One of Us
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Like a lot of high schools, it had a social structure like the Balkans during the Yugoslav civil war, totally divided. It was jocks, stoners, and farmers, each with their own native dress, each with their own customs and traditions, each with their own music. The jocks listened to classic rock, the farmers to country music, the stoner kids to hard core. The only band they all agreed on? Metallica.
Metallica was kind of big.
Metallica is one of the few groups that can bring people together.
That's right. That's right. It knows no boundaries.
It knows no boundaries.
The place, Menomonie, Wisconsin, a small town an hour east of St. Paul. Our guide, a resident who has chosen to appear here under the name Jim Steel. The situation, a night toward the end of the school year when jocks, stoners, and farmers are together, getting along, no conflicts. Jim and some stoners even convince a farmer kid named Chad Richter to smoke pot for the first time.
We're hanging out. And then we decide to go to this party. It's at a place called The Pole Shed. It's about 10 miles out of town, way out in the country. And really, it's just a machine shed for storing farm equipment. I'm not even sure who owned the property.
So we pull in. There's about five of us in the car. And we're feeling pretty good, looking forward to more beer and hanging out on a slow Friday in Menomonie. And Chad Richter, the guy that had smoked dope for the first time that night, gets out there. A few minutes pass, and we're just hanging out, milling around, talking. I don't think there's even music out in the middle of the country, just hanging out by the shed.
And all of a sudden, we start to notice there's something going on back in the gravel driveway. It's this guy, Brady Henderson, who's Chad Richter's best friend. And Brady, he was an all-state wrestler, a really, really small kid, but wiry, and tough, and pretty mean. And he's in Chad's face, just shoving him and getting angry with him. And so people start congregating, like it always happens.
And the next thing I see is Brady Hanson does some crazy move, just tackles Chad, brings him right down to the gravel and punches him right in the face, twice, hard, right to the face. And he grabs him by the shirt. He's shaking him. I'm still like, what is going on? These guys are best friends. And Brady screams at Chad. He says, "Chad, you're a farmer. Farmers don't smoke pot. We drink beer."
This is what happens if you violate the rules of your own social group. This is what happens if insiders suddenly see you as an outsider.
And I don't think Chad ever smoked marijuana again after that.
Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it is This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of different kinds of writers and reporters and performers to bring you stories on that theme. Today's program, One Of Us. How you get included, how you get kicked out of any group you can name.
Act One today, My Crap Life. We're going to start at the moment in American life when the division between outsiders and insiders is usually the most intense, high school. When the wrong haircut can change everything.
Act Two, My Work Life. The story of one public radio reporter who goes down to tell a very public-radio-style story about regular working Joes down Louisiana way. And what happens when the working Joes decide that he is not just an outsider, but, in fact, is out to destroy them. And how he ends up hanging off the side of a freighter in the middle of the night, worried for his life.
Act Three, My Church Life. Writer Susan Bergman finds herself, somehow, named one of the top young Christians in America and wonders if she wants to be part of the group. And what happens when she visits with the other top young Christians. Stay with us.
Act One. My Crap Life.
Act One, My Crap Life. There's this beautiful old cemetery near my home here in Chicago called Graceland Cemetery. And not long ago, when the weather was still nice, I was wandering around there with a friend. It was a pretty day. And we were talking about this and that. And got to talk about the cemetery, and death, and where our bodies would end up, a very cheerful fall conversation.
And somehow, in this conversation, I realized suddenly, if I should die, if I die suddenly, my parents would collect my body and take it back to Baltimore, a place that I have spent-- no offense-- a place that I have spent my entire life trying to run from. And that is where I would spend eternity.
But anyway, your family makes claims on you. And for many people, for most people, I think, the time of life when the claim is the greatest, other than when you try to throw a wedding, is adolescence. They want you to act like them. And you want to act like some other group, a group that may not even accept you as one of their own. We have this story from Tim Melley.
He looks up and says, me and my brother are getting a haircut on the front porch after dessert. Three days before summer and he's going to cut our hair. I ask him, "Can't we wait until school's over?" "No," he says, "we can't." I say, "Please." And he says, "No, tonight's the night."
I say, "Dad, can't we just wait three days?" And he says, "What difference does it make?" I say, "It makes a big difference." He says, "Why?" "Because." "Because why?" "Because it does."
My little crap brother says, "Oooh, you got a girlfriend. You got a girlfriend." I say, "No, I don't." "Oooh," he says, "you got a girlfriend. You got a girlfriend. He's got a girlfriend. He's got a girlfriend." "Shut up, butt hole," I say.
They're laughing now, even my sister, who's too small to get it. "Oh ho," says my father, "so that's it. Well." "It is not," I say. "I just don't want to look like a loser with one of your army cuts." "Well," he says, and he's smiling, "if you've got a girlfriend, why don't you tell us who she is?" "I don't," I say, "I don't."
