Moving Forward

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This past Saturday morning, the bridge crossing over the Monongahela River in Masontown, Pennsylvania, my hometown, was imploded. A new four-lane bridge, half of which is complete and which is already carrying traffic across the river, is in the process of replacing it. The old bridge dated to the 1920s, and was always a part of my experience of living in, and after moving away, returning to, Masontown. After the drive in from Columbus, I always knew when I came around the bend in the road and the bridge came into sight that the trip was just minutes from being over; the familiar ka-chunk………ka-chunk………kachunk……… of driving over the expansion joints on the bridge assuring me that I’d arrived “home.”

I couldn’t go back to watch the implosion, and I was lurking online Saturday morning, waiting for the first videos to pop up on Facebook, youTube, and the local news outlets. If, like me, you’re into demolition porn, you can see what I think are the two best clips of it here and here.

The old bridge was narrow and rickety and long past its prime. The new one is going to be much nicer from a driving standpoint, even if visually unremarkable – it will never be the kind of local landmark that the old one was. And it will be a nice feeling as I drive over the new one to know that my Dad is actually helping to build it. Still, its demolition comes with mixed emotions. As a kid, the bridge was just always a part of my life. You couldn’t think of Masontown without simultaneously thinking about the bridge. From my home, I’d hike to the bridge. I walked across it, hung out underneath it. As a teenager, it was part of the route that I’d take as a student driver, driving my grandfather to Chessie’s Fruit Market, and then taking the long way home through Greene County, back over the bridge in Point Marion, and back to Masontown, just for the driving experience. Those times driving with him are some of my favorite memories, and I thought of those drives, and him, every time I crossed that bridge. When our girls were little and we’d make family trips back to  Masontown, they’d always want to know when we were getting close to “the Green Bridge,” partly because they were always a little creeped out by crossing over it, and also because they knew that grandparents were just moments away. So while the new bridge leads into the future, there’s no question that there was also a real sense of loss when the old one dropped into the river below.

Just less than 24 hours after it did, I opened the last worship service as pastor of the Frankfort Presbyterian Church. I was there for just over six years. I entered the ministry in a somewhat unorthodox (you might even say ass-backwards) way – first studying and becoming a non-ordained, half-time “Commissioned Lay Pastor;” and then, beginning seminary and the full-bore ordination process – which, if you aren’t familiar with the Presbyterian Church, is extremely rigorous. I completed those ordination requirements as of last January and have been actively, aggressively, seeking a full-time ordained call since just before then. So my departure in one way or another from Frankfort was, at least in Presbyterian-relative terms, imminent, and no surprise. Not just imminent, but a positive development. Still, just as with the demolished bridge, my departure comes with a lot of sadness. Yesterday’s service was deeply moving to me. I’m amazed I got through the day without crying; I only came close once. It was an interesting service. Beyond the basics, it included a regularly-scheduled “Service of Healing and Wholeness” – don’t get the wrong idea here; I’m not talking about televangelist-type theatrics, just a time for people who feel in particular spiritual need of prayer come forward to receive it. It means a lot to the members who come forward, and especially yesterday, it meant a lot to me as I called each one by name, anointing them with oil and praying for them one by one, knowing that this would likely be my last contact with them. And, after anointing and praying with the last person, handing her the oil and kneeling down in front of her, having her do the same for me was deeply moving. The service also included a “Litany of Farewell,” providing a form of closure for our pastoral relationship in which we officially recognize the end of our covenant together. We thanked each other for the love and care we showed each other throughout the mutual journey. We also asked each other’s forgiveness for the times we didn’t live up to the other’s expectations, and we granted that forgiveness to each other in return.

After the service, I was so moved by the outpouring of love and support that the congregation offered me; the long line of people waiting patiently to shake my hand, offer a hug and a tear and a kind word. Saying goodbye to each of these people, who have meant so much to me was extremely hard. We’ve been through a lot together; more than I could or would detail here. And just as much as those memories of driving my grandfather to the fruit market will always be a part of me long after the old bridge is gone, these wonderful people are going to remain a part of me for a long time after I leave Frankfort.

But I have said goodbye – goodbye to the old landmark bridge that had been such a significant part of my hometown, and goodbye to people and a pastorate that, together, have been such a significant part of my life for the past six years. Those roads behind me are closed. And I wonder what’s up ahead, around the bend.

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Remember the Giants

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The Giants, 1970. That’s me in the back row, far right; Grandfather/Manager’s hand on my shoulder. He seemed so old then. He’s actually 5 years younger in this picture than I am now. Oy. The man in the back row, right/center, is Mikey.

My name is Dwain, and I am a Giant.

I say “am” despite the fact that I haven’t worn a Giants uniform since 1972, because, as the recently started Facebook Page states, “Once a Giant, Always a Giant.”

The Giants were – actually, still are – a team in the Little Knights Baseball League in my hometown, Masontown, Pennsylvania. In the 1950s, Masontown had Little League – in fact, in 1954 they just missed playing in the Little League World Series, finishing third in the country. But the league got to be very selective in its tryouts, leaving lots of kids out of an opportunity to play ball – and even if they did make the team, Little League rules then and now allow kids to be bench-sitters, not getting to play in every, or maybe any, games.

