"Like Jesus walking on the water to that ship!"
"Sometimes," he said, "that's what I'm afraid of."
He looked so sad and distant that I felt a little scared again, but I also felt sorry for him. Not that I had any idea what he had to feel sad about when he had such a neat pretend world as Peaceable Lake in his garage.
"It's a really good trick," I said, and patted his hand.
He came back from wherever he'd gone and grinned at me. "You're right," he said. "I'm just missing my wife and little boy, I guess. I think that's why I borrowed you, Jamie. But I ought to return you to your mom now."
When we got to Route 9, he took my hand again even though there were no cars coming either way, and we walked like that all the way up Methodist Road. I didn't mind. I liked holding his hand. I knew he was looking out for me.
Mrs. Jacobs and Morris arrived a few days later. He was just a little squirt in didies, but she was pretty. On Saturday, the day before Reverend Jacobs first stood in the pulpit of our church, Terry, Con, and I helped him move Peaceable Lake to the church basement, where Methodist Youth Fellowship would meet every Thursday night. With the water drained, the shallowness of the lake and the grooved track running across it were very clear.
Reverend Jacobs swore Terry and Con to secrecy--because, he said, he didn't want the illusion spoiled for the little ones (which made me feel like a big one, a sensation I enjoyed). They agreed, and I don't think either of them peached, but the lights in the church basement were much brighter than those in the parsonage garage, and if you stood close to the landscape and peered at it, you could see that Peaceable Lake was really just a wide puddle. You could see the grooved track, too. By Christmas, everyone knew.
"It's a big old fakearoonie," Billy Paquette said to me one Thursday afternoon. He and his brother Ronnie hated Thursday Night School, but their mother made them go. "If he shows it off one more time and tells that walking-on-water story, I'm gonna puke."
I thought of fighting him over that, but he was bigger. Also my friend. Besides, he was right.
Three Years. Conrad's Voice. A Miracle.
Reverend Jacobs got fired because of the sermon he gave from his pulpit on November 21, 1965. That was easy to look up on the Internet, because I had a landmark to go by: it was the Sunday before Thanksgiving. He was gone from our lives a week later, and he went alone. Patsy and Morris--dubbed Tag-Along-Morrie by the kids in MYF--were already gone by then. So was the Plymouth Belvedere with the push-button drive.
My memory of the three years between the day when I first saw Peaceable Lake and the day of the Terrible Sermon are surprisingly clear, although before beginning this account, I would have told you I remembered little. After all, I would have said, how many of us remember the years between six and nine in any detail? But writing is a wonderful and terrible thing. It opens deep wells of memory that were previously capped.
I feel I could push aside the account I set out to write and instead fill a book--and not a small one--about those years and that world, which is so different from the one I live in now. I remember my mother, standing at the ironing board in her slip, impossibly beautiful in the morning sunshine. I remember my saggy-seated bathing suit, an unattractive loden green, and swimming in Harry's Pond with my brothers. We used to tell each other the slimy bottom was cowshit, but it was just mud (probably just mud). I remember drowsy afternoons in the one-room West Harlow school, sitting on winter coats in Spelling Corner and trying to get poor stupid Dicky Osgood to get giraffe right. I even remember him saying, "W-W-Why sh-should I have to suh-suh-spell one when I'll never suh-suh-see one?"
I remember a thousand other things, mostly good ones, but I didn't sit down at my computer to put on rose-colored glasses and wax nostalgic. Selective memory is one of the chief sins of the old, and I don't have time for it. They were not all good things. We lived in the country, and back then, country life was hard. I suppose it still is.
My friend Al Knowles got his left hand caught in his father's potato grader and lost three fingers before Mr. Knowles could get the balky, dangerous thing turned off. I was there that day, and remember how the belts turned red. I remember how Al screamed.
