Journey to Christendom - Chapter 7
Life in “New Domrémy”
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I was born in Bakersfield, California, a small city in the great farm belt called the San Joaquin Valley. I know nothing about this place other than that I was born there. But what is significant, I think, is that I was born at Mercy Hospital, a Catholic hospital, and the first nurses to caress me were nuns. This seems important because our family was not Catholic. We were of a humble stock of English Methodists. But there I appeared on February 18, 1959, held by these blessed nuns of the Roman Church, and I suppose this could be viewed as a foretaste of what was to come for me. I will eventually tell you a story about a nun who has saved my life, was already in heaven when I was born at Mercy Hospital, and lived in France when she was on this earth. And so, I love nuns for this and many other reasons you will discover as I tell my story. But it indeed must have started with the nuns at Mercy. Afterward, my parents brought me home to our modest town, about twenty miles from Bakersfield, called Shafter. I remember less about Shafter than I do Bakersfield.
When I was only one year old, my father, who was in the agricultural business, moved the family back to Oklahoma, where both my father and mother were raised. It is there, in Oklahoma, where I begin the story of my journey to Christendom, notwithstanding that significant precursory grace of Catholicism at Mercy. We moved to a town called Guymon, in the very far western reaches of the state, in the Panhandle, which is that very long and thin piece of western real estate that drives itself like a wedge between Kansas and Texas and stops just at New Mexico and Colorado.
I am filling you in on only the necessary chronological and geographical facts. I do not want to be too dry and dull, for there are plenty of exciting dark forests, unnerving bridges, life-threatening storms, and majestic castles on which to speak, and a long journey to get to that spiritual land of Christendom. I am telling you only a little about the ground from where I came, but this should allow you to put a frame around who I am and how this journey of mine came to pass. And so I want to say a few simple things about Guymon, Oklahoma, and my life there, for this small community was a true blessing to me in my childhood.
The first thing I would like to say about Guymon, a population of six thousand at the time, is that it is delightfully remote geographically. Consequently, it seemed to be more culturally "motherhood and apple pie" than many other areas of the country. The community is isolated on the high plains, the flattened and dry prairie lands that eventually sweep up to the Rocky Mountains. The communities around Guymon are still smaller and, with few exceptions, take up to an hour to reach by car doing sixty miles an hour, and this with nothing in between. Amarillo, Texas, sits quietly south, about two hours and fifteen minutes away. A major city like Dallas, Denver, or Oklahoma City is a full day's drive away.
Weather on the high plains can be delightful or deadly, with beautiful spring days and scorching summers that might occasionally threaten a tornado. Winters are cold with the occasional high plains blizzard, and one should be careful not to be caught traveling about on those lonely country highways when one hits.
But my favorite season on the rolling plains of the Oklahoma Panhandle, where riverbeds waiting for the occasional flash flood run dry with sand, is autumn. And how peculiar the Panhandle would bring me a love for autumn, for there are very few trees in that land. One usually thinks of autumn in the forested lands of New England, Michigan, or Wisconsin, where vast numbers of trees turn multiple colors. The Oklahoma Panhandle will never compete well for the fall foliage tourist business! The few trees there sit shivering in seasonal fall brown cloaks, and the grass goes dormant. But I loved autumn on those high plains! Autumn in my childhood memories was cool, with air so crisp your spirits were raised just by being outside, and there was energy in the air. I think that was it. It felt like there was energy in the air in the autumntime.
The area's economy was driven almost entirely by farming and ranching, with all supporting businesses ranging from agricultural supply stores to the local boot and shoe shop. Guymon had, and it still does, a brick Main Street. Main Street was the central artery of after-hours High School driving around, referred to as "dragging main," and I did that often after receiving my driving license. The local bowling alley was a significant ancillary meeting place. I heard a remarkable tale once, and I cannot tell you that I know it is true, but I can tell you that if you lived in Guymon, you would believe it could be true. The story is that driving on Main Street is still illegal because the car engine noise might scare the horses! It has been a while since anyone has "moseyed up" to the bar on Main Street and tied a horse. Apparently, there is no process in Guymon for cleaning up old, unused laws, just as one tends to let papers stack on a desk without review, resulting in unopened letters from two years ago sitting on the bottom.
But what I remember most about growing up in Guymon, other than the wonderful people who were so nice to me, was the vast sky streaking over you from the distant horizons. The Oklahoma Panhandle is relatively flat land; you would see for miles and miles in any direction if you stood on a country road. I loved to stand and look at the beautiful landscape that was huge and empty all at the same time. And this is another gift that Guymon bequeathed to me in my youth, for I believe that it was in staring out over the vast, empty, beautiful landscape of farmland and prairies with occasional booming thunderstorms in the distance that I had the first stirrings of the contemplative inner life. It was here that I remember contemplating the great things of the world. Later in life, I would surrender fully to these inner longings and direct them to God in prayer and contemplation. But on the high plains of the Oklahoma Panhandle, these feelings first moved in me.