Alan Guebert: No room in the gym
A month ago I enjoyed a church dinner in the gymnasium of the grade school I attended 50 years ago. Back then, the gym sparkled with newness because, like the school itself, it was brand new, finished just weeks before I reported to the first grade as an equally new student.
Over the ensuing half-century the school has been extensively remodeled but the gym has changed little. Roll-out, three-row wooden bleachers still line the long walls of the same basketball court we were permitted to use only if it was raining cows at recess times. If it was raining just cats and dogs, outside we went.
The gym, then as now, served many purposes: athletic facility, auditorium, wedding hall, church supper hall, playground and, on occasion, church.
And since German Lutherans are incapable of doing anything social without a light lunch of, say, roast beef, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, two vegetables, red Jell-O salad and either pie, cake or both, a kitchen anchored one corner of the gym so hot lunches could be served to the schoolchildren and dinners to groups dining al fresco al gymnasio.
Back then, as now, the biggest event the big room hosted was the Christmas program. At 7 p.m. every Christmas Eve, 180 or so of us hard-scrubbed little angels paraded into the gym to perform a lengthy, often off-key line-up of Christmas hymns and Scripture readings for a standing-room-only crowd of proud parents and grandparents.
While the songs and readings may have not have been perfect, it wasn’t from lack of practice. For a month prior to the big night we spent hours in that gym marching, reciting and singing every word of every program – in both English and German – every afternoon.
Finally, about the eighth grade, Oh Tannenbaum took root and truly sounded like a song. Our grandparents wept as we serenaded them in their childhood tongue and song.
The week before that, however, Walter Voss, the school’s janitor, slowly filled the gym with an ocean of steel folding chairs. It was a sea of institutional brown that was only parted by a middle channel where we passed through to the Promised Land, our assigned seats in the bleachers.
The big show began the same way every year: lights were turned down and, in unison, two pianos lit into “Lift Up Ye Heads Ye Mighty Gates.” By the second note our genetic code took over and we marched and sang through the packed gym.
Not one flashbulb ever flashed and not one parent ever swooned during these walks down the aisle because, well, we were Missouri Synod Lutherans. Public displays of pride were nearly as verboten as public displays of affection.
Then, 90 or so minutes of hymns and Old and New Testament verses later, the program ended with our exodus as everyone sang “Joy to the World.” It may sound blasphemous to say we rocked that gym but that’s exactly what we did – in joy, praise and thanksgiving.
The Christmas Eve I was a freshman in college I accompanied by parents to the program. As the children made the exit I spotted a boy wearing what had been until just five months before my blue, double-breasted wool blazer. My mother, who had made it for me for my high school graduation picture, figured I wouldn’t wear it again so she donated it to the church. She was right; I never did wear it again.
Also that year, as in every Christmas program I participated in from 1961 through 1969, the children gladly grabbed a paper sack filled with chocolate candy and oranges as they walked past the kitchen on their way out of the gym.
Like I said, my people, young or old, rarely gather unless there’s food is served. F
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