The Territorial Enterprise®

Publishers Since 1858

Tom Muzzio

Tom Muzzio

Selected works written for the Territorial Enterprise

Tom Muzzio has been the owner, publisher, and CEO of the Territorial Enterprise since 1985, when he came to Northern Nevada to settle in and establish an alternative greeting card and paper products company. "Like most folks of my generation, I had been raised on Bonanza," so Virginia City had a certain charm for me when I arrived and walked on its wooden plank sidewalks for the first time," he confides. "But I had no idea about its real secret—its hidden treasure (besides Comstock silver, that is)." It was called the Territorial Enterprise, and it is indeed a national historic treasure even to this day.

Having recently escaped religion after years as a fundamentalist minister, he was searching for something a bit more on the wild side. The historic newspaper, The T.E. (est. 1858) was just that. "While I’d always loved Twain, like most people not native to Nevada, I had no idea that Sam Clemens made his literary debut right here on the Comstock, writing for the paper. Totally great!"

Having written professionally for many notable Christian publications such as the Pentecostal Evangel and The China Focus, as well as various Chinese-language periodicals, he came to the T.E. with lots of commercial writing credentials. “I was used to writing religious fiction,” he explains, "so picking up on the tongue-in-cheek Twain style of reporting news and editorializing was as easy as falling down a mine shaft! I tried my hand at writing spoofs and the whole town freaked out."

In 1998 the TE went digital. The original website featured the contributions of not only Mark Twain, but other well-knowns of the Comstock, such as William Wright (Dan DeQuille), Bret Hart, and Lucius Beebe (who owned the paper during the 1950s). It has for years been the best online source for work by those notables and newcomers like Muzzio as well.

Since 2000 the T.E. trademark was transferred to the Territorial Enterprise Historical and Educational Foundation, a non-profit 501(c)(3) corporation maintaining its registration in Virginia City. In 2013 the T.E. Publishing Company, a branch of the foundation, began printing and selling Muzzio's books online. God Told Me to Hate You and The Biblical Mystery Tour are currently available on Amazon in eBook and paperback (soon in Audible format as well). Tom’s Vignettes and the humorous Bystander's Bible will be available in 2016.

Vietnam (1968-1970)

The Ghost of Tom

Don't miss your flight!

Saigon, Viet Nam, November 1969

The alarm was set for four a.m. I slept with the light on to make sure I would not sleep too soundly. Hardly sleeping at all, I dozed off and on in my bunk on that hot humid Saigon night, mindful that I had to be up and at the flight line on Tan Sohn Nhut Air Force Base before five, to catch my early flight to Nha Trang.

The assignment was routine. My camera bags, on the floor beside me, contained my shaving kit, sixty rolls of Ektachrome, thirty rolls of black-and-white, two Nikons, and my personal Canon. I had even shaved the night before so I could leap out of bed and, in the time it takes to throw on a set of fatigues and boots, I could be out the door. I was always early, preferring to sit and read my book rather than panic about being late.

I had weird dreams that night. I kept dreaming that the alarm was going off and that I was trying to get up but could not move. Then I dreamed that I heard it ringing, and reached over and hit the off button. But that was just a dream.

The next thing I knew, I awoke with a start!7:30! What? The sun was out and the mamasans were clanging and banging washpots outside the hooch. "Oh God, no!" I wailed to myself. Now what? Failure to Report, Dereliction of Duty, AWOL ... who knows what?! Oh God, courts marshal for sure, or at least an article 15 or some such judicial punishment for those who don't show up for duty. My heart sank as I slowly and silently dressed, hearing funeral dirges in my brain.

Dragging myself out of the hooch and past the company headquarters, I felt an eerie absence of all military life.Just the ubiquitous mamasans squatting over big tin and plastic tubs of sudsy water, ceaselessly chattering in Vietnamese while washing the jungle fatigues of the G.I.s at Davis Station, my home.

Even the motor pool was quiet. "Where is everybody?" I pondered. They are probably all hiding because they know there is a criminal – a lawbreaker in their midst – and they are afraid to be seen with me ... going to my execution at the headquarters, known simply by its then-codename, White Birch.

I sat on the "hitch-a-ride" bench just outside the motor pool to see who was going my way. Finally, the skinny motor pool sergeant from Tennessee, whom I knew, pulled the jeep up to the stop with a screech. "Headin' to White Birch, Tom?" he asked cheerfully. I climbed in, mustering my bravest smile of thanks for the lift. Apparently the news of my malfeasance had not really reached the motor pool yet after all. Good.

I rode in the open jeep in silence as the sergeant talked about the new camera he had just bought at the B.X. (Base Exchange). Everybody enjoyed talking to me about photography, as I was the official headquarters photographer. I mumbled mindlessly about f-stops and shutter speeds or something long forgotten in the haze of fear and trepidation.

We arrived at the small parking lot at White Birch. The military police checkpoint was the next hurdle. But the two guys on duty, who knew me well, had already put my regular badge #273 on the counter with my photo pass. I was one of only three people in the headquarters allowed to carry a camera in or out of a top secret classified area. The sergeant didn't go in, but disappeared somewhere into the parking lot to deal with a recalcitrant jeep, no doubt.

Past the zigzag of bunkers to prevent Viet Cong terrorists from storming the headquarters, I pulled open the first of two big steel doors that were touted as able to withstand a direct grenade, mortar, or even rocket hit.Unlikely the latter – but it was definitely like entering a vault. Passing through the second steel door was always a shock, as the bright, hot, humid Saigon morning gave way to the dark cold blast of frigid, air-conditioned, processed oxygen of the windowless bunker in which we worked.

The long corridor with its shining, green linoleum length of floor was as empty as a tomb. My footfall echoed even as I tried to make it down the long hallway unnoticed. Years later, when I first heard the term "The Green Mile," I flashed on that moment. No one was there! I heard the tic tic tic of typewriters and the whirring click click of the teletype machines sputtering in the background, but saw no signs of human life. I walked the green mile. At the end, I turned right, then left, then right again, as always.

The Dutch door entrance to the graphic arts department was open at the top, as usual. Thus far, I had seen no one anywhere. I poked my head in. Everybody was there, each at his station or drawing table working in uncharacteristic silence. With a deep sigh and then a big breath I opened the bottom half of the door and walked in, shutting the door with a thud.

As if this day was not weird enough to start with, what happened next was surreal. Everyone looked up. Then everyone froze in place, like in one of those movies where the narrator steps out and talks directly to the audience. All eyes, like saucers, simply stared at me. My heart was pounding. Finally, Jim from Philadelphia sort of whispered:


"I missed my flight," I blurted out awkwardly. "I mean, I did set the alarm and all ... but ...

Before I could even choke out my excuse, they all poured out from behind desks and drawing tables, and engulfed me in bear hugs and slaps on the back and shoulders, with all manner of totally out-of-character behavior. This is one weird day, I thought.

"You missed the flight?" They were delirious. What had they put in the water cooler that morning? "You actually missed that flight?" They were all laughing in a most peculiar way – a nervous, spooky laughter – like they had seen a ghost.

Stan from Seattle ran across the hall to get our sergeant, to announce my return. He walked in, ashen. "You missed the flight?" he repeated.

"I missed it," I said. "But it was totally inadvertent ... I trailed off. Something was wrong here. Everybody went silent.

"You haven't heard?" my sergeant from Alabama asked in his southern drawl ... "You really haven't heard?" he asked again incredulously.

"Heard what?"

"That flight was shot down this morning."

Territorial Enterprise reprint, 1988

The Big Bug Story

This war must really be getting to you!

On those hot humid evenings in Saigon, the little Vietnamese kids would hang out with plastic bags, catching insects under the rather dim streetlights. They would collect anything they could. Then they would sell the buzzing, writhing mass to local itinerant cooks with carts on wheels that are called dai pai dongs.

After plunging the whole bag into boiling water, the cooked bugs were then sorted by desirability. The best were huge flying monsters called Vu Diep.

A total delicacy, they would then be tossed into a hot wok bath of boiling oil, stir fried with noodles, and served with nuoc mahm (Vietnamese fish sauce) or a wonderful Vietnamese chili sauce that can now be bought at Safeway in the ethnic foods section.

I tried them a few times, and crunchy as they were, I was admittedly rather put off by the idea of eating bugs. I will admit that if I had been blindfolded I would have likely mistaken them for those fun little fried minnows that serve as crispy, tasty appetizers that I love.

On our military compound, on Tan Sohn Nhut Air Force Base, stood a bulletin board lit from above by a bilious, florescent light where work schedules and other dicta were pinned behind glass. It was our responsibility to read the ever-changing material daily. At night the insects were attracted to the light and hung out around the board. I happened by one evening to take a read. As I put my hand against the side casing, a huge Vu Diep flew out and crashed into my neck and down my shirt, startling me half to death. They are rather clumsy fliers, constantly bumping and crashing into things.

After doing a clever little dance, I managed to retrieve the rather stunned intruder from my clothing. I happened to have a small paint jar in my pack, so I put him inside. The next day, back at the graphic arts department, I took the jar out. He was buzzing furiously, so I carefully removed him and scotch-taped him to my drawing table. Taking some regular thread that we all had for sewing buttons onto our uniforms, I carefully fashioned a little collar. Attaching the other end of about three feet of line to a thumbtack, I carefully removed the tape. He immediately flew to the end of his tether.

Everyone in the room was quite amused as he flew round and round in a perfect circle ... a classic airline holding pattern. Well, that lasted a while, and then I decided to take my new pet for a walk. Very obligingly, he buzzed right along on his leash as we went from one department to another, visiting various friends of mine who were delighted to meet my new friend who would light on any desk or file cabinet and wait while I chatted. When we were ready, I had only to give him a small tug and we were on our way. Finally, we got up to the General's Office. His assistant was a good friend, as he arranged all the general's photo ops. The general always called me by my first name, as I was in his office a lot doing A&D (Awards and Decorations) photos. He happened to come out from behind closed doors to find me with my little pal, talking with his aid. He had a laugh, shook his head, and just said in his deadpan way: "Tom, this war must really be getting to you."

Sure Shot

Another bug story involves mosquitoes. The darkroom, where I did the headquarters' photo processing, was a breeding ground for mosquitoes. No one could figure out where they came ... somewhere under a counter or through a lesion in the invincible bunker. Their solution was to give us "mosquito coils." These were round, spiral, incense-like pesticides that were lit at one end. They burned about an hour, producing a fog of blue smoke. They really did the job, killing everything in their path. Years later, I learned that they were horrifically toxic and were banned. ... Great – now I have to subtract a year of my life span when I take those "How long will you live?" surveys.

Well, some of the hardier pests escaped the toxic incense, and fled out into the main workroom of our graphic arts department. Annoyingly buzzing around everyone trying to work, they were relentless. One day I was standing beside the drafting board of one of my close friends who was from Elizabeth, New Jersey. I had an X-acto knife in hand. A mosquito lit on his desk, and without a thought, I threw the knife onto the table Rambo style. In a one-in-a-million shot, I actually skewered the mosquito!

Everybody had to come to see firsthand that "sure-shot Tom" had indeed nailed the hapless victim – its legs flailing. We thought of leaving it as a warning to others. But, of course, the real thing about this incident is that everybody had to stop by the graphic arts department to see it. They were doing what was referred to as "skating," which could be defined as taking a self-proclaimed, unauthorized break from office tedium, and finding a place to hide out for ten or fifteen minutes, and have a Coke or a smoke.

In those days, smoking inside closed buildings was a way of life. No one thought about cancer or the sensibilities of that rare breed of us called "non-smokers." Fortunately, smoking was forbidden in photo darkrooms, as ashes could stick to wet negatives hanging in rows to dry. Of course, toxic mosquito smoke was okay. Nevertheless, the graphics art department was far and away the most popular skating rink in the whole headquarters. Just about everybody in the entire complex made at least one daily pilgrimage to visit the "bohemians." We were just so entertaining! Even the high-ranking non-commissioned and other officers, made their obligatory visits. As one major said wistfully, "Out of the entire headquarters, this is the only real fun place to skate!"

Territorial Enterprise

Earthly Journeys

Reincarnation ... You may have to start at the bottom

I was studying Mandarin Chinese seriously for the first time when I was living in Viet Nam during the height of that miserable war. For that reason, I was frequently in Cholon, the Chinese section of Saigon, where I hung out a lot with my language teacher and his family and friends. The place was totally different from the surrounding Vietnemeseness of Saigon. I had lots of friends and acquaintances there. Most of the local residents are ethnic Chinese. In Cantonese, they are called "Wah Kieuh," and in Mandarin, "Hua Chiao." They are also called "Overseas Chinese" by English speakers. I have always loved being around these people of the Chinese diaspora, dating back to my high school days with friends like Allen Chen, Tom Leuih, and Bill Loh. (Another earlier vignette.) One significant difference in Saigon was the ever-presence of Theravada Buddhism. Unlike the freethinking, secular Wah Kieuh of Portland, Oregon, many of my newfound friends in Viet Nam believed seriously in reincarnation.

One evening, after a wonderful dinner full of laughter and jokes, we moved from the dining room table to the "sitting room." Traditional Vietnamese homes of the Colonial period, built before air conditioning, had high ceilings. Around the soffits were decorative tile openings to allow for airflow. Ceiling fans had been installed later, but had little effect on the heavy heat and humidity; so the unscreened, decoratively barred, shuttered windows stood wide-open most of the time.

During the course of our fun conversation, a huge bug flew in the open window and landed on the woven-rush rug. Without thinking, I jumped up and stepped on it. What happened next amazed me. The room went silent after the initial gasps. Suddenly, and without need for explanations, I realized that I might have crushed someone's grandmother. Mortified, I stammered my apologies for contravening their beliefs and traditions.

Actually, I was more embarrassed than genuinely apologetic, because as a true dyed-in-the-wool American Protestant Fundamentalist Christian, I felt a certain kind of contempt for anyone unlike myself, including Buddhists. I just threw Buddhists in with Hindus, Sikhs, Taoists, and Cao Dai, along with other adherents to Eastern religions. But as the years went by and I lived closer to Buddhists in daily life, my respect for them grew.

During that time in 1969, I visited Bangkok frequently on what they called TDY (which meant temporary duty) doing various photo assignments. The US military was bombing Hanoi and Hai Phong from Thailand bases like Korat and Nakhon Pathom, at the time. I had seen many photos of Thailand in magazines like National Geographic. I found the architecture fascinating. My favorite of the many famous temples in Bangkok that I first visited then was the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. Although there are similarly themed temples throughout the Buddhist world, the one in Bangkok takes the cake. The massive statue is a shiny, highly polished, and lacquered image of a dreamily smiling, serene, enlightened man with enormous feet. Walking around to the side, I noticed that one could look at the bottoms of the Buddha's nearly-thirty-foot-high bare feet. The beautiful swirling patterns of inlaid mother of pearl on the soles were a great touch. I flashed back to the first time I first saw my birth certificate, complete with two little inked feet with those same swirls just like fingerprints. But bare feet exposed to the world in such a fashion have other cultural significance. In Thailand it is considered very rude to show the bottoms of one's feet to anyone. When visiting in Thai homes, or with local Buddhist people in Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Viet Nam, one should take care when crossing one's legs to make sure the dirty bottoms of the shoes are carefully facing downward.

It struck me that this must be a statement that the souls of the "Enlightened One's" feet are pure enough to show off for all to see. Of course, the first few times I visited that temple, along with the other famous shrines like Wat Arun (The Temple of the Dawn) and Wat Po, I considered it all to be simple idolatry. Later, I learned that they were not actually worshipping the statues, but that they sort of liked hanging out in a serene environment and contemplating their journey(s) through this life and the next. The incense, the bells, and other temple accouterments only really make the experience more ethereal and contemplative. In fact, I have seen whole families sitting in the grass around temples having picnics together. It is a pleasant peaceful place just to be.

As a fundamentalist Christian I felt superior to and "sorry for" people with other beliefs. As I traveled around the world, it seemed that I could always find something to criticize about every place I went. The only exception was Thailand. One time I was having a conversation with an older friend of a different denomination, who had been living in Chiang Mai in the northern part of the country for over thirty years. He was discouraged that his monotheistic "Big God in the Sky" message just wasn't playing well in the Buddhist world.

"You know, Tom," he said with a sigh, "I have lived here all these years, and don't know if I have ever really converted a single soul." He confided: "These people are so peaceful and content where they are and with what they have. I have never in all these years even seen a fistfight in the street, or any tendency toward violence whatsoever." As I left, I was reflective. Some months later, I heard that he had died suddenly. I wondered to myself at the time if he secretly wanted to come back in his next incarnation as a Buddhist. If so, he has to start at the bottom as a big bug perhaps. I hope he will avoid flying through open windows!

Europe (1970-1974)

Apples and Moonlight

Wish I could have finished my apple

The road from Friedberg to Frankfurt is like thousands of other rural roads in Germany. It winds through the softly undulating hills of Hessen, with grain fields and orchards on the left and right. I have driven the length of it a thousand times. One beautiful, warm summer evening in 1973 I was driving along that road with my fiancé, Beth, about half an hour after sunset. The sky was warm and red to the west, and as we came over a small hill, we noticed the rising of a huge papier-mâché moon over the distant hills to the east.

The road was oddly quiet even though that stretch is well-travelled. We were heading hack to our communal living accommodation in nearby Ober-Woellstadt Sudeten Str. #15. The trunk was full of groceries and fixings for a party that Beth was putting together for the following day. She had baking and decorating on her mind as I pulled the car under an overhanging apple tree along the side of the road.

Although I had driven by it myriad times, I had never before stopped even briefly to enjoy it. To my delight, it was full of apples – still not quite ripe, but full-sized and inviting. The snap of that apple that I pulled off the tree and polished on my shirt, was just right. The moon was a soft ivory and the sky was not at all blue. It was a greenish color that you get by mixing ultramarine blue, white, and yellow ocher. The scene was idyllic. It could have been anywhere. It reminded me of my childhood in Oregon – the summer fields, the moon, the apples. Then I noticed a difference... Just beyond the road was a small overgrown cemetery. I parted the tall dry grass, and was surprised that the gray headstones were inscribed in Hebrew. Now that was different!

"Come on, Tom! We have a million things to do to get ready for the party," Beth called impatiently from the car. Not wanting to displease my intended, I tossed the apple into the grass, walked briefly back to the car, and drove on. I never learned another thing about those Jews sleeping inconspicuously near the big apple tree by the roadside. I often pointed out the spot to others as we drove by at other times. But it was just an aside.

In the years since then, Beth and I have always referred to "eating green apples under the moon" in place of "smelling the roses," in our own private lexicon. But to me it was more than just that. I have always used it to underline the basic personality difference between the artistic temperaments and the busy practical and pragmatic type. Whenever I feel swept along by the "doers" or the Type-A personalities, as they are now sometimes called, I think back and wish that I could have persuaded her to slow down just long enough for me to have finished my apple.

The Green Peugeot

The train from Augsburg arrived at the station in Munich in plenty of time for me to connect to my train to Italy. It was a warm summer night, and the smells of the rail station wafted around me as I struggled with about twenty pounds of camera gear, a tripod, and some luggage of my own. It was a lot to carry, but I didn't mind until I got to the track where the Italian train stood waiting. Whereas before I had thought I had plenty of time, suddenly I realized that I should have arrived about two hours earlier. The train was packed to the gills with people and luggage – not a seat to be had anywhere. I had to squeeze myself into the passageway not too far from the door to the toilet, and sit on my suitcase for about ten or eleven hours before I finally staggered off the next day at the railway station in Verona.

Beat to death, not having slept a wink, I slung the photo gear over my shoulders and headed out for the apartment of a friend to whom I was returning the equipment. Having visited his apartment several times before, I knew I could walk it. Perhaps I should have taken a cab, as it soon became apparent that it was farther from the station than I had remembered. Trudging block after block over ancient cobblestone streets, I doggedly pressed on, exhausted.

Not paying attention, and in sort of a fog, I stepped off a curb and out onto a busy street where I was jarred out of my wits by the sound of a car horn braying. To my horror, pressing down on me at high speed from the left was a green Peugeot. It was not stopping! I had to make a run for the opposite curb as it whooshed past me, still honking furiously. I was shaken, but alive.

Finally, I arrived at my friend's apartment and recounted the story. Later that night, I fell into bed and slept the sleep of the dead. Did I mention that I was tired?

The next day, I had a most unusual experience. Like déjà vu, I found myself on the exact same street corner, and as I stepped off the exact same curb – to my horror – I was confronted by the exact same green Peugeot! But this time it was coming even faster, and there was no time to even run out of the way. With all my strength, I threw myself out of the way of the oncoming vehicle. I threw myself so hard to the ground on the opposite side of the street that I hit my head on the curb in the process. I heard the car's tires whoosh by me, and he was gone. My heart was pounding out of my chest, and I was gulping huge gulps of air as I could feel the blood rushing through the veins in my neck. I was shaking uncontrollably with fear and panic.

Then I tried to sit up. But suddenly, to my absolute horror, I made a shocking discovery... I couldn't see anything! My eyes were wide open, but I was absolutely blind! When my head hit on the curb, I saw stars and then nothing! A new panic overtook me. "Oh, my God," I cried out. "Don't let this happen!" I remember actually taking my hands and holding my eyes open just to make sure. No, I could see absolutely nothing. Suddenly, another wave of fear swept over me. I realized that I had to get out of the street and up onto the sidewalk lest I be hit by yet another car. But which way was the curb? I threw my hand out before me and felt nothing. I wheeled around and flung it out behind me and touched it.

But something was odd! It was not rough and hard like those ancient stone curbs that are so typical in medieval Italian towns like Verona. It was smooth and slick. As I ran my hand across its surface, I realized that it was not a curb at all! In fact it felt more like a ... yes, there was no doubt about it. It was a chest of drawers! In Italian it is called a cassettone. "What in the hell is this cassettone doing out in the street? I wondered. Well, I supposed that someone was moving, or that there was a furniture store loading a truck by the curb. But I still had to get out of the street!

Suddenly I remembered the photo equipment! "Oh my God!" I thought. "Where is the gear?" My hand flew to my chest, searching for the straps of the camera bags; but they were not there! Then, another shock overtook me. Not only was the camera gear missing, but so were my clothes! I felt a T-shirt and, to my horror, only a pair of briefs. "What could be worse, what could be worse! I wailed. "Here I am stone blind in my underwear, in the streets of Verona!"

Still in a panic to get out of the street, I reached down to run my hand over the ancient stones. Perhaps, I thought, I could just grope my way to the curb from here. I laid my hand flat on the street. But something was odd! It didn't feel like those ancient paving stones ... no, it was something different. It was ... yes, it was carpet!

A wave of relief swept over me: Wait a minute. This is not the next day. This is tonight, and I am not out in the street. I am sitting on the carpet in my friend's guest room. And I am not blind, but in this dark room! I groped my way around the pitch black room and found the bed once again. I couldn't remember ever having had such a vivid dream before. That green Peugeot sure seemed real. Real enough for me to throw myself with all my might out of bed and across the room. For days I felt the nasty bruise on my head where I had crashed into that cassettone.

The Green Window

Frankfurt, Germany, 1970

It was a perfect September day when I walked into the I.G. Farben Building in Frankfurt, Germany for the first time. I was told that Eisenhower had ordered that it not be bombed during the Second World War because he wanted it for his post war headquarters. That's what I was told.

It was huge. Like all things Nazi, it was totally and completely out of scale. Of course, I was intimidated by its size. I heard the echo of my footfall in the long turning corridors. Like the Pentagon, it was designed to be impressive. It was.

I was told that Hitler and his cronies had planned an architectural feat to display Aryan superiority. The idea was to make a massive circle – a round building.

The behemoth was in fact only one tenth of its planned size. Never completed, it was intended to be a true wonder of the world; but the war ended that notion.

Then I arrived. And to my surprise and disappointment, all the windows on the sixth floor of the northwest corner of the building were blacked out. Well, actually they were not blacked out; they were whited out with white aerosol spray paint. Shrugging, I asked no questions.

I went through a bleak, featureless winter in that blind workspace, wishing every day to be able to look out. Then, one morning in April I asked, "Why are these windows blanked out?"

Everyone was aghast. "Well, we were told that the Russians could look in!" they said knowingly. It had come down from the "top." Last year we received a delivery of white spray paint cans, and were told to spray all the windows so that the Russians couldn't see in.

Deep down, I didn't buy this.

The next day I quietly scraped away a tiny peephole with my X-acto knife and looked out. I saw Grueneburg Park and all the way to the Cathedral – but no Russians! Emboldened, I scraped away a bit more. So, daily thereafter I chiseled away in true Shawshank tradition. Nobody said anything. Then in May, I finally threw all caution to the wind and flung the window open all the way. The sweet Spring air wafted in.

That was the most beautiful summer in years that Frankfurters could remember. And we all worked at our drawing tables with mirthful abandon. Then, one day we received another order of aerosol spray paint. It came unannounced from "supply." No one had really ordered it, but there it was. However, unlike the last anonymous delivery, it wasn't white, but green. Not OD Army green, but wild bright dayglow green!

What we were supposed to do with this windfall was anybody's guess. But, since I had singlehandedly liberated the entire graphic arts department from the "winter of our discontent," I felt it my responsibility to do something creative.

So, carefully masking around the window so as not to get even a drop on the exterior of the building, I painted the interior around the window casing green. Well, it was great and I enjoyed it for several days. But my nonconformity was short-lived.

A few days later I heard running feet in the circular hallway outside. I heard the frenzied punching of the cipher lock and my supervisor rushing in, door clanging. He flew past the office and through the print shop, into the Bohemian domain of the artists.

He took one look at the green window from the inside and went into orbit. Apparently, from outside straight-on it didn't show, but from an angle outside it screamed, "Look at me ... look at me!"

"My Gawd, you can see that window all the way to Escherheimer Landstrasse! What will the Sergeant Major say? What will the Colonel say? What will the General say?" he sputtered.

Well, needless to say, we resurrected the white spray paint in short order, and the green window was gone – made to match the rest of the nameless, nondescript, numberless other windows once again. How odd, I mused. I always thought that the army was partial to green.

The Summer of Raj


When I lived in Hong Kong, my downstairs neighbors from India frequently had a pot of curry cooking for hours on their stove. The savor wafted up into my flat above. I always wanted to knock on their door and ask if I could have dinner with them! The curry smelled so good! I have to thank PK Rajuhns for baptizing me into the Indian culture. Raj was from Bombay. We got off to a rather rocky start, but in the end became great friends. He had somehow managed to get involved with Teen Challenge India, which was run by a friend of mine from Bangalore. Raj was educated and – I guess one could say – fairly well off by Indian standards. In any case, he had the attitude. Years later, in the Philippines, I noticed that attitude also prevailed among upper class Filipinos. Used to being waited on by servants from birth, wealthy or highborn in third world cultures often take their elevated status for granted, issuing orders left and right, and expecting people to jump at the snap of the fingers. Raj viewed me as an enigma of sorts. I was a white American, so he knew that it would be rather inappropriate for him to snap his fingers at me. However, he was going to be the director of the documentary film and I was just the cameraman, a definite subordinate role in the production process. But the big divide was age. I was 23 and he was 53 – an enormous difference to those from South Asia, where age is venerated and youth often deprecated.

Although it was true that my total experience in cinematography was limited to experiences gathering footage in Britain and Scandinavia, I did bring a lot of cultural and linguistic cards to the table; so I didn't want to be treated like a flunky. At 53, Raj seemed very old to me. He had had part of his stomach removed due to an ulcer or something, and he was always complaining about the pain which made it impossible for him to lift anything. As a consequence, I was the donkey, carrying all the camera gear. He saw my plight, but could do nothing to help schlep the camera, lenses, film, recording equipment, and all. He lamented ... "In India I could just snap my fingers, and five or ten men would immediately rush to pick up and carry all this stuff – carry it anywhere and for any length of time for just a few Rupees!" "Well, I don't recommend snapping your fingers at the Germans," I suggested. "I doubt that anyone is going to jump up and haul anything for us.

We filmed around Frankfurt for a while, and Raj was in culture shock. I've been there too many times, and in many places. But he had it bad. He just couldn't imagine how things in Germany could be so completely different from India! At a small railway kiosk in Mainz we stopped for a much-needed Coke. But he wanted tea! "Raj," I whined, "Come on, they don't have tea in a place like this!" "Please, Tom, please ask them where I can get some tea," he persisted. I was embarrassed, but asked the portly woman behind the counter if she had tea. "Sind Sie verrucht?" (Are you crazy?) Tea? Well, that was just the first of many times when Raj asked me to translate the most outlandish things. I got into the habit of prefacing these odd inquiries with something like: "My friend here is from India, and wants to ask something weird; so don't be surprised..." It usually worked.

We borrowed a car from a Danish friend of mine who was living in Frankfurt at the time. She was in great sympathy for my plight, and insisted that I take her Volvo as long as I needed it. I will always be eternally grateful. We lit out for Nederland with the Volvo stuffed to the gills. But, at least we didn't have to deal with all that stuff on the train!

The first McDonald's in Europe had opened the previous year in The Hague, and an American friend of mine still in the military, drove all the way from Augsburg to Den Haag – five hours – just for a Big Mac. I wasn't nearly so desperate, but when we decided to stop in to try the burgers, I discovered that they had tea! Well, it wasn't really good tea as far as Raj was concerned – but any port in a storm. I look back now, after all those years in Asia, and realize just how important that was to him. The same thing went for rice. Raj was starving for rice – just plain old sticky, steamed white rice. I didn't feel sorry for him at the time, not fully appreciating how important a daily bowl of rice is to millions upon millions of Asians.

Our time in Amsterdam was an adventure. Filming prostitutes in shop windows proved far more difficult than it sounded. After being chased by irate women (and customers), we went under cover and got some footage. But later in Hollywood, where we edited the film, we found that we could have just bought footage like that in local stock houses.

In any case, from the Hoek Van Holland we crossed over to Britain, where Raj came into his own! I guess all those years under the British crown as part of its empire had made some Indians like Raj into little brown Englishmen. He was right in his element from the moment we drove the car off the ferry in Harwich and began driving on the left, reading signs in English! Raj could already smell the curry! I had only seen Raj as kind of a doofy guy totally out of his element in Continental Europe, but in Britain he was connected. He had wonderful Indian friends there who he could stay with. I took the train daily to Tunbridge Wells, and stayed at the Teen Challenge Center there. We often ate with the Indian families who were friends of Raj from Bombay. They were all quite Indian in all their ways, including dress and eating practices. I thought it all rather exotic, sitting on the floor with the men (only) and eating with our fingers.

We had to go back to the Continent to get some more footage in France, whereupon we would return to London to work on the editing. How hard could that be? Ha! From Dover we crossed the Channel to Oostend, Belgium, and headed south to Paris. It was Friday, and we had allowed for traffic and everything but French immigration. I drove up and gave the uniformed agent our passports. He tossed my American one back without even glancing at it. But Raj's was another story. After returning from the office he said simply, "You can enter, but he – referring to Raj – has no visa for France." I couldn't believe that I hadn't thought of this, but there was no point in arguing. The immigration guy was kind and saw our plight. He recommended that we turn around and drive like the wind back to the town of Tournai, find the French Consulate and apply for a visa there. "It is Friday afternoon," he indicated with a reference to his watch, "And they will be closed over the weekend."

Not wanting to miss our Saturday filming schedule in Paris, or be stuck all weekend in Belgium (with Raj), we searched high and low for the French consulate and parking in what otherwise would be a quaint little cobbled streets of Tournai. But we didn't have a second to spare to enjoy the medieval town. We finally threw ourselves through the door of the consulate at 4:55 p.m., with a whole five minutes to spare. They didn't speak English! In despair, I tried German. Dumb, huh? But that corner of Belgium is less than fifty kilimoters from France, Germany, and Luxembourg. One of the office staff was Alsatian and was delighted to help in German. He translated the forms, helping Raj get his visa even though it was past five and the rest of the staff left for him to lock up. Traveling always has its unexpected calamities, but now and then there are rare gems – people who really do help perfect strangers out of the kindness of their hearts.

Back at the border the same Frenchman glanced at the bright new visa in Raj's passport and said: "I never thought you would make it!" We thanked him and headed south again, hours behind schedule but underway, nevertheless. Off in the distance were some angry-looking, dark rain clouds, but it was still a sunny late afternoon day at the autoroute exit for the northern French town of Lille. We ate at a chain restaurant within view of the freeway.

By the time we were getting back into the parking lot, we had to make a dash for the Volvo, as the torrential downpour had finally reached us. I got Raj into the car and as I pulled my driver's side door shut, the window fell with a thud inside the door. Somehow it was off its track, out of sight, out of reach, and couldn't be rolled up no matter what. It was a great time not being able to roll it up at all, as it was raining cats and dogs all over my left side. Well, it's just a summer storm, I figured. Not wanting to waste any more time, as it was past six and Paris was still a few hours away, I decided to head on and deal with the window issue when we got there. It was getting real dark due to the rain, but it wouldn't be long until it would be night and I would still have to find #27 Rue du Printemps in Paris, which I had hoped to find in the daylight.

The freeway was a nightmare, awash with rain and huge areas of standing water. Every car that zoomed past us sent cascades of water into my open window. I was completely soaked immediately, and the huge trucks nearly drowned us with the tidal wave of water that they dumped on us as they roared past in the deluge. Raj was getting wet too, and not one to suffer adversity well, he began to complain. I stopped on the side of the freeway and got his coat and hat out of the trunk. Raj was not acclimatized to Europe, so, even in summer, he was always cold. He bought a winter coat in East Berlin when we were visiting while filming (in West Berlin). It was the tackiest thing imaginable. He had been impressed by how cheap it had been, and I didn't have the heart to tell him that it looked like something the Goodwill would unlikely take in. The hat was a sort of Russian-looking winter cap with ear flaps – very tasteful. Of course, although he looked like he just needed a grocery cart and a wine bottle in a paper bag to make the outfit complete, at least he was warmer than I was.

Totally wet and shivering all the way to Paris – soaked, tired, and hungry, we hit the outskirts of Paris long after dark. About two hours later we finally found Rue du Printemps #27, only to discover that we were in the wrong sector of the city! There were many streets with that common name in greater Paris. We really needed to be looking for Rue du Printemps in a suburb called Le Pecq. It was miles away. So we slogged through city traffic for ages, and couldn't find Le Pecq! There was one of those concrete signs that are so oddly French, but it clearly stated: "Peco." We drove around all over for an hour, and finally I stopped and walked over to the sign. The rain had finally stopped, but everything was wet and muddy. The paint had chipped away from the sign. The "Le" was completely gone and the "Q" looked like an "O" without the tail. We had been in Le Pecq all the time. Finally we found #27, and no one was home! "Now what?" I wondered out loud. Raj had been uncharacteristically quiet for the past hour, and it was well after midnight by then. I guess he had finally reached the end of his rope. I never knew if he was just sick of all this runaround, or if he was really ill, but he got my attention when he mentioned his very real heart condition. "Oh Tom," he said weakly, "I think I am going to die! ... Please take me to the airport, I want to go home to India. I don't want to die on foreign soil!"


"Oh, great!" I thought, "The airport at 3 a.m." ...The obvious problems in getting him to Orley – wherever that may be in relation to Le Pecq – in a city the size of Paris. But all along I was flashing on the unthinkable: being pulled over by the cops en route, and having to explain this dead Indian in my car! And it wasn't even my car!

Then I had a great idea... "Come on, Raj. Let's pray!" I was serious. We needed help. We stopped and prayed fervently. When done, I looked up and saw a small sign: Hotel. Praise the Lord! We got a small room on the second floor where I could look out into the postage-stamp-sized parking lot. I had to go, but didn't want to walk all the way down the hall to the public loo, so I peed out the window into the shrubbery below. That was the closest thing I could do to, despite what I really wanted to do ... Go in Seine!

The Winter of Rod

Frankfurt, 1973

My boss at Continental Teen Challenge in Frankfurt called me into his office for a powwow and announced that we needed to put together a documentary film about drug addiction in Europe – about the way God was using our ministry to counter it and to spread the message of salvation to the lost youth of Europe.

"You will be spearheading the project," he proclaimed."But I've got no experience in filming," I said. "All my experience is with still photography."

"Oh, that's okay," he encouraged, "We have found a really great documentary film director from Bombay, India.He's famous and has won all sorts of awards."Little did I know what I was getting myself into.

"You'll go to England and coordinate with Teen Challenge Britain's director, Terry Kaseman.He says that they have contact with a professional cinematographer who will be able to teach you the ins and outs of filmmaking.Your basic assignment will be to get lots of footage of gangs, drug use, and other types of antisocial behavior."It sounded to me like I was going to be hauling a movie camera into some rather seedy places – not just that, but dangerous as well.It reminded me of my first "field" assignment in Viet Nam.My sergeant simply said... "Well, just go out there to the various predetermined landing zones, drop in with the infantry guys, go out on patrol with them, and get shots of the guys in our unit doing their field communications thing!"

"On patrol?"I asked rather nervously.

"Oh yeah, keep your head down," he advised, "And get the shot!But don't get shot!"

This foray into the underworld of British cities' slums had about as much appeal as wading through the mosquito-ridden swamps of Southeast Asia.But I figured that it was for the glory of God, and agreed to do it.

"Like, am I just supposed to take a movie camera and wander around in London or Manchester, hoping to capture a clandestine drug deal on film?"I asked, cynically, knowing from my experience handing out Gospel literature in the bad parts of Frankfurt, Heidelberg, Mannheim, and the like that cameras are not welcome at all in such places.

"Oh, no ... you won't have to do any wandering at all.The Brits have it all set up... You will be traveling with a great guy, Rodney Stone, who works with Teen Challenge in Britain.He is well connected with the various evangelism and rehabilitation centers, and the addicts right off the streets throughout the British Isles.They will be able to get you into all sorts of great locations!"I could hardly wait!

"Oh, I almost forgot the good news!" my boss said enthusiastically."You've seen the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, of course.Well, the black guy who played Judas has gotten saved and is touring all over the States, sharing his testimony of his salvation in Christ!"I thought that was great."He feels that God has called him to share his story in Europe," he continued, "and he will be speaking in local churches and in street rallies that you will film.The local churches will do the publicity."I felt better knowing that all I really needed to do was to schlep the camera gear around and get the shots.I knew I could handle that.

Tyrone arrived in Frankfurt and hit it off with all the staff right away.He and I knew that we were going to be spending a lot of time together, so we made an effort to get acquainted.By the time we had gotten on the train in Frankfurt, made our way across Germany, Belgium, and the English Channel, and finally arrived in Tunbridge Wells in Kent, we had bonded and were ready for our British adventure.

The following day we met Rodney at the Teen Challenge Center.Terry, the director, was a fine fellow with a thick Yorkshire accent.His wife was American and gave us a crash course in understanding and living with the British.But my real baptism into the world "under the crown" came from Rodney.He was unlike anything I had expected.Yes, he did work with Teen Challenge, but he was no ex-addict or anything close.He was a rather proper British banker who had felt the "call of God on his life" to get theological training and go into the fulltime ministry.After an hour or two of training on the 16mm camera with their cinematographer friend, we headed out.

Tyronne, Rodney, and I piled into Rod's British Ford station wagon and rolled out of Tunbridge Wells, heading north.Rod and I sat in the front, Ty worked on his music in the back ... and we were off on our missionary journey that was destined to take the whole winter and cover every corner of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland.Rod and I started talking immediately and didn't stop for four months until I finally got on a plane heading back to Frankfurt.We were fast friends before we even hit the M-1 Motorway north of London, locked in serious conversation about everything from theology to the war in Viet Nam; the demise of the British Empire; pop culture, music, and films; and – above all – the differences between two peoples divided by a common language.

Neither of us had ever crossed that divide before.I had come to understand the Germans quite well after several years – including those spent in the military – but the British were a totally new challenge.And, to my surprise, the Americans were as much of an enigma to Rod as the Brits were to me.He knew nothing more about the "Yanks" than what he had seen on television, and I knew even less about them.

Both of us were like vacuums, sucking up information like crazy.Rod was very well-educated – a product of the British "public" school system, which translates to "private school" in the States.He had what could be called a classic European education.He had read all the literary classics, knew geography, politics, and economics; but, most of all, he loved history, as did I.Since we were in his territory, I learned all about Cromwell, the Round Heads, and the battle of Bannock Burn.Meanwhile, I dusted off my American history and told him all manner of facts and issues from the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Civil War, Valley Forge, and the battle of Brandywine.

We took turns being the odd-man-out regarding sleeping arrangements.Usually flipping a coin, I more often than not lost the toss, but lucked out on the cultural experience.In Edinburgh I stayed with a very Scottish family who had never even known an American before that, save for a handshake here and there.They were very much Scottish nationalists – very proud "home rule for Scotland" types.

I spent a week and a half with them, intermittently going out during the day to drag through the slums of Edinburgh in search of the illusive Nidery Terror, and at night going to various church services where Tyrone gave his testimony and played his guitar and sang.I had never actually seen real slums in Germany, but Britain had them in every major town.Many of the northern mill towns that were once the powerhouses of the British industrial revolution were not only in decline; they were in ruins.The Nidery section of Edinburgh was the most notorious slum in Scotland.To quote Bette Davis: "What a dump!"We drove around deserted streets."Where is everybody?" we wondered.Finally we found a trio of dopers hanging out on a flight of cracked concrete steps in front of a dismal, rundown block of flats.The graffiti was everywhere, warning of the dreaded Nidery Terror, a street gang known for their violence and mayhem.We finally found three of them stoned out of their minds and looking very un-terrorist-like.We told them that we were making a documentary film and showed them the camera.Suddenly they got really interested.We asked where the rest of the Terror team was, and learned that they were normally sleeping during the day, especially if they had scored drugs the night before.We made an appointment for that night to do some on-camera interviews.

They showed up in droves to get face-time on film.We had told them to show up in their gang garb and to bring any weapons that might be normal or standard, for effect.They all dressed as frighteningly as possible, but there were no serious weapons.In a country where guns are not for sale to the public, only real hardcore "connected" criminals managed to obtain them.The kids that showed up for the photo shoot were anything but scary.They spent the evening posturing for the camera and for each other, talking big; but I saw through the act.The film was supposed to frighten the audience into giving money to help reach these poor desperate youth for Christ, but we really never got much useable footage there or in any of the major cities of the British Isles.These young people were basically addicts.Their lives were not those of devoted terrorists.Their motivation was just to get more drugs.We got enough footage to splice it into more material that we later staged in Hollywood where we did the final editing and postproduction.

There were real terrorists in Britain, to be sure. However, they weren't a motley collection of dropouts and dopers.They were the IRA and they were in Ireland and they were scary.As we got on the car ferry from Liverpool for the overnight ferry crossing to Belfast, Rodney went on and on about how he got seasick the first time he crossed the Irish Sea in winter.I slept like a baby through the whole thing, but when we disembarked in Derry, I knew that I was back in a real war zone.

Part 2. The Winter of Rod (Ireland)

They may call it the Emerald Isle – and it does have its moments of great beauty – but the dreary gray morning when we got off the boat in Belfast was anything but inviting.After running the antiterrorist gauntlet that rivaled Israel in the 80's or the USA today, we finally got back in the car and headed into town. A city under siege, it was in the midst of what the locals referred to as "the troubles."Whereas it seems to me that the basic human cause for conflict is competition over resources, it appears that religious wars come in a close second.I was amazed at the size of the churches in Belfast.It seemed to me that the polarization of Protestant and Catholic literally drove the mushy middle to the extremes.Everybody had chosen sides A or B, and church attendance was a key element of one's identity.

Tyrone played his guitar and sang tunes from Superstar.He even tried his hand at preaching a regular sermon, which lasted all of ten minutes.When he turned away from the pulpit to sit down, both Rod and the pastor glanced at each other with a look of alarm and panic."Sing! Sing!" Rod said quickly to Ty, sotto voce.As he sang, they both were frantically flipping through their Bibles, looking for something to relate to fill time.They came through!Afterward, Rod told us that folks there come for "the big preach."In places where there isn't much to do at night, or it is too dangerous to venture out, church is really the big entertainment and the congregation wants to get its offering's worth.I found that to be very true in lots of places in the world.Some years later, when I was living and preaching in the Philippines, entire villages world turn out to see a religious film or hear a sermon or a gospel music group, no matter how amateur.After all, what else was there to do in remote villages out in the bundok (the origin of our word boondock!).

Actually, partway through our trip, when we were driving in Wales, I mentioned to Rod that I was studying for the ministry.He was impressed, as he had also done his theological studies by correspondence.Having a job at a local bank in Kent, with a family and financial responsibilities, he could not take four years off to attend seminary.Similarly, I was working in Europe and didn't have the time or means to attend a live-in seminary.He volunteered me to practice-preach at our next stop, Swansea, and I was a permanent fixture on the docket of our three-man road show from then on.

One thing I really enjoyed about our extensive travels around Britain and Ireland was our near daily visits to local high schools.The British have a school requirement called Religious Education (RE).This is an opportunity for students to be exposed to various religions, brief systems, and theological doctrines of all stripes.It is an open forum style discussion and dialogue.The intent is not to indoctrinate the students with any particular religious viewpoint, but to give them the widest possible experience with as many religious disciplines as possible.

We learned that many of the RE teachers frequently ran short on new material, so anything different was welcomed.Rod had learned to tip off local pastors who simply contacted their neighborhood schools, volunteering us to come to their classes to discuss drug addiction, Teen Challenge, etc. Having a celebrity singer from Superstar was a real draw.

We did our dog-and-pony show until April when my boss called from Frankfurt, telling us that the churches in Scandinavia wanted Tyrone to tour. So we bade Rod a fond goodbye and hit the road for Stockholm.I still saw him again once in a while at TC conferences in Switzerland where we dragged out all the old jokes that we had come to enjoy while on the road.

I didn't realize until years later how much those months helped me in so many ways. It wasn’t just that I’d gained confidence as a public speaker; when I was finally assigned to ministry in British Hong Kong, I was already so totally familiar with the British side of the colony's culture that I could concentrate all my efforts on learning the Chinese side. And guess what? I did!

The Swiss Conspiracy

I've never heard a soul say a bad word about Switzerland.All I've ever heard are rave reviews.For the life of me, I just can't see what all the fuss is about.In fact, I think there is a conspiracy in the Alpine air!The Swiss, as we know, like money.They like it so much that they have devised many clever means to get it and keep it!For the past week or two my sidekick, Mo Sawhy, and I have been investigating these matters throughout this enigmatic country, on behalf of the Territorial Enterprise; and these are our findings...

A conspiracy it has to be!Nothing else could explain it.The Swiss have put their heads together and come up with a way to get people from all over the world to come here, empty their pockets, and leave with smiles on their faces. Well, I for one am certainly not taken in!I am just amazed that the unwitting tourists cannot see what is going on.

The Swiss are simply terrible people.They are always forcing us to eat their Swiss chocolate which is just everywhere. Why, even children can buy it! (They even put it down low to tempt those poor little innocents). And then there is the food... They keep feeding us all this incredible cuisine.We are virtual prisoners at the table.We simply cannot escape.They keep feeding us mouthwatering meals, from dawn till way into the night ... the hot bread, local butter and cheese; jams and jellies of every description; that rich dark coffee; wines from all over Europe; and a blend of all the very best dishes from Germany, France, and Italy.And then, of course, they don't just feed you in some cheap jip-joint, on Melmac dishes, with paper placemats on a rinky-dink Formica table.Oh no, they present each meal politely and beautifully, on a table cloth, with real flowers on the table; and with such a pleasant manner as to be downright diabolic.Of course, I see right through it.I know it's just a ploy.

The best gimmick they have is the scenery.Now, the Dutch may have made the land, but the Swiss never made those mountains!No, by some quirk of fate the mountains were here already when the Swiss arrived and decided to merchandise them.So, they built all these charming little chalets all over the place, with cute little window boxes full of bright red geraniums, used local slate, and old wood, to create these sensational rustic barns. And then, to go one step beyond cutesey, they imported all these plump, happy-looking cows to munch green grass leisurely on the flower-covered hillsides all day.But, if that's not enough, they put a bell around the neck of every cow!That clanging is enough to soften the heart of even the most jaded tourist.Oh, when will it stop?It just never stops.One city after another – every little village and rural landscape is idyllic in the extreme.

The real trick the Swiss have mastered, though, is making you think you like it!How devious!We have been enduring this torture a week already with no end in sight.Try as we may, we just haven't figured out yet how to get away.I'm looking out over a quiet little valley town, complete with the traditional chalets, cows, and towering mountains; listening to the church bells resonate out across the dale and echo back again and again.I contemplate escape.Will we succeed?If we do, you can read about it in the next issue of the Territorial Enterprise.

The Frogs at Home

Do you recall that childhood rhyme about the place in France where the alligators dance? Well, we never found it. In fact, we never found much of anything in France that was advertised ... but plenty that wasn't!Alligators, no. Frogs, yes! Actually, I don't know why the English refer to the French as frogs. Perhaps the Territorial Enterprise can commission Bill Lowe to investigate this for us and put a word or two about it into his column. Anyway, the French have collectively been referred to as frogs for some time now, and, after one hell of a week in France, I must at least use that theme to tell you about it!

It seems that some years ago these frogs settled into a pond in the western part of a swamp sometimes known as the Euroglades.Now the frogs were far more creative and imaginative in the design and construction of their home than the other swamp creatures lurking to the east or in other parts.So, they built a great frog capital full of delightful buildings, bridges, towers, and restaurants; and named it Rivit-gosh.They never stopped talking about it, extolling the virtues of the ultimate in froggidom. They just loved their great Frog City, and made a big deal out of advertising far and wide throughout the Euroglades as the ultimate holiday destination.Well, the swamp creatures from all over came to see what all the bragging was about. They had seen the slick travel posters and TV ads inviting them to come see for themselves that the frog's capital left the rest of the Euroglades in the shade.

Well, all the other creatures came from far and wide to see the great city that the frogs had built. They came in droves, packs, schools, and herds. They saw that it was good. But a problem arose. The frogs soon got tired of the bulls, bears, rats, birds, and other swamp-type creatures climbing all over their monuments, and tromping through their nice buildings and museums of froggie grandeur. Within no time the frogs were mighty tired of foreigners of any description. They would have preferred to see all the tourists just go back home and leave Rivit-gosh to them. The frogs even wished they could forbid non-frogs entry. But, alas, the frogs had a small problem. Their penchant for high-living had somewhat overextended them financially. They needed the cash flow to support their lifestyle in Rivit-gosh, so they had to rely on tourism to keep the lily pad afloat! The sad fact is they had to tolerate thugs and clods from just about everywhere, stumbling and bumbling all over their fair city, just to make ends meet. This still rubs the frogs the wrong way to this very day.

They may have to put up with it, but they don't have to like it. And they don't. So, the frogs fight back. If the others insist on coming, then, by croaky, they will pay for it! And they do! And we did! Non-frogs are discriminated against constantly. The frogs charge the non-frogs extra for everything. Cheating the tourists is a froggie pasttime. They love sitting around in the evening, swapping fish stories. It seems the fish are the most gullible – easiest of the tourists to fool. But all tourists are fair game for the frogs. Those devious amphibians particularly enjoy torturing the other creatures by faining inability to speak any language but their own. This infuriates most of the other creatures, who have more or less settled on using some variation of the bull's language (John Bull's) to communicate. But the frogs will have none of it. Frogspeak it is, and nothing else will do. If they don't wish to deal with you, a simple shrug and a rivit-rivit will put you in your place. It's their lily pad and you have to do things their way. Okay, fair enough – that's life in the swamp. But, we discovered that the tourist is not without some recourse of his own. When you're there at one of the many fine-but-overpriced restaurants, be sure to order frog legs!


Traveling with children is the pits

The Americans call it a windshield; the British, a windscreen; the Italians, a parabrezza. But the Germans call it a Windschutzscheibe. And was I ever glad I knew that word one cold November night on the German Autobahn as I was driving furiously north to Frankfurt.I had been in Austria on a preaching mission with my boss from Continental Teen Challenge, who abandoned me and my fiancée, Beth, with his wife, and two ADHD kids; leaving instructions to get the family back to Frankfurt, as he had to go on to another speaking engagement in St. Gallen, Switzerland.

The three adults all wanted to stop in Innsbruck, that charming Austrian ski town in Tyrolia.The kids were in despair.

“Ahhhh, do we HAVE to go to Innsbruck?” they whined.

I learned years later about kids’ agendas. They had no interest whatsoever in stopping in a boring little town on the River Inn, no matter how charming we all found it. The adults won out. But another thing I learned ... kids can make adults pay for it. They were little monsters all the rest of the way home.

I drove like the wind, after we dragged an eight-year-old and a six-year-old kicking and screaming through the cobblestone streets of Innsbruck. I just wanted to get this torturous trip over with. We blew past Munich and Stuttgart in a whirlwind on the no-speed-limit German Autobahn.I was really getting tired of those kids by that time. The bickering, fussing and crying, and kicking the back of my seat were beyond irritating by that time, when suddenly the whole world seemed to explode.

There was a tremendous crack! I saw a huge ball of fire, and the hood of a jeep flew up.I saw palm trees and heard guns. We had hit a land mine! I was back in Viet Nam. I threw my arm up to protect my eyes from the blast. Then nothing. Silence. Then a shower of a million little pieces of glass tore past. I felt it stick in my hair. Then silence again, and darkness. I was still hallucinating about the war. “I must be dead,” I thought to myself.

Then the mental illusion was over as another shock rolled past me. The heat and noise of the explosion and the hot Viet Nam day gave way to a super-cold blast of frigid air. The brain works at the speed of light really, and in comparison, even very fast-moving events in real life seem incredibly slow by comparison. "But what is this arctic wind all about?" I wondered.I had closed my eyes against the blast, and when I finally opened them – it seemed like an hour later – reality really hit. "Hey wait a minute," I thought, as I attempted to snap out of the unreal dreamlike vision. "I am not in Viet Nam."We had not hit a land mine. We were still racing down the Autobahn at very high speed. Oh, my god… I needed to drive! The icy winter wind was pouring in through what had been the windshield.

A passing truck had thrown a rock that had hit our windshield at high speed, and had blown it out in a second.This, I later learned, is a common experience of those who have crashes at high speeds on roads and freeways. The brain can’t record or interpret the events, as they happen so fast. Instead, the brain sort of freaks out and hallucinates. Later, it takes a time for it to begin registering reality again.

The reality was that we were still on the Autobahn, and I had to pull it together and just drive, making sure I was still in my own lane. No one spoke. No one could. I think I finally yelled through the rushing wind something like:

“Is everybody okay?” Beth and Pat both weakly squeaked, “I think so.” The kids were still in shock, and it took them a full minute or two to come around and snap out of it.

I slowed way down and we drove on in stone silence as I took the first exit off the freeway – Heilbronn. I was never so happy before to get off the fast track and onto quiet city streets as I was that night. Too late to get things fixed by then, we checked into the first hotel we found. It was hard to eat. The kids were like zombies. Beth and Pat managed to get the kids to bed somehow while I recounted our adventure to a very polite and helpful concierge, who made an appointment for me at a local garage that could replace the windshield in the morning.

But the trip from hell couldn’t just end so unceremoniously, could it? As we got back onto the freeway, we were all so relieved and even sort of giddy. We tried to recall what had happened, comparing notes. The adults had all had visions. The brain often shuts down the short-term memory during and after an accident, and the kids were still sort of in blackout.

As we passed the welcome exit to Darmstadt, we knew that we were less than an hour from home. Suddenly we heard a loud pop, and then a whooshing sound accompanied by clouds of white smoke. I knew what was wrong. The radiator cap had blown.

“Oh, dandy…” I thought. “Just what we need!”

Well, I was right. And the radiator had blown all sorts of hot brown fluid all over, but the cap was nowhere to be found.Suffice it to say, we all looked all over. It could have rolled off into the grass somewhere... But at the point of despair, just when we realized that it would be impossible to go any further, I noticed two flashing yellow lights pull up behind us.

I had for years noticed those cute little yellow VW beetles cruising up and down the Autobahn, helping motorists in distress. Strassenwacht means “road watch” ... and I always thought that the States should have something like that as well. I really believed it after that day. I didn’t have to explain the problem to the two guys in their matching yellow coveralls. It was obvious. I just whined that the cap must have fallen out and rolled off into oblivion. They seemed unperturbed. One got out the replacement fluid and the other smiled at me – a most peculiar smile, with a hint of mystery in his eyes that I could see, but could not figure out. He walked back to the little yellow VW, rattled around a bit, and walked back grinning. From behind his back, he produced the exact right-fit radiator cap, which he screwed on with flourish.I was in awe.

“How did you ever happen to have that?” I asked incredulously.

“About four years ago there was a terrible crash right here, and when they were cleaning up, I picked it up.” He said in that matter-of-fact German way. “I just figured that it might be needed some day.”

Well, that surely was the day.

Mike's Bike

Mike was a close friend of mine years ago when I was still in the US military. We were stationed in Augsburg, Germany around 1971. We got along famously from the day we met, and palled around on days when we could get away from the clutches of the army.

Back in those days, we had not yet heard of attention deficit disorder, nowadays referred to as ADD. In fact, I'll bet the term had not yet been invented at the time. Suffice it to say, Mike was hyper. One of those skinny, wiry guys, he was constantly on the move. He needed little sleep but lots of activity to burn off energy that he got from somewhere. Weekends would roll around, and when everybody else was sleeping in from exhaustion, Mike was up and out on his bike in any weather.

We had another friend, Billy, a leftover hippy from the sixties, who rode bikes with Mike now and then. But laidback Billy, who always wanted to stop and smell the roses or smoke a joint, frustrated Mike. He had a need for speed.

My birthday arrived one day in July, and early that morning there came a knock on my door. Mike stood in the hallway with a rather sleek-looking Italian bicycle. "Happy Birthday," he beamed. "Let's ride!" What? Me ride a bike like that? And with a crazy man like Mike? But what was I to do? After all, it was a gift, and a good one at that! (Later he confessed that he bought it for a song from a guy who got an early out from the army and was so desperate to leave that he nearly gave it away.) So, I threw on some civilian clothes, and we headed out into what was to become a very beautiful summer day in Southern Germany.

He took it easy on me, and we wandered off into some small, quaint side streets and then little lanes and roads that lead out of town into the bucolic Bavarian countryside.As this was long before power bars and designer bottled water, by noon we were parched and hungry. Mike was perplexed. What to do?

"Come on!" I said. "Let's just find a place to have something to eat."

The little ivy-covered café with the quaint grapevine-shaded courtyard was ideal. Obviously, Mike was not used to interacting with the local folks. Most American military people at the time were not inclined – if not intimidated – to fraternize with the local German population, especially small town, rural folks unaccustomed to foreigners.

Noticing the bicycles, the occupants of the other two tables under the shady vines suggested that we all pull our tables together and share some beer and some stories. It was an idyllic afternoon, and by the time we said goodbye and left to ride back into town, Mike had become a true "culture vulture." He talked for weeks about how wonderful it was that we could just spontaneously talk with perfect strangers like that, and that they were so "friendly".

Well, it was not long before Mike had a grand idea."Let's all get a leave of absence and take a real bike trip," he suggested enthusiastically.I was amazed that he had thought it through and had actually done some research. Long before the internet or Google, he had decided that we should ride bikes on back roads to Vienna, as it was not legal to ride bikes on the Autobahn.I knew that. He had already calculated how far we could go in a day.Of course, that was how far he could go in one day!

Billy and I were skeptical, so I recommended that we put the bikes in the baggage car of the train to Vienna and enjoy the city on two wheels, then return via those wonderful winding little back roads that Mike had fallen in love with earlier that summer.

Riding along smooth Austrian back roads was a delight. Entering small cobblestoned towns where we were jarred to death on two thin wheels, was like finding milestones along the way. But getting back onto the smooth asphalt was a soothing experience, as I always noticed that my watch, hanging on my then-skinny wrist, quit vibrating. Pavement was smooth and welcoming once again.

We stopped and talked to farmers and ate apples not quite ripe. Finally we came to a fork in the road. Mike was so far ahead that he was well out of sight. Perhaps due to his ADD personality, he simply chose the wrong road without thinking, forging ahead, unaware of his two huffing and puffing friends being left far behind.

Unbeknownst to Billy and me, Mike had gone quite a distance down the wrong fork of the road. Figuring that he would finally wait up for us, we arrived in the next village ravenously hungry, needing a rest and some liquids. So, we camped right on the main street in a small sidewalk café and ordered lunch and a bottle of refreshing mineral water. By then we had guessed what had happened, so just decided to wait.Then, feeling much better, we were having a nice chat on a fine late summer day.

Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, Mike flashed past us at top speed, peddling like a mad man. "He didn't see us!" Billy yelled.

Acting on some sort of instinct, I pulled out all the Austrian shillings I had left from my billfold and tossed them on the table. Grabbing my bike, I ordered Billy to pay the bill and follow as fast as he could. Meanwhile, I scrambled to try to get up some speed. Catching up with Mike might just be an impossibility for me.

Peddling like crazy and yelling at the top of my lungs, I finally got Mike's attention. He stopped and looked at me with a most peculiar expression.

"Good thing you stopped me," he panted. "I would have been all the way to Munich by tonight!"

Well, eventually winter set in and snow prevented the three of us from much biking. But Mike had all sorts of energy winding up for our next trip. He promised to stick close this time. All through that cold snowy Bavarian winter he figured that by March or April we should be happily biking around in Northern Italy.

To tell the truth, that sounded mighty nice at the time. But once again, practicality prevailed. "Okay," I conceded, "Although I will, under no circumstances, peddle a bicycle up the northern slopes of the Alps, if we take the train all the way up to the Brenner Pass, we can coast all the way down the other side into sunny Italy." I knew full well that it was not so simple, but I had bought some time to convince him that such a trip was too ambitious.

Once he had abandoned the idea of "Let's ride all the way to Rome," he suggested London instead! But he had learned a lot by then, and suggested that we put the bikes in baggage and find an appropriately low, flat spot in Holland or Belgium to disembark and then just ride to the English Channel. I bought it. So did Billy.

We got off the train in Namur, Belgium and happily set off to see Burxelles. But by the time we got close, the eastern outskirts of Brussels were a tangle of traffic. We lost sight of Mike first, naturally. It was very important for him to beat everybody by weaving in and out, risking life and limb. A few near misses and a few heart pounding scrapes, and Billy was out of sight too. Now what?

Not having a clue what to do, I rode around for hours. Should I go on to London alone? The problem was that we had no plan B. Why hadn't we thought of that? So, as I had already been to London many times, and did not think I would enjoy doing the cultural events and museums on my own – and as I saw no possibility of reconnecting with Mike and Billy – I simply gave up ... went to the train station, put the bike in baggage, and sadly went home.

Later, I found out that they had concluded likewise, and had returned short of the English Channel. We had all learned a valuable lesson:

Always plan ahead!

The Joys of Camping

My idea of camping is the Holiday Inn

Mike was a close friend of mine years ago when I was still in the US military. We were stationed in Augsburg, Germany around 1971. We got along famously from the day we met, and palled around on days when we could get away from the clutches of the army.

Back in those days, we had not yet heard of attention deficit disorder, nowadays referred to as ADD. In fact, I'll bet the term had not yet been invented at the time. Suffice it to say, Mike was hyper. One of those skinny, wiry guys, he was constantly on the move. He needed little sleep but lots of activity to burn off energy that he got from somewhere. Weekends would roll around, and when everybody else was sleeping in from exhaustion, Mike was up and out on his bike in any weather.

We had another friend, Billy, a leftover hippy from the sixties, who rode bikes with Mike now and then. But laidback Billy, who always wanted to stop and smell the roses or smoke a joint, frustrated Mike. He had a need for speed.

My birthday arrived one day in July, and early that morning there came a knock on my door. Mike stood in the hallway with a rather sleek-looking Italian bicycle. "Happy Birthday," he beamed. "Let's ride!" What? Me ride a bike like that? And with a crazy man like Mike? But what was I to do? After all, it was a gift, and a good one at that! (Later he confessed that he bought it for a song from a guy who got an early out from the army and was so desperate to leave that he nearly gave it away.) So, I threw on some civilian clothes, and we headed out into what was to become a very beautiful summer day in Southern Germany.

He took it easy on me, and we wandered off into some small, quaint side streets and then little lanes and roads that lead out of town into the bucolic Bavarian countryside.As this was long before power bars and designer bottled water, by noon we were parched and hungry. Mike was perplexed. What to do?

"Come on!" I said. "Let's just find a place to have something to eat."

The little ivy-covered café with the quaint grapevine-shaded courtyard was ideal. Obviously, Mike was not used to interacting with the local folks. Most American military people at the time were not inclined – if not intimidated – to fraternize with the local German population, especially small town, rural folks unaccustomed to foreigners.

Noticing the bicycles, the occupants of the other two tables under the shady vines suggested that we all pull our tables together and share some beer and some stories. It was an idyllic afternoon, and by the time we said goodbye and left to ride back into town, Mike had become a true "culture vulture." He talked for weeks about how wonderful it was that we could just spontaneously talk with perfect strangers like that, and that they were so "friendly".

Well, it was not long before Mike had a grand idea."Let's all get a leave of absence and take a real bike trip," he suggested enthusiastically.I was amazed that he had thought it through and had actually done some research. Long before the internet or Google, he had decided that we should ride bikes on back roads to Vienna, as it was not legal to ride bikes on the Autobahn.I knew that. He had already calculated how far we could go in a day.Of course, that was how far he could go in one day!

Billy and I were skeptical, so I recommended that we put the bikes in the baggage car of the train to Vienna and enjoy the city on two wheels, then return via those wonderful winding little back roads that Mike had fallen in love with earlier that summer.

Riding along smooth Austrian back roads was a delight. Entering small cobblestoned towns where we were jarred to death on two thin wheels, was like finding milestones along the way. But getting back onto the smooth asphalt was a soothing experience, as I always noticed that my watch, hanging on my then-skinny wrist, quit vibrating. Pavement was smooth and welcoming once again.

We stopped and talked to farmers and ate apples not quite ripe. Finally we came to a fork in the road. Mike was so far ahead that he was well out of sight. Perhaps due to his ADD personality, he simply chose the wrong road without thinking, forging ahead, unaware of his two huffing and puffing friends being left far behind.

Unbeknownst to Billy and me, Mike had gone quite a distance down the wrong fork of the road. Figuring that he would finally wait up for us, we arrived in the next village ravenously hungry, needing a rest and some liquids. So, we camped right on the main street in a small sidewalk café and ordered lunch and a bottle of refreshing mineral water. By then we had guessed what had happened, so just decided to wait.Then, feeling much better, we were having a nice chat on a fine late summer day.

Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, Mike flashed past us at top speed, peddling like a mad man. "He didn't see us!" Billy yelled.

Acting on some sort of instinct, I pulled out all the Austrian shillings I had left from my billfold and tossed them on the table. Grabbing my bike, I ordered Billy to pay the bill and follow as fast as he could. Meanwhile, I scrambled to try to get up some speed. Catching up with Mike might just be an impossibility for me.

Peddling like crazy and yelling at the top of my lungs, I finally got Mike's attention. He stopped and looked at me with a most peculiar expression.

"Good thing you stopped me," he panted. "I would have been all the way to Munich by tonight!"

Well, eventually winter set in and snow prevented the three of us from much biking. But Mike had all sorts of energy winding up for our next trip. He promised to stick close this time. All through that cold snowy Bavarian winter he figured that by March or April we should be happily biking around in Northern Italy.

To tell the truth, that sounded mighty nice at the time. But once again, practicality prevailed. "Okay," I conceded, "Although I will, under no circumstances, peddle a bicycle up the northern slopes of the Alps, if we take the train all the way up to the Brenner Pass, we can coast all the way down the other side into sunny Italy." I knew full well that it was not so simple, but I had bought some time to convince him that such a trip was too ambitious.

Once he had abandoned the idea of "Let's ride all the way to Rome," he suggested London instead! But he had learned a lot by then, and suggested that we put the bikes in baggage and find an appropriately low, flat spot in Holland or Belgium to disembark and then just ride to the English Channel. I bought it. So did Billy.

We got off the train in Namur, Belgium and happily set off to see Burxelles. But by the time we got close, the eastern outskirts of Brussels were a tangle of traffic. We lost sight of Mike first, naturally. It was very important for him to beat everybody by weaving in and out, risking life and limb. A few near misses and a few heart pounding scrapes, and Billy was out of sight too. Now what?

Not having a clue what to do, I rode around for hours. Should I go on to London alone? The problem was that we had no plan B. Why hadn't we thought of that? So, as I had already been to London many times, and did not think I would enjoy doing the cultural events and museums on my own – and as I saw no possibility of reconnecting with Mike and Billy – I simply gave up ... went to the train station, put the bike in baggage, and sadly went home.

Later, I found out that they had concluded likewise, and had returned short of the English Channel. We had all learned a valuable lesson:

Always plan ahead!


Broke Down in the Belly Button

Christmas that year began in Augsburg.I had never had the experience of a real old-fashioned German Christmas before.Mike, the bike rider; Bob, the guitar player; a couple of other American servicemen from the local Army base; and I, had been invited by our dear local friends to celebrate the holiday with them. As usual, I was the translator.

“We cannot go in yet,” said Gert, our host.“They are lighting the tree.” Well, I thought, what's the big deal about that? Then, when we were finally all invited in to actually view the tree, I understood.The tree, a beautiful Noble Fir, was indeed lit – with real candles!

After we all went Ooh and Ahh, and Bob played an appropriate Christmas tune on the guitar, they blew out the candles.I was relieved. As traditional and beautiful as it was, we were all on edge about fire.As the evening went on, and we talked about our various experiences of Christmas here and there, I asked Gert about the fire danger.Whereupon he drew my attention behind the couch. A fire extinguisher lay in wait.Leave it to the Germans to be both sentimental and practical!

The following day I flew to Rome. I had learned that December 26th is a good day to travel. Everybody coming and going for the holidays is already there, so it is easy to book a cheap flight. I did. Alfredo (Al), an American who grew up in Rome and Tony – now a Sicilian living in the north of Italy – met me at the airport, and we scurried to catch our flight to Catania in Sicily.

We were going to a conference in the center of the island. It is a town called Caltanisetta. In Catania, the biggest town on the east coast of Sicily, we stayed with a rather wealthy family. It was posh, and I still remember Tony musing: “How in the world can they afford a place like this?”Mafia was implied, but we all just kept our mouths shut – a trait in Sicily that is a wise one.

The following morning, I ventured out onto the beautifully tiled veranda.The maid was sweeping. “What is all that black stuff?” I asked unknowingly. “From the volcano,” she replied politely. Since we had arrived at night, I had not noticed. But in the harsh light of morning, there – towering above us – was Europe's most active volcano, Etna, rumbling and gurgling not a stone's throw away.A shiver went up my spine.

The rich Sicilians who had hosted us so ceremoniously also lent us a car.It was a Fiat 500, referred to fondly as a “Cinquecento.” Smaller than it's German counterpart, the VW Beetle, it is amazingly adept at negotiating tiny medieval Italian streets.

So, later, we set off diagonally across Sicily. It started to rain. Then it rained some more. And more. It was really serious by the time the 500 started to cough and sputter.We limped into the town of Enna. Appropriately enough, Enna is colloquial Sicilian for belly button. And this small town was indeed in the geographic center of the island. It was cold, dark, and wet that night.

Of course, we were “prayed-up.” That means that we had all prayed to God to bless our trip and care for us on the road. Nothing could have proved this more than that hideous neon light shining in the dark rain-soaked streets of Enna. Auto Riparazione. And it was open!

The bilious neon light was harsh enough, but the nude female calendars – years old – were fading in the process. It did not inspire confidence. But quietly, Al reached over and said sotto voce, “Don't talk English.” Like I didn't know that?

But then, Tony quietly stuck his head into the opposite window and said (in a whisper): Anche Italiano … non parlare! (and don't talk Italian either).

He dealt with the whole situation in Sicilian, and we were on our way in less than an hour.

Life with Guitar Accompaniment

One thing about Bob ... he was friendly

It was early spring in New England. The last of the winter snow was melting beneath a crystal clear sky that was quickly darkening in the cold Massachusetts twilight. The sidewalk between the white clapboard military barracks was dry. It had rarely been so since I had arrived at Fort Devens in early January of that year – 1969.For several months snow and ice had been the order of the day. Despite the barren overhanging branches of the trees along the path that as of yet showed no sign of budding, I felt a hope of spring.

When I had first arrived at Ft. Devens from Army basic training in California, I had been depressed and melancholy. The dreary winter days of gray skies and snow-covered earth seemed bleak and hopeless. Today I felt good. I had met several fine friends to be sure, but since most of them lived elsewhere on the post, evenings could be lonely during the week.

The barrack was dark as I approached the door. The porch light had not yet come on. It appeared that I had returned earlier than the rest, who may have already been here and out the door for a typical evening of liquid entertainment at the local EM (enlisted men's) club. But something was clearly different as I stepped into the tiny foyer and carefully shut the door. I heard beautiful guitar music coming from upstairs. Those old World War II barracks had two floors with two rows of bunk beds – six on each side – and an identical floor plan upstairs. Although I knew everybody, I rarely had a reason to go upstairs. The downstairs was more favored, since the toilets, showers, and sinks were there. And who wants to walk down a flight of stairs just to use the bathroom in the middle of the night?

Curious, I climbed up the dark stairs to the equally dark landing. No lights on at all – just the sweet sound of the guitar coming from somewhere in the back.Using what little ambient light remained, I followed the sound. I startled the guitar player, who was obviously a new resident. I complimented his playing and introduced myself. He did likewise (he was Bob Simpson), and he flipped on a light.

"Would you like me to play you something?" he offered.

"How about Hey Jude ?" I suggested, hoping that wouldn't be too hard. It had been very popular for months at the time, and everybody loved it.He played it flawlessly and sang it word-for-word. I was stunned. I came to know in the following months and years just how good he really was. In fact, years later and continents away, I joked that some day he would have to have that guitar case surgically removed from his hand, since, in or out of uniform, I never saw him without it.

He had just transferred in that day and had not yet begun his training course. I was about halfway through mine. He expressed his trepidation, and I did my best to assuage his fears. We didn't take long to discover that we were both born again Christians. I confessed that I was a new convert, and he said that he had grown up in the Baptist church. His parents were missionaries in the Virgin Islands. I was really happy and excited. I had never met a real MK (missionary's kid) before. He confessed that he had been really depressed since arriving at Ft. Devens. I shared my own story. Then I mentioned that I had met an Evangelical Christian group that gathered weekly for Bible study on Thursday nights at an off-post Baptist church where we often went for Sunday services, as the military chapel fare was so blah. That Thursday night I brought Bob (guitar in hand) to the meeting. He knew just what to do. I realized then that those who have been raised in a church knew a lot more than I did at the time. He knew all the words to all the songs, and could play anything by heart. It was a gift. I always regretted that we did not have a chance to get to know each other well, as spring had really sprung and we were involved in our own struggles to get through training courses.I graduated, had immediate orders for Viet Nam, and was gone almost in the twinkle of an eye. I remembered Bob and the sweet guitar music he'd played the night we met. Sometimes when I was out "in the field" in Viet Nam, I would think I could hear him playing At Calvary or Softly and Tenderly somewhere far away.

Having been reassigned to Frankfurt, after leaving Southeast Asia and surviving the war without a scratch, I was so in my element. Compared to the chaos and uncertainty of war, my new assignment was a cakewalk. I loved Frankfurt, and showed up at my drawing table faithfully every day. I even moonlighted as a flunky illustrator at one of the world's largest advertising agencies, Frankfurt branch.Every weekend I would travel – one weekend in Paris – Vienna the next. What a deal! Since this city on the Main River is more or less the geographic hub of Europe, the rail and airline connections are the best on the continent.

Then one day the bad news came down from on high. Our unit was being phased out of Frankfurt and transferred to the huge, new high-tech electronic spy facility down south in Augsburg.Everybody was distressed, as we all loved being in the center of the universe as we knew it. But we laid plans to move as ordered. The plan was simple. The advance party would go immediately and scout out our new facilities. Basically, we measured all the rooms assigned to the graphics department; figured out where all the printing presses, copy machines, desks and file cabinets would go; and then made a paper mockup to be sure that everything would fit. I hated the whole thing from the get-go. Our barracks were old Nazi buildings – as grim, gray, and ponderous as anyone could imagine.

Meanwhile, back in Frankfurt, the move began. I opted to remain to the last day, long after the rest of the guys had left. Although we had all done our fair share of moving stuff, the heavy lifting, packing, and shipping had been contracted to large German companies accustomed to such monumental projects. Of course, German linguists were "a dime a dozen" in the headquarters, but I was the only German-speaker in the Graphic Arts Department. So that was my ticket to stay as long as possible, making sure everything was wrapped up properly as I finally turned out the lights.

Upon arrival in Augsburg on that cool gray day in late April, I was depressed. Everything was so dreary. I checked into the new offices and studios and was at least pleased to see that our prior planning had really been followed to the letter. All the old familiar furniture fit perfectly where we had reassigned it.My drawing table was right next to the window – one of the perks of being in on the advance design committee. I had dibbed the best location first.

I had already been assigned my room and had moved in.Even though I had gained enough seniority in Frankfurt to be entitled to a single room, it was horrible nevertheless. When the Americans arrived after the World War II, some general had been appalled at the drabness, and had managed to procure enough hospital green paint to redo the entire place. Well, I knew I had to survive it somehow. I got hungry as it began getting dark. I had already been to the mess hall during my first trip, so without having to ask, I just trudged wearily over for chow. The exact same menu that I had known from the first day of basic training. No surprises there.

So I picked up my tray, silverware, and other eating and drinking accouterments, and began the slide down the line of absolutely typical American fare. It had all been familiar to me from day one, except for one thing that I had never seen before, as a naïve kid from the Pacific Northwest. I just figured it was cream of wheat. As I began to pour milk and sugar on it, the guy sitting directly across the table nearly had a coronary. In a heavy southern drawl he explained that you don't put milk and sugar on grits.

The mess hall was nearly empty by then, as most guys liked to get in as early as possible for the best of the fried chicken and chicken fried steak. I didn't care much that day as I sat down by myself. About halfway through my first meal in the wilderness, I began looking around to see if I recognized anybody from Frankfurt that might still be there. Nobody. Then I nearly choked on my garden fresh salad. There, clear across the room, musically entertaining a whole table of guys, was Bob Simpson!

He hadn't seen me, so I sneaked up behind him and covered his eyes. He couldn't guess. When he turned around I said: "Guess you haven't seen me in a while!" Well, Bob went crazy, as he was wont to do. When he realized that I had just moved in that day, he rightly assumed that I was kind of at loose ends, sad and lonely, and that my room was a huge void. So he whisked me away – guitar in hand – and we went to his room, which was in a different building. We hung out, caught up, and made weekend plans.He told me about the various church services and other entertainment venues that he was involved in. But most of all, he spoke about his absolute favorite, the Jugendzentrum. It was a mostly German-speaking youth center run by a Canadian missionary from Saskatchewan. I couldn't wait.

One thing about Bob – he was friendly.Since he had lived in Augsburg for over a year by then, he knew everybody.For the first day or two he dragged me all around and introduced me to everybody there, taking me from the library to the chapel, the motor pool to the hospital where he regularly went to entertain patients with the ubiquitous guitar. He liked them to challenge him with a request that he could not play.They rarely stumped him. I tried it as well, recommending one of my favorites: Bach's Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring. He thought a minute and said "Isn't that this...?" whereupon he played it all the way through flawlessly.

By the weekend I had begun enjoying the rhythms of life in my new environment.Then everything stepped up a click as Bob took me to the Junendzentrum for the first time. As we got off the street car – which is called a Straßenbahn – and walked over the crunching gravel to the front door, there was music and laughter and the sounds of a small café.As we entered someone shouted "Bob ist hier!" and the atmosphere clicked up a few notches. It was as if Jesus himself had arrived. (Well, maybe the Apostle Paul, anyway.) Although he had never learned any German, he had no trouble whatsoever communicating. Most of the young people there could speak some high school English, and Bob always managed to understand. Of course, the Canadian family that ran the place, whose German reflected the fact that they had learned the language at home and not in school, could always help him out.I came to really love these folks.

Then, pushing right up to Bob, appeared what was referred to at the time as a leftover hippy. Bob introduced us, and he immediately began talking to me in German. We spoke briefly and he asked me if I was German. Then he immediately caught his mistake and said, "Ah, of course, you're American," as he put his finger on the bright white tee-shirt showing above my regular shirt and sweater.I was curious and asked why that was a giveaway. He simply remarked that Europeans would not show their underwear like that. I resolved then and there to buy V-neck tee-shirts thereafter. His name was Jack – a very un-German name. As he and I got acquainted, Bob began his sing-a-long. Jack was actually Dutch and his namesake grandfather was from Britain. I learned as time went on that Jack really liked being in the spotlight; and by falling in with newcomers – especially foreign ones – he could get more attention around the center.Jack soused me out rather quickly. I could not play the guitar or entertain. He was impressed that I was an army illustrator (something that was definitely not in Bob's category of expertise). We became friends, but he saw that, unlike Bob, I didn't need him. We did, however, pal around Augsburg a lot; and I learned the city well from a local perspective; and for that I was grateful.

That was 1972 – the year of the Olympic games in Munich, half an hour away by train. I found many friends at the youth center, and we spent endless weekends throughout the year taking trips around Bavaria, Switzerland, Austria, and environs together. Bob was always there, guitar in hand. And I still recall the times when Bob and I went together – often to Frankfurt – for some big-production religious crusade to which he had been invited to perform. He loved that. I always thought it cute that as we rode the trains around Europe, Bob always asked me to see if it would be okay with those in our compartment for him to play his guitar.They loved it ... and what a great entrée to meet new people. Whereas I could have sat for hours without saying a word, he simply had to interact – even with perfect strangers.

As the Olympics drew near, all of Southern Germany was aflutter.We spent more and more time in Munich, as it was going to get worldwide attention. I got a kick out of the expression that I learned back then: "The foreigners are coming. We have to make a good impression. Quick, tear up all the streets!" But in the end, they got it together. Later that year it came time to return to the States and leave military life for good. As I boarded the train at the station in Augsburg, en route to Frankfurt and the military airport at Rhein Main, about twenty friends – mostly from the Jugendzentrum – had come to the platform to see me off. As the train left the station, Bob played and they all sang a German version of May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You.

As the train made it's way northward – and then, later, on the flight back to the States – I had a lot of time to reflect on how wonderfully my time in Augsburg had turned out after all ... with guitar accompaniment. (End)

Augsburg, Germany 1972

Hjälp Mig!

The Story of Mae Britt

I was living with my wife, Beth, in a little nondescript village about a half hour drive north of Frankfurt, Germany. It was called Neider Wöllstadt, which means lower Wöllstadt. Oddly enough, we had also lived in Ober (upper) Wöllstadt as well the previous year. Actually, I could not really tell the difference. The demarcation line was the railroad tracks. Our little town sat astride, and on both sides of, the main express rail line from Frankfurt to Hannover, and all points north. The super high-speed trains would come through our little station so fast that the whoosh of oncoming air could knock you off your feet if you were standing too near the tracks. Don't do that.

In fact, from our little flat on a short narrow street near the tracks, we could hear the Schnellzug IC Express trains rocket through town, some going north and others south. From my bed at night I could often hear them and could tell which direction each was heading. It was not loud enough to be annoying; but in fact I kind of liked it, wondering who was aboard – the passengers not even mindful of us sleeping residents in another quiet village flying by the train windows.

Our street had a grand total of sixteen houses – eight on each side. It was called Wolfspfad (the wolf's path). We were number six. Of course, we knew everybody on that short little pfad. Or should I say, they all knew us – the foreigners – the Americans. Our landlord, Frau Weller, lived on the second floor alone and her mother lived on the top floor – and we never saw her. It was a pleasant arrangement, and our quiet lives spun along uneventfully. Well, other than going to work daily, we frequently had house parties, inviting other expatriate foreigners as well as American servicemen from the nearby Army base in Friedberg. Our house was open to all, and we never knew when a gang of guys and gals from the area would blow in, usually bringing pizza and all manner of great German sausages and whatever they could get at the local pastry shop. These impromptu gatherings are some great memories. In addition to a close Swiss friend or two and the Americans, Frau Weller always managed to show up on the doorstep as well. She was lonely, and always came downstairs when she heard anything happening at the Muzzio flat on the ground floor. She just needed to be around people, I think. She was always welcome and she knew it. Then a fun thing happened.

The thirties-something couple with two small children at number 8 were getting a new au pair from Sweden. Of course, Frau Weller told us all about it. Everybody on the Wolfspfad already knew. We were always the last to learn anything, but were definitely in the loop. Mae Britt turned out to be a delightful young woman from the far north of Sweden. We didn't see anything of her at first... About two weeks or so after she arrived, I ran into her on the street with the two kids in tow. I introduced myself and we talked. She was obviously grateful for the conversation. She told me that although her German employers could speak English, they worked long hours and didn't interact with her much other than discussing issues relating to the children. She was lonely, and although she talked with her mom in Sweden now and then on the phone, she was completely isolated. I invited her over that night for dinner. She and Beth hit it off right away, and within a week she was totally plugged into our broad circle of friends. Like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, she fit in perfectly.

One dark rainy night in January, about ten or twelve of us went to a musical presentation in downtown Frankfurt. It was a casual affair with lots of old friends I knew from my days living in the city. Afterward, we set out for the Autobahn – north, caravan style. Some of the GIs from the military base led the way. A couple other young American and Canadian women – plus Mae Britt and a Hispanic military wife named Cecilia, who brought her baby along – were in the middle. I brought up the rear with Beth and some German friends from our village. The freeway was dark and wet, but the cars didn't even slow down – as usual. There are abundant signs along the autobahns warning of “aquaplaning” – which Americans call hydroplaning. It is when a gloss of water prevents the tires from actually making contact with the road surface. Loss of steering and braking is the result. I saw it that night. Right before my eyes, the car carrying the young women left the road and sailed into the air, bouncing off the guard rail and rolling end over end off the freeway. And then it rolled over and over into an adjacent wet, muddy field. The car ended up on its top. By the time I pulled over, leaped over the rail, and slid down a steep incline that their car had totally skipped over, I found myself in a ditch full of dark water. I dragged myself out and headed up the other bank toward the upside-down car. The windows were all broken, and the women were pulling themselves out. By then, the rest of the guys in my car were on the scene as Cecilia, in a panic, began to scream: “Where's my baby?” We had no flash lights, but frantically began looking. The baby was not inside the car! (These were the days before mandatory car seats and seat belts.) A shudder ran up my spine as I considered that the child might in fact be under the car. Then one of the guys yelled out: “Here she is!” She had been thrown clear of the car during the multiple rollovers, but we all rejoiced.

Everyone had survived. No one was even injured except Mae Britt who had sustained a concussion, as we later learned when she was in the hospital in nearby Oberürsel. She was there a week and we visited every day, bringing magazines, flowers, and sweets. She told me that she had learned a few German words like Gehirnershütterung (concussion) and schwindlig (dizzy).

One day during her hospital stay, Mae Britt mentioned that this experience, as bad as it was, was not the worst thing ever to happen to her. One evening in Helsinki she had driven her car onto a common car ferry bound for Stockholm. We are all familiar with those ferries. It was an overnight trip. She had parked the car, found her berth, thrown her bag on the bunk, and set out to get something to eat at the ship's cafeteria. Nothing seemed the least bit out of the ordinary. Then there was a shudder, a kind of thud. The sound was loud, but at first no one knew what had happened. There are no icebergs in the Baltic Sea, so it was not a rerun of Titanic; but the ferry immediately began to list to port. It happened rapidly, and she said that in no time you could see the panic on the faces of the passengers.

