Ben didn’t last. The Big Belly closed up his oil business pretty quick. The next time I rode by for another look he was gone. From lumber to coal to oil to alcohol in three generations. Ben didn’t sell the alcohol, he drank it. He stood around his house all day drinking it. Anxiety plagued him. He had severe headaches, fainting spells, he walked around clutching his heart. The bold marauding man of commerce didn’t know which way to turn next.
For the sake of his family David Hirsh had made up with his father-in-law. But, consistent with his character he had neither forgiven nor forgotten.
I suppose Ben would have died anyway. He was getting old although still only in his early sixties. One day Jane Webster found David, who didn’t drink, closing the door to Ben’s liquor cabinet.
‘David, I didn’t know you drank.’ She said pleasantly.
‘I was just looking to see what Ben drank, Mother Webster. I might make him a present.’ David said fumblingly and with apparent embarrassment.
‘Oh, heavens, he doesn’t need any more alcohol David. Buy him a pair of socks.’
David laughed appreciatively.
Not more than a week later Ben got tanked up. Everybody said he’d probably had a little too much to drink. His heart couldn’t take it. Anyway he toppled off the toilet and they found him face down on the bathroom floor with his pants around his knees. They thought his heart had just stopped.
Big Ben’s vital spark flew out among the stars. Flying with the speed of light it set off in pursuit of the words traveling at the speed of sound that had brought his fate to him. His spark overtook his words swirling around and through them as his spark shot past Mars into the withering cold between the stars. Perhaps some light year in the distant future Ben’s spark will be drawn within the gravitational pull of some sun to bury itself once again in warmth to be emitted back into space as light to seek some future destiny.
Ben wasn’t all bad, there wasn’t much good about him, but he wasn’t all bad. That’s not possible.
While Ben and David were pursuing their destinies I was still accommodating myself to the routine of the Warden household. I had walked away from the Children’s Home with brave hopes of winning the affection of my foster parents and changing the dismal direction of my life. You know- excelsior, onward and upward, I believed this stuff. Winning the affection of my foster parents meant attaining self-respect to me. It was clear to me when Geli Warden explained the terms of my residence to me that they did not mean to allow me self-respect.
Whatever hopes I had had been dashed by my showing at Reuchlin Park. Jack Warden’s hope for an honorable servitor or page was turned into one of pure servant. I was only to clean up after them. No matter how I performed my task I was ridiculed. In an attempt to please I tried all styles of performance from the utmost seriousness to ridiculous clowning. Each attempt was ridiculed in turn until I had exhausted all the possibilities. Each attempt and rejection brought a gleam of satisfaction into Jack Warden’s eye. He was able to project his own failures onto a defenseless human being.
Then he was capable of projecting his own competence through his sons. Skippy or Cappy would ostentatiously show me the right way. The Wardens would go to great lengths to set up a situation in which I would fail and one of their boys shine.
The lawn was Jack Warden’s pride and joy, a good lawn was much to be envied. Warden spent much time and money over his. It was my duty to mow the lawn. Warden had allowed the blades of the lawn mower to become dull, consequently the mower only bent the grass over but didn’t shear it off. The result was the appearance of a very sloppy job. I had remonstrated with the Duke to get the blades sharpened but the Duke sneered away my request as the complaint of an imcompetent. Skippy would show me how a capable boy would do it, how it had been done before I got there and how it would be done after I left. He had the mower sharpened before asking Skippy to demonstrate mowing to me. Naturally Skippy did a terrific job; pointing to the lawn as if it was self-explanatory Duke gave me a deprecating glance, shrugged and walked off. My performance improved with the sharpened mower. The improvement was attributed to Skippy’s demonstration.
On the one hand I was humiliated, on the other I had no difficulty penetrating Warden’s sham. It seemed to have been my destiny to deal with sham. The direction of my life as an outsider formed me to see sham. Whereas Warden’s boys and nearly everyone I knew was trained or allowed themselves to be persuaded to accept the picture of society as it was presented to them I, as it were, lived on the side of the footlights that showed the actors and actresses in undress. The social deception basic to society was clearly exposed to me. This social deception was no more apparent than in church.
The Wardens were peculiar in their religiosity. Christianity was an additional secondary religion to them, at least to Jack and Geli. The Duke took his genealogical studies seriously; along with them was his interest in Arthurian legends, the Green Man and something he called the Celtic Twilight. He almost never referred to Jesus except by the name of Jesu as in King Arthur. He apparently believed that he knew of an older superior religion but was compelled to pay tribute to Jesus. He did it with grace.
The Wardens to all appearances were God fearing Christians, that is to say, hypocrites, who attended church every Sunday but indulged their primal passions during the rest of the week. I was expected to do the same.
The Warden were Presbyterians. They attended the old Rivers Of Blood Presbyterian down on Melmoth Avenue. Melmoth was the main North-South thoroughfare that ran along the West Side of the River. The building was a magnificent structure built post-Civil War in that style of reverence and pride so popular in America then. It sat on what was most likely the first filled in swamp.
Rivers Of Blood was my first real introduction to religion. During my days at the Orphanage I had refused to attend church. The orphans were expected to sit in the back rows as tolerated but unwanted communicants. One needs money and antecedents to attend church. An interesting fact is that church attendance in the twentieth century increased each decade as the working class prospered. Thank Henry Ford. I didn’t want to sit tolerated in the back row.
I wouldn’t have attended now had not the Wardens demanded it. As an introduction to Biblical religion Rivers Of Blood was not the worst choice. The Presbys didn’t teach as much twaddle as the other churches, but I didn’t last long at Rivers Of Blood. After the Presbys I experimented with different churches although not different religions. Of the others I found the Episcopalians and the Methodists most congenial to my termperament. The ecstatic churches like the Holy Rollers or Free Methodists was beyond my ken although I respected and understood them. Catholicism and Judaism bespoke foreign worlds I could not enter. The further one got from the established churches which at least had intellectual standards, the more the congregations were sunk in Biblical ignorance and superstition. The congregants were also less kind and more bigoted. Those sects were totally repellent to me. As I approached nearer to high school graduation I discontinued all religious experimentation.
I found the Bible itself to be a sink of ignorance; I could find no good in it. If the Bible was the actual word of God I was amazed that he could write so clumsily. My first contact with Biblical teaching at Rivers Of Blood sealed my fate. As I said my education was to the falseness of society not its virtue. I had already learned to be critical rather than accepting. As my instructors piled absurdity on top of absurdity for me to digest I became more and more incredulous.
I was also becoming a pretty sharp judge of people. Even at ten I could spot a fraud when I saw one. I had been sent downstairs to the basement where Sunday School was held. Rivers Of Blood was a fairly large church. There were twenty or thirty of us of varying ages. An adult set up the lesson who then turned its discussion over to a teenager. This guy was called Court Banke. Court was sixteen or seventeen. He was the youngest son of the Banke family. They were notorious at Rivers Of Blood. They had the most exalted opinion of themselves. The father and mother never came to church. The Bankes believed the old man to be a great man, perhaps of the order of- well, not Christ, but Caesar, Napoleon, at least Wellington, who had somehow been deprived of his inheritance. Sort of a once and future king who had been denied his sword the second time around. The Bankes family too thought they stood head and shoulders above the rest of us.
