Virginia City’s Mucker’s presents Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”

program for "Our Town"

The year before I left my job with the Boy Scouts and headed to seminary, I wrote out five-year goals. One goal was to be act in a play. I have always enjoyed the theater and wanted to experience acting firsthand. I got my chance when I moved to Virginia City in September 1988. A week or two after arriving on the Comstock, I saw an advertisement for tryouts for a play which would include students and adults. 

I asked some of the church folks about the Mucker’s Theater Group and received mixed feelings. For years, they had used the church for their performances. But there had been some bad blood between the two organizations. They were supposed to clean up the church on Saturday nigh, returning the sanctuary to a state where worship could be held the next day. A few years before, when the theater group left the church chancel looking like a bar after a fright on Sunday morning, the church threw the group out. 

In the hope of removing some of the bad blood between the theater and the church, as well as meeting a personal goals, I showed up at the tryouts. I was offered the role of Joe Stoddard, the town’s undertaker. My presence in the play brought many of the church members back to the theater. 

Tommy, the “Stage Manager”

We began practicing in September. It was still warm and daylight when practice began, but as they continued, the weather became cooler, and daylight decreased. Our production ran from Thursday through Saturday evenings, November 10-12. By then, the zephyrs blew and we experienced a few snow flurries.

For a town with only 700 residents, we played to pack houses. Almost everyone attended, not just from the town but from down in the valley. By the third night, we were feeling pretty good about the attendance and the play itself. This set the scene for one of my favorite memories of my time in Virginia City which occurred on the last night of the play. 

“You know, we’re missing the Flapper tonight,” I confided to Penny and Christy as we waited backstage for the curtain to rise for the closing night.”  I hoped someone might be interested after the play and cast party. Since this play had a cast that included elementary school students, the planned party only involved cake and punch. 

“We don’t have to miss it,” Christy said as she lowered her voice. “Let’s slip out after our scene in Act 1. We don’t have to be back until the 3rd Act.

“Should we?” Penny asked.

Christy and I smiled.

The three of us had minor parts in the play that involved the entire community. With a high school that fourteen graduates in its senior class, everyone had to be involved. Penny and Christy were both teachers. The school janitor had the leading role as the stage manager. Emily and George Gibbs, two other leading characters, were high school students. Bill, the director was a halftime teacher and a halftime state employee for the purpose of fostering the arts in rural parts of the state.

Twenty minutes after the play began, we slipped out from behind the gym that also served as the auditorium for the Virginia City School on D Street. The night was cold. As we climbed the steep steps up to C Street, we giggled as we began to breathe heavily. Our warm breath appeared as smoke that filled the air. We crossed an abandoned C Street on the south end of the business district this time at night, and headed north up the boardwalk. After we crossed Dayton Street, where there were still bars opened, a few cars were parked along the road. When we arrived at the Silver Stope, the bar which hosted the party, Christy took hold of one of my arms, Penny grabbed the other.  

“We’ve come all the way from Grover’s Corner,” we shouted, making a grand entrance. All three of us had minor parts in the play, but we enjoyed hamming it up for the bar patrons. Most of the patrons dressed as if they were visiting a New York Speakeasy during the 1920s. Almost all of them had seen the play earlier in the week warmly welcomed us to the party.  

Of course, we weren’t dressed as flappers. New Englanders didn’t have time for such nonsense. Christy and Penny played the wives of farmers and wore calico dresses. As Joe Stoddard, the town undertaker, I sported black jacket and a stovepipe hat, which had probably been left-over from some school play about Abraham Lincoln. With my costume, I could have just as easily played the role of a well-to-do 19th Century Mormon polygamist taking my wives out for a drink. 

While most of the bar’s patrons dressed like flappers, one person stood out. Murray Mack was on the piano, wearing his usual evening attire for a night on the Comstock, a rather loud 1970s era polyester leisure suit. Murray, who repaired glass during the daytime, would dress up at night and was well-known for his gift of pounding out ragtime on the piano. Tonight, he had moved up a decade to play jazz. 

On the floor in the middle of the bar sat an antique claw-footed bathtub filled with a pink liquid. We were handed three clear-glass cups which must have come from someone’s punch bowl set and were encouraged to imbibe. We all scooped a cupful of the concoction. It was awful. I didn’t ask for the recipe, but I assumed it consisted of 190 proof Everclear, or maybe it was kerosene, mixed with powdered Kool-Aid. After my first sip, I looked to find a place to ditch my drink. Seeing no plants in need of watering, I excused myself and took my cup into the bathroom.

Moments later, I returned with an empty cup. The bartender came from behind the bar to snap of photo of us with a Polaroid camera. This photo enshrined us on the bulletin board by the door. Having just emptied my cup, I felt bad dipping it back into the drink. But they insisted I have some of the so-called gin in my cup, so I reluctantly dipped it back into the tub. It was more of the thought of dipping a used cup into the juice that bothered me for that tub contained enough alcohol to have killed any depictable germ residing on my cup. 

With my cup nearly pouring over, the three of us stood behind the tub and raised our cups for a toast to the Virginia City Mucker’s production of “Our Town.” He snapped a photo. We asked the bartender if he would snap another, so we could present the director evidence of what some of his adult cast were doing between their scenes. He did. After visiting with folks for a few minutes, we placed our cups on the bar and headed back to the high school. I noticed, like me, neither Penny nor Christy had finished their drinks. 

We were back in time for the final act. As undertaker, I had to see to it that Emily Gibbs was buried one final time. Penny, who played her mother, sobbed throughout the scene. Christy, ignoring her blocking instructions and her lines, stepped in front of Penny to console her grieving friend.  

“It’ll be okay,” Christy whispered, patting Penny on the back. “We can go to my house afterwards and have a decent drink.”

This was the Mucker’s second time producing “Our Town.” The first production was 31 years earlier, in 1957, in which Bob Del Carlo, who was sheriff for Storey County when I was on the Comstock, played the lead as the Stage Manager.

For much of the church’s history, the theater and the saloon would have been off-limits for Presbyterian ministers serving the Comstock. In the 19th Century, the church was often at odds with the theater and alcohol was a terrible social problem. Church members were discouraged from frequenting the theater or inbibing. Yet, the theater and saloon thrived during the days of bonanza. 

Other writings of my time in Virginia City:

Sunday afternoon drive to Gerlach

Arriving in Virginia City 

David Henry Palmer arrives in Virginia City, 1863

Doug and Elvira

Matt and Virginia City

Riding in the cab of a locomotive on the V&T

Christmas Eve

waiting around during practice

Baseball and Theology

title page with covers of the two books

The World Series will soon be over. If you’re like me and you don’t have dog in the hunt (even though I would like to see the Diamondbacks win, but that seems very unlikely with them down 3-1 in the Series and down a run in the 7th inning of the fifth game. Yes, I have watched parts of all but one of the games.

For those of you going into baseball withdrawal, here are a few reviews of books that discuss baseball and our Christian faith. For another review mine on a similar book by John Sexton, president of New York University, titled “Baseball as a Road to God, click here.

James S. Currie, The Kingdom of God is Like… Baseball: A Metaphor for Jesus’s Kingdom Parables 

(Eugene Oregon, Cascade Books, 2011), 114 pages. 

I know the author’s brother, Tom Currie. In the acknowledgements, James acknowledges Tom as a better baseball player and a more “perspicacious theologian.” I’ve not seen Tom play but have been blessed to be in the presence of  his keen theological mind. I have also heard him speak of his love of the game. I even attended a night game with him in Pittsburgh this summer. When he mentioned this book, I decided to pick it up. And now we’re in a World Series where I’m not really excited by either team, I picked up this book to read and I hope to get this review out before the Series is over!  

