Monday, December 15, 2008

A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story, as told by Nathan Pawelek at Quadre's "Horns for the Holidays" CD Release Party (12/14/08)

My dad takes on many responsibilities during the holidays at church. There was one Christmas Eve service that had me clutching my pew cushion, two-handed, and looking at my shoes. Was I the only one embarrassed? I think he was at the peak of his energies, or the last reserves of his multi-tasking faculties before the onset of his post middle-aged years. He doesn’t take on quite as much these days. Part of me is relieved about that, but I do sometimes miss the vigor with which he handled his roles.

He has many abilities—cellist, tenor, playwrite, teacher. He also has plenty of ambition. He sees a way to doing all, and all is spurred on by the prospect of public approval. He seems busy to the point of frazzled, yes, but always with good intentions and always with a logical, if spontaneous, plan in his mind. He is not a delegator. If I can only move quicker, he must tell himself, as he run-walks from place to place with conviction. But for the most part it goes off okay, whatever it is.

For this particular Christmas Eve service, though he was not the minister, my dad had gotten himself in charge of delivering the main message. How could he present a fresh perspective on the holiday season, something new and transformative that congregation members would go home pondering as they lit their candles and prepared for their own family traditions?

Initially, he planned to write his own sermon, but he instead decided on a personalized version of Christmas in the Trenches. This is a true story about a brief unofficial cessation of hostilities between British and German troops on Christmas Eve in 1914. They emerged from their trenches along a front in France, exchanged gifts, food, cigarettes, song and camaraderie, and may have even played soccer. (Paul McCartney made a video about it on MTV years ago called Pipes of Peace).

My dad painstakingly adapted the story into a neat little piece for narrator and pantomimes. The senior high youth group, of which he was the leader, would dramatize the action. He thought it would be spectacular to have special lighting, real gun-fire sound effects, army uniforms, and wooden rifles that clicked (quietly) when you pulled the trigger. He spent a lot of time locating and renting the props and lighting, and then installing the lights himself.

As I recall, there was little rehearsal. I think he just sort of explained the basic idea to the teenagers, and that they should essentially improvise their blocking. He gave them their rifles and uniforms and told them to show up a little after the service started. Meanwhile, he had the choir and the orchestra to worry about. He was in both. Plus, he had the lobster dinner to prepare, which is a tradition in our house on Christmas Eve.

There was a lamp by his seat as cellist in the orchestra, one of ours from home. He said he couldn’t see his music. The church had only one music stand light, which was the organist’s. It must have looked like mood lighting to the congregation, adding a certain living room ambiance to the pulpit area, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, just…different. But no one else in the orchestra had a lamp.

When the service started, my dad was seated in the orchestra, a piece-meal ensemble including a tenor sax and a baritone. He was the only cellist, and there beside him was that big lamp. The first few carols medley of the prelude went off pretty well for a group of amateurs. Then there was the first reading from Luke, another orchestra carol, and now it was the choir’s turn to sing. I wondered how he was also going to get up on stage? Space was tight and he seemed pretty well boxed in.

I watched as he hurriedly clunked down his cello and stepped over the lamp cord to the stage stairs. The choir was already assembled, waiting for him to join the tenors. Once the choir was finished singing, he quickly returned to the orchestra for the congregational hymn, where he carefully stepped over the lamp cord again and picked up his cello.

Maybe because I am his son and as such, overly critical, I found myself focused entirely on my dad that evening. To me, he was the side-show of the service. Once the hymn was done, dad got up to leave his orchestra seat, but not to join the choir this time. He wanted to make sure the teenagers were dressed and ready to go. He clunked down his cello again, and this time he didn’t step high enough over that cord. The lamp jerked off its pedestal, crashed to the floor barely missing his cello, and the light went out. Some people reacted with gasps. He picked up the limp lamp and tested the switch unsuccessfully, unmindful of the people watching him. It still didn’t work after he tried tightening the bulb. All this happened while the minister delivered the second Luke reading.

Leaving the lamp, he walked straight down the middle aisle, the same one the clergy used to process, to his army of teens in the back of the hall waiting with helmets and rifles. He’s a tall man, hard to miss. I thought he should have been more inconspicuous and ducked around to a side aisle. I remember he wore a cream-colored sweater, gray high-water corduroy pants, and brown zip-up boots that were trendy in the 1970s. This was the 1990s.

Just before the narration of Christmas in the Trenches, a competent soprano from the choir, Peggy, began singing O Holy Night with the organist accompanying. While she sang the first verse, my dad thought it wouldn’t hurt to quickly test the spotlights he’d installed, and they suddenly shined in Peggy’s eyes. She recoiled at the abrupt brightness, and her vibrato briefly widened. She blinked rapidly but kept going.

Then, during the second verse, unbelievably, as she approached the dramatic high C, we all suddenly heard gunshot. I knew what it was. He was now testing the sound effects. Peggy paused, calmly looked at the ceiling as if someone were up there banging around. I watched as she kept smiling, her hand poised in front of her like she was a conductor holding a fermata. The organist held the chord. And when the shots subsided, she took a huge breath and resumed like the machine gun fire was a natural part of the piece, hitting the high C boldly, exasperatingly, the way only a soprano would handle such a moment.

Christmas in the Trenches that followed was powerful, but it might have been more dramatic had the gunshot sound effects actually worked. When it was time, he pressed the button on his remote control to a Bose CD player in the back of the hall, but there were no sound effects. The teens, assembled impressively in uniform on stage with their rifles and helmets, suddenly had nothing to authenticate the pantomimed firefight. My dad furiously worked the remote like a joystick, holding it up over the congregation and pointing it to the back. The youth began doing what anyone would do, I suppose. They battled on, now making their own sound effects—explosions with their mouths, and pulling their triggers to steely soft clicks. They hunted each other, and I think I actually heard one whisper, “You’re dead. Hey I got you!”

During the candle lighting, dad’s role in the service was done, except for the orchestra’s Jingle Bells to close the service. I relaxed. When my candle was lit, I looked out across the congregation, a packed house with extra chairs set up in the lobby area, candles all ablaze. It was beautiful. I had forgotten about the rough moments of the service. And I did go home imagining those soldiers in WWI, despite having to look at my shoes in embarrassment. Those soldiers had the courage to come together in an absurd moment of good will. That was the fresh perspective on the season, successfully, if chaotically, imparted. And we, the congregation, who had come seeking renewal, were fulfilled. The music and the message delivered.

Our family lobster dinner was scrumptious. But dad was afraid he might cut himself on the shells so he came to the table wearing thick blue surgical gloves. He also complained of a cold coming on and had a dust mask on to protect us, “Like the Japanese do,” he rationalized.

While we ate he reflected in muffled voice, “Well the service wasn’t so bad, was it?” No. But that’s when we gently advised that he not take on so many roles in future Christmas Eve services. He didn’t make any promises that night, but he seems to have internalized the advice consequently. Those services, however, have not been as exciting in recent years. There is something to be said for the nuance of imperfection in the context of a genuine good effort to follow through with some pretty darn good ideas.