God had selected his chosen people according tothe Bible. John Calvin pondering over the text of the Bible had come to the conclusion that there were also chosen persons- the elect in God’s sight. These chosen ones were Justified Sinners; they were assured a place on the right hand of God no matter how they lived their lives. They were incapable of losing grace. the Bankes considered themselves among these self-chosen. In a small way they tyrannized over the rest of the congregation by the sheer force of their belief. No one would stand up to them hence their claims were honored to a very large extent. No one even dared contradict them about the alleged magnificence of their father.
The oldest was Montgomery, his feet were on the earth but his mind was flirting with the great beyond. Insanity is a very special quality which few actually attain; Monty was wildly distracted. He was of the age when he knew he must realize the grandeur of his family’s pretensions. He had no abilities; or even skills, so he had hit upon the notion that he was ‘called’ to be a great minister. He hadn’t even the talent for that. He had already been twice entered in religious colleges, once Presby and then some non-denominational place. He hadn’t lasted three months in either one. He was just back from the latter. When I was sent upstairs I would find him charging into walls in the hopes of realizing his father’s greatness.
The second brother, Morgan, was near twenty. He was quiet for himself, although he fiercely defended his family’s claim. Courtois, or Court Banke taught Sunday School. He was as much a raver and fanatic of his family’s claims as Monty. There were also two girls, Lee and Fay. Lee was about fourteen, while Fay was my age. Morgan and Court were fairly good looking while Monty was actually repulsive. Lee was OK while Fay was homely. Lee and Fay acted as cheer leaders for the Bankes family.
Court, because he thought himself justified believed himself therefor not only sanctified but possessed of all Biblical knowledge. In other words he thought that his level of ignorance was the upper limit of everyone else’s knowledge. Anyone who was the upper limit of everyone elses knowledge. Anyone who questioned his opinion was merely perverse. As is natural with people of his type they find it more necessary to eliminate the questioner rather than face the consequences of their own ignorance.
At that time having a personal relationship with Jesus was the primary thing. One had to accept Jesus as your personal savior, as opposed to what other kind of savior I don’t know, or to be saved in order to become a candidate for heaven. I, of course, accepted Jesus as my personal savior, as I thought sincerely, and was therefore saved. Saving was an early form of being born again. I was later to learn that you can’t be saved too often.
The first block I stumbled over was Court’s assertion that no one who had not accepted Jesus was forbidden the kingdom of heaven whether or not the choice had ever been offered to him. To my young mind this notion presented some insuperable difficulties. Even a child could read that the Bible was written by Jews for Jews. The primary assertion is that the Jews are God’s chosen people destined to the dominion of the world and its peoples. The Bible said it not once, twice or thrice but innumerable times in many different ways. The Jews had made a deal with God, not put out to bid one might note, and according to them He put it in writing.
Yet, we were told that this privileged people were to be denied entrance into heaven because they refused to accept what was said to be their own flesh and blood, if not God himself in human guise, as their personal savior. I was young and tender but I saw a contradiction in there somewhere.
Court’s answer was the direct intellectual approach that the truth is the truth, it has to be accepted without question or else you would roast in hell for longer than anyone could remember. But I had also challenged the limits of his intelligence so that from that moment he began to eye me as a troublemaker.
I didn’t like being put down by someone who came from a family that was at least as distraught, if not delusional, as myself. As far as I knew Court’s father had no job and had not even left the house for years. The family was living from hand to mouth. The family’s claims to pre-eminence were of the most specious nature. I was still struggling with the problem of the exclusion of the Chosen People from heaven when Court elaborated further that anyone alive today or who had ever been alive in the past who had never heard of Christ let alone had the opportunity to accept or reject him, was condemned to burn in the eternal flames- forever- as Court redundantly added. I asked if this meant all the Asians and Africans. I was informed in Court’s officious omniscient manner that this was so. I wasn’t against a White man’s heaven but there was something so grossly unfair, so contradictory to what Christian teaching I knew, that I had to reject the notion. There was just no logic that God would reject his own creatures without a chance at salvation.
I wasn’t clear enough on the relationship of God and the Jews to give an argument on that issue but I had to stand up and reject the notion of all those innocent heathens roasting in hell. The Bible is not a treatise of reason; the Bible is a book of dogma. Court Banke did not reason with me. He condemned me to hell. Now Court was only sixteen or seventeen, not old enough to overawe me with his presence nor to convince me of his superior learning. I did not take kindly to being condomned to hell, especially as I had already received Jesus Christ as my own personal savior. The first of many times I would be required to do so by these insecure religious fanatics.
I was not averse to being vocal about my understanding or, as the dispute turned ad hominem, about my opinion of my instructor. Fay Banke reached over and hit me during my debate with her brother, I shoved her back. There was a hurried consultation between Court and the adults. The result was that my career in Sunday School was terminated. The Bible, the mother of bigotry, and its disciples were not to be questioned, I was not to be allowed to remain to corrupt the minds of my fellow students.
The Wardens received the news with a sigh, but it was a relieved sigh. Here was proof that I was, in fact, inferior to their Patricians.
Thenceforward I attended regular church services upstairs. There I was able to observe the result of the religious training going on downstairs. Rather than inculcating a sense of universal love and brotherhood, the devotees of the Religion of Love had acquired a sense of distinctness and superiority to their fellow man. I now learned that the list of the hell bound not only included Blacks and Asians and Jews but the Catholics also. The odds of any of these getting into heaven were longer than the longest. Nor was there a universal ticket to heaven by being a Presby. In their evening discussions with God on their knees a sort of consensus had been arrived at as to which score or so of the congregants were assured of a place; which few might gain admittance and which multitude most assuredly would not. The list varied according to the speaker but I learned that I was on the list of everyone’s excluded. The chosen persons, the Justified Sinners actually had a walk, a bearing that distinguished them from the damned.
I was only a kid but I could hear could hear this twaddle with barely suppressed laughter. Aw heck, I didn’t even try to suppress it.
As I sat in that most Christian congregration Sunday after Sunday, I became conscious of being the center of attention for some reason. I was soon to find out why. I was expected to wait till the Wardens had gotten out of the car and entered the church after which I was exptected to walk in as though by myself. I was expected to leave early to slouch out of their sight in their car as they got in and drove away.
I looked about for a seat, then gravitated to the first row, primarily because as I was short I could see better. I didn’t have to look over, around or through someone else. I was growing up in a secular society in which everyone considered themselves equal, but this equality did not extend to Biblical or religious society. The congregatin was so organized that one’s place was apparent from one’s proximity to the pulpit. My act was considered a piece of pure presumption. As a little orphan boy I was mistakenly perceived by most as a bastard. The two terms are synonymous in most people’s minds. Anyone who has perused the pages of the Bible knows that bastards require ten generations to be accepted by the faithful. The tenth generation is way at the bottom of the list of undesirables. Even the Egyptians who held the Israelites in bondage only have to wait three generations. Ten generations is something like two or three hundred years. I couldn’t wait that long. I was only first generation, year ten.
