Thursday, October 12, 2006

Drinking With R.C. Sproul, Jr.

Drinking with RC Sproul Jr

RC Sproul Jr. is the defrocked Pastor and head brewmeister of Saint Peter Presbyterian Church in Bristol, Virginia and Mendota, Virginia. His Holy Grail Bishop's Ale is just awesome!

RC Sproul Jr's Holy Grail Bishop's Ale


RC Sproul Jr's Highlands Study Center - Highlands Ministries
RC Sproul Jr. is also the President, CEO, VP of Marketing, and Chief of Fundraising of the Highlands Study Center (now known as Highlands Ministries).

Most people only know of RC Sproul Jr. because he's the namesake of a famous, highly respected, and very intelligent theologian. But some of us actually know RC Sproul, Jr. up close and personal. We call him "RC 2.0" or just plain, "Junior." 

One of the most important things to know about RC Sproul Jr. is that he likes to party, and he's mighty proud of it!

Drinking with Calvin and LutherR.C. Sproul Jr.'s favorite book is Jim West's Drinking With Calvin and Luther. In fact R.C. wrote the Forward for the book. If you're lookin' for a partyin' church, Saint Peter Presbyterian Church is the place for you! We may not be able to actually drink with Calvin and Luther, but we sure do drink with RC!

"We're Presbyterians so we smoke and drink!"

R.C. Sproul, Jr.

R.C. often reminds us in his sermons that, "We're Presbyterians, so we smoke and we drink!" Waaahoo RC! Let's party! Party on RC!

Beer -- it's not just for breakfast anymore!

A lot of us never got to go to a kegger when we were in college (bummer). But now we get to have keggers at church! Yaaahoo! Koinonia Kegger!

R.C.'s got a reputation for being kind of anti-social. But it's pretty amazing what some liquor does for his disposition. When R.C.'s not drinkin' he can get pretty grouchy. When he does drink he can actually get sort of friendly, sort of like a pastor would be friendly. Some of us would just as soon he drink. 

And drink he does! Here's an actual picture of R.C.'s beer cellar and brewery. Woohoo! Let's get to drinkin'! No, those empties there in front of the bathtub aren't being saved to return to the store (Virginia doesn't have a deposit law). They're waiting to be refilled with R.C.'s homebrew. The stove is used in the brewing process and apparently the bathtub has something to do with brewing process too! Um, yummy!

RC Sproul Jr's brewery
RC Sproul Jr's brewery

Ecclesia Intoxicata, Semper Intoxicatum

"There's nothing worse than an introspective drunk. Gratefully, R.C. Sproul, Jr. isn't at all introspective."

Thomas Sharpe

Hide The Beer Pastor RC Sproul Jr Is Here 

Mendota Pale Ale

Hide The Beer Pastor RC Sproul Jr Is Here Pale Ale

Back by popular demand its Ligonier Tales!

RC Sproul Jr's Ligonier Tales

Some thought it was just satire when we long ago dubbed the Highlands Study Center Basement Tapes "The Boozement Tapes." It's no joke though, and the label has caught on. Check out the video below that "Fled Mendota" posted on You Tube.  

Beer helping RC Sproul Jr to danceLinks and fun drinking facts with RC Sproul Jr:

Words Of Wit from defrocked Pastor R.C. Sproul, Jr. and defrocked Pastor and Court Jester Laurence Windham.

RC Sproul Jr. is the founder of the Highlands Study Center. The Highlands Study Center publishes Every Thought Captive. Aside from that we're not really sure what the Highlands Study Center does. The Highlands Study Center does throw some wicked, er, righteous parties though, including open bars at the pastor's camps! Party on RC!

Become a member of St. Peter Presbyterian Church and you too can become the proud owner of your very own "Heroes Of the Faith" pillows.

RC Sproul Jr. shares his awesome collection of home brew beer bottle labels.

Church News Today interviews R.C. Sproul, Jr. on his time of medication, er, meditation (12-30-05).

RC Sproul Jr. announces the start of "Beer Church." Ordinations now available (act fast). Basement Tapes changed to "Boozement Tapes."

Don't tell RC that he drinks too much or you might cause him to "stumble." He probably didn't mean any pun by that, but it's still really funny, especially since he thinks he "drinks in moderation."

L' Enfant Terrible announces the itinerary of the Pastor's Camp at the Highlands Study Center. Some very interesting comments here by previous St. Peter visitors, and lots of astonishing admissions by St. Peter members.

Some people think that Saint Peter Presbyterian Church is a cult, and that RC Sproul Jr is some kind of Presby-Pope. But that's just because we practice shunning (and then there's that pillow shrine thing). We especially shun people who don't like to party with us, or if they challenge any of our doctrines, like "presumptive regeneration."

The Austin family posts another update (1-18-06), Part Ten, The Body of Christ, and the Lies of Sessions. Those Austins are so unrealistic! After all, didn't RC Spoul Jr and the St. Peter Presbyterian Church Session "repent" in writing? Well, anyway, they sure used the word "repent" a lot in their letter. But nooooo! That's not good enough for the Austins. Well, sure, RC Sproul Jr and his Session did have all kinds of excuses, and they even blamed the Austins in their letter of "repentance." But sheesh! It's like the Austins expect real repentance or something. It's like they expect the kind of repentance where RC Sproul Jr and his Saint Peter Session actually has to stop sinning against them. It's like the Austins expect pastors to act like, well, pastors or something. Some people are just so picky these days! The Austins act like they think the Bible is inerrant, and that it's actually supposed to be interpreted literally or something. The nerve of some people!

Alcohol, Legalism and Weaker Brothers, is a response to Julie Austin's Parenting With Purpose humorous article, You Must Drink! St. Peter Presbyterian Church member, Jim, responds to Dabitur (see comments #9425 and following) to fill him in about party-master RC Sproul Jr, and all turns out well.

Degenhart's blog article, How NOT To Apologize is a very humorous response to the St. Peter Presbyterian Church session's letter of "repentance" to John and Julie Austin.

L' Enfant Terrible Blog, Contumacy Is The New Black. The terrible infant compares the tyrannies perpetrated by R.C. Sproul, Jr. at St. Peter Presbyterian Church at Bristol and Mendota, Virginia to the ecclesiastical tyrannies perpetrated in the infamous Westminster Presbyterian Church in Tyler, Texas.

Brian Carpenter's blog article, Ecclesiastical Tyranny is insightful. Brian Carpenter knows first hand about ecclesiastical tyranny. Brian is a former member of the Rivendell community, and was excommunicated from the Covenant Church Of Willis as part of that "Christian covenant community" disaster. Brian's excommunication was later overturned on appeal by the Federation Of Reformed Churches (FORC). R.C. Sproul, Jr. served as defense counsel for several defendants in that church trial. By all accounts RC's defense was pretty lame. For the most part he just told them, "You need to submit to your elders." RC got to witness ecclesiastical tyranny in action first hand. Since then he's apparently decided that he wants in on the action too. Despotism is contagious!

Former Saint Peter Presbyterian Church member Michael Branson issues an Open Letter and a call to repentance to his former pastor and "mentor," RC Sproul, Jr.

RC Sproul Jr. and Saint Peter Session Defrocked

On January 26, 2006 the Westminster Presbytery of the Reformed Presbyterian Church General Assembly deposed RC Sproul Jr, Laurence Windham, Jay Barfield and Wayne Hays from the Office of Elders at Saint Peter Presbyterian Church. Not that a trivial little thing like being defrocked is about to stop RC Sproul Jr though! Two days later he just had his congregation vote him and his three defrocked buddies right back in again as pretend-Elders of St. Peter Presbyterian Congregational Church.

Human Events: R.C. Sproul, Jr. Defrocked
Pearcey Report: R.C. Sproul, Jr. Defrocked
Pearcey Report: Statement From the Highlands Study Center
R.C. Sproul Jr. defrocked
R.C. Sproul Jr. defrocking documents

The RC Sproul Jr Defrocking Aftermath

RC Sproul Jr pulls a Jimmy Swaggart.
RC Sproul Jr addresses rumors of moving St. Peter church to Guyana.
"RC Sproul Jr Speaks On 'Honor'. You've Gotta Be Kidding!"
"I just got defrocked. Please send money."
March/April 2006 ETC Top Ten List. Once again, RC Sproul Jr "honors" his father with this: "Dr. Sproul, in the context of child rearing, what in the world were you thinking?"

Articles and Web Sites on Ecclesiastical Tyrants, Abusive Churches, and Help for Battered Sheep

"For you bear with anyone if he enslaves you, if he devours you, if he takes advantage of you, if he exalts himself, if he hits you in the face." (2 Cor. 11:20)

The Heresy of Mind Control: Recognizing Con Artists, Tyrants, and Spiritual Abusers in Leadership, by Steve Martin (pdf ebook)
Recovering From Churches That Abuse (ebook)

What To Do If You Find Yourself In a Spiritually Abusive Religious System 
Profile of a Sociopath (or how to spot a cult leader)
Spiritual Abuse 
What Language Does Your Church Speak? The Language of Abusive Churches and Groups, by Bill Newcomer
Abuse of Authority in the Church: A Biblical Perspective of Leadership, by Jason Young
Authoritarianism in The Church, by Steve Martin
Abusive Churches, by Pat Zukeran
Abusive Churches: Leaving Them Behind, by Pat Zukeran
Uncovering Churches That Abuse People, by Henry Sheppard
The Cult Church, by Marlene Jones Skurtu
Eight Distinctives Of An Aberrational Christian or Bible-based Group
The Power Abusers, by Dr. Ron Enroth
Recovery From Spiritual Abuse, by Sharon Hilderbrandt
They Told Me That If I Left. . .  by Ron Henzel
Abusive Churches; How To Recognize and Deal With Spiritual Abuse
Characteristics Of Abusive Churches, by Mark Hill
The Signs Of Authoritarian Abuse, by Steven Lambert

Exposing Ecclesiastical Wolves In Sheep's Clothing

"Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves." (Matthew 7:15)

Books On Abusive Churches and Spiritual Abuse

Mothers Against Drunk Deacons

Disclaimer: Some will cry, "Scandalous!" Some will cry, "Scurrilous!" And yet others will cry, "Slanderous!" But actually if this site can be labeled as anything at all, it's just "Satirical!" (and yet most of it is actually quite factual). So don't get your knickers all in a twist.
For the record the authors of this site aren't teetotalers nor do we have a problem with the moderate and responsible consumption of alcoholic beverages by adults of legal drinking age who are considerate toward others by not abusing and flaunting their Christian liberties. R.C. Sproul Jr's personal definitions of "responsible" and "moderate" and "considerate" and even "legal drinking age" differ dramatically from the common usage of those terms.

A Note Of Thanks

We wish to express our personal thanks and gratitude to all those who have helped to make this web site possible. Without all that "insider information" coming our way this site wouldn't have been possible. We especially want to thank those current St. Peter members who have given us all the inside scoop. It's hard for us to understand how you can stay there (a lot of people must still be too afraid to leave), when things are as bad as you tell us they are. But as long as you're there keep those cards and letters coming!

If you've got any party pics with RC, or any fun stories to share, send them to:
r.c.sproul2.0 at gmail (dot) com

Disclaimer: This site is part satire, but mostly factual. As with all satire, the satire on this site originates from actual incidents and statements made by the individuals named. The burden is on the reader to sort the facts from what has been embellished by satire. "The purpose of satire has been rightly stated as to strip off the veneer of comforting illusion and cosy half truth." 
Michael Flanders 

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Words Of Wit With R.C. Sproul Jr.

RC Sproul Jr words of wit


Every church member should have things they can be proud of their pastor for having said. Here's some of our most memorable and touching

Words Of Wit from R.C. Sproul, Jr.

and his sage sidekick Laurence Windham, our [defrocked] pastors at St. Peter Presbyterian Church and the Highlands Study Center (Highlands Ministries). Without your generous financial support to the Highlands Study Center (Highlands Ministries), it just wouldn't have been possible for our pastors to have published such inspirational comments like these:

RC Sproul Jr. on the importance of being introspective:
"I know me well enough to know that I could fall off some theological deep end, and maybe take some poor souls with me."1

RC Sproul Jr. on the theology of beer:
"One of my favorite intellectual debates centers around this question - is bad beer better than no beer? A corollary is this, Is free bad beer better than good beer?"2

"I managed to stay clear of beer, until the next time I had an opportunity to consume some."3

"In most churches when they say, 'Hide the beer, the pastor's here!", they mean it one way. But here at St. Peter we mean it an entirely different way."4 

RC Sproul Jr. on chugging beer:
"I learned that alcohol is a powerful social lubricant, so much so that high schoolers who normally wouldn't give 13 year old Jim and me the time of day, were more than willing to adopt us as mascots, and to pour beer down our throats for entertainment. I learned that perhaps the greatest sport a jock might aspire to was chugging beer. And I learned that I was pretty good at it."5

RC Sproul Jr. on symbols of brotherhood:
"Now I was drunk enough that drinking together was a delightful symbol of brotherhood. Urinating together as well was a delightful symbol of brotherhood."6 

RC Sproul Jr on alcohol and sexual prowess:
"Around that keg we were taught the TKE fight song, which celebrated first the capacity to consume great quantities of alcohol, and second, sexual prowess. I still remember the chant to this day."7 

RC Sproul Jr. on the birth of his son:
"I always knew that if God should bless me with a son that he would be the walking whiskey bottle, RC the Fifth."8

RC Sproul Jr prairie muffin
RC Sproul Jr. on his agrarian vision:
"In short, we're a hardy band of prairie muffins, but of the Scottish variety."9


RC Sproul Jr. on having his "colors done":
"I don’t remember what I ended up being, but I remember what I was rooting for. In this system your 'color' comes out as a season. Some people are winters, some springs, and some summers. I knew however, that whatever the cloth said, I was a fall."10

RC Sproul Jr. on being foolish, immature and effeminate:
"Try as we might to mature and to grow beyond this peculiar brand of foolishness, I'm afraid that at heart we are still junior high girls."
RC Sproul Jr on why woman can't blog
RC Sproul Jr. on why women shouldn't be permitted to blog or have web sites:
"People are teaching who shouldn't be teaching. And people are learning where they ought not to be learning. A husband who loses his wife to a hook-up with some internet Lothario is probably better off than one who returns from work to find his wife safely at home, but having been seduced into Rome by some charming blogger."12

RC Sproul Jr. on virility and testosterone:
"My hormones went on hiatus once again, until reawakened in the fifth grade."13

RC Sproul Jr cult leader drinking the Kook-Aid
RC Sproul Jr. on drinking the Kool-Aid and being a cult leader:14
 "It's not surprising that some might be afraid to drink the kool-aid here."

