By Michael Hendrick
Illustration by Waylon Bacon
A spate of Christian/spiritual music washed over the AM/FM airwaves in the early-1970s. Jesus Christ Superstar primed the pump, and Norman Greenbaum had made spirituality a Top Ten hit the year before with his rocking Spirit In the Sky. In Eighth Grade, my eighth year of going to the Holy Mass six days a week, a progressive nun from Philadelphia mimeographed lyrics to these and other pseudo-spiritual tunes, like Bridge Over Troubled Waters and I Am A Rock by Simon and Garfunkel. Passing out the lyrics pages, she explained the spiritual introspection in songs and managed to slip a bit of ‘Popery’ into the messages, as well.
Around that time, my grandfather died. In those days, three days of wakes preceded the Funeral Mass…probably because it took that long to dig through the snow and frozen turf of snow belt cemeteries. My Uncle Keith, a classic example of the 1960s folk-guitar-priest, attended each day. As a priest, he employed great communications skills; he listened and responded to me as he would to an adult but the main impression he left upon me, The Impressionable Boy in Puberty, lie in his kindness. At a difficult age when adults yelled at me everywhere I went or some short, older jocks from the high school took turns threatening me, a little kindness made for a long and lasting memory.
By the time George Harrison crackled through the radio with My Sweet Lord, Christ invaded my thoughts and pushed the horoscope and Zolar zodiac books to the side, making way for The Bible. If any kid stood ready for a conversion, it was me.
Buses from public schools carried public school students. A freshman at Holy Catholic High School, in the city, I rode city buses. Bus stops, in the 1950s-1970s USA, provided a convenient place for strange people to queue up. Drunks, head cases, the elderly, the young and the poor – the same groups we now view as ‘disenfranchised’ – waited for buses at every odd corner.
“I used to be Jerry Lewis’s father!” a hulking brute of a man, with a more pockmarks than I ever saw on a face before, told me, assertively. I did not argue.
A crazy-looking biker type with longish red hair, freckles, two missing upper front teeth and a welder’s cap turned backwards on his head, told me we could ‘share a hit of microdot,’ whatever that was, if I gave him a dollar. I saw him before. He infrequently rode the bus all the way out to Egypt, the village where I lived. Knowing nothing about drugs, I gave him a buck, along with an excuse about why I didn’t want my half. He took the cash and hurried away. It was only a dollar.
Another guy looked like a rock star, standing back from the curb, stylish unisex shirt with very short sleeves revealing thin arms with no hint of muscle but wrists hardly visible under bracelets, chains, braided strings and other baubles. Hair fell to his shoulders in a fashionably- long, black shag. It was the best one I had seen since David Cassidy in The Partridge Family. He wore a large, red button on his chest, which said, in raised white letters, “GET SMART GET SAVED”, and his belt held several pouches, one revealing a row of colored highlighting markers. The crazy guy from Egypt only wanted a dollar; the cool-looking dude with the shag sought my soul. A big, goofy kid who attracted these types simply by dint of being well over six feet tall and having shoulder-length blonde hair, I understood neither. It turned out that he was a senior at the same high school I attended. Living close, he could go home after classes, lose the suit and tie, then hit the streets in fashion, ‘cool for Christ’. Being friends with a cool, long-haired senior gave me added credibility in my freshman year.
The Forever Family formed in 1971 in Allentown, PA, as a loose band of rag-tag former hippies and disillusioned druggies. They sought comfort and spirituality and brotherhood and fellowship, all the things this thirteen-year-old needed. Relating to the other kids at school had always been problematic. We had moved from New York into a hick town when I was six and I never caught onto the secretive ways of the Pennsylvania Dutch and other clannish peoples who mostly populated the area. I was different and not used to acceptance. When Jack, the guy with the shag, started talking to me, there was a warmth and understanding to him, sort of like with Uncle Keith. In the beginning, The Forever Family was pretty pure. Everybody was kind and open and it gave me a place to go after school and on weekends. The main thing one had to do, obviously, was to get saved, like the button said. The buttons were sort of the beginning of the end, however, as far as the pure essence of the Family. People banded around Chip, a charismatic hippie-looking guy with reddish hair and beard, and a warm and ever-ready smile. He exuded comfort. The Family existed here and there in the public parks and at the house of Chip and his wife, Sam. The house being just a few blocks from the high school, it was a place to go when skipping class or waiting for the bus. It provided refuge.
