Salvation and Bliss
In the summer of 1960, circumstances forced me, against my will, to accept Jesus Christ as my lord and savior. At least two of us, Jesus and I, knew at the time that I did not truly mean it. And we both knew that sex was the cause of it all.
Somehow repression turns out to be the one agent that can color sex with the most importance, and in that time and place, in the town of Bliss, Texas, an all-white Dallas suburb; in the early 60s, in a place which at that time was proud of the fact that it had no black residents within its city limits; in a dry county, where no alcohol could be bought at any time, except perhaps if you'd known the druggist long enough; where "blue laws" forced grocers to cover aisles containing non-food items with netting on Sundays, lest the heathens attempt to buy a roll of tape on the Lord's Day; there and then, to us, boys in our early teens, sex was everything: though we pretended otherwise, there was nothing else.
Bliss had been a small town, 500 or so residents, when my dad came back from the war with his buddy Dan, and married the cousin of Dan's wife Helen. Bliss grew, but slowly. Today, more than two dozen millionaires live in Bliss, including several members of the Dallas Cowboys. But in 1960, the only millionaires we knew of were H.L. Hunt and John Baresford Tipton, and one seemed as real as the other.
For all its significance, sex remained an enigma, a mystic secret held deep in the minds of a generation of Bliss boys: boys who staked out summertime positions in trees near the homes of certain girls; boys who squirreled away torn and ratty pages from "nudist" or "art" magazines stolen from the trash behind the barber shop; Bliss boys who would never admit they had taken a stray cat up into the loft above the garage to learn, alone, the painful lesson that there was, indeed, no way even to begin to fuck such an animal.
The 1960 adolescents of Bliss had so little real knowledge of sex that sex held for us entirely too much meaning. Since all sexual meanings and truths were undefined, sex gleamed so brightly in the light of its own aura few details of it could be made out. Looking at sex, up to the age of 15 or so, older for some, was like looking directly at God, or an eclipse, or that explosion of the atom bomb we all knew was soon to come. We knew we needed some sort of special glasses for "safe viewing" of such events, but in spite of our lack of the proper equipment, the force of the spectacle made it impossible for us to turn away. We dreamed of Dallas under a fiery white mushroom, and of our female classmates, and of other wonders of which we could not speak.
The power of our lust caused it to mutate into a deeply individual thing, so that we were often unable to discuss it, or even to refer to it at all, except in terms of its objects. The lengths to which we would go to feed, yet to deny this lust, remained secret as well.
For example, while once engaged in a bit of birdwatching outside the home of one Doris Singleton, over on Greenfield Avenue, the main street running through Bliss, my friend John Fogg broke his arm, having lost the grip on his limb at a particularly weightless moment. As John told me later, he leapt to his feet, jumped two fences, ran home, grabbed his bike, circled in the driveway and, steering with one hand, crashed into his own garage, breaking the arm again. "The brakes didn't work," he told his dad, the Reverend Fogg. His explanation for the pair of WW-II Army surplus field glasses found strung around his neck: "I was coming home from birdwatching at the lake."
"I forgot I still had them," he told me later. Of course, he never mentioned what he'd actually been doing, even to me; but to me, he hadn't needed to.
We searched for the magic glasses through which to view sex safely and clearly, and passed back and forth rumors that would later be forgotten, as too impossibly stupid ever to have been seriously held. Some had seen their female relatives partially naked, but with no basis for comparison, none were certain of what they had seen. The pictures in the magazines were still more confusing.
I had such a magazine, stolen from my father's closet, called the Swedish Sun-Worshipers Journal, in which naked, Scandinavian-looking women played endless summer games of volleyball, on a softly-focused, strangely-faded black and white beach. Their breasts were wonderful, an identifying sexual feature with which we were all familiar, but their groins held no clue: airbrushed as they were to clean, perfect blankness, they looked like living Barbie Dolls. They looked good, nonetheless. I never showed the magazine to anyone.
Billy Turner had seen his mother naked, and was sure he had spotted a beautiful penis in the growth of hair "down there." Pubic hair was no mystery to us, but whether or not women had pubic hair . . . remember the nudists . . . and what, if anything, lurked within it, was a subject of much dispute. As to what one would do with a woman's "beautiful penis," none of us knew, but we all wanted to find out.
Still, for all our unfamiliarity with the details of our lust, our lack of specifics only intensified our need to know, or to find a way to express our lust to its object, or objects. For some time, my object had been a 14 year-old girl by the name of Lillian Rose.
Lillian Rose. Coppery red hair. Tiny, but with legs that seemed unimaginably long and slender.
Breasts were the essence of Lillian Rose. In sixth grade, sudden as Texas spring hail, breasts appeared on Lillian Rose, seemingly overnight: so unexpectedly they affected her equilibrium. In response to a sudden weight that threatened to pull her over on her nose, Lillian Rose effected that wonderful, shoulders back, erect posture that is enticing on anyone, but a terrible and inspiring attribute on a tiny woman with breasts each suddenly the size of her face.
She wore ribbons in her long hair, often. A button nose highlighted her friendly, round little smiling face. Lillian Rose.
Sex was on all our minds night and day, but somehow, among my friends, there was tacit agreement that Lillian Rose was above all that. Those semi-rebels I hung out with spoke of her only obliquely, calling her Big Rose, and her 13 year-old sister Ruby, at 5 feet a bare 2 inches shorter, Little Rose. For some reason, no one spoke of the Roses, little or big, in terms of sex, though sex was a topic rarely missing from any other conversation, and although the Roses were rarely absent from our small town circle of happenings, public thoughts of sex intersected with the Roses only rarely. Somehow, Lillian was one of the guys. Perhaps no one else looked at her like I did, saw her with my eyes. Perhaps no one else was paying attention.
Most oddly, Lillian's finest features were somehow never mentioned, causing them to take on the aspect, in my mind at least, of twinned sacred totems, the divine unnameables, the blessed unmentionables. There were dissertations on grapefruits, melons, pancake tits, baseball tits, D-cups, ice cream scoops, but nothing about Lillian's Roses. I always felt it was a silence too sacred to break, not for me to say, and kept my mouth shut as well.
I can't determine exactly what part religion played in the creation of this strange environment, except that its deep, underlying sense of repression heightened everyone's sensitivity, at a very sensitive point in our lives, in those simple times, and that the social aspects of the church drew us together. Most of us had no choice but to attend church, and all my closest friends were First Baptists, thrown together as we were so frequently simply because Bliss First Baptist took up so much of our time. We were there each Wednesday night, for meetings and services, often on Saturday, just about every holiday, and twice on Sunday. We all attended Vacation Bible School together for years.
Each function ended with a "call," a request that one commit ones soul to Christ. By this time in my life, everyone I knew had done so but me. Bliss First, a Southern Baptist Church, practiced full immersion baptism, in a font located center-stage, behind the choir, concealed by golden draperies, surmounted by a giant, golden cross. So many lights shone up through and down upon that water during the monthly baptism rites, a blind cave fish could have seen Jesus. I was no more eager to enter those waters than to take a toaster with me into the bathtub.
My strange religious deficiency was looked upon as shameful, as a signature of fear and disbelief, as a deep personal embarrassment. Many had gone down the aisle more than once. Many went down annually, some monthly, a few even more often. After the first baptism, further dunkings were not necessary, except in extreme cases . . . soldiers coming home from Korea had been an example. Additional commitments, risings and comings down, were viewed as a blessing, as a tribute to God. That I could not do this even once, placed me in a category I inhabited alone.
There was nothing good about this small rebellion, unless one could argue there was something bad about making the commitment I could not make, that all others had made; and I could not, or would not argue this. I had no quarrel with anyone else's commitment, I simply could not locate one of my own. Pressure was always there to "join the church" (although my parents made sure I never missed a meeting, I could not "join" without making my "vow"), but at church functions, this pressure was rarely overt.
But it was a custom in those days to "witness" to others . . . perhaps it is still. Used as a verb, one "witnessed" not in the usual sense of seeing something, but more along the lines of "providing an example to others of that which one had witnessed." Having experienced a personal conversion, it was a sort of duty to "witness" to others of the rapture of this event, or so it was explained.
In practice, one arrived unbidden at the home of a selected sinner, preferably one of some social acquaintance, who would therefore be unable to toss one out, and proceeded to harass that person into the guilty admission of some generalized sin, in hope of the forced acceptance of baptism and church membership. The alternative to eventual conversion, it was more or less stated, was current ostracism, future hellfire and eternal damnation. The choice was meant to be obvious.
This need to threaten and convince others was taken as a solemn religious duty by a surprisingly large number of church members. Success at witnessing was termed "saving a soul," and supposedly earned great quantities of eventual heavenly perquisites, applause in heaven, or something, for those successful in marketing the praise of the Lord.
As putative Christians, my parents could not refuse entrance to the groups of church elders that sought me out for the occasional browbeating. My old man was always cool, knew all the answers to all the questions, nodded sagely and waited them out. He had been baptized at Bliss First before his marriage to my mother, and had rarely been back, though he always managed to make sure I went.
My mother was always flustered at these times, probably feeling she should have been attending church regularly, but explaining to herself that she was performing some valuable wifely act by staying home with my dad. At any rate, she had been a bonafide church member since the age of 5.
The focus always ended up on me, as the oldest of an unbaptized litter, and I thought I withstood it fairly well. I nodded yes, except when asked if I was prepared to jump in the tub and get it over with, at which point I muttered something as to how I was "just not ready," and prayed with them as they prayed for me, and even thanked them as they finally left. I never felt inadequacy more deeply than standing in my own front doorway, watching the witnesses leave, soul clutched tightly in both hands, heart beating madly, watching the smiles fade, the frowns appear on the faces of my parents.
Until the last time. My final "visitation" was by the Rose family. Mr. Rose, a deacon of the church, seemed, like an elementary school teacher, to use "Mister" for his first name, though I later learned he sold cotton at the trade mart and was known there as "Darrel." Mrs. Rose was a large but short woman, seemingly a pair of enormous breasts with a little smiling head, and dimply smiling legs. The Rose daughters, Lillian and Ruby, attended, along with their younger brother Bud. Bud Rose enlisted in the Army some years later, and never came back from Vietnam . . . it always seemed likely to me that he was driven up some hazardous hill, chased by his misbegotten name, but there is no way to know for sure. I looked up his name on the wall, and found it under 1969, after I moved to D.C.
Bud looked at his feet, and Ruby watched me like I was an odd bug specimen, pinned to a board, but Lillian smiled sadly, actually reached out and touched my hand. And for just a while, my life changed.
"I think I will, soon." I said, looking into Lillian's green eyes. "I've been waiting for the spirit to move me, and I can feel it happening." It surprised me to string all these words together in such painful circumstances. Moreover, it was the perfect thing to say, as everyone lightened up considerably, and Lillian smiled at me in a way no woman had ever smiled at me before. I will never be sure of this, but I think the idea of her intersection between my pain and my conversion was a bit of a turn-on for Lillian.
As I had said, the spirit was moving me, as well. I hoped for a long prayer, and got one, and thought frantically of exposure, pain, and my grandmother until my erection subsided enough for me to stand. But now I was all but committed.
If I went through with it, Mr. Rose would take it as another "jewel in his crown." The idea of Mr. Rose wearing a crown, in his celestial robes, with his black wingtips, was strangely disheartening. But now Lillian expected it of me, and certainly I had been moved, by something.
It took little introspection to prove what. Lillian looked back at me, smiled and waved, strolled down my front walk, tucked her slender legs into the back of Mr. Rose's severe-looking, gray 1960 Ford 4-door, and I moved to sit down again, hands in my lap.
Mother said, "I knew you'd come around," as she patted my head. Dad disappeared behind his paper, ignoring it all but, I think now, understanding it better than I did. It almost never occurred to him to explain things to me; it was always like a game with us, where I figured things out, and he told me if it turned out I was wrong.
But in the code of honor current among Bliss boys, I had a debt to pay. Lillian had made her requirements of me understood, and though I was not sure what the payoff might be, one Wednesday evening, at prayer meeting, with Lillian and the others watching, I stood after the call for commitment, and walked down the aisle in utter fear for my soul, almost convinced that I had one, ashamed to look at Lillian Rose or the others, even to see the smiles, or share the happiness, knowing the calculating depths of my transgression: knowing I was moved by no commitment I could dare explain. Even later, as they patted me on the back and shook my hand, I only met Lillian's eyes.
I had never been able to talk to girls before; at 14, girls scared me because something about them seemed so important, and because of my lifelong fear of making mistakes. But I learned I could talk easily to Lillian, now that I was no longer afraid to try, and over cherry/lime Dr. Peppers at the Carnap Drug Store soda fountain, the social center of Bliss, Texas, I learned what it meant to talk to a woman as a friend.
Sadly, though at first Lillian moved me almost to orgasm by her mere presence, and though she always maintained an energizing effect on me, I soon came to know that the rivers beneath Lillian Rose ran crosswise to the direction of my spiritual travel. For sensuality, talking to her was a bit like talking to John's sister Martha, whom I dated occasionally, and who was only slightly more interesting to be with than my own little sister. The few things we had in common, she had only slight knowledge of or regard for; her main interests consisted of what I considered at the time "girl stuff," and "church stuff," two areas which I found held little appeal.
Worse, she seemed to share none of my feelings of arousal, and in fact to have a strangely dampening effect on me, the more I talked to her. In short, while I enjoyed basking in her female presence, when we started to interact, there was no interaction. The spark died on its own. The thing about Lillian Rose that had seemed to set her apart from other women turned out to be her lack of sexuality, for me, at least, as I guess it had been for all of us, all along. It came as no surprise to me that I was the last to see this. At any rate, never one to take sex lightly, I was unable from then on to think of sex while thinking of Lillian Rose, especially if Lillian Rose was there in the room.
Lillian was resolved to attend college. Further, Lillian would date no one until after college; this was a prerequisite of her father's support of her college expenses, with which Lillian was in full agreement. After college! Impossible. I knew my dick would explode long before, and the sexual appeal of Lillian, never more than a vague idea, began to fade. Lillian Rose ceased to appear in my fantasies, although gradually she became one of my better friends. We corresponded long after, and I came to rely upon the simple common sense that always seemed to underlie her advice; it seemed that she genuinely did care for me, whatever her reason. And we did share one further experience I have not forgotten.
As to sex, a couple years later, on the occasion of my 16th birthday, I began driving my own 1950 Studebaker, purchased for $50, to be used as transportation to and from my job in a grocery store, and which turned out to provide transportation of a different sort, as well. Therein, I nailed two different flute players at the drive in, on separate occasions of course, and was a year later myself nailed one frantic Wednesday after evening service by the long-underestimated Little Rose herself, Ruby, near the beginning of her heated slide into total, jaded wanton abandon, which led her to eventual SMU sorority membership, and selection as a Cotton Bowl Princess in the Christmas Festival Parade, a parade in which I rode as Santa Claus; another story, indeed.
I came easily to the understanding that there could never be any assignation with Lillian Rose, but it was not rational judgment, more a kind of adolescent honor, or response to a challenge, that drove me to commit what I thought then was my greatest sin: the making of a vow I could not intend.
The object of my faked conversion was unattainable. But I remained committed nonetheless to go through with the ceremonial sin-cleansing that is baptism. To renounce my conversion would have been socially fatal; this was never an option.
To put it off . . . plead illness, for instance . . . would have been to risk further derision. I was, after all, the oldest, by several years, of my crowd to "accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior." That I was not sure what these words meant made no difference. Likewise, the fact that I was cleansing entirely the wrong sins had not escaped me.
But as my baptism approached, I actually grew ill . . . I sickened, as they used to say. Had anyone else known the truth of my "conversion," they might have pointed out to me that God was already punishing me for my inept horny hypocrisy, but though I truly believed the water might boil, I was learning for the first time what would be a vital lesson for me, that in this as in so many things, I was doing it to myself.
Worse yet, I was to be baptized by the Reverend Jonas Fogg. His crazy son John, my best friend, and I had been in weekly trouble together since the first grade. For infractions ranging from lobbing ripe persimmons into the parking lot during prayer meeting; through skipping church uncountable times; to spending our tithe allowances at the convenience store, and eating, drinking and farting in the back row; to going to other churches on Sunday, and watching priests, Presbyterians and snake handlers, then claiming with vehement truthfulness, "I was so in church!"; and later into seriously drinking and otherwise carousing in a manner not befitting any Baptist, John and I nipped at far too many flavors of forbidden fruit for the Reverend's taste. And if the ideas for these research projects of ours were more often John's to start with, it was due to his knack for visualizing the grand malfunction, rather than any "bad influence" one way or another, that led to our frequent mutual penances.
I came to the garden alone, dangling in the tournefortia outside the door to the nave, awaiting my fate. Reverend Fogg arrived, stern, white-shirted and belted. He stood with a faint smile, adjusting his glasses, seeing through me, as I had known he would. Reverend Fogg always knew what I was thinking, what sort of mischief I was planning, even when I was thinking and planning nothing at all.
Inside Bliss First, he stared only at me as he spoke, and I could not concentrate on his words, certain he could actually see the tits in my mind. I remember trying to erase them, to control my thoughts, but even though I knew tits were no longer really at issue they remained, a wholly-imagined vision stuck in my head, blasphemous in their timing, in their persistence, and in the close detail of their rendering. I stood with two other supplicants, each of them about 9. "Let us pray."
My first sexual experience was, for many years, the most frightening thing in my life: after all, I was quite young, it was dark, and I was alone. But the prospect of my baptism quickly pushed all other fears into the shadows, and even looking back on it, I remember the truth of "fear and trembling" as only a church can provide. Of course, as the joy of sex comes to gives way to its anticipation in the hierarchy of pleasures, it was those moments just before my baptism that I remember as most frightening of all. I was blasted by fear of the unknown, of divine retribution, even simple fear of drowning, for after one went under, was it not ones belief that pulled one up again? Did not the very act of baptism symbolize the trust of the baptized in the Lord, who would save the sinner from inhaling the waters?
Worse still, I feared some deeper retribution for the fact that I knew at heart that I did not believe even in the punishing God himself. It had occurred to me then, on dark, sleepless nights, that the punishment for that must be terrible indeed.
As the organ ceased, the church was silent, but for the occasional cough, and the pounding in my ears as I waded carefully wade across the pool of blinding light. The Reverend Fogg placed his left hand on my neck as I entered the baptismal font, and with his right hand reached behind me onto a small shelf and nabbed a white handkerchief. He held the neatly folded handkerchief in his hand, and spoke to the congregation . . . a few stock phrases concerning my sins, their death and my rebirth . . . just as he had, with minor variations, concerning the two children baptized before me. My stare fixed upon the handkerchief, the initial "F" stitched neatly in the corner, and words ran through my mind like a hawk-chased rabbit: "Failure." "Fantasy."
In my mind's eye, I imagined Reverend Fogg standing there, dressed as always except without his suit coat, smiling at the congregation, looking down into the bubbling water. "He should be up any time. This rarely happens . . ." Spreading the water with his hands, as if to part it, then smiling up again. "Blessed be the Lord, in his infinite wisdom . . ."
The act itself was immensely frightening, then in its execution, oddly perfunctory. Grabbing my nose with his handkerchief-shielded hand, the Reverend Fogg put out a foot, tripped me neatly at the back of my knees, and dragged me under before I could close my eyes. Under so quickly, so briefly, I found myself pulled up again with absolute strength and calm assurance, with pure certainty of control. As much as part of him might have wanted to drown me, the Reverend Fogg was a professional . . . unable to do it any other way. Reverend Fogg pointed the way to me, led me and pointed upward, out of the baptismal, and as I climbed the stairs, the choir burst into song and the curtains closed, he slapped the wet handkerchief into my hand, a damp and strangely appropriate souvenir.
Under his black Baptist church pants, Reverend Fogg wore pinstriped boxer shorts, and black socks with garters into the baptismal. I watched him dress afterward, relief sponging over me, out of the corner of my eye as I dried off and dressed in the small room behind the proscenium. I had never seen a man in garters before, and never did again except in antique skin flicks, a lifetime later. I was certain it was cold, for summer, even after I dressed. I felt myself covered in goose pimples. But as Lillian came close to me my skin smoothed.
Her smile flashed genuine; I hold it, its memory, even now, frozen in time. It contained a look of compassion the like of which I have not seen since. Whether or not she had known the actual reason, Lillian knew she was a part of what had happened, and was genuinely proud of me for what it seemed to her that I had done.
Lillian Rose leaned forward. Her breasts heaved, once, straining against the white broadcloth of her Peter Pan-collared Christian blouse, the heat from them rising to color my cheeks, rising to my temples, pressing in like Christ's own blessed hands, my breath catching with hers, and in that promised blissful moment, as she kissed my right cheek, looked in my eyes, then kissed the left, in the dark sliver of the blink of an eye: salvation, I began to heal.