Thursday, November 02, 2006

My Long, Strange Trip: Part I

I'm a child of the sixties, born in the cusp of the Boomer/Gen X divide. That division seems to symbolize the ambiguity of my life—never quite one thing or another; never quite second or middle child, but never first; never best at anything, but never least. If this circumstance were common, then you could call me average, and you'd be correct.

My parents were born within five years of each other to traditional Catholic families from very different Catholic cultures—my mother in St. Paul, Minnesota, and my father in Montpelier, Vermont. Both of my grandfathers were the second generation of Irish immigrants, and likely from very blue-collar families. My maternal grandmother is from a middle-class German family, and my paternal grandmother was French Canadian from Quebec. I know rather little about my mother’s family, a bit more about my father’s.

My parents met in San Francisco during my father’s third year of medical school. He had taken the remainder of the year off after he came down with mono. He visited some friends from Notre Dame and took a summer job at a medical laboratory where mom worked as a secretary. My father was on the Berry Plan, which allowed him to complete his medical training before joining an armed service of his choice. Had he not entered the military in this fashion, he most certainly would’ve gotten a call from Uncle Sam with fewer options.

My father’s first assignment was Mountain Home Air Force Base in southern Idaho, my birthplace. You could say that Mountain Home AFB didn’t exactly live up to the advertising, unless your idea of mountainous terrain involved long stretches of flat, semi-arid land, lots of sage brush, and an occasional coyote or jack rabbit. Nonetheless, it was home for the first year of my life.

My parents, being faithful Catholics, ensured that I received the Sacrament of Baptism, and I still recall a photo of that event in a scrap book: a tiny, most likely squalling infant in a long flowing baptismal gown. The lacy gown always struck me as being a tad girly for a baby boy, but Mom insisted that that was the custom at the time. I don’t recall much else about my early Church experience: no Latin Mass, no piously over-devotional items in the household, just a large wooden crucifix and a statue of Mary.

The family would move about a year after my birth to Denver, where my father took a residency for pediatrics. I recall few events from this period: a neighbor having an accident on a bicycle, a friend’s older sister giving me a swirly and a ride in the dryer, and a few random moments here and there.

Most of the childhood I remember took place in Spokane, Washington. We lived on Fairchild Air Force Base. Life here brought my first really memorable experiences with the Church. The base chapel was designed for both Catholic and Protestant services, and I recall that women still covered their heads during this period. The sanctuary still had a communion rail, and I recall there being more Latin and Greek and more chant. I specifically recall one Sunday school class where a priest visited and explained the Catholic doctrine on mortal sin and Hell.

I did typical Catholic-boy activities. I “said Mass” in my room, using an old quilt as a chasuble, a stemmed candy dish as a paten, and flattened Wonder bread as communion hosts. (Minus the leaven and preservatives, I think Wonder bread is pretty close to the same composition.) I also re-enacted the crucifixion, playing the leading role (including one open-air encore in front of my grandmother’s house). All in all, I was a pretty normal Catholic boy—at least, normal in my rather odd little mind.

As an aside, I always loved to play roles. I had a highway patrol uniform, and my bike could easily be turned into a motorcycle with the addition of a clothespin and a couple of playing cards from a poker deck. Fortunately, my parents didn’t play a lot of poker. I also had, in the same year, a Marine dress-blues uniform and a toy drum. If I wasn’t putting tickets on the neighbors’ cars (using message pads that Grandma sent from her office), I was waking the neighbors on Saturday morning with my off-cadence drum playing.

My parents were not abusive, and my childhood was far from horrible. However, they sometimes paid a bit less attention to my well being and focused more on my elder brother’s. They had legitimate reasons to do so, but some moments stand out as particularly relevant in terms of my formation.

My brother and I spent a lot of time at the base child care while my mother took college courses. I have one memory in particular that stand out. My brother and I had different preschool classes. I attended mornings, and he attended afternoons. He finished around 3:00 and took the bus home, and I waited until later when my mother would come and pick me up. I remember feeling that this arrangement wasn’t quite fair. One day, I took it upon myself (at perhaps three or four years of age) to take the school bus home. My mom was a bit surprised to see me walking in the door at 12:00 noon. Back I went, and I was told never to take the bus home early again.

I remember another incident that has always stayed with me. I was down the street playing with a friend of mine, and it must’ve been close to dinner time. My mother came down to round me up, and I must’ve talked her into giving me a ride on the handlebars of her bike. I don’t recall the details, but my feet somehow slipped into the spokes of her front tires. She did not realize that I was truly injured and told me to walk home from where I was. Not until a few days later when I cried as she peeled away the socks from my feet did she realize that the spokes had actually cut into my feet. She’s told me in the last few years that she felt horrible about that event.

I had many good memories of growing up on Fairchild AFB—treks across base to check out the B-52s, dirt-clod fights with the other boys in the neighborhood, and lots of war games. We were children of the Vietnam era, after all, and many of my friends’ fathers flew bomber missions over Southeast Asia.

And there were not-so-good memories. My father tended to be pretty distant until we got to be older. Because both parents were so preoccupied with my brother, I did what I could to get attention, and I always felt the need to do something to gain people’s attention and affection. This disposition led to two pivotal moments in my early life.

My mother had been searching for a more meaningful spiritual experience than 1970s Catholicism offered her. She got involved with a nondenominational women’s prayer group, and she frequently offered our home for their prayer meetings. One of the notable elements of this group was their evangelical spirit, and they specifically prayed that members would be given the gift of tongues. I remember seeing the emotional responses some of these people had with their own experiences and how important this gift seemed to be to them all.

And I listened carefully to the sounds they made. It didn’t take long to learn how to imitate them, and I shortly claimed to be able to speak in tongues like my mother and her friends. My mother believed it, and she seemed to be quite proud of the fact that her younger son had the gift of tongues.

My charade lasted for some time, and I think that I even believed it myself. I had no idea what a legitimate gift of the Holy Spirit entailed, until one day when my mother took me to an evangelical conference. While she listened to the featured speaker in the main auditorium, I spent my time in the children’s class. At all of eight or nine years, I felt I was a bit old for “baby sitting.” I attempted to be more grown up and more sophisticated than the others. When the teachers asked if any of us knew how to speak in tongues, I figured it was time to dazzle everyone with my abilities. And then they asked if we could sing in tongues. While some of the other children complied, I came to the realization that I couldn’t do it. I was a fraud, and I knew that I could only fake it.

Sometime in this same time period, I was molested by a young man, a family friend, who had been asked to watch my brother and me. While I wasn’t seriously injured, and in fact really didn’t understand what had happened for many years. I grew deeply confused about what was expected of me if I wanted affection, and I later had difficulty making sense of my own relationships. In my early adolescence, this confusion caused me to act out precociously, and this behavior later came to undermine the faith with which I was raised.

[Technorati tags: Christianity, Catholic, Catholicism, Church History]
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