“One night a group of Navy Seals, about eight guys, came in here already drunk. Those guys were crazy, and they were here for about three hours, and we were all talking the whole time and telling stories. But then one of the guys said to me, ‘Doc, it’s been good talking to you but you’ve heard too much, and I’m going to have to kill you. And he put his arm around my neck, and I was thinking these guys are trained killers and he could easily snap my spine, but then he gave me noogies.”
“Doc” said I could use this story, but he didn’t want to be interviewed. He said as a psychiatrist he spends enough time giving out to people through the day that he doesn’t feel like giving out more. He said at the bar he never talks about religion or politics. But he did talk -- to us and the other people at the Harp and Hound, a pub in the beautiful fishing and tourist town, Mystic, CT.
He wasn’t the only talker. Throughout the evening there was a lively continuing conversation between a number of patrons at the the bar.
We first went to Mystic the night before to get pizza. We were staying with friends in nearby Gales Ferry, and we couldn’t resist picking up dinner from the pizzeria in the old Julia Roberts’ film. While we were waiting for the pizza to be ready, we noticed the Harp and Hound. The music schedule listed “Local Band” performing on Friday night, and that sounded like fun.
A couple of bicycles are leaning against the front of the building, and a sign says these bikes belonged to cyclists who found this wonderful pub and they would eventually be back soon to get their bicycles. But we were there two days in a row and the bikes hadn’t moved. We suspect someone is making up stories. While talking to people at Harp and Hound, we got the impression that many people there like to make up stories.
There’s a figure painted on the wall by the bar. I asked Kelly the bartender who it was, and she said it was “Tom.” (Some call him “Tom Collins”) She said she’d heard Tom was the boss’s wife’s grandfather. Someone else said it was the same guy seen with a bicycle on another wall who may be the foundation of the story outside. Kelly said that she had heard a number of stories about who the fellow was because Irish people liked to tell stories, but in fact she had no idea who he was supposed to be.
Though I like yarns as much as the next guy, I was pleased that I had some conversations in the bar where people seemed to be telling the truth.
I sat next to Daniel. He’s been coming to the Harp and Hound for the last four years, since the Navy stationed him in Mystic. He’s a submariner and has been in the service for the last seven years. For the first two to three years of his service, he moved a lot and couldn’t put down any roots, but he’s been able to here. His apartment is just a couple of blocks from the pub, and he said that he was able to make friends quickly in the bar. He considers bartenders Kelly and Shannon (and their boyfriends) good friends. He said there was a group of ten to fifteen regulars that he also considers friends.
I asked him the two questions we always ask, “What makes for a good bar?” and “What makes for a good church?”
He said he’s never been a bar hopper. He was just looking for a quiet place where he could talk to people, and he found that at the Harp and Hound. He said that the place had been a hangout for firefighters. (Above a mirror behind the bar there is a firefighter’s hat hanging that Daniel said belonged to a firefighter named Zach who had since passed. But Zach was an inspiration to many firefighters, and he encouraged many to join. I think Daniel saw something in common with that firefighter camaraderie with his service in the Navy.
I figured Daniel had some experience in the church, or at least with Christians, because earlier in the evening he made a comment when a Switchfoot song played from the speakers above. “Didn’t expect to hear that playing here.” He said he listened to a fair deal of Christian rock, “Just because it’s good music.”
I wondered at the moment whether he was still a church goer, so I asked, “What would make for a good church?”
He said, “Some place I wouldn’t dread attending.” He grew up in Texas, and his family regularly attended church. But he was an awkward teen, six feet tall at fourteen years old, and he never felt accepted in youth group; he always felt like an outsider. He joined the choir as a teen so he wouldn’t have to hang out with the other kids. During his teen years he only had a couple of friends. He said it was a great thing when he joined the Navy and found a bunch of “other misfits” and suddenly had a large group of guys he could hang out with.
He doesn’t go to church now because “the Navy taught me to sleep whenever you got a chance,” so Sunday mornings are just too inviting a chance to sleep in, whether from hard work or just to “sleep one off.” He mentioned one thing he liked about Mystic was the chimes of the Baptist Church. At six o’clock the chimes play old hymns like “Great is Thy Faithfulness” or “How Great Thou Art,” hymns from his youth.
Daniel does go to church sometimes when he visits his parents. While he was growing up, his father managed a restaurant and also going to school. He graduated when Daniel went in the Navy. Now his father pastors a church, and Daniel said the congregation loves his father.
Next to Daniel was a couple, Joe and Shannon (yup, two Shannons in an Irish pub). They were also locals, out for their first date since the birth of their second child a few weeks earlier. Joe had a quick, succinct answer for what makes for a good bar, “Good friends and cold beer.” He then amended that, “I don’t even care it’s warm beer, if you’re having a good time with good friends, it doesn’t matter.” He noted that the beer is often warm when he’s golfing with friends, and that’s okay.
As for a church, Joe said he prefers “One that doesn’t make you stand a lot.”
Daniel said, “You must not be Catholic.”
Joe said, “No, I grew up Catholic.” Everyone agreed that was a reasonable source for his distaste for church standing. His wife, Shannon, grew up Methodist.
She said she thinks a church should be “a place that feels inviting, where people communicate with you.” As to the form worship should take, she thought a church should be “casual, but true to its roots.” She also appreciates a place that’s community oriented and said a good church should, “you know, believe in God.”
Shannon and Joe had left their new baby at home with her mother. “This is my first drink in ten weeks,” Shannon said. This remark brought on much teasing, and she quickly corrected herself, “I meant ten months.”
While I was talking to Daniel, Mindy had been getting acquainted with Rich and June. When she told them that they could lie about their first names, Rich assured Mindy that he always tells the truth. She asked him what he looks for in a bar, and he said, “The staff makes it, and management can destroy it.”
June said she thought the bartenders were most important, and Rich added that everybody at the Harp and Hound “is good to visitors” even though (as far as we could tell) patrons tend to be locals, even on a Friday night in the summer.
When Mindy asked them what made for a good church, June said that for the last couple of years she’d been looking for a church where she could feel comfortable. Recently, she’d visited one congregation with an interim pastor where “the service was a little too kumbaya, and the sermon was weak.” She added, “I like a strong sermon, and I like fellowship and singing.”
Rich had some ideas about church that we hadn’t really heard before. He said he was looking for “something really rare: both leadership and congregation are Christians who leave politics at the door.” He grew up in Congregational churches, and he’s looking for a congregation to talk about “the fundamentals of Christianity, and it seems many talk about anything but.” When he was young, he said, it seemed like the church talked about “what Christ taught, not just abstract, but acted out in missions and ministries.” From that base, he says, the Church should be an institution to help people.
“The job of church is not to promote a political side, but to talk about what Christ teaches,” he said. He wondered if maybe the problem today is that people expect from government what they used to get from churches. He added that he’s seen a lot of good people in pastoral roles who weren’t good enough in the eyes of the congregation. “In my mind, the pastor is human. I don’t expect him to be perfect.”
We had arrived at The Harp and Hound around 7:00 pm. When we were leaving around 9:00 pm, the local music we had seen advertised was about to begin. That was all right. We had a wonderful time in conversation. (The Black and Tan Onion Rings weren’t bad either. As for the drinks, I went with an old standby, Angry Orchard hard cider, while Mindy ordered with theological flair: Jonathan Edwards Stone Table Red, a local wine. We saw a memorial stone for the famous pastor and philosopher earlier in the week, and plan to attend a church he attended.)