Monday, August 18, 2014

A Fire in the Desert

This is a true story, though it may not be factual. I've been told that the Devil is in the details; but I've also been told that God is in the details. Either way, whatever the facts may have been, however I may have misheard or mis-remembered the details, this is the story I know. You may have your own - feel free to write it down.

The preacher roamed the wilderness of the desert Southwest for 50 years in a series of new and used recreational vehicles, his wife by his side, always seeking receptive souls to bring to the Lord. He raised a son who went to Vietnam and two daughters - all three raised sons of their own. He built houses, sank wells, raised chickens and rabbits, saved souls, started churches - and moved on, always moved on.

He was a big man with a big voice, a broad smile, a ready laugh, and a proverbial fire in his belly. He once joked that this was why he ate so much when he visited us. His hair, what was left of it by the time I knew him, was usually a close-cropped white stubble that seemed to grow wild and wispy over night. I thought of him as a bald man, but he always claimed to need a haircut.

"Grandpa," I would exclaim, "You're bald! Why do you need a haircut?"

And his laugh would boom, and he would start to relate to me a tale about Jesus telling all men to keep their hair off their collar, not like those... but Grandma would usually swoop in with the clippers and a towel, and hurry him off to our patio for a trim before he could get much further.

He traded camper vans up for RVs, traded the RVs up for pickups with fifth-wheels, and traded the trailers up for mobile homes on an acre of property before deciding he had tied himself down with too many possessions and scaled back down again. No matter where he lived, you would find Grandma with her box of mementos, her organ, their dog, and her quiet hope that some day they would find the right home.

One thing about desert life is its innate mobility. Plants' roots never run deep - they run shallow and broad. Animals may dig in and hide during the heat of the day, but they know to stay on the move if they want to find shade and water. And one place Grandpa could always find some shade and water was under the tree in our driveway.

When Grandma and Grandpa showed up, it was almost always a surprise to us kids. Mom learned not to give us any warning that they were coming to visit, or we would stake out the couch by the big picture window and drive each other crazy with anticipation, shrieking "They're here! They're here!" at every puff of dust on the washboard that was 89th Avenue.

And they would finally roll in, pulling up under the skinny poplar tree where Grandpa would jack, level and brace whatever mobile domicile they were currently living in, and hook up water and electric. He'd run a hose from the sewer line to the poplar tree, and remind us kids that if we used their toilet, only to "run water" in it. When we were little, he'd explicitly tell us, "Only pee-pee and wee-wee in there! No poop-poop!" and we would giggle at the naughty nonsense words and repeat them daringly until we remembered that Grandma was waiting inside.

Most of the time, we could take turns sleeping over in the Camper; no matter what the actual vehicle was, it was always "the Camper" to us. Our favorites were the cab-over motor-homes with their inevitable forward and side windows. I'd fill every spare inch with Star Wars men, posting guards at the corners and locking imprisoned rebels in the cup holders. My sister would pasture her My Little Ponies on and around the dining table. Meanwhile, the grown ups would stay inside with sweating glasses of sweet sun tea, talking about trade-in values, equity, and whatever else grown ups discuss when the kids are out of ear shot.

None of these visits ever lasted long enough for my sister or I, but mom and dad seemed to uncoil a little bit whenever the clouds of dust would follow the caravan du jour down the road toward their next stop - usually my cousin's house a few miles away. Looking back, I can see how my dad, who was always happiest building and tinkering with his handy projects around the property, might have looked forward to not having his father-in-law offering advise on how to build and tinker better. And since they were mom's parents, I could see how maybe there were lingering childhood issues that every family has that made her feel progressively less in control of her own home until the visits were over.

They never said anything to us about it, because they would never say an unkind word about anyone to us. But I think now that maybe the mornings after Grandma and Grandpa drove off after each visit might have been the mornings that mom's old Beatles, Monkees, and Lovin' Spoonful records came out for a spin - replacing Kate Smith's "How Great Thou Art" and Barry Sadler's "Ballad of the Green Berets" which had seen more prominence the previous few days.

Whatever the adults' issues may have been, I remember treasuring the stories Grandpa told us. If Grandma left him alone with us for any length of time, we would prod and pester him to tell us stories about growing up in Kentucky and Alabama, and when he did, we would sit around him, raptly hanging on every word. This happened most often on Sunday afternoons, after church and the big chicken dinner that mom and Grandma would prepare. I remember sitting close to him, despite the inescapable odors of dust and sweat that plague a man who spends long days driving Arizona back roads. I remember feeling full of chicken and listening to him tell adventurous stories about the things that his brothers got up to, or cautionary tales of drinkers and smokers who ended up badly.

My personal favorite was a memorable tale about the time a young Grandpa had found a perfectly good hat floating on a vat of sheep dip when he took a shortcut through the stock yards. He wore it proudly down the main street, only to have a woman run screaming out of her house, calling the police and demanding that he show her where he found it. When the police dragged a pole through the vat of sheep dip, they found the woman's husband - dead and drowned. He had evidently wandered through the stock yards after a night of heavy drinking and fallen in. Sometimes, when he ended the story, Grandpa would tell us that the woman let him keep the hat - and he would point at his sun-bleached ball cap with the enormous grin of a champion spinner of tall tales.

Grandma was never comfortable with Grandpa's insistence on filling our heads with nonsense, so he would frequently placate her by telling us Bible stories. I know he was incredibly proud that I became such a prolific reader of the Bible, largely because I loved hearing him tell those stories. He always stuck to the standard, relatively kid-friendly stories of Daniel and the Lion's Den or Jesus Walking on the Water; I had to find the Death of Jezebel and the story of what Jael did to General Sisera on my own.

