August was your typically hot, sultry period and tangible proof that summer was far from over and had no plans of throwing in the towel just yet. Philadelphia was known for such oppressive times like this when you could spread the air like tar and tar like water. Some states held egg cooking contests on the pavement but Philly could cook Italian sausage with sauce and onions on any outdoor surface.
Our twins, Robin and Alicia, even though identical and virtually inseparable, insisted to be treated as individuals although the prevailing philosophy at three was: “Two heads are better than one.” This was the creed by which the girls lived as they traveled about, adventurous souls, exploring and testing, surveying and tasting whatever the world had to offer.
Trivial, meaningless ventures became dramatic escapades as life revealed its wonder, with brilliant bolts of lightning and deafening crashes of thunder. Short trips to the market were seen through fresh eyes as details were noted and of course, candy was prized. Hot dogs slipped from the bun and rolled across the floor and ice cream dribbled down chins plastered with grins as four-legged pets ate off the floor and washed tiny faces. Everything was new and seen for the first time, perhaps in its true light, by these inquisitive little girls reeking of bubblegum and soap as they wandered about behind enormous eye-glasses, leaving few stones unturned.
Converting to the same religion was an option neither my wife nor I could justify. Armies rarely accept deserters and we couldn’t see any reason why religions would. Because of this, our daughters found themselves floundering on the rocky shoals of religious purgatory, stranded outside the moral constraints imposed by mankind. Freedom’s barbed-wire seemed to annoy and overwhelm everyone except them. People have strong convictions about how others should live that go beyond protecting the right of the individual and impose personal beliefs that should remain just that, personal.
During the earlier years it didn’t make much difference, but once their little minds blossomed into larger minds, the questions grew and we couldn’t ignore the writing on the wall. Concerned little faces wanted to know where lifeless guppies go. Once, as the toilet dispatched an unfortunate fish towards its eternal reward, my wife seized the opportunity, stood firm, and insisted we instill some form of recognized discipline that interacted with good and evil, and the approved direction one should pursue when faced with such extremes should any doubt exist.
The pitchfork and halo were about to draw sides and square off. Clean, wholesome Old-World values would be encouraged and dastardly deed-doers would be burned at the stake or slain on the spot. Nothing would be left to chance; it was for the good of all. Even the freedom to decide one’s own fate would come under the gun. It made terrific sense at the time so we eagerly bought into this as the Church accepted our contributions with equal enthusiasm. The grueling journey towards enlightenment and a brighter tomorrow began!
After a thorough examination, it became clear the Unitarian Persuasion was the way to go. The Universalist Church touched on many religions and offered the best of each. By painstakingly observing the necessary steps to insure the prevention of any one religion calling all the shots, the Universalist Church tip-toed through culture, custom, belief, and superstition and remained committed to non-commitment in the search for truth and meaning. It made sense then, it makes sense now.
Toes were carefully avoided while children learned to respect Mother Earth as they hunted Easter eggs in the spring and enjoyed the fruits of Hanukkah and Christmas at the end of the year. Everyone, it seemed, was pleased: even destiny, God willing, as this proud religion marched to the sound of a distant drummer, touting peace, harmony and brotherly love.
Most Sundays I managed to wriggle out of such events but, unless I could come up with an imaginative excuse, I was roped in and made to sit patiently on a pew beside my wife and kids and did my best to look intelligent, alert and kind-hearted all at the same time, hands on my lap, my mind taking a nap.
One Sunday, as the sermon concluded, Mother Nature raised the curtain and presented a subtle recreation that dealt with how sacred and vulnerable our planet is. Presently, man’s neglect and abuse of our delicate planet brought the lesson to a neat close but alas- As if on cue, mountains of suds came washing down the small polluted creek behind the chapel for everyone’s benefit except the minister who had his back to the window. He couldn’t help but notice a look of revelation on the faces before him and attributed this to his passionate performance in the pulpit and was quite pleased with himself. The congregation witnessed God’s hand at humor that day and a skilled hand at that. Perfect timing!
