Ham, p.1Sam Harris
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For my father, Bill
And my mother, Carolyn
2. Holy Shit
4. Odd Man In
5. The Zoo Story
6. “I Feel, You Feel”
8. Crash Course
10. Drilling Without Novocaine
11. Comfort Food
12. Crossing the Line
13. “I Know, Baby. I Know.”
14. Bullies and Heroes
15. As Good as It Gets
About Sam Harris
When I was nineteen years old, while helping my aunt Betty reorganize her kitchen cabinets, I discovered a beaten and worn plastic Mary Poppins cup and saucer marooned in the back corner of an ignored shelf. They were issued in 1964, the year of the movie’s release. My aunt told me they’d been intended for me when I was little, but my father had returned them to her because I was “too obsessed with Mary Poppins and singing and dancing.”
In the next room, my dad, uncle, brother, and all four boy cousins could be heard yelling in that guttural, grunting Cro-Magnon caterwauling exclusively reserved for watching football games on television and killing wild pigs on a hunt. I marched into the living room and presented the cup and saucer with outstretched arms.
“Do you remember these?” I said, my confrontational passion unbefitting some battered old plastic children’s dishes.
They all stared at me, confused, as if I’d just asked for an honest opinion about the chances of a fashion comeback for the ascot.
“Uh, no, son,” said my father. “Ask your mother.”
The Cowboys scored another touchdown and the room erupted as they hug-slapped and adjusted their crotches. My father loved the Cowboys and could recount the great plays of the last twenty years. But he had no memory of banning the Mary Poppins treasures.
Cue home movie: Christmas 1964.
I am three years old. My mother is operating the camera. It is in grainy, Super 8 color, and there is no sound. A toy army tank and various toy guns are strewn about and a mini-rifle is propped against the wall. Plastic grenades litter the floor. GI Joe lies in a coffinlike cellophane-covered box. It is a battlefield of unwrapped but unattended boy toys around the base of our silver aluminum Christmas tree, which is bobbed with shiny red and green Woolworth balls, reflecting the muted shades of an electric color wheel. I open a new wool coat, charcoal with a spattering of white, knee length, with large lapels and giant black buttons. Now this is a present!
I eagerly put it on and model it full-tilt. I am overtaken with euphoria and begin to dance. The camera pans to capture the delight of each of my three grandparents, until it lands on my father, whose young, handsome face steams with displeasure and perhaps a touch of anger. His posture reflects a just released sigh of defeat. The camera pans back to me, still dancing. I look to my father and take in his reaction. For a split second I lose my timing.
Then I take a big breath, turn back at the camera, smile, and . . . just dance harder.
2. Holy Shit
Word was that God could heal anyone. The wounded, the infirm, even lepers. I figured I should be a breeze.
At the age of ten, I decided to explore religion more closely.
For quite some time I’d been drawn to Judaism; however, in my little town of Sand Springs, Oklahoma, Jew’s, having killed Christ, were ne’er to be seen. At first, my attraction emerged from the discovery that everyone I considered really funny and talented turned out to be Jewish. Woody Allen, Neil Simon, and Barbra Streisand were obvious testaments to racial and religious superiority.
But my affinity reached an entirely new level when I was eight years old and Teresa Fisher’s father gave me his paperback copy of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Its pages were soon soiled and warped with my tears and I dog-eared those that pertained to Auschwitz so I could go back and cry again in less time. I’d found a tribe, and related and attached myself to the Jewish plight of oppression, adopting it as my own.
I’d heard that Jews were the chosen people. I already knew I was oppressed and I thought I was funny and talented, but what I wanted more than anything was to be chosen.
I declined pork, celebrated Rosh Hashanah, and attempted to grow payos, however, my parents drew the line when I asked them to take me to the only temple in Tulsa, which was more than fifteen miles from Sand Springs, so it might as well have been in a shtetl somewhere between Minsk and Pinsk.
Southern Baptism was more accessible. In fact, it was unavoidable. Not only in churches but in schools, in pamphlets, in newspapers, on billboards and in local shops, where signs were emblazoned with messages like JESUS SAVES! ROUND STEAK ONLY 59¢ A POUND!
I became entranced by our preacher at Broadway Baptist Church. The very name, “Broadway Baptist,” had an air of show business, and Brother Bill was the star. He was a fire-and-brimstone man, short in stature, with a face that turned so bright red with the glory of God that you thought his full white-haired head would explode. Brother Bill had suffered a number of heart attacks, five or six, I think, and part of the thrill of watching him stomp about, throwing the Bible onto the pulpit and pressing his hands up to God Almighty, was the on-the-edge-of-your-pew chance that he just might have another heart attack and drop dead on the spot.
I decided to be baptized. I’d seen a few of the ceremonial dunkings and they were spine tingling. People cried. And the younger the soul rescued from Satan, the more stirring, not to mention the added plus of no distracting plastic bubble bonnets for bouffant protection.
