IF THERE IS NO GOD


We are living in extraordinary times. It seems we are at a crossroads as a nation where two factions are at war over the future of our country. Everything about our country, from its founding articles, the constitution, its history, its morals and Judeo-Christian ideals are being attacked by the left and defended by the right. This is nothing new. This divide has been growing for more than fifty years, a simmering cauldron that has become a boiling pot. The factions on either side used to be able to get along, to agree to disagree, but that seems to have changed. We have come to the climax. The opponents of the founding ideals of this country are meeting the conservatives of this nation head on. The anger on both sides has reached i’s final crescendo. This will not end until one side claims victory.

I have watched the fight mostly from the sidelines, wading into the issues only when something reached close to home, but now I feel the need to engage, to stand up. Because now evil has truly shown its face. Evil is in our midst. And, let there be no mistake, it is evil. I watched as the New York governor and the New York legislators cheered, smiled and congratulated themselves as they signed into law a bill that would allow the abortion of unborn babies up to the very moment of birth. My friend, if you support the termination of the life of an unborn baby just before birth, I say, without equivocation, there is something wrong with your soul. It is not only wrong to believe in and support such a heinous act, the systematic destruction of a life so innocent, so pure, so utterly helpless, but it is evil. I cannot imagine a more vile, egregious act so against the laws of human nature, compassion and motherly love, and the laws of God.

And that leads to the very heart of my point. There is one major difference between the left and the right in this country and throughout the world. Those on the right, for the most part, believe in God. They believe that God is the final arbiter, the very basis for morality. He is the one who holds in his hands the balance of what is good and what is evil. He is the one who separated light from darkness, righteousness from unrighteousness. Those on the left reject the notion of God, for the most part denying the existence of a creator, a supreme judge of their actions. They do not believe in a final reckoning, a time when they must stand before the creator and give an account for their actions.

And it all boils down to this.

If there is no God, there is nothing to measure what is inherently evil, or what is inherently good. Ask yourself this question: What is good? What is evil? Then ask yourself, if there is no God, how do we know evil is evil and good is good? Who decides? What I think is good, another may consider to be evil. What I consider to be evil, the systematic murder of innocent life, the New York legislature and governor celebrated with cheers and applause as they signed it into law.

Is law, then, the supreme arbiter of what is right or what is wrong? Laws chosen by the majority of the people, for instance? If the majority of the people conclude and agree that something is good, and should be lawful, or a thing is evil, and should not be lawful, does that make it so? Are we the final authority on righteousness and unrighteousness? Are all laws inherently good?

Let us consider a man most believe was evil; a monster, a blight on the history of all mankind. Let us examine Adolph Hitler. This man was responsible for the murder of millions, men, women and children. His Nazi party regularly ripped babies from the arms of their mothers and executed them. But, I challenge you, prove to me that he was evil, without the existence of God.

You may answer that he was a tyrant, a man who ordered the extermination of some thirteen million people, including six million Jews. And he certainly did. But prove to me that what Adolph Hitler did was wrong. Prove to me that Adolph Hitler’s actions were evil. He violated no laws of Germany, after all. In fact, he was placed in authority by a majority of the people and given supreme dictatorial powers. He was, in effect, himself, the law. In his opinion, as the supreme law of the land, the systematic extermination of thirteen million people was the right thing to do. He did what was right in his own eyes. He had legal authority in Germany to sentence anyone to death that he chose. Was he wrong? Was he right? He did not break the law of the land. He believed the extermination of thirteen million people for their race, for their political views, for their religion, was the right thing to do. And I challenge you: If there is no God, prove to me that his actions were evil.

Without God, there is no absolute right or wrong. There is no true good, and there is no true evil. Every man does whatever he feels is right. Society simply decides what is wrong and what is right, good and evil, by a consensus, a majority. And why not? If there is no God, why should we, ourselves, not decide what is good and evil? Whatever makes us happy, whatever is convenient, whatever causes the least amount of suffering in the world should be good.

If a woman becomes pregnant and finds having a child to be inconvenient, she should simply have an abortion. She should simply exterminate the growing life inside her. Why shouldn’t she? It is simply a choice, reproductive freedom, the termination of a mass of growing tissue. And it makes sense, does it not, to prevent any possible future suffering of a child born to a life of financial hardship, or parents too young to raise a child? It is good to prevent suffering. Why should a young woman take on the responsibility of children when she is not prepared to do so? Why should she have to give up her life to raise a child? Why should she have to be inconvenienced?

It makes perfect sense, after all. If there is no God.

The continuing, systematic termination of innocent children, ripped from their mother’s wombs, mothers who, by nature, should be protecting them, makes perfect sense, if there is no God. It should be done, without question. And it is done, to the tune of millions of babies, millions of heartbeats, children that belong to God and are a gift from God. And why not? If there is no God?

And, to follow that line of thinking, to prevent all future suffering, for convenience sake, we should be permitted to terminate the lives of all who were born with disabilities, who may be a burden to society (for convenience sake), or their family members, anyone born with a developmental disability, any child born into poverty. If there is no God, who is to say that would be wrong? After all, once we decided it was acceptable to terminate one life for convenience sake, or to prevent future suffering, why should terminating any other life be different, if there is no God? And isn’t removing suffering from the world a noble desire?

Adolph Hitler would agree.

You see, without God, all things are permissible. If there is no God, it makes perfect sense that people should do whatever makes them feel good. Whatever it is. Why not? Who is there to judge them? Who is the arbiter of right and wrong? Whatever desire a person has should be fulfilled without regard for what others may think. After all, who is there to judge us if there is no God? A man should be able to have as many partners as he wishes. The bonds of marriage, after all, are only as strong as one decides they are. A man is not bound to his wife, nor a wife to her husband, if there is no God to bind them to their oaths.

A man should be allowed to have a partner regardless of their gender. If he desires a man, he should be allowed to marry a man. If a woman desires a woman, she should be allowed to marry a woman. I mean, love is love, right? No one dictates what love should be. There is no absolute measurement of what love is supposed to be. We should decide, by what we want, and how we feel. After all, who gets to decide what is right and wrong, if there is no God? And, if something is considered wrong in society, we should manipulate the beliefs of the population until the majority accepts that evil thing as good, or that thing once considered to be good as evil. And that changes the good from the evil and the evil from the good, because the majority now agrees on it.

If there is no God. Who gets to decide the roles of male and female, anyways? If a man chooses to be a woman, then he should be allowed to change his sex. If a woman chooses to be a man, who is to stop her? Nobody. That’s who. There are, after all, no absolutes.

And who says a person should have to be of a certain age to be in a relationship? What is so wrong with an adult loving a child? Think about it. You may not like it, you may think it’s evil, but who are we to judge? The marriage of grown men to eight and nine-year old girls is common in the Middle East. We heard recently about the frequent molestation of boys among the Muslim military troops we call allies. An American soldier used force against one of them to free a fifteen-year-old boy who was chained to a bed, because he grew tired of his screams in the night. The military kicked the soldier out of the military for protecting the boy. And they should have, I suppose. After all, who is that soldier to decide it is wrong to kidnap and chain a boy to the bed and continuously rape him? Who is that soldier to impose his own morality, his own Judeo-Christian values on another culture? I mean why is it wrong? Their laws permit it, after all. There is no absolute right or wrong.

And who says love is any better than hate? If we can love who we want, then we can hate who we want. Hate to your heart’s content. Hate other races other than your own. Hate anyone you please. It will make no difference in the end, If there is no God.

If there is no God, then life is nothing but a cosmic accident. We will all be dead and forgotten. The very universe itself will be dead and forgotten with time, and there will be no one left to remember us. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. Nothing we have done, or will ever do, matters. It will make no difference if you chose to help the poor, feed the hungry and relieve the pain of suffering humanity, or if you chose to be a serial killer, a monster, a mass murderer. It makes no difference if you were Adolph Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, Mother Theresa or Florence Nightingale.

If there is no God.

Do whatever you want to do. Decide for yourself how you should live. After all, it is your life, and, once it is over, you will cease to exist. There will not be judgment. There will not be a memory of your past wrongs. Hurt as many as you wish, hate to your hearts content. Manipulate, scheme. Step on anyone it takes to get whatever it is you want. Nothing really matters. There are no consequences. If there is no God.

You will die. All will cease to be, but at least you got what you wanted while you were living. And, really, what you want is the only thing that really matters, isn’t it?

IF IT FEELS GOOD, DO IT. YOU DO WHATEVER YOU FEEL IS RIGHT. NO CONSEQUENCES.

But wait a minute, you say. You are taking this too far. You are being foolish. Perhaps you think so, but who’s to say, If there is no God? Stop pushing your individual morality onto me. There is no good, there is no evil. There are no absolutes, there is no limit to depravity. There are no true morals, because there is no true standard to compare morals to. Because God is the final arbiter, the plumb line, the ultimate measurement of morality, decency, goodness, purity and, yes, evil.