"For some time now there have been some inside and outside the church who have either insinuated or said outright that Saint Peter Presbyterian Church is a cult." 15

Top Ten Reasons To Join Saint Peter Presbyterian Church in the Summer:
#1. The Kool-Aid tastes better warm.16

RC Sproul Jr. on moving to St. Peter Presbyterian Church:
Question: "Will I have to eat grits?"
Answer: "It's either that, or the kool-aid."17

RC Sproul Jr as Rambo
RC Sproul Jr. on his aspirations of becoming Rambo:18
"I want to buy an assault rifle so I can shoot bad guys." (said to a group of pastors in Auckland, New Zealand in January, 2005)

RC Sproul Jr. on beating wives:
"Nor would I deny that some ethnic/cultural subgroupings have experienced greater common and special grace than others. A Scot, for instance, is less likely to beat his wife than a Pakistani."19

RC Sproul Jr yelling on phone
RC Sproul Jr. on telephone etiquette with "Phone Pimps" (telemarketers):
"Be bold and tell them to get a real job. Tell the callers that they are the lowest form of human life on the planet, that they are thieves of our time and our peace, that they are uninvited intruders and if the law and technology allowed, we would shoot them like rabid dogs."20

RC Sproul Jr. on not measuring up:
"My father and I are in the same line of work in the same way that the Space Shuttle and a paper airplane are both man-made flying objects. I don’t need to worry whether I will measure up, because no one ought to expect me to."21

RC Sproul Jr. on love:
RC Sproul Jr on love

"My tongue trembled when I sealed the envelope. But my heart exploded when a week later she too signed her letter, Love, Clare. It was a magic summer."22

Laurence Windham on love:23

LoveLFirst oveLoveLoveLoveLoveLoveLoveLove
LoveLoveLoveLoveLoveLoveLoveLoveLoveDo it!

Laurence Windham on the real reason that real men should make their wives wear head coverings:
"Have your wife cover her head in church. (Whether you agree with the practice or not it freaks people out.)"24

Laurence Windham on the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church denomination not knowing their butts from a hole in the ground:
"Just recently I was changing my two year old son. Before I had fastened his diaper on he reached back to his lower posterior and said 'butt'. As a dad I was rather happy with the ongoing development of my child's noetic structure. My son now recognizes his derriere from, say, a hole in the ground. Of course, we use a colloquial phrase regarding this distinction between that part of our anatomy and a man made orifice for the securing of fenceposts to judge common sense. I'm not sure you as a body could tell the difference."25

Laurence Windham on how to be a real man:
"It is time, gentlemen, to get rough and rowdy. Break the apron strings; it is 'tea time' no longer. Put on some Levis. Pull on some boots. Pour yourself some scotch. Forgo shaving. Start wearing flannel. Light up a stogie. Try a Tarzan yell."26

Laurence Windham on the "Practicum" of lighting cigars:
"Be sure to let all the sulfer burn off the head of the match before you present it to the end of the cigar. Then just make sure the center of the head of the cigar is glowing red when you take a draw and you're ready to smoke. Remember, do not inhale. You are a smoker, not a sucker."27


1. Disassociating, Every Thought Captive, Vol 4, Issue 3 (2000)
2. Book Reviews, Every Thought Captive, Vol. 5, Issue 4
3. Brothers Forever, Ligonier Tales
4. RC Sproul Jr. in a Feb '05 St. Peter Sunday evening service
5. Brothers Forever, Ligonier Tales, Chapter 9
6. Brothers Forever, Ligonier Tales, Chapter 9
7. Brothers Forever, Ligonier Tales, Chapter 9
8. Legacy, Every Thought Captive, Vol. 3, Issue 6
9. Oh Go Home, Every Thought Captive, Vol. 5, Issue 4
10. Falling In Love, Ligonier Tales, Chapter 6
11. Junior High Girls, Highlands Study Center Squiblog
12. What Are You Talking About, Highlands Study Center Squiblog
13. Second Love, Ligonier Tales, Chapter 8
14. The Vision by RC Sproul, Jr., Every Thought Captive, Vol 2 Issue 3
15. August 9 2005, Highlands Study Center Squiblog
16. Top Ten List, Every Thought Captive, Vol 9, Issue 5 (2005)
17. So You're Thinking About Moving, Highlands Study Center
18. As retold by RC Sproul Jr. in a Feb '05 St. Peter Sunday evening service
19. My People, Highlands Study Center Squiblog
20. Phone Pimps Are Dogs, Highlands Study Center article
21. Son Of A Preacher Man, Highlands Study Center Squiblog
22. A Second Love, Ligonier Tales, Chapter 8
23. Cartularium, Windham's "collection of news and other vital documents"
24. Skirting The Issues, Every Thought Captive, Vol. 6, Issue 1
25. Open Letter, Every Thought Captive, Vol 4, Issue 1 (2000)
26. Skirting The Issues, Every Thought Captive, Vol. 6, Issue 1
27. Smoke 'Em if You Got 'Em, Every Thought Captive, Vol. 3, Issue 1

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Monday, October 02, 2006

RC Sproul Jr's Ligonier Tales, Back By Popular Demand

RC Sproul Jr's Ligonier Tales

For several years RC Sproul Jr had a "novella" posted on his ministry web site entitled "Ligonier Tales." This novella proved to be a remarkable glimpse into the mind of RC Sproul Jr, a glimpse far more telling than his theological articles posted in Every Thought Captive or in his father's Table Talk. The implications of Ligonier Tales are disturbing indeed.

Here's a review of Ligonier Tales from "Dabney." The only problem with his review is that it's a little dated since he refers to RC Sproul Jr as "an ordained Presbyterian Pastor." RC Sproul Jr managed to get himself defrocked in January 2006:
The other day I read the Words Of Wit With RC Sproul Jr page at Drinking With RC Sproul Jr. It’s hard to believe that a gospel preacher would actually say that kind of claptrap and then be proud enough about it to publish it for the whole world to see. One of the things quoted from at that site is RC Jr’s Ligonier Tales, a shabby piece of trashy dime store drivel.

As repulsive and degrading as I found the whole process to be, I went to the Highlands Study Center web site and read every one of the eleven chapters of RC’s “novella,” Ligonier Tales (yes, I do deserve the Purple Heart). I don’t recommend that anyone do this right after eating. In fact I don’t recommend you do it on an empty stomach even after taking Dramamine. Why an ordained Presbyterian Pastor would publish such twaddle on his ministry’s web site for the whole world to see is sure beyond me. He ought to be ashamed, but obviously he’s not.

A lot of us grew up doing things that we’re plenty embarrassed about. But most of us have got enough horse sense to not talk or write novellas about it. Maybe what RC Sproul Jr. is trying to tell us all is that just because he’s the son of a famous theologian he didn’t grow up any different than any of the rest of us. But if that’s what he’s trying to say, he could do it without giving everyone the lurid details. RC Jr’s communicating a lot more with his trashy novella than “I’m nothing special, I’m just like all the rest of you.” Anyone who grew up acting as foolishly as RC Jr did ought to be embarrassed enough about it to not memorialize it for the whole world to see. A son who cares to keep the fifth commandment ought to know that publishing his spectacular adolescent moral failures could in no way help his father’s reputation. Not RC Jr! Indeed, all RC Jr is effectively doing is saying, “My dad was a failure as a father.” He even seems to be real proud of his foolish adolescent years. Nowhere does he express any regret, remorse or sense that he has anything to apologize for. If anything he seems to look back with fondness on those good ‘ol days.

In Ligonier Tales RC fancies himself as a rough and tumble hard-drinkin’ beer-guzzlin’ jock, and a regular Casanova ladies-man. My impression about RC from reading Ligonier Tales is that he was horribly insecure and was constantly seeking attention and trying to impress his peers. Not one word is ever mentioned about trying to please or impress his parents or be an obedient son. In fact hardly a mention is made of his parents, other than the fact that they referred to RC Jr as “Precious.” I’ve heard said that RC Sproul Jr is referred to by family by the pet name “Precious” to this day.

His novella ends in an anticlimactic fast-forward a couple decades “here I am today a happily married-with-kids successful preacher-man” non-ending. No lessons are taught, no lessons are learned, no value or benefit of any kind is conveyed by the writer to the reader for expending the time to peruse this literary swill. Reading RC Jr’s novella is much like sitting down to watch a bad movie that a friend told you is actually a good movie. You sit there minute after minute thinking, “At some point it’s gonna get good.” But it never does, and you’ve just wasted your evening. You feel cheated. That’s how it feels to read Ligonier Tales. You can easily reckon that the only reason RC Sproul Jr. wrote it is to cover for some deep seated insecurities. Maybe he wrote it as a personal catharsis, but that doesn’t mean he’s got to punish the rest of us with it.

The part that I kept waiting to read was the part where he talks about his mom and dad — the part where he honors his parents — the part where he obeys the fifth commandment. It never comes. RC’s entire novella is the biggest piece of self-obsessed bilge I’ve ever read. It’s only redeeming quality? It’s short enough that the nausea doesn’t last very long.

Before immersing yourself in Ligonier Tales we recommend that you get yourself good and liquored up, unless liquor makes you nauseated. In that case take some Dramamine instead. Feel free to leave your comments below.

Ligonier Tales begins here.

RC Sproul Jr's Ligonier Tales

RC Sproul Jr's Ligonier Tales

"It was once my habit in this space to devote some prose to the glories of nostalgia. That habit happily evolved into the Ligonier Tales, a venue I pray I’ll soon get back to. A recent trip back to Ligonier has reignited that fire, but alas, it’s not time yet to go back with my keyboard. But nostalgia is still now in my sights… We are tapping into a homesickness for when we truly were young, for Eden."
RC Sproul Jr, Old Men Dancing

For RC Sproul Jr "the glories of nostalgia" and "Eden" is largely about raging hormones, chasing girls and drinking binges. RC Sproul Jr has memorialized his nostalia for the whole world to see in "Ligonier Tales," a seedy and shameless walk down RC Jr's debauched memory lane.

RC Sproul Jr grew up in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, which is also the name from which his father's Ligonier Ministries came from.

It's hard to understand what RC Sproul Jr was thinking when he posted this trashy "novella" on his "ministry" web site, the Highlands Study Center (now known as Highlands Ministries). Some things are just better left in the past. But not RC Jr. No, he seems real proud of his depraved past, and in no way repentant about it either.

Apparently RC Sproul Jr's daddy must have had a little father-son talk with him because suddenly Ligonier Tales was nowhere to be found on the Highlands Study Center web site.

Well if RC Jr has finally come to his senses and become too embarrassed to host it on his donor-funded "ministry" web site then we're only too happy to host it here. Besides which we couldn't hardly turn a deaf ear to all those requests we received to post Ligonier Tales.

And for the copyright-infringement police who'd like to whine at us, we snagged a copy of Ligonier Tales in 2005 long before RC Jr decided to put a copyright notice on the Highlands Study Center web site.


Ligonier Tales

by R.C. Sproul Jr.

Dear Friends,

I’m conducting an experiment, both in literature, and in delivery. I’m writing a novella, a travelogue of my youth, a series of snapshots of my home town, a roman a clef, an ode to Ligonier, Pennsylvania and the people therein. I’ve started, and for all I know, I may have already stopped. I have lots of books begun, but too few finished. If, however, I should continue, it is my intention to post my work as it progresses. As always, I would love any feedback; please write to me at this link.

Thanks for your attention.

R.C. Sproul Jr.


Chapter 1

The White Witch

There’s nothing wrong with being middle class. But then again, there’s nothing particularly exciting about it. And there I was, right smack in the middle of it. I was the second of two children, a boy. I had one sister, and presumably, more children yet to come. We lived in a middle class suburb, appropriately enough called Pleasant Hill . It was an average suburb to an average urb — Cincinnati, which sat right on the bottom of that most average state, Ohio—hi in the middle, and round on both ends. I attended kindergarten at Pleasant Hill Elementary School, where my classmates were burdened with average names, Jill, Bobby and Sue. My father was a pastor, not the pastor, mind you, just a pastor, at an average mainline church, with the snazzy name, College Hill Presbyterian Church. Apparently this hill was more academic, while the hill where I lived was more pleasant. My mom kept our house, and my sister was embarrassed by me. All we lacked was a dog named Spot leaping over a picket fence. It was my expectation that life would continue on as it always had done, a pleasant, but unexciting progression of warmed over clichés and cream of mushroom soup inspired casseroles. I didn’t know a thing about the white witch.
A decade or so ago I took a class in college on fantasy literature. We were given the option, an option I opted for, of writing, instead of a term paper, a fantasy story. I remember only two things about the story. First, I received a C for it. It too was average. The other memory was the mountain of writer’s block I encountered when trying to figure out how to move my protagonist out of the humdrum world of non-fiction into the fantastical world I was supposed to create. Looking glass was taken; same with magic wardrobe. I should have thought of the witch.

My father, like most pastors, wanted little more than to teach people what he believed to be true. (This was before everyone agreed to have their own truth.) The church where he served was a large urban church in a large city. He had large crowds for his Sunday School classes, and the Bible studies he taught. He had, in short, fans. He has the gift of teaching. Which is why a group of old friends came to see him one day. Like so many dwarves dropping into a hobbit hole, these friends arrived one day with a plan. Each of them worked in college ministry, or high school ministry. Each of them wanted to ensure that those who taught through such ministries were reasonably well taught themselves. Seminary seemed like overkill. Sunday School seemed insufficient. What they envisioned was a sort of seminary for lay-people. And they wanted my father to teach there.

Of course the world is full of good ideas. One day I thought, “I ought to write an ode to my home, a series of snapshots of a peculiar place, and a remembrance of its hold on me.” And behold, out came a book, part fact, part fiction, but all in honor of a place of magic. Some great ideas, however, die ignoble deaths. They are executed with the blade of practicality. “Who’s going to pay for all this?” and it all comes crashing down. Enter the white witch, a Gandalfian enchantress with an eminently practical bank book.

I was five when that meeting took place. I was probably still within the hallowed and pleasant halls of my school. All I know is when the first bit of magic hit. I sat down to a plate full of beans and weanies and my father uttered those magic words—“We’re going to be moving.” Fireworks exploded.

“The move” became our obsession. My parents would tell my sister and I about the little red school house we would soon be in. They explained this strange new concept to us: acreage. Stranger still, we were going to a land without sidewalks. “You mean” we asked in wonder, “you just walk right on the road?” “Yup,” came the reply, “and the road we’ll live on isn’t even paved.” And in the course of our conversation, every now and again, her name came up, Dora Hopeman. She was the one making all this possible. She would be our Grandma Moses, leading us out of the house of bland-age to the promised land.

Then we loaded up the car, and headed east. And the magic began. In the providence of God our trip, a mere five hours by car, took several days. Those days happened to overlap with my sixth birthday. We had cake at the restaurants along the way. We spent the night with great aunts and uncles, and more cake was brought forth. How powerful was the White Witch? Moses traveled on manna. I was sustained by devil’s food cake.

The home we would move into wasn’t quite ready for us when we pulled into the valley. So our average car climbed the mountain to her house. We wound back and forth, a mile or more up her driveway. We turned the final bend and there it was a magic house for a magic woman. Atop the summit it was not a house for stone-throwers, for its very walls were glass. And yet they bent, for the house was round. As we alighted from our car we were greeted by David and His Queen, a pair of champion German Shepherds with all the dignity of a pair of Beefeaters. The door opened and there she was. Though her pants were dungarees, though her straw hat was not a hat at all, but a planter, she was bejeweled with a quiet dignity. She was, after all, a sorceress. We tromped into her living room, it of the 360 degree panoramic view of the world we had entered. The first thing I noticed was the stairway. The stairs themselves were stone, rough cut and unhewn. The handrail was a tree. It had been bent and polished, but never cut. To the left of the stairs was an elevator that only went down one floor to the basement. To the right was a waterfall. That’s right, a waterfall, in the house. The real deal, not one of those toy things you get at the Cracker Barrel. This flowed from the cathedral ceiling to the floor. She offered us Hydrox cookies. Oreos were ordinary, from the old world.