There were murmurs. There was discussion. The Constitution came into conflict with the Bible. The two traditions existed side by side in everyday life but Americans have a tacit agreement to never discuss religion as there was an uneasy truce between the attitudes in public. I now thrust the problem before them in the sanctuary. They had all tacitly accepted the Biblical hierarchy, but they were not clear as to how to deal with the offender. The Biblical need for superiority clashed with the political need for equality. They daren’t tell me that my social position was unequal to theirs, still my sitting complacently in the front row irritated them and traduced their notion of the divine order.
As a stopgap they devised the notion that the front row was the appropriate place for the little children of God. The younger children were now encouraged to sit in the front row with me, however the arrangement proved not entirely satisfactory.
Court’s brother Montgomery who, since he had been sent home from the non-denominational seminary, had been in a state of mortal anxiety, had been importuning the ministers for the chance to deliver a sermon, was now given one. The minsters must have thought it better to give Monty a chance to make a fool of himself than to allow him to disrupt the congregation with his importuning.
Monty believed, quite sincerely, that God had called him to the pulpit. All the ministers had been ‘called’ to the profession. Monty believed God had called to him in a voice curiously like his own. His sense of frustration at being denied the opportunity to answer God’s call was intense. After months of the most obscene begging the ministers gave him a chance to deliver a sermon.
Monty misunderstood the whole religious proecess. He wanted to receive rather than to give. His goal was self-aggrandizement rather than solicitation for the flock. I was a humble member of his flock but he displayed the most obvious contempt for me. Now, of a Sunday, Monty mounted the pulpit.
Monty was about five-nine and stout. He was not unwashed but he had that unclean, unsavory aura about him. He was round faced and slab cheeked, slightly pock marked. His eyes and nose were non-descript. His mouth flowered forth from his face like two folded over slices of baloney. They were not only thick, by thick I mean bulbous, but they protruded beyond the plane of his face by some distance. In addition they were always wet as though he couldn’t firmly close them and the saliva oozed out like pus from a sore.
I knew it was futile to let him speak. I rocked back and forth a little bit in anticipation. I didn’t know when the precise moment for my opportunity would be but I knew it was coming. Monty didn’t have anything in his head so when he opened his mouth nothing intelligible came out. As he lacked Christian charity what did come out no one wanted to hear. I could feel the tremble of anguish behind me. Monty could see it. As he realized the progression of his failure he attempted to overcome it by violence. He shouted and roared more. He leaned forward out of the pulpit punching the air as though to beat the congregation into acceptance. The anguish of the ministers sitting to the side of Monty was apparent.
Suddenly Monty made a long pause, still leaning out of the pulpit, his fist stretched before him almost to where I could touch it. Then his fist opened and he began clutching the air rhythmically as though milking a cow. All his hope fell from his face as he bellowed in desperation: ‘People! People, if you want to find God you’ve got to go out and grab him. Grab him! Grab him and bend him to your will!’
Bend Him to your will! My knees rose reflexively, I rolled to one side as my pealing sobs of laughter burst as by ventriloquism throughout the whole church. Banke froze in humiliation, the church was absolutely silent except for my high pitched gasping peals of laughter. It took me two minutes to get myself under control. Monty began to speak again but the mere sound of his voice set me off once more. I got up and staggered out of Rivers of Blood holding my stomach. ‘Grab God, bend him to your will.’ Just like you Monty, just like you. I thought.
Well, I had given the congregation the excuse they needed, not to mention the Banke family. I was asked to remove myself from the front row. The Wardens were chosen to give me this message. It was intended, if not stated, that the back row was now not good enough for me. The Wardens themselves sat in the tenth row which was considered by some to be an act of presumption. Now, Jack Warden, the descendent of Richard Couer de Lion, secretly wanted to sit in the front row. He mollified his conscience for sitting in the tenth row by inventing the excuse that he chose to do so because his eyes focused more perfectly at that distance from the pulpit. Various scruples prevented Warden from telling me, who after all was a stranger in his household, where to sit, but I considered it wiser to sit behind them.
I removed myself to the fifteenth row, half way back. There, periodically the congregation turned and looked back at me in my exile in satisfaction. Those around me treated me as an intruder while those behind me seemed to ask why I was so far forward by their expressions. ‘What entitles him to sit in front of me?’ They seemed to say. Christian charity was conspicuously lacking in God’s own house.
I continued to scandalize the congregation. As I was now unable to see I grew bored and restless. I was an outcast so I did not feel the restraints of the included. Law and laws were different for me. I first scandalized those near me by taking off those outsized shoes, examining the details of construction with great care, while I listened to Reverend Breedlove drone on about the importance of being good neighbors.
I might have been allowed to remain in the fifteenth row but for the following incident.
Reverend Breedlove, who had a tendency to gush in the pulpit, told a story- an anecdote- one Sunday of a saintly child who found himself without any change to put in the collection plate as it passed by him. This saintly child asked the usher to place the plate on the floor. Stepping into the plate the child said: ‘I have no money to give the sweet baby Jesus so I give myself instead.’ That boy had not only been saved but received. Then an audible hum of wonder and admiration rose from the congregation. Perhaps I misinterpreted its tenor.
The application to my own situation seemed to me to be uncanny. The Wardens refused to give me a nickel to put into the collection plate. My sense of mortification was intense each week as I passed the plate to my neighbor without putting anything in it. Once my neighbor passed it back with a querying look. I could only indicate to him to pass it on as the usher snickered. For a brief while I placed my finers on the plate in imitation of placing a coin in the plate. Then the rumor spread that I was taking money out of the plate. My mental agony oppressed me. Reverend Breedlove’s anecdote gestated in my distressed agitated mind for some weeks.
One Sunday in desperation I asked the usher to place the collection plate on the floor. He stopped in his tracks giving me a look of incredulous disbelief. ‘You’ve got to be kidding?’ He said. Well, I wasn’t, although as he stared at me, mouth gaping, I wished I had been.
As a little gale of laughter flashed out into the church from my section, I wondered what made that other boy a saint and me a fool. The story advanced in a wave of whispers. The ripple of laughter marked its progress. Reverend Breedlove looked up with a questioning look on his face. Skippy and Cappy stood right up and scowled back at me. I lamely said to the usher: ‘Well, it’s me or nothing.’ They chose nothing but I think they were wrong.
Once again the congregation was scandalized. There was discussion during the week to which I was not party. The next Sunday when we arrived, early as usual, the good Reverend Breedlove called me into his office. I wasn’t very happy about this as the rumor was that Reverend Breedlove lived up to his name and did not discriminate between the sexes. The laying on of hands had a whole different meaning in his office. As it turned out he had taken the task of breaking the delicate news to me manfully upon himself rather than delegating the responsibility to one of lesser tact. He informed me that in the future a special place for me had been reserved in the vestibule behind the rest of the congregation. I was not surprised but I was hurt. I bargained to be allowed to sit in the balcony which was at least a part of the church and was usually unoccupied. Christian charity virtually bubbled from the good Reverend as he consented.
