The other day we received a letter from an old friend, beginning, "I have something to confess," and ending, one sentence later: "I find I can't put this on paper. Please call."
The handwriting was very, very agitated.
We called. Our friend answered in a hoarse, strangulated voice we barely recognized. Evidently the subject was too painful to discuss on the phone as well. "Meet me in the park," he said. "Park!" he repeated with a bitter laugh -- our only clue -- and hang up.
It was a gray, gloomy afternoon. Our friend was sitting on a bench, coat collar turned up, holding a rolled newspaper in one hand while feeding the pigeons with the other, just like a scene from a John Le Carre novel.
Before we could drop a little small talk to put our friend at ease -- we're terribly good at this -- he fixed us at about six inches with both blue eyes and blurted straight to the point.
"For a quarter of a century," he began in an intense whisper, "for 25 years, give or take a few, Bert Parks has been singing, 'Here she comes, Miss America . . .' I've never seen him. Not once."
The confession was so unexpected we hardly knew how to respond. "You haven't really missed thatm much," we said, trying to pass the whole thing off as a joke.
"That's easy for you to say," our friend snapped. "You've probably seen Bert a dozen times."
He took a deep breath to calm himself down. "Look," he finally said, "it is not Bert Parks. Bert's just symptomatic. The thing is, this news about Bert's being fired has made me realize I keep missing allm the Big Events. I'm just not participating in My Times. It's the story of my life."
"Give us another example," we requested cautiously.
"Well," our friend said, looking behind him to see if anybody beside the pigeons was listening, "I've never eaten a Big Mac. I live within five miles of three Golden Archers, and I've never been under any of them."
That did shock us.
Now our friend all his fingers out and was ticking off, one by one, his Major Misses.
"I've driven across the country a couple or three times -- right through the heart of Arizona," he began.
"Don't say it!" we begged.
He said it. "You guessed. I've never bothered to visit Grand Canyon."
Now it was out turn to look around to see if anybody had overheard. "That was a long time ago," we mumbled in some embarrassment at sharing this shame. "People change."
"You remember the Pope's visit?" our friend asked with desperate triumph. "That wasn't a long time ago. The Pope's route passed right below my cousin's apartment. I was invited to watch. I went bowling."
"No more!" we cried, but there was no stopping our friend.
"I do not now, and never did, own a Beatles record," he declared. "I've never seen 'Gone With the Wind' -- even on TV.To the best of my knowledge, I've never taken part in a fad since I almost bought a hula hoop at the age of eight."
We could not help asking the obvious question, even if it cost our friendship: "Do you cross the street, as it were, to get out of the way of the Big Event?"
"Good question," our friend conceded. "When I was a child, I slept through a lunar eclipse. On purpose? I don't know. Years later when everybody was watching the Moonshot, I went out for a walk with the dog. Talk about your giant step for mankind! I guess you could say I hold the Guinness record for being nowhere -- totally and definitely out-of-it."
He appeared so downcast even the pigeons looked away.
"Well," we said, "that's an event of sorts. If you do make the Guinness Book , may be people will want to see you."
Our friend rewarded us with a very small laugh. "Maybe so," he said. "But I'm taking another approach."
In one motion, like a used-car salesman, he pulled out a sheet of paper and an uncapped pen. "Sign this," he commanded. It was a petition addressed to the Miss America Pageant, Atlantic City, N.J. The heading read: "Bring back Bert Parks."