I woke early the next morning, in the lair of the white witch. I made my way into the kitchen, and there she was, eating her breakfast. I was too young to have heard of Euell Gibbons, but I imagine his normal breakfast was rather like hers. It was shredded wheat, though not a single side was frosted. Neither was this the comparatively dainty bite size variety. It was one big, interwoven pillow of wheat. Just then there was a knock at the kitchen door. Mrs. Hopeman welcomed what I presumed was simply the milkman. My theory was apparently confirmed when he smiled, and handed her a glass half-gallon of milk. After he left she said, “That’s Ken Geary—he’s my handy man. He takes care of this house, and he farms the land. And this, young man, is not ordinary milk. It was taken straight from the cow this morning.” That was enough to coax me into eating my own tan colored brillo pad. Better still, it was enough to make me never forget the meal.

Within the hour the rest of the family was awake, and ready to tackle the day. We were going to our new house, though it still wouldn’t be ready for a few days. I don’t expect I noticed much the beauty of the mountains as we drove the few miles to our new home. My eyes were glued to the side of the road where, sure enough, there were no sidewalks. I had a problem with paying attention back then, not because I couldn’t focus, but because I tended to focus on the wrong things. We pulled off the gravel road onto the gravel driveway, and made our way up to where we would soon be living. I jumped from the car, and raced toward...the window wells on the front of the house. Corrugated steel half-circles pushed the rich ground away from the basement windows, to allow light in. But it wasn’t even the basement I was interested in. In those window wells, happy as a mess of toads in a window well, was a mess of toads in a window well. The little ones were hopping around like they were hopped up on sugar-coated sugar bombs, while the fat ones looked as self-satisfied as the people who hire corporate raiders. I had been told the house was a “ranch” design. No one told me it came complete with livestock.

I was dragged away from my fun to get the room by room tour of the house. The centerpiece was a massive great room, that, soon enough, would be filled with flopping Jesus freaks eager to hear my father’s teaching. Now it contained a whole different breed, the ridge runner. Please keep in mind that the one thing worse than being raised as a boring middle-class suburban kid was living in a world populated exclusively by boring middle-class suburbanites. But that was the sole “variety” of the species I had ever known. Until I met these ridge runners. These were honest men who were putting the finishing touches on our home. They were polite, hard working, and they talked funny. I figured it must have been because of how few teeth they had. While they were both strange and exotic to my six-year old eyes, I’m sorry but I remember with any clarity only one of them.

He was, not coincidentally, the friendlier of the two. He would, in the weeks to come, prop me up on a low hanging eave, and tell me that my role was to be the supervisor. He explained that the supervisor does no work; he just watches others work. (Rather, wouldn’t you say, like a writer?) He would share his bologna sandwich with me. He was a strange marriage of melancholy and joy, a veritable rednecked Puddleglum. He was also, I’m sorry to say, rather clumsy, which is how he got his name. I remember watching as he and his partner were shimmying our refrigerator into its appointed spot. Because this was the early seventies, and all notions of class, common sense and dignity were on hiatus, the kitchen was carpeted from wall to wall. So, by the way, was my parent’s bathroom. As you might expect, the refrigerator caught the carpet, and pulled up a two inch snag. My friend said forlornly, “Ohmahart.” That was his refrain, every time his two thumbs, as often as not throbbing from a close encounter with a hammer, got in his way, “ohmahart.” After several days of hearing this mysterious incantation, I finally screwed up the courage to ask my mother what it meant. (A few years later a neighbor boy, about six years himself, called me a bastard. With no reticence I asked my Mom, “What’s a bastard?” She was quick on the draw and told me, “Someone who doesn’t have a father.” I walked away murmuring my confusion, “Why in the world did Scotty call me that? He knows I have a father.” This time she smiled and told me, “He’s saying, ‘Oh, my heart’ son. It’s his way of saying, ‘oops’.” And from that day forward he was known to our family as “Ohmahart.”

That first month was a glorious one. I got to ride in a dump truck. With the neighbor kids we played hide and seek in the twenty-acre corn field. And the Thomas family arrived. They moved into the one finished house on the property. Mr. Thomas was there to get the ministry going. But I was glad for their children, to have other Cincinnati refugees share in this strange adventure. We met the neighbor children as well, on one side of the property Beth Hood, whose family practiced that mystery religion, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. On the other side we met Beth’s distant cousins, April, Barb, Peggy and Patty. Though they were grown, there were two boys as well, Barry and Robin...Hood. A few miles down the road lived Randy Queer and his brother, and further off the beaten path, Buddy Gross and his older sister. We were told their house had no electricity. Still, together they were all rather entertaining. When one of my refugee friends traveled back to Cincinnati to visit with grandparents she was asked if she had made many friends among the locals. “Yes,” came the reply, “they’re all Hoods, Grosses and Queers.” The grandmother blushed and said, “Now sweetheart, they might be a little different, but I’m sure they’re not as all bad as that.”

Chapter 2

Dropped into the Mellon Patch

Where is S.E. Hinton now? I’ve never read a single one of her novels. I’ve seen The Outsiders, but if there are more movies, I haven’t seen them. She is the bane of my existence. It was bad enough that as I began the transition from dreaming of being a rock star (which was, of course, second in the progression, after the dream of being a professional athlete) to dreaming of writing the great American novel, that along would come the literary brat pack, to match the movie version. Bret Easton Ellis stole my schtick, updating Holden Caulfield. The Less than Zero guy added a decade and gave us yuppie Holdens. And for the sake of political correctness, that two-fer Amy Tan rolled the bones and came up a winner. But before all these wet behind the ears writers made their mark, there was S.E. Hinton, the veritable Shirley Temple of earnest sophomores. Half a dozen bestsellers giving us heroes and antiheroes as clichéd as Hector and Paris. How was it possible that a teenager with all the wisdom of a teenager, could squeeze out enough verisimilitude from those cardboard characters? It had to be the names. I mean, Soda-pop and Pony-boy are just way too weird to be made up. Weirdness, in other words, is too normal to be unreal.

To get at the point we have to fast-forward a bit. A few years after we arrived in the Ligonier valley, complete with the Thompson family, a third family joined our adventure. The Thompson’s eldest son Bill was four years my senior, their second son Danny was three years my junior. I had my adventures with both, but when the Gooders arrived, I had a companion. Randy was just like me, only more so. He was my age, plus one year. He was just a little better looking than me, and more important, just a little more athletic than me. He and his family arrived a year or two after ours, but moved onto the Valley School a year before I did. You will learn more about that august institution in due time. For now, put yourself in my front yard in that first house, the one with the toads in the window wells.

Randy and I are tossing the football, as was our wont. He is explaining something of this strange life he has entered at the local private prep day school. Confusing my grown up self with my third grade self, he began by explaining how lunch worked there. (Then I didn’t care. But now, thirty years later, I still replay this part of the conversation in my mind.) But along the way he mentioned a peer of his, a Teddy Hatfield. “Hatfield” I queried, “what kind of name is ‘Hatfield’.” Of course in my mind’s eye I envisioned this garden bedecked with a variety of hats. That’s when thing’s got interesting. It seems that the school was positively overrun with Mellons. Eight year old little boys don’t think of Carnegie Mellon University or Mellon Bank. We think of watermellons, and laugh. The science teacher was likewise rather fruity, her name being Mrs. Lemon. Randy spent the rest of the afternoon entertaining me with the silly names of his classmates and teachers at that toney school.

What surprises me as I look back was that I missed the opportunity, for once in my life, to best him. I wouldn’t have many such opportunities. But back at Cook Township Elementary School, we had our share of names. They say that it is the grotesque, the picaresque that makes small southern towns come to life in fiction. I think it’s the names. In my class we had the Key. That is, my playmate Cleveland Piper, for reasons I’m still in the dark about, went by the name Key. “Key Piper” Miss Doncez would say when taking roll, and nobody even snickered.

Key was a character, a class clown in training. But his name was just the beginning. What we forget about those early years of elementary school is living in the elementary world that will be ours the rest of our lives. Just as every small town has its characters, its backdrops before which life happens, so too does grammar school. We were all nice to each other. We all had varying calls on the attention of the class. But representing the class of 1983, a decade before anyone would even think of us as “the class of...” anything were two roly-poly little boys who even in the first grade were the first citizens of our generation. Scott Emert earned his role through the business of his father Bill. He owned one of the two local gas stations, one of the two most prominent businesses in this one horse town. He had both an older brother and sister. Better still, they had an above ground pool. Duane Burns’s claim to fame was rather more tragic. His father was dead. He lived, like Scott Emert, with older brothers and an older sister. But there is this chicken and egg problem. Were they given the names because of their status, or given the status because of their names? Did we name them Peach and Beef such that we would never forget them, or did we never forget them because we had named them Peach and Beef?

Why didn’t I counter Randy’s stories with these two little boys, Peach Emert, and Beef Burns? Please understand that these nicknames were no afterthought. It wasn’t as if we trained our mouths to say Peach, or Beef, when our minds though Scott, or Duane. No, we only recovered Scott and Duane with effort and intentionality. Even when I followed Randy to the world of Lemons and Hatfields, I would never forget Peach and Beef. Nor, after leaving their school, would I be free of their world. For what allowed my backdrops to hang with me all these years was the contrast. I remember the world in which I lived precisely because I lived in so many worlds. Just as the Hebrews of old were placed in that intersection between three continents, Africa to the south, Europe to the west, and Asia to the west, so I was placed on a cultural faultline, one that still shapes me to this day.

When I tell people I grew up in western Pennslyvania they don’t react the way I would expect. Mostly they are simply polite. When I used to live in Orlando, eyes would light up like some magical electrical parade. I mean, Disney, and enough said. No doubt those who live in southern California experience much the same thing, not because of Disneyland, but because of the beaches, and the movies. Las Vegas, no doubt brings raised eyebrows, as would San Francisco. But old Penn’s woods seems to fall beneath the radar, or between the cracks. It serves as a sort of land bridge between three distinct cultures that make up much of these United States. Strangely, each of these cultures was a part of my life, and a part of the Ligonier community.

To the west of us was, of course, the great Midwest. Our region was called “The Tri-state Region” in part (exactly a one-third part) because of the state of Ohio. I have already spoken my peace on that in-illustrious region. It is the land of the bland. When we think Midwest we think suburbs, middle-class, and ordinary. Ligonier had its share of these folks. Not surprisingly they sat right in the middle of the social scale. In these families the dads carpooled to middle-management office jobs around the area. The mothers baked cookies and did some volunteer work. Their children had B averages in school, and aspired to attend college one day, so that they too might carpool to big companies. This particular crowd gathered in the hills just west of Ligonier, in a pair of developments, Oakwood Hills and Valley Heights. I suppose there were oaks up in those hills. But no one seemed to notice the oxymoronic nature of the other section. I mean, what were they going to call phase three, Mountain Depths? I had my share of friends in this group, though I saw them the least often growing up.

To the south of western Pennsylvania, one found the third of the tri-states, West Virginia. When I was a boy John Denver used to sing, “Almost heaven, West Virginia...” He should have kept going up interstate 79, and he would have made it all the way there. The state university in West Virginia had as its mascot the Mountaineers. It is no coincidence that the young men and women of the Ligonier schools likewise went into battle as “The Mounties.” (By the way, lest you get pegged as an outlander, the pronunciation isn’t MOWntie, but Montie.) Our mascot was a skinny hayseed dressed in overalls sleeping beside his musket and his little brown jug. My, how times have changed.

Our community, though it was above the Mason-Dixon line, included a kind of southern culture. We called them ridge runners. These good people tended to live in the outlying areas of Ligonier, many of them around the hamlet of Stahlstown. Here the parents carpooled as well, either to the coal mines over the mountain in Johnstown, or to the steel mills (pronounced still mills) in Pittsburgh. Or they didn’t carpool at all, but drove coal trucks over the roads. They drank their Iron City beer over at Hillbilly Haven, a bar just dark enough that you didn’t lose your appetite when you walked in. Their children took classes in the “general” track at school, before being sent off to vo-tech to learn a trade. Men and children hunted together, both for sport and meet. I remember the day Paul Stahl brought turkey legs to show and tell. You could still smell the offal on them.

These were the boys on my little league teams and my midget football teams. It wasn’t unusual to see children ten or eleven years old spitting tobacco juice into the mud of the infield, while the coach did the same in the batter’s box, hitting balls our way. Hunting was such a big deal that the local school board stopped trying to compete. The first day of doe season school was closed.

North and east of my little corner of the world was New England, which too had a distinct culture, with an outpost in Ligonier. When we think New England we think old money, lock-jawed accents, and the Preppy Handbook. In these families the father drank too much, while trying to hold down some sort of job to slow the mercurial slippage of their inheritance. The women played golf or tennis, and the children went to the Valley School, my alma mater. My introduction to this society (or perhaps I should just say “to society”) came by way of church. For reasons still unknown to me, my family one Sunday visited Saint Michaels of the Valley Episcopal church. Saint Michaels was and is the very picture-postcard cliché of the small country parish church. White clapboard kept the elements off cherry pews, complete with padding for our rumps and for our knees for those times in the liturgical dance that we needed them. The parish priest was a much loved Friar Tuck, sharing with his fictional brother a rounded middle, a burgundy-hued nose, and a love of fruit of the vine that created both.

There my father met Mr. Messer, yet another cliché. Mr. Messer, the headmaster of the Valley School dressed in camel hair jackets and oxblood loafers, and spoke in a measured English accent. He sensed from the conversation with my father that we didn’t quite fit socially in Stahlstown, and encouraged him with news of scholarships available for the likes of me. Soon I too was hanging with the Mellons, the Hatfields and learning my science from Mrs. Lemon.

I went to school every day with the blue-bloods, who were gracious to me. After school it was practice of one kind or another with the ridge runners of Stahlstown. They were puzzled by me. And on the weekends, at least eventually, I dated the Midwestern girls. They, at least I like to think, were charmed by me. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Chapter 3

Love Hurts

The Valley School was like nothing I had ever seen before. I had come from the Midwest and the white bread suburbs. I had, after three years, acclimated myself to the country and the rednecks. Now I would be swimming with the bluebloods. One of those Mellons my friend had told me about. What he didn't tell me was his name, Armour. Armour? What kind of name is Armour? My friend had also passed along a story from Armour's older brother Richard, who was in the class ahead of me. It seems that the Mellon children, like most children, liked to play Hide and Seek. Their mansion carried with it a serious occupational hazard. Once Richard was hiding, and he got lost, inside his own house. My first best friend was Tim Cairnes. Like me, Tim loved sports, had a rather round head, and wasn't the tallest sandwich in the picnic basket. Like mine, his dad ran his own company. Unlike my father, however, he never had trouble meeting payroll. Tim and I competed with each other like Gene and Finny. If you don't know who they are, you didn't get a prep school education. Tim took me to my first Steeler game, in 1974, the first year they won the Super Bowl. They didn't, however, win the game. O.J. Simpson ran for over two hundred yards over the Steel Curtain. Better days would soon come for the Steelers, though not for O.J.

Our class was rather small, which was typical of the Valley School. We had roughly fifteen students in the class, I don't think I can name them all, but here's trying. Besides Tim and Armour there was Charlie MacDougal. His family owned the local amusement park, and he lead the first of my two experiences with pot, but that's later. Gordon something left after the fourth grade, and so I remember precious little of him. Todd Laetner and Bruno Flines were the brains of the class, with Tim and I competing for the bronze medal. John Shoop was a lanky and likable young man, with a voice made for cartoons. Besides me, Critter Dokerty rounded out the boys in the class. He will play a big role in two important moments to come.

