Monday, October 17, 2011

Falcon Quest

Seatbelts, bike helmets, knee pads, safety vests... There were no such things when I was a boy.

I remember standing on the bench seat next to my father as he drove his two tone turquoise and white 1955 Ford Fairlane.  My arm was slung around his neck, and I hung on as he turned into the S curves of the Wampanoag Trail, a serpentine stretch of road on the outskirts of Barrington, the Rhode Island town I once called home.

My brother Dave and I felt the torque of that old V8 as dad put the pedal to the metal and grinned.  Our backs pressed against the tweed seats as we rolled left and right with the curves, cheering him on.

Mom didn’t drive because she was blind in one eye, and her lack of peripheral vision made her nervous.  In the eyes of my brother and me, until our sister Annie got her permit, driving was a male endeavor.

I keep inventory of boyhood events by the particular cars that carried me:

Dad driving Dave and me to see the Yankees at Fenway Park- baby blue 1959 Ford Galaxie wagon.

The family trip across the country to California- a brand new metallic blue ‘64 Chevy Bel Air wagon.

Learning to drive a stick in a turquoise 1963 Ford Falcon, a gift to Dad from the widow of an old friend.

Mom and Dad taking me out to Indiana for my freshman year of college- a gold 1970 Ford Galaxie sedan

It would bring my father a great deal of joy to know that his namesake, my brother Dave, grew up and became CEO of the largest Automobile museum in North America.  Besides the New York Yankees, our love of the automobile bonded us.  We anticipated autumn with enthusiasm because it promised the debut of all the new car models from Detroit with monikers like Mustang, Thunderbird, Grand Prix, Continental, Corvette, and Bronco, names to be lived up to.

We Madeira men had a romance with cars.

Dave and I shared the ’63 Falcon in high school, which he eventually took to college in the late ‘60s.  It was a “three-on-the-tree”, meaning it had a standard transmission whose gearshift was on the steering column.

Ford introduced their compact line, Falcon, in 1960.  The humble car was named for the bird of kings, the king of birds.  In folklore, the falcon often represents the warrior, passion, intellect, keenness, and vision.

My Falcon came to me from my mother, a generous gift and an expression of belief that I was becoming a man.

In 1973, Mom took the pocket change she had made playing piano at church, and bought me a 1964 Falcon station wagon for $150.   I parked it at parents’ house and patched the holes in the floor and the fenders with sheet metal and Bondo, and then sprayed it with metallic blue paint, and I thought it looked pretty glorious.

In truth, it wasn’t much to look at, but it was mine.   And it got me down the road, and back without much trouble for about 4 years.  Not bad for $150.  I named it Felix.

On my first trek West in the summer of ’73, I was about 45 miles from my destination when the clutch failed.  I found a mechanic and it was fixed within hours.  It lasted for as long as I kept Felix.

Every 18 months, the battery would die, and I would go to a junkyard, fork over five bucks, and walk out with a used generator, which I would install within minutes.   Maintenance was up to me; I couldn’t afford to pay for repairs that were within the scope of my technical abilities, so I learned to figure it out.

Felix was my Kon-Tiki, my whale, my Santa Maria, my literal vehicle into manhood.  Through blinding blizzards and zero temperatures, that old car faithfully delivered me to university and back home at least twice a year.  I remember leaving Barrington in the dead of night, knowing I would avoid the congestion of New York City and all roads leading there if I chose to drive in darkness.

I would drive Felix 900 miles from Rhode Island to Indiana, with an AM radio keeping me company until the signal faded somewhere on Interstate 80, leaving nothing but a black sky, the Pennsylvania hills, and the wind whistling through the cracks in the floor.

Under an ink black canopy, I watched stars fall.  On winter treks, snow flakes replaced stars, and sometimes the roads were barely traversable, but Felix and I would proceed cautiously, or so we thought.

I'd crack the little triangular vent window so commonplace on yesterday's cars, and try to cool off as the defroster kept the windshield hot, and once in a while my headlights would be so encrusted with ice that I'd have to pull over and chip away at them with a screwdriver.

Meanwhile, I'd find some groovy late night DJ playing blues or jazz, and somehow Felix seemed to pick up on the energy of the music, and we'd find ourselves cruising at 80 miles per hour.  Occasionally, a tobacco soaked voice would announce whose music was moving us, and I'd make a mental note of who it was.  Taj Mahal, Dave Brubeck, Sonny Rollins, Miles, or Muddy.  Sooner or later, the bend in the road would take us behind a high, lonesome hill, and the signal would distort and then disappear into the blackness.

Just as I'd lost one signal, another might appear, maybe some black preacher, hollering salvation at fever pitch, or possibly making a sales pitch.  It was hard to tell the difference between the prophets and the profiteers, but the cadence of their voices carried us down the road.

