I’d welcome your feedback–especially if you find any humor in this. It’s an early chapter from my forthcoming work–Staring into the Abyss: One Man’s Journey from Faith to Freedom.——————————
Let’s face it, being white in America is nice. In fact, it’s pretty much the best, especially if you’re a dude. And it’s even better if you’re tall. No. this isn’t a book about white privilege. Nor is it about virtue signaling.
But, it’s clearly being tall, white, and male, is the backdrop against which I’ve lived my life—if you don’t count the fact I was a fat pre-adolescent kid. After eating my body weight in Ho-Hos and Twinkies in the Maine winter of 1968, I was fortunate the gene pool from which I sprang launched me out of the husky pages of the Sears catalogue into the athletic (tall and skinny) section by by the time I was thirteen. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
What’s really important for you to know at this point is that I wasn’t born into a particularly religious family. Although my parents tell me, much to their chagrin, I learned to whistle during the middle of a sermon at McIlwain Baptist Church sometime in the middle 1960s. I’m sure I was bored and wanted to make the best use of my time given the fact I’m a bit of a (reformed) Type A kind of guy. Before I was seven or eight, I think we went to church regularly, but I’d say we had more of a God and Country sort of belief system rather than an evangelical one.
I do know we were members of what a friend of mine, the daughter of a United Methodist pastor, called the C and E Club. Our most consistent church attendance after 1968 was on Christmas and Easter. Although I do think I went to Vacation Bible School as a kid. My guess is I had as hard a time sitting still there as I did just about every where else. And I suspect my teachers felt a compulsion to pray for my parents’ patience and wisdom. They should probably have done a bit of fasting too.
As a child, we said the blessing (what Southern folk call giving thanks) before our family meals. My go to blessing was, God is good. God is great. Let us thank him for our food. Amen. Not very original, I know. But better than something that begins with good food, good meat…
At bedtime, I said my prayers. Now I lay me down to sleep, If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen. Looking back, that’s kind of a spooky thing for a kid to pray before nodding off. And on one occasion, when I was around five or six, I remember being terrified over the notion I might die in my sleep. It’s my first recollection of any existential angst, that is, if you don’t count the times we ran out of Ho-Hos.
Fortunately, my mother comforted me, somehow assuring me I wouldn’t die. She was, of course, bluffing inasmuch as she couldn’t possibly have known I wouldn’t succumb to some mysterious contagion during the night. I think bluffing is a skill she developed at Gulf Park College for Women in the middle 1950s where she learned to play poker well enough to come home and “clean out” her father and other men in a game, leading her father to lament, “I didn’t send you to college to learn how to play poker.” (Although, I’m sure he was secretly proud of her.) Now, you’ll note there wasn’t much mention of Jesus in my prayers. But they were said with the sort of childlike sincerity and reverence you’d expect of a boy and his family in the Bible Belt.
Such reverence was particularly on display whenever paternal expectations called my father into the role of offering a prayer. There were a lot of thous and thees, and wherefores and arts when he offered thanks before a meal or on some other occasion. He prayed in The King James, so to speak. Which, makes sense given the fact that was what the Bible he was raised reading and probably heard quoted in his experience at the New Canaan Baptist Church. And, as I once heard an elderly woman say eschewing newer translations of the Bible, “If the King James Bible was good enough for the Jesus, it’s good enough for me.”
We moved around a bit during my childhood. And as we did, we tried out new churches along the way. One was the Penny Memorial Baptist Church in August, Maine which my Dad described as one that looked for reasons to keep people out rather than offer much grace to sinners. Jesus may have hung out with them, but not these Baptists. And I’m guessing my Dad may have suffered same harsh judgment of Biblical tax gatherers as he was still in his first decade of employment with the IRS.
Another church we visited, this one in Louisville, Kentucky, was in a drive-in movie theater turned house of worship—which gives a whole new meaning to church theater, I suppose. But this was the early seventies, the age of facial hair, wide ties, and novel approaches to sharing The Word was just taking root. On chilly Sunday mornings, we would drive in with other worshipers, romping over the asphalt humps, roll down a window and hook the speaker into our door.
