Pastor Walter Mitty and his neighbor Michael Rosenthal had developed a tradition of spending New Year’s Eve together. Michael’s wife had died five years ago and Mitty had settled into bachelor living. Like Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve was a time for couples. They decided Bernie Rolvaag, recently divorced and newly moved into town, would fit right in with their “to bed by 11 p.m.” lifestyle and invited him to join them.

Michael had fried rice, pot stickers, and Cantonese chow mein spread out on his dining room table. Mitty brought a six pack of New Glarus Spotted Cow he had purchased on his last trip to Manitowoc, and Bernie had picked up a copy of “It’s A Wonderful Life” from Al’s Video Rental.

By the time Pastor Walt had opened his second Spotted Cow, he noticed that a warm contentment was growing inside him. Maybe it was the satisfying Chinese food. Maybe the beer. Maybe having three friends spend a few hours with him on what otherwise would be a lonely New Year’s Eve.

Or, maybe it was watching George Bailey go through a hard time and contemplate surrendering to despair; and then have God intervene through his angel Clarence to show Bailey that his compassion, commitment and integrity had made a difference in his little corner of the world after all.

By the end of the movie, the pastor of Poplar Park Community Church was daring to believe that 2008 might finally be the kind of year he had been hoping for. Hey, hadn’t Barack Obama risen like a meteor-or was it rather a Christmas star-in Iowa and throughout the nation? And hadn’t two new families joined his congregation in the past six weeks? Maybe the times were a-changin’.

As he drained the last of his second beer, Mitty happened to glance over at Bernie. His new friend had taken off his glasses and was wiping tears from his eyes.

“You OK?” Mitty asked.

Bernie collected himself. “Happens every time I see a movie where everything works out in the end.”

“I don’t understand,” said Michael. “Aren’t those kinds of movies supposed to make you happy?”

Bernie put his glasses back on, blew his nose and replied, “It’s just a movie, Michael. A fantasy. My life hasn’t followed that script.”

Mitty swallowed hard. He looked at Michael who was now staring into an empty pot sticker container. He knew what his neighbor was feeling. When he looked back at himself, he noticed that the contentment had evaporated, replaced by the memory of 19 years of faithfully doing his work in the fields of the Lord without ever bringing in a bumper crop at harvest time.

And now, after struggling to survive emotionally during the seven years of the Bush administration, was he drifting into fantasy land by pinning his hopes on a young man without much experience in governing, and whom he hadn’t even heard of until four years ago?

When Mitty looked over at Bernie, his new friend seemed composed but tired.

“Is it a fantasy to hope that one person can change the system?” Mitty wondered. “Is this really a wonderful life where things can turn out right in the end? God, send me a Clarence to show me whether Obama is the one I’ve been waiting for, whether this town and my little congregation are worth investing in?”

As the tape rewound in the VHS machine and Pastor Walt got up to help Michael and Bernie carry three paper plates and six empty Spotted Cow Bottles into the kitchen, he had a thought that brought a little warmth to his soul on a cold New Year’s Eve. “Maybe Barack Obama isn’t the savior I’ve been hoping for. Maybe he’s a Clarence … and maybe that’s all we need.”