Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Church of Beer (Chapter 11)

But if at church they would give some ale
And a pleasant fire our souls to regale.
We’d sing and we’d pray all the livelong day,
Nor ever once from the church to stray.
     — William Blake


That fall, I started junior high, which was a slightly shorter walk from our house, but in a ninety-degree different direction. The old part of the school building had been the old high school that my mother and father had attended. It was where they had been high school sweethearts and, as such, was a constant reminder that their love inexplicably didn’t last more than a few years past high school. The brick building had raised faux towers above the doors on each side of it as you looked at it from across the main road through Shillington, Lancaster Avenue. Above the left side was engraved the inscription, “Learn to Live” and on the opposite side, “Live to Learn.” Or vice versa, I can’t remember which came first, the learning or the living. Junior differed from elementary school in that there were around four times more kids, of which I only knew approximately a quarter of them. At first we all clung together in the old friendships from Shillington Elementary. We were the local kids. We knew the immediate terrain far better than the kids who’d come from one of the other elementary schools; Brecknock, Cumru or Mohnton. So we had a slight advantage over the other students, which we tried to exploit. I don’t think we were very successful, however.

In short order, the dynamics readjusted themselves into new cliques. I remained good friends with most of my best friends at the old school, but I also made new ones, too. And there was a whole new crop of girls, meaning another exponential increase in fantasies, if not realities, as it would still be some time before actual sex occurred. Given my reality at home, I retreated more and more into a fantasy world of books, music, television and movies. I busied myself at school as best I could. I joined clubs: chess, pinochle, Latin. I was in as many bands as possible, and joined the choir and men’s glee club, too. I was two pounds too small to make the football team, which was a devastating blow at the time. I wrote for the school paper, my first writing gigs. I even was a “chair boy,” which sounds better than the name implies. Chair boys rearranged the choir hall for the different choir practices each day, which required us to arrive early, leave late, and most importantly, gave the four of us in this exalted position a special hall pass, that allowed us free access to the halls at any time of day. It was like having a backstage pass for school.

The other activity I became active in was our church. By a quirk of my grandmother’s demented personality, we were Lutherans. My grandfather was not, and neither was my grandmother when they were first married. As former Mennonite farmers, my great-grandfather remained a part of the Mennonite church, but my grandfather’s generation became part of the U.C.C., or United Church of Christ. But then my grandparents divorced, and my grandmother did not want my grandfather having any extra time seeing his daughter in church. So she arbitrarily changed religions and became a Lutheran. I don’t know what criteria she used, but given that she only seemed as religious as was necessary to improve her social standing, I don’t imagine it was terribly rigorous. I certainly don’t believe she was swayed by Martin Luther’s particular way of interpreting the gospel versus, say the Methodists or Presbyterians.

So when we moved to Shillington, my mother joined the nearest Lutheran church she could find, which was Grace Evangelical Lutheran. It was located only a few blocks from our house, in between the old post office and the People’s Bank on Lancaster Avenue. I was put in Sunday School right away and many of my friends from school also went to the same church. The community I grew up in was pretty homogenous, there wasn’t a great deal of diversity. As a precocious second-grader who fancied himself a scientist — I was into studying birds, rocks and the weather from those little golden books science series that were popular at the time — I began to question the church. One day in Sunday School after hearing yet another fantastic story that stretched the credulity of ordinary reason, I raised my hand. I don’t even remember what it was I wanted her to explain, but apparently my question was of such a dangerous nature that I was literally picked up and whisked out of the classroom as if someone had just thrown a grenade into the room and we had to get out before it exploded. My parents were called in and the adults all talked amongst themselves in hushed tones, stopping occasionally to glance in my direction. I asked my question again in all innocence. I could not for the life of me understand what was wrong with asking a question. Hadn’t all of my teachers stressed that there were no stupid questions in an effort to elicit our participation in class?

