Masaru (Chapter 1)

Crossing Waters

“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces much fruit.” (John 12:24)

“Be like wheat whereas the taller you grow, the lower you bow your head to the ground.” (Japanese proverb)

The warm drops upon his head brought Shirō back to the moment of his baptism. He and his mother had received the rite of Christian initiation on the very same day in the small church near the headwaters of the Kuma River. It was six months after her thirty-third birthday, and five months after his fifteenth. Ritual had been nothing new to Shirō. In the first month of that same year, he had gone through the genpuku, the rite of passage in which a samurai received his helmet, armor, and sword. The meticulously crafted and deadly katana, along with its shorter companion, the wakizashi, was more than a weapon. It was an extension of a warrior’s soul.

Shirō Nakagawa was, in many ways, very much like any other boy growing up in the rural region of central Kyūshū, the southernmost of Japan’s main islands. He enjoyed the company of friends, and afternoons spent fishing along the banks of the Kuma. He was tall for his age, something about which he was more self conscious than proud. He had a tendency to slightly slouch, something that his grandmother, Obaasan, was continually correcting. She would poke him with one bony finger in the back, just hard enough to cause a little discomfort, and chide him saying, “Shisei, shisei! — posture, posture!”

He believed himself too skinny, and attempted constantly in vain to gain weight by eating onigiri rice balls as quickly as Obaasan or his mother could make them. He even tried to get them to make chanko nabe, the protein-rich stew consumed in large quantities by the sumo wrestlers of Edo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Fukuoka. But meat was not so easy to come by. Neither the rice balls nor his daily ritual of physical training did much to add girth to his slender frame, something he inherited from his mother. Still, he was healthy and strong, and, while generally regarded as attractive, there was an almost feminine quality in the features of his face. In this regard also, he had the look of his mother about him. From the age of twelve, he had allowed his hair to grow, and he wore it most times in a ponytail that he kept tied high at the back of his head.

Shirō was in many ways like the other boys in his village of Watari, but not in all ways. He liked to spend considerable, what some believed to be inordinate, time alone. Many mornings he would wander off to one of the hillsides, simply to walk and be alone with his thoughts, or find an isolated meadow where he would lie and stare up at the clouds. Though his family harbored some degree of concern about him, Shirō always made sure to be home before dark and in time for bangohan, the evening meal.

His father, Hiromu Nakagawa, was of the warrior class and served under Lord Yanazume, master of Hitoyoshi Castle and its surrounding lands. Yanazume had become one of the many converts to the new religion that arrived with the men from Spain and Portugal on the big ships with their billowing sails. They arrived with the man called Francis in the year 1549 A.D., the twenty-third year in the reign of the emperor Tomohito, about seventy years before Shirō was born. Upon his own conversion, Yanazume had encouraged all his subjects to become followers of The Way, and they did so by the thousands. He had even enjoined all warriors wishing to remain in his service to be baptized. Should they choose not to, they would be fairly compensated before being released.

At thirty-five years of age, Hiromu had no desire to become rōnin, a samurai wandering in search of a master. And so he chose, along with roughly two-thirds of the nearly seven hundred samurai serving under Yanazume, to become a practitioner of The Way. He wished at the time that his decision had been driven by some noble ideal. But the truth was that it was prompted by the practical need to provide for his family, one that would soon have another small mouth to feed. Perhaps that reason was noble enough.

But practicality did not come without a price. In the beginning, Hiromu’s wife was not pleased with his decision to accept the foreign religion brought to their shores by gaijin, the “outside ones.” Hiromu had half-jokingly pointed out that since her name, Michiko, literally meant “child of the way,” perhaps this was some sort of sign. But she was not so easily convinced. Far less pleased was Obaasan, who had lived with Shirō and his parents until her passing. Obaasan was a devout Buddhist and very much set in her ways. Every day, Shirō would hear her reciting chants outside in the garden or before the small butsudan shrine in their home, or observe her meditating before a smoldering stick of incense.

One evening during bangohan, when Shirō was about eleven, Obaasan let her feelings be known. She addressed her son-in-law, “Hiromu, I cannot understand for the life of me why anyone would profess this foreign faith. I’ve been looking into it, and some of the things these Kirishitans believe are simply outlandish!”

Obaasan had a robustness of character that belied her small stature and slight frame. Though in her sixth decade, she still had a thick head of long raven hair with only streaks of silver along the temples. Her face had few wrinkles, most visibly small crow’s feet at the corners of the eyes, and was dotted with several small dark moles, the most noticeable just between her right upper lip and cheek. One vertical crease down the middle of her forehead became pronounced when she was cross, as she was at this particular moment. 

Hiromu gave a half-suppressed laugh in his deep booming voice. It was a voice that Shirō both admired and feared. Very few were the times in Shirō’s childhood that his father needed to raise a hand to him. His imposing stature and the power of his voice were sufficient to remind Shirō of expected parameters and potential consequences. “Yes, Obaasan, I cannot wholly disagree with that charge. But in fairness, Bukkyō also came here from foreign shores.”

Obaasan was indignant. “Well, that’s different! Those who brought it were at least of a kindred race. Besides, the deities of Bukkyō pair up logically with the nature kami of our native Shintō. The Kirishitans worship the image of a dead man.”

“It is not the image they worship — it is the man. And though he died, he now lives. We believe that man to be the one true god incarnate.”

“And why would this god desire to become a man?”

“In Shintō there is the belief that the spiritual manifests itself in the natural world. Kirisutokyō professes something even greater — that the one true God, the creator of time and space, and all that inhabit them, humbled himself to become one of his own creation.”

“To what end? To be killed by his own creatures?”

“He allowed himself to be sacrificed for the atonement for sins, yes. Beyond that, he conquered death by rising again from the grave.”

Obaasan shook her head. “None of it makes sense to me. And what of the belief about eating this man’s flesh and blood? I’ve never heard anything so preposterous!”

Hiromu scraped the remnants of rice from his bowl into his mouth with his long wooden hashi. “Obaasan, I may not yet be sufficiently learned to make all these things clear. You should come with us one Sunday to misa and speak to Olivera-san. He is far better than I at explaining these things.”

Obaasan recoiled at the sound of the name. “I have no use for your priests. The bonze at the temple warned me to stay away from them.”

Though he would not openly say as much, Shirō enjoyed these occasional clashes between his father and Obaasan. Aside from the amusement of seeing Obaasan get rather riled, they gave Shirō much to ponder as he lay at night upon his futon, before sleep would overtake him. Shirō very much loved his Obaasan in spite of her many quirks and eccentricities, and perhaps even more because of them.

From the time he was a small child, she called him by the pet name of Masaru. His real name, Shirō, meant simply “fourth son,” and was given because he was the fourth male child of his generation. (He had three older male cousins, the sons of his father’s elder brother.) The first syllable of his given name, shi, meant “four,” but also happened to be a homophone for “death.” Though the written characters were distinct from one another, still the spoken pronunciation was the same. Obaasan, being superstitious, didn’t care for names containing that sound. Shirō was only two or three when he first asked her what the name Masaru meant. She looked at him with wide eyes and uttered the single word, “Victory.”

 * * * 

Over time, Hiromu came to realize that being a disciple of Iesu entailed much more than adherence to a weekly ritual. It demanded a change to nearly every facet of one’s existence, and even an altogether different understanding of reality itself. But, for his part, Hiromu took considerable pains not to force The Way upon his family.

He recalled from his own childhood the excitement he once experienced upon seeing a full and radiant rainbow after a torrential downpour during the annual season of tsuyu. He stood outside and called with great excitement until his parents and siblings came running out of the house to see what all the fuss was about. He hoped that The Way might be something akin to that rainbow, something whose compelling beauty, a splendor too great not to be shared, might draw his family out from the comfortable confines of their own certainties.

And eventually this did happen. To Hiromu’s joy (and much to Obaasan’s chagrin), Michiko and Shirō together had agreed to be baptized. For Michiko, the decision was at least partly born of a desire to please her husband and to maintain harmony in the home. For Shirō there was something in the teachings of The Way that stimulated his intellect. This was also true of the teachings of Bukkyō, with which Shirō had become quite familiar. The Four Noble Truths, for example, offered insight into the nature of suffering that was difficult to dispute.

But there always seemed something lacking, something about Bukkyō that did not ultimately satisfy. Perhaps it was the perpetual looking inward and a preoccupation with self in the quest for nehan. Kirisutokyō also held as a principal aim the attainment of a particular state, namely a “state of grace.” But this state was inextricably and beautifully bound to an intimate relationship with an actual person. Where Bukkyō concerned itself with the questions of “what” and “how,” everything in Kirisutokyō flowed from the understanding and friendship of a “who.”

Shirō had spent the previous year studying medicine on the island of Amakusa to the west. When he first approached his parents about this vocation, his father was dubious. Hiromu put the question rhetorically to his son, “How can someone be both a warrior and a healer?”

But Shirō replied, “Was not Iesu both?” With that answer, Hiromu had little choice but to bestow his blessings.

Some days before their baptism, Shirō and Michiko were in the house as she made the usual bangohan preparations. She was a tall and slender woman, with signs that she was with child only just beginning to show beneath the folds of her loosely fitting yukata robe. From the v-line of her yukata rose her long neck, like the stem of a chalice, the bowl of which was formed by the round smoothness of her jawline. Her full lips and high bridge of the nose were crowned with a pair of kind eyes that, if one looked just a little deeper, conveyed a sense of sadness and longing. Shirō, washing his hands in a small basin, called to his mother, “Okaasan, you know we’re soon to be baptized. Perhaps we should get in a little practice!” With that, he took a scoop of water in his hands and splashed it playfully onto her face.

She stood frozen for a moment as the water dripped down her neck and into her yukata. “You rascal! I’ll give you some practice!” Grabbing a wooden spoon from a bowl of utensils, she chased him, both of them laughing, out of the house. Some neighbors looked up momentarily from their gardening and shook their heads.

 * * * 

“Do you understand why baptism is necessary?” Father Olivera had put this question to Shirō as they walked through the nearby woods of Ishino, as they had on so many occasions. Shirō became acquainted with Father Olivera, the man he called Shinpu, shortly after his father’s conversion. Manuel Olivera was a ruggedly handsome man. His dark features might have allowed him to be mistaken for one of the native population, if not for the thick wavy hair, and full but neatly-trimmed beard, both of which were beginning to show distinguished streaks of gray. Shirō very much enjoyed their talks, and he appreciated that Shinpu always spoke to him in an adult manner.

“Yes,” replied Shirō, “My father explained it to me.” Hiromu had indeed told Shirō the story of the first man and woman in the garden of perfection, and of the circumstances and consequences of their disobedience. The effects of their choice would be passed along to their offspring and the entire human race. A spiritual defect, not necessarily visible to the eye, but just as real as any physical flaw, would be the inheritance of all. All but one.

Though Shirō found the tale intriguing, the reality of shared dishonor was not something unfamiliar to him. When he was a child, one of his cousins had stolen a mikan orange from a vendor in a neighboring village. Returning home and discovering the small item in the boy’s possession, his parents, along with the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and all the cousins, including Shirō, made the two-hour-long trek back to the merchant to return the item and beg forgiveness. Shirō understood well that even small transgressions could bring shame and dishonor not only upon oneself, but to one’s entire tribe.

“There is one thing I do not understand,” said Shirō.

“Oh? And what is that?”

“Why was it necessary for Iesu to be baptized? If he is truly divine, he could have no sin to cleanse.”

“Very true. But it was for our sake, not his, that Iesu was baptized. The baptisms performed by John were a sign of repentance. But when Iesu entered the river, the waters of baptism through all space and time were sanctified.”

Shirō pondered that for a moment. “You mean his ki entered into the water?” Ki was the word used to describe the energy or life force of a living being. From the time Shirō was a small boy, greater awareness and focus of ki was always at the heart of his training in the fighting arts.

Father Olivera smiled. “Something like that, yes.”

* * *

The waters of the Kuma River crept lazily in the warmth of the early afternoon. In another season, one might have seen through the crystalline water, right down to the smooth round stones that lined its bottom, and the abundant ayu fish darting about in search of food. But the kōyō season had just surpassed its peak. Now this section of the river was covered with a blanket of fallen maple leaves, moving almost imperceptibly and shimmering in the mid November sun. It appeared from a distance like a silken sash of crimson, separating the dancing brown plumes of miscanthus on either side.

From the dense forest along the river’s western bank emerged a dark figure. By the silhouette of its thick body, six legs, and two long prongs projecting from its head, it appeared like a giant kabuto-mushi, the rhinoceros beetle common in the broad-leaved forests of Kyūshū. Lord Onizuka, in full battle armor and perched atop his satiny black stallion, surveyed the river. He and a battalion of three hundred strong had made the two-day trek on horseback and foot from the castle in Yatsushiro to the north. Onizuka and his men had camped the previous night beside a small Shinto shrine at the river’s edge. The shrine was dedicated to Inari, goddess of rice and fertility, and Onizuka used the occasion to pray that his mission bear fruit.

In the time of Onizuka’s grandfather, the new religion had arrived along with the traders who sailed into Nagasaki from the faraway Iberian peninsula. And for a long time, it was generally tolerated by the military and political authorities. In exchange for allowing the Kirishitan missionaries to build places of worship and make converts, the feudal lords reaped the benefits of trade made possible by the big ships of the gaijin. As an added benefit, the arrival of the new religion, it was hoped, might counteract the growing influence of the Buddhist monks, whose numbers and opposition to samurai rule were threatening to become more than a nuisance.

But what was perceived as a seemingly benign, though misguided, belief system had become an even more potentially serious threat. What no one could have predicted was the spread like wildfire of the Christian hukuin, what they called “the good news,” among all the classes — peasant, warrior, merchant, and noble alike. It began as something of a regional phenomenon in the port areas of the south, but before long made its way to nearby Shikoku and deep into the main island of Honshū. It was widely feared that the infusion of this foreign belief system, along with its allegiance to a foreign figurehead, might upend social and political stability. Some believed this may have been the aim of Spain’s King Philip all along.

