Episode 7: FAITH

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Episode 7: FAITH by Jessica Harper

Jessica H: I'm Jessica Harper, and this is episode seven of WINNETKA.

(singing)

On a Sunday morning, in late November of 1963, I fainted in church. This was due to a confluence of events, and it signaled the end of my stent as an Episcopalian. But don't get me wrong, I went very happily to services for many years. Thanks to my mother who was a regular church goer. My father snorted his disinterest in our weekly outings, declaring that Sunday was national do-nothing day. And that he was damned if he was gonna put on a suit for anybody, even if that anybody happened to be God.

My exposure to religion goes back to the early 50s, in Lake Forest when we lived right next to a church. The minister there was named Reverend Carper.

Do you know that the minister at the church next door, his name was Reverend Carper?

(laughs)

Billy H: I do remember that. So, I thought he was some kind of relative. (laughs)

Jessica H: Do you think everybody in the neighborhood had a name that rhymed with Harper?

Back then, mom was sort of daunted by the prospect of getting me and Billy and my big sister Diana all to Sunday School. So, she conducted bible studies in our basement. Assembling us for readings about the flood that inspired Noah, and the plague of locusts, and the crucifixion and all that other kid-friendly fare.

She took us to services sometimes, and once Diana and I understand the protocol, she allowed us to go to church by ourselves. We'd like dressing in those clothes that were otherwise reserved for birthday parties, and wearing our jaunty hats.

Billy was not granted this privilege of independent worship, he was too insane. He would've been bouncing off the pews. So, instead he enlisted me to help him stage our own service at home.

Filled with the holy spirit we created our own solemn procession. Me with my pink blanket draped over my head, and Billy carrying a big stick to represent the cross. We sang a homemade hymn, as we walked slowly through the halls, through the kitchen, through the living room, where I approached my mother, rolled my eyes heavenward, and whispered, I am Jesus.

But while we loved the ritual, the pomp and the music of church, we didn't quite get why we were there, or who the key players were in the great Christian story. Or even exactly who it was we were supposed to be worshiping.

Billy H: When I was a child I worshiped three men with beards, Jesus, Santa Claus, and Abraham Lincoln.

Jessica H: Mom taught us to say the Lord's prayer at bedtime, after I developed a fear of dying. This phase was brought on by a slightly clueless babysitter.

Billy H: I remember that we had a babysitter once, who taught us a little prayer that we said, before we went to bed.

I don't remember the whole prayer, but I just remember the punch line, which was-

Jessica H: (laughs)

Billy H: If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord, my soul to take.

Jessica H: Oh. (laughs)

Billy H: So, the ... Wait a minute. We could die before we wake up? You could ... Then she explained to us, yes, sometimes children die in their sleep.

Jessica H: (laughs)

Billy H: So, I remember being absolutely terrified and Jessica and I were roommates at the time, so I'm sure we shared in our terror. But I remember there was weeks when it was painful for me to go to sleep, 'cause I was so worried that I might die, before I woke up.

Jessica H: Mom made a correction, teaching us the Lord's prayer, which has only benign content. Basically, asking God for bread and forgiveness.

It turned out that the prayer was as effective as Xanax, freed from the fear that we'd never wake up, we were asleep before the amen.

Later when we moved to Winnetka, and became a family of eight, Billy got a playing gig in the choir at our new church. I'd go to services with mom and sometimes Diana or Lindsey, and I relished our weekly outing, not so much out of religious devotion, but because trading the chaos of our over-populated house for an hour of calm, structured activity always felt like the right move.

Another reason I liked church was our new minister, Reverend Schriber. He was one of those gentle men, like my uncles, who were so unlike my scary father. The Reverend was kindly, relaxed, and accessible, sparing us threats of Hell and damnation. He was the kind of guy you might wanna hang out with after church, you know, go bowling with him, say, or something. See in addition to his other qualities, Reverend Schreiber was hot.

By the time I was a teenager, his Robert Redford looks gave me and my peers new motivation to go to church on Sundays. While my motives may have been impure, my big sister Diana found true faith one Sunday when she managed to get mom all to herself. And she had an experience that would change her life, setting a course for her adulthood.

Diana H: And one time I was allowed to go with her and stay with her alone, even though I was supposed to go downstairs to the Sunday School. So, I sat with her very, very quietly, 'cause I didn't wanna do anything to compromise this privilege. And we started to sing, everybody stood up when they sang, in those days, and since I didn't know how to behave really, I was watching her, and I saw her lift her head and sing with her whole heart, to God and I just went right up with her. And an incredibly inspired moment, and totally believed that there was a God in Heaven, and believed that from that point on.