Recognizing this problem, a handful of men – mostly fathers of young kids, mostly coal miners, mostly World War II veterans – decided to start another baseball league in town. This league would have tryouts – not every kid would make a team – but the league rules were that every kid on every team would play at least two innings of every game. And so the Little Knights League was born.

A local fraternal club provided the land, and the field was built. Probably most of the materials for the backstop and the chain link fence around the field were perpetually “borrowed” from the mines where most of the men worked. Dugouts were built, and bleachers were brought in, and a little building just behind home plate was built to house a concession stand and equipment storage. You could get a bottle of pop, or a bag of popcorn, or a Sno-Cone, for ten cents. There were still kids who didn’t have a dime, and at the end of the night, when the concession ladies were cleaning up, those kids would come up to the window for a free bag of the little broken bits of popcorn and half-popped kernels left in the popper, asking “You got any scraps? You got any scraps?”

A window from that building looked out at the plate, and just inside the window sat the official scorer and the game’s announcer. I’m not sure how they managed to do it, but the field had lights for night games and a PA system. The Little League field had none of this. The games were always well-attended, but many residents of the neighborhood could sit on their back porches on warm summer evenings and listen to the play-by-play on the loudspeaker.

Little Knights may have originally been seen as a poor substitute for Little League, but over time, Little League faded and Little Knights became the League that most of the kids in town wanted to play in. And in 1969, I followed in the footsteps of my seven-years-older uncle and my one-year-older cousin, and became one of the Giants, coached by “Bones” Baily and managed by my grandfather, Quentin “Queenie” Pontorero, one of the founders of the league. Later, my two brothers would also become Giants, and my father would coach them for a time.

The Giants were a perennial powerhouse in the league, but I freely admit it wasn’t through any of my skill or effort. For most of the three years I played, I was the worst player on the best team. I couldn’t hit a ball to save my life. Any time I came up to bat, my parents cringed, my grandfather cringed, my teammates cringed, the fans cheering for our team cringed, because everyone knew I was going to strike out. And I cringed, because I knew I was going to let them all down. And as bad as I was at batting, my fielding was even worse. Anything hit into left field was pretty much a guaranteed single, at very least. It was like that for the first two years, anyway. The third year, I managed to develop at least minimal hand-to-eye coordination and not completely stink. And one game in my last year, I played amazingly – but that’s another story.

Thinking about those days, I was reminded of all those “Everything I Needed to Know in Life, I Learned in Kindergarten” kinds of lists, and I thought I could prepare a similar list – “(Almost) Everything I Needed to Know in Life, I Learned as a Giant.” Or, if I didn’t first learn it as a Giant, it was reinforced there. So, here’s my list:

1. Character matters.

2. Always work hard at whatever you do. You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to always do your best.

3. Never be without a good black leather belt (as you can see in the picture, a required part of the Giants’ uniform).

4. Similar to #1 above, whatever you do, do it honestly and with integrity. Do not be afraid to own up to your mistakes, and be willing to work to correct them. Life will give you plenty of unexpected ups and downs, but live with honesty and integrity through all of them.

5. You are important as an individual, but working well as a team can achieve far greater success than the sum of the individuals.

6. Always be gracious, in victory or defeat, because whichever you’re experiencing at the moment, you’ll be experiencing the opposite soon enough. Plus, the kid on the opposing team that you just beat is your next-door neighbor and one of your best friends. You’ll sit next to him in geography class tomorrow.

7. Whether you win or lose, nothing makes the victory so sweet, or takes the edge off the loss, quite like the ice-cold carbonated sting of an Orange Nehi.

8. Clove gum rocks. So does Beemans. (my grandfather passed out a stick of chewing gum to every player just before the start of every game)

9. The tag in our uniforms said to Wash in Lukewarm Water. When in doubt, always do the same.

10. No matter what you do, there is always going to be someone who does it better than you, through a combination of hard work and practice, and natural inborn ability. No big deal; we all have our particular God-given skills and abilities. Whenever you’re around those better than you, observe them, learn from them. You’ll never be as good as they are, but you will become better at whatever it is than you were yourself, and that’s all that matters. And no matter how modest your skills may be, you will – maybe only once, but you will – at some point, shine like a star. And you will see, smell, hear, and bask in the memory of it for the rest of your life. I do.

11. Succeeding in life will require you to improvise, adapt, and overcome. For example, if Hannah’s dry goods store is out of white felt letter “G”s to sew onto your cap, you can make do just fine with a “C” and scraps of an “I.”

12. There are some people among us who have mental or other developmental disabilities. Often, they are, as Harper Lee might say, the mockingbirds among us: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us..” And anyone who would tease, or make fun of, or hurt, anyone like that is an absolute moron. (our team’s mascot and good luck charm  was Mikey, a developmentally disabled man who almost never missed a Giants’ game)

13. No one – no one – likes a smart alek, even if on occasion they may pretend to. Really.

14. Whatever you do, whatever the chosen game or field, hustle onto it, and hustle off of it.

15. Life may not always be easy, but it is good – enjoy it. Play ball!