Thus I placed myself in the front row of the balcony that gave me a superb view of what was going on in the congregation. In my position overlooking the folk I learned that I had never done anything which was not exceeded by what I saw. It was as though I had invaded their privacy. I was more conspicuous than before. Heads turned slightly as eyes sought me out in my eagle’s nest. As happens in these situations the balcony became a desirable place to sit just because I was sitting there. It filled up. I was once again in the way.
I made another visit to Reverend Breedlove. He insisted that I sit in the vestibule. I made numerous objections giving good and weighty arguments both religious and secular, but the Law was set aside and naked human desire prevailed. Charity wasn’t even for Sundays.
The vestibule could be sealed off from the church. The congregation shrunk from closing me off completely. One door was left ajar from which I couldn’t even see the pulpit. It was with a very heavy heart that I sat out each Sunday, lounging as it were in the vestibule. Sometimes I felt like crying, sometimes I felt like screaming. Then one fine Sunday, I turned my gaze from the half closed door leading into the darkness of the church and noticed the open door leading out of the church. The beautiful sunlight was streaming in. I cast another glance into the dark recess at the representatives of the god of Justice and the assembled adherents of the Religion of Love, turned and walked out the door into the warm bright sunshine. I left them to their calculation of who was going to heaven who to hell. My curiousity took me elsewhere.
Curiously, or, as I thought, curiously, when I told the Wardens that I wouldn’t be attending church with them anymore they acquiesced in silence. Perhaps I had fulfulled their expectations. Perhaps in their minds I had vindicated the Patricians again.
I had no interest in Rivers Of Blood nor was I able to develop enthusiasm for any other church as many as I tried. But then America is a religious country and religion is big business. There were alternatives to the established churches. There were wonderful traveling road show evangelists. The evangelists used every gimmick to mulct an audience of its hard earned cash. I should not say mulct for in fact evangelism was in many ways the most chanciest form of entertainment. The shows were expensive to run, costing as much to stage as touring Broadway shows. Unlike theatre they couldn’t charge admission, they had to rely on passing the plate. The audience could give or not give depending on what they thought of the show.
The evangelists had to put on a good show too; if they couldn’t whip an audience into orgiastic foot stomping enthusiasm they were through. No money, no fame, no god. I saw the youngest evangelist, Marjoe Gortner, who had a good stage presence but failed mainly because a boy my age or younger wasn’t credible. The packaging was too obvious. I also saw the ‘oldest living Cowboy evangelist’ Cowboy Bob Danvers. Cowboy Bob would have been worth money if I’d had any to give him, I didn’t, so as far as I was concerned he worked for free. Bob was a charitable guy.
The late forties was a golden age for evangelism. Fear and anxiety had melded into a full blown hysteria, close to mass madness. Communism and Russia was the main fuel but a whole generation was emerging from the decade of the Great Depression. In 1950 the country had been prosperous for five years but the survivors of the Depression lived in constant fear of the recurrence of the event. Fear haunted their waking and sleeping hours, they didn’t believe that prosperity would last. They went out and bought the brand new toy, the Television set, notwithstanding. As the fear of the Second Coming haunted the back of Big Ben’s mind, the religious fanatics were out proclaiming the imminent arrival of Jesus amongst the billowing clouds because the Jews were returning to Israel.
The Atom Bomb had disturbed a number of people when we had the monopoly, but now that Russia announced that they had the Bomb anxiety was reaching a fever pitch. A few months earlier I had read a fantasy in the paper in which a doomsday writer had postulated, with diagrams, that if the Russians exploded an atomic bomb at the intersections of a one hundred mile grid laid over the United States that the resultant fire storm would consume all life giving the Commies absolute victory. The proposition was so absurd that it cured me of all fear of the Bomb, although instant destruction haunted the minds of the majority of the people.
Of course the substratum of the evangelists success remained personal guilt and affliction, combined with the unfathomable ignorance of mankind. But the evangelist had to be good. Billy Graham and Oral Roberts were men of incredible talent and skill. Cowboy Bob didn’t have that much talent. You can fool some of the people some of the time but it takes a man of God to fool them all the time. Cowboy Bob wasn’t a man of God but he was a terrific showman. His packagers and managers had put together a once in a lifetime show.
Bob was seventy-eight, or so they said, which made him at least the oldest living Cowboy evangelist if not the oldest living evangelist. He may actually have been that old because I read his obit about a year later which forced his packagers to strike the word ‘living’ from his billing. The rumor was that it was a great show. June 14th found me sitting in the balcony waiting for the show to start.
As usual I found an aisle seat. Next to me was a pudgy young woman and her girl friend. She was neither a beauty nor cultivated but she perceived herself as a beauty while putting on coarse airs of quality. She was gazing about hoping to be admired when a stentorian voice announced: ‘You still sellin’ it, honey?’
The girl fluttered, looked around with unseeing eyes and said to me: ‘I don’t know what he’s talking about, do you?’
I could have asked her the obvious question: ‘How did you know he was talking about you?’ when the voice clarified the situation by saying: ‘Yes, you, down there in the pink shirt and blue ribbon. You still selling it or are you giving it away now?’
She fluttered some more, placing her fingers over her mouth. Without seeing me she stared into my face with a most plaintive look. A good rule is, don’t ever get involved, but I took pity on her. I shouted up toward the voice: ‘What kind of guy insults a woman in a theatre?’
‘This doesn’t concern you kid, shut up, or I’ll come down there and shut you up.’
My opportunity: ‘Oh yeah? You’re the kind of guy who insults women and beats up little kids, huh?’
‘I’m just telling you to shut up, kid.’ He snarled back.
‘Oh yeah, ‘sides you take money from a man to do what you do. What makes you so hot?’
‘Why you…’ He shot back. ‘I don’t take money from a man for what I do.’
‘Oh yeah, you get a pay check, don’t you? Who signs it at the bottom? Some guy, right? You take money from men too.’
My retort, that came from where I don’t know, stunned him and shamed his manhood. His check was signed by another man, his superior, the man who told him what to do, who subordinated the fellow’s manhood to his own. The Mouth understood my meaning; rather than give up he now moved to the defensive.
‘No one signs my check you little creep, it’s a rubber stamp.’ He shouted out for all the world to hear, standing up with arms still folded across his chest: ‘It’s a rubber stamp.’ emerged from him several times as he tried to convince himself and others that he was a real live independent male.
I turned to face forward to find the pudgette studying me and my clothes with utter disdain. ‘Some Lochinvar.’ She said, now feeling secure. ‘Come on Mary, let’s go sit somewhere else around people who know how to dress.’
I was hurt. I had no ready answer as I tried to arrange a thought while ‘It’s a stamp’ was still descending from above. The house stirred as a curtain went up to reveal a gospel quartet sitting around an electric campfire in imitation of the trail. They broke into a strident version of the ‘Little Brown Church In The Dell.’ They were really good. Each one of them could not only carry, but run, with the tune. All of them knew where the notes were and the harmonies carried an edge. By the time they got to the second reprise of the march: ‘Come, come, come, come.’ The audience had joined in stamping and clapping; about a third of the house was on its feet.
