One More for the Road, Raymond

One More for the Road, Raymond

Note: My friend Ray died suddenly on January 16, 2021. As you may remember, Ray showed up here at A Napper’s Companion from time to time. Odds are, this will be his last appearance.

Dear Ray:

I never did ask why your phone messages always started with, “Hi, Pastor, this is Raymond.” I couldn’t have mistaken you for anyone else. Over the last 10 years, I talked to you or listened to voicemail or chose not to answer more times than I yawned and sneezed put together. No doubt about it.

A confession, old friend: I’ve come close to tears about your passing only once. I mentioned in a sermon that you couldn’t believe in a gracious God. Then, “But I think Ray knows about grace now.” After the hell you lived, the idea that you might finally be at peace moves me. No more damnation, condemnation and temptation. No more depression, anxiety and paranoia.

Today you will be with me in paradise. May it be so, Raymond. (Credit: Christ on the Cross Between the Two Thieves by Peter Paul Rubens on Wikimedia Commons)

Now your burden is lifted, but I’ve got a problem. You died without warning, and I’m left with thoughts that you ought to hear. On the off chance you’re listening, let’s close out the account of our earthly friendship like this. 

There’s hardly an errand in Erie that doesn’t remind me of you. Each Smoker Friendly or Dollar General I pass says, “Oh, yeah, Ray,” as do the Holiness Church on Liberty and Safe Harbor on West 26th. Lately your Longhorn wintergreen snuff has been on sale at Country Fair—you’d be stocking up. On the bookcase here in my writing hut, the bargain cigar you passed along keeps me company. The family cat gnawed little holes in the pure leaf wrapper, but flawed keepsakes are treasures just the same. 

That’s true of people, too, I guess. More than anybody I’ve ever known, you were up front about your mental illness. My own battles were nothing compared to yours, but you taught me a lot about candor. “It’s hell being nuts,” you once said. “I never know who I’m going to wake up to.” And, “Remember, Pastor, I’m not playing with a full deck.” Thanks for giving me permission to share your story. “If it can help somebody, tell them everything,” you also said. Well, you’ve helped. Take my word for it.

Of course, no obituary would begin, “Raymond was nuts, but gave of himself generously.” When I heard that you died, I was afraid nobody would take notice. Fortunately, a relative of yours put a little write up in the newspaper. “Ray was an avid antique hunter,” it said, “and very knowledgeable about cigars, tobacco products and humidors, but above all, Ray was a very godly man.”

That last part says a lot, but a couple of paragraphs can’t cover everything. You didn’t get a funeral. The COVID pandemic saw to that. My eulogy would have dressed you in the tuxedo you deserve. I would have told folks how you made me proud. Sober for over 20 years. Beat gambling and some other addictions. Found ways to keep living, though every hour for days on end might bring fresh misery. Within your storm of turmoil and psychotropic medication, you managed to think of others. I would have said all this and more.

I would have skipped what you normally said as you slid into my passenger seat. “Oh, shit, Pastor, “I’m so tired.”

“I know, old buddy,” was my only reply in the moment.

But now I have more to say. Look, you were an inspiration. In the middle of a case of the blues, I’d picture you in that busted recliner of yours, either pooped out or afraid a thug would break into your house or terrified of being a sinner in the hands of an angry God. “If Ray can keep plugging away,” I’d think. “I can, too.” Honest, you were a hero.

Bottom line, Ray: I love you. Our friendship wasn’t very emotive. Still, when I said, “You old codger, you,” or “You’re a real piece of work, you are,” love was what I was trying to get across. But you probably knew that.

I miss our salty laughter.

OK, amigo, you can get back to your bliss now. Please put in a good word for me. All of us on this side of glory are at least a little afraid.

Your friend and partner in neurosis,

Pastor

P. S. I suppose God calls you Raymond.

Welcome back home, Raymond. (Credit: The Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni on Wikipedia)

Oniontown Pastoral: Boy, Could That Kid Jump!

Oniontown Pastoral: Boy, Could That Kid Jump!

This was almost 50 years ago. We were playing baseball on Wagner Avenue, home plate and bases drawn onto the pavement with chalk.