And that is what is happening in America right now. The media and the left broke into cheers and applause over a young boy dressing as a girl and dancing provocatively in front of men at a gay bar, who tossed dollar bills at him. Teenagers at a Catholic school, supporting the right to life for unborn babies were cursed, threatened and jeered at by an unruly mob of adults, but the media and the left ridiculed and screamed for the physical harm and even the death of the teenagers. The left rejoiced, the New York legislature voted for the right to kill babies moments before birth and to terminate the lives of the babies who survive the attempt to abort them. This is evil.

I understand where the left is coming from. I was once an atheist, not only denying the existence of God, but actively recruiting others to my way of thinking. I would have fit right in with the leftists today. Because, without God, there is only yourself. What you feel, what you think, is the most important thing. You are the final arbiter between what is good and what is evil. There is no external measuring stick, no plumb line, no compass to guide you, no map to follow. And, without a map, without a compass, I was helplessly lost. America must find her compass again. She must dust off the road map, the articles which founded her very existence. She must remember her creator. It is he, after all, who endowed us with certain inalienable rights; the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is upon his word that we based the laws of our nation, the idea that all men are created equal. Without him, we are not the nation our forefathers envisioned. Without him, we have no boundaries, no moral compass, no righteousness, no inherent goodness.

The United States is lost, if there is no God.

-Ricky Taylor

My Bethel


Lord, here I am. Here, where it all happened, so long ago. I am alone in the sanctuary of what is now called the “old church” by the new church members. This building, nothing more than a small sanctuary and a few rooms, is as holy to me as the Temple Mount is to the Jewish people. To most, it is an auxiliary building, the classes used for Sunday School, the rooms used for youth group functions or as a prayer room. To me, it is Bethel, the House of God. A strip of sanctuary floor in an old white building located at 631 12th Street in Imperial Beach, California, is holy ground. And I am anything but alone. As I sit on a padded, brown chair where the old orange pews used to be, I feel your presence. I Came here for Monday night prayer meeting, but no one showed. Faithful men, who rarely miss prayer meeting, yet, somehow, not one of them arrived. Is this your doing, Lord? Did you orchestrate this meeting?

The sun is nearly down. The sanctuary is growing dark. And here you are, in the darkness. I am in awe of your presence. You are the God who spoke to Abraham, who called to Moses from a burning bush, who appeared to the nation of Israel as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. I feel your enormous power and realize this is what the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle must have felt like; your presence dwelling between the two cherubim on the Mercy Seat above the Ark of the Covenant. I am acutely aware that you are God, the eternal God, who made the Heavens and the Earth for your pleasure. I am in your holy presence. And I know you. You are my God. You are my master. You are my father. You are my friend. Me, an unclean man with unclean lips, allowed to be in your presence. Hide me in the Cross, Oh, Lord.

As I sit here before you, flood gates open in the recesses of my mind, and, one by one, the memories flow. I remember this place, this holy ground, my Bethel.

I was young, sixteen years old, when first I heard your voice; here in this very sanctuary. A declared atheist, I did not believe in you. I was born and raised in church. I received your Holy Spirit as a child. Yet, I no longer believed. Many don’t understand how this could be. But it was true. I was spiritually blinded. The stories of the Bible were, to me, on an equal standing with Roman and Greek mythology. How you created the world, spoke with the patriarchs, punished the gods of Egypt, parted the Red Sea. To me, it was a fairytale. The Christian religion was for gullible, weak-minded people, manipulated by money-hungry preachers. The idea that you robed yourself in a human body and walked this Earth, healing the sick, opening blinded eyes, walking on water, dying at Calvary and rising again the third day, was a fiction written by ancient people ruled by superstition, and believed by modern people of unsound mind. I believed in Science. I preached the doctrine of Evolution. On the advanced debate team in high school, I debated against your existence with the passion and fervor of a Pentecostal evangelist. I did so with all sincerity of heart, truly believing you did not exist. I was blind. I could not believe in you any more than a blind man can see the beauty of the world around him.

My parents were divorced, and I lived in San Antonio, Texas, with my father and stepmother. Though, outwardly, I was animated against God, inwardly I was miserable. For, though I was still very young, I had weighed much of what the world had to offer and found it wanting. I was slowly realizing the truth that if there is no God, there is no meaning. Still, I did not believe. Through a series of events that I now see were orchestrated by you, I left a middle-class family and a home in a respectable neighborhood to live in a single-wide trailer in a rundown trailer park with my mother, stepfather and my sisters. I questioned the whole time why I chose to leave my home in Texas to live in such a place. Yet, there I was. And the first conversation I remember having with my mother was about church.

“You need to go to church, Ricky. You still love God, don’t you?” She said. You know her, Lord. There are few people with the innocence and purity of heart she possesses. And I did not want to hurt her. I explained to her as kindly as I could that, no, I did not love something that did not exist. But, little by little, my mother’s unrelenting pleas and cajoling began to weigh on me. I finally relented and entered this building for the first time in many years. I wish I could say that I submitted to you immediately, but I did not. I felt your presence, but I did not allow it to move me. I remember watching the people, clapping hands, moving to the music, lifting hands in worship to you. And I refused to worship. Yet it dawned on me that I had never given you a chance. I believed Science. I believed in Evolution. Yet, I had never given you a chance to prove your existence to me. And I decided that I would. And here, in this place, I said a prayer to you.

“If you will prove to me that you are real, I will serve you every day of my life.”

It pains me, My Lord, when I recall the promise I made to you. How many times have I broken that oath? How many times have I failed you, ignored the leading and calling of your Spirit? Forgive me, Lord, for my unfaithfulness. Create in me a clean heart, oh, God.

Still, I began to seek you. I bargained with you in a way that I would hesitate to do now. I told you that I would try to keep myself from the sins I regularly committed and would continue to go to church. I did this on the agreement you would prove your existence to me. And this went on for a short time. Finally, someone told me I needed to spend regular time in prayer. I remember going to bed one night, considering prayer.

“Lord,” I said, “If you are real, wake me up at 4:30 am and I will walk to the church and pray to you.” And, with those words, I fell asleep. The next morning, the sound of my mother’s voice woke me up. She was talking to my stepfather.

“Roger, wake up. You’re going to be late. It’s 4:31!”

I opened my eyes and sat up in bed. It had worked! I asked you to wake me up at 4:30 am, and it worked. But as I sat in bed, the doubts came. It had not worked. After all, if there is a God, is he ever late? Is he even a minute late? No. It had to be coincidence. Still, I got up and went into the kitchen. I sat at the kitchen table for a few minutes. The idea that a bona fide miracle had almost happened puzzled me. One minute late. How could this be? I stared at the clock on our old, green microwave.

“Mom,” I said, “what clock did you look at this morning when you woke Roger up?”

“Huh?” She said.

“The clock. What clock did you look at this morning?”

“The one on the microwave,” she said.

In those days, you could check the accuracy of a clock by calling time on the telephone. I picked up the telephone receiver and dialed the number for time. Somehow, I already knew what the recorded woman’s voice on the other end of the line was going to say. The phone rang. I held the receiver to my ear and the familiar woman’s voice began to speak,

“At the tone,” she said, “Pacific standard time will be…” One minute fast. The microwave clock was one minute fast! I was awakened that morning by the sound of my mother’s voice at 4:30 am. The right time. Not the time of the microwave clock, which was one minute fast, but right on time. You are always on time, Lord!

True to my promise, I walked in the dark about two miles to this church. My mother had given me the key, and I entered through the back door. I made my way down to the front of this sanctuary and sat in one of the pews. The idea of kneeling to pray never entered my mind. I could not deny something had happened. I had given you a challenge, and you had met my challenge. But I wasn’t convinced. I needed more. Already, the fogs of doubt, the demons of atheism, were working overtime to deny your small miracle. Maybe it had been all in my mind. Maybe I had just dreamed that I asked God to wake me up. You know, the mind is very powerful, after all. I mean, think about it. Do you really believe some invisible, all powerful being exists, and if he did exist, would take time out of his busy schedule to engineer a situation where a sixteen-year-old boy would be woken up at 4:30 am? I needed more. I sat there on the front pew and issued yet another challenge.

“Lord,” I said, “If you’re real, talk to me. I know you spoke to several people in the Bible. That means you have a voice. Moses heard your voice. Abraham heard your voice. I want to hear your voice.”

I waited. Nothing happened. I waited more, and more of nothing happened. Finally, I left this sanctuary and went to school.

For several weeks, I returned to this holy place, early in the morning and late at night. I sat in a pew and challenged you. I waited to see if you would speak to me. I left day after day, night after night, not having heard your voice. Finally, I grew desperate. I came into this place, Lord. I had made up my mind. I stood in the front of the sanctuary, in the altar, facing the pews. I called out to you, in desperation.