The stage director had the stage lighted perfectly, the quartet was miked as sharply as anything at the time. When they started their second song, a rousing version of ‘Give Me That Old Time Religion’ it was clear that the musical director, who appeared leading a hundred voice local choir when a second curtain rose, really knew how to arrange those tunes. The miked voices of the quartet came booming out of the loudspeakers accompanied by an unseen concertina, harmonica and guitars, while the choir swelled from the stage. At the end of the tune while the quartet continued ‘Old Time Religion’ the choir switched to ‘Will There Be Any Stars In My Crown?’ The whole audience was now on its feet cheering, stomping and singing.
Cowboy Bob Danvers, the oldest living Cowboy evangelist, made his entrance. God, what a stunning entrance. Bob was gorgeous. They could have called him Gorgeous Cowboy Bob. He was a little coot not more than five foot three, extremely thin- like two toothpicks stuck together. His boots and hat dominated his appearance. The boots were black with a white eagle cut into the front. There was big silver plate on the toes as well as a tap. He wore a black suit of lights with silver spangles down the seams of his pants which were tucked into his boots. An enormous silver buckle covered his midriff, while the yoke of his jacket was ablaze with silver spangles. the bottons of his shirt reflected blazing stabs of light. His hat was half as tall as he was and probably of a larger circumference. If there were bigger ten gallon hats, this was it. The hat was radiant white with a silver spangled hatband. There was a dint on either side of the peak.
Cowboy Bob had an old man’s face, when you could see it under the brim of his giant hat. He had an enormous beak in a squat face. The nose was extraordinary. It not only protruded a great distance but was of uniform length from the bridge to the nostril. It just seemed to erupt from his face. His mouth was a straight line, cleft, as it were, between his nose and chin. The chin seemed to rise up seeking to touch his nose. He had a very self-satisfied air. Despite all his activity he seemed relaxed even complacent.
If he was seventy-eight he wasn’t giving up anything to age. He came bouncing dazzlingly on stage moving sideways crablike in a spectacular dance whooping and hollering. He fired off two enormous six-shooters that gave off an enormous amount of smoke as the lights played off the spangles of his outfit. He passed behind the podium to the left, or stage right and bounced, kicked and hopped to the other side of the stage. He was able to imitate the cowboy on the logo of the San Francisco Forty-Niner football team; like him he fired a double barreled salvo at the ground mid-stage. Twirling his guns on his fingers he raised his arms directly over his head with a loud ‘Hoo haw’ as though to say: ‘Look at this and I’m seventy-eight.’ In fact he did bellow: ‘I’m seventy-eight if I’m a day.’ which I did note was a qualified statement. He fired off a salvo at the ceiling, then while bouncing back to stage center he began the most beautiful precision movement with the guns I’ve ever seen. Spinning them slowly on his fingers he brought them forward and down in a perfect arc. Bringing his elbows up till they were level with his shoulders he swept the guns past the holsters and threw the six-pistols into the holsters from behind as he came to a complete stop. He tilted his head back to show a gruesome smile. Then slowly raised, he didn’t even kick, his right leg up until it moved his hat a little. He had big silver plates on his heels too. He lowered his right leg as he repeated the movement with his left. He was capable of getting each leg straight up. The audience was watching spellbound. I was breathing and swallowing hard. Then Bob kicked three or four times in quick succession. On the the last kick while his right leg was touching his hat he made an effortless and beautiful pirouette. He brought his leg down, screamed out another ‘Hoo haw’ as he drew his pistols faster than anyone could see and fired off another salvo. Then, just to show us who he was, or possibly who we werent’, he bounced over to the podium, changed pistols with another two someone had laid out for him and did it again with a few additional moves.
The audience was breathless; Cowboy Bob had won us over completely. People on every side were uttering: ‘God, look at that guy go. He’s seventy-eight and he can move like that?’
As the lights played through the smoke from his guns and reflected off his spangles Bob stood front center stage and said in a very beautiful pear shaped baritone that sounded like a ventriloquist projected it from his improbable frame, filling the auditorium without the aid of amplifiers: ‘Howdy Folks, I’m Cowboy Bob Danvers and I’m here to tell you what God has done for me. And don’t never forget, People, what he’s done for others he can- and will, if you let him- do for you.’
The audience broke into wild cheering that went on for minutes. People left their seats and milled about in the aisles. Some clusters of people remained seated, alternately, even simultaneously cheering and discussing Bob among themselves. People wandered aimlessly, hands in pockets, stunned by the unbelievable demonstration of agility in an eighty year old man. I left my seat and moved down to the front of the balcony to study this guy closer.
Then Bob began speaking: ‘I said I’m here to tell you what God did for me.’ The crowd slowly calmed down. While the noise diminished Bob took off his hat and held it in front of him. The brim reached from his knees to his chest, but good God, what a magnificent head of silver hair. The hum died down, Bob gave a little smile as if to say: ‘See, isn’t God good to me?’ tipped his head forward and rotated it so that we could see that he didn’t have a bald spot in back, then replaced his hat.
The magnificent baritone, God it was pretty, began again, projecting even into the last row of the balcony.
‘I’m here to tell you what God has done for me. Now, I don’t want to shock any of you ladies, children and good folk with any bad language but I was a borned hell-raiser. That’s right. I said it. I’m ashamed for it but I was a borned hell-raiser. I was mean. I was mean just to be mean. Just because it felt good. I’m small but I was tough and as you can see, quick on the draw.
I remember one time a bunch of us boys had pulled into Dodge after driving a herd up from the river. The Rio Grandee River, down in Texas. We’d drew our pay. The whole bunch of us had three or four hundred dollars in our pockets. In those days three or four hundred dollars was a heck of lot more money than it is today. That was way back before the turn of the century. Well, Folks, we come to cross the Canadian River to get into town. This feller had thrown up a toll bridge across the river and he wanted us to give him two-bits to ride across. Well, Sir, we had the money and to spare but we didn’t want to give him a quarter. Well, we gave a whoop, just like some of ’em like I’ve give up here, drawed our guns, spurred our horses, fired a few rounds at the bridge keepers feet, a few in the air and rode across whether he liked it or not. Well, Folks, I can tell you he didn’t like it a bit. He raced into his shack and got hisself his double barreled shot gun. Well, we was already across the bridge but I can still hear the buckshot clatterin’ along the boards of that bridge behind our horses heels…’
A hum rose from the audience as we sucked in our breath simultaneously. I lowered my head in awe to absorb Bob’s story. When I did so I saw the Wardens sitting on the main floor. They’d shown up for this. Skippy, when Bob had completed the story, snapped back in his seat dumbfounded. He put his fingers to his chin in astonishment.
‘That’s the kinds of things I did folks, but that’s not the worst. That was my best behavior. When they found gold in the Klondike I went North to Alaska. But I didn’t like the hard honest work of mining. In those days there was plenty suc…uh, honest businessmen, a lot of Britishers, who would buy claims sight unseen. Well, I’m ashamed to say, I salted- salted- you know, spread a little gold around to make it look like a gold mine, a few giggings and sold ’em, cheated those good people out of their hard earned money.
