The following is an excerpt from Jesus
Sound Explosion by Mark Curtis Anderson, published by University
of Georgia Press in September 2003.
Wally Johnson Rides By: An Introduction
Seven years ago, before Julie and I divorced, I sat smoking a cigarette on the oak-shaded porch of our tan stucco house in St. Paul, relaxing before I bused to my one-to-nine shift at the Electric Fetus, a big independent record store in Minneapolis.
The smoke goes in, the smoke comes out. Life had become difficult and I needed additional evidence that I was still doing what I naturally did: breathe in breathe out breathe in breathe out breathe in breathe out breathe in breathe out ... cigarette smoking sometimes seems more like a good breathing exercise than a bad habit.
Breathe in breathe out breathe in breathe out ...
And there on Lafond Avenue in the late-morning sunshine, Wally Johnson, my sixth-grade Sunday school teacher, bicycled by. Wally was looking intent, looking old, whiter-haired and riding slow, paying careful attention to every pedal rotation. I was surprised to see him riding at all. How old was he? Must have been in his eighties. How startling to see slow-riding Wally so alive in that present, that past. He seemed old when I had him as a Sunday school teacher over twenty-five years earlier—as men who are in their sixties seem old to boys who aren't yet in their teens.
Well, I became a teen, we moved to California, I went to college, I got married, I tried adulthood, adulthood tried me, the divorce became inevitable, and before that morning on the Lafond porch (because the recent past felt distant and the distant past felt ancient), Wally was dead to me. As were all of the people at my dad's old Central Baptist Church, though the place was less than a half mile from where Julie and I were living.
I wanted to shout, "Wally! Hey Wally." Stop him and talk to him. Say, "Remember me? Mark Anderson. Pastor John Anderson's middle child. You taught my sixth-grade Sunday school class."
But that would have required me to step into a past that I didn't want to acknowledge at that moment. I was, after all, smoking a cigarette, something that, twenty-five years earlier, I never dreamed I'd do, good Baptist minister's son that I was. I would have to put the cigarette out to become the pastor's son Wally would surely remember. And I didn't want to startle Wally, disrupt his careful pedaling rhythm, cause him to fall.
There I was then, here I am now, and I don't know how to explain this. There I was then, here I am now, and now looks nothing like what I pictured. The straight and narrow way has been abandoned, the way to get home has been lost, but Wally Johnson, it seems, has been riding by all this time.
I want to say that Wally Johnson was the best Sunday school teacher I ever had—because I actually remember something he said that's worth remembering. He said it every Sunday: "It's good to be alive. Don't ever forget that it's good to be alive." Do I remember, really remember, anything else that a Sunday school teacher said? Besides the standard fare: the essential Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior, the Bible verse memorizations and interpretations, the Old and New Testament stories that got told and retold so many times that the telling became one collective voice. What gets told.
I remember "It's good to be alive" because it was so unlike anything else I heard in Sunday school. Everyone else told me that this life was mostly a vale of tears and grief that was good only for saving souls and preparing them for the next world, the much better world after this one. Responsible Sunday school teachers could maybe say, "It's good to be alive—if you are living in Christ." They could make us memorize Jesus' words in John 10:10: "I have come that you might have life, and might have it more abundantly." But that abundant life required a personal decision to accept the Jesus Christ who died for the sins of this world. Alone, without qualification, "It's good to be alive" is a denial of original sin, a denial that we are in need of salvation, in need of forgiveness, from the time we are born.
We were to be in the world but not of the world.
Wally was telling us something secret, something that he wasn't supposed to tell us, something that he thought without scriptural backing: that living in the here-and-now world was, quite simply, good. Of all the things he might have said every week, he chose to say that. By and for what authority? Who was he saying it for? God, perhaps. Certainly not Jesus Christ. Jesus might say, "I didn't die on the cross for it to be good to be alive."
Every year, on the first Saturday in December, Wally took his sixth-grade Sunday school class ice skating at Aldrich Arena in North St. Paul, where he and his wife, Alice, skated every Saturday.
