Friday, July 11, 2008


The next onstage venue was very different than the first, even though both were churches. The Lakeside Community Church, so modest it didn't even have a denominational connection, stood as the sole site of public religion in the small village of Lakeside, New Jersey. It served perhaps fifty middle-of-the-road, middle-class Protestants. Lakeside Catholics took the bus into Trenton to one of their many splendid, mysterious edifices; our few Episcopalians car-pooled south to a handsome stone building settled on the green rim of the country club. Lakeside Church was definitely on a bottom rung of the architectural ladder.

Unlike the Myrtle Street Methodist Church, the small frame building had no organ, no stained glass windows nor any carpet to its warped floors. It didn't even have a minister. Periodically, a Protestant churchman, superintendent of a distant Sunday School, visited us to hand out certificates of attendance and little pocket-sized New Testaments to faithful kids. If ever a man fit his name, that man was Clarence J. Fogg: tall, white-haired with a weary mustache, a gray double-breasted suit and all the personality of a soda cracker. The real leader of the LCC was George Goldy, affectionately tagged "Uncle George" --chubby, relaxed, fond of children, and unimpressed with himself. He was also unpaid and, to my knowledge, had no official title. He was simply the man in charge.

Something else that LCC didn't have--and the reason I'm in this story at all--was a sound system. (Of course it didn't have air conditioning, but in 1945 no place else did either, not even huge department stores or dazzling movie theaters.) Our country-mouse church lacked a microphone. Well, most of the time that didn't matter. Clarence J. Fogg didn't need a mike for his occasional few moments before us, and Uncle George's strong, cheerful voice carried well. His wife and her sister occasionally sang duets as part of the service; their ardent, tremolo renditions of "I Come to the Garden Alone" needed no amplification.

But LCC did have a stage, complete with heavy, musty curtains that set my asthmatic mother wheezing. And about twice a year, the congregation put on "pageants," even hauling up a painted canvas backdrop (showing a generic desert scene) from the basement. These pageants were, of course, just short tableaux of the Christmas and Easter stories, taken from scripture. The action was mostly pantomimed, with only one significant speaking part in each. But who would perform that part?

Protestant boys generally flew the ecclesiastical coop as soon as puberty reared its head, so to speak. (Jewish boys had the big event of bar mitzvah to hang around for; Catholics could audition to be altar boys, and, as I later found out, Mormon boys had the high drama of the priesthood and missions to anticipate.) But we had no older boys for the key role. The pre-puberty LCC boys muttered into their narrow little chests and would not project. Apparently, there was only one child who could boom out the message clearly and confidently over the splintery pews to the waiting faithful. She was just ten and a girl, but she was definitely audible.

Thus it came to pass that, standing halfway up a stepladder, in a flimsy unisex muslin robe that didn't quite cover my scabbed knees, I looked at the silent shepherds below me in their fathers' trailing bathrobes, and assured them: "Fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy." Three months later, when early spring had come to Lakeside, I stood on a box beside the hokiest stage boulder you've ever seen. Towards me shuffled Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James. While they made a good job of peering around in puzzlement, I gazed out the open church doors, across the road to the O'Hagen's front porch, where Mr. O'Hagen sat taking his Sunday ease in work pants and an undershirt.

Then I looked sternly at my three Sunday School classmates and proclaimed unto them, "Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen."

Across the road, the screen door banged shut behind Burtis O'Hagen.

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