Boston: A Cradle of Liberty Where Freedom Still Rings Out

Boston's Old State House has been a symbol of American liberty for over 300 years.

The Declaration of Independence was first read to Bostonians in 1776 from the balcony of the Old State House (shown at night above). John Adam’s bright and articulate wife, Abigail, wrote to her husband that as soon as the Declaration was read… “three cheers rended the air.” She went on to report, “Thus ends the royal authority in this state.”

A fierce desire for independence and freedom has existed in Boston dating back to its very beginning in 1630 when the city was granted a charter to self-govern. Britain’s decision to limit the city’s freedom and tax its citizens starting in the 1760s led to protests that ended in the Revolutionary War and American independence. Beginning in the early 1800s, a strong abolitionist movement opposing slavery grew up in the Boston that would play a key role in leading to the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves. When Peggy and I visited the city in December, we were able to visit a number of sites that reflected Boston’s historical contributions to liberty in America, but we also found ample evidence that the call to freedom still rings out in the city.

My experience in Boston combined with the fact that Donald Trump will be inaugurated as President this week led me to ponder some the most powerful statements that underlie our nation’s commitment to freedom and equality. Here are my favorites:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. —US Declaration of Independence

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. —Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. —The First Amendment of the US Constitution

Slightly different but reflecting America’s original openness to immigration, and I might note, recognizing that we are a nation built by and with immigrants…

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door! —Quote on America’s Statue of Liberty

These are words of wisdom from the folks who “made America great,” and have inspired generations of people in the U.S. and around the world. It is my hope that our new president will take these words to heart  in his efforts to “make America great again.”

 

Neither Peggy nor I had been to Boston before, which is a bit surprising considering the importance of Boston to the nation’s history— and to my own. My Great Grandfather to the umpteenth on my mother’s side arrived there in early 1630s from England, when the city was founded. Ultimately, we are all immigrants.

Boston Commons plaque that commemorates the founding of Boston, Massachusetts in 1630.

This plaque located on Boston Commons commemorates the founding of Boston in 1630. My Great Grandfather to the umpteenth is helping pull the boat in. (Just kidding.)

It was ‘love at first sight’ when we arrived. I had managed to find us an affordable hotel in the center of the city. Most of Revolutionary Boston was within walking distance and I am a big fan of Revolutionary War history. The red brick Freedom Trail was a short 10 minutes away. “Just follow the yellow brick road” was bouncing around in my mind. Instead of skipping off to Oz on yellow bricks with encouragement from Munchkins, however, the red bricks of the Freedom Trail connected us with many historical sites central to America’s struggles for freedom and equality.

Today, I want to share some of the things we saw in Boston that seem particularly relevant to this week in American history. Next Monday, I’ll be more focused on Boston’s Revolutionary history.

The Tremont Temple in Boston, Massachusetts.

I photographed the Tremont Temple because I thought it was a unique building…

Tremont Baptist Church was the first integrated church in America.

Not having a clue that it was a Baptist Church, or that it was the first integrated church in the U.S. It is a fitting photo to commemorate the week of Martin Luther King’s birthday.

I normally wouldn't take a photo of a Chipotle Restaurant, but this one happens to locate in the Old North Bookstore Building where Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was published, which was both a classic of the Abolition Movement and a key factor in leading to the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves.

I normally wouldn’t take a photo of a Chipotle Restaurant, but this one happens to be located in the Old North Bookstore Building where Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published. The book was both a classic of the Abolition Movement and a key factor in leading to the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves.

Historic Faneuil Hall located in Boston, Massachusetts

Faneuil Hall is located just across the street from the Old State House. It was from this building that the fateful words were uttered, “No Taxation without representation.”  Maybe today’s declaration would be focused on the ultra-wealthy and declare “No representation without paying your fair share of taxes.” (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

We found this Gatling Gun in the military museum on the third floor of Faneuil Hall. While it may seem strange to include it here, it's inventor, Richard Gatling, believed that by employing increasingly deadly weapons that the size of armies could be reduced and that deaths due to combat and disease could be reduced as well. History has taught us a much different lesson, one that should be considered in any discussion of renewing the nuclear arms race.

We found this Gatling Gun in the military museum on the third floor of Faneuil Hall. While it may seem strange to include it here, the inventor, Richard Gatling, believed that by employing increasingly deadly weapons, the size of armies could be reduced and deaths due to combat and disease could be lowered. He also believed it would show us the futility of war. History has taught us a much different lesson. Millions upon millions have died because of the ever-increasing sophistication of weapons. And now our new president is talking about renewing the nuclear arms race…

This plaque on School Street notes where the Latin School stood. Founded on April 23, 1635, it is the oldest public school house in America. People such as Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams and John Hancock attend the school. Public education in America may become a thing of the past under Betsy DeVos, his new Secretary of Education, who will gut public schools in favor of private schools whose motivation is either profit or the promotion of a particular belief system,.

This plaque on School Street notes where the Latin School stood. Founded on April 23, 1635, it was the first public school in America. People such as Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams and John Hancock attended the school. Public education in America may become a thing of the past under Betsy DeVos, Trump’s new Secretary of Education, who’s proposed voucher system will gut public schools in favor of private schools whose primary motivation is profit or promoting a particular belief system. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Peggy and I wondered what the significance of theses rocks were when we were on our walk. The we come on the plaque featured below.

Peggy and I wondered what the significance of theses rocks were we found on our walk. Then we came upon the plaque featured below.

The Boston Peace Garden.

The Boston Peace Garden.

Peggy and I walked over to Newbury Street where the New England Genealogical Society is located. Along the way we came across the very impressive First Church of the Covenant that has long been a leader in promoting social justice.

We walked over to Newbury Street where the New England Genealogical Society is located. Along the way we came across the very impressive First Church of the Covenant that has long been a leader in promoting social justice.

This banner was stretched above its door...

This banner was stretched above its door…

Peggy and I found these T-shirts featured in Boston's Old State House where freedom still rings.

Peggy and I found these T-shirts featured in Boston’s Old State House.We decided that they would serve as an appropriate conclusion to this blog.

NEXT BLOG: Back to the Sierra Trek

 

 

 

A Trip to the Cannabis Fair? What??? No Way!

I didn't expect to find George at the fair.

I didn’t know what type of things I would find at the Cannabis Fair, but a painting of George standing in the middle of a marijuana farm and glowing green wasn’t one of them.

 

Occasionally, I slip in a blog that is outside of my 10,000-mile bicycle trek series. Today we are going to a cannabis fair…

So here I was on Saturday morning, staring out our windows at the mountains, listening to the morning news on TV, and wondering what I was going to do with my day. Peggy was back East playing with the kids and grandkids. I had just put up my post on the Scopes Trial, responded to all my comments, and checked in on the people I follow. I was actually caught up on blogging, a rare occasion— as most of you bloggers will recognize.

