June 18, 2013

My Dad’s folks were very religious, and coming from England, they belonged to the Episcopal Church. They were also very poor. There was little work for my grandfather in New York (he was a mezzotint artist-that is a classy form of etching, and photo-engraving had pretty much made mezzotint work obsolete) and the family finances were pinched to the breaking point. Sadly, one Sunday, the minister of their church got up and read the names of the people in the congregation who weren’t making regular contributions. My grandparents were on the list. Their names were called out. It was a crushing embarrassment. My grandmother was especially affected, and soon after, she became quite sick and died. My dad always connected the two events and became alienated from the church. As a consequence I was never baptized or required to go to church as a kid.

Oh yes, once in a while I went to the nearby Methodist church with my pal, Rodney, but just for the heck of it. Rod was living with my grandparents and grandma periodically gave him the order. Frankly, the entertainment at the church was the stout minister who would shout and rant about the devil and gave a very good performance. Rod and I would sit there and snicker. We named the guy Old Bristle Belly. However the religion never took. It was not for me.

Suddenly World War II broke out and every healthy male either enlisted in the service or was drafted. Casualty reports began coming in and the blue stars on the service flags began being replaced with gold ones signifying that someone had died. Then, in late 1943 I enlisted in the navy to begin my training as a naval aviator.

My German grandmother (Gram) had lived through the carnage of World War I and was now witnessing World War II. She had seen, and was seeing again, people being killed, and she knew that if you weren’t baptized you wouldn’t have a chance at eternal life. You would go straight to hell. Donald MUST be baptized or be doomed. I was strongly reminded of this every time I went home on leave. Fearful grandmothers can be persistent.

Finally, when I was in the final phases of training in Pensacola, in 1946, I decided to set Gram’s mind at ease and do the baptize thing, but I decided to do it on my own terms. Gram was a Lutheran so I checked out that church. No dice, too straight laced and stuffy, and loudly proclaiming that animals could not go to heaven. I tried the Episcopals, but I had that bad “Dad” memory about them and they were too similar to the Catholics with too many trappings of splendor. Baptists were prevalent in the south so I checked them out. Uh, uh! I was not about to be pushed under water by some preacher with a heavy southern accent. I don’t remember if there was a Presbyterian church in town or not, but if there was I checked them out as well with negative results. Finally there were the Methodists. What I found here was a copy of old Bristle Belly shouting hellfire and brimstone. This was my choice. The minister happily agreed to baptize me the following Sunday.

I guess opportunities like this don’t come to ministers every day. He alerted his ushers to keep a lookout for me the following Sunday. How could they miss. I was clad in my dress navy blue aviation cadet uniform with gold buttons and anchors on the lapels, with white starched collar and black tie, shoes shined to perfection and completely out of place in the gathering congregation. They singled me out immediately and led me to the front pew, center seat and left. I was alone.

The service was normal with much gesturing, finger pointing towards heaven and then down when the talk came to punishing sinners. The plate was passed and the regular service terminated.

I was now the dessert.

The minister began: “To all of you here today we must welcome this young man from New York” He pointed down at me, “who is here to be baptized!” There were some more words of praise and reassurance. Then I was summoned to the lectern for the final blessings. “Kneel down!” I kneeled. Words were spoken and then a hand-full of water scooped out a baptismal font was unceremoniously (or maybe that WAS part of the ceremony) poured on my head. Surprise! My head was soaked, my neck was soaked, my starched collar was soaked, the shoulders of my crisp blue uniform were soaked. I was a mess.

Now the wilted, newly baptized mess had to stand and meet the oncoming congregation. Nice people, many invites to dinner, but I was more interested in getting back to the base and out of the classy blue uniform and into my usual khakis. I thanked everyone and then backed out the door and headed for the base bus.

I never returned to that church (or any others), but now my German grandma was satisfied. I could go to heaven. I wrote her the next day. The promise of heaven was probably depending on other factors as well, but I decided to chance these when the time came.

End of story!

Don Hubbard, The Baptized

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