On the other side of the dance hall there were the Boyer sisters. Their father owned, I believe, a meatpacking or a printing company. They had an in-ground pool and were friendly, if a little odd. Cindy Toastin lived nearby. She had trouble ditching the baby fat, but was essentially harmless. Kacy Callaway caught the same train out of Petticoat Junction that I did. That is, she was a redneck girl from Stahlstown. Our family carpooled with theirs. Dick, her daddy, was the Jed Clampett of that clan. But he didn't discover gold so much as guns. He ran Dick's Sports Shop, one of half a dozen businesses in Stahlstown, and by far the most prosperous. Kacy the daughter wasn't only out of place like me, but was, like me, a fine athlete. She will intersect with Critter Dokerty in one of those stories I'm eager to get to.

That leaves only two other girls. These two were the most attractive in the class, which is sort of like being the skinniest person at a weight watchers meeting. Martha and Megan were the best of friends, bound together by a cord of three strings. Martha was an O'Malley, Irish to the core. Her dad taught at the Valley School, which was evidence that you didn't have to have blue blood in you to be a teacher there. Mr. O'Malley, God bless all his Irish charm, had something altogether more spiritual flowing through his veins, spirits. Megan was a Herman, her family in the old money crowd. But her Dad shared much the same weakness as Mr. O'Malley. Drinking wasn't the problem. Stopping was the problem.

Their second tie was a love for horses. Each not only went through that prepubescent ritual of little girls, reading row after row of horse fiction, as if Misty of Chincoteaque lead as interesting a life as Laura Ingalls, but each had a horse or two. Megan, anyway, used to be late for school on those days that the Rolling Rock Hunt Club was sponsoring a real live fox hunt. Martha, on the other hand, was only late when Mr. O'Malley couldn't get his Vespa started.

The third tie was a second love—for me. At least, that's what Mrs. Granite, our fourth grade teacher told me. You see, these two girls' idea of fun was to rare back a leg, and let it fly such that the toe (well shod of course) came to rest against my shin. Which became for me my own personal values clarification course. I mean, I might not have been brought up in a castle, but I had learned a thing or two of courtly manners. Not only were my hands tied, so were my feet. I couldn't kick the girls back, because boys are supposed to protect girls. You would think, wouldn't you, that my dilemma would have touched a soft spot in these girls. And I suppose it would have, had either had a soft spot. Instead, they gleefully saw it as my weakness. Imagine Mike Tyson discovering that some Amish guy just rammed his Bentley with a buggy. That's how they each looked at the matter.

By the time my shins had been turned into mush, I finally took the problem to Mrs. Granite. She was a nice enough lady, though she was married to a lawyer. She told me, as I laid out my nine-year old heart before her, that she wondered when I would come to her. She had seen the assaults the girls made on me. I told her that I couldn't fight back. This offended her feminism, but she was still gracious. Trouble was, she looked at the problem like a girl. "You know why they kick you don't you?" "No," I answered, wondering where the conversation was going. "It's because they like you" she explained. And that was the end of the conversation. Apparently she thought the whole thing hurt my feelings instead of my shins. Apparently she also thought that a buoyed self-esteem would numb the pain.

The beatings eventually ended. The girls, perhaps because their fancy turned toward him, tried the whole kicking routine on John Shoop. He responded by putting his hands down on two desks and lifting his feet off the ground. He then turned his own feet, shod as they were in those old boots from the seventies, with the brass ring on the side, into a windmill of pain. The girls stood there in shock, until their own pain moved them back. They never kicked me again.

Give a Man a Fish

That the school was old money didn’t mean that it was old-fashioned. In some ways it certainly was. In the fall we fielded a soccer team. This was another time. We had moms, and we had soccer, but there were no soccer moms back then. We wore uniforms. The academic standards were high, so high in fact that my own history text in the seventh grade that my sister had the same text at the local government school, in the eleventh grade. We met once a week for chapel, where we recited various smidgens of the Book of Common Prayer. (No one ever told me these things. I remember how embarrassed I was, that as a son of a man of the cloth I didn’t know the liturgy.) We read in English class from the canon, as was fitting for our station.

All this old stuff, however, didn’t hide the fact that we were progressive as well. That first year, my fourth grade year, we had most of the normal classes. The canonical novel we read for English was The Borrowers. We studied science, with Mrs. Lemon. We studied arithmetic. But we didn’t have a history class. Social studies had made its way to the Valley School. Worse still, we had a socialistic social studies class. I was called MACOS, and it was terrible fun. The name was an acronym for Man, A Course of Study.

We began, as I recall, with the study of some kind of seagull. I don’t remember what kind it was, but I do remember the one interesting thing about this bird, something it seems we watched over and over again in countless filmstrips. (Why, by the way, doesn’t the truth in advertising laws require that we stop calling these fuzzy courses “social studies” and instead call them “Filmstrip Class”?) This bird had a spot on its beak. That’s not the interesting part. The bird doesn’t, as such, bring worms and things to its young in the nest. Instead, the mom (I think it was the mom) stands near her young, and they would peck at that spot on the beak. Soon, dinner would arrive, because mom would vomit up the chicks’ supper. What we were supposed to learn from this, I don’t think I’ll ever know.

Later we studied some Eskimo tribe, whose name escapes me. The best part of this unit was learning to play like the Indians played. We spent every moment of our spare time, and who knows how much class time, learning to do Cat’s Cradle tricks, constructing sundry shapes out of a circle of string. We made Jacob’s ladder (that was one of my favorite ones because while I didn’t know the Episcopal liturgy, I did know what Jacob’s ladder was.) We went from there to witch’s hat, and from there (blush) to Tarzan’s underwear.

What really showed this class’s link to socialism, however, was another game we played. We pretended to be these Eskimos, and would take turns “fishing.” The class played this game that consisted of two large circles of wood, each with dozens of holes in them. In some of these holes were placed little strips of stickers, some with one sticker, some with three, even a few with five or more. These stickers represented a catch of fish, each of which would feed a family for a day. A piece of paper was placed between these two pieces of wood, concealing which holes contained the fish. The class gathered around, and took turns poking holes in the paper, looking for fish. If you and your family went three turns without any fish, you starved to death, and were out of the game. The last man standing was the winner. But what came along with the game was often subtle, often fierce pressure, if you had prospered in your fishing, to share with your classmates lest they die off. Success, according to the game’s creators, wasn’t being the last man standing, but to either have everyone die at the same time, or to empty the wooden sea of its fish. Doesn’t that sound like fun?

I don’t know if the brains that came up with this curriculum are still at work pitching it. (I do know that they don’t give it away, and never did.) It was years later when I was reading a book on the evils of the state schools (still a hobby of mine, and much more fun than poking holes in paper with a pencil) that I learned the socialist lesson that eluded me when I was a boy. This book, in exposing the socialist agenda of the socialist schools, explained the socialist lesson in the socialist curriculum. Though it is counterintuitive, it is nevertheless a common thing for old money (and new money, and I suppose, middle-aged money) to embrace a socialist mentality. If, after all, one finds wealth by luck, as in the game, why wouldn’t we feel guilty for having it?

This, however, was only the beginning. The Valley School had a far more effective tool for making socialists out of its students—Miss Manely, the fifth column, and the fifth grade teacher...

Chapter 4

Miss-teriously Manley

Children, if you will excuse the fuzziness, are innocent. They are, of course, little sinners, a truth I learned not only being catechized, but while reading more of the prep-school canon, The Lord of the Flies. Their sins, however, are rather less knowing than the sins of adults. Children tend to excel more in selfishness than blasphemy, more in ingratitude than in perversion. They, for all the darkness in their hearts, tend to take the world as they find it, and have precious little interest in what lies beneath. Steal a cookie? Yes. Undermine the fabric of society? Not so much. When I was in the second grade, for instance, my friend Tom Moore and I thought it jolly fun to pretend that a day was coming when we would be wed, to each other. More to the point, when my older sister said that such was “queer” I thought that it was indeed a little unusual which explains why we found it so humorous. (On the other hand, when, seven years later I was once more out of prep school and back in the government school, the first big scare was that Tom, now large and angry, wanted to beat me up. I guess he remembered, and felt a need to prove to me what a mannish boy he had become.)

That innocence then meant that we as children tended to miss what would be glaring to the more jaded eye. We were, to be sure, intimidated by Miss Manley. But though we had by this time progressed to long division, we weren’t able to put two and two together. Miss Manley, the fifth grade teacher at the Valley School wasn’t the most feminine pin-up girl in the calendar. She was in her late thirties, lived alone in a little cottage, and drove a blue Volkswagon bug to school every day. She didn’t smile much, and she had shaded glasses, just like Velma from Scooby Doo. And most important of all, she was an ex-nun. She was brusque, aloof, and strangely uncomfortable around children. Children tended to return the favor.

Perhaps better work for her would have been to be in the think-tank that brought us the MACOS program. I’m now confident that it was she who won approval for its use at those faculty meetings that smelled of smoke and cheap perfume. Miss Manley wasn’t merely a bona-fide liberal, but she was an adept at harnessing the power of childish idealism. It was that time when ecology first became mainstream. The hippies had pretty well been hunted off the land, but much of their dreams hung around. Remember those green flags with the big E on them? We were beyond such symbols. This was the age of that government Indian. He walked so solemnly through the woods, only to come upon empty soda cans and a highway clogged with cars. Slowly he turned to face the camera, and we saw the tear running down his cheek. Fade to black.

I was a sucker for that, and all the government ads. I nagged my poor parents about smoking, about littering, and about putting on their seat belts. I had a hair-trigger moral indignation, and wasn’t afraid to use it. Which made me perfect fodder for Miss Manley. Sometimes she was subtle, other times she had all the grace and tact of an angry feminist. (Is there any other kind?)

She began her program with reading time. Many days as the school day came to a close we were invited to put our work aside and listen while she read to us. It was just like story time when we were little, comforting and safe. But the book she had chosen was on the bestseller lists at the time. We met a sweet little warren of bunnies, once more taking us back to our kinder gardens. They played, the talked to one another, they married. And then came the tension, a bulldozer came to town, and now the rabbits were on a quest. Watership Down taught me and my classmates to hate a bulldozer with all the passion of a rabid rabbit.

We had more MACOS that year as well. But Miss Manley, before perhaps anyone had ever heard of such a thing, introduced us to unit studies. This, for the uninitiated, is how you bring unity to the diversity of the knowledge we learn in school. The plan is that you do your various subjects around a single subject matter. It could be “Your neighborhood.” For math you count the blocks in a mile. For “social studies” you would write stories about the people who work in your neighborhood. For geography you study the terrain around you, and for science you look at how weather comes to town. We didn’t look at what was in our neighborhood that year, but what Miss Manley didn’t want in our neighborhood—the Donegal Energy Park, the market driven name for the planned nuclear power plant in our back yard.

Our science class was learning how the Donegal Energy Park would make it cloudy and rainy every day. You can’t very well play baseball in the pouring rain now can you? In social studies class we learned about the glories of renewable energy sources. In math class we learned about radioactive half-lives, and how they might cut our own lives in half. And in English class (then moderned up as Language Arts) we learned to write letters to the editor. The Ligonier Echo, a weekly paper with a circulation under 5,000 at the time, was inundated with self-righteous ten year olds insisting that the Donegal Energy Park be put out of its misery before it was even born. My first published piece of prose was just such a letter that saw the light of day.

The funny thing is while I wrote with such passion, the whole issue was just way yonder too scientific for me to really care. Litter on the ground, or in the river, that I could understand. Invisible rays and particles didn’t mean so much to me. No, I wrote what I wrote not because I believed what I had said, but I did it for Miss Manley. How this stern, distant woman could inspire a ten year old boy we will look at next time.

Mannish Boy

It was easy enough to explain when I was littler. Like a yearly pilgrimage to sit-com plot hell, it was my habit to develop crushes on my school teachers. In the first grade I raced through my math dittos so I could hand them in before my competitor and best friend, Greg Thomas. Speed-adding was my service to this goddess. In the second grade we had something of a mess at school. First there was Mrs. Pritchett. She had all the beauty of Miss Donchez from the first grade, but she had a wedding band. It seems that such didn’t mean so much to her. She left us mid-year, after suffering a nervous breakdown. No, it wasn’t from the mental stress of the classroom, but from the stress, I found out decades later, of keeping her extra-marital affair a secret. Not such an easy thing to do when yours is one of all of ten houses on the main street. Mr. Van Dyke replaced her, but I didn’t see much of him, spending the second half of the school year at home with a badly broken leg.

I don’t know what, if anything, inspired me through third grade, but in the fourth grade it was back to simple crushes. But not with Miss Manley. Given her brusque manner, her hard edges, she neither coaxed a crush from me, nor managed to be even a matronly inspiration. Instead what inspired me was something far more counter-cultural than being an ex-Mary Knoller, something far more perverse than not preferring the opposite sex, something more dangerous than the International Workers Party. Miss Manley manifested, and thus birthed in me the most deadly of qualities—earnestness. She was a woman not only emotionally dead, but dead serious.

This, of course, was my first, though by no means my last, great awakening. It was the first true bud of adulthood. Prior to this time my commitments went only as far as the local sports teams. When my own mother, a year or so prior, cried in my presence for the first time (while listening to radio reports of American POW’s deplaning stateside after the end of the war in Viet Nam) it was less frightening than puzzling. What, my innocent heart pondered, could be quite so serious and important that it would lead one to cry? It wasn’t like the Pirates lost to the Reds in the playoffs.

With Miss Manley, what she was so serious about wasn’t really the point. I joined in the crusade against the nuclear plant not because I was a nascent lefty, but because it was a crusade. Crusading was what appealed to me, and all the proud smugness that went with it. For this particular change, this connection between teacher and pupil, brought with it a separation between pupil and classmates. I was moving toward maturity, while the rest of the class, emotionally speaking, was still playing with crayons.

Mind you this was still only the ten-year old version of earnestness. It wasn’t like I went to the barber and asked to have my hair cut like Lord Byron. I still woke up early each Saturday and sat transfixed by Hannah and Barbera while chowing down on Quisp or Pink Panther flakes. My idea of a good time still ran to sled-riding and hot wheels. Indeed, I suspect that, while I felt the cold chill of distance, my classmates and friends noticed nothing. I could still fit in, even though I no longer fit in.

Like some kind of emotional vampire, this earnestness only came out late at night. My affair with the radio began with my broken leg three years hence. I would listen to the Pirates’ spring training games on KDKA radio. This was the era of Bob Prince, a stalwart in the drunken baseball announcer hall of fame. He was so good that on nights when the game was on TV, and he would do the radio broadcast for the middle three innings while his sidekick handled the TV chores, I would turn off the sound of the TV and watch with the radio on. After the leg healed, the radio stayed. It was about this time that I started listening to pop music. I had no girlfriend. I sought no girlfriend (well, at least not yet. More, of course, on this angle later.) But I would lie in my bed at night, and give myself over to this earnestness while WPEZ provided the soundtrack.

WPEZ was the first and oldest top forty station on the FM dial. They agreed with Paul McCartney, that the world had not yet had its fill of silly love songs. So there I would lay, mooning along with the tunes, over girls I didn’t even know. Foolish yes, but such an emotional rush. Of course what I label as a step toward maturity, some would argue was rather immature. In our brave new world no one wants to be accused of the impertinence of being earnest. Far better to be flip, and superior.

