Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Father's Day 1972 Revisited, Part 15: Grandma Randall vs The Episcopalians

I have mentioned that the three of us kids were raised in the Episcopal church. My brother was an acolyte, helping the priest by performing ceremonial duties during worship such as carrying the processional cross and lighting alter candles. As a young child witnessing the worship ritual and hearing the recited prayers, the impression that settled upon me was that these adults were mostly bored with the whole matter and were personally uninvolved in the motions they were so deliberately and carefully walking themselves through. I felt a little resentful at being made to share in their boredom. All the robed people up by the alter doing their important tasks of positioning this or that object exactly here or there seemed to me to move way too slowly. Not only that, but they would unnecessarily drag out what they were saying to make it take as long as humanly possible to drone out the required words. This slow-motion performance seemed very tedious to my young, wandering and restless mind. I'd sit there next to my sister on the hard old oak pew in my white starched long-sleeved shirt and clip-on bow tie and crane my head back as far as it would go until I was looking straight up. I'd let my eyes wander in among the big dark brown wood beams which crisscrossed the high ceiling and intersected with one another in mid-air. Meanwhile, the distant voice of the priest droned on and on as it read, in that sophisticated and practiced high-church monotone fashion, from a prayer book or perhaps some mimeographed sheet.

This Episcopal tradition came to us through my mom and her parents, who presumably had received it from their parents. My dad's mom, whom we called grandma Randall, was a Southern Baptist and worked to deliver us from Episcopalianism by exposing us to Baptist influences whenever and however she could. I don't think we ever attended any Baptist Sunday services, but us kids were packed off to VBS--vacation Bible school--every summer. There we would make things such as real leather wallets on which we tooled designs such as eagles or crosses or pine cones and then we'd finish it off with shoelace-sized leather stitching all around. We made Indian beaded bracelets from kits and pictures pounded onto copper sheets and then mounted on wood plaques we had stained ourselves. Grandma Randall was in charge of the craft component of her church's VBS and she saw to it that we had good quality materials and tools to work with.

I'd have been happy to do crafts all day, but the gospel lessons could not be overlooked. We'd needed to hear a Bible story and most often that meant the giant flannel-board was brought out. As I recall, the flannel-board stories were done by missionaries who were home on furlow. The story might be Daniel in the loin's den or Jonah and the wale, but what ever it was, it ended with a miniature Billy Graham crusade-style plea by the missionery for us to invite Christ into our hearts to become our Lord and Savior. Heads would be bowed and all eyes closed (except for some curiosity-inspired peeking). You'd raise your hand if you wanted to, "answer the knock of Jesus and open the door of your heart." Did I ever raise my hand? I don't know. I can't say I remember ever doing so, yet I wouldn't be surprised if I were to find I had. Nothing even remotely similar to this ever went on at the Episcopal church. That might be the reason that VBS felt kind of like spiritual contraband. I felt a vague guilt, at being involved in something a bit clandestine, something we were not really suppose to be doing. It was, on the part of my grandma, perhaps a kind of "sneaky" evangelism--sneaky for the sake of the kids. Grandma Randall was trying to steer us away from the spiritually sterilizing and stultifying influence of the Episcopal church.

Don't miss the next episode: Grandma Randall goes to meet Jesus.

Father's Day 1972 Revisited, Part 14: A Good Dad, and Loved

Meanwhile, While my buddy and I were chasing dreams of striking it rich as crab-catchers in Alaska, my dad, at the age of forty-eight, was entering the newly created Medex program. It had been pioneered at Duke University in the late 60's to meet the projected future demand for health care. In 1971 California was getting aboard this new health-care train. Dad heard about the program because he had been a Navy corpsman during WWII. In signing up, he joined the first class at UCLA of those who would go on from there to become "PA's"--Physician Assistants. This new category of medical professional was created by an act of congress and UCLA was chosen as the institution in California which would train the first new recruits--drawn mostly from the ranks of retired Navy corpsmen.

