(One more from my 'some people' chapter)
COLONEL TED AND THE GANG
Colonel Ted wasn’t the first person I met at St. James in Charleston—he was the second. The first person was an elderly, gangly black man with the improbable name of Israel Goldman. When Bern and I got off the plane in Charleston, there he was waiting at the gate. He introduced himself and added, “it always throws people who’ve never met me when I show up for an appointment.” He was soft spoken and polite, telling Bern she looked ‘radiant’ rather than mentioning she was obviously pregnant and not mentioning the length of my hair or my full beard. Though I objected, he insisted on carrying the one bag we’d brought for a two day visit, though he was probably 75. He walked slowly, as many tall, thin men seem to do.
“Colonel Ted will meet us at the door with his car,” he told us, “he didn’t want you to have to walk far.” Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he added, “and besides, Ted really resents having to pay for parking.”
Israel carried his hat in his hand until we were outside and then placed it jauntily on his head. He was wearing what seemed to be a hand-tailored suit, a blindingly white shirt and school tie of some kind. “Grambling,” he said suddenly, “my alma mater.” I nodded and smiled. “I saw you looking at it, wondering,” he added. I nodded some more, wondering if he could read minds. “Here’s the Colonel,” Israel said, smiling, “probably burned up more gas than the parking meter would have been.”
The biggest Cadillac I’d ever seen pulled up to the curb and Colonel Ted exploded from the driver’s seat, moving quickly around the car to shake my hand and hug Bern. If Israel was laid-back and non-demonstrative, the Colonel was an extreme in the other way. He talked fast, moved fast and was about the size of three Michelin tires with thin legs in Bermuda shorts and a bowling ball shaped head. They were Mutt and Jeff, Abbot and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, except they were African Americans. Israel’s skin was the color of coffee with cream and Ted’s was a light tan. I had grown up in a culture where all “Negroes” supposed looked alike because white people didn’t see them very well. But two men couldn’t have been more dissimilar in appearance and demeanor than the two they sent to pick us up for my “interview” at St. James.
It was an “interview” rather than an interview because I was convinced nothing would come of it. We’d spend a few hours with the members of the parish and sleep in a motel and then fly back home after attending church on Sunday and I would have fulfilled my promise to Bishop Atkinson. I was in the last couple of months at Virginia Seminary and had been offered a job as an assistant at a wonderful church in Chicago, which I wanted to accept. I called Bishop Atkinson to tell him the good news and after a half-hearted congratulations and an awkward silence, he told me that Bishop Campbell wouldn’t release me to leave the diocese. Had I paid close enough attention, I would have known that a seminarian ‘belonged’ to the diocese and bishop who had sponsored them in seminary. Had I been a little more astute about the ways of the church, I would have realized I should have called Bishop Campbell—the diocesan bishop—rather than the bishop coadjutor. Had I understood the ‘politics’ of such things in even a cursory way, I would have had the Bishop of Chicago call the Bishop of West Virginia to negotiate my release from my commitment to go and waltz with the diocese that brung me to the dance. But, of course, all those things were news to me. I thought I was a free agent rather than an indentured servant.
I handled it badly by getting angry with Bishop Atkinson (what is it they always do to the messengers?) and complained bitterly about not being allowed to do what I wanted. He listened patiently and promised to call me back right away. When he did, he had a deal—interview for one job in West Virginia and if I didn’t like it, he’d pull in all his chits and free me up to go to Chicago. So Bern and I flew to Charleston at St. James’ expense to do a little ‘play acting’ and say “thanks but no thanks” and begin our lives in the Windy City. On the way back to Alexandria, somewhere over Maryland at 30,000 feet, Bern said, “You’re going to say ‘yes’ aren’t you?” And I answered, “I’m afraid I am….”
That was because of Colonel Ted and the gang at St. James. They were people of such remarkable character that I simply wanted to be among them for a while. And, I must admit, I was fascinated by the profound paradoxes of the parish.
Ted drove down the long hill from the airport into the bowels of Charleston. I’d been there many times but I was surprised at how thrilled I was to the golden dome of the state capital shining in the late April sunlight, skeptic that I am about feelings of nostalgia, especially for ‘home’.
