We are on the Eve of that painfully consequential 2020 event called Election Day.
But on this November 2nd evening, we are also edging slowly beyond the tri-part All Hallows observances on the Christian calendar. Secular time, like flowing water, has winnowed it away to just one day — the spook-fest of Halloween, greatly diminished this year by the continuing pandemic. Yesterday was All Saints Day and today we are in the waning hours of All Souls, the day on which Christians remember their faithful departed. Indeed, the whole month of November (in which I was born) is dedicated on that same Christian calendar to remembering the Faithful Departed. Each year, the list grows.
My college classmate Frederick Highland had suggested I might explicate the All Hallows observances and contrast them with the devolved manner in which the world now marks the occasion. I should have done that. I did it in a letter to him. Perhaps I’ll append it here. Because….
Near midnight last night I sat down to dash off a brief Halloween (All Hallows)/All Saints/All Souls greeting to another of my college chums, Linda Frawley in Belmont (I believe) New Hampshire. Somehow, it turned into this protracted meditation on a time I spent in 1996-97 in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. And so I wrote:
Doubt you had any little ghouls or goblins or little superheroes up there on Cotton Hill in these plague times. Memories. Memories…. Little Dorothy, The Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man came unexpectedly to the door of the triple-wide trailer that was radio station WECR-AM ( “We Care About the High Country”) on a lonely mountain road on Halloween night, 1996 at dusk and therefore very nearly the very end of the broadcast day for that Blue Ridge Mountain day-timer. I worked there only for an odd but unforgettable little interregnum before coming all the way home to Boston again, and TV.
What to do!! About these poor kids with their smilies and their sacks open for candy, chorusing, “Trick or treat.”
The veteran afternoon jock Arnold Buchanan from Bakersville, NC and I, the Yankee news guy, had no candy. There had been some Hershey Kisses in a little tray in one of the little offices — but I, an insatiable sweet tooth, had eaten them days before. So, I went down to the car and invited the waiting parents into the little studio with their costumed kiddos and put them on the radio for all who might have been listening out there in the Blue Ridge Mountain town of Newland, North Carolina in Avery County where everybody grows Frazier Fir Christmas trees, skis at Sugar Mountain or Hawks Nest or hangs around Appalachia State in Boone or in country music bars. Who was listening, I wondered, as we let each little tyke on their candy quest up the Yellow Brick Road to Oz? It was oh, so sweet and wonderful and so cute and it was now so long ago — and I’m not sure parents and kids didn’t know they were being unsatisfyingly conned out of their candy, for they must have asked neighbors and relatives…did you hear the kids, did you? I so hope somebody did.
That was a time, alright, when I told station manager and former Miami anchorman Steve Rondinaro the next day that I needed just an hour or so to go to Mass for All Saints Day and he, a renegade Italo-American Catholic from Watkin Glens, NY briefly re-connected with his Catholic boyhood, an indifferent convert at that time to his wife’s liberal Presbyterianism who looked, perhaps unintentionally a tiny bit askance at all the earnest Pentacostal Christians in that region — all of them (bible) “thumpers” in her estimate. And so I was off to St. Bernadette’s Church looking out at Grandfather Mountain in the little town of Linville, ever so near to a mountainside gated community of Linville Ridge where NFL legend Don Shula (deceased this year) and other millionaires escaped the heat of Miami Lakes, the Florida enclave Don practically built as I understand it. I did, indeed, see him coming back from Communion one Sunday, did a double-take and decided, yup, that’s him.
And it was in that little church that I, a thoroughgoing hater of the superfluous touchy-feeling ritual of the so-called “kiss of peace” (forgive me, those of you who like it) that, mercifully, does not entail a kiss but only the meaningless gesture of cranking your pew neighbor’s hand and uttering “peace be with you”.”…yes, it was in this church that I made another meaningful NFL encounter, for Don Shula must have persuaded an important former player to follow him to the mountains. Yes, indeed….and my attitude toward that Great Happy Howdy Neighbor hand-shake altered only once and it was in that church when Bob Griese came in and sat down in front of me with his wife — Bob Griese, Hall of Fame quarterback of Don Shula’s undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins. I COULDN’T WAIT to shake that hand — and, sure enough, when the moment came, Bob glanced side to side and seeing no one other than his wife within reach, swung around and grasped lowly Greg Wayland’s hand with that magic hand that threw, with astounding accuracy, dozens of touchdown passes during that championship unbeaten season. Bob Griese said, “God Bless You.”
