It had been a traumatic summer, that first one out of high school. I had spent the summer in Rome, Georgia, 1000 miles and light years away from my home in Oklahoma, trying stubbornly and courageously to convince people to buy something they didn’t even know existed, much less think they needed. When a prospect opened their door, they were greeted by a naïve, semi-confident, pleasant looking young man peddling bible reference books for the Southwestern Publishing Company. The person standing uninvited on their door step was non-threatening enough, but it quickly became obvious that he possessed neither the charm nor the insincerity needed to effectively pull off the canned sales pitch he had been trained on during the week of sales training in a downtown Nashville hotel – a week of Kip’s Big Boy burgers, strangers become temporary friends, and hours spent memorizing a script that was transparently manipulative, demeaning, and basically a con. Like in so many classic “coming of age” stories, my first week away from the shelter of home was a harbinger of things to come. Mostly, though, what they saw at their doorstep, if they chose to look, was purity. Not perfection, but purity.
High school had been ok for me. I graduated in the top 5% of a class of 620 and had 2 or 3 small scholarships to supplement my student loans and work program, which I needed because neither of my parents was in a position to pay for my education. I was a good kid – working hard enough at school to excel without ever being excellent. I held a part time job as a contract mess hall grunt at the army base at Fort Sill, and I had bought my own car. I was never particularly popular, or part of the cliques, but that was at least partially because I went to 3 different high schools, so I was never part of the “we’ve been together since 3rd grade” crowd. I had started to develop a bit of a rebellious streak, quitting high school ROTC because I was dis-enamored with the Vietnam war, and letting my hair grow out over my ears. Every generation adopts their own symbols of “rebellion”, whether it’s ducktails, pegged jeans, cigarettes and Elvis, or hippy-does, bell bottoms, reefers and “The Stones”. Still, the early 70’s were turbulent times. The media was really starting to play a big role in people’s lives, insidiously controlling the flow of information, and thus molding how they thought and behaved. Protest – protest against pretty much everything – had organically become widespread, although I’m not sure anyone understood exactly why, and it was especially appealing to young, questioning minds like mine. I was not immune, but what I thought of as idealistic, even heroic rebellion was actually just me asserting my teenage individualism like everyone else.
I had the summer job lined up even before I graduated. I had gotten it all by myself, and accepted it over the intuitive objections of my mother. Things progressed naturally during the summer. I learned, and I grew – a lot. I often just prevailed. I found an apartment, and then another one when the first one didn’t work out for some forgotten reason. I bought a bicycle – one of those low-riding bikes with the banana seat that eventually evolved into the BMX type bicycle. I escaped from a VW bug when the driver’s shifting hand somehow ended up on my leg. I enjoyed a summer love – such a cute, soft, gentle strawberry blonde with matching blond freckles who held my heart in her hand for about a month until her mom and dad got wise to the fact that I wasn’t going to be around after the summer. She must have figured out how to hand it back to me gently, because I don’t recall any great trauma of rejection. I gradually got better at the door to door thing, and more confident in surviving from day to day.
Then one night, I was riding home after dark, and I decided to take a short cut. I was cruising down this hill on my bicycle when I saw a group of 6 or 8 black kids standing on the corner under a streetlight. As I approached them, they started walking toward me. I remember one of them wearing a striped shirt, and he was the first one to hit me and knock me off the bicycle. I hit the ground hard and just curled up into the fetal position while they started hitting and kicking me. There’s not much time for coherent thought in a situation like this, reactions are entirely instinctive,and my memory reflects just that. I took a couple of blows to the kidneys, but mostly around the head and face. I guess the whole thing lasted about 10-15 seconds before they mercifully stopped. I stood up – completely dazed, wondering what was going on and what I should do next, when I saw some car lights approaching. I didn’t realize at the time that this was probably the reason why they stopped hitting me. The car stopped and took me to a hospital emergency room. After I got in the car, I saw the boy in the striped shirt standing outside the window saying, “What happened, man?!!! Is he ok?” I told the people in the car that this was the one who hit me first, but of course, they were just interested in getting out of there.