Bern told one of our friends the other day that she thought I could live anywhere. I had mentioned that Bern’s brother was going to move to Morgantown, West Virginia, where the three of us had gone to college. I’d said out loud that I would consider moving to Morgantown.
“Oh, you couldn’t live there now,” our friend suggested.
That’s when Bern said, “Jim could live anywhere.”
“He couldn’t live in Mississippi, I’d bet,” our friend said. “Oh yes, he could,” Bern replied. He ran through a list of places he and Bern could never live and she assured him about each suggestion that, “Jim could live there.” All this was terribly awkward since I was sitting with them on our deck, all of us drinking coffee, but they talked about me as if I were away—living in Mississippi, perhaps. The truth was, she was right.
“So he’d find something to like about anywhere he was?” our friend asked.
“No, that’s not it,” Bern told him, “he would end up ‘liking it’ without any reasons, ‘liking it’ just because he was there. In fact, he wouldn’t even need to ‘like it’, just him being there would be enough.”
“That’s really strange,” our friend observed.
“Isn’t it?” Bern replied.
“More coffee?” I asked, just to see if I was really there. They both said they would like another cup and I went off to make it.
It’s not like me to get attached to places or things. And I’m pretty satisfied wherever I am and with whatever I’ve got. So, seeing the gold dome of the capitol of West Virginia moved my heart, but not much more than seeing anything beautiful anywhere would. “Home”, for me, is truly where the heart is.
Ted and Israel and the two of us had lunch at a Shoney’s restaurant next to the motel where we’d be sleeping. Colonel Ted talked non-stop and Israel laughed ironically at some of the Colonel's unconscious mild profanities. Ted was called 'the Colonel' because he was one. He had beenn one of the highest ranking African-Americans in World War II. Of course, back then, he would have been called a 'Negro'. Ted never objected to that discription and few of the older members of St. James Church objected either. It was a generational thing for them—maybe, having grown up in the world they grew up in, “Negro” was a huge step up from 'colored' or worse. After 20 years as a soldier, Ted started working for the U.S. Postal Service, or whatever it was called back in the 50's. He worked there long enough to get a pension and finished his working life with the Veterans Adminstration. He was the only person I ever met who had three federal pensions.
Ted was the Senior Warden when I arrived. He'd been Senior Warden (the highest lay office in an Episcopal Church) for years before that. A small church like St. James hangs onto good people in high office. Ted, like several of the older members of St. James, was extremly light skinned. He once told me that 'back in the day'--before integration—he always carried a turban in his trunk so that when he and Susan wanted to stop for the night in the southern states they were assured a room. He'd put on his turban and speak broken English and registered without a problem. I remember asking him what he felt about having to do that. He drew a serious look on his broad face and said, “it was embarrassing, in a way....But lots better than sleeping in the car!” Then he laughed. Ted laughed a lot. He was a gentle, large, round man—about 5'10 and at least 270 pounds. His mouth was almost always twisted into a crooked grin He had seen enough of life and pain to know the best defense was a good offense. So, he spread laughter wherever he went.
Even though I'd grown up in a town that was half African-American, I didn't know much at all about Black folks—none of us White folks really do. And so Ted and the gang were my kind, patient, good-humored professors in the study of race. Ted more than anyone. For example, I remember that Ted and I were on the way to lunch at the Charleston VFW when the Veteran's Day Parade passed by. Ted and I stopped and watched it—him waving at some of the Vets as they passed by. When the parade had ended, he taught me a great lesson.
“You know one thing that makes us different, Jim?” he said. I must have shaken my head because he continued...though Ted didn't need response to keep talking. “When you watch a parade you can decide if you like the next band when you hear them coming around the corner. I have to wait until they are in view. If I see some black kids in the band, then I can enjoy the music.”
Ted was correct, although it came like a bolt of lightening to me. I could appreciate the music before I saw the band. Liberal that I am, I thought it was open-minded of me not to care about the racial makeup of the band. I attempted to tell him that—but for Ted it was a more complicated, marrow the bone issue. “Thought like a White Man,” he said, then laughed.
