Showing posts with label Mike Johnston. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mike Johnston. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Remember that guy I had hated in fifth grade Sunday School, and came to appreciate so much in high school, Chris Stivers? He and I continued to share musical experiences during college. My junior spring, my first semester in Malibu, he and I went on choir tour together. He and Sandy Tiner (granddaughter of a former Pepperdine president who preceded Norvel) were just starting to get together. (They later married and had three beautiful and musical daughters.)

Chris formed a group of musicians that was just a bit reminiscent of Chicago, or Earth, Wind and Fire – he had the nerve to use horns! He had found a fabulous vocalist for his band who had come to Pepperdine from Nashville, Nan Arnold. She and her brother Chip were both in Malibu that year, both excellent actors as well. It was a good thing she went on to graduate from Abilene Christian University, where Marilyn and Janice were, because it was there she met her husband, Wayne Gurley. But I was glad to get acquainted with her that year, and still know her to this day. (In fact, we’re currently in a weekly study group together.) I loved Chip Arnold too. He used to drop in and chat when I worked my first real Nashville job, and went on to appear in several movies, including starring as the Apostle Paul in a depiction of the book of Acts, also featuring Dean Jones. Next spring a movie he wrote will star Michael W. Smith.

Each year there was a spring revue where the various sororities and fraternities would prepare musical skits and compete. It was called “Spring Sing” and was always a lot of fun. Our junior year was our first semester at Pepperdine Malibu, and Danny and I were both invited to participate. He did join in, playing the part of the Cowardly Lion from the Wizard of Oz, and did a great job. I was invited to sing “Bali Hai” as Bloody Mary from South Pacific, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. My heart rose up when I heard the first words of the invitation from Nan and Chip, and then I realized the part was intended for a motherly, fat woman. I didn’t have the self-acceptance that playing that part would have required. To myself, I used the excuse that I was afraid of shaming Danny by playing such an unattractive role. I just wasn’t mature enough to realize all the positives in the situation. I could have had fun, and maybe I could have shone in the part.

I believe another girl was in Chris’s group as well, and also a friend of Nan’s. Melissa Kelly I largely remember in connection with the Missions Workshop that fall – that must have been the first time we met. She played flute, she was full of life, and her vivacious energy made a big impression on me. Who could dream that in later years she would move to Nashville and we would end up in the same church, playing and singing together on a worship team? And who could guess in 1973 that she would be reading this tale of my life in 2005, and encouraging me to “Add pictures!”

The next thing Chris Stivers and I did together was early December, 1973 – we sang at a Christmas party at Jim Nabors’ house. Jim Nabors played Gomer Pyle, first on the Andy Griffith Show and then on his own show, and he had an annual Christmas party for the Hollywood TV folks. He (or one of his staff) had called Pepperdine’s music department to hire a small group of students to sing carols by the front door as his guests arrived. Chris hired Danny and me and his cousin, John Novak, and some other girl I can’t remember.

The guest list for Mr. Nabors’ Christmas gala was a Who’s Who of network TV. Florence Henderson drove herself to the party in her own station wagon, unlike all the others who were delivered to the door ensconced in stretch limousines. Betty White and Allen Ludden were there. Richard Crenna, and the Smothers Brothers, passed me in the hallway. (I was tempted to reach out and touch their faces and say, “Are you sure that’s really you? Or is that a Halloween mask?”)

After we had sung our throats raw in the chilly wind by the front door, a staff person invited us in to eat leftovers back in the kitchen. But, no, first someone had the bright idea that we should sing some more for the guests. So someone lifted up a tent flap (It was my first outdoor tented party experience, with huge heaters.), and there we were…maybe ten feet away from Dionne Warwick. I nearly fainted on the spot. And what did Chris choose to perform, but a Negro spiritual where I would have some really high notes all by myself? I was mortified to be singing such a song, after so much throat abuse in a chill wind, in front of my personal vocal hero, Dionne Warwick. But we pulled it off without complete humiliation.

