I enjoy telling stories orally and that has led me to take up the pen and write down some of the stories of my life. I usually try to inject humor into my tales and that is not an especially hard thing to do as there is almost always humor in life if we will only look around and try to find it. There are times and events however which admit to no humor. Our lives can take dark and painful turns which we never see coming and demonstrate to us that life can be a fragile and unpredictable thing, subject to pressures which crush the spirit and leave you just trying to get out of bed in the morning and make it through another day. I have experienced these times, as have most people, and I will now write about one of them. In February of 1976 my wife, whom I will call Clarice since I believe that in reality I do not personally know anyone by that name, announced to me her desire that we should separate. I had sensed a growing distance between us but believed that it would pass and we would somehow get back on our usual track. With this announcement I now saw that the rupture of our relationship was much worse than I had previously thought it to be. I didn’t say much, but instead went outside into the cold winter evening in Northern California to get my thoughts straight. After a while I returned to our house and we talked about the issue. “It would only be a separation” she said. “Just to see if things could get worked out between us.” The thought gave me some hope although in fact that hope was pure fantasy, a straw clutched at by a drowning man. “Would you see other guys while we are apart?” “Sure. I’m not going to become a nun. You would be able to see other women too”. I had no interest in doing the dating rat race and the thought of Clarice with someone else made my stomach turn. “Can we at least agree to not be with other people until we are actually separated?” I asked. She agreed to this, and the date of June 1 was set for our separation. I immediately stopped the construction work that I had been doing for ten to fourteen hours per day, sometimes seven days per week, and found a part time job that gave me a good deal more free time to try to mend fences with Clarice. This did little good however because Clarice was gone most of the day. She worked part time also and was part of a local actors group, and was always rehearsing or taking singing lessons or doing something or other which kept her away from our home for most of the day. I rested on our agreement, however, and hoped that something would change before the agreed-upon separation date arrived. One of the things that I did in my new-found spare time was to reconnect with a lot of my college friends. With my ‘now’ descending into a depressing progression of one empty day leading into another as our separation date approached I reached out to those who were my companions in happier and more care-free earlier times. On one day I happened to be at a house rented by a couple whom I knew when we lived in the same apartment complex at school. There were some other people there, and we drank a few beers and smoked a joint or two, and being highly gregarious I just naturally ended up talking with a complete stranger. We both exuded a melancholy air and ended up listening to Aretha Franklin records and telling each other our blues as Aretha sang her own. This guy, whom I’ll call Eugene, was telling me of the breakup which he was in the middle of with his girlfriend. I listened with great sympathy and then began to tell him of my situation. “My wife, Clarice, works at such and such a place, and is involved in such and such activities,” I explained. “We’re separating next month and I hate it. At least we’re staying faithful to each other. I can at least feel good about that.” Eugene looked at me in a funny way, but I was a little bit stoned and drunk, and was deep in my sadness so it didn’t register with me at all. Finally he asked “what did you say your wife’s name is?” “Clarice Durden” I responded. Eugene sat for a minute, looking out of the window at the chickens scratching at bugs in the dirt of the fenced yard outside. In another minute he asked “Where did you say she works”. “She works at the college” I replied, still unprepared for what was coming. Eugene sat for another minute, sipping his beer and looking out of the window, and then he put on another Aretha record. “There’s something I got to tell you man.” Eugene went on to tell me of the relationship that Clarice was already in with another man. I said that it couldn’t be true, but Eugene knew too many names, facts, dates and descriptions. I sat in my chair like a pig that had just been whacked in the head with a sledge hammer. Lisa, one of the couple who lived at the house, saw what was going on and came over to thump Eugene in the back of the head. “What are you doing man? They were going to be separated in another month and he would never have to know about that shit!” “A man deserves to know this kind of thing” he responded. “It’s not right that she’s making a fool of him”. Well, Eugene was partly right. I did have a right to know. As for a man deserving to know more than a woman in the same situation, I don’t think so. I would tell a friend anyway. As for the part about being made a fool of, well, I was pretty much doing a good job of that all by myself. The signals, if I wasn’t as naive as a six-year-old, were all there to be read. I just didn’t want to read them. Now, a perfect stranger had just pointed out to me that I was the last person in the entire county to know what was going on. I went home right after that and sat in my kitchen until Clarice returned several hours later. She entered the house as she usually did with a cheerful greeting, but I confronted her with what I had heard right away. Clarice denied it, but I could finally see the truth in her face. She continued to deny the relationship and at last I said “If you won’t tell me the truth I’ll take my .38 and get the truth out of your boyfriend”. I actually called him something other than that, with a few adjectives thrown in for good measure. I didn’t really own a .38 or any other type of firearm and wouldn’t have dreamed of using one if I did, but Clarice wasn’t sure about that, so she admitted at last to the affair to prevent a possible murder. I was crushed. I went into the garage and pounded my fist onto a 2 X 4 handrail and roared my pain in inarticulate sounds. Clarice just sat down in a kitchen chair and didn’t move until I finally returned. I had nothing to say; nothing that would have made any sense. I told her I was going to bed, and I actually showered and got into bed. I was running on automatic pilot, not thinking because my brain was imploding. I had only programmed routine to keep me sane. That last night