This story, written for BoomerCafé by veteran journalist Tim Menees, takes place far from Seattle where he grew up, far from familiar observances of Easter. But we like it, and think you will too. It certainly has a title we’ve never seen before: “Pump Organ at Ephesus.”
Amid the marble columns of the ancient Greek city of Ephesus, where Antony and Cleopatra raced chariots, and Paul brought Mary and wrote his historic letters to the Ephesians, I played a small portable pump organ at the Catholic outdoor mass.
I’m not even Catholic.
Several months earlier, my wife and I had arrived at the American base outside Izmir, Turkey, about an hour north, where the Air Force had sent me for a two-year tour. The Sunday after we moved in, because my wife is Catholic she and I went to Mass at the base chapel. At the door I heard some joyous stride gospel piano, the kind Mildred Falls played for Mahalia Jackson. I almost expected their rollicking version of “Didn’t It Rain!”
Are you kidding me? This was definitely not “Ave Maria.”
The pianist was an African-American sergeant and I thought, Awesome!
The young priest at the chapel told me that when he couldn’t find a member of his flock to play at Mass, he’d enlisted a Protestant.
Then, after the sergeant returned to the States, the priest, who’d heard me playing piano at the officers club— Jerry Lee Lewis, not Johann Sebastian Bach— asked if I would take over. I said I couldn’t read music.
He said,“So what?”
I said I was Episcopalian.
He said, “Go for it.”
If I didn’t know a hymn, which was often, my wife, who can read music, went over the tune. My main chore was trying to keep the music from sounding as if we were at a rock club or roadhouse. That was the lurking and potential downside.
The upside was, the priest loved scuba diving in the Aegean Sea on Sundays, so the service ran 45 minutes, max.
On Christmas Eve I played the chapel’s real organ and tried to keep “Joy to the World” from sounding like Ray Charles or Paul Revere and the Raiders.
I became a lector.
Which brings us to that Easter in Ephesus.
The Protestants assembled first for their sunrise service. The Catholics and I met later in the morning. Don’t know why; perhaps we stay out later on Saturday nights? As a breeze off the Aegean rustled my notes to myself, and several Turks watched from the perimeter, I sat at the pump organ and opened with a wheezing, reedy, “Jesus Christ Has Risen Today!”
During communion, when the service turned quiet, the only sound besides the breeze came, coincidentally, from a distant Muslim minaret and the muezzin’s call to prayer.
When the priest transferred back to the States, his successor dropped by and asked me to continue playing. I said I didn’t read music. He said fine.
I said I was Episcopalian.
Oh dear. He apologized and told me he had to get permission. This was before email, so he sent a letter or cable to the diocese that oversaw Catholic military chaplains serving overseas.
The OK quickly arrived from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.
I like to think the late Cardinal Terence Cooke himself said, “Go for it.”