The weather person was predicting a 110° F degree-day. Playing or working outside wasn’t an option and I had completed most of my indoor chores. In fact, I had just pushed Robota’s button (Robota is our iRobot vacuum cleaner), and she was charging around, sucking up dirt, and cleaning rugs and floors. She’d return to her dock and plug-in when she needed recharging. I do wish she would learn to clean out her dirt bin, though. It’s such a bother; I could use the two minutes for something else… (Grin)

In other words, I had time on my hands. What’s a fellow to do? That’s when the local television anchor announced that the Cannabis Fair was being held at the Jackson County Fairgrounds in the main exhibit hall. Now I love fairs, and I have been seriously deprived this year (if you don’t count the Fur Rendezvous in Anchorage, Alaska and the International Ice Carving contest in Fairbanks). We missed the local Jackson County Fair because we had to go to Sacramento and arrived in Sacramento just as the California State Fair ended. To top off this tale of woe, I am taking a break from Burning Man.

But go to the Cannabis Fair and blog about it? No way! What would people think? And then I thought, why not. Marijuana is now legal in Oregon. In fact, I voted for the measure to legalize it. The majority of Americans support the idea. Why? One reason is that prohibition doesn’t work; it never has. Look at what happened with alcohol in the 1920s. If people wanted a drink, they found it. The main result of the Prohibition was the creation of the American Mafia. The Mob Museum in Las Vegas provides an excellent history of how it happened.

A similar thing happened with marijuana. Smoking a joint in the 1950s could lead to a 10-year prison sentence and a fine of $20,000— for a first time offender. Did this stop marijuana use? Remember the 60s? I do, vaguely (kidding). Our demand for marijuana, combined with laws against cultivation, led to its illegal production. What a surprise. Millions, and even billions of dollars were to be made. Drug cartels sprang up like weeds outside of the US to supply us. Tragically, thousands have been killed and whole political systems corrupted as a result. Here, billions of tax dollars (that is your money and mine) have gone into creating large government agencies that haven’t made a dent in the flow of pot.

Maybe the billions we spent on trying to suppress marijuana would be worth it, if the drug were the devil it was portrayed to be in Reefer Madness and other such anti-pot campaigns. But the truth is— it isn’t. The negative physical and social impacts are no worse than alcohol, and may indeed be less. A growing body of evidence suggests that a number medical benefits derive from cannabis. Contrast this with the health effects of tobacco. Numerous states have passed laws making medical marijuana use legal. And several have now made it legal for recreational use as well.

Cloth hanging art found at the Cannabis Fair in Jacksonville County, Oregon.

I am not sure what the artist had in mind with this cloth hanging I found at the Fair, but I thought it provided a good perspective on how people view the effects of marijuana. On the left is the perspective of the cannabis industry, the pro-legalization forces and most users. On the right is how those who support the Reefer Madness point of view see it.

But it’s time to climb down off my soapbox (sort of). We have a fair to go to! I didn’t have a clue about what I was going to find. Let me start with noting there were no pigs, or goats, or bunny rabbits— the usual reasons I go to a fair. This was a serious endeavor. Pot growing is big business for small farms in my neck of the woods. Six are visible along the 30-mile road between where I live on the Applegate River and Medford. They hardly blend in.

The law requires that marijuana farmers put their crops behind 8-foot fences if they are located within 150 feet of the highway, supposedly to protect children from seeing them. Instead the fences serve as huge billboards that scream: WE GROW POT! If you can find a six-year-old in Jackson County that doesn’t know what is happening behind those fences, I’d be surprised. And you can bet they are much more intrigued by the hidden marijuana than they would be if the plants were simply grown out in the open like any other crop. Plus the fences are butt-ugly.

Marijuana farms that are visible from the road in Oregon, are required to be surrounded by 8-foot fences.

This fence, legally required by Oregon law to conceal a cannabis farm, is about a mile away from my house.

I wandered around from booth to booth at the fair, taking photos for my blog (after asking permission) and chatting with folks tending the booths. There was potting soil and pot pots. There were salves and seeds. There were lawyers and accountants and security specialists and equipment sales people. One man was offering a bud trimmer for $300 that looked like a combination of an electric razor and a mini-hedge trimmer. He provided a demonstration. Bzzzzzz! I could picture him at a cannabis shop saying, “This Bud’s for you.”

Pots for growing marijuana on display at the Cannabis Fair in Jackson County, Oregon.

I couldn’t help but think pot pots when I saw these. And please note: they are made in the USA.

And of course you need potting soil for pot pots.

And of course you need premium potting soil for pot pots. What better than Cloud 9, Zen Blend, and Gaia’s Gift?

And you have to decide what type of cannabis you are going to plant. There are literally hundreds of string that have been developed, all with different strengths, and if you accept the literature, different qualities.

And you have to decide what type of cannabis you are going to plant. There are literally hundreds of strains that have been developed, all with different strengths, and, if you accept the literature, qualities.I wonder which one will give me an irresistible craving for ice cream?

In addition to all of the services available for growers at the Cannabis Fair, there were also items for consumers, such as this magical butter makers. Grind up your cannabis, drop it in the pot, add butter, simmer for an hour, strain the results, and you are ready to make cookies!

In addition to all of the services available for growers at the Cannabis Fair, there were also items for consumers, such as these magical butter pots. Grind up your cannabis, drop it in the pot, add butter, simmer for an hour, strain, and you are ready to make cookies!

I wandered into a dome tent set up by Pacific Domes. It reminded me of the structures at Burning Man. Even some of the wall hangings seemed familiar. And there was the painting of George Washington enjoying a pipe I featured at the top of the blog. Robert, the account executive, told me that a lot of their tents do make it to Burning Man. I asked him how they handled the windstorms. “They are designed to withstand gusts up to 8o miles per hour,” he told me.

A dome tent from the Pacific Dome company on display at Cannabis Fair in Jackson County, Oregon.

Both domed tents and greenhouses were promoted at the fair for growing marijuana.

Dome tent for growing cannabis at the Cannabis Fair in Jackson County, Oregon.

The tent was appropriately camouflaged.

Cannabis art found at the Cannabis Fair in Jackson County, Oregon.

The wall hangings in the tent reminded me very much of Burning Man, although you don’t flaunt marijuana use in Black Rock City. The event is crawling with law enforcement people happy to bust you.