that we spent in the same building together we had sex. As I said, I had lost the ability to put one coherent thought together with another. Routine took over while my mind retreated to some distant and protected place where the teeth and claws of a now-malevolent present life could not be able to reach it and finish the job that it had begun of driving me over the edge. Finally, exhausted with grief, I passed into a fitful sleep. Early the next morning I arose, dressed myself, threw a number of clothes and personal items into a backpack and a couple of shopping bags and drove my Ford pickup down the gravel drive to the street and finally onto the highway, with my home behind me and nothing that I was certain of before me. I decided that I would first go to see an old college roommate who was now caretaker at a rural volunteer fire department nearby. Driving down the road my Ford sputtered and died. This was not the first time that this had happened, but on this occasion my frustration was magnified two hundred percent. I rolled to a stop on the shoulder of the road and walked a short way to an offramp. Down the offramp was a store where I got some change so that I could call my dad from a phone booth in the parking lot. My mother was away visiting her relatives in Kentucky and Dad was alone when he answered. “Dad, I just left home” was all I could say before I was blubbering incoherentely. My father, who would never be described as a sensitive, new age sort of guy, listened patiently as his youngest son broke down on the phone. After I regained some composure we talked for a bit, and Dad said to call when I needed to; every day if that’s what it took. That was exactly what it took. I called Dad each day for a month. When I hung up on that first morning I returned to the truck, which fired up immediately, and I completed my trip to the fire station, where a sofa in the recreation room would be my home for the next four days. This all happened in May, and I quarterbacked our divorce proceedings through the courts in August. We remained friends, oddly enough, and I harbor no resentment towards Clarice to this day. We had no business being married at all, let along to each other. Neither one of us had a successful model of marriage in our lives and our chances of making a marriage work were doomed from the start. I had no idea of what a spouse is supposed to bring to a marriage and neither did Clarice, although we both had fantasies which unfortunately turned out to be contradictory. Probably the only maturity that either of us showed in the whole of our relationship was in refusing to let the separation and divorce descend into rancour ( know that the word is properly spelled ‘rancor’, but adding the ‘u’ makes it seem,well,British, and adds to the effect I think). It took me about three months before I laughed again. I know this because it was pointed out to me by one of my new roommates. It was a year before I could sit in a bar or restaurant and not sink deeper into depression as I sank deeper into my cups. I finally remarried, as did she. My second marriage has lasted for quite a few decades now. Clarice’s lasted a couple of years, but then she left him to marry someone new and stayed with him to the end of his life; several decades later. I must admit, and it is petty of me, that I derive some pleasure that the man for whom Clarise left me got to enjoy some of his own medicine. I know that I shouldn’t, but I hope it hurt. If I have a moral to this story it is that marriage is not to be entered into lightly and never to be taken for granted once the vows are said. Those who are successfully married have an obligation, I think, to model their marriage to those who might otherwise walk blindly into a meat grinder that, if you are not prepared for it, can turn your heart into sausage and make your soul a prison of pain. But I didn’t write this to moralize; I’m just telling a story.
When I was a young boy I was generally more cautions than most of my friends, but I still loved taking my chances from time to time. For instance, my brother and I once acquired a device called a ‘flexi’. This thing was basically a sled with wheels, which was useful since San Diego was not big on snow. The flexi came with two large springs which connected the front axel to handles that would allow steering but which tended to keep the flexi pointed straight ahead, more or less. The first thing that my brother and I did once we got our hands on a flexi of our own was to remove those springs. The second thing that we did was head straight to the Dwight Street hill.
The Dwight Street hill was short, only half a block long. t’s virtue therefore did not lie in its length. Instead, the Dwight Street hill was valued for its steepness. Brad (my brother) and I would take turns standing at the bottom of the hill and signaling when no cars were approaching the intersection of Dwight St. and Chamoune Ave. When the hand came down we would shove off and fly down that hill with the speed of Mercury on a mission for the gods.
I do not know what advantage we believed that removing the springs conferred, but on our flights down the hill their absence frequently proved to be quite painful. Sitting on the boards of the flexi and steering with our feet we had to keep perfectly straight, or the turning of the wheels at speed would result in us being pitched off of the flexi to bump and roll and skid the rest of the way down the hill on elbows and knees and faces and rear ends. The amount of skin that was left on that asphalt surface was impressive, when you consider that every kid in the neighborhood wanted his turn on the flexi. I can’t begin to count the bottles of iodine, mercurichrome, and other antiseptic liquids that were splashed over raw body parts which were missing skin because of that stupid flexi.
Another daredevil attraction that we boys could’t pass up was messing around with heights. Anything which got us up off of the ground made us feel untethered, like birds, and able to throw off the shackles of gravity which sought to limit us to a boring, terrestrial existence. There was a big pine tree in our front yard that was probably fifty feet high. From the top one could see for many miles in all directions, even to the Coronado Islands which lie south of San Diego and actually belong to Mexico. We boys would spend hours in that tree, frequently crawling out and balancing on the larger branches as far out as would hold our weight, and then swaying up and down and back and forth in the wind. This practice lasted for several years until I discovered that a huge species of spider which was colored much like the bark of that tree lived there. Heights were exhilarating but spiders are terrifying, so that pretty well ended my tree climbing days.