They learned later that the load had shifted, and, once it had hit a fulcrum, the entire ship was off-center and was obviously going to roll over on its side. Everyone panicked and began running up, out the doors, onto the deck, and up to the railing. Then, the next thing she knew, she was in the cold black waters of the Baltic. I could picture the scene. She told us that it was so cold that all she could do was try to cry out for help. “Hjälp mig!” (help me) was all she could manage to get out before her strength failed. She told us that she could remember the inky blackness and the severe cold. She closed her eyes and gave up. Then an amazing thing happened. She opened her eyes, and at that moment a wave of warmth swept over her and she saw a stunning azure blue sky and overhanging palm trees. It was so wonderful, so warm and beautiful. We all know these are endorphins kicking in – a common near-death experience.

Then something else happened. She felt someone pulling on her arm! She resisted. She did not want to leave the quiet blue-green, warm waters of that tropical lagoon. But they kept pulling. Then, as quickly as it came, it went away and the cold icy darkness came back in a flood. They pulled her out of the water, and she was safe and lived to tell us the story. I guess if I took anything away from her amazing account it was, as she put it: “No matter how black and cold and dark the situation may be, there may always be someone out there willing to pull you out.”

Philippines (1975-1976)

Sold Alive

Hindi ipinagbibili ng buhay!

Tagalog for Dummies

Native English speakers are used to being around people who speak the language with an accent, poor grammar, or weird, foreign-sounding expressions. We don't think much of it beyond the standard: "I wish they would learn to speak English."

But this is not always the case when English speakers try their skill at other languages. There are some obvious stereotypes that are well known. I have found some to be true, and others not so. But that is just one man's experience.

I have had a few run-ins with the uncharitable French who treat non-French-speaking foreigners with a certain Gallic disdain. But I hasten to add that they are overly forgiving of their linguistically challenged foreign friends!

The Italians pour out lavish praise on the visitor who blurts out even a simple phrase or two from Italian for Visitors, and the Germans politely just switch to English. The Japanese have a totally exclusive club; and no matter how well one masters the language, they are never even permitted an application form.The Japanese-speaking foreigner is just that – a foreigner above all. A Gaijin he will always be.

The Chinese club is different. I guess they feel that if anybody is willing to go through the language hell of learning to write the zillions of characters that they had to pound into their heads as children, then they merit a lifetime honorary membership. Of course, if one joins that club, he or she must be prepared to get wrapped up in all the traumas and dramas of membership!

But in my experience, Tagalog takes the cake. Like Dutch, Danish, and Lithuanian – not only do few even attempt it, most don't even know what it is! It is formally known as Pilipino, the national language of the Philippines.

For centuries the Filipinos have used their language as a sort of refuge. They just assume that absolutely nobody can understand them when they talk among themselves. Generally speaking, they are right. But now and then, a foreigner manages to learn it. This is very unsettling for them.

As a rule, the only westerners who study Tagalog, or the other languages of the 7,000-plus islands of the Philippines, do so to fulfill missionary callings. But even at that, when a Filipino hears his secret language coming out of the mouth of a white person, or Kano, he or she generally freaks out. Kano is short for Amerikano, a term used for all white people, much to the chagrin of Europeans, Brits, and – above all – Canadians.

There are three stages of reaction to a Kano learning Pilipino. The first stage is amusement. The first three months of language school are considered to be a lark. “Like, isn't that cute? Look, the Kano is learning a few words and phrases.”And any attempt to use those first simple phrases are met with polite giggles and encouraging little comments like: "Oh, you speak such good Tagalog!" Don't fall for it!

After the six months of the daily grind, and after mastering two of thirteen verb prefixes, one may feel his wings a bit and begin using the language with a fair degree of skill – albeit in conversation and not for abstract philosophical discussions. But, at this point the reaction is quite different. "Oh, you make so many mistakes when you speak Tagalog!" But, they do feel the need to help, and constant corrections are the order of the day.

At the end of a year, and with the necessary fluency to keep up and use the language effectively enough to communicate, the third and final reaction sets in. That's when they use a famous expression: "Hindi binili kayo ng buhay!" That is a high compliment, and one must really take it with humility, as they would never say it unless they meant it. Gone are the days of false flattery and condescension. This expression means: You can't be sold alive. It refers to ang baboy (a pig). Fat, happy, and ready to become dinner, the pig is oblivious to the farmer and merchant discussing his value and price. He is being sold alive. The implication of the compliment is beyond saying, "You're better than a pig." It means you have joined their Filipino club, and are privy to their secrets. But, I assure you, that moment comes with a chaser. "Now we will have to be careful what we say around you!" You better believe it.

There is really only one compliment superior to this, and it is the one that is said behind your back. If it ever reaches your ears ... believe me, it makes the struggle of learning worth it all.

Ambiguity of WE

Who is WE?

Have you ever heard that question?Who is we?

I grew up with that question ... that ambiguity.Didn't we all?

Who's WE?

We like IKE!
Who's WE?

We like spinach!

Who's WE?

I like spinach.
You don't?
Well then, WE don't like spinach!
I like spinach!

Do you like IKE?
Yes, but do I?
Well, I don't know.

How can a culture as advanced and specific as ours be so ambiguous about the word "WE?"

WHO is WE?

We ... meaning you and I?

Or ... WE, meaning I (and another party), but not you?

For example:

We are friends.

Simple sentence.


He and I are friends, but I have not known you long enough to call us "friends."

Or... You and I are friends, but I have not known him long enough to call us friends.

Two contrary concepts are rendered identically in the world's most widely used language. This presents a problem. For years, I just lived with it as we all do ... explaining who WE is when there is a question.

Then I moved to the Philippines and began learning Tagalog. Most Americans and Europeans don't even know about this wonderful language. It's not (TAG a Log). It's actually Ta GA log. But anyway...

We is never a problem. Filipinos have two words for WE. The first, Tayo, includes the hearer. The second, Kami, excludes the hearer. How perfectly brilliant! With all our innovations such as satellites and email, why haven't WE come up with something so great?

Tayo na sa Antipolo. It's a fun song, the words of which mean: "Let's all go." Or better: "WE all go to Antipolo (near Manila)." When anyone hears Tayo, he or she knows that he or she is included.

However, if it were to be Kami na sa Antipolo ... that means something altogether different: "We (some of us, but not you) are going to Antipolo."

Having two words for WE makes life far easier and less confusing. If I were to say to a friend, "We are getting married on Tuesday," I presume he would understand what I meant. And, likewise, if I said, "We have to pay our taxes by Tuesday," he would also understand. However, if I said, "We are going to shoot ourselves on Tuesday," he might still say, "Who's we?"

Earthquakes and Typhoons I've Known

Hold on to something!

One thing seems to be universally true; the Earth does move under our feet. I say universal because no matter where we live, it seems that nature can slap us down in one way or the other at almost any time. I have often thought about it when living in places prone to seismic and meteorologic dangers. People who live near the sea suffer hurricanes and tsunamis. Folks along rives have floods. Prairie inhabitants have tornadoes. And let's face it – we have all experienced the freaky weather that causes droughts, blizzards, and all manner of mayhem. And let's not forget volcanoes!

When the topic of natural disasters comes up, everybody has a story. Some are more harrowing than others. But I have had a few near misses, so I will tell you of them. Growing up in bucolic western Oregon, I observed that it is not a place where people are used to disasters. For instance, we were unprepared for the freak typhoon named Frieda that slammed ashore in the Pacific Northwest on October 12th, 1962. Thereafter referred to as "The Columbus Day Storm," it has always been Portland's disaster reference.

A few years later, the big 9.3 Anchorage Alaska earthquake of 1964 was likely the strongest to ever hit the USA in recorded history. As with a lot of such things, my relationship to it was tangential. Later, when I traveled a lot, I met people from all over the world with incredible accounts. My collection of secondhand stories increased a lot. I have always tried to tell of my own experiences and not simply repeat those of others; but during my preaching days, I learned that the key to a good sermon was a good story. So, like all preachers, I collected stories of the types of things that interest people. And, in part, because everyone can relate to Mother Nature in one way or another, I have always been fascinated with natural phenomena.

All in all, I managed to get through childhood without much trauma ... well, except for the first real earthquake that I felt personally in Mexico City, where I was a student at the time. It was a serious shock, and the famous Freedom Angel on its high column on the Paseo de la Reforma came crashing down. That was such an interesting and exciting time of spacewalks and new scientific discoveries about our earth. The concept of tectonics was fairly new, and we were learning that we are all more or less adrift on a sea of magma, riding along helplessly on plates that are in constant collision. Earthquakes are not sent by gods to punish poor behavior by mankind, but, rather, by massive geologic forces. And when they happen, all we can do is to hold onto something.

Speaking of holding onto something – my next earthquake was in the Philippines, another seismic hot spot. I was sitting alone in a small restaurant owned by friends, and waiting for an appointment, when the earth began to shake. I forgot everything else as the walls and floors began to buckle. I can't remember all that came next, but, to this day, I recall the sound of the nails being pulled out of the wooden walls as if with a claw hammer.

The Philippines is triply unlucky. Not only do they have earthquakes and volcanoes – they have typhoons. In years gone by, these massive Pacific windstorms used to come upon the islands, without warning. Like their violent cousins, tornadoes, they have been the stuff of legends throughout human time. But, nowadays they don't just "hit" like tornadoes and earthquakes; you always know when they are coming, and follow their progress daily in the newspapers and on nightly television news broadcasts. Tracking the multiple oncoming storms is of necessity a way of life for people in Asia, between May and October. I was no exception, paying rapt attention to the forward march of each approaching storm, wondering if it was going to make landfall or miss us, maybe hitting Taiwan or Japan further north. Like their Atlantic counterparts, the hurricanes, typhoons come in all shapes and sizes. And they all choose different paths. One learns soon enough that most will be near or complete misses. That is a bad thing, as one tends to become complacent. And when the "big one" does hit – and it always does – it's not unusual to be caught off-guard.

Aring is the name of the storm I remember most. It hit Manila head-on like a freight train, and we were scared for our lives. Hiding under the staircase with pillows, blankets, and sofa cushions, we held our heads down and prayed. My deepest fear was that the roof, with its wide eaves, would not hold and would be torn away. Many homes in our neighborhood were not so lucky.

The next morning, without electricity or a telephone, we ventured out but did not get far. Along with high winds comes high water, and we were totally cut off for days from our friends and coworkers. We were used to frequently being without power, so candles were the order of the day. I wrote some stories and painted. Later, when we all got together to compare notes, I learned that my boss at the time had been trapped in his car in deep water for the first night.

When our first big typhoon hit us in Hong Kong, we were well-seasoned enough to know what to do. Living high and exposed, I knew that we were a target, so I took all the artwork off the walls, disassembled the stereo, and brought everything that could not be nailed down, into the hall of our flat. We were lucky because, with all the doors tightly closed, we had no exposure to flying glass should a window give way. Despite all the roaring and shaking, we felt safe and sound. Unlike most of Asia, where the power and telephone lines were overhead, Hong Kong's infrastructure was all underground. So, we could actually talk on the phone during the height of a number ten typhoon! Amazing.

Then the water started coming in. And not just a little, but a lot. We tried towels under the door, but to no avail. I had to do the unthinkable, and go upstairs onto our flat roof to clear the debris from the drains. I crawled to the drains in the climbing water. Being soaked already, getting wet was the least of my worries. And as much as I loved that flat and enjoyed lying out in the sun on the roof-deck, I never forgot henceforth to always clear the drains whenever a typhoon was even hinted.

That was typhoon Rose, the worst storm since Wanda. And let me tell you – the oldtimers never let us forget that Wanda was worse. But, when I went out days later to photograph the ship that had been blown up onto the Wan Chai Ferry pier, I wasn't so sure. Still, as with Frieda, the Columbus Day storm, we may have exaggerated this storm a bit over the years. I mean, we all love to tell stories, and the fish seems to get bigger with every telling. No wonder the Bible is so full of outlandish tales of massive battles, wondrous talking donkeys, and the sun standing still. We are all human, aren't we?

I realize that we all want to be the heroes of our own stories. But, I will admit to being absent from my last memorable natural disaster, the 1989 Loma Preata earthquake in San Francisco. I was 200 miles away, watching the whole thing on CNN on a beautiful late afternoon in Lake Tahoe. Since we have all seen those images a million times, I will not seek to describe them again. But, since I moved to that city only a few months later, the whole experience was very close to the surface in the minds of all San Franciscans. And everybody had a personal story. Since the quake hit at five in the afternoon and the power went out everywhere immediately, everyone in town had to make it home on foot in the gathering darkness, stopping only occasionally to learn of events from others stuck in their automobiles along the way, who were listening on their car radios.

The stories are myriad. Since the power was out, television feeds were black in the entire Bay Area. Flashlights, candles, and bottled water were crucial. Television was useless. How hard it is for us who are accustomed to our world of electric everything, running water, and high-speed transport, to suddenly be back in the Middle Ages. But the irony of all this was that while all of my friends in San Francisco were stumbling around in the dark, I watched the whole thing live on television, tucked into my tidy little condo 200 miles away at Lake Tahoe.

Hong Kong/China (1977-1985)

Eat Rice Eat Noodles

The first words we learned on the initial day of Cantonese language study had to do with eating. One can travel throughout the world and can find Chinese restaurants everywhere. The Chinese know a lot about eating, cooking, and running restaurants. Most Westerners don't understand Chinese food at all. After many years of living in Hong Kong and eating a lot of Chinese food, I feel that I am somewhat of an authority on the subject – at least as much of an expert as a foreigner can be.

The first thing to keep in mind about eating Chinese cuisine is that it is to be served hot! There is a reason for this. Over the thousands of years of Chinese history, fuel for cooking has often been very scarce. Cooking over open fires in woks requires one to cook fast. The oil is heated; and the food, already bite-sized so that it can be eaten with chopsticks, is stir-fried. It is served with rice in communal bowls, "family style." The simple thing to remember when ordering at a Chinese restaurant is to share. Individuals do not order entrees for themselves, but, instead, several dishes are ordered and everyone at the table gets some of each. Ordering Western-style can be a disaster. I still chuckle about an American lady friend of mine who on her first jetlagged evening in Hong Kong ended up with a plate of broccoli for dinner. The other first-timers laughed until their meals arrived. Each had one dish in front of him with one thing on the plate. I am sure the waiters were amused or confused.

Chinese menus present choices in categories. Chicken, pork, beef, seafood, and vegetables are standard fare. The basic rule of thumb is to order one dish per number of persons at the table – plus one! Four persons, five dishes. It is fun for each person to choose a category and each make a selection for the group accordingly.

Rice or noodles are the foundation for the entrees, and are not necessarily considered entrees themselves. Ordering both rice and "chow mien" (fried noodles), is like ordering a baked potato and fries together.

In all of Hong Kong and the massive mainland of China there is no such thing as a Chinese "take-out" joint. The Chinese don't eat that way, McDonald's notwithstanding. The Chinese like their food hot from the wok. The idea of ordering food by phone and having it delivered is a very Western adaptation. Eating food out of those little cardboard containers is hardly very exciting. For that reason, I rarely eat Chinese food in the States. Most restaurants that cater to Western palates are so unlike what one would find in Asia that it is just not worth it to me to be disappointed.

However, if one is intent upon finding an authentic Chinese restaurant outside of China, here is a clue to look for: Chinese patrons. If at least ninety percent of the clientele are Chinese, it is likely authentic. If most of the patrons are gwailos (foreign devils), forget it.

One has to understand something about China itself to understand the way the people think and act there. China is the most populous nation on earth, with some of the highest population density in the world. China is a crowded place, and the people who grow up among the "teeming" millions are quite comfortable in a throng. A typical Chinese restaurant is a teeming place, to be sure. The din is overwhelming as everyone seems intent upon being heard above the fray. The crashing and clattering of dishes, shouting of orders, and peals of laughter say, "We are having a good time." The Chinese word is Yiht-Nauh. It means literally "hot noise." Soft mood music and intimate conversation is nowhere to be found. It is foreign. Restaurants are places for having fun with family and friends, and are associated with special events. Because crowding has confined housing size throughout Asia, in-home entertainment is nearly out of the question – especially special events like weddings, graduations, and business openings. Having banquets for a hundred or more people is not unusual. After all, one has only so many lucky auspicious days to celebrate.

I cannot even begin to recall all the wonderful feasts of celebration I had the joy of attending during my years in China. However, I do remember the food, the noise, and the heartburn. Foreigners have a different palate than the Chinese do. For authenticity, one has to attend a Chinese wedding feast. The dishes that the Chinese order differ quite a bit from what the average Westerner might be comfortable trying. Duck feet and sea slug don't often make it into the top ten for most Americans and Europeans. However, the Chinese say: "If its back faces the sky..." you can eat it. And they do. In abundance.

I was never sure if it was the MSG or the sea urchin, but I do remember many sleepless nights with strange things bubbling and gurgling in my stomach. Finally, in despair, I asked one of those "old China hands" to tell me what to do.

"That's easy," he answered authoritatively. "When you come home, have a bowl of cornflakes. That familiar taste in your mouth and on your stomach will go on top of all the weird and unfamiliar tastes, and your Western stomach will be at ease."

He was right! From then on, I always had a bowl of Wheaties on top of all the strange and exotic delights, and slept without Maalox. It worked like a charm.

Years later, while entertaining a large group of Chinese friends in my own home, I mentioned this technique. To my surprise, they all laughed uproariously!

They all nodded knowingly. "After we go to dinner with Westerners, we go home and eat rice!"

Frequent Flyer

An odd thing happened to me one day when I was living in Hong Kong. I must have been about thirty or thirty-one. A friend of mine had come from the United States in pursuit of a modeling career, having heard quite correctly, that there was a demand for striking Western models in Asia. He had the typical GQ look that you see in those chic, elegant fashion magazines. He was about six-foot-three with a lean, straight frame, and stunningly blond hair (if only from a bottle). The affect was impressive nevertheless.

I agreed to set up interviews for him before his arrival. Having no experience whatsoever with modeling agencies, I simply called and made arrangements for him to show up with his portfolio of photographs that showed him in flattering poses, along with his tear sheets that were examples of his likeness already in print.

When I saw the tear sheets, I was a bit concerned. He had modeled primarily swim suits and very youthful trendy "California" style clothing, taking advantage of his blond surfer look. However, being familiar with what the more sophisticated regional market, I couldn't imagine anyone in Hong Kong ever wearing those clothes. So, I suggested that he buy a business suit.

He dutifully went to a local tailor friend of mine, who produced a very nice-looking Wall Street style suit for him. Even though it fit to a T, I have to admit, it just didn't quite go with his image. Nevertheless, I promised to pick him up and escort him through Chinese traffic to his interviews on the following day. That was when my surprises began.

There is no doubt that he was a "headturner." People would always take a second look in restaurants and even on the street. Now that I had remade him a bit, I thought he would be a shoe-in. We went into the biggest and most well-known Hong Kong modeling agency first. It had accounts with all the big Asian corporations.

"You're perfect!" was the immediate response the minute we walked through the door. "You have the exact right look for our market." I was proud of my efforts at remodeling him.

"Great," I replied. "And he has a portfolio and tear sheets too!"

"No, not him!" they intoned. "YOU!" I distinctly remember looking around behind me, thinking someone else must surely be standing in the doorway.

"The suit, the brief case, the salt-and-pepper hair... You are the frequent flyer!"

I learned that day about commercial modeling. Selling swim suits requires a certain look, to be sure; but selling airline seats and hotel rooms requires another. I moonlighted as a frequent flyer model for several years after that, and saw myself in all sorts of airport kiosks in Tokyo, Taipei, and Singapore. I guess it's all in the look.

Just Like Jesus

My first surreptitious baptism in China was in Canton in 1978. The idea of doing a baptism in the then very repressed communist country was against all the rules. But I did it anyway. It wasn't like I was being more rebellious or contrary than usual, but, rather, I had been asked to do it – not so much as a favor, but as an obligation.

At the time, Hong Kong missionaries like me were sneaking into China and smuggling all manner of religious materials into our "Brothers and sisters in Christ behind the bamboo curtain." This was the last whimper of the Cultural Revolution that had been going on since 1965. This was a time when all foreign sponsored evangelistic efforts in the Mainland had been quashed – at least as far as the outside world knew.

My wife and I, and many others of various religious persuasions, had been studying Chinese in Hong Kong "on faith" that God would "open the door" to China, so that we all could go in and resume the preaching of the Gospel where everyone had left off when we had all been so unceremoniously kicked out by the overtaking communists in 1949.

Well, I distinctly remember the day in Manila when I saw the headline in the newspaper: Mao Dead. A simple two word headline, but to me it didn't have to be anything more. I got the picture. "We are going to be in China very soon," I prophesied in the spirit. I was still given to such things at the time. That was 1976, and within two years of that time, I was walking on the grimy grubby streets of Canton, picking my way down dark narrow alleys with several Hong Kong friends and a flashlight, dodging mud puddles in the dark.

The believers had heard that a missionary from Hong Kong was in town – not just a Chinese Christian friend, but a real white Western, American "Mohk Sih." This was part of the amazing Chinese Christian grapevine so much touted in churches in the West. It was a real thing, I knew and I will admit. It was rather exciting to be slinking my way through the dark humid alleys that were completely devoid of any street lighting whatsoever. My mission was to baptize an elderly couple that had converted right after the Second World War.

The house was typical. It was near the end of a tiny muddy lane. It was of dull, colorless bricks partially covered over with equally gray, dingy plaster. Inside the place was the humble dwelling of Mr. and Mrs. Leung, a very elderly crippled couple seated in the midst of a collection of believers from "around the area." This vague description they gave me of the gatherers was specific enough, as it was still very illegal to have more than two or three visitors in a private home at a time. There was the standard uncovered 40 watt light bulb hanging by frayed wires from the center of the ceiling.

In the dim room we had an ad hoc church service without the trappings of formality of any kind. The Leungs talked of their lives. It was pretty grim, and though I had made several trips into China already at the time and heard many such tales, I felt really crushed and sad that these two little old people had once been young, strong, and hopeful. But their lives, like those of millions of other Chinese, had been destroyed by war, invasion, and revolution. They had spent their adult years faking their way under communism, pretending to be "true believers," but knowing full well that it was all a big lie. But, who could stand up to the liars? All had learned to just keep their heads down, to not draw undo attention to themselves. Of course, we all knew that even this meeting in their house was in the category of drawing attention. But they had taken my presence as a sign from on high that God wanted them to be baptized before either was to die. So, they felt it was a divine risk. "And besides," they said, "at this point, what can they really do to us that we haven't been through before?" And I knew that they were right.

I had struggled with the notion of doing a baptism without standing water. But I decided to just go with it, and let God sort it out in heaven when these two stood in judgment. As for me – was it my task to try to figure out how to find a pool, stream, or river, that were nonexistent? An open sewer, of which there were many, just seemed so gross.

I did the traditional prayer in Chinese, and carefully poured a small bit of water on each of their heads. And that was that. We very quietly sang the doxology. Then, there was a moment of unscripted silence. In a regular Pentecostal church I would expect someone to shout forth with a "message in tongues." (Like that would be a wise thing to do at the moment, given the circumstances.) But instead, Mrs. Leung quietly pointed to a picture of Jesus hanging on the wall. It was one of those ubiquitous Catholic prints with a beautiful, glowing Caucasian Jesus, complete with halo and flaming heart. I had seen it when I came in, and had just tried to ignore it. But then everybody was looking at it as she reverently said, while pointing to me, "Wah, ho-chi Yeh-So gam!" Just like Jesus! The beard did it every time.

Months later, I was talking to an American pastor from California who was visiting Hong Kong, eager to hear new stories of "the Lord's moving in China." I obliged with current stories and then mentioned the baptism story of the elderly couple (without mentioning the beard or the flaming heart of course). He seemed perplexed. "Well," he said sort of wistfully, "I see the problem. But I can't help but think that if it had been me, I would have tried harder to find a river or something."

I never mentioned that baptism again. I figured that word might get around in churches in the States that Tom was over there "sprinkling" instead of doing real proper baptisms. Of course, I felt a bit of a twinge of doubt whenever I had cause to think of it. The next time I was in Canton I happened to be walking on foot across the Pearl River Bridge. I stopped near one end and looked over the railing. The river was low, exposing wide mud flats on both banks. There, sticking out of the grayish, filthy, oily mud, and covered in raw sewage, was all manner of disgusting refuse. The broken bottles made the biggest impression on me of all. I tried to imagine if it would have been possible for us to carry those two old folks through the muck and mire and broken glass to immerse them in those fetid waters of the ill-named Pearl River. Would that have been a real baptism? Did their home baptism really count? I guess I'll never know. It's up to God now.

Alice and the French Nun

Language School, the Great Equalizer

Hong Kong, July 1978

The Bible says that in Christ there is no Jew, no Gentile, no Roman, nor Greek ... or something like that. The idea is equality in diversity, and it is a very modern controversy with historic overtones. And, for those who go abroad as "ambassadors for Christ," there is a shared experience despite denominational diversity. It is called Language School. No matter whether Protestant, Catholic, cult, or sect, language training is the great equalizer. Some come to the "mission field" with the notion that if one preaches the word of the Lord loud enough or with enough zeal in his native tongue, God will "unstop" the ears of the hearers, and the message will miraculously get through. After all, the Bible even features a talking donkey ... Balaam's ass, that is. If a donkey can speak a foreign language, how hard can it really be?

On our first day of Chinese (Cantonese) study, Beth and I at least had in inkling of what was to come, since we had already had the pleasure of learning Tagalog in the Philippines some years earlier. Most of the Europeans had already learned English so that they could then learn Chinese. There just weren't textbooks, from Norwegian or Italian to Chinese, let alone teachers. English was the starting point, and we all were on square one.

The native English speakers were an odd collection of Americans, Canadians, and Brits, of various descriptions. Mostly Protestants, there were the Baptists, the Pentecostals, and the weird "others" like the Moonies, the Mormons, and the independent folks of indeterminate persuasion. The British were an equal hodgepodge.

The Catholics came from all over, but my favorites were two Italian priests, Paolo and Francesco. They were assigned to work together as a team, and I was impressed that the Catholic Church had been so adroit at matching them up so well. I ran into them some years later in one of Hong Kong's gay bars, and we all had a beer and a great laugh together. I had read Dante and got the joke. They were impressed that I had always known that they were lovers.

There was a Mexican priest whose name in Chinese sounded like "very troublesome," and an assortment of French, German, and Swiss missionaries who filled out the Catholic roster. The rest consisted of a group of Norwegian Lutherans, two Swedes, and a spare Finn. But not all who were enrolled were clergy. The business community makes a stumbling effort to "immerse" its executives in the "local language" wherever they are assigned. Big wigs from Coca-Cola, Chase Manhattan, General Motors, and American Express – and their wives – made the scene with crisp, sparkling clean notebooks and pencils at the ready.

I wasn't ready for the Japanese. Many travel agencies required their staff and tour guides to learn the local lingo to help herd the hordes of Japanese tourists around town. They had a certain advantage as they already knew the Chinese characters, which they call Kanji. The rest of us would have to pound into our heads as adults what these guys had already done years ago as kids. I, like some others, had already studied Chinese, and so had an ever so slight advantage as well. But, all that faded fast as we all set out together on a long journey that would see only about ten of us cross the finish line and graduate officially at the end of year two.

I read an account once of a ferry sinking somewhere in the South China Sea. The article went on and on about how the passengers had pulled together and saved each others' lives, never even thinking about nationalities or creeds. It didn't take long until we knew that we were "all in the same boat." Looking forward to the daily coffee break at 10:30 or so, when our brains were about ready to explode, we all hung out together like inmates, doing time together; our mutual suffering was our bond. We never talked about religious doctrine or politics that I recall ... just let friendships grow as they did naturally, encouraged by the advanced students ahead of us who knew what we were going through. And when our turn came, we encouraged the new students to avoid jumping from the third floor landing where we took our breaks.

It was an international milieu. Holidays were great fun, as we all got to share new experiences at Christmas, Easter, and the real biggie – Chinese New Year.

By the end of the first year, many of the original cast had left the stage – most notably, the executives and wives who were too busy with their whirlwind lives, entertaining high-powered guests and dignitaries. Some of the more "spiritual" folks got a word from the Lord that they had enough to preach a simple Gospel message, and that their funds for study had run out anyway. Others decided that Chinese was just too hard, and got "called" to the Philippines where they could preach in English. Big myth.

Whereas most two-year Asian language programs reserved the second year primarily for reading and writing, the Hong Kong Baptist College program was more oriented toward homiletics, hermeneutics, and oral preaching techniques. We faced a decision, and I chose to concentrate more on reading and writing, as opposed to preaching. Most chose the verbal approach, as it was possible to do so without learning the myriad Chinese ideographs required to read a newspaper, let alone the Chinese Bible. I regret the amount of time I invested in my daily grind, learning words like concupiscence, blasphemy, and idolatry, and phrases like Slaves, obey your earthly masters.

But I always had a penchant for the written calligraphy, as it was a natural extension of my artistic temperament. I had already demonstrated my facility with the written forms, having previously been exposed to Mandarin in college and the military. It was decided that, since everyone left in my class had opted out of the written class, I would be tossed in with a class well-advanced and far into its second year. There were only two other students in my class: Alice, an independent American missionary from an organization that I had never heard of, and Michelle, a French nun who always showed up in her sparkling white nun regalia. I had always liked nuns. I still think they get a bad rap.

When my wife and I had first arrived in Manila – having been evacuated from Saigon in April 1975 – I taught ESL (English as a Second Language) in the refugee camps for the Vietnamese escaping with us during that terrible time. The two nuns whom I worked with, a Vietnamese and a Filipina, were nothing short of heroic in their efforts to help these tragic escapees. I immediately liked my classmate in white, and never thought to call her by her first name until we all got together for a field trip to Ma Wan Island one weekend and she showed up in designer jeans and a very un-nun-like tube top. She may have been a nun, but she certainly did not lack for a French sense of style.

Of course, no person who has ever learned a new language – whether in the ministry, the military, Foreign Service, or just for the heck of it – can make it through without the inevitable mistakes and gaffs. I was no exception, or course; though, since I am writing this, I will refrain from self-incrimination. I have longed for years to write a book entitled something like Blunders and Bloopers on the Road to Fluency in (fill in here). Maybe that would be a worthwhile project. Most language learners finally give up all pride at some point, and just blurt out the most outrageous things.

I have always said that a sense of humor and self-deprecation is essential to getting past all the nouns, verbs, adjectives, and gerunds. In year one, I was lucky to have a classmate who had a wild sense of humor that kept the entire class in stitches (including the teachers). Early on he caught on to making intentional mistakes – saying the right answer, just off by one tone, which rendered it obtuse, absurd, or obscene. In most Asian languages, where tone changes meaning, it is so easy to say something totally wrong with the slightest change of inflection. A couple of times the teachers had to excuse the class early because they couldn't contain themselves. They also couldn't wait until we were all cleared out to go tell the other teachers what he had said.

Of course, the joke was that he really knew what he was saying all along ... and that was his ultimate joke. But, sometime later I heard that he had said something from the pulpit that left an entire congregation out of control. It was akin to an incident I recall from a prayer meeting in Augsburg, Germany when the preacher called for a "moment of silence." Well, it was a rather long moment of utter silence until someone accidentally farted loudly. Everybody tried like mad to maintain composure. Some managed. Others (especially the teenagers) lost it.

...Language school had been over for several months, and we were all in the field preaching with our new language skills. My friend and coworker was preaching at a fairly large church one Sunday morning. His message was about "family values" or some such appropriate fare. He had a daughter and a son at the time, and was expecting his third. He meant to say: "I only have one son," then adding, "but I love him very much!" That would have made fine sense. But what he really said accidentally was: "I only have one testicle!" Apparently, most of the congregation held it together ... that is, until he finished the sentence: "But I love it very much!"

The Real Bus Eleven

The last will be first

I never thought that riding a bus could be a metaphor for life – living both at the beginning and the end at the same time. How is that possible? I did it for years. The bus stop at the corner of Perkins Road and Moorsom Road in Jardine's Lookout was both the beginning and ending point of bus line number eleven, and of my day as well. I rode the blue double-decker, British-style bus every day for years as I plied my way both up the hill and down the hill every day, to and from my day job in Causeway Bay on Hong Kong Island.

Every morning, I could hear it turn off Tai Hang Road and begin its relentless tortured climb up Perkins Road to the last stop at the top where I lived. The hill was steep and formidable, but the driver would downshift right at Cooper Road and grind slowly upward. Once I heard the engine's change of pitch, I knew that I could slow my pace, as I couldn't make it to the stop in time. The next arrival would be in twenty minute's time. If I dashed out the door before the shift change, I could make it – but just barely. If I could make it to the edge of my cul-de-sac, the drivers would smile and wait for me to come on a dead run in the hot tropical morning sun – panting.

"You are running late, Mui Sang," they would say in a faux scolding way in their scoffing Cantonese. All the drivers on bus line number eleven knew me.

"Yes, but I am your first customer, so I am very important," I would say, throwing in 8 mao (.80 HK cents) with a clatter. "Yes, and you will be the last one later as well!"

Like the circle of life ... the end of the line for some is the beginning for others. If I had been a Buddhist at the time, I would have certainly seen this paradox as a metaphor for reincarnation.

I was always the first passenger to climb aboard bus eleven, and the last to stagger off – hot, tired, and fried at the end of the day. The mornings were great, as I would immediately climb to the second deck and claim the very front seat, where the open window would allow for airflow into a space that within no time would be packed with hot, sweaty, and very loud Cantonese. About halfway home I could usually make my way up there again as the sardines gradually exited the can.

The first time I was asked how I got home from work I simply answered:

"I ride bus eleven."

"Really?" was the incredulous reply. The Chinese all seemed rather surprised – even shocked. "Isn't that very far, hot, and steep?"

"Of course," I answered, "but there is a stop right at the top of Perkins Road, next to my cul-de-sac, and it is both the first and last stop on the line!"

They all laughed in unison. "You're kidding! There really is a bus eleven?" they intoned.

"Of course," I replied knowingly. "It goes from Central through Wan Chai, Causeway Bay, up Tai Hang Road, through Jardine's Lookout, and back. It's a loop." They laughed again, but in a different way. I was confused.

"The joke is on us!" they chuckled. "In Cantonese, to ride bus eleven means to walk ... go by foot." They all demonstrated with two fingers how the number eleven represents two legs walking. I loved it. I had become a little bit more Chinese that day. From then on, I always thought of saying: "...and yes, Virginia, there really is a bus eleven!"

The Chinese Santa

The American war for the real Christmas

Every year we hear the same tune, accompanied by the handwringing of political and religious conservatives.

The names change, but the rant remains the same: “Liberals, feminists, atheists, and gays have hijacked Christmas! We all know that the true meaning of Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem,” they preach on and on, accompanied by Bing Crosby...

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten
And children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write
May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white

I have always wondered how many of the Religious Right leaders have ever ridden in a one-horse open sleigh, roasted chestnuts on an open fire, or spied to see if reindeer really know how to fly. And I am absolutely certain than none of them ever donned their “gay apparel!”

We all know that Christmas was an early church adaptation of the winter solstice celebrations of the Roman era, throughout the empire and well beyond. It did have something to do with trees, candles, and overeating – to be sure. But I doubt that any of the revelers of the Saturnalia in Rome or the Germanic tribes or the Celts, had ever heard of reindeer or Santa Clause or the little drummer boy. That was all popularized by American corporations to sell merchandise at a very dreary time of the year.

I’ll admit that my cultural love of Christmas runs deep. I loved the partridge in a pear tree, the seven swans a-swimming, and – above all – the eleven lords a-leaping. But I had no religious associations attached to the holiday as did some of my classmates who attended Fundamentalist churches. They lived in a weird world where Santa Clause would come to their Sunday school classes and dish out presents. Then they would go into the main sanctuary of their churches and hear about the wise men, the star, and the stable story. Years later, when I was a minister in a large Fundamentalist denomination, I remarked to my wife how schizophrenic that must have been for those kids. “Trying to separate cultural myths from the truth of the Gospel could present a real 'belief' issue as kids got older,” I mused.

“I really don’t think we should teach Vincent anything about Santa, reindeer, and all that hooey,” I proposed. “He will just have to unlearn it later; and then once he realizes that it is all a lie, what is to keep him from wondering if Jesus is just like Santa as well, and whether one day we are just going to say, 'Surprise! Jesus is no different from the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy!'”

My wife, having grown up in a Fundamentalist church, had managed to make the transition from the American childhood fantasy to a solid theological understanding of her faith; so she thought I might be just a bit overly cautions. But she agreed that there was no real point in emphasizing the cultural trappings of our American tradition that the right-wing radio and television talk show hosts feel are being stolen from them by secular humanists.

Of course, we had another element in our lives that both complicated things, on the one hand, and made them much easier, on the other. We did not live in the United States of America when Vincent was encountering Christmas and Christian doctrines for the first time. We were living in Hong Kong as foreign clergy, and were (by default) immersed daily in the Chinese culture and the foreign Christian culture (by design) at the very same time.

Christmas in Hong Kong was a huge to-do, second only to Chinese New Year. Like Japan and other non-native Christian regions of Asia, the Chinese merchants had years ago learned that this midwinter Western holiday was as natural as a “shopper’s heyday.” Sometimes it is good to step back from our battles in the ongoing culture war in America. Living abroad for years has a way of making things fit into the “whole Earth” perspective. America is not the center of the Universe. Other peoples celebrate Christmas as well.

We had determined that our son, Vincent, should be brought up in a bilingual environment so that he would be able to speak Chinese without having to learn it later with all the grammar and frustration that most foreigners experience. It worked very well. He could speak Chinese from the time he could speak English, as we had hired a traditional Chinese amah to watch him while we were in language school. He learned in an effortless way that I certainly envied. When he was three we sent him to Chinese kindergarten along with Chinese kids. He was real cute in his little uniform, and was fearless as he climbed onto the little school bus for the first day – without any trepidation whatsoever. I was amazed, as I had been such a wimp on my first day of school.

We had carefully – and with much help and many suggestions – chosen an appropriate Chinese name for him, as we had done for ourselves when we first arrived. He was Mui Wing Sing from his first day in school, and not one of the other kids even noticed that he stuck out like a sore thumb. The teachers had been clued in, and treated him just like the other kids; and he never knew that he wasn’t Chinese. Until the following Christmas, that is. Hong Kong was aflutter with the oddest mixture of American, European, and Asian renditions of carols, plastic Santas, and all those trappings of the holidays that Fundamentalists hold so dear. Sometime after the Lantern Festival in the fall, the weather in Hong Kong begins to moderate, and the incessant heat and humidity give way to a kind of “shirtsleeve” weather that heralds the harking angels.

Vincent came home all excited one afternoon, and announced that Bak Gick Louh Yahn (Santa) was coming to his school to give presents to the kids. He talked about it for weeks to A-Gahm, our amah. We put up the plastic tree that I had salvaged from a dumpster the previous year. It was fine, and nobody believed that a retail store would throw away such a nice item; but storage was an issue, and nobody had private storage units in those days. We were very festive that year, and Vincent was all atwitter the day of the Christmas party at his school. We took off work to participate in the show that they had prepared, and awaited the big moment when Santa would make his debut.

I have to confess that I was not really expecting his grand entrance. What was wrong with this picture? Oh, duh ... Santa is Chinese! The kids were cheering and carrying on – Vincent right in the thick of it all. Santa had the teachers help distribute the gifts, and then he told the kids some brief stories and talked to them individually. It went swimmingly. Then Santa noticed Vincent at the ready. Nonplussed, he tried his best English version of "Ho ho ho ... What’s your name, little boy?" Then Vincent was freaked. What in the world was Santa trying to talk to him in English for? He instead piped up in Chinese, and then Santa just about fell over. Vincent and the rest of the kids didn’t bat an eye, but the teachers gave me a knowing smile, and it was our little joke.

I realized that day: Christmas does not belong to Americans or the British or the Fundamentalists. ...It is what you make of it. Vincent, the little Cantonese kids, the teachers, and that Chinese Santa had really pulled it off. Christmas had been a real hit.

Some weeks later, Vincent asked me an interesting question that I have always enjoyed recounting. I don’t know if it was because of the Christmas experience or just a growing awareness that maybe he was somehow different from the other kids. He asked me in a serious way: “Dad, when is my hair going to turn black?”

Nevada/California (1986-1991)

Echo Lake

We've got to get there early!

The first time I visited Echo Lake, I was impressed. When one lives on spectacular Lake Tahoe, it is hard to imagine that there are many alpine lakes way higher, albeit much smaller. Echo Lake is one of these. Some local friends who had been born and raised in the region were always talking about Echo Lake and the surrounding Desolation Wilderness. It was mid-August, and we were visiting some of those native-born Nevadans down in Reno. It was already god-awful hot, even at ten in the morning. Someone suggested that we pile into the car and zip up to Echo Lake to cool off. Reno is at 4,500 feet above sea level while Tahoe, at 6,200 feet, is at lake level. And, believe me, the altitude change is remarkable. Add another 1,200 feet, and the cooling effect is even more pronounced.

I loved the crystal clear lake immediately. It was August, and the leaves of the aspen trees were already showing their bright yellow and golden colors. We rented the last available rowboat, and spent several hours just enjoying life.

A month later, in early September, some friends from San Francisco were visiting. They had been to Tahoe many times, so I suggested a boat trip to Echo Lake, and then an evening at South Shore Lake Tahoe, as the visitors wanted to gamble a bit at the casinos. Great idea! All the way up the narrow road to the small lake, I was going on and on about how wonderful it is to go out on the lake. We even thought to buy a bottle of wine and some plastic cups! I don't know if that was legal, but we were discrete. We didn't figure that you could get into much trouble in a row boat. We arrived at the little lodge and headed down to the marina. We arrived at the boat rental place in anticipation. The boats were all chained up and padlocked. The sign read: Closed for the Season.

"What!" we all exclaimed disappointedly. "You've got to be kidding!" So, despondently, we retraced our steps to the car, and drove back down to South Shore. In the end we had a good time, and even had a nice buffet dinner and saw a show. But I made a mental note: Make sure to get there early from now on!

May 1st rolled around the following Spring, and Tahoe was beautiful. Some friends from Virginia City had heard me natter on and on about the virtues of Echo Lake; so they suggested that we all meet up in Carson City, take one car, and go up to the Lake. I had made a point of the need to get there early, as there were only so many boat rentals and we didn't want to get left out.

The weather in Carson was already hot, and we were appropriately dressed – I in my Birkenstocks and the others in shorts and flip-flops. We were really prepared this time with a cooler, some cold beer, and sandwiches for a fun day on the lake. As we turned onto the small narrow road leading up to the lake from the road around the lake, we noticed that there was still some snow piled up on the sides of the road. As the road continued to narrow, the snow banks on both sides got higher and higher. Finally, we ran out of road, so we got out of the car and went ahead on foot until we caught sight of the lake. It was still frozen solid!

I never lived that one down. "Tom!" they all teased, "...well, at least we did get here early! Like a month early!"

My Skinny Little Mexican Wedding

The last will be first

My fiancée and I were living in Europe when we got engaged. All our friends were getting married, and it seemed like the thing to do. In fact, it was sort of a mania. We were working for a parachurch organization called Continental Teen Challenge. There were a lot of weird theological traumas and dramas going on at the time, and try though we may, avoiding being swept up in this or that "new truth" was difficult.

The prosperity doctrine was sweeping Europe, as it had already more or less peaked in the States. "Name it and claim it" was the order of the day. In a nutshell, the concept was simple: God blesses his children with material things to prove his love and their faithfulness. Poverty is for suckers and those lacking in faith. If one wants to drive a Cadillac (note the American bias) – or in Europe, a Mercedes – one need only to ask the heavenly father to provide it, and he will.