Each chapter appears they could have been sermons. The author explores Jesus’ kingdom parables using baseball stories. TThe first chapter digs into the theme of failure and freedom in which we hear stories of great games by mediocre ballplayers and how you are more likely to be out than to get a hit… From there, he explores themes like joys, hope, community, hard work, unexpected heroes, reflecting society, communion of saints, and home. If you count them up, there are nine major chapters in this book just like there are nine innings in a baseball. And, as it sometimes happens, there is one last chapter for the extra innings. 

This book is a joy. The baseball fan will be reminded of many stories, some well-known and others less so. The Biblical scholar may come away with a new way of approaching Jesus’ kingdom parables. 

Marc A. Jolley, Safe at Home: A Memoir of God, Baseball, and Family (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2005), 139 pages, a few photos.

This is a delightful book in which Jolley recalls childhood memories with his father on up to the time he became a father himself. Jolley links these life transitions together with his love of baseball and his growing faith. Like baseball with more strikeouts than home runs, Jolley’s story contains sadness along with joy. There’s the time he failed to make his high school team. Then there are the casualties experienced by those, like Jolley, on the sideline during a political battles between fundamentalists and more moderate members of his denomination (Southern Baptist). These were tough times to be in seminary as Jolley completes his MDiv and PhD.  Jolley also deals with depression. Through it all, Jolley’s parents and wife support him. In the end, Jolley discovers family to be the medicine needed to help keep his depression under control.  

As a white Southerner, I have never understood fellow Southerners who root for the Yankees. As a child, it was always St. Louis and then Atlanta, when the Braves moved there. The Yankees were despised.  I recently learned this was also true of many African-Americans in the South (at least in the 50s).  I would have thought they would have seen the Yankees as liberators (a good thing), but the New York Yankees was one of the last teams to integrate.  Instead, African-Americans supported the Dodgers, who brought up Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier in baseball.[1] 

That said, Jolley and his father were Yankee fans.  He describes entering Yankee Stadium with his son to watch their first game with the details of an architect entering a cathedral. Reading about this trip, I was excited for him.  I was almost as excited as I was three years ago when I saw my first game at Yankee Stadium.  Like his son, a Diamondback fan who rooted against the Yankees, I attended a Yankee-Detroit cheering on the Tiger’s.  Baseball has a way of bringing people together and providing a good time even though in my game it rained and the Tiger’s lost by 12 runs.

Jolley’s father’s love for the Yankees’ was tested when they pick up Reggie Jackson as a free agent. His father couldn’t stand Jackson saying he had no respect for one who bragged about himself and talked bad about others. But Jackson, Mr. October, backed up his loud mouth with homeruns. Sadly, Jolley was never able to attend a game at Yankee Stadium with his father.  When he was able to take his own son, his father was in a nursing home. But his smiled and enjoyed the stories when he heard about the trip Jolley took with his son.

I also appreciated how Jolley wove in many of my favorite authors into his narrative. Will Campbell’s Glad River makes an appearance as he reflects on his father’s faith (even though he was never baptized). He quotes William Styron and credits him with getting through depression.  Dante’s Divine Comedy makes an appearance as does W. P. Kinsella.’s classic, Shoeless Joe” upon which the movie “Field of Dreams was based.”

This is an enjoyable read and I highly recommend it. As Jolley points out in the quote below, there things baseball does better than the church in the disciple-making business: 

I never learned to respect enemies at church. I learned a lot about hate and divisiveness at church. I learned nothing about a common goal, or a purpose. Not until much later did I ever figure church out.  Playing baseball that year, I got a head start on what church was supposed to be.”  (Page 60)

I read and reviewed this book in 2017 in a blog that’s no longer available. The author confided in me afterwards that he and his first wife divorced and he has remarried. That said, the book is still a good read.


[1] On race and team loyalty in at least one corner of the south, see Melton A. McLaurin, Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South (1987, Athens: UGA Press, 1998), 142-145,

The Need to Be Whole

photo of Wendell Berry and book cover for "The Need to Be Whole"

Wendell Berry, The Need to Be Whole:: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice 

"The Need to Be Whole" book cover

(Shoemaker & Company, 2022), 513 pages including index and bibliography.

I came across Wendell Berry as a 21-year-old college student. I had read a review of his recent book, The Unsettling of America, and checked it out of the library. Since then, I have purchased and read 16 of his works in three genres (non-fiction, fiction, and poetry). In Barry’s latest work, he returns to themes he first laid out in The Unsettling of America (1977) and The Hidden Wound (1969). Nearly 45 years later, I have entered the latter half of my sixth decade as Berry fast approaches his ninth. 

In The Need to be Whole Berry reflects on thoughts over his lifetime that involve how we get along with one another and with the land in which we’re to steward. The result is a book that, at times, wanders. It’s also a book that will anger many: conservatives and liberals. But Berry has never been one to fit into a comfortable niche of what’s popular now. He is beholden to no one. He thinks for himself. The reader can either accept or reject his thoughts. 

While Berry’s subtitle suggests this is a book about Patriotism and a history of prejudice, it’s much more than that. Berry calls on his readers to love, each other and the land. While he writes about prejudice and racism, he understands the roots of both grounded in the lack of respect for work and the land. He criticizes the work philosophy of John Calhoun, who saw menial labor as beneath white gentleman in his defense of slavery. Berry criticized Calhoun for alienating the white population of the South from the land, which was just as destructive to yeoman white farmers as it was to slaves.

Interestingly, however, Berry doesn’t allow us to discard someone just because he or she made politically incorrect statements. He even concedes that not everything Calhoun did or stood for was bad, although he didn’t outline what was good about him. He does, however, delve into the good of another discredit Southerner, Robert E. Lee. Berry defends Lee as he understands Lee’s desire to defend his state. One of the places Berry wanders is the recent movement to remove statues of slaveholders. While agreeing that nothing about slavery can be justified, Berry is also against removing such statues. He’s also against just about any movement, as if he wants to be saved from such do-gooders.  Nor does he have time for what passes as political correctness.

Berry’s home state of Kentucky never succeeded from the Union, yet it was a slave state and the Civil War era brought hardship and violence to it. Berry wanders around his state’s Civil War history as he attempts to make a point. If I understand Berry, while he thinks slavery is horrible, yet he finds the South’s connect to the land to be more noble than the industrial north. However, at the time of the Civil War, both north and south were mostly agrarian.

This brings to Berry’s understanding of patriotism. He understands the patriot to be linked to the land and in opposition to the “nationalism.” Drawing on the writings of George Bernanos and John Lukacs, nationalism is aggressive and based more on a myth of the people. Patriotism is more defensive and rooted not in the people but in the land. Nationalism seeks to make enemies among fellow citizens. 

Another thread which Berry follows in his book is theological. He certainly understands the stewardship concept (the earth is the Lord’s, and we’re just stewards of it). His chapter on sin is an insightful commentary on the Ten Commandments. He is also critical of both conservative and liberal or progressive views on sin. Sin much more encompassing, involving our hubris, than the popular (media) sins argued in the political arena (conservatives: abortion along with regulation and taxes; liberals: racial slurs and sexual harassment). The popular sins effectively divide the innocent from the guilty, where sin divides us from God and neighbor (156). 

The chapter on sin is followed by a longer chapter on forgiveness (where he discusses the current debate over statues to slave holders). He understands that freedom requires forgiveness. Otherwise, we’ll continue the battles repeatedly. Toward the end of the book, in his last chapter which is titled “Words,” he calls us to love. He acknowledges that legislating equality won’t change our hearts. Only love can do this. And for Berry, love involves both the land and its people. 

There is a lot in this book, and I’ve just scratched the surface. I invite you to read the book. I’d love to discuss it with some people. 

The Amur River

Photo of Amur River and book cover

Colin Thubron, The Amur River: Between Russia and China (New York: HarpersCollins, 2021), 291 pages with an index and a map.