But my throat's lumping up. I never had a girlfriend. My mother says, "Don't let them get to you. Just laugh it off." But my father says, "You better not start your goddamn crying, for Christ's sake." My eyes fill. My brother is laughing and whooping.
"God almighty," my father says, "I have never seen such a goddamn sissy in my life." I say, "Oh, yeah? Well, Charlie D'Amato said it was OK to cry." And my father says, "Who's he?" And I say, "My French teacher." And he says, "He lets you call him Charlie? What is he, new?" And I say, "Yes, he is. And he's excellent."
And my father says, "Yeah, well, he sounds like a classic fruit to me." And I say, "You don't even know him. You don't even know anything about me. You don't even care."
I could hear my loser voice lumping up on me, and my eyes filling again. So I got up and went to my room. I could hear them laughing behind my back. I slammed my door. I lay on the bed and plugged my ears and listened to my heart beating. I could still feel them pressing down on me like deep water, trying to make me nothing.
I got my black comb out of my back pocket, which was not my comb, but Chris Sanford's, who gave it to me because I lost mine. I combed my hair right down over my eyes, where my dad hated it. I got to thinking about his gun. I knew where it was. I had held it, black and heavy in my hand before.
I could go right back down there and get them all on their knees, crying and bawling themselves, begging me not to do something stupid. I had worked it all out plenty of times. My dad would have to say, "We are sorry, son. It's our fault." I'd make him say it again, twice. But still, I'd wave the gun all around at them like a lunatic.
I'd say, "I don't think you're sorry enough for what you did." Then I'd go in the living room and pretend to blow my head off, put a slug right through the floor. That would be pretty sweet, watching them run in, wide-eyed and wailing. I saw myself in the mirror, smiling about it. Then I remembered the haircut and got to thinking again.
What if Holly Heyward invited me to her end-of-the-year party? What if I get a note in my locker with hearts from Holly Heyward, and it says, come to her party? What if one of her friends at lunch says, "Holly likes you. She wants you to come to her party." I couldn't go to a party like that with one of my dad's haircuts, no way, no how.
Plus, I couldn't smoke for squat yet. I had taken four puffs of Mrs. Beech's ragged, lipstick-covered cigarette butt in her kitchen, where I fed her dog. I was coughing like a pussy. "You can't go to a party if you can't take a good hit," says Chris Sanford.
Then I get to thinking about it again, lying there. I was sitting next to Chris when it happened, The Holly Incident. Sanford and I are in every class together. He has long hair and silky-like shirts with very intense patterns that my mother will never get me because they give you bad B.O., according to her. Chris Sanford's name is written on desks with heart-shaped vowels. Girls gives me notes for him.
The Holly Incident happened in English. Miss Rothstein was talking like a robot. She was saying, "As flies to the wanton gods," saying, "Two roads diverged on a darkling plain," blah, blah. "The wine-dark sea was going over some crazy cliff," blah, blah, blah. Sanford and I were in the back row because in our English class, there are no major back-rowers of the type who will hang in the bathrooms and stick your head down the toilet or set fire to your hair if you look at them.
Miss Rothstein was talking. But we were looking out the window to the hill, where kids go to smoke drugs because Fleagle, the big-butt principal, can't get up the hill fast enough. And Holly Heyward was coming down the hill with Ingrid Bentley, the two of them laughing, faded T-shirts and tight blue jeans, flicking their blond hair back until they went out of sight below. My brain was veering off course.
Miss Rothstein said, "Chris, would you like to tell us what Bartleby likes to say?" And Chris said, "I'd prefer not to." And Miss Rothstein beamed at him like Mrs. Cleaver. The dude was so smart.
A minute later, Holly and Ingrid walked past our classroom windows and waved at Chris. I was between Chris and the window, so they could have been waving at me. But I only smiled back, since the dumbest thing you can do, besides having to go to the blackboard with a boner, is wave back at someone who is waving at the person behind you.
Holly's cheeks were bright red with something. Miss Rothstein was talking blah, blah about the meaning of silence and didn't see Holly and Ingrid laughing and making hand signs at Chris, didn't see me in the middle, tipping back against the wall in my chair, trying not to let the legs slip out from under since that is also bone-headed in the extreme. Holly stuck her laughing head in the back window and said, in her throaty voice, "Hey." She looked over toward Miss Rothstein, who was still blah, blah, blahing, and said, "Hey, Chris, who's your friend? He's cute."
The sky was pale blue, and her cheeks red, and her hair wispy blond, and she said, "Hey, Chris, who's your friend? He's cute." Tall Holly, swaying, smiling, playing hooky, and probably stoned. I was looking at my desk, thinking, "Do something. Do something. Do something." Then Sanford held up his notebook with my name in big letters. And I turned back to see them gone.
Leaving class, Miss Rothstein gave Chris her toothpaste smile. And we floated into the corridor swarm, everything moving away slow like we were on a new planet. The floors were all tilted, and I had to lean with the slope a bit just to walk upright.