All types of pipes were available for smoking, some even glowed in the dark under a black light. The folks at Bayshore Smoking Glass from Coos Bay broke out several for me to photograph. Some of the pipes were quite attractive, and some were downright funny. How would you like your pot pipe to look like an octopus?

Cannabis pipes for smoking marijuana found at the Cannabis Fair in Jackson County, Oregon.

I found the variety of pipes fun. What can I say. An incredible amount of creativity goes in to producing them.

A variety of pipes for smoking marijuana at the Cannabis Fair in Jackson County, Oregon.

They come in all shapes, sizes and colors.

This one even glowed when placed under a black light.

This one even glowed in the dark.

"Living the Pipe Dreams" cannabis pipes on display at the Cannabis Fair in Jackson County, Oregon.

Dianne told me I could photograph her art work if I put her card in the picture.

Bongs for smoking cannabis at the Cannabis Fair in Jackson County, Oregon.

I also found these bongs, or water pipes, rather unique.

Maybe you aren’t into smoking but still want to indulge. Then there are edibles, or medibles for medical marijuana. I stopped by a booth featuring Mary Lou’s Edibles and talked with Mary Lou. She had some delicious looking peanut butter cookies on display. “Are these samples?” I asked. (While no marijuana was for sale at the fair, some booths were offering free samples that you were required to take off of the premises before consuming.) “No,” she said, “but you can go online and order them.” She handed me her card. It announced, “Made with Oregon Cannabis and Love by the Happy Granny.” I’ll bet she is.

The rules were quite clear about not consuming marijuana at the Fair.

The rules were quite clear about not consuming marijuana at the Fair. Oregon state law prohibits consumption in public areas.

Kettle Corn anyone?

Kettle Corn anyone? A number of booths had edibles on display. They ranged from kettle corn, to chocolate, to cookies, to brownies and candy. An important issue is keeping these products away from children.

Mimim's medical marijuana being displayed at the Cannais Fair in Jackson County, Oregon.

When edibles are used for medical purposes, they are called ‘medibles.’ I share a concern with the cannabis industry that the pharmaceutical industry will step in, patent medicines, and charge a hundred times more for medical marijuana than people presently pay. I feel the same way about agribusiness stepping in and wiping out the thousands of small farms that now grow cannabis.

A series of lectures were being offered and I stopped by to listen to one being given by Pioneer Pete Gendron. Pete represents Oregon’s marijuana growers on the state level. I am assuming that his pioneer status comes from being one of Oregon’s original pot growers. He certainly looks the part. He is also a highly intelligent and articulate man. He talked about cannabis politics in Oregon. I learned the reason behind the 8-foot fences from him. I also learned that marijuana isn’t quite the water hog it is claimed to be. Alfalfa requires seven times as much water to grow.

Pioneer Pete was one of a number of people who made presentations at the Cannabis Fair on the various aspects of marijuana farming.

Pioneer Pete Gendron was one of a number of people who made presentations at the Cannabis Fair on the various aspects of marijuana farming and consumption.

Today, the Drug Enforcement Agency, DEA, continues to label marijuana as a class-1 drug, on par with heroin. Pete told us that when the cannabis industry requested an opportunity to prove it didn’t belong at that level, the DEA said, “We can’t do that. It is a class-1 drug,” i.e. it is illegal to use so any evidence you gather using it is illegal. Makes complete sense, right. Have you ever read Joseph Heller’s Catch 22?

The times they are a-changing, however. Cannabis plants will join carrots and cabbages at this year’s Oregon State Fair. How much more mainstream can you go? California will vote on legalization for recreational use this fall. On the national level, the Democratic Platform includes a plank that would push for legalization nation-wide. It is only a matter of time.

That’s it for the break! It’s back to bicycling in my next blog. We have a mountain range to climb over: the Great Smokies!

Escape from Alaska… Part II: The Friday Essay

Woodland buffalo have become fairly common when driving through portions of the Yukon Territory. As noted in my last Escape from Alaska blog, Peggy and I took these photos two years ago when we drove the Alaska Highway in the summer.

Woodland buffalo like this guy have become fairly common when driving through portions of the Yukon Territory. As noted in my last Alaska blog, Peggy and I took these photos two years ago when we drove the Alaska Highway in the summer.

The next day after my encounter with the Trooper (see here), I zipped down the Alaska Highway through the Yukon Territory to White Horse. With the exception of gigantic trucks on their way to the North Slope, I saw few other vehicles. Snow still covered the surrounding wilderness and the road was frozen solid. The annual migration of tourists traveling north was months away.

That night I chose to stay in a campground, preferring not to repeat my previous night’s experience. I also avoided wasting away in Margaritaville— instead I broke out the brownies.

As a going away present, some friends had given me a gallon Zip Lock bag of Alaska’s finest pot. At first sight, it might seem that they were involved in a criminal activity, but marijuana was legal in Alaska. You could grow your own and somebody had obviously grown a lot. Giving me the grass had been the Alaskan equivalent of sending me off with a bottle of 25-year-old single malt Scotch whiskey, or several bottles.

In honor of lung health, I promised not to smoke it. I practiced my baking techniques on my last night at my friend’s house. The cat, the two dogs and I tested the results. It was a mellow evening and the whole menagerie was allowed to sleep on the bed. We purred, wagged our tails, and had wild dreams.

Here’s some advice to the uninitiated that Alice B. Toklas didn’t provide: go easy on brownies. They have a way of sneaking up on you. The problem is physiological. Long before your body has done its job and processed the herb, you are thinking, ‘this stuff has absolutely zero impact, I should have stuck with wine.’ So you eat another brownie, and then another. By the time you realize the error of your ways, it’s too late and you are wacko.

Luckily, I had already been there, done that. I ate a small piece and waited patiently. Then I broke out an ounce of Swiss cheese. I was all moderation. Marijuana enhances flavor and encourages gluttony. I once watched a woman down a quart of ice cream in one sitting and demand more.

A friend had slipped me a fat letter to read on the way. I opened it as an option to eating the other 15 ounces of cheese. She had offered to pinch hit if my other Alaska relationship didn’t work out.

“We can run off to Mexico and open an orphanage for homeless children, Curt,” she had suggested. She was serious about the orphanage. It was a dream of hers. It made the suggestion of my staying home, writing, and raising one or two kids look like a ride on a merry-go-round. I had declined her generous proposal. The gist of the letter was that the offer was still open.

Sights along the the Alaska Highway include towering mountains...

Sights along the Alaska Highway include towering mountains…

Wild rivers...

Wild rivers…

Reflecting lakes...

Reflecting lakes…

And Dall Sheep...

And Dall Sheep…

Including this ram...

Including this ram…

And this curious kid.