(singing)

Jessica H: In 1963, just as I was getting the hang of being a Christian, I fainted in church. As I said, this was due to a confluence of events. The onset of puberty for one thing, but more importantly the service at which I sank unconscious to the cool floor, was a memorial for John Kennedy.

For us, then young baby boomers, the president's assassination confirmed our suspicion that things could go very wrong, in what we had thought was a safe world.

Billy H: Kennedy was shot. We had gotten the news just before lunch time, I think. All the teachers were completely freaked out, all the kids were completely freaked out. We just didn't know how to assimilate this information, so we got through lunch somehow and then wandered over to choir practice. It was the boy's choir, just the men's singing group.

And we got there and everybody was talking and once again, trying to manage our feelings around this unmanageable event, and the choir director didn't quite know what to do, but finally he stood up and said, all right boys, let's do this. Let's just sing. That's the only thing for a situation like this is to sing.

So, we sang our hearts out.

(singing)

Jessica H: None of us remember talking to our parents about this, but that was not unusual in a house where nobody ever talked about their feelings. But we thought at least we'd find comfort in church, guided by the gentle hands of Reverend Schriber.

It turned out however that the good Reverend had his hands elsewhere. Right around that time, our hot minister took off with the wife of a parishioner. They left behind his and her broken marriages and scads of kids. And not to mention us, his loyal flock. He just pieced and went to Florida. So, that November day, in 1963, when I went to church with raging hormones, plus reeling from JFK grief, and Reverend Schreiber's betrayal, there was nothing for it, but to faint.

Thanks to the antics of Reverend Schreiber, many of his erstwhile fans gave up on church all together. That included many in our family, but not my sister Diana, for whom faith was the bottom line.

Diana H: I got on my bicycle and went from church to church looking for a church to go to. So, I didn't have the wherewithal to make any kind of judgment like that, I mean, I would open the door, look in and say, oh, no, that's not for me. I don't what, what I was thinking I was gonna find.

Jessica H: In the summer of 1966, Diana finally found a new source of spiritual life. When she became a civil rights activist, volunteering to work for Martin Luther King's Chicago Freedom Movement.

The movement's focus was on providing affordable and decent housing for poor urban blacks.

Diana H: When I did become involved in the activism, I entered into a community that was very spiritually oriented, as all the social issues were being brought up in church services. Coupled with that were these very lively singing sessions and very fiery preaching. And that was the core, or the heart of the whole movement.

Jessica H: The Freedom Movement staged peaceful rallies, and marches. Also, they set up Freedom Schools around the city, where young kids could hang out and where teachers, like my sister introduced them to ideas like the meaning of freedom, self-respect, and hope.

Dr. King moved his family into a slum apartment at 16th and Hamlin, on the west side, where they lived for six months. And that summer of '66, Diana and a dozen or so other volunteers moved into a tenement nearby.

Diana H: The SCLC had commandeered the entire building for all of the white volunteers. When I first came into the city, we were all taken to a church, and we were all given assignments for that day. If you wanna be active, go and do this or that, or the other things, while you're waiting to get engaged in the job you were assigned to.

I was taken to a corner and dropped off. (laughs)

This was my first exposure. Dropped off, and there was a black man there, and it was outside of a pharmacy. He was marching around, and so, I was to join him, and reinforce him. Because another black man had gone into that pharmacy and had been shot. All I knew is we were marching, it was a boycott, no one would go in and use the store, because this man had been shot.

We walked around, and around in a circle. What I remember is the man had not tied the laces on his shoe- his boots, and they were flapping along as he went around. And we were singing, “This Little Light of Mine, I'm Gonna Let It Shine.” And I had never heard that song before.

I realized that this was a stand, and you just made your stand wherever there was an issue to be confronted. You made your voice be heard, and hopefully there was an affect.

That was kind of the introduction to what I was gonna be doing in the summer. I might just be going around and around in circles, but all of us making a stand together, we're going to have an affect.

(singing)

Martin Luther King was the spearhead, of course, and he gave it a lot of high-end presence. He came to our building and we'd talk with him in the living room. And I went to one of his services, and he was so charismatic, you just got swept away with what he was saying.

So, we were given a little two-room storefront building, place, to have this school. And then on the day that we opened, I'd say about 50 students showed up. They were very young, maybe five years old, all the way up to say, twelve.

What we were teaching them, primarily is that, the color of their skin was not a negative. They were pretty indoctrinated along that line.