He was coming to get me. I could hear him thumping up the stairs to my room. The door opened. He said, "Get downstairs and eat your dinner." I didn't get up. I was starving.
He stared at me like to say he was going to put me through the wall again, so I sat up. I swung my feet to the floor and sat on the edge of the bed. I looked right at him, thinking, "I am so sick of his crap every day." He said, "What the hell's the matter with you, anyway?" I said, "Nothing. What's the matter with you?" But I said the second part real quiet.
"What's that, smart guy?" He said, his lip coming up in the corner. He looked at me some more that way, but I wouldn't say. He said, "I'm going to cut your brother's hair first. I better not have to come back up here and get you." He left, and I lay back down on the bed. I heard the porch door open and shut, open and shut, open and shut. And then I could hear the whine of the clippers.
I thought, "I'll jerk my head and make him cut my ear off like Picasso. That would be sweet, him dropping to his knees, blubbering how he never meant to hurt me so bad." I could already see it. I'd have a pale white skull, my hair sticking up so short. I was thinking the places I could go free period to avoid haircut jokes and Holly.
All I wanted was one of those laughs when I said something to her, slow motion, head back, hair floating through space, everything layered under it, the other guys looking at me, everything rolling under me like the sea. I couldn't go to Holly's party now. But at least The Ricky Kenickie Problem was solved.
At least I wouldn't get killed at the party in a repeat of The Bathroom Incident, me standing there, saying nothing, fumbling with my zipper, and having trouble whizzing all because we were in there alone mid-period. And Kenickie said, "What are you doing, faggot? Beating off in there? Hey, fatso? You beating it?"
His gang had cut a kid up in the locker room. And he beat a kid half to death in the crappers one day. And he was looking at me twisted. I had never seen his bad skin up so close before.
I should have said, "Yeah, I'm taking a whiz. What's it to you, gear head?" and just let him kill my butt. I coulda turned, and whizzed on him, and said "That answer your question, clutch mouth?" instead of swallowing and getting all clenched up with stage fright, so that he could finish first, zip up, and thump me in the back of the head, and say, "Well, I asked what you're doing, faggot."
I should have spin dropped, and shoulder kicked him right in the face, and then pulled my dad's piece on him, and said, "How about I blow a big chunk of your brain right through the wall, butt wipe?" instead of letting him smack my head again and say, "You come in here again, and I'll kick your ass." And being so shook up that now I only use the faculty bathrooms and do a special swimming class with Ted Ludwig so I don't have to use the regular locker room.
My mother called my name. I waited a bit, then got up and went downstairs. My father looked through the screen door at my mother, and they smiled smug little smiles at each other. And I put my head down and ate as fast as I could. When my brother was done, he came in looking retarded and gloating at me.
He got my sister to sing with him, "Hey, tubby tuba, why don't you cry, why don't you cry, why don't you cry?" A special song just for me. My mother said, "Now, kids." But my father allowed it, which made me almost start up with my crying again. I wasn't ashamed.
That's when he really did it, got me out on the porch in front of the whole neighborhood and buzzed me good with grandpa's clippers. He buzzed me real good. I just sat there, stony-faced, and let him do it. The clumps of hair fell on my lap and down onto the concrete porch. I clamped my teeth together and stared at my father when he got in front of me to look at my hair and try to make it level.
He'd raise the clippers to try to cut a straight line, but his hands would shake like grandpa's. And I'd jerk my head just a little, so he'd get it wrong. But he couldn't admit he'd cut it wrong, so he'd go and do some little crap with the clippers as if there was more to be done. And then he'd come back to the front again and look at it like he was really going to do it. And I'd jerk it again. And after a while, the front wasn't an issue because it was gone.
"All right," he said, "there you go." "Thanks a lot," I said, "great job." He grabbed my shirt. "You better watch your goddamned mouth," he said. "You've got no appreciation for anything your mother and I do around here." I made my face go blank 'til he let go. Then I went upstairs.
My scalp looked like a giant fish belly in my mirror. I got to thinking about how to get out of school. But then I'd flunk my finals, and he'd wail me good for that. The next day was third-period lunch, and Holly would stop on the balcony to talk to Chris and me before going up the hill to hang out with Kenickie's people. Everything was pretty much wrecked.
I was lying there for a long time. And eventually, I got an idea how to get them all back. I would set my alarm for 3:00 AM. I would go into the basement and get grandpa's clippers. In the dead of night, I would take the rest of my hair off, take it right down to the bone, and make it like sandpaper.
In the morning, I could just see it. My brother's eyes would be out of his head. "Whoa," he'd say, "radical." I would stare at him with an ugly look. My mother would walk into the kitchen and say, "Oh my god, oh my god, what happened?" I wouldn't say a word. My dad would be grinding his molars, seeing his handiwork down the tube.
