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My Life With the Spirits
A Magical Autobiograhy
By Lon Milo DuQuette
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 1999 Lon Milo DuQuette
All rights reserved.
I Am Born
Except for the frustration and embarrassment of incontinence, infancy was a perfectly delightful experience. Soon after I learned to walk, it was discovered that I was afflicted with Perthes' disease in my right hip. Perthes' is a serious bone malady that crumbles the topmost part of the thigh. In order to prevent complete disintegration of my hip socket the doctors ordered me off my feet and back into the crib. This was fine with me. It meant I could comfortably lounge undisturbed for many hours each day, drifting blissfully in and out of consciousness.
Unlike able-bodied children who, as soon as they begin to walk and talk, lose the precious memories of their pre-linguistic inner-life, my little brain was allowed to crystallize and permanently register those thoughts and images. As long as I was quiet, my mother was quite satisfied to leave me to my semiconscious musings.
Among these were visions of myself as an adult man crouching in a dirt trench with a half a dozen other men. It was night, but the sky would brighten from time to time with brilliant explosions. Oddly enough, this image wasn't particularly frightening.
The most frequent recurring picture that projected itself upon the screen of my bedroom ceiling was triggered by the smell of night-blooming jasmine that my father had planted near my nursery window. I saw myself (again as an adult man) stepping into a car (that I would later determine was of the late 1920s or early 1930s vintage) and driving south on (what I would later discover was) the Pacific Coast Highway 101 from Santa Monica to Ensenada, Mexico. The night was hot and all I could think about was the woman I was to meet there. I was in love. I physically ached to be with my lover. My infantile mind couldn't visualize what exactly I was going to do with her, but certain parts of my newly acquired baby body informed me in no uncertain terms that there were many things that could indeed be done.
The reader who may be theorizing that these feelings and images were suggested by things I had seen on television or in the movies must remember that as a bedridden infant in 1948–1950, I had not been exposed to either medium. I am not sharing this information with you in order to prove anything about reincarnation or genetic memory. (I can't even put up a good argument for the reality of life after birth). I only want you to know that the overriding character of my self-identity was that of an adult trapped in an infant's body.
I still possessed the emotions of a child. I couldn't read or write—I couldn't do calculus or play the violin. I was as stupid, naive, and crabby as any child. I simply couldn't wait to grow up to feel like myself. This created a level of tension whenever I interacted with family members. I detested being patronized like a child and cursed my helpless condition. I vividly remember after one particularly agonizing event (probably relating to food or poop) vowing in passionate babbles, "I hate being a baby! If I ever grow up I'll never get myself in this position again!"
Without a doubt, the most profound of these crib meditations was an exercise I practiced daily whereby I pondered the nature of my own existence. Without the benefit of words to frame the questions, I somehow asked myself "Was I off before I was on? If I weren't who I am, who would I be?" I then tried to imagine myself not "on." I never succeeded. Each time I imagined myself switched "off," I instantly found myself switched "on" in another consciousness center—my brother, my mother, or father. or someone-anyone-else. This frustrated me no end because if there was one thing I did know it was that I was "I" and nobody else. Nevertheless, I played this game every day in hopes that I would someday break out of the helical loop. I finally gave up.
It was also in my crib that I was first exposed to religious propaganda. As soon as I was old enough not to eat them, my mother gave me copies of The Upper Room, a tiny booklet published regularly by the Methodist Church. The cover of each issue displayed a famous painting depicting incidents in the life of Christ—walking on water—knocking at the door—the crucifixion—reaching for a lost lamb— the Last Supper, that sort of thing.
At first I wanted to like this Jesus character, but I was very disturbed by my mother's insistence that I wouldn't really get to know him until I was dead. Moreover, she told me that he looked down from heaven and saw everything I did. He even knew what I was thinking. She warned me if I didn't believe in him or was naughty that terrible things would happen to me when I died. Jesus and his father would put me in hell, a place she described as a lake of fire where you'll have nightmares and never be able to wake up. Every night after tucking me in she "led" me in prayer—
Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
This prayer did not comfort me at all. It was an oath I was forced to take against my will. It terrified me and plunged me into a nightly crisis. My soul was very real to me. As a person who drifted in and out of objective consciousness all day and night, I knew my soul to be my only real identity. Being a baby was humiliating enough, but the thought of this ghost-god coming down from the clouds to steal my soul before I could grow old enough to use the toilet was horrifying. I could not put this dreadful thought out of my mind and sure enough, shortly after my 4th birthday, the "Lord" would come to my bedside my soul to take.
My Vision of Christ
My mother was born in 1913 in the barren sand-hills of western Nebraska. Her mother, Clara, whose ancestors fought in the American Revolution, came from sturdy Pennsylvania Dutch stock. Mom's father, Dewey, was the bastard son of the daughter of a Scottish rancher named McConnell and a full-blooded Cherokee Indian named William Lake. Great Grandfather Lake, it seems, was quite the cowboy, and made his living as a performer in traveling Wild West shows. These spectacles were very popular in the 1880s and offered some of the only employment opportunities for native Americans during that genocidal era. His specialty was Roman riding, which is the act of standing up on two galloping horses—one foot on one horse, one foot on the other. Shortly after inseminating my great grandmother he was trampled to pieces as a matinee finale.
