The Gift of Lights: Who is among us now who can witness the events, who can tell the miracle of the lights?
Mid-December, back when it is used to snow in December, and twilight, when the blueglow ceiling lingered forever. We had piled into the green Torino with a mission. Mike Petrillo—was Steve Bange there too?—and I had convinced Joe Gabuzda to help out. We swung by Bob Kehew’s to make a fifth and, while we waited outside on his porch, Mike leaned back into the hedge now trimmed in holiday lights and unscrewed a few bulbs.
We were cruising for Christmas lights, blue ones, the big, even-then, old-fashion kind. The future engineers in the car estimated we’d need at least thirty-six. The Kehew house was only the first victim, since we intended to spread the pain around the community in small doses. We decided to take a maximum of three per house, but our good intentions proved crazed. The latest Christmas fad, strings of blinking minis, forced us into an endless looping of miniature displays blanketing hedges, hanging off porches, occasional canvassing an entire house. Big blue bulbs proved surprising scarce. Lights by the thousands lost the subtly found in a simple string of a candle’s glow. Picking off the random house with an outdated display progressed at a very slow pace, and, directing the effort from the backseat, Joe was getting nervous.
As we turned a corner up on Beverly Road, we found our illuminated Mecca, our well-lighted place. She was a beauty. She stood out not only her tenacious grip on Christmas past, but also for a near fanatical aesthetic execution of blue glow. The long front porch and the trim of the house were outlined tastefully in blue, old-fashion blue, big old-fashion blue. In the yard, framing either side of the walkway to the porch, stood two tall pines, decked in big, old-fashion blue. Joe looked through the pickings collected in our paperbag. It was thin, and since the night had dragged on, with still so much more work to do, we throw our thieves honor to the wind and gathered fistfuls of these rare blue gems, the heat mounting up on our unprotected fingertips.
Thirty-three. Joe counted the collection, three shy, and he knew another blue house, old-fashion blue, big blue bulbs, just a couple of blocks away. We followed his direction and stopped at his command. But there was no blue here and Joe simply rolled himself out of the car, trotted safely out a couple of steps, and waved us thanks for the evening. He disappeared through some backyards in a desperate dash home.
(Truth would say it differently, that Joe had eased out of the car, simply smiled and walked the short distance to his house. He was to become our high school class co-valedictorian and, even on a Saturday, there must have been books calling, studying to do. Joe lost his life early, only five years later, commuting to Lehigh to take his last college exam. Up in East Pennsboro, Joe became the victim of a misguided attempt to raise revenues and the wrong end of a trucker’s sliding rig. A local cop was manipulating the traffic light to force truckers to run the red light; this truck lost control in a skid, rolling up over Joe’s car station at the light across the intersection, all in a fraction of heartbeat. It was a tragedy, where I better remember him on that other twilight, waving, a friendly, if somewhat lost, smile, Joe lost in a circle of lights, none of which were blue.)
Without Joe, the evening was still only half-over. We lucked into a couple of more blues and I pulled the Torino into the back of Trinity’s parking lot. Sitting atop one of the highest points in the town, Trinity Lutheran Church was a reknown landmark with its brick and wood and window steeple cutting into the sky. (So high, legend had it, that it gave the Camp Hill Fire Department the excuse for buying a ladder truck.) And there, in the front window, hanging westward, was the large white star, always white.
A thin porch circled the steeple at window level. From there, you could look out for miles. Getting there required a little luck and skill. Not much, because these were still transitional days, where the modernity of the mini lights (bought at a supermarket and not Joe-The-Motorist’s-Friend) had already crept across our town blocks at a time, but the many doors remained unlocked in their traditional ways. Steve Bange, luckily, found the church’s open door and I lead the group to the side stairwell that rose up to the balcony. The church was empty, hushed, and filled with a dim purple light, tinted by huge windows that lined the inner walls. At the back of the balcony was a locked door, but, skill, you could open it with a well-manipulated coat hanger from the conveniently placed adjacent coat rack. We had learned that trick as acolytes.
Once inside, we climbed another stairway enclosure in pitch black; no one had thought to bring a flashlight. These stairs opened up to the cavernous vault spanning over the entire church body, where rows of thick wooden peaks lined out a seeming infinite regression over head. Heaven’s vault. Here, you would be awed, but you would be no where nearer to the steeple’s star. That required scaling a thin metal ladder, its width smaller than the average male, and straight up it went, with no visible means of support and no visible destination in a darkness that wasn’t thick enough to relieve a climbing sense of vertigo as you traveled up and up, step to flimsy step. Here, in the vault of heaven, here atop the heights of Camp Hill, here was Jacob’s Ladder. And it was even more difficult to climb clutching a paper shopping bag filled with blue Christmas lights.
Reaching the upper landing, you could lift the towering windows and step out on the thin balcony that ran four square around the outside. On a subsequent New Years Eve turn New Year’s Day, I stood out there with Frans Barends. We had ended up on that thin porch after wandering a succession of parties, when we decided to detox by watching the snow start up in big white flakes across the town. Frans described it all as simply miraculous.
But this night, our man-made miracle hung directly above our heads. Pitt had guessed correctly… thirty-six old-fashion big-bulbs and we, of course, had a couple to spare. Bob suggested unplugging the star to give us a little more time to do this thing unwitnessed. Besides, this way the new brilliant blue star would have a bigger bang. Steve agreed.
That beautiful Christmas star. Each season Trinity religiously hung it in that front, arched steeple window, every year, and every year the same color, white, always white. We had to work quickly. We worked assembly line fashion, passing warm white bulbs and their cool blue replacements down and up as small step ladder conveniently left there for us. Did no one remember to bring gloves? We collected the whites in our paper bag to prevent any miracle reversals after our departure, worked the ladder more quickly than up, and lingered only seconds in the parking lot, just long enough to admire our work. Besides, I could see that beautiful blue shine true in the rearview mirror as we drove down Chestnut back to the house on Beverly. We dropped the bag of whites on the doorstep of our biggest benefactor.
There was no reversal. All that season, the Trinity star remained burning old-fashion blue, with a twinkle that the hot-burning, pure whites never achieved. We weren’t caught, but there were repercussions, of course. Attending a holiday gathering, Bob overheard his parents discussing with neighbors about the theft of several light bulbs from displays throughout the town, right off people’s porches. The partygoers wondered aloud what had happened to these modern times.
We attempted to repeat the following year, when the white bulbs had returned, thinking maybe red would be a good choice. I can’t remember now if we followed through, or if we realized that there were more variations in the color red—stretching the spectrum from light yellow through a purple crimson—than in blue and that the aesthetics weren’t right. But, as we harvested bulbs that year, this time without Joe, we circled round to the house on Beverly, to the house of blues. Slowly rounding the corner, we admired that the house retained its solid blue twilight magnificence, a perfect, beautiful obsession of blue. But this year was different, a miraculous difference, where on the tips of each of the twin pines, sitting up there like distant stars themselves, two Trinity lights burned white.