"Whoo-hee," my brother would say, "holy geez, whoo-hee." My mother would follow me around and say, "Do you want to talk? This isn't like you. What's happened to you? You're frightening us." I'd walk to the door and shut it behind me. I wouldn't be going on the bus. I would have all my money and my dad's piece in my pocket. And I would not be going on the bus.
I woke up. It was morning. My father's head was in the door. "Get up," he said, "you're going to miss school." My mom called up about the bus coming.
I waited, then got up and went downstairs. My brother said, "Later, buzzy," and hid behind her, so I couldn't thump him. On the bus, the older kids were pinging the back of my head, making lawn mower and army and male pattern baldness jokes. I could hear them in the back. I was trying to laugh like I thought it was funny. You couldn't say anything to kids like them.
All day long, Sanford was dogging on me, rubbing my head and laughing. After a while, I didn't care so much. But at lunch, Holly came up and stood next to Sanford and me on the balcony, her long, yellow hair and throaty laugh, the smell of tobacco. My tongue was thick as steak.
She was looking down on the parking lot dumpsters. I knew what she was thinking, what a total doink I was, that I must have wanted my hair this way, like I went to a barber and asked for it because it's my idea of a good haircut. Inside, she was barfing. My only chance was to explain what he did to me. I was shaking.
I said, "My father cut my hair. I'm so bummed." I could hear myself talking like a spaz. She wasn't even looking. I said, "It looks like total crap. There was nothing I could do. Can you believe it? What a nightmare."
She looked at me like she just realized that I was there. She said, "Huh, I didn't notice." Just like that. "Huh, I didn't notice." It hit me with a soft thud in the solar plextum.
We stood there looking out over the Dumpsters, where the kids were throwing milk cartons at each other. I was fighting the feeling, but it kept getting bigger. The whole shape of life was crushing down flat into nothing. I could feel it shoving me right out of view until I was nowhere, I was so squashed.
Down below, a kid got pelted with an exploding milk. It happened in a movie-ish way. Holly laughed and squeezed Chris's arm. Everyone was laughing except me. A couple of motor heads, who were hill-hauling a seventh grader to grass stain his shirt, let him go and came down to see what would happen.
The milked kid was trying to smile, but you could see him swallowing. He knew he just became the kid who got hit with an exploding milk. For maybe three days, that's who he would be.
He would go home tonight, and his mother would say, "Where'd you get all that mess on your shirt?" And he'd say, "It wasn't my fault. A kid threw it at me." And his father would say, "Did you punch him out?" And he'd say, "You can't just punch kids out." And the father would say, "I woulda punched his lights right out for him." And the kid would be thinking, "Sure, I bet."
I was holding my teeth together. The feeling was getting bigger than me. Holly stood up tall to see over the Dumpster edge. I was a midget next to her.
The exploding milk kid walked up to a little seventh grader who was laughing and said something to him. You could see the littler kid saying he didn't throw the milk and looking toward two other big kids who had been throwing milks. But the exploding milk kid was already in the little kid's face, pushing him. The milked kid's friend walked up behind the littler kid.
He pulled a can out of his pocket and pointed it at him. "Whoa," Sanford said, "he's macing him. Awesome." The seventh grader walked backward, holding his face. He tripped on the curb. The milked kid pushed him all the way down and started kicking him in his face and in the stomach.
"Oh my god," Holly said. She put her hand to mouth, watching. I could see her face. She was half-smiling, watching the blood pouring out of the kid's face. She grabbed Chris's arm. "This is major," Sanford said.
Everyone stopped to watch. You could see Kenickie's people starting down the hill. I kept waiting for the teachers to run out and stop it before the little kid got hurt any worse. The milked kid was still kicking him. There was blood on his sneaker.
The other kid wasn't moving at all or grunting like before. "Jesus," said Sanford. The milked kid kicked him one more time in the back, then stopped. He licked his lips and looked around. His friend grabbed his sleeve, and they started toward the hill.
I couldn't help it. I was crying right there in front of everyone. I took a step backward and turned toward the wall. I could see Holly looking at me when I sat down. I was crying hard, and I knew Sanford and her were staring at me. But there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn't stop it anymore.
Tim Melley is an associate professor of English at the mysteriously-named University of Miami of Ohio. His story, "My Crap Life," first appeared in The Sun.
Well, coming up, anatomy of a public radio feature story shot to hell because an insider became an outsider. And life among the Christians. In a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.
Act Two. My Worklife.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme, bring you all sorts of different stories on that theme. Today's program, One Of Us. Stories of outsiders who want to be insiders and insiders who want to be outsiders.