"We're King's kids!" exclaimed a Swiss friend of mine who had fallen hook, line, and sinker for the new "truth" du jour. "We deserve the best!" he explained as he turned his beat-up, aging Peugeot into the hardware store in Friedberg, where we had come to get some shelf fasteners. "The Bible says that God will not deny any good thing to those who love him!"

Along with the claiming of riches to which all Christians are entitled, came the next logical step – claiming perfect health! That winter was particularly miserable and cold in Frankfurt, and germs were everywhere (I guess that is why they call it Germany). Anyway, catching a cold was considered a sure sign that one was not really up to snuff in his prayer life, since "God does not want us to be sick." Everyone got the flu at some point, and I was no exception. I wasn't really buying the line that getting sick was the equivalent of falling out of God's favor ... so I just stayed home and got over it.

The "name it and claim it" doctrine was playing it's course out at the Teen Challenge Training Center, where we had hired a wild-eyed, Southern-fried preacher from Georgia to teach basic Christian truths and personal evangelism to would-be Teen Challenge workers from all over Europe. He had made a name for himself the previous year by carrying a wooden cross all over Europe, preaching in lousy German in parks and on street corners in places like Frankfurt, Munich, and Berlin.

Heavily invested in American religious trends and movements that come and go, he was convinced that one sure sign that one was out of touch with the true will of God regarding our health was eyesight. "Why would God create you with bad eyesight?" he roared! "If you truly believe God made you whole and perfect, throw down those glasses and trust God for your healing! Do it right now!" They did. I still get a chuckle when I recall seeing all those glasses piled on the altar in the chapel at the Center. A Danish friend of ours in the program had complied "on faith," and then nearly killed herself and some innocent bystanders near the Frankfurt airport one night due to bad visibility. I'll say!

What a spectacle! But the doctrine that really took the cake that year was the "perfect marriage" concept. It goes something like this... God has a perfect mate for you; and every man should simply pray for divine direction, then simply ask whomever he felt "called" to for her hand, without hemming and hawing around about it. The woman should pray that God will "send" her the right man; when he asked for her hand, she would know that it was God's plan. The number of weddings announced shortly thereafter was legendary.

Though not swept up in the tide of engagements myself, I had long before realized that I had to get married if my career was going anywhere in the Church. Unlike my Catholic acquaintances in the clergy who were supposed to remain celibate and single, Protestants were expected to marry and procreate in order to show their devotion to God, and to portray the perfect Christian family to the outside world.

I was twenty-three at the time and I was beginning to feel the pressure to get hitched. The notion was rather painful, as I felt coerced by circumstances. Had I been Catholic, I would have been able to simply go into the priesthood and abstain from women. It would have been a relief. However, there are myriad reasons why single male missionaries are not only frowned upon in most Protestant denominations – in many, it is forbidden. At the time I wasn't sure if that had anything to do with homosexuality, but it was always couched as: How can a single man counsel women in a spiritual environment without being tempted by the lusts of the flesh?

I did pray about it a lot, along with a heavy dose of "God, please make my health perfect. I claim my right as a King's kid to what I truly deserve … heterosexuality!"

Well, I assumed that would be one of those prayers God would answer in his own time. Meanwhile, I was finished with my ministerial studies, and wanted to apply to my denomination for ministerial credentials. I dreaded explaining why I was not married or even engaged. So, I made a logical, practical, and – in the end – quite positive choice, and asked my best friend to marry me. We had been a sort of Will and Grace, and although everybody was totally caught off-guard when we announced our engagement, it was greeted with great fanfare both at the Training Center and the big Pentecostal church in Frankfurt.

We had no plans for the wedding whatsoever, as everybody was getting married in elaborate, expensive ceremonies that we attended regularly. Of course, since all our friends were either getting married in Europe, or going back to the States to much folderol, we decided to return to the States in December, as our cheap airline tickets were nearing expiration. Our intention was to return to Europe in the Spring, and put together the big fat Christian wedding then.

My fiancée's family was still living in the little East Los Angeles enclave of El Sereno where she had grown up. They were still attending the same little Assembly of God church that they had always known, and the pastor hadn't changed in over thirty years. It was quaint, traditional, and charming. One thing had changed, however – the congregation. From a collection of nice, kind, pleasant white Christians, it had become a collection of nice, kind, pleasant brown Christians. In fact, the Taylors were the only remaining elderly white couple in the almost completely Hispanic congregation. Although they stood out a bit, no one seemed to notice. We all had a grand time.

Beth's parents were delighted about the upcoming nuptials, but were crushed that we were planning to go back to Europe to do the big fat wedding there. We both felt bad, but they understood that in many ways they were a little out of step with the times. We spent our time itinerating (That is a euphemism for fundraising.). Meanwhile, letters and photos of massive weddings and receptions were pouring in from all over Europe and the States. Everyone was so happy happy happy. We were happy for them. But we were both starting to get a funny feeling. Having been living on a shoestring for a couple of years already, planning an elaborate wedding and then getting set up as a married couple in a very expensive Europe just seemed like kind of bad stewardship – to use religious parlance.

So, like all good Christians, we prayed about it and decided to throw together the most inexpensive, practical, spur-of-the-moment, little wedding that the law would allow. Beth rented a wedding dress from a local shop, and volunteered her best friend from High School to be the maid of honor. I recruited an old Army friend from Viet Nam days who was attending a local seminary to be best man. That Sunday morning the pastor announced: "God has spoken to Tom and Beth about their wedding, and has told them to get married right here in Calvary Chapel! Hallelujah!" It was like Jesus himself had made the announcement personally. Everybody went wild.

"We are going to have the wedding next Sunday afternoon, after the morning service; so you can all just bring a hot dish for the reception, and you don't even have to go to lunch or change your clothes... Come on out and we will have a wedding celebration and feast just like in Cana!" (Minus the wine, to be sure.)

The wedding went off without a hitch. What was there to rehearse? The regular Sunday service ended in the conventional way with the doxology, a prayer or two, and the benediction, whereupon the organist pulled out all the stops and began pounding out the wedding march on the electric Wurlitzer; and we were off. A few minutes later we were married. Beth and I retired to somewhere behind the curtained baptismal and changed into our traveling clothes, which we had organized in advance.

The congregation made its way into the large room in the back of the church. They had opened the sliding plastic doors to reveal a sumptuous feast of enchiladas, frijoles, tacos, and fixings of every kind – salsa of every variety, and menudo. It was better than Cana! Someone had even thought of a cake! We stayed and soshed a while, then hit the road for San Diego, where I was preaching later that night. We couldn't have planned it better.

We heard later that the whole affair was such a hit that everybody waddled back from the fiesta, started singing choruses, and carried on praising God; and the pastor took to preaching; and they just had a whole 'nother service right then and there!


Turkeys I have known

There is always something warm and fuzzy about Thanksgiving. There are cherished notions of the way it was according to the school books that we read in the fourth grade – complete with wonderful illustrations of Pilgrims and happy Indians. I know all that is a myth; but like Christmas, I realize it is an emotional thing. It feels good being with friends and family, and the late autumn harvest festival can't really hurt. Besides, I like turkey, dressing, and all the other "trimmings."

When my wife and I arrived in Hong Kong in August of 1978, by Thanksgiving we had finally gotten settled and were really ready for a real American Thanksgiving. We had rented a huge flat built in the old colonial style (before air conditioning). It had high ceilings with fans slowly laboring against the hot, humid, tropical air; a wide veranda; and wonderful French-style folding doors that could be opened all the way to reveal the entire city and harbor below. I loved it.

The phone rang. Louise Gundersonne, one of the other missionary wives, wanted to discuss Thanksgiving plans. She had been in the Colony for years, and was a wealth of knowledge about everything, including holidays. Having been through years of celebrations in those typical tiny, postage-stamp-sized Hong Kong apartments, she proposed that we all get together at our place since it was three or four times the size of everybody else's. So it was planned. They also mentioned that it was tradition to invite the Canadian missionaries as well, which was great.

We had hired a Chinese amah, a servant in the style of old China – a dying breed even then. Her name was Ah-Gum, and she was a fabulous cook. Trained by Americans, she knew all about Thanksgiving and how to do a killer turkey. Despite not speaking a word of English – even after all those years of working for foreigners – she seemed to know what to do; so, we just stood back and held our breath.

The guests arrived. It really smelled good. The table was set with care. We all stood around our very long dining room table that we had disassembled and shipped from the States. At the appropriate time Ah-Gum arrived, beaming, with the turkey. We all clapped. As we started to sit down, she blurted out in Chinese: "Aren't you going to take a picture?" I was informed by Louise that they had taken a picture of the turkey the first year they did one. (After the war, it was not easy to get ahold of a real authentic American turkey). It was a big deal, and Ah-Gum had gotten it into her head that the picture of the final product was part of the tradition (like the Pilgrims had cameras). Anyway, I dutifully got out my Nikon, and she was satisfied. It was a fabulous meal. A good time was had by all.

A few days later the phone rang again. Sadie Blanchard, a Canadian missionary who had attended the feast was on the line. Rather timidly, she said that the Canadians had been talking about our dinner a few weeks earlier. She had told the other Canadians about the size of our apartment and the party. They had assigned her to call us to see if they could use our flat for their Canadian Thanksgiving the next year. Actually, I didn't even know at the time that the Canadians had a Thanksgiving! "Of course you would be invited," she added quickly. So, the following year – and for many years thereafter – we had two thanksgivings. What a deal!

* * * * * * *

When we lived in Hong Kong, most products that we take for granted were available; but it never ceased to amaze me at the time that many of our British friends had never really had a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner. Of course, why would they have? After all, we were just thankful that we were away from England. (That's a joke.) Anyway, we were so often invited to British get-togethers, and grew so accustomed to their fare, that it became sort of fun to invite a room full of Brits over for a turkey dinner – even in April or July. Pretty much everything from the turkey to the stuffing, cranberries, and all that, are native to North America. But the pumpkin is not. I suppose that the Pilgrims brought pumpkin seeds with them. But pumpkin pie? They thought it sounded dreadful. For dessert? Ever weirder! But when they tried it, they would remark: "Oh, it's rather sweet, isn't it?" Like, if they knew how much brown sugar or maple syrup was dumped into the recipe, they might fall over.

* * * * * * *

Some years later I was living in Virginia City, Nevada, with a motley collection of roommates – a world away from Asia, in space and time. We were trying to think about putting on a Thanksgiving to-do ourselves. Where was A-Gum when we needed her? We were living in my drafty Victorian house on A Street. It had a huge dining room that connected through a set of pocket doors, to an equally large parlor. We could have had a convention in that place!

Although none of us could cook worth a darn, one of my partners, Dale, decided to give it a go. "Like, how hard could it really be?" he mused while thumbing through an ancient Betty Crocker cookbook that had been left in the kitchen when we moved in. "Tell you what – let's do a dry run." So, we got a medium-sized bird, and he faithfully followed Betty's instructions to the letter. He put it in the oven, and we hoped for the best.

It snowed that night. Our pipes froze and burst under the house. Our attentions turned to more serious matters. We had to go down to Reno, and got stranded overnight; so we stayed in my condo in Arlington Towers right on the Truckee River. A few days later we made our way back up the Geiger Grade, and dealt with all manner of things that had come up during our absence. All of a sudden Dale got this horrified look on his face. "The turkey!" he gasped, running downstairs to the kitchen. I followed in disbelief.

It had dried out and shrunk down to skin and bones - totally mummified. "Gawd, it looks like something from King Tutankhamen's tomb!" I exclaimed. Dale was not amused. Later, when we all had a good laugh, we were wondering whether we could put it on exhibit in one of the phony museums in Virginia City and charge tourists to see it next to the mummified man – first invented by Mark Twain when he was living there and writing for the Territorial Enterprise!

Tell Me about Grief

A collection of short vignettes

I can still recall my mom standing at the kitchen sink in my grandparent's house, crying. My grandmother was dying in the back bedroom. I hadn't seen my mother cry before, so I knew that things were serious. It made a lasting impression. A few years later, I visited my grandfather in the nursing home. He was sitting in a wheelchair. I looked down at that frail little man who used to buy me candy and who let me stay up late. He loved me so much, and now he had come to this end. But he was in his mid-nineties and had lived a long and happy life. I did not feel devastated the next morning when I received the call informing me that he had expired in the night. I was sad, but somehow it was okay.

* * * * * * *

Frequently, on television news reports of fighting in distant lands, earthquakes, and famines, I see the tortured faces of strange and different people wailing, sobbing uncontrollably, and throwing themselves onto the graves of sons, daughters, and friends. I feel bad, but don't really share the pain personally. Unfortunate as it is, it is someone else's grief.

This new experience I'm about to describe is different from all that. I always felt before that no matter what happened, I would only have to encounter this terrible experience a few times in my life at most. My life and the lives of my family and friends would go on until we too grew old and would die. I could deal with that in the abstract. Then came AIDS. That was unplanned for.

* * * * * * *

Jack was in his early forties. He was athletic and energetic. He was successful and full of life, ideas and jokes. I talked to him on the phone one day in April a few years ago. He told me that he wasn't feeling well at all, and that he just could not understand what was wrong. In May I talked to him again, and I still remember the experience vividly. He said, "They tell me I have AIDS." This was the first time I had actually heard anyone say that. Everybody had heard of it by then, but no one knew what it really was at the time yet. I was staying briefly with a friend in Seattle, looking out the window on a grey, late spring day. I saw tall fir trees, the cloudy sky, and the dim vista of the saltwater beyond. I felt a surge of blood race up from my heart. It actually burned right up my spine to my brain, and my eyes went out of focus. We all knew something was very wrong, but had no real idea what lay ahead.

I saw him again that October. He managed to go out to lunch and eat some of his meal. Later, it was all he could do to climb a flight of stairs. I spoke of Christmas plans. To my shock he said matter-of-factly, "I don't think I will make it to Christmas." He was right. Since then, I have lost so many friends and acquaintances that I could not sit down and put all their names on paper, lest I leave someone out.

* * * * * * *

Grief began to come on a more regular basis – almost routinely. I began to think that I was getting used to the notion that half of all the people I knew were going to die within a five-year period. For a while I adjusted and thought that perhaps the best thing was not to meet new people. It never works that way.

I remember the first time I met Andy. He came to our house in Virginia City on a snowy winter night, with his longtime lover, Joe. He was the Nevada State librarian. Many times I had driven by the Nevada State Library in Carson City. It is a strange big brick building, full of all manner of historical memorabilia. Andy was the top dog at the library, and had been in charge since then Governor Paul Laxault had assigned him to the post twenty or so years earlier.

Andy was a talker, and I enjoyed basking in his knowledge of history, literature, and art. I visited his wonderful custom-built log home in the desert, east of the state capital, and still recall Andy suddenly unbuttoning his shirt and peeling off his Levis in front of everybody. Standing stark naked, he pulled back the plastic covering to the streaming hot tub that was conveniently located between the dining room and the sunken living room. We all did likewise and listened to Andy tell stories of miners, madams, the Comstock Lode, and other little-known gems of Nevada history.

When we finally dragged ourselves out of the hot, soothing water, we were all a wee bit drunker, fish-belly white, and wrinkled as prunes. Six months later, I sat in a church packed with state dignitaries. His funeral was touching. Everybody loved Andy. None knew why he had died so suddenly. But we knew.

* * * * * * *

Mike was a butch construction worker type. He wore boots and had a hard hat on the seat of his truck. No one who believes in stereotypes would have guessed that Mike was gay. No one would have suspected that Mike had AIDS. He kept his pain to himself. His work was the definition of his life, and if he had not been able to get up and go out on the job, he could not have lived. But I knew that his time was coming. He was my roommate – and charge. He began checking into the VA Hospital, and when they told him that there were more people who needed AZT than was available, he came home dejected.

He struggled to continue to work, but one day he came home and I knew he would never go back. He had lost his will to live. I used to feel loath to see him sitting in his pajamas – unshaven, and hair a mess – watching daytime television. This is no fitting end for a proud man, I thought. It took away his pride before it took away his life.

* * * * * * *

Joe used to work for me. He was always a most positive person. He laughed and joked about everything. Everybody loved Joe. He was just one of those people who never got blue. He was a life-of-the-party type guy. When he began fading I was downcast. I still have pictures of him in my photo album. He wore a big smile and laughed, cracked everyone up and had 'em rolling in the aisles. I saw him today for the last time. He didn't recognize me. They say he will not likely last another twelve hours. I feel grief. I drove away from the hospital in a daze. I put the car on cruise control and watched the road ahead in a blur of tears. I smelled the soft scent of freshly cut spring grass waft into the car on the way, and wept because Joe will never smell that again. He will never feel the sun on his face or hear the laughter of his friends. He has slipped away from us already, and I will receive a call at some ungodly hour tonight, or tomorrow in the wee hours of the morning.

* * * * * * *

I barely knew Dean. We met at a trade show in Chicago. He let me stay with him in his flat in New York so I could save money when I was there on business, so I was more than happy to have him visit me when I was living in San Francisco. His trip was sad. During his stay we had to rush him to the hospital. I just went down to the lobby store to buy him a bottle of water. As I walked off the elevator of the seventh floor, I heard the emergency announcement "code blue." I knew what that meant.

I stood there in the doorway to his room with that bottle of Avian Water, and watched doctors shock him back to life. Many students watched on. When he could travel I took him to the airport, barely alive. He wanted to go back to Illinois to be with his family to die. The ironic thing I recall from the airport experience was the sidewalk check-in. Dean was in a wheelchair, pencil thin and obviously in pain. The cheerful baggage guy took his ticket and said something we all say without thinking: "And how are you today?" To which Dean honestly answered flatly: "Pretty awful." Enough said.

About a week later his mom called me from Skokie. He had passed away. Apparently he had told them about his experience at the hospital in San Francisco. "Why didn't you just let him die then and there?"she asked, not unkindly. "I had no legal standing to do a thing about it," I replied honestly. She sighed, but I knew that she understood.

* * * * * * *

Lake was more than a friend. He was kind of like a kindred spirit. He was a beautiful man – a runner and tennis-player with a well defined chest and a stomach that you could wash clothes on. He was proud and knew that he turned heads, but under the bravado was a victimized skinny little gay kid – an ugly duckling, who woke up one day to find himself a swan. We fell in together and developed a sort of love different from any I had experienced before. Unlike some who insist that an individual can only love one other person, I have never felt that way. Even though we were in longstanding relationships, we had a lot in common with each other that we didn't have with our own partners.

He told me of his miserable childhood and the tortures he went through as a skinny little kid who was in some indefinable way "different." I later wrote a story about him entitled, "What Ever Happened to Leonard?"

We did a lot of just "hanging out," as seems to be the popular term these days. We didn't have to have any particular activity planned. We could enjoy just being together. Taking a walk with his collection of mismatched dogs and my Great Dane, Scoobie, was all the fun we needed. We joked about being lovers in our next lifetime.

Of course, we knew that the possibility of that was just a fantasy. Lake was slowly dying. It really didn't show much at first, though gradually, it became more and more apparent. Over a two-year period he went from the beautiful athlete to a thin, grey, wasted old man at forty-five. He looked ninety – like my grandfather did. To me he still was that handsome runner with the beautiful tan and the long, smooth, lean runner's legs and that snide, sassy glint in his grey eyes... "Catch me if you can!"

I saw him at his home in the Sierra up in snow country last Saturday. He had CMV retinitis and was nearly blind. I held his hand. His partner, Jay, took a well-deserved break and went for a drive. We knew it would not be much longer, but it was a hard go in any case. I stayed with Lake. The April snow was melting – dripping from the eaves. The sun was slanting into the windows with a promise of approaching spring. Lake took a painkiller and zoned in and out of reality for a while. Finally, he came around.

"Lie down by me," he said faintly. So, I twisted myself into an odd shape to fit onto that chrome-sided hospital bed that they had put in the living room, with all the medical accouterments quietly ticking and whirring along. He dozed in and out of reality. The sun shone on his translucent face. I could barely recognize him. But I saw his neck. The muscular cords still testified to a physique now nearly gone. I rubbed my face against his neck. He knew that I still found him attractive. He cried.

"I feel like I am in a dark elevator," he said, "and when I open my eyes I am all alone."

"No, we are here. Your friends who love you are right here," I blundered. "You are not alone."

But it sounded hollow. It is coldly cliché to say, "I know how you feel," when in fact, you really don't. You can't. So, I added, "I really don't know what to say."

"You don't have to say anything," he said with a sigh. So I didn't. We just didn't talk anymore. There was nothing left to say. He died that night.

Bay Area Reporter
San Francisco, 1991

Mustang Ranch

Prostitution wars on the Comstock – what fun!

Leaving Hong Kong and the ministry, and beginning the long divorce process, was a painful daily experience. I had never wished it to happen this way. From the beginning, I always felt that church policies on marriage were flawed. Marriage was, and still is, a requirement for ministry in most Protestant churches. “How can a single male minister to females? Couples?” That is the argument. So, having married because I would have no career otherwise, I ended up dragging my wife and child and extended family through a miserable experience that went on for two years or more.

The summer I left the ministry and returned to the United States was a devastating one nationally for the Assemblies of God and other church organizations as well. Several scandals rocked the evangelical world that year, and the church’s biannual General Council, held in Denver that year, was abuzz with one new revelation after another. Not only had I quit and come out as a gay man, but my friends Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker had been indicted for fraud, embezzlement, and various other crimes and misdemeanors. (I always really liked Tammy Faye. She was rather simple, but never deceptive.) Then there was Jimmy Swaggart, caught in a cheap motel in the California desert with a prostitute. (I could never stand him, although I had to work with him several times during crusades in Manila.) I have always referred to that period as the summer of the atomic bomb.

Around that time, I bought the legendary historical newspaper, Territorial Enterprise. Not only was it the first newspaper available in the Nevada territory; Mark Twain got his literary start writing a daily column in 1862-4. My reprieve from Fundamentalism was short-lived. Although the town is historically notorious for its hard-drinking and gambling, the ubiquitous tourists more or less smother the real character of the place. It only reveals its real nature once the tourists pile back into their buses, and go back down the mountain to Reno, or over to Tahoe. But the real unique attraction is legal prostitution.

Most of the townfolk embraced the many surrounding brothels as a source of local tax revenue. But, who do you suppose was always campaigning to get the bordellos shut down? The Fightin’ Fundies, of course. One particular Bible-thumper was the ringleader, and I baited him constantly in the newspaper. He was loud, obnoxious, and full of himself, with his brand of Christian self-righteousness. So, not only was he shrill and full of perceived “Christian privilege.” In addition to his campaign to rid Storey County of brothels, he expanded his purview to endless ranting about the end of civilization as we know it, because “the faggots had bought the Territorial Enterprise.”

Not being one to want to get into nasty confrontations with Fundamentalists on the wooden plank sidewalks of Virginia City, I did my writing and rock-throwing most of the time from my condo at Lake Tahoe a few miles away. No one in town really knew me or recognized me, as I kept a low profile, not wanting to be attacked by a wild-eyed, Bible-thumping Fundamentalist. The prostitution wars were really heating up at that time, and the local mob-boss-wannabe, Joe Conforte, who owned the famous Mustang Ranch nearby down the mountain, got in touch and invited me to lunch at the Ranch to give his side of the story to the newspaper. Intrigued, I accepted. The Ranch had its own bar and grill in addition to the other facilities. I assured him that we were on his side and that we agreed that the county needed the brothels as a key element of the economy. I can’t say we became friends, but we made common cause – and the Fundies went ballistic.

After we had lunch and a tour of the joint – including watching a lineup of the girls on display for some visiting long-distance truckers – Joe lit up a cigar, put his arm on my shoulder, and confided: “Well, you know, Tom, any time you want to come over and sample the merchandise, you will never have to pay. For you, everything is on the house.”

Rather surprised, I replied, “You know, Joe, your intelligence apparatus in town is somewhat lacking. I’m gay, and the entire TE newspaper staff is too.” He barely missed a beat and said, “Oh, in that case, you know, we can arrange stuff like that too!” To which I just replied: “Thanks, Joe, but my sex life is just fine. However, I might stop in for a burger some time!”

I've Been Framed

Learning the picture framing business

The first six months living at Lake Tahoe were great fun. We had sold the greeting card company and were looking for something new. I had come with the company in that I had indentured myself for a six-month period to teach the buyers how to run the place. That was fine, and I understand that is a common practice. However, I didn't want to end up being an employee of the very company that I founded! So, my partner, Dale, and I decided to move up to Lake Tahoe. That way I could be close enough to get down the mountain to Reno to participate in all the various aspects of the card production, sales, and what-have-you, but be far enough away so as not to be totally swept up in the day-to-day.

I took some of the proceeds from the sale and bought a nice little gift shop in a small strip mall in Incline Village, a spiffy, upscale ski resort on the Nevada side of the Lake. Dale reworked it from a "rich little old lady" hobby boutique to a serious shop with a great merchandise mix. But, once everything was up and running like a Swiss watch, I began to get bored. As usual, the excitement and enthusiasm of a new project had tuned into the rhythm of routine, and true to form, I began scoping around for something new.

I was on the lookout for a new challenge that day when I drove down the mountain from the lake to Reno, in the valley 5,000 feet below, with several posters that I needed to have framed. They were going to be décor for the candy/yogurt shop that we owned in the same mall.

To tell the truth, I was shocked at the price I had to pay to have four posters framed – even with simple Nielsen metal frames, paper mats and standard glass – no frills. I knew the frame shop manager from one of the gay bars in Reno where we used to hang out after work at the card company. He answered a lot of my questions and even took me back into the work area beyond the well-appointed showroom with the standard ubiquitous frame corner samples that are called "profiles" in the framing biz.

A world apart from the sales area, the workshop was a high-ceilinged room with yards of storage areas along the walls for molding, glass, mats, and fabrics. Glass and mat cutters were mounted on the walls, and miter saws for cutting metal and wood moldings were mounted on large worktables alongside vices and "C" clamps of all sizes. But, the device that fascinated me the most was the "chopper." A cast iron woodcutting monster with two wicked looking blades set at perfect 45 degree angles, it could slice through any wood molding like butter.

The artist in me said: "I've got to get into this business!" So I did. Renting a unit in our mall, I threw the ball up in the air, figuring that I'd just make up the game before it came down. Like every other new project that I have ever begun, I just dove right off into the deep end of the pool. We hired Simon, the framer in Reno, to tutor us at nights in his shop. Dale and I were joined by Jerry, an out-of-work construction guy who had great skills with wood, tile, concrete, and all that butch stuff that those hardhat types like so much. Dale and Jerry were onto it all right away, but I realized that my old nemesis from grade school – arithmetic – was rearing its ugly head. I always hated fractions in fourth grade, and little did I know how many quarters, eighths, sixteenths, and thirty seconds one had to deal with just to cut a basic mat (let alone expensive molding). I burned out immediately, and declared that I would leave the higher math to them and would concentrate instead on dealing with the merchandise, décor, sales and advertising – the things I did well in the card industry.

We drove to Oakland California, and bought all the equipment necessary to set up for business. Everything was big and heavy, especially the chopper that took four of us to lift onto the truck for the long haul up the Sierra to Lake Tahoe. I'll never forget horsing that cast iron contraption into its place in the workshop. What a hassle! But the customers came, and in no time we were framing like mad. I was grocery shopping at Safeway shortly thereafter when I overheard a couple of middle-aged women discussing the new gallery/frame shop. "Yeah," said one, "the gay guys who have the gift shop and the yogurt place are doing it. I hear it's going to be great. I've got lots of stuff I need to finally get framed." And she added, knowingly, "Those kinds of guys are really good at stuff like that."

The following spring (it was still snowing in April) Jerry got the call to warmer climates. Framers are always in demand, and experienced pros can just about choose to work wherever they want. At the time we had two lesbians in training. They were good, but had not yet graduated to some of the really tricky and difficult procedures like French mats and fabric wraps. Those specialties are reserved for the really expensive art and archival quality prints and originals. Clearly we would have to find a serious replacement for Jerry.

"How are we going to find a framer way up here?" I asked incredulously. "They don't just grow on trees, you know!" But we decided to try the old tried and true: ad in the newspaper trick. I didn't expect to find a qualified framer by such a lame method, but it was worth a shot. The ad would appear in the Sunday paper and I was flabbergasted when the phone rang at six a.m. sharp. The first caller was enthusiastic and confident. But something was wrong with that picture.

"I have twenty years of experience," he boasted, "and I've got all my own equipment!"

I flashed back on the four of us struggling to get that chopper on and off the truck! "How could anyone possibly have a mat cutter, a wall-mounted glass cutter, and all the necessary saws and clamps in the back of a pick-up?" I mused. (Let alone, a chopper!)

"You must have a pretty big truck!" I ventured.


"Well, I do have a lift-kit," he said in an odd, questioning sort of way. I was envisioning a twenty-six foot cab-over or something, but even then it sounded too weird for words. But we were desperate for a framer, and twenty years of experience did sound good... I forged ahead with the interview.

"Can you do fabric wraps?" I queried.

"Fabric what?" came the quizzical reply.

"A framer with twenty years under his belt who doesn't even know what a fabric wrap is? How is that possible?" I asked myself.

"What kind of a framer are you, anyway?" I asked with a hint of irony and disbelief.

"A house framer, of course," he said dryly. "What did you think?"

Well, after recovering from my faux pas and telling thirty more house-framers that the position was filled, I finally ended up with a great guy who was a real picture-framing wiz and who could do a mean fabric wrap! How did I do it? ... By the most reliable method of all ... word of mouth!

Camping in Style

Doesn't everyone?

One of my famous predecessors from the Territorial Enterprise, Lucius Beebe, wrote a collection of vignettes entitled: Snoot if You Must. He was famous nationwide in the 1950s for his wit and humor. Coming from an upper crust family with money, he was raised in a rather posh, privileged environment. And with that came an extraordinary education. For some crazy reason, he left the glitter and glamour of Manhattan, and moved to the wilds of the howling deserts and barren mountains in rural Nevada.

He was totally out of place, but I guess people with a lot of money are allowed to be eccentric. A story still told in Virginia City is of the morning that Lucius ran out of ice up in his Victorian on A Street. Undaunted, he simply strode, silver ice bucket in hand, down to the main drag on C Street in his silk dressing gown. He got his ice at the Bucket of Blood Saloon and proceeded back up the steep street. En route, he encountered one of the bewildered townspeople who called out incredulously, "Champagne at this hour?" To which Lucius simply replied: "Doesn't everyone?"

While I was living in that same Beebe House decades later, and still publishing the Enterprise in a traditional newspaper format, I had a visitor from New York who had never been camping. He was a kinky sort of guy with all manner of sexual fantasies. He was a serious devotee of gay male porn in the genre of Falcon, Colt, and Raging Stallion studios – places that were churning out all manner of arousing fare, shot on locations everywhere from sunny California beaches to ski resorts in Aspen, Colorado.

His fantasy was to shoot a porn flick of his own somewhere in the wilds of the High Sierra. He had even brought his movie camera just in case. So I bit: "I know just the place," I said. "But I have no interest in participating – but Dale will!" I proceeded confidently. "He loves to be the star of the show! I'll run the camera."

Dale was my partner at the time. And we worked together too. On our staff was a fellow named John Holloway. "He likes camping and has all the gear. And like, what all could you really need?" I asked.

John loved the idea, and volunteered to go up to a particularly remote campsite and set up the tent, the fire pit, and all in advance. We were to follow. It was early November and there was some snow already at that altitude, but not enough to discourage us or dissuade us from our mission – to make a movie. Bruce, Dale, and I arrived at the appointed time and place in my black Rolls Royce Silver Shadow. The small remote campground was totally deserted. But John, true to form, had the whole campsite prepared with a fire going and steaks at the ready. I was flabbergasted at all the stuff he had brought ... dishes, silverware, a nice table cloth, and – above all – dry martinis with olives, in proper stemware.

We dined in style, planning to begin the movie in the morning when the light was good. (That story is another vignette, and one about camping, not cinematography.) Well, when it came time to retire, Bruce and John crawled into the sleeping bags inside the tent, and Dale and I slept in the Rolls – Dale in the front and I in the back. A car like that is very comfortable, as you can stretch out all the way. We talked a bit before falling off to sleep. "Isn't this the weirdest thing?" Dale mused. "Who goes camping in a Rolls Royce?" To which I replied, quoting Lucius: "Doesn't everyone?"

The Weather Outside is Frightful

The wonderful world of the greeting card business!

The greeting card business was one of those things that everybody wanted to do back in the early 1980s. For years the industry had been dominated by three major companies – Hallmark, American Greeting, and Ambassador. The cards were well-scrubbed, clean, safe, and dripping with “family values.” Boring. But times were a-changing. Finally the sexual and societal changes that had begun in the 1960s were about to hit the greeting card industry like a freight train.

Enter a Chicago-based company called Recycled Paper Products. They moved the needle on the scale with a line of joke cards that went viral (as far as that was possible at the time). This was the time when the gay movement was finally gaining some traction, and the nation was becoming aware that we (queer) were here and that they were going to have to get used to it. In no place did this sign of a new world, a new “lifestyle,” and a new mindset appear in public almost overnight, as it did in the greeting card industry.

“Alternative” greeting cards had been born. Several small startup card companies around the US had sprung up in 1983-4. I was relocating to the United States after many years abroad, and was keen to get involved in a project that would celebrate my newfound gayness, as well as my artistic and design background and talents. I encountered alternative greeting cards for the first time in San Francisco in a card shop that was – unbeknownst to them – to become a legend in the card and paper products industry. "Does Your Mother Know?" was located in the city's Castro district, probably the gayest neighborhood in the country at the time.

I met the storeowner and took him to lunch. I learned where he bought his cards, who represented the product as a sales representative, and just about everything else regarding the industry that a retailer could tell me. I took it from there. Within a month I was participating in the alternative greeting card phenomenon. I had joined the five or six other (all gay-owned/operated) companies in the nick of time. The demand for this new daring means of social expression was growing so fast that there was still room for newcomers. I had been publishing the Territorial Enterprise newspaper up in Virginia City, so I already had a staff, accounts with printers, and good credit. One day I announced that the newspaper was going to add a spinoff business – alternative greeting cards. My staff cheered. This was going to be a rollercoaster ride, but, hey – why do people ride those high, fast, and scary contraptions? Because they are fun!

We hired a full-time photographer from San Francisco and a professional writer from New York, and rented a massive warehouse east of Reno. In the years that followed, that proved to be the smartest move of all. Whereas all the other competing companies were in major urban areas like New York, Chicago, LA, and San Francisco ... by putting our operation in the desert, ten miles from Reno, our rent expense was a fraction of what everybody else was paying. On average, the rent that the other companies were paying for office and warehouse space at the time was $1.50 per square foot. We were paying .16 cents. Since all the cards in the stores cost the same – the price set by Hallmark – our overhead was, well, rather better than the rest by far. You do the math. We were profitable instantly. Oh yes, we also stole a manager from one of the other companies who knew the business inside and out. That helped too.

What's new? That is the hue and cry of every industry that sells a product. Innovate or die. Everything from automobiles to potato chips and soft drinks – the general public is always demanding something new and different. We learned immediately that greeting card companies of any size had to produce a minimum of fifty new card designs every six months or go out of business. The race had begun. I loved it. Always one who works best under a deadline – like in the newspaper business – I jumped into the deep end of the pool, and began writing gag lines and organizing the props and models for the ongoing process of card production.

We set up a full-scale professional photo studio with state-of-the-art equipment, cameras, back-drops, and lighting. Off the studio was a prop room that over the years was about to explode with all manner of items that one would need to set the stage for a new card idea on the spur of the moment. A Christmas card idea in March? Quick – get the Santa suit, and the tree from the prop room and let's shoot!

This off-the-cuff creation of a whole new card at the drop of a hat sounds fun – and it was. Having the capability to create a “something out of nothing” at any moment was a wonderful thing. But the actual production, sales, and distribution of greeting cards is much more rigid and organized than that.

When you nip into a local card store to buy a Mother's Day card, you expect to find one at least a month before the day when you put it on the gift that you just bought for Mom. Likewise, you expect to buy a Christmas card beginning in November, and a Valentine card in February. Guess what? Those cards didn't just grow there, springing up overnight in time for the occasion, whether it be Thanksgiving, Graduation, or Halloween. Somebody had to plan and organize a host of tasks and processes to get that card into the wall-rack or wire spinner at the store, in time for the occasion. It is a carefully defined kind of choreography. But although nerve-wracking at times, it does have its lighter moments.

Although eighty percent of all greeting cards sold in the world are “Birthday,” a company has to have a whole line of occasion and situation cards as well. These only sell when the circumstances demand ... and though they lose money, they have to be part of the whole ensemble collection. “New Baby” and “Get Well Soon” are actually kind of fun to produce. Those are usually created during the rare breather moments in the horserace that is the production of seasonal cards and calendars. If it is January, we are shooting Halloween and Thanksgiving. February and March: brainstorming Christmas. May and June: propping and shooting Christmas. July and August: shrink-wrapping and shipping Christmas, while creating more Birthday, “All Occasion,” and blank cards simultaneously – always on a parallel track. And, of course, after all the Christmas cards and next year's calendars are out the door in August, it is time to take a vacation for a few weeks, as on September 1st ... you guessed it: “Valentine” and “Easter” production begins. It is really a weird annual schedule to be on, but somehow we all managed to get into the spirit of the holiday, albeit, six to nine months ahead of the GP (general public)!

The next time you pick up a card that makes you smile or laugh out loud, remember somebody was thinking up that gag line nine months earlier. Somebody was working out the props; another was photographing it or drawing it six months ago. It was sitting on a pallet in a warehouse somewhere three months ago. Hope you enjoy it! Later, after I had sold the company, I really missed the hubbub of life in the production world. I opened my own card shop – knowing the whole biz. I always felt a warm reward when I would hear customers laugh and show a card to a fellow shopper. Some gag-writer or photographer or model somewhere hit the mark.

But this “run ahead and catch us if you can” world of the creative process is only the fun part of the whole picture. There are the day-to-day tasks of filling orders, billing, accounting, dealing with sales reps from around the country, and haggling with printers and suppliers of stuff like envelopes and shrink wrapping.

We were never big enough to be able to afford a $50,000 card counter, so we always did it the old-fashioned way … by hand. Anybody who could count to twelve could get a casual labor job at Comstock Cards – especially during crunchtime when shipping deadlines were looming. But we did have a real state-of-the-art shrink wrap machine. I made it a policy to stay as far away from that sensitive persnickety recalcitrant contraption as possible. I knew that it didn't like me. Every time I got too close it would throw a fit and start eating the cards, or burning the plastic, or binding the conveyor belt, or anything to mock me. I am a jinx around machinery, so I give wide berth to mechanical objects of any kind whenever possible.

But one of our warehouse guys, John Holloway, loved it like a wayward child. He coaxed it, coddled it, and petted it into submission. I was always impressed. It was his toy, his baby. John could single-handedly shrink wrap 10,000 calendars in less than a week, and still get all the regular orders out as well. Amazing. But one year we had a massive calendar order for a chain of stores back East called Art Explosion. Their order was even more than John could handle alone. I suggested we hire an assistant for him. He resisted. After all, who could possibly do his job as well as he could – with one hand tied behind his back! He recommended we hire a day person to fill the regular orders, and he would go on nights and fill the entire calendar order by himself. I loved it, and it worked! Later I made him a framed “diploma” in shrinkwrapology. He probably still has it :-)

I hasten to add, however, that the shrink wrapper did annoy him from time to time. One of those sweet-tempered kind of guys, he rarely swore in public. But I guess the warehouse wasn't technically “in public.” He had a particular way of using the common expletive dammit! It sounded like this: Dammmeeeeeaaaamit. When he used that “word,” it always had that same certain ring to it. I could hear him clear up front in my office. I picked up on that and every time he let loose I followed suit... Dammmeeeeeaaaamit! In no time, the secretaries, accountants, and computer geeks in the mid-office area picked up on it too; and not to be left out, the warehouse staff joined in the chorus. In no time, all twenty-five of us would in unison repeat on key after John... Dammmeeeeeaaaamit!

August is not fun in the card biz. Christmas and calendars are all printed and stacked high on pallets, ready to be counted, shrink-wrapped, and shipped. The warehouse is as hot as a pistol. So, while everybody else in town is out at the lake or the seaside, every able-bodied man, woman, and casual day worker (and their dogs) were sweltering away, counting cards and envelopes for days on end. It is tedious and boring (and did I mention hot?). The casual conversation usually ran out by about day two-and-a-half.

One day, when most everybody was too hot and tired even to complain, I could tell that they needed some cheering up. So, I figured that some seasonal music might help. I brought in a cassette album entitled: Perry Como's Christmas Favorites. It was a real hit. (Well, actually kind of like B flat.) We all did perk up a bit until the last song on the album. It was just a total experience in irony. It was so weird to hear it in that stifling warehouse on a hot August day. It goes like this:

Well, the weather outside is frightful. But the fire is so delightful. And as long as we've no place to go … let it snow, let it snow, let it snow! Oh, please let it snow!

A History of South America

The adventures of Dwight

My brother-in-law, Dwight, proved to be the most interesting relative that I acquired by marriage. I met Dwight when he came to visit his sister, Beth – my fiancée. She had warned me that he was rather unconventional. Well, that was true.

He really didn't have any plans for his trip. I came to learn that such lack of prior planning was a hallmark of his “lifestyle.” After a few days of knocking about in our little row house on Sudeten Strasse 15 in the small village of Ober-Wöllstadt, he got kind of bored; and since we were working, we really couldn't take much time off to show him around.

“I wish we had known that he was coming,” I complained. “We could have taken some time to go somewhere interesting.” Beth agreed, but we had committed to several housesitting projects that summer while some of our American friends went back to the States to visit family and friends. We were dog-and-cat-watching and plant-watering, so a trip to Munich or Paris seemed too much of a stretch. I did have to preach in Berlin, so Dwight and I managed a three-day trip and really got well-acquainted on the way there and back.

One thing about certain persons is that they really are, by nature, self-entertaining. I have always aspired to be that way as much as possible when visiting friends. Of course, I always announce my travel plans and intentions in advance if I can. But then, there are times when I note the travel plans of others – then promptly forget. I highly recommend avoiding that embarrassing circumstance.

On a lazy Saturday afternoon, when Dwight and I were playing a slow game of gin, the doorbell rang. I opened it and stood in a sort of daze. There were four people standing in front of me, all smiling broadly. Now, I knew that I should recognize them ... somehow. But I just stood there with my mouth agape, mind racing. “Who are they?” I thought frantically. No idea.

“Hello, Tom,” they all intoned in unison. “Sorry we are a wee bit late, but we ran into extra traffic near Dover and had to catch a later ferry.” Then I caught the heavy Scottish brogue that I recalled from my delightful week staying with them in Edinburgh. They were en route to Vienna, trading homes for the summer with an Austrian family. We did manage to get everyone sleeping accommodations, but I did make a mental note to keep better track of the comings and goings of visitors in our home.

Another time, when we were living in Hong Kong, we got a call at the office in the middle of the day from A-Gahm, our helper, cook, and child-watcher. She said that Beth's brother Dai Wai Te was there! What? We didn't even know that he was thinking of a visit. We dashed home to find Dwight enjoying the view from our deck, with a cold iced tea in hand. It was indeed the unexpected pleasure.

While there, he sort of shocked us with his tale of walking from San Francisco to Bisbee, Arizona. Their father had been born there and, like lots of dads, he had bored his kids to death in their early years, talking about Bisbee. Beth had always loved Dwight, but their relationship was a bit strange. The more we heard of his trek across the Mojave Desert and his interaction with various desert creatures like rattle snakes and tarantulas, the more freaked out Beth became. I was particularly interested to learn that he had had to carry his water with him in a small wooden cart that he dragged behind him along the way.

