On Friends and Strong Beliefs

Last week over lunch I was confronted by a longtime friend. He felt I was showing disrespect when I called him the “preacher man” in front of a gathering of storytellers who are working together to produce a performance for this coming spring. I apologized to him if it sounded like I was making humor at his expense. I did not apologize for calling him the preacher man because he does hold strong beliefs—one might call them religious—and he is not shy about putting them forward.

No, my choice of the title, preacher man, did not come from a desire to a get a laugh, or to disrespect preachers. Indeed, I came very close to being a preacher man myself. In 1970 I graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary with a Masters of Divinity degree. I might well have spent the last forty-five years standing in front of a congregation every Sunday and presenting my own strong beliefs. So I do have strong beliefs about having strong beliefs—if that makes any sense.

All of this is an introduction to a story that I wrote many years ago, and I have recently revisited. The story is in part biographical, and part of it is pure imagination–I have no commitment to historical truth, only a commitment to telling stories that help me to make sense of my strong beliefs!

WHAT’S IN YOUR REAR-VIEW MIRROR?

1978 was an important year for defining my work as an oral storyteller. In my first six years of telling stories, I met only two people who called themselves storytellers; both were librarians, not freelancers like me. That summer I heard about a storytelling festival in Tennessee. I decided to attend to see if there were other itinerant, traveling storytellers in the world.

It was at the Jonesborough festival that I first saw a young man who later became my good friend. One afternoon I gathered with thirty to forty other storytelling enthusiasts on the verandah porch of a brightly colored, Victorian styled home in that small, Tennessee town. We had not gathered to hear a scheduled storyteller perform, but to swap stories with each other. I came with the thought that I might tell a story, but there was no lack of eager tellers. I lagged back on the fringe of the group and watched while others jostled for position to tell a story.

I noticed the young man who would become my friend immediately. He was not hesitant like me. He was one of those who established himself on the inner circle, next to the leader of the swapping session. When it was time to share a story, he was the first to quickly, though not without grace and manners, grasp the center of attention.

I remember little about the story that he told that sunny afternoon on the Victorian porch, but I do remember the teller. He was a slender man in his early thirties; his brown hair was already thinning. As he told his story, he struggled at times to find the right words. What captured me was the energy of his body, particularly as it was expressed in his face. It was a kaleidoscope of shifting emotions: anger to joy, sadness to happiness. He played the villain as easily as the buffoon or sage. Each character was physically defined and clear to the audience. And at the end of the story, when the audience recognized his effort, his eyes shined with a confidence that I admired and wished for myself.

I did not actually meet my friend at the storytelling festival. It was not until I returned home, and decided to organize a meeting of Philadelphia storytellers from the list of festival attendees, that we met. He was one of five people who came to the meeting and I immediately remembered that face and I put it together with the name of Bill. Through our common interest in storytelling we started an acquaintance; and over several years we met periodically with others to share stories, but we did not develop a friendship.

This failure to become friends was not for lack of interest from me. I would have gladly taken Bill to heart and made him my best friend in the world, but he had, as they say, other fish to fry. He was busy writing and promoting an off-Broadway play. He was active in an anti-nuclear war group that was working to make the world safe for future generations.

One day Bill read in a magazine that Stanley Kubrick was planning to make a movie from his favorite anti-war, short story. He envisioned himself in the role of one of the characters in the story. To get that part in Kubrick’s movie, he wrote a sample dialog for the character, videotaped his performance, and sent it to Kubrick in England. When he did not get a response, he decided to fly to London and deliver the tape himself. He planned to wait in the studio parking lot and catch Kubrick as he came to work. As it turned out, when he got to the parking lot, an attendant told him that his prey was on vacation that week. The attendant promised to give the tape to an assistant director; and that was the end of Bill’s English folly. The story was made into the movie, “Full Metal Jacket”; but his character was not represented in the script.

When threats of nuclear war lessened with the end of the cold war in the 1980’s, Bill turned his energies to supporting a variety of environmental causes. He appointed himself the neighborhood collector of plastics, metals and newspapers to be recycled. Every Saturday he spent the day transporting trash to the recycling center. During the Gulf War in 1990 he wrote numerous letters to President George Bush and Saddam Hussein detailing the reasons why it was in their best interest to settle the conflict with negotiations rather than bombs.

