Pastor Walter Mitty had to turn off the debate last week Tuesday. He expected it to be like a boxing match with each candidate trying to knock the other one out, but at least in a boxing match the combatants separate when the referee tells them to, and in a case where there is no knockout blow, the boxers will accept the judges’ decision.
Instead, what he saw was a brawl in which the moderator tried to be a good referee, but one of the fighters in particular refused to obey. Mitty was so upset by what was happening that, on the spot, he texted his council president saying, “Dominique, I have to get out of here to someplace more peaceful. Would you do the sermon Sunday, so I can spend the weekend in Manitowoc?”
When he texted his sister-in-law, Susan said “of course,” and by 9 p.m. Friday night the pastor of Poplar Park Community Church was back in the town in which he grew up.
Knowing that his emotional and spiritual tank was close to empty, Susan made a big breakfast for her beleaguered brother-in-law. The day before, she bought glazed croissants from Parkside Bakery to go with eggs scrambled with Wisconsin cheddar cheese and fried slices of Cher Make summer sausage.
As Mitty and Susan lingered over their second cup of coffee, Matt announced, “Uncle Walt, we have the whole day planned out for you, and we want to practice social distancing so we’ll start with a hike along Milosh Creek.”
As Matt took the seat behind the wheel of the family SUV, Susan and Mitty smiled and winked at each other. “I got an A in driver’s ed and passed my road test,” Matt explained with pride, “so Mom said I could be your chauffer today.”
When they came in view of Lake Michigan where Waldo Boulevard merged into Lakeshore Drive, Mitty felt a wave of contentment wash over him, and it struck him that he hadn’t felt at peace for at least a week and a half.
One childhood memory after another popped into his mind as they drove through Two Rivers and got on the road to Point Beach. Matt pulled into the little gravel parking lot and the three Mittys started the quarter-mile hike along the creek and through the woods to the sand dunes and beach.
Matt started skipping stones on the lake, which was calm on Saturday and Susan went off on a walk toward the old lighthouse. Pastor Walt sat down on top of a small sand dune, enjoying the peace of an empty mind. No thoughts, no drama, no worries getting in the way of the beauty all around him.
The serenity lasted for 10 minutes when the thought crept into his mind, “Did I make a mistake coming to Manitowoc? When I turned on the radio yesterday morning, I heard on the news that the corona cases were spiking in Wisconsin and especially in the northeast part of the state.”
Manitowoc was just 40 miles south of Green Bay which was at the epicenter of the spike. He had tried to think clearly that morning, doing a kind of cost/benefit analysis in his head, but his desire to escape to beauty seemed to trump prudence every time.
Matt tired of skipping stones and headed off down the beach opposite the direction his mother had taken. They had that kind of relationship, the three of them. Secure. Comfortable. Again, the feeling that the world might just be a good place after all.
Around 3:30, the little group reconvened and all three noticed that they were hungry, so on the way home when she again got coverage for her cellphone, Susan called in an order to Lates drive-in for hamburgers and fried cheese curds to go.
Sunday morning Pastor Walt slept so late that he missed all of the church services online, and as he was brushing his teeth, he noticed he was not feeling very guilty about not going to church. “I wonder,” he said to himself, “if it’s healthy to bend the rules every once in a while.”
Part of keeping the sabbath day holy in Wisconsin is watching the Packer game on TV, usually with a big group of friends, but that’s another sacrifice they had to make because of the virus.
At half time while his mom was off in the kitchen loading the dishwasher, Matt turned to his uncle and asked, “Uncle Walt, why do so many people disobey the rules?”
“Disobey the rules?”
“Yeah, like our history teacher made us watch the debate last Tuesday, and President Trump broke the rules over and over.”
Uncle Walt knew there was more.
“And then President Trump gets the COVID virus, and I don’t know whether to pray for him or think he made his bed and now he has to lie in it. I mean, in a way he broke the rules Dr. Fauci had promoted by not wearing a face mask.”
Mitty felt a twinge of guilt as he acknowledged to himself that maybe he himself had been disobedient in a way by even coming to his hometown.
“It’s like the Packer game,” Matt continued. “They have referees to enforce the rules, because some people want to win so badly they are willing to cheat.”
On the drive home Sunday night, Pastor Walt thought about what his nephew had said about rules. “Football is not for sissies,” he thought, “but if you don’t have referees penalizing teams for breaking the rules like the one for unnecessary roughness, the game can’t go on.”
Then, as he passed Great America, he thought, “But if the refs throw a flag on every play for every little infraction of the rules, that kills the game, too.”