One final straw was the growing agitation stemming from recent reports that some of the Portugese traders were taking peasants and selling them as slaves in the Spanish territories of mainland Asia. The shōgun had finally had enough. He ordered the closing of all Christian churches and missions, the expulsion of the priests, and a ban of all Chrisitan practices and images.

Onizuka was certainly the right man for the task at hand, and he’d been appointed by Lord Iemitsu Tokugawa himself — the man who assumed the title of shōgun from his father and predecessor, Hidetada. Though the elder Tokugawa had tried to exercise control over, and thereby discourage, the growing Christian population by means of heavy taxation, it proved to be insufficient in stemming the tide of conversions. Now the younger Tokugawa was determined to use more direct and, if necessary, brutal means.

At twenty-six years of age, Onizuka had ample experience in the tactics of warfare, both on and off the open battlefield. He was full of ambition and fire coursing through his veins. He had little love for the Buddhists, and even less for the followers of Kirisuto, for whom he harbored a particular disdain. He loathed the absurdity of the worship of a simple peasant man turned rebel and insurrectionist. That the image of this man nailed to a beam could be their symbol of hope and salvation defied all dignity and reason. He had never approved of the past permissiveness in allowing the foreigners to spread their pious poison. Now he was all too happy to assist in the administration of the antidote.

Raising his sword toward the opposite shore, Onizuka urged his horse forward through a shallow stretch of the river. The small village of Kōnose lay waiting idly on the other side. The entire battalion, those on horse followed by those on foot, charged after him into and across the water, churning the still blanket of red into a swirling gray mire of sludge.


An American in East Berlin


“We are spirits in the material world.”
(The Police – from Ghost In The Machine)

Rudi, Michael, kommt schnell!”  Tante Elfie summoned Onkel Rudi and me to the sitting area where the television was already warmed up.  (Back then, “CRT” was nothing more than the abbreviation for the “cathode ray tube” that conjured the picture onto a television monitor, not that I understood much about such things.  I still don’t.  But it took about a minute for the screen to “warm up” and the picture to become clear, at least as clear as it could be in those days.)  The television, along with most of the other electronic devices in the small apartment, was a product of Siemens, the company Onkel Rudi worked for until his heart condition forced his early retirement.

The sharp voice again demanded our attention.  “Rudi, Michael, schnell!  Es beginnt!”  [I had considered inserting footnotes for German phrases, but I believe the intelligent reader will probably figure them out.  Otherwise, I’m guessing there’s something on phones these days that can assist.]

Onkel Rudi and I grimaced from either side of the table on the narrow twelfth story balcony.  It was one of those rare July days when the air was clear enough to see the distant Bavarian Alps beyond the Munich skyline with its iconic BMW cylindrical highrise headquarters building and bowl-shaped museum beside it.  [Over the years, I was always surprised that very few of my students knew that BMW stands for Bayerische Motoren Werke, which also happens to work in English – Bavarian Motor Works.]

Tante Elfie had explained to me that the air quality, and a host of physical maladies affected by it, could be gauged by the visibility of the mountains.  I don’t know if I was entirely convinced of the truth of this, but as the years have passed I’ve come to realize my elders were right about a great many things, even – and especially – things that may have seemed a bit nuts at the time.

Some distance to the right stood the Olympic Tower, Munich’s tallest structure.  In addition to its revolving observation deck, the Olympiaturm also served as a giant radio and television antenna, and is part of the complex built for the 1972 summer Olympic games where American swimmer, Mark Spitz, won seven gold medals, the record at that time.  (Interestingly, Spitz is the German word for peak or pinnacle.)  Sadly, those games are more acutely remembered for the killing of eleven Israeli athletes and their coach by Palestinian militants.  (This event would become the subject of a 2005 Steven Spielberg film, simply entitled Munich, which I confess I have yet to see.)

Onkel Rudi and I were enjoying a few rounds of Watten, a regional card game with suits of hearts, grass, shells, and acorns.  Rather than money or plastic chips, we played for Hirnbatzen.  Literally, “brain kiss,” a Hirnbatzen was what the loser of each round received – a hard flick on the forehead with the winner’s middle finger.  And, boy, could Onkel Rudi deliver a brutal Hirnbatzen.  The thwack of his thick finger against my brow could sometimes be heard from across the room by Tante Elfie, causing her to cringe.  [I capitalize the word Hirnbatzen because it’s a noun, and all nouns in German are capitalized.  I know that might seem odd, but as I used to tell my students, it makes them pretty easy to spot in a sentence.]

Only in his early 50s, Onkel Rudi (people rarely called him Rudolf) had survived a number of heart attacks.  To help prevent the next one, he took a strict regimen of pills and long daily walks.  (He even took nitroglycerin tablets, which I didn’t know was a thing until then.  I sometimes wondered if they would explode if I threw them up against a wall.  I never tried it though.)  I joined him on those walks throughout the summer of my visit, and they always managed to produce sufficient fatigue in my scrawny twelve-year-old frame to induce a solid night’s sleep.  We sometimes made the nearly two hour trek on foot into downtown to meet Tante Elfie for lunch.  She worked for an insurance company called DBV, which stood for  Deutsche Beamtenversicherung Lebensversicherung (German Civil Servants Insurance and Life Insurance).  Try saying that three times fast.

Rudi Stärkl, the younger brother of my father’s mother (in other words, my dad’s uncle), did not have the appearance of one in frail health.  Tall, slender, and ruggedly handsome, he had the look of an old-school movie star (like his namesake with the surname Valentino).  [The two funny dots over the “a” in his last name are called umlauts. They simply render the sound of the “a” as a long vowel.]  Between his neatly parted hair and well groomed mustache sat a pair of eyes that glinted with a youthful mischievousness that would often manifest itself in a variety of ways.  The apartment building stood right at the edge of a lake, and there was a beach directly below.  Sometimes while watering the plants on the balcony, he would spray water over the railing and then quickly duck out of view, peering just over the edge to observe the reactions of unsuspecting sunbathers.

The only visible sign of anything physically faulty with Onkel Rudi was a long scar down the length of his left bicep where the primary vein had been surgically removed and used as a replacement for one of the vessels leading into his weakened heart.  But that obviously had no impact on the strength of his fingers.  Still, I would have endured a dozen Hirnbatzen over what Tante Elfie had in store for us.  (This is a gross exaggeration, as a dozen Hirnbatzen would likely have produced a dent in my skull.)  [“Gross,” by the way, is one of countless English words of German origin.  It literally means “big.”]

Since my arrival in Germany at the beginning of July, Tante Elfie had been eagerly anticipating the royal wedding of Britain’s Prince Charles to a beautiful young blonde commoner named Diana.  Onkel Rudi and I knew that watching the event on TV was going to be an inescapable reality.  When Tante Elfie wanted to watch something, she was not going to watch it by herself.  On Thursday evenings, she made us watch Dallas, one of a few American shows that was televised on one of the three or four channels available back then.  I laughed out loud the first time I heard the dubbed German voice coming from the mouth of J.R. Ewing with his three-piece tailored suit and ten-gallon cowboy hat.  I could never quite understand what appeal the show had with German audiences.  (I could barely understand what appeal the show had with American audiences.)  But one good thing about German TV back then was that, fairly regularly, a shampoo or soap commercial would feature a topless model in the shower, her ample bosom covered only by a thin veil of foamy suds.  (Hey, for a 12-year-old American kid, something like that was pretty tantalizing.)

This was my second visit to Munich, the first having been two summers prior.  Onkel Rudi and Tante Elfie had come to America in the spring to visit my grandmother who had left Germany shortly after the end of the war.  To my surprise, they asked my parents whether I might care to spend my summer vacation with them.  I felt like quite the little big shot boarding the plane all by myself while most of my friends were just hanging out back in New Jersey, maybe going away to camp at best.  My two kid sisters had their turn the following summer, and now I was enjoying my return visit.  There would be others to come.  But it wouldn’t be until many years later that I would come to appreciate what a unique and undeserved opportunity I had been afforded.

So there we sat, the three of us, watching this historical wedding on the small television in the cozy sitting area of the little apartment on the twelfth floor.  There was certainly all the fanfare one would expect, but my most vivid memory was the train of young Diana’s gown and the number of attendants required to carry the absurdly long thing.  Something else I’ll never forget is how the nervous virgin bride misspoke the groom’s name.  All she had to do was repeat after the Archbishop of Catebury, “I, Diana Spencer, take thee, Charles Philip Arthur George….”  But what she uttered in a soft quavering voice was, “I take thee, Phillip Charles George Arthur…” (or some such erroneous combination.  In fairness, something like that is bound to happen when too many names are involved.)  Onkel Rudi and I burst out laughing.  Tante Elfie appeared mortified and chided us, but a wry smile betrayed her own suppressed amusement.  Beneath her regal exterior, Tante Elfie really did have a delightful sense of humor.  She was quite an accomplished knitter, and she played a pretty mean accordion as well.

As a kid, I never quite understood what was meant by the expression “handsome woman.”  But I recently saw it defined as “a woman with the kind of refined beauty and attractiveness that requires poise, dignity, and strength of mind and character, things that often come with age” (Urban Dictionary).  Yes, I’d say that described Tante Elfie to a tee.  She was a tall, stout woman with a Germanic ruggedness, and buxomness accentuated by her impeccable posture.  There was a certain haggardness in the face, typical (I supposed) of those who had lived through war and its aftermath.  (Her heavy smoking and love for sweet and fatty foods probably didn’t help much.)  She was always pristinely dressed and groomed, and kept her hair colored a shade that was nearly jet black.  When she and Onkel Rudi came to visit us in New Jersey, we’d get a kick out of the way she would wear a fine silk blouse even while preparing a meal in the kitchen.  She was absolutely appalled by Americans who wore sweatpants and raggedy attire in public.  (And that was in the ‘80s.  I can only imagine how she would react to things today.)

One of the highlights of this particular summer was to be a drive to Berlin.  For those who don’t know much about the history of this city, I encourage a bit of self education, but here’s my admittedly overly simplified lesson…

Following Germany’s surrender in 1945, the country was divided into four zones, one under the jurisdiction of each of the Allies – America, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union, the latter having control of the easternmost portion.  [The Soviet Union was the name of the nation that consisted of Russia and several neighboring countries under its control.]  In like manner, the capital city of Berlin, within the Soviet-controlled eastern zone, was also divided into four zones.  (Confused yet?)  In 1949, Germany officially split into the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).  [The name of the latter was somewhat ironic since it was neither democratic nor a republic.  But, hey, is Great Britain really all that great, or the United States really all that united?]

Well, many of the folks living in East Germany, the government of which was a puppet of the Soviets, didn’t much like living under a communist regime, so they headed to the West.  In fact, they left in droves and that didn’t sit too well with those in authority.  After all, you can’t really have a country when there’s no people in it.  You kind of need engineers, doctors, teachers, laborers, and human beings to fill all those other roles that keep a society functioning.  Contrary to the oft held belief that humans are a drain on natural resources, people actually are a natural resource.  (Countries contracepting themselves out of existence, like Japan for instance, often come to this realization only after it’s too late.)  If people are the bloodline of any civilization, then East Germany was bleeding out.  And the solution to this was a concrete tourniquet.  Virtually overnight, the government erected a wall, not to keep invaders out, but to keep their own people in, something that is almost as hard for me to comprehend now as it was then.

When the infamous wall went up, friends were separated and families divided.  Tante Elfie’s sister, who had been living in East Berlin, went from being a resident to a captive.  Like all the East German inhabitants, she was not allowed to leave, even to visit family on the other side.  (Over the years, many tried unsuccessfully to escape to the West.  By “unsuccessful,” I mean that they were killed in the attempt.  There are incredible stories of the methods by which people tried to escape – methods that included tunnels, cars fortified into armored battering rams, catapults, and even a successful liberation by means of a homemade hot air balloon.)  It was difficult for me to fathom the idea of being forcibly separated from loved ones.  I mean, sure, my own kid sisters drove me nuts sometimes but, geez, I still loved them.  It was, however, permissible for those in the West to apply for a pass to cross over into the East, and that’s what we set out to do the day after a royal wedding in England.

This was to be my first visit to Germany’s largest city and, with a six-hour drive time, my farthest sojourn outside of Munich.  (The three-hour drive to Kastelruth in the Dolomites of northern Italy had been my farthest up to that point.  One day I will write a story about that enchanted village.  Its timeless charm and serenity were certainly worth the car sickness I suffered on the winding mountain road leading up to it.)

I admit my memory of the drive to Berlin is not very vivid or detailed.  It’s quite possible that I slept most of the way, very likely with my Sony WalkmanⓇ headphones covering my ears.  (I was digging the latest cassette by The Police – Ghost In The Machine, an expression whose meaning I did not quite comprehend at the time.  But even to my 12-year-old mind, the idea that we are all “spirits in the material world” appealed to some mystical vibe I sought to exude.)

For all the tales of exhilaration and terror related to driving on the Autobahn, I have to say the experience was relatively uneventful.  I do recall Onkel Rudi cruising along in the left lane at about 180 kilometers (just a bit over 110 miles) an hour, when a beautifully streamlined Porsche appeared behind us suddenly, its lights rapidly flashing.  Onkel Rudi obligingly shifted the Opel over to the right and the Porsche sped past us and out of sight as if we’d been standing still.

The one thing that does stand out from that trip was a minor mishap at a roadside rest area where we stopped to get gas.  Onkel Rudi, who had been studying “the Queen’s English,” referred to it as “petrol.”  There were lots of British expressions he would use that caused me some initial confusion.  For example, the first time he told me to wait for him by “the lift” (elevator), or that we needed to be getting back to “the flat” (apartment), or the time he instructed me to go to the corner market to “fetch” the morning paper.  (I dutifully returned to the flat carrying the paper in my mouth.)

