My reading began very early in my youth. My mother taught me how to read while on our travels, well before I started public school. I loved picture books, but I was not afraid of some of the heavier stuff either. I remember being exposed to National Geographic magazines very early, and although quite a few people in my church objected to such young children seing those magazines due to the nudity in some articles, my mom did not object. I had seen plenty of nudity during my time in hippie communes, so I think I developed a healthy innoculation towards the shock of seeing naked bodies. The articles with naked people did not really interest me anyway, since they were usually about primitive cultures I had never heard of, nor cared about. I read National Geographic for one primary reason – their articles on animals and dinosaurs. I loved that stuff!
I hiked a lot in the desert, sometimes miles from the house, alone with some friends from our church, armed with a couple of Daisy air rifles. We roamed all over the desert arroyos and mesas, a couple of springs that I knew of, and some narrow canyons that filled with water every spring. I saw lots of geology and lots of wildlife. I had developed a real curiosity about the world around me. The night sky in the high desert of New Mexico is breathtaking! I pity people who tell me that they have never seen the Milky Way. I wasted many hours of my life staring at the vast expanse of stars over my head, reciting the names of stars and constellations, or just letting my mind drift in wonder. Sometimes, my curiosity of nature outweighed my fear of its dangers. Upon encountering a rattlesnake in the desert (something which happens frequently), I would stop and stare at it from beyond striking distance, wondering how it rattled, why it rattled, and why it flicked its tongue. I would make no motions, but just stand my ground and watch. The snake would remain coiled, rattling, rattling, rattling, until it finally got bored with me and crawled off. I would memorize names of animals and dinosaurs from my picture books and magazine articles. Mom and Michael saw some kind of aptitude in me, and bought me a cheap microscope. I spent time looking at pond scum, river water, horse tank muck, and plenty of, what every boy with a microscope eventually looks at, my own blood, snot and spit.
My earlist scientific influence was probably a TV weatherman from Albuquerque named George Fischbeck. Dr George (as everybody called him) sprinkled his weather forecasts with quick anecdotes about how weather forecasting actually worked, and how the science was done. His charisma certainly helped. He was quick, lively, fun, entertaining, and very smart. On weekends, Dr Fischbeck broadcast another show, aimed at youngsters like myself, on the local PBS station. He performed simple science experiments for us kids, told us how they were done and what they meant, all with a few corny jokes sprinkled in. A rival TV network featured another charismatic weatherman, whose name I have long forgotten, who painted dinosaurs as a hobby. He would occasionally feature one of his dinosaur paintings with a brief explanation before beginning his weather forecast. “This is a rhamphorhynchus, a small flying pterosaur. It looks like a bat, but unlike a bat, its wing membrane is framed only to a single elongated finger…and now let’s look at the today’s weather”. I found these men irresistible. They were completely unlike anybody I knew in my little community of hippies, Jesus Freaks and Pentecostals. For the next few years, when I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I responded with ‘meteorologist’. This was the humble beginning of my science education.
I also liked the syndicated show, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, hosted by Marlin Perkins. Every week he, along with his assistant Jim Fowler, would travel someplace on the planet to capture some animal, usually just to tag it and release it back into the wild. As much as I loved this and similar programs, there was a bit of a problem. There was usually a segment, only a moment or two, when the evolutionary history of the featured animal was discussed. Every time this segment was on television, my face would flush red with embarrassment. It was that hot feeling I got when I was embarrassed about seeing something I knew I should not be seeing. I knew what my church said about fossils, evolution and an ancient Earth. I knew that God created the world in six days about 6000 years ago. But I also knew about fossils. I could easily find scads of seashells in the desert, and for some reason, I trusted Marlin Perkins when he described the vast age of Earth. My young brain was not yet ready to try to reconcile these contradictory views of Nature. I accepted both, even though I knew that Grandpa Wagner thought that Evolution was Satanic. I will never forget the day that Grandpa Wagner’s haggard and toothless old wife took my favorite set of dinosaur flashcards and threw them into the woodstove, right before my eyes, mumbling something about tricks of the devil.
