The old brick walls

Thursday, June 6, 2002

Miracles come in small packages, sometimes. I speak specifically of my old Sunday School teacher, "Mrs."

Don't ask me her name, it was always just "Mrs" - usually as in "I'm awful sorry Mrs., I won't ever do it again!"

As I stand in the rain, I recall the day Mrs. squared off with Terry "Stinky" McBride and his brother "Ugly" Edwin McBride.

The McBrides would have tried the patience of Satan himself. They were big for third graders - about 6'3" and 260, or so they appeared to me from a distance, the only angle from which I allowed myself to come into contact with them. The McBrides were sentenced by the minister to attend a full year of Sunday School to show just how sorry they were for blowing up a squirrel during the annual ecumenical picnic and tractor pull.

Obviously, Will Rogers never met the McBrides. They were probably the youngest motorcycle gang in history, and had complied by age 8 a criminal record that would make Al Capone blush like a schoolgirl.

On the first night of Sunday School, Stinky tore a hymnal in half with his teeth and Ugly attempted to burn the robe the minister left on a doorknob.

Stinky was about to commit attempted manslaughter with a kneeling cushion, and Ugly had his hand wedged into the fund box for poor blind Third World children when Mrs. walked into the room. "Jeeeeesus," she said in a tone that can best be described as soft thunder, "would not be happy at this moment."

Stinky's bloodshot, too-close-together eyes locked violently on the pale-blue laserbeams behind Mrs.' bifocals. Ugly sized up her 90-pound, 79-year-old frame, which almost seemed to vibrate with the energy of fighting the good fight.

Then the two meanest kids in the history of Webster County meekly sat down. They folded their hands in their laps. They said, "Yes... m-m-ma'am."

If I am exaggerating a tad about Stinky and Ugly's hellish tendencies, I do not exaggerate about the power of "Mrs."

Just ask Stinky and Ugly.

Of course, today you would have to ask for my friends Reverend "Stinky" and Doctor "Ugly." A miracle, small but true.

This was among the thoughts I thought, standing in the rain, outside the shabby little hometown church where I grew up. They tell me they want to tear it down. They tell me all the money's in the big downtown Methodist Church these days.

If they touch the grungy brick, they will be tearing down a lot of memories.

In there, I had the best iced tea and hamsteak the world has ever seen, eaten straight off the aluminum foil in the kitchen after we kids had done Bazaar Night dishes in assembly-line fashion.

I got in my first fight behind there, and wound up saying the first of many apologies to my maker because of it. I learned in there that the best counter for badly is singing loudly.

I saw Mom put a five-spot in the plate in there to help others when we were little better off ourselves (she never used the little envelopes, and said they should be saved for visitors and show-offs). I kissed my first girl in the balcony there (or to be exact, she kissed me. I was five, she was seven, and a very determined young lady.) Wherever you are tonight, Kristin Finneran, I'm sorry that I never told you that I kind of liked it, and I didn't really mean it when I claimed you have cooties.

I said my last goodbyes to irreplaceable people in there, starting with Big Mike who never made it home. He threw footballs to us little kids, and his draft number almost didn't come up before the end of the war. Almost.

I forget how the preacher explained why God took someone so young and so good.

As a teenager, I squirmed through fire and brimstone Sunday mornings in there that inevitably followed red-eyed Saturday nights. "Was he," I wondered, "talking about me?"

One hot, August afternoon, a pretty young girl walked in there clinging to my arm. Reverend Doug pulled me aside and punched me in the ribs. "I don't know how you did it," he said, glancing at her face under the veil, "but you did good."

My grandfather didn't go to church much, but the day after a patch of ceiling fell on the church choir, he gathered up a team of grouchy old tobacco-chawing men who turned out to work around the clock for two days so that children's pageant could go off Sunday, though most of them hadn't seen the inside of any church in a coon's age. I never heard so many growled "damns" and "hells" from people who were beneath the stains and bluster about as heavenly as this earth produces.

I hadn't been back inside that church since my mother's funeral. The people of that church were good to us. The feelings came flooding back as I touched the old brick walls, rough against my hand, but soft on the soul.

The walls had survived floods, fire and a tornado.

The rain was falling harder now. I didn't go in. The memories and the smell of iced tea and hamsteak would be too strong there. How could they think of tearing this down?

I gave the ugly old brick a pat, just in case it isn't there next time I wander this way.

I wiped my eye. Damn rain must have gotten in there. For my sake; and for Mrs. and Stinky and Ugly and Becky and Preacher Doug and Grandad and Big Mike and all the rest; I prayed for one more small miracle inside those old brick walls.