Chapter 3: Escape: “God’s Will,” Romance and the Old Time Religion

That fall, I took the bus back to college. It passed through Washington DC, where a young, thin blonde girl got on the bus. Having no other seats available to her, she sat beside me. I have never had difficulty making conversation with anyone, and here there may have been more motivation. I learned that her name was Heidi, she was from Vermont and was going to Salem College to start college that year. Her brother, Dell, was a classmate of mine. She had taken violin lessons from one of the actual sisters who inspired the musical, Sound of Music. Here enters magical thinking. Heidi was going to be living with her grandmother in Salem. Her mother, father, and the rest of the family would be arriving shortly in Salem and would also live with her grandmother. I saw Heidi every chance I could get. Her uncle owned the print shop that hired my dad while he was living in Salem. Her uncle published the monthly magazine of the Seventh Day Church Of God. There, Dad operated the Linotype which was like a typewriter except that it made leaden, reverse image molds of the letters from molten lead, to form a line of text, which, much as a rubber stamp, would then imprint the text upon newsprint. 

Having spent two years in college frustrated and depressed over my difficulties with my trumpet embouchure, I was beginning to explore other instruments. I forgot about the frustrations and felt energized.
The Seventh Day Church of God seemed more traditionally Jewish in its observation of the Sabbath than were Seventh Day Baptists: they ate neither pork nor other biblically unclean meat. In many ways they seem more similar to the Seventh-day Adventists. Also, they observed foot-washing once a year for communion, in commemoration of Jesus’ preparation of his disciples for the Last Supper. I didn’t have a plan for how I would void that, since I am rather protective of sight of my right leg. That is a “polio thing” that I share with many other polio survivors who would like to pretend that it “never happened.” Obviously, since Heidi’s church was the same day as the Seventh Day Baptist Church, I quit attending that church and attended Heidi’s.

Common to all romantic afflictions, the world suddenly appeared rosy, and to a boy growing up in a family sincerely devoted to the service of “God and Man,” it appeared that God was smiling on me. Encouraged by her family’s similar devotion through that denomination, I found myself resorting to religious ideas and formulae from my “pre-– rebellion” days when life seemed so simple when viewed in retrospect, not unlike notions of “the old time religion” that has likely been a recurrent appeal throughout history, whether Christian, pagan, or another. Such was the case of Socrates who had documented his death process upon being administered the hemlock potion as a punishment for leading the Greek youth to atheism. In my euphoric retrogression I wrote a poem for the Seventh Day Church of God denomination’s magazine. Not long ago my mother found a copy that she had saved and sent it to me. It was a recasting of a Psalm in the language of that old time religion to which I had retreated as an escape from a difficult and disappointing experience of the world:

My Grace is Sufficient for You

Oh, Save me, my Father, I cry in despair!
Sin’s waters lick long round my neck.
I sink in the mire;  no foothold to find;
I’m weary;  my life’s but a wreck.

“Oh, Save me, my Father!”  my parched throat cries out,
My eyes grow despondently dim.
Still on do the wicked persistently press.
My life’s at its ebb;  ever grim

And then through the tumult a calm, still small voice,
Brings hope to me;  makes me anew.
Resplendent in glory,  the kind Master says,
“My grace is sufficient for you.”

Though worldliness press you and hope starts to wane;
Foes mount and your friends seem too few,
Take heart, friend, the Master calls even today,
“My grace is sufficient for you!”
–Robert Wheeler

For the first month or so I attended the Seventh Day Church of God rather than the Seventh Day Baptist church. That brought some criticism from one of the music instructors who was a member of the SDB church and thought I ought to be going there. I resisted that, but the more that I attended the Church of God, the more I became concerned with the many observances that were strange to my experience. In time, I began to feel uncomfortable with other practices, which resulted in my sudden and total break of all those relationships and even embarrassment at my retreat into fundamentalist Christianity.

In that third year, I was assigned work-study with Dennis Cox. . At the start of the year, I tried majoring in piano, but it was not natural to me. Shortly after the start of that college year, Dennis suggested that I could major in voice and still graduate on time. He took some pride in knowing what music was good and what was, in his word, “trite.” In time, I came to take his view in distinguishing a genuine artistic expression which satisfies not only the emotional sense, but also the aesthetic and intellectual senses from that which did not. “Trite music” came to mean for me that which had little or no depth, borrowed overused phrases and was simply conventionally pretty rather than genuinely beautiful. It is no wonder, then, that the above poem became an embarrassment to me and my sense of authenticity.

Later that fall, after my escape from the exhilaration of romance and regression into a simple faith of the “old time religion,” an instructor told me of an opening for a choir directing position at the Disciples of Christ church in Clarksburg. I applied for the job and I was hired. Three members of that choir were an older couple and their daughter who was five years older than I. I do not recall how that relationship was initiated. I did not then have a car to drive to Clarksburg but I had to either catch the college van that traveled between the college in Salem and its satellite office in Clarksburg or from one of the administrators in Salem who was a member of that church. In time, her parents invited me to their home after choir practice of a Wednesday evening, after which they drove me back to Salem. Soon, she and I were visiting nightly on the phone, Salem and Clarksburg being connected by a toll-free, local line.

At about that same time, I had purchased a book from a bookstore entitled The Art of Loving by Eric Fromm. That was my first book of his and, frankly, I was surprised that he was a psychoanalyst and not a therapist of a different sort. I knew that she had some emotional problems with her parents and in her waitressing work. I often read to her over the phone from the book, which seemed to address some of her difficulties. I suppose that was an early example of my “fixing” character. In that book, Fromm begins with the premise that one cannot love another well unless one loves himself or herself. I had a psychology class as part of the core curriculum in my major, music education, but it had none of the impact upon me that this book had.

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