Fear A short story by William A. Frazier When you’re ten years old, there’s a lot to be afraid of. Your grandparents, nicer and older than your real parents, might die. That kid who sits in the back of the school bus and plays with a knife, the kind that clicks open and makes that nasty sharp noise, might do as he threatened and cut you a new asshole. The Russians just put up their Sputnik, that damned thing whizzing around over our heads. We all thought it might be some kind of bomb. We had to sit under our desks at school and pretend that a 20 megaton air burst a few miles away wouldn’t instantly turn us all to glowing skeletons. It might be too fast to hurt much though. Water is something else again. Darwinists believe that we all crawled out of the seas long ago, but not many of us humans remember how to breathe water. Learning to swim seemed to me a truly supernatural feat. It was most often accomplished by those kids who grew up in town within walking distance of the local swimming pool where they indoctrinated even babies in the elements of natation. The idea of getting a mouth full of baby water did not appeal. Of course in my limited rural experience, the other, more familiar sort who learned to swim were those too dim-witted to foresee the dire consequences of jumping into a dark swirling hole between boulders in the Octoraro Creek. The swimming hole was just upstream from the confluence of Basin Run, an aptly named creek, storm drain and sewer that served our little cluster of homes stuck on the
Frazier - Fear side of a hill in rural Maryland. Standing on the rickety wooden bridge above the Octoraro, one could see the huge black carp that lurked on the bottom, the old tires, the countless broken bottles, occasional barbed wire and the remains of a 32 Chevy that rolled down the bank one night while Hiram Johnson felt up Mindy Crothers. In a related aquatic vein, there’s fish bones - those tiny little, invisibly white, needle-sharp agents of death. Whenever fish was on the menu (too often by my reckoning), my grandmom would stand by my chair at the supper table, carefully place a biscuit-sized chunk of some bony white fish on one side of a surgically clean plate and then proceed to dissect each flake of fish away from the bones, ending up with two piles…the smaller one consisting of certified edible fish flakes and the larger, the lethal bones. As I enjoyed the pile of tasty fish flakes, she posted herself beside my chair holding at the ready a piece of soft, crustless white bread…just in case the lethal bone might have eluded her. One supposes that the procedure would have been to wad that chunk of bread down my throat, hold my snout closed, like giving a dog a big noxious pill, and make me swallow the whole mess, thus clearing away the deadly obstruction. After successful completion of the maneuver, all one would be left to worry about is the prospect of the tiny fish bone successfully dodging its way through the stomach, into the duodenum, only to lodge within that most vestigial of organs, the vermiform appendix, where, over a week’s time, a festering, inflamed sump hole would grow until billions of germs burst forth into one’s abdominal cavity leading inexorably to a painful death. And my wife wonders why I don’t particularly care for fish. Of course if its fear you want…I’m talking the real thing now… there’s always religion to fall back on. Our brand of Bible-thumpers laid claim to the Fiery Furnace, the
Frazier - Fear legions of Hell rising up to swallow sinners, the trials of Job, pillars of salt for the womenfolk and on and on through the scriptures. I learned that God trumps all worldly fears with His inexhaustible, phantasmagorical, ecclesiastical collection of Greatest Threats of Eternity. Not surprisingly, we all knew it was in our best interest to be a Godfearing person. My Grandmom made sure we all had a taste of the suffering awaiting the damned by enforcing mandatory attendance at church every Sabbath. For Seventh Day Adventists, this meant giving up perfectly good Saturdays, days when other kids were playing (forbidden), going to movies (forbidden), going to a dance (forbidden) or just having fun (frowned upon). Church started early and went late on Saturdays. Prayers, offered up by Elders with quavering, brethy, senile voices, were tailored to the needs of specific individuals who were called upon to fess up for public scrutiny their most embarrassing, private shortcomings of the past week. Even the eldest of the Elders could run on for the better part of an hour, at times reduced to tears of sorrow for the shortcomings of his victim, always referred to as â€œmy brothren and sistern.â€? We had to kneel in place between the pews on the hard wooden floor of the country church; none of those wussy Catholic kneelers for us. I often found myself, a victim of poor planning, kneeling on the metal furnace grating where I would either freeze if the heat was off or roast in a foretaste of Hell if the heat came on. In either case my knees looked like waffle irons until Tuesday. The preacher, lungs strengthened by years of evangelical exhortation, could hold forth for a couple hours on any two lines of Biblical verse. Of course the message was always the same: We are all sinners (I knew that well enough from personal experience) and only He could show us the way out of that dilemma. After