This is the second book I’ve recently consumed on the Amur River. I’m not sure of my renewed interest in Eastern Russia, but having once visited Siberia on the Trans-Mongolian Train from Beijing to Moscow, I had wanted to go back and take the train on to Vladivostok, and perhaps take a round trip, utilizing the BAM (Baikal-Amur Railroad). With the conditions of the world and Russia’s horrific war, such a trip may not be available during my lifetime. But maybe, if I can be as active as Thubron, who was nearly 80 when he made this trip, the world will settle down and I can make such a trip. 

In July, I listened to the unabridged audible version of “Black Dragon River” which is the Chinese name for the river that runs between it and Russia. This is the 9th longest river in the world and the one few people have heard about, probably because much of it is off limits because of the fortified border. This is my third book by Colin Thubron. While traveling across Siberia in 2011, I read his book, In SiberiaI’ve also read Shadow of the Silk Road, which he describes a western trip along the old Silk Road, from China to the Mediterranean. Sadly, I didn’t review that book. 

Thubron is a wonderful travel writer. In this book he describes his experiences as he attempted to follow the Amur and its tributaries from its source in Mongolia to the Pacific Ocean. Like Dominic Ziengler, in Black Dragon River, much of Thubron’s travels are mostly on land. But he says close to the river. He begins with an expedition in Mongolia, to find the headwaters of the Onon River, which requires special permission as they are entering a “strictly protected area”. While on this trip, he falls off his horse and breaks an ankle (but only thought it sprained) and cracks some ribs. But he continues to hobble along own despite his injury. 

As he and his guides make their way through the northeast of Mongolia in a we learn about the Buryats of Russia, many who moved to Mongolia to escape Stalin, only to find themselves dealing with Khorloogiin Choibalsan, the leader of Mongolia after it became communist. Choibalsan was as cruel as Stalin, he just had fewer subjects to torment. It is estimated that between 1937 and 1938, when the purges in Mongolia were the worst, ½ of the nation’s intelligentsia and 17,000 monks were killed. 

Tubron leaves Mongolia and picks up a Russian guide, following the Onon River. After the confluence with the Ingoda River, the Onon becomes the Shilka River. He stops in towns along the way which appear to have seen their better days. He’s asked about his purpose. When he says he’s following the Amur to the sea, he’s informed he’s on the wrong river, that the Amur is far away. It’s as if people don’t realize that the Shikla is the main tributary to the Amur. He also has run in with Russian security, who are suspicious of his travels. But after a few days, it works itself out. Part of the problem may have been he accidentally saw the maneuvers along the Amur with Russian and Chinese troops. 

After the confluence of Argun and Shilka Rivers, which form the Amur, the river becomes the boundary between Russia and China. While it is a fortified, there is some trade across the river. But there is also much prejudice, with the Russians looking down on the more prosperous Chinese, who many see is only interested in making money. At the city of Blagoveshchensk, Thubron crosses the river into the much larger Chinese city of Heihe. From here, he begins to travel along the river’s southside, before crossing back into Russia where the Ussuri River meets the Amur. In the border city of Khabarovsk, he learns of archeologists who have discovered ancient Chinese artifacts being punished as the Russians doesn’t want the Chinese to have any claim to their territory. Russia claim on its eastern land is weak. It was only after the building of the trans-Siberian railway that the country was united, and much of its land in the east was squeezed by treaties from a weaken China. 

While the border seems to be somewhat stabilized along the Amur, many Russians have xenophobic views about the Chinese. Eastern Siberia is a long way from Moscow. In some ways, both sides of the border are frontiers. But most of the Russians Thobron meets on his travels are Europeans and they feel China is destroying their forest and lands for their own development. By the time Thorbon reaches Khabarovsk, it’s October. He’s been traveling since August. The river is beginning to freeze, so he heads back to the United Kingdom for the winter. 

The next June, Thubon returns to Siberia. After Khabarovsk, the river turns north. From here, the Ussuri River, which flows from the south, becomes the border with China. Thubon travels along both sides, stopping in remote places, traveling with a Russian outdoorsman who takes him fishing and discusses survival in the deep cold of winter. He gains a vision of another side of Siberia. Most of this area is remote, except for Komsomolsk-na-Amure, which is where the BAM (Baikal-Amur Railway) crosses the river. This was a site of Soviet weapon factories which has produced aircraft. Along the river, nuclear submarines were built. But Thubon is not able to secure a permit to visit these sites and continues to make his way by car and boat to the river’s mouth into the Pacific. made this trip, most of the capacity is limited. 

I enjoyed reading this book. It reads like a travelogue, with the author providing just enough detail to give you a feel for the land and its history. While I also enjoyed Black Dragon River, it felt less like a travelogue as Ziengler goes much deeper into the history, not only of the Amur, but of the Mongolian and Chinese influence in the larger world. Both books are worth reading. My one complaint is that Thorbon tends to use obscure words, especially adjectives. But he writes some beautiful sentences. An example: “Perhaps it is the intimacy of the town, cradled in its hills and wrapped by the river, that sheds a gentle euphoria.” 

Ger Camp in Mongolia
Thubron had a number of colorful descriptions of these such as “mushroom caps”

Remembering Jack

Photo of Jack Stewart and his dock out into Lime Lake

We met at an afternoon gathering of the Presbytery of Lake Michigan, held in the old meeting house styled sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church of Richland. I don’t remember the date. It must have been around 2009. I sat in the balcony, having come prepared with a book. Not seeing anything too important on the agenda, I planned to pass the hours reading. I knew the usual suspects would speak on every issue. Feeling my voice wasn’t really needed to add to the debate, I began reading. I don’t even remember the book, but it had something to do with 19th Century church history. 

Jack sat in the same pew, but there was a gap between us. Catching the book title, he slid over and quietly asked about it. Soon, we were whispering back and forth, discussing Charles Hodge, the great 19th theologian at Princeton Theological Seminary. Jack had written his dissertation on Hodge. That was a beginning of our friendship. 

Jack had just retired from Princeton Theological Seminary, where he’d spent the previous fifteen years teaching. Before that, he taught few years at Yale Divinity School and before that at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. He’d also served as pastor of several churches in the Pittsburgh area and Westminster Presbyterian in Grand Rapids. We met several times for breakfast. In 2010, I hired Jack to lead a session retreat for the church I served in Hastings, Michigan. In 2011, I hired him again to help run our stewardship program. 

This smallmouth bass grew into an 8 pounder by happy hour!

At some point, it may have been at that Presbytery meeting, Jack and I began to discuss his favorite topic, fishing. Over the next few years, Jack and I made several trips to the northern part of the lower peninsula of Michigan where he had a cabin which he and his sons had built back in the 60s. When I asked what I needed to bring on the trip, he told me to bring my rod. “In my family,” Jack informed me, “we would no more ask to borrow someone’s rod as we would their toothbrush.” I packed both. 

Jack’s cabin was a simple A frame, set a hundred or so feet from the shore of Lime Lake, which is not far from Sleeping Bear National Seashore. I also went on a fishing trip with him to the Pere Marquette River, but by then his health declined. He could no longer get into the water to fish with a flying rod. While I waded out a bit to fish, I ended up spending most of my time fishing from the bank, where Jack sat in a chair and made an occasional cast. We didn’t catch anything. On the trips to Lime Lake, we caught a lot of smallmouths using rubber worms and a spinning rod. 

Jack swore he caught the largest fish on this day

Jack had his traditions. On these trips up north, we’d stop and grab coffee in Cadillac. The next stop was a country store in Maple City that had a little bit of everything, including a meat market which made sausage. We’d pick up a few pounds for our breakfasts. Each trip always included a stop at the Carlson Fish Market off the docks in Leland for some smoked white fish and pate. 