There was a traditional convention for baptism: at the end of every sermon, the congregation sang “Just As I Am,” and, should Jesus touch your soul, you would be spiritually propelled down the aisle to offer it.
Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind,
Yea, all I need in thee to find,
Oh Lamb of God, I come! I come!
It was a little grim, but who could resist? For some, the revelation was tantamount to being zapped with an electroshock weapon, causing the zealots to twitch and fling their arms, fall to their knees, cry and rock and sway, and, if you were lucky, speak in tongues. Your baptism was scheduled and consummated, after which your life was forever changed and you were then allowed to say hateful things about everybody and how they would suffer eternal hellfire on judgment day, but you wouldn’t because you were saved by our Lord Jesus Christ, who loved children and animals but hated communists and homosexuals.
My parents made me wait through the summer following my tenth birthday to make sure I was truly dedicated to Jesus and that this was not another of my whims, like the time I went for the title of World’s Longest Time-Stepper. So I attended church—religiously—singing and praying and crying and giving my soul to the everlasting Savior. My Sunday school class was taught by a man whose fingernails were so black and filthy from his work at the oil refinery that I couldn’t concentrate. If cleanliness was next to godliness, he was surely going to hell. I begged to be transferred to a clean-nailed instructor. If I was preparing to give my soul to Jesus, distractions like these were out of the question. My baptism was scheduled for September.
On the morning of my redemption, the heavy, humid air clung to my skin lik
I changed into a white flowing gown and waited in the vestibule outside the sanctuary until I heard the organ broadcast my entrance. Slowly, I walked down the aisle barefoot, angelic and pure, my heart overflowing with Jesus. The lavender-haired ladies were stuffed into pews, spruced in competitively decorated hats, netted and speckled with silk daisies and violets and fake baby’s breath. They gazed at me as if I were the little Jesus himself, dabbing their dewy eyes with white cotton hankies and oohing and aahing as I took my time—step, touch . . . step, touch—while the choir sang “Shall We Gather at the River?” in a celestial, spotless blend. Above the altar, golden velvet curtains squeakily parted to reveal a shallow pool in which Brother Bill stood, gowned and yoked for the occasion. The music swelled as I took his hand and stepped into the cool water.
A gust of chlorine stung my eyes to tears. Perfect.
I solemnly looked out to my audience and the preacher asked me if I was ready. “Yes!” I cried, in my most southern accent, pronouncing both syllables equally. “Yay-ess!”
White people don’t applaud in church, but I knew I had ’em.
Then Brother Bill gently held my head and clasped my nose and dunked me into the holy water in the name of the Father. The Son. The Holy Ghost. My blond hair glistened and my eyes were full. I was cleansed of all the sins of my ten years.
I never went back.
I figured I had done the big eleven o’clock number and what was going to top that? Besides, Bible stories in Sunday school were getting more confusing—a strange mix of “God Is Love” and “Fear of God”—an old man with a beard who seemed superemotional and sort of unpredictable. Kind of like my dad between televised baseball games or my mom on diet pills.
Also He seemed a little needy.
God: “Abraham, if you love me you’ll kill your son. Go on, kill him! Who do you love more? . . . Just kidding! I was just testing you!”
My parents had never once asked me to kill my little brother, even in fun.
God: “Okay, humankind, maybe I overreacted. You guys just really pissed me off, so I flooded the world and killed pretty much everybody. Sorry. Here’s a rainbow.”
The closest thing in my life to flooding had been when my parents commanded I take unwanted swimming lessons when I was five, prying my little white-knuckled grip from a chain-link fence and forcibly dragging me into the community pool.
I always did better with positive encouragement than fear of plagues and eternal fire, but maybe that was just me. I wanted a God who was more huggy than punishy. More happy-go-lucky. The kind of guy you could talk to about stuff, but who didn’t decide whether to let your football team win the championship. Or cure someone of cancer. My questions went unanswered and even asking them was considered blasphemy. I was told by more than a few kids and my new, clean-nailed Sunday school teacher that if I didn’t keep quiet I was going to Hell.
I thought that seemed extreme.
That’s when I decided there couldn’t be such a thing as Hell. If I had second thoughts, they were deep-sixed by the realization that if any of these religions, or even denominations, was right—and it was the only way and its believers were the only ones permitted through the Pearly Gates—Hell had to be terribly overcrowded, and Heaven had to be a colossal bore. All those people who thought alike and looked alike and dressed alike and ate alike. It would be like never venturing beyond Sand Springs. For eternity.
I needed a different kind of church and a different kind of Heaven. And I found it at Tulsa Little Theatre.
I was cast in their production of William Inge’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, a straight play set in 1920s Oklahoma. It was my first semiprofessional role, where the actors actually played their own ages. I was Sonny Flood, a misfit child who was regularly beaten up by the town bullies for being a sissy, choosing to escape through movies and his scrapbook of the stars. Hmm . . .
