Friday, April 7, 2017

Hubert Might Go Upstairs But Not To Rome

Tea in the afternoon with his wife of many years is usually peaceful, Hubert thinks before he makes his announcement. Then he says it. 

"I'm going upstairs," Hubert tells Ruth as he hoists himself out of his old recliner, "and if I don't ever come back down it's because you want to fly to Rome before we die so we can meet Pope Francis. Fat chance of that happening! You think the pope takes walks in St. Peter's Square?"

"Well, why shouldn't we go," Ruth says. "We may be old but we're still healthy and seeing Rome might be nice. Pope Francis seems like a pretty nice guy."

"Getting old is bad enough," Hubert says, "but why complicate matters with a trip to Rome? We'd have to pull out visas and passports and we'd have TSA agents--total strangers--patting us down in nooks reserved for a doctor or spouse. Besides, Pope Francis might be busy."

"Well, I'd still like to go," Ruth mumbles, none too happy with her husband's lack of enthusiasm. "If I wanted to go to Minnesota and fish for northern pike, you'd be packed, sitting in the car and gunning the motor. Why not do something interesting while we still have time? We'll be dead long enough."

Hubert suddenly has another idea, one he hopes Ruth will buy into. 

"Why not let me die first and then you and the ladies from the garden club can go to Rome on that certificate of deposit we let sit in the bank all these years, the one I should have cashed in and invested in that electric car company, Tesla

"That CD is big enough to take you and five ladies to Rome and back home again. They'd probably like to see Pope Francis as well. Fat chance of that. Unless you want to stand with thousands of others on a Wednesday morning when he speaks from the balcony. Better take binoculars."

Hubert is on a roll now, explaining to Ruth that she and the ladies will have a great time touring gothic churches and eating the finest pasta in the world once he's in the ground looking up but unable to see the sky

"Once I'm dead, Ruth, you won't have to worry about me being grumpy on the trip. I'll be in the family graveyard stretched out between your Uncle Elmer and your Uncle Vince. Right now those two fine farmers are staring at the sky and bookending the plot your father allotted to me once the poor man realized I was actually going to be his son-in-law."

When Hubert first met Ruth's father many decades ago--fresh off the plane from Chicago, in a suit and tie no less--her father had bounced Hubert over many a country road to show him the plot in the family graveyard reserved in case Ruth married someone eventually. She hadn't married young because as a professional photographer working for National Geographic she had traveled all over the world and preferred taking photos to marrying any of the men she had met. Then she met Hubert in Chicago and decided to settle down. 

Taking Hubert home to meet her extended family of farmers, however, had not been easy for either of them. And not easy for her family either. They had hoped Ruth would marry one day, preferably a farmer with lots of acreage, not some editor from a big city and certainly not someone like Hubert who couldn't tell a Holstein cow from a Guernsey.

No matter how much Ruth talked about the delights of a trip to Rome, Hubert still didn't have much interest in going, with or without the rare possibility of meeting Pope Francis. 

Hubert liked Pope Francis because the media kept hoping the pope would change some things in the Catholic Church but the things the media hoped he would change no pope could ever change. It would be like saying the color red is blue which can never be true. 

Pope Francis, Hubert knew, was an old Jesuit, theologically sound and skilled in  handling the media. What's more he had the capacity to rile both conservative and liberal Catholics at the same time. And it was always interesting to see him pop up on the nightly news. Anchors not too well acquainted with matters Catholic would sometimes offer commentary far off the mark. 

"Ruth, you and I are the only family left, except for the kids and they're doing fine working in the big city, several big cities, in fact, as your father would have called them.  And although the grim reaper isn't waving his scythe and ringing our doorbell yet, I still think you should let me die first and then you and the garden gals can go to Rome. When you get back you can plant sunflowers around my headstone to give the squirrels something to gnaw on in the many hot summers to come."

"Well," Ruth said, "if you had a terminal disease, I might not mind the wait. Why don't we go out for dinner now and we can talk about all this later. I'm hungry."