Days at the cabin were relaxed. Breakfast was generally eggs, sausage, and toast. Before we ate, he’d pull out his old leather-bound copy of John Baillie’s A Diary of Private Prayer. Baillie, a Scottish pastor from early in the 20th Century, had two prayers, a morning and evening prayer, for each day of the month. At breakfast, one of us would read the morning prayer. After eating, we’d fish in his aluminum boat. It was always catch-and-release.  We’d come in off the water for lunch and maybe take a short nap before heading back out on the water. 

We generally stopped fishing around 4:30. When we got back to the cabin, we’d have some crackers and pate or smoked whitefish, with a wee dram of scotch. One of us would read Baillie’s evening prayer for the day. Baillie and Scotch were appropriate for Jack,. He proclaimed his last name was how Stewart was supposed to be spelled. The other Stuarts were highfalutin Francophile Scots. After this Scottish ritual, we’d head out to one of the many restaurants and pubs in the area for dinner.  

As we fished, as well we drove around the region, or sat around after dark, nursing one more drink, we’d talk. Topics were numerous:  theology, travel, world affairs, politics, what we’ve been reading, and some more theology. One particular concern for Jack was ecclesiology, which Jack felt was the weak link in the Reformed Tradition. But our talks weren’t always serious. We always told jokes. Jack could find a way to intersperse a joke into any conversation. 

Jack was raised south of Pittsburgh, near Uniontown, Pennsylvania. I think his father was a coal miner and his family was of modest means. Jack earned a scholarship to Westminster College in New Wilmington, PA.  While in college, he became friends with Bruce Thielemann, who later became a very popular preacher at 1stPresbyterian Church in Pittsburgh (click here for some of Thielemann’s sermons). Sharing my remembrance of hearing Thielemann preach in the seminary chapel when I was a student tickled Jack. Thielemann died in 1994 and Jack spoke at his funeral. 

After college, Jack and Bruce attended seminary in Pittsburgh. His class was one of the first for Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, which was formed with the merger of Xenia and Western Theological Seminary (Xenia was the seminary for the United Presbyterian Church of North America and Western was a Seminary for the Presbyterian Church, USA The two denominations united in 1959).

While at seminary, he became a friend of Robert Kelly and Jack Rogers. Twenty-seven years later, Kelly was one of my New Testament professors when I was in seminary. Rogers spoke at my seminary graduation and was the moderator of the 2001 General Assembly of which I was a commissioner. The four were mentored by John Gerstner. Jack appreciated Gerstner’s guidance, but could not abide by his rigid conservatism. Jack told me about him meeting Gerstner years after seminary in which his old professor told him how he and his friends were a disappointment because none of them had joined in his battles. 

After I left Michigan, Jack and I would occasionally exchange emails or talk by phone. Often, when I was in the area, I would stay with him and his wife, Maureen. On at least two occasions, I was there on a Sunday and would worship with them at the Church of the Servant, which is located near the campus of Calvin University. At home, before meals, he’d offer grace using the opening words of Psalm 103.

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and all that is within me,
    bless his holy name.

I last saw Jack in October 2022. I was at at Calvin for a Foundation for Reformed Theology seminar. On a free evening, I drove over to his home for dinner. I knewJack wasn’t doing well. Still, it was a shocked a few weeks ago when Marueen emailed me that Jack had been in the hospital and was coming home under hospice care. Thankfully, I was able to talk to Jack two weeks ago. On Sunday, I received an email informing me of his death.  

I will miss his jokes and stories. Both the true stories, along with the tales about a fish which must have grown by pounds between catching it and telling about it.

Mar sin leat, my friend. 
Jeff 

For Jack’s Obituary, click here.

On Lime Lake

Two book reviews and a personal essay on Dispensationalism

Book covers and a title page

Daniel G. Hummel, The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism: How the Evangelical Battle Over the End Times Shaped a Nation 

(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2023), 382 pages including a glossary, biographic essay, and index. The text includes a handful of charts and prints. 

A broad definition: Dispensationalism is a belief that God works differently at different periods of time (dispensations) to reach humanity in different ages (dispensations). The doctrine rose from the teachings of John Nelson Darby in the 1830s, an Irish pastor who founded the Plymouth Brethren sect. However, the term Dispensationalism wasn’t coined until the 1930s. Dispensationalists believe we are nearing the final age and that before the end comes, the church will be raptured out of the world. When this happens, the world will enter a period of tribulation. The theology became more popular through the writings of Hal Lindsay and the “Left Behind” series. 

My experience with dispensationalism

I read Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth in high school. While Lindsay didn’t provide a date for the world’s demise, he certainly hinted it would be in the 1980s (I graduated from high school in 1975). I felt we were living in the last days. But we’re still here! Things weren’t moving toward the end, just yet. I slowly understood that the future is not ours to know. Jesus makes this clear when he said no one knows the date or the hour of his return. 

The concept of the rapture, which is behind such theology, seems far-fetched. The idea that God is going to yank the church out of the world before things go to hell in a handbasket (pretribulation premillennialism), saving the church from the horrors to come. This idea, which is rather recent in the history of the church, became even more problematic as I became more aware of suffering of Christians in the world. Such beliefs seemed just too comfortable for Christians in the Western World. But what does it say to Christians in the Sudan or Pakistan or North Korea or any of the other countries with persecution.  The purpose of the rapture, according to most dispensationalists, is for God to give Israel one more chance at salvation.

Dispensational theology wasn’t a class I took in seminary. I have only one memory of a professor addressing it, Doug Hare, a New Testament scholar. Essentially, he said that if we don’t do proper exegesis on the text, and understand it from the culture it arose, it would be easy to create such fantasy interpretations of scripture. 

In my own journey, dispensationalism was something that I felt I needed to study after I graduated from seminary. Part of this came from study of American religious history and reading George Marsden’s books on the history of fundamentalism and evangelism. Then I read Charles Ryrie’s Dispensationalism Today and John H. Gerstner’s Wrongly Dividing the Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism. 

By the time of the publications of the Left Behind series, I was convinced of the danger of such teachings and spoke about it. This caused me to lose a potential new member when I was in Utah. A man took offense at what I said about dispensationalism. I later learned he was a friend of Tim Lahaye, one of the authors of the Left Behind series. During this time, I started to write my own “dispensational parody novel.” My title, “Left Behind at Denny’s” seemed to capture the worse place I could think of being left at. . I only wrote a few pages before I decided it wasn’t worth my effort.

While I don’t accept dispensationalism and have often pointed to the Southern Presbyterian Church call of the movement as a heresy, I must give them credit for reminding us that Christ will return. Eschatology is important.

My review of Hummel’s book 

While I had a broad concept as to what dispensationalism was about, Hummel’s work opened my eyes. It’s not a mono-cultural movement, but one with many diverse threads. While the movement’s beginning is related to John Nelson Darby, the Irish theologian in the 1830s, there are aspects (especially in America) that goes back further to a premillennialist view (Christ will return before the millennial) and to the Millerites (followers of William Miller, a Baptist pastor in the United States, who predicted Christ’s return in the 1840s).  Blending into these threads are how the theology became adopted by different groups from mainline denominations, evangelicals, and Pentecostals. Hummel does an amazing job describing these various understandings of dispensationalism.

In the 19th Century, Darby made many trips to the United States. He found a receptive ear in the Great Lake region and with the evangelist Dwight Moody. This led to the first institution dedicated to the teaching, Moody Bible Institute. From the beginning, American dispensationalism differed from its British counterpart. Darby’s Brethren were separatists from the main Protestant bodies. In America, dispensationalists were at home in many denominations including Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists, and to a lesser extent in Lutheran and Methodist traditions. 

Dispensationalism had a regional component. At first, it was strongest in the northern and border states. Then, a separate group developed on the West Coast, with the organization of Biola (Bible Institute of Los Angeles). The movement was slow to take hold in the South, especially in the early years, but eventually did with the establishment of Dallas Theological Seminary, which became the hub of academic dispensationalism. Interestingly, dispensationalism was primarily a “white” Protestant phenomenon and failed to take deep roots within the African American churches. 