My mother ran lines with me. Not just mine. The entire play, including scenes I wasn’t in. She said it was for a sense of story line, but I think she really just wanted to read all the parts. She longed for the theater, and my doing a play trumped the times we sat cross-legged and face-to-face on the green-flecked shag carpeting while she read poetry. Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet was recited cover to cover, but Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Renascence” was her favorite. It said everything she couldn’t about the need to break free, death and resurrection, and the quest for spiritual awakening. Though the words were beyond my understanding, her reading made it accessible. She was as committed to my performance in Dark as I was, but she refutes the story that during rehearsals she was asked to leave the theater by the director because her notes on my performance conflicted with his.
My next role at Tulsa Little Theatre was as one of the newsboys in Gypsy—my favorite musical. We were only in the first act, along with Baby June and young Louise, but we had to stick around for the curtain call. Gypsy is a long show. So, to kill time during Act Two, all of us would climb the narrow stairwell up two flights to the costume room, where they kept the monkey and the little lamb, both of whom were also idle in the second act. We would throw on layers of various costumes: Dickensian sacque jackets, World War I khaki breeches and canvas-wrap leggings, feathered Elizabethan hats, a crown of thorns from The Glory of Easter pageant, multiple gloves—and play strip poker. We were all ten to thirteen years old—I was the youngest—but we considered ourselves veterans and we were, after all, in a show about stripping.
Five card, Seven card, Hold ’em, Stud! We shared cigarettes pinched from adult actors’ dressing room stations and enjoyed an occasional nip of something stolen from Baby June’s parents’ liquor cabinet.
“I’ll raise you.”
“My jacks beat your tens.”
The girls always chickened out when it got down to our regular layer of clothing. Baby June was a tease and little Louise a bore. But strangely, the boys usually stayed. One night, long about time for the showstopping finale, “Rose’s Turn,” the game had siphoned down to me and two kids named Daniel and Jason.
As the three of us betted in (and for) our Fruit of the Looms, I couldn’t help but notice that Jason, who was thirteen years old, was getting a conspicuous erection. There is a big difference between a ten-year-old penis and a thirteen-year-old penis. Growth spurts and pubic hair and hormones and all sorts of other things are kicking in. I was entranced, and determined to win so that Jason would lose and have to drop his skivvies.
I had three eights. Daniel folded. It was me and Mr. Boner.
I forged poise but the excitement was overwhelming. The monkey could sense the tension and began screeching and throwing monkey shit out of his cage.
Jason asked for two cards.
The room stood still and a rivulet of sweat inched down my cheek from beneath my crown of thorns.
He had a measly pair of prophetic queens. “Strip!” I said, and waited breathlessly to see if he would remove his clinging briefs or quit the game. He casually pulled them off, exposing a huge penis, thirteen years old or otherwise (though I have not seen it since and do not know whether to attach the “your childhood house is always smaller when you go back home” theory to this experience). He then proceeded to masturbate in front of me and Daniel. We were agape with jaw-dropping wonder. The backstage speakers were blaring:
Everything’s coming up Rose!
Everything’s coming up roses!
Everything’s coming up roses th
For me! For me! For me! For me! . . .
On the timpani roll before the last note, Jason worked harder and faster, finally erupting at the same time that Mama Rose hit the final “For meeeeeeee!!!”
On the musical cutoff, Jason lay spent, pearly goop pooling in his belly button and glistening on his chest, as the audience cheered and applauded from downstairs. I nearly joined them. Show business was fabulous. It was joyous and adventurous and accepting. Heaven and Hell were on earth. Right here.
I swiftly dressed in my newsboy costume, replaced the thistly crown with an apple cap, and dashed down the stairs in time for my bow.
Everyone makes mistakes: Leon Lett and the ’93 Super Bowl. Richard Nixon and Watergate. The architect who built the Tower of Pisa. Since I wasn’t a big sports fan, hadn’t met Nixon, and hadn’t traveled to Pisa, the closest thing in my life to a mistake of that magnitude was the marriage of my dear friend Liza to the Man Whose Name Shall Go Unmentioned. I refer to him in that manner because I promised Liza that I would never again utter his first name unless it were in reference to Beckham, Bowie, the Michelangelo statue, or “The Star of . . .”
Saying his name is not taboo in the same way that mentioning “the Scottish Play” by title is for theater people, who would then have to leave the building, spit, curse, and knock to be let back in. I swore to my friend that if I verbalized his name, I would light myself on fire and commit hari-kari.
She knows it was a mistake. Everybody knows it was a mistake. The wedding itself was well documented by a hundred publications. But beyond the facts and the scuttlebutt, this event should be acknowledged as one of the greatest shows on earth. I was a witness and a player. I even sang. “Bridge over Troubled Water.” A peculiar choice for a wedding, but it was requested. And prophetic. If only they’d chosen “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” things might have turned out differently.
Ham by Sam Harris / Science Fiction / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes