Come to us in our youth, when our hearts were sick with
hopelessness…and our heads bowed down with nameless shame.
Stan Musial died last Saturday. Which in and of itself is hardly the stuff I usually note on my blog. Some of you might well think, what’s that got to do with anything? And some of you might go, yep, he died last Saturday. A legend in baseball lore, almost a god to Cardinals fans.
He meant nothing to me, growing up. A name I vaguely associated with baseball, from my random reading of the World Book Encyclopedia. In school, I always rushed through my work, and then spent hours gulping great chunks of knowledge from the World Book. Much to my teachers’ chagrin. They scolded me, now and then. With a little effort, you could easily work that B up to an A. Their scolding did little good, because I didn’t listen. Bs were fine. I wanted to read. And that’s where I first heard of Stan Musial, not that it gave me any real concept of who he was. When you’re a little Amish kid, reading a biographical sketch from the pages of an encyclopedia, there’s no way you will grasp who the person really was. You’ll know he was, but not who he was.
When I saw he had died, my first inclination back then would have been, what’s that got to do with anything? But today, from where I am, and knowing what I know, it was a big deal. History. Passing on. In this country. Passing on, from what America once was to what it is and will be. Stan Musial is a connection, from way back in my father’s youth. Daviess people are among the country’s most rabid Cardinals fans. So Dad would have known of him when Stan the Man was playing, had he ever bothered with such things. Which he might or might not have. I wouldn’t know, either way. Because he never would have told me.
To me, the name evokes a small flood of memories. I hadn’t thought of him in years. But when I saw he had died, on Drudge, something stirred inside me. Something that happened one day, way back when.
It was so long ago. And I went back in my head and recalled the surroundings. And in those surroundings, a man standing there. A young man, sure. But still, a man. And that man was dressed in Amish barn door denim pants, a plain shirt and galluses, and a raggedy but clean homemade coat. No hat, though. It was winter. The man wore a stocking cap instead.
Near as I can recall, it was back somewhere close to the mid 1980s, after I’d joined the church and was dating Sarah. My spirit was stirring from restlessness to growing hopelessness, I can say that. Because that’s how it was back in those days, in those times. I was traveling on the Greyhound, returning home from some trip to somewhere. I don’t remember which particular journey. Maybe it was from Texas. I had a friend down there, and traveled by bus to see him. I don’t know where I was coming from. Could have been from Daviess, too. It was early evening, probably around 7 o’clock. The bus pulled into the station in St. Louis. It was dark outside. I had a layover, a couple of hours to kill. And I was hungry. So I decided to venture out and find something to eat that was better than the prepackaged junk they sold at the bus station.
I stuffed my bags into a locker, paid the quarter and pocketed the key. Then wandered out into the city streets, a babe in the woods, really. Surely there must be a restaurant somewhere close. I remember nothing of the scenery or the streets. Just that after a while, I saw the large neon sign ahead. Stan Musial’s. The baseball guy, I remember thinking. He must have opened a restaurant. It looked like a fine place. A little glitzy, maybe. I’d check it out, I figured. So I boldly walked up to the heavy front door, pulled it open, and walked right in.
I didn’t know anything about such places. Fancy restaurants. From the sign outside, they had food. And I was hungry. So why not? That’s all I had in mind. To eat.
There was a little foyer, and a stately if somewhat buxom matron stood guard there. The Maitre de, although I wouldn’t have known that title back then. An elderly lady, impeccably dressed. She looked at me, plainly startled. And as I walked up to her, her startled expression turned to one of pure disdain. I saw it happen. How her face changed. Her right hand went up and shifted her glasses. Refocusing, she was. And regrouping, in her head. Her chin lifted. She peered down her nose at me. And then she spoke.
“What may I do for you?” She asked icily.
Completely oblivious, I stood there, smiling shyly at her. I’d like to get a meal, buy some food, I said. I just walked over from the bus station. I’m hungry.
She lifted her nose another inch. Readjusted her glasses again. Up and down, she slowly scanned me. Looking back now, I don’t know why she didn’t just tell me I needed a reservation. But she didn’t. Maybe she felt sorry for me. If she did, I sure didn’t sense it in her at the moment. She stood there, solid and unmoving, pretty much glaring at me. And I stood there, smiling back at her. Also unmoving. I didn’t know it, but she was trying to glare me right back out the door.
We stood there for a moment, facing off. I wasn’t going anywhere. She blinked first. And turned into the dining room. “Follow me,” she said curtly. So I did, all the while gazing about in wonder. This is one fancy place, I thought to myself.
And we walked into the dining room. It was a week night, but the place was pretty well packed out. Little tables. All kinds of worldly people sitting there. Painted, glittering ladies in fancy dresses. Men in suits and ties. Sitting at their tables, all comfortable, drinking wine from goblets. I had never seen that before, in any restaurant. People sipping wine like that with their meals. And we walked right among them, past them. I can’t recall that they stared at me, as we walked through the room. Some of them, I’m sure, cast curious glances. I looked around for an empty table. Yep, there were a few small ones. Maybe the matron would seat me at a table by the wall. I like tables by the wall. You can lean back into the wall and relax.
But no. The buxom matron strode purposefully right through the crowd of high-rolling diners. Approached the back wall, and tugged open a large door to another room. What’s this? More diners back there? Man, this place was hopping. She opened the large door and walked through. I followed her.
It was a big room. A very nice glittering room. With lots and lots of dining tables, perfectly set and ready for diners. But otherwise, it was entirely empty. Not a soul in it, except the matron and me. She set the menu on a table by the wall just inside the door. A wall table. At least she got that much right. “You may be seated,” she sniffed. “A server will be right with you.” And then she turned and walked out and shut the door behind her. I was all alone in a large beautiful room with lots of empty tables. Alone, separated from the “real” people out there.
Coming from the Amish, I guess you get used to being stared at. Get used to being treated a little differently. That’s all I can come up with. Except you never do, quite, which is why I remember the scene so vividly. But still, I was just too naïve to get offended. I was here to eat, not worry about a bunch of stodgy stiffs who thought they were better than me. I settled into my chair and quickly scanned the menu. And sure enough, minutes later, a young waiter edged his way through the large heavy door. Walked up to my table. Stood there, smiling. If he was disdainful, he sure hid it a lot better than did the buxom matron.
I don’t remember what I ordered. I probably just pointed to the cheapest item on the menu. The waiter popped back out. And returned a short time later with my plate of food. I settled in, completely alone in the back room of Stan Musial’s restaurant, and dug in. The food was delicious. I relished every bite. The young waiter, bless his heart, stopped by to check a time or two. Politely asked how everything was. It’s good, I told him. I finished the food. And soon it was time to return to the bus station.
I’d been around a bit in my life, and was very proud of the fact that I knew enough to tip the waiter. (Amish are notorious non-tippers.) I rummaged around in my pockets and extracted a handful of change. I carefully made two little stacks of ten dimes each. Two bucks. The guy probably figured he wasn’t getting a tip at all. Well, I’d show him.
I paid the waiter for my meal, or I think that’s how it went. Many of the specific details of that night are pretty sketchy in my memory. Except those few of how I was treated and where I was seated. As I approached her on the way out, the matron busied herself doing something, anything, so she wouldn’t have to speak to me. I walked out the door and into the night, back to the bus station.
I don’t know that I ever told anyone what happened. I probably did. The story was just too good to keep to myself. But it was not until years later that I thought back to that incident and actually absorbed the heavy rush of the embarrassment and shame of it all. When I really grasped what had happened that night. How I’d been sliced and diced and dissed and never really knew any better. I mean, what a country bumpkin.
Looking back now, I have a hard time feeling miffed at the buxom matron. She was just doing her job. Giving her customers a pleasant uninterrupted dining experience. Never in her wildest imaginings, I’m sure, could she have envisioned a young Amish guy strolling through the door and asking for a table. A guy not in suit and tie, but in rough homemade denim clothes. I actually credit her for not quietly turning me away. She could have, I’m sure. Somehow. She could have claimed I needed a reservation. Or demanded that I wear a tie. No one would ever have known. But she didn’t.
It was the market. Or maybe that night it was her heart. Maybe she broke the rules, to let me in. Maybe that’s why she seated me where she did. Whatever the case, she decided to admit me. Feed me and take my money. On certain terms, of course. I accepted those terms. And I got fed. In a back room, all by myself, sure. But I got fed. Which was really what I’d come for.
Today I look back, and it’s all just a hilarious little tale I can write. And it’s a tiny little connection to the great Stan Musial himself. I’m proud I ate at his restaurant as a young Amish man. I’m proud to have been in his establishment on that long-ago night. The chances are pretty remote, but maybe he was there, too.
I like to think he might have been.
People have asked me here and there. Is it hard for you to attend a wedding? I’ve always thought that a strange question. Why would it be? Well, you know, they say. Because of what happened with you and Ellen.
And I tell them. Nope. What happened back then is back there. Has nothing to do with me having issues with attending a wedding. Not saying I won’t grump a bit, if the preacher drones on too long. But I was that way before.
Last Saturday, I attended a very special wedding. My friend Paul Zook married his lovely fiancé, Rhoda Snader. Many of you who’ve read my older blogs know of Paul’s journey. How Anne Marie, his first wife, passed away in 2011 after a four-year battle with cancerous brain tumors. How they quietly stood by me, Paul and Anne Marie, way back in those heavy days when I desperately needed support. And how I hung in there with them, all through that long hopeless fight they faced together.
I remember last year, around spring time, I think it was, when Paul told me he’s thinking of asking Rhoda out. He knew her well, because as I had been Paul’s close friend through the years, Rhoda had been Anne Marie’s. She was right there beside her, all the way through Anne Marie’s brutal journey. The two of them had even lived together in the same house with another girl, years back. So Rhoda knew the family. Knew them well. Cody and Adrianna grew up with her around. I thought, wow, that would be too cool, if this could work out. But no one knew whether or not it would until the man made his move.
He told me about it the next time I saw him. How he’d called her. She was plenty startled, he said. Would she go out with him? Sure, but just as friends, Rhoda answered, after collecting herself. At that point, I give Paul a lot of credit. Had I been in his place, I definitely would have recoiled a bit. Friends? What do you mean, friends? See you later, woman. But he agreed cheerfully. So he picked her up one night, and out they went. As friends. I was extremely curious the next time I stopped by. How did it go? What happened?
Paul beamed. “We had a great time. We’re texting each other,” he told me. Oh, yes. Texting. And right then, I figured it was a go. It was.
Sure, there were things to work out. Of course there were. Rhoda was a single professional lady who a few years ago had her dream house built. She was happy and content with her life. And yet, here was Paul, asking her into his life with his children. Cody and Adrianna. Both of whom she knew from the day they were born.
I remember that first time Rhoda showed up on a Sunday night when I stopped by to hang out at Paul’s house. She was part of the group now. Of course, I knew her well, too, because of her friendship with Anne Marie. She welcomed me. And I gave her a big hug. And that night, for the first time in more than four years, I saw my friend Paul smile and smile and smile. From deep inside, from his heart. A real smile of real joy.
After a long brutal slog through some rough terrain, now came the dawn of a new day.
We, all their friends, stood by and cheered for them as the relationship moved along from one stage to the next. I kept griping at them, early on. Come on. Let me post the news on Facebook. They held me off for a few weeks. But after a while, Rhoda relented, and I posted. Things moved right along, and a few months ago, Paul popped the question. Rhoda said yes. And we all cheered some more.
And I tried to stay out of the way a bit, to let the new “family” get to know itself. Look, I told Paul. You don’t have to invite me over every week, every Sunday. There was a time when you needed that. You don’t, anymore. Don’t feel obligated. Sure, I’ll come, when it works out. But I don’t want to intrude. Paul smiled kindly, but didn’t budge. If they were home for Sunday lunch or dinner, I got a text that morning. Come on over. And I went.
The wedding was last Saturday, in a beautiful old church in Ephrata. A large crowd was invited, 260 people. They all attended. Anne Marie’s parents and many of her brothers came as well, from their homes out west. Paul asked his childhood friend Benji Smoker and me to be his groomsmen. Benji was the best man. I was very content to be second best. Both of us were groomsmen in his first wedding. At the rehearsal, we kidded Paul. This is the second time. It had better be the last.
The ceremony was beautiful, short and sweet. It would have been beautiful, had it lasted far longer. But the preacher was a good man, and moved things right along. Paul stood up front, flanked on his left by Benji and me. Cody and Adrianna stood there with him. A beaming and beautiful Rhoda walked down the aisle in her wedding gown, accompanied by her older brother, Ray, who gave her away for the family. They exchanged vows. And then Rhoda sat on a little chair and read a letter to Cody and Adrianna. Thanking them for accepting her. Honoring and acknowledging their mother, Anne Marie. Benji and I were forewarned from the rehearsal, so we stood there, hands folded, stoically witnessing this moving scene. A great many of the guests broke down in tears, bittersweet tears of sorrow and great joy.
After the reception and a sumptuous meal in a banquet room at Shady Maple, the newlyweds took off on their honeymoon. After they return, they will settle in the new place Paul bought a few miles from his old home. A new home, for a new family. I couldn’t be happier for all of them. May the Lord shower them with blessings more abundant than they could possibly imagine.
And how about that Super Bowl coming right up? It’s pretty wild, that the Harbaugh brothers made it. And now one of them will come out on top. I wonder how their next family gathering will be, after that. Probably a little strained, I would think.
It should be a great game. I have no dog in this hunt, and actually like the 49ers a little better. But I’m cheering for the Ravens for a couple of reasons. The biggest one is that they knocked out the vile Belichick and his evil Patriots. It was a beautiful thing to see. Brady sitting on the field, knocked around, intercepted, beaten down into the dirt. The Patriots have been too arrogant for too long, and it was sweet to see them get whacked right out of the playoffs on their vaunted home field.
The second reason I’m cheering for the Ravens is because of one man. Ray Lewis. Whatever you think of the guy, he’s been a true warrior at the highest level for seventeen years. I’d love to see him go out in a final blaze of glory. Yeah, yeah, I know. I used to call him a thug, too. Back in the day. He pled guilty to obstruction of justice in a murder case. Whatever. But as I’ve said before, my heart is always with the accused, when it comes to the law. Because all you ever hear is the prosecution’s side of the story. The accused never has a voice.
And just exactly what does that mean anyway, obstruction of justice? Sounds like a charge that can easily be trumped up against just about anyone in any situation. And most prosecutors (especially at the federal level, but at the state level, too) don’t give a hoot about actual guilt or innocence. All they care about is convicting as many people as possible to further their own political careers. Or worse, just to flex their power arbitrarily. Doesn’t matter a lick to them how many innocent lives get uprooted and smashed in the process. And Ray Lewis would have been one big fine feather in their caps. He beat them on the more serious charges, though. And I like that a lot.
You might want to go off on me about the “facts” you know about the case. Just remember where those “facts” came from. The media, fed by the prosecution. Be indignant all you want. Just spare me the sermon.
Back to the Harbaughs. Those guys are real coaches. I’ve come to realize more and more how critical it is for a team to have a real coach. A lesson the Jets still need to learn. The NFL has only a handful of those. Guys whose players would go jump off a bridge for them. The guys who get so intense on the sidelines they look half crazy. Shawn Peyton has that insane look in his eyes. And a few others, like the Harbaugh brothers. Guys like John Fox of Denver and Mike Smith of Atlanta don’t. That’s why they’ll be sitting at home, watching the game like the rest of us.
Anyway, it should be a great game. Hard hitting. Great passing. And maybe some great runs and stops. The old guys against the young guys. With two intense brothers on opposite sidelines, screaming at the refs throughout.
I figure it will be close. And I can’t wait. Ravens by a field goal.Share