The movement gained considerable support after the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible by Cyrus Scofield, a Congregational pastor from Texas. Scofield linked together passages in the Bible that supported dispensational teachings. His Bible was published by Oxford University Press. The popularity of his Bible allowed dispensationalism to influence those outside of their own circle. 

While dispensationalist beliefs grew in the early decades of the 20th Century, there were critics. This was especially true among more conservative and even fundamentalist Protestants, especially those within the Reformed tradition. While these critics challenged dispensational hermeneutics, they were often on the same side with many of the social battles such as fighting against the teachings of Darwin or Communism. 

Among all the many divisions within dispensationalism, Hummel divides dispensationalism into two broad eras. The dispensationalism of the first half of the 20th Century he labels Scholastic. Then, in the 60s and early 70s, with the publication of books like Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, a more popular version of the movement rose. This popular version later gave rise to the Left Behind novels, which earned their authors a fortune and helped spread dispensational views. However, as dispensationalism became unmoored to its scholastic roots, it also began to decline as a movement, especially under the attack of groups such as the “new Calvinists.” Even Dallas Theological Seminary began to scale back its requirements for professors and students to affirm dispensationalism. 

Dispensationalism had to change over time (when Christ had not yet returned to rapture the church). While most tended to hold to the teaching that the tribulation would be after the rapture, some suggested we are going through a “humanistic tribulation” that will precede the rapture. This allows them to explain the liberal shift in culture and why the church has not yet been raptured. 

While Hummel does an excellent job tracing all these various threads of dispensationalism in America, he only briefly covers the role the theology had in “shaping a nation.” 

Dispensationalists were involved in many of the social movements of the past half century, but often with others who were conservative in their theology. However, their biggest impact was toward our country’s support of Israel. Dispensationalists sees the state of Israel as the defining moment in history pointing to the end. Many believed there are two ways of salvation, through the free grace offered by Jesus through the church and through the Jewish faith who are still God’s people. On the positive side, such thought makes dispensationalism a ready critic of antisemitism. However, it also allows one to justify total support of Israel without questioning the nation’s policies. When you believe you are on God’s side, who can argue with you about the morality of your actions? 

Another area where dispensationalism had an impact was the fear of the accumulation of power and one world government. To a dispensationalist, this was evidence of the approaching end, but it also allowed for many conspiracy theories to rise and find a home in churches teaching such doctrines.

The role of end-time beliefs in our government is dangerous. Not only is it no way to run a foreign policy (as with Israel), but it can also create other policy disasters. If you are sure the world is ending, why be concerned about the environment. After all, why not max out your credit cards? I hope Hummel’s research will continue to explore such issues. 

Daniel Hummel grew up within the dispensational tradition. He currently works at Upper House, a Christian center located on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His first book (which I haven’t read and may go deeper into the role the movement had on our foreign policy) is Covenant Brothers: Evangelicals, Jews, and U.S.-Israel Relations). I would recommend The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism to those deeply interested in the history of American religion or who would like to understand dispensationalism more.

Patrick Wyman, The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World

 (Audible, 2021), read by the author, 11 hours and 33 minutes. 

Wyman makes the case that the four decades from 1490 to 1530 set Europe (and the Americas) on the course to become the world’s center. Prior to these decades, no one would have bet on Europe. The Ottomans to the east, China, areas in India, and even some unknown kingdoms such as the Incas and Aztecs in the yet to be discovered Americas, all seemed to have superior cultures.

But that began to change in the 1490s. The not-yet united Spain repelled the last of the Muslim invaders who had occupied parts of the peninsula for centuries. Not only did Columbus sail to the Americas, but other explorers also sailed down the coast of Africa and on to India. This was soon followed by the Reformation, the defeat of the Ottoman armies at the gates of Vienna in Austria, and the establishment of larger European nation states. Several things gave rise to European power including credit, printing, and the advancement in the art of war. This was also a violent era and Wyman ends his story with the Holy Roman Empire under Charles V sacking Rome (which was one way to settle the debt owed to the soldiers). 

I have read many books focusing on this period of history, but I can’t recall any of the books beginning with a detailed discussion of currency in use at the time. Most of my books focused foremost on the Reformation and perhaps the printing press. Wyman, however, spends much more time discussing finance and trade before he ever gets to Martin Luther. Credit becomes the means to expand the power of the state as well as to explore and to share ideas. Credit involves a trust that one will be repaid and can make a profit, which often led to the abuses of the era. When it came to being repaid, no one was overly concerned as to how the profit was made, whether from slave trade or plunder. 

While Wyman concentrates on a few key leaders of the era (Christopher Columbus, Suleiman the Magnificent of the Ottomans, Charles V of Spain, and Martin Luther), he often tells his story through more common people such as a trader in England and a printer in Venice. Each chapter begins with what might be called “Creative Non-fiction” as he places the reader in the setting described, allowing us to experience first-hand what life was like in this era. 

Having listened to this book, I am glad that the author was also the reader. As an experience podcaster, he made an excellent reader. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in this era of history and how the modern Western world came about. 

My First Job, Part 2

Title page with "Wilsons Name Tag"

My first months at the grocery store

Wilsons grocery bag

During my first few months as the grocery store, I worked only three days a week: Thursday, Friday and Saturday. On school nights, I’d arrive at 4 PM and work till 8 or 9 PM. As things begin to slow down in the evening, Bert would begin to send some of us home for the night. It was always nice to get out a little early on Thursday, especially if I had homework. On Saturday, I’d work from late morning till early evening. 

I don’t recall a lot about these early months working at Wilsons. Everyone I worked with, except for Tom, was older. During this time, I mostly worked up front, bagging groceries and carrying them out to the customer’s car. Such work doesn’t create a lot of memories. This was fine with me for you were often tipped for helping someone with their groceries.

Learning new tasks: bottle returns and bring trash

Occasionally, when it was slow, I’d be assigned another task like taking care of bottle returns. In the front of the store stood several large bins on wheels where we placed soft-drink bottles after customers redeemed for deposit. Whenever a bin would begin to fill, or when there was a lull in the action, Bert would assign one of us bag boys take the bins to the back of the store and separate the bottles into several large wooden bins, divided by brands. The distributors picked up the empties a couple times a week. Although this gave you a break from bagging, it was really a dirty job and the novelty of working in the back of the store soon wore off.

Another back-room job was running the incinerator. All paper trash, especially boxes, and some plastic wrappings that came from the meat market were burned. Late in the evening, as things slowed down, someone was sent back to handle the daily trash. I was neat to see the incinerator. A huge steel door opened with a switch. I would pack the cavity with debris. Once filled, you closed it and hit a button that shot out a gas flame. The metal, when you ran it for a long period, became red hot. It took only a few minutes of burning to consume everything. Then, machine was ready for another load. It seems odd today that we burned cardboard instead of recycling.   As for the burning of plastic, that also seems less than environmentally friendly. 

Learning new tasks: Marketing

Another job which I slowly began to dip my toe into was marketing. At the time, the custom was for grocery stores to run weekly sales from Thursday to Wednesday. When my hours expanded and I began to work on Wednesdays, Bert would often ask me to help him hang large signs (3 feet wide and 8 feet long). These were taped onto the front widows and generally hung late Wednesday, an hour or so before closing. The signs advertised our weekly specials such as a five-pound bag of sugar for 59 cents, some cut of steak for 1.99 a pound, bananas for 10 cents a pound, baby food a dime a jar, five pounds of potatoes for 39 cents.

Also, late Wednesday, as we approached closing time, the job of changing the marquee out front would fall to one of the bagboys This was always a fun job, except for when it was raining or windy. We’d used a 12-foot-long mechanical hand to take off the old letters and put on the new ones. 