My dad's career path was, in a number of ways, an unusual one. He had joined the Navy in order to get away from a stern, cold demanding father, Dr. George Borand Randall Sr. [A Google search of his name shows him listed in Senate records from 1918 as a "Randall, George Borand, Noncombatant Commissioned Officers of the Army."] From all accounts, he had left private medical practice to become an Army physician during World War I. He saw combat in Europe and had suffered lung damage due to inhalation of German mustard gas. It seems he spent the rest of his life on a military disability pension and never returned to full time private practice.

As near as I can tell, my dad never received any fatherly warmth or affection from this man and never--in words I ever heard him express--mourned his passing. In 1940, at age 17, dad made his move to leave home and escape the icy presence of this man for good--he joined the Navy. Both his parents signed the required permission slip for this underage young man to join the military--his father willingly, his mother reluctantly. He came to the Naval Training Center, San Diego for boot camp and, later, as a corpsman, to Camp Elliot with the U.S. Marines. From there he shipped out with the Marines to the South Pacific shortly after Pearl Harbor. Like most of the men of his generation, dad never offered up stories of the war years. One had to pull them out of him with direct questions. In his later years I spent time in conversation with him about these events and can recall just the basic outline of his story. [I now regret not getting an audio recorder and documenting those conversations.]

Dad saw combat in many of the South Pacific theaters, as they are called in military terms. He was aboard ship convoys when kamikaze raids rained down on them. He vividly described the frantic ship-board efforts at putting up smoke screens so the Japanese suicide pilots diving down at full speed from straight overhead could not see their intended targets. He also told of the charming life of the natives on the island of Samoa and how he became a special favorite of a local chief after circumcising the Chief's infant son. Dad picked up a number of Samoan phrases which we kids heard often growing up: Saweela peesa, fi moly moly! Roughly translated, "Shut your mouth--keep quiet!" Another was a song the Marines had made up which was set to the tune of Deep in the Heart of Texas." I would put the Samoan lyrics to it here, but I suspect, though I am not sure, they may be "R" rated.

After the war, dad was reunited with his wife, Olive, a Navy Wave. They began a family soon thereafter and my brother, "Skipper" was born in 1946. I followed four respectful years later, being born in Minneapolis in the middle of 1950. Two years later, when our parents moved to Southern California, our sister, Lauren was born. A couple of years were spent in West Riverside and then we moved into a new tract home on Gertrude Street in Riverside proper. The tract of middle-class stucco homes had been carved out in the middle of hundreds of acres of orange groves, and was still virtually surrounded by many of them. In spring the fragrance of orange blossoms filled the night and was sometimes nearly overwhelming. In winter it was the pungent odor of the smudge pots alight along with the sound of hundreds of wind machines keeping the air moving and the oranges from freezing.

One thing I came to learn--to deduce really--about my dad was his deeply felt inadequacy at not living up to the expectations that he become a physician like his father. Whether his father had imposed this on him or whether he had imposed it on himself, I never did learn. It was, I thought, too personal, too delicate a question for a child, even a grown one, to broach with a parent. Perhaps it could have been tactfully done, but I never did pursue this line of inquiry with him. This insecurity expressed itself in any number of ways. One was that, in the late fifties, dad signed the family up to a local country club there in Riverside--Azure Hills. That was the club where all the doctors, Attorneys and wealthy businessmen belonged. Being a surgical supply salesman, it made a certain amount of sense to join the club, but even as a nine-year-old I could tell we didn't really belong there. We didn't really fit in. It was nothing you could quite put your finger on--one just knew. Dad also didn't really mind when, in later years, people mistook his references to, "being in the medical profession" as meaning he had been a doctor. He didn't mind and often would not correct people's mistaken impression. Perhaps he challenged this inner dynamic later in life when he self-published a book about his experiences entitled, Don't Call Me Doctor.

My dad was a great guy who grew closer and closer to God in his later years. Because of that primary and spiritual relationship he was changing and becoming more Christ-like up unto the very end of his life. He was dearly loved by his family and by everyone who ever met him. People who, decades ago, had only known or worked with him a few months sent notes of great fondness and deep regret at the news of his passing in 1999.

I will write more about him in some future post on some future Father's Day. I know where you are dad. Thanks for all you did to raise me and try to get me on the right road--even when, early on, you were not sure yourself where it was. You left this world with grace, dignity and deep love. You are missed.