According to many, trouble began with those buttons, which were the invention of Stewart Traill, now leader of the Church of Bible Understanding (COBU). The COBU is based in Scranton, PA, and makes most of its cash from diverting funds donated for the running of their mission in Haiti, various internet and newspaper sources reveal. Traill devised the “GET SMART GET SAVED” button. They were big, bright and drew attention. Both well-known and oft-hated, these buttons caught the eye and allowed the wearer to go to work. Work, in this version, was the saving of Souls, the conversion to Christ through the auspicious Holy Spirit, who would often make guest appearances at the mall fountain in front of the Orange Julius stand on Friday and Saturday nights. That Holy Spirit would come right into the mall and cleanse those Souls whenever summoned. I went for it. I accepted the Holy Spirit. I promised to focus all my life on Christ as my only salvation.
At my own behest, I adopted a uniform of black jeans and black tee shirt, with a hand-made leather pouch on my belt to carry a miniature Bible and some leaflets (known as tracts to the professional faithful) on how to save yourself and become one of us. A lot of people, mostly in my own real family, mocked my new, always-blackened presence, some referring to me as ‘the Father’. The button never appeared in my wardrobe, however. I am not sure if this was because of Stewart or myself. Buttons were awarded to ‘lambs’ who memorized ten Bible verses, picked by Stewart. Being very adept at memorization, ten verses would not have been a problem. Once you had the button, you were raised a level and given responsibility – mostly for bringing in new members.
Maybe my lifelong pattern of shirking responsibility saved me in this instance. On the other hand, all the other members were about six or seven years older than me. Jack was closest in age. A thirteen-year-old does not hold as much sway as an older acolyte. Either way, it was lucky that I was just a bit too young. Most followers were in late-teens or early-twenties and Stewart was in his late-thirties. Traill was a strong presence, who took the role of leader of the family from Chip, simply by constant badgering and intimidation of family members. He likened himself to Moses and Elijah and came on as a sort of John Lennon-like figure, with frame-less wire-rimmed glasses. Like Lennon he had a habit of growing long hair and beard, then shaving both to leave them grow again. It is significantly coincidental to note that the place where Traill met Chip, the Robin Hood Dell section of Allentown’s Lehigh Parkway park system, was often frequented by the real John Lennon, who lived nearby in NYC and brought his son, Sean, there in the last years of his life.
Traill picked out clothes for his wife, Shirley, to wear which were very sexually revealing; micro-mini skirts and low cut blouses, heels. She was his Yoko imitation, although I doubt that Yoko would have been told what to wear. The clothes seemed out of place but they did make me horny, the desired effect, no doubt. He weighed her on a scale in front of family members regularly and spanked her if she weighed too much. He forced her to ask permission to go to the bathroom. This part of Traill’s personal life did not seem to jibe with the message of the Good News…neither did the attack on his son, who was beaten senseless by several church members for publicly disagreeing with his father. Much of this was unknown to me at the time. My mind found distraction in what other followers wore, how they spoke and acted – after all, I needed role models and some of the Family members were very cool. I cannot say that I ever had a conversation with Stewart. Perhaps due to my age, he felt I was useless – since I was not old enough to work and hand over my wages and was too naive to be truly influential to adults. Chip and Sam always showed me warmth and grace and made me feel welcome. I tended to stick close to them as much as possible.
What did I care? I had a place to go after school and on weekends where I was accepted. Acceptance and separation are the two cudgels of cult power. Anti-parent sentiment ran hot. We were often reminded that Jesus said, “I did not come to bring peace; but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother.” I had enough friction going on between my dad and myself, that this line alone kept me hanging around. The Lambs of God brought in the sheep of Stewart but I was an innocuous kid, just along for the ride, really. I had been hearing about the Holy Trinity at school and church six days a week and listening to them on the radio. The hippie-looking girls and the way they dressed were the main draw for me. I didn’t enjoy ‘witnessing the word’ with one of the red-buttoned ‘lambs’ as much as I did my own personal conversions of the souls of paisley chicks with tight jeans.
Besides saving souls at the Orange Julius, we witnessed in public parks, did community activities, like help the Red Cross assist victims of a recent hurricane by working in their clothes/food/distribution center (my first volunteer job in a history of 42 years of volunteering – so something stuck), studied Bible verse and discussed it and wandered, fairly aimlessly, looking for more souls. Sometimes we would set up elaborate scenes in public restaurants to attract the attention of other diners and then drop our message on them.