We listened as the pastor shared the gospel from a scaffolding below the giant white movie screen. It was like listening to an otherworldly voice crackling through space and static. “Oww –ett—us—ray. R –faddah—ooo—rt’nnn—evan—owl-lowed—eee—thy—ame.” I suppose my parents liked that place since any attempts at whistling in the back seat of their Pontiac wouldn’t disturb others or embarrass them.
After that attempt in Louisville in the early 1970s, I don’t recall any serious attempts at churchgoing. When we moved to Buffalo, New York, though, we lived in a largely Jewish neighborhood, save for a large Catholic family down the street. When those kids came filing out of the house, it seemed to me, an only child, like one of those tiny clown cars at the circus from which a dozen clowns emerge. There were seven kids.
Paul was the oldest, followed Mark, John, Mary, Ruth, and, wait for it, Bruce. Poor kid. One wonders if they took a look at this pink and screaming newborn and thought, “you know, he looks doesn’t really look like a Biblical name kind of kid. Let’s call him Bruce.” Being Catholic didn’t seem like much fun to me. Those poor kids couldn’t come home and watch Barnabas Collins on Dark Shadows.
But Judaism, now that looked cool. We lived in Buffalo about the time most of the young men were turning thirteen and having the Bar Mitzvahs. I thought conversion might be a good idea given the wonderful parties and amount of loot my buddies were hauling in, but the thought of learning Hebrew after school fairly well dampened my enthusiasm to convert—I wasn’t gonna give up Dark Shadows, not even for the promise of gifts and parties.
At some point in my adolescence, our Sunday mornings became a time for the three of us to have a leisurely breakfast and for my parents to read the paper while I caught up Peanuts and The Phantom in the funny papers and Parade magazine. That time was something of a ritual for us—a time for being together, catching our breath from the week’s activities, and to let the redemptive smell of freshly fried bacon, baked biscuits, and percolated coffee permeate both the air and our souls.
Such rituals, I learned, were important and I keep many today, beyond what I learned from my parent’s practices. As I’ll share later, I think they’re a part of a familial and cultural fabric which pay rich dividends for us all.
Regardless of our church attendance or how my father prayed, my childhood was idyllic. I was afforded all the opportunities of being male child with loving, white, middle-class parents who valued getting a good education. I got my values from them in a sort of Ten Commandments kind of way. Our version of Christianity was the sort that focused on not lying, stealing, or harming others, as well as on helping other people. I don’t recall much coveting going on and we were big on not committing murder or taking the Lord’s name in vain either. Though I will tell you my Mom had a knack for PG-rated profanity.
Both of my parents held Master’s degrees. My mother’s in education, my Dad’s in business. Which is pretty remarkable given they were raised in a mining community in rural Alabama. My Dad plowed behind a mule as a child, drove a school bus on dirt roads, and delivered groceries from my grandparents little country store. And I’m the first male in many generations of my family to have never worked a day in a coal mine.
Unlike many other children, I’ve always known my parents loved one another and that they loved me unconditionally. When I celebrated my 59th birthday my Dad was in the hospital. My mother felt bad about not having a gift for me or providing any kind of acknowledgement I’d made another trip around the sun. I’m her favorite child, you see. So she took the time to right a handwritten note to tell me how much my birth had meant to her. But Mom is a straight shooter who added, “Don’t get me wrong, there have been times when you were a real pain in the ass.” It’s a note I will keep the rest of my life and smile in the memory of her big heart and personality.
It was these parents who taught me to be honest, to be kind, to study, and to work hard. And when I said I’m my mother’s favorite child, I was being honest. I’m hers and Dad’s only child—as far as I know. Given the fact I’m 6’7’’ now and was a rather large baby at birth, I’m not sure Mom could have endured another set of shoulders like mine passing through her birth canal. The fact that I was a colicky baby probably had something to do with their decision not to have any more children too, as I’ve recently learned my cranky infancy made her search out whatever tranquilizerswere available in 1960.
But even with all that, as a child, my dreams were their dreams and so when it came to whether it was chauffeuring me back and forth to summer basketball camps or going off to get a private liberal arts education, they sacrificed for me in profoundly Christian ways. Looking back, I realize hardship and fear weren’t really a part of my experience.
I was born on third base.