When God Comes Calling

This is a story about me and God. I realize that this opening sentence is enough to put some readers off right away, but I hope that they will bear with me for just a little longer. I am not trying to write an evangelistic piece. I never was good at that sort of thing. This is a very personal account of a very personal relationship that exists between myself and someone who many people don’t believe is real. That is all right. I don’t ask for anyone to believe in God in order to enjoy this story. It’s all about me anyway, so how can you go wrong?

I was not raised in a religious family. Apart from a period of probably less than a year I do not remember seeing my parents in a church. My mother was apathetic about the whole thing and my father thought that only the simple minded could believe stories about lions that didn’t eat people and furnaces that didn’t burn people up. Perhaps my father was on to something; we could debate the Bible as being literally true or symbolic all day long, but that is not the goal of this tale. The point is that I had little reason to believe in the Christian God or any other god, and therefore no reason to direct my life based on any such belief.

That one year, more or less, that my family attended church happened when I was nine or ten years old. It would be a lie, more than simply a stretch, to say that the experience made much of an impact on me. I managed to dodge many of the sermons by artful means but could never escape Sunday School. That eternal and, to me, infernal hour was spent fidgeting on my hard folding chair and thinking more about how much I wanted to get my squished and aching feet out of the too-small leather shoes I was forced to wear at church than the patterns made out of felt that were being used to tell Bible stories. At school I could wear “tennies”, as athletic shoes were then called. During most of the year when I was not at school or church I wore no shoes at all. I grew up in San Diego after all.  But for that one hour of trial and pain I had to squeeze my poor feet into shoes that I was too big for and would have hated even if I wasn’t.

So from my pre-teen years I emerged with little to recommend me to the faith, and it remained that way until the tenth grade. That school year I had the good fortune to sit next to the most beautiful girl in Hoover High.  I thought so anyway. This angel was bright and pretty and friendly and asked me if I wanted to go with her family to a Billy Graham Crusade.  I had never heard of Billy Graham, but would have agreed if she had asked if I wanted to walk over hot coals and eat live slugs with her and her family.  I was not at all accustomed to girls, beautiful or otherwise, asking me to do anything with them, so I agreed in a heartbeat.

At the crusade I actually liked what I heard and went forward, identifying myself as a Christian, and began to attend the same church as the Beautiful Girl. I really did believe what I was taught and continued to attend that church even after it became abundantly clear that pigs would fly before the Beautiful Girl would ever look twice at me in a romantic fashion. Eventually however I simply lost interest in the church and for my last year and a half of high school my focus returned to girls, who continued to be generally unimpressed with my overtures, and hanging out with my friends in the neighborhood.

I had the misfortune of graduating in 1966 at the height of the Vietnam War, and the military was casting a broad net to procure men enough to fight that war while still holding the Soviet Union at bay in Central Europe and Communism in general elsewhere in the world. I was not married, had no aspirations to enter college or become a police officer or firefighter, and so the only option seemed to be to join the Army before it joined me.  This was quickly accomplished and I spent the next three years in the U.S. Army, with two of them in Vietnam where any and all restraint against indulging my own personal pleasure in any way and in any form that I could find it was removed.

This is not a tale about my dirty laundry; I’m writing a story, not a book.  My belief in the story of the Bible had deteriorated into a belief that two thousand years ago an unmarried teenager had gotten herself pregnant (no miracle there) and cooked up a story about how God did it and, to my utter astonishment, people believed it!  The crafty conniver in me, one of my Army nicknames being Weasel, did admire that scam just a bit. The Old Testament was simply a collection of Jewish fairy tales and life after death would be if my friends would remove my head after I overdosed on something and used my skull for a planter to grow a marijuana plant in.  My friends could then point to the weed growing out of my unused cranium and state “there’s Glenn, still getting his head.”

This was the condition that I was in when one day I decided to ride my bicycle away from most of the nearby habitation and smoke a joint in the open sun. I lived then in El Cajon, just east of San Diego, and nearby was a road which climbed the hills east of that city up to a town appropriately named Crest. It was a long and fairly steep hill and I rode my bike about a quarter of the way up when I decided that I had gone far enough. I walked my bike through the low, sparse chaparral and perched myself on a pile of large rocks under the warm sun. I could see a house several hundred feet down the hill and nothing else anywhere near me. Feeling safe I pulled out a book that I was reading, lit a joint, and settled in for what I expected to be a pleasant hour or two of relaxation.

The joint was long finished and the book engrossing when I heard my name called. That’s all it was:  Glenn!  I jumped a little and looked around to see who had found me in what I thought was an isolated location. There was nobody anywhere to be seen. I looked down at the house and saw nothing stirring but a dog trotting across the yard. I knew that that this voice could not have come from there because it was too far away, there was nobody in sight, and nobody there, including the dog, knew my name.  I tried to account for this experience by thinking “I’m just stoned,” and went back to my book. I was unsuccessful however. I had been stoned before; a lot more stoned a lot of times before, and I had never had any experience like this. Contrary to most Hollywood representations of drug-induced hallucinations I never believed that any of mine were real. I sat on that rock a short while longer but my uneasiness continued to grow until I stuck my book into my back pocket and walked my bike back to the road. I pedaled home and then proceeded to forget about the experience as quickly as possible.

Thirteen years, two businesses, two marriages and two children later I found myself in a very small rental in Washington State. My family was still in San Diego, as I had graduated and taken my first job as a vascular technologist and had gone ahead to prepare a place where my family could join me. The last several years had been extremely difficult for me. My first marriage had dissolved painfully, and for most of my second I was struggling to provide, first by working in construction and then by working in a pathology lab while attending school full time. The stress was terrific and for a short while a doctor had me on mild antidepressants. I had long since quit using any sort of drugs, legal or illegal. I felt an urge to find peace in a non-chemical way and began to read everything I could get my hands on that might help me to make sense of life; everything except the Bible that is. Been there, done that. I read about Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. I read Plato, Aristotle, and other guys whom I couldn’t make heads or tails of. I finally stumbled on Alan Watts and was drawn to the Tao, an ancient Chinese spirituality. I still could not fully buy into the Tao because of its airy-fairy (to me) nature, and so I graduated with a degree in vascular technology but no degree that could explain why it was worth it to stay alive.

During the two months between graduation and my first job the pressure inside my head continued to grow. Externally I continued to do the things that made daily life seem to work; get up, got to work, watch the kids while my wife went to work. But inside I could feel my stomach tied in knots and a tension in my neck and shoulders that wouldn’t release, no matter how much I tried to will myself into some kind of rest.

My wife at that time attended the church which I had once attended with the Beautiful Girl. That girl had long since gotten married to a very nice guy and moved away to start a new family. My wife had a Bible which she would sometimes read and frequently it would be lying on a table in the front room when I returned home from work. I would get home at about 11:30 PM and my wife would be lying in bed, waiting to hear my key in the lock before she could relax and fall asleep. At some point during those two months I picked up that old, leather covered Bible and started reading from Genesis 1. I found it familiar and comfortable, although I still couldn’t believe it and had no intention to read about that Jesus stuff. I read through the first two books but stalled out badly on Leviticus. I put that old Bible down and didn’t pick it up again for the rest of my stay in Southern California.

