This is a work of fiction. If you notice any resemblance to people in real life, then I've done my job! Thanks to my lifelong friend Norm Lorenz for his encouragement and story ideas.
Pine View Memorial Manor in Sun Prairie! Imagine living a happy normal life, and then ending up commited to a hell hole like Pine View Memorial Manor. Not quite Carnegie Hall, but we did our part to make sure that the poor captive old people would have decent Christmas music on Christmas Eve. My friend Norm plays saxophone, banjo, and has a resonant singing voice like a fine old wood-cabinet radio. And I play accordion. We all had a good time re-discovering the old Christmas favorites from the '40s and '50s. Our Christmas show is about as good as it gets. And now, I was heading home. Taking little-known county highways through all sorts of tiny villages, and speed traps without names.
And of course a red light called "ALT" lit up on my dashboard. I had a slight suspicion that this light did not mean "Tune in some nice Alternative music on your car radio." The hopeless noise that the car made next confirmed my suspicion. My knowledge of things automotive is so little that people near me suffer from second-hand idiocy. My car was broke. Broke. I tried starting the engine once more. There was a half-hearted grunt from the engine room. The next time I tried, there was only a menacing castanet sound.
Just like the movies. Nothing like car trouble to put people in places they'd rather not be. In the eerie stillness of the moonlit night, I thought to myself "Well, ain't this just your average Twilight Zone! What's next? Clarence the angel coming with jumper cables? 'You've had a wonderful life, George Bailey!' Or maybe it's Freddie Kruger, come to wish me a merry holiday – "Now slash away hack away whack away all!"
Damn. All I could think of was what Baldoni said after my almost $1000 accordion overhaul. "Whatever you do, don't let the box out in freezing weather. You'll wreck the seals on the reed blocks." So, how am I going to get home before my reed blocks freeze? And, how am I going to get home at all? Maybe my accordion repair budget would have been better spent on giving the old vintage piece of Americana Chevrolata a bit of a preventive once-over!
I got out of my car, and stepped into the stillness of the moonlit Christmas Eve night. A breath of fresh clean air, that would soon become the onset of hypothermia unless I could find some help. A sign next to the road said "New Hope", pop. 637. Yeah, right. 637 people and nobody's ever heard of Triple A. I grabbed my accordion case and headed down the side of the deserted highway in the direction of the "city". Lotta luck finding something open on Christmas Eve.
The first sign of civilization was a dark church on the right side of the road. Someone walking in front of the church. From this distance in the frosty winter air, it looked like the person walking toward me had wings on their back. As we got closer together, it turned out it really was a person with wings. A lady with honest-to-god angel wings was walking toward me from the church. Oh, wait, duh, Christmas Eve – Church - there's always a Christmas pageant.
The angel-lady walked right up to me. "You're here, Peter. This way. We found some candles, in case the power doesn't return." The lady had golden hair and huge beautiful eyes. Close up she looked a lot older than my first impression, but still - those eyes!. She spoke softly, but with such authority that I would feel out of place turning her down. She turned around and I found myself walking to the church with her. And, how on earth did she know my name? These small country churches don't have very big budgets for things like costumes. That angel costume definitely had a few miles on it, yet although ancient looking, the costume had remarkable detail.
She paused, looked at me and, clasping my hand, said "I'm Angela." Her hand felt warm, surprising for the way she was dressed. She couldn't fit a top-coat over those wings. "The lights, the organ, even the boiler, all the things we take for granted, all of them stopped working. The power is gone." Her eyes, very dark and deep in the moonlight gave extra meaning to every word she spoke. "The service starts in less than half an hour, and no lights on the Christmas tree. I hope you'll be able to help..."
And I thought I was the one looking for help...
The church doors opened to reveal a chaotic darkness inside. People were lighting candles, trying to see without the lights. The children were grouping on one end of the foyer, rehearsing their recitations for the service with one another, nervously wondering how this would all go without the organ to lead them, and hardly able to see the director in the dark. The priest, dressed in his special white Christmas surplice, was helping to distribute his supply of extra altar candles. And they getting more light - candles lighting other candles. Apparently the plan was to proceed with the service by candlelight.
I looked around for the angel wings, but Angela was nowhere to be seen. Making myself "at home", I placed my accordion case on the floor of the coat room. A very old Italian-looking guy eyed the case familiarly. I explained – "It's my accordion. It can't stay outside because the reed blocks will freeze."
"Good care makes sweet music", the old guy replied. "I'm Luigi, the organist. Out of work tonight, so sad," a hitch in his voice. "In old country, I was very good accordionist. Wedding, church, dance. So long ago..." His eyes were misty. "Was a Baldoni, such a sweet sound."
"Baldoni? Hey, guess what? This is a Baldoni, too!" I flopped the accordion case flat on foot of the coat rack and snapped it open. "That's why I take such good care of it."
With awe in his gaze, Luigi touched the closed bellows of the instrument, as if he couldn't believe it was real. "Oh, so beautiful" he whispered.
I could see that he wanted to, so I asked "Would you like to try it out?" After all, without power for his organ, an organist has a lot of free time on his hands. just a frustrated bystander.
"Bless you," said Luigi and began to pick up the instrument.
A lady barged into the coat room and grabbed me by the elbow. "You are the one. Thank you very much to help us with the electric. I'll take you down and show you what a shambles we are in!" She was a stocky red-faced lady wearing a white apron. "I'm Marilyn. She beckoned me to come down the stairs. She held a candle. I pulled out my pocket flashlight to see my way down the creaking, turning stairway. My accordion, I was sure, was in good hands with Luigi.
