December 2006 Issue
Always a Wise Man
For this baby boomer, the nativity pageants of his youth were fraught with thespian challenges and missd opportunities.
Last Christmas, shopping for a gift for a friend, I happened upon a small, elegant wooden box adorned with flourishes and filigree; a container whose contents were labeled "Frankincense." The size of the box would have made it a perfect casket for a pet salamander, but it instead encased a handful of resin pebbles dried from what has been called "The Oil of Lebanon." An ancient ingredient in both perfume and incense, the essence of frankincense resin is captured by steam distillation.
Frankincense is said to be calming, though I recall that glimpsing it occasioned only a frisson of anxiety. To me, frankincense equals magi, wise men. Those three gift-bearing travelers from afar had cast the die for a brief, miserable, amateur acting career that was part of my baby-boomer youth in Columbus.
In that era, matriarchal fascism (my grandmother) compelled me to attend Sunday school at a church that believed in a just God and a hot hell. On Sunday, no sinner was safe within three blocks of its sanctuary, a hall of worship that had once been a roller rink filled with painted Jezebels and their silver-tongued suitors. A little down at the heels, the structure had been rescued from its past by ardent revivalists who, each Sunday morning, assured me that, if Christ returned that night, not only would I be toast, but severely burnt toast at that.
I did my best to dodge apple-doll "sisters" of the faith whose bunned and braided coifs were held in sculpt with enough Aqua Net to assure that - had there been helium in hairspray - they all would have been in heaven before lunch. Ever condescending, they feigned earnest spiritual interest in us Fagins and Olivers of the city's lean streets. And, each Christmas, they selected those among us who qualified as spiritually fit to play a part in the annual nativity pageant.
Come Thanksgiving, I could be found lying in the weeds, trying to stay beneath the radar of the church sisters. Early on in my spiritual inculcation, I had coveted the role of Joseph in the nativity tableau. It was immediately made apparent to me that Joseph would forever be played by a youngster connected by blood to the inner circle of the church elders. A child prodigy among the "yes men" in salvation's corporate hierarchy, the perennial Joseph - I remember best one named Keith - could recite the entire Book of Matthew. His upraised hand was always the first to be waving during Bible quiz. But, much to my pleasure, he sang "Jacob's Ladder" like a cheesy impersonation of Our Gang's Alfalfa. He was, in short, a wedgie waiting to happen.
I wanted the part of Joseph, not to stand in glory before the "Amen pew," but to cozy up to the blond ringlets of my beloved
Blanche, a shy beauty and a favorite to be cast as Mary. She was picked by the sisters for the same reason I was enthralled. A radiant aura of goodness surrounded her. Never mind that her waist-length golden hair was inconsistent with the likely hair color of Jesus' mother. Her purity and goodness won out. Moreover, she seemed totally unattracted to spiritual toady Keith, who pranced around her like a slobber-happy beagle puppy. I would have given anything to accompany her into the Christmas pageant's cardboard Bethlehem, but I knew Keith had a lock on that role.
Unwilling to play anything but Joseph to Blanche's Mary, I hid out from the nativity play's casting director. I couldn't hide out from my doting grandmother, though, who thrust me by the collar before the pageant's director recounting the total fabrication that I had wept into my pillow only the night before just for the opportunity to play a shepherd.
The role of shepherd wasn't even on my B list. Shepherds were played by kids who drooled or conversed with unseen rabbits. Being a shepherd merely required the capacity to stand upright, hold a staff and appear suddenly and "sore afraid." Shepherds were known to make spontaneous and arresting bodily noises at the precise moment the angel of the Lord declared, "Behold......." Shepherd was the right field of nativity pageants. I'd eat nightcrawlers on a Ritz cracker before I'd be a shepherd.
With the role of Joseph a forgone conclusion, I could either be one of the wise men or half of the donkey carrying Mary into Bethlehem. I had been half a donkey only once. Recalling what it was like to be stuck inside a hokey burro with a papier-mÃ¢chÃ© head and a body fashioned from old army blankets, I had no desire to return to that wool cocoon whose inside temperature hovered at 130 degrees.