When I received my first job offer I was ready to leave the rat race of Southern California. A couple of weeks later I was alone in the Northwest with no family, no friends, and nothing familiar to anchor my miserable self to. The result was muscles so tense and a stomach so knotted up that I could barely eat or sleep and the bridge over the Columbia River which I crossed twice each day began to look more and more like a good place to make a one-way visit.  Only two blocks from my rental there was a very large Catholic cathedral. I had only the smallest knowledge of the Catholic version of Christianity and had no idea why I would walk into that building. I was so miserable however that I was no longer able to figure out why I should do one thing or not do another. Rather than making a rational decision that I would walk into that large, ornate building I instead found myself walking in that direction as if I was watching from outside of myself. I walked up the stone stairs and through the massive doors, and stood inside to see what could be found there. There were a few people sitting in the wooden pews and someone kneeling at a rail up at the front. There was a great deal of art on the walls and I began to walk slowly around the inside of the building.

That was when it happened. I felt God all around me. How do I explain that? It wasn’t like being in a room with one person you really like or love; it wasn’t like being in a stadium with a hundred thousand fans watching your team seal a victory. The closest that I can come to describing it is a warm and comfortable sense of peace and rest for my agitated nerves that completely surrounded me and even seemed to press into me. More than that, I knew more certainly than I knew my own name that this feeling was nothing other than the presence of God, whom fifteen minutes earlier I didn’t even believe in. I stood there in that place marveling at this experience and expected it to go away. It did not go away. I began to walk again slowly around the inside of that building while the sense of the presence of God continued to work it’s way through my exhausted mind, body and soul until finally I was convinced that this was real and even if that feeling departed, which it eventually did, my mind knew beyond a doubt that the God responsible for it was real and eternal and would always be there for me regardless of the bumps and bruises that life would continue to bring me. I stayed in that cathedral for at least an hour and finally left to go home to get some sleep before I had to go to work the next day. That night I slept pretty good, and the next day I crossed the bridge without any thought of taking a short hike off the middle section where the bridge is highest.

The third meeting which I had with God occurred a couple of years later. I was now a regular church member and learning more about what it means to be a Christian. I have slowly learned that it is not at all what non-Christians think it is, nor what most professing Christians think it is either, but that’s meat for another story. I determined that I would read the Bible cover to cover and was diligently engaged in that pursuit one evening while lying in bed when once again I heard only my name: Glenn!  This time it was a little different however, for the voice that I heard was easily recognizable as my dad’s. Dad, at this moment, was sound asleep 1,500 miles to the east in Kentucky. I knew instantly who it really was, and the fact that the voice was my earthly father’s made it just that much more comfortable and welcoming. I felt like that one word was an affirmation that God and I were on a journey together that would take me places that I never expected to go. That is how it has turned out and it has been a hard but completely satisfying ride.

So there you have it. I know that many people will not believe that these visitations were an actual encounter with a benign supernatural entity of any type, much less the God of the Bible. I do not blame anyone for that and will not think one bit less of them if that is the case. I would not have believed such a tale if it was told to me before I had experienced it myself.  It is sufficient for me to write that this is what I have experienced and is therefore worthy of writing as one of the stories of my life. I hope that you, reader, can take it for what it is worth and enjoy the story, even if only as a story. For my part, every word of it is true.

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

     While driving from Albuquerque to my nome in Washington recently I had a lot of time to think about things and also a lot of time to listen to Classic Rock, which generally means rock music from the late 1960’s through the 1980’s.  Unexpectedly, rock music, nineteenth century British literature and my own personal thought patterns came together to produce some reflections on the idea of ‘making love’.  

     One hears the phrase ‘making love’, or some variation on that theme a lot in rock music.  The examples are myriad; “All I want to do is make love to you” (Heart), “I just want to make love to you” (Group Called Smith), “all I want is for you to make love to me” (Stones), “the love you take is equal to the love you make” (Beatles).  I could go on and on and, dear reader, you probably could too.  What these lyrics are really saying is “all I want to do is have sex with you”, or “all I want is for you to have sex with me”.  And this revelation is not likely to make the headlines; it’s rock music after all, and rock music grew largely out of teen angst and teen angst, one way or another, revolves primarily around sex.

     I would like to make it clear at this point that I am not writing this to bash rock music.  I love rock music; grew up with it and sing it at work or in the shower or driving down the street to this day.  Rock music has addressed many themes from the cultural to the social to the political, and has provided a soapbox for young thoughts on all of those issues.  Neil Young chastises redneck conservative racists in Alabama for being on the wrong side of history while Lynyrd Skynyrd rips Neil Young and pecksniff wine-and-cheese liberals for their hypocritical tripe and suggests that they aren’t needed around anyhow.  Rock music, while weighted more to one side of the political aisle than the other, is fully capable of making stands on any issue accompanied to great, driving, nerve jangling sound.  Long live rock and roll.

     Rock music is even capable of dealing with sex and love (two entirely different things) with sensitivity.  Billy Joel’s “I love you just the way you are” and Eric Clapton’s “You look wonderful tonight” are songs that speak of a quiet, steady love of one person for another.  Eric Clapton is the best musical performer in history, by the way.  Carole King’s song “Will you still love me tomorrow” is a very honest look at the reality of sex from a woman’s point of view, for teens as much as for women of any other age.  Is this guy who is all sweet words and consideration going to still ‘love’ the girl after he’s gotten what most guys want from the time that they start growing hair in their armpits and begin to sweat?  That song, by the way, especially the version recorded in 1960 by the Shirelles, is one of the best songs ever written and performed.  The answer to the woman’s question is more often than not provided by Van Halen; “My love is rotten to the core”.

     While I was driving along through the vast, open landscapes of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Idaho, singing along to my favorite oldies, my mind wandered to the literature of nineteenth century England and the way in which the term ‘making love’ was used in that context.  In the writing of Austen, Eliot, Trollope and others, that term is used to describe the act of courtship.  When a man acts or expresses himself in any way that indicates an interest in a particular woman, and if the woman indicates that such attention is welcome or at the very least not unwelcome, this combination of events is considered to be ‘lovemaking’.  I believe that the British writers of the nineteenth century had a much better grasp on what was meant by making love than do the lyric writers of the twentieth.  The British writers were also aware that love could be rotten to the core.  Lydia Bennett’s elopement and marriage to Wickham in Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” could be sung of by Van Halen, and the disappointment of Dorothea Brooke in her marriage to Edward Casaubon in Eliot’s “Middlemarch” could be sung of by many who sing of the morning after not carrying the same bright future as was believed to be offered the evening before.

     Still, the English seemed to have a better grasp of what love is (and is not) and how it should be dealt with, and the primary lesson is that sex and love are not the same thing and have little to do with each other.  Many people and most other life forms have sex.  It doesn’t follow that that they necessarily love each other.  I have seen my neighbor’s dog in action when its owner was breeding him with a female to create some pups for sale.  I doubt that Fifi was wondering if Brutus would still love her tomorrow.  I have seen teenage mothers with no male in sight who are no more concerned with the father of their pup than was Fifi with the father of hers.  Love and sex were as far apart for that teenage mother and her former partner (of one night?) as night is from day.