And this curious kid.

Five days later I drove into Sacramento. The grass was green and flowers were blooming even though a major flood had threatened the region in February. I planned on spending a few days visiting my father and some friends before taking off for the woods. As part of my itinerary I stopped by to see Jane Hagedorn at the Sacramento Lung Association. Jane is a fierce friend. Every time I had tried to escape, she had reeled me back in, frustrating my desire to become a happy wanderer by making me offers I couldn’t refuse.

I found my green grass in Sacramento.

I found my green grass in Sacramento.

And California Poppies, plus two job offers.

And California Poppies— plus two job offers.

“You will come back to Sacramento and work for Lung when you are done playing,” she informed me and then dangled the Trek Program in front of me for bait. As I usually do, I tentatively agreed. It’s not wise to cross Jane. As I was leaving the Lung Building, I ran into Jerry Meral, the Executive Director of the Planning and Conservation League of California. Along with the Sierra Club, PCL is the main lobbying group for environmental groups in California.

“Curt,” Jerry said with his always-high level of enthusiasm, “I have a job for you.”

“I’m not looking for a job, Jerry,” had been my reply. “I am going backpacking for six months.”

Jerry, who is even worse than Jane at taking no for an answer, continued on, “But this job is perfect for you. I want you to work on raising California’s tobacco tax by five cents so we can use the money for buying parks.” I knew that Jerry and his crew at PCL had successfully done more at raising money for parks than anyone else in California and probably the world. If Jerry was behind the concept, it was legitimate.

“Interesting Jerry, but I am going backpacking.” I figured that took care of it.

“OK and have fun,” said Jerry, “but see me as soon as you get back.”

I half nodded my head in agreement. So here I was, desperate to free myself from any major commitments, and already agreeing to think about taking on two significant tasks— one that was monumental. But they could wait. The next day, I was on my way to the Grand Canyon. And who knew what I would be doing in six months.

NEXT BLOG: The wilderness cure begins. It’s off to backpack the Grand Canyon via Death Valley and Las Vegas.

 

Quirky Berkeley— I Return to My Roots

 

Sproul Hall

Sproul Hall, the administrative center of UC Berkeley, looks imposing. It comes with a welcome sign now but it wasn’t so welcoming when I gave a speech while standing on the Dean’s desk at the height of the Free Speech Movement in 1964.

Last week went on forever. By Sunday, the events at the beginning of the week seemed like ancient history. Maybe that’s not a bad thing; time slowed down. Lately it’s been zipping by like a hummingbird on sugar-water. Zoooooooom!

I began my week by being a guest lecturer in a writing class at Southern Oregon University where I talked about changes in the publishing industry. Mainly I discussed how authors are now responsible for marketing their own books. Grump. It is not my favorite activity. “Go start a blog,” I urged, “at least you can have fun. And it is great writing practice.”

Thursday found me keynoting an author’s day at a local community school. I had jumped from talking with seniors in college to kids. And how in the heck do you tailor a talk for a group with an age range from 7-14? Tell stories, I decided— and started with the tale from The Bush Devil Ate Sam about Rasputin the Cat and the Cockle Doodle Rooster. Afterwards I taught classes of fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth graders. My message was that we are all storytellers.

It was fun. The eight-hour drive to Berkeley immediately afterward wasn’t.

I drove down to attend a national conference of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. I was one pooped pup when I arrived. It was lights out for Curt. I hardly even needed my noisemaker to drown out the clamor on University Avenue.

Berkeley is many things, among them a world renown center of education.

Speaking of tired puppies, I found these hemp collars and leashes on Telegraph Avenue. In addition to being home to one of the world’s greatest educational institutions, Berkeley can be a bit quirky.

I went to the conference to participate in some workshops relating to Peace Corps writers, of which there are legions. I also wanted to hear presentations by Congressman Sam Farr and Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet. Sam had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in South America in the 60s and, like me, worked in Peace Corps recruiting afterwards. He is known as “Mr. Peace Corps” in Congress for the strong advocacy role he plays for the organization.

He argued that Returned Peace Corps Volunteers also needed to become advocates. It’s budget time in Washington, and there are a lot more countries requesting Peace Corps Volunteers, and people who want to be Volunteers, than Peace Corps has money to fund. As usual, the money goes elsewhere. For example, we are spending a billion and a half dollars this year to keep Egypt happy— four times the total budget of Peace Corps.

On the good news side of the equation, Carrie announced that Peace Corps Volunteers would be back in Liberia this week. As you may recall, they were pulled out in the fall because of Ebola. Carrie also mentioned a major new initiative that Peace Corps is working on with Michelle Obama, Let Girls Learn. It is a worldwide effort to provide girls with the same education opportunities boys now have.

Michelle

We listened to a pre-recorded message on Let Girls Learn from Michelle Obama in Wheeler Auditorium, which was the site of my first class at Berkeley. I had walked right by the classroom, incapable of imagining that there would be over a thousand students in the class. Berkeley gave me a new understanding of mass education.

I must confess— I also had an ulterior motive for the trip. Any journey to Berkeley is a trip into the past for me. I think of it as a pilgrimage, a return to my roots. I still hear echoes from the 60s when I was caught up in Berkley’s Free Speech Movement. This time the echoes were real. A resounding expletive caught my attention. I turned around to see Cliff Marks descending on me. Cliff and I had shared an apartment during out senior year and Cliff had also served in the Peace Corps. The last time I had seen or talked with him was at his wedding in 1969. We had a grand time catching up. Now it is time to catch up on the blogs I have missed this past week and a half.

But first, let’s go on a tour of Berkeley.

Sather Gate

Every student who has ever been to Berkeley passes through Sather Gate…

Campanile

And at some point, stops to admire the Campanile, which is Berkeley’s best known landmark.

Bay Bridge

The campus looks out over San Francisco Bay. The Golden Gate Bridge can be seen in the distance.

Steps of library

I had spent the day buried in the Bancroft Library and surfaced for a break when I found a young woman crying on these steps. The campus was deathly quiet. “What’s the problem?” I had asked. “They’ve shot the President,” she told me in a broken voice. It was November 23, 1963 and President Kennedy had been killed, shot down in the streets of Dallas.

Sproul Plaza

Sproul Plaza was a major location for student protests in the 60s. This entrance to the campus, at the intersection of Telegraph Avenue and Bancroft Avenue, was the location of Berkeley’s Free Speech Area that the University arbitrarily closed down in the fall of 1964, thus leading to the beginning of the Free Speech Movement.

