My mother was the missionary assigned to our house. Her job was to make sure her rogue husband
and their four libertine children got saved. In the Baptist sense.
She issued regular reminders that one day Jesus would return and remove all of those who believed he was the son of God
to a place called heaven, where there were mansions and streets paved with gold. She said we would live there with him forever,
never be sick, never get old, and never die, that we would remain just the way we were on Judgement Day for the rest of all
No school. No haircuts. No Jell-O. Maybe it wasn’t so bad.
I believed her. I was eight. It was the 1950s, in Urbandale, Iowa, in those days a small insignificant stitch in the Bible
Belt out near the corn fields a few miles west of Des Moines. But, I did have a question or two.
First of all, going somewhere with a complete stranger sounded dangerous. Wasn’t this a violation of the Stranger
Rule? None of us kids were supposed to even talk to strangers, much less go anywhere with them.
Another thing, no one seemed to even know where heaven was. I hoped it was over by Riverview Park or out by the fairgrounds,
so we could ride the Ferris Wheel whenever we wanted. But, she said no, heaven wasn't anywhere around here. She pointed up
to the clouds. Heaven was up there somewhere, behind the sky. That’s where the dead people, like Grandpa Palmer and
Grandpa Kennedy and Baby Daniel went when they died, to be with Jesus, she said. As a child I had a recurring dream that the
legless dead lived in open boxes that lined both sides of heaven’s long aisle, sitting box-to-box against the bulkhead,
each with its own window. I dreamed they could see us through the windows, and watch the living down here on Earth. I mentioned
this to my mother and she said that’s why it was important for us to behave.
Sometimes, before dawn on clear winter mornings while I delivered newspapers I’d try to find the long row of heaven’s
windows among the stars, but I could never find it. Later, in maturity, I became interested in astronomy, perhaps still trying.
My mother had other rules besides the Stranger Rule. These other rules were Baptist rules, seemingly arbitrary and therefore
less sensible to a child. Unlike the Williams boys, who didn’t live with a missionary, I wasn’t allowed to go
to movies, play potsy with marbles, own a deck of cards, or read comic books. I wasn’t even allowed to read the funny
pages in the Sunday paper on Sunday morning, even though I had just delivered the Sunday paper to every subscriber on Des
Moines Register and Tribune route 305X. The connection of these activities to sin was never satisfactorily explained,
but over time I deduced they were apparently the isthmus through which one would be introduced to vices of a more serious
nature, like cursing, gambling, or lust, that could get you left behind when Jesus came to get the non-sinners - everyone
who’d been better at behaving and didn’t hide comics under the mattress or lie to their mothers about playing
potsy in the playground.
Getting left behind was a scary idea, when you thought about it. How would that be, to be abandoned in an empty house,
with the rest of the family - the good people - gone, left there alone with your sins, with no one to make dinner, buy you
shoes, or give you lunch money? What about Cinder? Would they take my dog? She’d never sinned. She’d never hidden
comics or lied about playing potsy.
My mother said I wasn’t to worry about any of this, that Jesus loved us and would take care of all the details.
Still, I didn’t really want to go anywhere. I was pretty much okay right there on Roseland Drive, in Urbandale, with
my pals, my dog, and my paper route.
But there was more to this Jesus business. Not only was he coming to get us, but, my mother said, you never knew when it
might happen. It would happen when you least expected it, she said. It could happen two seconds from now, or later when you
were asleep, delivering papers, or playing baseball in the slough with the Williams boys.
That’s when it hit me. WHEN YOU LEAST EXPECTED IT. That meant Jesus could come when you were doing something uncouth,
like trying to peak up Janice Nelson’s dress or, yikes!, using the toilet. That’s when I least expected it. Suddenly,
the bathroom became a trap.
I needed a plan.
Two strategies emerged to minimize the risk. Infrequency and speed. Don’t use the bathroom unless absolutely necessary.