“Lord,” I said, “tomorrow, there will be church here. There will be a preacher here. I believe that if you are real, you can tell that preacher what to preach. If you will tell the preacher to preach on faith, then I will know that you are real. If the preacher preaches on faith, then I will serve you as long as I live. If not, then I will never return to this place. This will be the last time I come.”

I meant every word. And, suddenly, while I was yet speaking, your presence filled this sanctuary. I was terrified. I felt the enormity of your power. My body was covered in goosebumps. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up. I felt your presence emanating from the back of the pews on my right side. Something in me knew that the one whose presence I felt could speak and the universe would roll up like a scroll at his word. Matter would simply cease being. Time would end at his command. I knew I was in the presence of the living God. I was in your presence, Lord. And, as suddenly as your presence arrived, I heard your voice. I heard the audible voice of God. It was not a booming, loud voice. It was not deep or thunderous. It was the voice I believe Elijah heard when he sought you. It was the still, small voice. I heard your voice with my ears, I heard it in my spirit, I heard it in my soul. It seemed to enter me, to permeate every aspect of my being. I believe it was the voice that commanded blind eyes to open, demons to flee, the storms to calm, the voice you used to deliver the sermon on the mount, the voice that told Lazarus to come forth from the grave. The most beautiful, the most powerful voice the universe has ever known.

“You be here at seven o’ clock tomorrow.”

I trembled, Lord, at your word. I heard your voice, and no demon in or out of Hell could tell me different. The clouds of doubt and atheism were lifted at your word. Yet, I was terrified in your presence. I ran from this place. Having entered through the back door, I knew I had to pass by the spot where your voice had come from. As I ran by, I felt your awesome power, emanating from that spot.

“If that is you, Lord, I will be here tomorrow.” I ran out of this sanctuary and closed the door behind me. Shaking with a mixture of awe and holy terror, I locked the door with my mother’s key.

I returned the following evening, arriving here at seven o’ clock. The church holding services that night was not the regular church. They were renting the building. Normally, weekday services started at seven thirty. Their church service started at seven o’ clock. The sanctuary was filled with a mixed congregation, mostly Hispanic. They began to sing. And your presence was here, as powerful in that service as it was the night before. The church began to worship. I wanted to worship with them, but I stopped myself. We had a deal. I would worship when the deal was done. But, oh, how they worshiped! People were shouting. Some were dancing in your presence. Some were weeping. They sang songs about faith.

“Faith can move mountains…mountains of fear and of doubt…Faith can move mountains…so why don’t you try your faith now?”

For over an hour, they sang. They clapped. They shouted. They wept. They danced. They sang in Spanish. They sang in English.

“Faith, faith, faith, just a little bit of faith…faith, faith, faith, just a little bit of faith…you don’t need a whole lot…just use what you’ve got…faith, faith, faith, just a little bit of faith!”

I held the back of the pew in front of me with a tight grip. I was getting excited. It seemed every song was about faith. Surely, the preacher was going to get up behind that pulpit and preach about faith. I just knew it. And I could barely believe it was happening. You were real. This proved it. The mind may be powerful enough to play tricks on a person, but it couldn’t control the actions of this church filled with people I had never met before.

And, finally, the song service died down. The pastor introduced the guest speaker, a man named Brother Palacios. He stood behind the pulpit and began to talk, rambling from one subject to the next. He did not take a text and he did not open his bible. He explained that he was a missionary in Mexico and had travelled most of that day to get here. He apologized that he had no time to prepare a message. As he spoke, my heart began to fail. A dark, wet, cloud of doubt settled over me. Of course, the preacher won’t preach on faith. And do you know why? Because there is no God. That’s why. But the faith songs, the presence of the Lord, the fact that church started at seven o’ clock. How could this be? Brother Palacios continued to talk. He seemed to be winding the service down. It was growing late. I couldn’t imagine that he would preach a sermon after talking for such a long time. But I had heard the voice of God. Hadn’t I?

Finally, the old preacher’s soliloquy came to a halt. He looked out at the congregation over dark-rimmed glasses. I knew in my heart his next words would be our dismissal. I would return home, empty-handed. A fool, but a wiser fool. Never again would my shadow darken the door of a church. Never again would I seek after a God who did not exist.

“While I was up here,” Brother Palacios said, “the Holy Spirit spoke to me.” I sat up in my seat, my heart jumped a beat. I clutched the back of the pew in front of me and held my breath. “Tonight,” he continued, “I have to preach on faith.”

Thank you, Lord!

I don’t remember the message being particularly awe inspiring or exceptionally well taught. I am sure others who were there that night were dismayed that this man of God would speak for so long, then decide to preach a message. But you, Lord, were in control. You were working a miracle they knew nothing about. Bless old Brother Palacios, who listened to your voice and obeyed your word. I sat in that pew, stunned, numb. I knew you were real. I knew you existed. Everything I thought I knew about the world around me changed. You are real! My God is real! Your presence is real! Thank you, Jesus!

And, Lord, as I sit here before you in this sanctuary, I remember. This small sanctuary holds so many memories. I preached my first message here. I was in the altar one night after a weekday service. A woman in a wheelchair was being prayed for. She had come several times wanting to be healed. In times past, I would have mocked the idea of divine healing, but I knew then that you were real. I watched as ministers prayed for the woman, and I wondered why she was not healed. I asked you,

“Lord, I know you can heal her. Why isn’t she healed?”

I felt your presence again, and, though I did not hear your voice with my ears, I felt your word enter me in every other way, my mind, my soul, my spirit. And, suddenly, I was looking through your eyes and feeling what you felt. Love! Love like I have never known, never felt since. An all-consuming love, a vacuum longing to be filled. I looked out at your people who were standing and sitting in the pews. I no longer saw them as people I knew, but as people you loved; your children, your people your very heart, the apple of your eye. Then, mingled with this torrent of pure unadulterated love, was sorrow. And you spoke to me.

“They are my people and I love them. But they don’t trust me.” I looked around at your people, feeling your great compassion. “Preach this,” you said.

“But, Lord,” I said, “I don’t preach.”

Moments later, the youth leader walked up to me.

“You’re preaching this Friday,” he said.

And, on Friday night, I stood behind the pulpit for the first time, wearing a secondhand suit and navy work boots. Back then, the entire church attended Friday night service and the sanctuary was filled with people. My pastor sat behind me, looking down at my boots and shaking his head with a smile. For the first time, I preached your word. I felt your presence again, like fire deep in my belly, rising in power as the anointing grew, threatening to consume me. I preached what you had given me, declaring your limitless love. Oh, the Love of God, so rich and pure, so measureless and strong. It shall forevermore endure the saints’ and angels’ song!

Then, as I stood behind the pulpit, your word came to me again.

“Tell Sister Helen I am going to save her son.”

“Sister Helen,” I said to one of the church matriarchs, “God is going to save your son.”

You spoke again,

“Tell Sister Castleman I know what she is going through and everything will be alright.”

But I faltered. Sister Castleman? Who am I to say that to Sister Castleman? I am only a teenager in a secondhand suit. I don’t even own a pair of dress shoes. In my moment of doubt, I failed to speak your word. Still, your Spirit moved in this place. The altar was filled with your people, weeping and seeking after God. It was beautiful. I stood, watching, basking in the remaining glow of your presence, your anointing. I watched as your people continued to seek you in the altar. Finally, I stepped into the vestibule, where I saw Sister Castleman waiting to talk with the pastor. It turned out that her life was in chaos. She was under a heavy burden, a burden I could have helped to lift. I learned the lesson.

And here I am, Lord. I have returned to Bethel. Thirty years have gone by. I have seen miraculous moves of your Spirit. I have been a man after your heart, and I have been a Pharisee, forgetting that you, yourself, are love. I have obeyed you, and I have disobeyed you. I have been on high mountains and I have been in places so low I thought I might be in Hell. Somewhere along the way, I became more of a politician than a preacher. I became disillusioned with my religion, the organization I fellowshipped with, because I placed my trust in men, rather than in you. But here I am, Lord. I am home. And here you are. You are here, in this sanctuary. You were waiting for me when I walked in. I am not trembling in terror at the enormity of your presence. I am not running away. I sit before you in admiration, in adoration, in love. I will remember, Lord. I will hear your voice. I will obey. There is nothing in this world more important than you. Your presence, Lord.

My Bethel.B26B9E91-62BF-425A-A24A-72B35686D15E

THE DEVIL AT THE CROSSROADS


dev

It was all about a girl.

I was in love. Young love. The kind of love only a teenage boy can know; a sweet, abiding, all-encompassing obsession, innocent and pure, beyond mere physical attraction. I loved her warm, brown eyes, the softness of her skin, her heart-shaped face and the beautiful sadness of her smile; her Mona Lisa smile. I loved her long, brown hair, which she wore down, parted in the middle, her halo of glory, flowing loosely to a point just above her lovely waist. She was my first thought every morning, and my last, aching thought every night. And, though I loved her outer beauty, she was also my best friend, my closest confidante. I would have given my everlasting soul for her.