     In that old fashioned British model love was something that was not just felt, but worked on.  If a male told a girl “I feel like making love” in a Jane Austen book he would have been quickly declared to be Bad Company and shown the door.  Lovemaking involved feelings, sure enough, but also required a demonstration on the man’s part of an earnest sentiment to provide for, protect and respect the woman, and on the woman’s part to respect, support and be faithful to the man.  Of course, the Brits knew as well then as we do now that this did not always happen.  When Gwendolen Harleth marries Henleigh Grandcourt in Eliot’s “Danial Deronda” there is no love anywhere to be seen.  Grandcourt in fact uses sex to further oppress and humiliate the proud but shallow Gwendolen, proving that his ‘love’ truly was rotten to the core.

     I believe that the willingness of the British writers to confront that which was ‘not-love’ lends credit to their conversation about what love really was then and still is today.  The social circumstances have changed greatly but the core of what love is has not.  The problem is that we no longer seem to be very much inclined to talk (or sing) about it.  One rich source states that “Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous, love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek it’s own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered.”  That passage, taken from I Corinthians chapter 13 of the Bible, addresses love in general but the application to romantic love is obvious.  Love is made, not felt.  Would-be lovers create their love by building trust and respect and commitment to one another over time while simultaneously learning not to demand particular actions as the price for their love.  “I’ll love you if you promise to not have sex with someone else” is a contract, not love.  In it’s place should stand “I love you and there is no room in my heart for anyone else”, which eventually distills down to simply “I love you”.  This doesn’t happen without work.  Sometimes it doesn’t happen at all; Edward Casaubon, Henleigh Grandcourt and Rosamond Vincy (also from “Middlemarch”) are all out there.  That is why great effort must be expended in the process of making love; without the greatest care and patient development that love which you thought would last a lifetime will only bring a lifetime of trouble.

     The lesson that I take away from this line of thought is that while there are no guarantees of success in making love, hoping and believing that love will come without care and effort is a fool’s errand if ever there was one.  Statistics of divorce rates, adultery, single parenthood (the surest way into poverty in America), and the general estrangement and unhappiness that can be found in so many American homes is a testimony to the inadequacy of love based on hormones or calculations of relative advantage.  In this case the nineteenth century English prescription of thought, effort, and care being used to build a relationship is likely to have a much higher success rate than the twentieth century musical prescription that “It can’t be wrong if it feels so right”.  

     So let’s put things into perspective.  English literature provided a superior guide to lifelong matrimonial or relational happiness than does rock music.  Rock music is great entertainment but a poor guide to lifelong matrimonial or relational happiness but hey, it’s only rock and roll, but I like it.

 

It Sucks Getting Old

It is the funniest thing.  One day a person can be riding along in life with nothing more than the usual physical degradation common to people in the midst of their sixth decade of life, and the next day you receive a shot across the bow that signals a possible change in all that you had thought and planned.  This is what is occurring in my life now.  One month ago I was writing stories based somewhat loosely on my own personal experiences and stories told to me by acquaintances, and today the stories are stoppered up in my brain by thoughts and questions about what my near future holds.  Since I am not able to relax and pull up the experiences of my past life, at least not at the present moment, I will therefore go with the flow and work out my future as a story which is being written as it is being lived.

One month ago I awoke with vertigo, an event which happens every once in a while and which I have come to view as an annoyance more than anything else.  The spinning only lasted two days and before long I was once again vertical and believing that the worst was over.  And it was over, but for a persistent lightheadedness and fatigue which dogged me and caused me to fall exhausted into my favorite chair as soon as I returned home from work.  I attributed that to the stress of my workplace, which is indeed great, and my generally poor sleeping habits.  A vacation was what was needed and a vacation was what I had coming two weeks hence.  A week of New Mexico warmth, good food, and college football with my brother and his wife is all I would need to put things right.

The day of my flight came and I arose to cook breakfast, finish packing, and be driven to the airport.  As I diced potatoes and cooked the bacon however the lightheadedness swelled to near vertigo proportions, and I eventually had to sit down after eating and assess my ability to accomplish the task of carrying my bags through security and stowing them overhead for the flight.  Fortunately, the sensation reached a plateau and then receded a bit, allowing me to get out of my chair and negotiate the obstacles which stood between me and the outrageous New Mexico food and a comfortable visit with much-loved family.  On the evening of my arrival I felt reasonably well and awoke the following morning back at my baseline, which was not great but certainly doable.  That day was pleasant as was the next, until about three o’clock when I felt the lightheadedness and fatigue increase once again.  This was the pattern for the rest of my trip.

The morning after that first recurrence while I was on my trip I called back home to make an appointment with my naturopath for the following week when I would be home.  The morning of that appointment came and I found myself seated in a familiar chair in the small office of my ND.  I prefer naturopathic medicine because it seeks to work with the body to keep itself healthy rather than chemically seeking to counter ill health.  I like to think of it as health care versus disease management, although I am not dogmatic about refusing conventional medicine.  It is just not my first choice.  The doctors, for there are two of them who work together, did what all doctors do; they poked and prodded, looked and listened, and finally came up with a plan.

“You may just have a lingering virus that will eventually be corrected by an otherwise healthy body” was the first possible explanation.  The second was that I am taking too high a dose of a tincture which the doctors whip up for me at the sink to counter my high blood pressure.  I am relatively thin and usually active, but I inherited what is called ‘essential hypertension’ from my mother.  That means that I have elevated blood pressure for absolutely no good reason at all.  The tincture, made of natural ingredients in proper proportions, keeps my blood pressure well within the normal range, but the doctors felt that I might be taking too much and suggested that I reduce my dose.

Then came the third possibility.  I have a common heart defect called Mitral Valve Prolapse.  One of the valves in my heart is supposed to open during each resting phase of my cardiac cycle to allow the blood to flow from one chamber to another.  When a heart has mitral valve prolapse however the blood can sometimes flow, at least partially, in the wrong direction.  People with mitral valve prolapse usually experience few if any symptoms, but when they do experience symptoms they usually include lightheadedness and fatigue.

So I was sent away with an adjustment in my blood pressure tincture and instructions to prepare to see a cardiologist if that adjustment does not correct the problem.  The only treatment that I know of for mitral valve prolapse is open heart surgery for a valve repair or replacement, although there is much that I have yet to read of and learn about concerning that sort of thing.

So now begins a journey.  The journey could be a short one with a very satisfactory ending or a longer one with a more complicated denouement.   Either way, it is a story that is very familiar to a great many aging baby-boomers and may allow non-boomers a glimpse into the common reality of a group with which they may have little contact.  For me, it is a way to work out my experiences and feelings in a way that is most comfortable to me; words on a page.

The Day the President came Calling

A great many of us can boast of having seen a celebrity at one time or another.  This is not surprising as our society is very good at generating celebrities.  Actors, politicians, business people, athletes, entertainers and multiple other areas of endeavor produce faces which we are all able to recognize in a crowd.  Just get together with a group of people and get the conversation going; soon you will be putting together a list of famous people who have passed before the collective eyes of the assembled throng.