Probably the most dangerous stunt which any of us ever pulled off however involved becoming a human flame thrower. We enjoyed aiming a stream of hairspray through a flame which created an exciting blowtorch effect, but that was not enough of a thrill for one of the more adventurous of us. Something with a little bit more ‘flare’, if you will, was needed and Larry Stang was the first to find out what that something would be. Larry was an older teen and a smoker who had his own Zippo lighter, and one day while refilling his lighter with the highly flammable lighter fluid Larry had his epiphany. Unknown to everyone else, Larry tried his new trick and it worked. He could hardly wait for the big moment when he would stun and amaze the crowd with his new-found capability.
That big moment came a few weeks after Larry’s epiphany. We were all hanging out at the recreation center which was the nucleus of our neighborhood, talking and joking and pretty much doing what teenagers do everywhere where there is a little spare time in the day. Nobody took any notice when Larry pulled a can of lighter fluid from his back pocket and dug his Zippo out of a pocket in front. Straightening the plastic nipple of the can into the ‘open’ position Larry proceeded to squirt a sizable amount of the fluid into his mouth. We all stopped talking in mid sentence and stood looking at Larry with our jaws hanging agape. Assured of a good and appreciative audience, Larry flicked the striker on his lighter and produced the pilot light through which he blew a blast of the fluid.
The results were instantaneous and electric. The fluid ignited just as it flew through the flame, producing the staggeringly impressive human torch effect that Larry had practiced successfully for weeks. There was one little glitch however. One variable that Larry hadn’t taken into consideration. Bob Dylan once famously sang “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Well, apparently Larry Stang DID need the aforementioned weatherman. The flame which spewed forth from his mouth was quickly blown by a malicious breeze right back into his face, lighting his hair and the collar of his shirt, turning the human blowtorch into just the human torch.
“Holy crap!” “Shit!””‘ta madre!” These and other expressions greeted this new development. One of the older, more quick-thinking boys tore his shirt off and with its help the flames were extinguished in no time. Larry was moaning as the skin began to blister up on his face and on his hands which he had used to beat at the flames. The burns were not especially severe, but that meant that they were more quickly painful. A couple of the guys half carried Larry to the recreation center office to get help from the park leader, who took one look at Larry and called for an ambulance.
A couple of days later we went to call on Larry. There were four of us, including Bill Samuels who was one of the biggest, meanest guys in the neighborhood. When we were admitted into Larry’s room we were assaulted by the hospital smell and the vision of Larry’s blistered, bandaged head and hands with some sort of glistening ointment that looked for all the world like serous fluid oozing from Larry’s sores. The sight and smell together had an instant effect on Bill, who passed out cold as a fish and split his head clean open on the metal foot of Larry’s bed. That earned Bill a night’s stay at the hospital in a room not too far down the hall from Larry.
That pretty much signaled the end of the ‘human blowtorch’ routine in our neighborhood. Many spoke of it, a few tried it with mixed success, but it soon died a natural death. We were forced to limit ourselves to playing chicken on our bicycles and walking across canyons on elevated pipelines which carried water or gas or who knows what in order to get a little adrenalin rush going. I sometimes wonder how any of us stayed alive.
The news which is lately coming out of Eastern Europe is anything but encouraging. Old nationalisms and hatreds which more properly belong to past centuries are popping up as if the blood soaked tragedy that was the twentieth century never happened. A person with no sense of history will find the events occurring in Ukraine unfortunate and confusing but will most likely decide that it is none of the West’s, and especially none of America’s, business. We should keep our focus on domestic problems and leave Ukraine for somebody else to worry about. Such a position would be understandable, and regrettable.
A person who is more familiar with the history of that region will instantly recognize patterns which played a prominent part in the horrors of the previous century. Adolph Hitler claimed that his aggression in Czechoslovakia and Poland was aimed at protecting the rights of ethnic Germans. The claim by Vladimir Putin that Russia just gobbled up the Crimean peninsula, which was sovereign Ukrainian territory, for the purpose of protecting the rights of ethnic Russians is virtually identical to the tactics of Der Fuehrer which unleashed the dogs of war in Europe and around the world seventy five years ago. Five years before the war began Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland with no response from the Allies. Three years later the ‘rights’ of the Austrians and Sudeten Germans provided the pretext for German annexation of Austria and western Czechoslovakia with only impotent acquiescence from the British and French. A year and a half after that the war was unleashed on humanity with all of its hideous cruelty.
Equally disturbing is the recent distribution of pamphlets in eastern Ukraine demanding that Jews register their names and property with the rebel ethnic Russian “government” there. Somebody may know who it really was that distributed these pamphlets, but the general public is not being told who that might be, nor the reason why. The import of the event is not lost on the Jewish population in Ukraine and everywhere else in central and eastern Europe however, as the intimidation and murder of Jews and the theft of their property is a European tradition that dates back to the ninth century, and there are Jews yet alive who remember the orgy of anti-Semitism that occurred in Europe just seventy five years ago. This pamphlet, which seems crass and perhaps a little silly to a modern American who is ignorant of history, is loaded with centuries of meaning to a Ukrainian Jew.
