Everyone knew who Paul Brennan was, though I doubt anyone ever really knew him. Among other things, he was one of the Omegas, a quasi-high school fraternity who did nothing more than cause mayhem as far as I could tell that had morphed into a motorcycle gang after “graduation,” which most of them never did.
But even more than that, they were legends to us junior high kids, several of them having been the nucleus of the only undefeated high school football team in Wilsonville’s history.
This was in 1965.
Swede Patrick, quarterback; John Strugglegear, center and middle guard; Joseph Pierre, scatback; and, last but not least, Paul Brennan, their 167 lb. pulling guard and middle linebacker. Their names were magic to us!
Paul Brennan was a workout demon, running up and down the bleachers at Billie stadium year round in work boots, with not an ounce of fat on him and the look of the zealot in his eye. Purportedly mild-mannered off the field, he was a silent assassin on it, flying around to make bone-jarring tackles (breaking several helmets in the process) and crushing blocks well down the field, picking off impediments one by one as Pierre or Swede tailed closely behind him, their escort to pay dirt. He was the quiet leader of the group, the most respected and feared, and the unquestioned captain of the team, though because of his size it seemed difficult to fathom why at first glance. When Coach Jenkins gave an order, Paul could be counted on to enforce it.
They went 9-0 that year, outscoring their opponents 450-27, the most dominant performance in the history of Western New York high school football to date. Sadly, none of them had much use for school so were seldom seen in the hallways, in spite of Coach Jenkins lowering the boom on them many times, but ultimately failing. They played football in the fall and were mostly gone by the spring, suspended or flunking out.
Rumor was they had a clubhouse near the school (though no one had ever seen it) and mostly went there to hang out, or at the nearby pool hall. Since they were such poor students, and too small to play college football, only one of them went on to college, John Strugglegear, who got a full ride to Nebraska, but flunked out after getting kicked off the freshman team for practically killing a man in a fight.
So, unlike the baby boomers, who in large part fueled the dispersal of a generation away from small town America into the big cities to seek fame and fortune, most of the Omegas stayed on in Wilsonville, working manual labor jobs, making failed marriages, drinking and fighting, their motorcycles roaring up and down Main Street, the townspeople avoiding them at all costs.
They often went on road trips looking for new blood to spill, as no one in the area would tangle with them more than once. Though the police often looked the other way over minor transgressions, several of them had to be hauled in on various charges of aggravated assault, trespassing, vagrancy, public intoxication, DWI, and spousal abuse over the years. It wasn’t a pretty picture, though none had as yet come to an untimely end, as was fully expected by anyone who knew them.
No one heard much from Paul after he graduated high school, though several rumors surfaced from time to time: that he was studying to be a doctor, that he’d entered a monastery in Kentucky, that he’d become a demolitions expert and was working in Alaska, finally, even joined a commune, all plausible scenarios.
The most recent rumors I had heard concerning him were that he’d memorized the Bible, dropped out of school, and become, of all things, a run-of-the-mill born-again Christian, working at the Central Post Office downtown. None of this could be verified, as no one in Wilsonville had actually seen him. As I was going through a sort of religious crisis at the time, I refused to believe he could be anything as prosaic as a born-again Christian, and instead, imagined him as a Stavrogin, or Aloysha, or some other wild-eyed prophet at least.
One night, however, as I sat in the Galaxy restaurant eating a hot fudge sundae, having gone inside to get out of the blizzard that was blanketing Wilsonville, I couldn’t help but notice a solitary figure incongruously pedaling a bike down Main Street. Even though it was difficult, almost impossible, to see outside, for some reason I thought it was Paul, and ran out on Main Street to get a better look, to no avail.
He rode with his head down, pedaling through the heavy slush, against the wind. Still, what I had seen, a lean rider with bushy hair and beard, wearing a sheep-herders coat, made me think it was he. It would make sense, him coming down Main Street from his job.