And I nearly did.

I attended James Madison High School in San Antonio, Texas, with my two older brothers, Brian and Gary. Though a freshman, I had none of the awkward moments of not fitting in. Brian and Gary were already something of high school royalty, though not part of the “in crowd.” They were the patriarchs and protectors of the misfits, the ones who did not fit into the proscribed roles of Jocks, Stoners or Kickers. Brian and I, with our brown hair and blue eyes, resembled our father. A surgery Gary had as a young boy to repair two holes in his heart had left him with a long scar on his chest, and his body never seemed to fully recover. Brian and I were thick boned and sturdy. Gary was gaunt, tall and thin. Where Brian and I were sanguine and gregarious, Gary was quiet and serious.

The Pullman boys were the twin terrors of James Madison High. They were six and a half feet tall, wore their hair long, and, though teenagers, had full beards. They walked the halls, wearing dark tee shirts of the Metallica or Iron Maiden variety, denim jeans and motorcycle boots. They had once been wrestlers on the high school team until they were kicked off for sheer meanness and excessive violence. They were kings of the hill, lions among the sheep of James Madison High. Until they cornered my brother Gary, that is.

I was still in the eighth grade when it happened, not yet a member of high school. My brother Gary, so the legend goes, was walking from one class to another and happened upon the Pullman brothers and one of their friends. I was never sure of the details. One of the Pullmans, or Gary, either by accident or design, brushed up against the other in the hallway. Whatever the details were, what happened was the Pullman brothers and their friend decided to follow my brother Gary, pushing him from the back as he walked. Other students, wanting to watch a fight, followed the procession. the Pullmans and their friend pushed my tall, skinny brother until they maneuvered him into a corner with no way of escape. Gary was helpless, alone. He had no way out. And that was the Pullman brothers’ mistake. Gary was always quiet and of few words. The friend of the Pullman brothers was just the opposite. He puffed out his chest and taunted Gary, confident in his strength and the strength of the Pullman brothers standing behind him. Gary simply hit him. Hard. In mid-sentence, a half-formed taunt still on his lips. The witnesses said Gary’s fists were lightning, hitting him three times before his limp body could even start falling. And, boy, did it fall, hard, all the way to the ground, a knockout punch. Then two things happened. A teacher passing by stopped the fight, and Gary became an instant legend. In the sort of logic only high school students understand, because Gary was a legend, a fighter with lightning fists, Brian, who was Gary’s bigger, older brother was considered a legend, as well. After all, everyone knew Brian could take Gary in a fight. Brian had a couple encounters of his own that launched the Taylor brothers further into legendary status at James Madison High School, and their reputation for not being trifled with earned me an immediate umbrella of protection. Far from being alone in high school, I was instantly part of the group, and, as the youngest of the Taylor boys, I was awarded a small part of the respect they had earned.

Our group was a myriad of different personalities. We had good students, we had students who were close to dropping out. We had poor students and wealthy ones, the nerds, the geeks, all mixed in with others who could have been Jocks, Stoners or Kickers, but simply enjoyed the variety and acceptance of our group. I don’t remember them all. Some came and went. But I remember the leaders of the group. There was Joe, a short-haired boy of seventeen, whose cigarette smoking, cowboy boots and willingness to fight, put him on equal standing with Brian and Gary. There was Bob, who drove a brown Volkswagen bug, and appeared to be in his early twenties. There was Alex, a Mexican-American boy, there was James, a tall, lengthy lover of all things guitar and Rock N Roll. He was my best friend at the time. There was Shawn, a country boy, Andrea, a diminutive girl we all considered one of the boys. There was Kristen, a religious girl who loved all things Jesus. And there was the girl that I loved.

I loved her the moment I met her. I know that sounds foolish, juvenile even, and my only defense is that I was, in fact, a foolish juvenile. But I loved her the moment I laid eyes on her. Brian introduced me to the group on my first day at the school. I felt an instant connection to them, an acceptance closer to family than to friendship. But, for her, I felt more. It was electric. She was sitting on a bench, laughing at something someone said. She looked up at me, and I looked down at her. And that was all it took. I am no expert on the vagaries of the heart. It is not logical. Some call it chemical, but I believe that to be a tawdry definition of love. It is more like the knitting of two souls, an occurrence that can happen over a lifetime, or in the space of a few precious moments. There was something in her eyes, in the way she laughed, the way she smiled up at me. And something else, a sadness just below the surface, below the smile. I asked Brian about her, and learned she was off limits. She and Joe were in an on and off again relationship, part of the reason for her sadness. But the timeless code of honor followed by high school boys from time immemorial meant we could be no more than friends.

Over the next year, I loved her in the only way I could, spending time with her, surrounded by the rest of the group. Every day after school, at four-thirty, she called me. I remember sitting at the kitchen table, watching the clock, waiting for the yellow wall phone to ring. I remember the pure agony I felt the few times when, for whatever reason, it did not ring. We talked about life, about her dreams, about her heartache, about Joe. I helped her through her many breakups with Joe, and, despite my heartache, celebrated with her when they got back together again. Never once did I tell her how I felt. Joe was my friend, part of the group, and I was loyal. I hoped that one day she would see, that she would realize the one who truly loved her was the same one she wept with when her heart was broken and laughed with when her heart was glad.

Railroad tracks ran behind my neighborhood, surrounded by trees and bushes. Large green junction boxes with red and green lights stood to one side of the tracks. These became a regular hangout for our group during summer, when we needed a place to drink. School was out for the summer, and one night, Brian, Gary and I told our parents we were going to see the late show, but spent our movie money on booze instead, Joe or Brian purchasing it at the local Kroger, hoping not to get carded. The group met up at Judson Road, and walked the tracks late at night, carrying cheap bottles of wine, six packs of beer and Jack Daniels. Darkness surrounded us, the green and red lights from the junction boxes shone in the distance and pale moonlight guided our steps as we opened cans of beer and unscrewed the tops of wine bottles. We walked, drinking and talking, until we reached the soft green and red glow of the junction boxes. There we sat, our backs against the metal walls of the box, feeling the electric hum coming from inside. We sat and drank, laughing and joking. James talked about the guitar, our favorite bands, Boston, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Eagles, Led Zeppelin. James said something about wanting to play the guitar like Led Zeppelin.

“I would sell my soul to play like that,” he said.

“You’re a Mormon, aren’t you?” I said. James took a long drink from the bottle of wine. He looked at me, the green and red light from the junction box painted his face in an eerie glow. He was a tall boy, two years older than me, with brown hair reaching just passed his collar, wearing a Levi jacket like a few others in the group liked to wear.

“Yeah. So what?”

“I didn’t know Mormons believed in the Devil,” I said.

“We believe in the Devil,” he said, “and if he was here right now, I would sell my soul to play like that. Like the bluesman at the crossroads, Man. I mean it. I would sell my soul.” He looked down at his hands, as if picturing the Devil blessing them that very minute.

“And you would go to Hell,” Brian said. He had downed a couple too many beers and stared at James, bleary-eyed. Would you go to Hell just to play like Led Zeppelin? That’s stupid, Man.”

“Mormons don’t believe in Hell, do you, James?” Joe said. He preferred Jack and Coke and was drinking from a plastic cup. He was wearing a ballcap and a Levi jacket like James was.

“Not like you do,” James said, shrugging.

“Well, Hell is real, damn it,” Brian said, pointing an admonishing finger at James, “and if you sell your soul, that’s where you’re going.”

“What bluesman at the crossroads?” I said, “what does that even mean?”

James looked at me like I didn’t know anything at all.

“What bluesman? What bluesman?” he said. “Just the greatest guitar player that ever lived, Man, Robert Johnson! You know, Crossroads Blues.”

“Never heard of him,” I said.

James shook his head. crumpling his empty beer can, he threw it on the ground a few feet away. He grabbed a full can from one of the six packs and cracked it open.

“Never heard of Robert Johnson? You never heard of Robert Johnson?” The look he gave me was a mixture of incredulity and shock. James and I worshiped at different altars. I loved books and authors. He loved guitars and musicians. His realization that I knew nothing about one of his guitar gods affected him more than the fact I knew little, and cared even less, about Mormonism. He had once explained to me that, whether I became a Mormon or not, someday, somewhere, somebody would be baptized in my place in one of their temples. I would wake from the dead and find myself in Mormon Heaven. He was drinking at the time, but I got the impression good Mormons would be on a higher plane, with white clouds, white suits, all living in clean, white mansions. The unwashed throng, my self included, would be on a lower plane with the drinkers, smokers, gamblers and loose women.

“You don’t have to tell me anymore,” I had answered. “That sounds like a good enough Heaven for me.”

