Like my dad, whose namesake I am, I have been baptized twice. Sort of. Like everything similar, it is different. I am, after all, a unique individual, just like everyone else.
My dad’s mom, whom I never met because she died of breast cancer at least two years before I was born, was a Calhoun, Irish or Ulster Scots, whichever it is not preventing me from feeling like I can legitimately celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, claiming to be one-quarter Irish. To say I celebrate it is a bit of an overstatement. I wear a little green, or greenish, clothing, which looks good with my skin and hair color which, before I grayed, was auburn, while when I grew beards in my twenties and thirties they were red. That is the complete extent of my celebration of St. Padraig’s day. So I say Irish, not Ulster Scots. Only my one sister, on whose third birthday I was born, thinks it important to distinguish the Irish from Ulster Scots because her husband thinks he is very Scots and thinks he knows the specific clan Tartan and Crest, although I always took his comments as puffery to make his heritage sound like it was worth something. She, my dad’s mom, was a Free Methodist, which my sister, for all I can imagine, probably disputes saying she was a Wesleyan or Nazarene, as if anyone except a Free Methodist, Wesleyan, or Nazarene knows, or for that matter, cares about the difference. Since she, my dad’s mom, died before I was born, I never knew her, even to the point of not knowing her first name, which I barely recall having heard as Leonore or Lenore or Lenora. The pencil pushers at Ellis Island said my dad’s mom’s ancestors were Irish, so I am sticking to the one-quarter Irish position.
My dad’s dad, whom I knew pretty well as my only grandpa, because my mom’s dad died when she was only four or five years old, was a German Catholic, Carl, and took seriously his Catholicism. At least it seemed so to me. In his red four-door 1961 Mercury Comet with fins on the back, hanging from the mirror was a St. Christopher medal, not that it provided fool-proof protection. Five or seven years after my dad and mom got married, my dad’s widowed dad married my mom’s widowed mother, making my parents in some sense step-brother and step-sister, but beyond the age when people would have been able to worry about weird and kinky things going on between them. Not that weird and kinky things weren’t going on between them, but since they were half a dozen years into their marriage together, which at the present moment has continued well for over sixty years, one should permit some weird and kinky things. My oldest sister was riding in the Comet between my grandpa, my dad’s dad, and my grandma, my mom’s mother, who were legally husband and wife then past their tenth year anniversary at least, when they got in an accident well before the days that pre-schoolers through adults were drilled with the “buckle-up for safety” line, not that the seat belts were all that well designed in 1961 Mercury Comets. This was also well before the days of padded dashboards, the 1961 Comet sporting a steel dashboard where, at the sudden impact of the accident, my sister did a dental impression and lost her front teeth. Everyone in our family got to see the dental impression on the dashboard numerous times, for the Comet became our field car. The car was totaled out, but drivable. My dad took his acetylene torch and cut the body off the car from the front widow, doors and roof backward, leaving on only the front bumper, hood, front fenders, front seat, frame and floor pan. He also made and installed a roll bar, just in case. But since we didn’t wear seatbelts driving the car around the fields, I am not sure what protection the roll bar would have given us. We drove that car around fields, down the road when we thought we could get away with it, not from the police but our parents, and in the winter pulled saucers and sleds behind it. With the body gone and no back seat, it also served as a kind of pick-up truck, to haul buckets of dirt or other stuff around our property, including buckets full of poo goo when one year we bailed out our own septic tank.
As a devout Catholic, in spite of whatever protests, if any, Leonore or Lenore or Lenora might have had, and given stories I have heard about her I suspect she did not protest, Carl had Eric baptized in the Church. After that, by mutual agreement between Carl and Leonore or Lenore or Lenora, Eric was permitted, in twenty-first century language, to pursue whatever religion or non-religion he chose. Eric was the youngest of three children, a brother seven years older, and a sister, my Aunt Joyce, by all accounts the favorite Aunt of all my brothers and sisters and mine, ten years older. Growing up, Eric served his time as an altar boy. During several summers, his dad would ship his sister and him out of the city up north fifty miles to an uncle’s farm in a German Catholic community to work for the summer milking cows, taking care of the chickens, haying, and finding a little time to play but a lot of time to enjoy their aunt’s cookies. The brother seven years older than Eric was too weak or lazy or whiny, more likely all three, to be any use up there except to play malicious childhood tricks on. Well, I am not sure you can call it malicious if it is deserved. The victim, and maybe it is not a victim if it is deserved, probably thought it malicious and undeserved. But any impartial bystander would have sided with Eric and Joyce. To this day that middle child is still a bit of a whiner. Our family did not spend a lot of time with his family, who lived twenty miles from us, yet we visited my Aunt Joyce, who lived one-hundred eighty miles away, a handful of times each year and she would bring her brood to visit us a couple of times a year. The middle child even to this day has a voice that I can’t call anything but whiny, a bit nasally and whiny, like the muted trumpet that voices the teacher in Charlie Brown television shows. Mwroonk mwroonk mwroonk.
My mom, Mildred not Millie, was raised, with a sister and two brothers, in poverty by a widowed single mom, Clara, who cleaned houses of the better off for a living, and insisted on training her children to go to the local mission church consistently and to learn not only to read their Bible, or the Bible since there was not more than one in the house, but also to treasure what they read in the Bible. In other words, Mildred grew up in a devout and pious Protestant home. When Mildred was fifteen, her friend had set her up on a blind date to go roller skating at Ramona Gardens. When Eric showed up, handsome, athletic, and, although German, looking all the part of an Italian movie star, Mildred thought he was the one set-up for her. She introduced herself, paired up and headed off to go roller skating, leaving whoever it was she was supposed to have gotten pared with to mwroonk, mwroonk, mwroonk, or at least that is how I imagine it. After a year of courtship, not all of it smooth, rather more like a preparation for a long life together where one has to deal with adversity, disagreements, and disputes, they decided to get married. Two years into the marriage the first child came along, the one that was to bite the steel dashboard of the 1961 red four door Mercury Comet with fins on the back.
By the time the second or third child was born, both of whom came in rapid succession, the second one eleven months and twelve days after the first, and the third a year and eighteen days after the second, Mildred determined it her duty to begin attending a local Baptist church, Alpine Baptist Church where she and her children could be taught to be good Christian people. The story passed along the family is that Mildred told Eric she was going and taking the kids to church, that he was welcome to come along, and that if he didn’t want to she was going anyways. Mildred can be a bit of a take-charge sort of person, even one who has a short temper and is not going to keep her feelings bottled up, sometimes a bit blunt, which she regards as just being honest and matter-of-fact. She has had good mental health over the years in part because of all that. But she has also on occasion dug herself some relationship holes that required a few years and much forgiveness to fill back in. She probably knew in the back of her mind that, given the devotion and commitment that Eric and Mildred had for each other, and their joint, deep commitment to the good of their family, he would join her, if not immediately, in going to church together. It didn’t happen right away. Mildred learned that the church had a softball team, and Eric was a skilled ball player. Eric heard about the team and wanted to play, but a condition of playing was that he had to attend church. So in part due to his devotion to Mildred and to his family, in part to his passion to play ball, Eric began to attend the Baptist church, initially more so that he could play ball. Both the Sunday preaching and the Thursday night kindness and camaraderie of his softball team mates led Eric to make a commitment to be a daily devotee of Jesus, or as they say in the Baptist church, to ask Jesus into his heart.
Eric’s commitment to Jesus took place in the summer before my birth. The Baptists took this as his first commitment, not one renewed from his youth and all the days his father and uncles took him to church or his catechism and confirmation or his days as an altar boy, together with Leonore or Lenore or Lenora’s Freely Methodizing him. Whatever it was, only Eric and God know for sure. As is, or used to be at least, the wont of Baptists, once a person makes that commitment, they are urged soon, as adult or in some other way accountable believers, to get Baptized as a sign of allegiance to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, and as a sign of the washing away of the guilt and consequence of being born a sinner living a life opposed to God, but now, with allegiance to Jesus, or maybe better put Jesus’ allegiance to you, you are no longer a sinner living a life opposed to God. You are still a sinner, just not living in opposition to God. Mildred had never been baptized. So the two of them decided that, at the church’s next baptismal service, they would both get baptized. The next service was on a cool late October Sunday. The water heater at the church wasn’t working, so the water in the baptismal font—for those unfamiliar with full immersion Baptists, a Baptist baptismal font is about the size of a two or four person hot tub, only deeper, with the water coming up to about rib height and nowhere near as warm—was below room temperature, not even 60 degrees. When my dad and mom stepped down into the cool waters, with me in her ready to be born about six weeks later, she let out a gasp that was heard throughout the congregation, bringing a few snickers and requiring a brief explanation from the pastor. Even though I was there at my first baptism, I experienced none of it. Eric and Mildred were baptized, Eric for the second time and Mildred for the first.
My second baptism came just over eight years later in January of 1966. We had a 1965 Chevrolet Suburban. Back then they were not the luxury vehicles they are today. At that time, they were mostly a pick-up truck with the rear window moved to the back tailgate, a body enclosing it all in, with some bench seats bolted to what had been the bed of the pick-up. And ours was minimally accessorized. No carpet or even floor mats. No power anything except that it did have an electric starter, lights, and turn signals. A small 283 cubic inch V-8 with a three speed shifter, the shift lever on the steering column. It did have an AM radio, and a heater good for April through October. With no carpet or body insulation, unless you were in the front seat you didn’t feel much heat except for being crammed with your other six siblings tightly together in the seats. Conversely, with no insulation the mid-summer sunny hot days turned the interior into a slow-cooker. The baptismal service when I experienced my second baptism, the first one I remember, was on a cold Sunday evening in January. Fortunately for me the water heater was working. I remember next to nothing about the service, what I said, how I felt, who else was there. I think the preacher was Pastor Early, and I think his first name, which children could never utter, was Thomas. No one called him Pastor Thomas. It was always Pastor Early. But I think it was Thomas since that is what I must have read on the sign out front. Alpine Baptist Church is where I best remember standing next to my dad hearing him sing with gusto, although Baptists wouldn’t use that word since in the 1960s it was mostly associated with a Schlitz beer commercial that ran on television 1963-1967 with the line “You only go around once in life so you’ve got to grab for all the gusto you can.” The songs I remember him seeming to love best include “In the Garden,” “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder,” “Trust and Obey,” “He Leadeth Me,” “Blessed Assurance,” “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” “Blessed Be the Name,” “I Will Sing the Wondrous Story,” “At the Cross,” “Nothing But the Blood,” “There is Power in the Blood,” “At Calvary,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Faith is the Victory,” and countless others. While I remember nothing about my baptism, my second baptism, or the baptismal service, I remember one thing and one thing only. When we got home that night, I forgot to get my wet clothes, wrapped up in a towel, out of the Suburban and in that cold January night my clothes froze rock solid. I remembered them the next morning, and before the school bus came to take us to school, I went out to the Suburban, got my frozen clothes, and took them to put in the laundry tubs in the basement to thaw out so my mom could wash them.