Beth was not happy with the emerging image of her brother – skinny, lanky, disheveled, and sunburned; trudging across the wasteland with his cart of water and some fruit pies for sustenance. The real “you've got to be kidding” story was about when he found an old straw hat hanging on a tumbleweed. He had been feeling faint from the heat, and was not worried about making a fashion statement ... so he put on the hat and that was really a lot better. Shortly thereafter, his eyes began to burn in the intense sun. Then a miracle happened. Right there, in the loose gravel by the side of the road, was a pair of sunglasses that someone had tossed out of a passing car. Well, of course they were cracked – but so what? The Lord provides.

Dwight decided that living in his small bungalow-style house in San Francisco was entirely too bourgeois, so he rented it out for two years. Beth wondered aloud where he had been living in the meantime.

“Well,” he replied, “I went up into the San Bruno Mountains, south of the city, and found a cave where I lived peacefully with my diary, some candles, and a really keen wooden flute from South America!” Beth was appalled. I was impressed.

Speaking of South America – we visited Dwight a few years later, after he had moved back into his little house on Petrero Street in South San Francisco. All his furniture and other belongings had been restored to their places as if the years in the cave had never happened. He simply closed that chapter of his life and picked up where he had left off.

We stayed a few days with him while I was fulfilling some preaching obligations in the Bay Area. Dwight offered us ice cream – oops, out of ice cream. So, he and Beth hopped into his antique VW Beetle and headed off for the nearby 7-11. Meanwhile, I sat in his quaint living room and mini library. One can learn a lot about a person by checking out their book collection. As I glanced about over the predictable fare, nothing unusual or unexpected caught my eye until I came upon a rather dated-looking textbook entitled, The History of South America. Thinking that it might be interesting, I took it from the shelf and opened it. A cascade of twenty-dollar bills slid out and fluttered to the floor. Obviously, that was where he kept his cash stash.

Later, over ice cream I mentioned that I had especially enjoyed one particular book in his collection – The History of South America. Beth looked puzzled as Dwight laughed out loud.

“You know,” he said whimsically, “there's a story to that.”

“I knew that any burglar would look in the bookcase first. So, I tried to think of the book most unlikely to be opened by anybody that I could possibly think of. Finally, I settled on it, thinking that no one – absolutely no one – would ever chose that one."

“Well,” he commenced his reminiscence with a real cute chuckle, “...maybe one person. That would be Tom!”

Sure enough.

One Morning in March

I heard the siren first. Somewhere out in the city, there was a familiar sound. The dim grey light that filtered through the blinds, hinted of a day still an hour or so yet in coming. The soft fuzz evaporated from my brain as I heard the garage door open downstairs. One of the those remote control types, it makes a bit of a racket as the mechanism is really only inches beneath the floor of the bedroom.

The door was let down again, and I recall thinking: "Oh no. Perhaps I parked my car too close to the door outside, and it can’t be opened." I’ve done that before. So, assuming that there might be a knock at the door, and a polite, “Can you move your car back a few inches?” I waited in the gathering light. But only for a moment. The siren grew louder.

The faintest pulsing red shone from under the bedroom door. It was obvious. The ambulance was in front, and again the garage door opened. This time it remained open. Obviously, the car was not blocking its path. I knew that Mort, the tenant downstairs, was going to be taken to the hospital. Again.

Not again, I thought, having been through this scene in a dozen different places with a dozen different friends and acquaintances in the past few years. Should I get up and go down to offer help? What could I do? I had only met the man once or twice on brief courtesy visits downstairs when his mother had sent cookies up. She had come back from the East to care for him and his lover, Steven, during the month-after-month vigil. She was not able to stay indefinitely. At least, with morphine Mort had managed to live well beyond expectations.

“No one thought he would live till Christmas,” Mike said as he came up from downstairs with the news that Mort was dead. In the warming light of a March sunrise, he made coffee and took some downstairs to Steven. “Mort is still down there,” he stated. “Steven is washing him and changing his clothes.”

How odd, I thought. Surely all that will be done at the funeral home.

“Is he okay?” I asked blankly, not knowing the persons but feeling a dim sadness at the loss.

“He is crying.”

I got dressed. “I’m going to go in and watch Good Morning America,” I stated flatly. “Is there anything we should be doing?”

I have always liked morning talk shows. They are fun, simpleminded, easy to take. The hosts are wholesome, charming, and blond. This morning, I hit the mute button on the remote control. I just could not stand to see all the happy homecomings from the Gulf war. One more yellow ribbon and I knew I would throw up. It seemed all so contrived, so formula, so phony. No one ever thought for a minute that we would fail to blast those “camel-herders” back into the Stone Age where they belong. Now we get to blow our own horns. Maybe on a different day it would seem more meaningful. On this day it seemed all so shallow, sort of like the 1984 Olympics in LA. Half of the competition didn’t show, but we yelled and screamed anyway. As long as we won, it didn’t matter that there was no competition.

So the world is happy. The good guys are marching, saluting each other, making canned speeches. The overweight wives and their offspring are waving American flags and yellow ribbons. We are all so taken with symbols. The world is right after all.

The world is alright for some, but it is not alright for Mort. The funeral home people arrived and wrapped his body in white plastic. He was covered with a nondescript blanket as they carried his body out through the garage, and put it in a station wagon. Far away in Iraq, other bodies are being wrapped in plastic. Some don’t get plastic. Some don’t get parades and televised homecomings. But that’s okay. At least Mort had someone there to wash him and change his clothes beyond the time when he even needed it. Indeed, that’s what friends are for.

The Mornings of Scoobie

I never needed an alarm clock.

Scoobie the Dog

Great Danes are my favorite dogs. Ever since I was a baby, our family had Danes. My mom even has an old photo of me riding our first like a pony in our small back yard in Southwest Portland, Oregon. While living overseas in some places like highrise Hong Kong, having a dog presented too many problems. But upon returning to the states, I really wanted to have man’s best friend as part of the household. My roommates were enthusiastic about my proposal. “I’ll just get a little dog,” I lied, fully intending to follow up on a newspaper ad for a two-year-old fawn male Great Dane.

He was huge, even by Great Dane standards. He was just too much for the older couple in Yerington, Nevada who got him as a cute little puppy. They had named him Chief – one of those pretentious names that people regularly assign to big dogs. Thor, Viking, and Hägar are also popular choices. Anyway, I managed to squeeze him into the backseat of my Volvo sedan, and we were off to Tahoe. We didn’t make it out of the driveway before he decided that he wanted to ride shotgun. So, somehow he managed to get all 175 pounds through the gap in the bucket seats, and plopped himself down with his doggie butt on the seat and his big front paws on the floor. I opened his side window, and he happily rode all the way up to the lake with his enormous jowls flapping in the wind.

He was an immediate hit at home after the shock wore off. Although expecting a Chihuahua or maybe a miniature Schnauzer, or the like, the guys took to him right away. Great Danes are so friendly and affable that they can even win over cat people in no time. We renamed him Scoobie in honor of the cartoon character who was obviously created by someone who had experience living with Great Danes and knew their antics.

It took a bit of adjustment having Scoobie around the condo. The first evening was the start of the doggie learning curve for Dale and Mike, my roommates. Right off the bat, Dale put the chicken salad a bit too close to the edge of the table. Scoobie, standing on all fours on the carpet, was helping himself when Dale rescued our dinner. They got with it soon enough, and kept food items out of range ... although we did lose a stick of butter by accident shortly thereafter. Later that evening, I stumbled into the kitchen in the dark to get some water, and thinking it was Scoobie standing there, I began to pet the ironing board.

What is it with dogs and couches? All dogs have this idea that sofas are dog beds. Scoobie was no exception. I gave up early on every effort to keep him off the furniture. We agreed on a truce... The rule: Whoever was there first got to stay on the couch and had to share. But, somehow, Scoobie always seemed to manage to squeeze intruders off “his” sofa. One evening, a friend was visiting from down in Reno. He had had a few too many, and we all insisted that he not even think of trying to navigate the switchbacks down the mountainside, throwing him some blankets and a pillow. He took the couch, and Scoobie – nose out of joint – camped on the floor. That, obviously, didn’t last long. In the morning we found them entwined on the couch. “Well,” Izzy announced matter-of-factly at breakfast, “if I’m pregnant, it’s Scoobie’s fault!”

We were living in a condo complex of about forty units walking distance from Diamond Peak Ski Resort. Winter weekends were filled with ski crowd types and snowboarders from Sacramento and the Bay area. But the days were quiet, as most of the units remained empty. Those of us who lived there fulltime were mostly merchants who ran the ski shops, restaurants, and – in our case – the art galleries and gift shops. We all did a bang-up business on weekends, and usually met together on Monday mornings for a kaffeeklatsche at the little Korean-run doughnut shop. Life was slow and easy. Most of the multimillion dollar homes and condos were empty. They were get-away trophies of the very wealthy, from places like Florida, Texas, and Southern California. Those folks would usually roll in around early June and sped the summer. However, some Hollywood types would hang out (or should I say “hide out?”) incognito at any unspecified time. We all knew them and gave them the privacy that they really needed.

I did try to bring Scoobie to work at the art gallery a few times; but, although he was quite an attraction, he had to sniff all the customers, which was at times a bit embarrassing. But he insisted on lying right in front of the door, and we finally agreed that a furry 175-pound doorstop was just not all that good for business. So he stayed home, and stood guard during the days, and slept on his couch at night.

Mornings were easy, as I never needed an alarm clock. That huge, black, wet nose and those prickly whiskers in the face at 6 a.m. usually did the trick. There was no argument ... the doggie needed to go out. All I had to do was throw open the front door and stand back. He would shoot out, lope across the asphalt drive and into the pines across the way. He was always back before the coffee was done percolating – especially on cold snowy mornings. One nice October day he was taking longer than usual, so I went out and gave him a shout. To my surprise, out of the corner of my eye I saw a light brown flash way down the driveway to my right. “What’s he doing way down there?” I thought, and whistled for him. In a second, he bounded out of the woods on my left! “How did he do that?” I wondered in complete bewilderment. "That’s impossible." I looked back up the drive, to the right again. Then I saw the deer. I guess that’s why light brown Great Danes are called fawns.

Normally, Scoobie would scratch and thump on the door to get back in out of the cold, but on another occasion he was gone for way longer than usual when a knock came at the door. There was Scoobie with our neighbor from up the hill, Leonard Nimoy, in tow. “He wanted to jog with me!” was his typical understated comment. He knew Scoobie by name, as did pretty much everybody in town. So I guess he had become a mini celebrity groupie on his own after all – running mate to the stars!

What Ever Happened to Leonard?

It seems like a hundred years ago, but it is more likely thirty. I was a typical grade school student somewhere in the wasteland of Central California, there in the farmland of the San Juaquin Valley. I have not had reason to return to that small rural town – that commonplace grammar school – nor to look up any of those students that grew up through the grades with me from kindergarten through high school. Nothing stands out in my mind as rare or particularly unusual about my childhood at school. I think I was educated in the manner of the day about as well as the other postwar baby boomers throughout the country. But it does amazes me how clearly certain events stand out in my mind as vividly as if they had taken place last week or a month ago.

Not long ago, I happened to run into one of my classmates after all these years. In itself this is nothing odd or unusual. No doubt, many who stay close to the place of their birth or childhood happen upon kids they went to school with, from time to time. It is a bit more unusual to encounter a former classmate years later in a totally different environment, a different city, a different world. No doubt, we all ponder the fate of those we first went to school with, when some bit of trivia jogs our memories. Class reunions formalize our desire to know who made it and who didn’t. But it was like traveling to another planet, to encounter Leonard once again after all these years. Circumstances being as they are, oddly enough, I had encountered him once before about ten years after we graduated from high school. Twenty some years later, the story had come to an unexpected conclusion.

Just about every class seems to have a Leonard. From the initial day of first grade until the last diploma was received, ending high school, I felt sorry for Leonard – kindhearted soul that I have always been. Nevertheless, I knew immediately to keep my distance from that kid. In the early years of school – not wanting to stand out, be different, or get in trouble with the other kids – I knew that conforming was the key to growing up with one’s person intact. Poor Leonard either didn’t know that, or just couldn’t conform if he wanted to. From day one everyone had his number, and everybody made him pay. He was the intolerable. He was different.

Just standing there, he exuded an aura of “differentness.” First of all, he was small. He was “scrawny.” He was thin. He looked weak, vulnerable, afraid. He didn’t look like he could play baseball or run a race or catch a ball. He looked like a sissy. Very early on we all knew what sissies were. We knew what they were like and how they acted. Nobody likes a sissy. Leonard was a sissy. He played hopscotch with the girls, and never got near the baseball diamond. He talked in a squeaky voice and dressed funny. At least, we thought it was funny. He got picked on all the time by the boys, and as time went on he got teased by the girls.

He was always last when choosing sides for football, and just sort of ran back and forth during the game. Nobody ever threw the ball to him. He didn’t want them to anyway. He seemed normal enough for the most part. He read as well as most, did his arithmetic well enough too, and was well above average in lots of subjects. But in sports, he was quite the bottom of the barrel.

The more precocious kids always seemed to be the ones with older brothers and sisters who taught them everything first. They would in turn teach us. We all learned to swear, talk dirty, and misbehave from these kids. It was from them that we learned that Leonard was a queer. Now, I remember distinctly being a bit confused about exactly what a queer was, but I knew by third or fourth grade that queers were sissies; and Leonard was a sissy, so Leonard was a queer. I also knew that being a queer was very bad. In fact, I learned that calling someone a queer was just about the worst thing you could ever call them, and that it was fighting words, so you had to be careful just who you called a queer. Someone bigger might beat you up!

Well, we all took to calling Leonard a queer because he was small and weak and couldn’t fight back. It made us feel bigger – more grown-up or something – by comparison. It was good to know that no matter what, at least we weren’t queer. Obviously, queers can’t play sports. If they can’t play sports, obviously they are more like girls, and play hopscotch instead of football. Everyone knows that. Actually, I didn’t care a bit that Leonard didn’t like sports. I didn’t even care if he liked to play hopscotch. In fact, I had no reason to be upset with him at all for anything. But for some reason everybody hated him more and more because he was queer, and I followed suit.

Young boys have little time for young girls. We all know that. Leonard was more like a girl (as least in our minds), so he was no better than a girl. Girls were weaker, slower, dumber. After all, they were girls. But, as time went on, the little boys began liking little girls ... sort of. We all began getting disturbing news from the kids with older brothers and sisters. They told of things like dating, kissing, and going steady (whatever that was). At about sixth grade, we boys became aware that we were not supposed to dislike girls anymore. In fact, we were supposed to like them a lot. In fact, we were supposed to go steady with the most popular girl we could qualify for. Of course, the girls already knew all of this. They had already learned that they were supposed to wear makeup, cross their legs just so, and get a steady boy to take them out on “dates.”

One after another, little boys “discover” girls. One by one, they catch on that they are supposed to like girls, be seen with them – even smooch! But, alas, poor Leonard. He would surely be the last to discover girls. Then, to our horror, we learned from the kids with the older brothers and sisters that queers not only can’t play ball, but they don’t like girls! And worse yet – girls don’t like them! What girl wants a guy who can’t throw a ball or run for a touchdown? Girls like guys who can do those things. Everybody knows that.

By high school we were learning that there was more to this liking-girls thing. It was more than a social thing. It had to do with our bodies. We were learning about sex. The kids with older brothers and sisters came through as usual, and we knew all about it ... or so we thought. There was a lot to learn. But one thing we learned to our horror: Queers not only don’t like girls in general; they don’t want to have sex with them. Not only do they not want to have sex with them, but they want to have sex with other guys! Can you even imagine it? That Leonard was even worse than we thought. Not only was he like a girl, but he didn’t like girls. And worst of all, he wanted to have sex with guys. I distinctly recall the hysteria surrounding the discussion of this new information. I recall the anger, the revolt, and the disgust that the guys displayed toward Leonard at this time. But I never understood it really.

I had watched Leonard get teased in one way or another throughout grade school. I enjoyed the tricks and pranks that the other kids played on him. I laughed when they hid his books, drew unflattering pictures of him, and even when they “pantsed” him, throwing his pants on top of some lockers while he ran around bare-assed, trying to get them down. But it wasn’t really funny anymore. The kids that I had grown up with were now getting really angry and cruel toward Leonard. It was not just a joke anymore. Leonard was not just a sissy. He was not any longer just a queer. Leonard was a Faggot!

I wasn’t quite sure exactly what a faggot was exactly. I knew that it was a queer. You know – someone who wasn’t like a woman, played with girls, didn’t like sports, and didn’t like girls. Sex wasn’t altogether clear in my own mind at the time. And I am probably safe in saying that it wasn’t all that clear in the minds of the other kids in high school either. But somehow we all knew that it was just horrible that faggots liked guys; and that they should be beat up for it. I still had nothing really against poor Leonard. He couldn’t be accused of playing with girls anymore. He never dated – true. But what girl would go out with him even if he had asked? After all, everybody knew he was a queer. But now it was getting out of hand. I saw several guys push him around in the hall one time, and felt a bitter sensation in my stomach. Why did they hate him so? Was I supposed to feel some hatred more than I felt? I was confused. Somewhere in high school, I heard that fags lure little boys into lewd sex acts. That was why they were so hated. That made sense, sort of. That really did sound bad. But somehow I just couldn’t see Leonard doing that. In fact, I thought it stupid, contrived, and far-fetched. I saw no reason at all to hate this young man because somebody told somebody else that people like him do this or that. I never knew him to be dishonest or deceitful. And I even began to see a good person sort of lurking beneath that skinny frame.

By high school we were all growing up and out in all sorts of places. Each of us was experiencing changes in our bodies unlike anything we had ever known. Leonard – then called Len – was no exception. He was suddenly taller than many of us. He was all arms and legs. Though not quite the picture of coordination, he was definitely no longer the wimpy little kid from fourth grade that everyone used to call sissy. I guess years of rejection had made him a bit of a loner, so when he finally found interest in a sport, it was one predetermined for a solitary life. He had learned that he could find some personal satisfaction and freedom from insults in his own private world – the world of the distance runner. Our high school was long on football and short on track, so any talent he may have had was never discovered. He just practiced alone or with the few other odd fellows who never got into contact sports. Those were fast-changing times –the mid-sixties – and something was in the air.

By the last year of high school, I had finally come to admit to myself something that I had always known. I was in Len’s club as well. But I had always played along, and had fooled everybody in a way that Len could never have done. And as Viet Nam became more and more a reality for us all, I knew that my own struggle had just begun. Meanwhile, in a way, Len’s was over.

We never talked or felt a common bond. I wanted to go up to him one day in the last few weeks of high school, and apologize to him for being such a jerk all these years. I wanted to say that I had always thought it was terrible what indignities he had had to suffer, and that I was his brother. I just wasn’t ready to do it. I remember the warmth of the sun shining in my eyes, the smell of freshly cut grass, and the sight of Len – now a tall, lean, athletic young man, stretching out the way runner’s do. I walked by him. I couldn’t speak. He didn’t notice me. I walked and never looked back.

My next thought of Len came after several years of college, campus protests, draft card burnings, and chaos. I sat in an Army recruiting station, pencil in hand, and filled out the form detailing my life, telling them all about me. Finally, the inevitable happened. I came to question #62: “Do you have any homosexual tendencies?” I thought of Len. No doubt, he had encountered the same question. No doubt, he simply said yes. I pondered and said no. After all, what would everyone think? So I went to Viet Nam and he went to San Francisco where I ran into him several years and two marriages later.

My life had become so difficult. Like a left-handed person forcing himself to write with his right, I struggled to try to be straight. One day I realized that it was a ridiculous and impossible endeavor, and moved to San Francisco myself. For the first time in my life I knew the joy of living in a world where I was truly at home. I was happy. Then I met Len. At first I wasn’t quite sure it was he. After all, it had been ten years since high school. I came to the track meet to participate in a fundraiser of some kind, and there he was. Sporting the then-fashionably-long hair held back with a headband, he looked the picture of health in his running togs. His long beautifully muscled legs and arms, tanned to a deep brown, indicated thousands of hours spent exercising in the warm California sun. He ran with the effortless grace of the dedicated marathoner. I saw the sunshine gleam off his sweaty back, the wind in his hair, the gleam of his white smile as he talked to friends and competitors. In my mind I saw that skinny little boy being teased and shunned. I had passed up my chance once to meet him on different terms and would not do so a second time.

He didn’t remember me! At first. Then he began retreating over the years, and I could sense that bad memories were coming back. For a brief moment, I think he was that little first grader being confronted with a ghost from the past, but as soon as that look came onto his face, it left. He smiled, shook my hand, and looked right into my eyes. We talked into the night and met again the following day for lunch. I enjoyed being with him, but when our lunch was over, there was little left to say. He really didn’t care much about what had happened to the kids we had gone to school with, and I guess I can’t blame him. He was amazingly happy and secure in himself. He was “married” to a great man, and they ran fifteen miles a day together. We parted with a hug. I wanted to hold onto him as a shred of something from the past – something that turned out to be so much better than I had imagined it could. I walked away with this warm fuzzy feeling inside. Remembering all the shit that he had taken from everybody for so long, I reveled in the knowledge that he was so very happy, secure, and hot! If they could see him now!

Almost twenty years passed. The world spins on. The seasons changed and we all got older. Some got older faster than others. I was visiting a friend in the hospital. He was about forty-four. He had had a heart attack. He was overweight. His wife was overweight. They ate too much cholesterol. They lived in a tract home in the suburbs, and watched football on TV. They probably hated faggots but didn’t know why. Just as well. I was being kindhearted. I brought some flowers. It seemed the right thing to do. I had worked in the same office with this guy for some time. He was nice enough. I didn’t like seeing him in the hospital. I felt sorry for his wife. What was she going to do now? He was pretty bad off. He would surely die. What could I do? I stayed for a while, then left.

I saw him way down the hall. I could tell he was a gay man. We can always recognize each other, even at a distance. There is an aura. We approached and our eyes met. It was Len! He looked disgustingly healthy and even more disgustingly handsome. Middle age wears well on some, better on others. It wore very well on him. Looking past that lean frame without a drop of fat on it, those grey eyes, the salt and pepper hair ... I could still see that little kid in grade school. What a difference!

“What have you been doing?” I asked. “Working out and chasing men,” was his flippant reply. “How about you?” I was floored – the world truly on its head. I recall that wimpy little kid in grade school as clearly as if it had happened yesterday. Our lives were half over already, yet I still remember almost every detail in glaring clarity. How had this skinny little kid, so victimized by his classmates, come to be this outstanding handsome man? Nobody would have believed it. We all live in a world of illusions, and the illusion of the wimpy male dies hard. Yet I had just left the room of the beef bully Mr. Jock type who played football in high school. His days were over. His bloated face and body were already wearing the death mask. Yet Len was extraordinarily good-looking and fit.

But fate plays cruel tricks. Len didn’t live much longer either. I guess he was too beautiful for his own good. He was diagnosed with AIDS shortly thereafter and began the downward slide. I am so thankful that I ran into him that day at the hospital. At least I was finally able to make up to him what I was unable to when we attended school together as children. I was, in the end, able to be his friend. He was spared the indignity of old age. I will always see him as the virile young runner with the tan and the shining hair, as well as the lithe middle-aged Marlboro man – the advertiser’s ideal. Yet, somewhere in the background, I still see the poor little kid enduring the taunts and insults of the “real” boys who had become the “real” men. His story does not have a Hollywood ending. I would love to report that he outlived them all, and went on to fame and fortune; but he didn’t. That was his lot. Oddly, he wouldn’t care about that. He had always accepted himself, and as a result had lived a happy life. I miss him a lot. But in the end, I am still puzzled by the question that I have always asked: Why did they hate him so?

Oregon (1992-2011)

Cracks in the Sidewalk

How a few weeds taught me something about culture

The doorbell rang. On the doorstep stood the cute, little ten-year-old neighbor girl, prim and proper. I had actually never spoken with her before. I did now and then exchange a few words with her mom, though, who once mentioned in passing: "Everybody in town says how good your German is." I enjoyed the compliment, but the operative phrase is "Everybody in town." Living in a village is one of those things that big city folks don't know much about. Anyway, Dagmar (the little girl) just thought she should inform me that we had forgotten to roll up the front driver's side window in our car.

I dutifully thanked her since there might be rain. And as she proudly marched off, confident that she had done a good deed for a poor naïve foreign neighbor, I realized that her well-meaningness bugged me just a bit, as I coming from the "mind your own business" American culture. But, some months later I had to reconsider things somewhat.

The doorbell rang again. This time it was a portly, middle-aged gentleman. He was well-dressed and very polite. He said that he had a small matter to discuss with me regarding the Village Counsel. So, I respectfully invited him in for a coffee. He seemed sheepish yet curious and he mentioned, as we sat down with our coffee, that he had never been in a foreigner's home before. He remarked how similar it was to German homes. Well, I thought to myself, since we bought all our furniture and appliances from German stores, it is unlikely that anything would be all that unique.

"Herr Muzzio," he began... "We are all very privileged to have you living in our small village." Then he went into a long spiel about how important community harmony was, and that he was sure that I would agree. I did, of course. Finally, he got around to the point. So much for the myth of German bluntness! He prefaced what was coming by explaining that as a member of the Village Council, he was speaking on behalf of said council; and said that they had met recently to discuss an issue of some concern to the local townspeople.

The village was squeaky clean as are all such villages, towns, and cities throughout most of Europe. It was important that everyone do his or her share to keep up the collective image. Finally he got around to the point. "We have noticed weeds growing up through the cracks in your sidewalk, and that… well, doesn't fit in too nicely with the general look of the neighborhood." I was mortified. I had always liked the herring bone design of our sidewalk, and now there were intruders growing right up between the paving stones. I guess in all my running here and there that I had not noticed.

"I will correct it immediately," I stammered. Next, I went on and on about how I was neglectful as I traveled a lot and all. But in the end, I was just being a sort of ugly American. And it had been I who had always tried so hard to blend in and be cooperative wherever I lived, never wanting to draw undo attention – worst of all, scorn, whether in public or private.

He left as politely as he had come, and even mentioned that I would be welcome to attend any council meetings (as a non-voting observer). I was fine with not attending. I am definitely not inclined to get involved in small town politics. Even homeowners' association meetings in my current condo complex are enough to send me running.

Later that afternoon, I was thinking about the situation while pulling the weeds out carefully – not missing one – when I realized something that I have thought about a lot in later years. Americans enshrine freedom and often decry other societies as too dictatorial. Most European (and many Asian countries) have a different view. They want harmony and cooperation. In their eyes, our freedom to allow our front entrance to go native just wasn't very harmonious. I understood that. One can travel all over Europe and places like Japan and other parts of Asia, and never see an old car on blocks in a driveway full of junk, an old discarded washing machine, a derelict refrigerator, or an unsightly dog kennel, overgrown bushes, and untended flower beds – minus the flowers. They don't allow it. They sacrifice their "freedom to be messy."

My father once remarked that the IRS should have a "slob tax," after I made a comment about how the gate to our farm looked a wreck – unpainted and dumpy. "If I paint it, they will call it an improvement and raise our taxes." I thought about that for a long time. As a thirteen year old, I was not accustomed to arguing with my dad. Later I learned that in general, baring tax loopholes that all farmers and businessmen could use, he was sort of right. There is no government agency infringing on our freedom to be pigs. We would pull out our guns in an instant if some city guy or environmentalist came onto our property to tell us to stop dumping used crankcase oil or old lead-based paint cans out in the back places of the farm.

But the slob tax didn't apply to him, however. Down the road from us were the rather untidy yards of neighbors, complete with abandoned vehicles and appliances moldering away while being gradually smothered by blackberry vines and thistles. He called them the Jodes. I didn't understand the literary reference until I read Grapes of Wrath in high school. "They're Okies – uncouth and dumb. But worst of all, they are renters." That was the worst slur that my dad could dish out to those whom he perceived to be beneath him.

About five years ago, when my father died, we were gifted with the daunting task of getting rid of every scrap of debris – tons of it – that he had accumulated over half a century of farm life. Fortunately, he had been able to hide it out of sight from the road and it's casual passersby. As we began de-junking in August and all during that fall, I kept thinking to myself … the Jodes. The distinction, however, was that he was not a renter, but a landowner, allowing him the freedom to dump whenever he wanted and whatever he wanted on his own property.

We had to decide what to do with miles of rotting fence posts, wire, used-up tires, cans and bottles, and 55-gallon drums in various states of rust – some still full of indeterminate toxic pesticides, now banned.

I hated everything about it, all the time thinking that I would trade all this glorious freedom-to-pollute for the idyllic, controlled European countryside, where he would have been fined for all this environmental scourging of the earth and the callous disregard for nature and the planet. But, I guess that's just me. I thought back to the afternoon that I pulled the weeds out of the cracks in the paving stones, and remembered thinking that it was a small price to pay after all.

Sea of Clouds

It is a gray morning in late January – rather typical for a midwinter day in the Pacific Northwest. But, in my neighborhood in the old part of Northwest Portland, there is a glimmer of spring. The cherry trees that line the old streets are blooming. I love their soft pink colors painted against the leaden sky.

I love these trees and those like them up in the traditional Japanese Garden near my home. They are special because they bloom so early. They are a hybrid variety, a gift from Japan. After World War Two the Japanese sought to atone for the war in any small way they could. This was one way. Portland was where so many warships were built during that awful time. We contributed in that way to the defeat of the Empire of the Rising Sun. In their humble way, they gifted us these trees. I enjoy them today.

* * *

It is dreary, nevertheless; but I am going to escape with a friend and enjoy the sea of clouds today. An hour outside Portland, up up up in the Cascades, is the famous Timberline Lodge, where we are going for lunch. Although most people do not know it by its real name, it is recognized worldwide as the Overlook Hotel from the famous movie, The Shining. The interiors were shot in Hollywood, and nothing can change that famous exterior WPA (Works Progress Administration) exterior facade, forever etched in the psyche of the whole world by a film. However, the lodge is really not at all creepy, and is a wonderful place to go on a dreary day to get above the clouds and enjoy the intense winter sun, the brilliant blue sky, and the dazzling snow.

The Chinese have an expression for this phenomenon. They call it observing the hai yün or sea of clouds. Climbing above the cloud layer can be a kind of evocative experience.

One time I climbed the Yellow Mountain in Shan Dong Province, China to see the sunrise on the sea of clouds. I had to get up at four in the morning to begin the climb up the thousands of ancient stone steps to the temple at the top. It was cold, dark, and foggy when I left the small hotel and began the ascent. As I climbed, I imagined having some sort of ethereal spiritual experience at the top, alone with the sunrise. When I arrived at the summit I realized that I was not alone. There were already hundreds of little Chinese kids clustered about in their school uniforms dutifully writing poems.

So I wrote a poem too.


Three is way cheaper...

I have known Rick (also known as Dick) for many years. We met at the home of some mutual friends in Lake Tahoe where I lived during the years when I owned a wonderful art gallery and picture-framing shop in the ski resort town of Incline Village, Nevada. Dick lived over on the California side of the lake at a very rustic lodge run by the Sierra Club. We hit if off right away and made a date for lunch a few days later at the Cal-Neva casino at the state line.

The Cal-Neva is a rather famous hotel and casino that is quite unique as it sits directly on the border between California and Nevada. Thus the name, Cal-Neva. The State line runs right through the lobby, out into the courtyard, and directly through the middle of the outdoor swimming pool. I always thought it nice that, unlike with most state-to-state boundaries, here one could swim from one state to the next.

But that isn't the most essential uniqueness of the Cal-Neva. No two states could be more different when it comes to hotel accommodations. The California side had a few very nice restaurants with a quiet atmosphere and cloth napkins. The Nevada side was wild and raucous with the ubiquitous casino sounds of bells and whistles, the clanging of coins falling loudly into stainless steel trays at the slot machines, and the occasional cheers and shouts of winners at the craps tables or the roulette wheels.

Though by no means dry, the California side of the Cal-Neva is rather sedate and quiet. There are no bars there, as all the drinking and partying takes place on the Nevada side, which rocks twenty-four hours a day. In fact, after about midnight the entire California side of the hotel goes dark, and taking alcoholic beverages across the state line is purported to be illegal – although it is not enforced. In fact, it is a fun joke to take a free cocktail from the Nevada side across the border into the Golden State after midnight. Of course, the more law-abiding citizens often cheat by putting only one foot over the demarcation line woven into the tan carpet, while keeping the other safely and legally in the Silver State!

I really hadn't noticed much about Dick when we had met a few nights earlier at the cocktail party, as the locale was poolside at night, lit by those faux Tiki torches which would have been more appropriate in Hawaii. In the harsh light of day I became aware of his face as we sat next to the windows with a fine lake view. I assumed that he had been in an automobile accident, as I once had a friend in the army who had a similar-looking face, marked by long scars and lesions as a result of a serious collision on a Tennessee freeway in 1968. I pretended not to notice, but Dick was used to it, and before our sandwiches and cokes arrived, he let me know that it was melanoma – skin cancer.

“It won't really kill you," he said lightly, "but it will make you miserable for the rest of your life.”

Having similar fair skin, light hair, and very blue eyes, I was intrigued. Having spent endless hours lying outside at various beaches and swimming pools and around the world in the vain attempt to get tan, I wanted to know more. He explained that he had grown up as a very white little boy in a very brown (Hispanic) El Paso, Texas.

“I got more sun and sunburns by the time I was ten years old than most people get in a lifetime,” he remarked as our lunch arrived. I had noticed his unusual cap – a sort of French Foreign Legion-like thing with a flap in the rear to cover the back of the neck. I was glad to understand the situation and we talked for hours. We were fast friends by the time I drove away back to work at my art gallery a few miles away in Incline Village, Nevada. He hopped on his bike to begin the long climb uphill about fifteen miles to the Sierra Club lodge and campground over in California.

That afternoon was unusually quiet for a late summer Tahoe day, and I had some time to think about my near-futile quest for the illusive tan to which I had for years aspired. I admitted to myself that I had never enjoyed lying out and cooking in the noonday sun. It seemed a high price to pay to look good. The only time in my life that I ever acquired the killer tan of my desire was in the Philippines where my wife and I bought a membership to a health club of sorts where we had unlimited use of the outdoor pool and other facilities. We could order lunch at the poolside, and paid our tab monthly.

We were in Tagalog language school at the time. Class began daily at 9 a.m. and ended at noon. Believe me, three full hours of language study is about all the human brain can endure before exploding. Of course, as in all language study, there is homework ... which we did by the pool every afternoon. Normally we did our independent study while enjoying our Filipino lunches of adobo, pancit, and lumpia along with endless nouns, verbs, adjectives and those odd Pilipino grammatical constructions.

One day a sweet, charming, little Pilipino waiter asked us curiously: Why do you Americans lie out in the hot sun like that? Isn't it very uncomfortable?”

To which we readily replied, Kasi gusto kaming maging kaiumangy! (Because we want to get brown like you!) He just shook his head. As he walked back to the kitchen we heard him mutter to himself: "They want to be dark and we want to be light. Go figure."

After spending that sunny Tahoe afternoon with Dick, I resolved to just accept myself as I was, and never get too much sun ever again. It just wasn't worth the possible consequences. A few weeks later, Dick walked through the door of Art Attack, my gallery, just to say hi. Happy to see him, I invited him down to Mud Pie – the ice cream/frozen yogurt shop that I owned at the mall – for a treat. Earlier in the week I had learned that my father, living back on the family farm in rural Oregon, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. I knew that I had to sell my half of the gallery, the ice cream parlor, and our gift shop to my then-partner, Dale Mark; and move back to my birthplace, the beautiful-though-rainy Pacific Northwest. Dick's come-back surprised me not a little bit.

“Take me with you!” Dick said seriously as he went on to explain that due to his melanoma, his life had become an increasing attempt to escape the sun. Although he was an avid skier, even Tahoe had proven to be too sunny. Portland, with it's mild marine climate, had always been his midterm goal en route to his ultimate destination, Alaska!

A month later we were on our way to the city of roses with its, rain, moss, ferns, and tall timber. After years of trekking the globe, I was finally home again in the Pacific Northwest. It was nice to have a companion and reliable room-mate.

We met Harry shortly after our arrival in Portland. He was a horticulturalist and knew the names of all the plants, bushes, and weeds in the forest and city parks, along with their genus names and concomitant information – enough to choke a horse. The local plant company that he had worked for in town for years had suddenly and unexpectedly been bought out by a huge national chain, and he was not a happy camper. No longer willing to put up with life in the burbs, he wanted to move into downtown where his new job was taking him.

There are few of these harmonic convergences in life when all the stars and planets seem to align. But this was one of them. Within a week we three had decided to move in together and share all expenses. It was destiny. It penciled out to be actually significantly cheaper for us to share the rent and utilities for a three-bedroom penthouse on the top floor of a condo with a spacious view, than to live separately.

We all worked different hours and in different locations. We never stumbled over each other or had any conflicts whatsoever. There was ample room for all of our furniture and collections. Harry brought exotic plants and huge urns with coy, water hyacinths and papyrus, bromiliads and elephant ears. I supplied the dining room set. Though we rarely ate together, we all became good friends. Rarely have I heard of three so diverse roomies living together in such logistical harmony. I ate at the dining room table, Harry ate out all the time, and Dick cooked his Tex-Mex cuisine in his one-and-only cast iron frying pan and ate directly out of the pan while reading the newspaper at the kitchen counter. Everyone was happy. It all worked out serendipitously. Cell phones were coming into vogue at the time, so we decided to share the cost of a single landline and answering machine.

Our message? How could it be anything but...

“Hello! You have reached the residence of Tom, Dick, and Harry! Please leave a message after the beep, and we will get back to you as soon as we can.”

Seize the Moment

Gotta think fast!

Have you ever noticed that there are rare occasions when fate drops into your lap an opportunity too fun to pass up?

After a routine biannual physical examination at the local VA hospital, I stepped onto an elevator and pushed down. On the next floor, a middle-aged orderly entered with a stainless steel cart full of various medical accouterments.

I noticed his name tag. Paul Williams. Doing a double-take, I realized that the guy was in fact one of my old friends – a neighbor from childhood! He was one of the gaggle of elementary-school-aged kids (including me) who ran wild throughout the semi-rural neighborhood on bicycles and horses, having a great time just being kids.

I would have never recognized him without the name badge, and obviously, he didn’t recognize me. Unable to help myself – trickster that I can tend to be – I seized the moment.

“Wow!” I said, looking him right in the eye, “I am picking up a serious vibration here!” He looked back as if to say, “Huh?” Plowing forward, I went on… “Does the name Dita, or Leslie mean anything to you?”

His eyes got big. “They are my sisters!” He said incredulously.

“How about the name Kay?” I prompted.

“That’s my mom!”

By this time the elevator doors opened and we trundled out with the cart. He grabbed me by the arm. “How would you know things like that?” he asked quizzically.

“I am psychic,” I lied. “I am just picking up a serious vibe from you, and that is what I am perceiving.”

“Do you see anything else?” He asked, dumbfounded. I closed my eyes theatrically.

“Well, I see a small blue house on a narrow road, with a white board fence. Nearby is a small horse pasture with three horses – one huge black one, a bay mare, and a brown-and-white pinto Shetland pony – all eating grass in the pasture. Beyond that...a light green house with white shutters, through some fir trees not far away.”

“Unbelievable!” he sputtered, “That perfectly describes where I grew up! How could you have possibly known those things?” he asked in a total sense of wonderment.

Unable to manage a straight face, I fought to keep my composure as I answered.

“How can I see all that? Well, because I grew up in that house with the white shutters, and we rode those horses together all the time, Paul. I am Tom, your old neighbor from Halcyon Road – remember me?”

“Oh my God!” he laughed out loud. “You really had me going!”

The reunion that followed over coffee was great fun, and the lesson entailed is one I have often thought about since... Seize the moment. Most of us have at one time or another found something rather amusing that we tell ourselves we are going to remember and use as a snappy response at just the right moment. How many times have I realized that the moment came and went, and I blew my opportunity to use one of my great one-liners?

I have always had several in my quiver that I have kept at the ready in case the moment arose. Despite all the missed opportunities, once at a cocktail party in San Francisco I got a rare opportunity. While discussing the subject of contact lenses versus glasses, a friend asked me: “Do you have good eyes?” I couldn’t let this one go by.

“Oh yes,” I replied casually, “I can see the sun, and it’s ninety-three million miles away!”

Later, as a friend and I were making our goodbyes, everybody just shook their heads in that funny groaning sort of way, saying “93,000,000 miles indeed!” Months later, as I ran into some of the same guys here and there, they always made some remark about my exemplary eyesight!

Mr. Poole and I

Having a ready-made identity had its advantages...

I realize that most young kids struggle for an identity in the early years of their education. (Before my school days this period was referred to as “grammar school.” Sometime during the 1950s it became “grade school,” and after that, “elementary school.”) But I was lucky. My artistic abilities were recognized within the first week of the first grade. I had been taken with art from the moment I picked up my first crayon. Sometimes, I’ll confess even now, I walk into the school supplies aisle at Safeway just to take a whiff of a fresh box of Crayolas. It takes me back to grade school in an instant. Try it sometime! You’ll see.

"Tommy is very special. He is an artist!" my first grade teacher told the class at Stafford Grade School, a quaint little clapboard building with a belfry, complete with a very evocative-sounding bell that could be heard miles away. My mom often ate her lunch on our front porch on nice days to the tolling of the noon bell that we good, well-behaved students were allowed to ring by pulling the long rope in the hall. It was an honor reserved for those who got all their assignments done on time. It rang again at 3 p.m. and Mom knew that our yellow school bus would come lumbering down our narrow gravel road in about a half an hour.

Having a ready-made identity had its advantages. I never had any crises like being picked on by bigger kids. After all, I had been put into a special box from day one, and somehow that worked. Recess can be traumatic for little boys who can’t hit a baseball, but I was excused from that torture by reason of my special status. I usually took a drawing pad outside to recess, and was left alone to do my own thing.

I was hopelessly shy and somewhat insecure in those early years. As time went on, I gradually came into my own and emerged from my shell; and no one believes me now when I mention my unsteady start. Then, in the early years when I was first making my living as a professional public speaker (preacher), few who knew me then could have imagined my trepidation when I won the Clackamas County Fire Safety Poster Contest. Out of all the first grade students in twenty elementary schools in the county, I won. Eight children – one from each of the eight elementary grades – had been chosen as the best artists in the county. Of course, because I was only six, and the youngest of the group, the eighth-grader looked like a full-scale adult to me. I was terrified. But my teacher and our principal were elated.

The prize was an open-air ride on a fire truck at the main County fire station in Oregon City. When we got there, it seemed like the whole world had shown up with cameras, microphones, and fire safety banners. The fire siren wailed; the fire truck was roaring, all shiny and red with bells clanging. I was so overwhelmed and petrified that I fainted! Fortunately, that wasn’t mentioned in the local paper the next day. They showed pictures of all the winners smiling and waving with the firemen in full fire-fighting regalia. We all got our names in the paper, in any case, and no one seemed to miss the little first-grader who was whisked away to his home in his family’s nice, secure, green 1949 Buick.

On a less grandiose scale, our school district – which consisted of five schools – had an annual art contest that I won every year in a row. As time went by, the kids matured and became aware of "school spirit." Winning awards of any nature was tantamount to saying: "Our school is better than your school!" Like playing little league sports, winning for your school was highly praised. The attitude was always sort of unspoken... "Well, Tom can’t hit a baseball – let alone catch one – make a basket, or kick a football worth beans. But, so what? He always wins the art contest for the school." Even some of the more trouble-prone bully types who were destined to be "jocks" in high school, gave me a wide berth. "Are you going to win the art contest for us again this year?" they would ask. Winning was very important. Even thought it wasn’t all that big of a deal to me, it did go a long way toward giving me the real self-confidence that I carried into my adult life.

Most school teachers at the time were not specialists, but instead taught all subjects, including arithmetic, English, and history/geography – then becoming known as social studies. Music and art, taught by well-meaning teachers, were subjects that were based on the abilities or lack thereof. Art was one of those subjects that many teachers used to occupy the students now and then. It usually went something like this: "Take a blank sheet of paper and draw something! And be quiet!" I was usually the only one in the class that took such a challenge seriously. While the kids and teachers counted the minutes until the three o’clock bell, I would diligently and feverishly work on a drawing, hoping for enough time to finish it.