“I’m Johnny Bench,” I hollered.

A prized part of my collection of autographed pictures from the early 1970s.

The other boys renamed themselves until Tommy was the only one left. He reached into his back pocket, thumbed through bubble gum cards and said, “I’m Tom Seaver.”

That’s how it was. My friends and I watched sports on television until we couldn’t contain ourselves, then ran outside to the stadium of our imaginations. We were both crowd and announcer. We cheered our home runs and cried out our alter egos after touchdowns. I can hear lanky Paul’s “Billy Joe DuPree” from the end zone, marked by a great maple in front of my house. He roared “Joe,” that one syllable so rambunctious and giddy that it still gives me a shot of adrenaline.

With a pause and deep breath I run the highlight reels from hundreds of pickup games with their line drives, swishes and spirals.

When nobody else could play, I shot hoops in a neighbor’s driveway. More often I grabbed a football and the cap to one of my mother’s hairspray cans to use for a tee and booted field goals over a telephone wire. For hours, as dusk eased toward darkness or sleet stung my cheeks, my name was Jan Stenerud, the Kansas City Chief who kicked soccer style before anyone else.

“Time let me hail and climb golden in the heydays of his eyes,” Dylan Thomas wrote of childhood in the poem “Fern Hill.” Wagner Avenue was the home field of my heydays, back when “I was green and carefree.”

I loved every win and loss, every bruise and dream. I loved Stenerud and Bench, “Sudden Sam” McDowell, Erie’s own Freddie Biletnikoff, LeRoy Kelly and “Pistol Pete” Maravich. And I especially loved John Havlicek.

I say “loved” advisedly. I never met these athletes, but they sprinted and shot through my seasons constantly. Their names alone revive my spirit.

So this morning when I read that John Havlicek died, “No!” came from down deep, involuntarily, not as lusty as lanky Paul’s “Joe” but plenty loud over a first cup of coffee.

I wasn’t yet four years old when Havlicek deflected a pass with five seconds left to preserve a Boston Celtics’ playoff victory. Even fans too young to remember the play have heard announcer Johnny Most’s legendary call. “Havlicek steals the ball!” he shouted. “Over to Sam Jones. Havlicek stole the ball! It’s all over! It’s all over! Johnny Havlicek is being mobbed by the fans!”

John Havlicek in the 1960s. I never did get his autograph.

Through the miracle of the Internet you can binge watch the 36-second clip, which is what I’ve been doing for hours. My favorite part is when Most says, “Johnny Havlicek.” I’d heard “Hondo” before, but never “Johnny,” a nickname that’s sweet to my ears.

“I’m Johnny Bench,” I once claimed, and that was half true. To grown ups in the old neighborhood, I was “Johnny Coleman.” Time was easy then, with folks visiting on front porches, nobody glancing at a wristwatch or smartphone. “Johnny” could be the title for a blessed chapter in my life.

In 2019 I’m “Pastor John” at St. John’s in Oniontown and “Pop” to my grandsons in Erie, but I never gave up being Johnny. I can’t pass a football field without sizing up the goalposts and wondering if my leg is as good as I recall. And I can tell instantly whether a basketball hoop is regulation. In high school I could dunk with two hands, the generous thighs my mother passed down to me perfect for jumping if not for nice-fitting blue jeans.

Between these sentences, my chin is parked on my knuckles. Hondo is gone. His teammate Jo Jo White, whose jumper had a hiccup I copied, and Hal Greer, who served up the ball that Havlicek famously stole, both died in 2018.

My heydays’ players are migrating into eternity. With each obituary I settle into the truth. The maple marking our end zone has been cut down. The neighbor’s garage looks lonely without the half-moon backboard and hoop. The wire I used for goalposts is there, though Mom’s hairspray caps are nowhere to be found.

Part of our Wagner Avenue end zone today, no maple to mark the goal line.

To borrow from the poet, time lets us “play and be golden,” but it never breaks stride. The good news is, visiting the old Wagner Avenue behind closed eyes is more filled with gratitude each time I do it. I was lucky.

Johnny Coleman had a great leg, after all. And, boy, could that kid jump.

Can you see the telephone wire I had to clear? It’s still there.