The saddest part of this to me is that the pamphlet could have come from either side, Russian or Ukrainian. Both countries have a sordid history of violence against their Jewish citizens, and in one essay in the book “Shatterzone of Empires” the author relates the story of a captain in the retreating German Army in WW II rescuing a group of Ukrainian Jews from an imminent and cruel death at the hands of a mob of “Christian” Ukrainians. The adjective merits quotation marks because these actions speak nothing of Christ and, in fact, are quite the work of Christ’s opposite. The point of this is that the anti-Semitism which drove Jews out of England and France in the thirteenth century and Spain in the fifteenth, which murdered and robbed Jews throughout Europe for a thousand years, and sought to exterminate them in the twentieth century is still alive and well in Russia, Ukraine, and anywhere else where such an event as the pamphlets is met with silence and inaction. Does anyone wonder why Jews in Israel will not budge one inch in defending the only place on the planet where a Jew need not feel threatened because of his or her ethnicity?
In summary, the actions in russia and Ukraine of the last month or two are carbon copies of the events which led to total destructive war and mass murder less than a hundred years ago. People with a sense of history and a determination to not let it happen again could stop it now if forceful measures were taken. Forceful measures, however, are not popular on college campuses, in hipster coffee shops, and wherever fun-worshiping Westerners gather. Nor are they popular with politicians who deny their own resemblance to English Prime Minister Chamberlain and his French counterpart Daladier, who gave Czechoslovakia to Hitler, while in fact their actions are identical. Bullies and dictators notice weakness and act accordingly. the world in the twenty first century looks as if it could be in for one hell of a ride.
Almost anyone can tell you a ‘small world’ story. Perhaps it is something that they experienced themselves or something that they heard from someone else. Either way, a telling or retelling of the tale will inevitably draw an amazed comment: “well, it’s a small world”. The funny thing about it is that it is not at all a small world. The diameter of Earth is 7,926.28 miles at the equator. The circumference at same is 24, 901.55 miles. We share this globe with 7.2 billion other souls, so when I see a letter to former French leader Charles De Gaulle in a museum devoted to him among other things, which was written by somebody in the town of Ridgefield not 15 miles from where I live, or run into an elderly gent who served on the same ship as my father in WW II some seventy years ago, it stands out as something unusual. Sometimes it is not just unusual but almost unbelievable, and for that reason this story is titled “It’s A Tiny World.”.
Many years ago I began to attend a community college near San Diego, California. While I was there I met and became friends with some people who were liberal activists, as I was. We decided to form a PIRG, or Public Interest Research Group. These groups were inspired and cheered on by Ralph Nader, who was very big in reformist circles a generation ago. I don’t recall that we accomplished much for we didn’t really have a grip on what needed to be reformed or how to go about reforming it. We had fun trying to figure it out however, and that’s not a bad thing.
The next semester came along and a new batch of bright eyed reformers came on the scene who didn’t like the way that we were running things, so they decided that a coup was in order. The coup was successful and, frankly, we were too stoned to care all that much. Still, the ouster from the helm of the organization that you gave birth to leaves a bitter taste, and for that reason I did not much like Tony, the leader of the young bloods. As soon as my connection to that PIRG was broken however I forgot about Tony and went my merry way making plans to save the world in other ways and venues.
Two years pass, and now I’m hanging out at the Southern California Exposition (which used to be called the San Diego County Fair) with my first-wife-to-be and in the middle of the place we ran into Tony. I had long since gotten over my hard feelings concerning the PIRG thing and greeted Tony warmly enough. After introducing my lovely bride-to-be-for-a-while I asked the usual question that is asked at such occasions; “What’cha been doing?”
“I’ve been in Colombia for the last year”.
“Colombia, I used to write to a girl who lived in Colombia when I was in high school. I was taking Spanish and she was taking English”.
This was true. In my eleventh grade Spanish class our teacher, Mrs. Geiger, arranged pen pall relationships between those of her students who cared to engage in such a thing with students in Spanish speaking countries. My pen pal was a young woman named Amparo J. Moreno Martinez who lived in the Colombian state of Narino, in the city of Pasto. We sent a few letters to each other, but as I was a slacker born and bred I did not follow through with any faithfulness at all. Eventually, hanging out with friends at the neighborhood park, graduation, and the Vietnam War captured most of my attention and Ms. Martinez was pretty much forgotten. Until that night at the Exposition, that is.
“… I used to write to a girl in Colombia”.
“Really? Where did she live?” asked Tony.
“She Lived in the state of Narino.”
“Where in Narino?”
“A city called Pasto.”
Tony had acquired the look of a bird dog on a hunt in a marsh full of ducks. “What was her name?”. I had picked up the sense of amazement that was growing in Tony and wondered what escalation of that amazement my next answer might bring. “Amparo Moreno Martinez” I replied.
Tony simply stood in front of us with his jaw hanging open. I knew that something incredibly improbable was happening but still was not at all sure just what. I waited while Tony regained his faculty of speech. Finally Tony shared this with us:
“I grew up in Colombia. Where my family lived in the city of Pasto the family next door included a teenage girl named Amparo. We hung out together and she told me that she was writing to a boy in San Diego who was learning Spanish.”
