My brother reminded me in an email from Arizona that it was the old man’s birthday: “He would have been 103 today.”
I knew that he would have been 103 — three years older than Jack Kennedy. But somehow my brain had his birthday a few days later. So it goes. When it’s going.
I have told this story before. And it is a week or so after Father’s Day. But I am of the age where I’m expected to tell the same stories again. And tell them late.
The old man was a larger-than-life presence when I was 7 and the smallest kid among 56 students, 32 girls included, in second grade at Christ the King school in Yonkers, New York. The old man was 6-foot and over 200 pounds of solid muscle. He looked like a lineman for the Giants. Yeah, I idolized him. Because he could make the miraculous routine.
I was given 50 cents for a weekly allowance back then, a wage for services rendered like drying dinner dishes in the pre-dishwasher days. But I only really got half the loot. A quarter went in my pocket for two candy bars and a soda; the other 25 cents went in the kids’ envelope for the collection at Mass.
As school kids, we were expected to attend the 9 a.m. children’s Mass on Sunday and sit with our class. But I went to the 8 a.m. Mass with the old man, who served as an usher in the back of church. I felt a little bigger in the pew by myself, even when squeezed in among adults.
One Sunday, when the collection basket was coming, I reached into my pocket for the church envelope. It was gone. I was a kid who could lose anything within seconds after it was given to me. I had done it again.
As the collection basket passed in front of me, I frantically reached in my other pocket, felt my quarter stash, and said goodbye to those candy bars. I dropped that quarter in the basket.
After church, we headed to the neighborhood store for the Sunday newspaper and rolls for family not receiving Communion at a later Mass. The old man asked if I was going to spend my allowance. I said “no,” confessed to losing my church envelope and that my quarter allowance went into the collection.
He smiled, reached in his pocket and pulled out a quarter. “You did right,” he said, and handed me the quarter.
Here’s the thing. I fully believed that in the back of church as they bagged the collection, my old man had spotted my quarter in the midst of all that loose change and pulled it out, explaining to the other ushers as he did, “This is my kid’s quarter.”
I have no idea why I believed that, but I did. It was the flip side of Occam’s razor — I took the most complicated possible explanation and made it simple truth. It seemed real because it was the old man.
I actually believed the story of the old man and the quarter until I was around 15. Then the memory popped in my head one day, and the lightbulb went on. The old man had simply given me a quarter he had on him. In that moment, I smiled at my childhood naiveté. I was growing up.
Here’s the part of the story that I haven’t told before. Roughly 50 years after my teenage revelation, I admit I was wrong. I was wrong as a 15-year-old, that is.
I’m now sure that the old man did indeed spot my quarter out of all that loose change in the basket in the back of Christ the King Church and that he gave it back to me as we stood in line at that neighborhood store 60 years ago.
Because with the old man, that is the simplest explanation. Because the old man could make the miraculous routine.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Indiana. Follow him on Twitter @BobPLockwood.