In my sixty five years I can boast of seeing a small horde of people who could be googled and found to be of some significance.  President Dwight Eisenhauer,  the Beatles, the Rolling Stones (back when Jagger could move like Jagger), Gypsy Rose Lee, Joey Bishop, Bob Hope, Diana Ross and many others have fallen within my range of vision.  None of these, however, had anything like the impact which I received from seeing President John F. Kennedy.

An event such as this was not likely to be all that noteworthy to me, given the staunchly Republican nature of the home in which I grew up.  My father was actually more or less Republican and loved to annoy my mother with his luke-warmness.  He would also do the lukewarm thing with me in order to make me think about what I believed rather than simply receive it from my Mom.  My mother, on the other hand, lent a new richness to the term “staunch”.  The woman was so conservative that she would only fly in airplanes with two right wings.  As a consequence of this she travelled a lot on the bus.

When the presidential election of 1960 was approaching, our household was all about Richard Nixon.  Nixon had served two terms as vice president under Eisenhauer whom we revered, being a military family.  Nixon had gone toe-to-toe with Nikita Khrushchev in the ‘Kitchen Debates’ and not only skunked the Russian Premier but even earned his respect.  Khrushchev later stated that he instructed the Communist Party of the United States to do what little it could to get Kennedy elected, believing that he would have an easier time dealing with him than with Nixon.  Leonid Brezhnev was later to discover how accurate Mr. Khrushchev’s impression of Nixon was.

It was therefore inconceivable in my household that Kennedy could win the election.  Besides the fear that a Catholic president would take orders from the Pope there were other negatives in the eyes of my parents.  From my Dad’s point of view nobody who commanded a PT boat and allowed it to be sliced in half by a Japanese destroyer deserved anything other than a court martial.  This was like allowing a Corvette to be outmaneuvered and T-boned by a pick up truck.  Dad put it down to Kennedy getting off because he was a son of the Eastern royalty with all of it’s connections in the halls of the powerful.  There may be some truth to that, but it is also fair to point out that the Kennedys and the Bushes and a great many other sons of the notables stepped up then and placed themselves in harm’s way.  You don’t see much of that anymore.

My mother hated all Democrats on principle.  She wasn’t quite sure exactly what that principle was, but she used it to hate Democrats anyway.  Mom was fiercely independent and did not like to see the government take care of people who, in her opinion, were perfectly able to look after themselves.  Mom grew up in Hazard Kentucky during the Great Depression, and my grandfather worked in the mines or on the railroad, or repaired washing machines or sold men’s suits or generally did whatever he could do to keep the family fed and clothed.  My grandmother, according to Mom, was a wizard at making a little stretch far enough to keep the family out of the grip of extreme hunger.  Because my mother’s family eked their way through the Depression in this manner with nobody to help them, she reasoned that everybody else could do the same.  John F. Kennedy and the Democrats represented a different point of view, and that Mom could never forgive.

As the elections approached a great dread fell over the house.  Kennedy and Nixon were virtually tied in the polls.  Kennedy did well in the first ever presidential debate and his youth and beautiful wife and young family appealed to an America which had endured the depression and four years of hellish war in Europe and the Pacific.  We waited in nervous anticipation for the day when we would know if the nation was in good hands (Nixon) or on the road to perdition (Kennedy).

The day came, and went.  The election was virtually tied and day after day we waited as paper ballots were counted across the country.  Finally, when the dead voters of Chicago cast their ballots for the second and third times, Kennedy was declared the winner.  On an interesting side note, I have read that a few months later a reporter uncovered the extent of the ballot box stuffing in Cook County and elsewhere and proposed to go public with it.  Richard Nixon asked him not to do so.  Nixon and Kennedy personally liked each other and Nixon told the reporter that it would harm America to drag the thing out in that manner.  “For the good of the country” Nixon said, “let the thing stand as it is”.  Can you imagine such a thing happening today?

So Kennedy was elected President and the reign of Camelot began.  It was indeed a magical time.  We all fell in love with the elegant and beautiful First Lady and we also adopted Caroline and ‘John John’ as children of our own.  In spite of the President’s debilitating back pain that was a result of his war injuries he conveyed a sense of vigor that appealed to the new generation of citizens who were deciding to run the post-war country their own way.  We loved him so much that we forgave him for traveling all the way to the city of Berlin to declare to the world that he was ‘a jelly doughnut’.  He meant to say that he and everyone who identified with and stood with the citizens of Berlin during a particularly tense period in the cold war was in fact a citizen of that city.  Trying to say that in German, however, resulted in it being somewhat lost in translation.  In those days we allowed a President to commit a faux pas and not hound him to the grave with it.  The people of Berlin knew what he meant and so did we.

Because of all of this I was very excited when we heard that President Kennedy was scheduled to give the commencement address to the graduating class of San Diego State University.  I had seen President Eisenhauer years earlier,  when I had to climb up onto a rooftop in downtown San Diego in order to see over the crowd.  Now, the new President was coming and even my Mom showed a little interest in what he would have to say.  That was how it stood until the President’s itinerary was announced, and it was at that point that our interest in the event went through the roof.  The President would be riding in a motorcade up El Cajon Blvd. from some point downtown all the way to the college, a couple of miles in all.  My junior high school was located on the motorcade route, and I would be in class when he came by.

My school was not about to miss this opportunity to expose the student body to an event like a presidential visit.  For me however it just got better.  I was in the Boy’s Chorus that year, initially as a piano accompanist.  My disappointing musical aptitude and general laziness soon resulted in me  singing in the bass section where I performed reasonably well.  That year we were singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in the city competition and it was a perfect match to be singing this patriotic song for the President.

Accordingly on June 6, 1963, the day of the presidential visit, risers were put into place on the lawn of our school within spitting distance of the sidewalk.  We had rehearsed this song a gazillion times for the competition, but today we approached it with a fervor yet unheard from our Chorus.  We would only be singing the last stanza of the song and the refrain because the President would only be in front of us momentarily as he rolled slowly down the street towards the speech that he was here to deliver.

As the hour approached the student body was turned out onto the lawn and lined up in orderly ranks.  We of the Chorus filed out and took our places on the risers and the interminable wait began.  The wait, as it turned out, was indeed terminable and we could tell by the excited buzz which began to circulate among the students off to our left, and also by the divided actions of the teachers who were trying both to keep order and to contain their own excitement, that the President was getting close.  Our director, Mr. Julian, got our attention focused on the job at hand and we hummed our notes and prepared to sing.  Little did we know that we were preparing for an event that would impact our lives for as long as those lives would persist.  When the hood of the presidential convertible appeared in the street to our left we began to sing the familiar lines, and our voices swelled as HE came closer to our position.

Then the course of history changed.  The sun stood still in the sky.  The ‘O’ turned upside down.  The President of the United States of America; the most powerful person in the world, reached forward to tap his driver on the shoulder and said something to him.  The driver, in response, stopped the car.  President John Fitzgerald Kennedy then stood up in the back of that convertible and faced us while we sang that song and would not leave until we had completed it.

Some of us choked up but enough kept it together well enough that we sang that song better than we ever had before.  Mr. Julian, concerned that the performance of his career be perfect, was focused on us and not the street.  He was aware that something extraordinary was happening however and when we had held the last “amen” to a point of richness and power which he had not been able to wring out of us all semester he gave us the sign to cut.  Mr. Julian then turned and his jaw dropped.  President Kennedy couldn’t have been more than 30 feet away from him applauding his Boy’s Chorus.  At that point one of the secret service agents motioned for the motorcade to get underway and we saw the convertible begin to roll once again eastward down El Cajon Blvd.  Less than a mile in that direction is Hoover High School and we felt proud to learn that the President did not accord Hoover the same honor.  I am guessing that the secret service escorts suggested that he never pull that stunt again!

Six months later President John F. Kennedy would be lying in his grave in Arlington National Cemetery and shocked and unbelieving Americans would be mourning the loss of him as if he was a son of their own.  My Republican household cried that day and we comforted each other and looked for someone to hit back at because we felt individually attacked by that event.  A pathetic little loser who survived the assassination by only a couple of days was all we were given, although I am certain that the real story has never been and will never be told.

Still, to this day I cannot tell this story with dry eyes.  Something bigger than myself and my individual wants and issues happened that day.  The leader of much of the developed world and a good deal of that which was not developed stopped to hear some teenage boys sing a song of fire and death and struggle for the purpose of freedom.  It is one of my great satisfactions that I was able to be a little part of that.

Tarantula Run

I really hate spiders.  Or I guess it would be more correct to say that I fear spiders.  Either way, there is no way in the world that I want to spend any more time than is absolutely necessary in the company of spiders, and that amount of time could be calculated in nanoseconds.  Some people have great fear of snakes, others heights, and others a variety of creatures or experiences too multitudinous to relate.  For me it’s spiders.

I have a theory concerning the origin of spiders.  In the beginning God created just about all of the stuff that we know about and it was good.  We know that because He told us that.  One of the guys He made was named Lucifer and Lucifer was on of God’s favorite creations, and when Lucifer came to God and said “Please, please, can’t I create something?  Pretty please, pretty please, huh?  huh?” well, God just couldn’t help but say “OK”, but with grave misgivings.  So old Lucifer began snapping his fingers and Bam! There were ticks:  Bam! There were mosquitos:  Bam!  There were spiders.  God looked on in horror and the rest is chronicled in Milton’s “Paradise Lost”.

This perfectly rational lack of enthusiasm for sharing space with spiders has nevertheless not prevented me from finding myself in many acutely uncomfortable situations.  In one case my father, who was a very good household craftsman, decided to re-plumb our house in San Diego in order to add a shower to our bathroom.  This project inevitably required that he gain access to the existing plumbing which was very old when we moved in and was in much need of being replaced.  As long as we were modifying the plumbing to accommodate the new shower Dad decided to make a complete job of it.  Access to the area where Dad would have to work was gained by crawling on one’s back through a tiny screened slot at ground level in the side of our house and wriggle on our backs for what seemed like a hundred miles, but which in fact was only eight feet or so, under the house.

Just in the way of background, San Diego is located in the arid Southwest which is the habitat of a body of unsavory critters, the least savory of which is the black widow spider.  Black widows are blind, I am told, and reclusive.  That is why I almost never ran into them.  But then I almost never went under the house, which is exactly where I WOULD go if I was a blind and reclusive poisonous spider.  I had no doubt that a legion of black widow spiders with fear-seeking direction finders waited there with no other purpose in mind than to put an end to my short and unhappy life.

” I wouldn’t ask you to do anything that I thought could hurt you” said my father who was trying to reassure me.  The attempt fell far short of it’s mark.  It sounded a lot like a nurse coming at me with a three foot long syringe with a javelin for a point saying “this might pinch a little”, or Dad telling me “this hurts me more than it hurts you”.  I quickly called “B.S.” on the latter flaming lies and did so on this new lie as well.

I don’t remember how long the project took, but the hours I spent with my nose inches from the two-by-twelve floor cross members and whatever scrabbling horrors that lurked within their recesses seemed like an eternity.  I assume that my father was greatly annoyed by my fear and utter willingness to express it; in his generation letting on that you were afraid was definitely not cool, so I suspect that he dragged the project out for longer than was needed.  At any rate, the project finally came to an end and I escaped with no bites that I knew of, which probably means no bites at all.

Years later I was in Viet Nam and on one particularly well moonlit night I was looking for a place to get out of sight.  It would sound a lot more impressive if I said that I was a forward observer that night or on guard duty, or under attack and hiding to avoid sniper fire or shrapnel from mortars and rockets, but the sad truth was that I was lighting up a joint and trying to keep a low profile to avoid the attention of superiors whom I later discovered didn’t really care one whit what I did with my spare time.  I was next to an old sandbag bunker that was not in use which was located across a dirt road from my company area and slipped back into the alcove which housed the entrance into that bunker.  Lighting up I puffed contentedly for a while until I felt something crawling on my neck.  My senses were pretty well numbed by that joint, which was the point of smoking the stuff over there.  I was well enough anesthetized against the idea of being a sitting duck in that arcade that the import of something crawling on me in the dark night in Viet Nam didn’t immediately strike me as noteworthy or worrisome.  The persistent sensation of creepy-crawly slowly worked it’s way through my numbed perception however and impelled me at last to step out into the relatively bright moonlight.  It was in that moonlight that I could see the gray bodies of the quarter-sized spiders that were crawling all over me.

I exploded out of that bunker and did a dance that probably looked a great deal like a cross between James Brown and Joe Cocker on meth.  I hollered and slapped at my head and body with my cap and ran gyrating and gesticulating across our company area until I came to a lighted area where I could look for spiders wherever they might be.  I took off my shirt and pants right then and there, one can do that in an all male environment, and shook everything out.  All of my multipedal fellow travelers were gone by then but my high was thoroughly shattered as well, and so I showered and went to bed, but felt things crawling on me all of the rest of the night.

When I got home from Viet Nam I found myself subject to nightmares the same as so many other soldiers did.  My nightmares were never about bullets and bombs however.  On one occasion I dreamed that the devil was right behind me, chasing me down a street near where I lived at the time.  No doubt he knew how effective his little eight legged creations were at freaking me out and had come to rub it in a little.  Later nightmares contained the usual fare that was normal for a connoisseur of “B” horror films of the 1950’s and early 60’s.  Werewolves and vampires teamed up to generate more than a few restless nights which might be interrupted by a sympathetic brother who would tell me later that “it just looked like you needed waking up.”

By far the worst however concerned an unfinished house on a hilltop in a forest somewhere.  For whatever reason I had to get from one side of this unfinished, open-walled house to the other, and as I began to traverse the bare wooden floor I became aware of spiders dangling from single strands of web, swinging like malevolent pendulums, growing thicker as I made my way across that floor.  All of a sudden I found myself running through the hellish house of horror holding a huge, thick wooden door and using it as a shield.  Any door of it’s size in real life would almost certainly weigh twice what I do and I couldn’t possibly even move it much less pick it up.  In my dream I was aware of its weight but the fact that I was carrying it made no impression.  In any case, at a moment when the terror caused me to lose my grip on any rational thought I threw my oaken shield through the path I wanted to go.  The spiders were so numerous by this time and the webs so thick that the massive door was suspended in the sticky matrix well off of the ground.  It was at that moment that a huge, hairy spider the size of my hand with the fingers extended landed on the side of my neck.

