SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
July 3, 2016

The Pastor

 

Back in the heyday of the hippie Christian folk hymn in the Sixties and Seventies, along with “Kumbaya” and “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore,” the blank-eyed set also had a big hit with something called “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love.” Sounds innocent enough, but it’s a deeply sinister song, with the tempo and meter of a slow Satanic metal ballad. It was a song meant to be hissed rather than sung, a song that exuded such an air of menace and veiled threat it always unnerved and terrified me when I was young. Take a listen on your doo-hickey there and see if I’m not right. That’s neither here nor there, I suppose, except it helps set the mood.

            Shortly after we arrived in Green Bay in 1968, my parents started attending a little Lutheran church about a mile down the street. Everything was fine, we met some new friends, and I even took to hanging out with the pastor’s bed-wetting son. But one night in the winter of 1972, with American involvement in Vietnam still ongoing and public sentiment turned decidedly against the war, the pastor gave a sermon in which he referred to U.S. soldiers as war criminals.

            Well, my dad, being in the Air Force at the time, took some offense at this. He and my mom scooped me and my sister up and marched us out of the church, only to be pursued to the parking lot by the pastor himself, who’d left the pulpit and the confused congregation behind. A great row arose, lots of yelling on both sides though I don’t recall what was said, after which we drove home and never returned.

            The next week, given Lutheran churches were plentiful in Green Bay, we started attending another one, this one right up the hill.

            The new pastor was a tall, chinless man with a wise and comforting voice, an easygoing manner, a sense of humor, and a gentle message of love and understanding. Best of all from my parents’ perspective, he always asked the organist to play patriotic songs around patriotic holidays. He had a wife and two kids and everyone adored him, even if his wife’s ever present smile and earnest enthusiasm always struck me as patently false. I figured it was probably best to keep that particular character judgment to myself.

            Over the years, though, I started to see through his carefully cultivated Christlike persona. Unfortunately, nobody else did, and again I knew better than to say anything about it.

            Following the Christmas Eve service when I was nine or ten, I was standing in the church lobby just outside the doors to the worship area proper. I forget now why I was out there before everyone, but it was just me and the pastor. He’d just emerged from the service, and was preparing to shake the hands of everyone in the congregation as they filed out. They were still singing in there, so it would be a couple of minutes. I’m not sure he even knew I was out there. Suddenly his daughter, who was a year or two younger than me, came bounding up the steps from the church basement. “Daddy!” she was shouting excitedly. “When are we gonna go home and open presents?” Almost too fast for my eyes to register, his arm shot out and he backhanded her across the face. I remember the cold hatred in his eyes as he glared at her and said nothing. His daughter’s eyes were wide and her mouth was open for a brief and silent moment. Then without a word she turned and walked back downstairs to the basement. I don’t think I ever told anyone what I’d just witnessed, but it stuck with me.

            One summer not long after that, the pastor led the church’s youth group on an annual canoe trip a few hours north of Green Bay. There was a place up there, Ding’s Docks it was called, that rented out small fiberglass canoes for picturesque twenty mile trips through rivers and lakes and even some mild rapids. It was a beautiful wooded area with endless interconnected waterways. Although the group of fifteen that headed up there that day mostly consisted of teenagers, my dad and I tagged along as well.

            Anyway, being a rambunctious, fun loving group of teens, tipping someone else’s canoe was a standard part of the game. While paddling across one of the small lakes, a kid named Duane, who’d just been dumped out of his own canoe, began swimming toward the pastor’s. Whether he intended to tip it or just hold on for a second so he didn’t, y’know, drown, was unclear. But Duane was a prankster and a smartass, and it was generally understood the pastor didn’t like him much, which he proved by swinging his oar at Duane as he drew closer. This he did in a Christlike manner, of course, catching Duane across the side of the head before planting the oar in the kid’s chest and shoving him away. Whatever he’d been planning, Duane reconsidered and returned to his own canoe. That stuck with me, too.

            Although I’d lost any semblance of faith or belief long before then, when I was thirteen I still went through the confirmation process, simply because it was considered some kind of moral and civic obligation. So I went to classes at the church every Wednesday evening and did all the requisite work. I wasn’t thrilled with it—all the God talk and rote memorization seemed silly and dull—but I figured it would be over soon.