“Robert Johnson was the greatest guitarist to ever live, man,” James continued. “They say he met the Devil at the crossroads and made a deal. He sold his soul to be the greatest.” He looked down at his hands again, his face filled with longing.

“What crossroads?” I said.

“I don’t know what Crossroads. Crossroads in Alabama or Mississippi, Man, but that’s not the point. They say if you go looking for the Devil at the crossroads, any crossroads, he will make a deal with you.”

Brian looked up, bleary-eyed, nursing another beer.

“And you’ll go to Hell for it,” he said.

“Well,” I said, “I don’t believe in Hell, and I don’t believe in the Devil.”

“Don’t believe in Hell? Don’t believe in the Devil?” Brian said. He was suffering from the acute deafness that seems to affect the inebriated everywhere. He spoke loudly, just below a shout, slurring his words. “You know better than that. You were raised better than that. You believe in God, so you have to believe in the Devil.”

“I don’t believe in God, either,” I said.

Brian looked at me, concerned. He wasn’t what you would call religious, but he had a strong belief in the existence of God.

“You don’t mean that,” he said.

“Like Hell I don’t,” I said. “I’ve never seen God and I’ve never seen the Devil, so I don’t believe in either one.”

“Then what do you believe?” James asked.

“I believe,” I said, reaching for a six pack, “I will have another beer.”

That’s when I heard her voice and turned to see her walking with Kristen and Andrea on the tracks, making their way to where we were gathered around the junction box. I felt the familiar flutter in my chest when I saw her, her face becoming more visible in the soft red and green glow of the junction box lights. She smiled and waved at me, and I waved back. She walked to where Joe was standing nearby, smoking a cigarette. She said something to him, and he answered, unsmiling. The smile on her face turned to a frown. Even in the dim light, I saw sadness in her eyes. Joe took a long drag from his cigarette and blew out smoke. He walked over to where Gary was standing with Bob, Shawn and Alex. He opened a can of beer, his back turned toward the girl that I loved. I stood up.

“Can I get you all a drink?” I asked. “We’ve got beer, wine and Jack.” Andrea had already grabbed a beer from the cache and was drinking it down. Kristen looked at the alcohol with disgust and righteous indignation. “Maybe some wine?” I offered. “Jesus turned water into wine, after all.”

“No thank you,” she said, sounding more offended than thankful.

“I’ll have some wine,” said the girl that I loved. I poured wine from the large, green bottle into a plastic cup and handed it to her. My hand brushed hers, and I wanted to let it linger, to hold her hand, to comfort her. I didn’t know what Joe had said to her, but, at that moment, whatever it was, I hated him for it.

“Thank you,” she said. I nodded and sat back down, leaning against the junction box. She sat next to me, her arm touching mine. She looked to where Joe was standing, drinking a beer, smoking a cigarette and talking with the other boys. Her eyes brimmed with tears.

“Are you okay?” I said. She shook her head. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“He wants to break up again,” she said.

“He told you that?”

She looked at Joe. He was laughing at something Gary said.

“No, but I can tell by the way he’s acting.”

We sat the rest of the time in silence, her arm touching mine. I wished I could take away her pain, her hurt feelings, and replace them with good feelings. Hers was a face made for laughter, hers was a heart made for love. She watched Joe as he stood, drinking, laughing and smoking. He never glanced her way, and he never came over. After a while, she told me goodbye and left, walking on the tracks towards Judson Road with Kristen and Andrea. James joined me, offering me a beer, and we sat, drinking in silence. Finally, we all began walking the tracks towards Judson Road. We were about a hundred yards from where the railroad tracks and Judson Road met, when I realized we were at a kind of crossroads.

“Alright, James,” I said, “now’s your chance. We’re at a crossroads.”

James looked around us. There were trees on one side of the tracks and a tall fence wrapping around my neighborhood on the other side. The railroad tracks crossed Judson Road. A crossing signal with an automatic gate waited for a coming train. A white and black railroad crossing sign at the side of the road formed a diagonal cross.

“I guess this is a crossroads,” he said. “Never saw that before.”

“Well,” I said, “there’s no time like the present. Call the Devil and deal your way to glory.”

James hesitated.

“You’d better not,” Brian said.

“I think you have to be alone,” James said.

“A bunch of B S,” Gary said.

I looked at Joe, who was smoking another cigarette. I loved him like an older brother, despite the fact his actions were hurting the girl I loved. I wondered what he would want if the Devil appeared in front of us, ready to make a deal. Here was the guy who already had everything I wanted. He had the heart, the love, of the only one I would have given my soul for.

“Come on,” Brian said, “You’re talking crazy. No one’s summoning the Devil while I’m around.”

James shook his head, grinning.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “I really do think you have to be alone.”

We continued onto Judson Road. Brian, Gary and I parted from the others and walked to our house on Kissing Oak Street. I had trouble sleeping that night. My thoughts were on the girl that I loved. When I finally fell asleep, my dreams were of her.

Two weeks passed. As predicted, Joe broke up with the girl I loved. I helped her through her heartache, talking with her on the phone as we regularly did, even when school was out. She told me it was over. This was the final time. She could not continue breaking up with Joe and getting back together again. And, as her heart began to heal, I was coming to my own decision. I decided to tell her, to bare my heart, to reveal my soul, my longing, my desire, my love for her. When the timing was right, when her heart was fully healed, I would let her know how I felt. Then, suddenly, the phone calls stopped coming. I figured she needed time, and the daily phone calls were a little more sporadic during the summer, when we had other things to do. I wasn’t overly troubled by it. The phone would ring again when she was ready to talk. And it did ring. I answered it, relieved when I heard her voice after so long a time.

“There’s something I need to tell you,” she said. She sounded nervous. I felt my heart stop. Was this it? Was this the time to finally tell her how I felt?

“There’s something I need to tell you, as well,” I said. “You go first.”

“Well,” she said, “you know Joe and I aren’t together anymore.”

Yes,” I said. I felt a lump growing in the center of my chest.

“I’m ready to move on.”

“Okay,” I said. “Do you have anyone in mind?” Let it be me. God, if you exist, let it be me.

She laughed nervously.

“I don’t know how to say this,” she said.

“Just say it,” I said. I wanted to tell her I loved her. I wanted to tell her she was my everything. I wanted to be hers and for her to be mine. I held my breath.

“Well,” she said, “I have been seeing your brother, Brian. He asked me out and I said yes. I just want to make sure you’re okay with that. He was worried it might be weird for you, since you and I are so close.”

My heart came to a full stop. I listened further, numb, answering by rote. Sure, I’m okay. Yes, I want you to be happy. Sure, we will still be best friends. Some time later, the conversation ended, and I hung up the phone. I went to my room and fell onto my bed. Lying on my back, I stared up at the ceiling. Tears ran down my face as the shock dissipated and I felt my heart break. I wept for over an hour, until, finally, no more tears would come. A knock came at my bedroom door.  I sat up and dried my eyes.

“Who is it?” I said, doing all I could to stop my voice from trembling.

“It’s Brian,” came the answer.

“Just a minute,” I said. I wiped my face on the blanket of my bed and looked in the mirror. My eyes were red, but he might think I had been sleeping. I opened the door.

“What’s up?” I said.

“I just want to talk to you,” he said. He looked at me. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah,” I said, “just tired.”

Brian sat on my bed. He told me he was dating the girl I loved. He wanted me to know he wouldn’t interfere with the friendship I had with her. He told me he had always liked her, but because she was with Joe, he could never make a move. I listened and nodded when it seemed appropriate. He finally left my room, closing the door behind him. I looked around my room, wanting to be anywhere but there. I wanted to be away. I wanted to be alone. I left my room and exited the house through the garage, walking up Kissing Oak Street to Judson Road. I reached the railroad tracks and turned left, walking on the tracks, away from my neighborhood. It was twilight time. The sun was setting, and dusk was fast approaching. I thought of all that had happened. I remembered with sharp clarity the telephone conversation with the girl I loved. I remembered Brian’s words. The tears came again, and I walked alone, weeping, as dusk fell on the tracks before me. I turned toward the trees lining the sides of the tracks, and shouted, not thinking about what words I said, not caring.

“I will sell my soul for her!” I heard myself shout. “If you’re real, Devil, I will sell my soul for her!”

I stood, motionless, looking into the wooded area. No devil appeared there. I shook my head, and continued walking. I looked up and saw the figure of a man walking on the tracks ahead of me. He had not been there just moments before. I was sure of it. It was dusk, but I could tell even in the failing light he was dressed all in red. I laughed to myself. Yeah, right. The Devil in a red suit. He continued walking away from me, not toward me. He moved slowly, and I realized after several minutes that I was catching up to him. He looked back at me a couple of times, but continued walking toward O’Connor Road. Finally, where O’Connor Road crossed the railroad tracks, he stopped. He turned and looked at me, waiting. I was about fifty yards away. His image solidified as I drew closer. He was a young, black man, wearing some type of uniform, a red hat, red shirt and red pants. He beckoned toward me, and a feeling of unease and trepidation washed over me. I shook it off and walked to him. He was wearing a Taco Cabana uniform. The name tag above his right breast pocket said Carlos. I felt like a complete fool. My crossroads Devil was a fast food worker. I nodded at him.

