When Oliver stole the show

Published 3:27 pm Friday, November 30, 2018

The holiday season is well underway with all its trappings. Wrapped gifts are visible in stores, shopping carts, homes and cars. Christmas cards have begun to arrive from those disgusting people of conspicuous efficiency. Children are putting on Christmas programs, street decorations are bright and cheery, homes are lit and tinseled trees glisten through the windows.

Red, green, gold and silver glitter everywhere. Snowmen smile, elves leer, teddy bears wink, reindeer prance and furry little animals no one ever saw before peek from counters. Music punctuated by tinkling bells fills the air.

Churches have begun the annual round of caroling, choirs, cantatas, youth programs and special music.

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And this always remind me of my old friend, Oliver Bossom.

For those who read this account the last time I wrote about it, my apologies; but it is one of my favorite Christmas and Presbyterian memories of all time—possibly even surpassing the Parson Flambé extravaganza put on by Ken McKenzie last Easter.

Mr. Bossom was a retired Railway Express Co. freight agent. In addition, he was an avid Lion; a confirmed conversationalist; a keen observer of the passing scene; a public-spirited citizen; a philosopher; a fiercely loyal; a regular and outspoken columnist in this newspaper; and a Presbyterian, by trade, who considered it his sacred duty to sing bass and sleep in the choir, not necessarily in that order.

If he had an opinion, you knew what it was. And there was seldom anything about which he did not have an opinion. He did not flinch, pulled no punches, offered no excuses asked no quarter and gave none.

He comes to mind at Christmas time because of his choir activities.

He was not embarrassed by his habit of falling asleep in the choir loft—a little testy when it was mentioned—but not embarrassed. And it was a regular ritual: The choir would crank up the choral invitation to worship, flail out the first-half hymns, work its way through the stand-ups and sit-downs, and then recess after the Apostle’s Creed and the Gloria Patria.

Oliver stayed awake this far—unless there were an inordinate number of announcements and Concerns of the Church, or a long prayer.

Presbyterians sit to pray and stand to sing, you know, so long prayers were risky with Oliver. The Prayer of Confession wasn’t a problem. Presbyterian Prayers of Confession are usually limited to a minute—which hardly scratches the surface of a journeyman sinner. Anyone who can really cover a week-full of sins in one minute hardly needs to waste the Lord’s time. You can’t even get to the good stuff in a minute, but I suppose it’s kind of a good faith thing—maybe a sort of nunc pro tunc gesture.

Anyway, Oliver’s downfall always came when the ups and downs were over, the activity ceased and the preacher began the transition from the Scripture reading to the sermon. The drill at the old PC at this point was to dim the down-lights in the congregation and shut off the spots on the choir, focusing attention on the pulpit—and leaving the choir in a sort of twilight. It was all one fluid motion: The Gloria Patria would end, the choir would sit, the preacher would step up to the pulpit, the user would hit the lights, and Oliver Bossom would ease it into overdrive and cork off.

But Oliver’s crowning moment occurred during a Christmas cantata. Oh, it was a lulu—acres of plotted poinsettias and brass candelabra, miles of garlands, red robes and bookmarks. First rate. They had a bunch of hired guns from Tallahassee in to beef up the choir, and that required tiers of risers in the choir loft to elevate the rear rows and accommodate more people.

Oliver’s station was at the end of the bass bench against the wall—right next to and on a level with the tubular brass chimes. I was sitting on about the second row on that side, looking directly up into the choir loft at Oliver.

Virgil Bryant was presiding and he looked resplendent in his black robe with a white Quaker Oats split collar. He’d read a passage of Scripture, then sit down. The choir would stand, sing a selection, then sit down. Then Virgil would stand again, and so forth. It was most inspiring.

Shortly into the service, Virgil was reading a particularly long passage, and the stillness in the church was palpable. It was too much for Oliver. He nodded, jerked, nodded, then tipped sideways into the array of the chimes hanging beside his head.

There was a loud clatter punctuated by a muffled, “Damn!” Oliver, disoriented from his sudden awakening, dove with both hands, fingers wide-splayed, to trap the jittering brass tubes against the wall.

A pause ensued, but service survived. In fact, a little later he nodded off again and repeated the performance—but this time without the “Damn!”

We haven’t had a Christmas service that lively since—and the interludes of Scripture readings have been shortened noticeably.

This column, written by former publisher Sam Griffin (1972-2008) originally appeared in the Saturday, Dec. 5, 1998 edition of The Post-Searchlight.