Ludwig's fountain

The Student Union and Ludwig’s Fountain are under renovation. Ludwig was a 60’s type dog who wandered wherever he chose. He came down from his house on the hill daily and frolicked in the fountain that would eventually bear his name. I petted Ludwig and watched as a police car was taken hostage and then used as a speaker’s podium. Jack Weinberg, a Civil Rights organizer, was being held in the car. It was Jack, now 75, who coined the phrase, “never trust anyone over 30.”

Cafe Mediterraneum

I learned as much outside of the classrooms as I did inside at Berkeley. The Cafe Mediterraneum on Telegraph Avenue was my main hangout. It was one of America’s first European style Coffee Houses in the 1950s and proudly claims to be the creator of the caffe latte.

Moe's

One of my primary forms of entertainment in the 60s at Berkeley was perusing bookstores. It still is today when I visit the city. Moe’s was and is one of the greats. Sadly, my favorite, Cody’s, is now closed.

Amoeba Records

Amoeba Records is next to the Cafe Meditteraneum. Street booths, like those in front on the left, have become a permanent  fixture along Telegraph Avenue.

Crystals on Telegraph

As one might expect, many of the items for sale have a New Age connection, such as these ‘healing’ quartz crystals.

Dream Catchers

And these dream catchers.

People's Park

“If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with.” –Ronald Reagan’s response as Governor of California to students who were protesting his closing down Berkeley’s People’s Park as a community garden in the late 60s. National Guard troops were sent in and local police were armed with shotguns loaded with buckshot. One student, apparently a bystander, was killed and another was blinded. The whole city was tear gassed from the air.

Tree sign

A sign thanking trees that live in the park today.

Mural

A mural on the side of the Amoeba record store depicts events surrounding People’s Park as well as other Telegraph Avenue happenings.

Mural

The mural.

Pan Handler

Berkeley has always been a mecca for young people,  both those seeking an alternative lifestyle as well as those seeking a first class education. Many who came looking for alternatives arrived without money, as this young man shown in the mural.

Homeless

Today, Berkeley is the ‘home’ for numerous homeless people. I took this photo on Dwinelle Plaza on campus.

Street Spirit

This homeless man was selling the newspaper “Streetsmart” in front of Moe’s Bookstore. Headlines announced a recent protest that the community’s religious leaders including Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist representatives had made against the city’s efforts to criminalize homelessness as a means of driving homeless people out of town.

Berkeley sign board

A sign of the times? Not really. Berkeley’s sign boards have always been plastered with notices on top of notices. I was amused to find help wanted notices for Berkeley’s Call Center. I hear from these young people several times a year as they solicit money for Berkeley. I found it interesting that the University, who charges them $14,000 a year in tuition ($38,000 if out-of-state), only pays these kids $11 per hour.

South Hall

South Hall, built in 1873, is the oldest building on the UC Berkeley Campus. It’s an appropriate photo to end this post, and also to raise a question about the future of public education in America. Tuition was free when I went to Berkeley and I was able to pay for my living costs by driving a laundry truck in the summer. I graduated debt-free. Today’s young people graduate with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. It’s close to tragic. All I can think of is how incredibly stupid our state and national leaders are when the future of our nation, and indeed the world, depends upon an educated and knowledgeable population. Germany can somehow find the money to provide a free college education. Why not America?

 

 

 

 

 

Speaking of Afterlife, Did Pop Actually Haunt Me?

 

One of my favorite photos of my father taken by Glen Fishback at his studio.

One of my favorite photos of my father taken by Glen Fishback at his studio.

Do you believe in ghosts? I’d like to say I don’t. Their existence isn’t rational. There is no scientific evidence that supports their presence. And yet, I’ve had a couple of ghostly experiences that are hard to explain rationally, other than my mind playing tricks (a distinct possibility). But consider the following:

In my last Friday essay on religion, I took readers to Alaska and a campfire discussion with my father. Pop lived for another eight years— and they were good years. He continued to read his Bible, smoke his pipe, paint pictures, and entertain the elderly women in his retirement complex with the photographs he had taken over the years. We had lots of opportunities to talk. I learned a great deal of his past and he never gave up trying to convert me.

Pop painted up until he was 85 or so.

Pop painted up until he was 85 or so. (Photo by Glen Fishback.)

The painting that Pop was working on now hangs in our guest bedroom.

The painting that Pop was working on now hangs in our guest bedroom.

One night I had him over for dinner to meet my new friend and future wife, Peggy. She charmed him as much as she had charmed me. I had already told him I planned on marrying her if I could persuade her to say yes. When I took him home, we shook hands at his doorway and, purely out of instinct, I said, “I love you Pop.” He got one of his big grins and responded, “I love you, too, Curt.”

A week later I found him sitting naked on his toilet, dead from a massive heart attack.

Of course I was grief-stricken. His passing was the passing of one of the most significant parts of my life. And I also felt guilt. I had known he wasn’t feeling well when I left him that night. I’d called a couple of times and he hadn’t answered, but I had assumed he had just been out on one of his walks. I couldn’t help but think if I had stopped by that I might have made a difference. Still, he had lived a full and productive life, taken care of himself to the end, and gone out quickly. It’s hard to ask for more.

The next day I went over to clean things up. I probably shouldn’t have gone alone because I was so stressed. I was in the bathroom cleaning when a light in the front room went on. I went out, thinking maybe the building manager had come by. No one was there. I went back to the bathroom where I had left a faucet on. Just as I walked in it jumped from a trickle to full force. The errant light and faucet shook me up; I grabbed my things and departed, quickly. That night I left the lights on in my apartment. It had been ages since I feared things that go bump in the night, but why take chances.

Just as I was finally drifting off to sleep from exhaustion, I heard a voice in my head. It was Pop. “I am alright Curt,” he said. “It’s okay.” And then I saw a vision of the proverbial white tunnel. It wasn’t a light at the end of the tunnel; it was the complete tunnel, the whole shebang— Pop’s spaceship. Were the light in his front room, the faucet, and the voice results of natural causes and my overwrought imagination? Probably. But who knows? Who knows what awaits us when the final bell rings? Maybe it’s a one-way ticket through the Universe.

Afterwards, when I thought about the experience, I was a little amused that Pop hadn’t taken advantage of the moment to say, “Read your Bible, Curt.” I would have started immediately. But maybe it wasn’t necessary. Maybe other fuel drove his spaceship.

CONCLUSION

In this series of essays, I have not argued against religion, I have argued against the abuse of religion. I have contended that the ‘leap of faith’ required by religions, combined with the concept of exclusivity (there is only one way to get to heaven), make abuse possible and even likely. Holding the keys to eternal life provides the holder with tremendous power. It’s something to die for. This power is an almost irresistible magnet to those who crave and need power for any number of reasons ranging from the sublime to the outrageous, from serving the flock to fleecing it, from helping the helpless to offing the opposition. When combined with fanaticism and government support, this mixture can quickly become a dangerous and deadly brew.