An interesting thing happened when I reached the seventh grade. Organized sports began to become a regular part of school life. Friday afternoons became "game days," when kids from other schools in the district would compete with us – a precursor to high school sports where even adults would take interscholastic competition very seriously.

Along with the sports, complete with matching uniforms drums and trumpets, came a new thing that everyone (except me) loved. It was called a pep rally. A true American tradition, the idea was to get the school spirit revved up to support the home team. The theory is that it is the cheerleader’s job to pump the crowd up – to energize the team to victory. I was required to attend, of course, and yell and carry on appropriately to insure that our screaming and chanting would have some mystical, magical effect on the team’s performance. I found it grindingly boring and a gross waste of time. It simply didn’t interest me. Okay, I was a stick-in-the-mud. But I still find it dull, even to this day!

My seventh grade history and civics teacher also taught art. He was, however, actually a genuine artist; and really taught us about perspective, mixing colors, the color wheel, hues, values, light and shadows, tints and shades – and even some basic drawing and pen & ink techniques. By the time most of the students got to this point, their interest in art was about zero; and Mr. Poole knew this. I think his goal was to try to keep the kids as calm as possible before releasing them like a heard of stampeding cattle to get even more hyper at the pep rally.

I usually tried to ignore the hubbub, and work on my art project de jour. One sunny Friday afternoon after the mob hit the gymnasium, I was slowly putting my oil pastels away when Mr. Poole came over and asked me: "You really don’t have any interest in all that do you?" I assured him that I did not. "Would you rather stay here and work on your art project?" he asked simply. It was like asking if I would like a bowl of ice cream or a plate of canned lima beans. He went to talk to the principal and came back with permission to skip all sports-related activities if I were investing that same time doing art instead. He added with a wink… "The word is, just win the art contest again this year. That’s the deal!"

And what a deal! I was rapidly outgrowing my student’s desk as a workspace, so Mr. Poole moved me to a six-foot folding table in the back of the room where I spent the next year in not only art class, but civics and history as well. The agreement was that I could work on my art at my work table in the back, apart from the class, if I paid attention, participated in the class while drawing, and got good grades in both. Piece of cake. I love history and am a political junkie to this day, having learned multitasking before they even made up a word for it.

Mr. Poole and I skipped all those rallies thereafter, working together on our own projects and talking – real adult talk. It was the first experience I had with what we now call "male bonding." It wasn’t sexual at all, or anything like that, but I loved him. It was different from love of family members and the like. It was a wonderful experience – a very self-affirming and securing time, which stood me in good stead for years to come.

One day he asked me a question that caught me totally off guard. I guess every young person at some point has to ask himself realistically what he is actually going to do when he grows up. "Have you considered a career in art?" he asked matter-of-factly, looking me straight in the eye. "Career?" I thought. "Since when do twelve-year-olds seriously think of careers?" But he was deadly serious. "My dad says that artists starve," I answered lamely. "Well, would you rather be full and miserable doing something you hate, or hungry and happy doing something you love?" he asked. This was heavy stuff for an eighth grade kid, to be sure. But then it got heavier.

"You are better right now at your age than I can ever hope to be," he said quietly, "and it would be a tragedy if you went into some profession that wouldn’t make you happy in your life...especially with your talent. You were born to do art, and I really hope that you will find the aspect of it that will make your life fulfilling."

He was so right. I looked him up years later, after he retired. We picked up right where we had left off. I was living overseas then, and couldn’t stay long but I wanted to thank him for all that he had done for a young art student those many years earlier. I was kind of chocked up as I began... "I don’t know if you remember what you told me once years ago...” I paused to collect myself, when he continued for me... "I remember like it was yesterday, and I meant every word of it. I’m just so glad that you took my advice.”

I never saw him again. During the intervening years, traveling around the world, I often thought of him and of my debt to a great teacher. When I learned that he had passed away, I hung up my cell phone, drove into a parking lot, and cried.

The Ghost on Bus 20

But I can see you!

On my way home this week, as I was standing by the number twenty stop, a bus came up and halted as usual. I learned long ago to watch out and take care, as there were in fact two buses plying the same route. One goes all the way to the St. Vincent’s Hospital, about five miles to the west, and the other only goes halfway. I was standing at the halfway point, and knew that it would just turn around there.

Suddenly, I heard the burly black bus driver yelling. I noticed a little Asian woman sitting bewildered as he rather impolitely ordered her off the bus. She was frozen in fear and misunderstanding, and didn’t move. I thought he would try to evict her physically. So, contrary to form, I stepped up to the door and told the driver that I could speak Chinese, and that I would explain to the woman why she needed to get off.

“Good Mother,” I addressed her with a very old-fashioned, polite title, “This is the wrong bus. This is the end of the line.” She looked at me in horror as I went on. “Are you going to the hospital?” I asked

“Yes,” she said weakly.

“This is bus 20A and only goes to here, but the next bus will go all the way to the hospital.” She smiled wanly and stepped off the bus. “Look!” I said, “here comes the other bus now.”

We both got on the second bus, and went to the back and sat down. It was rather full. Then she spoke to me quietly: “You are a ghost, aren’t you?”

“No!” I said, “I am a Sai-yahn (a Westerner) who lived in Hong Kong a long time.”

“But I can see you!” she said knowingly. I just smiled. And, as I was getting off at my stop a bit further up the hill, I glanced back at her; and she just said: Ngon tai dak neih! (I can see you!)

As I walked up the short way to my condo, I thought … I wonder how many times have I heard testimonies in church services when fundamentalist Christians claim to have seen and spoken to angels. I wonder if there really is that much difference after all.

Lilies of the Field

Consider the lilies of the field…see how they grow. They do not labor, nor do they spin. (Mt.6:28)

It was mid-July when our family moved to St. Paul. It is a very small town in Oregon’s verdant Willamette Valley, and we had bought a large farm about two miles east of town. It was my dad’s dream. He had, of course, owned our filbert orchard near Lake Oswego on the Tualatin River, and had gone nuts since 1957. But now he had a “spread.” He was going to be a real farmer now.

Of course, we still had the orchard to prepare for harvest in October, and he was still teaching at Benson High School full-time; so he really didn’t yet have the opportunity to get his hands dirty on a “real” farm, which was his fondest desire. So we rented out the wide flat fields. My dad had negotiated the contracts to rent the hundred or so acres in cultivation earlier that spring, and the crops were already in by the time I laid eyes on them in July. Did we see alfalfa, corn, or wheat? No, we saw a vast carpet of lilies!

The earlier-blooming tulip bulbs had already been harvested. At that time, a wave of Russian immigrants had flooded the Willamette Valley. These people had fled Russia in advance of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, and were wanderers around the world since then – first in China and then in Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay – so I was told. How they ever made their way to little Woodburn, Oregon escapes me. But they – in very Old World garb reminiscent of Fiddler on the Roof – were hired by the hundreds to work in the agricultural industry throughout our fine productive valley between the high Cascades and the Pacific Ocean.

But the real interesting element of the tulip and lily bulb story was not the Russians – it was the Dutch! Come to find out – the tenant that had rented our farm and several others of similar size around us – the Oregon Bulb Farm – was actually a wholly owned Dutch subsidiary company whose parent corporation was in Nederland. It seems that the land in the Netherlands was so scarce and dear that much of this lucrative business, for which the Dutch are so well know, had been quietly and rather secretively sent to the Pacific Northwest. The bulbs were sent to Europe and sold as Dutch bulbs. I never thought this dishonest at all – just practical, like the Dutch themselves.

The rental contract was for three years, and every summer the blooms shone in a multicolored carpet against the bright blue sky and the snowy white mantle of Mt. Hood in the background. I can still recall the way that on those hot summer days the heat sort of cooked the fields, and how the fragrance that hung heavy in the air was like a perfume … no, more like a burning incense.

During that time, the Russian workers dumped imperfect bulbs around the sides of the fields, and each year more and more volunteer plants would grow around the fence line and even in the drainage ditches that surrounded them. In September of 1968 I was trepidatiously awaiting my induction into the US Army in October. To take my mind off of my impending new and scary endeavor, I went around the fence line and pulled up hundreds of plants, the bulbs of which I brought in and planted around our house and yard. Years later, and even after my parents had long sold that farm for a much bigger one, the faithful volunteers that I rescued that autumn are still blooming there.


Kudzu in the Republican Party's Garden

The Fundamentalists keep taking over

A couple of years ago a news segment aired on KGW here in Portland. A hiker somewhere in Clackamas County near Estacada had encountered an unusual plant, and had brought a sample to a Portland State University botanist. That evening the media all over the Pacific Northwest issued a warning, showing photos of the vines and leaves. It was called Kudzu.

Originally imported to the United States from the Far East in the early 1900s as a means of erosion control, it really took to its new home and began a rapid takeover that has become a nightmare in the Southern states.

Only a few decades ago, the Republican Party planted a fast-growing non-native species in it's political garden. It was called Christian Fundamentalism, and it has been taking over ever since. Will they ever be able to control it? It's too late. It is the party.

Audrey II Comes to Lunch

Feed me, Seymour!

The Christian Right... It was such an innocent-looking little thing. And the good Republicans took it in and nurtured it with the lifeblood of their party's real principles. It came in handy for dispatching others who got in their way. Now it has become the mean green preachin' machine. But do they have the heart to kill it before it eats them completely?

Of Roys and Republicans

Some years ago a friend of mine named Roy told me this one about people named Roy. I added the rest.

There are two kinds of Roys. The first one is an overweight used car salesman wearing loud polyester pants, faux cowboy boots, a huge Texas-sized belt buckle, and a likewise oversized cowboy hat. He is chomping a fat cigar while standing in the car lot in front of the “daily special.”

The second Roy is a skinny rube from the sticks, with a protruding Adam's apple and buck teeth. He wears a frayed cap with a tractor company logo, a faded plaid shirt, wrinkled jeans, and unpolished shoes. He is the guy who buys the daily special.

* * * * * * *

Likewise, there are two types of Republicans. The first are the slick fat cat corporate executives – the mega-church ministers and their buddies in crime, the televangelists. They wear expensive suits and flash their gaudy jewelry and thump their checkbooks and Bibles. They promote patriotism, family values, and unbridled capitalism.

The second type are the equally fat, though poorly dressed, hicks-from-the-sticks who vote for the political and religious fat cats.

The Bird Cage

Love it or leave it

When I was a youngster, my grandparents were always good at gift-giving. Somehow they could anticipate what my sister and I would like and enjoy. One year, on my sister's birthday, they brought us two parakeets. I was enamored with the birds' antics. Besides making a racket and tossing seeds out onto the kitchen floor, they really didn't do much, though. Kind of like tropical fish, they were basically just fun to watch. Fish simply swim back and forth, and really don't do anything in particular; but I always enjoy watching them, nevertheless.

My mother was careful as she taught us to change the newspaper, add birdfeed, and change the water without letting the birds get out. I will admit that I was very careful to follow the bird maintenance protocol to the letter. My sister, on the other hand, was less diligent. One day she accidentally let the birds escape. Chaos ensued as we all ran around frantically trying to capture the creatures flapping crazily around the room. Finally, they both perched on the highest object in the neighboring dining room – the art deco china cabinet. My mom recommended that we just leave them alone until they calmed down. Unlike cats and dogs that can be enticed by food and treats, the birds just sat up there, chirping rather happily. We closed the door and went away. When we returned, both were perched contentedly on top of their cage.

As an experiment, I propped the cage door open, and sat back and watched as they voluntarily went back inside! They had a few seeds, fluttered around in their plastic birdbath, checked their appearance in the little mirror, and otherwise went back to their little bird lives. I guess that while they felt stressed being confined, the big wide world had its own uncertainties. I never locked them in again, and most times I found them either inside or on top of the cage. Sometimes they did get really adventurous, and took a vacation atop the china cabinet, but the cage was good enough for them.

Later I read that cats and dogs follow similar patterns. Cats – I came to learn, after talking to a most interesting bloke at Pets R Us – like freedom to go outside and track around a familiar territory, but rarely stray more than a certain distance from the cat food bowl. Dogs, likewise, like freedom, and whine to get out of confinement, but generally follow a pattern as well. But dogs can get sidetracked and wander. They like to get into trouble – usually with other dogs – but the call of the dog dish is still a strong motivating factor that keeps them from really launching out into a new world of self-discovery.

Horses can work hard all day, but genuinely look forward to putting their hoofs up at the end of the day. The boredom of the barn really doesn't seem to bother them at all. Cows, on the other hand, really subscribe to the old notion that the grass really is always greener on the other side of the fence. They get out constantly by pushing their heavy weight against fence posts that finally yield. Then, instead of wandering off to seek fame and fortune in foreign lands, they are usually quite content to eat alfalfa from the neighbor's field.

So, what do humans do? Actually, they do all of the above. It seems that individuals respond to confinement and freedom in different ways. I guess each of us is genetically hardwired to seek one or the other, preferring either the comfort of the home, routine, and family values ... or wanderlust. In my lifetime, I have experienced both.

Our nest is called the United States of America. It is quite comfortable for some, and painful and distressing for others. Sadly, there are always some of us who are satisfied with the nest as it is, even as others desire to change it; which might be okay if it were not for some natives constantly telling others that there is no room for change or improvement. It is the best nest in the world, and if we don't like it, well, we can just leave! Love it or leave it is their oft-shouted slogan.

Oh sure – like, how can one just leave it? Where would one go? How would one live? What of preexisting conditions and obligations? It is true that some people are literally driven out of their nests. But we tend to be a lot like most creatures – preferring the familiar, the known, to the unfamiliar and uncertain.

One cannot be so inclined without encountering many who bellow out that phrase: "America! Love it or Leave it." I often feel like the little parakeets. I know that the door is open, but I realize that I can't just fly away because the nest is fouled and the big birds get all the food. I have family, friends, obligations. Can I just run away? Some dogs and cats actually do just that. They blow the scene at the first opportunity. Some make it and go on to greatness or at least better accommodations. Others get lost in the tumult of life around them. Some just don't make it.

The religious and political bullies around us like to identify with eagles. They are the top of the food chain. They eat other birds for lunch. Those of the Eagle Forum and all the other Eagle organizations really think that God specially blesses America. We are the best. Our cage is better than everybody else's. We have the biggest, the highest, the fastest, the fanciest and – above all – the strongest of everything. We should be grateful to just be born here. They are outraged – incensed – that anyone would question pure superiority when it is staring them right in the face.

I have been shouted down so many times by jingoists who never seem to run out of unflattering, insulting names to call me and mine. They preach against me, make laws to restrict me, and turn up the volume on their media machine to drown me out. Love it or leave it is their infuriatingly annoying drumbeat. Alas, I cannot. At least, not now. I am responsible, obligated, and I like it here. I can turn off the radio, the TV ... and block their obnoxious internet sites. I can ignore them. Or can I? Not always, alas.

Note: From one who has lived outside the bird cage, I must note to readers and the "love it or leave it" crowd, that leaving the US and relocating to a new country is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Most desirable places that one might wish to make home likely would not allow one to just move there for free. Most have government programs that are available to local taxpayers only. One cannot simply move to a socialist country and freeload or piggyback on their superior system of municipal services, health care, free university education, and retirement plans. One has to earn the right to these services, and countries that provide such programs to their citizens are not clamoring for Americans to just move in and take advantage. Years ago, this was the case – particularly in Europe. During the "hippie" era, American youths simply made their way to places like Holland, Denmark, and France, and became permanent squatters. Leaching off the labors of the locals went only so far until laws were enacted to prevent freeloading. It is extremely difficult for one to relocate to a foreign country unless he or she can prove that they either have a fulltime job in the host country, or are independently wealthy. So, next time you hear "love it or leave it," ask: Can I afford to?

America Worship

American patriotism is an irrational religion

There are maps of the USA that break down the religious denominations: Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Mormon, and a scattering of "others." But the real religion of America is "America" itself. Americans actually worship the country as if it had fallen right down out of the sky, or was created specially by the hand of a divine God.

Politicians, clergy, athletes, and even common worker bees, all chant the same mantra: "America is the greatest nation on earth!" No, beyond that – it is the greatest nation in the whole history of the earth!

Who says so? Woe unto anyone who would have the courage to say otherwise. During the mid-1970s, when I was living in the Philippines, I marveled every time I drove past the American Embassy on Roxas Boulevard. Standing in a seemingly endless line to enter, rain or shine, were hundreds of would-be Filipino immigrants. Their common goal was to get to "The States." I have seen that phenomenon all over the world. The nationalities and faces change, but the goal is the same. Have these people bought some gigantic lie, or is there something to this insatiable desire by millions to become Americans?

During those days, I had a neighbor from Japan. He was married to a Hawaiian-Japanese, and was a naturalized American himself. He had come to the US penniless after the Second World War, and had lived through the devastation of Japan and the humiliation that followed. He was the first person I heard use the term "national myth" when referring to national madness. He had seen it firsthand. Japan, as an entire culture and people, had gone insane and – based on a myth – had brought the nation to complete ruin.

The entire Japanese population had bought into the lie so completely that Emperor worship was the only show in town. Everyone became a fanatic, and often soldiers would sacrifice themselves needlessly because "dying for the Emperor" was more important and glorious than winning battles.

The Germans en masse bought into the Hitler myth. Having lived in Germany long after the War, I heard endless conversations even then about the hysteria of the time, the absolute belief in the infallibility of the Führer, and the worship of the Fatherland. It only led to ruin.

It seems that we rarely learn from history. All the great empires have been brought down by such hubris. The Romans indulged themselves in unbridled conquest until they bankrupted the empire, and opened up the door for the dark ages that followed. The Spanish conquistadors annihilated all the preexisting cultures of Central and South America with their military, missionaries, and merchants.

Napoleon led the French down the same path ... and on it goes. Since the founding of the American nation, there has been built into the American psyche a certain bravado. All American school children know about Manifest Destiny, the cosmic call to conquer and dominate the huge continent of North America. And with guns and Bibles, the land and native peoples were subdued.

From the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers, America has been an extraordinarily religious place. Everything was founded on religion – and strict fundamentalist Protestantism at that. All the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were white male Protestant landowners. They have been at the top of the food chain ever since. Catholics were finally allowed to enter in limited numbers at first, as were Jews; and later such home grown oddities as the Mormons made the scene. Yes, they became Americans, but not all were equal – including millions of black slaves. To this day, all Americans are still not equal financially, socially, or culturally.

Yet, despite the inequality, nobody ever just stands up and says: "This place is screwed up." No matter how high or low one's station in life, economic condition, or social position, no one dares speak up lest they appear unpatriotic. It is not that they want to speak out and are reluctant; they genuinely think this place is the best on the planet, and nothing else could be better; so, why not just yell and scream and chant USA USA USA?

It is an irrational religion, a mindless worship of Old Glory – The stars and stripes forever. But as we follow the Romans, the French, the Spanish, the Germans, and the Japanese into empire-building, endless warfare, and ultimate demise … I just wonder why Americans can't see it coming. But they can't.

Super Jesus

Jesus is really a straight white American male

Superman, Batman, The Hulk and myriad other superheroes fill the American media, comics, and films. They all have really cool outfits. Most have capes, big muscles, and tight crotches. They have super weapons like magic swords, spears, hammers, and far more high-tech accouterments as well. They throw lightning bolts, control thunder, and raise the mighty seas. They are a true American creation.

When I was small, I watched Superman, Wonder Dog, and Mighty Mouse. Things have changed a lot since then. For one thing, the technology is way better. The graphics are outstanding, as are the sound effects. Young boys especially are bombarded with hyper-masculine images of heroes in a constant battle against the forces of darkness – and for truth, justice, and the American way.

But one superhero who really beats them all is the Lord Almighty, Jesus Christ. Unlike the wimpy skinny Jesus who hangs on crosses in cathedrals through Europe, the Americans have reinvented the savior of mankind. He is strong, powerful, and totally masculine. He has big muscles and has a flowing cape which is an American flag. He fights with fists, guns, and a magic book called the Bible.

A cult of Jesus has emerged in the United States in the last thirty years or so, with the rise of Christian television. Gradually, he has grown into an invincible national obsession. He does not preach a Gospel of humility and long-suffering. He preaches war. Not unlike the knights of the Crusades, he leads a mighty army of the righteous. No preaching about the poor inheriting the earth. No, he preaches a prosperity doctrine. Poverty is for chumps. Accept Jesus and get rich!

I never bought into the prosperity doctrine, but millions of Americans have over the years. It is an entitlement. The preaching about our strong military, supporting the troops, and bombing hell out of brown people, is a constant refrain. In fact, Jesus just keeps getting blonder and stronger all the time as fundamentalist illustrators continue to remake his image.

The white supremacists love to claim Jesus as their own property too. The message: Jesus is the savior of the white race. Dark-skinned people need not apply. While the rest of the world may view this in horror, it is ever so real, and always bubbling beneath the surface of American culture. Although racism is certainly not a purely American notion, our history on the subject is dismal.

The images of Jesus continue to evolve, and so does the music. Like the Nazis who used spectacle to wow the masses with their notions of Aryan superiority, there is nothing quite as chilling today as hearing 30,000 fundamentalist American Christians in a megachurch somewhere in Texas, singing:

Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war
With the cross of Jesus going on before
Like a mighty army moves against the foe
Forward into battle, see his banners glow

I got off the militant Christian band wagon years ago, and never looked back. I can't get in line to worship Super Jesus. The carpenter from Galilee still appeals more to me, after all.


Amaterasu to Zoroaster

Everybody is an atheist (to other peoples' gods)

There are thousands of deities floating around the world. Well, some float. Others walk. Some talk, some dance; others throw thunderbolts and wreak all manner of havoc on hapless humankind. But one thing they all have in common is that somewhere, somehow, and at some time, people have believed in them – and possibly still do to this day.

I googled the term "creation myths" recently, and was presented with a panoply of gods and goddesses, both ancient and modern. I had not even heard of a fraction of these deities before. Some are really cool.

Joseph Campbell was a famous storyteller. He loved recounting myths and legends, both well-known and obscure. In fact, he could go on and on. I was watching him not long ago on the Public Broadcasting Station, with a collection of Fundamentalist friends. I know this sounds unlikely, but, for some reason, I think there was some mention of the real creation story coming up sometime after the fund-raiser.

"How could anybody believe that crap?" roared a heavyset guy of at least twenty.

"Yeah, when are we going to get to the Bible?" the others insisted in unison. They had put up with enough of all this ridiculous blabber about tribal African gods, Native American gods, Eskimo gods, and ancient Greco-Roman gods, to boot. "Let's get to the one true God, and forget all this pagan nonsense," they chanted, growing increasingly weary of stories about all these other "false gods."

Well, we finally got to their own personal god, Yahweh, and his only begotten son, Jesus. Boy, were they disappointed, and mad! He got no more airtime from Campbell than Amaterasu and her magic sword that had dipped into the Pacific Ocean and created Japan; or Zoroaster, who apparently didn't create anything, but did cause a lot of trouble by upsetting the establishment in ancient Iran.

Well, they slammed the TV off in a huff, and all began cursing PBS. Somehow in their collective Christian minds, intoxicated as always by their American Christian privilege, they were all spitting mad that their tax dollars were going to support public television, giving a forum to a quack like Joseph Campbell.

"Why don't we turn on FOX, and maybe we can catch the last of Hannity and Rush?" I recommended. Nobody got the dig, of course, but they finally settled down and decided on Monday Night Football instead. I made my exit at that point.

Adam and Eve Rode Their Dinosaur to Church

More than one intellijunt dezine?

The first contemporary law mandating the teaching of creationism – now euphemistically called "Intelligent Design" – has been passed in America. And guess where? Tennessee, of course – home of the famous Scopes trial of 1925. Often called "The Monkey Trial," it is well-known in historical, religious, and legal circles – not to mention literary ones – as it is the basis for the famous play by Jerome Lawrence, entitled Inherit the Wind."

The "Fightin' Fundies," as I always call them, are Evangelical Christians whom I know well. Having been an ordained minister with the General Council of the Assemblies of God for years, I know how they believe, feel, think, and operate. Evangelicals take the Bible seriously. In fact, they believe that it is a factual account of the creation of the heavens and the Earth. For centuries nobody challenged the Biblical account of creation. Then, somewhere around the time that we refer to as the Renaissance, things began to change. A newfangled thing called science began to emerge to challenge the ancient creation story.

For centuries, the fight was about the nature and operation of the Universe. The Catholic Church suppressed science by force, arresting, torturing, and executing anybody who challenged the Biblical account that the Earth was flat and that the sun spun around it on a predictable daily trek. Those battles are long over. Now, even the Catholic Church and fundamentalist Protestants acknowledge that the Earth is not the fixed center of the Universe.

However, the current battle, begun by Charles Darwin with the publishing of The Origin of the Species in 1859, opened up a new can of worms for the literalists to feast upon. This is the battle that is still raging in places like Tennessee. It has nothing to do with the creation of the Universe – the sun, moon, stars, and asteroids – but has to do with humankind itself.

Evolution. The unanswered question is: Was humankind created in an instant on the sixth day, stark naked, in a garden, with all sorts of great plants and animals all around; or did they evolve from lower lifeforms? For the most part, science has answered that question. They evolved. However, all over the great USA and around the world, there are millions of dunderheads who genuinely disbelieve this. They are desperate to believe the Biblical account as told in the book of Genesis. Man was created out of the dust of the Earth, and woman from one of his ribs. Although the story is so galactically stupid, believers cling to it like grim death because if they admit it is just a myth, the next question arises immediately: Well, if that is just a story, what else in the Bible is untrue? ...That question is just too hard for them.

Somebody has to draw a line in the sand; and at present, this is it. We all know the story... The Earth was created 6,000-something years ago, and was populated by human beings who all lived hundreds of years each and were destroyed in a flood. Then, two of each animal species repopulated the Earth. Here comes the rub. Science. Within the last hundred-plus years, geology, paleontology, and anthropology have posed totally new befuzzling questions for Biblical literalists. What about the fossil record? What about dinosaurs and the evolution of nonhuman species? Well, that is science, and the Fundamentalists have declared war on those "tools of Satan."

Since the Scopes Monkey Trial – up until which it was illegal to teach evolution in public schools in Tennessee and around the rural parts of our great land – science has completely trumped religion in the collective mind of all but the "true Christians," who will have none of it. When I was an evangelical minister, I saw the problem. But I also saw what was coming – namely, the symbiotic relationship developing between the Republican Party and the massive Evangelical voting bloc. For the past thirty years, their mutual backscratching has won elections, and now they are joined at the hip and finish each others’ sentences. The Grand Old Party is beholden to the Fundies in many ways, including passing legislation adjudicating their religious proclivities.

The new requirement that intelligent design be taught alongside science in public schools is a perfect example. Although the hyper-rich corporate and Country Club Republicans know it is a pile of crap, they need the religious kooks to maintain power; so they go along with their insanity. The real problem is in the classroom, where young persons from kindergarten to twelfth grade, must be taught that the Biblical myths are in fact a viable substitute for pure science. I saw that this inevitability would simply lower the level of science teaching nationwide at some point, and further erode our standing in the world community at large.

But, lately I have been thinking of a novel "out of the box" idea to counter and dilute this absurdity. One thing I know – the Religious Right Christians are not the only show in town when it comes to stupidity. I have a proposal. It is kind of revolutionary. Okay, I suggest, let them teach creationism in science class. However... Oh, BTW, more than one creation story exists! And they deserve equal time, as well.

Then I had this idea – this flash in the middle of the night. I jumped up and googled "creation myths." There are thousands! There are Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Muslim, African (in their hundreds), Greek, Roman, Norse, and – of course – Native American ones. I asked myself: "Is the Biblical myth any better than any of these?" What makes the American Rightwing think that theirs is the only account of creation worthy of teaching alongside science? I think I can already hear the cacophonous scream from churches across the country. In fact, I think you don't have to strain too hard to hear the thud as the "Christians" (in their millions) shit one massive collective brick.

I know what this is called. It is called "Christian privilege." The arrogance of American Christians is unbounded. They don't just think or believe that their religion is superior – they know it. They are right and everybody else is wrong. They were always taught that theirs is the one and only true religion. Well, I hate to burst their bubble, but the Muslims – for example – also know that they are right. And if the Christians get to teach their creation myth as science, Mohammed will most surely demand equal time.

To tell you the truth, although I personally don't have a dog in this fight, I would certainly buy a ticket.

The Weird Psychic

Scared to death or bored to death? That is the question.

Years ago, when I was doing public speaking in churches around the country, I learned a lot about the art of public joke-telling and fooling the audience. The most important aspect of the Muzzio style of getting the audience's rapt attention is to make the joke sound so completely plausible that the audience never knows what is coming. They must not know it is a joke. A serious demeanor is essential.

So, I adapted a joke I had heard years earlier in the Philippines. Putting it into a real time and place, it came out something like this:

"On the way over here tonight I had the weirdest experience. Unreal. I was parking right in the lot near this building, where I happened to have parked a few weeks ago when I was in the area running errands at the local photo shop. I ran into a guy who I had encountered at that time. We had met before, and as he lived walking distance from where I was parked, he invited me over to his place for a coffee.

He told me that he needed to warn me about his roommate. She was apparently a psychic who was a bit weird and rather ‘over the top’ – to use his words. I assured him I would be cool. So, we came to his house – one of those large, wonderful old houses in Northwest Portland, that had been subdivided into smaller apartments. There were several tenants in the building, but my friend and his roommate shared a two-bedroom apartment on the ground floor and were the only tenants home during the day.

The room was full of indoor palms and all manner of plants, crystals, dreamcatchers and other typical psychic paraphernalia. No crystal ball, however. A rather portly, middle-aged woman wearing a sort of Hawaiian-looking caftan, and dripping with all sorts of jewelry, walked across the Bukhara-carpeted floor to meet me. The incense burner on a nearby table was turning the air blue with the sweet smell of jasmine.

'You have come from afar on a long journey,' she crooned. But Mr. Cynic that I am, I decided to thwart her attempts to 'draw me in.'

'Not really,' I said flatly. 'I just came from up Burnside a half mile or so.' Well, this did not help her gain the upper hand at all. I could tell she was thinking of another approach.

'You seem so unhappy. I can tell that you don't believe that I am a medium.'

'Well, I guess I am about as happy as the next guy,' I parried. Then she decided to take the full frontal assault approach. She got right up in my face and, with breath smelling of camels, she roared:

'I am a medium, and I am happy! I mean it. I am happy.' Okay, at this point I was a bit nonplussed and even a bit intimidated ... not knowing exactly what to say. But she went on!

'I mean it! I am happy, happy, happy!'"

Back at church... At this point, I got right up into the microphone on the podium and softly said: "Well, what should I do?" Then: "What do you think I did?" Stone silence.

Nobody in the audience moved a muscle, but everybody was right there, obviously perplexed. Then I went on...

"Suddenly, I remembered some advice my mother once gave me for situations like this." Pausing, I said... "Then I reached out and slapped her right across the face!" (simultaneously clapping my hands as loud as possible right into the microphone). The whole crowd jumped, then gasped. Everyone was genuinely shocked. I could see it on their faces. How could he have done such a thing? Then the coup d'grâs... "Mom told me to always try to strike a happy medium!"

Suddenly everybody realized that they had been hornswoggled – duped! It was a joke! The trick is to convince the audience that it is a real story until the very end – and then the punchline. That way, they are dealing with a whole different sense of reality. Within an instant, the whole reality shifts. Caught off-guard, they always paid close attention to what I said after that! I knew that I was never a boring speaker, and that no one ever fell asleep during one of my sermons.

Well, fell asleep – no – but a lady actually died during one of my sermons once! I noticed her about half way through the sermon, eyes shut contemplatively. I figured she was praying in the spirit! (Obviously, in the spirit world was more likely.)

After I was finished, the offering was taken and the pastor asked everyone to stand for the benediction. She remained sitting, eyes closed. Finally, everyone filtered out of the room and a few stragglers remarked that Mrs. Wheeler had not moved. We all gathered around her. "Is she dead?" everyone asked incredulously. "Well, she looks pretty dead to me!" a teenage kid said matter-of-factly. The pastor ran and called 911. The paramedics said that she had likely been dead at least half an hour.

Well, either I scared her to death or I bored her to death, I mused to myself while driving home. One way or the other, she didn't make it through my sermon. In any case, thereafter I dropped that joke from my repertoire.

The Virgins of Kolob

Mormon men get a whole planet full of women, but Muslims only get seventy-two.

Young Muslim suicide bombers are in the news a lot these days, and are likely to remain. Why do they off themselves by strapping explosives to their bodies and detonating themselves in the most crowded venues possible? Is it for some grand cause or for their fifteen seconds of fame? It is hard to say.

Perhaps in some cases they are genuine “true believers,” or in others they are driven by hatred of Israel or the West. All those noble notions aside, my theory is that they are just plain horny. Most of these “martyrs” are young Arab men in their twenties, living in the dumps of the Muslim world. They have little chance of an education, or meaningful employment, or a decent future of any kind. But above all, they are sexually repressed. Their religion restricts their easy access to women, who are closeted, hidden away, and shielded by their families and communities, from birth. Basically, they are inaccessible to young men in musk.

I still recall reading of young men – often as young as ten – who, during the Iran/Iraq war of the 1980s, were encouraged to run across minefields in order to clear them for the advance of soldiers. Of course, their deaths were foregone. So, why did they go so willingly to their deaths? For a promise. A promise of what? Seventy-two virgins! Whereas a ten-year-old may not fully comprehend what a virgin actually is, most fifteen-year-olds certainly would. And a twenty-five-year-old would even more so!

Most non-Muslims scratch their heads in dis-belief. What a waste! But, I understand that such heroic martyrdom is enshrined in the Muslim world. I believe that Mohammed Atta and the 9/11 gang, the shoe-bomber, and the Nigerian underwear bomber, were all driven by higher motives. But most of the young men of the dynamite-sect, however, seem to just want pussy.

Well, I hope they get what they are longing for. But I have just one question. What happens on the seventy-third day? Once those randy young men achieve their eternal reward, and have deflowered all seventy-two of their virgins, do they get new ones; or are they required to fuck the same seventy-two women over and over for all eternity? Hmmm. Inquiring minds want to know.

Another collection of equally horny young men are targets of yet another sex fraud. They are called Mormons. As a young adolescent kid in high school, I was targeted by missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. What a crock! But I'll admit, as an unchurched youth, I listened carefully to their pitch. Their message was not one of high-sounding, lofty goals like saving mankind or bringing Christ's message of love and peace to the darkies of the world. They were talking directly to me. My own personal salvation and eternal destiny were dependent upon my decision whether or not to accept the message of Joseph Smith and the golden tablets, the Angel Moroni and the teachings of Brigham Young ... or go straight to Mormon hell, otherwise known as the Telestial Kingdom. Yuk. You don't want to go there.

What you really should want is to aspire to the Celestial Kingdom, the highest of the three Mormon degrees in the afterlife. It's a real deal – a promise. But, your reward for adherence to “the teachings of the church” is not just some "pie in the sky by and by" hope. It is something attainable here and now. Young Mormon men in heat can seek to marry a “fine young Mormon woman,” and marry in the temple, and live together for time and eternity! Yea! Eternal marriage. How exciting. I could hardly wait to sign up. LOL. Well, I faked along, wanting to hear more of the promised Mormon afterlife. When a Mormon man dies in good favor of the church, he goes not to a cloudlike heaven with harps and palm branches waving, but to a real physical planet near God and Jesus, who live on their own planet called Kolob. He gets his own private Kolob somewhere in the Universe. There he gets to live eternally with his blessed wife from Earth (for time and eternity), and un-numbered millions of women. That sure beats the seventy two virgins, huh? He gets to fuck his brains out forever, and never has to come back for sloppy seconds.

During the presidential race of 2012, when a Mormon was running for office, an interviewer asked Ann Romney how she felt about living eternally on a planet far far away with Mitt and millions of other wives. Her answer seemed a bit lame to me. She said that it was God's plan and that she could deal; but then, after all, she was the number one wife! Wooo. Actually, I kind of felt sorry for her. Well, it is a man's world (I mean planet).

After I had heard the spiel of those two missionaries in their short-sleeved white shirts, narrow ties, and name tags, I bid them farewell. I had made up my mind. Although I was years from coming out as a gay man, I could foresee eternal life ahead on a Mormon Celestial planet with nothing but women. I was horrified. I concluded right then and there that I would rather have the Telestial Kingdom any day. Or better yet, I could always just go and blow myself up instead!

Scared to Death

You scared the liver out of me!

During a recent health history update of mine at the Veteran's Administration Hospital in Portland, the interviewer was trying to ascertain whether or not I was suffering from PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) from the war days in Viet Nam.

She asked questions like: "Do you find yourself reacting to sudden loud noises like cars backfiring, or slamming doors?" Well, yes. However, it really has nothing to do with PTSD. I have always been jumpy. When I was a small child, my father got a kick out of scaring the liver out of me. He would hide around dark corners in our old farmhouse to wait for me to come by. Then he would jump out and scare me to death.

Actually, I figured out that I was not scared, but startled. Some people simply startle more easily than others. My phlegmatic sister never flinched, whereas I would "jump out of my skin" when scared.

I realize that it is a "brain thing" and that some people are just jumpy. I have always been one of those types. When I lived in Hong Kong, our housekeeper was like me. We even had our private jokes about scaring each other. Haak Sei Loh. That is the Chinese expression meaning: You scared me to death. We both learned to hum, sing, or whistle to indicate that we were around.

Not long ago, I was sitting in a full theater, watching a particularly "scary" movie – not spooky or creepy, but the type that makes you jump out of your seat. I was sitting next to a rather portly lady who was there with her husband or boyfriend. As the film progressed, we both realized that we were kindred spirits. Everytime we were caught off-guard and jumped, we grabbed each other's hand!

As we left the theater, we made eye contact and said "Thanks." I can't remember ever holding hands with a perfect stranger before. But it was like being with an old friend.

However, the time I just about lost it was when I was still in the US military, living in Augsburg. I was working through Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy, a historical novel about Michelangelo Buonarroti. Forbidden by the church and the political powers-that-be in Medieval Florence, he had to sneak into the bowels of various church rectories to dissect cadavers in order to understand the nature of the human body. I was into the scene in a most surreal way. Deep in a dark cavernous basement under some medieval monastery, my hero was clandestinely slicing corpses. He realized that he had to be out by dawn. The candle was burning lower and lower, as only Stone could describe.

I was so into the moment that I had totally forgotten reality, when there came a terrible rap on the door. I was in that dank cellar with moldering bodies. The candle was nearly spent and when the pounding came onto the door, I was horrified. The book literally flew out of my hand and landed on the other side of the room. My heart raced.

Wait. I am not in medieval Florence. I am in my own bunk in Augsburg. Shaking, I got up and answered the door. A friend, Dave, was there wondering if I wanted to go to dinner. Still in startle mode, I agreed. Haak Sei Loh.

A Risky Business

Never a borrower or a lender be

The year was 1970. I was a young GI who had just survived his stint in Viet Nam during the War. I was a rip-roaring fundamentalist Christian at the time, filled with the Holy Spirit and holy hubris. Since I had survived living in a combat zone and had come out without a scratch, I was absolutely sure that I had divine protection.

Maybe it was that, or sheer gratefulness, that opened me up to my first real scam in life. A Christian friend of mine, John Littleton, whom I had met and befriended in Saigon, called me on the phone while I was on leave between my tour in Nam and my arrival in Frankfurt. He wanted to borrow 500 dollars.

I had never been hit up for more than a few bucks before, and quite honestly I never expected to get back the five dollars here and there that guys would borrow at the end of the month to buy “necessities.” I knew they were going to buy cigarettes, but figured that if I lent them some small cash, they would be more or less obligated to let me preach to them. We called it “witnessing,” but it is really just proselytizing, nonetheless. I felt it my obligation to warn them of hell at any price.

John was not asking for himself – and I believed him. He was calling on behalf of a girlfriend somewhere in Kansas who was getting evicted from her double-wide. “She is a really good Christian,” he assured me, “but her husband is a backslider. He treats her badly and now has left altogether. He absconded with all her money, and unless I can help her, she will have to leave the trailer park.” I admit that I was naïve and stupid, but I was inclined to go along with his story. In any case, he promised to pay it back with interest within six months when she got back on her feet.

I met him years later when I was preaching in Medford, Oregon. He was a disgruntled church member who felt he was unappreciated and underutilized for his Biblical teaching skills. I recommended that he simply find a different church that might recognize his talents. A smaller church is usually the best solution for those afflicted with “preacher envy.”

Then I mentioned the loan. He had forgotten all about it, married the girlfriend, and had never mentioned it to her. She was sitting right there, and I could tell she had absolutely no idea what we were talking about it. Then he said the totally expected:

“Well, you know, Tom – Jesus is coming back so soon. What do you need the money for anyway?” That was 1977. (Jump forward to 2010.) The other day I was talking to a friend in the financial biz, and asked him to calculate the value of $500 at 5% compound interest for 40 years. $3,520. Need I say more?

I guess Shakespeare was right all along:

Never a borrower or a lender be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

(Hamlet Act 1, Scene 3)

Don We Now Our Awesome Apparel

English … the creeping language

All languages change and evolve. But many also decry and loathe the encroachment of foreign words ... and by that they mean English.

France has its own federally sponsored language board that continually attempts to filter out English words that pour into French every day. Of course, they have selective amnesia when they forget the Norman Invasion of the British Isles, and hundreds of years of French rule, whereupon thousands of French words were incorporated into English in the process.

The Italians gave us lots of their words, so it only seems fair now that we can return the favor. Computer lingo (an example of a Latin word we pinched along the way) is heavily peppered with not only English words, but actual Americanizations ... and that rubs some of the British the wrong way! (Blokes)

Even the liberal Swedes have legally entertained the notion of limiting the creeping influence of English. For decades, Chinese has borrowed technological words that rendered in Chinese are laughable. Dien Nao (literally "electric brain") sounds ludicrous … but then, so does Com-pu-tah. My favorites are those adopted by the Filipinos, who have never had any serious trouble borrowing foreign words. Hundreds of years as a Spanish colony gave them words like: Kotse, lapis, mesa and bentalador for car, pencil, table and electric fan ... although one is more likely to hear elektrikpan today. Of course, they borrowed plenty from the Americans as well ... words like dreib, tennis, holduper, and djyp for drive, tennis, bank-robber, and jeep. Of course, they gave us bundok (for boondocks), and that is a fair trade.

All of that aside, I have my own observations about the drift of American English. Some of it I embrace and some I resist. I was in a meeting of Fundamentalist ministers a few weeks before a long-touted Christmas chorus was to be performed. When discussing the venue, the pastor whose church was sponsoring the event complained that they had to eliminate one of the all-time most famous carols, Deck the Halls. “We didn’t want to have to sing the line: Don we now our gay apparel!” he groused. “The goddamned fags have stolen a perfectly good word, and now we can’t even sing it any more!” He was very upset. I was more shocked with his swearing and vulgarisms than the fact that he could no longer use the word “gay” in anything but a typical sneering and demeaning way.

But I have my own pet peeves, I must confess. My favorite, and one I still refuse to use, is the word “awesome.” I realize that language changes, and kiddie-talk does influence shifts in meaning (and yes, I was hip and cool at one time too). The Pacific Ocean is indeed awesome – the Grand Canyon as well. But a new shirt, a catchy tune, or a new haircut is simply not all that awesome. And maybe someday either I will get with the program, or a new and even more awesome word will replace it, and we can go back to using it as intended – to indicate something truly terrific, magnificent, or spectacular. In the meantime, perhaps the choir could adjust a bit and don their “awesome” apparel : )

A Harp... A Home... A Mansion Fair

Christians and the reward-driven life

The Muslims get seventy-two virgins, the Mormons get their own planets; but every Evangelical born-again Christian gets a mansion just over the hilltop! For all these folks, dying really has its perks, huh?

There is a certain book that has been floating around in Evangelical circles for a few years now. It is entitled The Purpose Driven Life. It was written by some big-time megachurch pastor in Arizona or somewhere like that. It has been a big hit, and has really managed to put some purpose into the lives of otherwise rather flatline Christians. Every few years a book hits the Fundamentalist play list, and everybody goes gaga for it. It is just one more religions fad. And, believe me, I have lived through many in my day as an ordained Evangelical clergyman.

Well, I did try to read the thing, but gave up in disgust and sheer boredom. What a crock! Like most books of that type, it is just a pile of platitudes and nebulous challenges to live a rich, full, and abundant life in the Lord Jesus Christ. Nothing wrong with that, I guess. But it is just so dull and predictable.

My experience with born-again Christians revealed that, for the most part, their lives are not at all driven to any higher purpose. They pay lip service to the Gospel's admonitions on good behavior and good deeds. Helping the needy, the infirm, or the castaways in society is all well and good, but should be left to professionals like Mother Theresa or Teen Challenge. A donation now and then to a real charity is usually sufficient. The real motivating factor is called Evangelism. The Bible challenges Christians to “go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.” That is referred to as “the Great Commission.” I was heavily into that task – as assigned by Jesus back in the day. And, yes, I guess that in many ways I was living a reward-driven life as well.

Christians say that they want to serve their lord ... and that sounds fine to me. It always did. But what does that mean? Giving to the poor, helping the sick, and feeding the hungry are noble undertakings, to be sure; but, in a rare moment of honesty, most believers would likely admit that they are in it for a reward in the hereafter.

Most know that their altruism is not something to which they are naturally inclined. They have to work at it. Some do quite well, and others just fall flat. They can't even pretend to care about the “eternally lost souls” around them. So why do they “do good?” Because they know that in the end they are going to get something for it. They also believe that their efforts are cumulative and that there is a storehouse in an imaginary realm far away “beyond the blue” where their treasures are “laid up.” I can't wait.

The rub for modern Christians is that not all good deeds are of equal worth. Some things count more in the afterlife than others. Sure, feeding the hungry is a good thing, but anybody can get behind that. Heck, even liberal, non-religious, and socialist governments can give free stuff to victims of famine, earthquakes, and civil wars. But convincing another human being to convert, change his mind, and take on a whole new worldview – accepting Jesus as his personal savior ... now, that's real good mojo – the best. The rewards keep piling up, and wow, are they ever great.

When I was younger and seriously into “winning souls for Christ,” I was not really all that excited about the promised bling so often sung about in churches far and wide. I never was all that jazzed about wearing some big clunky crown. I am still rather unimpressed with a mansion just over the hilltop ... and besides, I never even learned how to play the harp either. Too bad, huh? In fact, after years of attending church, later in the ministry, I finally concluded that there was nothing in the rewards category that much interested me at all. The heaven that is on the minds of modern pew-sitters has no appeal for me whatsoever.

The serious problem I face when contemplating an eternity of bliss (in a city built foursquare) is the inhabitants. The people there are all the same. There is simply no diversity at all. Everyone in the Evangelical paradise-to-come is a born-again Fundamentalist Protestant Christian. These are the very people I ran away from years ago! The idea of spending my forever with the likes of many whom I have met, interacted with, and even worked with, is an incubus that I have no stomach for at all.

Actually, in retro, I would have to say that I learned more from some 1950s and 60s television than from the pulpit. One of my true heroes of the faith was a humble fellow named Jed Clampett. He was a simple man, content with his lot in life as a poor mountaineer out shootin' for some food. He was likewise content in his wealth when providence smiled down on him. He was always doing good – often without thinking about it – giving away freely of his abundance to any he saw in need. I think he is more of the ideal that Jesus must have had in mind way back there in the Beatitudes.

And then there was Granny, the rip-roarin', paranoid Fundamentalist. Everything to her was black-and-white, right and wrong. I recall a particular episode when she was totally pissed off about something or other. Something had gotten her dander up, and she was stormin' out to set things straight, complete with her NRA shotgun in hand.

It was Jed who tried to reason with her – to appeal to her better nature, her inner Christ. Well, that fell flat. She would have none of it. But, true philosopher and theologian that he was, he pulled out his trump card to deal with her mania and righteous indignation. Do you remember how he appealed to her to stop acting like a moron and to let the true love of Jesus shine through? He appealed to her greed.

“You'll get another star in your crown!” Jed said softly. That did the trick. It worked then and is still working as well to this day! Ah, yes ... the reward-driven life.

Noah vs. Santa

Who is the faster?

Most folks don't see the connection between the great feats of the patriarch, Noah – of Biblical fame – and those of that portly gentleman from the North Pole. But they are both very remarkable. Every holiday season we laud the great task that Santa undertakes when he delivers gifts to children around the world. We even go so far as to electronically track the amazing flight with the most sophisticated radar systems that NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) has at its disposal. The whole world watches and waits as he flies in an archaic sleigh filled with toys for all good children around the globe.

The fact that he has to pull off this feat on such a grand basis is what makes it so much fun, and basically harmless. Fewer adults and children every year make a pretense of believing one of the real longstanding of the Christmas myths. Nevertheless, because of its total improbability, we can dismiss it as harmless. It is cute and little kids enjoy it despite the implausibility. And it does not seem to have much of a long-lasting negative effect on society and little children, as people outgrow the story.

The Noah myth, by contrast, is extraordinarily dangerous, and the evil impacts of this legend are far-reaching and often fatal. Why is this so? There is a good reason. The Santa Clause and the flying reindeer myth is considered by all to be a fun story, and not to be taken as real. The Noah and the Ark story, by contrast – though ludicrous and stupid – is taken as true by half of all Americans alive today in the early twenty-first century.

“Well,” the other half who are non-believers say, “what is the big deal? Let the fools believe in the ark story. What is the problem? It really isn't hurting anyone.” But it is, and in a big way.

The problem with the Noah story is not the legend itself. It is both a fun story for entertaining small children, and a source of income for illustrators of children’s books and toy manufacturers in places like China. The problem is called inerrancy. Another more common term is “literalism.” In short, in referring to the Holy Bible, the word means "without errors." Millions in America and around the world believe that the Judeo-Christian scriptures are literally true in every way ... in science, history, society, and law – to name a few. Even though it can easily be proven that this is not so, they have to believe it anyway no matter what.

Or so they say. When I was a Bible-believing Christian, I knew that I was required to believe certain things even though I recognized that they were impossible. So, like millions of others who want to believe the “good things” about the Bible, I swallowed hard and pretended to believe the fairytales as well, anyway.

If the ark story were just told as legend, like "Hansel and Gretel" or "The Three Bears," it would cause the world no grief. But since religious believers need literalism so desperately to adjudicate their prejudices and assuage their fears, they insist that the Bible is true and provable. I say it is not.

Fundamentalist Bible-believing Christians – particularly in America – go through incredible mental contortions and great monetary expense to prove that stories like that of the Biblical flood and the ark story are not fiction, but scientific and historical fact. They need it to be so, whereas others do not. Why? Their black-and-white brains reason that if their sacred book contains even one obvious error of any kind then the entire tome is subject to scrutiny. And they are right. Once it is shown that one thing is untrue, unlikely, or downright stupid, what other parts are likewise untrustworthy? And the real problem they face is: What other commandments and restrictions of behavior drawn from the same source may as well be false?

Right-wing Christians have had to draw a line in the sand about Noah. They realize that the ark story is by far one of the most popular targets of scientists, conservationists, modernists, atheists, homosexuals, and all others bent on destroying their perfect world. A causal visit to the wasteland of wee-hours cable television-viewing reveals a trove of Fundamentalist programming on the cheap. The preachers and “teachers” one encounters there between the channels of weight loss gurus, the cooking utensil hawkers, and other miscellaneous hucksters, are in a constant race against reality. Theirs is to prove the unprovable to the simpleminded, who are so desperate for insomnia-busting entertainment that they actually watch these shows.

Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. Well, we all know that song. But Noah was way better than St. Nicholas, as his feat was far more jaw-droppingly fabulous than anything Santa and the reindeer could ever pull off. First of all, Noah walked with God – and talked with him as well. He was so close to God that I'll bet they finished each other's sentences. One day God confided to Noah that he was pissed at the people on the Earth for being so “wicked.” Moreover, he was so sick of mankind's collective misbehavior that he was going to destroy the entire planet with a flood. Not only was he going to drown all of humanity – but all of the animal kingdom as well. So there!

We all know the story. Noah's task was to build an ark of cypress wood – 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high, with a roof within eighteen inches of the top (converting from cubits, mind you) (Genesis 6:14). Now, that was pretty specific. Only, Noah was not tasked in the actual construction. That was left up to his boys, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Meanwhile, he was assigned to the job of gathering two each of all the animals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles on Earth. So, his objective was to go to the ends of the Earth and collect a pair of every living thing (everything with breath in its nostrils, to use the technical Biblical terminology).

This is where, in my humble opinion, he beats Santa hands down. How long did he get to pull this off? Six days! God made it clear that on the seventh day the rain would begin and that it would last for forty days and forty nights. And it did! Noah managed to get everything from two aardvarks all the way down to the zebus, into the boat on time and in the six-day window. Not bad at all for a 600-year-old guy. Let Santa try to beat that!

Saving Catholics

Well, somebody has to do it!

God hates fags. Well, if he doesn't, his followers sure do. A phenomenon seems to be sweeping the Evangelical world at present. Actually, it has been going on for quite some time now. There is this mushy, lovey-dovey bromance going on between Protestant Fundamentalist Christians and Roman Catholics that leaves me scratching my head in amusement and bewilderment. What is this all about?

Well, there is an old and well-worn adage that has been attributed to just about every world leader since Joshua, Genghis Khan, and Joseph Stalin. It states simply: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Ever heard it? I'll bet you have, as it is frequently quoted when two warring parties bury the hatchet temporarily to make common cause against a mutual foe. Amazingly, two of the bitterest enemies – whose animosity goes back centuries – are in a current lovefest on a grand scale, each stroking the other with mock affection. But I can see the daggers beneath their lovely robes and expensive suits.

As I grew up in a secular home environment, religious prejudices and biases were more or less absent from my upbringing. Imagine my shock when blatant anti-Catholicism slapped me right in the face for the first time. I was in Belfast, Northern Ireland … during "the troubles.” Sitting quietly at tea with a Protestant family, I was overwhelmed with all the hateful speech and vitriol coming out of the mouths of these born-again, spirit-filled believers! I had mentioned that at the time there was a new religious movement in parts of southern Germany, which was being called the “Charismatic Catholic” phenomenon. Every day, Germans in Bavaria – the most Catholic part of Germany – were actually worshiping in a very Pentecostal style and even speaking in tongues!

“Tongues of the Devil!” they railed at me not unkindly, but with serious conviction. I was obviously being tricked – deceived by the ancient one, the author of lies, the serpent, the devil himself! Catholics are evil monsters from the very pits of hell, they informed me. Of course, I had learned that along the way in my Christian journey. I knew that they were lost souls – every one – doomed to frizzle and fry in the eternal lake of fire described in the Bible’s apocalyptic last chapter, the Revelation.

But should we war with them? As a spinoff of the “Make love, not war” hippy generation of the 1960s, came the rise of the “Jesus Movement” in the 1970s. I was caught up in that heady time of peace, salvation, and “Jesus loves you” on every tongue. Ah, so you're a Catholic, a Mormon, or a Jew – no big deal – Jesus loves you! Be like me; speak in tongues and be saved.

For quite a while, this “live and let live” philosophy sort of floated around the surface of the greater Christian pond. But, gradually, as parties like me went into Bible schools, seminaries, and independent spirit-led training establishments, we began the see the need to understand a bit more of what we actually believed, and to know what our message was (really). We all learned a new word: "doctrine."

As the hippies and the Jesus children grew a bit older – began breeding, and needing jobs and homes and cars to get to and from those homes and jobs – they started needing to find a more settled lifestyle. Running around the country in a VW van with flowers and crosses painted on the side was sure fun while it lasted, but reality had finally set in for most of the “Jesus Freaks.” Those days were over.

Seeing the need – a motley collection of divinely inspired “Christian teachers” arose to meet the need of their ever-expanding flocks of devotees. “Love everybody unconditionally” began to be tinged by reality. Some people who call themselves Christians are really not “true believers.” They are deceived. And just like the teeming masses who have never even heard the name of Christ, they are damned to burn in a Christless hell for all time and eternity. OMG, what is to be done?

Well, obviously somebody has to go out and tell them! And I was among those who were sent … to the “uttermost parts of the Earth.” I did not just go out half-cocked. I was carefully trained and schooled in the art of Evangelism and intercultural communication. I was taught the Bible, theology, and – above all – doctrine! I can say that when I arrived in the Philippines – a 98% Roman Catholic country – I had one mission: Save Catholics!

As a rip-roaring Protestant missionary at the time, I saw a very black-and-white world. There were the real born-again Fundamentalist Bible-believing Protestants, and the very lost, empty, hell-bound Catholics all over the world. My task – my mission – was to convert Catholics … turn them into Protestants and rescue them from an eternity of suffering and misery in the domain of Satan.

Then an interesting thing began happening around the world. A new movement began stirring, and it was not based on a choice, like religion, where one picks his or her religious direction, belief, or denomination. This was biological. ...What? A movement of people who are defined by who they are from birth, and not by culture, geography, politics, or religion? It had a name too: The Gay Movement.

Well, the righteous Protestant Christians, of whom I was one, went apoplectic. They ranted and raved, they huffed and puffed, snorted, and blew all over the place. Their response to this new movement was one of absolute hatred. Forget all that “love of Jesus” talk; this is war! Being a closet case at the time myself, I watched with both fascination and horror at the freak show that followed. The entire weight of the Evangelical world rose up against the uppity fags – and their little dogs too.

But what amazed me the most was to what lengths they would be willing to go in their war on the ungodly “sodomites.” Shockingly enough, their fear and loathing was so great that they actually began courting those unsaved Catholics to make common cause with them against the homosexual hoards, invading their suburban megachurch world. Catholics! Imagine that!

As I have watched this amazing scenario play out on Christian television, I am frequently rather amused as I see well-known Protestant televangelists hosting arm-in-arm Roman Catholic priests and laymen, as they all join in powerful prayer against the gay juggernaut arrayed against them. Of course, I still remember my doctrinal training well, and know that beneath the smiles and platitudes, they both hate each other as much as ever. Nothing has really changed since that encounter at the dinner table back in Belfast. The hate is mutual, but the hate for the common enemy is more bitter at present. So they smile and make common cause. The enemy of my enemy is my friend (for now).

Try on the Shoes First

Traditional marriage is for the birds … the pigeon(toed)

Christians are always telling us that they are standing up for traditional marriage. But for years I wondered whose tradition they are talking about. Of course, “Christian tradition” is the prompt reply. But, as usual, I doubt it. Is there really such a thing? Well, not really. Were there any marriage traditions before Christ? Well, of course. So wouldn't it be better to speak of Biblical tradition? Perhaps.

But, most clerics know that this is a bit tricky, because most Biblical marriages bear little resemblance to contemporary white weddings so loved by modern Evangelicals. The institution of marriage around the world is so diverse as to be mind-boggling. One thing I can say that is universal – in nearly all cases, it is a heterosexual endeavor. In most every nation, state, province, principality, and humjungin' little backwater town, gay people are forbidden to marry. This is true in Hindu India, Buddhist Thailand, Communist China, tribal Africa, Catholic Brazil, and in many places in the red-white-and-blue USA. But for the moment, let's do what Americans do best – forget that the rest of the world exists, and concentrate on ourselves.

The thing that really gets the American Christian's goat is the sight of same-sex couples in full wedding regalia kissing right there on camera, in front of a majorly pissed-off God and an equally – if not even more – furious collection of screeching televangelists, Republicans, and little old ladies with large Bibles.

White weddings are – as they pompously proclaim – for straight people.

I have been hanging out with gay people for many years now, and have a point of comparison not afforded to Bobby Joe and Suzy Mae from Liberty Baptist Tabernacle of Wetumpka, Alabama. They are told that premarital sex is a sin and is absolutely forbidden. Theirs is to meet – date without touching lips or any other body parts. Then – with the grace of God and time – they have the big, expensive, elaborate white wedding with lots of flowers, draperies, and very ugly dresses for the bridesmaids ... and powder blue tuxedos (with ruffles) for the groom's entourage. Then, after all the folderol, finally, they get to enter the world of sexual bliss in a state of holy matrimony.

Looked at from the perspective of a shoe salesman, this is the dumbest thing in the world. ...Wait, let me get this straight (so to speak). The potential buyer gets to look at the shoes, but cannot touch or try them on for size. Then, he must buy the shoes. He pledges to wear that particular pair of shoes for the rest of his life. If they do not fit, too bad. He may not try on or wear any other shoes, ever. In fact, he cannot even think of or fantasize about another pair more to his liking.

Gay people – and gay men in particular – hold the opposite point of view. Hell, no! What? Buy the shoes without even trying them on? Buying them and then committing to wear them, and none others, forever? Who ever invented that idiocy?

Christians point to the Bible, but as usual, they would be wrong. The Bible prescribes no such doofy way to approach marriage. Given, it is still a heterosexual domain, but with a significant difference. Whereas Fundamentalist preachers shout, froth, and foam from pulpits across the nation, proclaiming that “marriage is between one man and one woman” ... they either are not reading their Bibles, are ignoring them, or are downright lying. I subscribe to the latter.

Much to the shock and chagrin of our holier-than-thou neighbors, friends, and families, the Mormons had it right in the first place! Monogamy is not the Biblical guideline for marriage ... polygamy is!

It is quite easy to check this out. In fact, it is so simple as to be no fun at all. Just google two words: Biblical polygamy. Oh hell, just go directly to Biblical and be done with it.

All the patriarchs of the Bible had multiple wives and mistresses, concubines, and all manner of sundry sexual outlets. It isn't even a challenge. So, next time you hear a preacher or preacher-wannabe go on about one man one woman, check to see if your own shoes are pinching...

20,000 Souls Straight to Hell

My retreat from faith was fueled by a horrifying discovery

My Skinny Little Mexican Wedding

The last will be first

Some years ago I read a shocking article that upset me a lot. I was serving as a Fundamentalist Protestant missionary in Hong Kong at the time. Most of my real mission work was in Mainland China, or related to the task of preaching the Christian Gospel to the teeming masses of lost and dying Chinese souls. The article was mainly about the death rate in the country and the problem of disposal of all those bodies. Seven million Chinese corpses a year had to be dealt with in one way or another.

I guess that I had never quite realized how many Chinese were passing into a Christless eternity annually. Seven million souls? Wow, that is the population of a whole country like Switzerland, Honduras, or Israel.

But, I couldn't grasp that without wondering … how many souls a day is that? I grabbed my handy dandy calculator, and it instantly told me that seven million divided by three hundred sixty-five days equals just over twenty thousand per day. I was colossally depressed.

The conflict that this bit of reality caused within my soul and my psyche was quite overwhelming. At first I didn't even know how to react to it. Thinking back now, I can't recall which emotions came first and which followed. But I was angry and disheartened at first. Then I became disillusioned, and finally resigned.

First of all, I was angry at God, whom I still somewhat believed in – at least in theory. All of my Bible-reading at the time was Old Testament fare, when I was coming to the conclusion that the God of the Bible was basically a maniacal monster. I really think I stepped over the line into disbelief at about that time. There was no epiphany by which I woke up with a start and said, “Hey, this whole God thing is just a pile of crap.” No, I eased myself into a new state of consciousness gradually and thoughtfully. My gradual transition from a rejection of the “God who is not there,” to outright hostility and fierce hatred of all things Christian, came on slowly over about a two-year journey of discovery. I opened my mind and was appalled with what I found once the denial was truly over.

My anger was not white-hot right away. I had to kind of grow into that. But the behavior of believers and clergy alike certainly kindled the fire. Disillusionment set in first. All the religious psychobabble that I had so wholeheartedly embraced when I was converted, began to ring hollow and almost mockingly in my ears. “How could I ever have bought any of this?” I asked myself introspectively. How could I have ever worshiped a deity who could casually condemn twenty thousand souls a day to eternal fire and everlasting suffering? And that's just in China, BTW.

I looked around and with true sadness observed that none of the Jesus People around me seemed the least bit aware of or much concerned about the myriad souls daily sliding down the divine garbage chute into the eternal lake of fire. Not only were the happy, comfortable, well-fed pew-sitters oblivious; the clergy, though certainly mindful of this theology of doom, were in a self-imposed denial. And, above all, the missionaries – those appointed to preach to these lost and dying unfortunates – were living lavish lives in the midst of spiritual poverty, allowing months and years to slide by without ever reaching out to those perishing around them. I was one of them and I was ashamed of myself and my fellow ministers. The whole charade came crashing down on me as I saw it all as a sort of divine scam. But, how could it be divinely inspired if the one designated as the creator of this cruel travesty was in fact not real at all? Who invented this horror show?

Well, I didn't really need to think beyond this point. Once I accepted that not only was the “Judeo-Christian” deity named Yahweh, Jehovah, or plain old “God,” nonexistent, but millions of his followers were likewise totally deluded to boot, I had to jump off this ship of fools. And I did. To quote an old hymn, I “launched out into the deep and let the shoreline go.” That was over thirty years ago now, and guess what? I don't regret my decision for a minute.

Somewhere under the Rainbow

...or (better yet) ...somewhere under the RADAR

The rainbow gets a real cool role in the Bible! It is a symbol that the Almighty gave to mankind after killing everybody on the planet with the famous deluge known as “The Genesis Flood.” Yahweh, the sky god of the Hebrews, kills everything alive with breath in its nostrils; but after assessing the damage, he gets all puddled up, and – in his own private little pity party – declares that he will never do it again.

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life."
(Genesis 9: 12-15). Yea! I say. I say Yea! :-)

For years Christians had taken this symbol for granted. It more or less belonged to them, as it came right from the Bible itself. But then, while they weren't looking, someone stole their symbol right from under their uplifted noses and made it their own. And who could that possibly be? OMG, no! The hated queers, the “perverts,” the fags. The most horrible and despicable people on God's green Earth were suddenly waving rainbow flags all over the place, and wearing them on their lapels, their T-shirts, and their jock-straps. What is the world coming to?

What indeed? As one who has lived through this amazing time when Bible-believing Christians have finally had enough of the world sliding into a satanic abyss, I have watched with total awe how their much-touted Christian love has turned into vehement hatred and mindless belly-aching. Another Evangelical Christian lament that I heard for the first time many years ago was their loss of the word “gay” ... another term hijacked by the homosexual hoards. I recall sitting in a prayer meeting once when a portly woman – with snow-white hair sprayed stiff and piled high – stood up and whined that we all could no longer sing of donning our “gay apparel” at Christmas anymore. Imagine that! Just imagine. Those sexual monsters had swiped a perfectly good word and polluted it, making it into a symbol of their own depravity. Tisk tisk tisk.

Now, when I watch the righteous folks of the religious right marching and chanting, spewing hatred and exclusion, I chuckle a bit to myself. They had better watch out lest we steal the old rugged cross next! LOL

Who’s Afraid?

Of the Big Bad Devil?

Go to hell! That's a curse or a command, depending on who is saying it and in which language. Nevertheless, it is a fairly universal rejoinder when a person runs out of intelligent things to say. I've been cursed with that expression many times ... and guess what? I never have taken it very seriously.

Horns and hoofs, fire and brimstone, eternal damnation... Who invented this? Does anybody really believe this? Well, yes – millions of people around the world not only believe that there is a real Devil, but fear him in a most petrified way!

“Literal burning hell” is a phrase often used by Fundamentalist Christians (both Roman Catholic and Protestant), as well as millions of Muslims. It is a theological term that defines their belief in the notion that anyone who does not believe as they do, at his or her death, will be immediately condemned to an eternal, neverending, searing punishment for their disbelief.

This back-at-ya philosophy is a New Testament construct. The Old Testament has none of it – save for exactly two references to “Satan” by name, and a few other allusions to an “adversary” who may or may not be the exact same personality as the character in the New Testament. The fightin' Fundies point right to the Garden of Eden story to prove that Satan was right there in the beginning, tempting and beguiling mankind to disobey God.

Act One:

When the adversary character first makes the scene onstage in the Genesis account, it is in chapter three. He is called “the Serpent.” The omnipotent God had created the Heavens and the Earth, plant life, wild animals and livestock, one man and one woman, in the first two chapters. Then the omniscient God didn't know if the pair really loved him; so, in order to determine whether or not they did, he put them to the test. He placed a magic tree right in the middle of the Garden, and forbade them to touch it or eat its fruit.

Well, as the Bible says:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?” She replied: “We must not eat from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, for if we touch it we will die.”
(Genesis 3:1-3)

Whereupon, the Serpent croons to the woman: “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good from evil.” (Gen. 3:4,5). Well, you know how the story goes. The omniscient God finds out what happened and blows a gasket. Then the cursing begins. He curses the Serpent first. (Note: The Serpent was not a conventional snake prior to this – he/it was more akin to some kind of a wild animal. And certainly not a personage resembling President Barack Obama, as depicted by the History Channel's hokey miniseries entitled The Bible).

God's curse on the Serpent is: “Cursed are you above all livestock and all the wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.” (Gen. 3:14). Now the Serpent becomes a snake.

Then God curses the woman thusly: “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children.” (Gen. 3:16). Next comes the first sexist put-down in the Bible... “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” (Gen. 3:16).

But it's not over! Then God curses the Earth! Fundamentalists have a decided contempt for our planet. It is cursed by God. They refer to it as “God's footstool,” a miserable place that is all going to burn some day – so why take care of it? He notifies Adam: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.” (Gen. 3:17).

End of Act One

Act Two:

The next time Satan appears as an actor in the grand Biblical play, it is in the book of Job, about halfway through the Old Testament, but totally out of sequence. This time, however, he is not a serpent or a snake. He is a personage in the company of angels right in the very presence of God Almighty. Call it a prequel. Sort of like in Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. Act two presumably occurs chronologically, way before Genesis, Adam and Eve, and the scene in the Garden of Eden. It is set in Heaven. Satan is a fabulously beautiful angel, even outshining God himself. Well, he thinks so anyway.

Our Fundamentalist friends and relatives constantly refer to Job when they encounter difficulties in their own lives. This story makes a big impression on people who fear their god. At any time God may be sitting up there in Heaven, and, for all they know, Satan is probably taunting him by saying something like: “Well, look down there ... see that pious woman, Margaret McMillan, there in Cincinnati. She is just dripping with righteousness. I'll bet if you killed her son in a car crash, she would fall apart and curse you! In fact, she would probably go out and get drunk, become an alcoholic, lose her job and her house, and end up killing herself!”

I can't even begin to recall all the “testimonies” I have heard from Christian Fundamentalist Believers over the years, who stand up in church services and say: “Pray for me. God has sent all sorts of trials and tribulations into my life, and I just don't know how much more I can stand. Satan is really trying to get me to fall away and deny God.”

Well, get this... In the entire forty-two grindingly long chapters of the "Book of Job," Satan gets a grand total of six verses! Six... The famous trials of Job began as a wager between God and the beautiful angel, Satan. He challenges God. Here is his cameo performance from Job chapter one:

One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came with them. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”

Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it.”

Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”

“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything that he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, and that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”

The Lord said to Satan, “Very well then, everything he has is in your hands, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.” Then Satan went out from the presence of the lord. (Job 1:6-12).

So, the curtain falls on Act Two, Scene One. Satan just up and leaves God sitting there. So, did Satan do anything to Job? Hell no! He didn't get a chance. From that moment on it is God's show all the way.

The book of Job grinds through thirty-five chapters of God's inflicted sufferings. All his family dies, all his flocks and herds are likewise killed by God. He is infected with festering boils and hemorrhoids. He is a real mess, but hangs in there. Three “friends” stop by and, seeing his misery, proclaim that it is obvious that he has offended God somehow. Job sticks to his guns. But finally, by chapter thirty-seven, he gives up on God, concluding that “the Almighty is beyond our reach...” (Job 37:23).

One of the biggest all-time questions that Christians ask is: Why do the righteous suffer? Actually, it is asked by all men and women throughout the ages – everywhere. Why does anyone have to suffer, righteous or not? The answer is that it is arbitrary and random. There is no rhyme or reason to life. It is a crapshoot.

He didn't actually curse God as Satan had predicted ... but this was enough to put God's knickers in a twist. He was pissed that his dear “servant” Job pooped out. Like a Deist, Job just concludes that God is distant – out there somewhere – and just ignores us if he wants – doesn't waste his time on our prayers, and only notices us when we don't worship him properly.

Then, God really loses it. He gets all wound up. He rants and raves, he hoots and howls. He snorts and blows. Reminiscent of the famous scene when Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion are quivering and quaking in front of the great and powerful Oz, Job turns into a wobbling mass of jello.

God roars at Job for four whole chapters, until poor Job throws himself onto a bed of nails, and bleats: “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6). Obviously, Job learned a valuable lesson that all Fundamentalists strive to maintain in their minds constantly: God is sovereign. He is in charge, and can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and to whomever he wants at any time. It's all God's show, and poor Satan doesn't even get to take a bow before the curtain comes down.

End of Act Two

Intermission: Satan, AKA the Devil, doesn't get another mention in the Old Testament. So take a breather. The New Testament is about to begin.

Act Three:

Well, act three is kind of different compared to the first two acts. In act one, the Serpent actually did his deception thing, causing the man and woman to “sin” by eating fruit in disobedience to God. In act two, Satan didn't even have a chance to do anything but bet God that Job would crumble – which he did ... sort of. In act three, scene one, Satan rates a grand total of twelve whole verses! Wow, I'm so unimpressed.

Anyway, the scene is the Judaean Desert. Jesus is up on a mountain fasting for forty days. He is hungry. Obviously. The Devil arrives stage left, and says: “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone.’” (Luke 4:3,4). That attempt at temptation was a flop, so... The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if you worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered, “It is written: Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.” (Luke 4:5-8). What a put-down! Satan didn't even get to square one. So Jesus simply dismisses him. When the devil had finished all his tempting, he left him until an opportune time. (Luke 4:13).

Well, finally! Act three, scene two. The aforementioned “opportune time” arrives, and Satan gets to go out onstage and really razzle-dazzle 'em! The scene is the “End Times.” Christians have been calling every day, month, and year, for over two thousand years now, the "End Times." We have been warned of the calamitous end of the Earth as we know it since the Apostle John wrote his nightmare vision entitled "Revelation."

Our friends, the Fundamentalists, are convinced that we all are unable to avoid that Satan-inspired performance. And they are all gleefully waiting for it. They assure us that we won't be happy campers – but they will! After all, they have a fire insurance policy.

But, once again, it really isn't Satan causing all the mayhem to come. Satan is, per usual, just an onlooker in God's play – a sort of walk-on performance. It is God and his son Jesus who get to kill one fourth of humanity “by the sword” ... send famine and plague and wild beasts up on the Earth. Likewise, they are responsible for turning the sun black and the moon to blood, and sending hail and fire mixed with blood, as well as burning up a third of all the trees and grass, drying up the oceans, and turning a third of all the stars black. And that ain't the half of it – but you get the picture.

End of Act Three

Poor ol’ Satan. He really wants to be a badass, but every time he tries to do something really diabolical, God beats him to the punch and does it for him – and way bigger and better. All in all, I have to say that Satan just doesn't seem very scary to me. Okay, he talked Adam and Eve into taking a bite of the forbidden fruit ... but who did all the cursing? And he questioned Job's piety ... but who tortured the poor guy into near insanity? When he attempted to entice Jesus with a few kingdoms here and there, he was rebuffed.

So why are the Fundies so paranoid? At this point, Satan has merely been allowed to tempt and deceive. He is sort of a cynical character who thinks he is smarter and better-looking than God, and is sort of out to rain on his parade.

In any case, our Fundamentalist neighbors, friends, relatives, and civil servants are all living in fear. They fear Satan because he can tempt and beguile them. But mostly they fear their God, whom they are genuinely afraid of because it is he who can actually condemn them to frizzle and fry forever ... and ever.


Moral Evaluations

It is difficult to pick up a newspaper or tune a popular Television talk show in today without confronting the issue of homosexuality. It is not the only issue of our time that gets such a great deal of press, but it obviously gets the most. Other than abortion, there is no other issue that creates such a firestorm right before our very eyes. Ratings are ratings, and the producers of open forum style programs – and call-in types as well – have found a topic which always ensures fireworks.

The formula is this: Take a couple of homosexual people of almost any description, and pit them against a wild-eyed Fundamentalist preacher – preferably from the South. Like throwing cats and dogs into the same cage ... war ensues. The audience is immediately polarized, and they clap or boo appropriately. The issue at hand can be anything from domestic partners to free sex in public parks. The result is the same. The gays claim that they deserve constitutional guarantees to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Their lifestyle, they say, is an extension of this pursuit.

"Immoral," the Fundamentalists claim. Because the lifestyles of their adversaries are against nature and God’s plan, they are not entitled to the abovementioned guarantees. Nor should public funds or privileges be extended to them in any way that might imply approval of this deviant lifestyle.

The first position can be referred to as the “traditional position” – that is the position of longstanding acceptance in both Catholic and some Protestant churches. This position holds that all homosexual acts are always and intrinsically disordered and evil because by their own nature they contradict the design of creation and are expressly forbidden by God.

First, it is pointed out that by the very structure of the anatomy of the male and female, same-sex relationships are impossible because there exists no possibility for reproduction. This point is well taken. If one views the sex act as for one purpose only – and that purpose is for having babies – they are correct in pointing out that homosexuals are incapable of reproducing (by having sex, that is). Actually, thanks to artificial insemination and surrogacy, gays and lesbians are nowadays choosing to have children when they want them.

So, they claim, without the possibility to procreate love is not possible. The whole notion of sex is that it is an extension of love – first for God and then for the sexual partner. This union is a sacred act, reserved for those who unite their bodies to become one flesh, forsaking all others till death ... you know the line. The union is holy and ordained by God, and symbolizes God’s union with his bride – the church. I don’t mean to go off into Christian symbolism here, but it’s necessary in order to fully grasp the traditional position.

This is an extreme position, and in modern times has rather fallen out of favor on a broad basis, because the procreation issue is at the heart of it all. In the book of Genesis, it is stated that God spoke, saying: “Be fruitful and multiply.” Mankind has done quite well following this instruction, having hopelessly overpopulated the Earth already. The traditional position states that no union that lacks procreative possibility is permissible. Did you get that? Rephrased, it means that no sex, homosexual or heterosexual or neutral, is admissible unless there exists a possibility to produce offspring, as that is the original and basic purpose for sex in the first place. Sex is for reproducing, and that alone.

I think I understand the traditional position fairly well. This idea that sex is for reproduction – and that without the possibility for reproduction, it should not be entered into (so to speak) – is a longstanding belief and practice of the Catholic Church. Sex is not to be had just for the sake of sex. Sex has a purpose instructed by God. That purpose is to "procreate." I find that word a bit dated and curious. I prefer the word the gay people use: “breed.” Sex is for breeding and for no other purpose.

Any sex at all that does not involve breeding is illegal and immoral! Let’s think about this. The first thing that comes to my mind is ovulation. Having been married to a woman, I understand that in a female’s monthly cycle, there are only about four days in which fertilization is possible at all. Before and after ovulation, procreation is impossible. Until this was broadly understood, perhaps unlimited sex between heterosexual partners could fly under the general banner of procreative possibility. But, since we now know that before, during, and after menstruation, no conception can take place, is having sex during that infertile period not immoral since no possibility of procreation exists?

Another type of sex which by this position is strictly forbidden and immoral is masturbation. Obviously, there exists no procreative possibility whatsoever when a person manipulates his or her own genitals strictly because it feels good. One time years ago I attended a Christian conference where the single males were treated to a sex seminar in the afternoons. The speaker, a now well-known Christian sex counselor, began his presentation by asking for a show of hands of all those who masturbated. Out of a hundred guys there was not a soul who raised his hand. Many red faces reflected the bewilderment we were feeling. Why was he asking such a personal question, and who would possibly raise his hand? “Statistics show,” he proceeded, “that ninety-six percent of all single males masturbate!” A brief pause. “And four percent are liars!” We all laughed. We were off the hook. In the years since then, I have from time to time asked friends who attended Catholic schools, about their masturbation stories – horror stories, I should call them. Sex without the possibility of procreation is illegal, immoral, depraved, and sinful. It is a mortal sin. Catholic theology 101.

This first position is probably the most indefensible in light of modern rationality and current attitudes toward sex. From a homosexual point of view, it isn’t worth getting too stewed up over this position as it is so narrow in its definition and scope that everybody gets painted with the same brush sooner or later anyway. The actual possibility of complying with this narrow view of sex is equally difficult for everybody. That is perhaps why the second position is far more widely believed and popular.

I will call the second position the “fundamental position,” as it is based on several fundamental assumptions. It insists that sex and love are by nature and definition an institution established by God for similar reasons and purposes as the first position holds, but with a significant difference: The sex is not only reserved for the express purpose of procreation, but is likewise designed for pleasure. Sex is viewed more as a “gift” from God and as a symbolic union of two loving human beings who become one flesh, likewise pointing to God’s love for the church – the “body of Christ.”

This fundamental view is, in one form or another, the model for Christian marriages of nearly every stripe. By far the broadest and most generally accepted view, it opens the door to sex as an expression of love, a blessing of life, and a holy gift reserved exclusively for two individuals whose union is both established by God and will glorify God in its consummation. I don’t have to go on and on about this. Any bookstore has a religion section filled with books extolling the virtues of blessed Christian marriage. In fact, there are a glut of books written on the subject. Any pastor or priest could easily and extemporaneously expound for an hour about this most holy of human institutions.

Well, strip away the angels and doves hovering above the organ processional, white wedding dress, and rice ... and what do you have? I say we have a problem. How so? The Christian marriage institution is exclusive. No union but one with the express purpose of uniting in the will of God, to glorify him and to procreate, is admissible. Of course, this totally excludes any and all homosexual unions, as they are from this point of view impossible. “God created Adam and Eve. He didn’t create Adam and Steve,” the Christian cliché proclaims. Evangelical Christians love clichés because they reduce complicated issues to simple and easily spouted one-liners like that one. But I am always for scratching a bit further beneath the surface.

Like the traditional view, the fundamental also appeals to anatomy as its first argument: “Two persons of the same sex cannot love each other.” I heard a preacher say on national television the other night: “It is impossible. We (humans) aren’t made that way!” The crowd cheered. The belief that two persons cannot really feel romantic love without one penis and one vagina may satisfy that simpleminded, loudmouthed preacher from New Jersey, but it does not at all convince me. After all, I have more experience than he does. I wonder how he knows what is inside the hearts of people, that he can judge who can and who cannot feel love.

The fundamental view also expressly forbids homosexuality in any form. Beyond the natural/anatomical argument, which is conclusive enough proof for them, God expressly forbids it. In fact, the Bible specifies the death penalty for homosexual acts. If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads. (Leviticus 20:13). I have noted with a certain amount of curiosity that this issue of capital punishment has not yet been fought out on the carpeted stages of modern American TV talk show! However, God’s penchant for capital punishment extends so far beyond homosexuality ... if one reads the entire chapter of Leviticus 20, they conclude that no one would be left alive.

The problem I see for the fundamental view is beyond just condemning homosexual unions or homosexual sex out-of-hand, but condemning any non-Christian sex or non-Christian union as well. Let us take the example of a nonbelieving heterosexual couple. Their union may well be loving, but is has nothing whatsoever to do with God. In fact, perhaps they despise the very notion of all deities. The purpose of their union is certainly not to glorify God. Likewise, it may or may not be to procreate. It may even be hostile to the Christian God. The question is not a new one, but is one that should be brought up when Christians limit the institution of marriage to people only like themselves.

I recall a particularly moving scene from the film, Ghandi... While still a young lawyer in South Africa, Ghandi had a chance to address this point. The government had at some point formalized the institution of marriage, defining it in very British terms. Only Christian marriages were recognized. I am sure that modern Christian American churchgoers who saw the film totally missed the connection. But, as Ghandi so correctly pointed out to a crowd of hundreds of Hindu and Muslim gentlemen, “Therefore, every Hindu wife is a whore, and every Muslim child a bastard!” I can still recall the outrage. I felt the same outrage. As an outside, I could likewise identify.

We tend to be so introspective when we deal with moral issues, forgetting that when we make broad sweeping statements, they must apply universally. Japan is a nation of something like 130 million people. Less than one percent are Christian. The overwhelming majority of Japanese couples who marry do so with no thought of the Christian god whatsoever; nor of living to glorify him; nor do they give a damn about the Bible or what it allows or forbids. So, are their marriages legitimate or not? They do not at all fit the Biblical model. Likewise, China has a population of over a billion. Even with a strict birth control program, millions and millions of Chinese babies are born every year. Are these children really illegitimate? According to the Christian ideal, their parents were just having sex for the sake of sex, albeit in a married framework. But, without any thought of God whatsoever, are they really no better than cattle reproducing?

Some Christians I have talked to about this say yes. Without God and the Biblical idea, those millions are no different than animals rutting. In their Christian American eyes, all Japanese women are whores, and all Chinese children are bastards. Like the homosexuals, they cannot really experience love or purpose outside of Christ and a Christian marriage. One ingredient is missing in the magic formula for perfect union . . . Christ

On the other hand, many other Christians I have spoken with about this are not so sure. How could a Buddhist or Hindu wedding be totally illegitimate? But keep scratching. What about a civil ceremony in Godless communist China or Viet Nam or Cuba? What if the man and wife are Marxists and hate Christianity, considering it a sickening foreign burden of enslavement from the past, and openly show their contempt for the Christian god and religion? Is their marriage legitimate? Is any civil wedding legitimate? If it is answered no, the whore and bastard argument follow. If they say yes, then they are saying that marriages outside of God’s ideal are permissible! Well then, that opens up a whole new possibility, and brings us to our third consideration. I call it the “tolerant position.”

The “tolerant position” is a sort of compromise. Christians hate compromise, as do most people with a firm set of values – no matter how warped. Nevertheless, a large number of modern American Christians are confronted with the abovementioned problem relating to sex and marriage. The ideal, they say, is the Christian union. It has all of the ingredients. It is ordained by God Almighty, and entered into by two fulfilled and loving heterosexual people who marry for the express purpose of glorifying God in their lives, and expressing a love for each other through a sexual union which results in the creation of children who likewise are brought up in the “fear and admonition of the Lord.”

On the other hand, they are confronted with a huge world out there that does not at all share their values. Most Fundamentalists I know, when presented with this problem, would probably opt for position number two despite the obvious outrage it would mean to the rest of the peoples of the world. They know, as I do, that it would be easier for them to suffer the slings and arrows of the masses and millions far away than to face the obvious next step that logically follows ... tolerance, compromise.

Compromise is not a word in the Fundamentalist Christian vocabulary. It is, however, coming into fashion amongst some of Christendom’s more enlightened denominations. Our newspapers, news magazines, and commentaries are full of discussion about the bubbling, boiling issue of homosexuality, homosexual relationships, and gay clergymen (and women). The third position is more or less “under consideration” at the moment by the Presbyterians, Episcopals, Lutherans, and Methodists. It could be said that this is the leading edge of progress toward a Christian understanding of and with homosexual people. But it is a dull edge indeed.

The problem for Christians of almost every stripe is that they hate to be forced into a corner by their doctrine, and then challenged to take a stand. So most (I think) at this juncture, want to find a middle ground somewhere between position two and position three, and hide out there with their heads in the sand, wailing: “Don’t ask such hard questions! I know what is right and what is wrong! I don’t know how I know. I just do! Now go away.” Well, I think the handwriting is on the wall. The homosexuals are not going to go away.

