by Lex Crane
“Hoc est enim corpus meum.” Climax of the old Latin Mass. Awed folks for centuries, but now… English. Lost much of its majesty and mystery in translation. I grew up during the Latin era, and, as an unbelieving but enthusiastic altar boy, memorized all the Latin required of me. The language was opaque (for the most part) to believer and unbeliever alike. No matter. It was awesome.
An oddity, isn’t it: an unbelieving altar boy? Didn’t get into parochial school until third grade. Eight years old. Missed out on the first two years of catechism. Not so vulnerable after that? Church says that by the time we are in our eighth year, we have entered the age of reason. Could that be why I turned out to be an incurable unbeliever? Not a popular world view. Unbelievers are known to be peculiar. Even suspect. No morals. Who knows what they do in private?
Consider another long ago institution. During the years of the Great Depression, drug stores had soda fountains. Even small neighborhood drug stores. Sold ice cream, ice cream sodas, ice cream cones with sprinkles added as an option. Coffee, lemon phosphate and Coca Cola made on the spot. Coca Cola syrup concentrate pumped into the bottom of a glass, soda added, flowing out of an elegant spigot on demand. See? “Soda Fountain.”
Neighborhood drug stores like this served as community centers for nondrinkers in those long ago days. I didn’t have a nine to five job. A writer. Free to stop in for coffee any time of day. Break in the loneliness of a writer’s day.
Charley ran the soda fountain. Talkative. Had an odd way, as he chatted, of twisting his wedding ring over the knuckle and back as he talked about her. About Marie. He would pull the ring over his knobby knuckle, slip it down to the nail, letting it dangle there for a moment, then point the finger toward the ceiling so that the ring slid down and came to rest on the knuckle.
Tuesday afternoons generally quiet here, this one being no exception. Charlie and I had the place to ourselves but for two young priests. Just out of seminary? They browsed silently through the long rack of periodicals. On the wall opposite the fountain. When there was a lull in Charlie’s chatter, I turned my attention to an examination of the young men in black behind me. Mirror behind the fountain. Could gape freely.
They appeared to have been made by the same hand. Slim, immaculate, fit. Wore the black uniform of the Church with an easy grace, at home in the stiff white collar. Didn’t seem to have much to do this afternoon.Their attention drifted from magazine to magazine, then out the broad front window. Looked up at the occasional passerby.
Charlie spoke. “I don’think you know Marie, do you? Marie … I don’t know her last name, works the hotel here during the winter. She’s a call girl, but she’s sure as hell high class. Christ, that woman is beautiful. Poised, warm, charming. What I can’t figure out is why she’s never married. She sure has everything a man could want.”
“Maybe she doesn’t like men, George.”
“That’s a lot of crap. They all like men. That’s what they’re built for and not much else … Of course, Marie seems to be different in a way. She has something the others don’t. It’s funny, I know she’s a whore and can be had, but I’ve never made a pass at her. Getting old I guess.”
“Sounds interesting. Does she come in often?”
Charlie apparently wasn’t listening. Didn’t answer as he went about the host of tasks a low level laborer has to take. He changed the water in the sinks for no apparent reason, wiped off the counter, started to mop the floor but thought better of it, then took up his station at the end of the counter and stared out at the street.
“She dresses like a million bucks,” he said.
“Bet she does, Charlie. But how about another coffee.?”
By the time they reach the eighth grade, children are on the brink of maturity, particularly the girls, so that in this grade you will often see wide variations in maturity level within even a relatively small group. On one side are the girls who have budded early, becoming aware of the ways of the adult world, carrying themselves with self‑conscious poise, proud of their new bodies and their awareness, and on the other tail of the normal curve are the lean, stick limbed boys, wide‑eyed and breathless, racing after one another, pummeling one another, shouting, giggling, whistling.
But now and again, the boys, in their racing about the schoolyard, may collide with the fresh maturity of the girls, and be suddenly sobered. They look closely at the girls who have been their companions for so many years, many of them from the first grade on up to the eighth, and they realize that these girls are no longer their familiar classmates, for they have become strange soft beings, inhabitants of another realm; last year they would have giggled and pushed, but now only a little frown of annoyance, a tightening of the lips.