Yes, I was leading an evil life, drinking chasing loose women, just, pardon my French Folks, raisin’ hell. I never killed a man though, wouldn’t never do nothin’ like that. I honestly don’t know what all I did. My life was kind of a drunken haze. I was wasting the most precious gift God ever gave anyone, my life. I can’t even tell you how I got down to the South Seas- Tahiti, but I found God there face down on a barroom floor. I opened my eyes from that alcoholic haze and there he was, looking up at me, shaking his head at me in pity and shame. And you know,’ a note of shyness crept into this voice, ‘with a beak like mine that’s plenty of room between me and the floor for God to see me.’ The audience broke into wild laughing and cheering.
‘Since that time.’ Bob shouted out. ‘I’ve dedicated my life to Him, to bring His message to you.’
At this time the quartet moved up behind him to aid him in a version of Stuart Hamblen’s song ‘It Is No Secret.’ Bob crooned along with the quartet. The musicians who could no longer tolerate being hidden in the wings moved out beyond the curtain where they could be seen and appreciated. The concertina played the high notes, undertoned by the harmonica, while one guitar strummed out the chords and the other ran off glissandoes. The words of the song fit in perfectly with the message Cowboy had been expounding of religious creed:
The chimes of Time
Ring out the news,
Another day is through,
Someone slipped and fell,
Was that someone you?
You may have longed
For added strength
Your courage to renew,
Do not be disheartened
For I have news for you.
It is no secret
What God can do.
What he’s done for others
He will do for you.
With arms wide open
He will welcome you.
It is no secret
What God can do.
Then Bob gave another few words about how he wouldn’t change back no matter what temptations the Devil placed before him. I thought that might not be totally true for I saw Bob’s eye lighting on the young twelve and thirteen year old girls in the audience with a gleam. But then Bob said they were going to sing a song ‘and it has a pretty good chorus, so if you want to join in do so lustily.’ They then did a rousing version of I Shall Not Be Moved. ‘Just like a tree that’s standing by the water, I shall not be moved.’ The audience did join in. It was a tremendously moving experience. The audience was open to suggestion.
In the theatre the play is the thing, the audience is required to direct its attention solely to the play. In the rivival meeting, which is really only a sort of morality play, the audience is the thing. It is a particiapatory or inter-active show. In actuality the dividing line between stage and audience is dissolved. Directed by the evangelist the whole becomes one great communion. This magic had now occurred. Cowboy Bob had wooed and won the entire audience. He now retired into the stage left wing while another fellow came out to address us in the heart wringing tones full of love for humanity, commiseration for all sinners and a request for money: ‘Dig down deep, give all you can Folks, this one’s for God.’
Those who really felt the spirit of the Lord were asked to come down the aisles to receive their savior. Preparatory to passing the collection plate the milling audience was requested to go back to their seats, clear the aisles let the repentant through.
The crowd separated, going back to seats while a stream of people began to slowly move forward filled with reverence. Cripples hobbled up on their crutches to be healed while people on stretchers were wheeled down the aisles. The choir began a softly sung version of ‘Just A Closer Walk With Thee, Blessed Savior Set Me Free.’ My eyes were open wide with wonder and awe as I overheard two men speaking behind me.
‘Gosh, that was a terrific story about the toll bridge wasn’t it?’
‘Yeah, I always liked it.’ Was the reply.
‘Oh, you’ve seen Cowboy Bob before?’
‘You mean Solly? Naw, I just know the story. He lifted it from Charlie Siringo, maybe word for word, if I know Harve Baker.’
‘Solly? Charlie Siringo? Harve Baker? What do you mean?’ Replied the rube.
‘Well, kid, the story came from a book of reminiscences by a real cowboy called Charlie Siringo. Charlie had an interesting life. He was in on the gunfight with Bonney, then joined the Pinkertons and tried to run down Butch and the Kid. He wrote about these things. Then they asked him to go out to Hollywood as a kind of technical director. I always meant to go out and meet him but I never found the time, wish I had now. I don’t think Solly knows the book but Harve Baker who packaged the show sure does.’
This information flew over the Rube’s head, or at least he had to take time to sort it out. He returned to Solly.
‘Well, but who’s this Solly guy?’
‘Solly? Sol Rosenblum? That’s Cowboy Bob’s real name.’ The Slicker said confidentially.
‘Cowboy Bob’s not Cowboy Bob?’ The Rube asked with a catch of disappointment in his throat.
‘No. No. That’s Solly Rosenblum. Used to be the Human Pretzel until he couldn’t bend the way he used to. That’s why he’s so agile. That sideways hop, those spectacular kicks; terrific huh? When I last saw him he talked like a Hebe, although he always had a terrific voice. I don’t know where he picked up that terrific Western drawl. He was always a great guy though. He’s just the same in real life as he was on stage. Amiable, gosh, what a great guy.’ The Slicker said.
‘What do you mean, the Human Pretzel?’ The rube asked totally bewildered.
‘The Human Pretzel? Back in those days, gosh, we’ll never see their like again, how I loved ’em, when I was settin’ out on the pathway of life, there used to be a slew of guys around the Big Apple who had developed a trick. They were wonderful guys. Most of ’em were just one trick ponies, once you’d seen ’em you didn’t have to see ’em again. Some like Harry Houdini especially, and the Mighty Atom turned their tricks into a real act. Most just disappeared. They were interesting guys. They could only conceive of success in terms of doing something with their own body. They couldn’t trust anybody, so they thought they nobody could steal their body. It was always with ’em.
Solly had a pretty good act, limited, but pretty good. He got his moniker because he could really make himself look like a pretzel. You know, get both feet behind his head and hold his arms just so. All you’d have to do is add salt chunks. He was really limber in those days. I saw him do a pinwheel walk back and forth across a stage bigger’n that.’
‘What’s a pinwheel walk?’ Asked the Rube.
‘What’s a pinwheel walk?’ Repeated the Slicker, asking for psychic dues for the information he was going to give.
‘Yeah. What’s a pinwheel walk?’
‘What’s a pinwheel walk?’ Pause, no additional reward. ‘Well, a pinwheel walk is when you bend over backward so that both hands and feet are on the boards. then you slowly lift a leg and turn over laying one foot down then the other, over backwards on your hands and so on. Solly was precision, just like when he twirled his handguns. He could do it with such grace and style that all you could see was the motion. I’ve seen a lot kid, and I’m not kidding you son, he was terrific. The best I’ve ever seen. I always wondered what happened to him.’
‘How did you meet him?’ Asked the Rube.
‘How did I meet him?’ The Slicker repeated becoming irritating.
‘Oh, I was working Coney and that area during the twenties until I had to leave.’ The Slicker said ruefully.
‘What did you do.’ Asked the Rube.
‘What did I do?’ Replied the Slicker puzzled.
‘Yeah, you said you worked there.’ From the Rube.
‘Worked there? Oh, oh yeah, well, I was, uh, a salesman.’
‘Oh yeah. What did you sell? Pursued the Rube.
‘What did I sell?; Said the Slicker somewhat irritated. ‘Oh, just, you know, whatever came my way. I wasn’t particular. I can sell anything, iceboxes to Eskimos. I’m good.’
