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کتاب: زندگی در چند بخش / فصل 15

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Minister

Catalina Island is twenty-six miles off the coast of Long Beach. We always knew the exact distance because the hit 1950s song “26 Miles” by the Four Preps still came on the radio every now and then: Twenty-six miles across the sea / Santa Catalina is a-waitin’ for me / Santa Catalina, the island of romance, romance, romance, romance.

They said it four times for a reason.

While attending junior college, during summer breaks, my brother and I got jobs on Catalina. He drove a taxi, and I landed at a company called Island Baggage, which did big business in the days before some logician invented wheeled luggage. Once the boats docked on the island, Island Baggage would offer to cart the bags as the vacationers walked off their sea legs with a leisurely half-mile stroll into town. Thirty-five cents a bag. A different color tag for each hotel. I loaded up all the bags on Cushman golf carts and then distributed them to the various hotels. It was a summer fantasy come to life, being outdoors and scooting around the island all day long in the company uniform: shorts and flip-flops. Shirt optional.

Schlepping luggage may not sound like the height of romance, but Island Baggage jobs were coveted because we had first crack at the pretty girls as they filed off the boats in their summer dresses and short shorts. “Let me get your bag for you. No charge. Want me to show you around?”

“You live here?”

“Yes, my brother and I are on the island for the summer. Do you have plans for tonight?”

I’d come out of my shell a little, and the freewheeling atmosphere of the island in the seventies made it easy to be with someone new weekly. Girls on vacation were so different from girls at home during the school year. Don’t you want to get to know her first? Sure. But the weather is warm, there’s an ocean breeze, and she’s wearing a bikini. What else do I need to know? I fell in and out of love several times over the course of a summer.

Getting a job on Catalina was no problem. The hard part was finding a place to stay. Enter Reverend Bob. During our second summer on the island, Bob invited my brother and me to rent a room in his condo for a dollar a day. He had a nice place, and the price could not be beat.

Bob Berton was a forty-year-old guy with an island tan and a toothy smile. He organized and ran the Miss Santa Catalina Beauty Contest—mostly as a way to attract more lovely young women to Avalon, the only incorporated city on the island. The pageants made him a bit of a polarizing figure, but my brother and I thought he was great. He didn’t drink or do drugs. He was just a harmless lady lover.

Bob was called Reverend because he was an ordained minister with the Universal Life Church. He wasn’t religious, but he had fashioned himself into the go-to guy for anyone in Southern California who wanted a nontraditional wedding. He made God a good time.

He came to me one day and told me he’d made a mistake. He’d booked two weddings. Same day, same time. One was there on the island. One was in the Valley. “You need to marry them,” he said.

“What? Me? Have you forgotten who you’re talking to?”

He fleshed out some of the details, but still I was lost. “I couldn’t possibly officiate a marriage. Don’t you have to have a license or something?”

Bob said, “I’ll ordain you, and you can marry them.”

“As in legally married? No, Bob, I really can’t do this.”

“You’re theatrical. You can do it. And it pays $175 for two hours work.”

Cash has a way of creating bravado. One hundred seventy five bucks was more than I made in a week. Despite my apprehension, despite my insecurities, I was in.

Bob slipped an official document into his IBM Selectric, typed in my details, and, whoosh, out it came: my application for registering as a minister in the Universal Life Church. Bob had me sign it and explained that it went to the secretary of state of California and it would get a rubber-stamp approval. “By the time you send in the marriage certificate, you’ll be registered. Good to go.”

He handed me a book. “Here’s Khalil Gibran. People like this passage: ‘For the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow’ and so on and so forth. Here is the marriage certificate. Fill out groom’s name, bride’s name. Fill out location, witness one, witness two. Fill it all out and we’ll send it to the secretary of state.” He handed me the address of the wedding, and his car keys. “Have fun!”

I got on the morning boat to the mainland, hopped in Bob’s VW van (he had parked it at the terminal), and off I went. I arrived at the address Bob had jotted down for me. Could this be right? I was at the Van Nuys airport, a busy regional airstrip for private planes.