Wally and Alice wore speed skates with blades twice as long as the ones on my hockey skates, as did most of the adults who skated in time, in pairs, to the Aldrich organ music. Their steps were long, slow, and synchronized, but they moved much faster than they looked like they should be moving. This made the pairs seem all the more graceful: they looked slow, as they stepped together in time, but they moved fast.
The rest of us—boys with black hockey skates, girls with white figure skates—got tired just watching them. Before long, we headed for the bleachers. Wally and Alice smiled each time they passed us, their audience of youngsters. They even waved the first time they noticed us watching.
Wally began a Central Baptist tradition that older siblings told younger siblings about, and we all came to expect it when we got into his class. After the annual skating outing, he brought his whole Sunday school class, ten or fifteen kids, to his corner grocery store after closing time. It was an old dusty store on St. Paul's Rice Street: creaky, graying, wooden floors in need of a good sand and varnish; shelves of shredded wheat, Tastee white bread, Fairway peanut butter, Old Dutch potato chips; walk-in coolers well stocked with whole milk, orange juice, RC and Diet Rite cola, Dad's Root Beer, and every flavor of Shasta.
The surrounding neighborhood housed plenty of people who were down on their luck, so Wally extended credit to anyone without enough money to pay. Behind the counter he kept a box of index cards to write purchases of the on-credit buyers. Before going to the store with my Sunday school class, Dad took me there one Saturday. I remember a woman standing at the counter, telling Wally that she needed only two loaves of bread, some peanut butter, and some milk—she knew that she was a couple of months behind, but she would pay very soon. Yes, very soon. Wally sighed softly and smiled, but he didn't say no. Folks have to eat.
When Wally brought my Sunday school class there after Aldrich skating, the "Closed" sign was in the front window. I'd never been in a store after it closed. We entered through the back door, Wally turned on the lights, and then he gave us each a medium paper bag.
"Fill'er up," he said.
We'd heard that this would happen, but we still couldn't believe it: whatever we wanted, whatever would fit.
"Go ahead," Wally said.
I started slowly, and then I went wild: potato chips, pop, candy bars, gum, baseball cards, Hostess Twinkies, football cards, Hostess cupcakes, hockey cards, beef jerky, a scouring pad for Mom, a lightbulb for Dad, anything I wanted, all that would fit.
Was this, I now wonder, a Sunday school lesson on grace freely bestowed? As I write it, I disbelieve it. Are those brown bags larger in memory?
On that morning, on the screened-in porch of the old house on Lafond, Wally seemed like a ghost rider. I could have broken the reverie and spoken to the image. I may have entered its world. I might have said something to Wally. At the very least, he would have remembered my dad.
But I had the cigarette to finish. And reunions with people I used to go to church with, reunions with people from my evangelical Christian past, tend to take too much energy. What would happen if I made it known to a single Central Baptist member that I was who I was and I lived in the neighborhood? Would I immediately get hundreds of dinner invitations? Would I be asked to explain, with a mouthful of pot roast, why I no longer attend church? What would I say?
Not that Wally would have asked those nagging questions. He was looking too feeble to proselytize. All it would take, though, was one Wally Johnson to say to someone, "I ran into John Anderson's son, Mark, the other day. He's living on Lafond, just off Fry."
"John Anderson's Mark is living on Lafond? Just off Fry? Well, is he ever going to visit us here?" Central Baptist is one block from Fry.
I had no doubt that all around me, in that St. Paul Midway neighborhood, mere blocks from the church of my father's glory years, deep within my mother's thickest nostalgia zone, were people who knew me. Knew me then and would believe that they still knew me. Or had a right to.
And I wanted to remain anonymous on that porch. I didn't want word to get out that Pastor John Anderson's son and daughter-in-law were living in the neighborhood. I know too well my tendency to become the son of my father when the occasion arises. When I feel called to become that son. Would I, out of guilt and obligation, decide to visit Central Baptist on a Sunday or two? I'd already ventured into more of that past than I cared to admit. Where would it begin and where would it all end?
Sometimes it is easier to remain the image that has been created and leave well enough alone. The past doesn't return without a price.
So I said nothing. I let Wally ride on by. I let him pass.
I'd be lying, though, if I said that this was the first time I'd thought of my evangelical Christian past or the first time I'd thought of Wally Johnson. I'd be lying if I said that Wally Johnson's riding by spun me into this reflection.
