by Rev. John Howard Farmer
Give ’em an “R”
Seventy-five years ago I was born on my sweet Pennsylvania cousin Sandra’s second birthday. Fortunate girl… for all her life, I remain her birthday present.
Sad, no home stands on Lawson Street (Richmond), to receive a bronze plaque as the boyhood home of John Howard Farmer. ‘Tis a shame, mind you. Grandmother Lida kept house and tended the grandchildren: Sandra Lee, Me and Linda Tooly Watts. It is that kitchen in which I remember spending my earliest birthdays. Some of the big folks who lived in our house worked shift-work. Can you imagine singing “Happy Birthday” in a hush? But there is an upside to all this. Due to the fact that the uncles living there were on opposing shifts, I got to celebrate more than once on any yearly occasion.
My cakes were either from Davis Bakery or Thalhimers: scrumptious offerings, all covered with icing piped around the margins. That’s when icing was icing: lard and powdered sugar! Sugar-free hadn’t been invented.
Years later I stood in the mess hall (with other January celebrants) at Fork Union Military Academy while Captain Maturo led our company. Detractors nudged up behind me throughout the day to hum a less melodious ditty. Fannie Farmer was a popular candy company then. Sure enough, some lad had labeled me thus. “Happy birthday Fannie Farmer, happy birthday to you.” Doesn’t exactly warm you, does it?
After Paris Island, I was assigned to the Second Marine Division, Camp Lejeuene. I was mustered into the Marine Corps choir. They really knew how to sing “Happy Birthday.” They belted out four-part harmony which turned into a round lasting some 20 minutes. It was again a monthly happening, to share with as many lads as possible. There was a catch though. One was expected to give presents to the rest of the men… or remember them when next in the NCO club. Odd training for a Baptist minister perhaps. Perhaps not.
Birthdays came and went. They tumbled home like water over Niagara Falls.
I was pastoring in Brookline, Mass. when I turned forty. I looked up from the pulpit. Forty lads and lasses marched forward, all with black balloons lashed to their wrists. It was the most people ever to walk the aisle of that staid old church at any one time in the history of Christendom. Afterwards we partied and laughed. Of course being wee lads and lasses they wanted to take my balloons home. They did.
Again, I bounced, rolled and dawdled my way through similar and dissimilar events until a few years back. I was a bachelor chap, Birthday 1999. The men and women of Irvington treated me to a baked potato and taco supper. I was presented with nose and ear rings, iridescent hair spray and grand fellowship.
Years later a quartet fractious (Jim Johnson, Dorsey Ficklin, Wayne Nunnally and Bill McClintock) took over our sanctuary. They asked the new bride to “give ’em an R.” “R,” Hazel giggled? What key is that? Off any key, they barged on. How thoughtful it was of them to so present themselves. It brought new meaning to the Biblical transcription to: “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” How awful it sounded! Oh, I know, it’s the thought that counts. They erased over a century of good sound with one song. It truly brought tears to our ears.
I mused it impossible to provide a more memorable melody to my birthday chart. That’s what I thought. On a later Sunday, Deacon Jimmy Robertson presented himself mid-aisle and asked to be recognized. I knew I was in trouble, right then and there. The flock has scrimped and saved, and gathered together a dollar. That’s right, $1. It was stuffed into a card with such personal comments as to singe the hair of a modern man, much less an old goat like me.
Owing them a good laugh I carefully opened the card and read aloud the scribblings that were public enough.
All of a sudden Gloria Jones fired up the organ. I thought this will be fine. They’re all going to sing, how nice. Wrong. From back under the balcony the prominent rotund Norfolk attorney and gentrified Wayne Nunnally arose. He foisted upon us such sounds, as the organ could not cover up. It would take a slide rule to measure they spread of Wayne’s range. It was utmost and foremost “loud.” The congregation roared in appreciation that they had “got me!” Applause rang out. My ears reverberated from the cacophony. I should think that mating elk bellow more melodious.
Well, I thought (exercising my Calvinistic tendencies), glad that’s over. We had visitors in church too.
My wife and I will in moments of inspiration announce our lunch plans and invite such as are in hearing the table of choice. Three other couples decided to join Hazel and I at the Golden Eagle. Lunch went especially well. The Caesar salad (with fried oysters) was simply yummy. Dessert time arrived. After all it is my birthday, right? So I ordered a low-cal, no-fat praline ice cream Sunday (with cherries). It arrived with a candle stabbed through the whipped cream.
Then with no warning Wayne Nunnally flung himself from his chair banging his spoon against a glass. He demanded the attention of the rest of the diners. He explained to them that it was my birthday and enlisted them in song. He found notes heretofore never sung. The giggling throng rolled with laughter.
I suppose that’s what I think most important about another birthday. Laughter truly is the best medicine. The Book does say a merry heart doeth good.
Across the years since, Hazel has authored an annual celebratory worship Sunday. Say, I wonder how we will celebrate my 76th? If, that is, if the Lord grants another.