No longer the new kid

As the weather warmed and school was done for the summer of 1973, there was a turn-over of personnel. Many of my colleagues graduated from high school and left for permanent jobs, college, or the military. As these guys and gals were replaced, I was no longer the new kid. Of these new employees, Tina was the most exciting. Tina was the first of the girls my age working at the store. Like Tom, she was a student from New Hangover High. I remember her with hard dark hair, olive colored skin and big dark eyes. For the next couple of years, we’d flirt back and forth. She was the only cashier younger than my mother who called me “honey.” But for some reason, I never got the nerve to ask her out and after a year or so I’d missed my opportunity as she was dating others.

Running a cash register

Late that summer, Bert trained me to run a cash register. It seemed a nice skill to have and it meant a small increase in my paycheck. I think I received a 20 cent and hour increase, but it was anactual decrease since cashiers never received tips. All the regular cashiers were women, just as all the bag boys were “boys.” But a few bag boys trained to take over a register if things got busy, or to allow those on the register to take a break and to fill in if there was an absence. Running a register on a rainy day was a blessing. On rainy days, being assigned to a cash register was a treat.

It’s hard to remember, but the store used mechanical cash registers back then. There were no scanners. These were heavy machines that had rows of numbers. A carton of cigarettes at the time cost $1.89 (this was North Carolina, after all!). Holding the item in one hand, I’d mash the 1 button on the third-to-the-left column. Then I hit the 8 button on the second and the 9 on the left-hand column. Soon, I could do this in one motion. I then rolled my hand to the right and with the side of my hand hit enter. The price would appear on the tape and show on the top of the machine. It became second nature. After a few weeks, I discovered that I was as fast as anyone except the older women who been there for years.

The mop crew

Another new job I found myself being assigned to was mopping. On weeknights, about 15 minutes before the doors locked, Bert would assign two of us the task. We’d go back and begin preparations. We had a large machine that put out a cleaning solution, scrubbed the floor and then vacuumed up the dirty solution. Behind the machine, the second person came behind with a mop to scrub the sides of the aisles and any missed areas. It’d take 30 or so minutes to cover the floor. .

Late in the summer of ’73, Bert asked if I’d be interested in working the Saturday night mop crew. For this, I had to get my parents’ permission since we worked well into Sunday morning. The store was closed on Sundays. My parents agreed and, for the rest of the time I was in high school, I didn’t have to worry about a Saturday night curfew and often came home at 4 or 5 on Sunday mornings. This was okay with my parents if I was up in time for church and provided me with more freedom that I should have had as a high school kid.

Saturday: mopping and waxing

On Saturday night, we’d not only mop the floor, but strip it of wax. As soon as the last of the customers were out, we’d take all the shopping carts out of the store and place them in the parking lot. Then the three of us (there were always three on Saturdays), would remove anything from the aisles and place them in the back room or up off the floor around the registers. With the floors cleared, except for the aisles themselves, we’d use chemicals in the machine and in the buckets to cut the wax off. Where the wax had built up, we’d scrap off the excess with metal scrapers attached to hoe handles. The floor had to be spotless and dry before waxing.

We’d had special mops and buckets for the wax, which came in 55-gallon oil drums. Using a mop, one of us would put a line of wax along the edge of each aisle, about two inches from the edge. Then the other two would come in and fill in the aisle with wax. The job required a steady swing of the mop to place the wax evenly on the floor. Then, after the wax had dried, we moved everything back out onto the floor and brought in the shopping carts and the store was ready to open on Monday morning. (If raining, we’d mop again the area where we brought the carts in, as it would be sloppy wet.)

There was lots of freedom with working on the mop crew. Bert and John, the assistant manager, rotated Saturday night duty. Whoever closed would lock us in the store after we’d taken the carts out. We were on our own till they came back, generally at 1 or 2 AM, after the clubs closed. They’d often have beer on their breath and on many occasions, Bert would often have a hot looking woman with him. Bert or John would then help us finish up and we’d leave for home an hour or so later.

Running the mop crew

A few weeks after starting to work on the mop crew, the other guys on the crew left and I found myself in charge. I even was able to pick my crew and asked Tom, and later Billy, to join me. I also quickly learned that it didn’t take six or seven hours to do the work. We’d normally complete our work by midnight. For a month or so, we spent an hour or two sleeping on the cash register belts as we wait for Bert or John to come back and open the doors so we could bring in the buggies before going home. Since we were still on the clock, those were some of the best hours I’d work.

I ran mop crew throughout my high school year, only missing the weeks I was away with the school’s debate team. . Bert, knowing that we were faster than others had been, would come back earlier and we started being out of the store between midnight and 1 AM. As I turned 18 during my senior year in high school, finishing out “early” allowed me to join Bert and others as we closed down night clubs.

Looking back 50 years

It doesn’t seem like it’s been fifty years since I started to work in the grocery for minimum wage ($1.60 an hour at the time). It’s been over 45 years since Tom’s death (I will write more about him at a later date). Bert died seven or eight years ago. I wasn’t able to make it to his funeral, but my younger brother who worked for him ten years after I did, was able to make it. I wonder what happened to John, Billy, and Tina.

Click here to read my previous post about being hired at Wilsons

Mini-Reviews of recent books I’ve listened to on Audible

picture of five books included in this review

This are some of the books I have listened to (while walking or driving) since July:

Ben McGrath, Riverman: An American Odyssey

book cover for Riverman

narrated by Adam Verner (2022), 8 hours and 36 minutes. 

McGrath, a writer for the New Yorker, met Dick Conant through his neighbor. Conant was paddling the Hudson River and had tied up his canoe along his neighbor’s seawall. Learning that the odd canoeist, who paddled an cheap over-stuffed boat, was heading to Florida perked McGrath’s interest. He wrote a short piece on him for the New Yorker. He thought that was it until a few months later when he received a phone call from a wildlife officer in North Carolina. 

Conant’s canoe had been found overturned in the Albemarle Sound. They never recovered his body. The officer discovered McGrath’s phone number in the mass of stuff in the boat and called for clues as to who had lost the boat. McGrath sets off scouring the country looking for clues as to Conant’s identity and what happened to him. 

Conant didn’t look like a canoer. He wore over-all’s. Conant brought cheap canoes (often Colemans) which he overloaded. After an adventure, would sell the boat. He didn’t carry river maps or guides, but a road atlas. He had an odd way of preserving meat (hot dogs in pickle juice).   

Those he met along the way, he would tell of the woman he loved and was to whom he was faithful, a woman he met (only once and briefly, it appears) in Montana. Conant would live in Bozeman, Montana between adventures. Conant covered quite a bit of territory, paddling the Yellowstone into the Missouri and then down the Mississippi. Another time he started out new his childhood home in New York State, paddling the Allegheny into the Ohio and down the Mississippi. Essentially, Conant eked out a homeless existence on American rivers. 

McGrath’s research is amazing. He reached out to the people Conant touched over the years to paint a better portrait of this lone canoer.

Robert Ruark, The Old Man and the Boy

book cover for The Old Man and the Boy

narrated by Norman Dietz (1957, audible 2017), 10 hours and 41 minutes. 

This collection of stories I first read as a student at Roland Grice Junior High in Wilmington,  NC. Most boys my age read this book at that time. And why not, as the author grew up in our hometown. Ruark would go on to become a well-known author writing about outdoor adventures in exotic places like Africa. But this collection of stories focuses on him and his grandparents, who lived across the river in Southport, NC in the years between the Great War and the Depression. Ruark spent a lot of time with his grandparents. From his grandfather, he learned not only outdoor skills, such as hunting and fishing, but about getting along with others and even wildlife conservation (never kill off an entire covey of quail, leave some birds for the future). 