That was the last I saw or heard about him for quite some time, until I came across an announcement of his impending marriage in the Courier News. I was astounded to see it, as I sometimes doubted he even existed he was so seldom seen, and a cipher in such a close-knit community, where everyone seemingly knew everything about everyone. Not Paul, even though he now lived right on Main Street, practically across from the high school. We knew he had parents, of course, and even a brother, but that was about it. Yet there it was: Melissa Ash, daughter of Leo and Dorothy Ash of New Wake Hollow, will be wed to Paul Brennan, the son of Edward and Clara Brennan of Wilsonville, Saturday morning, June 12, at 11 AM, at the House of Life Church, 675 Main St., New Wake Hollow, where Mr. Brennan is pastor.
Pastor? I couldn’t believe it. House of Life? New Wake Hollow? Sounded like some hippy-dippy commune to me. I obviously couldn’t show up uninvited to a wedding, but I was determined to see his church as unobtrusively as I could, as soon as possible. It only took a week until I got the courage to attempt it, and I asked around regarding where it was and when their services were. No one seemed to know, and it wasn’t on any map I consulted.
As determined as I was to go there I figured there had to be a way, I just had to find it. Finally I hit on an idea: I’d nose around the Omegas clubhouse and see if there was anything there that could point me in the general direction. This had to be done extremely carefully, as you might imagine, I don’t know what might happen if I got caught, but figured it wouldn’t be pretty, and certainly not worth risking until the coast was absolutely clear – if ever.
As luck would have it, the annual “convention” of the Western New York Bikers was being held in a downstate park that very week, and, keeping my ear to the ground, so to speak, I heard them roar out of town en masse at daybreak on a Friday morning in June. There was my opportunity, and I took it.
I wasn’t sure how to go about it exactly, and what I would do when I got there, but knew it had to be out in the open, during the middle of the afternoon, when things were pretty quiet around Wilsonville. At the appointed hour I headed over to the clubhouse, whose location was by then well known, thanks to the seemingly daily pilgrimage of the cops to it, for all kinds of reasons. Logically enough, it was above the bar they commandeered, Plaↄey’s at the end of a row of storefronts across from the high school.
I was hoping not to have to actually go inside the clubhouse, uncertain as to how I’d accomplish that in the first place, but figured I’d at least have to bite the bullet and go in the bar to see if there was anyone or anything inside that would point the way. As good luck would have it, shortly after I entered the bar, which was relatively empty (in spite of which, everyone there turned to see who had entered, from habit I guess), there was a bulletin board on the wall and on it I spied a hard-to-miss announcement in all shades of day-glo colors listing the time, place, and location of the House of Life services, complete with directions to New Wake Hollow! I didn’t let the swastika emblazoned on it with black magic-marker deter me, I ripped it right off the board and stuffed it in my pocket, hanging around to drink a draft as a subterfuge, quaffing it quickly and leaving when nobody seemed to have noticed.
Unfortunately, it seemed as I had no choice but to wait until mid-week to go, as their services were held on Wednesday evenings, of all things, so that next fine June Wednesday I got on my bike (I figured Paul would appreciate that) and rode straight out Route 5 toward New Wake Hollow, not telling a soul where I was going. After traversing some arduous hills the closer I got, I arrived two hours later and stopped at the Chamber of Commerce gazebo as I was entering the town and inquired where the House of Life might be. The man behind the glass gave me a funny look, but pointed straight down Main Street and said, the big white house on the left, a quarter mile down Main- you can’t miss it, you most certainly can’t.
I thanked him and continued on, then, as he said, spotted it immediately. He certainly was right, it was a big white house, a dilapidated Victorian replete with buttresses and gables like something out of Hawthorne, surrounded by dense foliage and what appeared to be a forest behind it.
