Minutes before Mass, a little girl in a white cassock and tennis shoes bounded toward the altar. Her brown ponytail bobbed as she went.
She was tasked with lighting six candles on tall wooden candlesticks. The tops of the candles were inches taller that the girl. With a healthy flame at the tip of a brass candlelighter, she set about her business as a steady flow of people filed into the pews.
I remembered what an honor it was to light the candles when I was an altar boy, about her size. Altar kids have it easy these days, I thought. My appointed candles rose high above a huge marble altar facing away from the congregation. My candlelighter was as tall as I was and still barely reached. They didn't call it High Mass for nothing. It was quite the balancing act. It's amazing I never set the altar curtains ablaze.
The altar girl lit the first four candles lickety-split. No one seemed to be paying attention. The other two were less kind. She couldn't see the wick, so she had to go fishing. She poked the lighter over the top for a few seconds, then pulled away to see if it lit. No. Try again. No. Try again. Nope.
By this time, everyone was watching. And rooting silently for her. She stood on tiptoes. She fed the lighter more wick, for a big flame. She reached up to feel with her fingers that there actually was a wick in there. There was.
I could feel the Hail Marys being said all around me.
Her angelic face scrunched into a frown. The tip of her tongue slipped through the corner of her mouth. It didn't help.
Go, girl, you can do it.
All of a sudden, she turned and walked into the sacristy. I don't know what she did back there, but when she came back, it was a different story. On her toes, biting her tongue, the candles lit almost immediately. She had a big smile as she and her ponytail bobbed away.
People around me were smiling, too. We wanted to clap and cheer but, hey, it was church.
Once again, the underdog won. Not exactly a miracle like the 1980 U.S. hockey team beating the Russians, but victory nonetheless. I felt uplifted.
It was the same feeling I got when I was on the St. Paul Grade School basketball team. Actually, I was on the B team and, although I practiced like I was Bob Pettit, I never got to play in an actual game.
Until late in a tight game, Kenny went down with a twisted ankle. "Kuhl," coach barked. Get in there. "Stick to No. 7 like glue."
My 12-year-old life passed before my eyes. What's an underdog to do?
It was St. Francis' ball. I spied No. 7 streaking toward the basket. I sprang into action and somehow intercepted the inbounds pass. I tossed it to Big Dave, who fast-broke down court for an easy layup. We won.
There were lots of cheers, but I think they were for Big Dave. All I got was a "nice going, kid" from our coach. It was the highlight of my basketball career.
Score one for the little guy.
I usually root for the underdog. From the Super Bowl to the church altar, I'm for the little guy who always tries so hard. I got that from my parents.
"Gunsmoke" was a must-see at our house. Mom and Pop admired Marshal Matt Dillon, but it was Chester who won their hearts. And all the little Kuhl hearts, too.
Every Saturday night when "Gunsmoke" came on, our whole family gathered around the big red Zenith.
Pop sat in the easy chair. Mom took the wicker rocker. We could cram three or four kids on the couch, depending on if they were sitting or stacked like a sandwich. Two could sit on the radiator if it wasn't turned on. (Youch!) The rest ended up on the floor.
We knew the action was about to heat up when Chester came scootin' down the street as fast as he could with that limp, yelling, "Mister Dillon, Mister Dillon, come quick ..."
The bad guys would have always gotten away if Chester hadn't pulled Marshal Dillon away from that beer he had been nursing down at Miss Kitty's saloon. Chester kept Dillon's six-guns loaded, his coffee brewing, his horse at the ready and did a whole passel of posse organizing.
"Looks like the bank robbers are heading north, all right," 6-foot-7 Matt would say to his little buddy. "Chester, we're gonna need a posse."
The next thing you know Dillon and 20 townsfolk would be riding like the wind after those hombres. Well, let me tell you, it's no picnic limping door-to-door, asking law-abidin' citizens to drop what they're doing to gallivant around Kansas. But who could turn down good ol' Chester? He never complained.
To us, Dennis Weaver didn't play Chester. He was Chester.
We wondered how he got the gimpy leg. Did he get kicked by a mule? Did he get shot and Doc Adams botched the operation?
It was never explained. But there was a lesson for us kids in how he overcame the odds to be somebody. We appreciated that Chester never carried a gun. He didn't have to. He shot from the heart.
I read that in 1948, Weaver qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials in the decathlon. I'm glad Mom never knew that. She was surprised and happy years later when she saw Weaver on another show and he didn't walk with a limp. She had prayed for him to get better.