I was about 20 years old that February when I drove out the gate of Fort Knox, Kentucky, heading for Reno, Nevada. I had just purchased a Mercury coup for the trip from a used car salesman on the dingy, left over side of Louisville. He opened the hood, pointed to the straight six, and assured me the car would make it. It was not a bad looking car,after all, this sporty white coup, with electric windows that worked with the push of a button. I thought I’d just arrived in the modern era. But, with the size of the grin on the salesman’s face, and since the car was a Mercury, sold at a discounted price no-less, I should have known something was up.
Just west of the Mississippi it began to softly snow.I’d been smoking my Camels, and imagining the stale smoky odor seeping into the upholstery of my new car. Naturally,I wanted to air it out, so I turned up the heat and opened the driver’s window for ten cold miles. Then thoroughly chilled, I pushed the button to close the window.It shuddered in place, raised an inch, clunkily complained, and died, receding back down into the door.I tried again. A grind and nothing.Gave it time to gather energy for another go, waited as wind blasted the car, and the landscape became one bright shade of white. I pushed again. Nothing. I banged on the door and used language even the guys in the barracks would blush at, trying to cajole it to cooperate. Perhaps it didn’t like my tone, or perhaps there was a simpler explanation; perhaps it was merely frozen in place. So, I apologized to the window, and wrapped myself in an Army blanket. Sleet was flinging in ever more rapidly and stinging my face. I used a tee-shirt to clear the windshield of its foggy drippings. Miles on, the windshield wipers clicked at supersonic speeds as the temperature plunged to the 20’s. My face and hands had turned to stone. I could barely hear the radio over the moaning storm. Then the whirl of the heater fan finally chugged to a coughing halt. Now, I’m as angry myself as I was the car.I’d been warned about Mercury’s electrical problems, but chose to believe that balding salesman with the resplendent grin. Soon my legs and feet were numb, my hands clumps of frozen meat.
Undaunted, I continued on to the University of Missouri in Columbus and the girl from back home.Her room was warm; my purple hands turned pink again, my feet came alive. And she was pretty enough, gay, and curvy—or chunky, depending on your point of view. We talked for hours in her cramped dorm room;or rather she talked, rattling on in college girl banality, as I tried mightily to stay awake.As anxious for bed and as patient as I was—I put in a gamely effort—she decided in the end to maintain her virtue. Nevertheless, I stayed through the wee hours, collapsed at the foot of her bed, having failed to satisfy a soldier’s need, and deciding to leave early the next morning. I still regret that night—the defeat, not the effort—but, while in Columbus, I did snag a trophy.
Most soldiers during those days were fairly ignorant of the world at large. We had provincial tastes and little ambition other than to make it to the next payday without getting busted. So you can appreciate how impressed I was by college students my age; young princes and princesses who had brains and a future and a pocket full of their parent’s lucre. I studied them carefully, trying to discern the difference,as I strolled about campus the next morning.Ducking under snow laden specimen trees, and trying to escape the wind, I wandered into the university library. Immediately overwhelmed by the size of the building and the mass of books, I shuffle stepped, looking left and right, past rack after rack of books of varying shapes and color, and since it was still too early for the young to rise, I had that gorgeous space and all that knowledge to myself. Certain I’d never achieve even a modest education, I pulled a few heavy tomes off the shelves just to get the feel of them. Then a miniature, a pretty little book,moderately thick, but not much larger than a postcard, caught my eye. The book jacket was made of smooth, well-worn leather. It was ivory in color, and richly embossed in an elaborate font. I ran my fingers over the raised title and mysterious seal just underneath, and then opened the cover to find it dated before the end of the 19th century. Then, though not by habit a thief, I stealthily looked over my shoulder, placed the little treasure under my coat, and left, trudging through the snow back to my Mercury. I tossed the book in the back, shut the door, grabbed my blanket and twisted the key in the ignition. The engine eventually roared against the white stillness, shocking me with guilt and second thoughts.
Once in Reno—after a rather harrowing trip through winter storms, sleep deprived, freezing and with hallucinations visiting as I crossed the Nevada desert—I settled down to read the little ivory book.
The author was an English adventurer who traveled to India and walked among the swami, intrigued by withered, wise men living on alms and prayers. The stolen miniature contained anecdotes of what we might call miracles, witnessed by the author. One that I distinctly remember recounted his encounter with a particular swami, a dark skinned little man, skinny as a thread, white-bearded with penetrating eyes. The swami—not sure what else to call him—talked in universals too vague to be helpful and told the adventurer he’d see him again soon. Our author then climbed a nearby mountain to visit a temple. When he arrived, the same seer was meditating under the shade of a nearby a tree. It would have been impossible for the swami to have preceded him. Our traveler was told that the swami had in fact been meditating for days, and never left his spot under the tree. He had somehow transported himself in time and space.
If we are honest with ourselves, most of us we’ll admit that sometime in our lives we have experienced a touch of the divine: a tensely awakening, never to be forgotten, spiritual experience.Silly, perhaps, but the little book made an impression on me, more than my now-and-again reading of the world’s religious texts.It helped me understand those times a universal truth brushed by my consciousness, like my vision during that snowstorm driving through Nevada, when a white cloaked girl with a calming smile appeared and disappeared near the hash mark in the road. Since the time of the book and the vision, I’ve never completely discounted stories of the miraculous, or even the possibility of reincarnation or immortal life in another dimension. No one knows, and that is the point of faith, and belief.
Belief, however, is a tricky thing. My ambivalence in accepting purely conceptual ideas as truth (the concept of God, for instance,a meremental construct) comes from experience, my daily reliance on cause and effect, and what I can sense or measure. Even so, that touch of the divine we sometimes feel, those otherwise unexplainable but spiritually emotive instances that are inescapably true,share our experiential life. Shouldn’t we give that credence, too?But then, perhaps I’m susceptible to such epiphanies since I’m also one of those souls who have a need for meaning—that core imperative and genesis of all religious thought. What I do know is that belief creates a form of reality of its own. Like my certainty that even though I was a sucker for that crooked car salesman, and worse, a failed philanderer and a book thief,the girl in the white cloak thought I was redeemable.And that’s good enough for me.