Religion has the power to do much good. I used my own personal example of how the Episcopal Church helped me get through difficult teenage years. I have a minister friend, the woman who married Peggy and me, who is known as the Disaster Pastor. She devotes her life to helping out where help is most needed, and has the full support of her congregation. My fellow blogger friend Bill, at Practicing Resurrection, is using his faith to encourage wholesome and humane farming practices, and healthy eating. Pope Francis is undertaking a major environmental initiative. There are thousands of examples.

To me, the greatest role religion can play is to enable us to see beyond ourselves, to understand that on some deep level we are all connected, not only to other human beings but to all life. Our salvation as a species lies in realizing that all of life is sacred and acting accordingly. Few of us have the capacity for sainthood but most of us have the capacity to see a bit further beyond ourselves than we normally do, and think through the long-term implications of our actions— whether it is being unkind, marching off to war, or wiping out another species.

I believe that the easiest way to counteract the negative aspects of religion is to modify the concept of exclusivity. Simply put, it’s okay for us to believe that the path we have chosen will take us toward whatever afterlife has to offer, but we also need to recognize that someone else’s path may be equally valid. Religious tolerance would eliminate one of the primary causes of conflict in the world today. Freedom of religion and separation of church and state are essential to obtaining this objective. Maybe the day will come when people of different religious beliefs (or none), can live next to each other in peace and prosperity throughout the world.

I’ll let Pop get a final word in. He once told me that he regarded his extensive reading of the Bible as an insurance policy. If he were right, it was his key to the afterlife. If he were wrong, what’s the harm? I granted him that. But I countered with the opposite argument. What if he were wrong? What if this is all we have? Then life becomes incredibly important. Each moment is precious. Yes, practice your religion if it is significant to you— read your Koran or Bible or Bhagavad Gita— but live each moment as though it were your last. Be kind, make sure that your loved ones know that you love them, give back to the community, have adventures, expand your mind, practice tolerance, and be passionate.  If there is more after the curtain falls, wonderful. If not, you have lived your life fully and can die knowing that you achieved everything humanly possible from your brief time on this earth. What’s the harm?

NEXT WEEK: Monday’s Blog: A neighborhood goat feast. You’ll meet a clothed Rambo and a naked Pinky. Wednesday’s Photo Essay: I return to the magical island of Santorini. Friday’s Essay: How twenty-five cents saved one million lives and $134 billion in health care costs. Part I.

The Earth Is 6000 Years Old… Or So My father Told Me

My father, Herb Mekemson. I believe this photo was taken by Glen Fishback of the Glen Fishback School of Photography.

My father. I believe this photo was taken by Glen Fishback of the Glen Fishback School of Photography.

I invited my father, Herb Mekemson, up to Alaska for his 80th birthday. My brother Marshall put him on the airplane in Sacramento and I met him in Anchorage. He got off the plane grinning. We shook hands and embraced. He still had a strong grip.

“Curt, have you been causing problems again?” he asked. These weren’t the first words out of his mouth but they were close. There was a twinkle in his eyes, sort of.

“What do you mean, Pop?” I asked in mock innocence. He was gripping his pipe like it was the last life raft on a sinking ship.

“I got off of the plane and the first thing they announced was I couldn’t light up in the airport. I’ve needed a smoke since I left Seattle.” I had been an advocate for smoke-free areas in Sacramento and continued my efforts in Alaska.

I laughed. He and I had been through the tobacco discussion dozens of times. We had it down to a routine. I’d point out there was a direct correlation between his smoking and the heavy cough he had in the morning. He’d note that he had been smoking for over 60 years and was still going strong, thank you. I’d observe that somewhere his Scotch Presbyterian mother was rolling over in her grave, and so it would go. He liked his tobacco straight up. For years he had smoked unfiltered Camels but they lacked the kick he needed. In his words, he had switched to ‘roll-your-owns’ as opposed to the ‘new fangled tailor mades.’ As a result, most of his shirts were aerated from burning tobacco. Out of self-defense, he had switched to a pipe. He liked to tease me that most of my efforts in the tobacco wars were designed to thwart him.

“Well, Pop,” I announced, “in honor of your visit, you have been granted special dispensation. You can smoke in my truck.” He hurried me out of the airport, barely taking time to pick up his suitcase.

Pop, as in "don't you even think of taking my pipe away from me. (Photo by Glen Fishback.)

Pop, as in, “Don’t you dare think of taking my pipe away from me.” (Photo by Glen Fishback.)

We had quite the adventure planned but first there were social responsibilities. I took him over to meet my roommates Cyndi and Roger. Cyndi owned the house and Roger and I paid rent. It was a good arrangement. Cyndi was a slope worker, which meant she worked for two weeks up on the North Slope in the oil industry and then had two weeks off. Roger was in the vending machine business, which included cigarettes. Surprisingly, the three of us were quite compatible.

When Cyndi and I first met to interview each other over possible roommate status, I mentioned that I was Executive Director of the Alaska Lung Association. She became quite excited and announced she had a Lung Association connection.

“I was a Trek leader in Minnesota before I came to Alaska,” she said. When I informed her that I had created the American Lung Association’s Trek Program, we decided that fate had brought us together. As for Roger, he and I had a penchant for weird movies, the weirder the better. Strange Brew is an excellent example. Many a winter evening was spent happily vegging on the couch, drinking beer, and watching videos.

Once Pop had visited my home, our next responsibility was visiting the ‘girlfriend.’ I had been dating a pulmonary physician and we hung out a lot together. I had an open invitation to move in.

“Why don’t we get married,” she suggested. “You can stay home, write, and raise the children.” I liked the staying home and writing idea but wasn’t ready for the kids and married part. Her English Spaniel had a different perspective. I kicked him off of the bed when I was around. His response was to pee on my side of the bed and mark it as his territory. I would have gone and peed on his bed if he had one. Two can play the dominant male species game.

My friend cooked dinner for Pop and me, which was a little scary. Cooking was not her forte. Our meal was good though and the dog was on its best behavior. We had a very pleasant evening.

Pop liked the idea of me getting married and having kids. He had always wanted me to produce grandchildren and both our biological time clocks were ticking. At 40 plus, I was rapidly approaching the point where having children was impractical. At 80, he was rapidly approaching the point where he would never see them. Actually, Pop had three wishes for me. The first was the married with children bit. The second was that I would become a photographer and take pictures of all the beautiful sites I saw in my wandering. The third was that I would become a good Christian boy and return to the flock.

