“Tell It Slant”: Excerpt #3: “… A Whippersnapper and His Elders …”

“… A Whippersnapper and His Elders …”

Adapted from Tell It Slant.

This new book recounts Chuck Fager’s prophetic life of adventure & writing on religion, war, justice, love and laughter. By Emma Lapsansky-Werner, with Chuck Fager.

Tell It Slant is available now, in paperback and Kindle, here.

After two years of attending Friends meetings, beginning while he was in alternative service at Friends World College in New York, and continuing after enrolling at Harvard Divinity School in 1968, Chuck knew that the basic moves of becoming at home in a Quaker meeting are relatively simple, and easily learned. One can sit in meeting-for-worship, where in silence the newcomer may appear equal in weight and wisdom to the most venerable elder. Perhaps one speaks now and then.

For many this is enough, for years, or decades. But to others who want more understanding, and Chuck was one of them, it soon becomes evident that much more is involved. Despite its small size, and vocal dedication to plainness and simplicity, the Religious Society of Friends is a remarkably complicated body. This is true historically, organizationally, culturally, theologically, and not least, politically.Merely comprehending this range and diversity is the work of years; for mastery, think decades. Doubtless the same is true for many churches; Chuck recalls that the Canon Laws of the Catholic Church fill seven large volumes. (One for each of the Seven Deadly Sins? Who knows? – The true official edition is in Latin.) But there is no such central compendium for Quakers, and no Quaker Vatican to rule them all.

Many of the better Quaker scholars are and were amateurs. Nevertheless, their liturgical silences notwithstanding, Quakers have always been a wordy, scribbling bunch, and there are several excellent libraries full of books and journals about Quakerism and its many facets.

But none of these collections were in Boston in 1969. And with all the erudition in evidence at Harvard Divinity School, there were no Quakers on the faculty, and no courses devoted to the subject. For that matter, among all the many other seminaries in the region, Chuck never saw a Quakerism course offering on their rosters. Nor did the large Cambridge Friends Meeting conduct any classes. Chuck was at liberty to learn all he could about his new denomination, and he wanted to. But he soon realized he was on my own in this venture.

In one sense this suited Chuck: he could follow his nose, letting curiosity guide his reading, the way it had in the Ramey Air Force Base library in Puerto Rico. But at the same time, beyond the inspiration of my several elders, he yearned for mentors, someone (or someones) who really knew Quakerism, to help me along. The value of such guidance went beyond books. If Friends had no world headquarters, there was instead a confusing plethora of Quaker organizations, official and otherwise.

Cartoon by Lesley Webster

How was he to make his way among them? Were there doors to be opened, ladders to start climbing, passwords or secret handshakes to learn, dead ends and hazards to avoid? (The short answer: yes, on all counts.)

Chuck recalled that while he had not found one principal Quaker mentor, there were several he called “elders,” reawakening an old Quaker term. One such “elder” was Louisa Alger, a stalwart of Cambridge Meeting. Another was Sam Levering, from southwest Virginia, whom he met at a regional conference of young adult Friends in 1969.

Long afterward, Chuck tried to honor each of them in a characteristic way — by writing, in some detail as part of his religious memoir, Meetings. But they also stirred his storytelling muse, and he built fictions around them as well. Sam Levering became the model for Chuck’s fictional Quaker sleuth Lemuel Penn in two Quaker mystery novels; Louisa starred in a Quaker ghost story.

Louisa had been a schoolteacher, and Chuck never learned much of her personal history beyond that: she didn’t seem interested in talking about it. Part of that may have been her native New England reserve. But another part, Chuck believed, might also have been a veil over a private story with its own compelling, tender, and private moments, with perhaps loss and pathos as well.

Chuck knew Louisa more as a model of no-nonsense devotion to Cambridge Meeting, concerned to keep the Meeting group on track and productive in practical, undramatic ways. On the practical side, there was the busy clothing room she managed, in a big basement space below the meeting room. In it volunteers repaired, packaged and pumped out many tons of clothes to the needy far and near. In addition, she had a watchful, and discerning spiritual eye.

