David A. Schwinghammer
· Soldier's Gap
· Seminary Boy, a memoir
· Fisher of Men, Chapter Nine
· Soldier's Gap, Chapter Three
· Honest Thief, Tender Murderer, Chapter Nine
· Fisher of Men, Chapter 8
· Honest Thief, Tender Murderer, Chapter Eight
· Mengele's Double, Chapter Eight
· Fisher of Men, Chapter 7
· Speed Dating With 'Janeane Garofalo'
· The Cynic
· The Three Stooges, book review
· The God Particle
· Empire of Sin, book review
· Science at the Edge, book review
· Obama, a Modern Caesar?
· Americans Need to Pull Together
· Voices of the French Revolution, book review
· Great American Scandals
· Odd Man Out, book review
· Portrait of a Killer, book review
· Widow's Peak
· Alumni Game
· Girls Who Wear Glasses
· The Do Drop Inn
· Ode to Neve Campbell
· Jacks or Better 101
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A Community College instructor
deals with the death of his wife.
I was almost thirty before I met Anne Wilber, approximately a year before she became Mrs. John Franklin. She was from Maine, and she had the cutest New England accent. She was tall and statuesque, a brunette with a bit of gray already beginning to show, which she refused to dye. She also liked to read good literature, Joyce Carol Oates and her ilk, not vampire novels or romance (I heard a lady recently sold a million e-mail books at ninety-nine cents each. It was a vampire romance. I also heard that forty percent of Midwest women read romance novels. I don’t mean to be a literary snob, but a romance novelist is the equivalent of a ditch digger in the construction business hierarchy.) Since I teach in a New England community college (Okay, I realize I just left myself open to some criticism; some might say a community college instructor would be on a level with romance novelists when compared to university professors.) I simply could not find a PhD thesis that I could give my heart and soul, something I think might be necessary to write a 300 page thesis paper and defend my thesis orally in front of a hostile committee. At least that’s the excuse I’m using. I’ve never been the ambitious type. Wait, there was the one idea I had; I wanted to argue that people in the South, especially Southern Baptists, were still fighting the Civil War. I was rather rudely informed that a popular non-fiction book about the same topic had already been written. CONFEDERATES IN THE ATTIC by Tony Horwitz. How did I ever miss that one? My favorite pastime, when I can scrape together the money that is, is to visit Civil War battlefields, preferably during reenactments. Turned out, Anne liked them, too, which was a major selling point. She even liked to dress in the fashion of the time, including the bonnet. How could I not love her? Did I tell you I teach the equivalent of American History 101 at Wellington Community College in Burlington, Vermont? It’s starting to kill my brain cells. I’ve tried everything to get beyond the lecture method. I’ve done field trips to the Green Mountains where Ethan Allen and his boys were from. I’ve even taken a caravan of students to Boston to see the Revolutionary sites. They were so bored I thought they might turn to stone. When I took Anne to see the Paul Revere House, they had to throw us both out when they wanted to close. I’ve also tried reports and the Professor Kingsfield (The Paper Chase) Socratic method, where you pick on one student to make sure they’ve done their reading. When my class numbers began to shrink, I had to knock it off. Anne thought that it was terrible that students would look for a sluff class rather than putting a little meat in their diets.
I’m also a baseball nut. Have you ever heard of Albert Spaulding? I didn’t think so. Well, he was the first great pitcher when the National League was founded in 1876. He also went on to found a sporting goods company. You may have heard of them. Well Anne not only knew who Albert Spaulding was, but she also knew that Candy Cummings was the first to throw a curve ball and that Cooperstown was not where baseball was first played. Baseball is an American bastardization of Rounders, a British game that followed the colonists to America, and there were many different forms.
Anne and I would not only go to Fenway to see Boston play, but we would sit up and watch Sports Center most every night. Her only failing was that she hated to cook; she couldn’t even make a grilled cheese sandwich. Luckily my mother taught me how to make at least three dozen different kinds of casseroles and other recipes that took under thirty minutes to make.
I can frankly say that I loved Anne Wilber more than myself. I would have taken a bullet for her. I would have climbed Mount Everest, swum the deepest sea. Okay, I know those are clichés, but I never realized they could be so fitting in a relationship. No, she wasn’t a fellow teacher. She was a physician’s assistant, and she made more money than I did. But I didn’t mind. I would have stayed home to take care of the children if she’d wanted me to. But, alas, I never got the chance. I am one of those people like the character in Li’l Abner with the rain cloud over his head. I rushed Anne to the hospital in the middle of her seventh month of pregnancy; she was spotting badly. A miscarriage in the seventh month? That doesn’t happen, does it? It was worse than that. She bled out on the operating table, taking our son with her. I couldn’t work for six months. Luckily I had an understanding department head, or I’d be living under a bridge with Madonna’s brother.
Well, I kept on moping until I heard a radio advertisement for a singles club and thought to myself, “Yeah, right, I’m going to be the kind of geek who goes to that type of thing.” The rational part of my psyche responded, “But you’re so lonely you’re about to die. A little companionship won’t hurt you. Nobody’s going to make you marry the lady.”
I forgot all about it until I read an ad in the newspaper about a Widows and Widowers support group. Crying in public was beginning to be just too embarrassing. I had to do something, and they were having a mixer with a dance band. Well I fancy myself the Fred Astaire of Wellington Community College. That’s how I met Anne as a matter of fact. I’d stared at her for at least an hour before I got up the courage to ask her to dance to “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”
“I was wondering when you were going to ask,” she said. “And I love Creedence.”
“Doesn’t everybody?” I said.
After that enthralling introduction, we got into the nuts and bolts of getting to know each other, which I’d entirely forgotten how to do with a human of the female persuasion since then.
So I went to the mixer with my pal Bob Nolan who was married to a live woman with four kids but pretending to be a widower because I was too chicken to go by myself. He got permission from his wife Pat because she was tired of my suicidal depression which was making her husband depressed. Bob and I have know each other since first grade, so there wasn’t much likelihood he was going to abandon me just because I was going through a rough patch. Bob is a social worker of sorts. He runs the local Big Brother/Big Sister organization. I have more respect for him than anybody I know. He suggested I try a little brother as therapy, but I argued about the possibility of role reversal. The poor kid would have to take care of me.
We sat at the bar at the mixer having Miller Hi-Lite and checking out the elderly chicks. At least I was. If Bob was, he was looking for somebody for me who resembled Anne in some way or manner. All the likely candidates reminded me of Anne, so after about a half hour, I sidled up to one and asked her to dance, just as I had Anne.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “My sister-in-law made me come to this, and I’m just not ready. My husband has only been gone for a month. Throat cancer; it was horrible. I don’t know what she was thinking. I don’t really feel like dancing, but you can buy me a drink if you want and tell me about yourself.”
She had a Tom and Jerry, which has to be the worst drink ever invented by man. Women must think it’s non-alcoholic. I don’t drink much either, but I’ll choke down the occasional Miller in deference to Bob who drinks more beer than the Bavarians.
When her drink arrived I told her my name and where I worked, and she said she was Sheila Gravie and she worked at a bank as a teller. That’s about as far as I got.
“You’re a history teacher,“ she said. “That was like my worst subject in high school. I could never remember all those dates and names. Our fifth grade teacher had us memorize the presidents and I could never get past James K. Polk. Who cares about James K. Polk?”
“Well he was kind of like responsible for Manifest Destiny. He was actually a pretty good president, but he must’ve gotten tired with all the bickering with Congress because he never ran for another term.”
There was a frown on her face. “I liked math,” she said. “I suppose you can name all of the presidents.”
“You aren’t going to make me, are you?” I mouthed a “Save me” signal to Bob and he came and got me. He told her he needed a ride home; one of his children was sick, and he had to drive her to the hospital.
Bob gave me a serious tongue-lashing on the way home. “You put up the white flag because she doesn’t like history? Guess what, I’m not all that crazy about it either. Somebody once said the winners write the history books.”
“Oh, bullshit. We rely on primary sources for the most part. I’ve interviewed more WWII veterans than the Veteran’s Administration. Then we have to run the gauntlet of our peers.”
“Which is why you never published?”
“I freely admit I’m a coward. I suppose I should go back next week, if only to commiserate with other widowers.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Sheila wasn’t there, and I felt guilty. Had I discouraged her from using one of the most helpful options to deal with grief ever devised? I sat at the bar and talked to some of the other widowers. Mostly they said I needed a hobby. Did I play golf? “No,” I said, “I agree with Mark Twain, golf is a good walk spoiled.” What the hell else was I going to do, learn to fish? Join a Bridge Club? A guy named Joe said he met his wife at a sausage and pancakes breakfast at his church.
I stopped going to church in my early twenties, but I do like sausage and pancakes and everybody has always said, “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” I kind of agreed I’d go back to church once I got a little older and began to worry that I might be wrong about there being nothing but darkness after I kicked the bucket. There’s a famous anecdote about W.C. Fields being caught reading the Bible. His friend said he was surprised to see Bill reading something so edifying, and W.C. said. “Looking for loopholes, looking for loopholes.”
Well I’m still a red-blooded man and I was looking for more than loopholes. I was looking for a soul mate and what better place to go to find one than in church?
I got there too early and got stuck in the back with the ushers. All they’ve got are kneelers. No place to sit. I had to listen to Father Ulrich’s sermon on the loaves and the fishes. It was so boring I nodded off once or twice, saved by the guiding hand from one of the ushers.
Women know that guys go to sausage and pancake breakfasts to meet nice girls, and there’s a certain kind of female who likes to set people up. If she spots a stranger in the crowd and he seems to be unattached, she’s on him like flypaper. And that’s how I met my next relationship challenge, Martha Riddle. Should’ve been Martha Riddler. They had a lot in common.