One night, the radio picked up a soulful voice from Atlanta which promised, "I'm goin' to getchoo outta th' ghet-to' an' into th' get-mo'!"

For all the gospel shouting, my soul didn't feel any closer to God Almighty, but the road seemed a little staighter and the hills seemed a little shallower.  We might've been running on fumes, but when the radio was working, Felix ran like a top.

The radio also connected me to Nashville, a place I had no romance about, nor the slightest inkling that it would one day become my habitat.  In the wee hours, old school country and western tunes would bleed through the little mono speaker hidden beneath a grille in the center of the metal dashboard.  Someone from WSM was keeping the truckers awake with twangy etudes from Buck Owens and Dave Dudley.

Those were beautiful times.

The fondness I have for that old Ford Falcon is greater than all the combined affection I’ve given to many cars I’ve owned, matched only by a Mercedes Wagon that is long gone.

I’m sentimental that way.

I like the new cars just fine, but they don’t make ‘em like they used to.  Hell, they don’t even name them like they used to!  What does Prius mean, anyway?

I would trade my Infiniti for a good running Falcon if given the chance.

The tribes of the past sent adolescent males on lone journeys, during which they would transition from boyhood to manhood.  Communing with nature, hearing the voice of an owl or a wolf, and perhaps starving just enough to be in a state of altered and open consciousness, the boy/man would return to the tribe with a word, a prize, or perhaps a vision that could be celebrated by the entire community.

Western society has substituted television and cyber-worlds for real living, and the vision quest has faded from view.  Yet, something in a boy’s heart knows he must seek beyond the borders of comfort.  Something tells him that he will find fulfillment and knowledge, excitement, and adventure if he cuts the apron strings and ventures into the unknown.

When I graduated from college, I had bachelor’s degree in Art, something I have never formally used.  Nonetheless, I returned to my parents’ home having fulfilled the task they had sent me away to accomplish.  Moreover, I returned with friendship bonds that have lasted for nearly 4 decades, stories that have served to remind me about the breath God Almighty continues to fill my lungs with, and lessons learned on the ribbon of road with that beautiful old Falcon.

A college friend hounded me to let go of Felix when I relocated to Upstate New York in 1976, and I reluctantly did so, but the lessons linger. Maybe brother Falcon had more magic under its hood than one would expect from an oil guzzling straight-six engine.  

Maybe it gave me wings.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Beat Generation

I am the baby who tumbled from the womb drumming.  I am the boy whose fingers tapped out a tattoo on a maple-topped desk in elementary school.  I am the teenager who split the calfskin head of an old Ludwig drum as my blue and gold clad fellows marched ahead, laden down with cumbersome brass tubas and silver cornets.

Be it a Sunday school class or a marching band, a book group or an English Lit class, I’ve never been swept along with the herd.  I might be singing along to whatever melody is being raised by the chorus, but the tempo in my head is always fighting with the cadence of the footfalls of the communal parade.

The rhythm in my head is upbeat and funky.  The snare drum barks with brassy insistence and the bass drum holds it all together, landing solidly on the beat, while a maraca trips erratically overhead, riding on the wind.

And the beat goes on.  

Those who love me have sometimes felt the need to explain or excuse me.  My childhood shenanigans would often elicit an exclamation of “Where did you come from?” from my bemused father.  Exasperated, my mother would plead with me to get in line with dress codes, mores, or whatever  parental vision I was supposed to be fulfilling. 

It’s no wonder that I’m marching to my own beat.  My parents set me up. 

While I was incubating in my mother’s tummy, she was playing Mahalia Jackson records, feeding my soul the music of a world that was vastly different to white bread New England. 

When she preached on Mother’s Day, it was to a congregation who wasn’t sure what to do with the idea of a woman having that kind of authority.  She was more progressive than she knew.

My father, a man’s man if I ever knew one, was somewhat of a pacifist, bringing yet another strange facet into an otherwise dog-eat-dog world.  He presided over the Rhode Island chapter of Habitat For Humanity, and he created a relief society to benefit destitute people in Haiti.

Dad was a minister in a Baptist Church, known more for what they don’t do than for what they get done.  Yet, unlike many Baptists, he preached less about Hell than of the Church’s responsibility to the poor.   He ruffled the feathers of his flock when he preached against the War in Viet Nam, and when he championed men like Martin Luther King, Jr.

Their literal interpretation of the words of Christ made them who they were.  They took faith seriously, and as such, set themselves apart from the self-centered suburbia they lived in.  They were truly “in the world, but not of the world”.

My parents were proudly Evangelical, and felt united with conscientious believers like Billy Graham and John Perkins, espousing an evangelism both theologically spoken and practiced.

