“My daughter told her mother that you may have
the absolute whitest butt in the state of New York.”
My first twenty-four hours in the populous state of New York were, in fact, the least solitary time of my hike.
For most of the AT trip, I was alone, or at least as alone as one could be on the eastern seaboard of the United States in the late twentieth century. I had started in Maine with a long-time hiking buddy, but a family emergency (as well as size fourteen feet, as flat, long, and hard-smacked as the landing deck on an aircraft carrier) had sent him home after the first one hundred miles. Later I’d occasionally team up with someone for a few days or even a week. But when I wasn’t in the Smokies or the Shenandoah or the White Mountains, it wasn’t at all uncommon to see only a handful of people in a day. Several times in the south in the frozen days of April, I went almost a week without running into anyone at all. Sharing a shelter at night with another hiker or two was cause for an excited celebration on my part, a mini-party marked usually with me obsessively
running my mouth until my new best friends took to their bags and pretended sleep.
Ironically enough, though, I avoided the AT for decades after I reached Springer Mountain, thinking—with a staggering lack of context and proportion, given my own solitary experience—that the trail was in danger of being overrun with the likes of me, that I’d had my share of a scarce resource and ought to let others have their chance at it. The eighty some thru-hikers who swarmed the trail in 1973 seemed at the time like some sort of latter day, woodsy Normandy, albeit without tanks, mortars, heroes, or mass early death.
Then in the mid-1990s on vacation I happened to drive through a New England trail town in July and discovered what an invasion really looked like. On the outskirts of the village, we passed a couple of clean but raggedy types eating ice cream on the sidewalk, all cares gone for a day back in civilization. “Look,” I excitedly shouted to my wife, “thru-hikers,” like I’d been the first to spot a Carolina parakeet since the last one chirped its final song back when Woodrow Wilson was president. In the next block a half dozen of the same, all in shower clogs, were huddled around a pay phone. A block later the public square bloomed with at least thirty, some with packs, some with the happy grins of those who have put on their town clothes and left all burdens back at the hostel. At this point I pulled over and struck up a conversation with an overly slender, overly tanned guy, all happiness, Gore-Tex, face hair, and calves.
“Yep, we tend to travel in waves these days. The AT marching band. There’s probably seventy-five of us in town already, most taking a zero day to get ready for New Hampshire. I’ve personally seen at least forty-five that I know myself, and I’ve heard a dozen others are kicking it to make town for pizza tonight at the
And that in a rain shell is the most profound change in AT sociology since Earl Schaffer carried his painfully uncomfortable army rucksack up Katahdin in 1948. For 124 days Schaffer was largely alone with his war ghosts and his highway maps. Current trekkers are likely to meet dozens of new brothers and sisters their first day on the trail and then move north or south with a core group of familiars ready made to share both the nasties and the glories of the trip. Even if a most cherished goal is to find a chunk of time alone to sort out whatever put them on the trail to begin with, today’s hikers have the option, whenever isolation starts cuddling up toward desolation, to choose to slip easily into a social life as full of possibilities as that first day when you check into your freshman dorm.
It wasn’t like that for the class of 1973.
When I hit the first road crossing in New York and ran into a local trail club out for the ten mile walk into Pawling, I had apparently become way more similar to that awkward kid who didn’t get out much in high school—the one you know is going to ruin the happy vibes at the first dorm party, the one who drinks too much, talks all night about his awesome collection of entomology photographs, and ends the evening either throwing up on somebody’s shoe or peeing in the closet.
Unfortunately, this is not a comparison that I invented for myself.
It was—the leader of the club’s outing told me at the end of the day—the picture that forged in her head as soon as she invited me to tag along and I started spouting a soup of desperate “thank-you’s.” I had the dreamy look, another clubber revealed, of the two-year old you used to see standing out under the clothesline on wash day, one hand on his favorite blanket still drying on the rope, the other hand with a thumb in his pathetic mouth.
“You were a little scary, but we couldn’t figure out how to politely disinvite you.”