It was the left side.  I woke up with sweat pouring off of me and I am certain that I was uttering the strangled, muffled sounds that are the screams of one trying to escape their nightmare.  On this night my brother was not there to rescue me from my terrors and I lay there in my bed still as a statue, with part of me almost crying with relief that I was awake and part of me still feeling the hairy embrace of that fiendish spider.  The feeling subsided slowly but I slept no more that night, and forty four years later I can still feel echos of that visitation from the ninth circle of hell.

But all of that only brings me to the main point of my story, and that is the tale of my night hike over Tarantula Run.  This tale begins, as many of mine do, at the campground of Green Valley Falls in the mountains east of San Diego.  My father was very good about taking our family camping when I was young, and my friends and I camping when I was a little older.  On this particular trip my father took me and my best friend Mike for a couple of days and nights.  We did the usual things; fished in the Sweetwater River, went to the rangers’ nature talks at a big campfire in the evening, tried ineffectively to attract the attention of young female campers and so on.  One evening however Dad offered something new.  “Want to go on a night hike” he asked us?  “Sure” was our enthusiastic reply.  We were always up for a new adventure.

Now you must understand that since we were kids growing up in San Diego we ceased to wear shoes altogether from the moment that school was out in June until we returned to school in September.  Shoe wearing was engaged in a spotty manner all of the rest of the year.  Our feet, as a consequence of this, were tough and calloused.  Only a very strong splinter or a piece of glass could puncture or cut our feet, and the heat of an asphalt street in the midday sun was no great discomfort to us as the summer wore on.  It was with these bare but leathery feet that we began our hike as the sun started to sink towards the horizon to the west.

We saw our first tarantula only a few yards up Monument Trail, a three or four foot wide dirt track which led generally uphill towards the top of Monument Peak.  At the top of that peak is a lookout post for those who watch for forest fires and a monument to the fire fighters who fought a monster blaze in those hills in the early 1950’s.  Mike and I marveled at this creature which was far enough away that it inspired more curiosity than dread.  After a few moments of registering the spider’s presence and novelty we walked on.  We had never seen one of these things here before, and it was worth a look

Maybe a third of a mile up the path we saw the second spider.  Mike and I were quite taken with the coincidence of seeing two of these things when we had previously been unaware that any lived here.  We did not see any need for concern however until we had walked a couple hundred yards up the trail and saw two more, with one of them being right in the middle of the trail.  Mike and I were carrying our long snake sticks, or “snake sniks” as we called them, which we used as walking sticks and to rattle brush in order to alert rattlers to our presence so that they could alert us to theirs.  Mike poked at the obstructionist arachnid with his stick to speed it out of our way.  Speed was exactly we we got; the thing jumped about two feet to a spot just off the trail and glowered at us with its several dozen eyes.  Mike and I looked at each other first in amazement which was slowly but certainly replaced with fear.  The damned things jump.

It was at this time deepening into dusk and we were well along a trail which we now knew was lousy with tarantulas behind us.  My dad, who was well shod and not overly afraid of spiders anyway, reasoned that the only option was to go forward and perhaps find less crawly terrain ahead.  It seemed like our best choice so on we went, but the carpet of tarantulas which covered the area only thickened.

By the time we were a couple of miles up the trail it had become completely dark but for the light of a full moon, and Dad led the way as Mike and I followed, trying to place our feet exactly in the print of the person who was walking in front of us.  The bright moonlight made it easy to discern the path as it wound it’s way through the waist high chaparral on either side of us, but it was too dim to illuminate the spiders which we knew were crawling on our path and everywhere to either side of it.  I was expecting at any moment to put my bare foot down on a furry, wriggling, biting horror and I know that Mike expected the same.  We walked on untouched however, hoping that we could finish the rest of this five mile trek unscathed.

We at last reached the end of the hiking trail halfway up the mountain where it joined the Forest Service road that led up to the peak.  That made the road easier to see but our low-crawling friends were not visible in the gloom that cast shadows across the irregular road surface, shadows which I was certain provided cover for a hoard of hairy denizens that were biding their time before they jumped and began to feast on my legs and feet.

A few hundred yards down the road from the junction with the trail was the beginning of a path which zig zagged down the side of the hill to join the road below, cutting off a good two miles of this walk.  The path was little more than a game trail however and it would be hard to see in the dark.  More to the point, the path crossed several times a small rill of water which began at a spring on the side of the mountain and trickled down the hillside for a short distance before it was reabsorbed into the dry, thirsty earth of that arid corner of the country.  Dad knew that the creatures of that area came to drink at that tiny waterway or nibble at the vegetation.  Other creatures came to nibble on them, including rattlesnakes which were more than happy to partake in that moveable feast.  Dad knew that our fears of those tarantulas were pretty nearly groundless, but his fear of snakes was very well founded indeed.  Mike and I begged to descend on the shorter route snakes or no snakes, but Dad held firm.  So on down the mountain we continued to hike.

By the time we descended off of the mountain and began to walk the last level mile and a half of the road we began to relax just a little.  We had not stepped on any tarantulas yet and we were starting to like our odds that we would not do so at any time in the near future.  We turned out to be prophets, as we finally entered a grove of oak and pine which signified that we were at the picnic space and only a few yards from entering the overnight camping space of the campground.  The lights from the Coleman lanterns and the activity of families returning from the nature talk and climbing into tents or onto cots outside allowed us to breathe easily for the first time in the past couple of hours.

We soon were getting ready to wrap up in our blankets to get some well-earned sleep after a day of joyful fishing and climbing and poking around the rocks and slides of the falls at the south end of the campground, and a night of fearful pressure and tension as we walked barefoot through hell.  Dad assured us that tarantulas were shy and avoided areas which humans occupied.  I was not at all certain that the tarantulas had read the same books as my father however, so I dragged the thin cotton mattress off of my cot and slept on it inside of Dad’s big canvas umbrella tent, with Mike sleeping on his mattress right next to me.

Student Athlete or What?

I was just walking down the street today letting my mind do what it does best, which is wander and muse.  My musings came to rest on the topic of college football which I love but am becoming very worried about.  Every year college football becomes a bigger and bigger business, and with the money comes the inevitable strings and shady deals.  I won’t mention any names, but most people who enjoy college athletics are well aware of schools slipping support to athletes and their families and athletes being shopped around for the best deal from schools.  Add to this the students who leave their colleges early to pursue careers in the National Football League or National Basketball Association and the ones who actually ‘graduate’ but cannot conduct an interview without garbled cliches and fractured English and it becomes apparent that the notion of student athlete has been very badly strained.  I am here to offer a solution of sorts.

