I almost made it out the door on Sunday morning.
I woke early and dressed quietly in the dark then carrying my shoes; I tiptoed across the bedroom so as not to wake my wife.
The cats knew what I was up to. They blocked the hall, eyes larger than soccer balls. Each demanded an extra handful of chow to ensure their silence.
Despite my best efforts, I only made it to the screen door before 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 definitely not okay.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“It’s entirely up to you,” she said.
In a pig’s eye, it was.
‘It’s up to you’ is one of those things that means the precise opposite – but I knew I would go. I knew it from the very first time I skipped church as a kid.
My buddies and I were all raised strict Catholics which meant we despised anything 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 before rushing inside – and after that, the rest of the day was pure hell.
In our neighborhood, Sunday was a day of ritual. First there was church, followed by family breakfast and then 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 throughout the church. My buddy Stan shrugged in resignation and slid off the wall but instead of going into church, he headed across the parking lot.
Walt yelled after him, “Missing church is a mortal sin.”
His little brother added, “You’re going to hell!!”
Stan stopped and turned around. “But ask yourself,” he said, “are you going to let me go there alone?”
That was a pretty heavy question for a couple of ten year olds.
“Think about it,” he continued, “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.”
“Like what?” Walt asked.
“Hop trains,” Stan said.
It sounded a whole lot more fun than church.
A few blocks away, the Milwaukee Road cut a deep ravine through our neighborhood, which hid the tracks from the prying eyes of parents, but best of all, the rails climbed a steep grade, forcing the engines to lumber along for over a mile.
It was the perfect place to hop a train and if you have never done that, trust me, there is no greater thrill than racing after something as big and indifferent as a boxcar.
We didn’t have long to wait 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 picking a car to hop.
Stan ran at the head of the pack. He paced himself to his car and with it pounding up behind him, he grabbed the rung of a ladder and swung up.
He was shorter than Stan but used the momentum of the car to swing himself onto the ladder. My turn was next, but the train was too almost much for me. I lost hold with one hand and flapped like a flag in a high wind for a few breathless moments before catching the ladder with both hands.
Then we heard a scream.
Walt’s little brother had vanished 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 the kid just kept screaming 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.”
There was an inescapable truth to the dirt that was impossible to explain away. The stains of the railroad ballast told an unmistakable story. His parents would know where he was and what he was doing rather than being in church.
We were all screwed because Walt’s parents would surely tell our parents and we would all get the belt, but Walt spoke up, “You guys were never here. No one is going to say you were. Remember that.”
That’s the kind of group we were. We did things like covering for each other. It is what bound us together and has kept us together over the decades.
My wife and I do not have that kind of relationship. She would never hop a freight train nor skip 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 it 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 the same sense of obligation that told us we could not let Stan go to hell alone and why Walt and his brother took their lumps to protect us.
Obligations are what bind people 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 shower and shave?”
She was pushing her limits on that one.
But I said, “Sure, that too.”