Autobiography of a Black Sheep: Chapter Seven, Old Time Religion

Chapter Seven: Old Time Religion

Our lifestyle and world view were shaped by a subculture of religion. Our family lived in great isolation, except for the church and school. We had few outlets to the society. Mostly it was limited to the church. The family also had little contact with relatives.

My parent’s world view had been shaped by the Pentecostal Revival of the l930s. They were part of a solidarity group bound together by this fundamentalist revivalist religious movement that swept across the United States during the Great Depression. It was also called a Pentecostal Movement. Between 1926 and 1936, the Assemblies of God churches grew from 47,950 to 148,043.

My mother was terribly poor and repressed and went to small, white churches in Arkansas. It was through traveling preachers that my mother came to North Missouri in the early 1940s. In Arkansas it was not uncommon for some church members to belong to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

When I was young, we were constantly being taken to Sunday school. The church we attended religiously (and sometimes irreligiously) every Sunday was the Assembly of God. This church was at the bottom of the socio-economic class pecking order in Princeton. In terms of classes, there were the upscale churches where the Princeton business and professional elites attended like the Christian and Methodist churches. Below these was the Baptist Church which was lower middle class. Finally came the Assembly of God Church. There were church denominations further down that could be said to be of poor whites and more authoritarian in outlook, such as the Church of God, Holiness, but there was no church of that denomination in Princeton.

Besides the lower middle class and farmers, the Assembly of God Church was also the place where the poorest whites from the “West End” would sometimes attend. This was the poorest part of Princeton. However, most of the time not many from the West End attended and they were looked down upon by some in the church. They were not genuinely welcomed by some who attended regularly. They were of the class which is called “White Trash” in the South.

The Assembly of God Church in Princeton was a nice old wooden building which was built in the classical style of a church. It had a steeple and even a bell in the belfry but I do not remember it being used. There was only one floor in the church. There were beautiful old wooden pews and platform in the front. In front of the benches were altars. These benches were hard to sit on through a long sermon and kept one squirming. Before renovation, there were no special rooms for the Sunday-School classes. So the classes gathered in different areas for the “Sunday-School” portion of the program on Sunday morning. The primary class that I attended as a small child was back in a corner of the church behind a curtain.

One Sunday when I was around five years old, I went into the church with bubble gum in my mouth. I was told not to chew it in class. So I took it out of my mouth and held it in my hands. It soon melted and stuck all over my hands until I was in a terrible fix. I should have just stuck it under the seat, like most kids did, but I did not know that trick. When we got home, my father took me out to the gasoline barrel and ran gasoline over my hands to remove the bubble gum. This caused my hands to burn. It was a traumatic experience with bubble gum and church.

A difficulty for kids was that there was no toilet in the church and if I needed to go to the bathroom my father had to take me outside. But there was no toilet outside either. It meant going across the street and into a sort of alley between two buildings. This was next to a liquor shop which was littered with broken whiskey bottles and beer cans. Finally, when I was in high school, the church was renovated and bathrooms installed in the basement along with Sunday-school classrooms.

I think the part of the service that I actually enjoyed somewhat was the singing. I liked some of the old songs we sang. They would get on my mind and I would sing them when I was not in church. “Bringing in the Sheaves,” was a favorite, which I thought was “Bringing in the Sheep.” Anyway, I liked sheep and there was a lot about sheep in the Sunday school lessons. “I am on my way to Heaven,” was another. There was an alter call song: “Come Home.”

But a problem for the kids was that after Sunday school one had to stay for the sermon. This part of the program would go on for at least another hour. We would hope that the preacher would wind it up and stop preaching by twelve noon, but it was hardly ever the case. Once he got wound up, he couldn’t stop and he only got a shot at it once a week. Sometimes he was in a fighting mood and wanted to keep whacking someone in the audience with his comments. Sometimes the sermon would drag on for another half hour until everyone was very hungry and was dying to get out of the church. At least it was true of children.

We went to many revivals and tent meetings too. If there was a revival meeting going on somewhere my father could be a fanatic about going every night, even though it would take a team of horses to get him off the farm to go to any kind of event at the school.

Travelling preachers would come and hold revival meetings in the small town of Spickardsville, which we just called Spickard, sometimes in the summer. It was a little town about seven miles south of the farm on the highway. Whether the children wanted to go or not, they had no choice. Before there was TV, there was more of an attraction to go. But when everybody started getting TV, it was harder to get people to come to the meetings and they started to die out.

