It was a gorgeous, mid-April morning in Danbury Connecticut, the type of day that made children yearn for the end of the school year and parents dream of upcoming summer vacations along the rugged coast of Maine, at a lakeside cabin in New Hampshire, or maybe a cottage on the Cape. The last of the rock-hard ice that lined the curbs of most streets was nearly gone, the melting snow creating tiny streams that ran down Seeley Street, Deer Hill Avenue, Town Hill Avenue, and all the other rolling streets that were carefully laid out across the historic Western New England town.
At the corner of Deer Hill Avenue and West Street, the First Congregational Church rose impressively to the blue sky above, the gold cupola topped by a tall weathervane that capped the space over a massive bell enclosure. Beneath that, still on the tower, four large clock faces showed the time in each direction, so there could be no doubt. All of this sat on a meticulously maintained brick and stone building. Founded in 1696, the church with the huge Grecian columns out front was one of the oldest in the nation, and it was massive and intimidating to a young boy like me.
My sister and I attended Sunday school somewhere in a classroom deep inside the wood-lined interior of the church auxiliary spaces while my parents sat in a middle-aisle spot in a pew about half-way between the huge pipe organ, raised pulpit, and choir stand, and the massive front doors. To my father, it seemed like a safe place – not too close to the sermon, not too far from the exit. In this way, he did not fully commit one way or the other but hedged his bets with weekly attendance. War will do that to you.
Much closer to the front of the sanctuary, where the giant pipe organ thundered with the music of the “three B’s,” Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven, the organist’s hands flailed about wildly, under the careful eye of Herb Lundy, one of the local milkmen who delivered for Magic Dairy. Herb felt lucky that his delivery schedule allowed him Sunday as a day off; some other drivers were not so lucky. In fact, Sunday was Herb’s only day off and he enjoyed it thoroughly.
Back in 1957, every job it seemed, offered a respectful wage, one that allowed a man to feed his family and afford a modest home and decent car. Those who worked harder and smarter could afford a little more. It was all anyone needed, and it was all most people wanted.
The more entrepreneurial few, those with larger homes on impressive lots owned the businesses that lined Main Street or operated oil delivery and commodity distributors and held sway at city hall, a low brick building cut into the ground across the street from the church.
The owner of Magic Dairy was one such man and he resided in a modern Frank Lloyd Wright-looking home set back from the street on lower Deer Hill Avenue.
Frank Mark, the man with two first names, hired only the best people, and paid them more than fairly, and as a result, the loyalty of his employees fed through to his customers who eschewed buying milk in those new cartons from the Grand Union or the A&P but preferred instead to keep receiving regular deliveries of milk bottles at their front door steps brought by the drivers from Magic Dairy.
As church let out in time for moms to finish making the de rigueur early afternoon “dinner,” churchgoers idled out on the white stone steps, chatting with the minister and shaking hands with people they knew or simply nodding to strangers who caught their eye. Someone approached the mayor and whispered something in his ear. Both men laughed. Women donned jackets and children jumped and bounced, having been let out of Sunday school lessons in time to join their parents in the main sanctuary and hear the familiar, comforting benediction by Reverend Waller and the choir’s closing hymn:
Praise God from whom all blessings flow; Praise Him all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
The song lingered in my head for an hour or two every Sunday afternoon. It resonated more deeply though, with Herb.
Herb Lundy lingered out front longer than most, intrigued by the sermon he’d witnessed, close enough to the elevated pulpit to see up the minister’s nose, truth be told. He liked having that up close and personal connection, even if he didn’t know why. Being that close to the holy words brought a bit of comfort but it all seemed so vast and mysterious despite the reverend’s attempts to put God’s teachings into contemporary terms.
Herb often fretted about not being a “complete Christian.” He thought he was missing something. He prayed on a regular basis and gave thanks for his many blessings. He asked God to look over his family, and to extend His Grace to those in need. He tried but had never read the entire Bible. He’d read the New Testament often, over in England, on board his airplane flying back from bombing missions, and sometimes at home. He tithed money and tried to help the poor when he could. But still, when it came to his faith, he felt like a 100-piece puzzle with a few pieces missing. It made him uneasy.
“Reverend Waller.” Herb nodded while he stuck his hand out towards the bulky minister with the big smile, fiery red hair, and nearly redder complexion. He grabbed and encased the smaller man’s hand with gusto.
“Yes, hello Mr. Lundy. So good to see you again in the front row. Most people are shy about sitting up there for some reason.”
“Well, I like to be close to whatever it is I’m doing. I also really like the sound from the pipe organ in that spot.”
“The sound does fill the sanctuary but yes, there are several places where it’s particularly clear, like up near the pulpit. People don’t know what they’re missing.”
Small talk aside, Herb Lundy wanted to be near the reverend; to be in the presence of one who communed with the Lord, or so it would seem. He didn’t know why, nor could he explain it to June, his wife, who pulled on Herb’s coat. Her roast beef needed to come out of the oven soon. Timing was everything, and by starting the roast before they left for church, it would be just medium-rare by the time they got home. Herb waved goodbye to the reverend and shook a few more hands on the way to the parking lot. So many friends; so many good customers.