Martha knew who Barry Bonds was and she could give a blow-by-blow account of his problems with steroids and growth hormones. She even knew about the size eight and a half cap and the big feet he developed. But she didn’t really like professional sports all that much, although she did love high school sports, being a former track athlete in high school. Martha managed to suppress the fact that she was a Charismatic Catholic for a good three months; however I did notice that she used the words “Lord” and “Jesus” a bit too much and she wasn’t swearing when she did. I managed to keep my mouth shut about my belief that the odds of an afterlife being a reality were like a trillion to one. At the time I didn’t really know what a Charismatic Catholic was, but when she started talking about prophecy, healing, and speaking in tongues, I thought I might be conversing with a Baptist Evangelical in disguise. No wonder Bush got reelected. Catholicism is like the largest church in the country. I wondered how many of these Charismatics there were. So, I looked it up; 120 million globally.
When she refused to go see an “R” rated movie I decided to have it out. “Did you know that the Old Testament Bible resulted from the Babylonian Captivity? Genesis wasn’t even written yet. Zoroastrianism was the first monotheistic religion and those Jews picked up a lot of their bad habits. Misogyny for one. It wasn’t a coincidence that Eve got blamed for tempting Adam with that apple. The Essenes who brought a lot of this stuff back to Israel were notorious women haters; They also resisted the humanist movement which had been transforming the Jewish religion. Zoroastrian also coincidentally claimed a God the Father and God the Son. They even had a holy trinity, including the Holy Ghost. Mithra was the son and he sounds a whole lot like Jesus, as does Dionysius, who was born of a virgin, died and rose from the dead. Oh, yeah, he was also part human and part God. Did you know there was a Pope named Dionysius? Do you think that might have been a coincidence?
I gave her a couple of books to read. THE HISTORY OF THE DEVIL by Gerald Messadie who claims the Zoroastrians are responsible for the Christian devil, and JESUS INTERRUPTED by Bart D. Ehrman, a former Evangelical preacher who argues that St. Paul distorted the Christian message. I doubt she ever read them, since she never answered my calls from that moment forward. 120 million members? How many of those live in the good old U.S.A.? Wow, no wonder Bush got reelected.
Sometimes good things happen to you when you’re not looking for them. My friend Bob had a problem child nobody else seemed to want to have anything to do with for more than one session. His name was Tony Ritter; he was twelve years old and he already had a juvie record. I tried to weasel my way out of it, making the same spurious claim that I needed more help than the kid did, but Bob was persistent. “Just do it for a couple of weeks until I find somebody who had a rough time himself as a kid.”
Luckily the kid played basketball. He beat me at “horse,” and I wasn’t trying to let him. Then he beat at one-on-one and again I was really trying to beat him. The kid already had muscles on his muscles. Was he pumping iron or what? I took him to see the Red Sox play the Yankees and Yanks blasted my guys 12-0. “I really hate the Yankees,” Tony said. “I feel like throwing up.” This kid could be a friend for life. We also played board games when we weren’t jocking it up. I’d always been a Monopoly wizard, and the kid even beat me at that. I was beginning to feel inferior. In the midst of one of those wallopings I asked, “What did you do to get in trouble with the law?”
“It was really stupid. Me and a couple of guys pulled a B&E at the 7-11 down the street. We were just bored. I don’t hang with those guys anymore.”
“That’s a couple of guys and I pulled a breaking and entering. What’s with the other Big Brothers? How’s come you couldn’t get along with any of them?”
“Bob told you that, huh? Well, they tried to let me win when we played sports for one thing, and eventually they all got around to making a pass at my mother.”
Tony’s mother had been divorced for five years, still only 27, having got married in high school. Her ex-husband, who thankfully had moved out West, had been a meth dealer. She played flag football with us occasionally, she and her next door neighbor, Roxanne. Rachel had never been a jock in high school, but you could see where he got his athleticism from. She also had Angie Harmon’s husky voice and long black hair. Tony told me they had Iroquois blood, a great great grandmother or something. Anyway it was pleasure tackling her when I accidentally on purpose forgot it was flag football. I got a dirty look from Tony. I just shrugged. He smiled back so I must’ve won his approval. She didn’t play with us much, though. Too tired from working two jobs to make ends meet. Bartender and waitress.
When school started, I talked Tony into going out for football. When he did, his grades went up exponentially.
“The boy’s out of the woods,” Bob said. “You don’t have to see him anymore if you don’t want to. He has another father figure in the coach, who thinks he can play Division I if he works at it.”
“Love the kid like my own son,” I said. “It’s a pleasure being around him. Thanks for making me be a Big Brother.”
“I don’t recall making you do anything.”
Rachel called me and asked me if I wanted to see the newest Johnny Depp movie and maybe get a bite afterwards. We could go Dutch.
“Where I come from the man pays,” I said.
“If you insist. I was going to take us to Mac and Don’s. I’m sure you’re used to better places that that.”
“It would be a pleasure, and I like Mac and Don’s.”
Not long after, Rachel took my class. Coincidentally she wanted to be an accountant, and two years later with a degree in hand, she qualified for Boston College. And two years after that I got to be Tony’s step dad.
Dave Schwinghammer's novel, SOLDIER'S GAP, is available at Amazon.com, new and used.
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David A. Schwinghammer