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  • James Eichenlaub

How To Survive A Funeral -or- Near Death in the Back Seat




Benjamine Luke was 25 years old in 1913 when he married Mary McElwaine. They began their life together working a farm and starting a family somewhere near Warriors Mark, Pa. They celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary in 1963, and Ben died in March of 1965. Mary survived him by several years and died of Alzheimer's in her 90s in Cresson, Pa.


The beginning of the Luke family

Ben and Mary Luke were my grandparents. When I was born in 1952, they lived near Buckhorn Mountain, and by the time I came to know them, grandpa Ben had suffered a stroke and was paralyzed and unable to speak, so I never heard his voice. Besides being a farmer, I learned that he'd worked in the coal mines of Cambria County and as a laborer for the P.R.R. in the Altoona shops.


Mary, in the picture, is standing between Ben and her sister, Hope. In front are the first of their six children together, the eldest being my mother, Emma, with her two brothers, Paul and Harry, taken at the farm. (c1920-21) Others born later are Johnny, William (Bill), and David.


On Saturday, March 8th, 1965, the temperature in Altoona was close to freezing. The city was its usual black and soggy mess that it became every winter, a situation that made attending a funeral up in Ashville all the more problematic.


Grandpa Ben died that Tuesday, and we were about to attend his funeral, and temperatures on the mountain would likely be below freezing. Still, a simple case of cold weather cannot postpone such things. We would attend the graveside ritual, regardless, but first, we had to get there.


My mother, Emma, whom I mentioned earlier, was one of those ladies who always put off getting ready for anything until the last possible moment, no matter what the occasion. Cristopher Goulianis of Crist's restaurant fame used to call her 'Dagwood' because she was always running into work at the last minute. This day, for her father's funeral, was no different. Some relative or other was soon to arrive, and we had yet to begin dressing.


In 1965, I was thirteen years old, and being my mother's son, this, then, is when I discovered the two-year-old suit I was to wear was two sizes too small. To what do we attribute this fashion faux pas? Perhaps not enough death in the family? Or, maybe we failed to accept the flood of unsent invitations we never receive to those imaginary formal affairs? In any case, I was literally...coming up short!


Do suit trousers shrink as they hang, waiting to be worn again years later? The pants were two inches above my shoes and pulled so tightly around the waist and crotch that you could almost see my middle name. In fact, without looking at my head, one would think I was a female. "Don't worry about it; you will have a coat on over it anyway," mom said.


So, then, to cover the unsightly gap between shoe-top and trouser hem, I strategically slipped on a pair of bright red socks (batteries not included). Then, to complete the ensemble, I donned the matching suit jacket with sleeves that perfectly mimicked the trousers' two-inch shortage. However, the real topper for the ensemble was one of Normy Schulman's clip-on neckties.

It was here that I compensated for the shortages of the jacket and pants. My neck was so narrow at that age that there was nearly a full inch of space between my neck and collar of the shirt and was greatly exaggerated by the addition of the clip-on. It's not like I was THIN or anything.


Together, mom and I successfully recreated the entire Magilla Gorilla ensemble that was so popular in the '60s. Or maybe it wasn't! But wait, there's more! Having not visited a barber in quite some time, we slicked my hair back with (you guessed it) vaseline petroleum jelly, a jelly that is great on toast, perhaps, but horrible on your head. With that final touch added, I looked like one half of the Laural and Hardy team; you guess which one. All that I lacked was the derby bowler hat! OMG, where was heaven's mercy?


As our ride sat patiently in front of the house, we finished our final primp, and as we finally approached the car, the rear door opened from inside. Despite holding the door for her, mom pushed me in ahead where I was to be pressed tightly between her and a relative that looked like two relatives in one! She was a biggun!


Whereas outdoors, it was freezing, and I wore the heavy parka to protect my tiny carcass, inside the car felt more like 140°, and with me packed tightly between two heavily perfumed and easily chilled women, the discomfiture quickly set in. Within seconds I was sweating like a cat in a kennel while being severed at the waist and crushed in the crotch by pants that would nearly fit a newborn! (Was that angels I heard singing!)


This purported to be one of the worst funerals or events of any type, that I was ever to attend, and this was only the beginning of the fifteen to twenty-mile joy ride we embarked upon this fine wintery day as we packed into some model of the '1950s era vehicle, suffocating from heatstroke while trying not to breathe.


Whereas I was supposed to be mourning the loss of my grandfather, I was now more-so mourning the possible loss of my manhood regardless of how great or minuscule it may become. I still declare that I would have a voice deeper than James Earl Jones had it not been for that day and those pants!


As we set off, I saw that behind the wheel sat Aunty Mary Walruspuss, another whom I did not recognize. We descended 14th Avenue hill and turned to the right, onto 18th Street headed...what is that? North, I guess? Toward Redhill? Maybe! In any case, we headed UP! Up toward the Buckhorn. Happily, from my perspective in the middle of the back seat, the road ahead was well cleared and safe to maneuver. Survival was possible if only I could breathe.