My father (along with Terry, his faithful if clueless acolyte) got the Road Rocket running--God, what a gorgeous, blasting clatter it made when he revved the engine!--and turned it over to Duane Robichaud, newly painted and with the number 19 emblazoned on its side, to race at the Speedway in Castle Rock. In the first lap of the first heat, the idiot rolled it and totaled it. Duane walked away without a scratch. "Accelerator pedal must have stuck," he said, grinning his foolish grin, only he said it ass-celerator, and my father said the only ass was the one behind the wheel.
"That will teach you to ever trust anything valuable to a Robichaud," my mother said, and my father stuffed his hands so deep into his pockets that the top of his underwear showed, perhaps to ensure they would not escape and go someplace they weren't supposed to.
Lenny Macintosh, the postman's son, lost an eye when he bent down to see why the cherry bomb he'd put in an empty pineapple tin didn't go off.
My brother Conrad lost his voice.
So, no--they weren't all good things.
On the first Sunday that Reverend Jacobs took the pulpit, there were more people present than had been there in all the years fat, white-haired, good-natured Mr. Latoure had kept the church open, preaching his well-meant but obscure sermons and reliably welling up at the eyes on Mother's Day, which he called Mother's Sunday (these details came courtesy of my own mother, years later--I barely remembered Mr. Latoure at all). Instead of twenty congregants there were easily four times that number, and I remember how their voices soared during the Doxology: Praise God from Whom all blessings flow, Praise Him ye creatures here below. It gave me goosebumps. Mrs. Jacobs was no slouch on the pedal organ, either, and her blond hair--held back with a plain black ribbon--glowed many colors in the light falling through our only stained glass window.
Walking home from church en famille, our good Sunday shoes kicking up little puffs of dust, I found myself just behind my parents, so heard Mom expressing her approval. Also her relief. "I thought, him being so young and all, we'd get a lecture on civil rights, or banning the draft, or something like that," she said. "Instead we got a very nice Bible-based lesson. I think people will come back, don't you?"
"For awhile," my father said.
She said, "Oh, the big oil baron. The big cynic." And punched his arm playfully.
As it turned out, they were both sort of right. Attendance at our church never slumped back to Mr. Latoure levels--which meant as few as a dozen in winter, huddled together for warmth in the drafty, woodstove-heated church--but it dropped slowly to sixty, then fifty, and finally to forty or so, where it hovered like the barometer on a changeable summer day. No one ascribed the attrition to Mr. Jacobs's preaching, which was always clear, pleasant, and Bible-based (never anything troubling about A-bombs or Freedom Marches); folks just kind of drifted away.
"God isn't as important to people now," my mother said one day after a particularly disappointing turnout. "A day will come when they'll be sorry for that."
ing those three years, our Methodist Youth Fellowship also underwent a modest renaissance. In the Latoure Era, there were rarely more than a dozen of us on Thursday nights, and four were named Morton: Claire, Andy, Con, and Terry. In the Latoure Era I was considered too young to attend, and for this Andy sometimes used to give me head-noogies and call me a lucky duck. When I asked Terry once what it was like back then, he gave a bored shrug. "We sang songs and did Bible drills and promised we'd never drink intoxicating liquor or smoke cigarettes. Then he told us to love our mothers, and the Catlicks are going to hell because they worship idols, and Jewish people love money. He also said to imagine Jesus is listening if any of our friends tell dirty jokes."
Under the new regime, however, attendance swelled to three dozen kids between six and seventeen, which necessitated buying more folding chairs for the church basement. It wasn't Reverend Jacobs's mechanical Jesus toddling across Peaceable Lake; the thrill of that wore off rapidly, even for me. I doubt if the pictures of the Holy Land he put up on the walls had much to do with it, either.
A lot of it was his youth and enthusiasm. There were games and activities as well as sermons, because, as he pointed out regularly, most of Jesus's preaching happened outside, and that meant there was more to Christianity than church. The Bible drills remained, but we did them while playing musical chairs, and quite often someone fell on the floor while searching for Deuteronomy 14, verse 9, or Timothy 2:12. It was pretty comical. Then there was the ball diamond, which Con and Andy helped him create out back. On some Thursdays the boys played baseball and the girls cheered us on; on alternate Thursdays it was the girls playing softball and the boys (hoping some of the girls would forget it was their turn and come in skirts) cheering them on.