There are a few things in the book that would be considered taboo today. Poaching turtle eggs is now a crime, but in the 1920s, no one knew better (and because there was little development on the coast, there were more turtles). Another is the Old Man’s patriarchal manner of relating to African Americans. But at least the old man insisted they be treated as humans and despised those with racist attitudes. Besides, this allowed him access to hunt quail on some of African American farms. However, most of these stories stand the test of time. This was my first time listening to the book, but I had already read it three time and may listen to it again, just for the delightful stories. The narrator does a wonderful job of bringing the book to life. 

Dominic Ziengler, Black Dragon River: A Journey Down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empires

narrated by Steve West (2015), 14 hours and 6 minutes.

The Amur, the world’s ninth longest river, is also the most unknown rivers among the world’s great rivers. The river’s headwaters rise in Mongolia, not far from the birthplace of Genghis Khan, and flows to the Pacific, mostly along the border of Russia and China. So much is unknown about the river that for much of history, both Russia and China claimed the river’s origin. A joint Soviet and Chinese scientific expedition set out to settle the dispute. They discovered the river’s headwaters were in Mongolia. 

The author sets out to travel, as much as possible, the entire river. However, it’s not as easy as one might think. Heading out on foot, by train, boat, and car, he makes his way down the river, mostly sticking to the north (Russian) side. Because the river is an armed border, the opportunity to float it is limited. 

As he travels, we learn of the history of the region, from the Khans to Russian eastern migration. As with the mountain men in the American West, Russia eastward expansion was first based on fur trade. Later would come mineral exploration and prisons. Also, like the American West, it includes bloody campaigns to conquer. We learn about the this as well as the conflicts between Russia and China along the river, which has raged for hundreds of years. Such conflicts are ongoing. A month after I listened to this book, China published new official map claims total ownership of an island in the Amur over the two nations fought over as recently as the 60s. 

Ziengler also informs the readers about the natural history of the river. It’s a great breeding grown for swans and other birds. The river also teams with fish. Sadly, the Siberian tigers are disappearing due to the lost of forests. The environmental issues along the river’s watershed are also covered. 

While the travelogue part of this book is lacking (because of the author’s limited access to much of the river), the book contains great stories and is packed in the history of Europe’s eastward expansion. 

Sara Seager, The Smallest Lights in the Universe

book cover for Smallest Lights in the Universe

 narrated by Xe Sands (2020), 9 hours and 37 minutes. 

Seager, an astrophysicist at MIT, looks for exoplanets in distant galaxies. These are planets in the “goldilocks’ zone,” where it is not too hot and not too cold. Such places hold the possibility of life. Because they are so far away to be observed, astrophysicists have devised new techniques such as registering a small drop of light as the planet crosses in front of its sun. Her work is amazing, and she describes it in a manner that can make it more understandable. 

But this is not a science book, it’s a memoir. We also are taken into the author’s life, from her first interest in the sky as a child growing up in Canada, to the academic politics today (such as having one’s findings stolen by another scientist). We also learn about her personal life. In addition to being interested in the sky, we are taken along with her on canoe trips to remote parts of Canada with a man who would become her husband and the father of her children. Then, we are told about his illness and death from cancer. This part of the book is tragic, which came as her career as a scientist was ascending. Later, she meets a new man, at a talk given for amateur astrometry club, and they marry eventually marry. She also comes to understand her own life with Asperger’s. 

I enjoy this book, especially her insights into her scientific work. However, at times I felt the book was a too personal. I certainly enjoyed some of what she wrote about her personal life (especially, because I’m me, long canoe trips in northern Canada). But wondered if she had ended her personal struggles with her first husband’s death, leaving the reader wondering what’s next, might have made a stronger book. Instead, it seemed this was a “lived happily ever after” type of ending.  

Robert MacfarlaneUnderland: A Deep Time Journey

Book cover for Underland

Narrated by Matthew Waterson. (2019).  12 hours and 3 minutes.

After reading about deep space, I jumped into this book about the underworld. It’s interesting to think how we know more about space (as in the book above) than we do about what’s underground. In this book, Macfarlane sets out to explore the unknown, mostly by traveling through caves and mines and the underground network of tunnels in cities such as Paris.

Macfarlane also explores what’s just underneath our feet. Dig down and you’ll find a great world of bugs and worms along with roots and various types of soil. As he makes such pilgrimages, Macfarlane muses about our uses of the earth (burying the dead to that which is dangerous, like nuclear waste). He frequently draws on literature and mythology about the underworld. In Junior High, when I was into a Jules Verne kick, I read Journey to the Center of the Earth. However, I didn’t realize that in the 19th Century, there was a sub-genre of exploration into the earth.  

I found this book fascinating and look forward to reading and listening to more of Macfarlane’s work. Two years ago, I read Macfarlane’s The Old Ways. He’s a British author and explorer that draws on a vast knowledge as he shares his explorations.  As in all the books above, rivers also appear in this book, they’re just underground . 

A Sunday afternoon drive to Gerlach

Title Slide for "A Sunday Drive to Gerlach, Nevada, showing the Southern Pacific tracks cutting through the Black Rock Desert

Gerlach and the Black Rock Desert have lost a lot of their appeal. Over the past couple of decades, tens of thousands of people head there every Labor Day. It’s the sight of the Burning Man Festival. This year, because of some rain, 70,000 people became struck in the mud outside of Gerlach. Here’s my adventure in the Black Rock Desert long before it became so famous.  The photos are copies from slides.

The Appeal of the Black Rock Desert

I’m not sure what drew me to this dot on a map. Gerlach is a hundred and some miles north of Reno. I knew few people, even in Western Nevada, who’d be there. The only person I knew who had been to the town was Norm and Missy. They’d lived and worked there before moving to Virginia City. Another attraction that drew me to this dot on the map were hot springs. I’ve taken road trips all over the Intermountain West in search of a good soak.

There was another reason I was interested in Gerlach. I’d watched their high school basketball team play that winter. The Virginia City Muckers creamed them. Our high school boys, used to playing in the thin air of 6200 feet, ran these lowlanders to death. Making it worse, the Gerlach team had only seven players. A couple of these guys were so uncoordinated that I felt sorry for them. I could have been a star on this team. By the end of the game, they only had five players left, and they were all on the court. Their best two players having fouled out. The Muckers second string, guys who normally sat on the bench, played, and had no problem running up the score. For some reason I wanted to see this team’s town.

A Sunday drive

In the late spring of 1989, after preaching on Sunday (the service was at 9 AM), I was on the road by 10:30 AM. I drove to Reno and picked up Carolyn, a woman I was dating at the time. The two ate a quick lunch and headed off. Taking I-80 east, out of Reno, we followed the Truckee River to Wadsworth, and then staying by the river, took Nevada 447 due north.

the Truckee River and Pyramid Lake
Pyramid Lake, Fall 1988

The road took us toward Nixon and the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation. We stopped along the south end of the lake. It’s a barren looking body of water, essentially a retention pond. The pristine waters start out as snow in the Sierras. The snow melts into Lake Tahoe, and flows out of the north end of the lake. From there, the waters cascade down the Sierras. The river flows through downtown Truckee and Reno, and then through the River District of Storey County. In the 80s was home of the infamous Mustang Ranch, where there were no cattle, but prostitution was legal. At Wadsworth, the river turns north, and flows toward Pyramid Lake.

Over time, the hot desert sun evaporates the water in the lake. The high mineral content of the water when it reaches the lake leaves behind tufa formations as the lake level falls depending on the water level. Because the water is now so saline, there is little life around the lake. 

Meeting Carolyn

I had met Carolyn the previous fall on another trip to this lake. A mutual friend invited us both out on an expedition in search of fall colors, which in the American West is mostly yellow. There would be pockets of cottonwoods in canyons, with bright yellow leaves flickering in the breeze, along with yellow rabbit brush mixed into the sage. The later, through beautiful, is the bane of allergy suffers. At one point, late in the day, when the light was soft and warm, Carolyn caught me taking her picture of her admiring the crescent moon hanging in the western sky. She smiled approvingly. We started seeing each other soon afterwards. Although nostalgic, our stop on the south shore of Pyramid Lake was brief, for we had another 80 miles to go to get to our destination, Gerlach.

