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Early Memories – Part 1

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Much of my earliest childhood memories form a mosaic of images and places unconnected by any narrative or larger meaning. There are some that have no distinct chronology at all, more like snapshots found in a shoebox, jumbled and confused.

My dad was a Marine. I don’t remember ever seeing him in dress uniform, but I recall being on base at least once and seeing tanks which I believe he worked on. Before I was born, he shipped out to Japan with Korea as his ultimate destination. It must have been 1953. He never made it to Korea. His orders were changed, and he spent his entire tour in Japan. His tour included support for at least one nuclear test on a south Pacific island. He had photographs of the mushroom cloud formed by the explosion. He also had a black-and-white photo of my mother colorized by a Japanese artist. That photo, treasured by my mom, hung in the great room at Walcutt Road. My dad was an accomplished marksman and had several awards from Marine Corp competitions. He always said that never drinking alcoholic beverages gave him an edge because he could hold his gun steady and take aim without any tremors. All his Marine Corp paraphernalia and photos were lost in the fire that destroyed our Walcutt Road home.

I remember being small enough that when my mom was folding laundry and put one of my dad’s undershirts on me, it hung down to my ankles. My dad was my hero.

Because my dad was in the Marines, we moved so often that I can’t even count the number of places we lived. I know that we lived in several places in California, at least one place in North Carolina, and at least one in Hawaii. My only memory of Hawaii is an indistinct impression of the Honolulu Zoo. They had crocodiles (or maybe alligators) in a big open pit. I’m told I ate the large garden snails that could be found in our yard. Perhaps “ate” is not quite the right word since my mom managed to get them out of my mouth before I swallowed them. Two of my sisters, Lani and Kathy, were born in Hawaii. Lani’s name is Hawaiian and means heaven or sky.

I have a few distinct memories of North Carolina. We lived in a house on stilts on the beach. While we lived there, a hurricane came ashore and we had to evacuate to a nearby city. The only thing I remember about it was seeing house roofs sticking up out of the water. It struck me as highly unusual. In advance of the hurricane, there were public service announcements on the radio advising people to put valuables and linens on the highest shelves to be out of reach of flood waters. My mom dutifully did just that. Our house did not flood despite being so near the sea, but the gale-force winds drove rain under the eaves. Everything she put up high to keep dry got soaked.

Due to a pay mix-up, my dad didn’t get paid for several weeks when we moved to North Carolina. A buddy of his who worked in the mess hall would leave a sack of potatoes and cartons of milk outside the back door for my dad. We ate a lot of potato soup. I still love potato soup to this day. But it was also in North Carolina that I acquired a distaste for fish. I don’t remember the details, just that we had fish sandwiches that tasted very fishy indeed. After that I could not eat fish for many years.

Another incident from North Carolina was told and retold in our family so often that it became family legend. Once when we were sitting down to eat, my mom sent me and my sister, Marsha, to wash our hands. I washed my hands, but I saw something move in the shower, so when I returned to the table, I announced, “There’s a bug in the shower.” Marsha came back a few minutes later and dissented. “It’s not a bug,” she said; “It’s a worm.” My dad went to have a look and found a rattlesnake! Our shower drain emptied out on the sand underneath the house. The snake had slithered up the drain and into our shower. My dad drove it out of the house with hot water, then crawled under the house and killed it. Did I mention that my dad was my hero?

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Walcutt Road Memories

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When I was in second grade, our family moved to a huge house on Walcutt Road in Hilliard, Ohio. The house was actually a dilapidated mansion. There was a long carriage drive made of cinders that made a loop from the road to the house and back to the road. Steps led from the front door down a paved walk to granite columns where there had once been a gate. You could still see the rusted hinges attached to the granite, and one granite block, faced and polished like a tombstone, had a date carved in it.

Behind the house was a crumbling swimming pool, half filled with broken concrete, masonry blocks, and twisted metal—detritus from someone else’s life. Rainwater collected in the bottom of the pool and made an excellent breeding ground for mosquitoes. There was a covered walkway between house and garage and a mud room where you could take off dirty footwear. We kept a bag of dog food there, and each of us kids sampled it from time to time. It was crunchy, and the dogs seemed to like it.