Chris, being such a talented instrumentalist, was particularly thrilled to meet Doc Severinsen, Johnny Carson’s band leader on the Tonight show. They had a brief chat, and I’ll bet Chris could have taken further advantage of the connection. Instead, he fell in love with Sandy the following year and got married and took a “normal” job at Pepperdine (IT, and some teaching) to support his family. He’s never stopped being musical on the side, but I always wondered how far he could have gone if he’d tried. Such a gifted guy.

Seated at dinner on either side of Jim Nabors were two perfectly opposite specimens of feminine iconography, Charo and Dorothy Malone. I found out later he was gay, and that explained his choice of seating companions. He wanted to display his ability to surround himself with the opposite sex, but his choices were definitely two women he would never have had a relationship with. Charo was way too crazy and Dorothy was way too old.

Here’s a random snapshot of Helen, Sara, me and Momma taken around the holidays of 1973. Anyway I guess it was a holiday event - I can’t imagine why else I would have been wearing that formal dress.
Surprise Visit to Yale
I mentioned earlier a girl that I became friends with at Malibu, Virginia Burch. She had also been friends with Mike Johnston, but she had little patience with his intellectual questioning and doubt. She thought maybe I was up to the challenge of evangelizing his heart, and she was all for the growing relationship between us. So when Christmas, 1973 was approaching, she and I devised a plan. She would invite me to spend a few days with her family in New York, which my mom would go for. (She would certainly never have gone for our actual plan.) Then, after I spent a little time with the Burches, they would put me on a train to New Haven, I would show up and surprise Mike at Yale, and then come back to New York and fly to Nashville to meet my mom there for Christmas. At Thanksgiving I wrote to Mike, vaguely fishing to find out if he would even be in Connecticut over the Christmas holidays.

“I’m sitting in my room with three candles and the wind is howling. It’s terrific outside. I’ve just been with Naomi and we saw someone that looked so much like you. I’d almost forgotten you were three-D. My goodness. How nice it would be to see your face. What’re you doing for Christmas?
“There has been many a time lately I’ve wanted to write. I take an almost perverse pleasure in owing you a letter, having the opportunity ahead of me. How dumb. The last Epistle to the Quasi-Scholarly made my day. It would have made my week but I carried it around with me all night and (gasp) Lost it. It’s typical – I lose anything I could potentially get attached to. If in the near or distant future you wouldn’t feel too redundant, I’d delight in another such piece of immortal scribbling. What the dif between a quasi- and a real live universalist? I’m quite intrigued by your creative processes. And I got inspired to boot. Spent seven hours today with Philo. How in the cat’s hair am I supposed to know where he got off the track? I’m not sure I even know which particular track he’s on.
“It’s a new experience playing role reversal with sweet Gaston. He’s so busy that we all, me especially, have to go see/get him, can’t expect him to hitch or whatever. So I’ve patiently, humbly been doing that at intervals. I’ve been learning about patience (?!!) and waiting for the Lord to decide when I need blessing. We’ll see what the future brings. I’m trying hard not to hold my breath. Music is so very fine, though.
“The whole point has been – God is so good.
“Are there any nice faculty wives there at all to care for you poor independent young men? I pray for you often. But darn it all God made us quite social if not downright fleshly and we do need people, in Him, at least some of the time.
“The leaves are turning in the canyon here and it’s cold and there’s fires in fireplaces. You inspired an actual poem the other day that’s not so wretched. Maybe someday I can show it to you. It blessed me.
“How are your dreams doing? or are they on reserve for future reference? I’m completely up in the air and not as concerned as might be profitable.
“I really wonder where I’ll be next year.
“Things are pretty fine right now.
“If we don’t start a nunnery in Appalachia, I get the feeling I’ll see you—
“God be with your spirit. Love
Gwen”

The reader should not be too terribly surprised that this gift of a few days with Mr. Johnston was so important to me that I took notes. Consider this fair warning that the next few pages are simply quotations from a remarkable flow of conversation. My word-starved soul was so happy in Mike’s presence, because for the three years I had spent with Danny it had been pleading, “Talk to me!”. Mike really talked…and he talked quite specifically to me.

“Virginia and I left a subway full of confused people (We’d sung about the Lord from Jamaica to Penn Station, talked to a fine old man about guitars) and she waited to check my stuff while I bought a ticket. We were feeling salty as anything and the freak behind the counter smiled back at me and sold me my ticket from the wrong line; then baggage room clerk was kind; and finally a powerful urge that Thursday was the Right Time, plus a ride from the Rutherfords to Penn Station had me on my way to New Haven, Connecticut.

“I got on the train at Penn Station, got off in New Haven, couldn’t find a cab so caught a bus to a stop in the vicinity of 409 Prospect, Mike’s mailing address, and started to walk. It was night, it was pretty rainy, and it was crazy…I didn’t even know if he was in town or not. I walked a fine walk up a hill, turned the way that felt right, went up a wrong driveway, and there was 409 – Yale Divinity School. “Oh, no, he doesn’t even live here,” I thought, “I’ll never find the boy.” I had to pray. “Lord, You see this situation I’ve gotten myself into. Please help me find him.”


“I entered the Quadrangle, where a row of buildings stretched ahead on both sides of a green yard, and the Chapel stood at the end. I tried the left side first. I passed up one door and went in another, about to ask a girl to help me find him when I turned around and there was his fine handwriting on a card, calling from the door. I pretty nervously knocked – a couple of times – and he finally came to the door. Neither of us could quite “picture it.” He didn’t really register any shock. I mean, my gosh, here stands this girl, in the dark of night, with no warning, but he acts like it happens to him every day.

December 20, 1973
Do I get a hug? (“I could use about half an hour.” It was Fine.)
(Hand on hair) All right, how long have you been out in the rain?
(Then he asked about fourteen or so people and I dutifully reported and I finally wondered if I shouldn’t think about practical matters and told him I was there indefinitely and he decided we’d think about it later. So we talked on. Discussed studying.)
So how do you feel about it [studying] now? For me, it’s self-perpetuating. I think I’ll always study. I don’t think I’ll ever quit.
I’ve been practicing…(He pulled out his Fender guitar, pre-tuned and ready.)
There’s this really beautiful song…(“Here I Sit,” from an album by Lazarus I had taped for him. I confessed I always thought of him when I heard it.)
Three people have come by and all three of you think the Lord led you here.
This may sound trite to you, and I can’t explain it, but you should have seen the ice… (There had been an ice storm and every twig and blade of grass had been coated in sparkle.)
That sunrise was the best you ever missed, it made nature lovers out of both of us. (Jerry Gaston, his guitar playing friend)
Here’s another Christmas present I would have given you.
Would you feel a sense of accomplishment if you wrote a book like that?
What’s that? This is a test… (“The Messiah” on the stereo. I passed.)
I heard about you long before our paths crossed.
We’ll worry about that when the time comes.
(Finally it was 4:00 a.m. and we decided we should sleep.)
My friends will tell you that I don’t care what I eat or where I sleep. (He slept on the springs and gave me the mattress on the floor.)
It’s kind of good you showed up tonight. Tomorrow I was moving to a married students’ apartment and nobody would have known where to find me.

December 21
(How fine, to wake up there, so content. So fine to lie in bed and talk to a guy for two hours.)
Well, did you know where you were when you woke up?
We should hear some music. Maybe Joni Mitchell. (Puts on Hedge and Donna, perfect for a mellow, gray rainy day.)
I was looking at children’s books for my little sister and I thought of you.
(He went to the cafeteria to eat lunch while I washed my hair in the Worleys’ apartment. A tad nervous, but all right. Thoughts in my head were dittoed when he came in.)
I was going to say, “Hi, darlin’, what’s for supper?” but I chickened out.
(So it was music time again. We went in the Common Room and played and watched it go dark till about 5:00 pm, at which time we went to see the Div. School libraries. He was sure I’d relate to the Missions Reading Room, showed me his desk in the balcony. Terrific place.)

