by Chip Dahlke
I grew up in a large suburban town just south of Hartford, Connecticut. I had a happy childhood. I realize that a happy childhood isn’t in vogue these days. If I’m ever arrested as a serial murderer I won’t be able to fall back on the fact that I was locked in a closest for five years and beaten each day within an inch of my life. Sometimes you just have to go with what actually was instead of an alibi that could spare you from lethal injection. Maybe it’s that lack of excuse that’s deterred me from becoming a hardened criminal.
Back in the late 50’s early 60’s, most kids I knew went to Sunday school. The Catholic kids also had to do time on Saturday morning. They were more involved with sin than us Protestant kids. Each week they had to tell a Priest that they had fried a bug with a magnifying glass. The rest of us just fried bugs in the sun and thought nothing more about it. I had no idea what Jewish kids did or thought. I didn’t know any until I was in seventh grade and by that time I was more interested in getting a start on my social life. My only concern about religion was the chance of marrying a Catholic girl. If that happened, I knew that the kids had to be raised Catholic. This was a problem because I wanted my future kids to have their Saturday mornings free.
The church my family went to was in the old historic part of town. It was a large brick structure with a wooden white steeple. It was the highest steeple in town. If you crossed the river and went hiking through the hills of the adjoining town, you could still see that steeple sticking up above the treetops. It made you think that you could never get lost in those hills. There was always the steeple and that meant the way home. Many a day I hiked through the hills with nothing more than my jack knife, a book of matches, a compass, and a knowledge of where the steeple lay. Except that my parents were dealing with a man who was going to build a bomb shelter in our backyard, I felt safe and secure.
Attached to the church was a big brick building that housed the church offices, the Sunday School and something everyone called “Fellowship Hall.” Sometimes I went to “Fellowship Hall” with my parents for a potluck dinner and lecture on the Holy Land complete with 35mm slides taken by a lucky church member who had just returned from their “journey of a lifetime.”
I spent most of my church days in the Sunday School. At Sunday School we would color in pictures of Jesus talking to children. In these pictures there was always a bird resting on Jesus’ shoulder. He always wore long flowing robes and sat on a stone. The children were gathered at his feet. I imagined that he was telling them Bible stories like why you should obey your parents, not chew gum in church and to stay away from Catholic girls unless you wanted your children raised by the Pope. I always colored in Jesus’ beard as brown. All of us kids realized that he didn’t live long enough to have his beard turn gray.
Steve Burt says a lot of brick buildings like the one at my old church were built during the 1950’s. Church going was big back then. Going to church meant you weren’t a communist and Joe McCarthy wasn’t going to put you on his list. I don’t think this in itself was a major concern of my parents. Along with my brother and sister, I was born in Appleton, Wisconsin, Senator McCarthy’s hometown. I was a homie to him. You don’t mess with homies. Steve also claims that because of WWII, women became empowered and needed to express this after the troops came home. As an outlet many turned to teaching Sunday School. During the war, my mother had been a Marine and not only did she teach Sunday school, but ordered my father to teach as well.
World War II had another impact on the church. A man named Anton lived on the church grounds with his family. My parents told me that Anton and his wife were DP’s or Displaced Persons. They had fled their home in Europe when the Nazis had invaded their country and the church brought them to America. In the United States they had a son and named him Peter. Peter was my age and friend of mine. We grew up together. We went to the same school and played on the same teams. Peter spoke only English and was outgoing. His parents spoke little English and kept to themselves. I never saw the parents outside the church grounds. It was evident though that Peter was their pride and joy. He was their access to the outside world and the future that had been ripped away from their own lives.
Some things aren’t meant to be. Peter died in his twenties. It wasn’t like some other friends who had been removed from this earth by Vietnam, drowning, drugs or a car accident. Peter simply got sick and died. Shortly thereafter, his parents moved out of town. I don’t know where they went or what became of them. Eventually, the church tore down their little house and made a parking lot.
I don’t go to church all that often nowadays, but when I do, I sometimes think of Peter. I stare out the window and think of what Peter would have become. Maybe I’m just thinking of what I have become.
The church I attend now is a lot smaller than the one I went to as a kid. My wife, a fallen Catholic, goes a lot more often than I do. The church doesn’t have a particularly tall steeple. I’ve come to realize it doesn’t really need one. For the group of us that go there it still shows the way home.
Chip Dahlke is the owner of Ashlawn Farm in Lyme, CT and a member of the church.
This post is part of our “Ramblings from a Country Church” series where members of our congregation contribute freely with their thoughts about life, in and out of church.