In the summertime, the revival meetings would be held under a tent with rows and rows of chairs. I liked going someplace in the evenings after farm work. The tent meetings could be sort of fun, I thought, under the tent in the cool of the evening. Especially, it was good if one could just sit in the back and look around. But the meeting itself could become rather traumatizing for kids before the service was over. Once the preacher started harassing you, one would be made to feel guilty and threatened with going to hell during the altar call. The tall tales the preachers told were very scary and it made one afraid to go out in the dark after that. It made one want to look over his shoulder to see if the Devil might be following him to do him in some way. Some preachers could be quite effective in terrorizing children. For example, tales of someone dying and then those gathered around would see the flames of hell leaping up around their feet as they died and were dragged down into hell. There was another story about someone who refused to get saved and then got hit by a truck and killed as they left the meeting. I was always looking around for trucks after that. I was not taking any chances.

I always felt a relief in leaving the tent, as if I had been spared the wrath of God and it would be good to get out of there and back home, having survived. I would look forward to going back to work in the field the next day, in the bright sunshine, having escaped the wrath of God. Still, one could not exactly get rid of the guilt that it instilled in one.

There used to be tent revival meetings in Spickard too. This was in the fifties. We would go early and sometimes before the meeting started, I would walk with my mother and sisters up the street to a little store to buy some chewing gum or candy. Near one run-down house, we would see an old woman sitting outside with a very large goiter on her neck. It made an impression on me to see her awful condition. My mother always said that she should go and get it prayed for so that God would heal her.

Sometimes my parents would take us to the Assembly of God Church in Spickardsville. I only remember going during a revival meeting. There was a heavy-set red headed man who wore overalls. Sometime during the sermon, he would get excited, seem go into a trans, and start jumping wildly around the church. He would go up one aisle and down another taking high leaps, jumping like a big jackrabbit. Even though his eyes were closed, he never ran into anything. It was both scary and funny for me. Of course, one was afraid to laugh. It was something very strange. This sort of behavior seemed to be common among the white lower class socioeconomic groups. I later wondered if they were just letting off steam from being socially and economically repressed.

When this small church suddenly burned down there were stories that some people had seen a vision that it was going to happen. Maybe they should have alerted the fire department. Maybe they knew a little too much about why it burned. I’m not sure if it was an accident or if somebody was out to get rid of the church. There seemed to be some suspicion about it.

We went to many revival meetings at Princeton too. One revival went on for some seven weeks and my father was determined to go and take us every night. It was difficult if one was in school and had to do homework. One had to get up and go to school the next day after the meetings went on until quite late. All the singing and shouting and piano playing and plunking seemed to be the religious equivalent of a honky- tonk.

For some it seemed to be a chance to stay out late so the church service became a sort of counterpart to the tavern in the secular world. Maybe it was just a source of entertainment before television in a small boring town. The preaching would go on for a long time and then there would be a long period of praying and shouting and making as much noise as possible. Somehow, try as I might to be a good person, I just couldn’t quite get into the spirit of things. I seemed to be a pretty complete failure when it came to being a good Christian.

The object of these revival meetings was to get people “saved” and “filled” with the Holy Spirit. The altar call was to persuade people to come down to the front of the church, get down on their knees at the altar, and repent and “get saved.” This involved a great deal of voluntary intimidation, after being browbeaten into submission, so it was only superficially voluntary. Much psychological pressure was put on people and they were made to feel guilty. The message sent a strong message that something terrible might happen to them if they did not get saved that very night. They were not only in danger of hell fire if they did not but in danger of something terrible happening to them even before they got home. So the preacher told hair raising tales. The preacher poured out his greatest effort to make one feel like a sinner.

“Won’t you, oh won’t you take that first step for Jesus.” “He’s watching and he’s waiting.”

One started thinking about all the things one had done that would likely come under the rubric of a sin. One might have gotten saved in the past but if one was not a practicing Christian, going to church, regularly, then one was said to have “backslidden” and it was necessary to repent and get saved all over again.

It all depended upon one’s conscience and one’s conscience always told one that he was guilty as hell. Almost everything one did was considered a sin, even many thoughts.

One night during a long alter call, the preacher kept saying “someone, someone is lost and without God, a sinner. Won’t you, won’t you take that first step for Jesus.” Then there would be another prayer. Everyone had to keep their heads bowed for the whole process, “every eye closed, every head bowed, no one looking around.” But it was terribly tempting to peak out of the corner of one’s eye to look around. Everyone was guessing who the “sinner” or “sinners” were. Who was guilty? Finally one woman cried out: “My God, That’s my Son,” in her rough voice. She was from the “West End,” of Princeton. I knew the poor kid well as he was in my class at school. They were the lowest and most repressed class of people in the town. Some people had been “saved” over and over again, but were still considered sinners, since they didn’t attend regularly. And while each soul counted equally as one soul saved, they were certainly not considered equal socially.