Blessed by Bob Griese! My Sunday was made.
Yes that was quite a time up there in the mountains, brief, chaotic, expensive but memorable. How I wound up there is a long story. And its culmination was not, as it happened, the grasp of Bob Griese — but an event the following New Year’s Eve when my companion Diane and her daughter and son-in-law and every living soul then living with me on a hillside just outside the village of Banner Elk went off someplace and I, desiring to otherwise occupy myself, went off to the little hospital where, each whatever-day-of-the-week that was there was a meeting of volunteers where people could help other people who might be having a serious substance abuse or related issue. What better night for that than bibulous, delirious New Year’s Eve!
But apparently I was the only one who thought so among those who on previous nights had rendered this support to fellow townspeople in the little Banner Elk and vicinity — because I sat alone, waiting for anyone else to show up. I set out the literature reserved for the occasion, kept in a little footlocker. But…Nobody. So at about five, maybe ten, maybe fifteen past the eight o’clock scheduled start time, still alone, I decided it was obvious I needed to put everything away, turn out the lights, shut the door, go back to the A-frame that briefly passed for home, alone, read a book, whatever — when suddenly there appeared at the door to the room a hospital attendant with an attractive young woman who said to the attendant, “See? I told you there was a support meeting.”
The attendant seemed to acknowledge that fact (but was doubtless thinking, one person does not a meeting make). He asked me, when our “meeting” was over to kindly escort the young woman to the elevator down the corridor and take her back up to the fifth floor psychiatric ward.
I get emotional when I think of that moment — because, suppose I’d left and this young woman, so eager for help, found only a darkened room, a closed door, confirming the attendant’s insistence that there was NO MEETING.
But was what we had — that young lady and I — a meeting? I was fifty, she was maybe twenty-six, maybe older. She had slash marks on both wrists. She’d been suicidal; had, in fact, tried to kill herself ( and I don’t think I ever asked the circumsances). And so we sat there and talked about our “experience, strength and hope.” I recall not a word of it — and felt she really needed a woman to open up to. Did I do her any good? Was she just saying what she thought I wanted to hear? And, for my part, what I felt she wanted to hear?
We talked — and talked. I was praying — and pray now — that that was enough. Perhaps she was manic-depressive, for at that moment, she seemed in all respects, normal.
After the requisite hour, we stood and actually grasped hands — better, more important hands than even Bob Griese’s — and we said the Our Father together, something they do at AA and other support group meetings. Then, as requested, I escorted her to the elevator and we rode up to the fifth floor of this little hospital ( since, I understand, converted to condominiums) and she got off into what seemed in my memory like utter darkness.
Thinking about it now — why didn’t I stop on the way to the elevator and say, “Mary ( or Jane or Lucy or Patricia or whatever her name was), Did I help you? Is there any more you NEED to say? And PLEASE DON’T HURT YOURSELF! DON’T TRY TO KILL YOURSELF!
Oh, I pray I helped! I so want to know if she’s alive and well and maybe married and in love — and what was the problem, the REAL problem anyway that led her to want to die? I don’t recall having heard anything that deep from her, for she would have — cried. Probably NEEDED to cry. Yet — is was, despite this towering feeling of inadequacy, one of the best hours of my life.
Needless to say, after moving back north, I thought of that New Year’s Eve the following New Year’s Eve when I found myself in York, Maine as a dinner guest with strangers who were friends of one of my friends now distantly former girlfriends. There was (forgive me) useless, awkward conversation. We didn’t even turn on the Time Square Ball Drop. We just sat around the table at midnight and, believe it or not, put on silly little hats. Up until then, I recall we talked about dogs. Their dogs. My dogs.
And I’m sure I was thinking — is my Banner Elk girl still alive? I could not then or can I now recall her name. (Somehow — I don[‘t kn0w how — I’d heard she was the daughter of the mayor of a nearby small city. Someday, just maybe, I’ll inquire — but, then again….do I really have any chance of finding her?
But that will remain my most memorable New Year’s Eve, despite the sorrow and unanswered questions. Alone with a broken soul, until that moment very much wrapped up in my 50-year-old self, trying to help. Hoping and praying I did. That somehow I made a difference and that lost young woman went into 1997 thinking, “I’m glad that guy was there for me.”
I hope so.
Have a good night.
So, on we go to this painfully divisive election day in the fraught, tortured year of 2020.