Wednesday, December 7, 2011

From The Christmas Attic: The Scandal of Richard Kunkel's Pageant

A lot of folks around town thought there was something special about Richard Kunkel. Big things had been expected of the poor fellow since he was a lad. Certainly no one believed such a fine, bright boy would stick around a jerkwater village like ours for the rest of his life.

Many assumed Kunkel would join the military as had his father, and would rise quickly through the ranks and distinguish himself --and make our town proud-- through some act of heroism. Others thought certain he would become a professional singer. He had such a fine voice, and was always getting up to sing at parties, supper clubs, and special occasions around town. He knew all the songs from the Broadway shows.

As for myself, well, I taught the boy in school, and I thought certain Kunkel would find his place in the political arena. He was the shining star of our debate team, and had such a sharp, quick mind and a keen interest in all the big ideas. I always pictured him smiling and waving from the back of a train, on his way to Washington and waving goodbye to that little town of ours forever.

But, no, sir. It turns out our Richard Kunkel didn't have the ambition God gave a field mouse, and he never went anywhere. Turned down a scholarship to an excellent university out east to stick around and become one of those local "characters" every community seems to harbor against its will.

The fellow couldn't seem to hold a position to save his soul, and it was the death of his dear mother. It really was. After a time rumors began to circulate that Kunkel had a fondness for liquor and spent a good deal of time fleecing the old priests at St. Andrew's at the card table. He never married, and he did seem to spend an inordinate amount of time at the Parish house. Heaven only knows what those fellows were up to over there, but they were known to be a group of beaten men who'd been sent to our community as some sort of punishment.

Still, at least on the surface, Richard Kunkel never did stop being the same friendly, outgoing, and curious fellow that the town had known as a boy. Always had a warm greeting and a kind word. He never amounted to a hill of beans, though, which saddened me. I liked to see our bright young people go out into the world to make something of themselves.

Then one year Richard Kunkel did an unusual and entirely unsuspected thing, a rather scandalous thing in our little scheme of things. Kunkel recruited some children from the church youth group and mounted a Christmas pageant from a play he had apparently written himself and based on some of the questionable stories regarding Saint Nicholas of Myra. In actuality this play had absolutely nothing to do with Christmas and focused on the legend of St. Nicholas's resurrection of three boys --Timothy, Mark, and John-- after they had allegedly been slaughtered, pickled, and sold as meat during a fourth-century famine.

This peculiar incident was described by Kunkel --and most clumsily enacted by his troupe of amateur players-- in obsessive and grotesque detail, complete with much shrieking, writhing, and the liberal spilling of false blood.

This inappropriate production was staged as a prelude to a chili dinner in the church basement --an annual event in the community-- and needless to say whatever point Kunkel was trying to make was entirely lost on the horrified spectators, many of whom were people with young children of their own who had come expecting some celebration of the season.

Kunkel --playing a filthy and half-dressed pawnbroker (St. Nicholas being the patron saint of this profession, or so Kunkel explained in the copiously annotated program notes)-- narrated the play with a disturbing and frequently incoherent zeal. Speculation that Kunkel might have been inebriated was fueled by the fact that his character was swilling from a large bottle of whiskey throughout the production.

A necessary prop, Kunkel later tried to explain, but there were few believers and the damage was done.

The entire cast did reappear on stage at the end, holding hands, to warble through a version of "O Holy Night," but most of them were covered with fake blood, and it was a bit too little, too late.

People should recognize the effect one untoward incident can have on a man's reputation in a small town. I'm not saying local scuttlebutt is always fair and square, but after Richard Kunkel's little lark at the church dinner people's attitudes about him changed. He'd been a bit of a disappointment to that point, to be sure, but this was something else entirely. Richard Kunkel went from a boy of failed promise to the sort of mystery nobody really wanted around. It's sad, but that's the way of the world.

I'm not necessarily going to suggest there was a connection, but Richard Kunkel's mother didn't make it through the winter following the Christmas debacle at St. Andrew's. She died at St. Mark's nursing home in early March. At her funeral the consensus was that her heart had just finally given out.

Kunkel kept a remarkably low profile in the aftermath of his disgrace, and then quietly left town a year or so later after being charged with stealing books from the library. I've heard through the gravevine that these days he's been working at an animal shelter over in Rochester, living with a group of retired priests, and in declining health.