Well, I've decided to try my hand at a different type of writing. My Atheist's Book of Bible Stories is nearly complete, so I thought I would write the epic masterpiece history of my family, from the time that they came to Canada until today. I am calling the book "East of Edenwold" (which is a small town in Saskatchewan). Here is one of the stories, which deals with our trek to the 1969 District Convention in Vancouver. Some of you may have been there.
It's fairly long, but if you care to read it, I would appreciate any feedback - what you liked about the story or writing, what you didn't like, suggestions for improvements, events that I may have missed, or anything else that is relevant.
Chapter xx: Good Night Nurse
Television has conditioned me to think of the 60s in terms of helicopters landing on a tropical beach and students protesting against a backdrop of Jimi Hendrix and The Doors.
This is not how I remember the actual 60s. One of my last acts of the decade was to turn eight years old. So, other than noticing a few additional flowers embroidered on my sister’s jeans, the hippie culture of the day passed me by.
But, the end of the 60s did provide a memorable event for me – a trip to Vancouver. During the summer of 69, my family decided to take a trip. Or rather, it was decided for us that we would take a trip. That year, the Jehovah’s Witnesses elected to hold only a few huge conventions in North America, instead of the usual numerous small ones. And, believe me, no one convenes like Jehovah’s Witnesses. We convened our brains out that summer.
It was an eight day affair. Sessions would begin around nine in the morning and last until nine at night, with a few breaks in between.
So, with that in mind, we began planning. Now, in our family, there was only one way to take a trip – by car. It was not enough just to get there. We had to “make good time”. My father was a master at making good time. And, if he could fill the car to capacity with passengers, it was even better. If he believed that he could get extra credits by multiplying the time saved by the attendance, then that year, he must have cleaned up.
We were to begin the trip with a short warm up jaunt as far as Regina on Sunday afternoon, where we would pick up extra passengers and reload for the major assault on the road. Bear in mind that we were starting out with my three sisters, my parents, and myself. In addition to the six of us, we were planning to camp all the way there and back, as well as during the convention, so we were loaded with a large tent, camping and picnic supplies, and enough clothing to facilitate eight consecutive days of church.
To carry the load, my father bought a roof rack and made a large plywood box to ride on the roof of our 1969 Ford Custom 500. I must pause for a moment and offer my hearty congratulations to Henry Ford and his children. I have seen trucks that couldn’t handle the load and stress that that car took.
Now, it wasn’t enough that we were heading out for a religious vacation. Being the devout Witnesses that we were, we loaded everyone in the car on Sunday morning and headed out for the 30 mile drive to the Kingdom Hall for the weekly Watchtower study. As soon as we left the driveway and started to speed up, the car began emitting a high pitched whine. What could be worse than this?
So, my father took us home, and headed into Langenburg, where he roused the local Ford dealer out on a Sunday morning. He put the car up on the hoist, sped up to 60, and declared everything fine. So, he took it out for a drive. Sure enough, the whine started immediately. The diagnosis? Wind whistling through the new roof rack. A disaster had been averted.
That afternoon, the six of us headed on to Regina, where we stayed with my Aunt Mary.
As I mentioned earlier, our purpose for this stop was to pick up passengers. My uncle Bill and aunt Kaye were home for the summer from their missionary assignment in Africa, and they needed a ride to Vancouver. No problem, there were only six of us.
Now, as missionaries, Bill and Kaye were considered to be theological celebrities. They also brought back souvenirs for all of us. That was rather thoughtful, since they didn’t have a lot of money. Most of the kids got little carved wooden trinkets like elephants, with real ivory tusks. I suspect those trinkets would have gotten them thrown into prison today, but hey, this was the 60s. I got the big gift – a 30 inch mahogany plank. Bill must have thought that there were a million things that an enterprising boy could do with lumber, and mahogany was pretty good lumber. I suspect he picked up the board at a lumber yard down the road from us. After all, who would fly half way around the planet, under stringent weight restrictions, with a plank? But, who knows. Besides, there was a good chance that it really did originate in Africa, whether he brought it or not. In my college years, I used it as a book shelf. I don’t know where it is today.
So, Monday morning at five o’clock, we left Regina, and lumbered down the trans Canada highway – eight people, luggage, camping supplies, and a plank.
In case you’re wondering about the logistics of this, I would like to remind you that of the eight people, five were adults, two were teenagers, and one was me. Being the chronological low man on the totem pole also placed me as the literal low man in the seating arrangements. I spent the trip on the floor of the back seat, with four pairs of feet for company.
As I mentioned earlier, if there are celestial credits for “making good time”, we kicked ass that day. We made it as far as another aunt’s place in Kelowna before nightfall. Let’s see, that’s 846 miles, times eight passengers, while avoiding a hotel or campground fee. My dad should have been put in the “making time” hall of fame.