That being said, they turned out to be an incredibly nice crowd to walk along with, though most were at least thirty years older and all, unlike me, probably had more than $75 in their bank accounts. A mechanical engineer, a couple of pediatricians, several practicing lawyers, an international arms dealer/sometime privateer (just kidding), a building contractor, two plumbers, and a half dozen retirees, they were a good mix of interests and professions, and filled with good conversation. And it was pretty heady that a lot of that conversation turned out to be about me. In 1973, thru-hikers were still a rarity, and none in this crowd had ever met one, though their club walks went out every week, with snowshoes in the winter if necessary. Earlier in the hike, I’d met folks who were interested in what I’d been doing. But now I was nearing the halfway mark, had some credibility, looked the part, and we had a whole afternoon to fill. There were the usual questions about food, equipment, motive, and animals. But, especially when I was walking with the doctors and lawyers, the conversation was often about how I paid for the trip.
“How can you afford to take five months off?”
“Doesn’t cost much. I worked a lot of overtime to save up.”
“No, not that kind of cost. The cost to your career. How can you just leave your job?”
“Sadly, you have to choose a job where nobody cares if you disappear, one with a lot of turnover. Helps to work where alcohol benders and parole revocations aren’t uncommon. Lots of times nobody much notices if a carpenter’s assistant doesn’t show back up on Monday morning.”
The contractor snorted.
At this point we were all largely grouped together, walking in a large clump, the AT now on a little used two-lane through the countryside. At least ten people heard the next exchange.
“What’s your biggest worry?”
“An injury serious enough to stop the trip. I couldn’t afford even a couple of days in town to recover, much less a doctor’s visit. One x-ray would wipe me out at this point.”
The doctors didn’t snort.
“But so far so good. Mostly though, it’s becoming clear that I’m going to run out of money before I run out of trail. My father’s patience with the construction work and vagabonding mountain summers is exhausted. No hope for rescue there. My friends have already done all that they can. We’ll just have to see.”
This became the recurring topic of conversation over the next few hours as we strolled through some of the more beautiful valleys and pastoral highlands on the Appalachian Trail. I haven’t seen the survey yet that shows this, but I’d be willing to bet one of the biggest surprises for most thru-hikers is just how handsome the trail is in New York and New Jersey, everything from the crossing of the Hudson to the rugged palisades and ravines just forty miles north of New York City, to the pine wildernesses in New Jersey, to the miles of granite outcroppings over Greenwood Lake. The trail now largely files through the woods for the day’s walk north of Pawling, but in 1973 it was mostly beside restful open fields on old woods roads or rural paved lanes not troubled by more than ten cars a day. It was easy walking in a gentle, romantic terrain, the sort that well-heeled folks travel to rural France or northern Scotland to ooh over before retiring with a nice glass of white in a restored castle or pricey bed and breakfast.
Had we turned past the dusty antique shop over there at the intersection of those two forgotten roads to find Albert Bierstadt or some other painter of the Hudson River School dipping brushes into the pastels on his palette, no one would have blinked. It seemed like the 19thcentury (or maybe 16thcentury Flanders?), and it was great.
The consensus was that maybe I could stop a week or two in a trail town in the South and find enough carpentry work to refill the coffers and finish the hike. At this point, this was my best stab at a plan too, though I’d have to be lucky enough to find a cheap place to stay to make it actually work. And it didn’t help that the US was in a crippling recession at the time. At any rate, the problem gave us something to mull through together as we walked. And the back and forth created a sense of community that was nice, if not quite as wonderful as the moments when the cherished blankie finally used to come out of the dryer and I got carry it to my son just as Sesame Street came on.
We entered Pawling just at dusk, all glowing a little with the comradeship that gels around group walks through the woods.
“We’re going to have dinner at a nice Italian place in town before we head home. Please join us.”
An awkward silence in the parking lot at the trailhead.
“I can’t really. Have to watch the cash flow. But thanks so much for asking, and thanks for sharing your day.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Don’t worry about the check. It’s no problem. Come along.”
And so I did, to the perfect ending for the afternoon. Great lasagna, bowls of fresh greens, endless calorie-rich baskets of buttery bread, and a glass of wine. The bottle came by again.
“Have another. We all agree you need it! Relax a little.”
That’s when they all told me how crazy lonely I’d seemed at the beginning of day. We all laughed.
A quick word on alcohol and my younger self. I come from a family where gushing fountains of scotch, bourbon, and the like had regularly created uncomfortable dramas. Drinking had little romance for me, and I skipped most of the usual debaucheries others waded through in high school and college. So at twenty-three I had exactly no physical tolerance. One glass and I was ripe and happy. Two, and I was well on the way to a lop-mouthed, grinning nap.
That may explain a little how I was completely sucker punched by what happened next.
The waitress smiled one last time, the checks were deposited in front of plates now empty except for tiny islands of smeared tomato goop, and everyone else briskly picked up his or her bill, expertly scrutinized the additions and multiplications, put down a generous tip, and headed for the cashier.
My bill remained in front of my plate as the table emptied, everyone else finished paying, and one by one stepped outside to continue the last little fragments of their after-dinner conversations, forgetful of their earlier offer and apparently oblivious to my predicament inside.
I turned the check over; it totaled a fifth of what I had left for the thirteen hundred miles to Georgia, a large part of the charge being for the two glasses of wine. I cashed a traveler’s cheque (more on these later), satisfied my obligations to the restaurant, gave a ragged grin to the cashier, and walked out to join the mellow crowd in the parking lot.
“It was a great day, David. Thanks for walking with us and sharing your stories.”
“Absolutely, a great time, wonderful day. Give our best to Springer Mountain.”
“Send the club a card when you’re finished. We’d like to hear from you. We are completely jealous of your walk. Keep dreaming, my friend.”
More of these until everyone was in his or her car and headed toward home.
Still a little dizzy, but with the pleasantness of the buzz now sucked dry and spit out, I picked up the pack and started south down Old 55 to the Edward R. Murrow Municipal Park, where the town of Pawling then let thru-hikers camp, swim in the village’s beautiful lake, and use the bath facilities without charge. The park was a mile wobble down the pavement in the dark. A light drizzle started on the way and grew stronger as I walked on.
Things seemed to take another sour turn when I walked through the park’s entrance and into the circle of light and noise coming from the pavilion by the lake, the covered space where I’d planned to spend the night.
The beer cans, Dr. Pepper bottles, and abandoned paper plates shuffled around the area made it clear that the party had earlier been much more spread out. But now a hundred or so folks were crowded in together under the pavilion’s roof, a space that looked like it was meant to cover probably no more than fifty. There were a few young children here and there, but mostly it was a crowd of older adults, the women in shapeless Bermuda shorts or summer dresses meant more for comfort than for show, the men to a person crowned with baseball caps, most embroidered with the name of a Navy ship, an army division, or a storied place of conflict from a past war. Khe Sanh—Semper Fi was blazed across the hat of the extremely large, extremely muscled man—the youngest I saw in the crowd, the only one who might be even close to my age—manhandling a smoky grill up under the roof as the lightning picked up. An outsized banner nailed to the front of the pavilion made it clear I’d stumbled into the annual gathering of a local veterans’ group.
A brief word on my hair—because sadly enough haircuts were the chief way people quickly sized each other up in 1973, the most efficient way to tack a set of values to someone else, especially if you were in a hurry to dislike them. Think neck or knuckle tattoos today, but at a more toxic, explosive level. When I had announced before my sophomore year that I wouldn’t be reapplying to any military academy and that, in fact, I would not serve in the armed forces at all, I had been disowned by my parents. It didn’t help that I (a good Southern boy) also roomed with a black guy (the last I heard, now an executive with an American computing giant). So, by necessity, I paid my own way through the rest of college, mostly by working with the state prison system three days a week and full time in the summer. Which meant that, regardless of any Beatle worship I might have harbored, I kept my hair nicely trimmed. I loved college; college for me required a job; the job I had required short hair. End of that story.
I was a little past due for a trim before my hike, and fully intended to have one the morning before I left for Maine. Instead of visiting the barber though, I spent hours on the phone being questioned by a claims investigator from North Carolina Workers’ Compensation about the medical procedure that derailed my earlier plans to start the trail in March. Then there was an hour frantically and impotently trying to contact my hospital and physicians to work out payment plans (more about this mess later). I barely made the plane, all hairs still intact about the ears and neck and sprouting for glory. Over the next few months, lack of money and absence of trailside barbers took their natural course. And by the time I reached New York I have to admit that I had begun to think I looked dashingly Tarzanic with a headband holding back my stringy golden locks.
Later in the summer I received a more objective take on my hippie look from a bunch of teenagers lounging outside a grocery in a small Maryland mountain town.
“What’s your trail name?” they demanded as they watched me squash down a loaf of wheat bread. They had heard of the emerging AT tradition of taking on a nom du pèlerinage for the duration, a custom that lets hikers assume a new name that captures some core aspiration or personality trait they wanted to cultivate on the hike. The tradition wasn’t yet much in practice in 1973. I only knew two people who had trail names, one—still a friend—who named himself Peregrine after the falcon celebrated for speed, endurance, and focus.
The other may have been the originator of the second trail naming tradition, the one where fellow hikers choose a name for you based on some dumb thing you do early in the hike. This young man was tagged his first week and henceforth universally known as The Eagle. But not because of his soaring bravery, visual acuity, patriotic zeal, or general awesomeness. Rather, by day two on the trail he had irritated the total, complete hell out of everyone who had the misfortune to spend time with him. From the first handshake on, out flowed overblown, annoying boasts about his one-time exalted leadership status in the Boy Scouts.
In all fairness, I’ll admit upfront that I never actually met The Eagle and have no reason to wish him ill or to blacken his reputation. I’m just passing along the wisdom of the masses. I heard his story many, many times from many, many shaken and embittered of his trail mates, good men and women all, but men and women to a soul who damned each day in which they were forced to endure his infantile, childish dreams of past glories. If all these legions of true and worthy hikers were wrong and I have slandered The Eagle here, I hasten to apologize.
Actually there was a third, but more about The Squirrel later in North Carolina.
“Your trail name, dude?”
“I don’t have one. Haven’t thought much about it.”
“Well, we’re calling you Colonel Sanders.”
Manly puffs on their cigarettes and snickers by all.
“Please don’t do that.”
“It’s perfect, dude. It’s the real you, Mon Colonel.”
His French pronunciation wasn’t very good, a gratingly overblown southern version of the language of love.
“It’s not cool to mock someone’s accent,” I reminded them.
“Nice try, but you know that’s not it. You paying attention even a little bit? You talk fine [we were in Maryland, remember]. It’s that Kentucky-fried, pathetic, scraggly white goatee.”
His buddies laughed. One bent over in joy.
“And that hair. Tell the truth, my man. You stashing some Extra Crispy up in there in the grease? Gotta be. Share the wings, dude.”
“Buckets of finger lickin’. Yum,” enthused his friend.
The first week I returned to Raleigh after the hike my hair once again reared its ugly head, and another fond name was threatened. Seeing my stringy new coiffure, the construction crew I worked with immediately christened me, “The Straw Man.” I gave up, folded to conventional wisdom, and got a good burring. My prized sweatband is still in my sock drawer to this day.
But when I stood out in the light rain in front of the Edward R. Murrow pavilion, the haircut was still months away, and I looked all the world like your generic hippie, a look that didn’t necessarily inspire peace and love with many vets at the time.
“You lost?” It was the guy with the grill, the one whose hat, if it were to be believed, said that in 1968 he’d been running deadly Marine patrols along the DMZ or burrowing in Asian mud to escape murderous artillery barrages during the siege of Khe Sanh—just at the time I was back in college reading Vietnamese history and English Romantic poets.
This wasn’t starting well.
“Not lost, but maybe not in the right place. I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail, and the guidebook says that the pavilion is available for camping in bad weather. Didn’t know that it would be occupied. Sorry to bother you.”
“What’s the Appalachian Trail?”
It was a question you used to get all the time in trail towns like Pawling. Like many of the people who lived within miles of the pathway, he had never heard of it.
Before I could answer, he stepped back out into the drizzle and shook my hand. “Help me pull this grill up here, and tell me what you’re up to.”
We got the grill in place, and I gave him the elevator speech about the hike.
“Joe, you know the Appalachian Trail goes by here?”
“Never heard of it.”
“This kid is walking from Maine to Georgia.”
“Dumb shit.” Joe had a hat that said, USS Independence.
“Probably born dumb. Then worked diligently at it. Excelled at stupidity. Probably studied it in college. I wouldn’t walk to the kitchen if Marilyn Monroe was hid behind the fridge, all dabbed up in Cool Whip.” Thus saith a hat braided Ranger, 173rdAirborne.
“My grandson has been talking my head off about wanting to do that.” This from an older woman with thin, purplish hair. I initially assumed she was talking about the bit with Marilyn, kitchen appliances, and delicious, sticky edibles. Couldn’t blame the kid for his dream, but suspected he was in for a life of bitter disappointment.
The grandmother’s hair was sculpted to great glory and held in place by a plaid scarf, perhaps the only person under the pavilion whose hairdo looked as scary as mine.
There was a crowd now. “You probably could use a cheeseburger,” the Marine told me as he handed over a beer. The lasagna seemed weeks away now, and I was indeed hungry again. I never learned Semper Fi’s name.
It was a great evening. I told stories about the hike, ate at least four more burgers (before consciousness shut up the suitcase and left town) and forty-three plates of potato salad, heard a dozen or so half-true tales about bear encounters in various national parks, and easily tripled my lifetime consumption of beer over the next three hours. At some point, the grandmother’s kid showed up with his father, and we talked about how to plan a thru-hike, where to get the maps, how you didn’t need to carry a pistol or an ax, all the basics. I enthusiastically and expertly danced through several Merle Haggard songs with somebody’s wife, easily three times my age. That was after a blistering group twist to a Chubby Checker classic. Just before things went blank for me, some guy and I entertained all with a howlingly unmasterful a cappella version of “Rocky Mountain High.” There was a lot of laughter, not all of it aimed at me. I have no memory of everyone leaving.
I woke up the next morning dead and in Heaven.
As my awareness gradually awakened more fully into this blessed new existence, I was facing a dazzling dance of sunlight, bedecked with ever changing patterns as it filtered through leaves on its way down to my sleeping bag hood, which rested gently on my face. Covered my face actually, I discovered as my level of alertness increased further, because the bag was upside down. My head rested on a muddy boot. Not my usual pillow, but why should things be done in Paradise as they were done on Earth? The angels, I supposed, sleep differently—choose to rest in whatever pattern and with whatever head support that their ethereal state desires. There was a heavenly breeze too, just what was needed to soothe a head that pounded away like a pod of celestial Harley Davidsons ripping down the road in first gear.
And hymns sung so sweetly. No harps (thank God), and not even the tinkling piano chording I was used to from the churches of my upbringing. Just human voices, lots of them, and they were beautiful. Singing “Nearer My God to Thee” voiced in harmonies from male and female, young and old, some in tune, some not, but beautiful en masse.
I hated to hurry along these first moments of my eternal reward, so I soaked (soaked soon to be the operative word) in them for a bit, watching the prance of radiance through down feathers (perhaps they were really just very small and delicate angel wings), now listening to “Rock of Ages.”
Then came the insistent call to pee, really pee, pee in an epic way, in the way the Columbia River would push water if the Grand Coulee dam cracked into sections the size of container ships and fell away in thunderous tonnages of concrete.
I wasn’t sure how urination was to be graciously handled in this particular place in God’s many-roomed mansion, so I proceeded slowly, pulling back a corner of the sleeping bag hood for a stealthy reconnaissance.
To my left were two dozen folding chairs, with assorted bottoms, legs, and shoes stationed in front of each. A turn and peek from the other side of the hood. More folding chairs. A look backwards, done awkwardly, positioned on my stomach so as to least disturb the thundering bladder. Dozens of 20thcentury New Yorkers, all quite alive, and all singing lusty praise to the Lord, some intently looking forward above me, some—I couldn’t help but notice—sneaking sideways glances at a host of covered plates stacked on a picnic table pushed to the right side of the pavilion. A quick look down and I discovered yet another picnic table, the one on which I apparently had spent the night. My normal tendency would have been to study over its cryptic command, “Eat it!—Dominic, 1964,” elaborately carved on the bench below. But before I could adequately absorb the mystic depths of the commandment, my bladder once again swelled, roared, and demanded obedience to its fleshy laws.
In a moment of clarity and prudence, I took a quick look down into the bag to see how I might now be dressed, here in the Lord’s house on the first day of the rest of my eternity. I wasn’t. Not at all, nothing. Without the bag, all would be fully exposed to the eyes of God and all His creatures. The bladder spoke again, roaring with Old Testament earnestness.
Earthly instincts kicked in and ruled. In a spasm of punching, grabbing, and stretching, I wrapped my sleeping bag around my waist, hobbled off the picnic table, and—dodging among and between dozens of chairs and parishioners—coyoteed out of the pavilion up a path along the lake. Fifty yards out, I swerved into the trees, and parted water with the urgency with which God once saved Moses and all those he led into the wilderness.
Ten or so minutes later, I sat, shaken, embarrassed, my bag around me toga-style, on a nice patch of grass just up the hill from the picnic grounds and listened as the service ended with a fine version of “Just as I Am.”
The last time I had been in a church had been Sunday, May 10, 1970, six days after the Ohio National Guard shot thirteen students at Kent State University and three days after I marched in my first ever anti-war demonstration. For years, I had pestered everyone around me with arguments about why the war was somewhere between a big mistake and a sorry betrayal of American ideals. I had long before stopped carrying my draft card and hadn’t requested a student deferment for the 1970 school year, deciding to let the new draft lottery decide whether or not I would have to go to jail.
But I had drawn the line at marches. They seemed stupid to me, clichéd at best and at worst just pale imitations of the civil rights demonstrations that had so powerfully changed American history while I was a younger teen. I had often stood at the sidelines of anti-war parades, and they had always seemed too much like unintentional, low-grade insults to the African Americans and others who had put their lives at risk by having the gall to walk the middle of the street proclaiming the need for some small teaspoon of justice. The chanting and theatrics of my anti-war mates had little appeal. But the invasion of Cambodia and the killings of American students by American soldiers at Kent State made my squeamish distinctions seem foolish. So I had joined tens of thousands of local citizens and North Carolina students in a march down Raleigh’s main street and onto the State Capitol grounds for a rally.
The roads, to be sure, were filled with the usual suspects, folks who had been on dozens, if not hundreds, of these marches. But I was particularly struck by how many other people I met had felt compelled by the shootings to come out for their first public demonstration.
One other twenty-year old newbie at the event—though probably not there by choice—especially sticks in my mind. “Sticks” being exactly the proper word because it was his bayonet that established the relationship between us.
I was a marshal for the walk, my job being to wear a special blue armband and try to keep everyone in line and peaceful. And all went well and orderly until the street we were on dead ended at the Capitol grounds and the back of the line began to drive up against those in the lead who had stopped and had nowhere to go. Things quickly started to get out of hand; folks at the front of the procession began to be pushed, then pushed harder, then crushed in ways that threatened to be serious. Near the front of the group, I was shoved steadily and inevitably forward until I was stopped, base of the neck first, against the extended rifle and fixed blade of one of the North Carolina National Guardsmen who had been called up and deployed to protect the Capitol.
He was about my age, just as scared, visibly shaking just as much as I was. I could hear marshals further back in the crowd shouting for people to stop moving forward. But the press of people continued inexorably, and there was no physical way, someone’s chest against the rear of my shoulders, for me to back away from his bayonet.
I don’t know what his orders were. Maybe an officer gave a command I couldn’t hear through all the screaming, or maybe he just acted on his own. But he backed up a step, moved into port arms stance, and brought his weapon up against his chest. The line of troopers to his left and right did the same.
“I hate this shit.”
He said it twice, looking right at me.
“Me too. I’m sorry. Thanks.”
Speeches were made, and then we all turned around and went back to campus.
That Sunday I went with a friend and her family to the church I had grown up in, the church in which I was baptized and where I had attended my mother’s funeral. The minister was new to me though—perhaps a vacation stand in, and I didn’t like him much, put off by his corny jokes and his bitter obsessions with sex and socialism. I don’t remember the core of his sermon that day, but I do remember his final prayer, a genuinely moving and timely request that his parishioners pray for our soldiers, sailors, and marines in Southeast Asia.
But then his prayer took a final turn that sent me leaping out of the pew with spastic and uncontrollable rage. At least I didn’t seem able to control it at the time.
His final words began admirably, I thought, calling on Jesus to provide daily guidance and wisdom for the young Americans who were fighting our war for us. But soon he quickly turned his attention to the home front, in words so inflammatory that I remember them clearly to this day:
“We also beseech,” his voice rose in volume and hysteria to ask, “You, Lord Jesus, to protect us from the deceitful Communists that we see this week in our own hometown, abandoning Your narrow way for the wide streets right here in Raleigh, abusing the blessings of the freedom that Your Father so freely gave them as their birthright.”
I had been on those streets, and I had seen no communists, just a strange, lumped up mixture of concerned older citizens, students struggling to understand how the nation could continue to offer their generation up to meaningless, violent death, contingents of Baptists from the more liberal church down the street, and a small group of the drugged out sorts you always found at demonstrations at the time.
Then his knife pushed more deeply:
“Your word has taught us to forgive even Judas. But it is also true that You promised the sword to those who cry ‘peace, peace’ when our enemies deserve no peace. By your Grace, reveal to us who gather in Your house the right sword to close up the mouths of those whose deeds mock Your word.”
Having branded us Judases and blasphemers, he then spat out a reference or two to traitors and stampeded to conclusion with a final request that our elected Christian leaders find effective ways to, as he said, “Cleanse our blessed schools and colleges from their errors. In Jesus’s name, Amen.”
In the version I usually tell about what happened next, I walk out in the middle of this peroration, striding proudly and erect past row after row of startled parishioners, holding my hands aloft to give the peace sign to anyone who raised eyes up from his or her prayers.
There is, however, a less flattering version that also makes the rounds. The father of one of my childhood friends, for instance, would insist tomorrow if you asked him that I was instead extending my middle finger to at least some of my neighbors as I sashayed up the aisle and out the door.
If his version is true—and I deeply hope that it is not—I am at least three-fourths deeply ashamed and embarrassed by my childish and churlish behavior. But I’m not too ashamed to admit that just a little of me would also be a little proud of my younger self.
And now, back to Pawling, New York, and my nakedness displayed among the holy.
As the crowd at the pavilion shuffled folding chairs, pushed picnic tables from the rear of the shelter back in line with the one on which I’d apparently passed out, and began setting up an after-service lunch, I watched with trepidation as three middle-aged men broke off from the crowd and headed up the hill toward me, one carrying my sleeping pad and boots, another holding at arm’s length a wad of my clothing, and the third shouldering my pack.
“My wife says you have the whitest feet she’s ever seen.” I learned later that he was the pastor.
I did. My feet hardly ever saw the sun, earning their fishlike, zombie hue from months inside of socks that were always some place on the spectrum between damp and soaked. I wondered if the feet had been hanging out the end of the sleeping bag throughout the service, or just particularly noteworthy as I made my retreat.
“I’m really sorry about all of this. I’m not usually this way. I’m really embarrassed.” I paused to try to come up with some witticism to defuse the awkwardness. “At least, unlike Lot, my nakedness was fully covered by my bag when you found me.” Not really Johnny Carson material, but the best I could do.
The three looked at each other, telegraphing something of significance that I couldn’t read clearly just yet.
The grey-haired man with my boots broke the silence. “Well, son”—he paused and smiled, and I knew some joke at my expense was on the way—“my daughter told her mother that you may also have the absolute whitest butt in the state of New York.”
They all laughed.
“You weren’t in the best shape this morning when we came in to start setting up. Bet you also don’t remember anything that you said to us—or to John’s daughter.” The truth was that I didn’t remember saying anything at all, and wasn’t sure I had, especially to anyone’s daughter.
“I am so sorry. I just wish there were something I could do to make this all go away.”
“We understand,” said the guy I recognized from his Ranger hat and his enthusiastic Twist at last night’s party. “To be fair, I’m not sure that the vets around here are the best influence on young people. I’d avoid them in the future if I were you.”
“There is one thing we’d like you to do.” This from the pastor.
“Please join us for lunch. We have fixed way more than we can eat, and I think you’ll enjoy yourself.”
“Yes, please,” seconded John. “But you may want to avoid trying to strike up any rapport with my daughter. I pretty sure that she’s seen all of you she needs to for now.”
I did join them. It was a wonderful lunch, and they were wonderful people. I never was introduced to John’s daughter though.
In fact, I’m not even sure if she ever really existed. I suspect that she was probably just thrown in to make it a better story.