A huge amount of attention is placed on the race for the National Championship of NCAA football, and huge television contracts, advertising and player recruiting are wrapped up in the quest for this title.  I therefore propose a change in the calculus by which this championship is determined.  I propose that there be developed an Academic Ranking Index based on student athlete classroom performance with the degree of difficulty of the various subjects being a multiplier.  In this scheme an ‘A’ received in freshman English would carry a multiplier of 1, while and ‘A’ received in trigonometry or molecular biology or a critical evaluation of Victorian English writing based on Dickens, Austen and Trollope might receive a multiplier of 3.5.  This ARI would be used in determining the champion in the following manner.

At the end of the college football and basketball year ( I chose those two because they are the major sports which siphon off players with questionable academic performance and before their graduation ) the coaches and sportswriters would do their calculations and determine which team has demonstrated the best athletic ability.  A ranking on that parameter would be decided, much as it is now from week to week.  Then the ARI would be assessed for each of the major colleges and a graph drawn of these parameters.  At the point where these parameters intersect the national champion would be chosen.

I grant that the national champion would not be one of the powerhouse teams or conferences that we have come to know in recent years but it would be an accurate reflection of the notion of a student athlete, and the students who participate on the field and the administrators and professors and assistants who labor to produce rounded individuals will finally be recognized for the hard work that they are doing.  Additionally, the places which they currently look to for national championships will find that trolling for brawn and omitting the academic development of the athlete will get you lots of wins but no trophies and, hopefully, less television coverage as the race for the crown becomes focused on those schools who more energetically pursue the twin path of academic and athletic excellence.

If that is not acceptable I recommend another reform.  If American colleges and universities are to be no more than a minor league for the NFL and the NBA then let the professional leagues pay for it.  I propose that the professional leagues provide the scholarships that the students receive to play ball and supply four additional full-ride academic scholarships for each athletic.  The professional leagues will additionally provide a proportion of the funds that it takes to maintain fields and facilities at the schools and in the event of an underclassman jumping to the professionals that would cost them another four full ride academic scholarships.  School, after all, is school.

I would like to go so far as to advocate that television coverage of college football games would rotate on a regular basis through all one hundred-plus Division I teams, but I suppose that would be asking too much.  The players at Buffalo or North Texas or Southern Utah play just as hard and just as passionately as do those at LSU, Michigan or USC.  Like I said,  that would probably be asking too much.

Big influxes of money tends to bring corruption, as we all know.  In the aftermath of the Seattle/Pittsburg Super Bowl game many years ago I began to suspect that all was not entirely honest in the NFL.  Just as a point of fact, I am NOT a fan of Seattle.  When $4 million can be asked for and paid for a thirty second ad on the broadcast of the Super Bowl it is just straining credulity too much for me to believe that that much money is clean.  It is my earnest hope that the creeping cynicism which accompanies the hugh cash inflow to an endeavor does not eventually cause me to lose interest in the NCAA too.

Not a Leg to Stand On: A Tale of New Mexico

I have made many trips to New Mexico over the years. I go there primarily to visit family but almost as much as that I go to visit New Mexico. The Great State of New Mexico is for the most part what some people call a “fly-over state”, that is, a state that they fly over on their way from one interesting place to another. Those people do not know what they are missing.

New Mexico is a mystical place where the common and the uncommon mix in a blend that requires sharp eyesight and attention to discern one from the other. There are cultural and spiritual forces at play that defy the expectations of the casual observer and won’t show their faces unless the observer has earned a peek by letting his or her eyes and ears do the heavy lifting and the mouth take a holiday.

The population mix in New Mexico does much to impart this rainbow aura.  To simply say ‘Anglo’, ‘Latino’, and ‘Native American’ is to woefully understate the complexity of the state’s ethnic fabric. At it’s most basic level ‘Anglo’ means white, but that would cheat the term of its richness.  More accurate would be to say that Anglo means ‘Not Latino or Native American.’  Anglos have been in New Mexico in serious numbers for the last 150 years, and they came from all corners of the nation and even of the world. The descendents of these pioneers are the leathery, sunburnt ranchers and farmers, truck stop owners and city denizens who relate more to the other long time citizens than they do to the Californians, New Yorkers, Texans, and other recent migrants from East and West and Wherever who have flocked to New Mexico to partake of it’s economic or cultural scene. The term Anglo gets one to first base in describing this group, but still leaves one a long way from home plate.

Latino is nearly as complex a term. There is much continuity with the northern Mexican culture in New Mexico with a sprinkling of Central and South American thrown in for good measure. These are recent immigrants or the children or grandchildren of such immigrants. But things stretch out longer than that. Old families can trace their lineage back to the conquistadores who brought Spanish rule and culture to the territory in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, before the United States was even a distant enlightenment dream. These folk are spread throughout the New Mexican population but can be found in greater numbers in land grant areas and in the mountainous region of northern New Mexico. A person might be working next to someone with red hair, freckles and generally pale skin who communicates with the guy next to him in the kind of Spanish that you have to be born into to speak so easily.  One might perhaps hear a trace of the ‘Cathtillian’ lilt, a linguistic leftover from many years gone by.

Native American is probably the most rich cultural mosaic to be found in the state. New Mexico is home to nineteen pueblos and all or part of three other tribal reservations, the Jicarilla and Mescalero Apaches and the easternmost portion of the Navajos. Within those groups there is plenty of diversity if one wants to look around oneself and see it. It is my family and this rich cultural stew that keeps bringing me back year after year, and I am never bored or disappointed when I am there.

The first thing that I look for when I arrive at the Albuquerque Sunport is the unusual, and it is not normally long in coming. On one visit I read a newspaper article before my brother arrived to pick me up.  A person was crossing a street one dark night and was hit and probably killed by an automobile who’s driver took off and left the victim in the road. Shortly thereafter a driver for the local newspaper was making his early morning bulk deliveries and suddenly found himself rolling over a body lying in the middle of the road. Being a sensible man and knowing that the papers had to be delivered to their distribution points on time,  and further reasoning that the body in the road was probably already dead anyway, the driver proceeded to finish his deliveries before returning to the warehouse where the police were waiting for him. His plea that the pedestrian was already dead was received by the courts with a sympathetic ear and he was released to continue his duties with the instructions that, should he run over any more dead people in the future, he should make some effort to notify authorities of the event. The driver was assured that his employer would be understanding of his late deliveries as a result of performing his civic duty.

Another story which was told to me by my brother was the time that the Navajo Tribal Council proceedings came to a screeching halt when a snake was found in the Council chambers. The Hopis might dance around with snakes and the Pueblos don’t care about them much one way or the other, but the Navajos have no time for snakes. All proceedings were held impromptu in other locations or postponed altogether until a Hataali, or healer, could come and neutralize the negative energy brought in by the snake and restore harmony to the building and the proceedings within it.  When I consider all of the snakes in my state government and at the federal level I begin to wonder if the Hataali could use a little overtime.