Aunty Walruspuss, who lacked tusks, but otherwise; was also a very 'slow' and cautious driver, meaning we should make the fifteen mile trip in no less than an hour or two, which, at the rate I was perspiring, by the time we arrived my suit should fit perfectly. As we broached the top of Red hill, I was numb from the waist down, and my underwear was so sweaty that I appeared to have wet myself.


Besides my legs losing all circulation, the odor of the five women, who apparently each basted themselves today with a different perfume, was made nauseatingly worse by the relentless heat pumped into the cabin. Whew! And only fourteen out of fifteen more miles to go! Somebody, please open a window or strangle me!


Remember, this is the 60's and no road improvements as yet, so as we rounded the Devil's Elbow, the road appeared frighteningly narrow as a sudden fog surrounded the car. The further we ascended, the thicker it became, and the thicker it became, the more confused Auntie Walruspuss seemed to become. The two were unnervingly syncopated in their thickness.

After another quarter-mile or so, all four women were now driving the car at the same time while Aunty Walruspuss kept jerking the wheel left and right, and left and right, trying to figure out which side of the road she was on. Twice we nearly ditched because she thought the white line at the road's edge was the white line in the center. Our salvation came in the form of yelps of fear from the other women.


I just closed my eyes and thought of my very own funeral; a tiny box with a puddle of Jim at the bottom.


("Damn the torpedos! Full speed ahead!") It was about that very moment that the other aunt, Aunt Troll-Hair, who sat beside me, grabbed my coat and jerked me across her lap like I was a rag doll. Shoving me against the passenger side door, she presumably wanted access to the center of the seat for a better view of the road as well as shouting instructions at the driver.

It was obviously too challenging for her to yell from the back seat over the heater's roar and the voices of the other women. Not to mention that her colossal body leaning toward the middle was pressing my mother and me so tightly together that I was afraid she might have to deliver me a second time! ("Angels and ministers of grace, defend us!")


Somehow, we survived another few miles until suddenly, as the saying goes, all hell broke loose. A car came out of the fog directly at us, and instead of moving out of the way, Aunty Walruspuss stopped dead in the road as if she wanted to ensure that the oncoming car couldn't miss. From my vantage point, I couldn't see a thing in front of us, but, well, judging from screams; you know?

Blasting its horn steadily as it passed, Aunty W, assuming that she was once again on the wrong side of the fence, and stomped the gas peddle to the floor and made a hard, right turn. One line, two lines, CRUNCH! The ditch directly in front of Smithmeyer's Restaurant was likely only three or four feet deep. However, it was enough for the car to turn entirely on its side when it entered. Salted snow and dirt were crushed beneath my window.


It appears that Aunty Walruspuss, in her panic, did not realize that she was at the crossroads of Wopsy Cutoff, and route 36. With the other women all yelling simultaneous and conflicting directions, Tuskless Aunty W did what she thought best, and our journey came, then and there, to an abrupt halt!


Suddenly pinned against the passenger door with the weight of a very full-figured woman AND my mother on top of me, I was blind to everything. The topsy-turvy, troll-haired lady's brittle, gray hair covered my face; consequently, and with what little breath I could draw for those many moments, my nose was filled with the rancid smell of Aqua Net hairspray and cheap perfume.

The crash was less of a collision and more of a quick slip/slide into the ditch, so the car's damage and our injuries were negligible. That is...if I didn't expire before someone extracted these women from on top of me.


Fortunately, a few of those folks breakfasting in Smithmeyers Restaurant witnessed the unique parking skills of the driving Walrus (coo coo cachew) and immediately dispatched help to the scene of the disaster. In fact, if you visit that intersection today, you will see a much different situation than ours. Today, there is no ditch, the road is widened, and Smithmeyer's is long gone!


Hearing the doors (now above me) being opened and feeling the pleasant and most welcome rush of cold air, I knew that Sergeant Preston of the Mounties must have been nearby. A few minutes later, I was looking upskirt at one of the most expansive bottoms I've ever seen in panties and a girdle. The sudden thought that this colossal bum might slip and come crashing back down on top of me put a chill of panic through me that sent a little bit of pee running down my leg! I'm sure I let out a scream!


As the final vestige of ankles and shoes disappeared above me, I heard the door slam shut. Just as I stood up and tried to reach the door handle myself, the door swung upward once more. A hat-covered head with furry ear-flaps looked inside and said, "So, there you are! Yer mother said she might'a forgot somethin."


He grabbed my wrists and lifted my 80-pound body like I was an umbrella stuck behind the seat. Looking me up and down, he asked if anything was broken or injured. Still soaked with sweat and now shivering in the cold, he led me away from the upturned car with a huge hand on my shoulder, steering me toward the diner.


We sat at a table safely inside the restaurant while someone made necessary phone calls, and new arrangements were rearranged while Mom and I had coffee and doughnuts. It wasn't long before somebody from the funeral home, not too many miles away from where we sat, was there to collect us and finish the journey.


Regarding the funeral itself, I do recall the funeral home with the hushed voices and overpowering scent of flowers. Still, I remember very little about the graveside part of it except that it was freezing and seemed to take most of the day before arriving at my grandparent's house for a final gathering for food and condolences.


All funerals are somber occasions, presumably, but it's rare to attend a funeral that you're happy to have survived! Of course, I know can't possibly hope to survive my own, but I hope you do!


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