Pastor Walter Mitty was still fuming, two weeks ago Sunday, as he entered the Wal-Mart that was built ten years ago on the site of the old landfill in Poplar Park. He was saddened by the polarization he saw in the election last November and in the U.S. Congress, but when he witnessed traces of it in his own congregation, it set him off. What happened was that he and Dominique and Sharissa Hawkins were talking at the coffee hour after church when the conversation somehow had gotten around to public radio.
“I really agree with that guy … what’s his name … you know, the president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting,” Dominque had declared. “Oh, what’s his name … you know, the guy who is saying that public radio needs more balance, you know, more conservative voices.”
“You have really gone over the conservative, reactionary, ruin-all-the-progress-that-has-been-made-in-the-last-40-years top!” Sharissa had asserted. “If anything is wrong with public radio, it’s that it always includes the comments of racist reactionaries for the so-called sake of balance. No self-respecting black person could support people like that.” “Sharissa…,” Dominque caught himself and tried to calm down.
Through clenched teeth he attempted an even tone and stated. “Sharissa, not you, not anyone has the authority to define what it means to be black. And I’ll have you know that some of the finest ministers and young politicians in…”
The scream of a toddler who had fallen out of a height chair prevented Dominque from finishing his speech as both he and Sharissa rushed over to see if they could help. Pastor Walt took advantage of the interruption to steer later exchanges in a different direction, but as he walked home, he realized he was upset. For one thing, the intensity of feeling he had just witnessed had frightened him. For another, next to the Bible, public radio was for him the source he trusted most for getting at the truth. And he felt like two people he liked and admired were in effect questioning his judgment. “I need a vacation,” was what Pastor Walt was thinking as he spotted Michael Rosenthal, planting flowers along the front of his house. What made things worse was when he told his neighbor what had just happened, Michael had responded, “Well, Walt, to be honest I, too, think NPR has a bias, especially when it comes to reporting on the conflict over in the Holy Land. If you listen to public radio, they make it seem like the Palestinians are innocent victims and Israelis are the terrorists.”
Pastor Walt chose not to reply, but left his friend with a “gotta get going”see you tomorrow for tennis.” Once inside his own home, he flopped in the easy chair and was about to turn on the Cubs game to get his mind off being upset. Midway to the remote he halted his reach, deciding that watching the Cubs would only worsen his emotional condition. Inspired by his neighbor, Mitty decided that planting flowers might be therapeutic.
“Welcome to Wal-Mart, Pastor.” Ethel Klein was beaming. “That was a good sermon today, Pastor. And Dominque’s solo was so inspiring. And it’s such a beautiful day. I feel so … so, oh you know, so chipper! You know what I always say. Start Sunday out right by going to church, and your whole day will be a blessing.”
Mitty forced a smile. “Amen, sister Klein,” he exclaimed using his black preacher imitation. “You are so full of good news that I think maybe you should be the preacher next Sunday.”
Missing his sarcasm, the retired meter maid, who greeted customers part time to “keep busy,” blushed and giggled. “Wait till I tell Edwin what you said. That’s a good one, Pastor. Me the preacher next Sunday.”
“I gotta get out of here,” thought Pastor Walt as he trudged past aisles of cosmetics and toys and ready-to-assemble bicycles to the lawn and garden center. He picked out two flats of dwarf marigolds to plant in front of his house. Thus far, marigolds were the only flowers he had not killed. As he headed to his car, he heard a sound that stopped him in his tracks.
It was the call of a seagull. A cry”unmistakable to a kid who had grown up on the shores of Lake Michigan”that conjured up a whole series of childhood memories that always included the sound of gulls, fog horns and waves crashing on the two piers that guarded the Manitowoc harbor. The times when he and Den Den and Schwartzy shot off rockets on the beach at Silver Creek Park. When he and Herman found a couple necking in a ’57 Chevy in a parking lot by Red Arrow Beach and lighted two cherry bombs right under the car. When he and his Boy Scout troop nearly froze to death on a spring camp-o-ree at Point Beach. The blaring of a car horn made Mitty jump as he realized he had been standing in the way of traffic. He couldn’t hear what the driver was shouting but he could read lips and understand hand motions well enough to know what the guy was saying. Startled, the sea gull flapped away from the Big Mac wrapping he had been picking at.
“I gotta get out of here,” thought Mitty as he put the flowers in the trunk of his Corolla and drove back home. Noticing that he was hungry, he set the marigolds on the front porch, changed into shorts and a t-shirt, went to the kitchen where he placed four slices of summer sausage between two pieces of Natural Ovens Right wheat bread, and sat down on the steps of the back porch where he began munching on his sandwich.
The air on that May afternoon was still cool enough that the sun felt good on his bare arms and legs. Half way through his sandwich, a robin landed on the grass ten feet away. Not even setting his food down on the plate, he tried not to move, hoping the little creature would stay and keep him company.
As Mitty watched the bird poking in the ground looking for his lunch, his mind wandered back and forth between on the one hand memories of robins in the bird bath behind the house in Manitowoc, Little League games at West Field and church picnics at Lincoln Park and, on the other hand, places he might escape to in order to recapture what it felt like to be a boy on summer vacation in a small town on the shores of Lake Michigan.