There was Chris, who was age eight, and he said, God can't be black, because if he came down to earth everyone would laugh at him. And that's fairly young to be so indoctrinated. And Phillip who was seven, said the color of love is white, the powerful one is the prettiest one, God.

So, God has to be white. A couple of days later, after Phillip said that, Paul who was 10 said, freedom is when you have self-respect. And that particular line was pretty much the sum total of what we wanted to get across.

Jessica H: In addition to their teaching duties, the volunteers often joined the big, non-violent marches organized by the movement.

Diana H: I only went on one, 'cause that was plenty for me. Primarily because they were throwing bottles at your head, and bricks, and stones, and all kinds of things. And I ducked when a bottle came towards me and this other woman grabbed my arm and pulled me back up. And I didn't, I don't know, what's wrong with ducking? I didn't really want to be injured.

Jessica H: In spite of the efforts of the Freedom Movement, Chicago's Mayor Daley had other ideas about how to improve urban housing.

Diana H: What they ended up doing was they tore down the neighborhoods, which were absolutely delightful. Uh, if they had been repaired and fixed up. When they went in and bulldozed it all down, then they put up these high-rises, and it just became horrible.

Jessica H: Diana wondered if her work had, had any impact at all.

Diana H: I do know from one incident that we made an impact. I had just gotten a new record, “You've Lost That Loving Feeling,” it was, it was in the day of records, The Righteous Brothers. And it had just come out, and I really wanted to hear it, and somehow I got a hold of a copy. And I was walking with a friend, and I had heard some music coming out of a window in one of the apartment buildings, I said, I asked him if he would mind if we went up and asked them if we could just use their record player for a minute and play the record.

(laughs)

That's how safe I felt. This was at night. So, I went ... So, he didn't mind. So, we ran upstairs, and knocked on the door, and the door opened and there were three men, and they were just staring at us.

(laughs) That's it, as well they might.

And I said, would you mind if I use your record player and just play this record? And they were just so astonished that they said, no, yeah, sure, sure, that's fine.

So, while we were listening to the record there was a lady there, I, uh, black lady. She was a young lady, and the, the apartment was kind of long, with doors in between each little room. She motioned to me from the back room to come back. And that was when I got kinda nervous, but I thought, okay, uh, what am I all about here? Just go.

So, I went back, room-by-room, and got back there, and there in a little crib was a little baby. She was crying and she said, you are the first white person that has ever been in my home, and I would like you to hold my baby.

And it was a very, very moving moment. I picked up the baby, and I held her, rocked her, kissed her, handed her gently back to her mother. And then, we got finished listening to that record, and we went out.

Jessica H: The Chicago Freedom Movement did not reach it's goals immediately, but it did lay the ground work for the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and Diana was proud to have been a small part of it.

My father was also proud of her, very proud. After Dad's death, my brother Sam found a program from one of the rallies that Diana had attended in the summer of '64. One at which Martin Luther King spoke. Same found this program in a file that Dad had always kept locked. It was in a folder with two other documents that Sam had never seen before.

Dad was a meticulous filer. So, the placement of those three items together would've been entirely intentional. And the synchronicity between them, undeniable.

I'll tell you more about that in the next episode.

While Diana was out trying to do some good in the world, the same could not be said for our three brothers. I'm guessing if you looked in Winnetka's police records around that time, you'd see a spike in the crime rate.

Billy had started the naughty trend, when in third grade he cut a swath through Elm Street, starting at Phalen's.

Billy H: Phalen's was a much better place to shop, because you could pick up a comic book and slip out the door without the cashier seeing you. The Surprise Shop was easy to lift stuff from there, because they had a store room in the back. We'd sneak back into the store room, in the back, load up our pockets, mainly with party poppers, and then, dash out the back door.

Jessica H: Charlie followed his big brother's shining example.

Charlie H: So, we'd go into the A&P going, um, there's nothing here we really want, and would be pocketing M&Ms and leaving the store. And we went in and out about four or five times, until I pocketed a, some M&M peanuts, and the butcher came after me with his butcher knife, chasing me out of the grocery store, and catching me by the nape of my neck, pulling me to a stop. And asking for my name and my telephone number and saying that he was going to call the police, and then he would call my parents. And he let me go, and I ran away.

Jessica H: Next it was Sam's turn, but he took it up a notch.

Sam, I understand you robbed a jewelry store?

Sam H: Just once.

Jessica H: What'd you mean, just once? That's like the time you stole the car-

Sam H: I blame Steve Gray for that.

Jessica H: What, who was Steve Gray?