Naturally, the shame of begetting a bastard halfbreed could not be borne by the McConnell clan, and so little Dewey was given up as soon as he was weaned. The new "mother" was an outlaw "uncle" who made ends meet by selling corn whiskey, which he illicitly distilled in a honeycomb of caves south of North Platte. My grandfather became the moonshiner's slave boy and grew to manhood tending the fires and servicing the great copper kettles and coils. Out of necessity he learned the art of the blacksmith and eventually, when he was strong enough to defy his master, moved to Hershey and set up shop. Later he would marry Clara Purbaugh and try his hand at ranching. Before they divorced they had five children: two boys—Glenn and Freeman, and three girls—Gladys, Lucinda, and Avis.
Life on the plains was unbelievably harsh, and I mean no disrespect to the memories of those poor devils who, for whatever reasons, chose to stay and breed in that unforgiving wilderness. However, the sad fact remains that by the time my mother came into the world the sand hills had petrified the souls of her people, and stripped them of all but the most primitive aspects of character. What remained was a bitter stock of petty avarice, alcoholism, incest, brutality, and guilt. Suicide was a common remedy for this prairie madness. Gettin' saved was the other way out.
For a few weeks after Aimee Semple McPherson and her International Church of the Four-Square Gospel Crusade came to the cattle town of Paxton, the men stayed on the wagon and the womenfolk developed attitudes. Lucinda, my teenage mother-to-be, reluctantly declined an offer to join the troop as a choir member. But she loved the colorful energy of revival and wholeheartedly surrendered to a childlike belief in that particular brand of Bible abuse.
Fortunately, in our early years, my brother Marc and I were for the most part spared direct contamination from my mother's sad and unwholesome kin. We were Southern California kids, like our dad. Our house always had electricity and indoor plumbing. Our father was a Freemason. He drilled oil wells, he'd gone to UCLA, he read books and played golf-but his story will come later.
In July of 1952 Dad sacrificed his two-week vacation, loaded up the Buick and drove us all back to Nebraska to visit Mom's relatives. I had just turned 4, and was still not permitted to walk. We took historic Route 66 part of the way. It was quite an adventure. Dad didn't like to stop the car except for gas or sleep, so when nature called Marc and I were obliged to carefully pee in a glass jar in the back seat. Mom would then fling the hot piss out the passenger side window, ignoring the fact that much of it blew back through the open back window and into our faces. I was carsick much of the time, and my poor brother became so feverishly delirious as we crossed the Arizona desert that he tearfully pleaded with Dad to stop the car so he could "sit in the shade of a jackrabbit."
The l,500 mile trip took four days. Our destination was a genuine ghost town called Wallace. Located about fifty monotonous miles southwest of North Platte (and at least eighty years back in time), Wallace had grown like a melanoma around the loading platform of the Burlington Northern railroad. During the 1920s it was the home of nearly seven hundred hardy souls, and boasted a doctor, a dentist, a drugstore, a barbershop, hardware, sundry and grocery stores, a blacksmith shop, a movie house and a hotel. By 1952 fewer than three hundred called Wallace home.
The final leg of the trip was fifty miles of dusty gravel road and prairie grass. Eventually the pointed cap of an ancient water tower pierced the hymen of the horizon. "Wallace is a pretty little town;' my father quipped. "Wasn't it?" Marc and I were not amused. We knew we would have no fun in Wallace.
The "business district" was a dirt street about three blocks long—a dusty arcade of deserted buildings. From any point along this shallow canyon of shells a person could look to either end of the street and see nothing but prairie. There were some signs of life: a saloon on the corner (where we would find Uncle Freeman); a barbershop directly across the street—its once colorful pole cracked and bleached in the sun; C. W. Smith's grocery store—smelling of fresh butchered meat and rotting melons; and the hotel—its second floor rooms had seen no guests since before the war, its lobby and first floor coffee shop the only place in town with ceiling fans.
On both sides of the main street (it was not named "Main Street"—none of the streets were named or numbered) was a village of remarkably well-built houses with enormous yards, ancient trees, and broken sidewalks. Electricity came late to Wallace and many of the yards still had working windmill pumps and primitive diesel generators. Every backyard had an outhouse and every basement had a coal chute.
The most prominent building in town was the old school house—a dark two-story brick monstrosity that looked more like a 19th-century foundry than a school. On the cold gray cornerstone near the great double door was chiseled the year of its erection, 1917. My mother and her brothers and sisters attended high school there in the 20s. As we drove by I could almost see in the windows the ghosts of suicidal farm boys in overalls.
"See those doors? When I was 15 they slammed shut behind me so hard that a big chunk of plaster broke loose from the ceiling and hit me right on my head." Mom pulled back the part in her silver hair to reveal a long pink scar. I didn't want to look. "They thought I was dead. I don't know how long I was out. Within two months my hair turned completely gray."