“It was Louisa,” Chuck reported, “who came up to me one spring First Day morning, after meeting had concluded, shook my hand, and then fixed me with a steady gaze. She was looking up, as she was shorter than me, though her straight carriage and dignified mien, not to mention her spiritual stature, made her appear taller. (She was likely in a simple dress with a subdued floral pattern and a lacy collar, something a 1940s schoolteacher might favor. Or if it was still cold, a beige suit; she was not unacquainted with tweed.)”

In any case, as Chuck recalled, Louisa eyed Chuck unsmilingly for a moment and then said, “Charles Fager —”

(This was Quaker formality. Being addressed by one’s full name indicated a serious conversation, not mere banter.)

“— Don’t thee think” — Louisa said, “it’s about time thee wrote the meeting a letter?”

That steady gaze and terse sentence was Chuck’s Quaker “Come to Jesus” moment. No fervent preaching, no invitation to tread the sawdust path, no altar call or emoting at a mourner’s bench. Instead, a brief, prim summons to write a letter, which was how one applied for membership. Louisa did not say such things on a whim; she had been watching, discerning.

And why not a single calm, if weighted, sentence? St. Augustine, after a misspent youth, heard a child singing outside his window; John Wesley listened to someone reading from Luther; and a total stranger spoke to some Galilee fisherman. Memorable and historic as such moments were, they did not require blinding lights, a talking jackass, or a burning coal to the lips.

Chuck remembers thanking Louisa, and mumbling some noncommittal reply; then he then went home and wrote the letter. It was hardly a masterpiece, but an ad hoc committee looked upon it favorably, and Chuck thereby soon became officially “a Quaker.”

Years later, when writing Quaker ghost stories (he composed ten in all), an story idea came to Chuck that was set in the Cambridge Meeting clothing room. It  was about a disembodied string quartet that began playing there late at night, upsetting its mostly non-musical manager; the tale was called “Beethoven in The Basement.”

He says, “It was mainly a tribute to Louisa, and I sent her a copy not long before her death in 1995. Word later reached me that she had read it and thought it frivolous. Just as I would have expected. But the clothing room, at last report, is still at work, more than fifty years after I last visited it.”

Another of these Quaker mentor/elders, Sam Levering of Ararat, Virginia, Chuck first encountered at a New England regional gathering of the Young Friends of North America (YFNA) in the fall of 1968.

Sam — a no-longer-young Friend — was at the conference to talk about one of his ongoing projects: unofficial work on the developing United Nations treaty on the Law of the Sea. Sam believed that such treaties, if successful, could prevent wars and promote peace. It was the opposite of the dramatic, street-centered peace protests Chuck was accustomed to: it involved many monotonous meetings, stacks of memos and thick treaty drafts (Chuck was told the actual treaty had more than three hundred articles), and untangling a seemingly endless list of arcane international and public-private differences.

Negotiations for it stretched out over a decade. They produced no confrontations with police, or arrests. But the years since have suggested to Chuck that Sam’s approach was at least partly correct.

Sam really captured Chuck’s attention, though, with a more fruitful tour de force. Sent on a mission to get supplies for a cooperative conference luncheon, Sam and Chuck ended up among an overwhelming array of Fall apples in a large open air downtown Boston market. While Chuck wanted to fill a bag with a typical variety (Red Delicious, perhaps mixed with a few Granny Smiths), Sam wandered unhurriedly among the many choices, then at length pointed at a pile of what appeared to Chuck to be castoffs or rejects, dull red, with orange and brown spots.

When Chuck lifted a skeptical eyebrow, Sam tossed him one. While visually unprepossessing, Chuck discovered that the taste and texture were stunning, superb. (He now thinks they were Macouns, an under-appreciated New England variety.) Chuck, impressed by the way Sam knew apples — to the core — then listened more intently to his concerns and hopes about the potential of sea treaties.

YFNA was one of those many Quaker groups that had brought together young Friends from the various and often fractious Quaker branches. Its ecumenism worked only if all participants adhered (at least outwardly) to the more conventional social and behavioral norms. But by 1968, YFNA faced more than one growing internal cleavage: there was the gap between war resistance by some attenders, butting up against patriotic war support by others. Then there was the intrusion, if rather mildly then, of Sixties cultural forces: sex (or at least some open talk of it), and ditto for drugs, and even rock and roll. Under these pressures, YFNA’s loose network was increasingly fraying.

The apples and the sea treaties drew Chuck to pay more attention to Sam, who was old and stooped. He did not quite shuffle, but his steps were deliberate. For lobbying work, he wore a Goodwill-vintage brown suit, its fabric shiny with wear. In addition, when he spoke, one knew he was a southerner, likely of rural origin.

All this may have made Sam visually unimpressive, particularly in circles where the politically and diplomatically weighty plied their trades. But then he slowly revealed that he had graduated from Cornell University, knew and understood the lengthy, complex sea treaty drafts almost by heart, and also ran a fruit farm in southwest Virginia. He took advantage of the fact that the farm’s seasonal rhythms, combined with very frugal habits, left several months each year open for him and his wife Miriam to pursue fulltime work on their Quaker world law efforts.

Sam was no conventional radical, cultural or political, but with his distinctive Quaker way of life, in-depth knowledge, and dogged persistence he gave Chuck much to chew on, in more ways than one.

Though Chuck didn’t see Sam Levering again for many years, he was never forgotten, and when Chuck came to write a mystery novel, Sam seemed an ideal model of an amateur sleuth, with a deceptive drawl and a nondescript mien, but smart as a whip, a keen observer of events and people, and easy for slick urban evildoers (and young whippersnappers) to misjudge and underestimate — to their loss or hazard.

Renamed as Lemuel Penn in both of Chuck’s mysteries, Murder Among Friends, and Un-Friendly Persuasion, Sam served as a character that Chuck had hoped to revive in a future mystery series. But novel-writing is long hard work, and Chuck had the good/bad luck to live in “interesting times,” when there has been so much else of seemingly more-immediate-import to write about.

Yet with the example of these elders, the Boston-Cambridge years supported Chuck’s development toward becoming a Quaker-with-a-mission — and as a member of a youth-fixated generation with a deadline. Help with identifying and shaping that mission was the nub of what had pulled him toward Harvard; but Chuck had soon found Harvard Divinity’s actual usefulness to his task was quite limited.

Meanwhile, having for a time adopted a motto of “Don’t Trust Anyone Over Thirty” in their world-remaking quest, Chuck and his peers now faced their own countdown to this inescapable, irreversible (not to mention embarrassing) landmark of corruption. Chuck — who was rapidly approaching the “over-thirty” date himself in December of 1972 — recalls that in 1968, when he met Sam Levering, he was relieved to see an “old” man who hadn’t given up the effort.

So, inspired by such as Sam and Louisa, Chuck continued his mission-for-justice. In April 1969, his participant-observer role in the Harvard University student strike in protest of the Vietnam war— when several hundred students were arrested for protesting the university’s complicity — helped keep him focused on changing the world a-few-paragraphs-at-a-time.

So too, did the publication of a number of Chuck’s social-justice articles, circulated through low-budget alternative-press newspapers and magazines. A publisher’s contract to write another book, Selma 1965, helped too.

However, as Chuck also recalls, “lack of money was a constant problem. . . .”

Tell It Slant is available in paperback and E-book Kindle versions. Details here

> Excerpt #1: A Quaker’s Life in Our “Interesting,” Tumultuous Times

> Excerpt #2: Fighting for A Future

> Excerpt #3: A Whippersnapper & His Elders:

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