Manhattan Project #5

(Chapter 2 continues–Jed Berman just got “saved” at a fundmentalist youth service. In this episode, he joins the Four Foot High Club)

And I also watched everyone else, the vast majority of whom claimed to already be saved, and it didn’t seem to me that they were doing much better. They seemed to be sinning, in their own way, every bit as much as I was. They put people down, judged them, criticized them with abandon. Like the guy up the hall from me in the dorm, a fairly decent person for a Fundy, but even he put people down, people like me.
I remember when he came over to my room the night before the election for freshman class president, in which he and I were the only two candidates. He knocked softly on the door and I sat up on my bed where I was just lounging around. He came in and sat down on the edge of the bed, by my feet, and started in.
“Are you feeling a little stressed about the election tomorrow?” he asked, in a gentle way. I thought about that for a second or two, and then shook my head.
“No, I’m not,” I told him. “I’ve always been involved in student government. I’m not worried about tomorrow.”
“Well, that’s good,” he told me. “Because there’s no chance at all that you will win.” Now he leaned toward me, with this really sincere look on his face. “You see, Jed, it’s pretty obvious to most of us around here that you aren’t spiritually prepared to be class president.”
He paused for a couple of seconds, giving me that earnest look. Then he dropped the other shoe.
“So, I thought the only decent, Christian thing to do was let you know that tonight, so you won’t be so hurt tomorrow after everyone votes.”
I admit I had an emotional reaction to what he was saying, but it wasn’t hurt, it was flat out anger that this self-righteous prick thought he could stand in judgment over my state of spiritual preparedness, and play it out like he was doing me some sort of favor. But it was pretty early in the year, and I was still in the throes of my religious experience at the hands of the six-gun toting preacher. I’m sure my face got bright red, like it always does at times like that, but I waited to say anything back to him.

All sorts of thoughts were running through my head, including the possibility he was right, and I didn’t deserve this sacred position, what with having already murdered so many of the flowers in my little flower box upstairs. But mostly I thought, as I still think, I’m a pretty good guy and I certainly know how to be class president. I did not see any connection between the two. But I didn’t say that to him, either. I just sat there for a moment, and tried to summon all of the post-adolescent maturity I had in me. Regardless of what he’d just inflicted on me, I knew it wasn’t right to rip his head off or anything. I decided to play the statesman, as well as I could, given that I was really pissed off.
“Well, thanks, Cliff, for letting me know. I guess I hadn’t thought about it that way.”
He smiled this sickening, pious sort of smile and reached over and laid his hand on my leg.
“It’s okay, it really is. I just felt the Lord telling me I had a duty to do this, so I did.” He took a deep breath, patted my leg a couple times, and said,” I’m sure there will be something you’re better suited for before we graduate. Maybe when you’ve grown spiritually.”
I looked at him, my face still red as a tomato, and nodded. He stood up and said, “Alright, better get back to the books,” and walked out.Whatever he thought he came to accomplish that night, all it did was help me understand that no matter what these people thought they were into, it wasn’t the kind of religion I wanted any part of. As time went by, I found myself trapped in lots of conversations, in the dorm, in the dining hall, in classes, where they made it crystal clear that they had all the answers, they knew how it was supposed to work, and anyone who thought differently, or behaved differently had bought a one way ticket straight to hell. It happened so often that it took me right to the edge of questioning whether I even believed in God, which I had been taught to do by my mom before I was old enough to think about whether I wanted to or not.
But what I was kicking around now was that if this was what God’s people looked like, I didn’t want anything to do with it. The worst encounters happened during the daily chapel services, which we had to go to. One day each week students could stand up and give their testimony, about all the great stuff happening in their lives because they were saved. This was during Vietnam, a war I eventually decided I wanted no part of, even though all my uncles and my dad had served in other wars, and my brother was doing a hitch in the Air Force because he lost his deferment when he transferred to a different school.
These people loved to stand up and brag about members of their family who were in the military. They’d say things like, “I’m just praising God that Jim is flying a bigger jet now, and can carry more bombs to drop on those godless commies.” Honest to god, they actually talked about killing a commie for Christ. Jesus! I hadn’t done much thinking for myself by this time, but I already knew that the God I still believed in couldn’t possibly get behind that shit.
I mean, in the same Sunday school classes where they scared the hell out of me with the flower bed stuff, they also taught us that little song about, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” It may be simplistic thinking, but I always figured that included little Vietnamese kids, or in WWII, little English kids, or little German kids, or little Japanese kids. Even though I gunned down our minister when he came to our house, I never put killing anyone together with Jesus. The thought of doing something like that in the name of Christ made me as queasy as those pictures in the war book from the library.

