Arguing With God: My 9-11 Story
“No,” I said. “No thank you.”
That’s how it started.
I said no to Chris Olson-Vickers. Chris was a mild-mannered social worker in Richmond, Virginia. She was also a Quaker, who in August of 2001 had agreed, perhaps rashly, to host an impecunious co-religionist in need of shelter during the mid-Atlantic Quakers’ regional assembly, called Baltimore Yearly Meeting.
That impecunious co-religionist was me. Laid off and low on cash, I was too strapped to stay on-campus nearby, where our sessions were underway. I was packing lunches and avoiding the cafeteria.
On this evening, besides putting me up, Chris was also feeding me dinner. With the meal she had offered – not job-hunting advice; she is too cultivated for that. Rather, she was exercising a Quaker prerogative and “laboring” with me.
It was opportune, she had said, perhaps even providential, that I was unemployed and under her roof. Because she knew of a job opening. A Quaker job. One she thought I had the skills to fill.
At first I was all ears. What job? Where?
But at her answers, I shook my head emphatically. “It’s called Quaker House,” Chris said. “In Fayetteville, North Carolina. Next to Fort Bragg.”
“No,” I repeated. “Not a chance.”
In a more mainstream setting, this could, maybe should, have been the end of it. But as I said, Chris was not simply giving helpful advice. Rather, she was doing religious work, in a form we both understood then, and I understood better later. The fact that, to an outsider, it might have sounded like an argument, did not change its essential character. Quakers call it “discernment.”
After all, many of the key divine-human encounters in the Bible are a lot like arguments, if you listen behind the euphemized antique language.
So Chris pushed past my demurral.
Wait, she persisted. This was not just any job. It was a Quaker peace project planted near one of the largest U. S. military bases, in the midst of a thoroughly militarized city. It had been lifting up the Quaker Peace Testimony in Fayetteville since 1969.
In particular, it had helped many dissident GIs to find legal ways out of the military, and there were plenty more calling it all the time.
All very admirable, I agreed.
But it was not for me.
There were any number of reasons.
At the top of the list, I readily admitted, was unabashed regional prejudice. For seventeen years, from the late 1970s to the middle of 1994, I had lived in northern Virginia, which was in the South despite cosmopolitan pretensions and nearness to Washington DC.
I tapped my chest significantly That experience, I told her, put me deeply in touch with my Inner Yankee. In mid-1994 a chance came to move to Pennsylvania: I had leaped at it like a prisoner of war spying a hole in the stockade fence.
I was still there, in beautiful Happy Valley. That’s what folks around State College, home of Penn State University, call their mountain-secluded stronghold in the center of the state.
I liked the area. The woman I lived with was rooted there like an oak. We were part of a lively Quaker meeting there. So why would I want to move?
Okay, I had been laid off from teaching English classes that Spring; that was an issue. But stuff happens. This too shall pass.
Besides, I raved on, North Carolina? I hadn’t lived there, but knew all I needed to know about it: it was a Four-H state –
It had Heat. Humidity. Hurricanes.
To repeat, no thanks. They could keep him, and the rest of it.
There was more like this.
But none of it fazed Chris Olson-Vickers.
You need to apply for this job, she said again. Chris had grown up in Fayetteville, still had family there. She knew Quaker House’s good work firsthand.
But the job had been vacant for a year and a half; hardly anybody had even applied. If they can’t fill it, she said, the board would have to close Quaker House down.
Which would be a darn shame, because there was still so much to do. There wasn’t any other place like it, she said. This wasn’t just personal, about filling a slot. This was about Quaker witness.
My turn: my heart went out to the board, I said, but that didn’t change my conviction. I had grown up on military bases too, I conceded. But that only showed that the military wasn’t for me, and enough was enough.
From there, I switched to two other lines of defense:
For one thing, I pointed out, if what Quaker House did was counsel GIs about military rules and regulations, I knew nothing about those, except that they filled many fat volumes that I had never opened.
Chris shrugged. You could learn, she said.
Besides, I went on, the board would be unlikely to hire me, because of my ornery reputation among Quakers. For eleven years I had published an independent Quaker newsletter. It had repeatedly rattled various skeletons in our closets, poked sticks in sleeping dogs, upset various institutional applecarts, and otherwise ruffled feathers and mangled metaphors right and left.
Some of this might have been the Lord’s Work, but little of it was what could be considered a good career move. Somebody on the board was sure to be ticked off about something or other.
Chris was equally unimpressed by this ploy. If anybody on the board remembered these old controversies, she was sure that for the project’s survival, they would set all that aside.
If I had only been arguing with Chris, I think I could have prevailed. By the time she had finished, she had badgered me into agreeing that I’d at least send my resume to Quaker House, if only to get her to leave me be. What could it hurt? She said.