One had to have a good deal of courage to go and bow down at the altar in the front of the church in the presence of all the people there. They were all watching, of course. Their eyes were supposed to be closed, but some people would watch out of the corner of their eyes to see who was owning up to being a sinner. It would be said, “Oh John, or Mary, or Charles, got saved last night.” But getting saved was only the first step and didn’t really cut much ice when it came to being a serious Christian. It was just a start. Indeed, if one was not very careful, one would keep accumulating sins every day, so one had to keep wiping them off daily from then on. At least it seemed that way to me. One could just not be that perfect. I had made the courageous trip down to the altar more than once as the psychological pressure was simply too great to resist. But it didn’t seem to do the trick and take care of the guilt. I was not really sure if I was saved or not, because it was pretty hard to avoid sinning if one was going to do any actual living.

Parents did nothing to soothe the child’s anxiety over this, that one need not do it again.

Once at the altar one would have to wait out the rest of the alter call, feeling the greedy hot eyes on you. Yet, one was not left alone. They were determined to pound the last ounce of humiliation out of one.

Finally when the alter call would end, when there was no hope of terrorizing and softening up those poor souls any further, then the whole audience would be asked to come forward to pray at the altars. This was a fortunate chance for those to leave who had successfully resisted the guilty feelings during the alter call. One could safely sneak out the back door during this time but not during the alter call. To leave during the alter call marked one as dead guilty. Such slipping away from God was inviting the worst possible treatment from God. It was “tempting God.” You were like a helpless ant that God could squash any time he took a notion. Yet one was supposed to “love God” and he “loved you.” But when he turned against you, then you were in a heap of trouble. He might give you a number of chances, and then finally one’s luck would run out and after that, God, jealous as he was, would have it in for you. Then you had better watch out. You were likely to get struck by lightning or run over by a speeding truck at any time.

Some other people who were officially in good standing, saved beyond a doubt and in church all the time, would gather around and start praying that God would save you, a sinner like you. Perhaps God wouldn’t save you unless they prayed you through. They seemed to want everyone in the church to hear what they were saying, how they were praying. They would start shouting in one’s ears and one would feel their hot breath on the back of one’s neck. Not only one, a whole crew of these squawking geese would gather around one and start screaming, crying and “speaking in tongues.”

The higher objective was to get “filled” with the Holy Spirit. For some lucky ones this could happen at the same time they got saved. This was a little like getting hypnotized and then starting speaking in “other tongues.” Glossolalia or “speaking in other tongues” was the definitive sign that one had been filled with the Holy Spirit. But no one could understand what was being said. It was believed to be a real language but no one knew what language. I wanted to be one of the happy souls that got filled with the Holy Spirit, and join the inner circle. Maybe I would not have to go around feeling so poor in front of the holy rollers. One had to go down to the altar and pray to seek the Holy Spirit. But try as I might, I just couldn’t get to that point. When I kneeled down to pray, some big men would gather up around me and start shouting extremely loud and I would start to feel disgusted and want them to just go away and leave me alone. If one tried and tried and didn’t get it, it was very discouraging. I could never quite get in the mood no matter how I tried. When I started feeling self-conscious, I couldn’t concentrate on praying. Sometimes I would start to think of a sexy girl or going to the Tastee Freeze after church for ice cream, and that didn’t seem to be the way to reach heaven, at least not the kind of heaven they were thinking of. The people around me would start shouting: “God fill him with the Holy Spirit…” as if God was just waiting to be asked by one of the local farmers before proceeding with his blessings. I was put off by such shouting and yelling in my ears and wished they would just go away and leave me alone.

A woman would start playing a lively tune on the piano and singing loud to keep the momentum going and not let the excitement die down. The best Christians were those who spent the longest time at the alter and made the most noise.

One was supposed to slip into a mystical trance and babble at the mouth. This was the true sign of a Christian, your salvation. No matter how many times you repented, you were on very shaky ground until you could “speak in tongues.” And one had to do it with a lot of people around them. Some people tried for years and were never able to go off the deep end into this religious trance.

Some, on the other hand would be going completely berserk. I found it strange how somebody could lose complete control of themselves and start talking and shouting in an unpredictable and very irrational way, in a trance and not knowing what they were saying and doing.

They would be flailing their arms in the air and shouting “Jesus, Jesus. Jesus.” They would fall over backward, crying, jumping, jerking, shrieking and getting lost in a trance. Others would fall flat on their backs and go through all kinds of contortions, or get up and run wind sprints from one side of the church to the other, while whooping and hollering and doing a lot of shouting and making as much noise as they could.

I wished that I could be like that. I thought people who were going completely crazy were great Christians. I was always jealous of those super Christians who were having such a great time going completely out of their minds.

For sinners like me nothing was sweeter than finding the chance to get up and slip away back to the benches and even sweeter still, when it was possible to slip silently out of the building into the cool night air. It was certainly more comfortable there in the dark. But then I would remember the old Bible verse: “Men prefer darkness because their deeds are evil.” Evil or not, it sure beat the hell out of being in that church.

It was a great relief as if one had escaped the inquisition. I began to feel that my career as a Christian was pretty much a failure.

The results of the revival meeting would be added up in quantitative terms. How many were “saved” and how many were “filled.”

The Baptist, Christian, Methodist, churches were more liberal and more affluent but not fit for these people, the Assembly of God, because they were too liberal. There was nothing like the terror that reigned over our services.

My mother’s main ambition for me was to become a singer in the church, like the young men she had seen sing in the church. She made me take piano lessons and practice. However, I hated practicing the piano and had no interest in it. I wanted to be outside doing something else. Working was much better than practicing the piano. It was a big disappointment to my mother when she idolized me as being a singer in the church and I turned out to be a political scientist. It is harder to imagine a bigger disappointment but I couldn’t help it. I could not get interested in making church music. Perhaps, I could have, if we had known some music other than church music and had been allowed to learn to dance.

By the time I got to the university and started understanding the absurdity of it, I started objecting to all this. Then during Sunday school “lessons” one wanted to ask some serious questions that were not being raised but were being glossed over. To ask questions, of course could not really be done. That was strictly verboten. One would be told to be quiet. It seemed that one was not supposed to approach it as an educated person.

My family also went to religious tent meetings to hear Oral Roberts before we had TV. One of the meetings was in Des Moines, Iowa, which was about a hundred miles away. Another was held in Wichita, Kansas which was farther away. We went to hear Oral Roberts under his big tent.  If it hadn’t been for grandparents and preachers, I would never have gotten to travel anywhere as a child. At least, religion gave us the opportunity to make some trips outside of Missouri.

In Iowa, the huge tent was pitched near the Iowa State Capital building in Des Moines. My father made the one hundred mile trip every day, religiously, for several days during one of Oral Robert’s meetings. The meeting lasted for a week or so. In Wichita, we stayed in a motel. In the evenings, we went to the meetings. I walked around the outside of the tent with my father. The huge size was enormously impressive for us. Being farmers, we started thinking about how much hay it would hold.

I went to the altar call one evening. Those who had come were gathered up at the front of the tent near the stage and then taken to a little side area where there were attendants who prayed with them. Another event at the meetings was the prayer line where people lined up to have Oral Roberts pray for them. In this case there was a long line and people came through to be prayed for.

This was the mass marketing of evangelism but the tent was soon to be replaced with the TV camera and vacuum tube.

My father had become a big fan of Oral Roberts. A radio repair man who had a small business in Princeton, Wayne Thogmartin, helped my father to buy a large reel to reel tape recorder. He purchased several of Oral Robert’s sermons on tape and then arranged to play them at the Princeton Band Stand on the square on Saturday nights. It did not seem to me that it was much of a success. It did not seem that people wanted to listen to a preacher on Saturday night. I was rather embarrassed by the whole thing and sat in the car while it was going on. Oral Roberts was sometimes disliked by the local pastors, partly out of jealousy, no doubt. They feared that they would lose some of their tithe dollars to the radio and TV preachers as they became more popular. They were quite critical of TV preachers.

Before we had TV my father wanted to watch Oral Roberts on television. That is how we started going to friends and relatives’ houses to watch TV on Sundays. Sometimes we went to my aunt Mary Ann and Uncle William’s place in Princeton. We also went to Harve Wright’s place which was up the road a couple of miles from our place. The objective was to watch Oral Robert’s program, although we didn’t leave when it was over but stayed to watch other programs.

Some shows were for kids such as “Lassie” and “My Friend Flicka,” about a dog and a horse. How such programs could be construed to be harmful to children, I never understood. But most people in the church were still saying that watching TV was a sin. We were spellbound by TV. We were in seventh heaven, eating popcorn, and watching those programs. Even the commercials were utterly fascinating and we couldn’t take our eyes off the screen for a minute. TV preachers were a threat to the local preachers, so they discouraged people from getting a TV. We were one of the first in the church to get one. Nevertheless, as they got to be cheaper, people were beginning to break down and buy TV sets.

I believe that religion can serve as a liberating force at particular times and places. But in my case, when I was growing up in Princeton, it did not serve that purpose. In many ways it was tied up with being poor. Economic distress had driven the Pentacostal Movement. In the fifties, the economy was expanding. With television and urbanization, rock and roll and Elvis Presley, the society was changing.

After World War II America was in an economic boom. There was greater prosperity but we were living in a rural backwater. People were farmers and generally poor. By the l970s many of the old Assembly of God churches in North Missouri were dying out as the youth fled to the cities for jobs.

In some places, new Assembly of God churches that were trendy were established, as in Princeton. The new generation had new songs that sounded like rock and roll music. My mother and father liked the old fashioned emotional ones, “preachin, prayin, singin, shoutin,” and could not tolerate attending the new ones with new catchy youth songs. The old ones were grounded in the l930s style of a revivalist movement. The new ones represented the trends of a new generation. They were somewhat less puritanical and attuned to the emerging popular culture.

