Wednesday, October 19, 2011

#370: Homecoming Part 1: Mother Fair

I can remember seeing them every autumn. They gathered in little clumps on the quad. They took up tables in the pizza joint and the sub shop. They milled around the library and the student union and the chapel, telling stories about ancient days. I never knew what to make of them, these graying junior executive types in their cashmere sweaters and their carefully creased khakis.They were goofy, semi-grown-ups who couldn't get on with their lives, lurking around in the hangouts of their youth, reminiscing about drunken nights in a dry college town. I used to laugh at them. This week, I joined them.

Back in time...
Ring out the bells in Old Main's tower again...
Home of the Towering Titans
New Wilmington is a pastoral village, the western capital of Amish Pennsylvania. Unlike her eastern cousin, Lancaster, New Wilmington's Amish community doesn't market itself very aggressively. Sure, you can buy some cheese or a rocking chair. But the souvenirs available are pretty minimal. Mostly, the Amish of New Wilmington go about their business quietly, living in comfortable proximity to the private college students and "English" natives of this little town, tucked into the Alleghenies. And at the heart of the town stands Westminster College. Founded in 1852 by the Presbyterian church, Westminster looks like a college from a movie about college. There is ivy on the walls. There is chalk dust in the classrooms. The faint aroma of generations of pipe tobacco teases your imagination as you walk the halls of "Old Main," the administrative and historic center of campus. The ancient "Westminster Chimes" ring each hour, half and quarter hour. For a working-class kid from Pittsburgh, coming to Westminster was a dream come true and the chance of a lifetime.

Erin, Pennsy, and Jeff... Titans, all...
Mrs P and I arrived just a little late. We missed the class photo, but we arrived just in time to catch everyone hanging out on the library steps afterwards. I heard her laughing voice from halfway across the Quad. Erin was one of the first people I met when I came to school. She smiled that smile and gushed over my voice when I sang in chapel and I was smitten for life. We took classes together, spent our summers at Bemus Point, even met for tea when she was a RA our senior year. We were never sweethearts, but I was sure sweet on her. I guess I still am. She gave me a big hug and kiss, and asked to meet Mrs P. As I introduced them, I saw Jeff on the steps. We were room mates, class mates, cast mates, brothers, and fellow artists. Jeff went off to be a professional song-and-dance man. I went off to get my MFA and become a Broadway star. We both did ok. He's been teaching at a very prestigious university for 16 years. He has a beautiful wife and a little girl who lights up his eyes every time he mentions her. He's just as handsome and compassionate as ever. Mrs P fell in love with both of them on sight.

A place for joys and concerns...
Ever the social butterfly, Erin flitted off with another group. We would catch up at the banquet. Jeff, Mrs P and I wandered through the gray autumn afternoon, the wind blown leaves dancing around us almost as fast as the memories swirled around our every step. We entered the silent chapel reverently. So many prayers had been lifted, so many tears shed, so many joys celebrated under those great oak arches. "It's very Presbyterian," Mrs P observed, and she was right, but it was so much more. A lot of important things happened to us inside the stone walls of the chapel. A lot of friendships were started, even a love affair or two. In the sentimental memory of an alumnus, all of campus is special: but the chapel is holy ground.

Where I learned there's no such thing as a "sex ghost."
A very nice lady saw us wandering the halls of Old Main and gave us a tour. Many of our old classrooms are "smart" now. I'm not sure what that means, but I'm sure it's very expensive. We saw the room where the brilliant Peter Mackey taught C.S. Lewis wearing the crazy National Health glasses he got while a scholar at Oxford. We saw the corner spot where Patty Lamb taught us about Keats and Joe "Sure Shot" Hopkins gave us the toe-the-line, hard-core Presbyterian version of New Testament studies. Finally, we visited the room where Fritz Horn taught Shakespeare. This too was hallowed ground. I was delighted to see that there was still a pencil sharpener screwed to the dark wood trim around the slate blackboard. Maybe this old museum room wasn't "smart," but a genius used to teach here, opening our minds to the words of a writer who would change my life. He also taught me that just because somebody published it, doesn't make it true. And the best lessons are the ones you teach yourself.