A few years later I would fall in love, get married, inherit two great kids— and take up photography. I always figured that two out of three weren’t bad.

The next day we headed off to Denali. I had a permit for camping in the Park. Pop went crazy with his camera and the Alaskan scenery; we had to stop every 20 minutes or so for photo ops. Even a moose waited patiently beside the road to have its picture taken. By the time we reached camp, heavy black clouds were swirling overhead and a cold wind was reminding us that summer had yet to arrive. I hurried in setting up the large Coleman tent I had brought along while Pop, who insisted on being part of the action, went in search of firewood. A few minutes later I noticed that he had disappeared.

“Oh damn,” I thought to myself, “how do I explain to my sister and brother that Pop had become lost in the Alaskan wilderness gathering firewood.”

Then I spotted him off in the distance on top of a hill taking pictures.

“I saw some mountain goats up on the opposite mountain and I wanted to get closer for pictures,” he explained to me after descending.

“Do you know there are grizzly bears wandering around up there,” I said pointedly. He just smiled. At 80 he was ready to meet his maker. If it happened with the help of a grizzly bear, so be it. But it wasn’t going to happen on my shift, if I could help it.

After dinner we sat by our crackling campfire and talked for a couple of hours as snowflakes danced around the perimeter. Our family, his past and my future were all topics of discussion. There was something magical about the setting and Pop was obviously enjoying himself tremendously. Sitting in the Alaskan wilderness in the midst of a swirling snowstorm at age 80 was something that he had never envisioned for himself. I had him bundled from head to toe and he insisted he was toasty warm. Eventually the topic got around to one of his favorite subjects, religion.

“You know, I’ve been reading the Bible a lot,” he started. The Pearly Gates were beckoning and Pop wanted to be sure his credentials were in order. He was about to jump in to his ‘You should read the Bible too, Curt’ lecture. To forestall the inevitable, I asked a question out of curiosity.

“Assuming you make it to heaven, what do you think it is like?”

He laughed. “I am afraid my view’s a little unusual. I see myself as a spacecraft hurtling through space. I am not in the spacecraft. I am the spacecraft and I am exploring the universe and seeing all of the glorious sights it has to offer.” Apparently there would be no jewel encrusted buildings and streets paved with gold for him.

While I was contemplating this rather wondrous view of the after-life, I took too long in coming up with my next question.

“You should read the Bible too, Curt,” Pop began. “I’ve been listening to a radio minister and he is going through each Book in detail and explaining what it means. There’s a lot of great stuff. I’ve bought a complete set of his tapes.”

The radio minister part hoisted a red flag for me. Marshall and I had cut our religious eye teeth on a slippery southern radio preacher in the 1950s and I had recently been tuning in to Jim and Tammy Baker. They were prime time in Alaska. It was quite clear to me that they were bilking their flock and the process fascinated me. This didn’t mean that I believed all radio preachers or televangelists were frauds. It seemed reasonable to me that sincere religious people would want to take advantage of modern communication opportunities to share their views. Still, I decided to gently pursue where Pop’s radio minister was taking him.

“Um, what do you mean by great stuff?” I inquired.

“The stories, the history, the messages,” he replied enthusiastically, giving me a catalog to choose from. He was prepared to wax eloquently on the subject, to convert me on the spot. It wouldn’t be easy. I had read the Bible, and found it interesting, educational, and meaningful. But I wasn’t about to accept it as literal truth. I was curious as to where my father stood on the religious continuum between liberal interpretation and fundamentalist dogma. He had always been deeply religious but somewhat tolerant of other perspectives.

“So, Pop,” I queried, jumping to a litmus test of Christian fundamentalism, “do you believe that the world is 6,000 years old?”

“Yes,” was his simple reply and it was immediately clear where the radio minister was leading him: it was over the foaming falls of fundamentalism where a leap of faith assures a righteous landing. On one level this didn’t bother me. Life can be rather short and brutish as Hobbes noted, and full of suffering as the Zen Buddhists like to point out. We find our comfort where we can find it. If Pop’s belief helped him deal with the present and face his future, then it had value for him. Who was I to say otherwise? It wasn’t exactly like he was being misled, either. The Mekemson side of my family comes from a long line of true believers dating back to John Brown the Martyr of Scotland in the 1600s— and undoubtedly beyond.

I have my own share of spiritual genes. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years considering different religious traditions and pondering imponderables. Crass materialism, in and of its self, seems to be a poor reason to exist. I tend to believe that there is a deep, underlying unity in the universe and that all of life on earth is connected. It’s hard to get much more mystical than that.

I was a little concerned that Pop had paid several hundred dollars for the tapes. He lived off of his Social Security pension and the amount represented a lot of money. Bilking came to mind. I was more concerned with the implications of his beliefs as we chatted into the night. It wasn’t enough that he believed the earth was 6000 years old. I, too, should believe it. School systems were wrong for teaching evolution and should be required to teach creationism. He also expressed a strong bias against homosexuality and gay people that he had picked up from the radio preacher. The latter made me particularly sad.

The best man at my first wedding and a friend from childhood, Frank Martin, was gay. When my mother was dying of cancer while I was at Berkeley, Frank would often stop by and visit her, bringing whatever comfort he could. Later, when my former wife and I returned from serving as Peace Corps Volunteers in Africa, Frank and his partner hosted several anniversary parties for us in San Francisco. He was always generous and kind to our family. Now, my father was being taught that Frank was a sinful man, condemned to be burned in Hell.

Beyond expressing my disagreement as gently as I could, I mainly listened. My point of view wasn’t going to change what my father believed. Besides, the old fellow may have expired from hypothermia listening to me. We put out the fire, retired to the warmth of our down sleeping bags, and dreamt we were spaceships hurtling through space.

Over the next few days, Pop and I covered a good bit of Alaska, ending up in Homer. His sister Francis had raised her children there and he wanted to see the town. Afterwards, I drove him back to the airport and made sure his pipe was out before taking him inside and seeing him off. It took months for my truck to stop smelling like tobacco smoke.

NEXT FRIDAY’S BLOG: A final story about Pop. Did he really leave me a message after he passed away or was it the invention of my over-wrought imagination? Plus— My final thoughts on religion.

My Rock that Was Peter Ends Up on an Active Fault Zone

I checked our library and found about 100 books on spirituality in addition to the Bible that I have read over the years. This is a sample that i puled off of our shelves.

I checked our library and found about 100 books relating to spirituality that I have read over the years. This is a sample that I pulled off of our shelves.