Before long, everyone had a TV. It was TV age fundamentalism. It seemed to be at one with popular conservative political culture. The marketing of religion shifted to the television screen. The giants of the screen in those days  were Billy Graham and Oral Roberts.

 

 

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Autobiography of a Black Sheep: Chapter One

 

Chapter One: Birth of a Black Sheep

Most sheep are born white. But now and then, a sheep is born black. Whether that is fortunate or unfortunate is impossible to say, but it is certain to loom large in the life of a sheep. Suffice it to say, that on the twenty-seventh day of February in the year 1945, early in the morning, a black sheep was born at the Axtell Hospital on a hill just south of the business district in Princeton, Missouri. It was a small sleepy town of fifteen hundred souls. It was a cold and windy day, as would be expected in that latitude in North Missouri in late winter. The air spit wet snow from time to time. Blasts of cold wind buffeted the wooden buildings. There were piles of dirty snow from recent storms, not yet melted. The temperature was frigid but sometimes flared warmer. The unpaved roads in the countryside were unpredictable. In the event, deep in the countryside a quick thaw made them impassible for an automobile. After ten days, I was taken home in a wooden wagon with iron wheels pulled by a team of big work horses. This black sheep was me, of course. I was taken as far as possible in an old Ford car. Just off the road in a pasture, the team was harnessed and waiting. There were some bales of wheat straw for seats and high sideboards on the wagon. Whether this was an auspicious beginning no one could tell. Poor Black Sheep. I didn’t have a clue what was happening. But who does at that stage? I was in deep solipsism.

The Girdner Family:

I was the second in a family of four siblings. On my father’s side, the Girdner family, was an old family in America and this was the sixth generation from the original ancestor, David Girdner, who arrived from Germany in the eighteenth century. My sister, Freddie Sue was born on November 6, l943. I was born a little more than a year later and was named Eddie James. Mary Jane was born three years later, and my brother, Michael Roy in l952.

It seems likely that David Girdner arrived in America on the ship, The Duke of Wirtenberg, on October 10, l752. He was said to be illiterate and settled in Heidelberg Township, Northampton County, Pennsylvania. James Madison Girdner, his Great Grandson, wrote in l911 that “…he was a little old Dutchman and stood as straight in the back as a fence rail…he was so straight he almost leaned back…So far as I know he was the first Girdner that ever came to this country and he was a full blooded German…the little old straight backed Dutchman …certainly is the daddy of us all…”

The line of descent was direct from David Girdner. His only son, Michael Girdner, born in l755, had nine children, including Joseph Girdner. Joseph had eleven children including King David Girdner, born in 1830. He was my Great Grandfather. King David married Mary Ann Underwood, his second wife, and had eight children one of whom was my Grandfather Edward Girdner.

David Girdner, the original immigrant, fought in the Revolutionary War and served through the whole seven years up to the end of the War in l783. In 1777, he was a 2nd Lieutenant in the 7th Company of the 3rd Battalion of the Northampton County, Pennsylvania Militia.

That I am a genuine “son of the American Revolution” was well documented from this history.

Some of the family moved to Tennessee. Other relatives fought in the War of 1812. Another David moved to Missouri in 1834 and fought to drive the Mormons out of Missouri. His brother Joseph came to Missouri and settled in Mercer County in 1839 about three miles northeast of what is now the town of Princeton. He acquired 480 acres of land and was a mechanic, blacksmith, and wagon-maker. He was one of the first settlers in the county when there were about forty families in the area, other than the American Indians.

Joseph’s son, King David, was my great grandfather. The first circuit court in the county was held at King David Girdner’s residence with the jury holding their conference beneath the green forest trees.

My Grandparents:

Edward Girdner, my Grandfather, married Rhoda Sparks. The couple had five children, Mary Ann, Ray, Ralph, Roy Fred, and Marvin. Roy Fred Girdner was my father. The family purchased the farm south of Princeton in 1936 for around seven thousand dollars when it was repossessed by the bank.

Before I was born, my grandparents sold the farm south of Princeton, to my father and moved to Princeton. They lived in a small house which was next to the highway. My grandmother was small and thin like my father and had white hair. My grandfather was plump and jolly, like a heavy-set German with a ruddy complexion. If he had grown a full beard, he could have been a good Santa Claus. He had thin, white, hair.

My grandmother would always give me candy if I went to her house with my father. She kept sweets in a corner cabinet in her kitchen. I loved to go into her small pantry next to the kitchen and liked the musty smell. On the back porch facing the highway, there was a porch swing. I liked to sit there with my sister Freddie and watch the cars go past on the highway. It was also somehow fun being in town, as we were always in the country.

In front of the house there was a small wooden porch and an old hand pump which had a crank that one had to turn for water. My Grandmother’s house was much smaller than the house on the farm. But it was friendly and cozy, with colorful rag carpets on the floor and a homely scent. I loved going to my grandparent’s house.