I could not, for the life of me, understand how these people could stand there and act like they cared about people’s mortal souls, because Jesus told them to, and then turn around and blow those same people to bits. I just didn’t get it, I still don’t. I got pretty good at avoiding those conversations after a while. I put the God question on hold, and taught myself to fall asleep as soon as chapel started so I didn’t have to listen to that crap anymore. My time at that school ended up as an awakening, but not the one old Cliff thought I’d have. Maybe I’ll get to that later, but I was talking about the girl on the bus.
She just sat there next to me, as we threaded our way through the narrow streets of Scranton, to the Interstate. I thought I caught her looking over at me a couple of times, but I didn’t look directly at her. I kept myself busy leaning against the window and watching the stores and then raggedy-looking houses, and finally railroad tracks go by. Buses are a lot like trains; their routes take them through the back streets, the poorer parts of town, mostly. I saw a lot of old cars up on blocks, hoods propped open, probably no engine inside. In the dark, I couldn’t really tell. Little grocery stores flipped by; I saw a couple of owners, draped in those long white aprons down to their ankles and cinched around their beer guts, a pencil jammed behind their ear for scratching out people’s bills. They were pulling down metal mesh security screens over the storefront.

A couple of houses had people sitting on the little front porch, bundled up like the middle of winter, smoking cigarettes. I saw a billboard size sign painted on the side of one building, advertising milk. It had a big bottle down the side and, in giant letters, the words: Drink Sunshine Milk. My mind immediately started doing what it still does when I see words on signs; it tried to split the letters of each one into symmetrical halves. I don’t know why I do it, but when they come out even I get a good feeling about it. When it doesn’t, I feel off-balance, somehow. In this case, “drink” didn’t come out so well, “sunshine” worked fine, even if my division—“suns” and “hine”—wasn’t the regular syllables they taught us in English class. “Milk was okay—“mi” and “lk,” so I felt pretty satisfied with that. I read someplace since then that doing that with words is a sign of OCD, but I don’t really think that’s true. I mean, I’m pretty normal in most ways, I’d say.
We had just come on another big sign, for a restaurant, which read: Pondalopoulos Eatery—Something For The Whole Family—but before my mind started to check it out for balance, I heard the blonde say something. I turned toward her, just as we drove by a giant spotlight in the front of the restaurant. It was so bright that it illuminated her face completely. She was gorgeous—almond shaped eyes, a straight nose that was just the right length, full lips, and high cheekbones. Her hair was cut so her blonde bangs hung down on her forehead, almost to her eyebrows. She sort of reminded me of Mary Travers from the folk singing group, Peter, Paul, and Mary. When ours eyes met, she smiled, a brilliant smile full of white, white teeth, and said, again, “How far are you going?”
I started to answer her, but choked again, like I had when she got on the bus. This time I cleared my throat and said, “All the way to Maine.”
“Wow,” she said, “That’s a long way. Is that your home?”
I looked toward the window, then back at her and said, “No, this is my home. I go to school in Maine.”
“That’s cool,” she said, in a warm, alto voice that sounded a lot like those sexy voices you used to hear from female DJs on the radio, like Roma Wade in Chicago.
“It’s okay,” I said. “It’s sure a lot better than hanging out around this dump.”
She said, “I guess so,” and then stopped talking for a while.
I was so dazzled by her looks and her voice that I tried to think of something to say that would keep the conversation going. I wanted an excuse to just keep looking at her.
“So, how far are you going?”
“Boston.”
“Do you go to school there?”
“Yes, at an all girls’ college you never heard of.”
“Where’s your home?”
“Same as you, right here in this shabby, depressed place.”
“Oh,” I said. I was already running out of confidence and things to say. The little voice in my head kept shouting, “Leave her alone. Curl up in your corner by the window and be done with it. She doesn’t really want to talk to you, you know.” But I was absolutely fascinated by her. And knowing she and I had come from the same place, maybe even sat in the same movie theater or restaurant before, made me want to keep this going. And, she was very hot. While I was working on something else to say, she jumped back in.
