I think I did a cruel thing, leaving Milton alone to suffer and sing with the ancient ones. Still, even though church, like most of the Valley, was a flat landscape, he was learning.
The verbal dross so favored by white preachers and followers seemed to be passing over his head, but some of it went in one ear and did not always pass immediately out the other. For example, Milton was learning to inch his ass over to the left and then to the right in a strange sitting dance designed to find a little comfort, a little relief, as the oak Presbyterian pews turned the pain switch to “high.”
He was forced to think of old Presbyterian pewmakers, who regularly heard things like, “Hey, Smith, you’re making that one too comfortable. Take out that curvature and make that thing flat, like the others. No. Splinters are not necessary, and may be against the teachings of Jesus. And no screwing up this time.”
He learned about osmosis, which he associated with sea urchins. Sea urchins, unless eaten by a variety of underwater passers-by, seemed to just sit on rocks under the sea, not saying much, and taking it all in. Absorbing it. Living it. Being it. And urchins seemed in no hurry to either learn or do anything. Really good role models. Portuguese-looking guys would come along and pry them off the rocks, which caused no response from the urchin community. But unlike the sea-urchins, Milton just knew that the absorption of information, understood or not, would one day lead to something. It had to. Otherwise, what was the point? Why break your buns in church, however god-fearing and solemn, for the sake of observing a spider snacking on a fly? No, osmosis would one day save his lame, young ass by forcing him to evaluate his purpose in life while sitting through Sunday morning church services.
“God works in mysterious ways,” Milton was told. Well, that was just too much mystery for our hero, which is why he favored Jesus, who seemed a simple guy with long, straight hair, blue eyes, and a simple plan. A plan that Milton planned to figure out someday.
In later years, the classic poem, “Snail’s Progress,” by Alexandra Schwarzkopf, would remind Milton of those mornings spent in church, when he could look at the men singing hymn 309, and know they were thinking about sitting on their porches with a fat cigar. The women…they were all about a favorite lime jello, the freshness of two-day old celery, and the cooking time needed for a certain sacrificial chunk of beef. Milton had already intuited (not his word) all he would ever need to know about heaven and hell. Everything else was a matter of satisfying the observations of older people, who themselves knew the formal and informal rules of the organization game, but who also knew that repetition and boredom were essential parts of life. Without repetition and boredom, and plenty of it, there could be no mediocre foundation for acceptable accomplishment. And, please, not a lot of thinking in the process. You DO NOT want to ruin it for the others.
But, as for today, right now, on this particular Sunday?
Old Mr. Parsons was having a coughing fit, and the hymn ended mercifully at about the Tenth Rising of the Phlegm, which Mr. Parsons swallowed, causing all parishioner thought to anticipate the next cough, the next hack. Then the service was over, and the boredom and the osmosis could wait another week!
What was extra special about the last note of the last hymn, besides the rediscovery of fresh air, was when a hound, sitting on the steps of the First Church of Christ Scientist, yeah, some hound over there, began to sing an incredibly loud, mournful hound-song it had picked up from the Presbyterians! There was a shadow of a melody, which, when you concentrated and closed your eyes just so, sounded like “Onward Christian Soldiers!” It was the only time Milton could remember having an ability to both speak and understand dog, in English. Some friends thought him funny, while others thought him a liar, even though they, too, heard that mournful dog on that day.
A church bell rang…the Methodists. And then another, the Episcopalians. Pretty soon that whole part of town was filled with old white people, some in their thirties, surrounded by running, yelling children. A few of the older old white people waited for Milton to screw up, and he could sense the expectation. Well, screwing up was what he did…it was who he was.
But just before he let fly with a rock at a huge black and orange cat with a snaggle tooth, some sweating, extra-large-size woman in a stiff root-beer colored taffeta dress yelled, “I know who you are and I am telling your mother and father so you better tell me your name!”
“What did I do?” asked Milton, rock in hand.
Taffeta Root Beer said, “You were going do something bad, so I want you punished.”
Years later, Milton would add blown-up water buffalo limbs to the list of NVA, Viet Cong, ARVN, and South and North Vietnamese civilian dead, to be added to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s daily Vietnam War body count. Before he died a miserable man, McNamara confessed that the United States had, in fact, destroyed humans and livestock and homes and children and crops and trees and canals and whatever the hell else high explosive, napalm, and a whole variety of bombs which might destroy from high, medium and low altitudes. And don’t forget the artillery. Grunts on the ground often added their share under the old Crusader saw, “Kill ’em All. Let God sort ’em out.” If there was anything moving in a certain death zone at a certain time, it was killed.
Robert McNamara was one of America most intelligent dumb sons of bitches to ever put on a pair of wire-rimmed granny glasses. He knew so much and was so bright. But having never carried a weapon in battle, he was like the president now skulking in the swamps and caves of the White House: Ignorant, tone deaf, and deadly. In the year Milton spent distinguishing body parts, friend, foe, or unknown, and tossing in the occasional bone to up the number, he spent every waking hour trying to stay alive. He smoked, he drank, he did dope, and knew that the Air Force was attempting to kill him. He lost his family soon after getting home.
It took a long time before Milton understood why he wanted so badly to hit an orange and black cat with a stone. The cat was wearing the colors of San Jacinto High…the Tigers. But what was that damn San Jacinto cat doing in Hemet?