The following day was just a short hop into Vancouver – a mere 282 miles of mountain driving. Hell, we could do that before breakfast.
It was along this route that I learned something interesting. Apparently my missionary uncle must have been watching a lot of Archie Bunker, because his favorite expression whenever something outraged him was “Good night, nurse!”
As we were passing through a small mountain resort town, I periscoped up from my home on the floor to see the sights. As my eight year old eyes were drinking in the sight of a shapely young girl in a very short mini-skirt, and wondering what to make of it, the commentary started from beside me.
“Good night, nurse!” Believe me, 1969 provided plenty of outrage for a returning missionary. “Do you know what she has on under that dress?”
Well, I hadn’t been thinking about it up to that point, but I was now. My eight year old mind was struggling with some sort of bloomers, when the answer came, “Absolutely nothing. Good night, nurse!”
For a missionary, he must have had a pretty dirty mind. To this day, I don’t know if he was working on pure conjecture, or if he had some way of figuring it out.
Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to deduce the state of women’s underwear, while achieving no where near his certainty. Perhaps he had a divine revelation, or maybe he just thought it was safe to assume that wonton women would all go commando in the last days before the apocalypse.
Later that day, we arrived in the great city. Now, there are very few things more appealing to an 8 year old than 96 hours of religious lectures, but excitement can be found anywhere.
In total, around 40,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses converged on Vancouver that year, originating across Western Canada and the Northwestern United States. We filled Empire Stadium and the Pacific Coliseum. Fortunately, my parents opted for Empire Stadium. This allowed me the triple entertainment of being outdoors, pretending that a football game was being played behind the speaker, and watching the activities next door at the Pacific National Exhibition. On the other hand, I’m not sure if watching people ride roller coasters and ferris wheels was such a good thing, while listening to marathon religious lectures, but it was better than nothing. As a side note, every day an announcement was made, telling people not to take the short cut across the roller coaster route. I wondered what kind of an idiot would be that desperate to get into a religious convention that they would want to shorten the trip. I found out. Before the end of the convention, we heard that one of the “sisters” had been killed by the roller coaster. Perhaps she was trying to get out, fast. Or, maybe the story was fabricated to keep us too scared to skip out. Either way, it worked.
One of the highlights of every convention is the Bible drama. The audio track is prerecorded and boomed over the football stadium’s tinny public address system. The play is then lip-synced by a group of carpet layers and window washers in bed sheets and glue-on beards who are so far away that they could only indicate who is speaking by frantically waving their arms. I believe that classifying this as the high point says something about how desperate we were for a break in the monotony.
I shouldn’t be so hard on the actors, though. Many years later, I performed in three Bible dramas. I don’t like to brag, but in the Jeremiah drama, it was my performance that turned the name “Man 3” into a household word. I was the guy who helped the guy, who helped the guy, who helped Jeremiah get out of the well.
For me, the best part of the convention was the food. At lunch and supper, there was a cafeteria and a concession stand that sold hot dogs. Eight year olds have pretty low culinary standards. During one of the lunch breaks, I got the treat of a fudgecycle. As I was enjoying it, the heat began to have an effect. The fudgecycle started to bend over. I assumed that it was just weak ice cream, so I ate faster. As I reached the center, I was surprised to find a ball bearing inside. This was better than I could imagine. My cousins had told me about a guy who found a mouse in a Coke and they gave him a free case. So, I trotted to the concession stand with my ball bearing to see what I would get. What I got was my first lesson in free enterprise. The teenager at the stand didn’t have a clue, and was merely handing out the stuff. In addition to the free lesson, I also was the recipient of a shrug and a ball bearing. I guess that’s more than most people came home with.
Looking back, with my vast camping knowledge acquired by the one time that I slept in the tent trailer in my back yard, I can honestly say that I don’t know how my parents did it. Six of us slept in a tent, had breakfast, put on our suits, got to the convention before nine o’clock, then returned over twelve hours later, slept quickly, and started over again – eight times. I would have trouble managing that feat with three bathrooms.
My final memory of the convention before the return trip home was captured on film. We had left our seats early, so that we could beat the exiting crowds and traffic (allowing us to make some good time on the way home), but we stopped in front of the exit for the closing song and prayer. I guess you can’t be properly saved if you miss even a minute. By the way, Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to call their songs hymns, because that’s what false religion does, so our closing hymn was just a song. As “Keep Your Eyes On The Prize” was ending, tears were streaming down my face as I contemplated the beauty of the cheesy lyrics and regretted the end of the trip. The picture shows me looking up at my Mom. God, I was cute.
It alternated heat and rain; it was crowded; the food was bad; the seats were hard; the sessions were mind-numbing; and, the fudgecycles were likely toxic; but, there went the best goddamn assembly a Jehovah’s Witness ever had .