Hi friends, my name is Bill Evertsberg. I’m one of the pastors at Kenilworth Union Church, and this is my assistant Doogie. Someone said that golden retrievers are the Brad Pitt of dogs: silky blond tresses and sympathetic eyes. What do you think about that, Doogie?
So the only thing I want to do today is tell you a story by my literary hero Brian Doyle. I’ve mentioned this book several times since it came out earlier this year. This is Brian Doyle’s last book. It’s called One Long River of Song. One Long River of Song is a posthumous collection of Brian’s brilliant essays. Brian died in 2017 of a brain tumor at the age of 60. And he remembers having occasion to be in Manhattan—he’s from Portland, Oregon—but he had occasion to be in Manhattan shortly after 9/11, a few weeks after 9/11.
Brian took a walk on the Upper West Side of Manhattan around 110th Street, near the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and he was tired and thirsty so he ducked into a bar to get a beer. And he says it was the russet hour of sunset and the bar was populous, but not crowded. Over in one corner there was a table of men dressed in the faded coveralls of telephone linemen, and in the other corner there was a table of professional women dressed in the bland, dark uniforms of corporate staff. And there was a Marine at the bar in full dress uniform, and two older men standing at the bar with him, and they were putting their hands on his shoulder, and they were happy and smiling and laughing and the young man was enjoying the older men’s attention. And then the bartender set a beer before the Marine and waved off the uncle’s effort to pay. And Brian says that made me so happy, and I thought that was the graceful, respectful gesture that would make this a wonderful day, but then something happened that I would never forget.
Just then, two firemen entered the bar. They weren’t in full uniform, but they had the sturdy boots on of a fireman and they were wearing FDNY t-shirts, and somehow you could tell that they were really firemen, and not just young men wearing FDNY t-shirts. And they took a few steps into the bar and suddenly, and silently, everyone just stood up. It was the professional women at the table who stood up first. And then the linemen stood up. And then Brian stood up. And then the two men at the bar with their younger Marine son and nephew stood up and turned and faced the FDNY guys. And then the Marine drew himself up as straight as a tree and saluted the two FDNY guys. And then everyone else in the bar joined the Marine in his salute. No one said a word. Brian thought maybe somebody would break out into applause, but it was dead silence. You couldn’t hear the clink of a glass or the shuffle of feet, or a cough or anything. And after a few seconds of this, one of the FDNY guys nodded his head in acknowledgement and the other fireman made a gesture with his right hand to say thank you for this recognition. And then the bartender set two beers before the firemen, and everyone just sat down. And everything was just as before, but not.
So now, 19 years later, we’re seeing similar gestures, right? When New York City put out an urgent nationwide plea to first responders to come to the city to help them care for the virus-stricken, a first responder from Santa Barbara came all the way to New York City to help the city deal with the sick. And when someone asked this Californian how the city received them, he said, “Well on the first day when we arrived, people would get out of their cars and applaud. People would get off their bicycles and yell ‘thank you.’ Pedestrians would stop and yell ‘thank you.’ And this one thing I’ll never forget. We were right in the middle of an intersection, and a disabled Vietnam veteran stood up out of his wheelchair and saluted us. I will never forget that sight for as long as I live.” A Vietnam veteran stands up, out of his wheelchair, to salute a first responder who did not need to be there, but who was there rushing into the teeth of danger. And then, everything was just as before, but not.
The lord bless you and keep you. Amen.