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From Fly Creek

July 21, 2011

From Fly Creek: Larger than life

Thirty Christmases ago, Hutzler’s Department Store in Maryland routinely hired a Santa. It was a triumph of typecasting. For when my late, dear friend Albert Fields donned the costume, a metamorphosis took place.

The Outer Italian Al, all fuss and bluster, full of loud declarations and of empty threats that delighted us all, just dropped away. An Inner Albert emerged to fill the Santa suit. This was the Al loved by the hundreds (perhaps thousands, counting all his students) who had always seen right through all his pretended bombast and truculence.

This Inner Al was all warmth and tenderness and generosity of spirit — though with a strain of impishness, too. The Inner Al filled out the Santa role just as well as he filled out the suit.

Albert was a consummate actor and director. I saw him as a volcanic Haystack Magoon in “Lil Abner” and dancing a sprightly jig as kind Mr. Fezziwig in “A Christmas Carol.”

But in that Santa suit, Albert Fields was at the top of his acting game. It was not Al, but Santa who climbed onto the ornate throne, looked around, and loosed broadsides of “Ho, Ho! Ho!” across the big main floor.

In the toy department, mothers who’d been trying to drag greedy kids away from overpriced stock felt the kids transfixed. Suddenly kids almost dislocated mothers’ shoulders as they took off toward that mesmerizing laughter.

A treasured photo from that Christmas shows Al’s daughter Susie, about 5 sitting on Santa’s lap, smiling up at him and outlining all she wanted for Christmas. And here’s the miracle: Susie knew he was her dad, but that knowledge coexisted with continuing belief in Santa Claus.

Albert and his beloved Mary supported that belief with astonishing efforts. After Susie was asleep on Christmas Eve, the two of them transformed the whole house into a wonderland of seasonal decorations.

When, around two o’clock or three, the work of decoration was done, Al and Mary Fields would sit together on the floor to wrap still more packages. These were gifts for boys and girls in a Baltimore orphanage. Each of the dozens had been chosen for a particular child, and each was wrapped and labeled with the same care they’d given to Susie’s gifts now mounded under the main tree.

On Christmas morning, after the living room had been reduced into a sea of torn and crumpled wrappings, the three of them would head  to the orphanage for theirsecond Christmas.

Their third one was a gargantuan dinner at Al’s brother’s home with the whole extended Italian family, most of them as colorful and bombastic in personality as he was. Then they’d return home to serve another huge meal to friends invited in to celebrate.

At Albert’s wake earlier this month, friends and family retold those stories, plus grand tales from his teaching days at Baltimore’s Calvert Hall, an excellent college-prep high school run by the Christian Brothers. When I joined the faculty as a monk in 1968, I soon met Albert, a near legend there.

A layman, Al taught English and regularly lectured to all  the sophomores, juniors orseniors in the auditorium.

In those big sessions, Albert most often taught drama, acting out all the characters himself.

The boys were fascinated by this big man who could suddenly disappear into a role — Lady Macbeth one moment, then the parapet ghost, then the quailing Macbeth.

Sometimes the excited boys would be drawn into the action.

When Albert made Lady Macbeth cold-bloodedly purr, “A little water clears us of this deed,” the boys would give a prolonged, horrified “Oooooh.”

Then Albert would wrench himself out of his role, step to the stage’s edge, and roar at them.

“HEY, YOU SIMPLE TWITS! THIS IS SERIOUS STUFF!” And the chastened, delighted boys would settle back with a fainter, “Oooh.” In seconds, Albert was back in the action as if it had never been interrupted.

They often applauded at the end of such lectures, and in the hallway afterward, scores of kids would trail Albert to his next class, trying to raise some further joke from him. Once I saw a big, grinning, footballplaying senior glide up to his side and whisper hoarsely, “Mr. Fields, I want your bod!”

Albert waved him off. “Take a number,” he said airily. “Take a number.”

Not another teacher on that staff would have tolerated such a joke, and not another one could have countered it with such perfect aplomb.

Albert’s funeral was standing- room only, church packed with family, friends, fellow actors and teachers, and with former students, including the priest who said the Mass. Both the priest and others spoke during the ceremony of the power of Albert’s astounding, unstudied goodness.

I sensed one element missing, and so when I was asked to speak at the graveside, I added it, an example of that simmering pool in Albert that could be brought to a boil by one thing: mindless cruelty to others.

I told a story from back in the Santa Claus days. Albert had sung in choir at a downtown Midnight Mass, and he was driving alone up the darkened length of Baltimore’s Charles Street. Full of spirit, he was humming carols to himself, heading home to the massive house-decorating.

At a stop sign, the single car behind him rolled forward and thumped his bumper.

Albert scowled but dismissed it as carelessness. But at the next intersection, it happened again, thump! Humming stopped now, and inside Albert, a simmer was coming to a boil.

The thump at the third intersection did it. Albert turned off his ignition, opened the door, and reached under the driver’s seat. He pulled out a steel crab mallet.

I’ve often tried to imagine that drunk as he saw that hulking figure straighten, turn, and start toward him.

But Albert intended him no harm. He stopped by the man’s windshield and, choosing his spots carefully, gave it four sharp raps with the steel mallet.

The effect was perfect. The inner layer of safety glass fell in a thousand fragments into the drunk’s lap, while the outer layer, crazed with a as many cracks, broke only at the center. Through that hole the quaking drunk watched the Avenger get back in his car and drive off.

Al used to say that within two blocks, his Christmas spirit had returned. He drove home singing “God rest ye merry, gentlemen.”

God bless you, Al. God rest you merry.

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