But, when postponing the inevitable was no longer an option, execute the function as fast as personal physics would permit,
then depart like a flushed quail, snatching pants and shorts back up in one quick linear jerk.
The big problem, though, was bath night. In order to take a bath you had to be completely undressed. What if I was naked
when Jesus came back?
This concern seeded a chronic Pentecostal psychosis. I developed an instant fear of bathing. By the time I was ten I was
a full-fledged hydrophobe.
My mother required her scamp children to bathe on Saturday nights, because on Sunday we went to church. Clean. Cleanliness-is-next-to-Godliness,
she said. Traces of dirt apparently reveal some defect in one's faith.
I wasn’t worried about being seen dirty. I was worried about being seen naked. I was afraid of taking a bath because
Jesus might come back when my pants were off and out of reach. Bath night was the only time I was stark naked. If Jesus came
when I was in the bathtub and took me to heaven naked - REMAIN JUST THE WAY YOU WERE ON JUDGEMENT DAY - that churlish brat
Linda Winters and her snotty sisters next door and all the other girls in my third grade class would see me bare naked. Forever.
Mansions in the sky and streets paved with gold don’t mean much when your clothes were left behind on the bathroom floor
in Urbandale and that bunch of prepuberal girls over there are always pointing and snickering at you, day after day after
day after day.
My mother said Judgement Day was all going to be over before you even knew it had started. There was no way to avoid it.
I had another plan. I would hide.
There were remnants of an old piano under the Williams’ back porch that was perfect. I’d hide under the iron
plates. No one would look for me there. No one ever went under that porch. Spiders. When the Judgement Day trumpet sounded
I would race to the Williams house, scramble under the porch and cover myself with piano parts.
Alas, someone had thought this through. Turns out, according to my mother, it takes longer to say Judgement Day than the
actual event itself will take. Faster than the twinkling of an eye, is how she described it. So much for hiding. It would
be impossible to get out of the house, down the drive, across the slough, and up the bank to the piano wreckage that fast.
IN THE TWINKLING OF AN EYE. That also meant on bath night I had to strip as fast as possible, take an instant dip, and
dive into my pajamas, almost all in the same motion. But, no one can strip, bathe, and dress for bed at the speed of light.
Plan 3. Cheat.
I tried sneaking under the bath bubbles still wearing underpants, trying for an edge, but this invited betrayal by younger
siblings. All that remained was to practice undressing, trying each time to strip faster than the last - T-shirts flying,
socks and sneakers pulled off in one sweeping motion, pants and underpants dropped simultaneously. The first X Games.
Here, of course, the danger was most pronounced. If you weren’t lightening fast there was always that chance that
Jesus could come just as you lowered your pants, and there you’d be, bent over in your briefs, with Linda Winters and
the rest of them sniggering at you. Forever.
One good thing about heaven. I wouldn’t have to worry about Bruce LePard bullying me there. He wouldn’t be
in heaven. Catholic. Catholics weren’t going to heaven, my mother said. This was due, she said, to a series of
Protestant heresies that involved orthodox infractions like worshiping the Pope and praying to the Virgin Mary. These
violations were sufficient to disqualify them. They’d be left behind in Urbandale.
There was even a rule to protect me from what she considered the pagan lure of papism. I was instructed not to play with
Bruce Lepard, the only Catholic kid on our street. There weren’t many Catholics on any of Urbandale’s streets
in those days that I knew of, even though there was a monastery a mile or so east on the way to Beaverdale near the intersection
of Merle Hay and Douglas. It sat way back off the road under ancient groves of maple, elm, and sycamore, hidden behind ivy-covered
walls. For all I knew that was where they kept the Catholics.
Solemn, solitary monks were rumored to circle the grounds in long hoodie robes cinched together by strands of common rope.
Legend had it that the monks never spoke, not even to each other, and that they prayed all the time.
Probably praying that Jesus doesn't return on bath night.