A concrete veranda ran all along one side of the house with French windows opening on to it. We used to ride our tricycles (and sometimes even bicycles) on that veranda. It also made an excellent surface for drawing chalk hop-scotch squares.

Inside the house was grand. The French windows opened into a great room that ran the length of the entire house. Dividing the French windows on either side was a huge fireplace, and on the floor above it was a smaller fireplace in the master bedroom, a room we children were forbidden to enter without special permission. One end of this room had floor to ceiling bookshelves with a window nook between them and a window seat. A spent many a lazy afternoon on the seat reading. The other end was at the front of the house and opened off the entryway. We used to put up our Christmas tree at that end, huge trees that nearly brushed the ceiling covered with colored incandescent bulbs and metal icicles. Some of the lights were designed to blink, and we kids would lie on our backs under the tree and watch the changing colored patterns of light they would cast on the ceiling.

The house had a huge basement with a concrete floor. We kids used to roller skate down there. The laundry room was also down there with a door that opened out at the back of the house where the defunct swimming pool was. Mom had a wringer washer. It had a wash tub with an agitator, but after the clothes were washed, they had to be taken out and run through the wringer to squeeze the excess water out. Then she would put them in a basket and take them out and hang them on a clothes line to dry.

We lived there only three or four years, but the house and the time we spent there assumed mythic proportions in our collective memories. Mom loved that house. Though we were renters she felt it was hers in a way no other house ever did. My parents liked it so much that when the owner decided to sell, they tried to buy it. Dad went to the bank and applied for a mortgage. He was a laborer, working maintenance in a factory, with a wife and eight kids. The bank told him that he could not afford a mortgage. He pointed out that the payments would be less than he was already paying in rent. The bank was immovable. A short time later someone else bought the place, and we had to move. We packed up all our goods and moved to a small house on Alum Creek near Groveport.

On the day we moved we took almost all our furniture, kitchen goods, and bedding, but we left behind our clothes, books, and the piano for the next day. We were moving in January. The house had a fuel oil furnace, and the new owner wanted to make sure it was ready for them to move in, so he had the fuel oil tank topped off. My dad had had the tank filled several times before and knew that the fill gauge was broken. Unless you were careful, you could overfill the tank, and the overflow would spill onto the basement floor. That is what happened that night. When the furnace turned on, the spark lit the spilled fuel oil and started a fire. The house was destroyed. We were able to salvage a few possessions from the rear of the house, but most of clothes and books were lost. We kids lost all our Christmas presents. We also found, before we went back to get things that might have been spared, looters had stolen everything of value that hadn’t been damaged by smoke or fire.

My mom took the loss especially hard. It wasn’t just the loss of the house and our things; it was also the way people we didn’t know behaved toward us. The Hilliard community, hearing of our loss, collected clothing for us. We got bags and bags of used clothing, most of it unusable. My mom went through much of it, snipping off buttons and ripping out zippers because she hated to waste anything useful, but she finally gave it up and threw away whole bags of other people’s cast-off clothing because it was unfit for any use but rags. I think this experience left her soured on the charity of other people for a long, long time. She saw that many people, perhaps most, were capable of giving possessions they would otherwise discard as useless while congratulating themselves on their own generosity. How tempting it is to give without feeling the price! How rare the person who insists on sacrifice!

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What Is Sin?

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Sin is a religious concept, and it is impossible to understand it it without invoking a religious context. Atheists tend not to believe in it because they recognize that sin is an offense against God, but they don’t believe there is a god (See, for example, this speech by Dan Barker). For those who do believe in God, sin can still be a troubling concept. It seems to denote both individual deeds and a rebellious attitude, acts that nearly anyone would regard as wrong (murder, rape, theft, fraud, perjury) and acts that seem wrong only if you subscribe to a particular set of beliefs (working on Saturday or Sunday, playing card games, cussing, drinking, smoking, and dancing). In the popular—and secular—mind, sin seems to be nearly synonymous with illicit sex or even with ordinary pleasures. So what is sin? And why do Christians make such a big deal out of it?

