I've never been one to let the truth get in the way of a good story, and I hate to start changing now, but I have some bad news and the only way I know how to say it so it will mean as much to you as it does to me is ... like this. I hope that you and the people in my story will forgive me for any embellishments.
When I was a Senior at good old Springfield High School in always sunny and ever lovely Springfield, Colorado, the vocational specialists from Colorado State University blew into town. The School Board invited them to come and "talk" to us Seniors about the Future and Work and the horrors of growing old without any prospects. They set up a film projector in a math classroom and ran a film intended to prove to me that Rock & Roll was a Lifestyle and not a Profession. The difference between the two is that one earns money, makes a living and is respectable. The other leads to poverty, grim despair, hair loss and impotence. Being raised on a farm, I was accustomed to the first two, but those last two were deeply, deeply disturbing.
They took us off in groups of five for testing. It seemed simple enough. Read the question, check a box. The vocational aptitude test was multiple guess, so how hard could it be? When it was over, the very first computer I'd ever seen graded the test and kicked out a sheet of answers. I heard some of the kids being advised to go the University and study engineering. That was a good Profession. Some of the kids were slated to do best with the welding, automotive repair or carpentry skills they'd picked up in the trade classes. Sadly, a wrinkle creased the forehead of the graduate student reading my printout. There was only one Profession for me. Apparently, I would do best in a life of Service the sheet said. The options were limited to Soldier in the United States Army or Priest in the Roman Catholic Church. Having discovered GIRLS a few years before, the options narrowed down to just one. Damn! Big Green Corporation ... here I come.
So I talked with a recruiter. He said that what I needed was an "Action and Adventure Lifestyle". The hair would be shorter than the "Rock & Roll" Lifestyle, but the camouflage clothes would be exceedingly cool. He said the money would take care of itself and that I would earn over three hundred U.S. dollars in just my first month. Hot diggity damn, I was going to be rich in no time. One of my crazy uncles back from Vietnam told me "A soldier leads a life of sex and danger". My grandfather (the one who personally liberated the Hell out of France in World War 2) quickly agreed. I have to confess that Sex and Danger seem like pretty good career rewards. What I didn't realize at the time was just how remote the odds were of having our next several wars in places exclusively populated by beautiful, sex-starved women.
No matter where I went in my travels, somewhere at the back of my mind was that question. You know, the "what if" one.
When I eventually enrolled in the University, I had the very good fortune to land in the parish of a most dynamic and wonderful priest named Father Jake. He had served in the Air Force, earned a Master's Degree and been a teacher in the public schools for a number of years before going to the Seminary. He was the most energetic priest I'd ever known. After he'd fulfilled all of his pastoral obligations and duties, he taught a 4000 level Comparative Religions class at the University.
St. Brigid's was a fairly large parish. It had an extensive outreach program for poor and disadvantaged people. He was creative with penance, and for me that was especially helpful because it gave me the chance to "volunteer" time to help with the outreach effort.
Father Jake didn’t like to drive, but driving was required because the Church had opened a mission parish that he needed to visit regularly. The Church also had three elderly nuns that helped. When I had the chance, I'd volunteer to drive. Father Jake had a big old car and there was always a group wanting to travel somewhere.
One of those visits was to a mission parish. It was the Christmas season, but this was for a funeral. The tiny town we were going to was poor and most of the people made their living raising chickens. The countryside was ditched with earthworks to handle vast amounts of rainwater that came regularly. Unfortunately, after a series of floods a little girl had disappeared while playing near one of those swollen channels. She fell. The current in the water was too much, and she just disappeared. The townspeople desperately searched for the child. Several days later, someone found her a great distance from where they'd searched, trapped in the roots of a fallen tree.
The church building was a plain brick building that had once belonged to a small Protestant congregation that had aged and died out as the town's fortunes declined. The pews were cold, hard and old. The place was so quiet. It smelled of flowers, a mountain of them towered over the small, white coffin at the front of the church. For reasons I don't care to know, the casket was open. The little girl inside looked as though she were simply sleeping there.
Father Jake greeted the people and began the service. It went on as any such service goes. There was a lot of crying. There was so much emotion. I don't remember any of the words now, just the rhythm of the words as they passed by. I only noticed when it stopped. I saw him staring at the casket. He was deathly pale, as though he'd seen a ghost. I stood and looked into the casket too. Tears were coming from the corners of the little girl's eyes. Father Jake sighed, made the sign of the cross and finished the service.
We didn't talk about it on the way back after the burial. I don't recall ever seeing him take a drink on any other occasion, but he did that day. After that, he had to prepare for a discussion group. I left him to it, but returned that evening for the discussion group meeting. Father Jake believed that Life was for the Living and that the Service of the Lord was of the utmost importance. That night he spoke about how people have options in Life and how it is best if they look to making decisions in keeping with what God wants for them. He spoke of the example of Luke 1:38 which ordinarily says: "And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it done to me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her."
Because of the entirety of what had happened that day, his mis-paraphrasing of that passage went something like ... "And Mary said do it to me according to your will". Most of the people in the audience laughed. Eventually, I did too, but I understood what he meant.
I also understood that it took a better man than me to be a Priest in the Roman Catholic Church. That was the last time I ever did the "what if".
When I got back from Turkey this last week, I just learned that Father Jake had died. He was a saint and I will miss him.