My Grandfather would be sitting in his rocking chair. He would talk to me in a friendly way. He walked very slowly with a cane. When he came to the farm, he would go around the buildings, into the smoke house, old cave and wood shed to look around. Then he would remark that it might be the last time he would ever see them. He seemed relaxed, not worried about anything. He believed in God but was not very religious.

My Parents:

My father, Roy Fred Girdner, was born on February 4, 1900 on the Girdner farm north of Princeton. My mother, Mary Kathleen Garren, was born on August 1, 1913 in Spadra, Arkansas. My father grew up on the farm and worked on the railroad. His schooling only went up to the eighth grade. My mother lived in Paris, Arkansas. Her father, Jim Garren, was an Irish coal miner.

My mother was forced to work as a domestic servant in the home of the local middle class. As a child, my mother picked cotton. Her father was a coal miner. Later, she worked as a nurse in the Arkansas state sanitorium but there was little economic opportunity during The Great Depression.  There were many cases of tuberculosis. This widespread disease was associated with poverty in America.

My mother appreciated Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and his programs to help the poor. Politically, she always identified with the Democrat  Party.

My mother did not graduate from High school but later completed her high school through a correspondence course and got her high school diploma. She was partly American Indian. My parents had met in the church in Princeton before my father was drafted into the Army in World War II and stationed in Stockton, California. When he was discharged, in 1942, my father returned by train to Des Moines, Iowa. My mother worked as a nurse at the Princeton Hospital. My parents were married in 1942. My father returned to farming and she became a farm housewife.

My Uncles and Aunts:

I had three uncles and an aunt on my father’s side. The uncles were Ray, Ralph and Marvin. My aunt was Mary Ann. Ray was married to Aunt Lenora and was also a farmer. He lived two miles away on the main highway on a farm, but sometimes raised crops on my father’s farm. So he was the uncle that I saw the most. He was a gentle and kind person but not very bold and successful in life. He often seemed disgusted by the way things were as he shoveled ear corn into the old barn in the Fall. He seemed to always have bad luck. He did not have any children.

Ray was far more timid than my father. He seemed to have sort of lost hope in life and accepted things as they came. He moved from the old farm and lived near Highway 65 on a poor farm that he did not own. He made a poor living on the farm where he lived. His wife Lenora did not want children. Ray was closer to my father than to any of the other brothers.

My mother sometimes had conflicts with my aunt Lenora when my parents were first married and they lived in the same house. She saw her as selfish and always taking the best things.

The women made their dresses from feed sacks during the war when cloth was scarce. My mother said that Aunt Lenora always took the prettiest patterns for herself. She picked out the big potatoes and left the small ones. She saw her as selfish and greedy.

Uncle Ralph lived in a small town called Mill Grove three miles to the south of the farm and was married to Aunt Clara. He made a career of working for the Rock Island Railroad. He was a grumpy man, sour and indifferent, as if he just wanted to be left alone. His wife Clara was thin and somewhat attractive, and famous for her sweaters. She may have had more sweaters than Imelda Marcos had shoes. He had one son, Charles Ed, who was quite a lot older than me.

Uncle Marvin lived in Princeton, and was a master mechanic for the International Harvester dealer. He became well known around the area for his ability to fix farm equipment. He always seemed cross and didn’t suffer fools easily. He never came to church and seemed to scorn religion. But once he said that he had seen Billy Graham on TV and liked him. I was always a little afraid of him. He had one daughter, Carol Ann, who I liked and played with sometimes when I was a kid and visited their house. Marvin was somehow a natural genius in mechanics but was killed tragically in a car accident in Princeton.

Aunt Mary Ann was my Father’s sister. She lived in Princeton with her husband, William Rutledge, who managed the town’s electrical plant. They had two children, who were older than me, so that I did not get to know them very well.

My relatives on his mother’s side:

My mother’s family in Arkansas was poor. There were three sisters and three brothers in the coal-mining family. Her sisters were Rose and Violet. Her brothers were Ray, Troy and Dwight. I only saw them briefly during a visit as they lived far away. I only clearly remember Dwight who made a career in the Army and loved to sit for hours telling stories about military life. The two sisters had moved to California for better jobs when opportunities were scarce in Arkansas.

 

 

Human Liberation (A Chapter of American Sahib)

 

Chapter three and one-half:  Human Liberation

On the face of it, it was highly improbable that James Weldon would make it to India in the Peace Corps, given his background. First, he had grown up on a farm in supreme isolation near a small town in the Midwest. Only a few members of his class ever went on to the university.

The isolation was produced by not only religion, which cut the family off from most of the local society, but by the psychology of not desiring any social life. There were many rural families who lived in relatively isolated places but on the other hand, they generally had some sort of social life. But James’s family did not.

Outsiders hardly ever “came down the hill” to the old house on the farm where the family lived. When they did, from time to time, it was not unusual for James to run away and hide behind the house.