When I was a child, I thought sin was breaking a commandment. God had a list of rules everyone was supposed to keep. If you broke one of the rules that was a sin. This list of rules, I learned, included the Ten Commandments. To a child, these rules seemed both arbitrary and unnecessary. It made sense that the first rule was to have no other gods. Imagine the confusion that would result from having more than one Rule-maker! But the rest just seemed like nonsense or else so obvious that no one would need to have it written down. Who wants to make graven images? Or take another man’s wife? Or commit murder? The two that made the most sense to me were the requirement to honor my parents and the prohibition against desiring what someone else had. I’ve written elsewhere about this last commandment, but what is especially odd about it is how unenforceable it is. How do you make a charge of coveting stick? The other commandments all enjoin or forbid specific deeds, but this one forbids something that no one around you may even detect. It is one of the earliest indications that God cares as much about why we do what we do as about what we do.

Another thing I thought as a child was that God’s rules are absolutes. In fact, I was very much a rule follower. I was seldom tempted to break rules, and when I did, I was racked with guilt about it until it was discovered and I received punishment or absolution. The existence of a rule was therefore often sufficient to keep me in line. I was surprised, then, when my own children showed no propensity to regard rules in this same way. Most of them would do a quick cost/benefit analysis in their heads before breaking a rule. If the benefit seemed to outweigh the cost, they had no compunction about breaking the rule and no apparent sense of guilt about it. My own natural bent made me a compliant child, but it also set me on a path to becoming a Pharisaical Christian. When you’re good at keeping rules, it’s tempting to think that rule-keeping is sufficient for life. It isn’t.

What I referred to above as “cost/benefit analysis” is a capacity we all have. It is the capacity to decide for ourselves whether a course of action is good or bad. In the myth of the Fall found in Genesis 3, Eve exercises that capacity when she decides “that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom.” Set against her own judgment is the mere prohibition of God, which has nothing to recommend it except God’s power and authority. The serpent even undermines that by accusing God of self-serving motives: “God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” God doesn’t want any competition. He only forbade it keep you down. He lied about the whole “you will die” thing. Eve desires good things for herself, and the serpent persuades her that the only thing standing in her way is God’s absurd rule.

This is the normal course of sin. It begins with desire for something God has forbidden. Desire magnifies all the good things that will come and diminishes or eliminates all the potential harms. Then we set our own judgment against God’s and do what we want instead of what we should. Sin begins with disagreement with God.

In orthodox Christian belief God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and present everywhere at once. So his commands are grounded in love and wisdom and strength. But he doesn’t need to have infinite capacities in order to make wise rules. He only needs to be stronger and wiser than you are. Just as good parents who are stronger and wiser than their children make good rules for them to keep them safe and teach them, so God, who is our Parent, makes good rules for us—his children—to protect us and teach us. If we disagree with him, we are always in the wrong. There is something breathtakingly audacious about disagreeing with God, about trying to explain something to him as if he didn’t know, or about thinking we have a perspective he hasn’t considered. It’s like explaining relativity to Einstein. When Abraham dared to do it, he at least showed some trepidation and humility.

Of course, disagreeing with God is not sin; it is only the beginning of sin. For one thing, it is impossible to always agree with God, for to do so, we would have to always believe only what is true and right. Now, each of us thinks that what we believe is true and right. Who would hold on to a belief knowing it to be false or wrong? But we know, since we are human beings with limited perspective, that some of what we believe is not true, even though we don’t know exactly what it is. It is only when we insist on our own way in defiance of God’s command that our disagreement rises to the level of sin. And what is God’s command? He commands us to love him first and foremost and to love our neighbors as ourselves. If our lives are not characterized by loving our neighbors—by sincere respect and affection, wanting what is best for them—then we deceive ourselves when we say we love God.

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