Reverend Jacobs's interest in electricity often played a part in his Thursday-night "youth talks." I remember one afternoon when he called our house and asked Andy to wear a sweater on Thursday night. When we were all assembled, he called my brother to the front of the room and said he wanted to demonstrate the burden of sin. "Although I'm sure you're not much of a sinner, Andrew," he added.
My brother smiled nervously and said nothing.
"This isn't to frighten you kids," he said. "There are ministers who believe in that kind of thing, but I'm not one of them. It's just so you'll know." (This, I've learned, is the kind of thing people say just before they try to scare the living crap out of you.)
He blew up a number of balloons and told us to imagine that each one weighed twenty pounds. He held the first up and said, "This one is telling lies." He rubbed it briskly on his shirt a few times, and then held it against Andy's sweater, where it stuck as if it were glued there.
"This one is theft." He stuck another balloon to Andy's sweater.
I can't remember for sure, but I think it likely he stuck seven balloons in all to Andy's homemade reindeer sweater, one for each of the deadly sins.
"That adds up to over a hundred pounds of sin," he said. "A lot to carry! But who takes away the sins of the world?"
"Jesus!" we dutifully chorused.
"Right. When you ask Him for forgiveness, here's what happens." He produced a pin and popped the balloons one after another, including one that had drifted free and needed to be stuck back on. I think we all felt that the balloon-popping part of the lesson was quite a bit more exciting than the sanctified static electricity part.
His most impressive demonstration of electricity in action involved one of his own inventions, which he called Jacob's Ladder. It was a metal box about the size of the footlocker my toy army lived in. Two wires that looked like TV rabbit ears jutted up from it. When he plugged it in (this invention ran on wall current rather than batteries) and flipped the switch on the side, long sparks almost too bright to look at climbed the wires. At the top, they peaked and disappeared. When he sprinkled some powder above this device, the climbing sparks turned different colors. It made the girls ooh with delight.
This also had some sort of religious point--at least in the mind of Charles Jacobs, it did--but I'll be damned if I remember what it was. Something about the Divine Trinity, maybe? Once the Jacob's Ladder wasn't right there in front of us, the colored sparks rising and the current fizzing like an angry tomcat, such exotic ideas had a tendency to fade away like a transient fever.
Yet I remember one of his mini-lectures very clearly. He was sitting on a chair that was turned around so he could face us over the back. His wife sat on the piano bench behind him, hands folded demurely in her lap, head slightly bowed. Maybe she was praying. Maybe she was just bored. I know that a lot of his audience was; by then most of the Harlow Methodist Youth had begun to tire of electricity and its attendant glories.
"Kids, science teaches us that electricity is the movement of charged atomic particles called electrons. When electrons flow, they create current, and the faster the electrons flow, the higher the voltage. That's science, and science is fine, but it's also finite. There always comes a point where knowledge runs out. What are electrons, exactly? Charged atoms, the scientists say. Okay, that's fine as far as it goes, but what are atoms?"
He leaned forward over the back of his chair, his blue eyes (they themselves looked electric) fixed on us.
"No one really knows! And that's where religion comes in. Electricity is one of God's doorways to the infinite."
"I wish he'd bring in a lectric chair and fry up some white mice," Billy Paquette sniffed one evening after the benediction. "That would be in'dresting."
In spite of the frequent (and increasingly boring) lectures on holy voltage, most of us looked forward to Thursday Night School. When he wasn't on his hobbyhorse, Reverend Jacobs could give lively, sometimes funny talks with lessons drawn from Scripture. He talked about real-life problems we all faced, from bullying to the temptation to cheat answers from someone else's paper during tests we hadn't studied for. We enjoyed the games, we enjoyed most of the lessons, and we enjoyed the singing, too, because Mrs. Jacobs was a fine pianist who never dragged the hymns.