I wandered around the airport, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt (I thought I should dress up for a wedding), shorts, and flip-flops. It was midsummer, so I had a sunburn—I called it a tan—and my hair was shoulder length and strawberry blond. I spotted a couple that looked dressed for an occasion. “Hey are you guys getting married?” They nodded, confused. “I’m, uh, the minister.” They looked me up and down. The bridal party appeared to be having second thoughts. I assured them that they were in good hands. “It’s going to be a memorable day! This is your day! I’m going to take good care of you!” I was trying to convince myself more than I was trying to assuage their concerns. “Where are we going to do this?”

The groom smiled and looked up. “We’re getting married in the sky, bro.”

We boarded a six-passenger plane. I knew I needed to take control. I started getting assertive, suggesting the best seat assignments. “I’ll sit up front with the pilot. Then come the bride and groom. Maid of honor and best man in the last row. All set.”

I asked where we were headed. The groom told me that we were going to fly around and that they wanted to start the ceremony once we got a clear view of the Hollywood sign. We took off, and before long we were doing loops over the sign. We could start any time. My cue.

I took a deep breath, twisted around in my seat, and began to yell out so that I could be heard over the twin engine props. “STAND TOGETHER, YET NOT TOO NEAR TOGETHER, FOR THE OAK TREE AND THE CYPRESS GROW NOT IN EACH OTHER’S SHADOW!” The bride and groom were holding hands, looking at me with moist-eyed sincerity. I was a nineteen-year-old kid, and they were looking at me as if I were the pope. I wanted to honor the faith they’d bestowed in me. I wanted to honor the solemnity of their commitment and make the performance believable. I wanted to do a good job. I started to improvise. “COMMUNICATE,” I screamed over the hum of the engine. “IT’S EXTREMELY IMPORTANT. I CAN SEE YOU LOVE EACH OTHER. CHERISH THAT LOVE. WHEN TIMES ARE HARD, THAT LOVE IS YOUR BEDROCK. IN SICKNESS AND HEALTH. RICHER OR POORER.”

I could see the best man and the maid of honor leaning forward, straining to hear. “REPEAT AFTER ME. WITH THIS RING I THEE WED.” The yelling didn’t seem to diminish the power of the moment. They were nodding and crying.

As I progressed, my confidence grew. By the end of the short ceremony I felt like a reverend. I yelled, “BY THE POWER VESTED IN ME BY THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA AND THE UNIVERSAL LIFE CHURCH, I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU HUSBAND AND WIFE . . . ” I paused—momentarily forgetting what came next—oh, right! “KISS HER, BRO!” He did. I turned around in my seat, facing front again, and exhaled. The pilot gave me an approving nod.

I performed several more marriages through the years. Most of my couples were overbookings from Bob. But I married some friends and relatives, too. I married my cousin and my uncle. Not to each other. It was fun, not weird.

Some people didn’t care for the pomp and circumstance of a formal wedding. Some people wanted a party rather than a church ceremony. I did a cowboy-themed wedding. I married a couple knee-deep in the water off Catalina, getting pushed around by the currents, trying to keep my footing as I soliloquized. I married a couple as an Elvis impersonator. Years later, when my brother agreed to marry a dear family friend from Britain, Julia, so she could stay in the country legally, I presided over their union wearing a bunny-rabbit costume left over from Halloween. I was the Reverend Bucky O’Hare.

I’d say: “For the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow. —Kahlil Gibran.”

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast. —Corinthians.”

“And if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with. —Stephen Stills.”

When I married a couple of friends, Sandy and Steven, I did my whole oak tree and cypress thing, and then I said: “This love radiates through them so clearly and strongly, because you only get married once.” I paused. They looked at each other and then back at me. Everyone knew they’d both been married before. I continued, “You only get married once . . . in a while.” Wild laughter from my congregation.

I married a Korean couple. They stood before me with bowed heads and grave expressions. They were petrified. They weren’t expecting the fun, secular service I had in store, so I had to adjust to suit their seriousness.The Universal Life Church would marry anyone, gay (only symbolically back then), straight, young, old, conservative, liberal . . . it didn’t matter. It was ahead of its time, progressive and inclusive, and all without a blood test, so I could have married siblings and I wouldn’t have known the difference. I occasionally wonder if some of the couples I married are still together and it suddenly dawns on them: “Holy shit! Honey, I think Walter White married us!”

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