With fists, with words, with kindness
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My father thought men who talked about being “saved” were weak, even feminine. Religion was the domain of women; he was too busy farming and working at the ceiling-tile factory to concern himself with salvation. My mother prayed and talked to me about God behind his back. Raised in coal-miner churches in Vigo County, Indiana, she kept a small white Bible stashed in the cupboard. We rarely saw Dad at mealtimes — long hours in the field and factory made him an all-but-phantom father — and before we ate, our mother would whisper, “Dear Lord, bless these kids and this farm. Please watch out for those who are poor and weak.” Then she’d lower her voice until it was almost inaudible: “And give Dan the strength he needs in his work. Please save his tired soul. Amen.”
Our mother had given all five of us kids tiny Gideon Bibles. Mine was orange, and my name was written inside in elaborate cursive. Because they were girls, my two sisters could openly keep their Gideons next to their beds, but I kept mine in a drawer. Though my father never said as much, my brothers and I knew that once we hit puberty, we were expected to behave like full-grown men: farmers and union members who needed nothing more than their own strong bodies to save them. My tentative faith became a secret, a sinful thing to keep hidden away.
We lived in Wabash, Indiana, and my mother, my siblings, and I would sneak off to church in Terre Haute when we visited her family there once a year, but she wouldn’t upset my dad by taking us to a service in our hometown. She often urged him to consider going to church, but he was too busy, he’d say. The ceiling-tile factory paid double time on Sundays. “What do you want to do, Doris: buy food for the kids or save my soul?” My dad would deliver this remark with a grin, confident of his alibi.
In 1981, when I was in eighth grade, a friend from school invited me to a meeting of his church’s youth group. My mother dropped me off in the parking lot as if she were leaving me to commit a crime. The church basement was cold and smelled like bleach despite the spaghetti supper simmering in the kitchen off the main rec room. Teenagers gathered around an oval carpet while two sheepish-looking “peer leaders” placed folding chairs in a circle. I helped set out paper plates and plastic forks. The furnace kicked on, blowing hot air full force down on our heads. I’d asked my mother to “feather” my hair, and she had, spraying it with lots of AquaNet to produce winglike formations at the sides of my head. At the time I was infatuated with pop singer Olivia Newton-John — or, at least, with a poster of her dressed in “Let’s get physical” workout garb. I’d recently discovered my mind could conjure up all manner of scenarios that brought her into my life, and into my twin bed.
Everyone filled plates with spaghetti and sat down for a rap session with the youth pastor and his wife. The topic was drugs and God. I tried to eat with some manners while making sure none of the watery tomato sauce splashed onto my white Izod golf shirt, which I’d bought at a thrift store. Underneath it I wore another golf shirt, and I had both collars turned up, like a stylish neck brace. With my winged hair and dual turned-up collars, my head looked like an aerodynamic contraption about to take flight.
The youth pastor was a bodybuilder who faintly resembled Lou Ferrigno, the actor who played the Incredible Hulk on TV. He didn’t eat but just sat and thumbed through a workbook, his legs spread wide because the muscles in his thighs didn’t permit a more polite pose. On the cover of the workbook was a photo of some needles and an assortment of colored pills. The title, set against a psychedelic background, was Just Say No to Drugs! The pastor opened and closed the book several times before finally cocking his large head and clearing his throat.
“How many of you teenagers here tonight feel pressured by your . . .” He turned to a page marked with a red tassel and searched the text. “By your peers?”
My friend nudged me as he shoveled spaghetti into his mouth, the diluted sauce dripping rapidly from his plastic fork onto the paper plate. I ignored him and chewed my garlic bread. A young girl with severe acne spoke up: “I’ve not really been approached — I mean, I haven’t been approached at all, but I know kids who have.” I couldn’t help thinking she had been planted by the pastor and his wife to get the rap session going.
The youth pastor tried to get the kids to spill their guts one by one, but each only shrugged. My friend nudged me again with his bony elbow, and this time the pastor saw it. “Doug, do you have something to share?”
I stopped eating. I’d confided to my friend that I’d been offered pot in the high-school parking lot after a basketball game, and now I was regretting it. (This same friend also knew about the Olivia Newton-John poster; would he tattle on me about that next?) I’d left the parking lot without taking a single hit, without even thinking about using drugs, but I didn’t want to tell this group of strange kids some stupid story about how I’d said no.
The muscle-bound youth pastor’s gaze was intimidating, though, and before I knew it, I was nervously explaining how I’d turned down the dope, like a good Christian teenager. I thought of my father, who at that very moment was at work, using his muscles to feed his family, and I felt the blood in my face rise a few degrees.
When I was through, the pastor seemed impressed. “That’s excellent, Doug,” he said, as if he were a coach praising a ballplayer. “Let’s all give Doug a big hand. I mean, let’s really let him hear how much we love him for the choice he made. Come on!” he yelled, getting fired up, clapping his strong, thick hands with thunderous effect. I wished I could flap my stiffly feathered hair and fly away.
The pastor told me to come forward and said, in his deep baritone, “I present this pledge to Doug as a challenge.” He held out a piece of paper that looked like a fake diploma. “Doug, do you accept the challenge to stay drug-free, to not give in to temptation, and to not partake in any type of substance abuse that would harm God’s temple?”
It was the first time I’d heard the word temple used for a person’s body, and I was confused. I pictured someone spray-painting graffiti on the church. The pastor’s bulging biceps stretched the short sleeve of his dress shirt, and I waited for the material to rip all the way up to his neck. Maybe, I thought, if my dad could have seen this macho pastor, he’d have understood that a man could have a Savior and still be tough.