“So, we’ve got a lot of time to kill before we get to Boston. Would you like to talk about something?”
She’d done it for me, opened the door and invited me in to enjoy being with her for the next eight hours. And she didn’t intend to talk about junk, either.
“How do you feel about the war?” she asked, right out of the blue.
My mother had long ago told me the two things you don’t discuss with strangers, or anyone else you want to avoid arguing with, are religion and politics. I hadn’t paid any attention to that for a long time, and didn’t see why I should now. So I launched into my feelings about the whole awful mess. I told her my brother was in Jordan right now, not far from fighting in the Middle East, after losing his deferment. I told her about my friend, Galen, who showed up at our old home church right after he finished Special Forces training. He was very excited about it. He’d been pretty much of a mouse in high school. Never dated much or went out for sports, the two respected activities among the guys I hung out with. I remember standing under a mimosa tree with him, out behind the building that day, with the sunshine filtering down through the soft green mimosa leaves and the red blossoms. He told me the stuff he had learned; he said he really felt like a man now. He was eager to get to Vietnam and take out a few gooks.
What I didn’t do was give him any crap about signing up to fight in the war. At that point in my life, I had what I liked to call, in my pseudo-intellectual way, a pragmatic view of war. I had already decided it didn’t square with what I’d been taught in church—that song about Jesus loving all the little children—but I told myself you had to put that religious stuff away and fight when the country told you the freedoms we enjoyed so much were endangered by some other country. That one, it seemed to me, didn’t measure up. But I wished him luck and we shook hands.
I have to admit I was surprised at how well he had done so far in his military career. What I knew about basic training made me wonder how he had survived it at all, let alone go on for really tough Special Forces training. I looked at his face. His complexion was still as pale, his cheeks as rosy as they had always been. That, combined with the thick glasses he wore, always made him seem fairly frail, but the army had toughened him up, he looked thicker and stronger, now. I felt proud of what he was doing, but a little sad, knowing the risk he was taking.
As our conversation wound down, I wanted to end on a happy note. I punched him in the shoulder and said, “Behave yourself over there. We don’t want you leaving behind a whole batch of little Galens.” He just laughed and said he’d see me in about six months. He shipped out right after that, and never came home.
That’s what I told this beautiful young woman beside me who wanted to know what I thought about the war. I told her I didn’t like this war very much, that I’d already lost some good friends from high school over there. And if my number came up, I was thinking about heading to Canada. I looked at her the whole time I was saying it, to see her reaction and just because I wanted to capture her face and the sound of her voice so I could remember it.
She didn’t say anything for a little while, thinking about what I had said. I was very impressed by that. Most people, whether they were for the war or against it, usually jumped right in when the subject came up. Finally, she took a deep breath and let it out slowly, almost like a sigh.
“I think I’m mostly against it, too,” she said. “My dad’s a captain in the Army and he’s already done a couple of tours over there. My mom and my brothers and I are terrified every time he ships out that he won’t come home. And when he is home, he won’t talk about it much. He sometimes says things that make it sound like he’s not that excited about it, either. But he usually ends up by saying he wants to do what’s right.”
She stopped for a couple of seconds, closed her eyes tight and shook her head, and then kind of blurted out, “No, I’m totally against it. I don’t have anything against those people over there, and I really, really, really don’t want to lose my dad. “
She leaned in close to me and said, in a whisper, “I’m glad you don’t like the war, either. It’s nice to be able to talk to someone who feels the way I do. I know I don’t know you at all, really, but I already feel close to you, like we were supposed to end up on the same bus and sit beside each other. I think we may be soul mates or something.”