One April afternoon in the late eighties, around the time when Julie and I got married, around the time when I started my difficult student teaching assignment at Minneapolis South High School, I stopped into a Minneapolis Goodwill store.
It was one of the first spring days above sixty degrees, and snow was melting everywhere. The snowmelt prompted a "freewriting journal" assignment that I was to give my ninth graders: "Look at what the spring uncovered." I thought this was clever and metaphorical, they thought it was as stupid as everything else. That's pretty much how my student teaching went.
Still, it was spring, I was newly married, and there was a Goodwill store just blocks from our tiny apartment, so how bad could things be?
I was, as always, looking for more records. Some of my favorite records have been found in secondhand stores, like the time I found Prince's first five LPs in perfect shape, a perfect Bob Dylan and The Band Before the Flood, and a playable Tony Bennett Greatest Hits double set. All on the same morning, all in the same place, each for fifty cents (and double LP sets were priced as singles). I'd mention the location of the store, but then you might go there and find what I should have found. Fair is fair in the world of vinyl shopping: you discover your own little haunt.
Secondhand stores have some of the strangest collections of vinyl. Where else can you find Hannah, the Ideal Mother, by the Reverend C. L. Franklin, Tennessee Ernie Ford's Greatest Hits, I Can Hear It Now: The Sixties narrated by Walter Cronkite, six copies of the Renville High School Concert Band's 1975 Pops Concert, and the cover of Elton John's Friends with Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass's Whipped Cream and Other Delights inside?
Flipping quickly through the castoffs, I saw one that didn't just catch my eye: it winked (as used records do). That wink. That wink reminded me of my friendly old Sunday school teacher, Wally Johnson, who sometimes caught me gazing around the sanctuary during my father's invocation. We'd both have our eyes open, but only Wally knew that it was all right to. Wally had worked this out with God, somehow. While most Central Baptist members thought it was most reverent to have their eyes closed during prayer, Wally thought that reverence meant keeping his eyes open.
Sometimes I'd sneak a look around the church during prayer—just to see what people looked like when they were praying—and then I'd meet eyes with Wally. Wink.
I winked back at the wink, then took a closer look.
There it was, in bold letters: Jesus Sound Explosion: Recorded Live at Explo '72. A relic from what I remember as the "Jesus Movement." On the cover of Jesus Sound Explosion, Johnny Cash (the man in black) and Billy Graham (the man in blue JCPenney slacks) stand arm in arm. Johnny's holding a "One Way" sign (an extended forefinger) and Billy's holding a Bible. For a backdrop they've got a blue pearl-shell drum set, a bass amp, and a mural of sanctified-psychedelic Peter Max-styled doodlings. Giant golden clouds, green stars, red bubbles, free-floating One Way forefingers, a purple and blue arch, and large signs that say "Smile: Jesus Loves You," "You have a lot to live, JESUS has a lot to give," and "Jesus: Like a bridge over troubled water"—all of this, plus Billy Graham and Johnny Cash.
Thousands of cutoff-and-T-shirt-clad young people sit in a large field below a blue sky, Dallas skyscrapers in the distance. Many have long hair, but about every ten feet or so, men and women who are clearly the Bible college graduates and youth pastors stand like guardians keeping the holy hugs and kisses in check. Short groomed hair, buttoned-down shirts, unfrayed shorts (shorts that were always shorts), and black horn-rimmed glasses. They know that the devil-beat of the music could, at any minute, propel this thing into an out-and-out orgiastic lovefest. They read about Woodstock. They shuddered at the pictures. They're trying to be happy that it's a "Jesus Festival," but they still don't feel comfortable associating the two. Jesus, festival.
As I gave the Goodwill clerk a quarter, asked for a bag, and carried the record out, I knew that I wasn't buying it only for the novelty. Without warning, the castoffs from the evangelical Christian past that I'd placed in the Goodwill bins of my memory were right up front again, winking and demanding my attention.
—Reprinted from Jesus Sound Explosion by Mark Curtis Anderson. Copyyright © 2003. Reprinted with permission of University of Georgia Press.