Which leads us back to my enduring respect for this woman. She is/was Roman Catholic. I am/ever more shall be Protestant. She was on the left of her tradition, I am decidedly on the right. She, to borrow a phrase, thought government was the solution, while I think it is the problem. It was, strangely, because we were/are polar opposites, that we ended up having something in common. We cared, and for that let neither of us ever make an apology. It was this bond that inspired me, though I didn’t know it at the time. Now that I know it, I can only wonder if she knows. She remains frozen in time, while I still have chapters to go before I sleep.

Chapter 5

The Right Side of the Tracks

Ten year olds, at least those stuck somewhere in the middle, aren’t especially class conscious. To be sure they notice peculiarities, but that’s really all they are. That one family, instead of taking the bus to school, is driven by a chauffer is strange, but no stranger than that in another family the mother’s native tongue is French. “That’s different” these children think, and then they move on.

It wasn’t the news itself that drove us to check every year, but the brush with fame. That is, we weren’t particularly thinking about the meaning of staggering wealth when we looked each year in the Guinness Book of World Records to see if they were still there. But back then, they were, every year, the richest family in the world. Sure it was in small print, but it was in the second best selling book of all time, a thirty word sentence describing the wealth and history of the Richard King Mellon family.

There was a deep tie at the Valley School of Ligonier, and the Mellon family. Ligonier the town was a virtual Potemkin village, a picture postcard town with a gazebo in the town square designed and payed for by the Mellons (the town, not the gazebo). The school building itself had once been a mansion belonging to General Mellon. And the building was itself a veritable patch of Mellons. Below me two grades was a pretty little girl named Cat Mellon, a spur off the main family line. One can only hope that Cat was a nickname. Above me one grade was Richard, namesake of the patriarch. And right there in my own classroom was Armour.

They all seemed ordinary enough, even after we learned exactly why they didn’t ride the bus, and exactly who was driving them. It wasn’t that the Mellons were too good to ride the bus, but too exposed. I’ve not known many children that require an armed escort to and from school. The drivers were less drivers, and more bodyguards. Armour could be nice enough, and he could be a little less than tame. But his shenanigans, as one might expect for a ten year old, were generally more boyish than evil. He would fit more in the dipping girl’s pigtails in ink wells era than in the gunning down your enemies at school era. We weren’t the best of friends, but neither were we enemies. Which explains why, like Charlie of the chocolate factory fame, it wasn’t a complete shock that I should receive a golden ticket, an invitation to Armour’s birthday party. Grander still, it would be a sleepover.

And so one Friday afternoon, I rode the bus away from Stahlstown, and toward Laughlintown, with my host, his brother, and their bodyguards following behind us in a car straight out of cop show casting. We debussed, all fifteen or so of we guests. Some were from the grade above us, friends of Richard, including my best friend, the one who first spoke to me of the Mellon clan, Randy. We hiked half a mile or so up a country road that suddenly opened up at the Mellon estate. It was the first, and last house I have ever been in that came equipped with a name. Had I known then what I’d be doing now, I would have made a point to remember that name.

Like the gardens of Versaille, in front of the house was two hundred yards immaculate grass, gently rising to the mansion. We walked up the hill, the house growing still bigger, each of us growing smaller. I had heard that there was a “servant’s entrance” but it was nowhere in sight. (It was, in fact, naturally enough behind the house.) We trudged into the house, removed our shoes in the mudroom, made our way through the kitchen where Mrs. Mellon greeted us (we saw her only once more, when we left the party), and then it was off to the trophy room.

I had heard that we would be spending most of our time in the trophy room, but I had the wrong mental image. Somehow I had it in my head that Mr. Mellon must be some sort of champion bowler, or that his office softball team was rather accomplished. I pictured display cases of hardware acquired on the field of sport. That’s not the kind of trophy. Instead we entered the room, and found it to be some sort of cross between an exotic zoo and a wax museum. The trophies in the room were mounted heads and bodies of animals the master of the house had killed.

Dropping off our sleeping bags and such, we left the room for a brief, and partial tour. We passed room after room, and Armour made no comment. Peaking in one room and seeing nothing more than a bunch of old furniture (what more sophisticated palates would call antiques) I asked, “What’s this room for?” Armour looked a bit puzzled, trying to cross a cultural divide, and in turn gave a most honest answer—“Nothing.” The rest of the tour was less about the house, and more about the stuff. Armour lived in a virtual dreamland. We saw the matching mini-bikes he and Richard road. We saw Richard’s bedroom, with a bed shaped like a race-car. Armour had a bunk bed, done up like a fire truck. Tossed casually across the top bunk was a true marvel, and a veritable wealth building machine—a metal detector. Outside we were introduced to a trampoline, a toy we had all thus far only seen at the circus.

It was the servants who served us supper, and I presume, though I don’t remember, perhaps because such is so ordinary, a birthday cake. Then it was back to the trophy room for the evening’s entertainment. This was the strangest thing of all. It seems, if you were wealthy enough, that you could actually watch, in your own home, the movie of your choice. And so we did, not with a VCR, which then even the richest could not buy, but on a real movie projector. And the movie was just perfect for this particular crowd—Godzilla vs. King Kong.


Hot Lips

That night I was forced to confront two great fears, though neither had ever even appeared in a Japanese movie. As I recall we all watched the movie dutifully. While the plot was somewhat compelling, I remember that my mind was rather more focused on the magic of the technology. The projector was plugged into an outlet that wasn’t on the wall, but in the floor. The movie screen wasn’t one of those bulky monstrosities that were more difficult to set up than an army cot. A push of a button and it just descended from the ceiling. Stranger still, however, and a piece of machinery that would play a major role in a matter of hours, was the refrigerator. I’d seen plenty of those. We even had two at my house, one in the kitchen and one in the garage. But this one was half-size, in the trophy room, and built into the wall. It was like watching a movie at the Jetson’s house.

I don’t recall who won the epic battle of the bad guys. I do remember getting into more sophisticated tastes. I liked being scared. Hitchcock was already a favorite, both the empty eye socket scene in Birds and the bottom of the basement stairs scene in Psycho, already etched in my memory. But this was the mid-seventies, and Hollywood was demon happy. Rosemary had already had her baby, and the exorcist was our omen of scares to come. I was ten years old, on my way to a midget football game. My father was driving and was hoping to add a little juice to my aggression. “If you play particularly well today, if you have several strong tackles, I’ll get you something special. What would you like?” That was a tough one. Dirt bike I figured, would be asking too big. Candy bar was too little. So I asked, “Will you take me to a devil movie?” I don’t recall how well I played that day, but I know he didn’t take me to a devil movie.

Which didn’t keep me from looking for the devil himself. After the movie ended, and after the caregivers left us to our own devices, a group of us kids turned a flashlight into a makeshift candle, and gathered around in a circle holding hands. No, it wasn’t a prayer meeting. We didn’t sing “It Only Takes a Spark.” We conducted, as best as we were able, our own little séance. This was my first, though not my last dabbling in such matters, though as I look back I think God was being gracious to me in inviting me to turn back. We whispered ever more loudly and furiously at each other to be quiet, until finally silence reigned. Someone, perhaps the birthday boy himself, began to call upon the spirits. With as much solemnity as a grade schooler could muster he invoked the spirits of the dead. With an eerie marriage of naiveté and earnestness, he asked that if a spirit were in our midst, that they would give us a sign. He implored, and waited. He called forth, and waited. Like the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, he invited, and waited. And then came a moment when each boy in the circle, together and all at once, levitated. That is, we all jumped out of our skins as the ice machine kicked a helping of ice into the hopper. A ghost in the ice machine was all that we could take, and the séance came to an abrupt end.

Considering how many useless rooms the Mellon home had, the trophy room was the very model of efficiency. One could watch a movie there, look at dead animals there. There was even a bathroom within the room. But the refrigerator was there for a grown up purpose. While there certainly may have been other rooms similarly equipped in the house, children weren’t the only ones partying in this one. It came with a fully equipped bar. While we spent the night utterly in the grip of sobriety, and while my own dealings with the demon rum will come in future chapters, the bar was broken into. By this late hour a few of the guests had fallen sound asleep in their sleeping bags. Most children at this point would have done the normal things. Someone would fetch a bowl of water, and we would delicately plop a sleeper’s hand therein, and await the warm spot in the middle of the sleeping bag. Or someone might have found some shaving cream, and spewed a dollop on a sleeper’s hand. Then a little tickle of the nose, and the poor sleeping beauty would have a face full of cream. Neither of these pranks, however, were strong enough for a few of the still awake children. They found instead, right in the bar, a bottle of Tabasco. I’m not sure who, but I’m confident that the birthday boy was in the center of this. He uncapped the bottle, and proceeded to use it like a lipstick, rubbing the flaming hot juice on the delicate lips of his friends. They woke, they cried, they rushed to the ice maker to numb the pain.

I only had to see it once to determine that I would not be found weak and asleep. Alas I was weak, and I fell asleep. I received my own makeover, complete with fire red lip gloss. It was worse than I imagined. The pain took half an hour to subside; it will take a lifetime to forget.
That night, in my memory, was the beginning of the division. That is, we began all together, kids at a birthday party. By the next morning we realized that henceforth there would be two distinct crowds at school, those who were in and those who were out. The bad news is that I was an out. Worse still, over the next year or so, I would climb my way out of out, and make it in, becoming less kind, less gracious, more duplicitous, and more of a fool.

Chapter 6

Falling In Love

It is the nature of fads that they should later embarrass us. The worst ones, however, are those that embarrass us when we are in the midst of them. I was in my early twenties, though I felt at the time like I was about five, getting my first barber shop haircut. I was sitting in a chair, upright and stiff, while a nice lady, a friend of the family, gently draped various pieces of cloth around my shoulders. She was an adept at the arcane art of “doing colors” and I was having mine done. I don’t remember what I ended up being, but I remember what I was rooting for. In this system your “color” comes out as a season. Some people are winters, some springs, and some summers. I knew however, that whatever the cloth said, I was a fall.

Winter is a delightful season, what with the snow days and Christmas day, skiing and hot chocolate. Spring has its own delights, baseball and baseball and baseball. Summer meant vacation, an end to endless school days. But as long as I can remember, fall was the season of my reason for being.

I could list any number of qualifications for choosing fall. I got to play two of my favorite sports, soccer at the Valley School, and midget football with my local friends. Better still I got to watch football. Four times in the space of the six years my local heroes, while I moved from 8 to 14, the Pittsburgh Steelers conquered the world. That in itself qualified my childhood as magic. More on that later. Or one could find the magic in the ordinary. The sweet smell of rotting leaves, the very birth of future fecundity, made for olfactory bliss. Like the image of an old girlfriend, I can recall in my mind’s nose the smell of lunch, bologna, with mustard, mixed in with the metallic scent of my Happy Day’s lunchbox, and suddenly I am seven again.

These all, however, are but icing on the cake. Fall, like some seasonal trinity, meant three things that we one thing. Every fall in and around Ligonier it was festival season, and three stood out above all the others. It is not a coincidence, I think, that these three festivals reflected the same three cultures that the region brought together. Nor is it strange that I was able to delight in all three.

You may remember that my home was in Stahlstown, that part of the area that took its cultural cues more from the south. And so our annual festival reflected that simple, agrarian ideal. It took place each September at the Monticue Fair Grounds, just a stone’s throw from the local baseball field. The fairgrounds were also home to the annual Fireman’s Fair, a summer festival of gambling and cotton candy, all for the sake of the volunteer fire department. The fall festival is called the Flax Scutching. Flax, as I remember, was some ancient plant substance that the pioneers used in the making of clothes. That process is called scotching. Every year local folk put on their pioneer costumes and demonstrated for the audience how that process worked.

This wasn’t all the old fashioned handiwork, however. The local boy scout troop constructed coffee tables before our very eyes, with nary a power tool. Their younger counterparts, the cub scouts, meanwhile, pressed apples into cider, just like Daniel Boone used to do it. The only down side was the old fashioned facilities. The fairgrounds came equipped with his and hers two seater outhouses.

These ancient wonders, however, weren’t the reason I went. I attended each year for two rather disparate treats. I went for the drama, and I went for the food. The grand finale of the festival was a rather politically incorrect mock Indian raid. Red savages would descend upon a family or two of pioneers, who would in turn gun down the Indians. I still remember the smell of the smoke that floated off the flintlocks. The smell I remember better, however, came from the old Methodist ladies. No, it wasn’t Ben-gay, but the smell of breakfast. For just a few dollars a body could feast on home ground sausage and buckwheat cakes. The links were a good two inches in radius in the middle, while the edges split open like a double-barreled blunderbuss. At the openings you could make out cubes of meat, intermingled with cubes of fat. The maple syrup was likewise made the old fashioned way. The only weakness of this feast was that you had to sit down to eat it, and thus miss out on everything else.

The festival season swiftly moved from down home to upscale as next on the social calendar came the Rolling Rock races. Rolling Rock was a small country club built for the pleasure of the Mellon family and some of their favorite friends. You could play a round of golf there, though there were finer courses in the vicinity. You could play tennis there, or take a swim. You could also go hunting. The gameskeepers at Rolling Rock were more than happy to snatch a pheasant from it’s cage, put it in a burlap sack, swing it over their head a dozen times or so, and then let the poor creature out to stagger a step or two before becoming an interesting trophy for a businessman likely as unsteady on his feet as the bird. The likewise kept foxes there. I think stranger even than the Mellon bodyguards that followed our bus to school was the weird truth that some of the young ladies in my class were excused for being late to school several times a year because they and their horses were busy participating in a fox hunt. I remember watching them wistfully in their finest red velvet as our bus drove through the hunting grounds on the way to school.

All this old world charm, however, isn’t what put Rolling Rock on the map. It was the races that did that. For two days each fall horses thundered around a steeplechase course while assorted American aristocracy drank themselves silly. (Here too membership had its privileges. While the local hoi polloi sometimes dropped by on the Saturday races, we who attended Valley School were excused from afternoon classes on the Wednesday of races, and the bus took us there.) Precious few people paid any mind to the horses. It was all just an excuse to tailgate. High above the grandstand, an entire mountainside was bedotted with luxury automobiles with their tailgates heavy laden with fois gras, fine bourbon, and the besotted owners themselves.

As one grows older in this context, there are stages of application and appreciation of the races. My first years there the thing that mattered was the whole grand spectacle of the thing. There were actual television crews there (and I was actually shown on the news one year, if only for a moment). Horses and riders were led this way and that like royalty. And then there were those cars, Ferraris and Bentleys. It was a whole other world.

The second stage, a small step into the vices, was when you realized that you could, with just a few of your friends, actually gamble on the races. We made informed decisions based on such scientific criteria like our favorite numbers or our favorite colors. We exchanged Federal Reserve notes, and for a moment, felt like grownups. Thankfully, there was no house, and no odds, and so most of us went home with our pockets as heavy or light as they were when we arrived.

In the third stage we finally entered fully into Vanity Fair. I was in junior high when I made what I thought was a brilliant discovery. I have since come to realize that sooner or later everyone figures this out. Here is what I found. If you have a bunch of grownups gathered together, feasting together, drinking together, they enjoy nothing more than to share their bounty. Walk by the tailgate of a total stranger, look slightly forlorn, and reasonably dignified, and you are apt to have a drumstick forced on you. Hang around long enough with your rich friend’s parents long enough, and they will fill you with strawberry cheesecake. But neither of these were the grandest of coups. As the sun began its descent into evening, a walk through the tailgate field of dreams would yield all the beer, wine and liquor a fourteen year old could drink. Then the only challenge was scoring some chewing gum to clean up your breath before your parents showed up to take you home.