We have arrived at Act Two of our program, in which we move from fiction to nonfiction, from adolescence to adulthood, from social life to work life. Because any workplace of any size at all has its insiders and outsiders, its own rules and codes that determine how you move from one group to another. Those rules and codes are usually very arcane, of course. It's Byzantine. At the Mercantile Exchange, for example, here in Chicago, where guys stand on the trading floor, yelling prices and bids for pork bellies and cattle options, a trader named Mike Quattrocki explained the rules of the floor to me. They include things like--
Say I'm bidding on a thing-- or I'm offering something, and someone offers it one fraction of a price better than me and gets the whole trade, that's called "carping a trade." So they carp your market. They take the whole trade. You're like, "Well, I was just a fraction of a price away. Don't I deserve something?" Technically speaking, no. You deserve nothing. Your price wasn't good enough. The best offer is the best offer. The best bid is the best bid. So they take your trade.
What am I gonna do to you next time if you've stolen a trade from me? Or I perceive that you've taken this trade by carping my market? I'm gonna try and carp your market.
Guys who carp markets do not stay insiders very long. Well, this next story is about two people in two different kinds of jobs with two different sets of codes. Dan Collison is a public radio reporter whose stories are usually in places like All Things Considered. He did a series where he rode across the country on a Greyhound bus, did stories about the people he met along the way. And a while back, he set out to do a kind of quintessential public radio feature story, a story about the working man. And it all fell apart, all because the working man decided, in this case, that he was not one of them.
Pilottown, Louisiana, is the last town on the Mississippi River. It's about 90 miles south of New Orleans, beyond the end of the road. You have to take a boat to get there. Pilottown is built entirely on stilts in order to keep the houses above the marshy swamps. There are only 16 year-round residents of Pilottown.
As the name suggests, the pilots are the reason the town exists. They are an elite group of men who climb rope ladders-- they're called Jacob's Ladders-- up the sides of massive freighters and tankers. Their job is to navigate the ships through treacherous, narrow straits, around dredges and supertankers, and over sandbars, to and from the Gulf of Mexico. It's like threading the eye of a needle.
Apprentice Pilot 1
I've always wanted to be a pilot. I can remember just being awestruck by the whole idea of it.
The first interviews I did were with two young apprentice pilots. This is where things began to unravel. Ever since the Pilots' Association was formed back in 1899, fathers have passed on their jobs to their sons. As a result, there's never been a pilot who was not a white male. Without any prompting, one of the apprentices informed me that this "nepotism," his word, will soon be a thing of the past.
Apprentice Pilot 2
Times are changing. So hopefully, we might be one of the last groups to through here in the same process that the pilots have used for 100 years. Nepotism might be on the way out.
I dutifully followed up with a couple questions. "Would there ever come a day," I asked, "when women and minorities would be admitted into the Association?" Here, I had unwittingly wandered into a hornet's nest. Turns out, the pilots are a little touchy about this. I found out later that the NAACP is threatening to file a lawsuit unless the Pilots' Association opens things up to African-Americans.
It's a life that a lot of people think they might like, but wouldn't. I think you have to grow up with it.
That's Gary Mott, recorded before he hated my guts. He's been a pilot for 30 years.
My father was a pilot. And so was his father. I'm third generation.
The morning after I interviewed him and the apprentices, Mott confronted me outside the pilots' headquarters. He's short and muscular and has piercing, dark eyes. He's not a guy you want to get angry, but that's just what he was. He had apparently talked to the apprentices about their interview and had somehow concluded that I was in Pilottown to dig up dirt.
"Who do you think you are?" he screamed, "Coming down here to stir things up, calling us a white males club?" When I explained that the issue of diversity among the pilots, or the lack thereof, was not the focus of my story, and that one of the apprentices had brought up the matter of nepotism in the first place, it only made matters worse. That apprentice, it turns out, was Gary Mott's son. He stalked off, angrier than ever.
From then on, every time I would walk into a room of pilots, they'd stop talking. At first, I thought I might be imagining it. But it happened each time. I ate a lot of meals by myself. When the pilots did talk to me, it was to ask when I was planning to leave.
One day, in the pilot's TV lounge, I decided to break the silence. "Look, you guys have to believe me. I'm not out to make you look bad." "But we don't even know who you are," they countered. "You could be anybody." It was true. I could have been anybody. All I had was my radio gear and an old business card from a video company I had worked for until it folded.
My assurances that I was a legitimate reporter fell on deaf ears. The more I tried to explain, the guiltier I seemed.
Word of my incursion had reached all the way down to the pilots' outpost in the Gulf of Mexico, where the radio dispatcher, who looked like Doctor John in cut-offs and was said to practice voodoo in the French quarter, asked me if I was with the Congressional Black Caucus.
What complicated things further was that my host, the pilot who had smoothed the way for my visit, a genial fellow named Mac Lincoln, was caught in the middle. He tried to vouch for me, but he couldn't promise the other pilots that I wouldn't sully their image in some way. If I portrayed them as a white males club, as they feared, Mac would take the heat. He pleaded with me on numerous occasions as a friend, man to man. "Don't touch the racial thing. Then you can come back to Pilottown."