The boy walks back to his companions, no longer able to join in the general hilarity. They had noticed the event, and joined him when he squatted awkwardly against the rough stone wall of the school building. Nervous and impatient at the sudden inactivity. They glance furtively at the subdued soft‑bodied girls. They feel the aura emanating from this emerging new world, sense the mood, the fuzzy insight that had sobered their comrade. No one asked what had happened, but something clearly had shaken them up.
By far the most mature of the girls was Jane McCauley. She looked to me then like the bosomy girls we now see in ads, without their flamboyant, smiling faces. More tranquil, inward, composed. Long hair carefully combed and curled, eyebrows meticulously plucked into a long thin arc, and, in spite of school regulations to the contrary, lips delicately painted. Lips set in an elegant droop of composure. Body shapely, soft, even in the drab school uniform.
When she stood up in class to recite, the eyes of all, both boys and girls, turned in awe and admiration, remaining fixed on her long after she had finished the recitation. At such times Jane would sit with downcast eyes, one exquisite wrist crossed over the other, her body entirely motionless, looking much like the ethereal statue of Mary in the little shrine on one side of the main altar.
In the unnatural canyon between school and church, a space paved with cement, the sisters would line up the classes for the formal march to the classrooms after lunch or recess. One day in spring the whole school was assembled there waiting for the signal to move, when Father Summers, the pastor’s assistant, made a sudden and unexpected appearance at the head of the lines. Sister Superior fluttered up to him, pleased and excited at this unusual attention being showered upon her charges.
Father Summers came of a wealthy and distinguished New England family, though he seemed more typical of the succeeding generation showing the decline in a family that often occurs after a particularly powerful generation.
It had used its talents to accumulate wealth and power, to leave a mark on society. This high achievement apparently required expenditure of the available lineal energy. Summers was tall and bulky and his body and face Soft and lumpy: large brown eyes, pulpy lips, a substantial nose, and huge ears. His movements nervous, quick and jerky.
As he strode along between the ranks of children, Sister Superior at his side, he might have been a battle‑strained general reviewing his troops between engagements with the enemy. Occasionally he stopped and said a few words to a particular child, bright inconsequential words, light words of goodnatured banter, smiling affably around his pendulous underlip. Those of us standing farther up the line could hear the giggled answers, embarrassed and pleased, always “yes Father” or “no Father” squeezed from lips tight with suppressed laughter.
Jane McCauley was standing near the head of the eighth grade line, staring without expression at the pavement, her books held in both arms against her breasts. Father Summers stopped to look at her. She was strikingly beautiful.
“Well, Jane,” he said, “you certainly don’t look much like the little girl who came here, let me see, was it eight years ago? No indeed, you certainly have grown up in the past year or two. Yes indeed.”
Jane stood motionless, not raising her eyes, staring still at the ground.
Father Summers smiled broadly and raised his great soft hand to pinch Jane’s exquisite cheek roughly. “Yes, you certainly have bloomed in the past year, and here you are grown up before we realized it. Yes indeed.” He pinched her cheek again, nervously, then raced off, smiling broadly still, while Jane blushed deeply and frowned, pressing her books closer against her bosom. We began to file into the school building, as Father Summers quickly disappeared through the door of the his office.
In my preoccupation with these timeworn memories, I had completely forgotten my surroundings. The last cup of coffee still sat in front of me, only half empty, cold now and beginning to separate into its various components. Charlie had lapsed into a thoughtful coma, one hand resting on the soda faucet, the other on his hip, while the young priests still stood, each immersed in a magazine. Though I squinted and strained at their reflections in the mirror, try as I might, I could not see the titles of the magazines they were reading.
As I stirred restlessly on the fountain stool, Charlie came out of his coma. “Christ business is lousy. I can’t take much of this. Like to keep on the move. Time goes faster. Want another cup, Mr. Harlan? You let that one get cold.”
The fresh cup was warm and steaming and I felt better just seeing it before me in place of the one Charlie had spirited away. The coffee was much the same color as the sacramental wine used for the mass. I could see it spilling from the cruet down into the conical gold cup of the priest’s chalice, and I could hear the soft hum of the priest’s voice as the Latin phrases rippled from his lips, and the clink of the glass cruet on the brim of the richly jeweled cup.
This was one of the most exciting parts of the mass for me as an altar boy, for (next to the ringing of the altar chimes) I felt that here I was serving my most important function: here I brought the materials for the heart of the mass: the Elevation, when the wine that I had poured would become the blood of Christ. In some mysterious way.