The hulking pastor was holding out the paper to me, and I took it. He then drew a pen from his pocket, clicked it, gave it to me, and turned his back slightly, presenting me with his shoulder to rest the paper on. “What do you say, Doug? Are you with us? Are you with God, son?” With his rock-hard shoulder as my desk, I signed my name. Another round of applause echoed in the basement, and the youth-group meeting was officially over.
Later I’d find out that everyone else in the group had already signed a pledge, banishing their desires to drink or smoke pot before God, the Hulk, and their peers.
Afterward we mingled and ate peanut-butter cookies for dessert. I was about to go out front to check on my ride when the youth pastor approached me again.
“Your buddy says you’ve not been saved, Doug. Is that true?”
I wanted to punch my friend hard in the arm, but his older brother had already come to drive him home. I was stuck with the thick-necked pastor, and I was scared: frightened to say yes, but also frightened to say no. Over the course of the previous year, as I’d stumbled through puberty, I’d sensed that I wasn’t like my father at all. I cried when I was frustrated and needed something to build me up inside. My body was thin and hairless, and I knew I’d have to look deeper to find my masculinity.
The bodybuilder for Jesus escorted me to a preschool classroom, where the ABC’s ran across the top of the walls and blocks were stacked on nearly every surface. I could smell chalk and Handi Wipes. He told me to get on my knees; then he did the same, though it took him a while to kneel completely down, he was so stiff and muscle-bound. I thought again of the Incredible Hulk, how he was a normal man until you made him angry: then his skin would turn green, and his muscles would burst out of his shirt, and his pants would split into shreds. I pictured the man before me clad in the tattered remains of his pastor garb. Don’t make him mad, I thought. He took my hand in his massive one and prayed for me. “Doug, do you accept the Lord Jesus Christ as your eternal Savior?”
“Yes,” I said, my head bowed. I peeked up at him. His face looked calm. He wasn’t turning green, and his clothes were intact. I closed my eyes again, and images of Olivia Newton-John in all stages of undress filled my mind. I saw her in my junior-high locker room clad only in a towel, the two of us dancing to one of her slow songs. I was afraid the Hulk could read my mind.
“And do you commit your life in His name, to worship no God before Him?”
“Yes.” If I’d said no, would he have hurled me into the children’s desks?
“Amen,” he said.
“Amen,” I parroted.
He got up and grinned at me, like a short, smiling boulder. It was over. I’d thought perhaps a light would shine on me, or I’d feel different inside, that the burning-hot desire to bed Olivia would finally cease, but as I followed the pastor back to the kitchen, my tennis shoes squeaking in the hallway, I was no more holy than when I’d arrived. (Later that night, when I got back to my bedroom, I’d stare at the seductive image of Olivia in her headband and leg warmers, thighs ever so slightly parted, smooth spandex covering every inch. I’d put on some REO Speedwagon and dim the lights. She and I would hold hands and talk about God. She’d find the new, born-again me immensely sexy.)
The pastor and I marched together back through the church halls beneath the creepy hum of the flickering fluorescents. As we turned the corner, I saw my dad talking with the pastor’s wife. Why was he picking me up, and not Mom? He looked utterly out of place, hadn’t even taken off his cap. My father shook the pastor’s hand as I went to put on my coat. I was given a few cookies and a booklet to fill out for the next session, which I quickly hid under my jacket.
The cab of my dad’s truck smelled of cigarette smoke: predictable, familiar, and comforting. I wanted to have arms like his, to wear my clothes with manly disregard, sleeves rolled up, bluejeans frayed in all the right places.
“Your mother got called in to work at Arby’s,” he said. He revved the engine and asked me how the youth group had been. Did he somehow know what had gone down? I felt transparent, like the one-celled organisms we’d looked at under the microscope in biology class.
“Fine,” I said, my hands sweaty, as if what I’d done, kneeling next to the Hulk, were a sin in itself. I’d heard my dad lightly mock the “born-agains” at the factory, saying, “Those sons-a-bitches steal more overtime than us heathens. They got a fellow born-again in the front office that doctors the overtime sheets.” I tried to slip my antidrug pledge from the center of the bench seat without his noticing.
“What’s that you got there?” he asked from one side of his mouth, a newly lit cigarette dangling from the other. He looked cooler than anyone I knew.
“Nothing. Just a pledge.” I hoped he’d leave it at that, but he reached for the paper and read it under the passing street-lights on the outskirts of town. At a stop sign he examined it closely as he rolled down the window to blow smoke out. He bent to tap his ashes into the cuff of his jeans, brow knitted intently. “That’s good, son,” he said, handing the pledge back to me. “Something like that can help keep you focused.”
I felt relieved. Maybe he thought my evening at the church had been all about drug prevention. He turned off the main road and onto the potholed one-laner that led to our failing farm. It was dark outside the truck, only the lights of homesteads twinkling in the distance. I wanted to tell him what had really happened, to blurt out that I’d been saved, to ask why he didn’t believe. Wasn’t it scary to depend only on himself? What was wrong with prayer and faith?
But I’d never ask him these questions, and eventually I’d stop wanting to. While other kids snuck around with beer, I’d sneak back to the church, always keeping it from my dad. I’d lie about where I’d been when he asked, hiding my little orange Gideon Bible as if it were a six-pack. When I got back from youth-group meetings, my mother, longing for a place to worship herself, would ask me all about it, but if Dad knew, he never let on.
That night, when we stopped in front of the house, he said, “I got to pull a double shift, son. You get your sleep.” He sounded calm, not burdened. Work was his faith, and he was never more at peace than when he was depending on his strength to carry him through. He reached over me to open my door, and I was tempted to hug him as hard as I could, but instead I stepped out of the truck and into the cold air. Before he yanked the door shut he said, “I’ll see you when I see you.” I watched as he backed up and drove quickly out of sight, the crunch of his tires on the gravel road like a mumbled prayer.