I'd come to Pilottown in the first place to let the outside world know about one of the few romantic professions left in America. Mark Twain put it this way, "A pilot was one of the only unfettered and entirely independent human beings that lived on the earth." Now these unfettered and independent human beings agreed on one thing. I'd come to destroy their way of life. I was the enemy all because of an issue I hadn't even raised.
Everything was going wrong. An old pilot with lots of great tales to tell wouldn't return my phone calls. The 83-year-old postmistress of Pilottown wouldn't talk to me. And the president of the Pilots' Association even called down from New Orleans to see what I was up to. On top of that, because of some bad luck with the pilots' schedule, I had to wait several days to go out on a ship with Mac Lincoln.
So while I waited, I wandered around outside and collected sound, the river lapping against the dock, the hum of ships rolling by, river birds chirping, insects buzzing. I collected hours of noises, enough to start a small sound effects library. I even tried to record some fiddler crabs scurrying back into their holes. I didn't have much else to do.
Finally, I got my chance to climb aboard a ship. It was sometime after midnight. In the moonlight, I could just make out the silhouette of a giant Greek tanker plowing toward us.
As we left the dock in the transport boat, I overheard on my headphones the boat operator picked up by Mac's wireless microphone. "What is he doing here? Is he gonna get on that ship?" So much for Southern hospitality. I was about to climb up the side of a huge moving tanker on a wobbly rope ladder, and I was scared.
I knew how important the boat operator was to the upcoming maneuver. The ship doesn't slow down. The smaller boat has to pull up alongside it, so we can grab the ladder that's dangling over the side. It's like scaling up a giant steel wall hundreds of feet high, as it rocks back and forth.
A wrong move by the boat operator and I could fall between the two vessels. A number of experienced pilots have died this way. It was ludicrous and paranoid to think about foul play, but it did cross my mind. If I fell to my death, who would know? Any clues on my audiotapes would be shredded in the ship's rudder blade. I didn't want to think what would happen to me.
Be sure you don't fall off. That river's ice cold.
I climb up the rope ladder, one sweaty hand over the other, shins banging against the wood slats, the river roaring below. I'm fearing for my life.
I got into radio because there are millions of people whose stories are never told. This is where you end up when some of them would rather keep it that way.
Act Three. My Church Life.
Act Three, My Church Life. So Susan Bergman wrote a book in which she mentioned her own Christianity. And a while after the book was published, out of the blue, she got a call from someone who told her that she had been chosen as one of the top 50 young Christians under 40, under 40 years old, that is.
Making a list like this is a sort of odd publicity stunt for a major world religion. It's the kind of thing that People magazine does to boost circulation. They name the 10 best-dressed people in America or the 10 sexiest men. Something a rotary club in a middle-sized American suburb or city might do to ensure attendance at a charity dinner. It seems, I don't know, beneath Christianity. Christianity, which built Middle Europe, which has the Gospels, and the letter of Paul, and the Vatican.
Susan, needless to say, did not know how to respond. This is the story of how she allowed herself to be included when this particular group of Christians pointed at her and said, "You're one of us."
"You're on our list," says the woman's voice on my message machine, a freelance writer for Christianity Today. "Would there be a time I could interview you for a profile?" She calls back, this time with a deadline.
"Tell me about the list," I say, immediately uncomfortable with the idea. "50 people under 40 years old, evangelical up-and-comers," she tells me. They're inviting all 50 of us to the convention of the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando. We can get to know each other there. "Is Ralph Reed on the list?" I ask.
Though I call myself a Christian, I don't call myself part of the religious right. "I dare to believe," a friend says, "that when Jesus invites all who labor and are heavy-laden, he's not screening for HIV, or voting behavior, or asking whether or not someone has had a divorce, or an abortion." The woman on the other end of the line doesn't understand my hesitation. "You're not an evangelical?" she asks. "What are you, then?" "This is a pretty big question. I'll have to think about how to answer that one too. Can I call you back?"
I walk out of the steamy balm of an Orlando morning into the refrigerated conference center across the street from Universal Studios. I follow the signs to registration. The lady taking names can't find mine. "Who are you with, dear?" The lady asks pleasantly. I look at her, puzzled. I'm standing there by myself.
I look around for someone I might know. "Are you a pastor's wife?" she smiles, innocent of her assumptions. "I'm under 40," I hear myself say, against my will, as if offering a secret handshake. "Oh, with the group of you," she nods knowingly and types my first name only onto my badge.
The main meeting of the day is already underway when I find the auditorium full of what looks to be mostly 58- to 61-year-old, liver-spotted, silver-haired men. I look around me. No wonder someone thought they needed to make a list. Among the 800 or so leaders of this loose association of 48 Protestant denominations which have gathered for their annual convention, only 30 or so look like they might have been born after 1957. At various times in the proceedings, they ask everyone on the list to stand up, so that the crowd can take a look for a moment, as if to glimpse what the future may hold.