The valley of Ligonier, despite the ridge runners that occasionally came down from the Highlands, and despite the bluebloods that protected its image, was still in its corporate heart, hopelessly midwestern. Its festival fit its profile. Ligonier was the site of a reasonably important, if you can believe the town fathers, frontier outpost during the time of the French and Indian War. There a young Colonel Washington had his first, but thankfully not last command. And there the sundry boosters smelled profit. Fort Ligonier Days, the second weekend of every October, was that time when our little charming hamlet was overrun with strangers, so that we could afford to keep it charming. Like the Flax Scutching, there is an Indian raid, assorted old fashioned gee-gaws, and outstanding fair food. (The best of which were the old-fashioned cake donuts. Dough was poured into a dispenser and a fat man turned a crank spitting out perfect o’s into a vat of boiling oil. They were scooped out, and given a bath of cinnamon and sugar. You could buy a dozen of these for a dollar. I always bought mine to sustain me during the parade. The biggest challenge was making sure the paper bag could maintain its integrity in the face of so much grease.)

The town square was lined with booths. The local chapter of the Sweet Adelines raised funds for their singing contests. The high school students sold fudge. The local merchants put on sidewalk sales, and the bands came out to play. The highlight of the weekend was always the Saturday morning parade. The church that I attended was right along the parade route. (We always sold hot dogs with sauerkraut, a bland idea that fit our image as Presbyterians.) As fine a view of the parade as such provided, however, it wasn’t the best view I ever had. One year as I say beside my friend Bruce Vanderwalker, taking in sundry clowns, and Shriners, along came a horse drawn wagon. There was no float in the wagon, and the driver wore ordinary clothes. He decided the spiff up his contribution with me. While the band in front of him marched in place and he whoaed his team to a stop, he looked into the crowd, caught my eye and crooked his finger at me. Me? I mimed back. “You” he smiled to me. I ran into the road and climbed up onto that wagon, and waved my way through that parade like the town beauty queen. How innocent the times seemed that neither I, nor my parents, worried a fig as the wagon pulled beyond their sight.

That same innocence was strangely at work in another high point of my years at the festival. It was Critter Sheedy that I hung out with this year. We screwed up our courage to enter into Ye Olde Deli. Like some teenager buying a condom, he or I, I can’t remember which, managed to ask the man behind the counter if we might purchase a “Near Beer.” This product of the Netbrew company somehow managed to bridge the gap between Prohibition and the recent innovation of high brow non-alcoholic beers. The man handed us the can, we payed our money, and we gingerly walked out the door, before racing full speed to the nearest alley. Near beer has this in common with real beer, running several blocks with a can of it in your hand will not do well for its volatility. We opened the can, sprayed our peach-fuzzed faces, and managed to choke down the half a can that was left, half expecting that somehow the company had made a mistake, and we would catch a buzz. It wasn’t to be. All we had was the pleasure of illicit pleasure, even when it wasn’t much fun. The next time Critter and I had an interaction with beer, or something like it, it would be even less fun.

Chapter 7

A Boy and His Team

I was somewhere in northern Israel, sitting inside a Roman stadium. Our tour guide was explaining to us that until their presence was required as part of the entertainment, it wasn’t the habit of early Christians to attend the Roman “games.” He explained that what kept them home wasn’t so much a moral objection to the nature of the games as it was a profound indifference to them. These early Christians lived for more important issues than who could run a hundred yards the fastest or fling a javelin the farthest. And as he spoke a ghostly javelin pierced my conscience. How much time, money, and emotional energy had I poured into the games that I watched? I made a vow right then and there that henceforth Sportscenter would have to go on without me, that I wouldn’t wake up each morning wondering how Penn State’s football team, or the Pittsburgh Pirates ballclub or the Penguins hockey franchise was doing. I would not check plot the failures and successes of the Pittsburgh Panthers college hoops team. I made the vow more than a decade ago, and have done reasonably well in keeping it.

Did you notice, however, that something is missing? I made the vow in all the earnestness of my faith, but left out the Pittsburgh Steelers. That was on purpose. The same faith that prompted the vow likewise tells us, “It is better not to take a vow than to take one and break it” (Ecclesiastes 5:5). The Steelers are one team, one passion, that I haven’t been able to give up. I keep telling God that all it would take would be five or ten miserable seasons in a row, and I would be cured.

I pray that God will understand. He is the one, after all, who orchestrated the events that brought this one. He is the one that made the Steelers such an integral part of the magic that was my upbringing. It all began when I was seven years old. It was 1972, and the Steelers, for the first time ever, were contenders. A young and patient coach, Chuck Noll, was gathering around himself through the draft a crew of honorable and gifted men. That year all eyes were on an astonishing rookie running back, that I, for that whole season, thought was Frank O’Harris. Truth be told he wasn’t an Irishman, but of both African and Italian ancestry. His name is Franco Harris, and his fans were dubbed “Franco’s Italian Army.”

As a boy, prior to my interest in girls, I remember writing too few thank you letters after Christmas and my birthday to distant but gracious aunts and grandparents. The only other letters I remember writing I wrote that year. One was to Franco telling him rather simply that I wanted to be inducted into his army. The other was a piece of moral philosophy. It seems that Steelers were playing a game my father and I were watching on television. The enemy, I don’t remember who, shamelessly cheated, while having possession of the ball somewhere inside their own ten yard line. The violation was caught by the officials who, rather than marching off the standard fifteen yards, merely moved it “half the distance to the goal line.” I was outraged. Why should the power and strength of the Steeler’s defense, that pushed the enemy inside that ten yard line, cause the enemy to receive any mercy. As my sense of justice did bellyflops all over the den, my father suggested I write the commissioner and get his view on the matter. And so I wrote to Peter Rozelle. He was gracious enough to write back, and carefully explain the ethics of the situation. “Suppose,” he wrote, “the Steelers had the ball inside their own ten yard line, and they were charged with a fifteen yard penalty…” the letter explained, and all was right with the world.

That same year the Steelers entered the playoffs for only the second time in their long and sad history. (They lost their lone playoff game prior to this year.) The Steelers had been so bad for so long that even that playoff game did not sell out (though since millions have claimed to be there). As such, the game wasn’t televised. I wasn’t yet an addict, so it was fitting that I spent several hours that afternoon playing school with my sister and her girlfriend. I kept asking, however, for recess, so that I could check on the game. My father sat hunched over one of those white ball shaped transistor radios that were the rage then listening intently. As the shadows grew longer I came in one last time, “What’s the report?” I asked him.

My father, knowing I was new to this Steeler thing, was trying to break it to me easy. “It doesn’t look good son. It’s fourth down, and there is less than a minute left. The Steelers are losing by a few points.” His gloomy and seasoned pessimism didn’t a bit dampen my enthusiasm. “Don’t worry Dad, “ I explained patiently, “Franco will do something great, and the Raiders won’t have time to score again.” The next instant, the Immaculate Reception happened.

Those of you who know what that is will find this prophetic utterance hard to swallow. I can only tell you that both my father and I, decidedly staid Presbyterian ministers, are prepared to swear on a stack of Bibles that the above is absolutely true. Those who you who don’t know what the Immaculate Reception was, I’ll be happy to describe it. Terry Bradshaw took a deep drop. He scrambled, dipped and dodged, a talent he had. His pass was errant, and headed straight for Jack Tatum, a Raider defensive back. (This too was a talent Bradshaw had.) Tatum, Steeler running back Frenchy Fuqua and the football collided with a terrific crash, and the ball caromed up into the air, back toward the line of scrimmage, on the far left side, and just before it hit the articifical turf, Franco plucked the ball off his shoestrings and raced down the sideline for the winning touchdown as time ran out. That was more than enough to make me a fan for life. But there was more magic to come.

More Magic

The Steelers lost their next playoff game to the Miami Dolphins who that year amassed the first and thus far only perfect season. The next year the Steelers made the playoffs again, only to beat a hasty retreat. The year after that, we won the Super Bowl for the first time. It was a glorious season, and a glorious game. But the magic didn’t stop. During that offseason, while shopping for school clothes at Kaufman’s department store in Pittsburgh, I filled out a contest application. A month or so later I learned that my name had been drawn, and that I would be mascot of the week.

There were sundry perks that came with this honor, not the least of which were a pair of tickets to the game. My picture was in the local paper, and in the game program. My name was announced over the pa system during the game, and it appeared on the scoreboard, which, strangely, was below me and out of sight to me. None of that, as great as it was, compared to this—the Saturday before the game I got to attend a practice. A neighbor friend filled in for my father, and the two of us walked into the Steeler offices at Three Rivers Stadium. While we waited for our tour guide, who should walk in, but the previous year’s offensive rookie of the year, Lynn Swann. A first round draft pick from Southern Cal, Swann was as graceful as his name, both in terms of his play on the field, and his kindness toward me. He sat down beside me, and chewed the fat.

The PR guy showed up and gave us a tour of the offices, of the locker room, and finally, the field. I was able to kick the football I had brought along through the uprights. I had that ball signed by most everyone on the team, and had my picture taken with future Hall of Famers Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, Mean Joe Greene, Mel Blount. Most of the signatures I got after practice, in the locker room. I approached Jack Lambert, gently asked if he would sign my ball. He peered down and me and bellowed out, to the amusement of his peers, and to my dread, “NO!!!!” I fell to the ground, he smiled, helped me up, and signed my ball.

After practice we hung around the parking area, noting who drove what car. The only one I remember was Lynn Swann’s silver Porsche 911, complete with a whale’s tail. As we mulled around, however, the highlight happened. Walking out the door came the most beloved man in all of Pittsburgh. My neighbor friend asked if he minded if we took a picture. He smiled (at least I think he did. It was kind of hard to tell, with the huge cigar that protruded from his mouth) and put his arm around me. I got my picture taken with Art Rooney Senior, the Chief. Though he is the least well known of the hall of famers from the Steelers, it was and is my most treasured picture.

Then came heaping mounds of icing on this cake. The Steelers won the Super Bowl again that year. A two year drought ensued (some say the 1976 Steeler team was the greatest of all. They were bumped from the playoffs by the evil Raiders, in large part because their two starting running backs could not play for injuries.) But then again in 1978 the Steelers won the Super Bowl, becoming the first team to own three trophies, and again in 1979. In the space of six years, as I was growing up, my team won the championship four years in a row.
Even that, however, isn’t why I can’t give them up. Though both my father and I are men of the cloth, what held us together during those years was this shared passion. Sunday after Sunday we sat together before the television and watched our champions play. My father even knew some of them, as from time to time he did Bible studies for some of the players. During the playoffs we would break out the terrible towels, and adorn the television with all the paraphernalia in the house. We lived and died together, believing in our hearts that it was our zeal, our commitment that made it all happen.

It has been more than twenty-five years since the Steelers have won the Super Bowl. There have been, short of complete victory, some joyful years. There have been, in turn, some lean years. The team, however, continues to be successful franchise. It still carries with it something of the heart and ethos of the glory years. And it still attracts the hearts of men and boys. An hour or so ago I had to discipline my own son, who is nine. It seems he helped himself to my computer. He went online without my permission, and without my supervision. No, he didn’t go anyplace illicit. He wanted to check the progress of the NFL draft, which begins today. My son loves Jerome Bettis, a hero for our day. He delights in young Ben Rothlisberger, who as a rookie this past season won more games than any rookie before him. But my son likewise, though he wasn’t even born when their careers came to an end, loves to hear the stories about Jack Ham, about Andy Russell’s 93 yard return of a fumble, of Donnie Shell cracking the ribs of Earl Campbell on Monday Night Football. He understands when his grandfather quips, every time he is asked that most vexing theological question, "where did evil come from?" that the answer is simple enough—Oakland. My first love is now beloved of my beloved son. And so it shall go, from generation to generation.

Chapter 8

A Second Love

It is our habit to think of the onset of puberty, and the release of hormones that accompanies such is the on-switch of a boy’s interest in girls. One day we’re a member of the ruling class in the He Man Woman Hater’s Club, and the next, we’re helpless and drooling in the presence of the fairer sex. I’d like to posit a different theory, a two-steps forward and one step back approach. My first crush was pre-Ligonier. I was in kindergarten, but spent my days dreaming about Susy Meyer. I don’t know where she is now, but I know where she was one joyful day at church. We were on the floor, behind a big, wooden boat/indoor sea-saw thing, kissing. At Cook Township Elementary School, I had a terrible crush, like every other boy in the first and second grade, on Leslie Neiderhiser. Her flowing blonde locks stayed with her until we caught up again in the ninth grade. But by then she was sixty pounds overweight, and no one was enamored of her.

My hormones went on hiatus once again, until reawakened in the fifth grade. This was different though. Now it wasn’t just a crush but a relationship. It all began, like so many young romances, at camp. The Valley School, each spring, took its fifth and sixth graders to a nearby church camp, Camp Fairfield. Mr. Murphy taught us to classify trees, Mrs. Lemon showed us how to make rubbings of old gravestones. Somewhere in the curriculum two strange bedfellows shared some sheets. We learned something about the Roman and Greek gods, and we played a great deal of softball. One evening Clare Dockerty, who was a grade ahead, but whose brother Critter was in my class, sat behind the backstop quietly weaving together weeds to construct a make-shift laurel wreath. Over the past day or two we had exchanged a few words, a few jokes. As I came in from a successful half-inning in the outfield, she bestowed the wreath on me, dubbed me Caesar, and utterly captured my heart.

The unspoken hieroglyphics that establish and move forward all budding relationships had spoken, and with great clarity. I was only in the fifth grade, but I had a girlfriend. Trouble is, where does the relationship go from there? All male/female relationships, of course, find their omega in one of two places. First comes love, then either comes marriage, or the end of love. Being yet roughly eleven years away from being of marriageable age, one likely end loomed rather more likely than the other. Still, while it lasted...

Our relationship did survive decamping, and entering back into real life, well, however much grade school can be real life. Clare and I became the object of countless conversations. We were the local version of Ben and Jennifer, Tom and Kate, Brad and Angelina, except for this, neither of us were particularly good looking. Before the beginning of our relationship, Clare’s reputation was built around her build. She was built for sports. She was a terror on the field hockey field. Thick in the ankles, her appeal was in her smile. Her teeth were covered with braces, but there was something genuinely disarming about her grin. Each person falling within range of that smile received a gift not from Clare, but from the gods. All I can remember was the reality of the happiness that flowed from it. I wouldn’t learn of the sadness that served as a backdrop until later.

Clare wasn’t only my first girlfriend, but my first date. The last day of school, every year, was made up of a trip to the local amusement park, Idelwild. This park was owned by the grandfather of my classmate Charlie MacDougal. Charlie followed hot on my trail into the realm of romance. He had his eye on Clare’s best friend, Maggie Skitze. Maggie, like Clare, was a grade ahead of us. Like Clare she was an outstanding athlete. And like Clare, her smile lit up a room. She and Clare were best friends, and so Charlie and I became co-conspirators. It was he I first told that I was screwing up my courage to ask Clare to attend the school picnic with me. Soon, we were planning a double date. He asked me, “Are you going to kiss her?” Finding discretion the better part of valor I confessed, “No, but when we’re on the rides, I plan on leaning a lot.” The amusement rides would bring Clare and I close together.

The actual ask snuck up on me. Time was running out, but my courage was stagnant. One of my chores that year at the Valley School was unflagging the flag pole each afternoon. And so, a week or so before the end of the school year, I carefully folded the flag. Clare came out the door, our eyes locked, and I asked her, “Would you like to go to the picnic with me?” She said yes, and I began to walk on air. I was a hero to my classmates, the first to have a date.

I don’t recall whether Charlie succeeded in squiring Maggie to the picnic. If they did, they didn’t hang out with us. I do recall that I didn’t enjoy the date, being entirely too nervous the entire time. Nothing dramatic happened, but I did have a date. The greater drama happened a month or so later.

The Wrong Dragon

I was, in the fifth grade, still not much accomplished as a baseball player. I played on the “B” team, a sort of Little League junior varsity. While the older boys played twenty or so games a year, we played two. One of those games was scheduled for a Friday, a Friday when I was scheduled to have a sleepover with my friend Critter, Clare’s younger brother and my classmate. After the game I would be taken to his house. Also on the B team was Kacy Cairnes, the best female athlete in my own class at the Valley School.

On the mound was another outstanding female athlete, Lori Diorio. She has already established herself, in fact, as the best female athlete in all Ligonier. Still, she had pitched herself into a jam. When I came up to bat, the bases were loaded. Now at this stage in my career, a trip to the plate was an event. If I could get on base, it was a huge success. Even a walk, in this circumstance, would drive in a run. Mostly I sat and watched pitches, playing the odds, and hoping for a walk. But this was a “B” game, and more was expected. Lori reared back and let one fly. I swung, and like Mighty Casey, I missed. A second pitch likewise made it past me. It wasn’t going well. Just then, my teammate, my classmate, Kacey Cairnes shouted from our bench, “Hit one for Clare.” No one else on the team, because they attended the local public school, had any idea what she was talking about. But I did. An opportunity for heroism was before me, a dragon had crossed my path. I gritted my teeth, Lori let one fly, and physics magic happened. Ball hit bat, and ball rocketed not only to the outfield, but over the head of the left fielder. I raced around the bases wondering who would tell Clare what I had done. It was my first home run, a grand slam, all done as a gift to my girlfriend.

I suppose that the tale must have made its way to her. I know I told Critter that night. But the excitement of my secret was overshadowed by his own dark secret. It turned out that Clare wasn’t home that evening. Critter and I, I trust, played some games, watched some television, pretty ordinary ten year old things. We slept that night in Clare’s room. She had twin beds. It must have been at least eleven that night when there was a quiet knock on the door. “Don’t say anything” Critter whispered to me. I figured that maybe Clare had come home, and he was just being an annoying little brother. The knocking got louder. “CRITTER?” came a fuzzy voice behind the door. Critter whispered again, “Just don’t say anything.” The man on the other side of the door tried the knob, and found it locked. By now, not knowing why, I was scared. For the next ten minutes the scene simply replayed. Quiet knocks, rattling doorknob, puzzled query. I recognized the voice. It was Mister Dockerty. What I couldn’t understand was the odd anguish in Critter’s voice, nor the puzzled tone of his father.

I saw the shadow through the crack at the bottom of the door depart. The knocking, the rattling all stopped. Still I lay stiff on that bed, waiting for the explanation, and having no idea what it could be. I could hear Critter crying quietly, but soon he had his voice under control. “That was my dad.” “Yeah, I know, I recognized the voice.” “There’s a reason why I didn’t want to let him in, and why the door is locked. Nobody knows this about my father, but he’s an alcoholic. Almost every night he gets drunk, and then he tries to come into our rooms.”

My innocence survived in part. It didn’t even occur to me to worry about exactly why a drunk man was trying to get into the bedroom of his eleven year old daughter. But my innocence was badly bruised and battered. I had never even heard of alcoholism, but I could figure out what it was. My biggest concern was my friend. I couldn’t begin to imagine what this meant to him. How frightened he must be, how embarrassed. My respect for him grew, because he managed to make it through each day, and each night. He and his sister seemed perfectly normal to all of us at school. My innocence was such that I still didn’t know that at least two other parents of my classmates (out of a class of ten) were also alcoholics, and at least two of our teachers were alcoholics. My next biggest concern was Mrs. Dockerty. Suddenly I understood what had seemed so different about her. Never had I seen a woman look more haggard, more resigned. Even now I sometimes wonder if she not only enabled her husband, but joined him in the bottle.

And then there was my concern for Clare. Suddenly, hitting a home run wasn’t quite as heroic as I would have liked. She lived with a dragon, and no matter the size of my heart, there was precious little I could do about it. Though I could daydream about it, I could not rescue her. I never told her that I knew. I never told anyone what I knew. But I tried to be a good boyfriend to her. We never had another date. We rarely spoke on the phone. Our “relationship” that summer pretty much consisted of letters. She was gone much of the summer, attending a horse camp. Now I began to understand why horses meant so much to her, they meant an opportunity to get out of that house.

I remember cherishing her letters, and measuring the increasing intimacy of my letters to her. Halfway through the summer I screwed up the courage to sign my letter, Love,... My tongue trembled when I sealed the envelope. But my heart exploded when a week later she too signed her letter, Love, Clare. It was a magic summer.

I still don’t know why, perhaps because she had graduated to the upstairs at the Valley School, where the seventh and eighth graders had their classrooms, while I remained down below in the sixth grade, but when school started again in the fall there was a decided frosting in our relationship. She seemed impatient when I called her at home in the evenings. So I stopped calling, and my first relationship just sort of faded away.

Chapter 9

Brothers Forever

Clare wasn’t the last older sister of a friend to become my girlfriend. Corrie Black was a year older than me, her brother David a year younger than me. We shared rides to the orthodontist, took the same catechism class. The extent of our “relationship” wasn’t much, of course. Every Sunday morning her poor brother David played mail man, delivering for each of us the week’s love note. I remember still her riveting description of the first fight between Apollo Creed and Rocky. A girl that roots for heroes is apt to inspire heroism in others.
Our relationship in one way fizzled out, and in another way matured. Corrie’s dad worked with my dad, and so our path’s crossed often. She became for me, as I grew older, my dispassionate guess as to whom I would one day marry. At any given moment I had other girlfriends, other passions du jour. But, the odds favored Corrie. We shared a common background, common experience, common faith. I never spoke with her about my assumption. If I had to guess she probably had a similar one—she probably assumed one day she would marry Randy. You remember Randy, my friend who was just like me, only better.

Living in three different cultures I had different friends for different occasions. I had school friends and sports friends, church friends and family friends. But even inside each of these differing microcosms, things changed. Randy, for instance, eventually lost interest in me. Then Danny became the one that I went skiing with, or shot baskets with. The same thing happened at the Valley School. For several years Tim was my best friend there. Like Randy he was just like me, only better. But somehow he started getting crowded out by Jim Cardinal. Jim was a passable athlete. While he wasn’t at all foppish, he was fashionable. He was a style setter, helping us who still got excited about a new pair of Keds to parse the relative merits of Adidas tennis shoes compared to Nikes. He taught us to judge a man not by the color of his skin, but by the label on his corduroys. Levi’s were tops, Lee’s came next, and if you got caught in anything less you were sure to hear, “I used to have pants like those. Then my dad got a job.”

Jim was toe headed, round faced, and had a pretty cool little scar beneath his left eye, the result of a meeting with a dog. In the seventh grade we began to hang out together. We’d cruise the mall, picking out records and posters (this was the era of the Farrah Fawcett poster), and sneaking peeks at the racy gag gifts at the local Spencer’s Gifts store. Jim’s mom drove a Cadillac and was as nice as could be. His dad, on the other hand, was a stepdad, old, cranky and aloof.

There were any number of perks that came with being Jim’s friend. I spent two weeks at the Jersey shore with his family, still one of the best vacations I ever took. You always ate well at the Cardinal home also. Jim also had two older sisters at home. Nancy was in graduate school. She left laying around some of the first cigarettes I ever smoked. She taught Jim and I how to use the ouija board. She drove us to our first concert, Billy Joel appearing in Pittsburgh to promote 52nd Street. She could be a grouch, but generally was as harmless as she was aimless.

One of the other perks of being Jim’s friend was that I got to attend the Miss Pennsylvania beauty pageant. We went because Jim’s other sister was a contestant. Lynn cultivated an image of innocence. Real innocence, however, isn’t something you cultivate. She had, as was fashionable at the time, flowing, golden locks. She was four years my senior, and thus was socially out of reach. But she always treated me nicely, and even, in a life-changing event, invited me, if only as a curiosity, into her social circle.

I had been invited to spend the night at Jim’s house on that particular Friday. There was nothing unusual about that. After school was road our skateboards, tossed the baseball, all the usual stuff. At some point Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal went out for the evening, and that’s when it all started. Soon after the parents left the kids started dropping in. It was a trickle at first, but as the sun began to set, the main attraction arrived, a keg. Soon there were hundreds of “friends” hanging around the house, more specifically, around the keg. This particular party was, I suppose, supposed to be something of a mixer. There was a crowd of folk there on the periphery that didn’t mix much. That is, while most people huddled behind the house around the keg, some hung out in their cars, taking their joy by inhaling.
More than the beer that I drank that night, what stuck with me, what changed me, was my introduction to the social scene, and all its intricacies. I learned, for instance, that jock was good, head was bad. There was a virtual war between these social camps. Jocks drank and heads toked. I don’t suppose, however, too many parents rejoiced that their children were so opposed to the smoking of weed, if what motivated that opposition was brand loyalty to beer. I cast my lot with the jocks, even though I was a good foot shorter than all of them, and three years younger than the youngest of them. Jim, of course, was likewise a vehement adherent of the jock code, at least until he reached high school, and pulled a Benedict Arnold. I knew he had defected when I caught up with him after years apart only to find Bob Marley and Grateful Dead tapes were all he had in his car. I learned that alcohol is a powerful social lubricant, so much so that high schoolers who normally wouldn’t give 13 year old Jim and me the time of day, were more than willing to adopt us as mascots, and to pour beer down our throats for entertainment. I learned that perhaps the greatest sport a jock might aspire to was chugging beer. And I learned that I was pretty good at it.

Stranger than the kindness of drunken high schoolers, however, was the kindness of drunken college students. Several of the guests at this particular party were home from college on break. They were proud freshmen at Mount Union College in Ohio, who had successfully made it into the Greek world. They were TKE’s, we learned, members of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity. And like their younger counterparts, they adopted Jim and me as well. We were initiated as honorary members of that august organization, though I doubt the relationship was recorded anywhere in the minutes. Around that keg we were taught the TKE fight song, which celebrated first the capacity to consumer great quantities of alcohol, and second, sexual prowess. I still remember the chant to this day. I’d share it with you, but they’d probably hunt me down and kill me.

As the beer continued to flow, the evening became increasingly surreal. My former friend, now brother Jim was discovering that his stomach wasn’t as cast iron as he had been led to believe. The joy of the evening began to lose its luster as his stomach began to churn. In retrospect it doesn’t surprise me that our newfound college friends knew how to deal with this circumstance. They had for hours been pressing upon us the importance of brotherhood. When one of us had to see a man about a horse (that’s a euphemism for what you need to do when your beer rental comes due), the other had to see a man about a horse. Brothers, we were told, did everything together. Now I was drunk enough that drinking together was a delightful symbol of brotherhood. Urinating together as well was a delightful symbol of brotherhood. But now they were telling me that if my brother Jim had to drive the bus, bow to the porcelain god, experience the amazing Technicolor yawn, then I had to do the same. Jim, when he heard this, perked up a bit. I, on the other hand, just grew more queasy.

Jim returned his beer, and as I recall, I made a valiant effort but failed. (Happily, our roles were reversed the next time Jim’s sister had a party while I was there. I was able to return the favor.) I was honored for trying to join my brother by my elder brothers.

That evening sealed my friendship with Jim. The next week in school we were all abuzz about our adventure, and about our brotherhood. At recess (yes, at the Valley School we still had recess, even in the seventh grade) Jim and I wore a zip up sweatshirt together, each with one arm in as we tried to play kickball, like brothers. We did virtually everything together. We bought matching Rolling Rock Beer ball caps (Rolling Rock was the local beer, brewed right in town.) We felt so smug and superior, because we were the first in our class to enter the realm of high school keg parties. And it all happened because of Lynn, beautiful and not so innocent Lynn.

We did virtually everything together. When a 13 year old laughs, all the world laughs with him. But when he gets busted, he gets busted alone. It was the reliving of that night that was my downfall. I had to tell the story, as even now, over twenty-five years later I am still telling the story. I regaled the neighbor children with the glory of that night. They liked the story so much that they in turn regaled their parents with the story, who were so impressed that they shared the story with my parents.

Understand that I was rather a well-behaved young man up to this point. I was so obedient to my parents that my sister, four years my senior and not quite as well behaved as I, gave me as a nickname “Precious.” Her complaint, whenever she found herself in trouble was, “Oh, sure, blame it on me. Precious never does anything wrong.” But here I had. Nevertheless, that reputation proved to be a help. My father asked to see me, and sat me down. He told me that my mouth had found me out, and that he knew what I had been doing the weekend before. I prepared for the worst. Unfortunately, my dear father had been the recipient of some bad advice. Somewhere along the line he had read that this kind of disobedience was not only normal, but to be expected. And so he spoke to me about curiosity, experimentation, and how what I had been through was perfectly normal, once. I could follow the trajectory of the conversation from early on, so the whole experience wasn’t terribly traumatic.

But at the end came the warning. The experiment was complete. My curiosity ought to be satisfied at this point. If, my father went on to explain, he should ever discover that I had indulged in the consumption of alcohol again, well, he made me a diagram. On a little sheet of paper he drew, rather crudely for art wasn’t yet one of his talents, strands of grass. Beside that he drew a little lawnmower. And he said to me, “If I ever hear any more about you drinking, this lawnmower will be me, and this grass, that will be your...” and I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. I was duly impressed with the severity of my crime, given that such words never escaped my father’s lips. I managed to stay clear of beer, until the next time I had an opportunity to consume some. What I learned from all this was simple enough—if I was going to disobey my parents, it would be far cooler and far safer not to blab to the world about it. And Jim, if you’re out there, we’re still brothers.

Chapter 10

Choose Ye This Day

Fate, karma, the aligning of the stars, providence. These are variations on a simple theme, that sometimes stuff just happens that you didn’t see coming. You don’t see these times coming, by the way, because though they are extraordinary events, they hide in the hedges of the ordinary.

Ted Ring was something of a stereotype. Tall and gangly, awkward and goofy, yet still, friends with just about everyone. He was neither handsome enough nor athletic enough to become a BMOC (though he did eventually commit himself to learning to kick a football, and did well enough to do so for his college team.) All Ted was was friendly without trying too hard, and it paid off for him, and eventually, for me. Ted was the guy that everyone knew. He lived in Ligonier, and our paths crossed first on sundry sports fields. I suppose I noticed him first because his father had been my gym teacher once upon a time. But our friendship first blossomed on the baseball field. I was playing second base, and somehow, probably an error on our part, he was standing on second. We began to rib one another, and someone, I can’t say who, took it a step to far. Verbal barbs escalated to real sword rattling, and after the game, in the parking lot, we did a pretty good imitation of two girls fighting, heads back, eyes scrunched shut, and arms spinning like a scene from the Dutch countryside. Precious little contact was made, though I remember my reputation took the bigger hit. I was trying to hold his head down so I could get in a good uppercut, and some blamed fools interpreted that hold as if I were pulling his hair. I mean really, I’d never do something like that.

That fight pretty well sealed our friendship, and when our paths crossed we tended to hang together. That’s the kind of town Ligonier was. You could go the movies alone, or the arcade, or the fair and catch up with a friend there. (In fact I remember one night that Critter and I found each other at the theater, and finding the movie boring, took his “switch-blade” comb from row to row, snuck up on the unsuspecting, and clicked it open at their throat.) Ted and I went to different schools, and different churches, but we kept in touch around town.

Which is why it was so utterly ordinary that I ran into him that night at the Mountie game. I was in my last year at the Valley School. I was too old for local Little League, or Midget Football, and so had seen less of the local folks than I was used to. But I still spent many a Friday night watching high school football. The Ligonier Mounties were like many small town teams, the center of attention during every fall. It wasn’t necessarily their prowess. It was that they were local. I don’t remember a single state championship, nor a single graduate that ever received a Division 1 scholarship in all the years I paid attention. There were heroes to us, Barry Roddy, Chris Keck, but the closest we ever came to the gridiron big time was when a local girl became Mrs. Joe Namath, however briefly.
There were at least three different ways to watch the Mounties play. Like the other kids, when I was in grade school, “watching” the game pretty much amounted to a two hour long game of Smear the uh, Strange Guy, in one of the dark corners of the stadium. There the weekly highlight was the brief window between the end of the first half and the appearance of the marching band. For ten minutes we took the game onto the field, under the lights.

When you became a grown-up, you started watching the game like a grown-up. You found a seat in the bleachers, and you stayed there. You brought your own thermos of coffee, and didn’t even get up to get some popcorn. But in-between being young and old, then you watched the game standing along the edge of the field, right behind the home team’s bench. You didn’t see much action that way, but that wasn’t the kind of action you were looking for. This was the junior high version of the stock exchange. You walked about looking for friends, girls, or more likely, a party to go to after the game. That is, unless you were as naive as I was. I stood there just to get closer to the game.

On this particular Friday, late in October, I was romantically unattached. Cathy Slater, my most recent girlfriend, didn’t react well when she found out I hit on her best friend on our class camping trip. (Her best friend wasn’t too wild about it either.) I had spoken for a few minutes with Ted, but he or I had moved on that evening. It was a beautiful night, but still, I wasn’t expecting much of anything. About the end of halftime Ted approached me. “You’re not going to believe it,” he told me, his eyes almost, at that moment, as big as his nose. “You see those three girls over there?” And already I didn’t believe it. Ted, like the rest of us, could dream big about girls. But, like a lot of us, Ted made a great friend. Between the two of us, no doubt, we must have had hundreds of girls give us, with all due earnestness, the, “I really want to be your friend” speech. I was guessing that maybe Ted had asked these girls for the time, and when they were gracious enough to reply, he mistook this for agreeing to be his wife.

“Yes, Ted, I see them. In fact, I know one of them. The red head is Janet Steckly. She goes to Covenant church. I’ve seen her around there.” He was so excited that my cool, Sherlock Holmesian assessment of the situation didn’t even dampen his enthusiasm.

“Well, I was talking to these three girls, and they said they all thought you were cute.” Okay, at this point my enthusiasm had joined Ted’s. They looked from the beginning like nice enough girls, even attractive, each in her own way. But now I knew that they had an even better gift, they were filled with aesthetic wisdom. They recognized quality when they saw it. “And here’s the best part. They want you to choose one of them.” Wow. Go to the game without a girl, and go home, after having had my pick. I knew then that even now, over twenty-five years later, that that night would still live with me. I had known girls to think boys were cute. When I hung out at the mall with Jim Cardinal, my “brother” I witnessed it happen. We’d meet a few girls, the pretty one would go for Jim, and the less attractive would be angry at me that I wasn’t as handsome as Jim. But here were three of them, and each wanted me.

For all my excitement I knew it was time for careful reflection. How I chose here might influence the rest of my life. (And believe it or not, it did.) It was tough to get a good look at them, because they were all looking at me. But I managed to make a careful assessment. First, there was the cheerful one. Karen Burke was her name. She looked like an awful lot of fun, though perhaps a little boy crazy. I figured she was the one who came up with this scheme, which meant, in turn, that she had the most riding on it. She had chipmunk cheeks, which I thought was just grand. Second, there was Carol Schmucker. She was the earnest one in the group. I figured she didn’t much like the arrangement, but being outvoted, there wasn’t much she could do. She stood there looking rather sullen. She had long, straight blond hair that caught and then reflected the moonlight. And the third one was Janet. She was herself a walking cliché, the very epitome of the girl next door. She had braces, and auburn red hair pulled back in pigtails, and of course in between the braces and the hair was a face full of freckles.

Having made my initial analysis, I came to the frustrating conclusion that I still had no idea how to choose. For a brief moment I wondered if they would mind all being my girlfriend. That notion, thankfully, passed quickly. I asked Ted his opinion. He, because he was a gentlemen, or perhaps because he didn’t want to show his hand and was hoping to console the losers, said nice things about all three of them. I told him that I was concerned that if I didn’t choose Karen that it might hurt her feelings. I told him Carol looked like she might like it less if I did pick her. Ted assured me that Carol was level-headed, not indifferent, and that Karen’s bounce would bounce right back should I not choose her.

There are, where I now live, several restaurants that know what my “regular” is. This is because though I don’t go out often, when I go out, I tend to go to the same places. And when I get there, I almost always order the same thing. I know what I like, and what I like is what is familiar. I’m not one for taking risks. That’s why they’re called risks. What won the day wasn’t anything superior in one girl than the other, but just that I knew one girl better than the rest. That night, Janet became my girlfriend.

When you are thirteen, at least back then, this had a rather simple meaning. I was more sophisticated than when Corrie Black was my girlfriend, and we just exchanged weekly notes. But we did not go to the same school, and so we didn’t walk the halls together, and I didn’t carry her books. Dates, at this time in my life, were a rare thing indeed. What that left was the telephone. Janet and I were “together” for roughly three months. We had exactly zero dates. And we talked on the phone about the equivalent of three straight days. After supper I would do my homework, and then give her a call. I don’t remember much what we talked about. It couldn’t have been our teachers, because of the different schools. It certainly wasn’t about the beauty of the sunset, because I am a guy. I don’t think it was about how well the Steelers were doing, because she was a girl. (In case you’re wondering, the Pittsburgh Steelers that year became the first team to win three Super Bowls. They would win the next one as well, but by then, I had a different girlfriend.)

Though my relationships with all three of those girls lasted into when I was in college, I never asked any of them about that night. I’d like to think it was because of my own sensitivity, that I didn’t want to open any wounds. Truth be told, I think my greater fear was that I didn’t want to create any new wounds. What if, I feared, Ted had misunderstood what they had said? What if it didn’t happen the way I remembered it? That one night was like a trophy, a treasure, a slice of history that helped me know, what? That my mom dressed me well? That junior high girls have the patent on silly? No, it was just a moment of victory. It was the touchdown I never scored, the rock anthem I never sang. It was providence smiling on me, and me smiling back. It was also, though I did not know it at the time, the beginning of the beginning between me and Ligonier, as well as the beginning of the end. Moments like that don’t happen often anywhere on the planet. But when they do happen, they usually happen on crisp fall nights, with a marching band and a waning moon, and they usually happen in a town like Ligonier.

Chapter 11

A Sitcom Moment

At present in my reading room there is a present from some dear friends, a book titled Mayberry 101. The book was given as an aid to ensure that my new son understands what it means to be a Sproul. Among other things it means appreciating the wisdom of the citizens of Mayberry. Each chapter is a brief summary with a few insights from the respective writers, of each episode. One need not watch long to come face to face with some recurring themes. Andy wrestles with at least three different proud women along the way, Ellie who runs for Mayor, Thelma Lou’s cousin wins the skeet contest, and then Helen becomes a famous author. One plot, one moral, three episodes.

There are other themes, however, that recur across different programs. We had, in fact, our own sit-com moment just yesterday. One of the children, unable to open the dishwasher detergent, put dish washing soap in the dishwasher instead. We had soapy bubbles all over the kitchen. This was not, however, the first time I found myself in a sitcom moment.

Because I attended a private school through the eighth grade, I lived in at least two distinct cultures. I’ve belabored that point, but thus far it never touched on my love life. That’s about to change. Janet, like Corrie before her, turned out to be a wonderful girlfriend. She was pretty, in a sit-com kind of way. Red hair, freckles and braces charmed me. She was a good student, organized, a regular brownie. So our daily phone conversations, the very being of our relationship, usually went off without a hitch. I would call after my homework was done, and before my favorite sitcoms were on. We would joke and laugh and practice relationship talk for half an hour or so, and then hang up to wait to start it all over again the next evening. Her sound organizational principles, however, didn’t leave her without compassion. It seems that late one night, while enjoying another of Jim Cardinal’s sister’s keg parties I lost some of my judgment. I called her round about midnight. She wasn’t happy that her dad wasn’t happy, but she ended up forgiving me anyway. I suppose the fact that I had picked her still held some sway.

My relationship with Janet then might be called discreet. That is, I wasn’t trying to keep it a secret, but it lived in its own little world inside my own little world. It did not affect my performance on the soccer field. She had no intersection with my Latin homework. None of my school friends even knew the girl. Neither did any of the girls at my school. And therein lies the tale.
Janet and I became a couple, in a manner of speaking, in October of 1978. By December we were still going strong. Mind you, we had not actually seen each other face to face since the fateful football game. But we had our conversations, and rather than becoming dull they became comforting, routine, you know, in a positive way.

You may have noticed something of a pattern. Though I knew Janet’s older sister, Janet didn’t have a brother. Two of my earliest girlfriends had been the sisters of some of my best friends. As alliances shifted in our little world of the eighth grade at the Valley School, I drifted slowly away from Jim Cardinal, and slowly toward Jim Declaw. This Jim, like the other Jim, was a great deal of fun. We liked the same kinds of music. We were about on par with each other as athletes. But Jim had a sister, a younger sister, Sydney. Now you’ve got to keep in mind the size of this school. My eighth grade class was divided into two, because fifteen students wouldn’t fit in any of the classrooms. Of those fifteen students, about half were boys. Half of the girls had no interest in boys, and the other half had no interest in me. A grade below us there were only three girls that any boy might be interested in. Two had already been my girlfriends, and the third, Wendy, was out of my league. Wendy’s mom, a divorcee, was rumored to have dated Terry Bradshaw, which put us in awe not only of the mom, but of Wendy. So now we’re down to the sixth graders. That’s what Sydney was.

I’m not sure how our flirtation began. It probably started over the phone, when I was trying to reach her brother. It grew a bit at school, bit by bit. We had, naturally enough, pretty standard protocol at this time. You could flirt, call, make moon eyes, and even have a date or two before there would be any level of commitment. But at that time the normal progression was for the boy to work up his courage to ask the girl is she would “go” with him. We didn’t “go” anywhere. We went steady. Janet and I never had that talk, on account of the unusual beginning we had. Once I chose her, we were steadies. But I proved to be less than steady. With Sydney at this point there was no commitment whatsoever.

Like most towns, the good citizens of Ligonier were insufferable busy-bodies. Disaffected youth could be found either sitting in the pot-head section of the town square, hanging out in the municipal parking lot while secretly sipping Rolling Rock beer, or out in some field with a keg. Someone got the great idea that if they would sponsor social events, maybe we would stay out of trouble. So every now and again, through the vagaries of town politics, we would have a “youth dance.” They were usually held at the old Ramsey building, two doors down from the local Dairy Queen, our version of Arnold’s Drive-in. A dance was scheduled for early January, and it entered into one night’s conversation with Janet. As it was a town dance and not a school dance, it stood to reason that we might both attend. I asked her if she would like to go. As I recall, for one reason or another, she had to decline. Even at this point, truth be told, I was rather relieved. I mean, we knew where we stood on the phone. Face to face meetings, who knew where that could lead?

As the dance drew closer, it seems word leaked out to Sydney as well. She brought it up in conversation, with all due caution. Again I didn’t show the best judgment. I asked her if she wanted to go. She agreed to meet me there. The next day, as you might expect, Janet breathlessly announced that she was now permitted to go the dance.

Now there are two variations on the two-dates/one night theme in the platonic realm of sitcoms. One involves the fickleness of the characters, the other their hubris. I had already been through the fickle version the year before. At the end of seventh grade I had asked Courtney, who was beginning to be my girlfriend, and would be again later, if she wanted to go to the school picnic with me. She graciously accepted, just about the time that the beautiful Jenny Shites became available. Some blamed fool broke up with her, and I was there to snag the rebound. She too agreed to go to the picnic with me. I called Courtney, called our date off, and hoped the date gods would not strike me dead. They didn’t. It was worse. Courtney’s mom called my mom, and my mom gave me an earful. One need not be a Jewish mom to master the art of guilt manipulation. She got to me, and I had to call them both back. Jenny was understanding, and Courtney was just glad to have a date again.

Given this first failure, I couldn’t very well go to my mother and get her advice. On the one hand, I was doing better this time, because I didn’t break any dates. On the other hand, the train wreck was coming.

If two dates and one night is an eternal part of story telling, so too is that most jarring of literary devices, deus ex machina, the god out of the machine. It seems the Greeks were a lot better at creating dramatic tension than they were at providing dramatic release. Just when their characters found themselves in an entangled ball that could never be unraveled, or perhaps better said, found themselves entangled in a Gordian knot that could never be untied, the god would rise up, or descend upon the stage and make all things right, only to be whisked off stage for the denouement. It was my only hope.

The gods delivered. The night of the dance we receive a full foot of fresh snow, and the dance was cancelled. I never had to show up, and I had two lovely girls disappointed that they didn’t get to dance with me. Did I take the opportunity to come clean, to examine my heart, to see which girl truly had my affections? No, I made things worse.

A week or two later Kathy Slater had a party. Because Kathy was a student at the Valley School, Janet wasn’t invited. Because Kathy invited only seventh and eighth graders, Sydney wasn’t invited. What could go wrong? It was a lovely party. I danced with Anne a few times, a terribly sweet but less than stunning young lady that didn’t get much opportunity to dance. I was the very epitome of gallant. I started a little flirtation with Martha, she of the shin kicking from a few years back. I coaxed her onto my lap, and asked her if Santa had been good to her that year, or if there was anything else she was still hoping for. Martha was amused, but not at all interested. Another train wreck averted? Not by a long shot.

Who should find the little Santa game to her liking but Courtney? Yes, the same Courtney that had been my date the year before. She sat on my lap, and was abundantly clear as to what was as yet unfulfilled from her wish list. We adjourned to a more private space, and spent the rest of the evening kissing. The next night I met Courtney at the movies, where we spent that evening kissing. And soon after I had to have another difficult conversation with Courtney, apologizing for my boorish behavior, but letting her know that we would not be going steady again.

Just like with that first keg party, however, the trouble wasn’t the doing of the deed itself, but my big mouth. It was just a few days later that I entered into my daily conversation with Janet, only to find that Miss Freeze was on the other end of the line. She had heard about the party. Now she had been so reasonable about that late night drunken call at the beginning of our relationship, so I thought I’d try my luck again. I apologized, begged for forgiveness. But that was the end of that relationship, at least for some time. I picked her out of three girls, but now lost her among the three girls I was involved in. That left Sydney, who was a faithful girlfriend, as far as I know, the rest of the school year. We had no more sitcom moments.

It has been said, wisely, that our young love affairs do not prepare us for marriage so much as they prepare us for divorce. As comedic as my foibles may have been, the joy greater than the laughter is the day in and day out fidelity that I now enjoy as an adult. Were I not blessed with my dear wife, and were we not blessed with our many children, we might have also missed out on the bubble spewing dishwasher. Worse still, I would have missed out on my wife and my children.