As I wrote some years ago and now repeat – it’s that time of year. Memory buds clicking on and off, some bright and others just a flicker but strong enough to re-kindle flames of decades-old memories.
Every year since I was old enough to appreciate the regrets of lost opportunity, December has been a month to dream of what might have been – or what would have been, if I had turned down a challenge to go “scrumping” in the orchard adjoining the residence of the Vicar of St. Mary’s Anglican Church in England’s industrial Midlands.
Scrumping involved scrambling over a six-foot wall anytime in late Fall, finding a tree with unpicked apples or a recent crop of windfalls and loading every available pocket before hoisting yourself back to safety to share the harvest with friends. Friends awaiting my return from a Vicar’s orchard forage in the late autumn of 1934 were fellow choristers, the boy soprano section of St. Mary’s choir practicing for a rare invitation to sing in Coventry Cathedral.
Early for choir practice, the devil was finding work for idle hands – and it was my turn to go over the wall.
At least that’s the way Reg Snape, organist, and choirmaster, saw things about an hour later when he found me unable to respond to his cry “Hume solo,” my mouth being full of apple. Practice that evening was one of many “specials” designed to prepare the choir for a Christmas festival in Coventry Cathedral. On discovering that his entire soprano section had been eating stolen goods supplied by one “scrumper,” he banished me from the choir – permanently.
Scrumping may have been regarded as a youthful autumn sport throughout England – but not by Mr. Snape. To him, it was outright stealing from the vicar and must be punished harshly. Fortunately, banishment to the Colonies was no longer an option, but the expulsion of one fallen choir soprano was a choice open to Mr. Snape that would discourage other potential scrumpers. He took it. I was expelled.
In the spring of 2002, I stood with my son Andrew in the shell of old Coventry Cathedral, built in 1373, destroyed by German bombers on November 14, 1940. I told him how I almost got to sing a solo there in 1934 as the organ (once played by Handel) lifted my less than angelic voice to the heavens.
I was able to tell him how the last time I had stood where we were then standing was on the morning of November 15, 1940, when I was amid still smouldering timbers wired in the shape of a cross – the ruins where the altar once stood. A simple message at its foot, placed there within hours of the air raid, read “Father forgive.”
The original charred-cross timbers are still preserved, but a replica replaces it above the Altar of Reconciliation. The original scrawled message, now carved on the altar wall remains unchanged: “Father forgive.”
At noon every Friday since November 1940, the old Coventry Cathedral has conducted a brief ceremony to remember the day of destruction. The congregation is asked to participate with the two-word response, “Father Forgive,” as the final clause of Coventry Litany of Reconciliation is recited as a statement of faith: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
Non-Christians can find their own final words.
And, I can still dream about the day I almost got to sing there but was done in by an apple.