“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet,” Jesus said, “do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:8-11)
I was a very young and very low-ranking airman on a U.S. base in England when I first heard those words. They sounded superfluous to me. Back then I would never wonder where I should sit at a banquet table. Just about everyone in my field of vision was older, wiser, and more distinguished than I.
Everyone was also far superior to me in rank. In the Air Force, you always knew who was more distinguished than you: the status was clearly marked on the shoulders or sleeves of the uniforms.
When I first arrived at RAF Stations Bentwaters and Woodbridge in Suffolk, England, in January 1965, I was barely 18 with a single stripe on my sleeve. The banquet’s seating arrangements could not have been more transparent.
There were giants on base who had the exalted seats on permanent reserve.
The wing commander was Colonel (later Brigadier General) Robin Olds, West Point football lineman of the year in 1942, a fighter ace in World War II, and future Vietnam War hero. By the time he commanded the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing in England from 1963 to 1965, Olds was a figure of mythic proportions. He automatically occupied the top spot at every table he inhabited.
And so did his spouse, Hollywood doyenne Ella Raines, a cinema star of the forties and fifties. I had not heard of Raines in 1965, though my mother assured me the Lady was famous. Ella Raines was 45 and no ingénue when I met her. She was three years older than my mother.
Raines’ residual Hollywood influence was such that Jimmy Stewart, a reserve Air Force brigadier general, frequently donned his blues to visit Bentwaters. Stewart, who was also clear about his exalted place at the banquet table, schmoozed with Robin and Ella and other brass at the officers club while we GIs were assigned to clean-up details around the base.
Looking back, I wonder if Ella Raines wasn’t a little bored by life in bucolic Suffolk. She would occasionally visit the airmen’s mess hall, ostensibly to check the quality of the food and the morale of the troops. The mess hall was the lowest place at the Air Force banquet, so it could be stipulated that the quality of the food was not great. And the GI’s who didn’t eat and run were on KP for the day, so their morale was not great.
I was on KP one day when the Lady walked in on one of her peculiar inspection tours. I had just finished scrubbing a score of pots and pans larger than me and was standing beside a rack of bananas to catch my breath. Raines was immaculately coifed and dressed and (as I think back on it) quite beautiful. I was dressed in a wet, baggy, garbage-stained fatigue uniform, and I smelled of adolescent sweat.
The Lady caught my eye and smiled. “Where are you from?”
I cleared my throat and muttered a half-truth. She would not have heard of Morrisville. “New York,” I said.
She nodded thoughtfully and pulled a banana from the bunch. She peeled it and tested it aggressively with her tongue.
“Are these bananas fresh?”
I might have explained that we KP’s weren’t allowed to eat the bananas, and that she must have a better idea than I because she was pushing one into her mouth. But I just nodded.
She chewed on the banana and smiled. “Well,” she said, “I shall think of you the next time I’m on Broadway.”
I nodded again, and watched the Lady saunter out of the hall. I wrote to my mother to give her a highly embellished account of the incident. Later Mom told her bridge club, “Well, Phil knows Ella Raines.”
Today what this dim memory invokes for me more than anything else is the realization that there are high places and low places at the banquet table of life, and it can be awkward to find yourself in the wrong place.
I had one other Air Force encounter involving Colonel Olds that confirms this even more clearly.
I was a chaplain’s assistant, an enlisted position akin to being the chaplain’s valet. The Air Force chaplaincy was a splendidly nuanced course in ecumenical and interfaith relations for me. I learned how to prepare chapel altars for Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant services, and I worked closely enough with each of the chaplains to observe a wide variety of theological attitudes and lifestyles.
Chaplain Joseph McCausland was a Catholic priest from Cleveland. Father Mac was tall and slightly bent-over, with prematurely white hair. I remember him sitting at his desk squinting through the smoke of a Camel cigarette while he used his elegant fountain pen to add items to his growing to-do list. One to-do item he never did in the two-and-a-half years I knew him was, “Get your shots.”
