Between the Lines / Apple pie and the milk of human kindness
Away from home and family for the first time, I felt a lot like a fish out of water as a freshman at the University of Hartford. I started to settle into a regular routine after my classes started. I wasn't so sure about being an athlete any more, but I knew I could keep up with the work load. I was way too green to travel with the fast crowd, but I did discover some interesting characters on campus.
My father warned me before I left, "Now be careful. When people hear your last name, they will assume you're Scottish. Make sure you tell them you're Irish. There's a big difference."
I thought it was an odd piece of advice, but no sooner did I start my work study job at the gym, than the fellow who supervised the staff welcomed me as a fellow Scot. I immediately set him straight as my father said to. He seemed a little disappointed at first, but we got on just fine.
The main reason we got on fine was that I was the only scholarship athlete who actually showed up for work every day. My job was mostly handing out clean towels and gathering up the smelly uniforms and dirty linens. Sensing my homesickness, Joe McFadden took me under his wing. He was a shrewd seventy-six year old retired insurance rep. He had a narrow head with tufts of white hair over his ears and some long strands combed over his bald spot. Joe taught Sunday school at his Methodist church, and he liked talking to me about religion. My father would've called him a "holy roller," but he was far from that. He was the kind of Protestant who lived a standup life based on old-fashioned virtues.
When he invited me home for a weekend to meet his wife and son, I was reluctant to go. Not because I felt there was anything strange about him, but because I simply wasn't relaxed in other people's houses. Joe had a small Cape near the university that showed signs of being well lived-in. His wife Bertha was a heavy-set woman with a soft-looking face. They showed me to my room, a tiny bedroom off the downstairs hallway. There was a bible on the night stand along with a pitcher of water. Joe told Bertha that I was a fine young man and a Catholic, too. I sensed there was some kind of distinction in the introduction.
I was surprised to meet their son Gilbert when he came home from work. He was almost as old as my father. He loosened his tie, shook my hand peremptorily, then disappeared into his room. As the evening went on I learned that he was a ham radio operator.
"You won't see him anymore tonight," Joe said. "He's probably cozying up to one of those flirty dames he talks to." When his wife wasn't looking, Joe gave me a conspiratorial elbow in the ribs. I wasn't very good at small talk about women and had no experience of my own to brag about, so I just nodded. Bertha made us grilled cheese sandwiches and apple pie with vanilla ice cream.
Sometimes people take a liking to you but you don't know why. You suspect that maybe they're seeing someone else when they're looking at you. A person you might not recognize. I realized that Joe sensed something in me -- my crew cut, my squareness, my religiosity -- that he responded to. He was a Norman Vincent Peale positive thinker full of corny jokes and Christian platitudes. He had mentored other kids over the years and invited them to church with the family too.
What he couldn't know about me, and I barely knew about myself, was that I was trying to throw off the stifling parochialism I was raised in. I was just beginning to become a questioner and a free-thinker in those days. I nearly drove myself crazy with arguments and refutations. I wrestled with the big questions about God and life and had already learned to keep my strong opinions to myself so I wouldn't shock people. I had grown up around my older relatives and was comfortable with them, so I was grateful to Joe for his interest in me. He did me no harm nor meant to.
On Sunday we dressed for services. Joe was brimming with excitement about taking me to his church, a small half-empty wooden building. The simple structure seemed plain and almost severe. I was struck by its austerity compared to the Catholic church we attended. The robed minister came out and gave a good sermon, and I worried for a minute if I would be struck dead for listening to it. The choir livened up the service and everyone sang lustily and full-throated to the Creator and King.
As we exited, we greeted the minister at the door with a handshake. After that we went for a ride with Bertha to see the Cathedral of the Pines, a memorial for a young man killed in World War II.
I was glad to get back to my dorm room by supper time. Sometimes people offer you a kindness that you just can't accept. When Joe invited me home again the following month, I politely declined. A few weeks later I noticed he had found another student who seemed to fit the bill perfectly. I was making my way through life now, and some people I met along the way would seem like those I had already left behind. I sensed a new energy in myself but hardly knew what it was. And folding all those towels at the gym gave me plenty of time to think about it.
Barry Wallace's column Between the Lines is published each Wednesday in the Fairfield Citizen.