I wish there were a big fireplace here. I thought about the lights, but what for?
I’ve been thinking, why would you want to be a librarian? (Self-same doubts beginning on my part. Back to the Common Room, fine place mit Klavier, so naturally I had to play. “ See You Again”, “For Free”, “Richard”, “Willy”, “Amahl”)
You and Gaston, and – no there aren’t any exceptions – only Gaston and you make me feel like singing. With most people I just shut up.
(We went in to supper in the Refectory.)
I didn’t know what that was till I got here. It seems like there are some things about you that Catholic novels would explain.
I’ve written more to you than anybody.
Maybe we should go to church tomorrow…
I haven’t been this relaxed in a long time. (Me: “And I haven’t been so content…”)
(No appetite, for him either, which he said never happens. Fine talk, a nice present. Back to the apartment and talk till 1:00 a.m. Really wearing, on faith mainly, what sort mine was and how he didn’t have any, me not believing that. How I didn’t want to depend on experiences, or how I felt, for faith at all, how he never experienced or felt anything. For me, it had been like a prayer, talking, because I knew God heard/was there. For him, “Nothing is like a prayer.” Then talk about giving up, how to decide what to do/buy/etc. Decision: we’re both quasi-Puritans.)
I’ve got a real headache, do you have any aspirin? (“Don’t believe in ‘em.”) You’re kidding. (I considered a head rub and braved doing it without permission.)
I’m embarrassed to say so but I think you healed. it. (Him sleeping on the living room floor, me in the bedroom. Ah.)
If I think of something to talk about, I’ll come tell you.

December 22
(Clearing of throat) “…he said, trying to start a conversation…”
I was thinking if you came we should go to a concert or maybe an art museum.
I’ll handle that.
I’ve been wondering for fourth months what’s just a hundred yards over that direction — they say there’s an ocean around here someplace.
(We walked through Yale Divinity School and past a graveyard and to the Yale Green and the churches and class buildings and found an art museum.)
I’ve walked this way a thousand times. (Asked directions.) See what I mean? Everybody here’s so nice. Maybe I’ll be a nice guy in five years.
(At the art museum, neo-Medievals by a guy named Abbey, plus illustrations I liked, but he reacted to.)
I’m like you, they’re not old enough for me.
(On the second floor, a funny old man showed us around, pointed out the Ferris wheel and the man’s head in “Coney Island” by Stella, and read us all the names and artists.)
Gwen, come look at this. (Saving me from the guy.) Did it bother you because he didn’t know more than you did?
This may bore you, but these things were in use before Christianity.
(Looking at furniture, talk about aesthetics, why is it right for people to make pretty things, why I’m hypocritical because I want a select few of them. Outside, old museum feeling of pride/overload, distaste. But altogether more pleasant than usual, and I said so. He thought it was valuable. We left a place with rotten atmosphere and went to an Italian place to eat. I confessed about thinking of him and Elaine and the Stovalls at Le Palme. Talk mostly about death and heaven.)
You don’t have to answer this, but how did you react when your father died? (My reaction of frustration that I had to grow up. My backwards relationship, learning to love my mother.)
For me, the worst thing about my parents’ aging and about death is the goneness.
(Both eating salad, he paid, unimportant but nice somehow. On the walk home, I said I was tired of my voice but not of his, “Talk on.”)
I’m not too good at these practical things.
I was probably walking pretty spontaneously. (He had such long legs I asked if he was having to change his walk so I could keep up.)
How would you like to be here with our backpacks getting ready to cross the country?
I’m pretty indifferent to women’s lib – in fact, I don’t think Christians should demand their rights, men or women or blacks…I didn’t know much about prejudice until a couple of years ago, and when I found out I had it I got rid of it.
I can see that.
I once told you that Betty Hance and I wished Hans Kung was Pope and the Reformation hadn’t happened and you thought that would be terrible – well, it would have been.
I could have gone by here a thousand times and not noticed that door.
If it weren’t so cold I’d show you that cemetery.
And you thought God had it all worked out…
I think I’ll study a little German. (Niebuhr on the church, for a couple of hours.)
Doug Herema would hate that, my refusing to answer.
I probably have more faith than I talk about.
I sound like a scripture man.
I’m trying to get one up on you…
The Sea of Galilee…that was all right.
Okay, who painted “Coney Island”? (Joseph Stella. A post-museum visit pop quiz. I passed. We talked about his major professor, Ahlstrom, and the patches falling off his elbows. His seeing Roland Bainton, the great Luther scholar, riding his bicycle with his long white hair blowing behind him. Both of us saying goodbye to Heidelberg – he had been in the Pepperdine program the year before me, with his then-girlfriend, Elaine Thomas.)
So, it’s Elaine here, you here and me there…
The church, and you, and me…
This room needs a blackboard.
What would you change in here? Anything you really dislike? (Me: “Well, take that cherry float candle, for instance…” I thought the decorating in the Worleys’ apartment left something to be desired.)
If I lived here, one of the first things I’d do is fix that door.
(We sang some more in between talk, some hymns from the Blue Book…)
Most of these would sound irreverent. (“I wouldn’t mind.”) Well, I would.
Hungry? I knew you’d say that. (I hadn’t been hungry for the whole visit; my soul was being so richly fed. Moldy cheese and lettuce and peaches for supper, then the 11 o’clock news.)
Did you ever see a newsman you wanted to punch in the nose?
Ah, I knew you watched TV. (We watched “Song of Bernadette” about the miracle of Lourdes. Strange feelings flying, him getting spooked. Sensory overload beginning to affect me. So much the movie suggested I couldn’t pick up to talk about: faith, healing, monasticism, usw.)
All these people we have in common, I hardly know.
Here’s another six-hour topic…
That’s why my ego goes up and down so much. I go into one seminar and I’m a hit, in another I don’t know anything.
“Look,” I told his wife, “your husband doesn’t know it yet but I’m not one of his flock.”
Does that depress you?
He just shouldn’t have put that in there if he wanted people to listen to him. (J.B. Philips telling how C.S. Lewis appeared to him on the night of his death.)
That’s so Augustinian.
Did you hear Francis of Assisi almost went blind, he cried so much?
One of the Niebuhrs, Reinhold or H. Richard, converted one of my professors. I thought that was something. (Could it have been George Lindbeck?)
(I was saying, “If their happiness depends on – is it – penultimate?) “Good,” he approved.
I don’t need anybody’s help.
As Dr. Gibson would say, it’s a pain.
As Ahlstrom would say, so what?
Remember, you’ll drive yourself crazy being picky.
I can see that, but I always think the easy way is a cop-out.
(“I haven’t been so preachy in a long time…”)
Well, I haven’t responded so much in a long time.
He’s a good man.
You’ll have to unpack that one. Gaston doesn’t write long letters, but they say a lot – you have to unpack them.
George [Miller] and I never worried about it. We knew we’d always be around.
I just always think I’ll see ‘em in a couple of weeks.
It may be it bothers me as much as it does you – but when you’re desperate enough, you put up with it.
Look, the easy way’s not always wrong.
(Double final confrontation – the gist of it very vaguely suggested by me, “What am I going to do without you? How can I write you anymore if you won’t say you have any faith? He doesn’t expect to have anything more definite later on. Oh, God! Really a struggle because of my pussyfooting, but helpfully resolved at least a little.)
(“If I’ve seemed very insecure it’s because I haven’t talked this way before…”)
We haven’t been talking about people.
You’ve been quite entertaining.
(It didn’t feel right, but I figured it never would, so I said, “All right, good night.” So hard. Felt colder than it had all the time before, but that was partly the leaving, partly my demanding he take a stand.)
Tired?
We’re got to be two of the most polite people…
There’s going to be a great sunrise…No, I was just testing you.

December 23
(Next morning, I wasn’t sure how to be. I was really hurting, but I mostly sat and looked calm. Some talk, warmer. I got on the phone and called a cab – we might have walked, he said – but we hit the train just right. I was picturing leaving him at the apartment, but he wanted to come with me.)
Are you going to convert the guy on the airplane?
What would you do without me?
I’m coming with you.
If I told her a thousand times, Virginia would never understand.
At the New Haven train station:
(“Well…goodbye.” Fine hug.)
I’m glad you came.
(“I’ll believe you.” Pause. “This is all too dramatic for words.”)
I know, it’s like a war movie.
(On the train, I turned around: “God bless you.”)
(Confused look.) You too.

“Weepy as hell. Good old angelic prayer. I thank You and I praise You, Lord Jesus, Father God. Be with him, Lord, he cannot live without You. When I arrived in Nashville for Christmas with the relatives, oh, boy, did I have a precious secret hidden away in my heart.”

Grandmommie flew back with us to Malibu after our Christmas visit, and here she’s pictured with Marilyn, David Lemley (the first Young grandchild) Norvel, Sara and Dad Young in the courtyard outside the library at Seaver College, Pepperdine University, Malibu. Norvel must have been so proud to be able to show his dad the amazing accomplishments of the Malibu campus.

I wrote to Mike in February, “How well do you relate to your name? I’ve wanted for a long time to do a study on the theology of names in the Bible – they seem to be so terrifically significant (“I have called you by name – you are Mine.”) I may have overreacted to people I’ve known who’ve incessantly called my name, but I very rarely call a person by his/her name. I deal mostly without any attention-getting device; when communication is really personal I say “you” – I’m not sure whether I think names are irrelevant or especially holy.

“We were comparing me to good old emotional religious types at one point I believe. There’s one area of the whole question that I’m up against again – the idea of “leading” in Big Decisions. It’s crazy. I believe God gives signs all over the place, but when it comes to me, He does it really simply – He just sticks one idea in my head and it stays there. That’s how the librarianing came up (disgusting as that could potentially be) and now I even think I know where I’m going (maybe I told you) – Nashville. It’s a bit hard to imagine, but this is my last chance to learn to deal with my Roots and Kin and that seems important. And Peabody (the name rivals Pepperdine) is well known and innovative enough to suit me. So if you have a minute you can pray about my future, even as far as this summer goes. I’ve wanted to work at Shiloh since tenth grade, so it’s another last chance deal. I’m excited and terrified about the idea.

“It would be nice to be Luther, depend entirely on grace and take no responsibility for the practical expression of your theology in everybody else’s life. (Of course that’s overstating it.) We’ve been discussing Reformation people in Hughes’ class and it’s a frustrating reminder that hassling over practical issues has been going on forever. I wonder if I’ll always feel the imperative to worry whether everyone else is properly enlightened. Jeez. Who do I think I am?

“It’s so nice to hear from you often. God is good. And you’re all right yourself.
And my response to his response: “I’m dangerously close to getting spoiled – such a week for blessing. You may have guessed by now that I’m crazy enough to have actually considered (just for a few minutes) “dropping by”. You’d best be careful with your invitations. (TWA cut their prices to NY in half just for this month, much to my chagrin – if that’s the right word.)

“Joni came our with a new album a couple of weeks ago, and that’s always an event. And it finally happened – I was Disappointed. It reminded me of a blatant sellout…”