Over a period of ten to twelve years there were many issues, other than friendship with me, which occupied Bill’s spirit and mind. I guess I could have joined one of his causes to become his friend, but I have never been a joiner of causes. I was against the war in Vietnam, and I did participate in a protest in Washington as a young man, but causes have always made me feel a little uneasy inside for some reason. Maybe I have never trusted myself to choose the cause that would truly make the world a better place to live. Maybe, I am just not an idealist.

It was during this period in our lives that I finally hit on a way to become Bill’s friend. He was a performer. Every performer needs people in the audience to respond to the performance. I decided to think of myself as Bill’s laugher. I would attend his performances whenever I could, and I would laugh at the appropriate times. This was not difficult for me. I did enjoy his stories and I was not shy about expressing myself. In return, he started to come to my performances. Often after a performance, whether his or mine, we would find the local ice cream parlor—we shared a weakness for sweets—and talk for a couple of hours about the night’s work.

I remember one summer night we were sitting in an ice cream joint in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia after one of his performances. As we enjoyed our hot fudge Sundaes we got into a discussion about the archetypes of the priest and the prophet and their roles in a social movement. He argued for the importance of having a prophet, the one who has a vision of the future, the one who breaks from the present and imagines a new way of thinking about an issue. I argued for the role of the priest, the one who is able to give flesh and bone to the idea, to make the idea come to life by working with people to make it happen. Our conversation lasted only as long as the vanilla ice cream, hot chocolate fudge, whipped cream and cherries. When we parted ways, we had not agreed. We were still hungry for answers, but our bellies were full and we were both ready for bed–.at least that is what I thought that night.

I drove home and had just come into the house when the phone rang. It was my friend, Bill. He said, “I am at the WAWA on Germantown Ave, I just had a premonition. I am going to Fairmont Park to wait for a vision.”

“You what?” I responded incredulously.

“Don’t ask questions”, he said without emotion, “just meet me in the parking lot by the nature trail where we hiked last week.” And he hung up the phone.

As I put down the phone, I pondered my decision. Am I a loyal friend? Should I drive to Fairmont Park in the middle of the night? I looked up the stairs. I heard no sounds from the family that was sleeping peacefully. It was raining outside. It was going to be cold in the park. It could be dangerous in Fairmont Park in the middle of the night. I paused only minute as I remembered our conversation in the ice cream parlor, an intimate conversation between friends: I had a duty to perform. I went to the hall closet and took out my raincoat and an old sleeping bag. I was not sure how long it would take the prophet to have his vision of the future: as his disciple I figured I might as well be as comfortable as possible.

A light rain was still falling as my headlights illuminated Bill’s old, diesel Rabbit sitting in the corner of the parking lot near the nature trail. He was standing quietly by the car waiting for me. When I got out, he said, “I want you to be my witness.” Then he turned and started up the trail into the woods. I stood there dumbfounded for a moment, and then I went back to the car, put on my raincoat, picked up the sleeping bag, and followed him into the woods.

When I caught up to Bill, he had stopped under a giant oak tree, maybe two hundred years old. The tree was so big that it had cleared out a place for itself in the forest; no other tree or bush grew under its canopy. My friend was sitting Buddha-like on the wet ground under the tree. I stopped some distance from him. I do not know if I did not want to disturb his quiet meditation, or if I was afraid of being called upon to participate in this miraculous event.

Fairmont Park was still and peaceful on that late summer night. I remember feeling there was something sacred about my friend’s zeal for life. It was not a time for questions and discussion; it was a time for simple faith in action. I felt like a disciple watching a great leader at the moment of destiny; like watching Buddha under the Bo tree or Jesus at Gethsemane. That is how I felt for about the first half hour—I tried to look at my watch but I could not see the dial in the dark. Then the cold rain started to make me shiver even though I was wearing a raincoat; so I wrapped the sleeping bag around my shoulders. Then my back started to ache from standing in one position too long. Quietly I went over to the giant oak and leaned against the trunk to relieve the tension on my back, but then I began to yawn and think about time. It had to be past two in the morning by now.