Truly the Loneliness Road in America

In the 1950s, Life Magazine dubbed Highway 50 through Central Nevada as the “Loneliness Road in America.” It’s not. It’s not even the loneliness road in Nevada. Nevada 447, north of Nixon, is one of a dozen or so blacktopped roads in the state with a much lower traffic count. We saw only one car heading south as we drove north, and when we returned that evening, we saw no cars. There’s not a lot out here.

The west side of the road is the Piute Reservation; on the east side is Winnemucca Lake, which is dry. Along the way, we pass a couple of ranches and a few scattered cows. This harsh land takes 40 or more acres to support a cow. As the afternoon progresses, the wind begins blowing and at places it sounds like the car is being sandblasted. Five miles south of Gerlach is the only other town around, Empire. It’s a company owned town at the site of one of the nation’s largest gypsum mines and, besides the railroad, is a main source of employment in the region. A spur rail line hauls out cars of the powdery dust. Five or so miles north, along the Southern Pacific lines (the Feather River Route) is Gerlach. 

the Town of Gerlach

The town is small and sits on the edge of the Black Rock Desert which stretches northeast as far as one can see. We ask about the hot springs and learn they’re not currently open due to construction. A little disappointed, we walk around town and the rail yard and spent some time hiking beside the tracks out into the desert playa.  The ground is barren, white, and chalky. Having seen it, I can understand why it became a quagmire after only a half inch of rain during this year’s Burning Man festival. 

There’s one main establishment in Gerlach, Bruno’s Country Club. It’s a gas station, casino, restaurant, bar, and hotel. I laugh at it being called a Country Club, for there isn’t a blade of grass in sight and certainly no golf courses. If they decided to add a golf course, I assume it’d be like the one in Gabbs, Nevada, a nine-hole course played on clay. Although not a golfer, I image your ball would get nice long bounce on such a surface. 

Photo from the internet

After our walk, we head to Bruno’s and enter the dining room that’s across from the casino. The casino isn’t much, just a handful of slot machines, along with a bar and maybe a table for cards. The establishment isn’t fancy, but we enjoy a home-style meal. The staff and the locals having Sunday dinner at Bruno’s are friendly. As tourist, we stick out, and they seem glad to see us and are curious as to what brought us to town. After dinner, the light of the day begins to fade as the sun sets. We take another walk around town. The air cools and the fierce wind of the afternoon has died down. 

Heading home

After walking around, we get back in the car. There’s nothing more to do than to drive home through the night. The car’s headlights pierce the darkness of the black ribbon of highway. At a couple of places, I slow down as we drive through six-inch-high mounds of sand across the highway. These were deposited by the afternoon wind. The stars are bright. Overhead and to the Southwest, Orion sinks toward the western horizon, as does waxing new moon. I point it out to Carolyn. She reminds me of the crescent moon on the horizon on that first trip to Pyramid Lake. An hour later, the moon has set, and we’re left with the stars and a lonely strip of asphalt. It’s late when I drop Carolyn off at her home. It’s even later when I make it back up on the Comstock.

Other Nevada Adventures

Arriving in Virginia City

Doug and Elvira

Matt and Virginia City

Riding in the cab of a locomotive on the V&T

Christmas Eve

My first job…

title slide for blog post showing two pictures. One of a Wilsons Grocery bag and another of an aisle in a grocery store.
Wilsons Supermarket bag
Bag posted on the Facebook Page, Hometown memories of Wilmington, NC

I became a Country Boy a few months after I turned sixteen. I’d gone with Mom to the Wilson’s Supermarket on Oleander Drive, the “home of the Country Boys.” Mom pointed out the manager. He stood in the front of the store, watching everything. Garnering courage, I walked over and asked him for a job. 

“You have to be sixteen,” he said, obviously not thinking I was quite there. Admittedly, I was small for my age. 

“But I am,” I responded, “I can show you my driver’s license?” 

He looked at it and nodded his head in approval. 

“You’ll need a social security card,” he said. “Can you work four or five hours on Thursday and Friday afternoons and eight hours on Saturday?”

“Yes Sir,” I said.

I had my first job. Of course, I had worked before but it was just mowing yards for neighbors or babysitting. But this was my first regular job, with a paycheck and deduction for taxes…

That next Thursday afternoon, with a tie around my neck, I reported to work. Two of us were to start our grocery careers that day. Tom, the other kid, was from New Hanover High School, popularly known by those of us who attended Hoggard High as “New Hang-over.” His bright red hair and his twitch in his neck when he talked caused lots of people to consider him weird, but he worked hard. Wilson’s Supermarket would his only job. 

They trained us that first day to bag groceries. Bert, the manager who hired us, assigned each of us to a more experienced bagger. For an hour or two, we learned the fundamentals of bagging groceries. Don’t put can goods on top of bread or on cartons of eggs. If you have a lot of cans, double-up your bag for strength. This was the era of only paper bags, no plastic ones. You separate the cleansing supplies from the meat and produce. 

We also learned if the cart was loaded down, we could jump up onto it and ride it out the door and through the lot, saving energy. Soon, we were on our own, taking out groceries and always saying, “Thank You, Ma’am,” as we slammed the trunk lid. Another lesson we’d later learned was to recognize the big tippers and hustle especially hard for them. This became a game for some, although Tom and I tried to give our best to everyone.

It now seems like a distant dream. In a way, I suppose, it was the beginning of the end. So far, I have never been without a job except for three months I took off to finish hiking the Appalachian Trail. I would have another four-month break for work, but it was a sabbatical, so I still had a job. But back in 1973, I had school along with 15 to 18 hours a week of work. As I found high school boring and wasn’t very motivated, having a job provided dignity. 

Sign for Wilsons Grocery store
I don’t know how many times I posted the week’s special on a similar sign. Photo from the Facebook page, Hometown Memories of Wilmington, NC

Each day, when I showed up for work, I’d put on a tie. It was expected of all of us “country boys.” While the ads might have had us looking like hillbillies, we were expected to be dressed properly. Beforehand, I’d only worn a ties on Sundays for church, an ideal I still maintain. But unlike most of the newcomers at the store, I didn’t wear a clip-on tie, which they sold on a rack at the end of one of the aisle. I think they were there mostly in case we forgot to bring a tie.

As a 16-year-old, I knew how to tie a Double Windsor. Back in the 70s, with ties wide enough to serve as bibs, tying a big knot like a Double Windsor was quite a feat. Before the week was out, I was teaching Tom and others how to tie one. When you’re a runt, it helps to have a skill. Tom and I began to hang out and became good friends. Six months after I left the store for good, during my second year of college, Tom died from a brain tumor. 

Bert, our boss, served as a second father to both of us. Whenever I had problems, especially with girls, questions I’d never think about asking my own dad, I’d ask him. Looking back, I don’t know why? He was easy to talk to, but his martial record certainly left room for improvement. While I didn’t know it when I started, Bert was the father of a elementary school friend of mine, Nicky Pipkin. While Bert had his own troubles with relationships, he always gave me good advice.

I stayed at Wilsons through my first year of college doing a variety of jobs: bagging groceries, stocking the shelves at night, running a cashier, counting money, mopping and waxing the floors late on Saturday night and into the wee-morning hours of Sundays and, thanks to being a non-smoker, managing the cigarette aisle. The pay was never very good, but I enjoyed my time there. It’s rewarding and noble to serve people. 


A version of this story appeared in a older blog of mine.

Photo of a Jerry Garcia designed tie
These days, when I need to wear a tie, I try to wear nice ones like this tie, designed by Jerry Garcia (of the Grateful Dead)