In 1967, my paternal grandparents got on a plane and crossed the Atlantic.
By all accounts, this was not an easy feat for my grandfather. He stepped aboard that flying machine, compelled to face his terror, only by the irresistible lure of a Mennonite World Conference in Amsterdam. And, of course, a tour of the some of the better-known Mennonite historical sites in Europe.
My grandfather’s trepidation had nothing to do with his status as a Mennonite, or a Mennonite pastor. He was not of a branch of the Mennonite Church that resisted technological advancement. He drove cars and trucks and tractors and had no problem in principle with the idea of flight.
His was really just a run of the mill, everyday kind of fear of flying.
Because of the Mennonite World Conference, my grandparents were not the only Mennonites on that particular flight. It would be an exaggeration to claim that the plane was jam-packed full of Mennonites but there were definitely enough Mennos for a quilting bee. Or a choir.
You wouldn’t have known this at a glance. There may have been one or two plain-dressing Mennonites on that flight but most of the Mennonites would have looked a lot like their seatmates – perhaps a little dowdier, but not much.
I don’t know exactly how far across the Atlantic they were when trouble hit. My grandfather’s fears seemed to come to fruition when the plane experienced engine trouble. I suppose they must have announced this to the passengers. And it was worrisome enough that the flight attendant granted my grandfather’s request when he asked to do what any good Mennonite pastor would do in these circumstances.
Start a hymn sing.
I’m not sure if all of the passengers appreciated the Mennonite version of a flash mob that erupted when, fearing for their lives, the unfashionable people in the seats around them broke out in four-part harmony. Some of them might have joined in – my grandfather chose an English hymn, perhaps because he knew that most of the people on the plane were English speakers.
On the other hand, some of them might have wanted the Mennonites to shut up, not least because that English hymn he chose was famously the hymn the band played as the Titanic sank.
I don’t expect that my grandfather chose the hymn on the basis of its association with tragedy. He might have found it a comforting hymn or imagined it apropos because of the lyrics. Based on the story of Jacob climbing a ladder into the heavens, the hymn has its share of sky imagery which is, after all, where they were.
Nonetheless, one of the other Mennonites on the flight did associate the hymn with tragedy and death and reportedly wondered, given his choice of hymn, whether the pastor knew more about the danger they were in than she did.*
In any case, they all sang.
Because that’s what Mennonites do.
We sing hymns in inappropriate places.
It’s not just planes. There are probably very few of us who have actually engaged in in-flight hymn singing. But we’ll sing in public parks or on the city streets. I have a cousin who literally can’t go ten minutes without bursting into a religious song. She’s planning a move to a remote corner of the province where she can indulge her habit without incurring the censure of so many passers-by. One does what one must.
We also have no difficulty forming ourselves into impromptu choirs when traveling as a group. I have no doubt that my grandparents sang many more hymns on that Mennonite European tour of theirs, as did I when I went on my own heritage tour a couple of decades later. I doubt if there’s a Cathedral on the Anabaptist trail that hasn’t had a bunch of North American Mennos turn its apse into a choir loft. We wouldn’t do that if it looked like there were people there doing anything we recognized as worship. But a few people quietly praying? We can only assume they’ll find our hymn-singing spiritually edifying.
I don’t know if Conservative Mennonites or progressive Mennonites are more likely than the other to sing hymns outside of the privacy of their own homes and meeting houses. Conservative Mennonites are more obvious when they do this and appear to use hymn singing as a form of evangelism where, in my circles, it’s more just something that happens when two or three or more Mennonites get together.
It happens so much, in fact, that I have sometimes wondered whether people can actually call themselves Mennonite if they have never sung hymns in inappropriate places.
But I know that is wrong of me.
I am all in favour of inclusiveness.
We can’t all sing hymns in public places.
Some of us are tone deaf.
And some of us have empathy for those people in the population who don’t appreciate the hymn as a musical form. Now, I have actually never met a Mennonite with empathy for the hymn haters of the world. But they might be out there.
And I’m not here to say they’re any the less Mennonite for it.
I’m just here to propose a toast. To the Mennonites who fly. And are ready, in case of emergency. With their hymns.
The Flying Mennonite
This cocktail is based on the classic Aviation. Actually, it’s almost a complete rip-off of the Aviation with the addition of rhubarb bitters to give it just enough difference to warrant a new name. I have tried infusing violets in vodka to sub for the creme de violette but it’s really not the same thing. Maybe if you let them sit longer. Go ahead and try.
- 1½ ounces gin
- ½ ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
- ¾ ounces maraschino liqueur (Luxardo)
- ¼ ounce or so crème de violette
- 2 dashes of rhubarb bitters
- Maraschino cherry, for garnish
Shake all ingredients (minus the cherry) in a cocktail shaker 1/2 full of ice. Dribble in more creme de violette if desired in an effort to make the beverage sky blue and just a little flowery but not enough to make it taste like floral soap. Mine is never sky blue – but then, my perfect day still has clouds in the sky. That’s just who I am.
Shake thoroughly and then strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a DIY maraschino cherry or three. Enjoy.
*Thanks to my aunt, Katherine Martens, for recording this reflection and the outlines of this story in her history of my paternal grandparents’ family, All in a Row: The Klassens of Homewood.