She knew more than hymns, too. On one never-to-be-forgotten night she played a trio of Beatles songs, and we sang along with "From Me to You," "She Loves You," and "I Want to Hold Your Hand." My mother claimed that Patsy Jacobs was seventy times better on the piano than Mr. Latoure, and when the minister's young wife asked to spend some of the church collection money on a piano tuner from Portland, the deacons approved the request unanimously.
"But perhaps no more Beatles songs," Mr. Kelton said. He was the deacon who had served Harlow Methodist the longest. "The children can get that stuff on the radio. We'd prefer you to stick to more . . . uh . . . Christian melodies."
Mrs. Jacobs murmured her agreement, eyes demurely cast down.
There was something else, as well: Charles and Patsy Jacobs had sex appeal. I have mentioned that Claire and her friends were gaga for him; it wasn't long before most of the boys had crushes on her, as well, because Patsy Jacobs was beautiful. Her hair was blond, her complexion creamy, her lips full. Her slightly uptilted eyes were green, and Connie claimed she had witchly powers, because every time she happened to shift those green eyes his way, his knees turned to water. With those kind of looks, there would have been talk if she had worn more makeup than a decorous blush of lipstick, but at twenty-three, that was all she needed. Youth was her makeup.
She wore perfectly proper knee-or shin-length dresses on Sundays, even though those were the years when ladies' hemlines started their climb. On MYF Thursday nights, she wore perfectly proper slacks and blouses (Ship 'n Shore, according to my mother). But the moms and grandmoms in the congregation watched her closely just the same, because the figure those perfectly proper clothes set off was the kind that made my brothers' friends sometimes roll their eyes or shake a hand the way you do after touching a stove burner someone forgot to turn off. She played softball on Girls' Nights, and I once overheard my brother Andy--who would have been going on fourteen at the time, I think--s
ay that watching her run the bases was a religious experience in itself.
She was able to play the piano on Thursday nights and participate in most of the other MYF activities because she could bring their little boy along. He was a biddable, easy child. Everyone liked Morrie. To the best of my recollection even Billy Paquette, that young atheist in the making, liked Morrie, who hardly ever cried. Even when he fell down and skinned his knees, the worst he was liable to do was sniffle, and even that would stop if one of the bigger girls picked him up and cuddled him. When we went outside to play games, he followed the boys everywhere he could, and when he was unable to keep up with them, he followed the girls, who also minded him during Bible Study or swung him around to the beat during Sing Time--hence the nickname Tag-Along-Morrie.
Claire was particularly fond of him, and I have a clear memory--which I know must be made up of many overlaid memories--of them in the corner where the toys were, Morrie in his little chair, Claire on her knees beside him, helping him to color or to construct a domino snake. "I want four just like him when I get married," Claire told my mother once. She would have been going on seventeen by then, I suppose, and ready to graduate from MYF.
"Good luck on that," my mother replied. "In any case, I hope yours will be better looking than Morrie, Claire-Bear."
That was a tad unkind, but not untrue. Although Charles Jacobs was a good-looking man and Patsy Jacobs was a downright beautiful young woman, Tag-Along-Morrie was as plain as mashed potatoes. He had a perfectly round face that reminded me of Charlie Brown's. His hair was a nondescript shade of brunet. Although his father's eyes were blue and his mother's that entrancing green, Morrie's were plain old brown. Yet the girls all loved him, as if he were a starter-child for the ones they would have in the following decade, and the boys treated him like a kid brother. He was our mascot. He was Tag-Along-Morrie.
One February Thursday night, my four siblings and I came back from the parsonage with our cheeks red from sledding behind the church (Reverend Jacobs had set up electric lights along our run), singing "I'm Henry the Eighth" at the top of our lungs. I remember that Andy and Con were in a particularly hilarious mood, because they'd brought our toboggan and put Morrie on a cushion at the front, where he rode fearlessly and looked like the figurehead on the prow of a ship.