It was following their second or third song, that the two youngest members of the acoustic country and bluegrass band, The Griddle Pickers, paused. The two brothers in the band were enjoying the relative peace of the moment, performing in a church sanctuary in front of a capacity audience.
“Gosh, it’s sure different singing and playing in here,” commented banjo player Sean Patrick.
“Yeah,” his brother Dale, the guitarist and lead vocalist, agreed. “Most of the time we’re trying to play over a noisy crowd, or a bar fight.”
Under normal circumstances, groups such as The Griddle Pickers don’t have the luxury of enjoying the full attention of their listeners. As Dale Patrick suggested, his band normally has to play to bar patrons, university frat parties, roadhouses or lounges, where the music often disappears into the din of a rowdy crowd’s noisy night out. On this occasion, however, last Wednesday night in Orillia, the three musicians (including bass player Mike Milner, who happened to be Dale’s father-in-law), didn’t have to fight to be heard.
The audience, made up of 200 men, was very much focused on what The Pickers had to offer in their music. The evening was one of food, conversation and some entertainment – shared among a large group of men in the community.
The event was the 91st annual St. Andrew’s Men’s Dinner. And it had been sold out for weeks. Back in 1924, I was told, a small group of hunters who had ventured out to bring back game to feed their families, assembled for a communal feast at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church at the conclusion of the hunt. The hunters’ wives readily volunteered to prepare a thick, chunky venison stew, with fresh boiled potatoes, chili sauce and tea biscuits.
Well, the first hunters’ dinner at the church became the talk of the town, and quickly an annual event. In the years that followed, entertainment was added, and sometimes a public speaker. That’s where I came in, when the group organizing the 2017 edition asked if I would present a Canada sesquicentennial talk; I agreed, knowing I’d be able to enjoy the meal with the other 199 men.
“It’s the event of the year for some of us,” remarked a building contractor, who was there with one of his working partners and his father.
But here was a men’s gathering with distinctly different atomosphere. Sure, it marked the anniversary of a community’s annual game hunt – often a male domain – but unlike other all-male gatherings, I noticed right away, that it wasn’t a loud, testosterone-filled blowout with boisterous chatter, bawdy jokes and back-slapping hysterics. No.
As they lined up to enter the dining hall at the church, the men shared a genuine time for catching up. When they updated each other’s family news, they actually listened. When the men entered the dining hall, which the women of the church had spent several days preparing, there was a genuine sense of appreciation. Many applauded.
I happened to be seated with the three mayors of the region – Mike Burkett of Severn, Harry Hughes of Oro, and Steve Clarke from the city of Orillia – and while there was good-natured kibitzing, there was more than just small talk exchanged among them. One asked about the well-being of a family he knew had gone through a difficult health struggle. Another was curious about a mechanic’s shop closing and its impact in town. And another asked about a marriage in the family. Among three seasoned politicians, there was no talk of politics, no one-upmanship, no cheap shots. And most remarkably, no chauvinist remarks. Not one.
What struck me too, was the respect with which the men around me paid the women in their lives, and the women who’d prepared the feast. Roger Lippert, our host, toasted the Queen, yes, but he also invited all those who’d prepared the feast to be introduced. There must have been 50 women – the wives and daughters of many of the men in the room – and they received a standing ovation.
Among them was Dr. Karen Horst, the lead minister at St. Andrew’s. I noticed in a dinner pamphlet that one of the original aspects of the first meal was absent – fortunately – the “smoker,” but another change over the years allowed other non-Presbyterian, and even non-religious men to join in. Again, good thing for me.
The entire evening, from the casual gathering outside, to the shared meal, to the post-meal music and address (that I offered), gave its participants a warm, honest, ecumenical gathering over a feast of the fall. And surprisingly, not a single disparaging remark all evening long. As I chatted with the building contractor at the end of the event, he asked me to sign a copy of one of my books.
“Please make it out to my daughter,” he said. “I want her to have a gift from an evening like this.”
Would that more men’s gatherings were as selfless and respectful.