I almost made it out the door on Sunday morning. I woke early, dressed quietly in the dark and tiptoed across the bedroom, taking care not to wake my wife. The cats knew what I was up to. They blocked the hall, eyes larger than soccer balls and each demanded an extra handful of chow for their silence.
Despite my best efforts, I only made it to the screen door when my wife called from the bedroom, “Are you going to church today?”
“Not sure,” I mumbled, “Thought I’d walk Scooter.”
“Okay,” she said in a tone that said it was not okay.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“It’s entirely up to you,” she said.
In a pig’s eye, it is. “It’s up to you” is one of those things that means the precise opposite – but I want to talk about something else, the first time I skipped church to explain why I go.
My buddies and I were all raised by strict Catholics which means we hated all things having to do with religion. On Sundays we would hang out on a retaining wall behind the church, waiting for the final note of the opening hymn – after that, the rest of the day was pure hell. In our neighborhood, Sunday was a day of ritual. First there was mass, followed by family breakfast – then the families went visiting, which meant spending an afternoon gagging on the scent of stale potpourri while a great-aunt droned about her surgeries.
So there we were, lingering in the looming shadow of the rest of the day when the singing stopped and the click of the priest’s microphone echoed through the church. My friend Walt shrugged in resignation and slid off the wall but instead of going into church, he headed across the parking lot.
Walt’s little brother yelled after him, “Missing church is a mortal sin. You’re going to hell!!”
“Yeah,” Walt yelled back, “but am I going alone?”
“That’s a hell of a question,” I told him.
Walking away, he snickered at my choice of words. “Think about it,” he said, over his shoulder, “after the first mortal sin you’re screwed for eternity which means you’re pretty much free to do anything you want for the rest of your life.”
“So what are you going to do?” his brother asked.
“Hop trains,” he said. That sounded a whole lot better than church
A few blocks away, the Milwaukee Road ran through a long cut. The tracks were hidden from the prying eyes of parents by a long line of scrub trees and had a steep grade, causing the trains to lumber along for over a mile. It was the perfect place to hop a train. If you have never done that, trust me, there is no greater thrill than racing after something as big and indifferent as a train and catching a boxcar ladder as it speeds by you.
We didn’t have to wait long before the low rumble of a heavy freight shook the ground and a single headlight swept around the bend at the base of the cut. We slid down the bank and onto the gravel, then as the train rumbled past, we angled out like an echelon of geese, each of us picking out the car we would hop.
Walt ran at the head of the pack, pacing himself to his car and with it pounding up behind him he grabbed onto the rung of a boxcar ladder and swung up. Steve followed. He was shorter than Walt but used the speed of the car to whip him off his feet and up onto the ladder. My turn was next but the train was too much for me. I lost hold with one hand and flapped like a flag in a high wind.
Then we heard a scream. Looking back, we saw Walt’s little brother vanishing under the train. An instant later he shot out, spinning somersaults onto the gravel. One by one we bailed off and ran back down the grade. By the time we got to him, he was hyper-ventilating with fear but he was okay. Walt tried to calm him down but he just screamed louder and louder.
“Shut up,” Walt yelled, “you’re okay.”
Holding out the arms of his white shirt, his brother cried, “No I’m not, I’m all dirty.”
This inescapable truth was impossible to explain away. The red stains of the railroad ballast told an unmistakable story. His parents would know where he was and what he was doing when he was supposed to be in church.
We were all screwed. Walt’s parents would tell our parents and we would all get the belt, but Walt spoke up, “You guys weren’t here, remember that.”
That’s the kind of group we were. We did things like that for each other, like the little obligations of covering for your friends. It’s what bound us together then and kept us so tight that decades later we still called each other for a beer.
My wife and I do not have that kind of relationship. She wouldn’t hop a train with me or ditch church. She attends regularly – out of obligation. She does a lot of things out of obligation.
She never forgets a birthday and always has a card. The card is always signed and enclosed in a matching envelope. The envelope is always signed too and she never forgets to give a present, often purchasing them months in advance. She even visits great-aunts who drone on about their surgeries amid the fumes of stale potpourri. And she does all these things out of obligation for much the same reason why we wouldn’t let Walt go to hell alone and why he and his brother took their lumps to protect us. Obligations are what bind us together..
The way I figure it, if I could go to hell for my childhood friends, I sure as hell could go to church for the best friend I ever had, so standing there with my hand on the latch of the front door, I called across the house, “Alright, I’ll be back in time.”
“In time to shave and shower?”
“Yeah, that too.”