Right. What could it hurt? All the most likely outcomes I could imagine would get me off the hook:
Somebody else would apply, who lived closer by and really was ready to move. They’d hire them, with my blessing.
Or a board member would recall an old grievance and not let it go. “Fager?” I could see them thinking. “Wasn’t he the one who wrote that inflammatory article about–(whatever)?” And then putting their response: “Over my dead body,” into proper passive aggressive Quakerese:
“Er, Friends, I believe that is a name which would not have occurred to me.” I’ve used that sentence myself, and more power to him.
On the upside, in the meantime perhaps I would find other work, so if they called I could graciously decline.
In any event, I grudgingly kept my word to Chris, sent in the resume when I got back to Pennsylvania, repeated most of the above caveats about it to my woman friend, and then thought about it as little as possible.
And if I had been arguing only with Chris, I’m sure that would have been the end of that.
Not thinking about that resume in the next few weeks was relatively easy. That’s because while I was without full-time work, I did have a contract gig, doing research for a union organizing drive among Penn State teaching assistants. So I was busy digging into the seamy side of a large, rapidly expanding, and very secretive university.
Penn State is a hybrid institution, partly public and partly private, and its managers skillfully play both sides of that fence to conceal the maximum amount of inside information from just about all outside scrutiny.
My big achievement in that project was to discover and publish the salary of its president, a number which was as closely guarded as any secret the CIA is hiding. The magic number, about $500,000 as I recall, turned up in an obscure corner of an obscure IRS document filed by an obscure university research foundation.
I’ve done a lot of investigative reporting, and it’s always a thrill to lift the veil on some hidden item which should be public anyway.
But my triumph was short-lived. No sooner had my contact at the local daily paper published the number, backed up by my source, than Penn State’s lawyers swung into action. They interceded with the IRS to get the foundation exempted from that reporting requirement in the future. The CIA could hardly have reacted more swiftly or effectively.
That work was absorbing and fun. But by the end of the month I was ready for a break. My son Asa had graduated from high school that spring, and had been selected to do a year-long tour with Americorps, starting in a few weeks. I proposed a trip, one of those life-transition journeys a parent and child get to take if they’re lucky.
I had squirreled away enough cash from the research gig to bring it off, I thought. We would be on a tight budget, driving my car, staying mainly staying with friends, and looking for low-cost attractions, but we could do it.
Where did he want to go? I had asked. Maine, he said. Where in Maine, I wondered – how about Portland, recalling his interest with the novels of Stephen King? He shrugged. Just Maine would do.
Let’s get there by way of Canada, I suggested and he agreed. So off we went just after Labor Day, heading for Maine by first going northwest to Ontario, and then up to Montreal.
Montreal was especially appealing. It was still warm, and on the night we rolled into town, wondering at the French signs and the general European air, we stumbled onto a noisy street dance, downtown on Ave. St. Denis. Asa took off to find the mosh pit, and I sat by, content to people watch, and bask in my linguistic acuity when, after an hour or so, I figured out that a banner reading “rentrée” meant “back to school.”
From la belle province we headed to central Maine, where we stayed with Arla Patch, a fine Quaker artist, went to the beach, and visited the Sabbath day Lake Shaker community. And it was somewhere on that leg that Asa and I fell to talking about generations, and their sense of identity.
He told me he envied mine, the veterans of the Sixties. We knew what we were after, he said, like stopping the Vietnam war and segregation. We had a sense of direction, a center. “Look at my generation,” he pleaded. “What direction do we have?”
I did my best to reassure him. The notion that my peers and I had things together is mostly retrospective eyewash, I said. We were a bunch of kids trying to make sense of a lot of violence and hate. And lots of us, his father included, had spent many years trying to find, or create, some sense of direction, a sense of what Quakers call centeredness.
I couldn’t say that process had ended, either. And anyway, I would not wish anything like the Vietnam war on anybody.
We never did get to Portland, to drive past Stephen King’s house. We might have given it a shot when we left, because our plan was to visit my brother in Brooklyn, before heading back to Pennsylvania.
But just as we were climbing into the car, on that lovely Tuesday morning, Arla Patch came out, looking worried, a phone held to her ear, to tell us that something crazy had just happened and it was on TV right then. Something about the World Trade Center. We better come see.
What?” I said, annoyed at the delay, and reluctantly followed her inside to take a look.
Later that day, the car angled southwest across Vermont, aimed well away from New York City. The radio kept repeating the awful reports over and over, as if the reporters still could not quite believe what we had all seen, and at some point I turned to Asa. “God help us all, son,” I said, “but I think your generation just found its direction.”