            The actual confirmation ceremony always took place during a regular service around Easter. All the kids in class were seated on the altar as the pastor said a few words about each one before asking a pre-arranged religious question. He had many glowing things to say about each of the other kids (even the awful ones), commenting on their singular outstanding abilities or sparkling personalities. When he got to me, though, he just made fun of my lack of athletic abilities, my skinny arms, and how short I was. Yes, well. I ignored it, again for my parents’ sake. They did love the man, and in their eyes he was always good to them.

            About a month after being confirmed in the faith, I was essentially excommunicated. It had nothing to do with the pastor, not directly anyway. I’d gotten into a loud and angry argument with the church vicar (later convicted on child molestation charges) over what I took to be some misguided, inhuman, and downright ugly beliefs at the heart of Lutheran doctrine. He took umbrage at my bad attitude and lack of faith, so he told me, again in proper Christian fashion, that I was no longer welcome there. Getting booted was fine by me, a relief really, though my parents still asked me to accompany them to church now and again. I think it was just a way of deflecting the inevitable and accusatory questions from the nosier righteous types in the congregation.

            A few weeks before I left for college in 1983, they asked me to come along again. That particular Sunday the pastor, who always made a point of steering clear of politics in his sermons, usually, as ever, focusing on gentle messages about kindness and brotherhood and gratitude, offered up a screed about what terrible places universities were, where insidious professors forced students to read poisonous evil communist writers like Marx, Lenin, Hemingway and Steinbeck.

            What the fuck? I didn’t know if he was deliberately aiming that at me. He knew how much I read, and may have heard rumors I had revolutionary anarchist leanings. Not being quite that paranoid yet, I preferred to believe he was just out of his goddamn mind. My parents, bless them, understood why I was so pissed afterward, though again they didn’t want to hear me say anything bad about the ignorant clown. It was nothing but a simple difference of opinion.

            That was pretty much that for the next thirty years. I never saw any good reason to go back to that church, and I was never asked. I still got the occasional update from my parents, who still held him in the highest esteem. To me, though, he was another lying and hypocritical man of god, no different from the rest of them, and to my mind worse than some. But all I had seen and heard was petty monkeyshines compared with the bastard’s later years.

            At some point during the four year span between the deaths of my brother-in-law and my dad, the pastor’s own nervous and artificial wife died as well. Two weeks after her funeral, the pastor called my sister and asked her out on a date, offering to come and pick her up in his convertible. He’d known her since she was eleven, which only made it that much uglier and creepier. At first my sister thought he was joking, but, um, no he wasn’t. The fucking pastor was putting the moves on my sister, who was some thirty-five years younger. At the time she blew him off with a shudder, but on the day of my dad’s funeral he was still at it. He ignored me and my mom and nieces, making a beeline for my sister in the reception line, giving her a hug and asking her to call him as the rest of us watched and cringed.

            The final revelatory insult, however, came during the funeral itself, where he gave a heartfelt eulogy for my dad. Given how long they’d known each other, and how much my dad admired him, he had plenty of material to work with. Well, after knowing my parents as well as he claimed for over forty years, he told a story about my dad’s time in the Air Force. My dad, he said, was piloting a B-52 full of nuclear weapons over Vietnam, and thinking about his family back home. Even though dropping the bombs might trigger a global nuclear war that would kill his family, he knew it was his duty.

            Sitting there in the front row I wanted to stand up and scream, “What the fuck are you talking about?” My dad was never a pilot, for one thing, and never flew in a B-52. He was a boom operator on a KC-135 in-flight refueler. And he never had a goddamn thing to do with nuclear bombs. What’s more, he flew over Korea, but never Vietnam. Where the hell was this shit coming from? Was he just making it up, or had he simply never paid any attention to anything my dad said to him? Maybe I’d been right all those years ago and he really was nuts. There was never another word about my mom, my sister, my nieces or me. No, the rest of the eulogy was all about the pastor himself, and how much my dad admired and respected and trusted him. And all that was true, but I wonder if it would’ve remained true had my dad seen and heard some of the things I did. My dad never made a big righteous show of his faith. He believed of course, but instead of putting on the mask and parading it around, he simply lived and acted according to his principles, which is more than I can say for that fucking sleazy, child-beating vindictive lying sociopathic son of a bitch.

            Sorry, started thinking about that fucker again yesterday and got mightily pissed.

 

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