Despite all the pomp, circumstance and pageantry, midnight mass was a terribly boring affair, especially for a young boy… but with one very notable exception. Every year towards the end of the service, a little bald man would step to the front of the choir loft at the rear of the church, and in a stunning tenor voice, he would belt out a solo, acapella version of “Oh Holy Night” that was so moving that it brought tears to the eyes of old ladies and made the hair crawl on the necks of young boys.
Towards the end of his solo, there was a single note. It was a high, piercing, sustaining, crescendo of a note that he would consistently and absolutely nail, year after year after year. He would hold it defty, perfectly, incredibly for what seemed to be forever. As he began to approach that singular note, my brother and I would nudge each other and grin in anticipation. And when he hit it, we’d quietly slap the pew in front of us, grinning and shaking our heads in happy disbelief.
Damn, he’d done it again!
He was a small man, not an inch over five foot tall, yet I’ll bet he weighed over 200 lbs. He was built like a bowling ball. We never knew his name, only that he drove the bread truck in town. We had no idea whether he was a good father, a good husband or even good bread truck driver. But when he sang “Oh Holy Night”, he was the nearest thing to true greatness that my brother and I had ever experienced.
The Bread Man is surely dead by now, and back at St. William’s someone is singing “Oh Holy Night” in the choir loft tonight. Whoever it is, I’m sure they are good, probably very good, but they’ll never be THAT good. They have shoes to fill that are just too big. No one can sign “Oh Holy Night” like the Bread Man.
I’m not much of a singer, but every year around Christmas I try to get out, somewhere, at least once, to play my harmonica version of “Oh Holy Night”. I’ve played it in churches, at festivals, in living rooms and in the quiet of the winter night. One year I played it in the middle of a rock and roll set in a rowdy biker bar in Milwaukee and sent drunken bikers into a Christmas frenzy.
I do it to keep alive, if only in my own fading memory, my first exposure to true greatness: the little bald man who drove the bread truck back in Walled Lake. So stick your head out the door tonight and listen. The dog and I are playing it on the path along the Conestoga River. No bikers tonight. Just moon light.
Hear it? It’s for you. It’s the Bread Man.