One regular visitor was a salesman, Mister Riggins. He was an older man who walked with a limp and sold McNess Products. He pedaled his wares from house to house. James’s mother would be home when he suddenly appeared in an old blue car. His father would be working in the field. While she did not particularly need any of the things he had to sell, she would buy a couple of things just to get him back on the road on his way. He usually refused to leave until she bought something. This was usually a very large metal box of ground black pepper or other spices. Sometimes it would be coffee or tea. The products were generally quite overpriced.

James usually ran away and hid when Riggins showed up, but he remembered the strange crude man, spinning his lies to make a sale. He had a gruff voice and spun out his practiced phrases to convince rural housewives. He swore that a severe shortage of pepper was eminent. Better stock up on it now. Not having any cash on hand, his mother would have to write him a check, which he would cash the same day. Then his father would complain when he came home about being robbed by this Riggins character who had come down from Preston. It was frightening to see him appear. But his mother did not have time to run away like she did when the preacher came.

James also remembered a Bible salesman. These guys were popular in the rural Bible belt. They sold expensive, overpriced, Bibles. But how could one pass up the deal. No one could afford to pass up the manifold blessings and Manna that was sure to fall from heaven as a result of their purchase. He did remember that his mother had bought a Bible. Even though overpriced, his father could not object very strongly. Nevertheless, he hated these salesmen.

His father had his own Bible, a well-worn one that he had ordered years before from the Gospel Publishing House in Springfield, Missouri. It was a Scofield Bible with a concordance. That was all his father ever read or studied, tracing every verse back and forth through the scriptures with the help of the references. It was exactly as a Marxist true believer who tried to understand every word that had ever been written by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.

James recalled that one day a salesman arrived selling a thick bound volume of sheet music between white plastic covers which was also excessively priced. But since his older sister had learned to play the piano, it was purchased on the installment plan.

The relatives who visited the family were few and far between. But his uncle Clay often did some farming on his father’s land. When others would come, his mother pretended to be pleased, but only wanted them to leave as soon as possible.

When the children started to school, the church they attended, the local Assembly of God, taught that it was a sin to do almost anything that was the least but enjoyable. It would be a sin to play games or sports, such as baseball, football, or basketball. His parents refused to ever attend such events. It was also a sin to dance, to go to a movie, to wear makeup and for women to cut their hair. One could not drink any alcohol. It was a sin to swear.

Outside of the school, the only activity was church. Church, church, church. Church was everything. It was ironic, then, that his mother did not actually seem to put much stock in it. Somewhat clandestinely, she actually liked Elvis Presley and Rock and Roll music, even though it was strictly verboden. The driving force was his father, driven, it seemed, by the notion that God was easy to get pissed off and that when he did, there would be hell to pay. And it seemed that having a little fun and laughter might just do the trick. God just didn’t like that shit. He was apparently a sour old bugger. So one had to walk the line and keep one’s nose to the grindstone. Hard work. Busting one’s ass was fine with God. He liked that. It would please him. Going roller skating would not. Nor would fishing. One had to be very careful what they did or thought.

As a result, the family went to church all the time. That was at least four times a week. Most people were astute enough to ignore the silly church rules, to be sure, but James’s father did not. He took them seriously. Most people went to ball games and so on. They went to movies. They did pretty much what they wanted to do. They were normal human sinners, within the context of the puritanical church doctrine.

And why not? If worse came to worse, it was incredibly easy to take out fire insurance from the ravages of hell. All one had to do was to “repent” and then God would forgive one. What could be more easy? Why deprive one’s self of enjoyment? Rationally, one should enjoy the hell out of life and then repent at the last minute before it was too late.

It didn’t take a lot of brains to figure that out, one would think. That way, one could clearly have their cake and eat it too. And there was that parable about the workers in the vineyard. Jesus had defended paying the ones who came later and worked a short time the same amount as those who worked the entire day. So why deprive one’s self of the joys of life. Getting “saved” in old age would have the same efficacy as if one had done it in youth. But one could have had a lot more fun in life.

Most people seemed to have figured that out. Perhaps God was testing them, giving them a sort of intelligence test. Perhaps the ones that couldn’t figure it out were not the clever type that he would want in heaven, anyway. Why would he want heaven filled with people with a quite low IQ.

Of course, if God got pissed off and squashed one like a bug it would be all over. One would drop into hell at once like a rock into a well. But there were so many thriving on their sinning it certainly seemed worth it to take the chance and go ahead and have some fun. Carpe Diem.

In the churches, the preachers kept admonishing one to come down to the altar and “get saved” because God might get impatient and send a truck to mow one down in the street if they did not. James took that pretty seriously, but was pretty sure that he could avoid getting hit with a truck, even if God had sent it for him. He always checked the street pretty closely before crossing.

All in all, I seemed that God had set up a system that was pretty easy to beat if one was a little bit clever and used one’s brains. After all, the brains too were given by God too, or so it was believed. So he surely expected that people would use them.