Apparently I was missing something, and a “christian scientist” was called in to set me straight. He patiently explained that science and religion could co-exist but the way I remember it would not answer the questions I had. This infuriated me even as an eight-year old. The one thing I learned from this incident was to keep my mouth shut and maybe that was the lesson after all. It’s been my experience since then that the more religious among us seem to fear having their beliefs questioned in any fashion whatsoever. I’ve always thought that for anything to be worth believing, it had to be able to endure at least some level of scrutiny. It must stand up to questioning or what was the point of believing it? At eight, it seemed the most obvious of ideas and nothing has shaken me from seeing that is as accurate today as when I first thought it in 1967.

So I kept quiet, went through the motions my mother expected me to, and just tried to enjoy spending time away from home and with my friends at church. Most of the people at my church were good people. They were the majority of our community, all of my friends and their families. Since I seemed to be the only one who questioned their faith, I figured there must be something wrong with me and I assumed that at some point I would finally “get it” and would see things the way the others seemed to. It would certainly have made life a lot easier for me. So I devoted myself seriously to the lessons of Sunday School, I read the portions of the bible I was supposed to, and I memorized the various prayers my mother insisted I should know by heart. But my heart was never in it, and it was just one more reminder that the world I lived in was just one big facade in which reality and truth had no place.

At the same time as junior high began, so began our catechism classes. Suddenly, Sunday school classes of handful swelled to include every single person in seventh grade who belonged to the church, because Sunday school was mandatory in order to be confirmed, which is what they called it. For the next two years, we had to attend every Sunday school class and also attend at least one church service each week, too. If I hadn’t had some good friends there, it would have been sheer torture. Instead, it was actually kind of fun, in a weird, twisted sort of way. We were all in it together and I’ve learned since, the best friendships are forged by going through miserable experiences. I don’t know if it’s true that misery loves company, but misery definitely creates lasting bonds of friendship.

We were at an age where we tested our elders at every turn. It was the time when we were starting to look at what it meant to be an adult. We started trying to act how we thought grown-ups acted. And we were rebellious as hell. One of the first things we did to test our teachers was to begin calling all of them by their first name. If we were becoming adults, than we should be able to treat them as equals, which meant calling them by their first name rather then mister or missus whatever. It was just a small enough slight that they really couldn’t do much about it. A few of them took it in stride but it drove one or two of our instructors nuts, which was, of course, the point. They knew it, too, and tried not to let it show but we knew we’d gotten to them, which only emboldened us.

This was after all the Seventies, when all sorts of new age theories began to infect society, and religion was no exception. Our catechism curriculum included a workbook with all sorts of touchy feely exercises for us to get in touch with ourselves, a concept that meant nothing to us at the time. One of these involved randomly putting tables and chairs scattered around a room. Then one kid would be blindfolded and the idea was that another kid would lead the person around keeping him from harm as way to build trust. We, on the hand, would lead the blindfolded person to crawl under a table and tell them to stand. It didn’t quite work out the way they envisioned it would.

Our pastor, Reverend Sutherland, always seemed a bit odd to us but never more so than after he hired a person to run the “christian education” for the church. That guy was Joe Herringman, and we were as certain he was as gay as Liberace or Elton John. And just like those two, our parents seemed to have no clue whatsoever that they were. It’s remarkable how powerful our minds will avoid seeing something completely obvious when they don’t want to see it. That was certainly the case with my stepfather’s abuses. Family and friends went positively out of their way not to see what was going on. It wasn’t that any of us really minded his being gay, after all we were all virgins and didn’t really understand what it meant anyway. But we did know that Reverend Sutherland and the church preached against homosexuality as immoral and a sin, we’d heard those sermons during our forced sessions in the pews each Sunday. So the hypocrisy was pretty startling given that this was the time they were most heavily indoctrinating us with the “christian” way we were supposed to live.

Our church also hosted dances throughout the school year every Friday night. The church had a gymnasium with a full basketball court and a stage on one end. They turned down the lights, had a mirrorball and a D.J. playing contemporary records. The gym was ringed with folding chairs all the way around. The church served chips and pretzels and offered 7-oz. bottles of Coke for only 15-cents. The girls wore dresses and we had to wear ties to get in the dance. There may have been a token fee to cover costs, but I can’t honestly remember. I’m not sure why the church was interested in giving us romantic opportunities since sex was such a taboo, but such were the enigmas of doctrine versus reality.

