Monday, 2 March 2015

When John Schlitt Came to Town

It was late September, one of those brisk fall days when the sky is the deepest blue imaginable. The sun shone through the windows of St. John’s International Airport, illuminating the coffeeshop table where the four of us sat laughing until we had made a spectacle of ourselves.

“Okay, so… Jiggs Dinner? What exactly is that?”

“Well, you start off by putting all your vegetables in one pot…”

“Oh, so it’s like a stew.”

“No, it’s not like a stew. You put just one big chunk of salt meat in it, for flavoring… ”

“Oh, so it’s like a roast!”

“No, it’s not like a roast either.”

I laughed until my sides hurt as Sherry tried to explain to John exactly how to cook a “Jiggs Dinner”. To the curious onlooker, the sight must have been familiar enough… three “Newfie” friends trying to induct our American friend into the nuances of Newfoundland life.

“That actually sounds pretty good,” John admitted. “I would try that. But that other thing you mentioned, what was it again?”

“Scrunchions.” I supplied.

“Yeah, that. I wouldn’t touch that! Fried fat? Euuuugh.”

“And fishheads.” I added with a snicker. “Cod cheeks, to be precise.”

John roared with laughter. “Fried fat and fishheads? You guys are gross!!”

At that, we all broke into laughter.

Finally, I gasped for air and tried to get ahold of myself. The hysterical excitement of the weekend was ebbing away, leaving plenty of memories in its wake. After picking John up at this same airport on Friday night, life had become a whirlwind of welcoming meals, sightseeing, visiting, interviews, and concerts.

Oh yeah… maybe I should mention that our “visiting American friend” just happened to be John Schlitt, multiple Grammy- and Dove- award winner, international music artist, songwriter, and  lead singer for  the Christian rock group Petra.

John laughed when I introduced him like that on stage, but even though it’s quite an intimidating moniker, it doesn’t begin to describe the great guy he actually is. And I guess I really didn’t begin to understand how great, until that weekend.

You see, most folks get a “limited” view of John Schlitt. They see the TV interviews, buy the CD’s, attend the concerts, get an autograph at a meet-and-greet, and maybe get to chat for a while. But let me tell you, it’s not until you’ve crawled into a van with someone at 1 o’clock in the morning, hollered at their bed-and-breakfast window to wake them up, hauled their luggage (or as John put it, “holding the bags”), set up their sound equipment, stood with them in a fast-food lineup, took them sightseeing, and hiked cliffs and walked on the beach with them that you really get to see what they’re like. From the time the tall blond rockstar stepped off the plane and into our world, he became one of us.

Well, we tried to make a "Newfie" out of him!

“So, John, I hear you saw your first moose!” Those were my pastor’s first words to John. We had all met up at a restaurant the morning after John’s arrival for a “leadership lunch” which turned into a discussion of the previous night’s adventures. A one-hour drive from the airport turned into a dreamscape of black night, rolling white fog, and of course, the moose that dashed across the road in front of us.

“I sure did!” exclaimed John, still wide-eyed after his escapade. “Man, that was a big sucker! And I still say that it looked like a horse with… you know… funny-looking ears. I can’t believe people actually hunt those things here.”

As I pretended to scan the menu, I inwardly cracked up at John’s wonder of the island we live on. And of course, things were about to get even funnier.

An elderly gentleman who was on his way to a nearby wedding, finding with dismay that he was unable to tie his necktie properly, rushed into the same restaurant with hopes that someone there would be able to tie his tie. Noticing him going from table to table, one of our party recognized him and waved him over.

“This is John Schlitt from Nashville,” we introduced our rockstar. The “skipper” blinked at us and demanded, “Can ‘e tie a tie?” John, of course, proved to be an old hand and quickly knotted the tie correctly. Upon seeing this, another gentleman popped over and said, “My tie’s already done up, but can ‘e tie me tie the same way he done t’ other feller’s?” John acquiesced, although he later admitted, “I couldn’t understand one word they were saying!”

After the “Great Tie Caper”, we tried to settle down and finish our lunch. John munched his club sandwich and discussed American football vs. Canadian football with the men. Of course, he kept interrupting himself to tease me about my choice of lunch. Fish and chips are common enough fare… fish and mashed potatoes, apparently, are not. John tormented me about “Chips and mashed potatoes” for the rest of his weekend stay.

Inevitably, the conversation turned to Petra. John waved his fork in the air, punctuating his words as he explained to everyone that I was a “Pethead,” which means a die-hard Petra fan. (In John’s own words, “I love meeting Petheads! They’re so cool!”) During part of the conversation, John mentioned his solo album “Unfit for Swine.” “What year was that, Hannah?” he asked, turning to me. “1998.” I replied. Then I corrected myself. “No, I’m wrong. I’m wrong. It came out in ’96, one year after Shake, which was in ’95. I was thinking of God Fixation for some reason, that’s why I said ’98.” John dropped his fork and threw up his hands. “You see? You see?! She knows more about Petra than I do!” he complained good-naturedly. For the rest of the weekend, he referred to me as his “memory” and consulted me when he was unsure about the dates or obscure titles.

A much younger Uwimana Hannah with John... both of us fried after a concert!

One thing I learned about John that weekend is that he loves to laugh. He’s always teasing someone about something. He relates to absolutely everyone and gets along with kids and seniors alike. When he noticed that two elderly ladies looked very uncomfortable with some of his harder rock songs, he ran right down off the stage and hugged them in the middle of a song… to a chorus of “awwwwww”s from the rest of his audience. He calls everyone remotely younger than him “kiddo” and was immediately adopted by half our congregation. The girls in the youth group adored him and clamored for autographs and pictures. (Of course John, being the goof that he is, kept hauling me over and saying, “Hey girls, this is my “Pethead friend!”) I think everyone was shocked by how normal the “rockstar” actually is.

John takes time for a cuddle with his "littlest fan" Madison.

Then, of course, we went sightseeing. I’d been told by John’s booking agent that it wasn’t his practice to go “touring around” with his hosts… but after all, he’d never been to a province quite like ours either! He took everything in stride, reacting in typical wide-eyed amazement at our language, our sense of community, our history, our scenery, and our people. When we’d drop a tidbit of interesting information, he’d respond, “Really? That is so cool!” (Everything is “so cool” with John!)

John overlooking St. John's Harbour from the top of Signal Hill

One of our jaunts to us to Flatrock, a tiny historic village perched way up on the cliffs above the community of Freshwater. John was stunned at the sheer 800-foot drop down to the sparkling ocean below.

John at Flatrock

Before we left, he hollered to me, “Hold on kiddo!” and ran back for one more picture. “Don’t step backwards!” I yelled against the wind as he spread his arms and posed for one more photo, his hair flying in his face.

Neither of us realized, as I raised my camera to my face and captured him in time, that people all around the world would see that photograph.

A few months later, I received a copy of John’s newest album, the Greater Cause, in the mail. Hardly noticing the scrawling autograph on the front, I slowly opened the jewel case to reveal the same photo that I’d taken in Flatrock. And there, to one side, was the inscription, “Photography, Hannah --------“

Now, every time I pull out John’s CD, I marvel at the fact that people all around the world hold that photo in their hands… but what they don’t know are the hours of laughter and memories and poignant moments that prompted it.

So I chuckle to myself and lay down the CD case, and keep in my mind that anyone who’s ever visited Newfoundland gets it in their blood.

Yep, you’ll be back someday John. After all, you’re family! 

Here's John singing my favorite song, "The Cross Remains." He performed this one in Newfoundland when he came.

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