PART I: BEFORE // Chapter One: Where He Came From: 1

He had started life at mid-century as Gilbert Hallenbeck, firstborn of Carl and Vanessa Hallenbeck, in Ben Allyn, a small,  religiously conservative town in eastern Pennsylvania just a short commute from Philadelphia.

His father and mother had met just after the War. Carl, newly discharged from the Army, was in the first few months of his job as a field researcher for a New York advertising agency. Finding that his job entailed more travel than actual work, he would look for pleasant ways to pass the excess time on his hands in whatever location he found himself. So it was that on a cold January Sunday in 1948, he found himself in Philadelphia, his assignment finished, and nothing particular to do. It was mid-afternoon, and his claustrophobic hotel room had driven him out into the freezing, snowy streets, and he was frantically looking for somewhere that would provide both needed warmth and welcome diversion. He found it in a small concert hall on Race Street which advertised a free concert by something advertised as “The Cathedral Choir of Ben Allyn”. Shrugging his shoulders both in indifference and an attempt to warm himself, he decided to go inside. Procuring a program and a cup of hot coffee for a nickel in the lobby, he entered the auditorium. As the concert was rather sparsely attended, he had no trouble finding a vacant seat near the stage, where a colorfully-robed mixed choir on risers was, according to his program, just beginning their second number. Carl was not himself a particularly religious person but, like many others, he had a certain fondness for traditional Christian church music, so he found it pleasant enough.

But what really caught his attention was not the colorful robes of the choir, nor their beautiful melodic voices, nor even the huge highly-polished black Baldwin grand piano, but the figure that sat demurely on the piano bench, gently caressing the piano keys with her long white delicate-looking fingers. Unlike the choir, the young woman (little more than a child, Carl thought) was clothed in a modest but revealing black sheath dress that reached only to just below her knees, allowing Carl a clear view of her shapely, stocking-clad calves and ankles. She was wearing black high heels on her rather large feet that now and then vigorously pumped the piano’s pedals, occasionally shaking her head slightly from side to side in time to the music, which caused her sleek dark below-the-shoulder hair to do a little dance on her back.

Carl quickly opened his program and studied it intently until he came to the line “Accompanist, Miss Vanessa Nordenborg”. As the piano was situated at stage left and positioned at a forty-five-degree angle toward the choir, Carl could not see her face from where he was sitting, a third-row aisle seat on the right of the middle section, but he was certain that he was falling in love with her hair, back, and legs. At least he felt that the warm feeling rising up from his nether parts and suffusing his upper body was not due solely to the relief he felt after coming in from the cold. He thought about moving over to the other side of the auditorium to try to catch a glimpse of her face but decided against it, not wanting to create a disturbance or draw attention to himself.

So he remained in his seat, secondarily listening to the choir’s music, but primarily fixated on Miss Vanessa’s back. Forty-five minutes later his patience was rewarded, as the choir finished their program and everyone, including Miss Vanessa, faced the audience and bowed deeply to the scattered applause. As he caught his first glimpse of her face, Carl was doubly smitten and, completely forgetting himself, stood up and vigorously clapped his hands together until they became raw from the impact. This brought a slight but impish smile to the lips of Miss Vanessa, and he continued to clap enthusiastically until he realized with some embarrassment that he was the only audience member still applauding, after which he quickly sat down again.

As the choir filed off through an upstage right curtain, followed by the choir leader and finally Miss Vanessa, Carl could have sworn that she gave him a wink as she followed the procession offstage. It was then that Carl had a brainstorm. Hurriedly getting up from his seat and rushing outside the concert hall, he saw a yellow school bus, its motor idling. A banner attached to the side of the bus bore the same legend as had been on the poster and the program: The Cathedral Choir of The Ben Allyn.

The choir members were beginning to board the bus, and Carl quickly realized it was now or never. He turned and ran at stop speed, nearly falling down several times on the icy sidewalks, to where he had parked his new Buick sedan a couple of blocks away. He unlocked the door, jumped into the driver’s seat, and pressed the starter button while vigorously pumping the accelerator with his right foot, praying devoutly that the engine would start after having been parked for hours in the freezing cold. After several groans of complaint, the powerful engine sprang to life, and Carl wasted no time in putting the car in gear and driving to the front of the concert hall. He arrived in the nick of time, as the last members of the group, including Miss Vanessa (her lovely body now covered by a full-length fox-fur coat) were just getting on the bus.

Carl waited patiently, the Buick’s engine idling quietly, until the bus driver closed the door and began to slowly drive away. Carl vowed to follow the bus to this Ben Allyn, wherever it was, even if it took all day and night. He desperately wanted to meet Miss Vanessa Nordenborg in person, confess his feelings for her, and see where it led. His persistence was rewarded, for not much more than half an hour later, as he continued to follow the bus (his powerful Buick engine muzzled as much as possible so as not to attract their attention), he spied a road sign that announced “Entering Ben Allyn – Pop. 2050 – Elev. 1500 ft.”

The school bus stopped at a large building marked Ben Allyn High School. The choir members filed out of the bus. Carl pulled the Buick up to the curb behind the bus, killed the engine and jumped out, looking around frantically for Miss Vanessa. Finally locating her, he ran up to her, babbled a quick confusing introduction, and practically dragged her into the passenger seat of the Buick. He noticed that she had the same amused smile on her lips as she’d had on stage at the concert hall, but it was wider now, and more knowing. After an hour in the Buick Carl, speaking rapidly and desperately, using every psychological and persuasive trick he had learned at the advertising agency, finally convinced her to go steady with him. He was ecstatic, relieved and dumbfounded, all at once. As darkness had already fallen and it was getting late, Carl drove her home, extracting from her a solemn promise to let him take her to dinner next Sunday. She agreed. By spring they were engaged; by fall they were married.

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