"Okay," Hubert said, "but I hear the pike are hitting the lures pretty hard up in Minnesota. And I think there's a new bishop in charge. We could go to the cathedral for Mass. Maybe you and the new bishop could have a chat. Some day he might become pope. One of these days an American has to get that job. Can you imagine listening to the News at 10 when that happens."

Ruth agreed to go to a Thai restaurant that evening, a place she had never gone to in the past. It was a tiny place where immigrants from Thailand liked to eat. She knew the food would be too spicy for her but that Hubert would love it. 

Eating Thai food was the start of her new campaign to win Hubert over to making that trip to Rome--following a fishing trip to Minnesota, of course. Ruth planned on asking that new bishop to drop a note to Pope Francis to let him know she and Hubert would be coming to visit. She thought it was only right to give him time to adjust his schedule. She was planning on giving him a big batch of her fudge--and a small batch to Hubert to eat on the plane.  

Donal Mahoney

Imperfect Storm Ends in a Rainbow

In 1958 Elmer's was the only high school in his county that had been integrated. Basketball was the big sport. People in the little town filled the gym every Tuesday and Friday. They roared when the home team scored and they booed when the visiting team fouled one of their players. But before and after every game the town was rife with racial tension. 

Some folks were neutral about integration, figuring its time had come. Others were adamantly opposed. Hard to say, even in retrospect, if anyone, black or white, was in favor of it. If someone thought it was a good idea, no one said anything. But at every basketball game, people got along, whatever their color. Points mattered and wins mattered. And in 1958 this small school had a very good team. Some might say the team was good in part because of integration. 

In fact, the school had its first team ever with a realistic hope of going to the state tournament. And when the team did, there was even more hoopla among the people of the town. 

To this day many people believe that if their star player had not torn his knee in the first game, the team might have gone deep in the tournament. 

The local newspaper said the team was good enough to win it, which helped, of course, to sell a lot of papers. Even though the team didn’t win the championship, the effort brought the town together. The racial talk largely subsided and hasn’t risen since except out of the mouths of a few who are upset about other things as well. 

Change of any kind bothers people, some more than others.

But at every reunion of the class of 1958, that team dominates the conversation. And no one knows that better than Elmer.

It doesn't matter now that racial strife in 1958 kept Elmer and his classmates from taking a senior trip. They’re over that and the ones who are still alive simply enjoy getting together at the Elk’s Club Lodge and reminiscing about the good times while feasting on fine food. They talk about their lives, the classmates who have died and, of course, their team.

It doesn't matter either that every teacher they had back then passed away long ago, teachers they remember fondly and teachers they remember not so fondly. They know those teachers made a difference in their lives and they appreciate them now far more than they did back then. 

It doesn't even matter that the building where they went to school no longer stands or that their school system long ago was absorbed by a larger system. But everyone in their town and surrounding towns remembers the name of their school because of its being the first to be integrated and because of its basketball team in 1958.

Because of that team, Elmer and his classmates, black and white, never lack for conversation at a reunion. 

Just ask the black guy, the tallest one in the room, what might have happened if he had not hurt his knee in that game. Elmer will be happy to tell you he and all his classmates think their team would have won that championship, the only team in the tournament that year with a black kid playing, grabbing rebounds and just before he hurt his knee executing a monster dunk not often seen back then.

Elmer doesn’t have problems with his knee now. A surgeon in another town operated on him in 1958 and the town held three barbecues that summer to pay for the operation.

Elmer received a scholarship to a good university and starred on the team for three years. Then he went to dental school. And just a few years back he retired from his dental practice in his home town. He had more white patients than black because more white folks live there. 

Now just about everybody in town gets along despite the big change in 1958. Sometimes people are better off in the long run whether they like change when it happens or not.  

Elmer will be the first to tell you he’s not the only one who benefited from integration. His town, his school, his team and his patients for 40 years benefited as well. They were all part of an imperfect storm that ended in a rainbow. 

Donal Mahoney