Thus it was that I was sentenced once again to carry frankincense to the infant Jesus. It was not a speaking part; regrettably, it was a singing one. I had verse two of a carol that could only have been written by a crazed, imprisoned monk whose dungeon's only diversion was a set of bagpipes: "We Three Kings."
Mary and I made small talk during rehearsals, there being no prohibition among revivalists regarding conversations between blessed virgins and vagabond astrologers. Her hair smelled of fresh shampoo. White Rain? Halo? I was a young Pacino in "Scent of a Woman" trying to compete with a prepubescent Keith, who attempted to dazzle my adored by naming (alphabetically) all the tribes of Abraham.
Come the Sunday morning of the play, I dressed in a room off the altar. I watched as Keith's mother helped him into an impressive hand-sewn costume as I pulled on a JCPenney bathrobe and collected an empty decanter of Evening in Paris, my frankincense for the show.
The shepherds were amusing one another by turning their eyelids inside out, a feat that was about to make the angel of the Lord faint until Sister Campbell cuffed the Sephardic trio upside the head.
Waiting in the wings, I heard the familiar intonation: "And it came to pass that there were in the same country shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night...."
ENTER SHEPHERDS: Stage left.
"And an angel of the Lord appeared unto them saying, 'Fear not, for unto you I bring tidings of great joy....'"
The shepherds were sufficiently sore afraid.
Joseph led the donkey bearing Mary into Bethlehem, knocking at the door of a four-foot-tall innkeeper who wore a preposterously bushy, Stalinesque moustache.
Turned away, Joseph and Mary settled into the stable as the narrator babbled on like a logorrhea victim being paid 75 cents a word. After Sister Campbell had thrust the rubber-dolly infant Jesus through a concealed slit in the backdrop (only my imagination recalls her hissing, "Jesus, will you take this!"), Mary placed the infant in the crÃ¨che as the wise men entered from stage right.
My verse came after the first magi's singing presentation of gold, for which a foil-wrapped, El Producto cigar box had been pressed into service. As he began warbling his part, I was unexpectedly engulfed by the momentary, heart-stopping sensation that I had totally forgotten my verse. Oh, no, I thought. I would open my tuneless mouth and nothing would come out. My entire life passed before me, while somehow fast-forwarding over the part in which I had painstakingly practiced my verse of "We Three Kings." I would fail. Keith would laugh. Worse, Blanche would laugh. The sisters in the Amen pew would throw Christmas oranges at my grandmother. I was going to hell on a sled with greased skids. A droplet of flop sweat trickled down the course of my spine. I opened my mouth:.
"Frankincense to offer have I,
Incense owns a deity nigh.
Prayer and praising,
All men raising,
Worship him, God most high."
One of the shepherds belched, and the kid next to him threw an elbow, almost knocking him backwards into the baptismal tank, partially hidden behind cardboard sheep.
Somehow, the angel of the Lord had managed to avoid falling into the stable. The donkey, its head and its business end momentarily headed in separate directions, was ultimately able to escape the stage.
The cast changed clothes backstage, eager to line up for boxes of Christmas goodies that could only be earned by correctly reciting a verse from the Bible. Everyone else was practicing Psalms and Beatitudes. I knew that "Jesus wept" was an official verse. Two words. My ticket to candy.
On the church bus home, I had hoped to ride next to my adored. I would tell her that she had portrayed Mary in a stunning, if understated way. We would talk about eventually finding roles that would better showcase our true dramatic talent. But Keith managed to elbow his way past me and into the seat beside Blanche.
Today, I watch "America's Most Wanted" solely in the hope of seeing his arrest photo. I'd love to know that he became the evangelist he always wanted to be, only to be caught in a motel room by the cameras of Quad Cities News Tonight with a pair of exotic dancers.
I rode home on the bus, one seat behind Blanche. Part of her golden tresses had come to rest behind the seatback. When I leaned forward, as I couldn't help but do as the bus driver downshifted, I couldn't help but notice the delicate fragrance of her shampoo.
It had to be White Rain.
Columbus native Mike Harden is a nationally syndicated columnist for The Columbus Dispatch.