Finally, I succumbed to reason and figured that I could go back to my car, quietly start the engine, and warm myself by the heater. I would only be a couple hundred yards from my friend. If something happened there would likely be a lot of light and voices from heaven; I could run back to tree in the woods in no time. This was my faulty, half-baked reason for tending to my simple, human needs.

When I got to the car, I climbed in with the wet sleeping bag still around my shoulders. I started the car as quietly as possible. The heat felt like a great luxury. For some time I drifted in and out of consciousness: one moment I was looking out the car window for signs of light in the woods, the next moment I was in a dream where I was a mummy wrapped and bound for burial.

Suddenly my burial chamber was opened and a bright light was shining on me. I struggled to gain consciousness. This was it! I did not want to be caught sleeping like Peter at Gethsemane. I could hear the voice of someone who was speaking to me. Finally I put the pieces together in some reasonable order. I was sitting in my car, wrapped in a wet sleeping bag and a flashlight was shining through the car window. I rolled down the window and saw a park policeman peering at me.

“What ‘a doin’ here buddy”, said the policeman with authority, “Ya can’t camp in the park.”

I blurted out, “I can’t leave my friend, he’s in the woods waiting for God to speak to him!”

My words seemed to trigger an alarm in the park policeman’s brain. His hand dropped to his side where he had a gun strapped in a holster. As soon as the words were out of my mouth I knew I had made a mistake. I should have thanked the officer for the warning, left the park, and returned for my friend, Bill, after he was gone.

“All right, get out the car”, said the officer as he stepped back from the car door. With a note of accusation in his voice, “what’s goin’ on here, you smokin’ dope or somethin’?”

As I gained my senses, a note of anger rose against his accusation, “I have not been taking drugs. What I told you is true.” I pointed to the path leading into the woods. “My friend is out there having a religious experience. That is his car next to mine.”

I think now the policeman sensed that I was either telling the truth, or I was really crazy. He backed further away from me and toward his car. “All right, I’ll give you thirty minutes to get your friend the hell out this park, God or no God. When I come back, if you ain’t gone, I’ll have every cop in Philadelphia on your ass! You understand me? “

I nodded, but I did not say a word back to him. I watched the policeman drive away, and then I walked back up the path to the oak tree in the woods. Bill was still seated like a statue in a meditation garden. I did not want to startle him, but there was an urgency I felt to bring him back to reality and get him away from Fairmont Park.

I touched him lightly on the shoulder. “Bill, we have to leave”, I said gently.

He did not stir. I spoke again with a sound of pleading in my voice, “Buddy, we have to leave the park, the cops want us out of here.”

There was still no response from my friend. I decided I could not wait for the spirit to follow its course. From behind him I slipped my arms under his armpits and gently lifted him to his feet. Again speaking quietly, I explained our predicament and started to walk him awkwardly down the path to the cars.

It probably took me ten minutes, but it seemed like an hour before I got him into his car and sure he was able to drive. He still did not speak to me, and I was afraid to send him off on his own. I suggested that we stop at an all-night diner that was just outside the park.

The rain had stopped by the time I led the Rabbit into the parking lot of the diner. Inside I ordered a full breakfast for both of us, and he ate without saying a word. Finally, as he was taking the last bit of a stack of buckwheat cakes, he looked at me, smiled and said, “You know that God’s pissed? You interfered with divine will out there in the woods. You better keep an eye on your rear-view mirror driving home.” I smiled back weakly, but I did not respond verbally.

First morning light and the sound of birds greeted us as we emerged from the diner. At the cars we hugged and said our good buys. I watched him get into his car and drive out of the parking lot. I got into my car; and for a minute, I sat starring at the rear-view mirror. He was right, he lived his life always looking forward, and he believed he could change the world for the betterment of all. I, on the other hand, did not believe in ideas, I believed in people. I did spend a lot of time looking at the rear-view mirror, responding to the past and trying to understand it. Maybe that was the reason for our attraction, our friendship, we reflected for each other what was missing in us.I started the engine and drove out of the diner parking lot. As I started down the road, I glanced up at the rear-view mirror, smiled, and imagine God following me, pissed or not.

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