We just stood there and looked at each other dumbfounded by the improbability of what had just happened. My girlfriend knew that something extraordinary was going on, but as a second party to it had no real sense of just how extraordinary it was. Tony and I laughed and gibbered about nonsense and acted like old friends for several minutes more before we separated, feeling much better about each other than we had only a short while before.
I have thought about Amparo J. Moreno Martinez many times since then. My wife – not the same person as in the story – had a pen pal in France with whom she reconnected after we visited that country many years ago. I was jealous of that reconnection and attempted the same through the internet. No Luck. I tried writing to the Mayor of Pasto, going through the Catholic Church, and every other avenue that came to mind, but to no avail. I suspect that I will never communicate with Ms. Martinez again but it is, after all, a tiny world, so who can say?
The recent uproar surrounding the decision by World Vision to hire married homosexuals, and then the decision a couple of days later to reverse that decision, has begun to recede from the social media just a bit, but there is still plenty of opinion being thrown into the arena. I was initially reluctant to add my two cents’ worth because, really, is one more crackle of static in a wall of white noise going to matter? After a while of wrestling with that question I have decided that it probably won’t matter at all, but I am going to do it anyway.
The shouting match seems to break down into a contest between ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’, and who is being true to Jesus and the Bible. Or to slice it more thinly, who is being true to the Whole Word of God and who is being true to the Heart of Jesus. It is probably much more complicated than that, but with my limited abilities that is how I see it. If I am not mistaking this too badly, many conservatives believe that guidance for every circumstance in life and society is explicitly provided by the Bible, and if that guidance was followed to the letter our society would look a lot like White America in 1955. It is only fair to point out, and I do so with joy, that many conservatives do not believe this. Many liberals, on the other hand, appear to me to believe that what the Bible teaches on a wide array of issues is secondary to what is perceived to be What Jesus Would Do, and that Jesus would generally do other than what conservative American evangelicals would do. In the best tradition of sitting on fences and marking out territory in the middle of the road let me say, with feet dug in and a backbone of iron, “you’re both partly right and you’re both partly wrong.
Let me begin this discussion by stating that my personal inclination is towards the conservative. If you ask a half dozen conservatives whom I know about that they may beg to differ, but it is I who gets to say what I think that I think and not them. It is, then, with a heavy heart that I say that the presumed Golden Age of America back then was not as golden as one might think, and that if you are pursuing that model you may not be living the Bible that you say that you love quite as much as you think. Nineteen Hundred and Fifty Five Ano Domini was not a good time to be in America if you were Black, Native American, Latino, homosexual, or a woman with aspirations to be other than a housewife, secretary or nurse, to mention just a few groups of people. The church which is supposed to love above all else had little love to spare for those who did not conform, and especially those who did not conform to the All American Family (fictional, mostly) stereotype. I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s and knew only one family which even came close to that model, and I have no idea what transpired behind their doors when my friend Jeff and I went to our respective homes after playing together for the day.
And what about the family that many conservatives believe to be the only correct model? How does that family look in too much of America today? Men either dominant with wives playing a submissive and subordinate role or men absent by overwork or simply sitting in their chair and checking out on their responsibilities while women are stepping up to fill their absence. Or perhaps women demanding to be the boss and place their needs, which are largely defined by the surrounding culture and not scripture, above that of the family. The children, pretty much neglected and their silence bought with electronic toys or whatever else is important to their peer group at the moment, feel little connection to the adults with whom they live or anything, frankly, that these adults believe. And the divorce rate among those married Christians is no different that that of the surrounding culture.
In my opinion a Christian marriage is one in which the husband and wife love and positively affirm each other, even when they don’t like each other sometimes, and children are included squarely in the middle of the family with love, respect, and guidance (even when that guidance is not welcome; it will be appreciated later). This marriage weathers the hard times which are inevitable. When American Christian marriage and families more nearly achieve that Biblical standard and divorce becomes a rarity resorted to rarely and under unique and very valid circumstances (we all know what they are), I believe that we will have a platform from which to preach on the subject to the culture at large.
In short, I believe that many American Christian conservative evangelicals are confusing the culture of America in the mid twentieth century with the gospel of Jesus Christ functioning on Earth, and are waging a war of culture, not of Christ versus the world (the one He came down to from heaven to die for and save). Jesus Christ is not now and never has been at war with the world. He loves His creation, and He tells us to love it too; all of it, if we have ears to hear.
And that brings me to those who feel that they must leave the evangelicals because there is no place for them there. Their Jesus is more than just the Bible, and they want to be Jesus followers and not Bible followers. What the Bible says about God’s view of the right life of His creation is of less importance to them than Jesus, who just happens to be the same God who inspired the Bible that they give lesser importance to. I’m not sure that I get that. We don’t even know anything that Jesus said or did apart from the Bible. The New Testament was written by people who knew Jesus; walked with Him, listened to Him, and then wrote of their remembrance. Even Paul knew about Jesus and probably heard Jesus preach, although he would not acknowledge Jesus as Lord and God until a bit later. All of these writers of the New Testament were Jews who knew the Old Testament faithfully, and when they write that Jesus said “every jot and tittle is true” they knew what they were writing about, and that has weight with me. And why would’t Jesus say that about the Old Testament? He, as God, inspired it after all.