“Hey,” I said.

Carlos smiled at me, a wicked smile, parting his lips, showing teeth that, though human, were entirely too sharp; the smile of a predator.

“What the Hell?” I said, realizing immediately that might be the wrong phrase to use. Carlos grinned again, and I was filled with a deep revulsion. Whoever he was, I wanted to get away from him, but my feet would not move. He met my eyes with his own. They looked black in the falling darkness. He spoke in the accented tones of an islander. His voice was low and hoarse.

“Meet me at six o’ clock tomorrow at the Taco Cabana.”

I tried to look away from his gaze, but I stood, staring, unable to move.

“What?” I managed to say. His face hardened. He appeared to be growing angry. He answered again, reluctantly, spitting out each syllable as he spoke.

“Meet me tomorrow at six o’ clock at the Taco Cabana.”

He turned from me and began walking, crossing O’Connor Road to the other side of the tracks. He stopped and looked at me, leering at me, showing again the teeth that were far too sharp. He spoke, and his voice was mocking, low and guttural.

“God bless you,” he said. Then he turned from me, walking on the tracks, disappearing into the darkness of night. I walked home, taking the road instead of the tracks.

Had I met the Devil at the crossroads? I do not know. I did not meet our appointment at Taco Cabana the following day. I remember like yesterday, sitting in the living room. The clock on the wall showed six o’clock. It was June 6, 1986. Part of me wanted to go, but I remembered Brian’s admonition about going to Hell. I think, though, what finally decided it for me was love. I wanted to be loved. But, more importantly, I wanted to show love. Perhaps the Devil could have given her to me. I doubt it. I doubt, even, that he was the Devil. Perhaps he was an eccentric Taco Cabana employee simply wanting a friend. But, if he was the Devil, and he could give me the desire of my heart, that would relegate the girl I loved to nothing more than a possession. I did not want to own her. I wanted her to be happy. I wanted her to know love.

A few months later, I would leave San Antonio for San Diego, to live with my mother. I would leave my brothers, my friends, the girl that I loved. The relationship between Brian and her ended rather quickly, each of them deciding they were not ready for anything too serious. On my last night in San Antonio, I told her the truth. I told her I loved her and kissed her softly on the lips.

More than three decades have passed. And I wonder still, what would have changed had I met Carlos, my crossroads Devil at the Taco Cabana? Perhaps I will never know.

Maybe it’s better that way.

THE GIRL SCOUTS SAVED MY LIFE


girl scouts1

“Would you like to buy some cookies, Mister?”

I turned to see the girl scout. She was about eleven years old, her auburn hair pulled back in a ponytail. She wore a dark green shirt and khaki pants. A light green sash decorated with pins and medals was draped across her chest. She smiled up at me, showing braces. She stood behind a table loaded with boxes of Girl Scout cookies. I stopped at the table and examined the boxes.

“Do you like cookies?” I said.

Her smile broadened.

“Everybody likes Girl Scout cookies,” she said. “Want to buy some?”

“What’s your favorite kind of cookie?” I said.

She looked down at the boxes of cookies on the table.

“I like thin mints the best. But they’re all really good. My mom likes the Samoans.”

“Samoans?” I said.

“Yeah,” the girl scout answered, “the kind with chocolate and coconut in them.”

I pulled a twenty-dollar bill from my wallet.

“A box of thin mints, then,” I said, handing her the money, “and a box of Samoans.”

The girl scout took the twenty-dollar bill, picked up a box of thin mints and a box of Samoas, which are delicious, unlike Samoans, the natives of the Samoan islands, who are delightful people, but do not taste very good. She held them out to me. I shook my head.

“They’re not for me,” I said. “They’re for you. And you can keep the change.”

She stared down at the twenty-dollar bill and the boxes of cookies in her hands. Her eyes grew wide.

“Really, Mister?” She said. “But why?”

“Really,” I said, smiling down at her. “And if you must know the reason, it’s because I never did say thank you.”

“Thank you to me?” She said. She looked confused. “Thanks for what?”

“I owe all the Girl Scouts a thank you,” I said. “You don’t know it, but a long time ago, long before you were even born, the Girl Scouts saved my life.”

I was seventeen years old when it happened. The church I attended had an annual campout, and my friend, Sean, a petty officer in the navy, a young man with a light complexion and a military regulation haircut, talked me into going. I threw the only camping gear I had, an old green army sleeping bag with a broken zipper, into the back seat of Sean’s little blue car.

“Is that all you’re bringing?” Sean said, looking at my sleeping bag. “You don’t have a tent?”

“No,” I said, “who needs a tent?”

“You’re going to need one, knucklehead” he said. “It’s cold in the mountains. You should at least bring a jacket.”

“I’ll manage,” I said. “It’s like eighty degrees outside.”

“Okay,” Sean said. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

We headed to the campground located in the mountains east of San Diego. The church had reserved about half of the campsites, and we were greeted by familiar faces. The campground was surrounded by hundreds of tall oak trees. Sean drove slowly, following the small asphalt road winding through the campground, passing church members near recreational vehicles and tents. Some rode bicycles, others busied their selves cooking over barbecue grills or putting up tents. They waved at us as we drove by, and we waved back. We passed the campsite of a group of girl scouts, all in matching green uniforms, scurrying in every direction, erecting tents, preparing a fire ring, setting up lawn chairs, all under the supervision of a brunette woman in her early thirties. I paid them little attention.

Sean parked at a campsite and began setting up his tent. He worked meticulously, paying attention to every detail, carefully hammering the tent stakes, evenly spaced, into the rich, dark earth, inserting the tent poles, raising the small, green tent to a perfectly formed A-frame. He unrolled his sleeping bag and laid it neatly out on the tent floor. He gathered stones and built a fire ring, digging a hole in the center of the ring to contain the fire. He removed firewood from the trunk of his car and stacked it in neat rows next to the fire ring. Finally, he hung an electric lantern on a small pole near the entrance to his tent.

I grabbed my sleeping bag with the broken zipper from Sean’s car, and threw it on the ground next to the fire ring. Done. Sean grinned at me, shaking his head. I guess you could say we were opposites.

The day was warm and pleasant, lulling me into a false sense of security. Who needed a tent in San Diego, after all? But as night fell, so did the temperatures. Sean built a fire, and I huddled next to it. Campers from the church group roasted hot dogs and marshmallows over the fire and were generous enough to share with me. But, as the night grew colder, they retreated to the comfort of their tents and recreational vehicles. Near midnight, Sean also turned in, climbing into his tiny tent, leaving me alone by the fire, which by that time was little more than dying embers. I moved as close to the warmth of the fire as I could, lying down on half of the sleeping bag, covering myself with the other half. Somehow, despite the cold, I managed to fall asleep.

I awoke just after dawn to near freezing temperatures. The sun was coming up over the tops of the mountains, but it provided very little warmth. My muscles ached from sleeping on the cold, hard ground. My body shook, my teeth were chattering. My breath came out like steam in the freezing air. There was nothing left of the fire, but a few hot embers buried under gray ashes. No firewood remained. Wrapping my sleeping bag around me, I scoured the nearby area for anything that would burn; cardboard, soda boxes, paper towels, dry twigs, anything I could find. I blew on the hot coals until my small collection of flammable materials ignited. The warmth from the fire was wonderful, but fleeting, as the paper, cardboard and twigs ignited, flashing hot, then burning out. I searched for more items to burn, desperate to get warm, but soon ran out of flammable materials. The fire died.

I needed to burn something bigger.

Wrapped in my sleeping bag, I broadened my search, passing several campsites, including the site belonging to the Girl Scouts, to a nearby meadow, finding bits of wood, parts of fallen branches and more twigs. I brought them back, placing them in the fire ring, blowing on the coals until the fire sprang back to life. The bits of wood burned longer than the cardboard and twigs, but they, too, burned out, leaving me cold and miserable.

I needed to burn something much bigger.

I headed back to the meadow, my sleeping bag draped over my shoulders. I looked passed the small pieces of wood. Something bigger, I thought, something much bigger. That’s when I saw it. An old, round log, two feet long and a foot and a half wide, lay on its side near one of the large oak trees. Surely that much wood would burn for hours. Gleefully, thoughts of a warm, roaring campfire in my head, I picked the log up. It was heavy and cumbersome. I struggled under its weight, carrying it in both arms, stumbling as I went, tripping over the sleeping bag, which was draped over my shoulders. I passed the campsite of the Girl Scouts. A large flip chart rested on a stand. The brunette scout leader flipped through the pages of the chart, preparing for a class, I supposed. I noticed the words Stop, Drop and Roll on the front page of the chart. A fire extinguisher sat on the ground next to the flip chart.  A couple of girl scouts watched me as I passed by, stumbling under the weight of the log, tripping occasionally on the edge of my sleeping bag.

