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‘School’s out. School’s out. Teacher let the monkeys out.”

Pastor Walter Mitty smiled as he listened to children from Poplar Park’s Chester A. Arthur Elementary School sing with glee as they skipped past his office window on the last day of classes.

The children’s little ditty-the same one he had also chanted as a kid-was still running through his mind as he walked to the Main Street Cafe last Wednesday morning. The sun was bright. The air was cool. Sunday school, confirmation classes, women’s guild devotions-it was all finished until September.

“Free at last. Free at last,” he said out loud.

As he walked through the Main’s door he saw that Ash was the only one to have arrived.

“Say, Pastor,” Ash said, beginning the conversation. “The guys at the VFW wanted me to ask if you would give a short meditation … you know, five minutes or so … and a prayer at our flag raising ceremony at Veterans Park on Independence Day.”

Pastor Mitty hesitated.

“I know,” Ash continued. “I know how you feel about the war in Iraq and that, well, maybe you would be giving the impression of supporting the military with religion.”

“You mean I should look at it as supporting the troops and not the war?” Mitty tried to finish Ash’s sentence.

“No, I don’t mean that. At least, not exactly.” Ash searched for words. “No, what I mean is that some wars are necessary. And some are bad. No doubt about that. But when we’re at our best, like in World War II, what we are fighting for is freedom. That’s what I’m trying to say, and you can support that, can’t you?”

Pastor Walt thought about what Ash had said.

“I have to admit, I hadn’t thought about it that way. You know that I just don’t believe our president anymore when he says we are fighting for freedom in Iraq. But when you look at it from further away, I think I could feel OK about saying a few words.”

“Sorry we’re late.” Dominique and Eric both slid into the booth at the same time. “What have we missed?”

“Freedom,” replied their pastor.

“Huh?”

“I was trying to get Pastor to say a few words at the VFW flag-raising on ….”

“You know what freedom is?” Alice interrupted their conversation as she began pouring coffee. “Freedom is getting more than minimum wage and lousy tips for working your butt off six days a week. That’s what freedom is. It’s being free from worrying about how you’re going to pay the bills at the end of the month. It’s being free from worrying, period.”

Six eyes glanced at their pastor as if to say, “I thought you were the one who was supposed to be the preacher.”

“She does have a point,” Eric conceded.

“I don’t know,” said Dominique. “The woman is free to go to the junior college and improve herself if she wants to improve her situation. I mean, that’s America. Freedom to be all you can be.”

It was a nice day so Pastor Walt decided to go a little out of his way and walk past the Retro on the way home. Zaphne always made life more interesting. Sure enough, she had died her hair red, white and blue for her Fourth of July sale. What caught Mitty’s attention, however, was a 6-inch high wooden spirit house on the counter, with two sticks of incense burning in front of the little green Buddha seated inside.

“Buddhism?” Pastor Mitty asked.

“I guess so,” was Zaphne’s answer. “I’m trying out meditation with some Thai friends right now.”

“What attracted you to that?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Nothing spiritual seems to be working.” Mitty had tried inviting her to his church a few times when they first met, but she always had a reason for declining the invitation.

“See, my parents were kind of like hippies in the late ’60s and early ’70s. You know, none of the hard drugs but a lot of pot and of course, free love. I mean, they let most of that go when they started having us kids. But one thing that held onto was their suspicion of institutions. Like, when it came to religion, they taught us to be spiritual but they didn’t bring us up in any one particular tradition.”

“So, then, you’re free, right?”

“See, Rev, that’s the problem. I’m too free and that makes me not free at all.” Zaphne saw the question in Mitty’s face. “It’s like they said we should be spiritual, but they never really showed us how. See, if you go to a dance and no one has taught you how to do the fox trot or the mashed potato or the Texas two-step, and like some good looking guy comes up and asks you to dance, you’re not really free to take advantage of your opportunity.”

As Pastor Walt walked home from the Retro, he couldn’t believe how he was feeling. He found himself already looking forward to Sunday school getting started in September.