It was on this Sunday in May, the annual campout was announced. It was to take place in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens on a hot, humid July weekend when thunderstorms sprouted out of thin air and attacked with a fury rivaled only by activity in Tornado Alley. Outnumbered and with little time to invent a believable excuse for my absence, I found myself ensnared in a benevolent noose with no choice but to sign up and help with the list of required baby paraphernalia which amounted to a paper trail that would stretch to Maine. It was certain we’d need a double-axle trailer just for diapers. We needed enough food, drink and tackle for two days and a night, and be prepared to wrestle with shifty sand dunes and the monotonous scrub pines dripping sticky, unremovable sap on everything.
A few days before the open-air assault into the poison-ivy infested swamps of the Garden State, my wife and I scrutinized the list for the nine hundredth time. This was done with the same somber composure Rear Admiral Robert Peary employed before embarking on the North Pole Expedition. One mistake, one oversight could spell disaster and ruin the weekend, so nothing could be left to chance. The extra diapers, extra macaroni, extra clothing, extra sunscreen, and extra mosquito repellent could sink the Exxon Valdez. We wisely jotted down “extra blankets” in case the glaciers advanced overnight and hypothermia reared its ugly head. You just can’t be too careful when schlepping twins into the wilds. The New Jersey state bird is the mosquito and the magic ingredient that holds everything together is carbon tetrachloride.
It was somewhere around this time that the internal mechanism all men embody was triggered and I recognized the time had arrived for my daughters to own their first flashlights. They might have to find their way to the rest room, fend off the Jersey Devil, flag down a train, or help land a plane. Besides, it’s a fun thing to have at your fingertips. Just aim and shoot, nothing wrong with that.
The next day I bought two shiny red plastic flashlights and enough batteries to light Chicago. I put their names on these handy devices and taught my “raring to go” daughters how to operate them, make shadows of dogs and pigs on the wall, and a little Morse code for good measure.
The weekend finally arrived for us to venture into the steamy jungles of New Jersey: a short drive for man, a giant leap for any parent of twins. The women and children played in the afternoon sun splashing about in the pool while the fathers, tails between their legs, regrouped at a nearby picnic table apologetically defending their position and how all this came about and why.
Shortly after dinner we were treated to the weekly sermon that was held in an undersized one-room chapel open to the public year round (and it really looked like it was open to the public year round). Two rows of four uncomfortable, flat-seated, creaky oak pews similar to the torture rack which gained fame in Europe during the Dark Ages, held five or six hot, sweaty, mosquito-ravaged families. We were packed tight like sardines and truly feared suffocation. It was similar to breathing underwater with a snorkel, only we didn’t have snorkels.
Sweat ran down everyone’s neck as mosquitoes buzzed in our ears. People did their best not to bump one another and focused their attention to the front of the claustrophobically small room. There the minister, a portly man, was delivering words of awe and inspiration. Unfortunately, his sermon fell on deaf ears as people’s minds couldn’t help but stray, in the stifling heat and humidity, to places only people in New Jersey dream about.
Suddenly dark menacing clouds chased the sun into hiding and a new kind of “dark” was realized. People squinted their eyes and strained in the dim room to read the colorful and poetically-charged graffiti and sexual instructions on the walls. Judging by the graphic drawings and the ferocious tone they demonstrated, it was clear it would only be a matter of time before these creative vandals, these “pirates of the profane”, would buy a ticket to hell and trash the walls down there too. Nothing was sacred.
The guest speaker continued to address the small group and launched into the importance of not taking one’s self too seriously and the long-term profit of searching for the humor surrounding us. The more he spoke, the darker it got in there, so for safety’s sake he shortened the sermon.
With perfect timing, the man delivered the climactic point of his lecture and pounded a meaty fist on the podium for effect. As he did this, his sweaty face unexpectedly lit up like a 100-watt light bulb. With his eyes and mouth wide open, our guest speaker looked as if he’d been jazzed with 700 volts of raw electricity.
Women shrieked, children screamed, babies wet themselves, and the men gaped in horror. The fear of God shot through the flock and for an instant everyone’s heart stopped. It was then that I turned to look at the twins and discovered my girls had discovered a new use for their flashlights and had displayed unparalleled skill in marksmanship. Mischievous little grins were spotted before the room went dark and silent again.
A few seconds later a small volley of thunder rumbled overhead that sounded more reassuring than threatening. To some it sounded like a good belly laugh in heaven above. What timing!