Unlike Fabio and Madonna, Paul Kern is almost always referred to by both his first and last names.
Oh, in direct conversation we’ll call him Paul. As in, “Hi, Paul, how ya doin’?”
Aside from that, however, it’s first name and last name every single time. “Paul Kern drove by earlier and tooted the horn.” “We’re going on vacation, let’s see if Paul Kern will pick up our mail.” “Paul Kern dropped off tomatoes from his garden.” “Paul Kern is on the phone.”
Paul Kern is my brother-in-law. But the “in-law” hardly fits. He’s been a brother for as long as I can remember. I’ve known Paul Kern for more than three-quarters of my life. That’s not an exaggeration. I just did the math.
I find myself thinking a lot about Paul Kern these days because he and my sister Sheila just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. They were married on Oct. 5, 1968, in St. John the Evangelist Church, Pittston. My favorite photo of my grandmother, who died four years later, is of her carefully making her way down the steps in front of St. John’s following the service. She’s on my Uncle Eddie Strubeck’s arm. In her regal blue dress and large hat (women always wore hats to church back then) she struck an image of the Queen Mother.
We, meaning my sister’s family, particular her three brothers and one sister, already knew Paul Kern more than five years by then. They started dating when Sheila was in high school. That’s significant, as you’ll see in a minute.
First a note about Sheila’s wedding day. I was a sophomore in college but also the sports editor of the local newspaper, the Sunday Dispatch. A Saturday producing the paper in those days was typically 16 hours or more. And Oct. 5 was right in the middle of the high school football season. Bill Watson Sr., editor of the paper, graciously, or maybe grudgingly is a better word, allowed me to be in the wedding party, but said I still had to cover a football game that night. Fortunately, the reception was an afternoon affair. And fortunately, and probably surprisingly given today’s culture, I did not drink. I was a month shy of my 18th birthday and had never tasted alcohol.
Sheila, as humble as she is beautiful, often talks about her reception, especially when we are invited to a wedding which may run from $100 to $150 a plate or more. Her reception at the Mayfair Supper Club, she points out, was $5 a plate.
“That included the band and the cake,” she says. “And we added a pasta course to the chicken dinner.”
There were 300 guests. “And we invited children,” Sheila always reminds us. “There were a lot of little kids running around.”
Most people who attended as a couple put $10 in their card, Sheila says. “Some of my friends who worked with me at Social Security came as singles. They had pretty good jobs, and I remember most of them putting $7 in the card.”
I must have been a high school sophomore, I guess, when Paul Kern entered my world. We Ackerman kids, and believe me, I was very much a kid even as a teen, were crazy about him, right off the bat. He drove a two-tone, blue and white Ford Fairlane, with his name, only Paul this time, painted in white on a blue insert in the hood scoop. That’s was so cool.
Poor Paul. Dating my sister was more like dating the whole Ackerman family. Their Friday nights typically amounted to Paul Kern coming over with a couple of trays of pizza and all of us sitting around and watching TV together. He never showed up without a big bag of candy, either. That was for our little brother Bobby, 5 or 6 years old at the time, but we all dove in.
Sheila had let me, and probably my sister Barbie, in on a secret that at first made us feel pretty special, but eventually only allowed us to share in her embarrassment. Paul Kern was a lot older than Sheila. Like, seven years older. That relationship would have been scandalous in those days. So we were sworn to secrecy.
Then came prom night.
Sheila, as always, looked stunning. And Paul Kern, in his traditional white dinner jacket, black trousers and black bow tie, was as handsome as ever.
Flowers were pinned on Sheila. Pictures were taken in the front yard. Compliments were showered on both. Everything was perfect. Then my mom casually said to Paul, “I bet it seems like you just went to your own prom last year.”
To which Paul Kern responded, “Whaddya mean last year? I graduated in 1958.”
This was 1964.
Off they went. Sheila with her heart in her throat and tears in her eyes.
But come the next day, it was no big deal. Except for giving my mom something to talk about on the phone all morning.
I, for one, was relieved. If Paul Kern had not slipped up on prom night, I’m sure I would have sooner or later. And Paul Kern, at last, was able to share his Army stories with our dad instead of just us. Listening to him go on about his two years in Germany was way better than watching TV.
By the way, that prom night may have been the last time Paul Kern ever spoke up without first checking with Sheila.
It’s made for a very happy 50 years.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.