Beeghly Theatre was home for all those years. That's where I auditioned and won my scholarship. It's where I played my first part in a straight play. It's where I almost failed Theatre History. And on my last day of college, it's where I stopped to say goodbye. While normal college kids were home studying or out drinking and trying for a little Calvinist nookie, we were studying lines, rehearsing scenes, practicing dialects, even learning to ride a motor bike. There was a ghost, whose name I can't recall, and a lot of hard working kids whose faces I will never forget. As we sat on the steps of the auditorium, laughing about our chain smoking mentors, the door opened and in peeked one of the loveliest of those faces.
Pennsy, Joellen, and Jeff... If you ask me,
The halo is on the wrong angel.

I remember Joellen like a little bird, vulnerable and beautiful with a lovely face and a sharp mind. Westminster wasn't always an easy world for a good Catholic girl, but Joellen found her niche. She tried acting for a while, but her heart wasn't in it. She became an English major and a writer. Now she's a mom with three handsome boys who make her so proud that she tears up when she talks about them. I embarrassed her by remembering how great she looked in her blue leotard when we were 19. Mrs P thought I was being a little inappropriate, but if somebody remembered liking my butt after 30 years, I think I'd appreciate knowing that.

Pennsyltucky's Allegheny mountains
We kissed our goodbyes in the fall afternoon, stopped by the bookstore to replace my long gone Towering Titans tee-shirt, and headed back to Mum's house to change for the banquet. How i love these mountains. I drove a lot of miles through them. Hiked them. Camped in their forests. Fished their lakes. Dreamed under their clouds. I am a city boy, but those trips to the mountains, that's where I was really raised. The best parts of me all grew out of the loamy soil under these hardwoods.

Marcia, Jeff, Pennsy, and Jennifer
The banquet was unforgettable. The company, I mean. Not the food.  I've already forgotten the food. I sat next to Marcia, a beautiful mom and dancer who used to wait tables in a yellow polyester waitress uniform at the Hotel Lenhart on Lake Chautauqua while I sweated away behind the dishwasher, wishing one of those lovely daffodils would go for a summer stroll and a smooch with me after the kitchen was clean and dark. Her daughter dances now, and her husband is an engineer. They live out west and the climate suits her. She looks as lithe and graceful as ever. And though we took a walk or two in the moonlight, I never did get that smooch.

Dear, lovely Jennifer. I'd like to tell you that she's as beautiful as ever, but the truth is that she is even more beautiful now than she was when we were all young and fresh and full of ourselves. Jennifer was an actress and a friend, and was very good at both. She once told me that she hated a monologue I did because of my "shit-eating grin." It takes a good friend to be that honest. Jennifer and I knew one another from high school when we competed on opposing speech teams. We kind of competed all the time. She was much smarter than I, so I had to find less elevated ways to take her on. We once had a bet about who could lose the most weight in two weeks. She struggled bravely through salads and yogurts while I smirked along gobbling mashed potatoes and ice cream. What she didn't know was that I was sneaking down to the track every night and running myself stupid. I won the contest, and she paid the bet. She was a woman of honor as well as candor. On her last night at Westminster, we all climbed up to the roof of the Beeghly and slept out under the stars. It was completely against the rules, of course, but we didn't care. It was a great idea and we were all actors: trained to seize great ideas and go with them. It was one of the most wonderful, magical, innocent nights of my life.

Still smitten, after all these years...
And so was Homecoming 2011. Erin kept her promise. We did catch up at the banquet. I laughed at her for the way she "worked the room," just like when she was hostess at the Lenhart, just like when she gave away that smile to each table as she made her way through the dining hall at school. We shared a few precious minutes of our own private joys and tragedies. A lot can happen to a person in 30 years, you know. Most of what we shared is just between us. But I can tell you that the laughter and tears that we exchanged were deep and heart-felt.

Much to my delighted surprise, I discovered that I really love these people. I guess I always did. Wish it hadn't taken 30 years for me to appreciate that, but I'm sure glad I lived long enough to get here. And so glad that I got a chance to share this wonderful part of my life with Mrs P. Maybe now she understands my affection for sandstone buildings and Reformation theology a little better.
Time is hard on hair, but good for hearts...

Much more happened on this special homecoming, but that's enough for one post. Tomorrow, I'll tell you about why I no longer need a bucket list. Here's a clue: Steelers 17, Jaguars 13.


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