If I am being asked to put aside the proposition that biblical marriage is between one man and one woman because Jesus said to love my neighbor I say “No”. The commandment to love my neighbor does not negate the Bible’s formula for proper marriage arrangements in any way. In my opinion, in a civil society homosexual people may marry as much as they want and they may enjoy all of the tax and inheritance benefits and physical and emotional neglect and abuse and divorce rates that many modern Christian marriages enjoy. I have neither obligation nor desire to throw bombs at unbelieving homosexual couples. Quite the reverse, I have an obligation to treat those people with justice and with the love of Christ as He commanded.
The marriage of homosexual believers is another and more sticky matter. As I wrote earlier, I am conservative. I believe that the Bible; all of it, even the symbolic and not literal stuff, is the inspired Word of God, who is Jesus, remember! While some of it can get twisted into some certified weirdness, such as the Prayer of Jabez, there is little wiggle room on the topic of God’s view of homosexual activity. I will not bother you with the verses; most of us interested in this topic already know them. And I will not be diverted by suggestions that David and Jonathan were homosexual lovers. The Bible does not say anything like that, and it is in my opinion a fantasy and a rabbit hole intended to divert the discussion from the facts. And the facts are that both Testaments, and especially the Old, do not endorse and in fact seek to discourage homosexual activity.
I would emphasize that the Old Testament is not less valid because it is old. If the prophecy of the coming of the Christ was not proclaimed throughout the Old Testament then jesus was just another slightly demented windbag with a sandwich board crying “The End is Near” on a street corner. It is the truth of the Old Testament which points to the truth of Jesus, and it does the world no favor to pick and choose truths to support some cause du jour. I would have no problem being pastored by a celibate homosexual male or female, and I have no problem calling a homosexual person my friend and a person loved by God and myself. I cannot however ignore that for a person who claims to believe in the Bible and in the Christ whom the Bible proclaims from start to finish, homosexual activity is not viewed with favor by God and cannot be endorsed by His church. I simply do not believe that we get to pick and choose what we do and don’t believe in God’s Word according to our convenience.
All that being said, I have no heartburn with World Vision hiring married homosexuals. If God has given that person a talent which will help me to help clothe, feed, minister health to and educate the ‘least of these’, then I am worse than an unbeliever in my opinion if I deny that hiring, and I am a very demon from hell itself if I would allow a child to be denied those benefits because of some culture war that I am certain makes Jesus’ heart break and makes me want to puke. And that, I suppose, is my two cents.
In the summer of 1966 I graduated from high school, celebrated my eighteenth birthday, and joined the Army. Graduation came naturally as I was a better than average student, and turning eighteen was almost inevitable. Enlisting in the Army however was an act born of shear boredom. I had no desire to become a police officer or a fireman, a college student or get married and generate one child per year until the war ended, and so after a couple of months kicking around the neighborhood and doing nothing in particular my friend Walt and I took the route 5 bus to downtown San Diego and paid a visit to the Army recruiter. Three days later we were in a shabby hotel in Los Angeles and a day after that, at about midnight, I was rolling through the gates of Fort Ord, California. Walt was not with me as he had some issues to clean up before he could enter military service, so I began this journey entirely on my own.
It took another two days of processing paperwork, receiving my issue of Army clothing and equipment, G.I. haircut and so on before we were bussed to our three story concrete barracks on the highest occupied point on Fort Ord. Beyond our barracks was the brush and trees of the undeveloped portion of the vast fort. On a day when it was not foggy or I was not so tired that I showered, shined my boots and brass and fell dead asleep on my bunk, I could look out of my window and see the Pacific ocean and the curve of Monterey Bay as it swept north towards Santa Cruz. Today you would pay $750,000 to $1.5 million for that view. Back then I would have given it to you for a nickel.
Basic training for me contained the usual mix of activities know to so many other servicemen; some demeaning, some exhausting, and some terrifying, but even in this millieu sometimes fun. Fun? You mean while crawling in mud under barbed wire obstacles with dynamite explosions going off around you as live machine gun fire is flying over your head while an assistant drill instructor is blowing tear gas on steroids at you through a three inch hose? Yeah, even with that nonsense going down we still found ways to relax and have a little fun. Young men always seem to be able to ignore the worst of their lot. Maybe that’s why the military drafts them instead of older guys who want to hold a town meeting. There were the usual diversions; writing letters and reading their replies, sharing stories, playing cards and so forth. We filled our few free hours with such activities. There were other times, special times however, when we were able to lift the cork out of the bottle and really have a laugh. This little story is about just such a time.
One of the things that recruits of any branch of the military truly hates is vaccinations. The military seems to have identified about 100 different dread diseases against which a vaccine has been produced to keep government property (us) in top working order. When I was in basic there were several different methods for administering these vaccines, with the air gun being their favorite. Unlike the old needle and syringe method, in which the medic administering the shot would plunge a needle the size of a railroad spike into a targeted body part until it bounced off of the bone, and then injected a wad of syrupy vaccine the size of a golf ball, the air gun used highly compressed air to literally blow the vaccine through the skin.
