The signs were unmistakable, but also unexpected.
There was the change of leaves and the return of rain-soaked school buses, of course, and the annual appearance of the local bear on her hind legs grappling with our Asian pear tree for the last of its unripened stones.
But the first real sign was the revival of a lost ritual: the biannual Key Peninsula Civic Center fundraiser gala, in hiatus since the advent of COVID-19.
I had been refusing invitations for so long I didn’t quite know how to accept this one. But I told myself it was a good excuse to air out the mid-century tuxedo I inherited from my dad and to relearn how uncomfortable patent leather dress shoes could be.
A woman with a large glass of champagne accosted me the moment I walked through the doors. I hastily turned down the volume on my hearing aids as she thrust the drink into my hands and launched into an oration regarding the twin influences of Wagner and Stravinsky on the European consciousness before World War I.
As I cut down the feedback in my ears, she reminded me this was a continuation of a conversation spurred by something I had written in Key Peninsula News the last time we saw each other, on New Year’s Eve 2019, at the last formal gala held at the civic center before the pandemic arrived and rewrote our fortunes.
Standing in line at the bar, I met the young mother of a fifth grader at Vaughn Elementary. She was on her own, new to the peninsula, and with nothing better to do thought she’d take advantage of an opportunity to dress up, get out, and meet new people, like most of the capacity crowd.
I told her my son had gone to Vaughn and that I worked for the KP News. She nodded politely and with no easy escape instead ordered a double martini.
I cranked up my hearing aids and went on to entertain her, I assumed, with tales from my own first fundraiser at the civic center 18 years earlier, coincidentally for the co-op preschool then at Vaughn. The highlight of that evening came when a teacher’s aide climbed into a golf cart donated for auction and drove it straight into the dessert table. This had the surprising effect of instantly increasing the value of the smashed desserts, the newly adorned cart, and the teacher’s aide herself, who is now an administrator.
The mother of the fifth grader took a long gulp of her martini as I talked and then smiled and fled when I stopped.
A man approached with his hand extended. He wanted to buy me a drink to thank me for my service. I was wearing a medal, pinned next to my boutonnière. I explained the award was for reporting for the KP News during the pandemic, not my lackluster duty to the nation. He pointed at the ribbon and said, “Isn’t that ‘V’ for valor?”
“In my case, it’s ‘verisimilitude.’ ”
He smirked but paid for my drink before walking away.
Another awkward conversation ensued as I tried to weave my way through various KP illuminati to the sanctuary of my table when another man stopped me with a generous compliment about an article I had not written and that had not been published in the KP News. He was so touched by how well I — meaning someone else — had captured the bittersweet moment of a son growing up and leaving his father’s home, looking backward through the pages of their years together, reciting what was written in tears and blood. And here he was, so grateful to meet the writer. I thought it rude to correct him, so I didn’t.
But I did promise him, silently, that I would someday try to write it.
I’d almost made it to my table when a newspaper colleague intercepted me. “What’s that thing?” she said, flicking a disrespectful finger at my medal.
“It’s the KP News award for our work during Covid.”
“Well, that’s silly.”
“Ralston got the first one, posthumously.”
Ted Ralston and his wife, Joanna Gormly, were murdered in their Vaughn home May 17, 2020. His friends paid tribute to them at the time, inviting 50 or 60, or maybe it was 150 or 160 of us to the civic center pavilion, where we stood masked up, six feet apart, and wondering what to do until two stalwarts began pouring expensive whisky, Ted’s favorite beverage, into cheap plastic cups for us.
The civic center paid tribute to them again in this year’s event program. They were dedicated volunteers and Joanna took pride and pleasure assembling the auction books of fundraisers past.
Ted also wrote for the KP News. We worked together occasionally, which meant me crossing out paragraphs he would then rewrite, while we both drank his expensive whisky. He won a statewide award for his piece on the local historian Mary Mazur. His family received our award that autumn. (See “Mary Mazur, Historian,” September 2019.)
My colleague and I reported on their deaths ourselves at the beginning of the pandemic, and together with the rest of our crew wrote about everything else we could fit into these pages about all those other things on this peninsula that marked the lives of her people in the two years throughout, within and despite it.
“Would you like your medal?” I asked.
I produced a presentation box I’d hidden in my tux. The award is a red and black ribbon, representing Covid’s toll of injury and death, with a gold “V,” sewn to a medallion showing Athena in profile accompanied by a winged Nike and the words “summum bonum.”
Her eyes glistened just a bit as she held it. “What is the ‘V’ for?”
“Valor,” I said.
Ted Olinger is associate editor of the Key Peninsula News. He has received 10 state awards for journalism, one obscure national award for his book of short stories about the Key Peninsula, and one medal from the KP News. He lives in Vaughn.
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