On Bible study – another bad thing about having the “GET SMART GET SAVED” button were the accompanying charges of being a ‘lamb’, such as the memorization of Stewart’s convenient Bible color-code system, wherein followers divine the truths in the Holy Word by marking certain passages with certain colors of highlighter markers. The color system presents a very primitive system of mind control. Certain colors hold different significance, while others make us feel different ways. If a color can evoke a feeling, then drenching a particular verse in a certain color imbues it with that feeling. Red causes aggression in humans just as it does in bulls. Having once been attacked by a bull while donning a red shirt, I can say this is no urban legend. Just as he usurped the leadership of the family through pushiness and intimidation, Traill had seen Jack color-coding his Bible, as we had been taught to do with our notes in high school, and thereby stole the ‘idea’ and ‘invented’ the Color Code.
The coding took the fun out of the words and isolated them into specific messages. Color psychology has undergone many changes since the 1970s but it is still no less effective than it was to the ancient Greeks, who slept in white to purify their dreams. Controlling the mind through color is subtle and effective. It must be. By the end of the decade, Traill presided over an estimated 65 ‘fellowship houses’ and real estate holdings including mansions in Florida and Philadelphia and four private jets. The money built up as he went through a well-thought-out process of collecting old vacuum cleaners from the trash, fixing them and reselling them, then expanding the vacuum sales into a vacuum cleaning business with followers in major US cities working for a dollar a day and donating the rest of their wages to the church, so it could buy more land and vacuums. The business still thrives, along with a series of second-hand shops which resell items plucked from trash or handed over to the church when followers give up the world and all that is worldly. It became so well known that a popular episode of the Seinfeld TV series focused an eopisode around them, calling them the “Carpet Cleaning Cult,” after their real business name of Christian Brothers Carpet Cleaning.
Some valuable lessons stuck to me from those days of cornering strangers and talking them into submitting to the Holy Spirit. How to use a person’s own words to trap them, how to manipulate the meaning of certain words and simple verbal bullying techniques – these methods stuck to me and helped me through life in becoming successful at sales jobs and getting Jehovah’s Witnesses off my doorstep. Developing a knowledge of scripture still comes in handy, as a choice line from the Holy Book will easily stymie an argument and allow me to ‘one up’ a verbal opponent…particularly if they are the moralistic type.
Near the end of my association with the Forever Family, news of a big meeting with a communal Baptism made the rounds. Taking place on a Sunday, it would be hard for me to sneak away from dinner at home and find a way to the church and back. No buses ran on Sunday and I had not learned how to properly hitch a ride yet. A resounding ‘NO’ met my request to attend the meeting, so my natural instinct to run away from home appeared and off I went. The meeting took place at an established church with an Evangelical ministry. A mix of regular church members and scruffy-cool Forever Family members filled the pews. Baptism took place in a large swimming pool, dug and built in the shape of the cross. The minister presided over his regular service and, towards the end, welcomed us, who had been reborn via Baptism of Spirit, and invited us to be baptized in the symbolic water. We shuffled into a room behind the altar, where we were given white robes to wear into the pool.
My dad carried a .50 caliber machine gun in the Third Marine Division, where he served three tours of duty in the Pacific Theater of World War Two, gunning down Japanese soldiers. I imagine he wore the same expression on his face when he pulled the trigger as the one he wore as he burst through the door behind the altar with my mother, who seemed bewildered but peeved. “…all that money..,” she repeated a few times. Not yet in my robe, my old man grabbed me and out we went. A bunch of astonished lambs looked on with mouths agape. Numerous lectures intertwined in the voices from the front seat of the car, as we rode home and I stared out the back windows, singing to myself in my head. Years later, my mother would recall the “trashcans full to the top with money” that she had seen as they hunted around behind the scenes, trying to find me in the temple. “…all that money…” A depression-age baby, it sort of haunted her.
In days to come, I still found my way out of class and sneaking down to the Forever Family house. Things were changing. Expanding the business and setting up new houses, along with objections to the ruthless ways of Stewart, drove a lot of family members out of the cult and back into the rote of their pre-‘saved’ days. Some kids at school trusted me now, having seen me hanging with the group of long-haired freaks, and offered me drugs and other forms of companionship. Something about going out collecting vacuum cleaners did not appeal to me, not for free, anyway.
No taste of the Christ ever killed my natural instinct to make money to buy myself things my parents didn’t know about. My mom took a real tip from the experience, and, seeing how well I could corner strangers verbally, one day she dragged me into the General Nutrition Store (GNC) at the mall and lied about my age, telling them that her sixteen- year-old needed a job. Soon, on nights and weekends, I found myself accosting strangers with a spoonful of sunflower seeds, petitioning them to ‘try our Zesty Sunflower Seeds!’, as the light of the Orange Julius glared at me from the other end of the mall.