I trusted my sensory intuition. It involved things I could see, or at least reasonably infer. I could look through the toy microscope, view the heavens, dig for fossils and arrowheads, and actually view tangible evidence of with my own two hands. It also involved a love of books. Jesus did not involve anything I could see or touch, but he came to me through another book. As I said, I came to a point where I stopped enjoying the singing in Christian Worship. I felt like I was outgrowing much of the emotional outflow of worship. I started paying more attention to the hymn lyrics that I was singing, and found that they made little actual sense to me. But one thing I could do was read that Book, that special Book that I was told was God’s love letter to me. If I wanted to learn about Jesus, I had to read the Book, and pray to him. Since books taught me about planets, animals and dinosaurs, I figured that the Book, the Bible, would teach me about Jesus.
I did not own a Bible of my own except for my Children’s Picture Bible, and some of my cousins owned a giant family Bible with old paintings that were pretty exciting. I was mighty impressed with my step-dad Michael’s giant, leather-bound Scofield Study Bible. Tiny print on over 1000 nearly transparent pages. It had articles in the back on all manner of subjects, and I remember lots of photos from archeological digs. His had a big, black cover with a zipper, and pockets on the inside that could hold pencils and pens. I had never seen a book like that before, and something about the size of it, and the auxiliary features that came along with it. He had the text all marked up with colored pencils according to topic, and I liked to flip through the pages, scan the text of the sacred book, and look at the even smaller footnotes. While they were still dating, Michael Wagner gave my mom a large black Thompson Chain Reference Bible. It was also very large, but not quite as large as Michael’s Scofield Study Bible, but it was impressive enough to mom that she could finally replace her cheap paperback Good News Bible, and do some serious Bible studying. I still enjoyed my Children’s Picture Bible, but I rejoiced when Mom and Michael gave me a small, leather-bound Bible of my own. Not an annotated study bible, but a small King James version with my name embossed in gold right on the front cover.
Even though I was a voracious reader, I don’t know if mom and Michael were actually expecting me to read that Bible. But I viewed the Bible, the book written by God, as something more concrete than worship. I did not need the frenzy of crowds to make it work. There were no patterns or scripts involved in reading. I could just sit in the house, alone and in peace, and read that special book that God wrote – just for me.
I did not read the entire Bible. Thanks to my Children’s Picture Bible (which was surprisingly comprehensive!), I had a fair idea what was in there, and where to find it. Like most newcomers to the Bible, I got stuck in the Mosaic Law, but I just skipped over that for the juicy stuff. Contrary to most newcomers, I loved scouring the Bible’s many geneologies. I enjoyed names, numbers, figures, dates. I loved the stories about Elijah and Elisha, the miracle working prophets of the Old Testament. During particularly hot and dry days, I would imagine a tiny cloud in the sky, about the size of my hand, that could move overhead and bring a miraculous downpour. I knew that Jesus told me that I could move mountains if I only had enough Faith, and I also knew that Elijah had enough Faith to call down fire from Heaven. There were plenty of bullies in school that I desperately wanted to get the better of, and I longed to call fire down from Heaven to show them a thing or two. I remember consciously planning on building up enough Faith to actually perform this miracle, but nobody told me quite how to ‘build up Faith’, so that plan sort of fizzled out. Too bad. I wanted a burning stone altar of my own.
I did my best to read the apocalypic visions in the book of Revelation. My church paid special attention to Jesus’ warnings of the future and signs of the End of the Age. We believed that Christ’s return was immanent, which was obvious to us all from the warning signs Jesus gave in Matthew 24. Wars, famines, nuclear proliferation and uncertain times all lead us to think that the Rature was near, that we would all float off the ground and meet Jesus in the clouds, thus ushering in the Great Tribulation. Hal Lindsay was just becoming wellknown in Pentecostal circles, and End Times Prophecy, and sermons devoted to ‘unlocking Revelation” were suddenly all the rage. At least a few times, my church urged my mom to keep me out of school, holed up together in the house, so that we could wait for Jesus to take us home. I am not sure how long we were kept out of school – a few days, maybe a couple of weeks, but eventually our Messianic hopes were short lived and we returned to class.
