enough to be the son of most of the people there, so I suspect his words were more endured than heeded.

Funerals are always a mixed bag. I was fortunate that the first one I ever attended, when I was just 10 years old, of a 70-year-old great-great aunt whom I had never seen, was presided over by another minister of about 45 whose air of calm authority mixed with humane care, added warmth and reassurance to what could otherwise have been a frightening and unsettling experience for a small boy. He frankly admitted that he had not known the deceased but managed to make his listeners believe that she and her faith mattered to him personally.

The next funeral I attended, the following year, was quite different. The minister, considerably younger, also did not know the deceased, and his tone and manner, as he read the words of St. Paul, were rather cold, as though he were reciting a not altogether agreeable lesson by rote. At age 11, I remember thinking to myself, “He’s as cold as the air-conditioning in here. How different this is from last year!”

Then, there are ministers who believe they are clever and creative and preach something topical, on the order of “He crashed into the gates of heaven, just like the space shuttle” (I’m not kidding!) The same minister said “It’s beautiful to hear this music today, but just think what it will be like in heaven, when we get to hear Elvis all the time!” Ahem…even as some physicists speculate that there may be multiple universes, one is tempted to hope for alternate celestial realms!

Sometimes, the missteps come from the deceased themselves who, anticipating their own deaths, took the trouble to write out “inspiring” services of their own; e.g., “We have the husk with us, though the nut is gone” (again, I’m not making this up!)

A book of etiquette from 1836 describes funereal behavior with cynical realism; it recommends that the mourner compose his features into a semblance of grief while inevitably thinking of last night’s party or the current political primary. And I’ve heard that in at least one African country, perhaps the Côte D’Ivoire, funerals are very well attended for the simple reason that the young mourners find them to be promising venues to find new relationship partners!

Today’s service was meaningful because of the love shown by the several female friends of Edith who attended. One of them got up and read one of those poems you are practically bound to hear at a funeral, that goes something like

“I knew there would come a day
When you must go away
I grieve for you with love
Hoping to see you up above…”

It won’t win a prize, but before she read it, the woman blinked back the tears and said “Y’all bear with me while I try to get through this,” and what she felt for Edith was what we all shared, and that was all that mattered.

I got up afterward and said a few words, to the effect that Edith was rich in friends. The young minister had preached the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, with the rich man crying out afterward from his torment. I said Edith’s story reminded me rather of the instance when Jesus saw rich people contributing to the temple treasury and then an elderly widow putting in a single coin. “These all gave out of their abundance,” he said, “but she has given all she had.”

I slipped out during the closing prayer and drove around the corner to the apartment Steve moved into a week ago after Edith’s niece threatened to evict him from Edith’s house. We chatted in his open doorway; the reek of cigarette smoke coming from the place was at a level I have experienced only once before, years ago. He was philosophical about the whole thing and is still trying to get the insurance company to pay on the small policy. The company wants to see an obituary, which Edith’s family has not supplied.

I knew Edith when she was old and frail; I was surprised, in a way, to see that most of the photographs displayed next to the urn containing her ashes were of a stronger and more robust woman than I had known; one of them had her standing, arms akimbo, in a pose that challenged the onlooker, though with frank good humor. I think that if she could know what happened after her passing, she would snort in amusement and have a good chuckle.

© Michael Huggins, 2010. All rights reserved.