‘Well, you mean you don’t think Cowboy Bob drove those steers into Dodge City?’ In a non-sequitur the Rube tried to restore his shattered illusions.
‘Aw heck, no. This may be the first time Solly’s been West of the Hudson. Harve just got him for the show. Saw his potential and signed him up. Harve’s a genius in his own way.’
‘Harve? Is that the Harve Baker you mentioned?’ Asked the Rube.
‘Yeah, yeah kid. Listen I gotta be goin’ now. Nice talkin’ to you. Regards to your folks.’ The Slicker moved off into the crowd.
‘Hey, you don’t know my folks.’ The Rube said after the retreating figure.
Cowboy Bob wasn’t really Cowboy Bob, he was really Solly Rosenblum? Gosh, I really believed him. I searched the stage to find him but he wasn’t there anymore. His replacement was asking people to come down still. Even more people were moving down the aisles. Off to the right I saw just a few people being led from time to time into a little room.
Coming down from the balcony was easy but once I reached the floor the psychic religious state was intense. It was even hotter than in the balcony too. I wasn’t a real believer but the others slowly pacing down the aisle were in full communion with their god. I thought I better imitate them so I held my arms away from my sides a little, hands up, let my mouth gape a little to give me a holy look and half stumbled, half walked down the aisle.
As I passed the Wardens I heard Skippy say: ‘Hey look, there’s Far, wouldn’t you know it?’
When I reached the front of the stage I found that they were saying a few words to the people then shaking them down for what they could get, which was usually whatever they had. The people received Jesus, the evangelists received their cash. I had my eye on the door on the right when I noticed an evangelist directing people to it if they really believed. Not many really believed; neither did I but I wanted to see so when the guard at the door asked if I really believed he took my stupid pose and a nod of the head as proof positive.
Inside the room it was pandemonium in a heat wave. The sound from the choir echoed in from a door leading onto the stage. A couple of stretcher cases were putting up a loud wail. Some seriously crippled people were shouting back and forth with the evangelists. Everyone was rushing around in the most intense manner. No one was paying any attention to anyone else. I was dismayed, even terrified. I wedged myself between a table and the edge of the wall leading up to the stage entrance.
I was looking out trying to make sense of things when I saw a guy standing over the head of an old woman on a stretcher. She was hysterically shrieking that she want to be healed. Some guy was leaning over her. Another man yelled to him: ‘Try to get to her now, Harve.’ The guy leaning over her was Harvey Baker, the packager of the show. She was paying no attention to him but Harve was shouting at her: ‘Do you have any money lady? We need money, how much money can you give us?’ I guess Harve was hoping someone was going to lay a cool million on him, solve all his problems at once. He wanted it now just in case if she were healed she might renege on him.
Harve moved off and another guy took his place. Standing over her he reached down and grabbed her forehead in his hand. All of a sudden his features jelled in my vision. I stared in disbelief. It was Montgomery Banke. The guy had washed out of two seminaries and now he was trying to be a faith healer?
How did Monty talk these guys into this? Actually he hadn’t. He waited his chance slipped into the room and waited his opportunity. His emotional state was overcharged to say the least. He too was oblivious to all save his own interests. There was Harve begging for money; the old lady shrieking for health and Monty trying to be a vessel of God. None of them was aware of anything but their own interests but an electric charge brought all three into a distant sweaty embrace.
Monty hadn’t been able to become a man of God but he had a test as to whether he was in communication with the godhead or not. He quivered and shook, half in anticipation of being proved, half in fear of rejection. He gripped the poor woman’s head convulsively. Her head rocked back and forth as Monty’s clammy hand on her forehead shook uncontrollably. Monty raised his right hand with his finger pointing to the ceiling like a lightening rod on a barn hoping to receive the Holy Ghost.
‘Oh Lord, please, make me your vessel, redeem your servant’s life this time. I want to succeed and be a great minister of Your Word.’
Monty really believed he was talking to God. His face was ecstatic with hope. Then he jammed the woman’s head deep into her pillow while stretching his right arm as high as it would go, he shouted: Heal! Heal! Heal this woman through me, oh Lord.’ Well, the all embracing vision of the Lord was momentarily distracted because He didn’t answer Monty’s prayer.
‘Do you feel any different, lady?’ Monty asked his victim. ‘Are you better, lady?’ He implored her.
‘No, I don’t you son-of-a-bitch.’ She spat at him. ‘Get this phony away from me. I want to be healed.’
‘Do you have any money?’ Harve implored.
‘I’ll try again.’ Monty said.
It was a mistake but I couldn’t help it. I started laughing. Just a little subdued laugh; more shaking of the chest than a real laugh, but then a real giggle escaped and I was identified.
‘Hey, what’s he doing in here?’ Said a finger pointing at me. ‘He’s not a real believer.’
M0nty was too pre-occupied to notice me as his finger shot toward the ceiling in a second attempt. But I heard a girl’s voice behind me shouting: ‘That’s Far. That’s Far Gresham. Run him out. They won’t even let him attend Rivers Of Blood church.’
I turned around to see Fay Banke pointing at me. I had been right about Cowboy Bob. Twelve year old Fay had leaped up half breaking Cowboy Bob’s embrace who was apparently trying to tap God into her Holy orifice with his finger. His hand was still up her skirt. Cowboy Bob had been caught in the act. He cave me a sheepish look as if to ask what I was going to do. I shrugged at him to show I didn’t care. If he wanted Fay Banke at any age he could have her. Worse luck for him.
I wasn’t going to stay where I wasn’t wanted. I bolted for the door passing Monty just as he screamed ‘Heal!’ into my ear. I didn’t heal either.
As I entered the auditorium I was greeted by the choir singing out: ‘When the Saints go marching in, oh how I want to be in that number, when the Saints go marching in.’ I’d had enough excitement for the evening so this Saint marched up the side aisle to escape the pandemonium. As I entered the lobby I noticed one of those tall wire wastebaskets. Sitting in the middle atop three feet of waste paper were a whole bunch of wallets. To my mind the strange thing was that the ‘secret’ pockets had all been pulled out extending over the top of the wallets. I could only think that a bunch of people had taken vows of poverty and thrown the symbol of worldliness in the trash.
I hadn’t really known how hot it had been in there until I issued from the lobby into the street. It was still plenty warm outside but it seemed refreshingly cool compared to inside. The front of the auditorium was a long row of double doors which all stood open. As I stood organizing my senses after the exhilarating experience of Cowboy Bob Danvers I saw the Slicker emerge three doors down. He turned in my direction approaching with short, almost fussy, steps with his arms swinging briskly by his sides. He leaned forward as he walked pushing his rear out while holding his chin up and forward.
As I pulled my clothes away from my body to cool myself I saw that his suit coat was badly stained in the arm pits and between the shoulders. He walked briskly past me as I fell in behind. As I passed a gap between the auditorium and the building next to it I noticed a man standing in the alleyway with his back to the street, his hands on his hips and his head bowed. I thought he was going to the bathroom until I saw a pair of knees between his spread legs. I looked around him as I passed and caught a glimpse of a pink blouse and a blue ribbon. Huh, I thought and kept walking. The Slicker reached into his pocket to pull out a wad of bills to look at thrusting them back with a bounce to his step.