Frazier - Fear a few years of this, I figured out that it wasn’t God so much to be feared as some of his earthly agents. I figured we were home free on the religion angle, since, lucky for us, my grandmom, guardian of the fish bones, was a quasi-devout Seventh Day Adventist. She wasn’t truly devout…that would have meant giving up good stuff like scrapple (that greasy gunk Pennsylvania Dutch folk make from all the butchering leftovers) and Lawrence Welk and Ed Sullivan on the 13 inch DuMont. Come to think of it, she never went to church once that I knew about. She made her daughter, my mom, do the dirty work of forcing us kids to go every Saturday. She did make sure that we knew that eating shellfish or pork would send us straight to Hell and, equally important, that the Pope was Satan’s agent here on earth. His tiara (why would a man wear a tiara?) was emblazoned with the Mark of the Beast, Roman numeral 666. Every time she mentioned this, it conjured up an image of the Pope, in his white flame-retardant suit, emblazoned with logos and advertisements for various liturgical products, like a race car driver with those patches all over his coveralls. I became convinced that my Grandmom must be the AntiPope…imbued with powers and given a mission here on earth, until her “name was called up yonder” and she went to “receive her starry crown”. These two phrases rolled from her tongue as often as more secular folk employed common expletives in describing their dogs or kids. One particular accomplishment went a long way toward convincing me that she did indeed possess powers of Biblical scope: she was able to convince my dad, a retired Chief Petty Officer who was on deck at Pearl Harbor and rode a destroyer all over the
Frazier - Fear South Pacific in WWII, that he and all his issue should be baptized. I knew that he did it just to keep peace with his in-laws. We lived right next door. The baptismal day turned out to be one of those Spring days just made for a dip in the stream, total immersion under naturalistic conditions being the only accepted way to enter the Adventist fold. The women and girls disappeared into their dressing tent and reappeared, aglow in their snow-white robes. There must have been a dozen or fifteen of them eager to take the plunge into assured Paradise. Us boys and men went into our tent and emerged in black head to toe, which I imagined to be a commentary on the naturally more sinful state of the male gender. The preacher was a truly devout Adventist. You could tell because, although he was about six foot four inches tall, he couldn’t have weighed over about one fifty. He was a brittle stick of a man, eyes burning with the fire of a true believer desperately in need of a drink. He waded into the creek waist deep, his black robes billowing around him in the not insubstantial current. The preacher’s assistant, whose job it was to hold above water a tall stack of neatly folded white linen handkerchiefs, was bobbing nearly chest-deep in the current, her nipples impressive under her saturated white vestment. My dad, shorter than the preacher, but weighing in at a good two forty, was in line in front of me. As he slithered down the muddy bank, I recalled that he told me once that he had never learned to swim during twenty years in the Navy. Luckily, he had never required that skill. Needless to say, I couldn’t swim either, having chosen to avoid boy-eating carp, broken glass and the old Chevy. My already eroded kernel of child-like faith in the preacher and his minions was diminishing rapidly. I could only submit to whatever came next, hoping it wouldn’t be as bad as a hydrogen bomb or a fishbone.
Frazier - Fear The Ichabod Crane of a preacher embraced my Dad, clapped a quarter- folded white hanky over his nose and mouth, and proceeded to lower him over backwards, aiming for the assured bliss of total immersion. The choir glissandoed to a shrill, unsteady climax. Dadâ€™s feet popped up off the slippery stream bed, the laws of physics took over, and he and the preacher began a frenzied, sputtering back-stroke downstream kicking up silt, sticks, stones and beer cans as they thrashed full throttle in reverse. I stood frozen on the bank wishing that I could turn into a pillar of salt.