Sunday, December 08, 2019


This is going to have a lot of name gaps because I can remember stories but not the names.  i've broken up most of my UU archives so I can't consult them.  

When it was the normal time for me to leave seminary after four years, I wanted nothing more than going back to Montana, but I couldn't get my thesis past the three M/L professors.  Emil Gudmundson and Russ Lockwood, both district execs meant to support congregations, became my co-conspirators and they knew where to get at some money that the Universalists had hidden when they merged with the Unitarians, those city slickers.  It wasn't a lot, but we figured that I could do three years on $20,000 a year.  The plan was to live in a van and serve a circuit of the two university towns, Missoula and Bozeman, plus the biggest town Great Falls, and Helena, the capital.

Missoula owned a building, a house they had bought from Leslie Fiedler, controversial professor; Helena had once built a church in the days of the Copper Barons, but it was now a theatre.  Nevertheless, that's where I was ordained on the set for "Death of a Salesman."  Great Falls as a city shrank and died and so did the congregation.  But Lockwood organized a statewide UU meeting there at the Ursuline Retreat Center.  I flew out from Chicago.  We circulated warily.  Fellowship people are not anxious to have some bossy clergy with big ideas around.  

One curlyhead man in a black turtleneck and a medallion was enjoying the crowd immensely.  It was Marvin Backer, now gone over the horizon, a "shrink" who genuinely liked people.  He was from Bozeman and his widow Susan continues to be a leader.  As it happens, she really likes clergy and always believes they are wonderful.  She has helped organize a display of photos of the ministers that Bozeman has had so far as well as a little binder of four of their sermons.  She just sent me copies.

I remember so many stories.  I started us off with the Water Ceremony, offering a jar of water from the confluence called "Three Rivers," of Lewis and Clark fame.  All the samples were terrific and the kids participated, but the oldest contributor was Bob Dunbar, who gave us a history of the Bozeman public water system.  He had written a book about it and I have a copy.  In the end he died of Parkinson's after I had left, but earlier I was back for some reason and spent an hour with him.  We remembered the night (we met in the evening) we all spontaneously went for ice cream and Dunbar sat with joyous little kids.

The other author was Marvin Shaw, the only Mexican Scot I ever knew, who wrote a book called "The Paradox of Intention: Reaching the Goal by Giving Up the Attempt to Reach It" (AAR Studies in Religion) about how it is that something you try ever so hard to do just won't work until you give up.  Ordained himself, he taught religion at Montana State University.  His wife, Jean, worked at the Country Bookstore.  In their home they kept a bathtub with no water but a lot of pillows for curling up to read.

Geri Fenn and Bertha Clow were a devoted couple in a "Boston marriage."  Geri, who was a mighty force for kids in the state, was stricken with early Alzheimers, which Bertha flatly denied.  Geri demanded a clock, a calendar and a cat  -- which was impossible because she was in the nursing wing of their residence apartments.  I had some money from a wedding or baptism, and spent it on a clock, a calendar, and a windup plush cat that purred.  She was very pleased.

If the temp went below ten, I stayed in people's spare bedrooms.  Once I was assigned to a single father with two small daughters.  John Hooton.   He worried that people might think bad thoughts, but I slept on a fold-out sofa with no problems.  Then he worried that I might not like parmesan cheese on my scrambled eggs, which was the only way his girls would eat them.  I loved them that way.

Once I stayed at the home of a psych prof, the kind that does data rather than people.  At three AM as my physiology compels me, I got up in my nighty and staggered to the bathroom next to the kitchen, only to confront the entire psych department of Montana State University, unwinding with coffee and stronger things after some high-tension meeting.  They treated me as normal, I woke up enough to be formal, and all was well. Very cheerful.

It was 1982 and this man's wife, Phyllis, had Alzheimer's which no one understood yet.  Her doctors spoke of "brain tangles".  She was an artist, much beloved by the other UU's, and some of them set out to comfort her as though she'd had a stroke.  They took turns reading to her.  She listened like an amazed child.  In another case a woman, who was very competent and giving, suddenly began shop-lifting.  People quietly set to work figuring it out and putting it right.

But when life was getting to be a struggle, I stayed at the Backer's, the counselor Marv and his wife Susan.  They had a downstairs bedroom with bath that was silent, warm, and safe.  I always slept well there.  Later they built on a wing of bedrooms and hot-tub that had glass walls looking into the surrounding forest.  One day they came home to find a frieze of muddy bear cub prints at a certain height, going right around the outside of all the glass as the little explorer tried to find a door.  After all, the house was in Bear Canyon.

Farther up the canyon is the home of Gordon Julian and his beloved wife, Sarah.  It was a custom ridge-top special place.  Water came into the house by a "ram" a very noisy kind of pump.  When I stayed with them, they cautioned me not to flush the toilet at night since the ram was just outside their bedroom wall.  Of course, I forgot.  They were only a little grumpy over coffee the next morning.  

The Julians were very close to the Backers and they invited me to join them at Backer's for New Year's.  We ate good things and lustily sang old familiar songs.  When it was only a few minutes to midnight, we walked down the access road to the little bridge across the creek.  There was a lot of brush and we saw that in the skiff of fresh snow on the road there were moose tracks.  When we spaced apart and stood silently listening, we fancied we heard brush cracking and swishing.  

When we went back up to the house, where light spilled out onto the snow, we saw that there were more moose tracks -- on top of ours.  Oh, silent night!  Oh, holy night!

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