A bill fluttered to the ground as he did so. I bent down scooped it up to find it was a twenty dollar bill. Without hesitation I ran after the Slicker saying: ‘Hey, Mister, you dropped this.’
‘I didn’t drop nothing kid. Get away from me or I’ll knock your block off.’ He said in a relatively amiable fashion.
Well there was no contest between keeping a twenty dollar bill or having my block knocked off. I put it in my pocket and slowed down as the Slicker quickly moved ahead of me.
The Lord had done for Cowboy Bob in a big way, the Slicker in a decent way and me, very well, considering the smallness of my desires. Maybe Cowboy Bob was right about what God had done for him he would do for me.
I didn’t know I was receiving stolen money. As should be obvious the Slicker was a pickpocket. He was known as Waxey William to his pals whenever they saw him, or the cops, whenever they caught him. Light Fingered Billy had been at it a long time. Nor did he consider what he did for a living wrong. Waxey was a Free Spirit. He was no philosopher, nor could he have given academic articulation to his beliefs. Put simply he believed that in a state of nature God had placed all the good things in an undivided manner for all men to enjoy at will. If they wanted it they just took it. Apples were on trees for all men to enjoy. If you wanted one you picked it. Evil men appropriated God’s bounty for themselves, preventing others from enjoying it. Thus Waxey William thought he was merely taking back his share from thieves. He had a clear conscience when he did his strut on the outside; when he was downtown in the can his mind was as puzzled as that of a persecuted minority. He couldn’t understand why the thieves walked around unmolested when they put the good guys in jail. What a topsy-turvy world, he thought, at those times. He had not been unnoticed this evening. Although he had disposed of the evidence, a detective who had memorized thousands of names, aliases and faces would soon tap him on the shoulder to advise him to catch the first freight out of town. Waxey would grumble but, since he always rode the cushions rather than the rods, he would be on the Midnight Special down to Detroit.
I didn’t know my twenty was stolen so I was happy. I was contented from a terrific free show. Cowboy Bob had been unbelievable. That schnook Monty Banke had gotten his comeuppance; his God had shown him where he stood when He left him holding the bag. Fay Banke had come off as the twit she really was. I even wore a little smile as I walked through the downtown streets looking in windows and cooling off.
Turning my steps back to the Wardens I basked in the Yellow light spewing out from the streetlamps beneath the inky blackness of the sky. As I approached the house it was like a yellow beacon at sea. The Wardens were back, as the house was ablaze with lights front and back and on both floors. The door was open so I entered saluting the suit of armor on my left as was my custom. Skippy was standing way down the living room with one hand on his hip, the other on the back of a chair.
‘Did you hear what happened to our Dad?’ Skippy demanded.
‘How could I skip, I just got back.’ I chirped.
‘Yeah, and you were there.’ Skippy said somewhat illogically.
‘Yeah, I know, I saw you, but I don’t know what happened to your dad.’ I said quietly.
‘Well, he got his pocket picked.’
‘Oh, wow, no kidding? Your Dad got his pocket picked? Gee, that’s too bad. I’m sorry to hear it.’ I thought of all those wallets sitting in the trash. ‘Did they catch the guy?’
‘No, they didn’t catch him. Dad got his wallet back because the dirty thief threw it into the trash with a whole bunch of others. But he lost his money. Twenty dollars.’
‘Gee, that’s too bad Skip. Well I think I’ll go to sleep now.’ I headed upstairs to my door only to be called back by Geli. They had had an unpleasant ending to their evening which they now passed on to me.
‘Just a minute, young man! Not so fast. You’ve got a chore or two to do before you go to bed.’
I had the satisfaction of knowing Warden had been robbed as I quickly washed up the few dishes. It was too hot to cover up so I just lay on my door mulling over a very exciting evening.
It had been two years now since I had left the Orphanage. David Hirsh had kept an eye on me, interfered with me over a couple of occasions. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that David Hirsh actively spied on me but in a town where gossip forms the main staple of conversation he and Beverly had become more friendly with a couple of people who fell within the Warden circle of acquaintances.
As happens when one’s day to day hopes and expections form the staple of conversation, Geli had mentioned, around and about, that this year she, Jack, the Patricians and myself would be going to visit her relations in Flint for a week or two in August. Beverly had directed the conversation of one of these people she used as a quasi-agent around to summer plans. In the ensuing catalog of other people’s plans it fell out that the Wardens were planning their August trip to Flint.
The Hirshes hadn’t had a fair shot at me for two years. It just so happened that David Hirsh had relatives in Flint also. He and Michael sat down to devise a plan to interfere with me there.
The years were not being kind to either David or Michael Hirsh. David was struggling for his business life, the insult from his father-in-law festered in his mind along with his hatred of me and whatever other grudges he nursed. He was beginning to feel as though the eighty black years had descended on him, which, indeed, they had.
Michael, who was, of course, my age, was struggling to understand a life that was developing in a confusing way. While he had never been completely unaware of his Jewish antecedents nevertheless his first seven years had been spent in attending Fortress Of God and more among goi children than Jewish kids. Then at seven his continuity had been broken. He was taken from Fortress Of God to be placed among the congregation of Temple Israel to receive a Jewish education. His Jewish fellows totally repudiated his Christian beginnings while his Jewish education divided him from his goi relatives and friends.
He and his fellow Jews were subject to all the terrors of the post-war years as well as the additional fear, or terror even, that extermination might be awaiting them just around the corner. He was drawn to the fold just as the Jews assumed a very low profile. From 1945 to 1956, until after the Israeli victory over the Arabs, the Jews did everything they could to conceal their Jewishness. I went through high school without knowing that a single classmate was Jewish, except for one. Only after 1956 did it become fashionable to wear, what had been a compulsory sign of opprobrium in Nazi Germany, the Star of David prominently as a piece of jewelry.
In addition Michael was not legally a Jew. So he had to play catch up in learning Judaism while being stigmatized as almost a convert. Thus Michael was placed in a singularly confusing social and religious situation.
His status as the future king of the Valley had been scotched in kindergarten. Each subsequent assault on me had cost him status among the Eloy. His attempt to discredit me at the grocery store had completely discredited him among his fellows. One might say that the years had been unkind to Michael, if Michael hadn’t been so unkind to himself. His brow was black with the remembrance of the candy bar. He specifically wanted to avenge that.
The Duke turned off the Dixie unto the street that led past the great Buick assembly plant; the scene of the fabulous sit down confrontation between the Commies of the CIO and General Motors in 1937. I was unaware of it at the time but the Duke made the same comments everytime he brought his family to Flint. In an offhand manner he gestured to the right to remark: ‘Yep, there’s where Billy Durant got his start.’
I nodded in my space between Skippy and Cappy in the back seat. They both turned inquiringly toward me. The Duke tilted his head back as though to answer my unspoken question. I picked up the cue: ‘So, who’s Billy Durant?’