The church basement, an instantly recognizable church basement smell. The flashlight revealed a room all set up for an after-service dinner that was not to be. Tables were set with with napkins and utensils. The serving table was filled with a row of Nesco roasters, the food warmers of choice for generations. "Look, LOOK! My meatballs, so good, and now so very cold." She slammed down the lid of the Nesco. "Kielbasa, borscht, we all make our best food, our old family recipes, and now -- all we will have -- just cookies! Might as well be Baptists."
Apparently, this was a case of mistaken identity. The person they were expecting was probably someone who would know how to solve the problem. Someone with a little mechanical aptitude. Somebody had been called, and they thought I was him. I am not he. And how had they even placed a call, if there's no power in the building? Where was this guy?
"There!" she pointed to a small utility room next to the stainless steel kitchen sink. "The power, the boiler, it's all in there! There's a screwdriver and some hammers in the drawer over there." Marilyn did NOT ask if there were any further questions. She turned around and went back upstairs. It was all my own problem, now. Why me? Bewildered, I stepped into the foreign confines of the church's utility control room.... The main circuit breaker had tripped, and I know that it takes a severe trauma to knock out a main breaker. I looked carefully around with my flashlight. Having reset all the breakers, the main breaker still would not hold the circuit. Nothing was apparently wrong, no melted or disconnected wires. I'm no electrician, but I know when not to touch something you don't know about. This problem would take more electrical know-how than I had accumulated in my entire life.
I felt sorry for the parishioners, and wished I could have helped them. Memories of cherished childhood pageants past helped me to appreciate the ultimate importance of the focal social event of the church's holiday season. Defeated, though, I went softly up the stairs, to find Angela, and explain that there was nothing I could do. There would not be any electricity tonight, so sorry.
The church was very quiet as I entered, and stood against the back wall by the organ loft. The service had begun. Lighted only by candles, the church had been transformed into a golden sanctuary. Parishioners huddled together for warmth. The children were performing the recitations they had been rehearsing. They told the timeless familiar story of the prophecies, and the Nativity, in unison, individually, and in song. A pause, then a familiar sound - Luigi had my accordion in the organ loft, and was leading the songs. He coaxed a sweet harmonious voice from the accordion, each note caressing the voices of the children as they sang "Away in a Manger". Wished I could play like that!
The beautiful golden candlelight gave newness to the old familiar verses. "And she brought forth her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger." A pause. A lady whispered loudly "LOOK!" She was pointing to the life-size nativity set in the front of the church. The rest of the congregation, momentarily distracted, whispered and pointed to the stable. The light from the full Christmas moon had focused through the stained glass windows a beam of clear white moonlight directly on the baby in the manger.
Silent Night, Holy Night. Luigi began to play softly on the bassoon reeds of the accordion. The children began the verse softly, and by the end of the first stanza the entire congregation had joined in. By the end of the third stanza, about the "Son of God, Love's Pure Light", the singing had swelled to a volume you could feel as well as hear.
The children continued with the angel's appearance before the shepherds. "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you - you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger"
Suddenly, an inspiration struck me: MEATBALLS! Of course! I bounded down the stairs to the basement, flashlight in hand, and unplugged some of the Nescoes. The excess of power-sucking Nesco roasters had been overloading the circuit, keeping everything from going on! I could hear the children above " . . . a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying... " I strode confidently to the utility room, and threw the main breaker.
A momentary hush from the room above. Then the children, at the top of their voices. "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men."
As I re-entered the now-brilliantly lit sanctuary, Luigi had fired up the organ, and burst out into "Joy to the World". Fortissimo Sforzando! The congregation was standing up, singing loudly as their joy gave them expression. The Christmas tree almost reached the ceiling, and it was almost hard to look at all the brilliant white lights. Luigi's feet were dancing on the organ pedals. I wanted, needed to be a part of this moment. walking up to the organ, I picked up my accordion where Luigi had gently laid it. Luigi smiled and nodded. I joined in. It was, without a doubt the most joyful musical experience I have ever had. Joy to the World.
By the second stanza, people were hugging each other in the aisles, shaking hands, wishing one another a blessed Christmas. The church elders brought out washtubs full of huge brown paper bags full of fruits, candy, and peanuts, and started passing them out to the overjoyed kids. Across the room, through the hubbub of joy, I spotted the pair of wings that I just couldn't get my mind off of. I saw Angela. She smiled with her beautiful eyes, and waved to me. I looked again, and she was no longer there.
Marilyn headed downstairs, where the Nesco power load had been re-distributed to other outlets, and started heating up the food. The radiators began to give up the first hints of warmth. The parishioners began to find their way down the stairs into the hall.
As I was packing up my accordion to head back to looking for a fix for my car, Luigi put his hand on my shoulder. "Peter, such a blessing you bring us. Please, you must stay. Eat! Eat!" Well, I'll admit I wanted to spend a little more time getting acquainted with Angela, I kept thinking of those eyes. so I followed the crowd downstairs.
The food wasn't quite warm, yet, so Luigi and I traded tunes on the Baldoni. Luigi played some traditional European dance music, I ripped out a few Frankie Yankovic tunes. Although the hall was crowded, some tried dancing. And the food - out of this world. But I never ran into Angela. And, as I stepped out into the cold calm December air, far Off, I could see my car. It looked like someone was shooting off fireworks in the night. From this distance it looked like a shower of white sparks was raining down on my car. And then, it dawned on me, I was filled with a warm realization from deep within. I was not alone, on this holy silent night. My car would start just fine.
Merry Christmas, Angela!
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