As the wine gurgled and splashed into the cup, I could feel the beginning of the tension generated by the approaching climax of the mass. The splashing of the wine brought with it a tightness in the pit of my stomach and a slight breathlessness, both of which would continue to grow, to intensify until they were released by the last note of the chimes. And when the priest raised the Host with profound solemnity, raised it as high as his strong young arms could stretch, I wondered if the crisp wafer would feel soft and alive, smooth and warm as Jane’s cheek must have felt to Father Summers. As an unbeliever, I was convinced the idea was unthinkable. Even so, the solemnity and drama of the climax moved me.
The two young priests were stirring behind me, thumbing (bored a little now) through the interminable rows of periodicals, and as I watched them idly in the mirror, I heard the door swing open behind me, heard a curiously subdued “hello Marie” from Charlie, then a quiet, intelligent voice “hello Charlie,” a little husky perhaps.
She was indeed beautiful, as Charlie said: dark hair, rather tall, remarkably well‑dressed, her full lips painted a rich red, eyelids subtly darkened, and her soft young body, becomingly clothed. A magnificent body, a decidedly desirable woman.
Then I noticed the priests. Both stared fixedly at Marie, frowning a little, lips parted, and as I watched, one swallowed quickly, looked down distracted at the magazine in his hand, put it back in the rack slowly, and walked with eyes averted to the pinball machine, frowning still. He fumbled in his pants pocket for a moment, then nervously slipped a coin into the machine. It whirred and clicked until a bright fan of lights appeared. The other priest joined him, and the two stood quietly, watching the erratic passage of the ball as it bounced from bumper to bumper down through the machine.
Then the second priest took a turn, while the first looked on.
Rev. Dr. John Alexie “Lex” Crane died on August 7, 2015 at the age of 93. Lex was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on January 14, 1922 to John A. and Minnie E. Crane. He graduated from the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in 1939, and served in the U.S. army in the South Pacific and Europe from 1942 to 1945. He was severely wounded during the Battle of the Bulge. He went on to receive a Bachelor of Arts in English in 1949 and a Master of Arts in Creative Writing in 1950 from Johns Hopkins University; a Master of Divinity from Starr King School for the Ministry in 1951; and a Master of Arts in Social Psychology from the University of California in 1971.
Rev. Crane was ordained by the First Unitarian Church in Vancouver, BC in 1952 and served thirty-six years in parish ministry. He served as minister to the Unitarian Church of Vancouver and Community Church of Park Forest, Illinois from 1951 to 1958; the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara from 1958 to 1977; and the Jefferson Unitarian Church of Golden, Colorado from 1977 to 1981. He was then called to the UU Church of Yakima, and served there until his retirement in 1987, at which time he was voted Minister Emeritus to the UU Church of Yakima. He spent the next fifteen years serving various interim ministries in Southern California. In 2002, he was voted Minister Emeritus to the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara, CA.
Lex authored several publications including the booklet “Developing an Extended Family Program” (1972); the books Keeping in Touch: Self, Sex and Society (1975); Love, Sex and the Human Condition: Getting a Life (2006); A New Perspective on the Philosophy of UU Religion (2008); To the Best of My Recollection … a memoir (2012) as well as numerous articles and scholarly papers.
Between interim ministries, Lex and his wife, Ginny, traveled throughout the world. They ventured to Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Most notable of those travels was a semester abroad with Santa Barbara City College to China in 1989 where they were witness to the student protests at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Lex is survived by his wife Virginia Lee Crane, his sons John Crane III (Jack), and Douglas L. Crane married to Lisa Babashoff, his step-daughter Claire Beery married to William Haigwood, his step-son Evan Blickenstaff, and his step-son Eric Blickenstaff married to Cynthia Kasabian. He is also survived by grandchildren Molly and Allie; Alex and Kirra; Willow, Mira and Zoë; John and Alex; and two great-grandchildren. Lex was preceded in death by his son David L. Crane.
A memorial in Lex’s honor will be held on November 22, 2015 at 3:00 p.m. at the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara, located at 1535 Santa Barbara Street, Santa Barbara, California, 93101. Donations in Lex’s memory can be sent to the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara.