Camel's Hair and Locusts

Hey Neighbors!

A long long time ago.  I can still remember how that music used to make me smile... 

I've always wanted to start a story like that, borrowing these two opening lines to Don McLean's classic song from 1971, "American Pie."   This story takes place in the late 1970's, and, at that time, one of the pastimes still occupying everyone from FM rock jocks to my mother (of all people) was analyzing and reanalyzing the lyrics of this song so as to probe for their deeper meaning.  That is quite a spectrum of people.  And, though many may roll their eyes at this, oh, but if any of us could but write a poem or a song that would occupy people's hearts and minds in this way.  People are still analyzing this song, and, in a culture with a very limited attention span, it is remarkable enough that this continued for several years.  That it continues after several decades is phenomenal.  However, with the mood thus set, I now digress.

This story goes back to 1978.  The spiritual angst of the previous spring, as recounted for you in a story titled "Is Anybody There?" had given way to a semester at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago that fall.  This brought me to the decision that it was time to abort my quest for higher education and pursue life.  Burning my bridges in a series of essays handed in to the seminary in lieu of my classwork, I spent the winter with my parents in Florida, and spent my nights working as a night auditor at the Nautilus Inn in Cape Coral.  I spent my days helping my dad restore my 1966 Buick Skylark Custom, while marveling at the fact that, in my mid 20's, I had suddenly discovered the wisdom he possessed.  This had somehow eluded me in the earlier days of my life in which I had known everything.

As for my continuing spiritual journey, I revisited my greatest undergraduate influences, and spent many a wee morning hour, after the audit was done at the Nautilus, pondering the ethereal shamanistic spirituality of Castaneda, and countered this by reflecting on the darkly humorous, but deeply depressing, atheism of Vonnegut.  Ironically, or so it seemed, I discovered that Vonnegut was a great admirer of Castaneda, and this seemed to invoke the sardonic catchphrase that runs through Slaughterhouse Five: "So it goes."  I tempered all of this by reading just the words of Jesus in red in the gospels, and took it as literal gospel truth that all of what He said was true.  I've been labeled a fundamentalist ever since (see last month's column).  When I opened Cat's Cradle and read the words of the first line, "None of this is true," it seemed to put all of this (and particularly Vonnegut) in perspective.  Castaneda's indoctrination into shamanism didn't lend itself to the true/false dichotomy in this way, but after a rather strange (and somewhat disturbing) out of body experience, it seemed prudent to set it aside.  And so I came to focus on the deeper truth of faith in Jesus, and did so in light of my dad's mentoring, which I found to be much gentler, and certainly much sounder in terms of real world realities, than that of Don Juan.  So it goes. 

When spring came, I decided to seek my future and my fortune back in Michigan, and so I headed up I-75 towards Alma with the money I had socked away over the winter, and with a restoration that ran far deeper than the shiny new paint job on the Buick.  There was a girl waiting for me in Alma who I had met through a mutual friend that past fall.  In the waning hours of my night shifts at the Nautilus, my intellectual and spiritual musings would give way to thoughts of her, and I began to realize that I was either harboring an obsession or was in love, and the trip back to Alma was mostly to determine which was which.  Upon my return, we struck up a friendship that almost immediately became a romance, and we remain together to this very day.  My thought is this must have been love. 

The calendar had come around to May, and the transformation in my life during this year had been amazing.  My new girl, Jean, was still in college, and my best friend and partner in the Incident of the year before, Jack Quirk, was newly graduated and motivated to stick around Alma figuring his own life out in light of the new reality, just as I was now doing.  When the opportunity presented itself to move into an old house that was in the process of being remodeled, and so was available at a much reduced rent, we seized the day.  We had much to talk about and did.  And, in retrospect, this all went much smoother than we anticipated it might, as we turned out to be less of a nuisance to our landlords -- and they to us-- then we or they had feared might be the case.  This ended up being a transforming and happy time of life, and we both look back upon it fondly and perhaps even a little nostalgically.

Now, Quirk and I in our college days fancied ourselves budding intellectuals and scholars, and dressed and behaved accordingly.  We were rapier thin in those days.  I had long, thick hair parted in the middle, and Jack's tumbled to his shoulders.  Jeans and flannel shirts were the usual attire, with a corduroy sport coat and boots for dress up.  Jack tended to follow more in the style of the radical theologians of the day (I argued then as now that "Christian Marxism" was an oxymoron if there ever was one).  I tended more to the fashion of the ancient near eastern history and archaeological schools, and so favored a civil war era style vest for everyday, and a herring bone jacket for dress.  Pipe smoking was in vogue, and the more odorous the tobacco the better.  I was so totally taken by a photograph of Fathers Roland de Vaux and Jozef Milik, and their team of Jesuit scholars, smoking non-filtered cigarettes with long, curling ashes dangling precariously over the Dead Sea Scrolls, that I soon convinced the vendor who stocked the cigarette machine in the student union to make sure it had an ample supply of fresh Pall Malls, Camels, Old Golds, Lucky Strikes and Chesterfields.  Theologians of the day, like Danielou, were often photographed with smoke from the stub of a cigarette rising from nicotine stained fingers, and, as a Protestant, I had to grudgingly admit that the Jesuits had the market cornered on intellectual cool.  They had nothing on us, as we virtually lived in the student union, gathering the other young lions of our day around us, as we debated, discussed and solved the pressing issues of our time over strong, black coffee, and while filling the air with a thick cloud of acrid smoke.

Our post college life in Alma quickly morphed into something of a proletariat, blue collar Christian existence.  I got a job at Lobdell Emery, a plant that produced mostly body parts for Ford, and took on a "factory rat" persona.  Jack went to work as the midnight attendant at the Clark gas station in St. Louis, and soon had a following among the road beer and toke crowd who came in nightly to gas up, buy snacks and listen to his pontifications on various subjects.  He was adept at turning these discussions in the direction of his own unique Christian witness, and his boss liked the fact that it sold pop and chips.  I tried to achieve the same kind of thing on the line, and over the games of "Three Card Guts" that went on when our nightly parts quota was reached.  Life at home revolved around hanging out and entertaining our girlfriends.  We were both, by this time, in committed relationships, and we actually engaged in some rather serious faith discussions from time to time.  But usually, when the ladies were around, it was show time.  Or, perhaps more accurately, show off time.

While we oftentimes took ourselves too seriously as students, my friendship with Jack Quirk is now, and always has been, largely comedy based.  In college classes, we perfected the art of conducting vicious and highly personal and insulting debates, knowing that at least some of our fellow students would be unaware of the tongue-in-cheek nature of what we were doing.  On more than one occasion, someone who had witnessed this would later walk into the student union to find us amiably chatting over cigarettes and coffee and exclaim, "You mean you guys are friends?!"  Priceless.  

Believe me, this fact that we find each other hysterically funny has caused its share of eye rolling and sighing on the part of those we believe we are entertaining, but this just adds to the fun for us.  Anything for a laugh, especially if it is at my expense.  Once when I was living briefly in my parents basement, Jack got down on the floor and pulled at my pant leg with his teeth while growling like a dog.  He did this in view of my mother, who from that day to this has continually told me, "There is something wrong with that Quirk boy."  At 96, my mother suffers from advanced dementia, and cannot tell you what she had for breakfast this morning, but she will still tell you flat out that there is something the matter with Jack Quirk.  Jack will go to almost any lengths in terms of humiliating himself if this in turn humiliates me.  It is a sacrifice he is always willing to make.  The idea is to push me past the boundaries where the humor lies in this for me, knowing that his boundaries extend much, much further. 

And so, I have spent these many years being Laurel to his Hardy, Benny to his Burns, Bing to his Bob, Garth to his Wayne and Ted to his Bill.  In these "Odd Couple" days of sharing a house in Alma, I was Felix to his Oscar.  The devotionals of Oswald Chambers are found in a book called My Utmost for His Highest.  If I were to write a book about my relationship with Jack Quirk, I would call it My Butthead for His Beevis.  I don't know that this is something either of us is necessarily proud of, but it is the way that it is, and, if nothing else, it is a profound demonstration of the grace and patience of God that we proclaim our Catholic faith in public. Had the world found us as funny as we believe ourselves to be, we would probably be opening for Wayne Newton in Vegas.  In the greater scheme of things, it is probably just as well that most others don't get it.  We understand this and we accept it.

