Monday, November 07, 2005

Conversion,Part Two

I got my first two book proposals out this morning. I know the work is necessary, but having done it twice now I’ve decided that getting slapped with a baseball bat repeatedly is a lot more fun.

I have two essays in process right now, neither of which is completed. So, you’ll have to bear with me while I shamelessly buy time. The original piece about my conversion, part two, to Christianity, with a few edits added, now follows:

For those who might be reading this blog for the first time I recommend that you read Conversion, Part One before reading part two.

On, then, to part two.

While I felt on my own after my philosophical discussion with the rector of our church I didn’t feel totally abandoned. I still had my family; I still had my stickball in the summer and my beloved Boston Celtics in the winter. I still attended church, but something was missing. I recall often being caught up in a sense of wonder in mystery on those Sunday mornings. There were times when I just wanted to float away, hoping to find the the man who hung crucified on the privacy fence of my recurring dream. I wanted to find him and ask him who had done this done him. I wanted to find him and ask why they’d done it. But more than anything I wanted to ask why no one would help him. Praying the traditional “collects” and other “prayers and thanksgivings” seemed to heighten the sense of mystery in me. A few prayers, in particular, have stayed with me through the years. One was a prayer we often recited for our “national life:”

Prayers for National Life18. For our Country
“Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for ourheritage: We humbly beseech thee that we may always proveourselves a people mindful of thy favor and glad to do thy will.Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning, andpure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion;from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Defendour liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudesbrought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Enduewith the spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy Name we entrustthe authority of government, that there may be justice andpeace at home, and that, through obedience to thy law, wemay show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth.In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness,and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail;all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

The other was a prayer we prayed on Palm Sunday:

Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday

The Proper Liturgy for this day is on page 270.

“Almighty and everliving God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may both follow theexample of his patience, and also be make partakers of hisresurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

These prayers, as beautiful and rhythmic as they were, only added to the growing sense of alienation I was experiencing. God was out there, somewhere, and I wanted to find Him. Was He just a part of some recurring dream? Was He so transcendent that I would probably never find him? Was He even there at all or was all that I was going through nothing more than ritual?

My weekdays were filled with school, stickball (in season), hanging around with my brother and other kids in the neighborhood. In time I became the stickball champion of Chatham Street. None of the kids in my age group could beat me. For that I had my brother to thank. Those frustrating episodes of swinging wildly at his “pimple ball curve” had prepared me for better things. I can’t say that my childhood was unhappy. When I’ve spoken to people over the years, particularly liberal friends, they have a tendency to feel sorry for me. I’ve never felt that way. In fact in 1995 I expressed my feelings about my background this way:

The Romantic’s Ghetto

Some say their roots are in the land
In the strength and dignity of furrowed country rows
Mine are in the blaze of neon
Giving light and breath to the tenements lining ghetto streets.
Some say their faith was honed on cathedral glass
And sharpened by regal priestly robes
Mine was cut on jagged ghetto glass
And purified by the clatter of subway steel.
Some say they have an eye for distant landscapes
Or the refined beauty of a mountain stream.
Mine is tuned to a ragged ghetto face
Or the cloistered ghetto masses forgotten by the rush of time.
Where's the dignity of life to be found?
In the land? In a stream?
For some it is for sure.....
Where is it then for me?
It's the romance of the Ghetto that will always fill my soul.
© 1995 Phil Dillon

Our family was poor. My mother only had a third grade education followed by a nervous breakdown, and years of hospitalization to support us. In practical terms it meant we had to live as recipients of the welfare state. One of my mother’s failings was her inability to maintain any kind of economic balance. She would shop, see something she liked, and buy it, as she often said, “On the cuff.” That was her slang for credit. The credit would be extended and the bills would mount up. In time there were a long line of creditors coming by looking for their money. Our way of dealing with the problem was to stay on the move. In one three year period we must have moved nine or ten times. In the times I’ve revisited Cambridge over the years I’ve been a great amusement to my wife. We’ve strolled and passed apartment buildings or tenements and I’ve often said as we’ve passed, “I lived there for a couple of months” or “I remember that place too.”

My first sense of anger at my station in life came when my mother would send me to city hall to get our welfare check every month. One visit is still very vividly planted in my memory. It wasn’t the visit that hurt. I’d made enough trips to city hall to swallow my pride and accept the goodness of the state. On this occasion it was a whispered conversation that cut to the quick. While looking for our check he was asked by another counselor, “Who’s this?”
“That’s one of the Dillon kids. This poor kid doesn’t have a chance. His father died a drunk and his mother’s a dolt. He just doesn’t have chance in life.”
His conversation was meant to be out of earshot, but I heard it and it hurt. When he came back to me with the check he saw that I was crying. “What’s wrong?” he asked
I didn’t have the courage to say how I felt. “Nothing,” I responded meekly.
I left, vowing that some day I would be my own man and that I would never again have to be dependent on the goodness of the state for my welfare or dignity.

This incident, along with my growing sense of alienation from God, brought me to my first major adult decision in my life. I made it when I was fifteen. I was at a friend’s apartment watching television on a Sunday night. I don’t recall who was conducting the interview, but the interviewee was J Paul Getty, who was at that time the world’s richest man. The interview was being conducted at his English estate called Sutton Place. I didn’t hear much of what Getty was saying, but I did notice all the trappings of wealth that surrounded him. Something inside of me just snapped. “How can this be?” I thought. “This man has more than he’ll ever need and I have to beg the state of Massachusetts for the little our family gets.” The internal anger hit a crescendo. “There can’t possibly be a God! There is no God! There never was, there isn’t one now, there never will be!”

As I look back on it now, the decision didn’t make sense. But it didn’t have to. Anger and alienation were to be my “guiding principles” for the next ten years.

When I got old enough I decided to leave Massachusetts. I joined the Air Force in 1961, did my boot camp at Lackland AFB, an uneventful tour in California, and some time on temporary duty in Washington D.C., and then got an assignment to Ernest Harmon AFB, Newfoundland. The assignment was, actually, quite providential. My mother was born in Newfoundland, in a little fishing village called McIvers Cove. This gave me the opportunity to meet relatives I would never have been able to if it hadn’t been for the Air Force assignment. During my time in Newfoundland I spent three leaves in McIvers, all of them wonderful. My aunts, uncles, cousins and other assorted relatives were all very kind, gentle people. I grew to love them. One uncle, in particular, captured my heart. His name was Fiander Louis Park. Fi (pronounced fye), as he liked to be called, was a tall man, almost toothless. If you’ve ever read Richard Brautigan’s “Confederate General from Big Sur” you’ll get a small glimpse of what Fi was like. The one tooth in his head seemed to float from place to place. One morning at breakfast it would appear to be in the upper right part of his mouth. The next morning it seemed to be on the bottom left. And, no dear reader, it was not my imagination. When I visited McIvers Fi was my official tour guide. He would glide down McIver’s dirt road to my Aunt Mabel’s to get breakfast each morning and then take me from place to place. Some days we’d just go up to his cabin. On others we’d go out in a dory together. If would row (he insisted on it) and I would sit and view the breathtaking cliffs of McIver’s and the other inlets in the area. On one excursion we saw a couple of whales. Fi whispered to me, “Look my son. Look I think they might’s be a couple of blues. Oh my son, have you ever seen the likes?
“No Fi, I’ve never.”
They’s beautiful, ‘eh?”
“They are.”
“Oh my son, my son.”

It was on these journeys that I would occasionally recall the mysteries of Christ Church and the man being crucified on the fence from years before, but I would try to dismiss them as soon as they came. I had decided that I would enjoy these moments for what they were. Life, as I’d come to believe, had very few good moments. One had to enjoy them, endure the rest of life, then die, rot, and be forgotten. That was the sum total of life as I saw it back then.

While in Newfoundland I developed a pretty nasty drinking habit. It was on one of these alcohol induced interludes that I had my first adult encounter with grace. It was during Newfoundland’s very brief summer. A group of us had a few days leave from Ernest Harmon, so we decided to take the time in Corner Brook, which was a few hours north of the base. Most of the guys had girlfriends they visited there. I went just for the amusement. On our first night we found a spot near the water, unloaded the beer and whiskey, and set up a bonfire. The spirits were flowing freely for a couple of hours until we ran out. By this time most of us were too drunk to do the sensible thing, which would have been to stop. I don’t know who made the decision to get more and how Larry Clyde Jones and I got nominated to go to Corner Brook to get more. But we got nominated and agreed to go.

Larry owned a little MG Midget, something like the one pictured in the link. Larry adored it because, as he often said, “It’ll go like a bat out of hell.” We got ready to go and were interrupted by one of the girls with us whose name was Eloise. She’d made the decision to go with us because she was concerned for our safety. She was, as I later found out, a “Salvation Army Girl.”

“I wonder how fast this thing will go with three people in it?” Larry said, as we took off. I was sitting in the passenger seat and Eloise sat between Larry and me, which made us one very compact pile of humanity cramped into a very small place. I couldn’t see how fast Larry was going, but as I looked out the window I saw the water get more distant as we climbed the steep hill that overlooked our bonfire. Larry laughed and whooped it up as we careened around the winding road, going higher and higher. Suddenly, on a sharp turn, Larry lost control of the car and we flew off the road. We started plummeting end over end down the cliff that overlooked the water. As we did I could see the car crumpling around me. I then felt a strange sense of peace. I don’t think it was a sense that every thing was going to be alright; it was a peaceful sense of resignation. We were going to die and that was it. I’m not sure how many times the tiny car turned end over end, but we finally landed on the shore about 200 feet below the cliff that we had launched from. My first thought was curious. I was sure I was dead. But I felt alive. “Well, ain’t this about a hoot,” I said to myself. “You’re dead. You’re alive. It’s all the same thing.” I then felt the warmth of blood running down my nose. It was then I realized that I was still alive. I looked to my left and saw Eloise. She was unhurt. I heard Larry moaning. “I’m all busted up. Oh, God I’m gonna’ die.” I found a hunting knife that Larry kept in the car and cut what was left of the convertible top so that we could extricate ourselves from the car I now feared was going to explode. I got Eloise out and found that she was not hurt at all. Not even a scratch! We then tried to move Larry. But it was impossible. The clutch had somehow come down on his right foot and jammed it into the floor. We couldn’t move him at all. Our only hope was to get help. With our fellow revelers still drunk on the beach any hope of having them even think of us was remote at best. Eloise and I decided that our best hope lay in climbing up the cliff to see if we could find help close to us. We left Larry knowing there was a chance that the car could explode, but we figured that there was nothing we could do for him without help. As we climbed the cliff I could hear Eloise praying, “Dear, dear Jesus, help us. Dear, dear Jesus help us. Dear, dear Jesus, help us.”

The first sight I remember when we got close to the top of the cliff was a small house. The lights were on. We scrambled to the top and ran across the road and pounded on the door. “We need help real bad,” I pleaded as an old man who looked somewhat like Fi answered the door. In about a half an hour the RCMP arrived. We took them across the road to show them were the car, and Larry were. I’m not sure how long it took to get Larry out of the car, but fortunately the Mounties did. Larry had suffered two broken legs, a broken foot, collarbone, pelvis, and two ribs. I had a bloody nose and Eloise was unhurt. The Mounties were amazed. The only theory they had was that having Eloise in the car with us had compacted us to the point where we couldn’t get buffeted around as the car made its plunge. Their other theory was that “Someone was looking out for you tonight. You should be dead.”

In order to maintain my philosophical stance I claimed the option of chance. “It was just pure luck that things happened the way they did,” I later thought. “It was just pure chance and nothing more.”

I just checked my word count and see that I’ve now gone over 2,500 words on part two. I meant to finish this all up in two parts, but I’ve either been too long winded or there’s more to the story than I believed. At any rate, I’m going to have to close this part out and leave Vietnam, William Shakespeare, and my encounter with Jesus for part three.

Hopefully you’ll bear with me through this. Part three to follow.


Orikinla Osinachi. said...

As usual, very thrilling narrative. I will not make any final comment until I read the third part.

Life is only a passage in the voyage of our eternity.

Jerry Hanel said...

Of course, you would leave us hanging. =)

Very well spoken, and I am currious to know what makes the "Phil" we read so often about who he is... I'll be waiting for the third part.

Gone Away said...

Fascinating read. And interesting to see that Bill Shakespeare is about to enter the stage!