It was bad enough if you stood there still as a statue while a medic on either side of you hit both shoulders or upper arms at the same time. It got worse if you moved. The force of the air gun would rip the flesh open if it did not encounter a perfectly flat surface, thereby wasting the vaccine and causing the medic to select a new flat surface and try again. Usually we would line up by platoon, with each platoon taking it’s turn to be the first to go through the ominous doors of the barracks and get the needle in the rump and two stations of air guns on either side as you walked the gauntlet before falling out into formation on the company street and await as our comrades in the final platoons got their share of the pain. We would then march off to do physical training or close order drill or throw grenades or whatever sadistic nonsense our instructors would dream up to exacerbate the pain in our violated bodies. As I wrote earlier, we really hated vaccinations.
It was with this history in mind that we were lined up by platoon on the company street one day for the dreaded vaccinations. My platoon, the Third, was to go first, and we waited nervously for the door to the barracks to open and the medic to wave for the first victim to step inside. At last the door opened and our platoon leader stepped up onto the small porch and disappeared into the gloom of the barracks. We slowly shuffled forward snaking our way towards our turn in the gauntlet, but stopped dead in our tracks when we heard a blood-curdling scream and saw our platoon leader stagger out of the exit from the barracks, stumble forward clutching his crotch, and collapse writhing on the grass of the company lawn.
We all stared in horror at this. The line simply froze from front to back. After a moment’s pause however the Drill Sergeant and the medics, with maniacal grins on their faces, began to exhort the line forward with the usual curses and threats. I was in the first third of my platoon and so it was not long before I stood before that baleful portal which led inside where the screams and cries of the soldiers for mercy continued, and men continued to stagger back into the sunshine clutching their family jewels and collapsing on the lawn.
It was finally my turn to step into that torture chamber and as I did so my eyes adjusted to the lower light inside. I saw that the vaccination du jour was for polio. Dr. Sabin had created a vaccine for that nasty disease which was dripped onto a sugar cube which was then popped into the mouth of each G.I. as he passed by the medic’s station. That was it. The first soldier passing through had the bright idea of faking out a company of 250 men, and when he pulled his practical joke the drill sergeant, medics, and every G.I. in line behind him picked up the cue and continued the joke until the last man stepped into the barracks that day.
I played my part to the hilt, and as I staggered to the nearest patch of green lawn I slumped to my knees, holding my guys, and fell forward moaning piteously on my face. From that vantage point I occasionally cocked a surreptitious eye towards the line and I could barely keep from laughing as I watched horror, disbelief, dread, and even rebellion wash over the poor Joes waiting their turn. I would have to writhe a little so that I could turn my head the other way to keep the joke going.
We all had a good laugh with that bit of clowning and the Drill Sergeant and Company Commander were in such a good mood because of it that the rest of our day of training was light and we were released to our platoon areas early. We ate and then relaxed in our barracks and generally felt good about life. At two A.M. tear gas was pumped through the ventilation of Third Platoon and we fell gasping in underwear and gas masks and not much else into formation on the company lawn, while the other four platoons watched out of their windows and laughed at our discomfort. It was a small price to pay for the best act of punking that I have ever been a part of.
I felt lonely for the first few miles after Ben parted company with me to rejoin his people at Laguna, but before long my mind returned to the patterns of the previous day; ranging far and wide in space and time. The road was somewhat broken, as construction of the future Interstate 40 was underway and I would be sometimes hemmed in tightly by construction barrels and sometimes had to wait as eastbound traffic used a single lane, followed by westbound traffic when our turn came. The delay was annoying but it allowed me to appreciate the harsh beauty which surrounded me. The red cliffs on the north side of the road looked as if they belonged on Mars, and the jagged, broken black rock of the Malpais, a vast volcanic extrusion which occurred eons ago and yet still only sported tenacious and ragged shrubs and other hardy plants which grew in cracks and depressions in the rock where a little windblown dust had gathered in sufficient quantity to support life.
By the time I got to Grants I had broken free of the construction and was sailing once again on good and open road. I stopped to get fuel and check my transmission fluid, which was low but no worse than before. Near the gas station was a tiny hut which sold burgers, burritos, fries, and not much else. I ordered a cheeseburger and found that it was even hotter than my breakfast burrito had been. I gobbled that down and washed it down with an RC Cola, and then returned to the road. On the very outskirts of Grants I saw two more hitchhikers and, since I greatly missed Ben’s company, I pulled over and indicated for them to climb in. I no longer remember their names so I’ll call them Tom and Jerry. They were returning home from some school east of New Mexico and one was going to Flagstaff while the other was going to Prescott. Once again, this was not exactly the route I had been planning to take, but I could drop them off right at their destination at no inconvenience to myself.
Tom and Jerry were likable guys who were very grateful for the ride. We talked of our homes and their school experiences, and mine in Vietnam. The miles flew behind us. Soon we drove through Gallup, on the eastern edge of New Mexico, and then we began to cross the high, flat countryside of northern Arizona. That part of Arizona is very much unlike the arid land of the southern part of the state, or the lands further north near the borders with New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. There were shallow ponds, or perhaps small lakes, with high grass growing as far as I could see.