Quirk wasn't always this accepting.  In small town Alma back in the day, Jack was somewhat offended to find out that the local folks noticed him and discussed his odd appearance and behavior.  This had something to do with an incident at the Main Cafe downtown, but I don't recall exactly what it was.  I do remember that Jack was incensed at the fact that the skinny, new guy in town with long, scraggly hair, who was loudmouthed and opinionated, and who had a high threshold for public embarrassment, was somehow unable maintain his anonymity.  Seriously, he couldn't figure this out and took it personally.  This was also complicated by the fact that living in the neighborhood in which we did, with the superintendent of schools next door, and my old high school gym teacher around the corner, I found my comedic boundaries much reduced compared to what they had been on the much more freewheeling Alma College campus.  My much lower threshold for public embarrassment was now set even lower, and far be it from Jack Quirk to ever fail to seize on any perceived vulnerability on my part, either real or imagined.  And this was quite real.

In retrospect it is hard to figure why it was, at that point in our lives, that we found ourselves in committed relationships with attractive and intelligent young women.  I guess this is the same question audiences posed about the relationships between Ralph and Alice and Norton and Trixie on The Honeymooners.  In any event, such was the case with us, and the girls were always a good audience, particularly for Jack, and especially if we had taken the opportunity to indulge in adult cigarettes.  This all combined for a solo routine that Jack came up with in which he would walk out onto the front porch of the house and loudly proclaim his opinions to the world.  Or at least to the neighborhood.  If the townsfolk were going to talk about his oddities and his appearance, then, by God, he'd give them something to talk about.  And so he would thrust open the screen door, step defiantly out onto the porch and begin to rant.  He would proclaim the injustices of small town parochial attitudes and prejudices, protest the attitude of thinking oneself superior to others, and basically just tell them what he thought.  He would go on with this until those of us inside witnessing this would begin to become horrified that it was going too far.  "Jack!  For God's sake!  Get back in here!  Somebody might not know you're joking!" we would plead.  "Who's joking?" he would ask rhetorically, and off he would go again.  This would continue until we all stepped out on the porch with him to beg him, to adjure him, to come inside and stop behaving this way. 

Each one of these tirades began the same way, with Jack loudly exclaiming, "Hey Neighbors!  Hey Neighbors!"  And so these little impromptu speeches to the neighborhood came to be known by this name, and this became a recurring performance.  The mood would strike and Jack would head for the front door.  "I think it's time for a 'Hey Neighbors!'" he would announce, and away he would go.  He once grabbed my dad's double barrel shotgun from the closet where I had it stored, and made his speech shirtless while waving this around over his head.  This episode truly frightened the three of us watching it, as the best case scenario I could see was the police arriving, and the worst case that someone just might seize the opportunity and take a shot at him. 

Oddly enough, "Hey Neighbors!" never had any repercussions beyond the entertainment it provided Jack, most of which was geared to our horrified reactions, and which he thus enjoyed at our expense.  After the shotgun performance, I believe Kimmie, Jack's girlfriend, let him have it, as I  remember Jean and I telling her she needed to talk to him about this and convince him that it had gotten out of hand.  We had this conversation as Jack proceeded in his rant out on the porch.  Regardless, "Hey Neighbors!" had reached its limits with this variation and so, much to our relief, was hereafter retired from Jack's comedy repertoire.

You may wonder why I have related this little story.  Well, it seems that in the fall of 2012, I got a call from my old friend Jack Quirk, asking me if I would contribute a monthly column to his new magazine.  When he told me that it was going to be dedicated to Catholic social teaching, I suggested that perhaps a good name for it would be "Hey Neighbors!"  He didn't seem to see the humor in this, and said he was calling it "Christian Democracy."  I tried to decline the column offer, but when he assured me that I would have free reign to write and say what I wanted, the picture came to mind of the shirtless young Quirk, waving my dad's shotgun around his head and proclaiming his social teachings to the neighborhood.  I agreed to do the column.  I actually thought of calling it "Hey Neighbors!" but realized that was Jack's routine.  Even if not copyrighted, it was certainly his intellectual property.  I decided on "Camel's Hair and Locusts."

I know that my views, and the way I express them, sometimes must make Jack cringe.  I suspect this month's column just might do that.  Sometimes, as I write, I see myself stepping out on the front porch of our old house in Alma, shirtless and waving my dad's shotgun around my head, as I proclaim my views, just like Jack did.  "Hey Neighbors!"  I say to myself, "Hey Neighbors!" 

Paybacks, gentle readers, can be hell.  So it goes.        

Phil Ropp

Phil is the owner of the news portal Radio New Jerusalem