Sam H: He was really troubled. Anyway, he came over and we went out, and we literally went on like, a rampage. We robbed from two stores, we stole a microphone from a electronics store and then we went next door, and it he wanted to steal something, and when the guy was looking the other way, he went behind the counter and scooped out a handful of ID bracelets. And a gold cigarette lighter, which his mother later found. And he called me up, and said, Sam, my mother found the lighter, you have to take the rap.

I was like, I'm taking the rap, sure. See-

Jessica H: Wait a minute.

Sam H: See ya, Steve.

Jessica H: Uh, good bye, Steve.

Sam H: But then, I was in possession at that point of the ID bracelets, which I then buried in our backyard.

Jessica H: So, there are some ID bracelets-

Sam H: Yes, buried in the backyard. Still to this day.

So, we only copped to the lighter, and that's the only thing we returned.

Jessica H: When Billy was a little older, he upped his game.

Eleanor H: Billy was ... Kept my cup full of hair raising moments. When he was about 12 maybe, he and a friend dropped a match into a manhole outside of a filling station. And there was gas leakage, of course, and the whole blew up. Fire department was called, they were threatened with jail.

Jessica H: Then he got inspired by a history lesson in our fancy pants private school.

Billy H: We'd been learning about the Russian revolution, and we'd heard about Molotov cocktails. So, we made our own Molotov cocktails. We waited for a car to come, and then we'd toss a Molotov cocktail in front of the car. So, it'd be this pitch black ravine, this car driving along, in the calmest suburb of all suburbs in the world, nothing ever happened in these suburbs.

And all of a sudden, there'd be this great explosion and ball of fire right in front of them.

Charlie H: We always felt like we were the Hell's Angels when we were on our Stingray bicycles. And we went down to the tunnel, right next to the football field, and we broke all the lights in the tunnel, and we found a pair of pants, which we lit on fire. We brought it out, the pants that were on fire, outside, and started waving it around, put it out, when to the local gas station, broke into the Coca Cola machine to get ourselves something cold to drink, and just as we had finished breaking into the Coke machine, two police cars pull up.

Sam H: Yeah, I got arrested for, one morning at four in the morning, I was probably eight or nine, and I had a new girlfriend, named Bridgette. And I literally climbed out my window, and shimmied down the tree, and went and met up with Dan McNirney, and somebody else, and we got a can of paint from somebody's basement.

And went down under the tracks, and wrote, painted on the walls, I repainted 'Sam loves Bridgette' on the wall.

Jessica H: Down by the train tracks?

Sam H: Down by the train tracks.

And then we went back up to the train station, we're washing our hands, trying to get the paint off our hands, and a policeman came in and said, what are you guys doing? (laughs)

And we said, we're washing our hands. He said, well why are you, w- why, A, why are up at five in the morning? And B, why are you washing your hands, and I was like, 'cause there's dirt on them?

And he's like, you know, y- okay, yeah, sure.

Jessica H: Wise guy.

Sam H: Get in the patrol car.

Charlie H: I don't know if he ever called the police, but for a week afterwards every time the phone rang, I ran, ran to answer it. In case it was the butcher from the grocery store at the A&P.

Sam H: And he's like, y- okay, yeah, sure.

Jessica H: Wise guy.

Billy H: Get in the patrol car.

Two police cars pull up, and they make up line up on our bicycles, between the two police cars, to go down to the police station.

Eleanor H: Fire department was called. They were threatened with jail.

Sam H: And he's like, okay, get in the patrol car.

Charlie H: Where, where you're each put into interrogation rooms.

Eleanor H: Threatened with jail.

Sam H: And he drove me back to the end of the road, where I lived, and said, don't do this ever again.

Jessica H: Much of the boy's criminal activities seemed to escape my parents notice, but there were certain misdemeanors that you just couldn't get away with. While Dad wasn't a church goer, he did regard Sundays as sort of holy. Sunday was family day. Nobody could leave the premises, no exceptions.

Charlie H: So, Sunday was the sacred day, where it was family day, and you could never leave the house on Sunday. Well, Terry Greenblatt and I, were in the middle of editing a film of our rock band, What. Which was certainly gonna be on the Ed Sullivan Show. So, I went over to Terry Greenblatt's to work on the editing of this very important film, and, uh, I got a call saying, Charley, get your ass home, now.

I bicycled as quickly as I could home, and Dad met me outside of his office at home, with a slipper, and asked me to bend over, and he started spanking me with a slipper and Sam was standing in the dining room, and Sam did something that made me laugh.