I made it back to the fire ring and dropped the log directly in the middle of the hot coals and waited for it to ignite. Smoke rose up from the log, and the part touching the coals turned black, but it did not catch on fire. I blew on the coals, and they turned red for a time, but still the log did not burn. I grew desperate, my hopes of a warm fire dissolving before my eyes. I remembered one of the church members at the campsite next to ours had a bottle of lighter fluid near his barbecue grill. I went to the campsite and “borrowed” the lighter fluid. The bottle was about half empty. I sprayed the log with lighter fluid and, bending over, blew on the hot coals. The log ignited in a blaze of blessedly warm fire. I stood as close to the fire as I could, soaking in the warmth. But, to my chagrin, the fire was consuming the lighter fluid, and not the log. As the fuel burned out, the fire died.

“That log will never catch fire,” Sean said. I turned to see him standing up from the entrance to his tent. He stretched and yawned, wiping sleep from his eyes.

I poured the rest of the “borrowed” lighter fluid onto the log. The fire sprang up again, lapping up the fluid. I exulted once again in the warmth. Then, just as before, the fire died. The log was smoking, but it wasn’t burning. Sean stepped up beside me, looking down at the log.

“It’s too big, Knucklehead. You have to split it into firewood before you can burn it.”

“Do you have an axe?” I said. He shook his head no.

I shook the empty bottle of lighter fluid and headed over to the other campsite looking for more. There, sitting on a folding table next to the church member’s recreational vehicle, was the answer. Of course. A two gallon can of Kerosene. Now that would light anything. I “borrowed” the can of kerosene and headed back to the fire ring, feeling triumphant. Sean was on his knees, straightening the inside of his tent. The campground was coming to life, and a few church members were sitting in chairs not far from the fire. I unscrewed the lid from the top of the kerosene can and poured it eagerly over the smoking log. Nothing happened. I bent down and blew on the coals. They grew redder, but the kerosene did not catch fire. I examined the can. It was kerosene. The warning “highly flammable liquid” was written on the front of the can. So why wasn’t it lighting? Frustrated, I tried once more. I poured the kerosene over the log.

PHUMP!

The kerosene lit with a small explosion, rippling the air around the fire ring and scorching my eyebrows. Everything seemed to slow. I watched, frozen in place, as the fire climbed from the log and up the stream of kerosene, entering the can. The can grew hot in my hands. Fire spewed from the opening. Someone once told me a can of gasoline would explode if it caught fire. I figured that was also true for kerosene. I saw the church members sitting nearby and worried the can would explode, injuring them. I had to get it away from people. Turning away from the church members, I tossed the can, using both hands, but stumbled just before tossing it. The can left my hands, spinning in the air, end over end, the fiery liquid pouring from the can as it revolved in the air, covering and igniting the ground, the nearby bushes and my right leg. It landed about five feet away from me. My right leg was on fire. The ground was on fire. The bushes and leaves around me were on fire. Thinking the can might still explode, I made the brilliant decision to kick it further away. I ran toward the can and kicked it hard with my right foot. It flew, spewing more fire, landing upside down in the top of the nearby bushes. The rest of the kerosene poured from the can, setting the bushes on fire. I stood, watching the fire as it grew, consuming the bushes and dry leaves. I felt no pain, but I smelled burning flesh. Acrid smoke enveloped me. Everything burned around me, and I was growing dizzy from the fumes. The world was on fire, spinning before me. My knees were going limp, and I felt myself falling. I was going down in flames.

“Stop! Drop! Roll!” A girl shouted.

Someone grabbed me from behind. I felt small arms around my waist, pulling me to the ground. I fell, landing on my left side. The girl behind me was covering my right leg with a wet blanket. Someone in front of me was using a fire extinguisher, putting out the fire.

“Stay down,” the girl behind me said. “You will be okay.”

Moments later, the fire was out. A girl of about twelve years old came into view, seeming to appear from the smoke and the misty white residue of the fire retardant. She had long, dark hair and wore glasses. A light green sash was draped across her chest, over her dark green uniform. Her pins and medals glistened in the morning sunlight. She carried a red fire extinguisher in her right hand. I craned my neck to see the girl who had pulled me down. She was a heavyset blonde girl, wearing a sash and uniform like the girl in front of me.

“We need to get him out of the smoke,” the girl scout with the fire extinguisher said. She joined the girl behind me. Taking me by the arms, they pulled, dragging me away from the smoke. I heard clapping and cheers. Dozens of campers, drawn to the commotion, were applauding the brave actions of my two young rescuers. It must have been quite a sight; me, covered in soot, sitting in the dirt, my right pant leg, black and charred, the two girl scouts looking down at me with concern. And in the middle of all the commotion, my lungs still filled with poisonous smoke, I forgot to say thank you.

Sean drove me to the closest clinic. He was my friend, which meant, of course, he laughed at me the entire ride, and would, for many years, tell the story of the brave and stalwart actions of the Girl Scouts to everyone we knew.

At the clinic, the physician, a man in his early forties, removed my pantleg with a pair of shears. The skin on the inner part of my ankle had melted down to the underlying facia and came off with the pantleg. He removed the dead skin around the burn with surgical scissors and dressed the wound. Sean sat in the treatment room, watching the procedure. I winked at him.

“Doctor,” I said, looking down at the dressing on my leg, “do you think I will be able to kick a field goal in a couple of weeks?”

Sean shook his head and smiled. The doctor thought about it for a few moments. He nodded.

“As long as you change the dressing as ordered, and keep the wound covered during the game, I’m sure you will be able to kick a field goal in a couple of weeks,” he said.

I grinned at Sean.

“That’s amazing, Doctor,” I said. “I’ve never been able to kick a field goal before.”

–Dedicated to the memory of Sean Mescher, my faithful friend–

A TIME TO DIE


Typhoon Omar hit the island of Guam in August of 1992. Winds reaching speeds of up to one-hundred-fifty miles per hour blew the roofs off buildings, toppled houses and devastated the Chamorro population, the natives of the island. I was twenty-one years old, a navy corpsman, flown out as part of a medical relief party. Our mission was to assist U.S. Naval Hospital Guam, which had received a huge influx of patients due to the typhoon. Naval hospitals were built for the medical needs of active and retired military personnel and their immediate families. On the island of Guam, the idea of immediate family was stretched to include aunts, uncles, cousins, and even more distant relatives. Few seeking medical treatment were turned away, regardless of their military affiliation, and the hospital was heavily populated with the island natives.

Typhoon Omar was brutal, but the island had recovered quickly. When I arrived, the worst part of the crisis was over. The winds had subsided, and our presence was no longer needed. Instead of being part of a relief crew, I ended up spending much of my time exploring the island alone. I visited Two Lovers Point, a cliff situated high above treacherous ocean waters, where, according to legend, a lovely maiden and her one true love, forbidden to marry, leapt to their deaths in the waters below. I hiked the densely forested Boonies and swam in the clear, warm waters of the white, coral beaches.

I quickly developed an admiration for the Chamorro people, their history and culture; intrigued by their resolute belief in the Taotaomona, the spirit of the island. If one respected the island, the Taotaomona was thought to help and bless them. If one disrespected the island, the spirit became angry and worked against them, hindering them in every way imaginable. The Chamorro people were as much a part of Guam as the land and the surrounding ocean, believing they would become part of the Taotaomona when they died, their spirits forever entwined with spirit of the island, as were their ancestors before them.

“You must ask permission of the Taotaomona before entering the forest,” an elderly Chamorro man told me. I was getting ready to enter the Boonies for a short hike. “You must ask permission before cutting down a tree or hunting an animal. If you do not, you will anger the spirit of the island.” He shook his head sadly. His ancient eyes scanned the horizon. “That is why there was a typhoon. So many do not believe, and their actions have angered the Taotaomona.”

My time on Guam was not all fun and games, however. It was a paid vacation, interrupted by spurts of work on a few of the hospital wards. It was on one of the hospital wards where I would learn a valuable lesson. A lesson about life, and a lesson about death.

I happened, one morning, to walk by one of the hospital rooms. A young doctor, a navy lieutenant in his early thirties, wearing a white doctor’s smock over his khaki officer’s uniform, saw me passing by and motioned for me to join him.

“Corpsman,” he said, “Could you help me in here, please?”

“Sure, Doc,” I said, stepping into the room. A diminutive Chamorro woman in her late seventies sat on the edge of the bed, wearing a hospital gown. She looked up at the doctor, a deep frown wrinkling her dark, determined face.  I sensed I had entered the room in the middle of an argument.