As we approached Holbrook, one of the railroad towns that run across the West, I had a bright idea. Tom was twenty years old like me, but Jerry was twenty one. i pulled into the parking lot of a small grocery store and provided Jerry with the funds to buy a couple six packs and some snacks, which he gladly did. Soon we were back on the road and enjoying ourselves even more than we had been before. Winslow rolled behind us and in another hour we were in Flagstaff. Jerry got out in the downtown area and said that he would like to walk the rest of the way home. I was beginning to wonder about this walking home thing. Prescott was an hour further down the road to the south, and Tom let me take him to his door. I was offered the hospitality of his family but I was by now wanting very much to get home. We waved and I was alone again and pointing the Mercury towards Phoenix and, beyond that, home.
The road from Prescott to Phoenix back then was a gently winding and steady drop from the evergreen-dotted high country to the low desert. As I drew nearer to Phoenix the vegetation grew more and more scrubby and sparse while the land became drier and more rocky and the air like a blast furnace. Driving through Phoenix was like swimming in a volcano, and as I turned first west to Glendale and then south to Gila Bend it got even hotter. There is a story told about this low desert country. At Yuma, which was in my path, there once was a prison. A prisoner who had lived many years in one of the cells there died and, being a very bad man, naturally went to hell. After a short while he petitioned the Devil to let him send a message back to earth, to which request Old Scratch surprisingly agreed. His message was simple: “Send my blankets”.
Turning west at Gila Bend I was now on a straight line for home. Across the farmland of Dateland, Tacna, Dome and Azteca I flew, stopping only in Azteca for gas, fluid and a restroom break. It was in the restroom at that gas station that I saw a sign that has stuck with me for all these years: “We aim to please. You aim too, please”. It was now mid afternoon and hot as hell, but I had visions of home dancing in my head. Since I was now driving straight west the sun was beaming in my windshield and roasting my knuckles on the steering wheel. I had to take turns; first one hand and then the other. The windows were rolled down and the scorching wind swirled around the growing fuzz on my head and face. Occasionally I would rest my elbow on the drivers’ side door, but quickly the flaming sun would begin to cook my pathetically pale skin and I would withdraw a slightly more pink arm back inside the safety of the car.
Soon I climbed a low pass through an outcropping of jagged, sun-blasted hills and descended into the town of Yuma, of the shivering bad guy in hell fame. A long, long line of traffic lights; the entire town seemed to be strung out along the east-west axis of U.S. Highway 80, finally gave way to the bridge over the Colorado River, the state checkpoint to keep out fruits and vegetables which could harbor pests injurious to California’s agricultural industry, and I was at last barreling across the sand dunes and sage-and-greasewood-and- cactus covered desert floor of the Imperial Valley.
The climb up the east side of the Laguna Mountains was a wonderful thing. Each thousand feet that I rose brought the temperature down further and further from hellish to miserable to hot, until finally I achieved comfortable at the top of the grade. Watching the temperature gauge on the Mercury’s dashboard gave me a few moments of heartburn as the extra effort of propelling a ton of vehicle and passenger up the steep, winding, 4,000 foot grade made the engine overheating more than a dim possibility, a prospect which was attested to by the rather large number of cars pulled over in turnouts provided with large barrels of water by the State Division of Highways to grant succor to those who had to drop out and cool off before continuing up the grade. The needle climbed into the “HOT” range but never made it to “TOAST”, and almost the moment that I rose up over the crest and began to wind my way westward across a level valley north of Jacumba the needle began to dip back down to its usual resting place.
I wanted to keep going but needed one more gas stop in Pine Valley, where I was to be married one day eight years later. The transmission fluid was not leaking any worse than before and I felt relieved to know that a phone call and a couple hours’ wait for my dad to arrive with a tow bar was the worst thing that could happen now. I got a burger and fries, this one cooler than molten lead, from a little place next to the only motel in Pine Valley, and ate it as I resumed my journey west.
A couple of miles west of Pine Vally I mounted a gentle hill that marked the last high point between me and home. Descanso slipped by and then Alpine, the town with a tavern that has a huge oak tree growing right through the center of the building. Flinn Springs, El Cajon, and finally back to the incipient Interstate 8. No more than five miles after that I was pulling up in front of the home that I grew up in. I turned the motor off and sat there for a few minutes, listening to the ‘ting, ting, ting’ of the motor cooling down. It had been a long and arduous drive for both of us, and my admiration for that car grew as I thought back over the last 36 hours. It was about eight o’clock, just before the last fading of light in San Diego in the summer. I emerged from the car and walked up to the front door. I hadn’t called ahead, so i rang the doorbell. it was Dad who came to the door and he was surprised to see me home so soon. He opened the door as Mom came from a room in the back of the house to see what was going on. I said “Hi”, and gave them both a big hug, just like the hugs I had been given at the campground at Wind Cave. It was the hug that I should have given them a couple of weeks ago when I returned from two years of war. It was the coming home that mattered, like Bens.