As a generality, the girls clung to one side of the gym, and the boys to the other. We’d move around in packs. Girls would ask the popular boys to dance, and the rest of us were left to work up the courage to ask one of them. Endless posturing and talking and adolescent fears filled the air with an uneasy tension. During songs with a fast tempo, the dance floor was almost exclusively female. It was only during the slow songs that most of us boys would brave the threat of rejection and ask a girl to dance. If turned down — and it happened a lot — we would stew for a long time before trying again, perhaps setting our sights lower in order to bolster our already fragile egos. There were always a few girls that nobody ever asked to dance, and I always felt sorry for them, not that I did anything about it either. I imagined I knew how they felt, though I don’t think I really could. We had a slight advantage, because there were always many more girls than boys who came to the dances. But just showing up was often as brave as we were willing to be. We were positively paralyzed by our awkwardness and the threat of rejection. We could imagine no humiliation more complete than walking across the empty dance floor to the other side and asking a girl to dance, only to be turned down and have to walk our own last mile back to our own side. It was torture, but we willingly submitted to it every Friday.

We also busied ourselves being boys and getting into other kinds of trouble. One game we played involved chewing up the pretzels that the church provided. The trick was to build up a wad of chewed pretzel about the size of a small rubber ball. Then you’d spit it out into your hand and throw it hard at the ceiling so that it would stick. Getting it to stick was relatively easy. Getting it to stick for a long time, on the hand, was more difficult. After we’d each gotten our pretzel balls on the ceiling, we could enjoyably pass the rest of the evening watching to see when they’d fall and whether we’d hit anyone. A successful strike of a dancing person or couple was good for enormous bragging rights and much laughter. The last time I visited my old church as an adult, when I was perhaps in my mid-twenties, I was delighted to see two or three of our balls remained stuck to the ceiling more than a decade later.

Our church actually did try at least to be a part of the community. In addition to the dances, they had dinners, basketball nights on Saturdays, during the summer a theatre group put on plays, they made candies for Easter, they did a lot. This side of the church appealed to me. People being there for one another, helping each other, providing opportunities for the community to get together was the best of what any group of people could hope to achieve. But the judgmental, dogmatic flip side kept me permanently ill at ease with too many unanswered questions. The two sides never did reconcile themselves in my mind, not until much later at any rate.

We weren’t required to dress up at all for Sunday school, though most parents made their kids wear a tie. Mine didn’t seem to care that much as long as I went. One weekend I pushed the envelope and wore a Budweiser t-shirt. At that point, Budweiser was a national brand but one which had not really infiltrated Berks County. Local brands still held sway so in a way Budweiser represented rebellion in a way that seems laughable today. But because it was new and not really part of my parent’s generation, it was in a way. I imagine that’s how it’s perceived today in England, where it recently has been outselling their wonderful native ales. Young people there are embracing it as something different from what their fathers’ drank and so there too it has a rebellious image right now.

Whenever we weren’t dressed up, we usually sat in the balcony, out of sight. But for some reason I felt especially self-conscious in a beer shirt, I suppose I felt some sense of decorum made it inappropriate for church. One of the assistant pastors convinced me it would be alright. He was young. He stressed that the important thing was that I attend, not what I was wearing. It all sounded so good. I believed him. My mother, on the other hand — when she found out — took a very different, less idealistic view. She was, in fact, pissed off that I wore a beer shirt to church. My mother was, as I’ve said, not a religious woman but this was apparently beyond her tolerance. It was one of the few times she ever grounded me for any length of time. I think I got a week for that infraction. But I never did really understand what all the fuss was about. I guess it was easier to be idealistic as a child, especially when reality was not terribly ideal. As a result, I think I clung to ideas of lofty principles and moral certainty far more than I might have otherwise. To this day, it’s very difficult for me to let go of my idealism, which leads to all sort of disappointments about how our society actually functions.

I never did acquire a taste for Budweiser, though it certainly increased in popularity. And of course it ceased to be a symbol of rebellion and instead became a symbol of giant corporatism, the worst in how large companies adversely affect society in pursuit of profit. And our growing dependence on massive corporations is just one of the many disappointments I can’t shake in modern society. My clinging to idealism just won’t let me.

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