By John Thomas Tuft

This one is for Frank G…

Wilbur Slawson was a meticulous keeper of rules. There were certainly other aspects to his personality and life behavior, but he was most proud of following all the rules. He always waited an hour after eating before going for a swim, put the cap back on the toothpaste after squeezing from the bottom, used his turn signals as he drove around Pittsburgh–as religiously as a novitiate says the compline, colored within the lines, and never peeked when he played solitaire. Wilbur worked, naturally, as an accountant, one of the most fun-loving groups to ever walk the face of the earth. Well, besides computer software code programming writers but that’s neither here nor there. He liked his life as carefully controlled as possible, believing that “you either plan for mistakes or pay for making mistakes in planning.” Wilbur’s sister chided him with the nickname, Wild Child Wilbur, because, well…sisters.

Now, as it turns out, in the Beechview section of Pittsburgh is the steepest residential street in the continental United States, some claim in all the world. And San Francisco can go suck eggs with their claims! It is Canton Avenue with an incline of some 37%. So steep that one is only allowed to drive up this street and not back down. North of Beechview are the sections of Mt. Washington and Duquesne Heights, so yeah, Pittsburgh is a hilly city as well as claiming lots of rivers and bridges. Wilbur worked downtown in the PPG Tower of glass and spires that makes the nearby old US Steel Tower look pedestrian in contrast. Wilbur sometimes wondered what it would have been like to be an accountant for one of the old industry titans of the Steel City, building greatness from the bottom floor up. Not that he begrudged the life that he led, but one can dream, right?

Even Wilbur’s dreams were by the book, if you can believe it. Become Head Accountant at work, with the office that overlooked the Point. Find the right woman and settle down. Maybe a programmer, she would understand him. Buy a house near the light rail system that fed into downtown. Buy season tickets for the Pirates, unless someone died and he inherited their Steelers tickets, of course. Baseball had lots of rules and Wilbur enjoyed the old-fashioned way of watching a game in the gracious beauty of PNC Park with a pencil and scorecard in hand, recording each at bat and fielding play. Maybe become a deacon in his local Presbyterian congregation since being an elder was seeking too much. If you didn’t know, Pittsburgh is the Mecca of Presbyterianism, for better or worse.  Which makes it all the more distressing to report that Wilbur had a terrible car accident.

It appears that someone did not use their turn signal and made a Pittsburgh left in front of Wilbur’s oncoming Prius on McKnight Road while he was out shopping for paint to help his sister spruce up her place in the North Hills. Wilbur was rushed to UPMC with bleeding on his brain and underwent grueling surgery to relieve the pressure. Wilbur puts it like this. “I don’t remember the accident or being taken to the hospital. Everything went dark and I felt very cold and alone. And then I heard a voice and felt a presence. It must have been God.” He blinks slowly at this retelling of the moment everything changed. “I said, ‘Oh my God!’ He laughed and told me not to worry, I would be fine. But he asked me to do one thing for him when I went back.” He pauses, not sure of his own believing. “He said, ‘I want you to break a rule, Wilbur. Will you do that? Break a rule?’” Wilbur is silent after this for the longest time. Then, “Break a rule. That’s what he said, sure as I’m sitting here eating steak salad with French fries in it in this Eat N Park with you. Break a rule.”

Could it have been the bump on the head talking? The trauma of undergoing brain surgery? My questions are your questions, too. What did God sound like, I finally manage. Wilbur laughs. “Like Mister Rogers. Mister Rogers asked me to break a rule!” Why? Why would God ask you to break a rule? Or Mister Rogers, for that matter? Wilbur does not take the question lightly. He ponders and ponders some more. We ordered some pie because, well, Eat N Park. Over coffee and gobs of whipped cream and strawberries and the thickest and sweetest of strawberry glaze (if you know, you know), Wilbur quietly takes a timorous leap of faith. “Maybe there needs to be more of Wild Child Wilbur?”

Which may help to explain how we found ourselves cruising through Beechview on a Sunday morning instead of going to the nearest Presbyterian church. Wilbur gunned the engine, put it in gear and up we went, straight up Canton Avenue. We got to the top and Wilbur gave me a look. Made a three-point turn. And pointed the car back down the steep grade. And if you want to know how it went, meet me on Mt. Washington at the Duquesne Incline. We’ll ride down that slope together and then you can buy lunch at the Grand Concourse in Station Square. Because, oh my God, a man’s gotta eat, rules or rules be damned. Mister Rogers would want it that way…

Words are magic and writers are wizards.