Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Yahweh Brethen

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“Would you rather be wearing a rocket pack or a gown and veil outfit made of burlap?” Stanton asked me as he gestured to a garish 1950s cut-out of a deer wearing a rocket pack, and nodded toward an employee who was dolloping lumpy gray oatmeal into a bowl.

The Yahweh Springs “Speedie Trip Gas Mart + Groceries” was once a flag-bearing member of a flourishing chain of convenience stories whose logo – a goofy-looking leaping deer wearing a rocket pack – was almost as well-known in these parts as Sinclair dinosaur (green brontosaurus) or the Mobil flying horse (Pegasus).

I looked at the young woman, then at the flimsy Space Age deer. For some reason, all I could think of was the footage of the Challenger as it broke into three parts and plummeted to earth.

“The rocket pack,” I said without hesitation.

We were having in breakfast in one of the weirdest convenience stories I had ever seen. It was even stranger than the old Wichita Mountain gold mining camp converted into a restaurant famed for its one-pound “Meersburgers” and seismic monitoring station where I purchased pierced earrings with dangles made of rattlesnake “buttons.”

“I think I know where you’re coming from,” said Stanton. “By the way, those rattlesnake earrings look quite attractive on you. They’re nice with the little silver skull and crossbones charm. Trying to make a statement?”

He grinned and shoved his olive drab t-shirt sleeve up over his deltoid muscle. In the bulge just before the arm hit the shoulder was the tattoo he got in Germany just before he went to Kuwait with his unit. It was a small skull with roses flowering from the eye sockets.

“It hasn’t faded at all,” I said, leaning to get a close look. I looked at the tattoo, and then, for some unexpected reason, I found myself caught in the magnetic pull of Stanton’s eyes. His eyes locked onto mine. For an instant, the world cracked beneath my feet. I felt my stomach tremble, my heart pound, liquid heat pour into my core.

His hand pulled my head swiftly and gently toward him, and he touched my jaw with a hard, fiery yet delicate kiss. It happened so quickly I felt quite certain no one noticed. I sank back across the table onto the hard bench.

“Would you like a warm-up for your coffee?” asked the woman who had brought our homemade raisin bread toast, rose-hip jelly, alfalfa honey, and creamery butter to us a few minutes earlier.

“Yes,” I said. “Please.”

Stanton’s face grew hard as he looked down. I had an idea what he was thinking about. I reflected upon the history of this town – the town where he had lived briefly with his mother before she divorced her father during his last tour of Vietnam.

I wondered what the Speedie Trip had looked like when Stanton was young. I imagined it was more or less the same.

In Yahwah Springs, “Speedie Trip” had found an uncomfortable home in an elegant, old carriage house constructed of pink Tishomingo granite and rust-red native stone, which looked to me like the Garber sandstone. After the Yahweh Brethren bought land and established their compound on the outskirts of town, the historical tourists attracted to the old Victorian spa architecture decided it was just too creepy to walk around town.

“You got the feeling that you were being watched,” said one person in a letter to the editor after the Dallas Morning News had tried to compare Yahweh’s charm with that of Eureka Springs and had made a valiant attempt to air brush the photos to take out the weeds in the sidewalks and the broken windows.

After members of the Yahweh Brethren populated their compound, even the fly fishermen and canoers brave enough to tackle collapsed infrastructure and Three Horse River, the Class III “wild river” that raged over drops, “haystacks,” and waterfalls fed by underground rivers and artesian springs, started to by-pass the town. The final blow came when the owner of the Speedie Trip threw in the towel.

The town was about to lose its only commercial enterprise. The regional rural economic development board was afraid it would lose its federal grant money if small businesses continued to collapse. In desperation, Jack Landsdowne, the chair of the board, approached the Yahweh Brethren.

“Would you mind trying to make a go of the Speedie Trip?” he asked awkwardly. Inwardly he sighed.

He hoped he wasn’t dealing with another David Koresh, or an eastern branch of some sort of polygamous cult. That last thought lifted his spirits somewhat. The idea of nubile young women who had been trained to be “obedient” started him down the path of a rather pleasant erotic fantasy. The thought of his own teen-age daughter caught him up short, though. He would be sure to warn her away from this neck of the woods. He’d hate to see her kidnapped and made to be some mad messiah’s newest bride.

“I think it’s a “left behind” cult,” said Jack to his wife when he arrived home that night. She looked at him with interest. She had read all the Tim LaHaye novels and was looking forward to the television series.

“Oh? I don’t think those things work out too well in real life,” she said thoughtfully. “I mean, you can’t just sit around and wait for The Rapture. If you do, you start making bad decisions.”

She was referring to her marriage to Jack, but thankfully, he was oblivious to the fact that he had proposed to her at a weak moment, just after she had finished attending a week-long tent revival outside Righteous City. She had just rededicated her life to Jesus, and was waiting for a sign to tell her what to do with her life. Before that, she had been toying with the idea of joining the Peace Corps or becoming a Wycliffe Bible translator. When Jack proposed, she thought that it was a message that she was not supposed to be spending her life being mistaken for a spy or some sort of agent provocateur working for the CIA. Instead, she was being guided to be an instrument of God’s will, to bear witness to His greatness here in southeastern Oklahoma.

Overall, she did not regret it. She just wished she had made one small trip to the wilds of Guatemala or New Guinea to learn an unwritten language and to teach English while spending her nights under mosquito netting.

“They are a strange bunch,” he said. “They seem to have their own culture – they make all their own clothes from natural fibers. At least they’re not nudists.”

The last disastrous economic development experiment had involved a nudist cult. They had not realized that winters got downright cold in southeastern Oklahoma and that nosing around on what appeared to be abandoned property could get you a face-to-face encounter with a not very happy meth cook. One night, after an awkward trip to the emergency room to where a medic dug buckshot out of the left cheek of one of the plumper members, the entire group vanished into thin air.

“I don’t think they vanished,” said Jack. “I just think they put on clothes and cut their hair. What better disguise? They’re probably back at work as teachers and librarians.”

We finished our breakfast and walked up to the cash register to pay.

“This is my wife, Ophelia,” said Stanton, with obvious pride. My cheeks burned.

“I don’t know why you keep saying that,” I said under my breath. I felt my jaw clench. “I don’t know how many times I have to tell you I’m sorry I divorced you without telling you.”

Stanton looked at me and his eyes glittered with determination.

“I love you, and we are here for a reason. I know you believe this as much as I do. We will get to the bottom of this.” He paused. The sound of bacon thrown on a skillet filled the air. He continued softly, intensely.

“Yes. Even if it kills us.”

Breakfast with the Yahweh Brethren - photo by Susan Smith Nash