Back home in Pennsylvania, I struggled through the next days, like everyone else, to make sense of what had happened. Only one thing about the aftermath seemed clear to me: the U.S would soon be at war. Where and when were obscure, but this had seemed to me a bottom-line certainty even before we finally rose and left Arla alone with her smoking television screen that morning.
This certainty was not a sign of any prophetic gift. It came, I think, more from my roots in a military family. Many of the reflexes of that culture were ingrained: You (whoever “you” were, we still weren’t sure) don’t get away with attacking the Pentagon, the nerve center of all the US military. Somebody will soon face some heavy payback from the armed men and women whose center and stronghold is in that building.
And chances were very good that when this war started, there would be many more of the innocent killed in their frenzied, fiery search for the guilty. U.S. revenge would be painted on some part of the world in a very broad brush of death.
And me? What would I do in the face of this impending war? The attacks had shaken me, truly, but had not undermined my basic Quaker pacifist convictions. I had just seen murder, on a huge scale. But more murder was not an answer to murder. That was my conviction on September 10; it remained so on September 12th. And I also sensed that I would have some small part in struggling to frame and lift up some voice for an alternative. Hell, any serious Quaker (or Christian?) would. Right?
But what alternative? And how to raise it?
I didn’t know. But Quakers in circumstances like these are taught to wait for “way to open.” Our spirituality is that if we are properly attentive, we will be given “leadings,” which will point us in the way to go.
I’m a Quaker in large measure because that has happened to me. In our literature such experiences are often described in terms of mystical ecstasies or compared to the rush of romantic infatuation. These are as much metaphors as markers, however; it doesn’t happen according to any specific schedule or formula. John 3: 8 applies: “The spirit is like the wind: it blows where it wants to, and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from, or where it’s going.”
I knew all this well enough from my own experience. I was about to learn it again.
An email from a stranger named Bonnie Parsons came only a few days after my return from Maine. Smoke was still rising from the wreckage in Manhattan and Washington, and those with their hands on the levers of political power were already taking advantage of the calamity to serve many other ends, but above all the ends of war.
Bonnie Parsons said she wanted to talk to me. And it turned out she was not really a stranger: Bonnie Parsons was the Clerk of the board of Quaker House in Fayetteville-Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
At this point, we can skip a chunk of chronology. Contemplating Bonnie’s email, I could almost hear the teeth on the gears of Providence grinding into place somewhere above my head. Heaving a sigh at the computer screen, I knew that if Quaker House wanted to talk to me, they would likely want to hire me.
And even with my checkered past, I make a strong competitor for a job that nobody else wants. And if they did make an offer, I knew I would take it.
But what about all my objections? My complaints to Chris Olson-Vickers?
They remained, but were no longer of any consequence.
As with the premonition about the coming of war, this was another case where the models from my military background made more sense than the softer language of typical Quaker spirituality. Reading Bonnie’s email, I felt like an old, out of shape army reservist suddenly being called back to active duty.
Such calls come when you receive orders. The tone of such communications is direct, curt, and unmoved by complaints and objections.
You won’t find this image in any books on Quaker spirituality that I know of, but that day, and still, I could almost hear God speaking as an old, profane first sergeant:
Oh, so you don’t like Carolina? Fayetteville’s not in your pretty mountains? Too hot and humid, you say? Scared of hurricanes, and you’ll miss your girlfriend? Tough shit, soldier. Get in line.
And you’re asking how long your tour will be? Til further orders, asshole, what did you expect? There’s a war on, or will be in a minute.
And oh, yeah — I voted for Jesse Helms four times. Or was it five? You got a problem with that, soldier? Suck it up and drive on.
That’s who else I had been arguing with when I was complaining to Chris Olson-Vickers. And as any soldier knows, those are arguments you don’t win.
I went on the Quaker House payroll December 1, 2001, and moved in over New Year’s 2002. Stayed til the end of November 2012.
– – – – – –
“It’s not the bullet with my name on it that worries me. It’s the one that says ‘To Whom It May concern,’ said an anonymous Belfast resident.”
– from War, the Lethal Custom, by Gwynne Dyer.
“I mean, I can imagine some poor bastard who’s fulfilled all your criteria for successful adaptation to life, … upon retirement to some aged enclave near Tampa just staring out over the ocean waiting for the next attack of chest pain, and wondering what he’s missed all his life What’s the difference between a guy who at his final conscious moments before death has a nostalgic grin on his face as if to say, ‘Boy, I sure squeezed that lemon’ and the other man who fights for every last breath in an effort to turn back time to some nagging unfinished business?”
– Participant in a Harvard longitudinal life-study, in his 60s; from The Atlantic, June 2009
Chekhov: “Any idiot can face a crisis; it is this day-to-day living that wears you out.”