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But in September 1958, when I started third grade, I found invective had become ineffective; now it enraged my enemies, possibly because they'd found out what the words meant. They'd also grown in size and aggressiveness, and were now more likely to move from assault to battery -- even to use weapons, like rocks and baseball bats. All autumn I begged to stay in during recess, sometimes feigned illness to stay home. My joy at Christmas had nothing to do with Jesus, or with Santa Claus. The New Year brought not hope, but fear.
However, winter worked for me. Through January and February the cold often kept us indoors, and accumulated snow made unpaved portions of the playground unusable; I was able to stay in the teachers' view. But when the weather warmed, we boys were fitted out with balls and bats and sent to the baseball diamonds at the far end of the schoolyard. Here hostilities resumed. By Ash Wednesday, the playing fields of North Elementary had become as the battlefield at Waterloo.
As Lent progressed I searched for strategies. The Commandment said not to take the name of the Lord in vain; but really I wanted Him to get involved, so I started prefacing my counter-invective with "God damn." But the little Philistines were unaffected by obscenity enriched with blasphemy, and my only profit on it was, I learned to curse. Then I tried prayer. I knew the Children of Israel had pled to be delivered from their enemies, and though my image of deliverance had Jehovah riding to the rescue in a truck like the milkman drove, one Psalm of David seemed so perfect that Bethlehem, I divined, must have had its share of bullies. But though I prayed with plagiarized perfection, God failed to "Rid me, and deliver me from the hand of strange children." Reluctantly, I attempted resistance. But I had no training, much less combat experience, and succeeded only in getting myself minorly lacerated, contused, and abraded; majorly humiliated: and totally confused.
For I was, I thought, a good boy; I did no damage unto others, and couldn't see why God allowed others to do damage unto me. I knew the Children of Israel did not always get delivered, but that was because they broke Commandments, which I never -- well almost never -- did. I didn't know what a graven image was, but I didn't think I'd worshipped any; surely I had no gods before God. Nor had I taken His name in vain; it wasn't my fault He hadn't damned anybody. I kept the Sabbath, and had the gold stars to prove it. I knew better than to get smart with my father or mother, or even grandmother. I hadn't killed anybody. Adultery sounded like something I couldn't do -- whatever adultery was. I hadn't stolen anything, except freshly-baked cookies. I hadn't borne false witness; I'd just watched Perry Mason. I had coveted a playmate's red English racer bicycle ... but where was my warning? The Children of Israel always got a growling from some prophet before God punished them. But no hairy old man had said so much as "Woe unto thee" to me.
Then it occurred that it might not be me; I could be one of that third or fourth generation upon whom the iniquity of the fathers was to be visited. Though I couldn't imagine anybody in my patriarchal line hating God, this idea encouraged me to lay the entire matter before my father.
I did this not because my father was my father, but because he was my minister. I had heard him deliver hundreds of what he called meditations (he said sermon was pretentious), not only at tiny Mt. Pisgah but at big churches in major cities -- Pittsburgh, New York, Washington, D.C. I saw him as a modern-day St. Paul. Still, he was my father, and I, like most boys, expected my father to understand rough-and-tumble realities. So, while I phrased the matter theologically, I asked him to please teach me to fight.
This was a request which my father had anticipated, and for which he had prepared what sounded suspiciously like a sermon. First he warned that a reputation for fighting would make me persona non grata -- which was Greek, not Latin, to me. Then he quoted Jesus saying, "all they that take up the sword shall perish with the sword." Then he told me I should read my Bible, specifically, Matthew, Chapter 5. He closed with the familiar homily about sticks and stones.
Though it seemed my father missed the fact that the little Philistines were using sticks and stones, some of his words struck me. For, though I had from a child known the Holy Scriptures, I had learned them piecemeal and by rote, and though I read voraciously, I did not read the Bible. I knew I should; it was a Christian duty, especially for a Methodist. Nor did youth excuse me; if Jesus, at twelve, was amazing rabbis, at my age he must have been reading scrolls forwards. Continued ...
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