The problem was that James was not allowed to be clever. He had lived his life under the conviction that he was headed straight for hell and there was not much he could do about it. That was all there was to it. The preachers had always convinced him that he was a sinner. Even if he got saved, he was not terribly interested in living the boring life laid out for a good Christian. It just could not appeal to a young man that had any ambition in life. If one wanted to have a good life, la dolce vita, one had to sin. That was clear enough.

Because of this regimen, James had missed out on having a proper socialization and so was quite socially retarded. It was the incredibly stupid brand of religion that was largely the culprit, plus the fact that his family had been stupid enough to believe in it.

The lucky break came when he was fortunate enough to escape from his family and his home town for the state university. His normalization was not automatic. He had been deeply scarred by this sort of youth. It had taken him all of three years to begin to see the light, to get out from under the system of human terrorism and hell fire preaching that had been blasted from the pulpit all those years. It had taken him that long to realize just how goofy he had been up to that point. The idiocy that was rural life started to become clear.

But then, religion always made one goofy as far as he could tell. At least there was an inordinate amount of empirical evidence to that effect.  

It suddenly dawned upon him that the Bible thumpers had it precisely upside down. It was heavenly to go in for the “hellish” things and hellish to go in for the “heavenly” things. It was not at all certain that there was a hell in the after- life, or a heaven for that matter. But what was certain was that those country preachers had made his life a hell on earth, while the other kids and many others too were enjoying heaven on earth. Those assholes should just mind their own freaking business and leave others the fuck alone, he concluded. Why were they anyway?

He had read that many villagers in India did not buy the religious myth of heaven and hell. The only heaven and hell that existed was right here on earth. Life for some was heaven and life for others was hell and that was all there was to it. If one had money and wealth in life, one lived in heaven. If one was poor and had to toil just to live, then life was hell.

Those country preachers liked to lie and pretend that they had been the biggest sinners on earth, running around in honky-tonks with so many women and having a glorious hot time, just to get the local farmers jealous of them. Then they would pretend that they had made a huge sacrifice and given it all up for God. It was a patent fraud, but it worked, from a marketing standpoint.

Nevertheless, the Bible was no antidote to hormones. They went right on secreting and people kept right on sinning, as long as it was physically possible.  

So his third year in the university, James chucked the church. He started dating some girls and drank a few beers. He went to movies with the girls. He got a date and went to the homecoming dance. He went to all the football games. He started having a good time, and sure enough, it was heavenly. He didn’t know if he would go to heaven died, but what the fuck? He was not enjoying a little bit of heaven right down here on earth. Maybe that was what God had intended all along. If God was in charge, why did he allow all those sinful things that were so much fun?

If God did not want people to drink beer and wine, then why did he make it so tasty and inebriating? Why did Jesus perform that trick at that wedding when he turned the water into wine. He was certainly responsible for getting some of those peasants drunk on their ass that day. Why didn’t he just let them drink water? Maybe Jesus wanted to see them go wild and dance and have a good time. They had spent their whole life in painful toil and still could not get ahead. They needed some freedom to blow it off from time to time.

And why did God give men and women such beautiful genitals if he didn’t want them to use them. Why did he give them the fiery yen for sex day in and day out and all night? This was unlike some animals that only mated at a certain season of the year for reproduction. Apparently, men and women were given genitals for more than just the reproductive function. More than just to increase the population, as in animals. It seemed that humans were meant to increase their enjoyment. Perhaps that was what made them human in the first place. Why should sex be only animalistic? It had been designed to be human. A form of human liberation. And why did God make people want to dance, if it was a sin? Why did he make them happy, if they were supposed to mope around and dwell on religion all the time?

Why did God put up with the devil? Why didn’t he just squash that son-of-a-bitch? Why did God go after people and not him? If God was all powerful, as was said, it should be pretty easy to get rid of that asshole devil if he wanted to.

Somehow, it seemed that it was part of the larger scheme. God needed the devil to get his work done, the same way the United States needed the Soviet Union to be a super power. Maybe the “devil” was just another face of God, like the Hindus believed. That would make more sense. Both God and the devil were in basically the same business. They were both recruiting souls for their kingdoms. It was a matter of marketing. But one had to admit that the marketing of sin was a heck of a lot easier than marketing religion. The devil had the advantage. It was just the same with politics. It was easier to market socialism than capitalism, because the majority benefited from socialism and were just exploited by capitalism.

The upshot was that those theological principles just made no sense. One could just spin out theological Sanskrit all day and night and no one could have a clue about what was wrong or right. But it was pretty clear that making people miserable was wrong, even if it was done in the name of religion.

James had made some inroads into freeing himself from his small-town and religious background. The university had opened up his mind. Now his experiences in India were set to open up and expand his experience and thinking upon a new and higher plane. He had nothing to lose and a lot to gain.