Jessica H: Oh, go-

Charlie H: So, I started laughing.

Jessica H: Oh, jeeze.

Charlie H: And Dad put down the slipper and just said, Goddammit, and walked, walked back into the study. And it was the last time I got a spanking.

Jessica H: Was it a pants down, or pants up?

Charlie H: Pants up. Never, I, I don't think I every got a pants down. I got slapped, or punished, but never-

Jessica H: Oh, God, we got, we had pants down.

Thank God the spanking era was coming to an end, everybody was a little bit too big now. That kinda punishment was unseemly, especially pants down.

But while spankings were on the way out, we'd soon learn that Dad was capable of other forms of punishment, that were equally frightening and arguably more profound. But that wasn't the only shift in the dynamic in our house. The nature of Billy's and all of our struggles with Dad, changed entirely one December night, when my brother introduced the possibility of confrontation.

Not long ago, I heard on NPR, that December 16th is considered the worst day of the year to have a birthday. What with everybody in full pre-holiday frenzy, that day just seems to hit the sweet spot of bad birth timing.

Well, my father was born on December 16th, and not only was it a lousy day to party, but our family came to think of it as a lousy day to be a Harper.

Billy H: So, we all have stories, I'm sure, about Dad's birthday, which was always a dangerous and fraught occasion. (laughs)

Jessica H: (laughs)

Billy H: And everyone in the family would walk on eggs, all day and all night, on his birthday, just to make sure that they didn't do something that of- that hurt his feelings, and provoked a rage of some kind.

Jessica H: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Billy H: All of us, Mom included.

Jessica H: One of Dad's birthdays stands out in my memory. I think it was 1964 or '65, and we were all seated at the dinner table, and Billy was sitting next to Dad, as he usually did.

Billy H: I was often placed right next to Dad. I think there was some kind of gender specific reason for that dominance, you know? Uh, also, uh, pre-feminist family structure being expressed there.

But in any case, um, on this birthday, I was probably 16 years old. So, it was birthday dinner. We were all sitting at the table, I was sitting right next to him, and, um, because of my schedules I was often sleep deprived. My activities with my girlfriend, and my football playing, and s- I was sleepy, so I put my head down on the table and fell asleep. (laughs)

Jessica H: Oh, jeeze.

Billy H: And at some point, he noticed this and yelled at me, how, how dare you behave like this at dinner, and this is inappropriate, and I just flew into a rage. And this is n- this was not something that any of us ever did.

Jessica H: I remember him saying, what's the matter with you, and you said, what's the matter with you? And that's when you charged up the stairs.

Billy H: That's probably perfectly accurate. No one ever speaks to Dad that way.

I went upstairs to my bedroom, and slammed the door. He followed me up the stairs after a moment.

Jessica H: Yeah, a moment when the rest of us were frozen at the dinner table, scared to breath. Where was thing going? Would Dad kill Billy? Kill us all?

Billy H: And so, he followed me up the stairs, knocked on my door, respectfully. And I said, what'd you want? And he came in and he was crying, showing his vulnerability. And you know, giving me some clue as to why he was so difficult on his birthday, the kind of, uh, emotional pressures involved with that.

Not that I understood any of it, but what I did understand was that he cared about what I was think- feeling, that he was apologetic about his behavior, and that he had real reasons for feeling the way he felt. Although he apologized for imposing those, his feelings on me.

Jessica H: Which was a first.

Billy H: That's a first, yeah, never happened before.

Jessica H: So, this was a turning point. One of us had thrown Dad's rage right back at him, and was still alive. Not only that, but they'd resolved things by means of conversation. Most stunning of all, was the realization that we, the children had power. Billy had exercised his, and he'd won.

While I personally doubted I'd ever have the nerve to do likewise, I made a not to self that it was a possibility.

Years later, when I was able to summon some empathy for my father, I would also note, how much he had been hurting that night.

Neither Billy, nor I were ever aware of other moments like that, when Dad, who hated crying, cried, and explained himself. But when he was much older, once in a while, tears would just randomly roll down Dad's cheeks in a surprising overflow of sadness.

Billy's sketchy recollection of their birthday chat doesn't help us understand the source or abundance of Dad's pain. Although we can speculate, the war, his struggles with his own father, his birthday, what else?

What was clear that night, long ago, was that Dad no longer ruled his children absolutely. This would become more apparent to him in the next few years. It was the '60s after all. Still, while we may have begun to challenge our father's authority, we didn't always win. As you'll see in the next episode.

Next: Episode 8: STRANGE LAND transcript