There were many churches in Barrington, the upper class town we lived in.  Although Rhode Island was founded by the first Baptist, Roger Williams, being Baptist carried with it a hillbilly stigma among the bluebloods of New England.  The social climbers attended St John’s Episcopal or The White Church, an aptly named Congregational group on the banks of the Barrington River.

There were two Catholic churches, one Methodist, another less well-heeled Episcopal parish, and a synagogue just to round things out.

My parents would answer my questions about what the other churches believed with phrases that caused me to think that we at Barrington Baptist had quite a bit more truth than the rest of the town’s Christians.  “Well, they don’t really know the Lord the way we do” was the gist of it.  It was always something of a surprise for me to find out that an Episcopalian or a Congregationalist could be a “real Christian”.

My life was designed by my parents to revolve around church events several days a week.  Sunday was filled with Sunday school class, morning worship, afternoon youth group, and evening worship.  There was also Wednesday evening prayer meeting, which we thankfully were not required to attend, and Friday night youth activities in the church gymnasium.

By the time I was 18 years old, I had done enough church-going to fill the average lifetime.

When I left the warmth of my parents’ home for my freshman year of college, I sought out other Christians like them, but there were none that I could find.  At Taylor University, I recognized the religious jargon, and found some comfort in being with “real Christians”, but there was something missing.

I attended chapel services and occasionally went to one church or another on Sunday, but sleeping in seemed a more constructive option.  I let myself off the hook based on my behavior and “time served”.  I still do.

Over the years, the search for God’s presence led me in and out of a variety of traditions, from incense burners to barn burners, liturgists to improvisers.   In contrast to conventional church wisdom, the more active I became in one group or another, the less connected to Christ I felt. 

What my parents loved to experience with many, I cherish with one or two people, and more so under the low lighting of a bar than the brightly lit chandeliers of a church sanctuary.

Trying to remain a good parent to the end, my nonagenarian mother still sends me books by prominent Evangelical authors.  I’m in good company, mind you; she sends devotional books to the President of the United States!   Once, after reading something Barack Obama had said about his spiritual life, Mom told me that she was quite sure he had read the book she’d sent him.  If that’s the case, he’s one up on me.

Unfortunately, what was once meaningful jargon now falls flat when it hits my ears.  I can’t read these books.  It’s hard enough for me to read the Bible, so familiar is it to me.  But the language of Evangelicalism seems like a pair of loaded dice; I know exactly where the roll will take me.  I need something fresh.

Surprise me, God.

Once I tried to explain to my mother that I was grateful for my upbringing in the household of faith, but no longer felt comfortable defining myself as Evangelical.  She voiced her disappointment by projecting it through my father, long deceased, saying, “Your father would be mighty disappointed in you.  He was proud to be Evangelical”. 

Ah, yes, Mom will always play the Dad card.  But it never works; it stings for a moment, but it’s never a surprise.  It’s a Band Aid being pulled off, nothing more.  Dad never worried about the drumbeat I was following.  Mom feels bad that I’m not in the club any more no matter how much I explain that I am still trying to follow Christ. 

What I don’t say, but perhaps she understands, is that I can’t seem to find Jesus in that world that loudly proclaims him.  The fever pitch of the crowd makes it hard for me to hear what the Old Testament calls “the still, small voice”.   The rants of the church are about hanging on to theological and social real estate, while the whisper of the Spirit is “Let go.”

I’m doing my best to let go, by God.

I try to give my mother some comfort in the idea that she is largely responsible for my exit from Evangelical World, after all, she never let the word “Baptist” define her parameters, never caved to the status quo when it would have been convenient.  She was a pastor’s wife who didn’t limit herself to playing the piano on Sunday mornings.  The open-minded attitude she had as a young woman probably had more influence on my father’s ministry than anything else.  They were a team, trying to live out the words of Christ.

I’m their son, trying to live in the words of Christ. 

While I am trying to escape the sound of her voice, I try to silence it by reminding her that her affection for her Lutheran upbringing, with its liturgical trappings, paved the way for me to find life in the closely related Episcopal tradition.  I like the ancient prayers, concise and reflective, and empty of ego and emotion, unlike the risky extemporaneous offerings of some long-winded preachers I’ve known.

But despite my explanations and arguments, I think she is left to wonder if her son is what she used to call “a real Christian”.  Why couldn’t I have just tuned out that damned drum beat, and blended in?

A friend asked me once if I could go back to my hometown and life in the world I knew as a young man.  He already knew the answer.  Thomas Wolfe said it best, “You can’t go home again”.  Indeed, the place of my beginning is dear to me, but it is only a mirage of Home.

Home is what I hope my children sense when my arms are around them.  It is a place I see in my Dearest Companion’s eyes.  It is the vibration of a lone guitar, tuned to an open D, resonating with the room it sits in.  Home is the unmistakable pattern of two drumsticks on a calfskin head; it is the humming that accompanies Pilgrimage.