I was amazingly stoic and calm through all this. There was never any hatred or severe resentment. I had no desire to go find the kids that did this – maybe because I knew if I did find them, they’d just do it again. Now, having lived another 40+ years, I can understand that there was likely one boy – the boy in the striped shirt – who was a little older than the rest, a little bolder, a little meaner, maybe even a new kid; a scared boy who was desperately trying to stake his place in the neighborhood the only way he knew how. He was probably trying to prove himself to his father, whether he was present or missing, who himself only knew how to express disapproval, because that’s all he had learned from his father. It was this one boy who instigated the attack, and the others just followed because, well, that’s what followers do. There was never a feeling of being “the victim” either. It had just happened, and I needed to get past it. I needed to be courageous. In reality, I left my sample case, my bicycle, my grandfather’s watch (it really was my dead grandfather’s watch), 3 teeth and about 20 years of my life on the ground there that night. Oh, I was brave, or in shock. Sometimes the line between the two is very thin. The town was helpful and sympathetic. Radio talk shows talked about how horrible it was that they treated visitors that way. These same boys, a few days later, reportedly raped a young girl while forcing her boyfriend to watch. They ended up in jail over that. A dentist donated his services repairing my mouth, but I was still toothless. I went right back to work, going door to door with no teeth. I had guts, and customers typically had compassion. I probably got into more homes during the next two weeks than I had the previous two months. My roommate wasn’t so strong. He took my experience so hard that he gave up and went home, leaving me there alone. Poor guy!
Now, though, the summer was over, and it was time for the next adventure – college! The drive to Norman was uneventful, as my navigation instincts proved quite adequate for the 90 mile trip. My 64 Chevelle with the straight 6, 3 speed on the column and racing tires on the back was up to the trip, and so was I. Boyd House was an old 2-story barracks-type building painted red on the outside with white outdoor stairwells on either end, and two rows of white frame windows up and down each side. It was the cheapest dormitory Oklahoma University had to offer. I pulled up to the parking area on the west end of the building, and, mustering up my courage, confidence, and a suitcase, walked up the 30 foot sidewalk into the dorm that was to be my home for the next 10 months. To say I was apprehensive would be an understatement. I had never been vain, largely because I never considered myself good-looking enough to indulge in such things, but now, as a result of my run in “the fatherless child”, I was missing 3 front teeth, and there’s never been an 18 year old that lived who would choose to show up on their first day of college classes with a gap any hockey player would wear proudly.
The gray carpet in the hall was starting to curl at the joints, clearly in need of refurb or refreshment. I was immediately struck by a smoky, pungent odor that was completely unfamiliar to me. I walked down the hall, taking in the room numbers on each door I passed, looking for the sequence that would logically lead me to my own room. As I walked, I noticed the occasional towel sticking out from under the door. I was puzzled by this incongruous collection of inputs, but passed it off in the interest of the more immediate quest for my room.
As I recall, the door was open, and when I stepped inside, David B. cheerfully, but somehow still cynically, piped in a voice that was at once deep, raspy and happy, maybe even silly, “Hello, roomy!” As a matter of fact, he may have been a little too “happy”. He was sitting kind of half-cocked in a chair by his single bed, his right arm hanging over the back of the chair yet with both feet flat on the ground, his grin seeming to sit on his face in the same half-cocked, awkward manner. His mane of black hair rested fully on his shoulders, only slightly thicker than the hair on his bare chest. His stereo and books were already set up in the room, and some Rolling Stones song off the “Let it Bleed” album, an album that I had never heard of because its songs had never been played on the top 40 stations, was playing, but not too loud. David was probably being as welcoming and friendly as he knew how to be, and he might well have been as nervous as I was, but to me he seemed like every picture I had ever seen of a radical hippy – straight off the streets of Haight-Ashbury. He symbolized that entire culture that the media, the schools, and my parents had told me to stay away from, but to which I was enigmatically attracted. He anticipated the idyllic springs of Frisbees, halter tops and reefers on the South Oval that would, in later years, nostalgically anchor the memories of my college days. I have no doubt that he was looking at me, in my faux hip-hugger bellbottom pants, plaid button down, and weejuns, with hair barely touching the ears and a toothless smile straight off of Hee-haw and thinking, “Holy *@&%, is this what I’m going to have to live with for the whole school year?”
As for myself, I had always been very easy going, tending to accept people for who they were, as much out of sheer terror of conflict or that I might offend someone as out of any more noble virtue. Still, I was totally unprepared for David. Unsure how to react or approach, I fell back on my instincts, meekly introducing myself and stepping to what was clearly my side of the room to put my suitcase down. After a couple of trips back to the car, I began setting up my own space, beginning with my own symbol of comfort and personal expression – my stereo.