Peggy served as a principal of a public elementary school for several years and would occasionally be confronted by people who wanted to limit what their children were being taught. One day a man stomped into her office infuriated that his child had picked up a book on dinosaurs at the school library. She calmly asked what the problem was. After all, most children are fascinated with dinosaurs.

“Dinosaurs,” he told her with barely controlled rage, “are not in the Bible. They never existed. My child is not going to learn about dinosaurs.” Apparently Peggy was to immediately remove all books on dinosaurs from the library and to instruct all of her teachers that they could not teach about dinosaurs.

She opted out. “I can’t dictate what you teach your child at home,” she explained. “It is also your right to pull your child out of this school. If he remains here, however, he is going to learn about dinosaurs.”

Limiting the flow of information has been a powerful form of control over what people think for thousands of years. Political, social, and economic dominance have all been maintained by controlling access to knowledge. Religions have historically used a similar approach in influencing what people believe. The anti-dinosaur man is a modern example.

In 1961 I picked up a Barnes and Noble book on comparative religion and learned about Mithraism and Zoroastrianism. I caught a glimpse of how much our great monotheistic religions are based on earlier belief systems or mythologies. The strong religious convictions of my teenage years began to crack. Studying history didn’t help. In reading about the Roman Empire, I learned that the nature of Christ’s divinity was determined by vote at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD in a bare knuckled political battle, not the most holy of environments. My rock that was Peter made a dramatic shift and relocated itself to an active fault zone.

So, I stopped going to church.

One day I ran into Father Baskin, my minister at the Episcopal Church. I liked him and his family. He had been a photographer and was well into adulthood before deciding to become a priest. His wife, a joyful, hug-you-on-sight type of woman, had grown up with a missionary family in pre-communist China. They had two sons slightly younger than I was.

“Curt, we’ve missed you at church,” Father Baskin jump-started our conversation. “Is something wrong?”

“Well, Father,” I stammered as my mind scrambled for excuses, “I’ve been having a slight problem with original sin, virgin birth and resurrection.”

“Ah, that,” he responded knowingly. “May I share something that might help?”

“Of course,” I replied, preparing myself for a lecture on the importance of having faith.

“I don’t accept everything in the Bible as the literal truth either,” he said in a low tone that caught me off guard. I half expected lightning to strike or at least candelabra to fall over. “But,” he went on, “I do believe that the Bible and its stories point us toward a deeper understanding of God and the meaning of Christianity.”

Wise words: they could be applied to all of the world’s great religious writings. Deeply inspired visionaries strive to understand and explain their visions within the context of their cultures and personal experience. Disciples then come along to interpret and reinterpret the messages to keep them relevant, reflect their own inspiration, maintain control over the flock and win converts. Divine revelation and practical considerations walk hand in hand. We end up with metaphorical truths that point us toward the original source of the vision. And we end up with religions, the keepers of the metaphorical truths.

Unfortunately, it is hard to sell a metaphorical truth, even to our selves. A Christ walking on water and granting everlasting life is infinitely more satisfying and reassuring than a Jesus struggling with the nature of his humanity. This is where faith and miracles enter from stage left. When I walked through the door of the Church, I would still be expected to profess my belief in virgin birth and resurrection. Modifying the Nicene Creed to fit my sophomoric understanding of theology was not an option.

Even if I managed to silently slip in the word metaphorical, I still had original sin to deal with. I could accept the fact that I was petty, dishonest, and wrong at times— that I needed forgiveness. But I couldn’t accept that I was inherently sinful or evil. Since we are 98.8 % chimpanzee, genetically speaking, what seemed sinful to me was to blame Eve (woman), or even the snake, for our monkeying around in the Garden. Father Baskin’s wise words gave me much to think about, but I wasn’t ready to rejoin the flock.

While I was learning about Christianity’s connection to mythology, I was also learning about Crusades, Jihads, Inquisitions, and various other ‘Holy’ wars. Doing unto others in the name of God, Allah, Jehovah, etc. seemed close to a commandment. For all of the good religion had done down through the ages, and there is a great deal, it had also been a factor in much of the world’s violence and intolerance. I came to the conclusion that there was a fly in the ointment, a fatal flaw in religion that may yet bring about the Armageddon that so many fundamentalists believe in. This flaw is tied to two of religions most powerful driving forces: the concepts of exclusivity and faith.

Exclusivity in religion is tribal theology. It is the belief that there is only one way to pass through the Pearly Gates and that our particular brand of religion holds the key. It gives us special status. One doesn’t have to travel very far down this road to assume that other people are less blessed or even evil. Exclusivity can be used to justify wealth, dominance, missionary zeal, Holy War and almost any other thing we want it to.

The idea that an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-wise being would have a chosen people seemed like a contradiction in terms to me. That He would send these people out to kill in His or Her name was inconceivable. Exclusivity appeared like one more human rationalization, a clever ploy to recruit members, fill coffers, and benefit specific groups at the expense of others. Limiting interpretation of ‘God’s Word’ to selected people and adding unquestioned faith to the equation created a recipe for power and control that was far too tempting to ignore and, unfortunately, abuse— over and over again.

Faith allows us to plow forth in the face of adversity and often gets us through the dark night. It can be a powerful force for good, but it is also the underpinning of exclusivity. You can’t get there without it. How else could we convince ourselves that our particular brand of religion has found the one true path to God? We leap before we look and then work backward: the greater the leap, the greater the faith. I believe, therefore it is true. Rational questioning is not allowed.

Our Founding Fathers, the people who wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, had a profound understanding of the power of religion to be corrupted. They had seen Holy Wars tear apart Europe and kill millions. They wanted to protect the newly formed United States from a similar fate. There would be a strict separation of church and state. The state would no longer use the church to control the masses as it had for millennia. The church would no longer use the state to eliminate competition. People would be free to worship as they chose, whether it was a brand of Christianity or some other religion. Several of the Founders were actually Deists who believed that spiritual truths could be reached through reason alone. Revelation and miracles were not necessary. Thomas Jefferson followed this logic to the point of going through his Bible and snipping out the miracles.

I decided to let time sort out my own belief system. There is no doubt that religion is an important part of who we are. My negative thoughts did not eliminate my need for having some type of spiritual grounding. I was in complete agreement, however, with the importance of letting people worship as they choose. It is wrong for one religion to force its viewpoint on others of different beliefs.

NEXT FRIDAY’S ESSAY: I conclude my series on religion with my 80-year-old father and I discussing God while sitting around a campfire in wild Alaska with snow falling gently from the sky.

Tarzan Shows Me the Light… The Friday Essay

The Episcopal Church in Placerville that played a significant role in my life for 16 years.

The Episcopal Church in Placerville played a significant role in my life for 16 years.

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.