My instinct was to say no. In fact, I did say no. But I said it wrong, tried to be too diplomatic. What I told him on the phone was this: "I don't know if I'm the right person to go with you to Dollywood."
As soon as it hit air, I knew I'd blown it.
"Bob, I think you're the right person to go and, remember, I'm infallible." And so I was stuck meeting Pope John Paul II in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
We'd arranged to meet right inside the main gate. And, sure enough, when I arrived, there he was waiting for me. Alone. (Eastern Tennessee being an adamantly Baptist/fundamentalist enclave, swarming autograph hounds and ring kissers weren't an issue.) It was an unusually hot, humid day in the foothills, but thankfully Deuce (as friends call him) was sporting his summer vestments -- short sleeves, knee-length cassock (all of breathable 100 percent cotton), flip-flops and, in place of his regular topper, a blinding-white sun visor with understated gold brocade and inlaid gems.
"Hot enough for ya?" I said by way of a greeting.
"Hell's bells," he answered, "I've issued encyclicals condemning Third World tyrants who've been less oppressive than this heat."
OK. Let me go on record right now and say I think Deuce is a helluva funny guy, but sometimes he tries a little too hard.
I asked him what he wanted to do first. He said the Vatican buzz was all about Daredevil Falls but he didn't want to get wet so early in the day. "You up for the Tennessee Tornado?" he asked.
"Depends," I said. "When the coaster pulls back in the station, are you going to make a spectacle of yourself and kiss the platform?"
"Hey, it's what I do," he said.
"Let's start with the carousel then."
"You're about as much fun as an Act of Contrition," he groused.
Great, I thought, we've been here two minutes and already I'm getting attitude. If we make it through this day without a major blow up it'll be a miracle. Though, of course, whether its officially designated as such won't be my call.
After a few rides, as we were slouching toward Daydream Ridge (damn if I didn't wish he'd thought to bring his PopeMoCart electric scooter; it took us forever to walk from area to area), I mentioned to Deuce that I was getting hungry.
"I could eat a couple chilidogs," he said, which, besides the occasional body and blood of Christ, I swear, is all I've ever seen the man eat.
So we wait in line and I order. It's not until we get the total that -- surprise! -- he's forgotten to change his lire for dollars and I'm stuck for the whole shebang. He offers me a couple of indulgences to cover his share.
"Those and two million lire'll get me a cup of coffee," I mutter.
Pissing him off yet again. To the extent that he stretches out grace for over a frigging hour, in Latin, and by the time he's done the chilidogs're soggy and tepid. Inedible.
"The Turk who shot you, he gets forgiven. Me, I get vindictiveness," I grumbled.
An inscrutable grin spread his lips thin, "Yin and yang, Bob," he says, "yin and yang."
Late in the afternoon, the Pope's energy sagged. Too much sun and excitement and standing in line, I guess.
"What say we do some people watching?" I suggested.
We commandeered a bench under a shady tree and sat quietly. But Deuce is restless and, before long, he'd concocted a game to entertain himself. Snap Damnation, he called it. What he'd do is single out a park patron and, for whatever reason -- "Get some clothes on, harlot;" "Look how the crying boy dishonors his parents;" "Tell me she hasn't had an abortion" -- he'd condemn him/her, right then and there, to an eternity in Hell. Awfully judgmental, I thought, but, whatever, when with the Bishop of Rome ...
After 20 minutes, though, bored with his shtick, I reminded him, "Totally pointless, dog. They're not even Catholic."
He countered with mock indignation, "Well, just flog my fun through the streets and nail it to a cross on a hill, why don't you?" Still trying too hard, yes, but jeez, how do you not laugh?
Nightfall. And Deuce's age and Parkinson's had caught up to him. He was so bent over he'd started falling short of the "you must be taller than this" cartoon cutouts at the "big people" rides. It was time to go home.
"I had fun," he said, arching his eyebrows expectantly. "You?"
Despite all my reservations, despite the earlier friction, old Mr. Infallible had me. And he knew he had me.
Caving, I simply answered, "Is the Pope a coaster freak?" ©