In my last Friday essay on Finding God in all the Wrong Places, I learned that some miracles are best witnessed with your eyes shut, and that the radio preacher my brother and I listened to on Wednesday nights believed the road to heaven was paved with gold— for him. It was not the best introduction to religion. My parents had a burgeoning seven-year-old skeptic on their hands.
But they weren’t giving up on introducing their children to church.
Next on their parental road map to religious enlightenment was the Episcopal Church of Our Savior in Placerville. This time they used a different tactic, bribery. After church, we stopped at Tom Raley’s grocery store and were allowed to buy a Pepsi and pick out a comic book. I would eagerly search the rack for the latest issue of Tarzan, and, on really lucky weekends, find one. It was like winning a gazillion dollars in the lottery. The mere thought of joining the ape-man on his romp through the jungle was more than I could resist. I became a devout Episcopalian.
Gradually, Tarzan was replaced by other rewards. Marshall and I were recruited to carry the California and American flags in the procession. They had great yellow tassels that we would wind up tightly and release during over-long sermons, anything beyond five minutes. The challenge was to see whose tassel would twirl the longest. When that became boring, we could always watch our parents frantically mouthing words to make us behave.
Then I was given an immense promotion. I was invited to sing in the six-person choir that consisted of five elderly white-haired ladies and me. We all had loud voices; singing on key was secondary. I often pictured Jesus wearing earplugs.
Eventually I was allowed to carry the cross and lead the whole parade. I became an acolyte and served the priest, lit candles, rang bells, carried incense and even served as a junior lay leader. I became seriously religious and entertained the thought of becoming a priest. Crosses that glowed in the dark and Brother Jones were in my distant past.
There were numerous side benefits as well. The first was having a Godmother who became my second grade teacher. She was willing to overlook my extensive first grade rap sheet. I still have my report cards where every subject was given a C and every behavior trait was checked below the line. Listens in class, no; comes to school on time, no; wears appropriate clothing, no— you get the point. I think the latter came about because I didn’t like to wear underwear. Once I got a rather delicate part of my anatomy caught in the zipper and the teacher had to help get me unstuck. That cured the underwear bit.
I quickly learned in the that being a teacher’s pet beat being spanked, which was still an option in those days. Both my grades and behavior improved.
Gainful employment was another benefit. At age 11, I obtained my first serious job of working for one of my fellow choir members, Mrs. McKenzie. She lived in a large house overlooking Placerville and had a yard full of weeds that I was paid $.75 an hour to pull. She also had a big German Shepherd named King who topped the scales at 100 pounds and had a serious attitude problem. His idea of fun was to run at me full speed, bark ferociously, and screech to a halt about six inches away, with his jaws snapping.
“He just wants to play,” Mrs. McKenzie would assure me.
Yeah, right. That dog wanted to eat me. He knew it and I knew it. My third time there he made an attempt. By the time Mrs. McKenzie responded to my yells, King had helped himself to a generous portion of my pants and was about to start on my leg. I went home with a few bruises, an extra five bucks, and the promise that King would henceforth be kept in the house. Of course he wasn’t. A month later King climbed over the fence and took a chunk out of a passerby. Mrs. McKenzie ended up with an $1100 dollar fine and a court order to keep the dog muzzled.
After that, King took a liking to me, unfortunately. I would enter the yard and he would come charging at me just like old times. He would slide to his six-inch screeching halt, pound his muzzle on my leg in a symbolic bite, and then roll over so I would rub his belly. It was a very one-sided friendship.
Along about 12, I was invited to be the church janitor. Each Saturday I would hitchhike the three miles to Placerville and earn my weekly paycheck of four dollars. While this may seem rather paltry in our present age of instant billionaires, it was a fortune to me in 1955. After cleaning the church, I would beeline it to the Hangtown Bowl, buy cherry cokes and play my favorite pinball machine. I was hot. With one thin dime I could coax enough free games to last all afternoon. My newfound wealth also meant I could peruse the Placerville Newsstand and spend $.50 a week on the latest Max Brand or Luke Short Western. I became hooked on cowboy books. Then I discovered the Gold Chain restaurant and its incredible coconut cream pie. Talk about addiction. One fourth of my weekly salary went to support my pie eating habit. After all of that, I still had a buck to get me through the week and a buck for savings.
I joined the church Boy Scout Group and the church Youth Group in addition to my roles as acolyte, choir member, janitor, etc. Had there been any more church groups, I would have joined them as well. The church became a central part of my life and got me through some tough times. I did a lot of growing up there. It even played a role in my ‘discovery’ of girls. Fortunately, confession wasn’t a requirement of the Episcopal Church given what I learned in the basement stairwell. Had I been a good Catholic, I would still be saying Hail Marys.
By my senior year in high school, I had given up my youthful thoughts of becoming a minister but still took my religion seriously and attended church regularly. College was coming, however. My faith and many other things I accepted as true were about to become maybes.
NEXT FRIDAY’S BLOG: My rock that was Peter relocates itself to an active fault zone.