Of course, I had no idea at the time what a momentous event had just taken place. I had no idea that I had just been symbolically introduced, through David, to the 70’s version of the 60’s counter-culture movement – you know, the next sub-generation of hippies – the inevitable imitators that follow any revolution by 5 to 10 years. I had no idea that I was soon to become part of that very “movement”, selling out my Christian ideals of chastity, purity, and integrity for the relatively fleeting comfort of being accepted into his circle of friends. I certainly had no idea that I would soon begin a downward spiral into the 70’s drug culture that would lead from experimentation to consumption and ultimately to addiction – not so much to any particular drug, but to the life style of periodic escape, the life style of “partying”. And I had no idea that those periodic escapes would start occurring in 24 hour intervals, and that my life would soon become one long “party”, interrupted occasionally as required by the activities necessary for survival.
None of this was really about David. We never really became close friends. We were tolerant roommates, respectful of each other’s space, both physically and emotionally. Looking back, I wonder why he was there early enough to be all set up in the room. I wonder if maybe he preferred being there to being at home. I wonder if maybe he was escaping something far worse than what I thought I was. No, David actually proved to be a very gentle soul. He may have been protecting himself from harm by his gruff exterior, and he was essentially an unhappy person, but he was never mean or even manipulative towards me. He wore this façade of “big, bad, tough guy”, but he never acted on it. I never did get to know him very well, though. He liked his pot, but I quickly outstripped him in my appetite for the party. He liked dark, heavy, rebellious music which, at the time, was epitomized by the Stones; by the end of the school year I was listening to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. I think David had this dark, sad persona because that was how he saw himself, perhaps because that was how he had been taught to see himself, but that’t not who he was. I heard several years later that he had committed suicide, although I have been unable to confirm that. He wasn’t the only college friend who committed suicide.
No, this was not about David, it was all about me. Before meeting David, I had ideals about who I was, and about who I dreamed of being. I applied as a conscientious objector for the draft because I truly believed that, if physically attacked, I would not use violence to protect myself. I eschewed denominational churches because it didn’t make sense to me that there were so many differences – they certainly couldn’t all be right, so I figured none of them were right – yet I couldn’t abandon Christ. I would never abandon Christ. I remember twice in high school when I could have had sex with a girl, and I was the one who stopped us. My life expectations were to be a teacher or a minister. It still amazes me how easily I tossed all that aside. I guess I had just met with my spiritual and emotional perfect storm. I had spent my whole life as a child of a military family, learning to adapt. I adapted to new homes, new schools, even new countries. I adapted to two parents, then one parent, then two parents, then one parent again. I became very good at adapting. Perhaps a stronger, more mature, more anchored person would have weathered this storm better than I did, but the combination of factors – the missing teeth, the hard summer, the normal challenges of the freshman year of college – and did I mention the missing teeth? – were too much for me to handle well. My house came crashing down.
As I reflect, though, I wonder if maybe the storm truly was perfect, perhaps even guided by an unseen hand. Many of you, I’m sure, have heard the children’s song about how the foolish man built his house upon the sand and how his house came tumbling down (Matthew 7:24-27). You see, my house was built on sand, and it was built of boards that did not have my name on them. Pretty much, they had my mother’s name on them. She had built and maintained, board by board, and brick by brick, the house that we lived in. It was built with love, but it wasn’t mine, and it wasn’t built on the rock of my own experience and learning. Someone else may have been able to make that house their own, but, well, that would have been someone else. It certainly wasn’t me. So, I’m convinced now that the Lord knew that my house was going to have to be torn down so I could rebuild it on my own rock, and with my own materials
This tearing down process took 20 years. It was painful, sometimes life-threatening, but that’s a story for another time. The rebuild, of course, continues. Until this very day, I have looked at that tearing down process as a failure, but I now see it as an eternal success. That unseen hand, the hand of my God, has helped me rebuild board by board, brick by brick, each with not only my name inscribed on it, but with His own name right there beside it.
Diana and I were walking together in downtown Salt Lake City recently – I think we were on the temple grounds at the center of the city. I realized as we were walking that I had never had a home. I had never lived in one house more than 5 or 6 years, and even then, it was a house, not a home – and it was certainly not my home. As we continued, I understood that now I have that home. The house itself has been sitting on the east side of the Salt Lake Valley for 60 years now, but it’s only been my home since 2001. It’s a modest home that we’ve built, Diana, God and me. It’s not one that broadcasts worldly success or riches, but it’s an inviting home, and a comfortable home. There’s a light inside, a light that both illuminates and warms. Anyone who wants to come inside will find love, gratitude, wisdom and faith – none of it perfect, but all mine – all ours. Visitors will find a family that, like the house, was destroyed and then rebuilt board by board, brick by brick, out of love, patience and understanding. Most of all, I think they will find purity. Not perfection, but purity.