“Mrs. Khalida,” The young doctor said, “I assure you, you are not dying.” He ran his fingers through his brown hair and looked at the patient in frustration. “Please,” he said, “we ran every test we could, and they all came back normal. You’re in perfect health.”

“No, Doctor. It is my time to die,” Mrs. Khalida said. Her small hands gripped the front of her gray hospital gown. “I will not be going home. I will not be going home, ever. I will be joining my husband today.”

The young doctor glanced at my uniform name tag and motioned to me.

“Mr. Taylor will help you get dressed and pack your things,” he said, sliding the phone on the bedside table closer to her. “Please call your family. Have them pick you up.”

Mrs. Khalida ignored the phone. She rubbed her hands together and looked pleadingly up at me.

“Make him understand,” she said. “I will die today. I know that it is time. Please do not send me home.”

The doctor shook his head.

“Mr. Taylor,” he said, “help Mrs. Khalida get dressed and pack her things. She has been discharged and needs to leave.”

“Yes, Sir,” I said. The doctor turned to Mrs. Khalida as if to say something, decided against it, nodded at me and left the room, leaving me alone with the patient.

“Ma’am,” I said, “can I help you get dressed?”

“I can dress myself, young man,” she said. “I may be dying, but I am not sick.”

“Please,” I said, “will you get dressed for me? I can help get your things together.”

She sighed resignedly.

“If I must, then I must. Will you bring me my clothes? They’re in the closet.”

I got her clothes, a pair of white pants and a cool, light blue shirt, from the closet and brought them to her. I pulled the curtain around her bed to give her privacy and began putting her other items into a hospital bag.

“The doctor is wrong,” she said through the curtain. “He does not understand my people. He does not understand it is my time to die.”

“He said you’re healthy, Ma’am. He can only go by the test results. Would you like me to call your family?”

Mrs. Khalida pulled the curtain back. She was wearing her street clothes and hospital socks.

“Where are your shoes, Ma’am?” I said.

“I will not need my shoes,” she said.  “The dead do not need shoes.” She sat down on the bed and picked up the phone. “I will call my family now.”

While Mrs. Khalida called her family, I continued putting her items into a bag. I heard the faint sound of ringing through the receiver she held to her ear. A muffled voice answered.

“I am in the hospital,” Mrs. Khalida said. “I am dying. I want you to come. Tell the others. My time has come, and I want to say goodbye.” She told the person on the other line the room number and hung up the phone. The doctor stepped into the room. He saw Mrs. Khalida dressed in her street clothes, sitting on the edge of the bed. He smiled at me.

“Ah, good. I see you got her dressed,” he said. “Did she notify her family?”

“Yes, Sir,” I said. “She just called them.”

He turned to Mrs. Khalida.

“You will see this is for the best. You have a lot of years ahead of you. You’re a very healthy woman.”

Mrs. Khalida did not answer. Her eyes studied the white linoleum tiled floor. The doctor grinned at me, nodded and left the room, closing the door behind him. Mrs. Khalida looked up at me.

“Healthy,” she said, a disgusted look on her face. “Healthy has nothing to do with it. Healthy people die every day. It is not about health or about sickness. It is about time. There is a time to die, and it is now my time.”

I placed the bag containing her personal items at the foot of the bed and sat down in one of the chairs, facing her.

“Why now?” I said. “The doctor said you’re healthy, but you believe it’s your time to die. Why?”

“You would not believe me, even if I told you,” she said.

“Try me,” I said. “I really want to know. You seem to be very sure about it.”

She turned from me and looked out the window.

“My husband let me know it is my time,” she said, “my husband and the Taotaomona.”

Mrs. Khalida said it happened when Typhoon Omar first hit the island. The small home she had lived in with her husband, and where she had lived alone after his death a few years earlier, was hit hard by the typhoon. Half the roof was blown off and one of the walls had fallen in. The powerful gales of wind had shattered the windows and the power was out. She hid under the relative safety of her bed while the storm raged against her house. Her home was near a cusp of woods at the edge of the Boonies. When the storm passed, she climbed out from underneath her bed, and entered her living room. She looked out through the glassless windows at the cusp of woods where her property ended, and the Boonies began. There was a creature standing there. He was extremely tall, above eight feet. He looked human, but she knew he was not a human being.

“It was the Taotaomona,” she said. “And standing next to the Taotaomona was a young man, a Chamorro. He was wearing a marine corps uniform. His dress uniform; the one he was buried in. He waved for me to come to him.” Her eyes glistened with tears. She turned away from me to stare out the window. “He was my husband, not old, but young, like he was when we married. But I was afraid. I did not go to him, though I knew my time had come. He was there, standing next to the Taotaomona. He kept waving for me, beckoning me, but I would not go. He was sad. He turned away from me and walked into the Boonies with the Taotaomona. It was my time, but I did not go.”

“But you’re still alive,” I said. “Maybe it wasn’t your time.”

“It was my time, and I did not go. I must go today. I must, or terrible things will happen. The spirit of the island is about balance. If I am alive when I should be dead, then everything is out of balance. No. I must go with the Taotaomona. I must join my husband.”

About half an hour later, someone knocked on the door. I opened it to find several people, all Chamorros. Mrs. Khalida called to them in her native language. They entered the room and surrounded her as she spoke, her eyes brimming with tears. Though I could not understand the language, I knew she was saying her goodbyes. They began to weep, hugging her and speaking with her, one by one. More family members began arriving, and soon the hospital room was filled with people, men, women and children. More arrived, squeezing into the room and spilling out into the hallway. I did not count them, but I am sure there were above fifty people. Many were weeping, and the sounds of their grief carried out to the rest of the hospital ward. I stood by the window, trying to make room for the family.

The doctor entered the room, making his way through the throng. He stood at the side of the bed, turning to the weeping family members.

“Please, please,” he said, gesturing with his hands to calm them, “Mrs. Khalida is not dying. She has been discharged from the hospital. She’s very healthy, let me assure you. You can take her home now.”

Mrs. Khalida said something in her language, and the weeping grew louder. A woman sitting next to her on the bed let out a great, mournful wail. The doctor looked at me, questioning. I shrugged my shoulders. There was nothing I could do but watch. The doctor turned to Mrs. Khalida.

“Ma’am, you really must leave. You’re upsetting your family.”

Mrs. Khalida spoke to the woman sitting next to her. The woman stood up and Mrs. Khalida lifted her legs onto the bed, lying down.

“I told you, Doctor,” she said. “It is my time to die.”

The weeping intensified. The woman standing nearby began wailing again. The family members in the hallway also began weeping. The doctor looked helplessly around him, and imploringly at me. I shook my head. I could not help him. Mrs. Khalida reached out and held the hand of the wailing woman. She smiled up at her family and said a few words in her native tongue. Then she simply closed her eyes.

I watched as her steady, rhythmic breathing became more and more shallow, becoming erratic as minutes passed by, the muscles of her diaphragm moving in and out, her lungs barely drawing in air. This was Cheyne Stokes breathing, almost always present at the natural end of life. The heart would continue to beat, pumping air from the lungs to the body for as long as it could, but the oxygen in her lungs was not enough to sustain life.  I pulled her socks off and saw the tell-tale signs of mottling, purple and edematous ankles, a pooling of blood and body fluids; another sign that death was near. I looked up at the doctor. He stared down at the tiny Chamorro woman who was in the middle of Cheyne Stokes breathing. His face was pale. He looked up at me with wide eyes. I pointed to her ankles. He looked down at the mottling in her ankles and shook his head in bewilderment. He took out his stethoscope and listened to her heart, looking up at me as he did.

“Is she DNR?” I said. DNR or Do Not Resuscitate was an order to not perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation in the event of death.

The doctor nodded.

“She signed one when she was admitted. I tried to talk her out of it.”

We watched, the family weeping around us, the doctor, a man of science, baffled by what he was seeing, until Mrs. Khalida took one final gasp of air and relinquished it, a rattling sound coming from deep within her lungs. The doctor placed the end of his stethoscope above Mrs. Khalida’s heart and listened to her apical pulse, his eyes on his wrist watch to mark the exact time of death. Moments later, he nodded. Mrs. Khalida’s time had come.

I visited the Boonies once more before leaving the island. I placed a hand on one of the trees at the edge of the forest, and asked permission to enter from the Taotaomona. There was no answer, save the rustling of leaves in the tree above me.

“Thank you,” I said, taking the rustling of leaves as permission.

I stepped out into the forest, feeling much safer, having asked and received permission from the spirit of the island. After all, if I had learned anything, it was that science did not have all the answers. Perhaps much could be learned from the natives of the island of Guam, whose ancestors had lived there from time before recorded history. Perhaps there are some things about life that science does not have an answer for. Things about life, and, as Mrs. Khalida had proved to me and the young doctor, things about death.