Things like that happen in Nebraska.
That night we drove twenty miles further into nowhere to have dinner at the new home of one of Mom's cousins. The "new home;' we would discover, was not yet finished. As a matter of fact, only the basement had been dug and cinder-blocked. Still, like a family of grotesque prairie dogs, my kinsmen crammed their stove and other furniture into this hole in the sod and covered it all with a tarpaulin.
As Dad carried me down the creaking steps 1 was greeted warmly by the patriarch prairie dog who pulled my hair and said, "So this is Ronnie! This boy's too goddamned big to be carried 'round like a baby! You leave this 'un with us. He don't look like no cripple. We'll have him on his goddamned feet doin' chores in no goddamned time."
Dinner was a buffet of fatty ham, fried chicken, home-canned corn and green beans. Everything smelled like gasoline. There were at least six sunken mystery pies that reeked of lard, and a huge bowl of lime Jell-0 topped with (of all things) mayonnaise. Inexplicably they called this quivering monstrosity "salad:' Except for the celery stocks stuffed with browning cream cheese and grape Kool-Aid, I couldn't even look at the food.
Sensing my terror at the bill-of-fare my country cousins amused themselves by thrusting various morsels of mystery meat into my mouth when I least expected it. These simple folk never seemed to tire of the game. I eventually joined in the fun and started to cry (which I finally realized was the object of the game). Before the evening was over I became violently ill. Dad was relieved to have an excuse to leave early and bundled us into the car. As we sped back over the moonless prairie my mother pushed my head out of the car window so I wouldn't vomit on her new dress. I stared out into the dear Nebraska sky and saw for the first time in my young life the glory of the Milky Way. Sick as I was, I was transfixed. I had never seen anything like that in California. The creamy cloud of stars seemed to go on forever, like the desert, like the prairie. Suddenly the fabric of my newfound heaven was ruptured by a flaming red ball with a magnificent silver tail. I had never seen a shooting star before. It was breathtaking, but it startled me so that I reacted as if it were a personal violation, a cruel cosmic barb aimed at me. When you're sick everything irritates you. By the time we reached Aunt Gladys' house in Wallace I was out of my head with fever and had severe diarrhea.
"I know how to stop him shit'n." Aunt Gladys was an enormous woman, crippled since childhood with a disease that gelatinized her bones, but she was a diarrhea expert. It took both Dad and Uncle Guy to hold me down while the womenfolk administered the enema of cold water and cornstarch. I screamed myself unconscious trying to avoid this enlightened remedy. It had been a bad day
When I awoke I found myself alone in a large bed in the guestroom. The room was dark and smelled like bleach, Vicks-Vapo-Rub and tobacco. The house was quiet. Everyone had gone to bed. I drifted in and out of a fever dream that found me peddling my tricycle down the main street of Wallace. Every building was alive with legions of cowboy ghosts wandering aimlessly in and out of the stores. One of them spoke to me and invited me to go upstairs to "Johnny Skeleton's mouse-house," and asked me something about "nails for the baseball game."
"Wallace is a ghost town," another voice announced. I couldn't have agreed more. I closed my eyes and listened to the crickets and the hiss in my brain caused by fever. When I opened them again I was startled to see someone standing at the foot of my bed—not just someone—it was Jesus—standing in a long white robe, his arms slightly outstretch to his side, the bloody palms of his hands turned toward me.
I had never been so afraid in all my life. I pulled the covers over my head and mentally chanted (for I knew he could read my mind) "Please go away. I'm not dead! I just had diarrhea. Go away, please! I'm better now. Go away!"
I tried to calm myself down. "I'm having a bad dream;' I told myself, "but I'm awake now. Jesus is not at the foot of the bed."
Slowly I pulled back the covers from over one eye. Still there! Jesus was still there! I dove, this time more deeply, beneath the covers. I was burning with fever. Hell is a lake of fire where you have nightmares and can never wake up. I wanted more than anything to be home in my own bed, in my own cool house in California. Jesus wouldn't dare come to California to get me. He needed enemas and ghosts and outhouses and long pink scars and fatty meat and Jell-O with mayonnaise to be God.
I don't know how many times I plunged under the suffocating covers. Each time I resurfaced Jesus was still there waiting patiently for my soul to take. My fear turned into panic and then into hate. I hated Jesus. I hated my relatives and all grownups who believed in this monster and made him real. If I were grown up, if I were strong, I could make him go away, but I'm a weak little kid. It wasn't fair. What kind of God terrorizes little kids when they're sick? Why did I ever invite him to take my soul?
Finally, exhaustion and lack of oxygen prevailed, and I drifted into unconsciousness with my head buried under the sweat-soaked pillows. I would not awaken until the cheeping of sparrows told me the sun was up. The morning light gave me courage to confront my terror. I threw the pillows and covers off my face and sat straight up.
Excerpted from My Life With the Spirits by Lon Milo DuQuette. Copyright © 1999 Lon Milo DuQuette. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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