All the time she was saying this, she kept looking right into my eyes and leaned closer and closer to my face. I could feel her breath on me as she talked, it smelled fresh and warm and moist. And then she reached up and took my face in her hands, closed her beautiful almond-shaped eyes, and kissed me. Sure, you think I’m making this up, but honest-to-God that’s what happened. And it wasn’t just a little peck. Her full, soft lips parted and she Frenched me. I could feel her shaking just a little, and that, combined with the passion of her kiss, really excited me.
After what seemed like a long—and terrific—time, she stopped kissing me, but she stayed very close to me as she opened her eyes, to see what my reaction would be. You probably know enough about me by now to know that I was pretty shocked, but incredibly turned on. I think she saw all of that in my eyes. She kept looking at me, and held my face in her soft hands. And then she blew my mind.
“Would you like to join the four foot high club?”
For a moment, I wasn’t sure what she was saying. I had heard a similar phrase before about people who have sex while they’re flying a mile high on an airplane—the mile high club. But it had never occurred to me that there was a name for getting it on in a Greyhound bus.
“Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
She nodded while she kept me absolutely riveted with those incredible eyes. I reached up and stroked the side of her face.
“Are you sure you want to do that?”
She nodded again and smiled that unbelievable, gorgeous, white smile.
“Why shouldn’t we? I mean, life is so strange, and we can’t control or even explain a lot of the way things happen to us, who we meet, what we do. I just really think when we touch someone and there’s that instant connection, we should act on it. Who knows? You and I may never see each other again. And I really like you.”
So, we did it. Right there on the bus. We pulled my coat over us, and she slipped off her jeans. I was incredibly aroused to discover she was going commando. I slid my bell-bottoms down to my ankles and she gently climbed on top of me, pulled my coat over us, and pulled up her sweater.
Of course, she wasn’t wearing a bra. She reached for my hands and pulled them onto her breasts, which were soft and full, and kissed me deeply as I stroked her breasts and her whole body from her shoulders to her knees. Her skin was so smooth and she smelled so good. I squeezed her nipples gently, and she moaned softly into my mouth as we kissed. While my hands were exploring her, she pulled my shirt up so I could feel her breasts against my chest, and then she reached down and slipped me inside her.
For a long moment, we just held each other and kissed. Then she buried her face in my neck and started to slowly move up and down. It would have been exciting any place it happened, but knowing we were deep in the throes of lovemaking in the middle of a Greyhound bus added a special touch. After a while she started to moan quietly in my ear. The pace of it stayed the same but the pitch rose gradually to something like a squeal, and then she collapsed against me. Just as we pulled onto the George Washington Bridge in New York, we hit a couple of rough spots that jiggled her up and down, and I finished, too. She pulled her head back a couple of inches until she could look straight into my eyes again and said, “I don’t care what my dad thinks; I’d rather make love, not war.” Then she slid off of me, reached down to the floor under my coat, and put her jeans back on.
We changed buses in New York, and really didn’t talk much more all the way to Boston. I just sat there, mostly, thinking about her and what we’d done. It’s not like I was a complete novice or anything. And it’s not as if I hadn’t ever fantasized about something like that when a good looking woman sat next to me on the bus or the train or whatever. I know it’s an unbelievable story, sort of like those little ethics exercises where they ask you if you’d have sex with a gorgeous alien woman who landed her space ship in front of you and offered to do you and then leave forever, no questions asked. It does sound a lot like that, but the difference is it really happened.

I can’t tell you to ask somebody else if I’m telling the truth because I never told anyone else. But the sex isn’t the part that pleased me the most that night. You probably won’t believe this, either. But what really knocked me out was that this beautiful, young woman—the daughter of G.I. Joe—didn’t believe in killing any more than I did, and told me she often thought about why so many people were willing to do such awful things to each other, even people they didn’t know at all. That’s what connected me to her. That’s what keeps the image of her in my brain all these years later. I said goodbye to her when we got to Boston. She kissed me and stroked my face with her long, soft fingers, and walked away. I was already hoping we’d run into each other on the bus again.

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