One thing I know for certain—something I learned from Ted and the Gang at St. James—no Black priest in a White congregation would have experienced the love and acceptance, patience and support I received from them. When my pregnant wife and I arrived at St. James, we made up 2/3 of the White membership of the parish. The other White member was married to a Black man. She was, by the way, the house cleaner for several of the Black members. Don't tell me Irony doesn't reign on earth....
Our family—both our children were born in Charleston—were accepted completely into the 'family' of St. James. I never ate in as many parishioner's homes in the other two parishes I served combined. We were wined and dined. And, to be honest, we had much more in common with most of the people at St. James—education, culture, tastes, opinions—than we didn't have in common. The one thing we did not share was race—skin color.
It's astonishing how skin color so dominates the psyches of people around the globe. My son has been to Taiwan a few times with his wife's Taiwanese parents. He tells me that island has some of the most beautiful beaches he's ever seen and that almost everyone on them are tourists. The Taiwanese middle and upper class carry umbrella in the sun. Lighter skin is valued. And consider the geishas of Japan: they powder their faces to typing paper white and are considered the embodiment of beauty and sensuality. The Hispanic congregation of St. John's in Waterbury are divided by many distinctions—nation of origin, accent, class, education—but many of them told me over the years that lighter skinned folks had advantages. Ironically enough, it seems only Caucasions seem to value darker skin. Until the last decade or so of skin-cancer fear, many white people tried to see how tan they could get in the summer. And even now, in the Era of Sun Block, there are products to artificially give your skin a brown glow. Blacks have a different view of skin color than White folks.
I learned, in my Black Studies with Ted, the saying aboout skin color among many African-Americans of a certain age and culture. “If you're light,” it goes, “your're alright. If you're brown, stick around. If you're black, stay back.” The “Black is Beautiful” movement changed that for younger African-Americans, yet, as I learned from Professor Ted, skin color is an essential part of describing a Black person to another Black person who hasn't met them. There is as wide a range of distinctions in coloration to some blacks as there are Eskimo words for snow.
One distinction Ted taught me well is the distinction between 'African-Americans' and 'African-Africans'. Mind you, his opinions may have said more about his age and class than about what all Black people think of Africans. It came about when, for the third time, the Bishop had called me to see if someone at St. James would like to host a visiting African priest and his wife. The third time was the last straw for Ted.
“Tell him 'no!',” Ted told me, clearly exasperated by the request. “Nobody here wants to have Africans in their home....And when you tell the bishop that, remember to ask him for a damn Range Rover for St. James.”
Something I have found interesting about the Episcopal Church is how enamored we often are with African Anglicans. When I was a priest in West Virginia, some thirty years ago now, the struggling Diocese would go head over heels about a Bishop from Tanganyika but did next to nothing to involve African-Americans in the power structure of the church. That really burned the older members of St. James, especially after some deep pocket people around the state gave an African visitor a Land Rover the same year some mission church grants were reduced.
So I called the Bishop and suggested that there must be some White folks who would enjoy the exotic pleasure of hosting an African family for a week or two. The Bishop—a sweet and good man—was shocked that not all Black people would be ecstatic to have a chance to talk with someone from their Motherland. I patiently explained, using Ted's logic if not his profanities, that many of the folks at St. James found the African clerics arrogant and dismissive since their families had never been slaves in America. I also told him that families of the members of St. James had been in this country longer than the Irish side of my mother's family and that very few African-Americans, descended as they were from slaves, had no idea what part of Africa their ancestors came from. “Besides,” I relayed from Ted, giving him credit for this insight, “Africans don't understand our culture and smell funny.”
The Bishop was silent for a long time. He might have been considering what people would think of him if he dared comment on the odor of an African visitor. He thought, as Ted had taught me, 'just like a White Man.”
Just before we hung up, I made the request for a Range Rover, thinking he would be amused. I don't think he was.
Ted taught me many things. He taught me 'tolerance' wasn't the great and noble idea most White people thought it was.
“If you say you 'tolerate' me,” he said slowly, trying to get around my White-Think, “the implication is that tolerance is a choice you're making and you can take that choice back if you decide to. 'Tolerance' leaves White people in the dominant, oppressive position.” He waited until he decided I had somewhat dimly understood that subtlety before continuing. “Negroes...Black folk...don't want racial 'tolerance', we want equality.”