There was no sign announcing services outside, and no one seemed to be around. I wondered if I had gotten the time wrong, and as I went up the steps noticed a chopper parked on the grass. The thought crossed my mind it was Paul’s, though I doubted that. The front door was unlocked and I opened it, and, entering the narthex, thought, it’s a real honest-to-goodness church, which surprised me a little for some reason. I immediately caught the scent of patchouli, which was more like it, and noticed it smelled a lot like the local co-op: a combination of dried legumes, various unbleached flours and grains, aromatic spices, and Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap.
I paused at the threshold of the nave after immediately noticing two things: it was quite full, and there were an inordinate number of very comely females, many dressed in peasant dresses or blouses and jeans. Being quite shy and self-conscious, I almost turned right around and ran for my life. Several of the aforementioned young ladies had already noticed me, however, and beckoned me thither, so I steeled myself and entered, moving toward a metal chair (the pews were all filled) in the back indicated by a brown-haired girl who looked to be about my age.
Things were looking up, I thought to myself. Speaking of which, as I did so, I noticed there wasn’t anyone at the lectern I saw in the front yet. I looked into the luminous brown eyes of the young lady seated next to me and inquired as to when the pastor might arrive. Pastor, she replied, smiling at me all the while. You must be new here. We don’t call Paul anything as square as that. No, he’s just Paul to us, and I mean all of us. He should be here any time now. Wait until he appears, you’ll see what I mean.
At least I was at the right place, at least I thought, as I had been beginning to have my doubts. It just didn’t seem like his scene, though I had no way of knowing what was. From what I knew of him he seemed like a pretty mercurial guy, so anything was possible, I supposed. Again, I wondered who the chopper belonged to. I scanned the crowd to see if I saw any of the Omegas, but, unless I missed my guess, none of them were there. The congregation looked to be young kids, mostly, jazzed on Christ or susceptible to cults if the soulless look in their eyes was any indication. There were a few older people in the crowd (it was never trust anyone over thirty days, remember), who didn’t seem related to any of the younger ones, trying to look hip in jeans and sandals, which they immediately foiled by wearing socks with them, the men exhibiting various styles of facial hair, the women sans makeup.
There was an expectant hum in the room, soon rewarded by the sudden appearance of the spitting image of the picture of Christ I had above my bed in childhood: white-robed, sandaled, tanned, leonine, with long locks and a beard- Paul Brennan in the flesh.
I blinked, and blinked again, then took another look. You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought. It can’t be him. This is too much. How dare he? I scanned the congregation and saw nothing but enraptured faces gazing up at him, as though he were levitating above them. (I found out later this was at least in part courtesy of a footstool placed behind the lectern).
He still hadn’t spoken, and it seemed no one expected him to any time soon. He took what appeared to be a Bible with silver clasps off the lectern and held it first to his forehead and then to his lips and kissed it, then brandished it in the air, shaking it as you would the tablets with the Ten Commandments written on them. He set it back down, looked up at the ceiling, folded his hands then thrust them toward the sky, and began silently mouthing in earnest words I couldn’t quite make out, repeating them several times until I finally realized what it was: eloi eloi lema sabachthani.
Christ’s imprecation on the cross. Who does he think he is? I thought, dumbfounded. I looked at the young lady next to me and saw her lip-syncing the phrase, and again at the congregation, who were doing the same.
Once more I looked deeply into her limpid brown eyes and suddenly I wanted to settle down with her forever, raise a family, and try organic farming.
Who was I kidding? I bolted up from the chair, knocking it over in the process, breaking the silence with an awful clatter, then, looking back at the surprised girl one last time, immediately lit out running down the center aisle, feeling Paul’s eyes boring into my back as I did so. I tried to outrun his gaze, not quite believing he’d noticed me but knowing he had when I suddenly heard his voice calling out my name in a sonorous voice-
– transfixing me there.
What should I do? Turn around? How could he know my name I wondered? People all around me were holding out their hands in supplication. I was mortified yet wanted so badly to look back at the brown-haired girl I had been sitting next to, knowing if only she was doing the same I’d run back to her and never leave her side.
Not wanting to find out I kept on going instead, despite knowing I’d probably lost my one chance at happiness.