I met Bill Rasmussen in Fourth Grade at Mills Elementary School in Benicia, California. Bill came from a large, poor family who lived in a big house on East J street. His mother, June, was very good at stretching dollars. She baked her own bread, served Carnation powdered milk, and forced the family to go vegetarian so they wouldn’t starve. Bill’s father, Larry, was a carpenter. He chose the job in honor of his childhood hero, Jesus.
The Rasmussens were good Christians – the kind that would never judge you to your face. They forgave me for my many transgressions. I brought the Devil’s music to their house when I played a 45 rpm single of “YMCA” by the Village People, following it up with the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. When they found out I was a Jew, they lost it. June made an ultimatum – either I go to their church to save my soul from the burning pits of hell, or I would no longer be allowed to play with Bill. Bill and I were in the middle of a major architectural project – a two story fort in my back yard. I couldn’t abandon the project, so I agreed.
Mom was on a pink cloud at the time. She had just met her future second ex-husband Dick Dusenberry. When I asked if I could go to church, she didn’t think twice.
“You go and let me know what you find out.”
So with trepidation, I met up with Bill and his family and we piled into the Town and Country station to cross the poverty line on East 5th and go to the equivalent of the wrong side of the tracks in a town too small to have a railroad stop any more. The Calvary Community church was a humble structure across the street from the Mohawk gas station and McInerney’s Liquors. The neighborhood at 6th and L was mostly trailer parks. The church was packed to the rafters with devout Christians who had gravitated to the middle of the Baptist road, then took a left turn. Calvary was the ecclesiastical equivalent of Soft Rock. They cherry-picked their theology from the many adherents of the Southern Baptist Convention, but were no longer members. They broke away to ensure their followers would have the best possible chance of getting into heaven.
“Broad is the road that leads to death, and thousands march together there; wisdom shows a narrow path with here and there a follower.” June explained that it was pretty likely I was going to hell, since it was predetermined, but I could spend my Sundays among people chosen to go to heaven, and I just might make the waitlist.
Having recently been exposed to the trickery of Santa Claus and the great Tooth Fairy deception, I took June’s words with a grain of salt. I was pretty sure that Hell, Jesus, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy were not real. I was going to church so Bill and I could finish our fort and move in together. I didn’t know I was gay yet, but when I look back at my relationship with Bill, I realize that building a two story fort in which to live with another guy was a little bit gay.
I was lousy with a hammer, but I had a vision. Bill, son of a carpenter, could drive a nail in two blows. Bill frequently reminded me that I was just an assistant, and the fort was his creation. It took years for me to realize that I was the architect. I supplied the land. When we found thousands of abandoned school books dumped in an empty lot, I designed the library where we would house them. I sourced all the wood in empty lots. Bill and I dragged the abandoned plywood and two-by-fours together. I brought in an outside contractor, Dick Dusenberry, to build the base structured strong enough to hold up our second story. And I held the wood in place while Bill nailed it together. But at the time, I believed that my contribution was pretty worthless. All I knew was that I needed to be there to make sure the fort was completed. It was our home.
Bill’s father Larry Rasmussen liked me, because I had gotten his awkward son involved in a project worthy of praise. He came to inspect the two story fort and whistled. Judging by Bill’s face, I knew the whistle was appreciative. Larry’s face was flat as stone and never betrayed an emotion. But I almost sensed the crack of a smile when he admired our structure for the first time.
We had sleepovers with Alec Carey and Robert Summers. Alec was my friend with a perfect mom. His mother got me in trouble in a kimono debacle during the Japanese Hot Tang ceremony at my school, but I loved her. Robert Summers was a russet-haired, freckle-faced member of the church. He went to private Christian school in Vallejo because he was rich.
I met Robert’s mother, Sherry Summers, one Sunday morning after a sleepover in the fort. She pulled up in front of my house in a flying saucer called an AMC Pacer. It was maroon with a white leather interior. Sherry explained the color of her Pacer was “Christ’s Blood” and the interior was “Immaculate Corinthian Leather.”
Sherry was divorced. She exerted a lot of effort to try and push her name up the waitlist to undo the damage her divorce had caused to her candidacy for heaven. When I called Robert, Sherry answered the phone, “Praise the Lord.” She told me that she wouldn’t want to talk to anyone who would hang up after that.
The tiny church was growing. The pastor was uncharismatic. He probably should have been at a desk job where he didn’t need to talk to people. His voice was soporific. I fell asleep repeatedly during his two hour sermons. The only reason I could stand to sit through them was because he had the good sense to break it up with song and communion. Every half hour, the choir would rise and the leader, Paul Treat, would lead them in song.
Paul Treat was a devastatingly handsome bachelor with “the voice of an angel” according to the women in the congregation. The men kept their opinions of his voice and lifestyle to themselves. He sang great Baptist classics like “I’m Not Ashamed of Jesus” (my favorite) and “Panting for Heaven.” He was a Soprano. The notes rose to the rafters and woke up the many sleepy congregants who were fighting to stay awake through the monotonous sermon.
I sang loud until I noticed other people looking at me. It turns out that enthusiasm is only one ingredient needed to sing well. I quieted down and mouthed the lyrics silently for a few weeks. Sherry Summers took me aside.
“Duncan, how come you stopped singing?”
“Because June kept looking at me. I wasn’t singing right.”
“Singing right? That’s the choir’s job. Jesus needs to hear your voice.”
I didn’t think Jesus liked my voice so I kept quiet from then on. Sherry meant well, but she couldn’t break through my lack of confidence.
The best break came near the end of the sermon: communion. We got to eat crackers and grape juice which were supposed to be the flesh and blood of Christ himself. That made no sense, but the boost to my blood sugar was welcome.
The church was too small for classrooms, so we didn’t get Sunday School. There was a weekly passing of the plate for usual church business, but they passed a second time to go to the “Construction Fund”. An anonymous donor granted the church a large plot of land beside a freeway onramp at the far west end of town, in the good neighborhood. They had hired an architect with the Architect Fund, and now they were breaking ground. The building was ambitious – a masterpiece of late 1970’s environmental attentiveness. There would be wood paneled classrooms for Sunday School, a high vaulted ceiling, choir practice rooms, stained glass, skylights and lots of redwood. One Sunday after Church, Sherry Summers drove us in her Jesus blood-red spaceship to the new church. It needed a roof. The recent rains had brought mud into the main chapel. At the rear of the main chapel was a hot tub.
Sherry smiled. “That’s where we baptize new believers.”
I had only been in one hot tub in my life. It was in Berkeley at the house of Dave and Vera Mae Masterson, local luminaries on the folk music scene. I wore my underwear, but all the adults stripped naked. It was awkward and extremely exciting in equal measure. Once I saw that hot tub, I grew obsessed.
At the rate donations were going, the church would be finished when I was a seventh grader. But then a miracle happened. On a night when nobody was in church, not even the pastor or the bookkeeper, the old church caught fire and burned to the ground. The Mohawk gas station also burned, blowing up half the block. Not a single trailer was harmed. McInerney’s was closed at the time, and they had enough fire damage to warrant a rebuild. The church was a smoldering pile of rubble.
The Mohawk gas station had been abandoned for ten years. When Mom met Dick Dusenberry at the pool table in Rosebud’s Ice Cream parlor, she didn’t know that he was living at the Mohawk with his friend Fred. When Fred told her about their prior living arrangement over a few beers at the ice cream parlor, he also said something that enraged Dick. The next day, Fred had a black eye. When I asked Mom why Dick punched Fred, she was vague. “He said some things he shouldn’t have. Lies.”
“So Dick didn’t live in the gas station with him?”
“No, he did. The lies were — well, never mind.”
With the gas station gone, Dick’s pied a terre had vanished, so he moved in full time. They married a few months later.
Dick told a lot of fag jokes. “What do you do when you drop your keys on Eddy Street? Kick them down to Market then pick them up.” He pranced around and spoke in a lisp because it made my mother laugh. I wasn’t sure what “fags” were. Mom said, “They’re men who are sick. They don’t want girlfriends. They want boyfriends.” Or at least that’s what I heard. It was too soon for me to realize I was gay. Hearing about this alternative lifestyle caused deep turmoil. I didn’t want to be gay.
At the rent-a-tent in the new church location, we spent ten minutes in silent prayer. I prayed to God, “Why did you make men like that? How could you ever create something so disgusting? Why would men want to be with each other?” God answered my prayer and my questions a few years later.
With the insurance settlement, the new church was finished in under three months. Sherry used her catchphrase, “Praise the Lord.” at every opportunity. She had taken to driving me home from the tent church, because there were murmurs that my soul was in peril. She told me that if I ever had doubts about the path of the Lord, I could call her.
“Sherry, I want to be baptized.”
“Praise the Lord.”
It turns out I needed to attend three months of Sunday School before I could be baptized. The church had its grand opening in April. Sunday School started the following week. At first it was taught by the church bookkeeper, Judy Mudd, a frazzled woman with a worried face. She gave us all a red-letter version of the Bible so we could distinguish between the Word of Jesus and the “other nonsense”.
“When in doubt, refer to Jesus. Paul, Moses and the others are not the revealed word of God.”
Judy Mudd was promptly returned to her position as bookkeeper; replaced by a “real” Sunday School teacher, Miss Declerc, the following week.
Miss Declerc came from somewhere in the Louisiana Purchase, and she had an accent that amused all of us. We asked her to tell the story of “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego” over and over because we loved how she pronounced their names. “Shadrayack, Mayshayack, and Abenda-go”. Miss Declerc never understood why we demanded to hear the story, but she was proud that her kids had faith that could save them from the fiery furnace of Hell. She was unable to pronounce “Nebuchadnezzar” so she called him “King Nebchazazzer.”
I made a horrible mistake that nearly cost my Baptism. Miss Declerc was teaching a lesson on “The Holy Trinity.”
She said, “So there is God – our Father in Heaven, Jesus – His Son who died for our sins, and the Holy Spirit.”
I raised my hand. “Yes, Duncan?”
“Didn’t the Bible say there’s only one God?”
She frowned. “Yes, I just said that. God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.”
“That’s three.” I was no great mathematician. I had recently had a nervous breakdown over adding and multiplying fractions. But I could count.
“No, it’s one.”
The rest of the class took my side. I had more questions. “Who is the Holy Spirit? Is he Jesus’s cousin?”
“The Holy Spirit, young man, is not a he.”
“Sorry. Who is she?”
Miss Declerc couldn’t answer my questions. Nobody can, in my opinion. The truth is, there’s a huge mathematical error at the heart of the Christian faith. When I heard about the Saints, I just just shook my head.
News of my insubordination led to suspension from Sunday School and a lecture from the Pastor himself.
“Duncan, Eve ate of the tree of knowledge, bringing sin to all her offspring. You have the sin of knowledge. We can’t baptize you if you embrace your knowledge like this.”
“But if I have one apple, and I add another, how many do I have?”
The Pastor messed with my mind. “It’s an illusion. We’re all that apple. There is only one apple, no matter how many you think we have.”
I wanted to be baptized way more than I wanted to win the argument with the pastor, so I nodded and suppressed a shrug and a roll of the eyes.
I was allowed to return to Miss Declerc’s class if I promised not to ask questions. I was already over a month in, so I figured I could manage a few more weeks of nonsense. We switched to the Gospels my first week back. I loved the Beatitudes. I loved the turning of the cheek. It all made scientific sense, and resonated with my peaceful nature. The best way to stop a fight is to not fight. If you are meek (which I was – I was a total wuss) then you inherit the Earth. It turned out they were talking about Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerburg, but it gave me hope at the time. The red-letter words of Jesus set me up for a pretty deep understanding of non-violence. I marveled silently to myself how Gandhi and Martin Luther King had put Jesus’s methods into action. It was frustrating not to be able to raise my hand and talk about it, but I kept the hot tub in my mind’s eye and stayed my tongue.
The Pastor set the date for my Baptism in June. He said that my parents would need to be present. To my surprise, my Mom and Dick agreed to attend. I wish they hadn’t.
On the morning of the baptism, we got into Dick’s beat-up orange Mazda. The car broke down, as usual. Dick knew how to fix it, and did. We arrived late to the church.
The good news was that the baptism came at the end. Paul Treat, the choir leader, escorted me to a small room and turned away to let me change into my white robes. I was so excited to get in the hot tub, I put the robe on backwards. Paul helped me turn it around.
“Your cue will be ‘Shall We Gather at the River’. You enter through here. He pulled a curtain between two bookshelves, revealing a dark, winding passage. It looked like a haunted house. The church was too new to be haunted. It still had that chemical plywood and pressboard smell everywhere.
After a long wait, I heard Paul Treat belt out “Shall we gather at the river, Where bright angel feet have trod…”
I ran down the passageway, barreling into the Pastor who nearly fell into the giant hot tub.
The next few minutes are fuzzy. Stage fright hadn’t figured in my rosy dreams of my hot tub baptism. I remember feeling disappointed, but not surprised, that there were no naked people in the hot tub. I remember seeing my parents in the front row, laughing at me while June, Larry and Sherry glared at them. The pastor shocked me when he forced my head under the water. When he released his hold, I rose out of the water. The Pastor declared baptized. The air conditioning made getting out of the warm water an unpleasant shock. Paul Treat handed me my underwear and told me to put it on before I took off the robe. The soaking wet robe was plastered to my skin, but I managed to pull it off. Paul gave me a towel and left me to get dressed.
Out in the parking lot, my Mother and Dick were enjoying several private jokes.
Dick asked, “Are you saved?”
My mother guffawed. “Is your soul no longer in peril?”
They kept mocking me. I was supposed to go with the Rasmussens to Foster’s Freeze for a parfait sundae, but Mom wouldn’t let me.
In the Orange Mazda, belching smoke, Dick said, “Who was that faggot choir leader?”
I didn’t defend Paul. I didn’t answer. I realize now this was a sin.
Mom said, “He sang in falsetto.”
“So?” I asked.
“It’s like cheating.”
I was furious. “I think it sounds beautiful. Paul has a beautiful voice.”
Dick said, “What a crock of shit.”
Then a miracle happened. A song came pouring out of my mouth in perfect tune at top volume.
Jesus and shall it ever be,
A mortal man ashamed of thee?
Ashamed of Thee whom angels praise,
Whose glories shine through endless days.
Mom and Dick stopped laughing. “That’s enough.”
It wasn’t enough.
Ashamed of Jesus! Just as soon
Let midnight be ashamed of noon.
‘Tis midnight with my soul till He,
Bright morning star, bids darkness flee!
I never went back to church. I heard from Bill that my Mom and Dick succeeded in offending everyone present. It was a painful conversation. I wasn’t ashamed of Jesus and his peaceful message; I was ashamed of my tiny family.
Because I was baptized, June gave Bill permission to continue to play with me. I was welcomed back to their house until I brought a 45-RPM of Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby.” We finished the two story fort. It was so well-built, the landlord had to hire a bulldozer to knock it down.
A few weeks later, my mother begrudgingly gave me a phone message. ‘Call Sherry Summers.”
The phone rang twice before she picked up. “Praise the Lord.”
“Hi Sherry. I got a message to call you.”
“Bless your heart and you did. I miss you in church, but I understand why you decided to come back. It’s just fine. Jesus loves you no matter what.”
“Was that the reason you called?”
“No. I want you to keep singing, Duncan. June told me you have a beautiful voice.”
“Then why did she look at me that way?”
Sherry said, “June was shocked that you had the voice of an angel. Okay, Jesus loves you and Praise the Lord.”
“Praise the Lord.”