Ted Haggard, one of the people on the list, a young preacher from Colorado Springs, who pastors his church of over 6,000 members, is talking animatedly about prayer. Not only did his church decide that they would pray for every person in their city, they took out maps, and assigned districts, and organized teams broken into pairs who walked and prayed in front of the houses of the people they prayed for. When they had done this, the next year, they decided to mail out letters, letting people know they were praying with a reply card that could be sent back with a request, so that the prayer could be more relevant. Thousands of cards came back with a question, a weakness, a personal need. So they keep on praying, he says, drawing a simple diagram of the plan on an easel board.
"Susan!" I hear someone call. Who knows I'm here? "David?" It's the tall, gangly kid who ran the pig roasts in college. Same guy, same shock of blond hair falling to one side, same hospitable skill set that got him his current job organizing this conference and hosting meetings of the 50 under 40 while we're in Orlando. He instantly becomes my inside source, my orienteer.
"What exactly do evangelicals believe?" I want to know. "We have drafts of resolutions," he hands me a stack of papers. "One of the resolutions they're considering poses the question, does God speak in our time."
I asked for a word from God once. Just one. When I prayed, I felt, as everyone must have who has tried to pray, that God was silent. I was lying face down on the floor in my office. "One word, please, God. Answer me," which is a presumptuous demand, I know, to propose, even in a gentle way, that the creator of the universe bend his lips to my ear and speak.
Yet, isn't this what Elijah did, asking God to light his altar on fire after he doused it with water? It worked for Elijah. The fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. When the people saw the fire, they fell on their faces and said, "The Lord, he is God. The Lord, he is God." I believe that God still speaks in this way. On the floor in my office that day, the word that came into my head was "garden," the very word I needed at that moment.
It's Bike Week at Daytona, only a short drive from here. 300,000 bikers standing around under big, old tents, I imagine, in their muscle shirts. They steam, while we freeze. They've come from all over the country, as do most conventioneers, because this is the one group, the something larger than themselves, to which they feel comfortable belonging. Some of us under 40, I imagine, are secretly thinking about checking out the bikes after lunch.
There must be a uniform there, as there is here among the evangelicals. A suit and tie, affordable shoes, a presidential smile. There must be a preferred salutation.
I overhear this scenario more than once when pastors who haven't seen each other for a year reacquaint themselves. They pat each other on the shoulder. "Rich, so good to see you." "Barry, how are you doing, brother?" Extended grip of right hands.
"Very well, thanks. God is good. We're seeing about 900 on a Sunday morning." "Two services?" Now Rich's smile tightens. Barry nods, "Thinking about going to a third."
Barry and Rich, like others of the pastors here, think of people as souls. They like to count, to speak of their success in the evangelically-correct paradigm of rising attendance on Sunday morning. One of the earthly rewards they have discovered for the hard, people-intensive jobs they have is to compare the size of their ranks and their building programs with that of their seminary roommates.
Road warriors. Soldiers of Christ. What would it be like, I wonder, to combine the two conventions under one vast tent? To count the bikers and the non-bikers together? What greeting would we use? Who would more graciously welcome the other?
Three o'clock, the younger folks are supposed to meet in a room together to discuss the state of Christian affairs. Tables have been pushed together. An empty glass for water, a pencil, and three index cards have been placed in front of every participant. 20 or so people sit at the table, the ones on the list who could make it.
Around the edge of the room, someone has lined up chairs for those interested in observing, though not participating, it's made clear, with the group under 40. Some reporters, a publisher, organization heads line the walls. There's evidently not going to be any cross-pollination of the old with the new.
Star Parker introduces herself. "I'm a former welfare mom," she says. That was then. Now she helps run a social policy research center she helped found with funds from her successful ad agency. Here's David Gushee, an ethics professor, who drafted the 1995 Southern Baptist Conference Resolution on Racial Reconciliation.
Here's a couple just back from Russia, where they've spent the last four years building churches. Gradually, the list fills out with real people who lead ordinary, fascinating lives. I listen to their stories and sense the change coming in the way Christians define our role in culture.
Here with her father is singer Rebecca St. James, 19 years old, described as part Mother Teresa, part Billy Graham. "Can you picture this?" she asks at her concerts. Then she tells a story reminiscent of the one in the book of Daniel, where Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego face the furnace unless they bow before idols. "Our generation has its faces in the dirt, bowing down to the idols of materialism and selfishness. But you and I are like this." She clenches her eyes, throws her head back, and reaches heavenward with outstretched arms and open palms. "We will not bow."
That night after dinner, I look forward to hearing the keynote speaker, best known for a book written early in his career which is claimed to have influenced my generation of Christians, measured, naturally, in numbers of books sold. A mixed-race Florida gospel choir warms up the audience. We sing a few familiar choruses with them. All the women wear their hair big and high, as if they'd all plugged into the same electric socket.