I also read all the red colored text in the Gospels - the very words of Jesus himself. I prayed and talked to Jesus often, I sometimes imagined him walking with me, dressed in a white robe, with shoulder length hair, beard and sandles. His kind face was soothing to gaze upon, but I never imagined him speaking back. I had to rely on what he spoke to his disciples, 2000 years ago. I did my best to understand. It was not long until I chanced upon these threatening words from my best friend:
Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come. – Matt 12:31-32
It is the dreaded Blasphemy of the Holy Ghost, the one and only unpardonable sin! I took this to mean, according to the context from which it is quoted from, to attribute signs and wonders of the Holy Spirit to be from the power of the Devil. In these years, my self-esteem and assurance was already sinking due to my conflicted view of the world, and my aloof nature with schoolmates. I was also somewhat obsessive with ideas. Once an idea was in my head, I could not help but toy and play with it, even if it was a bad idea. And the thought that just a mere utterance, the spoken attribution to the Devil what belonged to the Holy Ghost, would land me into Eternal HellFire, both scared and fascinated me. How could God send a person to hell, forever, just for uttering a simple phrase? Upon learning this dangerous information, I felt that I was recklessly dangling over an impossibly high cliff; slightly off balance so that one breath would tip me over to certain doom.
What if that boy evangelist that my church raved about was really not sent from God? What if it was all a trick from…. ? What if his miraculous cures were from the power of ….? What if we were not being Slain in the Spirit, but instead being Slain in the …? I don’t know how long I consciously avoided attributing the power of the Holy Ghost empowered child evangelist to the Devil, but it was only a matter of time before my obsessive mind caved in to my darker nature:
“That boy evangelist got his power from the Devil!”
I don’t know how long I panicked over this utterance. I don’t know how often I prayed, and begged God for forgiveness. All I remember is that for several days, maybe even weeks, I was quiet, prone to tears, and sought solitude in the desert so I could repent of my blasphemous behavior to my Best Friend. I did think I was truly hellbound. I did not know who I could speak to.
One day in class, for no good reason, I burst into tears. Mrs Cristola, my 5th grade teacher, knew I was frequently bullied, and she supposed somebody was being particularly cruel to me. But that was not the case. It was unprovoked. I simply cried, sobbed and whined in pathetic self-pity in front of the rest of my gradeschool class. Mrs Cristola asked me what was wrong. I said nothing. How could I?
She led me out of the class, leaving a classroom full of kids to certainly mock and laugh at my odd behavior. She found the nearest private room, which was the janitor’s mop closet. She sat across from me, and with her face mere inches from mine, implored:
“What is wrong? Tell me. What is wrong? Is somebody hurting you? Tell me. Nobody can hear.”
How could I tell this woman? How could I tell my schoolteacher, who was not a member of my church, that I was crying, not because I was being bullied, not because my grades were suffering, but because I had doomed myself to eternal damnation by blaspheming the Holy Ghost. In an episode that would later repeat itself several times in my life, I was left speechless, with absolutely no excuse for my miserable behavior.
Absorbed with self-pity, I asked God to kill me. This was not the first time, and certainly not the last. I was very confused. I did not understand my classmates. I did not understand my Jesus. I did not understand my family. Nothing made sense, except the horrible price I was learning to pay for my own Sin. That millstone of guilt would live on with me for many years.
For some reason that I have never been able to understand, we suddenly moved from San Ysidro. The Wagner family and their church, who had fled from Jamestown, New York, suddenly had an inexplicable urge to move again, this time to a place my family had never traveled. I recently asked mom why they decided to move to southeast Missouri, but to this day she still does not understand. Nobody in the church had any family or friends there. Nobody had any work or employment waiting there. But, mom had married into the Wagner family, so we packed our meager belongings, left the desert, and arrived on the fertile farmlands of Missouri in the summer of 1975. It was time for us to start over again.
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