At the rest stop, we had ourselves a little picnic (what the Germans call “Brotzeit” – literally, “bread time”).  Tante Elfie had, in true regal German aunt fashion, packed an actual wicker picnic basket with sandwiches, boiled eggs, pickles, chocolates and other assorted sweets, and two thermoses of coffee – the extra strong stuff for her, and decaffeinated for Onkel Rudi and me.  Onkel Rudi couldn’t do caffeine on account of his heart, and I was told that it would stunt my growth – another one of those pearls of wisdom about which I was somewhat dubious.  The sandwiches were delicious, though like everything else, just a bit different from what I was accustomed to back home.  For one thing, the bread in Germany is far more substantial than what we Americans typically consume.  Tante Elfie would often refer to American bread (Wonder, et al) as “Luftbrot” – literally, “air bread.”  (In similar fashion, my German relatives referred to American beer as “Bieselnwasser” – “piss water.”)  The contents of the sandwiches were also different.  Peanut butter and jelly was not a thing in Germany.  (I don’t recall ever seeing peanut butter in Germany back then, although Nutella, a delightful hazelnut and chocolate spread, was a household staple.  And there were always at least three or four marmalade options at the breakfast table, but not for making lunchtime sandwiches.)  Ham and cheese was an option, but there were a dozen varieties of each of those from which to choose.  My personal favorite was blood & tongue, a cold cut that, as the name suggests, consists of congealed beef blood and tongue.  (I realize that sounds repulsive to the average American, but is it really any nastier than the other parts of the animal?)  In elementary school, I would sometimes have a blood & tongue sandwich in my brown paper bag, and that always caused quite a stir at the lunch table.

After lunch, Tante Elfie enjoyed a cigarette while Onkel Rudi stretched his legs, and I found my way to the public restroom.  As a kid, I hated using urinals.  (I still dislike them, as there just seems something punitive about standing against a wall.)  The one in this particular restroom was especially off-putting – just a single long basin along one wall.  There must have been thirty men lined up in front of it, like cattle at a trough, so I opted to go into one of the stalls.  I did my thing and went to exit the stall, but discovered something was wrong with the latch. I fidgeted with the thing every which way possible, but I just couldn’t get the door to open.  I thought about crawling under the door, which in retrospect would have been rather nasty, but the clearance between the floor and European stall door was hardly adequate, even for my slender frame.  And it was too high to climb over, even if I’d been brave enough to stand atop the toilet.  I thought to call out for help, but I couldn’t remember the German word (“Hilfe!”) and was too embarrassed to call out in English.  So I just stood in there in resigned silence.

Finally, after what felt like half an hour, the door opened and there stood Onkel Rudi looking rather irritated.  “Boy, where have you been?  We’re ready to leave for a long time!”  The only other time I’d seen Onkel Rudi looking that annoyed was my first summer in Munich.  They had a little Dachshund named Anka (short for Bianka – who knew dogs could have nicknames?), and we were walking with her somewhere in the Austrian Alps.  Onkel Rudi had brought an old tennis ball that Anka loved to chase, and he would throw it short distances to keep her entertained.  Well, for some reason I got it in my head to throw the ball down the side of the mountain.  And Anka, without hesitation, chased it all the way down.  It took the poor creature with her short little legs over half an hour to make it back up to us on the trail.  She was panting so hard that Onkel Rudi had to carry her the rest of the way back to the car.  So many years later, I can still hear his raised voice, “Junge, du bist ein Depp!” (“Boy, you are an idiot!”)

“I’m sorry, Onkel Rudi, but, look!  The latch is broken!”  Now, to this day, as with so many other things from my childhood memories, I couldn’t say for certain whether that latch was really broken, or if I just couldn’t figure out how to work it.  I’m fairly certain it was the former, but Onkel Rudi still swears the latter.  One thing I do know is that, the older I get, the more I cherish memories and the less I trust them.

So we climbed back into the Opel and continued northeast to the city limits of what had been the capital of a pre-divided Germany.  I perhaps should have mentioned that, at the northern border of Bavaria (roughly halfway to Berlin), at some point after our rest stop, we had already crossed the border into East Germany.  That crossing must have been uneventful, for I really can’t say I even remember it.  I may have been asleep, and it’s quite possible that those traveling directly to West Berlin may not have been required to stop and exit their vehicles.  Bear in mind that, geographically, West Berlin was a little island of democracy within the communist sea of East Germany.  [If I’m mistaken about the border crossing procedure, I’m certain someone will correct me.]

While East Berlin was the capital of East Germany, the city of Bonn in the far west had been designated the provisional capital of West Germany in 1949.  (Bonn is a city I still have yet to visit.)  West Berlin was impressive, though it was nothing like New York, the city of my birth and urban jungle most familiar to me.  There were no giant skyscrapers nor the sheer volume of people and noise as in Manhattan, but it was a city nonetheless.  I looked out the window and took in the sights.  There was certainly a cosmopolitan vibe.  There were cars of every make and model, though everything more compact than back in the U.S.  There were department stores and giant billboards advertising things both familiar (like Coca Cola and Panasonic) as well as not so familiar (like Allianz and SAP).  A movie theater marquee displayed the latest hit film out of America – Jäger des Verlorenen Schatzes (Raiders of the Lost Ark).  (We had actually taken Onkel Rudi and Tante Elfie to see that the previous month back in New Jersey.  We figured it would be a fun action adventure film they could enjoy even without understanding all the English.  What we neglected to consider, however, was that the bad guys in the film were Nazis.  Oops.)

In keeping with German efficiency and frugality, our hotel was clean, conveniently located, and otherwise quite unextraordinary.  We walked around for quite a spell that first evening, taking in the sights and sounds of downtown.  It was bustling and vibrant, with considerably more noticeable American influence than in Munich.  As we rounded a corner from Rudi-Dutschke-Straße (I was teasing Onkel Rudi about the street name) onto Friedrichstraße, my eyes grew wide as I spied a pair of familiar golden arches.  [You can probably tell from context that “Straße” is the German word for “street.”  And, no, the funny looking “ß” character is not a capital “b.”  It’s called an “Eszett,” and it’s pronounced like a double “s.”  My students would sometimes ask me the difference in pronunciation between a single and a double “s.”  I was unable to supply a satisfactory answer.]

Tante Elfie protested initially, but surprisingly agreed that we could have our Abendessen (evening meal) at McDonaldsⓇ.  As an (only somewhat slightly) wiser adult, I can say today that eating at McDonalds when abroad should be considered a venial sin.  (Hell, eating at McDonalds in America is bad enough.)  But as a kid who had eaten nothing but healthy food consisting of natural ingredients for roughly a month (oh, the horror!), I was just jonesing for something soft and greasy on a sesame seed bun (or any like variety of Luftbrot).  My most vivid memory of that “meal,” aside from how delectable all that saturated fat and sodium tasted, was watching Onkel Rudi wash down his Big MacⓇ with a beer (a prime example of corporate cultural adaptation), and the sight of Tante Elfie delicately carving up her burger with a plastic fork and knife.

After consuming what likely took several minutes off our life expectancies, we strolled along the Kaiserdamm Boulevard (named after Kaiser Wilhelm II) to the site of a metallic vessel monument that housed an “eternal flame,” burning in tribute to Germanic peoples expelled from eastern Europe during and after World War II.  For some reason, of which I am to this day unsure, I mistakenly thought it was a memorial honoring former American president, John F. Kennedy.  I feel like Onkel Rudi had told me that, though I’m not sure why he would have, unless he had also been mistaken.  (Perhaps I’d been thinking about the similar eternal flame at Kennedy’s gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery, and I simply got my fact circuits crossed.)  I knew about the Kennedy visit to Berlin in 1963, just months before his death, during which he delivered his famous, “Ich bin ein Berliner!” speech.  (Turns out that a “Berliner” also happens to be a popular marmalade-filled pastry, so it’s possible that Kennedy’s words could have been understood by the city’s inhabitants as, “I am a jelly donut!”)

Kennedy had actually been one of my childhood heroes.  Maybe it was the whole cult of personality thing combined with the fact that he had been the only Catholic president up to that point.  (Another guy many years later would become the second Catholic U.S. president, though only nominally so.)  I even had a framed print of the Kennedy portrait by Norman Rockwell hanging on my bedroom wall.  Looking back, it’s funny to think that I actually entertained aspirations of one day becoming a politician.  (I also recall that the ambition had little to do with serving and everything to do with being served.  I’m not sure whether that says more about me or American politics in general.)

I would come to understand years later that Kennedy actually did a great disservice to American Catholics.  While campaigning, he gave a speech before a group of Protestant ministers, many of whom were concerned that his role as leader of the free world would be influenced by his Catholicism.  Rather than defend the one true faith, he instead pandered to the audience by claiming that his private religious views would be kept cleanly cleaved from his public life, thereby giving American Catholics from that day forth a reassurance in the false belief that such a thing could actually be possible.  [Specifically, in that speech he declared, “I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition of holding that office.”  Ironically, he may have failed to recognize that the very position he was professing had been imposed upon him by the nation as a condition of holding that office.]

Our so-called leaders speak; with words they try to jail ya.  They subjugate the meek, but it’s the rhetoric of failure…

Then of course there was The Wall itself, what the Germans referred to as Die Mauer.  [“Die” is one of three German definite articles, words meaning “the,” and is pronounced “dee.”  As I used to tell my students, “Never say ‘die’ in German, as no such word exists, at least not phonetically.]  As we strolled along Bernauer Straße, I marveled at this concrete monstrosity that snaked through the city as far as the eye could see.  This was not merely a barrier that separated two sovereign nations but, rather, one that hewed a neighborhood in two.  The common architecture on either side plainly told the story that this had once been a single community.  Gazing upon the thing was somehow jarring to the senses, because the rational mind perceived that it was clearly something that didn’t belong.  It was a bit like the slightly uncomfortable feeling I got when I looked at the scar that ran down the length of Onkel Rudi’s arm.  In that instance, it was a natural revulsion owing to the absence of a natural thing.  With The Wall, it was a natural revulsion owing to something unnatural that had been imposed.

Every inch of The Wall on its West side was covered with graffiti.  The East side, I would soon see for myself, was pristine.  There was a certain irony that the “good guy” side was defiled and unsightly, while the “bad guy” side was characterized by order and cleanliness.  While I experienced a certain visceral response in the close proximity of this infamous landmark, it wouldn’t be until many years later that I’d become far more informed about its history and all the events leading up to its initial slipshod construction and evolution over time into the more complex multi-layered barrier it had become.  (I owe this increase in wisdom to the many years of teaching my students about The Wall.  The surest way to become knowledgeable about something is to find oneself in the situation of having to teach it.)

I must certainly say that I never imagined I’d live to see the day that The Wall would fall.  It simply appeared so fixed, both in space and history, as to have claimed a status of permanence.  (That said, I had thought the same thing about two imposing towers in lower Manhattan.)  Furthermore, even my wildest dreams could not have conjured the image of David Hasselhoff elevated by a crane above The Wall on the night it came down.  I can still picture him, donning a black leather jacket adorned with glowing light bulbs, as he sang before the masses and international television cameras, “I’ve been looking for freedom…I’ve been looking so long…I’ve been looking for freedom….Still the search goes on!”  [If you want to see something pathetic and hysterical, do a search on YouTube! for “Hasselhoff on Berlin Wall.”]  I recall watching that surreal performance and fearing it might prompt people to start putting The Wall back together.  (Apparently there are Germans today who believe that Hasselhoff was somehow instrumental in helping bring about The Wall’s demise.)

The next morning, we got up early to make the crossing to the East.  Normally, Americans would go through what was known as Checkpoint Charlie.  Other than the catchy alliteration, I wasn’t sure why it was called that.  [I now know that it was so named because it was the third checkpoint opened by the Allies, and “Charlie” comes third in the NATO phonetic alphabet – Alpha, Bravo, Charlie…]  But since I was accompanied by my relatives, we all went through a crossing designated for West Germans.  (I don’t recall whether it was Alpha or Bravo.)  I always felt safe with Onkel Rudi and Tante Elfie, but I admit the experience was more than a little scary.  It was a world before 9/11, so as an American I had never experienced security checkpoints with soldiers wielding automatic weapons and tethered German shepherds.  We had to step out of the Opal while the guards inspected it inside and out, checking the trunk, behind the seats, underneath the car with mirrors attached to long poles, even the gas tank.  We were allowed to bring in certain gift items including food.  (I believe Tante Elfie had baked an apple cake for the visit.)  Most print materials, namely books, newspapers, and magazines, were not permitted.

One of the guards took my backpack and proceeded to go through its contents.  I didn’t have much since I knew we wouldn’t be staying overnight, but two items did get some attention.  The first was my Walkman, which still housed the Police cassette.  (I thought it somewhat ironic that the Police were now being examined by the police.)  I could hear in my head the high tubular voice of Sting, so smooth and distinct – “There is no political solution to our troubled evolution.  Have no faith in constitution.  There is no bloody revolution…”

“I’m afraid you can’t bring this with you.”  I was surprised that the soldier spoke to me in English.  “Don’t worry.  We keep it here for you, ja?  You claim when you come back through.”  He continued rifling through my bag and next pulled out my journal.  It was a basic composition book that one of my aunts back home had nicely decorated by making a cover for it from a map of Europe.  At the end of each day, I recorded all the things I had done along with various thoughts and commentary.  The guard began to leaf through the pages.  I never wrote anything too personal, so I wasn’t especially concerned.  I wondered if he could read English, though he seemed to speak it well enough.  He glanced at me, then back down at the journal.  “It’s diary?”