I always figured the Bible stories came naturally to him because Grandpa was a preacher. At least, he would talk about being a preacher; and once or twice, he was invited to give a sermon at our church. In school, when our religion class covered the revival movement of the 1860s, I knew exactly what they were talking about when they described the hellfire & brimstone of the tent revivals, largely because of the impression that my Grandfather made on me from the pulpit. He lit up in front of a congregation, and his oratory would grow olive branches and wind its way along the corners of our plain, unadorned sanctuary turning our little Southern Baptist church into a cathedral - or a great tent, depending on how you view these things.

It didn't occur to me until I was much older to ask why Grandpa, if he was such a grand and wonderful preacher, didn't have a church of his own. By then, I was old enough to recognize how uncomfortable that question made everyone, so I dropped it. I figured out on my own that there is a big difference between being a "preacher" and being a "pastor"; it's rather the same difference between being a revolutionary and running a government after the revolution is over. Following the lead of the adults around me, I accepted Grandpa for what he was; but by that point, I was old enough for Grandpa to begin to show concern about me - and my sister, and my cousins - and our resolve in the Lord, and I began to develop a more nuanced conception why it might be hard to stay in a church (or a house?) with someone who wanted to Save you so badly that they applied a deep scrutiny to every belief.

His preaching was never something that was criticized or questioned in our house. We all supported each other in our dreams and endeavors, after all. But I do remember the occasional incident; times when Grandpa would go out for a gallon of milk, and come back hours later relating how he had spied a young man "with an earring" who had clearly needed to hear the Word of Jesus. Or he would leave Grandma with us while he went "visiting" - coming home late in the evening, bursting with energy and planning to move back to Phoenix and start a revival that would sweep the city!

Even when he did "find a church home," it never seemed to last. There would be excitement; property would be purchased or rented, and funds raised. Ground would be broken, and promises would be made. But eventually, almost never longer than six weeks along, the enterprise would evaporate and Grandma and Grandpa would pack up and drive off disconsolately, shaking their heads, and sadly bemoaning a general lack of faith and unwillingness to hear the Word of the Lord.

I was probably twelve, and at the height of my own religious fervor, when he pointedly asked me about my haircut. I never liked having my hair cut; dad usually did it himself. He used two ancient devices to accomplish this: a rebuilt electric clipper that sparked and clattered like something Thomas Edison might have used on an elephant to show how dangerous electricity was, and a pair of dull trimming shears that seemed to pull out as many hairs as they cut. Being uninterested in either electrocution or plucking, I usually made such a stink about haircuts that dad and I would uneasily circle each other for about a week before he would pounce, sit me on a stool out in our garage, and remove as many offending follicles as he could before the noise started to worry the neighbors.

Grandpa seemed to have some odd ideas about me, though, based on the shaggy state of my coiffure. I didn't understand much of what he was saying - I thought my loafers were kind of heavy, actually - but once I got him to state his insinuation clearly, I was horrified. What did my hair have to do with .... THAT? And once I got over the shock, I asked him how, if Jesus had long hair, it could be related to such a Very Bad Thing?  Was Jesus like that?

This conversation did not go well.

Eventually, mom intervened and sorted all of this out, but it was very confusing to me at the time. After all, you have to understand that I had been saved at age 11, and I was going for some kind of record at age 12 of being more "faithful" than anyone else I knew - faithful, of course, meaning that I was a Reagan-supporting, Republican, pro-life, Dr. James Dobson listener with a passion for shouting down the atheists and backsliders that surrounded me at school. For Grandpa to think otherwise based on my unwillingness to submit to my dad's infrequent torture sessions was appalling.

We had a similarly odd conversation a couple of years later, when Grandpa expected that I might be taking an interest in girls. Obviously satisfied with my orientation, he wanted to caution me about the dangers of "mixing a brown horse and a white horse," to which I replied, "No, Grandpa, that's how you get an Appaloosa - and Appaloosas are AWESOME!"

That conversation also did not go well.

I eventually picked up on several notions that Grandpa harbored in his heart along with his extensive knowledge of Bible stories and personal morality tales. When I got older and read about the John Birch Society and Barry Goldwater, and started seeing "conservative" radio and TV hosts gaining popularity in the early 1990s, I recognized many of the ideas that Grandpa had tried to teach me over the years. I remembered how when I was 9 and deeply into dinosaurs, he waited until we were alone in the living room to tell me that Satan had placed their bones in the ground to confuse scientists and to test our faith. I remembered that when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, he reminded me that the space program was just man's foolish attempt to build another Tower of Babel, and that the explosion was God's way of reminding us to stay focused on Jesus.

I remember asking the other adults about some of this stuff, and no one seemed to want to discuss any of it. Grandma would deny that Grandpa had ever said such things, and mom would just steer me onto other topics until I forgot (mostly) about my disappointment.

At the time, though, I hadn't explored any of this very deeply. To me, Grandpa was simply one of the most colorful and admirable people I knew. On balance, he made me feel loved more than judged, and he was clearly proud of me. Maybe his stories exaggerated some details, and maybe some of his beliefs about science were on the questionable side, but he instilled an appreciation for narrative and a love of words that I still cherish. He showed me the beautiful and awkward relationship between fiction and truth.

After I left home on my grand adventures, I didn't see any of the family often, but mom kept me updated on how everyone was doing. And as I went out into the world, some the most deeply rooted ideas I took with me came from the big, bald man who always needed a haircut, and who gave me the gift of stories.

Next week: The Harsh Light of Day

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