Native American spirituality manifests itself in many ways in New Mexico, and often catches outsiders and even insiders by surprise. My brother Brad and his wife Patricia have a liking for Native American pottery and will open their wallets for a good piece. A good piece is exactly what they found while visiting the Indian Market at the former Santo Domingo and now Kewa Pueblo. A young Navajo potter was selling his wares and a piece caught their eyes. They purchased the item and took it home, much to the annoyance of our Appalachian mother who saw no point is spending good money on such useless things. It was a short time later when they noticed that if the pot was turned ‘just so’ and the sunlight hit it at just the right angle the pattern in the glaze looked like a face.

To my brother and his wife this feature leant an additional richness to the pot and when they ran into the young potter at a fair in Gallup they eagerly told him about the face in the pot. The young potter was not as enthusiastic about the face as were my family. In fact, they said that he turned as white as it is possible for a Navajo to turn and asked them closely about the details of the face. They said that they couldn’t remember much and asked if he would like for them to bring the pot so that he could see if for himself. The potter turned a shade even paler and vigorously declined their kind offer, and then began to talk about other pots as a way of collecting himself. My sister-in-law, who taught for some time ‘on the rez’, quickly deduced that the potter was afraid that he had somehow captured a spirit in the pot at some point in it’s making and was terrified that a very ticked-off spirit would someday come to exact revenge for all of that time that it had spent on my brother’s shelf, rather than out haunting and generally pestering people or doing whatever Navajo evil spirits do. None of us have any doubts that our young Indian potter quickly found a Hataali to do a his stuff and get himself into harmony and gain whatever protection that was there to be had.

Probably my favorite story of New Mexico concerns a tour which my sister-in-law arranged for my visit one year. The state has a rich Catholic legacy and is strewn with churches built of adobe hundreds of years ago and still functioning today. Some are located in pueblos, others in tiny communities in the mountains or in the larger towns and cities like Taos and Santa Fe. Each church is sort of the same and sort of different. The tour was a circuit which began at Kewa Pueblo north of Albuquerque, then branched off the main road north of Santa Fe and wound through the mountains towards Taos, passing through places like Tesuque, Nambe, Las Trampas, Truchas, and others.  It was about early lunch time when we arrived at the mission church at Chimayo.

Chimayo is an important church in northern New Mexico. Every year during Easter season there is a pilgrimage to that church and people will walk or roll or crawl great distances to hear mass there. An additional attraction is a dry well housed in a low structure on the north side of the church proper. This dry well has no water, as the name indicates, but is rather full of red dirt. This dirt, like the waters of Lourdes in France, is reported among the faithful to have curative powers. Evidence of these powers can be seen by the appurtenances hanging on the wall that visitors once needed but need no longer, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

We parked in the gravel lot a short walk up a hill away from the church and the cluster of buildings which serves it. My brother, his wife and my mother and I walked slowly up that hill, partly because it is a beautiful walk but mostly because Mom was about ninety years old at the time.  Arriving at the top of the hill Brad and Patricia went to find the bathroom facilities and I navigated Mom to some benches under the tall elm trees next to the church.

We sat there resting and chatting for a bit before we were joined at the bench next to us by four Native Americans with musical instruments.  Some of the instruments were store bought many years ago and some were homemade. The group, which seemed to not notice us at all, began to tune the instruments and when they were done with that they lit bunches of grass that had been twisted together which smoldered and gave off a fragrant smoke. The group used that smoke to ritually purify themselves in a manner that could have been a thousand years old.

My mother, a country woman from Hazard, Kentucky, was baffled by this performance and asked me what they were doing. I just wanted to relish the scene but Mom, who was extremely hard of hearing (deaf as a post would not be an exaggeration) was not to be denied. “What are they doing?” she asked again in the high decibel manner of the hearing-challenged everywhere. I tried to motion with my hands for Mom to wait quietly but she was relentless.

“What are they doing?” she said again. I tried to tell her that it was part of their religion in low tones, but low tones to Mom was like trying to hear a whisper on a flight line. I turned it up a notch and told her at a volume that was disconcerting to me that it was a part of their religion. “That doesn’t look like much of a religion to me” Mom stated with all the sensitivity of a machine gun.

By this time a slow and painful death would have been preferable to my conversation with Mom and I gave an imperative hand signal which stemmed her talk, if it did nothing to mollify her scorn of the purification ceremony which continued unabated and unacknowledged as if we were no more than two flies on the church wall. Brad and Patricia soon rejoined us and we returned to our inspection of the church and grounds.

At last we entered the church and began to admire the art and architecture, and before long we became aware that people were beginning to sit down in the long wooden benches. We realized then that a mass was about to begin.  None of my family is Catholic so the procedure of a mass was completely alien to us, but we recognized, at least Brad, Patricia and I did, that an experience that we would remember for years to come was about to happen.

We saw some activity at the front of the church but I couldn’t tell you what they were doing. Soon however we could hear music coming from behind us. We turned to see where it was coming from and behold! The Native American musicians that Mom and I had seen tuning up and purifying themselves were now making their way slowly down the center aisle, playing their instruments and singing a praise or worship song; I couldn’t tell because it was in a native tongue. They made their way in a slow and stately manner, oblivious to the idiot tourists who were flashing cameras in their faces, to the front of the church. Once there they sang the mass to the four directions, which is a classic pattern of Native American spirituality. It was one of the most beautiful things that I have ever seen.  My knowledge of Native American spirituality was no greater than my knowledge of Catholicism but I could see that a worship that did justice to both traditions was underway, and if the cretins with their Nikons were unaware of it, I intended to be blessed by this experience, and blessed I truly was.

After the mass we arose from our hard wooden bench, with a predictable amount of grumbling by Mom, and we made our way up front and through a low door set in the north wall. This was the door that led to the dry well mentioned previously. The well was pretty uninspiring; just a ring of adobe bricks a couple of feet high with dirt in the middle. Apart from some troublesome sinuses and ringing in my ears I’m doing all right, so I had no urge to buy any dust and give it a whirl. I figured you had to be a Catholic to have much of a chance for success anyway.

Having had our fill of the church and the well we began to work our way towards the exit. Along and upon the righthand wall of this building were hung or parked the devices which people no longer needed after the healing dust of the well had done it’s miraculous work; a wheelchair, multiple sets of crutches, slings, back braces and the like were seen in profusion as we worked our way to the door. Then, near the exit, was the piece de resistance; a prosthetic leg.

All four of us just stood there and gaped at that peach-colored plastic, leather and metal leg hanging on the wall. Even Mom stood in front of that detached mechanical limb in speechless amazement. I don’t know how long we stood there, and I don’t know if the other tourists were as dumbstruck as we were. I doubt it, as they were probably winding their cameras and missed the whole thing.

Now I suppose that most of us have turned on the television at one time or another and seen some smooth tongued televangelist waving his arms about and knocking people down over here and raising up cripples over there, and many of us have responded with a dismissive ‘uh huh.’ But how do you fake that? I suppose the fathers or brothers or whatever the churchmen call themselves could have just hung up a prosthetic leg for sport, but I didn’t get any sense of that kind of thing going on there.

After getting ourselves back together we meandered back to our car and drove to the Rancho de Chimayo restaurant, where we had a very good New Mexican lunch. All of us agreed that if we lived close enough we would attend that church until the day we all die if only to have a chance to see the next guy who hobbled in on a wooden leg and walked out whole and happy.