“Well, not exactly,” I answered, “Just a journal.”  (For some reason, I had it in my head that girls kept “diaries” while guys kept “journals.”)

Onkel Rudi was standing by the driver door of the Opel, shaking his head as if to say, “You Dummkopf, why couldn’t you just leave those things back at the hotel?”

“We keep it here with your music.  You can collect on your way out.”  I was a bit perplexed as to the necessity of blocking my journal from entering communist territory, but I certainly wasn’t about to argue with the fellow with the machine gun and German shepherd.  (The only checkpoint crossing in my life that would ever be as eventful was the time I was stopped by airport security at Newark for having a gun shaped cigarette lighter in my carry on.  That was pretty dumb.  I’ll perhaps talk about that in another story.)  For one brief moment, the soldier’s eyes met mine.  Behind the all-business exterior was something human and familiar.  His expression almost seemed to say, “Sorry, kid, I’m just doing my job – one that I don’t even like.”  (I could be wrong about this.  Like I said, my memories are more cherished than trustworthy.)

Once the dangerous contraband of British pop music and a pre-teen’s journal had been sufficiently secured, we at last cleared the checkpoint and drove into another world.  It may have been an abrupt and coincidental change in the weather as we entered the East, but everything seemed to suddenly turn overcast and gray, like being transported from Technicolor Oz back into black and white Kansas.  In some ways, the setting was not so strange.  People walked about on the streets, though no one seemed to be merely strolling.  Everyone’s gait was marked with purpose.  There were no signs of tourists, no music emanating from cars or street performers, no idle conversation on sidewalk cafes, no quirkily decorated storefronts.  In short, everything appeared “functional,” minus the “fun.”

We reached the apartment where Tante Elfie’s sister lived with her son, along with his wife and their four-year-old daughter.  The little girl had a golf ball sized lump on her forehead that I at first assumed was some sort of birth defect.  (I reasoned that the child was too young to be playing card games for Hirnbatzen.)  But it turned out to be the result of a collision with a table corner the previous day.  It was hard to look at, though I was assured she’d be fine.  Other than that, she was an adorable little girl.  I spent more time speaking with her than with the adults, which rather made sense since my German vocabulary at the time was probably not much greater than that of a toddler.

Though Tante Elfie’s sister was the elder by three years, the two of them could have passed for twins.  Even their speech and physical mannerisms were uncannily similar.  (You’ll have to forgive the fact that I embarrassingly cannot recall the name of Tante Elfie’s sister nor the other relatives we visited that day.  (I think the man may have been Klaus.)  I don’t believe I even bothered to record those in my journal.  I could have simply made up names, but that would almost seem a greater infraction.  (This is a good example of how I often pay inordinate attention to lesser details while neglecting ones of greater import.  I mean, geez, I don’t remember the name of my Tante Elfie’s sister, yet I can recall all the names of the former Prince of Wales.)  The one noticeable difference between the sisters was their hair.  Tante Elfie’s was colored raven black, while her sister’s was an almost dazzling natural white.  Things like hair dye were not easily accessible in the East and likely would have been considered a symbol of Western vanity and decadence.

Tante Elfie had once shared with me a plan she had devised to liberate her sister from the East.  The only problem was that the crux of the plan would require the two of them to switch places.  Because of their similar appearance, Tante Elfie figured all she’d need to do was sneak some hair dye into the East, or else come up with some other option to darken her sister’s hair.  But even assuming they could pull it off, each of them would then be separated from their respective families.  In any event, Tante Elfie was never able to ask her sister’s thoughts on such a plan, as all phone calls and written correspondence were closely monitored by the East German Ministry of State Security (Staatsicherheit, aka the Stasi).  Even the homes of citizens were often bugged.

The family’s apartment was sparse.  There was no television or stereo system, and certainly no Atari 2600Ⓡ.  (Back in New Jersey, we didn’t have Atari either, though we did have a PongⓇ console.  I had to go to a friend’s house to get my fix of Space InvadersⓇ and AsteroidsⓇ.)  Aside from the small bathroom, the apartment was basically just one big room.  It was explained to me that materials for things like interior walls had to be purchased by the tenants, and there was often a waiting list for such things.  I listened to the adults talk but could only catch bits and pieces of what they were saying.  There was an explanation of who I was and how I had come to be there.  Our hosts were certainly polite, though I perceived a general sort of malaise in their countenance that seemed to match the grayness outside.

We walked around the neighborhood and had a simple lunch of sausages and potatoes at a nearby eatery.  Onkel Rudi took care of the bill with East German marks he had acquired before we crossed over.  There were far fewer cars on the streets than in the West, and they were all the same sort of box-shaped thing, an East German car called the Trabant (otherwise known as the “Trabi”).  They were pieces of crap but generally the only vehicle available to citizens (except for government officials).  My relatives didn’t own one though they were on a waiting list to get one.  Some people waited for years.  It seemed there were a lot of waiting lists in the East, even waiting lists to get onto other waiting lists.

As we walked around after lunch, I spied a tall man with a crew cut and wearing a trench coat on the corner.  I was sure I had seen him earlier as we exited my relatives’ apartment building.  With my 12-year-old imagination, I pretended that he was a Stasi agent who had been assigned to keep an eye on our party, particularly since there was a suspicious journal-keeping American among them.  Of course this was silly, but it was fun to fantasize about such things.  Many years later, I would see a German film called Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) that depicted the exhaustive ways the East German government spied on and kept tabs of its own citizens.  (I viewed the film several times with my students over the years.)  Looking back, I realize my fantasy about the man in the trench coat may not have been a product of my imagination after all.  [The Lives of Others won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006.  It’s an excellent movie and I highly recommend it.]

We continued our stroll and saw a long line of people along one of the sidewalks.  The line ended at the entrance of some storefront.  I asked Onkel Rudi what they were doing.

“They’re waiting to buy Klopapier.”  I knew that Klopapier was the word for toilet paper.

“Toilet paper?” I thought to myself.  The idea of having to wait in line for such an everyday item was unfathomable to me.  Even Herr Sommer, the farmer we visited in the Bavarian countryside earlier that summer, had toilet paper in his outhouse.  I suddenly felt very grateful to come from a capitalist country where such a thing as toilet paper could never be in short supply.  (Lol!)  As we walked past the line of people, sluggishly shuffling forward, I noticed that they all wore an identical expression – one I can only best describe as one of sorrowful longing.

As dusk approached, we had to say our good-byes.  When we reached the checkpoint to reenter the West, I recognized the same guard who had held my belongings that morning. He came out of a small office, and was carrying a metal bin containing my Walkman and journal.  He handed them to me and said, “Du schreibst gut,”  (“You write good.”  One would say “well” in English, but in German the adjective and adverb forms are one in the same.)  I realized from his comment that he must have read my journal, or at least some portion of it.  I wasn’t sure whether I should be annoyed that my privacy had been invaded, or flattered that someone cared enough to read something I had read.

Danke,” I offered, and took my belongings.  He looked at me, and gave a nod with something that was very close to a smile.

We went back to our hotel, where Tante Elfie was uncharacteristically quiet.  I knew the feeling of being homesick, so I could appreciate at least on some level the sadness of being separated from one’s own family.

The next morning, before the journey back to Munich, we stopped at one of the department stores to do some souvenir shopping.  I found some little Berlin snow globes (none of which seemed to contain representations of The Wall), and a Berlin patch for my jacket.  (I had collected patches of all the places we visited that summer, and Tantie Elfie sewed them onto my jacket.  I think I may still have the thing somewhere.)  Tante Elfie went off to look at whatever it is women look at when they find themselves in a department store, while Onkel Rudi and I sat down on a small sofa to wait for her.  He fidgeted with his little handheld electronic English dictionary, as I pushed the play button on my Walkman…

Where does the answer lie, living from day to day?  If it’s something we can’t buy, there must be another way…”

As I surveyed the scene, I noticed a long line of ladies in front of one of the counters.  I removed my headphones and asked Onkel Rudi, “What are they waiting for?”

“There is some new designer handbag…”  He quickly consulted his dictionary.  “…promotion.”  I looked down at my own little “man purse” that Tante Elfie had given me before our trip.  It bore the letters DBV, the name of her insurance company employer.  The purse was actually a very practical thing to carry, as it made more sense than having all your belongings stuffed into your pants pockets.  (I was, however, most careful not to be seen with it by my friends upon my arrival back home.)

As I stared at the line of women, I noticed they all seemed to wear an expression that was very familiar –  one I could only describe as an expression of sorrowful longing.

[I want to thank my German second cousin, David (that’s “dah-veed,” not “day-vid”) for supplying me with the name of Tante Elfie’s sister – Margit.  I pray those two sisters are, or will one day be, on the same side – the right side – of that eternal wall.]


The Gazebo (1988)

“The secret of your beauty, and the mystery of your soul,
I’ve been searching for in everyone I meet.”
(The Moody Blues, I Know You’re Out There Somewhere)

I was writing some lines of bad poetry in my green notebook when a familiar drawl disrupted my train of thought.  “C’mon, Yank, let’s head over to the library.”  It was my roommate, Rip Robbins, a North Carolina boy who had the perfect hair and smile of a game show host.  Being called “Yank” was still something I was getting used to, along with a lot of other things for a Jersey boy in the South for the first time.

How I had found myself at this small Lutheran college in Hickory, North Carolina, was really quite something of an anomaly.  For most of my life, I had always assumed I would go to college.  I mean, that’s just what people did.  Growing up, I had gone through various phases of interest, though I don’t recall ever really knowing what I wanted to be.  Even in high school, I didn’t feel a strong sense of vocation toward any particular profession.  All I seemed to really care about was writing and music.  I wanted to have enough money to enjoy life.  I wanted to see the world.  In my mind, a job was just an undesirable means to a desirable end.

My senior year of high school, things came to a head when I announced that I didn’t want to go to college.  This was upsetting to my family, but I guess I’d just gotten fed up with everyone telling me it was a necessary step toward my fulfillment as a human being.  I got it in my mind that I would prove everyone wrong by becoming successful without some certificate on a wall.  Of course, I really didn’t have a plan as to how I was going to accomplish this, but, dammit, I was gonna show ‘em.

Then one of my buddies decided to talk some sense to me.  Todd, who had become my closest friend senior year, had been accepted at Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory.  One morning, as he was giving me a ride to school, he said, “Dude, you should go down there with me.  We’ll have a blast!”  Funny how that sort of reasoning seemed to register with me at that time in my life.  Next thing I know, I receive my letter of acceptance and I’m packing up to head down to college after all.

Todd and I had decided it might be better for us not to room together, mainly for the sake of branching out a bit socially and avoiding the risk of possibly getting on each other’s nerves.  And so I ended up with Rip, a rather good natured preppy type who played for the school’s tennis team.  From his side of the room, he repeated his command as I sat writing at my desk.  “Hello?  Remember, I said you were going to the library with me today.”

I let out a soft groan.  “Rip, I’m kind of content just working here.  Why is it you need me to go with you to the library again?”

Rip rolled his eyes and shook his head.  “Yank, I told you there’s a girl there I want you to meet.”

“Are you trying to set me up?”  Rip had from the beginning of the school year proven himself to be a rather mischievous character who was fond of pranks.  That was actually one of the things I liked about him.  But it also made me suspicious.  I imagined arriving at the library to find the fattest and/or ugliest girl in all of Hickory standing there while the tennis team members looked on trying to contain their laughter.

“No, Yank.”  Rip put on his sincere expression.  He could summon that in an instant.  (I don’t know whatever happened to him, but I’m sure he could have been a very successful car salesman.)  “I just think the two of you would hit it off really nice.”

“In other words, you’re trying to set me up.”  But I could see there was no point arguing.  Rip was just one of those guys you couldn’t say no to.  And so I closed my notebook and we headed out the door.

The freshman boys dorm was on one edge of campus while the library was on the opposite side.  It was officially autumn but the balminess of summer was still in the air.  From the window of someone’s room we could hear the infectious riff of Pour Some Sugar On Me.  Part of me was hoping we might run into Todd or anyone who might give me some excuse to go somewhere other than the library.  “Say, Rip, is this girl, like, expecting us or something?  What’s her name anyway?”

“Damn, Yank, I told you her name is Cindy.  I’m just gonna say I’m there to get some books, which is true, and then I’ll introduce you.  Don’t worry about it.”

“I’m not worried.  I’m just not sure why you’re doing this.  Have you told her anything about me?”

“Oh, sure, I’ve told her all about you.”  He suddenly got a Cheshire Cat grin that made me very suspicious.  He must have noticed my reaction because he instantly switched back to the expression of sincerity.  “Look, I just think the two of you have a lot in common.”

“Really?  LIke what?  Is she from Jersey?”  I’m not sure if Rip detected my sarcasm.  (I had been under the impression that sarcasm was a northern thing, but I guess that’s not entirely true.)

“No, she’s a Carolina girl.  She’s really smart and I think she’d like someone like you.”

“Oh, yeah?  Why is that?”  I was concerned that the description of this girl as being “really smart” was just a euphemism for “really ugly.”

“Well, you’re always reading and writing in that notebook of yours.  And I hear you talking about philosophy and religion with guys in the dorm.  You’re one of them deep thinkers.  I think she’d like that.”  At that point, I figured Rip was just jerking my chain, but I decided it wasn’t worth discussing any further.  Besides, we had reached the main doors of the library.

It was a typical school library, I suppose.  I don’t recall there being more than a handful of students scattered around tables on the ground floor.  My attention was more concentrated on the folks behind the counter.  I saw only an older faculty member and a male student.  I turned to Rip and said, “Well, it looks like your friend, Cindy, isn’t here.”

“Don’t worry, Yank,” he replied, smiling from one side of his mouth.  “She’s working downstairs.”  And, so, down a short flight of steps we went.  At the bottom was another smaller counter and what appeared to be a room filled with magazines, newspapers, and other periodicals.

And then you appeared.

I don’t recall exactly what I was thinking at that moment, but it was a bit like time had slowed down.  You were wearing a short summery dress with a plaid print.  Your soft oval face was framed by teased-out curly hair, with a lovely jaw line above a slender neck.  (A woman’s neck was always one of the first things I noticed.)  Your lips were slightly pouty, and the eyes…  Oh, my, the eyes.  Even behind your glasses, I could see a warmth in your eyes.  And beneath was something deeper – not so much a sadness as a longing, like portals into a soul that was cautious yet searching for something.  Could I really see all that in a moment?  Yes, I believe I did.  But, of course, I could not articulate it all until later.  All I could think in that precise moment was, “Damn, she is cute.”  And as soon as I thought it, I feared that perhaps I had spoken the words aloud.

Once again, the sound of Rip’s voice interrupted my thoughts.  “Cindy, this is Michael, my roommate from New Jersey.”

You had what I thought was a slightly guarded expression, almost the same look of suspicion I had given Rip earlier in our room.  I don’t know what you were thinking, but you were perfectly gracious as you spoke to me for the first time.  “Hello, it’s nice to meet you.  How are you liking it down here so far?”

Of course, I had been hearing southern accents constantly since my arrival at the end of August.  But the one that came from your soft lips was about the sweetest sound I’d ever heard.  It wrapped itself around me like a warm silky blanket.  Although quite different from anything where I was from, it gave me a feeling of home.  I don’t remember how I responded to your question.  I was doing my best to act casual, lest you somehow detect the things that were going on in my mind.  By the end of the short encounter, I determined the conversation was pretty normal and that at least I hadn’t made a fool of myself.

As we were leaving the library, Rip asked me, “So, what do you think?”

“Well, I must admit, she’s very cute.  And she seems nice.”

“See, I told you!  Now why didn’t you ask her out?”

“Ask her out??  I just met her!”

“Yank, I’m telling you, she likes you!”

“How could you possibly know that?”

“I have a nose for these things.  You should have asked her out.”

I dismissed Rip’s assessment as ridiculous, though a part of me was wondering if perhaps I should have been a bit more daring.  That night, the image of you in my mind was as clear as a photograph.  I heard the sound of your voice as though it were coming through the headphones of my Walkman.  I went to sleep already looking forward to the time that I would see you again.

The next day, I went back to the library.  Although it wasn’t where I typically did my studying, I figured it was a natural place for a student to be.  (I didn’t want to give the impression that I was stalking you!)  Unfortunately, you weren’t there that day.  You weren’t there the next day either.  I didn’t have any classes with you, and I didn’t happen to see you around on campus.  But then, on the third day, you were in the library.  I mustered up some courage and went over to talk to you.  Whatever apprehension I had was quickly dissolved by your pleasant demeanor.  I guess we made some small talk for a bit – maybe about Rip or classes or the weather.  I’m not sure.  But whatever we were talking about, I knew I had a purpose for being there.

“Say, would you maybe like to go see a movie or something?”  I tried my best to sound casual without seeming cocky.

Your quick and direct reply took me a bit by surprise.  “Yeah, sure.”

And, so, that weekend, we went on our first date.  I don’t remember what movie we saw.  I’m sure I was mainly focused on trying to make a good impression.  What I do remember was how easy it felt to be with you.  Conversation was so natural.  You always had something intelligent to offer, but you also seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say.  You paid attention to me, and that felt good.  During the movie, I’m pretty sure I didn’t put my arm around you or anything like that.  I probably thought that might have been a bit much on a first date.  But I do recall you leaning into me a few times, even grabbing my arm during a scary scene.  I liked that.

On the walk back to campus, we held hands.  Just like our conversation, it seemed perfectly natural.  Such a simple gesture, yet it sparked in me a feeling of excitement.  Your small hand in mine made me feel like a protector.  I would have destroyed anyone who tried to do you harm.

In the days that followed, I guess we saw quite a bit of each other.  I think it’s fair to say we enjoyed one another’s company.  In many ways, I suppose we were quite different from one another.  And yet we were like kindred spirits.  We thought and felt deeply about things.  And then there was a physical attraction that was increasing daily, at least for me.

I don’t really know how long it took, but eventually I got up the nerve to kiss you.  We had been on one of our late night walks around campus.  During those walks, we talked about pretty much everything – hopes and dreams, God and religion, music and food – anything was fair game.  Eventually, I walked you back to your dorm.  It might have been as late as 2AM.  I remember looking down into your beautiful eyes and thinking to myself, “OK, you’re not leaving this girl without kissing her.”  And I hoped you wouldn’t turn away.  You didn’t.  I bent down and drew you close.  Just as if we were dancing, you allowed me to lead.  I pressed my mouth to yours, trying at first to be gentle.  (I had a habit back then of going for days without shaving, and I didn’t want my five o’clock shadow to cause you any discomfort!)  You parted your lips and our tongues engaged in that primeval dance of wetness and warmth.  I don’t know exactly how long we stood there kissing, but I’m sure it was a good while.  I remember walking back to my dorm with quite a spring in my step.  I suspect I fell asleep with a smile on my face.

There would be more kissing and touching in the days that followed.  But we also had our long walks and talks.  Looking back, I realize just how important those were to me.  I was hanging out with a lot of guys who were partiers.  There was a lot of drinking and other stuff going on that was taking a toll on my mental health, though at the time I just reasoned it was normal college stuff.  Time spent with you kept me grounded.  Amidst a lot of the chaos and darkness swirling around in my head, you were a light of goodness and decency.  There were many times I didn’t feel worthy of you.  Nevertheless, I needed to be around you simply because it made me feel so damn good.

There were times I recall keeping you company in the library.  If you were busy, I would just read or write in my notebook.  But when things were slow, I would talk to you and enjoy the pleasure of your presence that never seemed to fade with familiarity.  I guess by that time, I realized that you were becoming a part of me.  There was that “scary little room” where you sometimes had to file or organize things.  You didn’t like being alone in there, so sometimes I would accompany you to give protection from any closet monsters or hidden serial killers.  You always seemed to feel safe when you were with me, and I liked that.

On one of those occasions, I guess I was feeling a bit frisky and decided to play the role of closet monster.  Closing the door, I gave you a hungry look and said, “Alright, little girl, now you’re trapped in here with me.”  Your eyes grew wide, and I feared for a moment that perhaps I was being just a bit too convincing.  There was really no room to maneuver in that cramped space, and I soon had you pressed up against one of the walls.

“Oh, my,” you exclaimed.  “What are you going to do to me?”  I certainly knew what I wanted to do.  I bent down to kiss you, and you reached up and clasped your hands behind my neck.  My hands found their way beneath the hem of your blouse and around the soft skin of your waist.  I believe it was in that moment that I first felt the palpable desire to be inside you.

We continued to see more of each other, and I suppose we even had our routines for meeting up.  There were those days when maybe you had to study, or I was hanging out with the boys, but for the most part I’d say we were together nearly every day.  I can still recall times when I’d be partying with the guys and thinking to myself, “You know, I’d really rather be with Cynthia right now.”  You got to know several of my friends, and I became well acquainted with the girls in your dorm.  Though there was never any official declaration, I acknowledged at some point that you were my girl.

Since Rip’s family lived locally, there were many times when he would go home for the weekend.  On one of those occasions, you came to my dorm so we could relax and watch something on the little TV in my room.  Spending time in each other’s room was nothing unusual.  We would often hang out, talk, or even cuddle together and take a nap.  But this one particular time, the making out got rather intense.  You were lying on my bed, and I was beside you.  I remember experiencing an intoxicating effect from the scent and the taste of you.  At one point, I began to kiss your neck and you let out a soft moan.  Almost instinctively, I slid my left hand (amazing how I remember which hand it was!) into the waistband of your pants and felt the soft flesh just below your navel.  I felt myself harden in anticipation of what was just a bit further below.

And then, like a bad vaudeville actor being yanked from the stage by a giant hook, I felt my hand guided away from the scene of the potential crime.  I believe you had actually used both hands to pull mine away from reaching its intended goal.  And then you spoke the words that I dreaded yet perhaps had been expecting to hear.  “I’m saving myself for marriage.”

Of course I’d be lying if I said, particularly in the heat of passion, that I wasn’t disappointed.  I mean, I seriously wanted you.  At the same time, I certainly had to respect your position.  Being the sometimes overly protective brother of two younger sisters, I couldn’t help but appreciate your desire to remain chaste.  And perhaps in some way I was even a bit relieved.  You were not just some girl from a frat party that I was trying to score with.  I cared for you deeply.  And I felt that, if we slept together and things didn’t work out afterwards, that might have been a source of pain for you.  I guess, even back then, I knew that somewhere down the road, I wanted you to look back on me with only good thoughts and feelings – not as that guy in college who pressured you into having sex when you weren’t ready.  (Having said all that, I cannot deny that a part of me stil wishes I had perhaps been a bit more persistent in wearing down your defenses.)

After that incident, I suppose the nature of our relationship did change, but not because I felt any less passionately about you.  I just knew myself well enough to know that any physical contact was going to cause arousal that I would not be able to suppress.  I didn’t want that situation to cause resentment in you, nor did I want to face repeated rejection.  (Knowing all that I know today, I would have approached things differently, but what the hell did I know at 18?)  I know there were a couple of times (like during the Grammys) that I discouraged your physical affections.  It certainly wasn’t because I didn’t desire them.  Like I said, if I could go back, I would have done everything I could to make you feel the same level of arousal that I felt, as well as try to convince you that you wouldn’t be struck by lightning.

It may have been around that same time that I began to wonder whether the decision to come to Hickory might have been a poor one.  I was getting good grades, but didn’t feel as though I was learning a great deal.  I was partying and having a “good time,” but all that stuff just left me feeling empty inside with a hangover to boot.  You were the best, perhaps the only good, thing to happen to me down there.  But at that point in my life, marriage seemed like only a distant and remote prospect.  I saw myself as something of a bad apple, while you were decent and pure.  I suppose I felt you deserved something better, or at least different from me.  And yet I still loved you.

In the time that followed, we still spent time together, though perhaps not quite as much.  I guess I knew I didn’t want to return for sophomore year.  I don’t know if I talked about that with you.  If I didn’t, I should have.  You understood me just as well as anyone ever did, even better.  I had a lot on my mind, trying to map out a future based on a lot of lofty dreams but not much in the way of solid plans.  It was during this time that I surely needed you the most, so shutting you out was about the worst thing I could have done.

Then there was the night we took one of our long walks and found ourselves on one of the outer edges of the campus.  It was there that we discovered the old gazebo – just this simple, somewhat neglected looking wooden structure.  As far as we could tell, no one ever utilized it, but something about it must have appealed to us.  We sat in there, or perhaps simply leaned against its railings, and did the thing that came so easily and naturally for us – we talked for hours.  As we thought about leaving, it began to rain rather heavily.  “Well, as long as we’re stuck here, let’s at least make the most of it,” I offered.

I drew your body up against mine and began to slow dance with you, the pounding of the rain against the gazebo’s roof providing the beat.  We just rocked back and forth together, as I felt the warmth of you.  That warmth seemed like the only thing in this world I needed to sustain me.  At one point, I rested my head atop yours and lost myself in the curls of your hair.  I tell you truly that, if the Lord had taken me that very moment, I would have died a happy man.


To Speldhurst

Nestled beyond the bustle

And noisy thoroughfare,

I dwelt within your walls of hedge.

(Did you even know I was there?)

Tell me what lured me to you,

Tiny village so far from my land.

Was it love or fate, or perhaps chance?

(Perhaps ’tis not for me to understand.)

Oft did I stroll down your narrow lanes

And open fields of green.

By sun’s rare glare or moon’s cool glow,

The image — ever serene.

Spring flower gardens delight my senses.

I can do little but surrender a sigh.

Brilliant hues that border blinding

Against a steel gray British sky.

I stop at the local to quench my thirst.

“Not open yet, so sorry mate.

But do come in, sit by the hearth,

And have a pint while you wait.”

Church bells pierce the damp thick air,

Echoes leap from every leaf and rock.

A steeple towers above the scene —

The shepherd guarding over his flock.

Evenings draws nigh, I make my way home —

Cottage on the close where I’m sure to find

The warmth of good food, drink, and a fire,

And the love of those I must leave behind.

I know I shall never return to you.

This is a sorrow I cannot hide.

For within your walls there is a soul

In which my heart does still reside.


Net Worth: Lessons From The Court

Despite being born blind in my left eye, I’ve been fortunate to enjoy pretty much most things in life, including tennis. Sure, it’s a disadvantage. I don’t have the range of peripheral vision, nor the same kind of depth perception as those with the benefit of both eyes. I can’t fully rotate on the forehand without losing sight of the ball, and reaching for backhands is somewhat like using “the force.” Still, I love the game and, despite whatever frustrations might arise, I rarely turn down any opportunity to hit my hometown courts.

I started playing one summer in my twenties, when a friend invited me to join him on the beat up courts of our old elementary school. (Up to that point, I had played quite a bit of racquetball, which didn’t help matters any.) We showed up with our Billie Jean King and Ellsworth Vines wood rackets, and a dusty can of flat balls. We were pretty awful those first few days, but by the end of that summer, we were able to enjoy the fun of extended rallies and the benefit of some exercise. That was, and still remains, our primary objective.

It was good fortune that the woman I married (among her many other qualities) is a tennis player. It was also a stroke of luck that we moved into a home that is a hundred yards from well-maintained public courts. Our sons learned to play when they were young, and went on to play for their high school teams. You could say that tennis has been a pretty big part of our lives.

As a writer, I’ve always wanted to compose something on the subject of this magnificent sport. But what could I offer that hasn’t already been written? I’m no expert on the history of the game and, if you ever saw me play for more than five minutes, you’d know I have no business commenting on technique or strategy.

But one thing I am pretty good with is analogies. Over the past few years, I’ve had these moments on the court in which I find myself experiencing little epiphanies that reveal some parallel between tennis and the larger game of life. My suspicion is that most players have these, but here just are a couple I’d like to share.

The Stretch. I come to the net quite a bit. And it’s not because I’m a great volleyer, but rather because I’m too lazy to pedal back to the baseline after coming up to return a short ball. So it’s fairly often that I find myself in the position of having to deal with a lob or passing shot. No matter how out of range the ball may appear (even with my limited range of vision), I always stretch out to reach it. Quite often I meet nothing but air, but just as often I’m amazed when I feel my racket make contact with the ball. It’s especially sweet when the stretch helps produce a wicked angle that ends up being a winner.

So too, I have found, is it necessary to stretch for those things in life that may appear out of reach. Sure, we’re going to miss a lot. But the odds for success are far greater than when we just watch the ball fly by. When I first sat down to write this piece, I thought to myself, “I’m no tennis pro. What could I possibly have to say about the game?” I knew it was a stretch, but that’s alright. Even when we miss, there is still some benefit in the reach. We learn something about our range that allows us to calibrate for the next shot.

Aim Small, Miss Small. When I first started playing, an awful lot of my forehands sailed out. Failure to produce that elusive topspin aside, the main reason was that my targets were too vague. I was like a dart player who, rather than aim for the bullseye, just throws in the general direction of the board hoping to hit it anywhere — and then misses it entirely. Once I began aiming for the exact spot where I wanted the ball to go, lo and behold, it started going at least more toward that spot. Same with the serve. I used to just aim for the service box and hope for the best. That doesn’t work very well. Once I started targeting specific points in the box, a much higher percentage of serves started landing in. Granted, they don’t always land where I’m aiming, but the double faults became far more rare.

In life, we also need to be specific in our objectives. Sure, it’s good to be open to different options, but when it comes time to swing, we need to commit. I had a lifelong goal of writing a book. For years, that goal just sat on a shelf in my mind where it collected dust. Why? Because it was only some hazy fantasy that lacked discernible form. Once I sat down to map out the particulars of this goal (a plot, characters, target audience, projected date of completion, etc.), then things began to happen. More often than not, in order to summon something into reality, we must envision some level of detail. The end result may not be precisely what we imagined, but at least we hit the ball into the court.

The Next Shot. One lovely afternoon, I took my basket of balls and headed to the court to practice my serve. After an hour or so, I was quite pleased with how well it was going. In particular, I was really nailing the serve out wide on the deuce side. Later that day, when I went back to the court to play with my wife, I hit that serve on the very first point and stood there admiring the precision with which it landed. I was then forced to watch with even greater admiration my wife’s return as it sailed down the ad sideline, while I stood glued to my service position. Of course, I made the common and fatal error of not being ready for the next shot.

Over the course of my twenty-four years of classroom teaching, I always made it a point to walk into the classroom with an objective, and a plan to reach it. But as any experienced teacher knows, there must always be some degree of flexibility in that plan because, well, students throw unexpected curveballs all the time. It would often be the case (well, maybe not often, but sometimes at least) that I would achieve a breakthrough with students and reach the intended objective. (For example, in language class I might get them to understand the difference between a subject and an object.) A part of me would want to just end the lesson and celebrate the small victory. But invariably, another question would arise. (What’s the difference between a direct and indirect object??) Of course there is an appropriate time to be pleased with your performance and celebrate — but not while the ball is still in play!

These are just a few of the little life metaphors that have struck me on the court. I actually have a longer list jotted down in one of my many notebooks. I’m guessing that a lot of players have far better ones than mine, and I’d personally be delighted to hear them. What lessons on the court have you been able to apply to the larger game of life? Or, better still, which of life’s lessons have you been able to put to use in your tennis game?

[Photo credit: Tom Van Stone]


Masaru (Chapter 2 excerpt)

“Things are not always what they seem; outward form deceives many; rare is the mind that discerns what is carefully concealed within.” (from Plato’s Phaedrus)

“A frog in the well knows nothing of the great sea.” (Japanese proverb)

Are you ready to receive the Blessed Sacrament?” Father Olivera put this question to Shirō as they walked the path that meandered alongside the Kuma River. Now that Shirō and his mother were baptized, they would be able to fully participate in the memorial of The Lord’s Supper. Father Olivera took the opportunity on this day to see if his young friend understood what this meant. A warm breeze caught the loose folds of the priest’s cassock, making the sleeves billow and flap about like the koi nobori banners flown on festival days.

He had first arrived in Japan when he was only a few years older than Shirō. He’d felt a calling to the priesthood, as well as adventure, from an early age. When the Society of Jesus opened Japan’s first seminary on the island of Amakusa, just south of Nagasaki, young Manuel jumped at the opportunity. Upon his ordination, Father Olivera was assigned to the inland city of Hitoyoshi and all the outlying villages in the Kuma region. Over time, the language and customs of the converts he served, now well into the thousands, became as familiar to him as those of his native Portugal.

“I am not certain,” replied Shirō. “It is a hard thing to believe. I have been coming to Misa for many months now. I see the pan. I do not see that it is anything other than pan.”

Father Olivera looked up at Shirō, and then turned his gaze again upon the path. “Yes, well, that is certainly something worth considering.” They continued a short distance until they came to the small Shintō shrine they often passed on their walks. At the entrance stood the customary torī, the bright crimson wooden structure of two vertical posts and two horizontal crossbeams, the gateway representing the transition from the mundane to the sacred. At the river’s edge, a small fishing boat lay moored to a nearby maple tree. Father Olivera went over to the tree and, placing his hands upon it, he asked Shirō, “What do we call this?”

“What do you mean?”

“What is the word for this thing I am touching?”

“You know it is called ki.” Shirō might have wondered about such a childlike question, but he knew Father Olivera well enough to know that his questions always had some purpose.

“And what is the actual stuff of which ki is made?”

Shirō pondered this for a moment before answering with the Japanese word for wood. “Moku?”

“Yes, moku. So, you agree we can say that moku is the stuff of which ki is made?”

“There are other parts, such as the leaves, but yes, I do agree.”

Following the length of rope to the empty boat, Father Olivera asked in a similar way, “And what do we call this?”

“You know it is called fune,” replied Shirō, speaking the word for boat.

“Indeed. And what is the stuff of which the fune is made?”

“It, too, is made of moku.”

“We know this to be true. We even know the man who cut down and hollowed out the tree to make it. And, having done so, he now has something quite different from that with which he began.”

“Yes,” Shirō agreed. “Ki and fune are quite distinct from one another.”

“And yet both are moku.” Father Olivera stepped away from the river’s edge and back toward the shrine’s entrance along the path.

“And what about the torī? Was it not also constructed from ki taken from the forest?”

“Yes,” answered Shirō. “I agree with all you say, though I do not understand what any of this has to do with the pan and the Blessed Sacrament.”

“My young friend, my question is this. If man, himself a creature and limited in his powers, can transform a thing into something else, while the very substance of the thing remains the same, would it not also be possible that God, the author of all creation and whose powers have no limitation, could change the substance of a thing while its form and all appearances remain the same?”


Screwtape 2020

Go to this link for the YouTube! audio version!

[I hope Mr. Lewis (and his estate) don’t mind that I’ve taken this liberty…]

My Dear Wormwood,

I couldn’t help but notice your celebrations over the current epidemic. After the abysmal failure with your first patient in the previous century, I’d expect perhaps a bit more cautious pessimism from you. Frankly, I didn’t think you deserved another chance. Lucky for you, there are many at Low Command who predict the War may be nearing its end, and we need every available tempter working overtime. (While many of the humans are scurrying about trying to supply themselves with certain foodstuffs and paper products, we need to be about the business of hoarding souls.)

Let me begin with some larger scale items before moving on to the particulars of your own patient. Of course, all of us down here are ecstatic over the shuttering of the churches. To see the shepherds withholding essential nourishment from their own flock is indeed a delightful thing to behold – the foot soldiers of the Enemy being cut off from their vital lines of supply. (This is, I admit, a feat that we ourselves could not have been able to pull off.) We do not know whether this decision of the shepherds was made out of prudence or cowardice. In the light of recent history, we’d like to believe it’s the latter, but our intelligence has not been able to ascertain for sure.

While it’s true that the suspension of their sacraments will at least temporarily render the patients weaker, there is also an inherent danger to us. With the deprivation of the food that only the Enemy can provide, the humans may become more acutely aware of their hunger and need for that eternal sustenance. (One of their ancient Roman poets penned a phrase about the way in which “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” A sentimental cliché perhaps, but it seems to hold some water.) The absence of the Enemy, at least in the form of His True Presence, may prompt the minds of patients across the globe to seek Him in other ways. And this is the point at which we must intervene.

We see that many of the humans, even while experiencing confusion and anxiety, are nevertheless finding some measure of solace in their state of retreat. Though faced with circumstances quite strange to them, many now find themselves, at least in some respects, settling into routines that are actually more natural — mothers at home with young children, fathers with more time to devote to domestic duties, siblings bonding and helping one another. All of this threatens to undermine the decades of progress we have made toward the dissolution of the family dynamic the Enemy intended – a dynamic that reflects His own unity of being – part of what he meant when He said, “Let us create them in our own image.”

As for your own patient, I see that he has been using some of this unexpected gift of time to bolster communications with the Enemy. Had you even taken notice? Or were you too intoxicated with delight over exponentially increasing numbers of infections and deaths? Remember, while we might take some pleasure in their sufferings and death, these things are but inevitable realities. For us, it is only the state of their immortal souls that matters. Death, in and of itself, does us absolutely no good. (The Enemy saw to that on a Sunday long ago – a day they will soon commemorate, shuttered churches or no.)

I also took notice that you permitted your patient some genuine pleasures this week. The book that was collecting dust on his nightstand – the one he had been meaning to read for months – he picked it up one afternoon and read it. What’s worse, he really enjoyed it! As he was reading, he couldn’t help but recollect the joy he experienced as a child – the joy that comes from the unlocking of the imagination by a good story. That’s just the sort of thing that places him safely in the Enemy’s camp. As if the book itself weren’t bad enough, there was something within its pages that inspired your patient to go for an outdoor excursion he’d been contemplating for some time. The afternoon spent in nature ended up being refreshing for both his body and his soul. Where were you the entire time?! That same book also led him to the discovery of a piece of art which he found delightful to gaze upon. Three healthy pleasures all within the space of a few days. You should be turned into fodder for more deserving tempters.

But not all is lost. After all, your patient is a creature of habit, and prone to dabbling in this or that. Get him to regard these recent uses of his time merely as a phase. Tell him it’s really only a matter of time before he must return to “real life.” And make sure he includes under the heading of “real life” such things as “staying informed.” The next time he reaches for a book, be sure he notices the television remote control lying beside it. Suggest to him that watching considerable amounts of the news is part of what it means to be a responsible citizen. (Television has been one of our greatest tools. The staff in our Technology Department should receive commendations for their efforts to support the humans in growing the thing from a little box with black and white images to the oversized panel that overtakes their living spaces.)

Useful as well is the social media of their current age. The next time your patient gets it in his mind to pray or read or whatnot, remind him that it’s been at least half an hour since he sat before The Book of Faces. Encourage him in the belief that, if he just spends enough time scrolling through the endless parade of meaningless memes, eventually he will stumble upon one that offers enlightenment. (It really is great fun watching as they run their fingers across those little screens – like some domesticated rodent in a wheel.) They think they coined the term “social distancing,” when in fact we’ve been applying that principal on them through technology for decades.

You might wish to try suggesting to your patient that maybe the sacraments aren’t so necessary after all. When he experiences hunger for the Enemy’s bread, or spiritual festering due to a prolonged period without absolution, convince him that these sensations must be the result of the new reality in which the humans now find themselves. Dangle before him the possibility that perhaps the sacraments really are mere symbols of something greater and more abstract. You might lead him toward the modern camp of, “I don’t need the Church – I can just pray from the comfort of my garden,” or, “I don’t need a middle-man to absolve my sins – I can just go directly to the source.” The contagion of these beliefs has been far more valuable to us over the course of history than any virus could be. Admittedly, your patient may be too far gone for this particular line of attack, but you can always work on his frustration with the Church hierarchy. Never miss an opportunity to scatter seeds of doubt and division whenever you can. You never know what thorns might spring up amongst the flowers.

Above all, remember this, dear nephew – like any war or natural disaster, this epidemic is, at least for us, quite a neutral affair. Some of the humans view it as a horror, yet others regard it as a hoax. Our intelligence agents do not know which it is but, frankly, it doesn’t really matter. As in all situations, everything depends on how we can manipulate it. The humans in certain professions – doctors, nurses, civil servants and such – may have some advantage as their vocations inherently demand self sacrifice for the good of others. (Despite claims that He loves them all, the Enemy certainly exhibits signs of favoritism as far as I’m concerned.) But your patient is not on the front lines of this thing, so he’s not yet a lost cause. Play upon his fears with regards to the future and bodily preservation, as well as his regrets and fixation on the sins of his past. Doing so will help prevent him from living fully in the present, which is where the Enemy desires him to be. Also, do all you can to get him to direct his thoughts inward. So many of the humans are convinced that the key to their own happiness lies in “finding themselves.” Many of them never grasp that insidious paradox of the Enemy — that the realization of their true selves is bound to a willingness to sacrifice for the good of another. Though the Enemy demonstrated this in the starkest way imaginable, many of them remain blind to the reality. Our job is to keep it that way.

Your affectionate uncle,

Screwtape 2020 (link to audio)



Bridges Too Far (1980)

“Fantasy —  it gets the best of me.” (Christopher Cross, Sailing)

Do you remember the first time being in love? I do. It was in the sixth grade, and her name was Truvy Bridges.

Well, alright, there was the cute strawberry blonde girl in the second grade. Her name was Tracy. (I don’t recall her last name.) I sat behind her, and I would toss little pieces of red crayon under her seat. I imagined the bits of wax contained some kind of spell that would make her turn around and fall for me. It never worked. The teacher, Mrs. Malone, did eventually scold me for littering the floor. I can only imagine how she might have reacted had I given an honest answer as to why I was doing that. (I don’t think I’ve ever actually shared that little story with anyone until now.)

Anyway, second grade really doesn’t count when it comes to love. But by the sixth grade, well, by then love becomes a serious matter. Truvy Bridges was, and I believe this may have been a nearly unanimously held opinion, the prettiest girl in the class. Sure there were plenty of other cute girls, but there was something about Truvy that was almost, well, almost adult. And I’m not even referring to physical development, though she was one of the taller girls in the grade. It had more to do with her mannerisms and the way she carried herself. I guess you could say she had the aura of a woman about her.

Truvy’s face was doll-like, flawlessly shaped and complected. It was framed by wavy feathered hair of mocha brown that matched the color of her eyes. Like the stem of a fine chalice, her long neck rose up to meet the smooth roundness of her chin and jawline. She was pretty no matter what she was doing, but when she smiled, well, then she became radiant. Her small mouth would stretch to form little creases from the corners to the sides of her regal nose, as an inviting warmth emanated from her big dark eyes. At times when she looked to be deep in thought, some faraway place seemed to be reflected in those eyes, and I’d long to go there with her.

Of course, the problem was that Truvy was so pretty that I felt nervous in her presence. Don’t get me wrong, she was not at all stuck up. In fact, she was really quite friendly toward everyone, as far as I can recall. But on a romantic level, I could no sooner approach the likes of her than jump into the cockpit of a DC-10 and figure out how to take off. Did I mention that she was also very smart? That made her all the more attractive.

I was one of only a few boys in the class who was taller than Truvy. (I’ve no idea if that would have meant anything to her, but my mother always said she could never marry a man shorter than herself.) I wasn’t altogether ugly, I suppose. Some girls even said I was cute. (“Cute” was a word that to me rang just a bit too non-committal.) But it was an awkward age, marked with pimples, orthodontic braces, and a body best described as gangly. With respect to being in close proximity to Truvy, there was one thing that worked in my favor — my last name followed immediately after hers in class alphabetical order. And so it was that I ended up sitting (in most classes anyway) behind the prettiest girl in school. I just needed a plan to get her attention (and little bits of red crayon were not going to work this time either).

There were two new kids, both boys, in the class that year. I normally feel a bit bad for new kids on the first day of school. They typically stand off to one side, shuffling around and looking uncomfortable. I had been the new kid in third grade, when my family moved from the city to this relatively rural part of north Jersey. I don’t remember being traumatized by it or anything, but I’m sure I stood to the side and did my fair share of shuffling. The two new boys that year didn’t seem to be having any trouble.

There was Greg Kesselman. He was from a neighboring town, so he already had people he knew at Frankford. (That was my alma mater — home of the Bulldogs). In fact, he even had a cousin in the class, though it turned out they didn’t really like each other. Since Greg was from the county, he didn’t exactly generate a ton of excitement. Just another local bumpkin.

But the other new kid was a different story. Jimmy Peterson was from out of state, so there was quite a bit of buzz as everyone checked him out. He was from some town in New Hampshire. Bedford, I think it was. (Before meeting Jimmy, I don’t think I could have named any towns in New Hampshire.) Not exactly exotic, I suppose, but it was far enough away to be intriguing. I’m sure many of us thought of New Hampshire as somewhere “up there” on the way to Canada, where people skied and spoke French.

Jimmy was rather something to behold. For one thing, he looked like a character right out of Grease. He wore jeans, but not normal ones like Lees or Wranglers. He wore designer jeans (Jordache, if I remember correctly). He wore boots, which was not uncommon in Sussex County, but his were not your average shit-kickers. These were fancy boots — black with silver buckles and pointed toes. Up top, he wore a plain white t-shirt, tucked into his jeans, and a black leather biker jacket (also with buckles) with the collar up. His mid-length dark hair was slicked back on the sides with Pomade or something, while the top was teased up. (I guess that’s what they called a Pompadour.) He even had a pair of black leather gloves with the fingers cut off. That might have been the first time I’d seen someone wearing those in real life.

At first glance, Jimmy Peterson was not what I would have called handsome, at least not in any conventional sense. He was actually kind of goofy looking. He wasn’t fat, but he did have rather pudgy cheeks and a slightly bulbous nose — and these big droopy Basset hound eyes. His face rather reminded me of Billy Joel. Yeah, that’s what he looked like, Billy Joel dressed like Danny Zuko.

But the thing was, he exuded so much confidence. Standing in the gym on that first day of school, he had one foot raised up behind him and resting against the wall. He casually took in the scene of kids milling about and forming little packs. The gym echoed with sounds of laughter and friends asking one another how their summer was and to which homeroom they’d been assigned. Jimmy had a look of complete poise, with just a hint of something like impatience, as though maybe he needed to be somewhere more important. (Had he pulled a cigarette from one of his pockets, I would not have been terribly surprised.) Suffice to say, I was drawn to Jimmy from the moment I saw him.

As fate would have it, Jimmy was not only a new kid in school — he was also my new neighbor. The house across the street had been the home of my friend, Charlie Holstein (yes, like the cow), before his family moved to North Carolina. Charlie was something of a pipsqueak, and we had been pretty good friends from the time my family moved onto Davis Road. We’d had a bit of a falling out when, while sparring one day, he gave me the only black eye of my life. (The rule had been only body blows, but he got frustrated when I kept getting the better of him, so he took a cheap shot.) We did patch things up before he moved out over the summer. Jimmy’s family hadn’t yet moved into the house when school started, so I didn’t know he was to be my new neighbor until I befriended him on that first day of school.

Jimmy and I didn’t see each other much during the school day. (We weren’t in the same homeroom, so our schedules were different.) But we spent plenty of time together after school and on weekends. We did the things most kids did — rode bikes, played catch, went on excursions into the woods to find evidence of the Jersey devil. Jimmy was a huge Beatles fan (mostly the early stuff), so we’d sometimes just hang out in his room playing records and singing along to The Fab Four. (Jimmy had actually formed a pseudo Beatles tribute group with three guys from school. Jimmy was Paul. I’d always been a little jealous that he hadn’t invited me to join.)

One day, Jimmy showed up at my house after school. He pulled a hard three-ring binder out of his backpack.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s a novel I’m writing. A science fiction.”

“Seriously? What’s it called?”

“Mission To Alpha Centauri. Read the first chapter, and tell me what you think.”

I really can’t remember what the plot of the story was. I just remember being duly impressed that someone our age was writing a book. He’d cranked out maybe three or four chapters. I don’t know if he ever finished it, but at the time I thought that was just about the coolest thing.

Back at school, I did what I could to get Truvy’s attention. (Though Jimmy had become a dear friend, time spent with him was making me feel like even more of an underachiever.) I did discover, fairly early in the school year, that one thing I could do was make her laugh. One day in science class, Mrs. Christian asked a question — something about molecules. Dwayne, the class know-it-all, shot his hand up as usual. But Mrs. Christian continued with an unanticipated second part to the question, saying, “But….”  Dwayne, realizing he might not have the right answer after all, quickly put his hand back down. I whispered to Truvy, “I guess Dwayne doesn’t like her but(t)!” Truvy started to giggle and that was about the sweetest sound I’d ever heard.

And there were many moments like that in the weeks and months that followed. Sometimes we would pass notes making little witticisms about whatever was going on in class. I learned that Truvy had a very keen sense of humor, which made her all the more attractive to me, if that were even possible. And you can bet I kept every note she ever passed me.

Feeling somewhat emboldened, I actually worked up the nerve one night to call her at home on the phone. I opened the thick copy of the phone book and looked up “Bridges” in the white pages. There were three listings. I tried the first one. It was some elderly woman who sounded sweet but confused. I apologized and hung up. I tried the second number. A gruff male voice answered.


“Um, hello, Is Truvy there?”

“Who is this?”

“I’m one of her classmates. I had a question about the English homework.”


“Uh, yes.” (I wasn’t sure why I saw the need to specify the subject.)

“You got a name?”

“Yes, sir.” There was a pause.

“You wanna tell me what it is?”

“Oh, yes. It’s Michael. I’m one of her classmates.”

“Yes, so you said. Hold on a minute.” I heard him loudly call out her name. I wondered what she was doing at that moment. I hoped she wouldn’t be annoyed.

“Hello?” My gosh, she even sounded pretty over the phone. Suddenly I got scared. I almost hung up, but realized I’d reached the point of no return when I gave my name.

“Uh, hi.” I tried with only moderate success to deepen my voice. “Do you know which pages of Shane we were supposed to read tonight?”

“She told us to read just the first chapter.”

“Oh, OK. Um, did you read it yet?”

“No, I’ll read it before I go to bed. That’s when I usually read.”

I felt as though she had just opened a curtain on some small window of intimacy, so I decided to step toward it. “What time do you go to bed?”

“I don’t know. About ten or so.”

I didn’t know where else to go with that. (I wasn’t about to ask her to describe her pajamas.) So I asked, “Do you like the book so far?”

“I just said I haven’t started it yet.”

“Oh, right.” (I was imagining what kind of pajamas she wore.) “Well, I mean, do you think it’ll be interesting.”

“I have no idea. I have to go eat dinner now.”

“Oh, sure. Thanks.”

“OK, bye.”

It was awkward, no doubt. But the main thing was that I had spoken to her on the phone, and that was a pretty big deal.

I had another breakthrough in gym class when we got to the dreaded square dancing unit. Normally, Mr. Muskeln would assign us to partners, but I figured what the heck and asked Truvy if she wanted to pair up with me. She said alright. It wasn’t that big a deal. After all, in square dancing, you end up eventually having to hold hands and dance with pretty much everyone anyway. But, still, I was pretty proud of myself just for mustering the moxie to ask.

The school calendar began to fill up with end-of-year events as the warmth of May arrived. One of those events was the 6th grade dance, and Jimmy and I were both on the student council entertainment committee. (I had run for council president twice, but no dice.) We had to come up with a theme for the dance, and it was Jimmy who had the idea of using Sailing, the breakthrough soft rock song that year for Christopher Cross. We set to work creating a big cardboard cutout of a sailboat with the words “All aboard!” across the hull, and decorating the gym with all manner of maritime items.

About a week before the event, Jimmy and I were hanging out in my room when he inquired whether I would be asking anyone to the dance.

“Asking anyone?” I replied, “No, I wasn’t planning to. Nobody really does that. You just show up. Why? Are you asking someone?”

“Sure. I told Tina to meet me there.” Tina Jenkins was very cute. She liked to wear denim and leather. She and Jimmy were friends, and they would routinely flirt with each other quite openly. It was like a show they put on, and I often couldn’t tell to what degree it was real or staged. They rather reminded me of the Fonz and Pinky Tuscadero.

It was then that I confessed to Jimmy my feelings for Truvy. His Basset hound eyes bulged from their sockets. “You like Trout?!”


“That’s what I call her.” Jimmy had a nickname for pretty much everyone. It was usually something he conjured on the spur of the moment. His nickname for me was “Spanky.” The first time he called me that, I wondered what I could possibly have in common with the doe-eyed chubby kid from The Little Rascals. (If anything, I looked more like Alfalfa.) Jimmy explained it was a play on my last name. “You know, Cibenko… Spanko…. Spanky!” I didn’t quite get it, but whatever.

“If you’re going to catch Trout,” he said, “you’ve got to add some tricks to your tackle box.” Jimmy was always coming up with interesting analogies like that. “The first thing we need to do is work on your duds.” He was referring to my clothes. “What were you planning to wear to the dance?”


“That’s what I thought. I have an awesome idea. We’re going to wear tuxes!”

“Tuxedos? Are you joking?”

“I don’t joke when it comes to wardrobe. We’re gonna look like a real couple of Beau Brummels.” He was quoting a line from a song off Billy Joel’s new Glass Houses album. I had bought it just a few weeks earlier at the record store on Spring Street in Newton, the county seat (also home of the county’s only drive-in theater). It was the first album I’d ever purchased with my own money. Prior to Jimmy’s explanation, I had not realized that Beau Brummel was an actual person.

“I’m not going to the dance in a tuxedo. I’ll look like an idiot! Besides, I don’t even own one.”

“You won’t look like an idiot. You’ll look amazing. Trust me, you can never overdress. I’ll wear one too. Since we’re on the dance committee, it makes sense for us to get dressed up. We’ll look cool — like hosts.”

“Yeah, well, like I said, I don’t own a tux.” Jimmy just shook his head. I asked him, “Do you?”

“I was in my cousin’s wedding party last year, so, yeah, I do have one. We’re just gonna have to rent one for you. How much money you got?”

I had about two hundred dollars saved up, mostly from babysitting one of the younger neighborhood kids, Spencer Angel, certain days after school. (His last name constituted the epitome of irony.) One afternoon, the Angels were having their driveway blacktopped, and Spencer’s father had given me very explicit instructions NOT to let their son, or anyone else, tread upon the fresh asphalt. “Not a problem,” I reassured them.

While we were playing Atari, Spencer got up to use the bathroom. I took advantage of the time to improve my joystick skills on Missile Command. I was really getting into it when, after a while, I realized Spencer hadn’t come back. I went to the bathroom, and discovered he wasn’t in it. I figured he was playing one of his little games where he’d act like Cato from The Pink Panther, and jump out from some hiding place to attack me. I searched up and down the house, but there was no sign of him. I was starting to get a little nervous. Then I heard the sound of kids laughing outside.

I ran out and saw Spencer, along with five or six of his friends from the neighborhood, riding their bikes up and down the fresh asphalt, leaving a tangled web of well-defined tread marks. I wasn’t asked to babysit for quite a while after that.

I told my mom I needed to rent a tuxedo. She thought that seemed a bit extravagant. (So did I.) She couldn’t see spending all that money on something I was likely only going to wear once. The following Saturday, she came home with a dry cleaning bag. Turned out she found a used tux in one of the local thrift stores. It was loose in the waist, but she stitched it for me. (Finding pants to fit me was always a challenge. My legs were long but I was thin as a rail.) Mom was always good at finding stuff when it came to clothes.

I told Jimmy about the tuxedo acquisition. He was a bit wary when I told him it was used, but he seemed alright with it once I showed him. The next thing I needed, according to his plan, was to learn to dance.

“I’m not too worried about that,” I assured him. “If she dances with me, I’ll just kind of rock back and forth slow, like everybody does.”

“That’s totally lame,” he said, and gave himself an “I could have had a V8” slap to the forehead. “You gotta show her you have some class. I’m going to teach you to waltz!”

And so, over the next couple days, Jimmy taught me the basic box step of the waltz. He explained that he had been his mom’s dance practice partner for the past couple years since his father, a truck driver, wasn’t home very often. (I think I had only seen the man on two or three occasions.) Even when he was home, he wasn’t the sort who was inclined to spend his time practicing dance steps in the living room. I was pleasantly surprised how quickly I mastered the steps, which are really fairly simple. Right up there with typing, the waltz was one of the most useful things I’d ever learned. (Years later, I’d end up teaching it to my students to songs like Journey’s Open Arms.)

During the lessons, Jimmy noticed my sweaty hands. I’d always had hands that would perspire profusely. What made it worse was that I was a lefty, so whenever I had to write a composition in class, my wet hand would drag across the paper and smudge the ink. (The ink in those new Erasermate pens made the problem even worse.) I’d end up turning in my paper, soggy and ink-smeared, with a look of apology for my teacher, and the ridge of my left hand thoroughly blue. Jimmy recommended I acquire a pair of white gloves before the dance.

So now I had the clothes and the moves. “Is there anything else I need?” I asked, knowing full well that the one thing I was sorely lacking was the confidence to actually ask Truvy to dance with me, let alone reveal to her my true feelings. But that was precisely the thing I planned to do. After a year of tickling her funny bone, and the milestone of talking to her on the phone, I felt it was the next logical progression.

I really had no idea exactly what I was going to say to her. I just hoped it would somehow flow out of me while we were on the dance floor. I admit the reason I planned to do this at the dance had everything to do with timing — not just the timing of the moment, but the timing of what might follow. The dance was on the last Friday of the school year, so I reasoned that if she shot me down, at least I wouldn’t have to face her or public humiliation the next day. The summer would go by, and all would be forgotten. After all, summers were like mini eternities.

“You need to give her flowers,” Jimmy said out of the blue.

“You mean, like, bring a bouquet to the dance? That would be way too conspicuous. I don’t want to draw more attention on top of the tuxedos!”

“So keep it simple. You get her one of those little wrist corsages. You keep it in your jacket pocket and, when you get her on the dance floor, you pull it out and slip it onto her. Girls eat that shit up!” The certainty in Jimmy’s tone bolstered my resolve.

“Are you getting a corsage for Tina?”

“Nah, me and her are just platonic.” Only Jimmy would use a word like that.

So, the next day after school, I jumped on my three-speed English racer and rode to a florist about five miles from my house to buy a corsage. Thankfully the lady there helped me to decide on something under ten bucks. It was a simple arrangement of two small white roses (surrounded by some kind of green stuff) on a lacey elastic band. I only hoped it wouldn’t scare Truvy off. I started to worry she might think I was a weirdo (if she didn’t already).

The day of the dance arrived. The plan was for me to get a ride with Jimmy. My father, who commuted to Newark where he was a cop, didn’t get home until late, and my mom had to attend my kid sister’s dance recital. Jimmy’s mom worked the evening shift as a nurse at the local hospital, so she would drop us off at the school in time for us to get things set up. (In all my preoccupation with getting myself prepared, I had almost forgotten that we had some responsibilities as members of the dance committee.)

Jimmy told me to be at his house by 5:30, but I got there ten minutes earlier. I was looking rather dapper in my second-hand tailored tux. Dad had helped me the day before to get my dress shoes polished to a mirror shine. He’d even lent me his dress uniform white gloves. I took Jimmy’s advice and slicked the sides of my hair back with some Pomade. (I kept my bangs down to cover up a pimple on my forehead.) Checking myself in the full-length mirror in the foyer, I had to admit I looked pretty sharp. Suddenly, Truvy Bridges didn’t seem quite so far out of my league.

I knocked on Jimmy’s door and noticed there was no car in the driveway. The door was opened by Jimmy’s older brother, Toby, a high school student. “Hey, Mikey, you’re looking snazzy! What’s going on?”

I was caught off guard by the question. “Um, I’m getting a ride with your mom and Jimmy to school for the dance.”

“Oh? Well, they left about fifteen minutes ago.”

“B-but, I was supposed to get a ride with them. Jimmy told me to be here at 5:30.”

“Yeah, well, my mom got called to go in to work earlier, so they had to leave right away. I guess he figured you could get a ride with your parents.”

I stared down at the reflection in my shoes and mumbled, “They’re not around.”

I couldn’t believe Jimmy had just ditched me. I mean, what the hell? I lived right across the street, for crying out loud. He could have called me, or just run over and knocked on my door. Maybe there was some good explanation, but I wasn’t going to get it right at that moment. I turned and walked back to my house. I think Toby said something, but I didn’t hear.

“OK,” I said to myself, “So now what?” There in the driveway was the only answer. I jumped on my English racer and started to pedal. It was only about six miles to the school, but it was all hills the entire way. The fastest I’d ever made it on my bike was thirty-two minutes, but I was bent on breaking that record.

The distance to the end of my road was all downhill. I rode it at least twice a week to get milk and eggs from the Dutch dairy farmer. (That was one of my chores.) The problem was the great long uphill after the intersection. If I stopped at the end of the road (which, according to the stop sign, I was legally obliged to do), I would have to walk the bike up a long steep stretch. But, if I blew past the stop sign (though it meant the possibility of being sideswiped by a motor vehicle), I could coast up that hill on the speed harnessed from the downhill run. Under the circumstances, I felt justified in taking that calculated risk.

As I approached the dairy farm, I pedalled in high gear with everything I had. I kept my head and eyes straight ahead as I defied the stop sign and shot across the roadway. I was lucky. No car hit me that day. (I envisioned my guardian angel shaking his head in disapprobation.) For the better part of the trek, I was able to make similar use of the downhills to minimize the imposed slowdown of the ups. As the warm late spring air whipped through my now thoroughly tousled hair, I fancied myself a knight errant in tuxedo armor and atop my two-wheeled steed. I was on a quest to rescue the fair damsel from the doldrums dragon of dull country life. For one brief moment in time, I felt virile and quite invincible. And then everything just stopped.

The bike came to a jarring halt as I felt something jerk my right leg. I toppled to one side and landed in a ditch littered with bottles and aluminum cans. Looking down, I saw that my pant leg had gotten snagged in the bike chain. I tried my best to gently wriggle it free, but the fabric tore, leaving a noticeable flap along the calf. (Why I hadn’t the foresight to roll the pant legs up, I don’t know.) I stood and realized my entire right side was covered with mud. Then, though I hadn’t noticed any dark clouds, it started to rain.

It was just around dusk when I finally rolled into the school parking lot. I placed the front tire of my racer between the bars of the bike rack by the rear entrance of the school, the one closest to the gym. I walked in and could hear the unmistakable sound of Devo’s Whip It echoing into the halls. As I walked past the gym and glanced through the open double doors by the water fountain, I could see Rosanna Falcone in the middle of the dance floor. A crowd of admirers surrounded her as she deftly gyrated her way through a choreographed routine. (She took modern dance lessons, so she knew what she was doing, and she would strut her stuff at least once every school dance.)

I kept going straight to the boys bathroom at the end of the hall by the payphone. The first thing I did was take a long leak. I shivered and realized I was soaked through from the steady rain. Washing my hands, I saw in the mirror above the sink that I was a wreck. My windblown hair was now matted down, and I realized I hadn’t brought a comb. I turned the crank on the paper towel dispenser and tore myself a long sheet to try and pat myself dry. Looking in the full-length mirror on the wall, I could see my mud-caked right side, and the long tear in my pant leg.

Three boys walked in and took quick notice of me. One of them asked, “Dude, what happened to you?”

Another one commented, “Nice tux!” The three all laughed.

I was debating whether I should bother offering them an explanation, when something caught my ear. It was the lush sound of symphonic strings, giving way to gentle guitar-plucked arpeggio triplets. Then an instantly recognizable pinched tenor voice, “Well, it’s not far down to paradise, at least it’s not for me….”

My mind snapped back to the entire reason for my being there. “I’m supposed to ask her to dance to this!” I may have said it out loud as I dashed from the bathroom.

The gym was darkened as colored lights projected from a machine swirled along the walls and ceiling. On the stage was the giant cardboard ship with its message of “All aboard!” (to which someone had added, “for the 6th grade dance”). I pulled the wrist corsage out of my inside jacket pocket. It was still in good shape considering the overall condition of the rest of me. On either side of the gym was a row of folding auditorium chairs. Boys were sitting on one side, girls on the other. (That’s the way it always worked at school dances.) I scanned the row of chairs on the girl side in search of Truvy, but I didn’t see her. Perhaps she decided not to come. A wave of disappointment washed over me, but at the same time some degree of relief. There were several couples on the dance floor, including two of the teacher chaperones, Mr. Cooper and Miss Grayson. (They were both single, so some of the students around them were ooh-ing and ahh-ing.)

Then I saw Jimmy. He was dancing with a girl with a ponytail and a short skirt. I was looking at her from behind, and I assumed it was Tina Jenkins. Jimmy was looking suave as I’d ever seen him. His tux suited him perfectly, and a long white scarf draped down his sides added extra flair. The hand of his extended left arm held her right hand, while his other arm was wrapped securely around her shapely waist. He was leading her in what I right away recognized as the box step of the waltz. (His execution was much smoother and more stylish than the basic one I had mastered.) As he led her in a half turn, I saw her face. As I’m sure you may have guessed, it was Truvy.

I stood there in the shadows with the corsage in my hand, not quite comprehending what I was seeing. I suppose it would have been much worse had they been kissing. They weren’t, but she had her chin resting upon his shoulder, a demonstration of a degree of intimacy that was really just too much to bear. For a brief moment, I imagined myself walking over to them, tapping him on the shoulder, and asking, “May I cut in?” (I was sure I’d seen that in more than one old movie.) But I just couldn’t do it. I turned around and walked out into the hall and back to the bathroom. Standing with slumped shoulders in front of the full-length mirror, I saw again what a mess I was. Then I heard the patter of liquid droplets striking the hard tile floor beneath me. They were coming from my eyes.

Walking back into the hallway, I headed in the direction of my homeroom. I’m not even sure why. I grabbed and turned the door knob, but it was locked. Bucky, one of the custodians, was at the end of the hallway. (Bucky wasn’t his real name, but everyone called him that on account of his pronounced overbite.) He was going through the empty lockers. I saw him take something out of one and put it in his pocket. I guessed it was loose change. He spied me and yelled down the hall, “You need something?”

“I… I think I might have left something in the classroom.” I’m not sure why I said that, just like I wasn’t sure why I headed to the room in the first place. Perhaps I was just looking for a place to hide.

“Oh?” He looked at me with a hint of suspicion. Earlier in the year, Tom Stanhope and I had gone into one of the classrooms after school, and stuffed the pull-down screen full of confetti. The prank had the intended effect. The look on Miss Henderson’s face had been priceless when she pulled the handle on the screen and found herself covered in thousands of little circles of paper we’d collected from hole punchers. She was not amused and thankfully we never got caught. But Bucky knew what we’d done. Custodians always know.

“Yeah, I think I left my hat in there.” That was all I could think of. I actually had been missing one of my baseball caps for a few days.

“Your hat?”


Bucky took a big ring of keys from his waist. It looked like something a prison guard might carry. He unlocked the door and said, “Well, go have a look.”

I walked into the room. The chairs were all turned up on the desks, and you could tell it was in summer mode. I walked over to my desk at the back of the room and looked inside. It was empty except for a paper clip and some of the tattered edges from pages torn from one of my notebooks. Then I looked in Truvy’s desk. It too was empty. I realized I was still holding the corsage. I looked at it, and then placed it inside her desk. I imagined her finding this wilted thing when we came back in September. (But then I remembered that we wouldn’t be in the same room.) I walked back out into the hallway.

Bucky was standing there waiting for me. “Did you find what you were looking for?”


“Your hat?”

“Oh, no, it wasn’t there. I guess I just lost it.”

“Well,” he said, giving me a look meant to be reassuring. “Maybe one of your buddies grabbed it.”


Excerpt from Masaru

“There is one thing I do not understand,” said Shirō.

“Oh? And what is that?” replied he priest.

“Why was it necessary for Iesu to be baptized? If he is truly divine, he could have no sin to cleanse.”

“Very true. But it was for our sake, not his, that Iesu was baptized. The baptisms performed by John were a sign of repentance. But when Iesu entered the river, the waters of baptism through all space and time were sanctified.”

            Shirō pondered that for a moment. “You mean his ki entered into the water?” Ki was the word used to describe the energy or life force of a living being. From the time Shirō was a small boy, greater awareness and focus of ki was always at the heart of his training in the fighting arts.

            Father Olivera smiled. “Something like that, yes.”