The speaker presents his version of The Sky Is Falling. "We're facing the most rapid cultural change in history," he says. "Faster change than the change of the Enlightenment, the age of Darwin, the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, faster than the Space Age, the Television Age. Oh no, how will I keep up?" I hear him wondering. "How will my importance be determined?"
This is the man with the short, well-meaning slogan, "Just Wait," a motto that's done as much for sexual abstinence, I'm guessing, among teens, as "Just Say No" has done for drug prevention. I mean this in conscious disrespect to a man who rails against the world in such hyperbolic terms, I feel embarrassed for him. He's wound up, soft in the middle. Where's his faith?
"We'd better wake up, or we'll be obsolete in three to five years," he's shouting and waving his arms now. "This is an anti-Judeo-Christian culture. Solve this riddle," he challenges his audience. "Why does a crucifix degraded in urine receive a major grant from the NEA, but a rainbow triangle in urine will not be funded nor allowed to be shown?" I've had enough, this riddle reminds me. I stand up and go to the ladies' room.
At breakfast the next morning, I'm grumpy and ready to fly home. And then, over scrambled eggs and coffee, I find the reason I came. Baroness Caroline Cox, from the British House of Lords, is speaking, a woman whose relief work I've watched with great admiration for the last two years, as I've edited a book on 20th-century martyrs. "There are some?" I'm often asked.
She tells us stories of Burma, and the Sudan, Pakistan, places where international relief agencies have been forbidden to go by the sovereign governments. And yet, with a small team of workers, she goes. "I am grateful for this opportunity to honor those Christians whom it has been our privilege to be with in persecution, brothers and sisters in Christ who, while we sit here in peace and comfort, are suffering from attempted genocide, jihad, ethnic cleansing, slavery, and threats of death for allegation of so-called blasphemy in fundamentalist Islamic regimes like Pakistan. But however much they suffer, they always inspire us with their courage, generosity, graciousness, faith, and dignity in their witness for our Lord."
Baroness Cox illegally flies in a load of cocaine, morphine, Omnopon, and Fentanyl for the amputees in Nagorno-Karabakh, where the Armenian people are blockaded and regularly bombed by their Azerbaijani tormentors. "God sometimes asks us to do strange things," she laughs, flipping to the next slide from a place in the world I've never heard of. "When I step off the plane, I am often greeted by starving, naked, wounded people in need of every human solace. I kneel with them," she says.
"On my last trip to Sudan, I saw a woman starving and gave her a sip of water from my thermos, as we stepped from the helicopter. A palliative. The next day, as I walked through the village, I found her dead."
And then this story of a farmer from northern Karabakh. "At the beginning of ethnic cleansing, Azerbaijan undertook a series of deportations of entire villages. They were brutal operations in which innocent villagers were rounded up. Many were maltreated, some murdered. Homes were ransacked. Then the people were forcibly driven off their land, unable to take anything with them.
"After one of these terrible events, at Getashen, a farmer managed to escape into the mountains. Devastated by what he had just witnessed, he saw an apricot tree in blossom and went to it for comfort, as it was so beautiful. Then, to his horror, he saw hanging from a branch, the body of a five-year-old Armenian girl, cut in two. He wept and vowed revenge."
She apologizes to the room for the graphic scene she presents this morning. "It is how it is," she continues. "When we met him two years later, he wept again, telling us that he felt very bad, as he had broken his vow. For when the Armenians captured an Azeri village, he could not bring himself to harm a child. An American colleague stood up, removed his baseball cap, and said, 'Thank you. For the first time in my life, I understand what it means when it says in the Bible, "Vengeance is mine," saith the Lord. And thank you for the dignity you have shown.' To which this farmer replied, in words I will never forget, 'Dignity is a crown of thorns.'"
It's here in this stale, no-frills room among the older Christians and the young that I meet those too busy doing the work of justice and kindness to point the finger at other people for not being Christian enough. "We are a splendidly ecumenical mix of Pentecostal, Russian orthodox, and myself," the Baroness laughs musically, "which I shall call Anglican unorthodox." Suddenly, the room is large enough for us all. Everyone is needed on the list. Our differences in age and gender and culture fall away, as we are given to see a destitution so vast, it will take us all to help begin to relieve it.
The Baroness closes her talk with some lines written by Father John Harriet which she uses as a benediction. "Let us mourn 'til others are comforted, weep 'til others laugh. Let us be sleepless 'til all can sleep untroubled. Let us be frugal 'til all are filled. Let us give 'til all have received. Let us make no claim 'til all have had their due. Let us be slaves 'til all are free. Let us lay down our lives 'til all have life abundantly."
Susan Bergman is the editor of Martyrs, an anthology of essays on 20th-century martyrs, and author of the forthcoming novel The Buried Life.
Well, our program was produced today by Julie Snyder and myself with Elise Spiegel and Nancy Updike. Senior editor Paul Tough. Contributing editors Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Alex Blumberg and Rachel Howard.
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