Father Mac had two hobbies: shortwave radio, which he used to keep in touch with friends all over the world; and flying.
Father Mac was an amateur pilot of small, propeller driven airplanes. That must have taken guts and, perhaps, a fair amount of humility when you consider that most of the men who sat at the bar with him in the officer’s club were jet jockeys. On occasion, one of the fighter pilots would invite Father Mac to come along on a stomach-wrenching F-101 sortie to the Isle of Man, and the priest would glow happily for days. But on most afternoons, when he wasn’t counseling Catholic families or hearing confessions, Father Mac would jump into his Piper club and climb into the breezy skies of East Anglia. He always flew alone. None of us dared go with him.
One particularly windy afternoon, Father Mac brought the Piper club in too low and too fast and, amid a shower of metallic sparks, tipped the aircraft up on its nose. He was unhurt but when he rolled out of the plane to inspect the damage, he could see the prop was mangled and the nose was shattered.
Colonel Olds happened to be driving his staff car on the flight line that day and he rushed over to the accident sight to make sure Father Mac was okay. The chaplain shook his head in embarrassment. “I’m fine,” he said. “Misjudged the wind sheer.”
Colonel Olds called out to one of the airmen who had also rushed to the scene. “Quick,” he said. “Get a picture of the fuselage. In case we need it for insurance purposes.”
I don’t know what kind of insurance covers Air Force accidents, but the picture was snapped.
That night, a poster-sized blow-up of the picture was delivered to my barracks. There in crisp black-and-white was the small plane balanced on its nose amid pieces of broken propeller, its tail pointed ignominiously at the sky.
Accompanying the picture was a note from the Colonel: “Jenks, do some calligraphy for me. Some kind of Old English script. Ta, R.O.” The Colonel wrote out in block capital letters the message he wanted imprinted on the picture.
I had drawn cartoons for chapel and base publications, and Colonel Olds must have concluded – erroneously – that I was some kind of artist. I was not, and I was certainly no calligrapher. But orders are orders, and I stayed up most of the night, painstakingly inking letters onto the photograph.
The next morning the Colonel’s driver pulled up in front of the barracks to retrieve the picture.
“What’s this about?” I asked.
“The old man wants it for Officer’s Call,” the driver said. He grabbed the picture and sped away.
Later that day, senior Chaplain John Donnelly, returned from Officer’s call with the story.
After the Colonel called the meeting to order, he asked Chaplain McCausland to come forward. Warily, Father Mac stood beside the Colonel.
“Father,” Colonel Olds began sternly. Then he flashed a smile, and said, “Actually, he’s not my father.”
The officers roared in laughter (as they do when Colonels tell jokes). “I guess I can get away with that because I’m Episcopalian,” Olds said.
Then Olds took the photograph, freshly framed, and put it on the podium. The officers stared at the vivid picture of the mangled plane and tried to read the laboriously inscribed Latin message:
“Qui se exaltat, humiliabitur.”
Father Mac turned red and smiled through his teeth.
“If you don’t know your Latin as well as Father,” Olds said into the microphone, “it says, ‘he who exalts himself will be humbled.’” The officers in the room, mostly experienced fighter pilots, laughed again. Then they stood and applauded.
“I don’t think they were laughing at Joe,” Chaplain Donnelly said. “All these pilots, from Olds on down, knew it could happen to them, too. It was the Colonel’s way of reminding all of us: don’t get cocky.”
There are many lessons in life that I’ve learned through age and harsh experience. As I approach my 67th birthday this month, I confess most of these lessons are the result of miscalculations and misjudgments, including the always hazardous assumption that I knew more than others or was better than others.
Ironically, that is one mistake I would not have made when I was an 18-year-old airman surrounded by people who ranked higher than me. At any banquet table I approached, I would have instinctively headed for the lowest place.
“For all who exalt themselves,” Jesus said, “will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
As I approach my seventh decade of life, my prayer is this: that I might reclaim the one kernel of wisdom I had when I was 18:
The best place at the table is the lowest place.
That is where you’re most likely to find yourself sitting next to Jesus.