Uncle Milt

photo: Grandview ThisWeek Newspaper

In northeastern Pennsylvania, there are many charming churches representing various stripes of Protestantism. Personally, we don’t care for any organized religion, but in the past few decades my wife and I have willingly entered a number of these churches and joined in social gatherings with the congregants.

Why? Because they’ve lured us in.

At almost any time of the year, a rural drive in NEPA will take you past at least one church signboard announcing a ham dinner, a roast beef dinner, a pancake breakfast or something similar. This in itself is a pleasant break from the smug warnings about hell that the signboards usually carry.

The meals cost about $6 a person, and they provide a chance to meet the locals. I recall a dinner during which a farmer described how one of his cows got her head stuck in the fork of a double-trunked tree, and what he, his sons and a neighbor had to do to extricate her.

So one autumn back near the turn of the millenium, we were on a rambling, late afternoon drive when we came upon a nearly full church parking lot. The sidedoor of the church was open and we could see that a lively dinner was in full swing. It had been a while since we’d last gone to one, so we pulled in.

It was really crowded. The folding tables on either side of the open door were still decked out with the anticipated fare — thick slabs of smoked ham, punchbowl-sized heaps of mashed potatoes, green beans, steaming carrots. A nice lady behind one of the tables assured us that we were not too late.

The church interior was full of more folding tables, set in parallel rows, with people sitting on both sides, talking and eating. This meant facing and sitting next to strangers, which is part of the fun. As we looked for two available seats, people from near the center of it all were standing up, moving a couple of folding chairs and then motioning and calling to us: “Here! Two seats here!”

In a few moments, Sandy and I were in the thick of this intense, festive event. We put our jackets on our chairbacks, went and got some food and came back.

Most of our tablemates were related to each other. The man next to me was an insurance salesman, his brother and his sister-in-law were opposite us, their cousins from Virginia next to them. Conversation began to envelop us, but I was a little distracted. I pointed to our plates, and said to Mr. Insurance Man:

“We haven’t paid for our dinners yet.”

He looked uncomfortable. “Oh, you don’t have to pay for them,” he said.

Now I felt uncomfortable. I protested, “Sure we do. Every other time we’ve attended a church dinner, we’ve paid. You pay a few dollars and get a ticket, and then you hand over that ticket when you fill your plate.”

“But this isn’t a church dinner…” he replied gently.

“No? What is it?”

“It’s Uncle Milt’s funeral.”

Now if this were a simple joke, it would end there. That was certainly the punch line. I knew that immediately, since I felt as if I’d been punched in the solar plexus.

But it wasn’t a joke. It was a real situation, and we were in it. In terms of the passage of time, we were far from out of it, in fact. But knowing that the critical point has been reached, I’ll fast-forward through the denouement of the evening, like shuffling quickly through a boring slide lecture. Among the slides you must now imagine passing quickly before your eyes are these:

  • Sandy’s heaping plate of food, which she was now too mortified, even miltified, to eat
  • me eating Sandy’s food, after having eaten my own
  • Milt’s widow, embracing each of us and thanking us for coming
  • Mr. Insurance’s brother saying, “The Uninvited Guests! Milt would have loved it! He loved meeting new people!”
  • Sandy taking my arm when we did leave, and murmuring through a smile as stiff as a ventriloquist’s, “We go to the parking lot, we get into our car and you drive as fast as hell away from here. I don’t care in which direction.”

Zogo’s Pest Control

Above the color proofing station, at a printing plant in the wilds of Tennessee was a very unique insect collection. A self-appointed curator had haphazardly attached specimens (and various broken bits of specimens), with clear plastic tape to a beige metal panel. This same individual had later taken a grease pencil and scribbled “Zogo’s Pest Control” just to the right of this ragged display. There was a yellow tiger swallowtail, a cecropia moth, two luna moths, a tulip tree moth, a giant sphinx moth, an imperial moth with a big blood stain, a roach, several preying mantis, some crickets, and a large clearwing labeled “import from Vietnam.” The other insects had hastily scribbled labels: F11, F-23, patriot, stealth bomber, scud, etc.

These insects had had the misfortune of flying towards the plant’s bright florescent lights, and making their way into the intricacies of the giant web presses. The foreman informed me that a large moth, when flattened on the blanket, leaves a football-sized mess. Zogo’s insects were the lucky ones that were captured before they could be turned into flattened bug cartoons.

During the course of this summer, Zogo’s collection was doomed to grow ever bigger. All of the printing plant’s windows were wide open and not one of them had a screen.


Mary Was a Perfect Gentleman, 8/19/1981

“Mary was a perfect gentleman.”

That’s what all the ladies at the PTA said. But do you know, most of them were totally ignorant of the accepted social graces. They wore their shoes inside out. They wore beauty masks, but forgot to peel them off. One woman was accidentally taken to a fancy restaurant. As she got out of her chair to go, she discovered that she had forgotten to wear a slip. After glancing around the room, she lifted her skirt sky high and shrieked in amazement.

But they all insisted that Mary was a perfect gentleman. And in their foggy eyes she was indeed marvelous. But the chairman of the PTA had failed to realize that Mary had escaped from the monkey house at the nearby zoo. Later, the zoo keeper kept repeating to the police, “I don’t understand it—she was such a perfect gentleman.” 

(stream of consciousness writing—jotted down while sitting in my parent’s old jalopy, waiting to report to a truly awful summer job at A.M. Best.)

Our stay at the Hale Ohia Cottages, 1999

Three days of solid tropical downpours made our experience of Volcano less than sizzling, and tested our Endurance. The Hale Ohia guestbook was the recipient of Sandy’s literary wrath…Image
I awoke to the sound of rain pounding on the skylight. The pillows were damp. The blankets, too, were sparkling with little beads of moisture.

Essential supplies had been placed in the refrigerator, but the pressure of the constantly falling rain was threatening to rot and cave in the roof above the kitchenette. I thought of moving the refrigerator closer to the fireplace, but it was too late. The thoughts that came to me then were not particularly cheerful.

I pulled on my heavy, wet underwear and water-logged jeans, then slowly squished my way to the door. I knew that I would have to reach the car by nightfall, but it was a full 80 feet away.

Somehow, I managed to pull open the door of the cottage, but three times I was driven back by the cold, cruel rain. On my fourth attempt to reach the edge of the parking lot, my pink, retractable umbrella was violently blown backwards. The next squall sent it flying off toward the hot tub.

My strength was nearly exhausted and it was hard work crawling the remaining ten feet. At last my slippery hands encountered one of the tires of our car. From there I was able to feel my way up to the driver’s side door, and wrenched it open. Inside, my husband Snort was soaked, but miraculously, he was still alive. We drank guava juice and ate Tammy’s banana bread.

We stayed in the car the rest of the day, enduring as best we could discomforts that amounted to pain.

Hazel Shackleton
Manhattan Island