Due to the fact that most human governments that I know of acknowledge heterosexual marriage as legitimate, Christians can fall back on the secular institution of government and hide behind that shield, even though they may realize that a civil union in a totally non-Christian environment is less than perfect in terms of a Christian definition of what an ideal marriage should be. It is not a “real marriage” since it has nothing whatsoever to do with Christ; but it is recognized by the government, so it is a real marriage, in fact. Homosexual unions might have potential for achieving Christian perfection, but are – even in secular terms – illegal! That proves it. Of course. But when their government passes laws which they think unfair, like banning imposed school prayer and legalizing abortion, they are the first to cry foul.

The Protestant denominations that are now beginning to grapple with the difficult problem of homosexuality, are starting to come to terms with some of the problems that have brought us to this point. I doubt that this can be simplified enough to be accepted by the laity in these churches yet, but, obviously, some of the clergy are sorting it all out.

The third position is one put forth by “liberal” Christian thinkers and theologians. Alas, Fundamentalist Evangelical Christians consider these squishy, fuzzy thinkers as not "real" Christians anyway. Those avant-garde Presbyterians and Episcopalians, who are now discussing the possibility of homosexuals as full-fledged human beings and full-fledged Christians, are indeed turning over new ground. This cutting-edge concept is based on the new and more scientifically provable notion that homosexuality is a genetic predisposition. If this is the case, the person him or herself is not evil or immoral as the Fundamentalists claim. So a homosexual couple who choose to follow Christ, live the Christian life, and glorify God, have at least one of the ingredients for a happy Christian union; and like the straight Chinese or Japanese couple, may not have it all, but have a part. If Christians acknowledge totally non-Christian marriages solely because they are sanctioned by a secular government, though these marriages are in direct contradiction to what they believe from the scripture, how can they deny their own Christian brothers and sisters consideration for a union based likewise on only part of the ideal? Can there be compromise? At the moment, the answer is still no.

I think this dilemma will swirl around the Christian denominations for years to come, and may be the undoing of a few. But, meanwhile, the Fundamentalists hold firm to the Biblical position that homosexual sex is illegal and immoral (but few call for the death penalty). So then, what of the fourth position? What of those who not only are homosexual and live an exclusively homosexual lifestyle, but who likewise find nothing of any meaning in Christianity? This is the fourth and most radical position. It has been referred to as revolutionary because it represents an overturning of society’s position on the whole issue.

The total antithesis of the first position, it is in fact more the opposite of revolutionary. I call this the “neutral position,” as it regards sex as morally neutral. All sexual acts are natural, and none is more or less right than another. Homosexual attraction is as natural and unambiguous as heterosexual attraction and desire. There are, it is argued, no moral limitations on sex of any kind beyond the sole norm of non-coercion. Homosexual acts are no more problematic than heterosexual ones morally, and neither form of sexual expression need concern itself with anything other than the free consent of the sexual partners and the avoidance of undesirable and unwanted consequences. While many modern secular humanists find themselves in this position, it is as radical as the first one in an odd sort of way. Of course, this position is indefensible on Christian grounds. However, few, if any people, holding to this view would consider themselves Christian in any case; so like the Japanese, the Chinese, and the rest of the world, they say “Who cares?”

Whereas a lot of Christians find themselves wedged between position two and position three, a lot of homosexuals find themselves struggling between position three and position four! Whereas many modern Christians want to reach out to gay people around them and “save” them, many gay people are not from church backgrounds and want to be “saved.” Unfortunately, two problems prevent them from getting together. First of all, the Christian is absolutely convinced that he is right and that the homosexual must change. The homosexual is equally convinced that change is impossible and that the Church must change! The people who finally end up in group four are not all homosexuals, but, rather, everyone who divorces sex and marriage from any religious form whatsoever.

Marriage is a personal thing between two people. (Any two people.) Marriage has nothing to do with a god (any gods or goddesses). Sex is a biological reality, and it is fun. There is no divine plan, no “matches made in heaven” or "till death do us part." Those who take the fourth position are much closer to the first than one may think. The first is adamant: It is all or nothing at all. (A well-worn Christian cliché.) Those in position four would agree. They choose nothing at all. Rejecting any religious dogma governing their sex lives, these people are considered “promiscuous.” That word still carries a negative connotation to most everyone in the other three categories. Promiscuity is bad. It is evil. It is against God and nature. The Christian abhors this position because it represents total denial of everything he believes in. If you take all the religious restraints out of sex, where does it stop? That is always the inevitable question. Where does it stop? Those in group four might ask: “Why should it stop?” Whose business is it anyway?

The shrill cries against the fourth position come from the realization that it is, in effect, a repudiation of what the other three – to one degree or another – believe in. Sex is not a moral issue. It is not a social issue. It is a private and personal issue. It is a matter of personal satisfaction, and is solely of personal taste and consequence – as in masturbation – or of interpersonal preference and mutual agreement. The conduct of one’s sexual affairs and life are of no concern to society as long as one extends the same courtesy to others. Mind your own business!

The critics claim that such a position relegates sex to a position no higher than that of animals. Perhaps that is so, but who says animal sex is inferior to human sex? That logic as based on the Biblical notion that God created man to rule over the animals and to subdue them and the Earth. It has long been pointed out that this Biblical instruction to consider the animals as inferior and to be dominated, has led to all manner of crimes against the environment, for which we are all now paying. Who says the animals don’t have the right attitude toward sex, and that we humans haven't organized it and institutionalized it to the point where it is no longer natural at all?

I have often noted that those who criticize this position the most loudly are those with the least experience and right to do so. Without any societal form or structure to the act of sex and union itself, they claim, the whole culture would collapse in utter chaos. Well, obviously this is not so. After all, not everyone in our society is promiscuous. Not everyone is having wild passionate sex with as many partners as are to be found willing. Not everyone in our society will totally abandon the rules and regulations held so dear for so long. There will always be those who say sex is only for them and their kind, and that all other sex is illegal, immoral, and unnatural. But who really cares what they say?

The Narrow Gate

I converted to Christianity in the sixties. Totally out of step with my generation – instead of growing my hair long, wearing beads and flowers, and experimenting with free love and drugs – I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior. Like most youth of my postwar baby boom generation, I had never read the Bible beyond a cursory glance. My first encounter with the Bible was with the New Testament, and it revolutionized my life.

Totally amazed with what I discovered in its pages, I formed some very firm and – I think – correct ideas about the basic message of the Gospel. Whenever I reread the four Gospels, I am again and again impressed by their simplicity. And whenever I observe others who claim to be Christian behaving in a manner that I find in direct conflict with the spirit of the message, I shudder.

The first notion that stands out as a foundational idea in the New Testament is that Jesus was carving out of Judaism a new and different way of looking at the world. He made revolutionary statements that set the religious order of his day on its ear. I am sure he knew that it would not be easy for most people to accept the new idea and live it. For that reason, I’m sure, comes one of my favorite verses of scripture: Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matthew 7:13-14, NIV). This is a verse well known to born-again Christians. The narrow way is a term that I learned early, and which sticks with me to this day despite the fact that I am no longer a believer. Jesus, it seems, never intended to found a universal religion. He founded an exclusive club. The club was reserved only for those willing to enter by the narrow gate and follow the narrow road. The symbolism has never been much in dispute that I know of. Jesus refers to himself as the gate, the door (John 7:9), and the road – the way (Jn. 14:6).

The narrowness of the entry and the difficulty of the path is the hallmark of the religion. It is restrictive. One must be willing to, first, enter by means of Jesus – the only way, as there is only one door. Jesus said: I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me. (Jn 14:6). Secondly, one must be willing to keep on the path, which itself is quite narrow and confining. There is a great deal of debate in Christian circles as to just how narrow the path actually is! But that is an internal debate, and should not have to do with those who choose the wide gate and the wide road which leads to “destruction.” However, unfortunately, it does. And, as one who has found his way off the narrow road and is now happily on the broad one, I resent having those on the narrow road call over the fence to us on the broad road, telling us that we must behave as they do.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I do not resent the narrow roaders calling over and telling me how wonderful the narrow road is. Nor do I resent them calling over and extolling me to join them by entering through the narrow gate and resuming my journey on the narrow path with them. What I do resent is them telling me and my fellows that we are obliged to behave as they do even while we are on the broad road!

Those who are called to follow the narrow road are obliged to try to persuade those of us on the broad road to reconsider our direction, as it surely leads to destruction. I have no problem with this. This is the warp and woof of the Christian religion. It is a missionary religion, and one cannot practice it fully without himself being a missionary of one type or another. Many things bother me about Christians and Christianity, but missionary work is not one of them. I believe in freedom of religion and freedom to practice one’s religion. The proclamation of Jesus to: Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation (Mark 16:15), is a fundamental aspect of the practice of the Christian religion. It is in fact referred to as “the Great Commission.” By preaching and exhorting me to come over to their side, they are fulfilling one of the very important tenets of their religion. However, that is where it stops. In no place does Jesus demand more of his followers than for them to exhort us to change our direction. They are not responsible for us if we choose to continue on to our destruction. As a nonbeliever, it is my responsibility to heed their warnings or to ignore them. Fair enough.

This system works for me. This is how I understood it when I first became familiar with the teachings of the Gospels. In fact, I recall a particular verse where Jesus makes it abundantly clear that his followers are not responsible if the doomed do not heed their warnings. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. (Matthew 10:14). This absolves the believer from any responsibility for a bad choice on the part of the hearer of the message, if she or he chooses to reject it.

Much ado is made of this command of Jesus to preach the gospel or “good news” to what the Christians refer to as a “lost and dying world.” Truly, it is a command that no Christian I know of would dispute. The Christians even have a specific term for the act of preaching and exhorting nonbelievers to change paths. It is called “witnessing.” It is rather queer indeed to use the word witness as a verb in that way; but in "born-again" parlance, it is perfectly understandable. Actually, it was originally "to give witness" or "bear witness." But you get the drift. Most Christians consider witnessing sort of like pulling teeth or cleaning out the refrigerator. It is a necessary but unpleasant task. I know this is true. When I was a Christian, I was a faithful and obligated witness for Christ. I know how difficult witnessing is, as it requires that one attempt to persuade another person to change his thinking. We all know how difficult it is to cause another person to change his or her mind. It is doubly hard when a load of other baggage comes along with the change!

An expression often used in the act of witnessing is "to lead someone to Christ." I had quite a bit of experience in this for many years. Those who are successful in leading nonbelievers onto the narrow path are lauded and praised, as it is no easy matter. Their theology says that their friends and neighbors around them are bound for hell, on that wide and well-trodden road, and that they are responsible to at least try to get them to come over to that blessed narrow path. Fortunately, for those who are not so articulate, persuasive, or bold, Jesus gave them a sort of Plan B. You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden... Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-15). Let your light shine before men. Set an example! Jesus commanded his followers to be shining examples to the world around them. I guess Jesus sort of knew that most people are not very good at witnessing, so he gave an alternative to those who are too timid, wishy-washy, or ill-at-ease – to witness verbally to the lost and dying world.

I have less of a problem with this notion now than I did when I was a Christian. During my early years as a very idealistic convert, I just couldn’t imagine anyone who claimed to be a Christian not preaching it loud and clear, far and wide. “Look around you,” I berated my wimpy Christian brethren. “Everywhere you look – all over the place – people are dying and going into a Christless eternity – into a fiery burning hell. We have to warn them. To do otherwise would be heinous.” I believed it with all my heart, and was furious when so many called up Plan B. “I realize that I don’t witness as much as you do, but I witness with my life,” was the defensive reply. “I am letting my light shine!”

It always bothered me that they could let themselves off the hook so easily. But now I think perhaps they did have something of a point after all. My preaching and cajoling and warning only got me into endless fights and disputes with just about everybody around me. I was under constant pressure and constant observation, lest I not live up to some perceived standard. And when I fell short, I was castigated and denounced as a hypocrite. After many years, many arguments, and many frustrations I concluded that perhaps Plan B was alright after all. So I joined the ranks of the “I am witnessing with my life” crew. I will admit, it made life a lot simpler.

Then the world began to change. The narrow gate and the narrow path began broadening. Around 1972, I remember reading about the “Jesus Movement” in California. I was living in Europe at that time, and working for a well-known Fundamentalist parachurch organization called Teen Challenge. I actually felt a bit of contempt for what I considered cheap California religion. All these leftover hippy types were now discovering Jesus, and dashing off to be baptized in the ocean, and singing spiritual songs around campfires, and coming to Europe to “evangelize” at the Olympics which were being held in Munich that year. It was a joke to me. The world was not ready for any of it, and it was a gross waste of money; but the young converts had one thing that I never had when I was converted: numbers! There were thousands of them, and as a result, they never felt the isolation of walking that narrow path alone and feeling defensive and outnumbered. They had a “support group” which began growing and growing. A few years later, when I was visiting the United States, I caught a whiff of things to come. I visited my first superchurches in Texas and California. I was impressed! I welcomed the idea that for the first time in my memory Christians were going to have some clout. I was so tired of the narrow way. I wanted a steamroller to blast the path ever wider, and to be able to yell over to the broad road that leads to destruction...

“You stupid people didn’t listen to me before. Now look! See! I am not the only one. There are thousands like me. We are going to kick your asses! I remember that time very well. It was a heady time. We felt strong and defiant. The “world” was not going to kick Christians around anymore. By God, we didn’t have to take shit off anybody. After all, we were “King’s kids,” and God was beginning a “mighty work." He was raising up a “mighty army,” and we were “more than conquerors.” Our God reigns. Our God reigns! It was exhilarating! Everyone was high on Jesus.

Swept up in the ever-increasing Christian juggernaut, I too wanted to kick some ass. I still remembered the days when I was ridiculed for being a Christian, criticized for being a “holy roller,” and ignored as a fanatic. Now, all of a sudden, we were respectable. We were fashionable. We had clout! I liked it! It felt good. Christians began standing up against political injustices. We began exerting ourselves with our numbers. We began seeing our potential! Screw the narrow way. I liked this path. It was big, it was broad, and it was defiant! Our God reigns. Our God reigns.

Perhaps the thing that piqued my conscience first was the fact that I was not living in the United States. I had left America in 1968 and years later, I was still a visitor – an observer in this country. I came back from time to time, observed ... but went back overseas again and again. I think 1980 was a turning point. The rising tide of Americanism began to spew ugly mutant offspring. Hyper-Christianity was the most obvious of these. Blatant, militant Christians began dominating the religious community. Television Evangelists began pumping their overwhelmingly jingoistic American programs onto stations all over the world. I began feeling sick. I felt the American nationalistic propaganda was hopelessly inappropriate for the overseas market, but I was still quite dedicated to the idea of a strong Christian movement in the United States.

Then the Christian programs began. Once the Christians found a political home on the Republican Far-Right, they were positioned to push for more clout and political power. I remember having a discussion with an Assembly of God missionary colleague of mine. He was from Georgia. Jimmy Carter was from Georgia, so I assumed he would like Carter. As it turned out, he didn’t have the time of day for Carter. I was amazed. “Why?” I asked. “He is a Christian! A Baptist!” Carter sort of formalized most of my religious feelings. He was a good man, a caring man, a real Christian politician.

“Just being Christian doesn’t qualify one to be the President of the United States,” my friend retorted. I asked him if he actually thought Ronald Reagan was born-again, and he laughed! We knew full well that Reagan was an actor, and that his religion was only skin-deep. "How then, can you support Reagan over Carter?” I asked incredulously.

“Reagan has balls!” he proclaimed. So that was it!

Indeed. That is what it was all about. Moxie. Chutzpah. Balls. The narrow gate just got a bit wider. Abortion began surfacing as a national issue. Christians recognized that the gate would have to be broadened to include “non-Christians” of like mind. So Mormons, Catholics, and Jews were enlisted. No born-again Christian believes for a moment that a Mormon, Catholic, or Jew will be present in born-again Heaven. They are just as lost as a pagan, a prostitute, or a faggot. All of those who do not walk the narrow way will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Nevertheless, it is important to further the American Christian agenda. So let us ignore our “differences” for the time being, and fight together against the common enemy ... the liberals, the humanists, and the gays.

This just infuriated me. “How can we sell our convictions like this?” I queried. “We all know that no Catholic, no Jew, and no pagan will ever enter the Kingdom! Aren’t we just using these people to further our aims? Isn’t that despicable? What a sellout!” We are trading, I thought, eternal Christian ideals for short-term American political objectives. I was nonplussed. I realized that I didn’t at this point have a say. The born-again Christian power structure had finally congealed. If I didn’t like it, I could just shut up or get with the program. I didn’t like it, but I wasn’t about to get with the program. One thing I did learn back all those years ago, following the narrow way, was to recognize when you are indeed on the outside. I saw it then. The Fundamentalists intended on expanding the narrow way to be an interstate highway. By broadening its traffic base, it would broaden its political clout. That is exactly what it did. It was about then that I began considering finding and exit – an off-ramp.

I was in the United States for a few months in 1983. The debate in Fundamentalist circles was swirling. Should we remain on the narrow path, acknowledging our position as a minority, calling lost humanity to join us? Or should we join a widely defined Christian “moral” majority, and press a political agenda, demanding the nation return to “traditional Christian values?” I traveled a lot that year and spoke in hundreds of churches. I saw the dilemma. No one knew which was better – adhering to the narrow path or blazing a new wider trail.

I think critical mass was reached in about 1984 or 1985. Once they got a whiff of election victories, Christians all over the nation abandoned the narrow way and got on the steamroller. It is much more fun and comfortable to run over your opposition than to be run over. To hell with this “they who find it are few.” It is far more fun to be in the “moral” majority. I must say, it felt nice to be in the majority. I wonder if Jesus was ever in a majority. Doubt it.

Right around 1985 I felt the earth shake. Christianity in the United States was no longer in a minority position. No real born-again Christian felt then, or feels now, that the rabble joining the “righteous” movements of the 80s is going with them to their promised Christian bliss; but they share certain temporal objectives – namely the overthrow of “humanism.” So I observe with crystal clarity the making of common cause between the Christian right and the Untermenschen: the Catholics, Mormons, and Jews. This will be short-lived. Pat Robertson said recently on National television: If the born-again Christians and the “family-minded” Catholics and Jews could all vote together, there is no city, country, or state in the nation that could not be won for “traditional American values.”

What are “family-minded Catholics and Jews? Pat knows as well as I do that those selfsame “family-minded Catholics and Jews are not going to Pat Robertson’s born-again Christian Heaven. They are going to frizzle and fry right along with the Pagans, Commies, Buddhists, Hindus, and Queers. Where is “Let your light so shine...?”

Some born-again style Christian churches have become crusaders in recent years. It has become their focus to call to the attention of those on the broad road to destruction that certain of those on that same road are engaging in behavior that is offensive to God, and generally disgusting to the American populace at large. Is this their calling?

Where in the Bible does it call on Christians to castigate non-Christians for their behavior? It clearly commands Christians to go into all the world and to preach the Gospel of peace to every creature; but it does not in any way imply that they are supposed to try to modify the behavior of nonbelievers. The whole concept is that the Christians are supposed to be the light of the world – shining examples of what men are supposed to be like – and that the rest of us are supposed to be so wowed with their exemplary lives that we will repent of our evil ways, turn to Christ, and join them on the narrow way that leads to eternal life. But what do we see here? We see Christians running full tilt to secular humanist institutions to try to control them in order to impose their “morals” on the Wide-roaders!


Losing sight of the prime directive.

Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. (Mark 16:15). This is what is referred to as The Great Commission. It is a command – given by Jesus Christ himself during his brief sojourn on this planet. It is what I have called the Christian's prime directive, as it is the single most important concept that sets Christianity apart from Judaism and most other of the world's religions. It is what makes the faith a true “missionary religion”. It is what has motivated the church - as a world wide body - for centuries, and what compelled me to go forth to preach, teach and baptize for years. But it is largely gone now … a thing of the past in Evangelical churches in America and around the world.

What happened? Well, the Evangelical Fundamentalist people (mostly in the USA) have lost their way. They have abandoned their prime directive in favor of struggle against what they perceive as “the evils of this world”. We have called them the “fightin' fundies” for years, and they have certainly lived up to that moniker. They have chosen to fight rather than to evangelize.

I remember when I noticed it the first time. It was 1973 and I was living in Frankfurt, Germany, working for a para-church organization called Teen Challenge. This outfit had originally been created out of thin air by a divinely motivated rural pastor-turned-evangelist named David Wilkerson. He had written a book entitled: The Cross and the Switchblade. That book had motivated thousands of young people of the time, like me, to indeed “go into all the world”. We did. But the message began to change.

Something big had happened in 1968. That was the dawn of the gay liberation movement. At least that was what it was called then. Brother Dave, as we called him, was so shocked and overwhelmed by the sight of ten thousand screaming homosexuals marching down Broadway in Manhattan in 1970 (the first ever gay pride parade) that he nearly had a cardiac infarction. He freaked out. He flipped his lid. He was outraged. He was infuriated. He was royally pissed. So he moved to Dallas, Texas and made a movie! It was a shockumentary film entitled: Return to Sodom, and I saw it before it was released and was shocked myself – albeit in a most different way.

I have always pointed to that moment in my personal life when I began to realize that I did not trust Brother Dave any more. The film was not designed to preach the gospel, but to scare people – especially white Protestant Evangelical Christians. It did what it was intended to do. It scared American church goers to action. Not to go forth and make an effort to reach these wayward sinners, but to stop them! They have been on that tangent for the past thirty some years now, and don't show any signs of resetting themselves; returning to the prime objective.

Likewise, the subject of evolution has freaked out the fundies to the point of abrogating their mission to preach, teach and baptize. They have spent the past thirty years fighting the notion that mankind evolved from lower life forms. It is seen by them as a direct challenge to the Bible, and therefore to them personally. And they have not taken it lying down. They have fought in the schools, they have fought in city governments, they have fought in the courts, they have fought in the media. They have been righteously pissed off about this “theory” since Darwin first published The Origin of Species in 1859! Wow, are they ever ticked off!

Abortion is another subject that sets their Christian heads spinning. In that year, 1973, a famous piece of legislation was passed in the US Congress. It was simply referred to as: Roe v. Wade and it legalized the medical procedure of clinical abortion in the United States. It was at this point that this, and the evolution debate, and the notion that gay people should have equal rights all coalesced to inspire the entire Evangelical movement in the US to change course. Evangelism – the Great Commission – had to be put on hold. It became more important to fight than to preach.

Did Jesus command his followers to rise up and oppose Roman rule? No. Did he tell them to go into the world and preach against the Jews, the Samaritans, the other wicked sinful people of the day? Did he ever teach to “oppose” anything? No. Modern Evangelical Christians have lost the original message – the original concept. Theirs is not to oppose anything, take political stands on contemporary issues of the day or fight against anybody. Their prime directive has always been to go, preach, teach, baptize and make disciples. But they don't do that any more, do they? Well, I sure don't see it.

We face a presidential election cycle in America every four years, and the same battles ensue. This round is already well under way, and true to form, the “Fightin' Fundies” are at it again; but this time with a bit fewer numbers. Why? Well, their demographics are changing and they aren't really noticing. But I am. By ignoring their prime directive, they have been failing to propagate. They steal sheep – mostly Catholic sheep. They are really not much about reaching out to the lost and creating new converts like I was. In the last thirty years since I left the church and the ministry, no one anywhere or at any time has attempted to “witness” to me; to share the gospel message, to tell me about that great guy, the carpenter king from Galilee. Why not? They have been too busy fighting against abortion, evolution and gay rights. That takes up a lot of time and energy. In the end, it appears that they are just too exhausted, wasted and tuckered out to preach the gospel as instructed. They just don't have the wherewithal to follow the prime directive any more.

The Pool of Siloam

What a dippy story :-)

A couple of years back in 2011, some low-wage Palestinian day laborers were digging a new sewer line in Jerusalem and stumbled upon the ruins of an ancient pool, bath or spa. It was heralded as the discovery of the Biblical “Pool of Siloam” - mentioned in the gospels as “Bethesda” in John chapter five. The Evangelical world went wild! “This proves the Bible is true and infallible!”, the Christian media roared. They were happy. I was happy too. That is an exciting find. Of course that “pool” was known to the occupying Roman administration, who were fanatical note-takers and record-keepers. The Bible is not the only source that mentions this place – likely built earlier during the Greek period. So finding it, although cool, does not really prove anything. The existence of the baths at Bethesda do not mean that the stories about it are true too.

The Bible account goes like this:

Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie – the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.
(Jn. 5:1-9)

Archeological finds do not prove the Bible true. They only prove that those historic sites mentioned in scripture actually existed – unlike Xanadu, Atlantis or Shangri-La, which are unlikely ever to be discovered in modern times (although there are some who keep trying). LOL. Look at the narrative. What is going on here? There is this magic pool right in downtown Jerusalem. It is infested with all manner of societal outcasts – the crippled, the blind, the withered and the “impotent” (KJV). Why were they all hanging out there? Because an angel of the lord – on a whim – would appear and “trouble” the waters. I just love that word from the great King James Version of the Holy Bible, don't you? Anyway the angel would show up unannounced and “trouble” the waters. So what? Well, the good part is next. The first cripple to plunge into the pool got cured! Praise the Lord. How cool is that? I have heard a gazillion sermons about this set-up and never questioned it very deeply. Like I didn't think to ask why only one lucky sickling could get healed at a time. Why not two or more? Heck, if that angel could heal one person – the fastest cripple at the pool - why not just heal them all? Why just one?

Anyway, Jesus interacted with an old geezer who had been infirm for thirty eight years. Very accurate, that, huh? Then Jesus asks him what he is doing there; and the old “impotent” man whines that he is never fast enough and no one is available to help him get into the pool to “go down” first in order to get healed. Wow, that's a bummer, huh?

Anyway, thereupon, Jesus asks him like the dumbest possible question. “Do you want to get healed?” Like Duh! What was he going to say? “Oh, no, not really. I am just here for the entertainment?” Come on! Jesus then simply circumvents the whole pool protocol and heals the guy on the spot. Yea! “Take up thy bed and walk!” Great Hollywood ending, but is this a factual account? I doubt it for this reason. If the Romans were aware of this magic pool, they certainly would have been aware of all those gimps hanging around it and above all, the angle troubling the waters and the healings that took place there. It is inconceivable that they would have missed such a big thing happening right in the city center!

Another example of this meme: archeological discoveries prove that the Bible is true, happened to me personally in 1983 when I was living and doing missionary work in Hong Kong, a British colony at the time. Astronaut, Jim Irwin of Apollo 15 fame, was sitting with me in my office discussing his new book entitled: I Walked on the Moon. He had synthesized it into a seven hundred word essay and asked me if I could help him turn it into a religious tract that he and his tour group could hand out during their upcoming trip into China. Piece of cake. I had it translated into beautiful Chinese by a truly gifted translator friend of mine whom I knew well - and I did the layout and design. During the two days that we had to wait for the print shop to produce the brochure, we hung out together. I really liked him, and was quite interested in his many stories of his frequent trips to Turkey to climb around on Mt. Ararat – in search of Noah's Ark.

Lots of people have done that over the years, but he was surely the most famous. Landsat satellite photography was just becoming common place at the time, so he had with him many such marvelous photos of that region, but no ark. They had found some wood samples above the tree line, which hinted of something. As I didn't want to appear too skeptical, I still had to question him. In my most polite voice I simply asked what that proved exactly. “Well, nothing on its own,” he confessed, “But we will keep trying. Meanwhile, it is an enthusiasm booster for us all." That made sense – sort of.

He was overjoyed with the product (so was I). As I saw him (and his tour group) off at the HK railway station, I couldn't help but wonder. Even if they did find something of some kind up on that mountain some day, would that really prove the flood story conclusively? I went back to my office and re-read the flood tale from Genesis chapter six. I doubted it. As a fundamentalist and literalist (of sorts) at the time, I was in “the same boat” with Jim Irwin. My theology, my faith, and my whole world was wrapped up in stories like Noah's ark and the Pool of Siloam. If they are just fairy tales, then what else in the Bible is figurative as well? Eden, Jericho, Sodom? It is a classic example of the slippery slope. And in my experience, that slope is very slippery indeed.

Archives / IMHO

The Tithing Myth

Bring the full tithe into the storehouse

I think I am going to go mad if I hear Ann Romney and that crowd crow much longer about how generous Mitt is. After all, he tithes a whopping 10% to his church! I am supposed to be impressed. Guess what? I'm not.

A few days ago, I actually heard Ann – on NBC or one of those networks – say that Mitt actually gives 10% to “charity.” She knows this is untrue, as do I. Tithing is not giving. All Christian denominations know this. But, obviously, the general public – including the well-informed media – does not.

The Bible says:

"Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this. ...And see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it."
(Malachi 3:10)

I have heard a gazillion sermons on this topic over the years – and have preached a few myself. The tithe is a command. It is not an option. The tithe belongs to God, and withholding it is stealing from the Almighty himself. Giving does not begin until the eleventh percent. In fact, the donor does not own the tithe, so it is not his or hers to give.

The Mormons are perhaps the most fastidious tithers of all sects, as their church keeps accurate records and knows exactly how much each individual and family owes the Church. The tithe is certainly not charity. It is used for administrative purposes.

Mormons do not give to the poor. They use their excess funds for proselytizing and house welfare. Most other denominations do likewise. A Mormon friend of mine once told me, rather boastfully: “Well, we don't do soup kitchens. But you have to admit, we do take care of our own!” I was not impressed. That kind of self-support is not at all what I read in the words of Jesus.

But it gets better (or worse, depending on how you look at it). Lately, even proselytizing has taken a back seat to designating funds given above the tithe, to political causes. This trend is echoed in both Roman Catholic and Protestant denominations as well. The damned will have to wait to hear the Gospel message. It is far more important to influence the political climate in America to favor all the interdenominational megachurches of every stripe.

The best example of this was Proposition 8 in California. All the “Christian” groups around the country were apoplectic about the specter of marriage equality. Obviously, the gays were getting just way too uppity and totally out of hand, demanding equal rights. It simply had to be stopped, and the line seemed to have been drawn in California.

A Mormon friend of mine in Sacramento told me that the local church bishop, elders, and other mucky mucks paid him and his wife a “home visit” for the purpose of fundraising, to fight the repeal of Prop 8. They were not asked to give, he told me; instead, they were told what they could afford. Their personal finances were known to the church computers, and in the end they emptied their savings account.

Neither he nor his wife were willing givers. They donated out of coercion – not out of a cheerful heart as the Bible encourages in 2 Corinthians 9:7 ... Each should give according to what he has decided in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. Well, since Mitt has been unwilling to disclose his offshore assets to any of us, perhaps he is likewise unwilling to let the LDS computers know exactly how much he has stashed away, lest he get a “home visit” as well someday. (End)

Traditional American Values

“TAV” What are they? Where are they? When are they?

This buzz phrase of the Christian right has me scratching my head. What are these “traditional American values” that are so lacking in our modern society? Looking for answers in contemporary Christian literature has left me cold. I have never found an adequate definition of what traditional values actually are. The more I read Fundamentalist Christian literature, and talk with various Christians, begging them to specifically define “traditional American values,” the more frustrated I become. Likewise, they are frustrated at having to actually try to formulate a definition, since everyone knows! I, however, for one, do not!

In my quest to understand, I have isolated three areas of thought about “traditional American values” which have helped me get a picture of what is meant when I hear televangelists, Right-wing politicians, and Fox News pundits preach and carry on about a return to these ill-defined values. The first has to do with behavior (what one does), the second with thinking (what one believes), and the third with virtues (what one is like). The implication in all the preaching of values is that those who are not Fundamentalist Christians do not share these values.

The behavioral aspect is based, it seems, on a list of Does and Don’ts. Those, it seems, who are in accord with the traditional values, behave in a certain way. Their behavior is in line with a collection of rules that, although not listed anywhere where they could be evaluated one-by-one, nevertheless exist. Presumably the list is contained somewhere in the Bible, but I have yet to find it. Abstracting from years of church-pew-sitting and dialogue with Fundamentalists, I have isolated a list of things that most people probably consider to be true American values. . . One does not commit murder. All TAV types can agree on this – all except some who consider war as tantamount to murder. One does not commit adultery. That is, he or she marries and does not engage in sex with anyone but his spouse. He or she does not commit rape, fornication (now called premarital sex), or engage in sex acts with anyone of the same gender. One does not take illegal drugs of any kind, smoke cigarettes, or drink any alcoholic beverages. One should not be seen anywhere that might cause a nonbeliever or young believer to “stumble,” such as movie houses, pool halls, and dance halls (when was the last time you ever heard of a dance hall?). I have oft noted that the use of these antiquated terms indeed indicate their traditional roots in the American temperance movements of the past.

There is a great deal of dissention in the ranks as to whether or not certain things are true American values. For example, some Fundamentalists insist that women should not wear pants or jewelry, or cut their hair. Those who do are thought of as less holy and as betraying true spiritual values, as the Bible contains clear directives against this type of behavior. There is likewise a great deal of dissention among people about gaming. Whereas, gambling is universally condemned as anti-American, anti-God, and anti-social, other forms of gaming are permissible. Card games which include the use of a standard card deck of hearts, clubs, spades, and diamonds, are considered sinful by many. No one believing in true American values would even touch a deck of playing cards, even though some innocent games like Rock or Uno or Pit are permissible.

Both bowling and pool have in the past been associated by some moralists, with games of the Devil, whereas golf and tennis are within the parameters of traditional “wholesome” sport. I never much saw the difference between hitting a little white ball with a stick over a green felt table, and hitting a little white ball with a club over a green grassy fairway. But there is a difference, they assure us. One is good and one is evil.

Dancing – that is, moving the body to a rhythm – has long been considered immoral by many who define their traditional values more narrowly. CNN recently did a piece on a high school in a small Missouri town that banned the senior prom, as it was sure to lead to … well, you know what! The notion that dancing leads to extramarital sex is a value still well-rooted in our country to this day. A few years ago, I recall, there was a debate among some Fundamentalist ministers regarding the legality or illegality of married Christians dancing. Whereas it was concluded that it could not be considered illegal from a moral point of view, should unmarried or nonbelievers see Christian dancing, “They might conclude that it was okay for them!” (And we all know what that leads to.) Would it be alright for a Christian couple to dance in their living room or bedroom, I asked. The subject was changed.

The second area of definition of “traditional American values” seems to be that of what one believes. Certain beliefs are considered absolutes, and are the basis for the values that are called traditional and American. The inerrancy of the Bible and the existence of the Biblical God is the foundation for what is touted by many as “traditional American values.” Of course, Europeans, Africans, and Asians, in their millions, likewise believe in God and the Bible, so I think it is a bit arrogant to call these “traditional American values,” since one clearly does not have to be an American to believe in them.

One must also believe in the US government, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the US military, and democracy. One must believe in and be willing to fight and die for the United States, and to kill other humans if necessary to defend these values. One must believe that profaning certain sacred symbols is immoral, and that flag-burners and those who speak out against the government should be punished.

Punishment for certain crimes includes the death sentence. It is thought not to be killing; but, rather, according to God’s plan, it is okay to take the life of one condemned. It is, on the other hand, murder for a woman to have an abortion. Capital punishment is moral. It is a traditional American value. Abortion is immoral. It is against “traditional American values.” These are understood. They, like opposition to gun control, are considered sacred values which go right back to the days of the “Founding Fathers.” Of course, a lot of the people of the New Right do not know why they hold these views – only that they are the politically correct ones. Nevertheless, as we all know from the headlines, these issues divide the nation. I have noticed, however – when discussing these issues with most who claim to believe them – when pinned down, they don’t actually know why. “God makes the rules,” they say. “I just read them and believe them.”

Then there is the third area that the traditional values set claim are certain virtues. In my mind, these are only real values, after all. The first “values” are really just arbitrary rules of behavior. None are exclusively American, and many are ludicrous. All cultures have their rules and attitudes about what is right and wrong behavior. Americans are not the only moral people on Earth! The second are just attitudes toward contemporary issues, which change as the times change. Go back 150 years, and the debate of the day was whether it was moral to own slaves. Go back another 150, and the issue was whether witches should be burned at the stake. These “values,” although traditional perhaps, are certainly not chiseled in stone!

I will concede, however, that the third area that the traditionalists point to as being values are indeed just that. Honesty, thoughtfulness, thrift, diligence, kindness, hospitality, and helpfulness, are indeed values. These are matters of the heart which in turn govern our behavior and our attitudes. It is my opinion that without these virtues the other two are not only hollow and empty, but are also destructive! To this list of virtues I should like to add open-mindedness and tolerance. These virtues are not often noted by the traditionalists, as they imply the denial of some other virtues. Alas, that is a problem with virtues. Indeed, some are contradictory!

“Universal” might be a better handle for these types of virtues, since they are honored and lauded worldwide. The Chinese language is rife with poems and adages extolling honesty, diligence, patience, and goodness. Likewise, in Japan, India, and Africa, people all seem to agree that these virtues are what make humans civilized. By claiming that others unlike ourselves are uncivilized, we are saying that they lack or do not accept these virtues as “values.” In fact, just about every culture I have experienced or read about enshrines the exact same set of values with few variations. To refer to them as American is pretentious. In fact, I recall leaning over the back fence of my house in Ober-Woellstadt, when I lived in Germany, and holding a long and enlightening conversation with the older man whose yard backed up against mine. He was originally from Breslau (which is now in Poland). He was ranting and raving about the decline of the morals and traditional values which were so much more apparent in Germany in the 30’s! I was nonplussed. In most people’s minds, Germany in the thirties was the epitome of terror and darkness. In his mind, people were moral, patriotic, and civilized! They were honest, hardworking, thrifty, and God-fearing. I shuddered.

It is easy to discredit the use of the word "American" when defining these virtues, or values as they are oft called. The Greeks, the Chinese, and the Polynesians could all claim these same values. So let’s just get over ourselves, and realize that there is a world out there; and that they, for the most part, share our basic values.

The word traditional is somewhat more problematic. The dictionary defines anything traditional as: a story, belief, custom, or practice which has been handed down from generation to generation, which has the effect of becoming an unwritten law. Then it specifically mentions unwritten religious codes such as those of the Jews, the Muslims, and the Christians.

The Fundamentalists claim the world is going to hell in a hand basket or some variation of that meme. I have heard the same lamentation on the lips of Chinese friends and acquaintances that I heard from my German neighbor. I heard the same thing from my father. I hear it from Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Francis Schaffer. This longing for the past – its glories, its goodness, its traditions – is likewise universal. One can read the writings of the ancient Greeks and pick up this same moaning spirit of despair. The past was so great. The present is so terrible. And the future is unthinkable!

I think there is a difference between plain old nostalgia and this more fundamental longing for the past. I still love the music of the sixties. I listen to “Oldies but Goodies.” I still sort of think of the 60s as a magical time of awakening and excitement and energy. My father’s generation thinks of it as the beginning of the end of civilization! Well, it was perhaps the end of civilization as they had known it. But it was the beginning of something new and wonderful for me! Were the 60s really such a watershed? When I listen again to the music, see films of the period, look at the styles, and recall the attitudes, I find it all a bit quaint – even tame. But most of the “traditional American values” people point right back to that time as the beginning of the end of values.

Well then, should we hearken back to the fabulous 50s instead? Is that period more likely to hold the secret to Dr. Francis Schaffer’s famous question: How shall we then live? There is, to be sure, a great deal of nostalgia for the 50s. Those were the good old days of black-and-white television, “I like Ike,” and ever-expanding tailfins. Who could find fault with the philosophy of Ozzie and Harriet, My Three Sons, or Father Knows Best? Who indeed? Many Americans longingly look back to the 50s as the “best years of our lives.” I think there is a very good reason for that. In those years after the Second World War, the United States was the only nation on earth with a viable, functioning economy. Japan was in ruins, as was Germany and most of Europe and Asia. Britain was impoverished, and the Soviet Union was spending itself into oblivion, building an atomic arsenal which opened the door to what we should remember as mutually assured destruction. MAD.

Americans were on top, and it was a time of unprecedented growth and consumption. No wonder Americans think fondly of the 50s. The Europeans have few such pleasant memories. For most it was a grim, grey time with few frills. Actually, it was not all joy and light, even in America – as one may recall. I still have vivid memories of air raid drills in school … “duck and cover,” polio, and political McCarthyism witch hunts.

Francis Schaeffer often spoke of the decline of Western Civilization and traditional values. He liked to draw a line somewhere around the turn of the twentieth century as the actual beginning of the end. I believed every word he said back then, and always sort of thought of everything before 1900 as more civilized and more Christianized than today. Now I am not so sure.

The “traditional values” people preach are about hard work and pride in one’s work. This pride and fulfillment, which results from the so-called “Protestant work ethic,” has been eroded and diluted by labor unions and laws of this century. Before that, they longingly look back to the last century when everyone had pride in his work. Funny, I don’t see that at all. I envision sweatshops … children working in dirty dangerous factories and mines. People being chewed up by mining and railroad interests in the name of progress and the expanding American frontier! What kind of a time was this for children? What about women? Not even entitled to vote, women were still dominated by the centuries of male-issued dicta of the ages. I don’t think of the nineteenth century as a fount of virtues and values as Dr. Schaffer might. And before that? Chattel slavery!

A few years ago, the Christian Broadcasting Network did a special that claimed the origin of “traditional American values” as the time of the Pilgrim Fathers. Note the male bias. In this theatrical enactment of Puritan's life of faith, healthy, well-scrubbed American extras dressed in neat, tidy, modest costumes of the past, portraying the ideal life of seventeenth century New England. They planted the crops, harvested, cooked on open-hearth fires, made their own cloth, raised wholesome families, attended simple churches, and worshiped the one true god.

Unfortunately, my vision of early colonial New England is not nearly so cheerful. The accounts of the period that I have read in many American history books, paint a far less salubrious picture. I see grim, dour people struggling in a harsh and forbidding environment. I see a narrow-minded, closed-in group trapped in a small region of rocky cold land between the wild and wooly sea and an endless dark forest which they considered the domain of the devil. It was not all peaches and cream as the literature of the period claims. It was cold, harsh, and dictatorial. And what of the much-touted values?

The most interesting documents of the period, I think, are the depositions of the accused in the Salem witch trials that took place in 1692. The actual words of the court proceedings were memorialized. The actual pleadings, statements, and charges all remain. Reading these volumes is disheartening. It was no picnic. It is a frightening study in hysteria and in the consequences of contravening “traditional” values. I have often said that if “traditional American values” means a return to Salem, count me out!

So, to quote the 60s rock opera Lonesome Stone, “Where do we go from here?” Into the sea? Back to Europe? Where? I’m not so sure I want to go back any further in this quest for a definition of “traditional” values; but I hear people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson speak of “Western” civilization and values, so they are obviously harkening back to Europe as well.

After living many years in Europe, I have some indelible mental images and impressions. Among those which come to mind are the dungeons and rooms of torture in palaces, castles, and fortresses throughout the continent. When one stands by a rack and can imagine bones and cartilage popping and breaking, or imagine the pain of the thumbscrew, or the taste of the whip, the song of the axe, or the whisper of the gallows, one should not forget in whose name so much misery was perpetrated … Jesus Christ.

No, I don’t think we should keep going back. It just gets worse. Should we stop? I would. But I have heard endless Fundamentalists make references to earlier times, when they were demanding a return to “traditional values.” If they insist, we should look back ourselves. It gets fuzzy and hard to define as the centuries are peeled away, as it all melts into a blur of antiquity. I have heard Christians sigh nostalgically for “Bible times.” I am sure things were better then! But my favorite of all I read not too long ago in the L.A. Times. Republican Assemblyman Richard Mountjoy of Los Angeles was quoted as saying in the California legislature: “The Roman Empire fell because of sexual promiscuity… Every great civilization has fallen because of that.”

Amazing. Since when have Christians and “traditional values” proponents considered the Roman Empire a great civilization, whining and sniveling at its downfall? I seem to remember Christians gleefully taking credit for its demise! Well, if the Roman Empire is an example of values, the loss of which is to be mourned, perhaps we should indeed readopt some of those virtues and values and practices of the Romans. Perhaps we should bring back the lions!

Article for Free Thought Magazine