The little town where I grew up—Anawalt, WestVirginia—is in the southern most county of the state. Anawalt was roughly 50% Black. Yet I knew only a few of the Black people's names and some of the elders of their community called me 'Mister Jimmy'. There was no bad blood, for the most part, between the races. But we went to different schools and different churches and different beer joints. The Black folk were 'tolerated', and, in many ways appreciated for not making more demands—but there was no thought that they were equal. We had 'racial harmony', not 'racial equality'.Even when things appear to be just and fair, it is often the 'justice' and 'fairness' granted by the dominant and oppressive group.
Even today, I fear—God bless Ted's soul—even today.
(At the 2009 General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Anaheim, there were changes made to the calendar of feasts. One of the new commemorations was to honor the poet Langston Hughes and the writer, W.E.B. Du Bois. In one of the collects written for that Holy Day the term “Black folks” appeared.
Some White-Thinking deputies rose to amend the collect to say “African-American people” instead of “Black folks”. Never mind that DuBois' seminal work is called The Soul of Black Folks and never mind that “Black folks” is a term Black Folks use. To be politically correct, these White folks were trying to change the very language of the people being honored. It was a half-hour of madness...nobody listening to the string of Black deputies who rose to explain the reality and how it would be an offense to change 'Black folks'. Black folks couldn't even call themselves what they wanted unless White folks approved! Somewhere in that I heard Ted laughing and Israel chuckling and Harris fairly screaming with irony.)
Harris, by the way, was a vice-President of West Virginia State College, a historically Black college pretty much ruined by integration and white commuter students. Harris was a devout Episcopalian who would give me tips on liturgical details. Many Black Episcopal Churches are quite high-church...St. James was Anglo-Catholic as long as they could attract Black priests. But economics caught up with them and most every priest in the Diocese was White and attended Virginia Seminary, the Evil Twin of Anglo-Catholicism. I was the 3rd White priest after an 80 year run of Black priests and I had attended Virginia Seminary!
So once Harris asked me politely and with much apology if I would mind 're-vesting' the altar after the Eucharist. I had no idea what he was talking about but agreed to do it if I could. It was after a Sunday service and I had left the chalice and paten on the alter with the purificator beside them. All Harris wanted me to do was wash the chalice and reassemble the whole mess with the burse and veil and whatever that little hard, square thing is called. That was easy.
“I'm on my way to High Church,” I told Harris the next Sunday after leaving the altar reassembled.
“Not in your lifetime,” he said.
Harris also told me once, “any Black man who isn't a Baptist or a Methodist has had some White man messing with his religion.”
I thought for a minute. “Your religion would probably be Muslim or Tribal if the slave traders had never messed with it.”
He smiled at me—he was one of the most charming men I ever met—“Ted may be wrong about you,” he said, “you don't think half like a White man.”
Since I was the priest of a Black Church, I was invited to join the Black Ministerial Group made up of the Black ministers of the Baptist, Methodist, AME and AME Zion churches. (A White priest of an Episcopal Church was more welcomed than the self-appointed, self-ordained Black preachers here and there around Charleston.) So I joined. They received me graciously and generously. I went to many of the monthly meetings but skipped the one when they all took a trip to Cincinnati together to buy suits and, from their jokes the month before the trip, to drink and smoke a bit.
I told Ted about the trip to Cincinnati that I turned down. Then I asked him if he thought I should have gone along for solidarity's sake. He was fairly falling over from laughter.
“Do you even own a suit?” he asked, gasping.
It was a Sunday so I looked down at my khaki colored suit and shook my head.
“No, Jim,” he said, “I mean a SUIT like those boys wear every day?”
Black or navy blue or pin-stripped costing over $100. No I didn't.
“You are such a White man,” he said, walking away to tell Israel or Harris or his wife Susan or Remitha about how I might have gone to Cincinnati with the Black Ministers to buy suits....He was snorting with delight.
Susan, by the way, was Ted's life. His Life, capital 'L'. There were two loves in his life: Susan and St. James. His devotion to both was beyond question. The way Ted looked at Susan made other women long for such looks from their husbands. To say he adored her would, I think, be drastically understating the reality.
Susan was, I believe, a year or two older than Ted (though one didn't ask such questions in the polite culture of St. James). For both of them in was a late-life second marriage. Ted never mentioned his first wife and their divorce. Susan was widowed and her son, daughter-in-law and two granddaughters lived across the street from her and Ted. Peter, the son, was devoted to his mother only slightly less than Ted was. And Ted had a great relationship with the family, especially the youngest granddaughter, Emily. While her sister was beautiful and brilliant, Emily was large, plain and moderately retarded. She did very well in a caring community like St. James or the town of Institute where so many of the St. James gang lived. However, I didn't believe she'd ever be able to live on her own. She and Ted were magic: Emily would start shrieking with joy as soon as she saw him and his round face would light up. A full bird Colonel and a gangly, slightly out of control adolescent who would never be an 'adult' in a full way would play together like children. Ted would pretend she annoyed him sometimes, but that ruse was easily seen through.
Susan's son, Peter, was a kind but rather sardonic guy. I would sometimes get his jokes an hour later. But he was a faithful father to both is daughters and a doting son to Susan until one day he was driving from Institute to Charleston on the Interstate, pulled his car to the breakdown lane and died of a heart attack.
When I got to Ted and Susan's, I walked into a space of palpable grief. Susan rose from the chair where she was sitting and said, “Jim, oh Jim, did they tell you? My baby died....”
That was the moment that I realized what I should have known all along: the death of a child is the hardest death to take. It is monstrous and unnatural, so out of time and space as it should be, that to lose a 'baby', even one who is 60 years old as Peter was, is the unkindest cut of them all. That's also the day I recognized that the role of a priest at the time of death is simply to be present. There are, really, no words that are adequate, all aphorisms are devoid of integrity, nothing you can do makes a difference. All a priest can do is sit quietly and listen to the words and tears of the living and hold them in your heart and arms. That's what I did most of the rest of that day for Susan and Peter's little family.
Emily, not quite clear what had happened, was deeply disturbed by the enormous emotions flowing around her. So Ted took her for a long walk through the neighborhood, informing people along the way of Peter's death. By the end of the walk, after circling the campus of the college, Emily had become to bearer of the bad news. “She'd stop total strangers,” Ted told me later, “and grab their arms the way she does and say, 'daddy dead'.” He smiled, shook his head and pretended a gnat had flown in his eye and he had to get rid of it with his handkerchief. “It seemed to give her comfort,” he said, “that's the damnest thing....”
When people die, everyone has a story to tell. Henrich Ibsen said something like, there is no suffering so great that we cannot bear it if only we can put it in a story and tell a story about it. Emily's story was a simple one--'daddy dead'--and it got her through the next few days with less stress and more hope than any of the rest of us.
Could it have only been a year later when Susan called me in the early morning, apologized for disturbing me and asked if I could come. “Ted fell in the bathroom and I can't get him to wake up.” I called Clara, Peter's widow, and Harris and then rushed to my car. When I got there, just before the EMTs, Emily met me at the door. “Ted dead,” is all she said then she grabbed me and almost squeezed me in two with that wondrous strength so many retarded people have.
I could hear the ambulance coming in the distance, hurrying to the scene. They could have saved the siren; the Colonel had left the house. Ted dead....
The wake was going to be a problem. Neither of the two Black funeral homes were large enough for the crowds Susan knew to expect. And in one of those events I can only call 'inspired'--like the Spirit got entangled in the moment—I said, “Let's do the wake at the church....”
There was no question about it—it was perfect. Ted could lay in front of the altar where he often served as a chalicist, in the parish church he so loved and the ambiance would be already dignified and somber, unlike the way things get at funeral homes. When Harris and Scottie and Israel and young Mark, the next generation of leadership for St. James, heard that the mortician planned to drive Ted's body back and forth to Charleston between the wake and the funeral, they took things into their own hands.
So it was that Ted lay in state in that little A-frame church in a practically deserted part of north Charleston all through the night. And he was never alone. At first the men were dividing up the shifts, but the truth be known, I think that most of the stayed the whole night, sitting with their friend, telling stories about the Colonel, telling stories to keep away the chill of night and of death. Just as it should have been, the gang spend the night with Ted. The whole thing was gentle and sweet and lovey...just the way it should have been....