My Own Private Portlandia (Part I)

12 May


Portland of Possibilities

I’m rolling down I-10 from the Texas hill country Saturday morning, retracing my route in more ways than one. My week-long personal writers retreat at Mo-Ranch behind me, now I’m driving back to San Antonio to see an old friend – and I just might go even farther into the past.

Pulling over near Bourne for coffee and contemplation, I scan the internet for First Presbyterian Church of Portland – the small church that, back in 1981, chose me as its youth director. It was all part of the Tithe of Life program, designed to place new college graduates in small churches which needed help building a youth program. The thought was that a strong youth program attracts families, and families are, of course, the life-blood of the church. I was blessed to work with a lot of warm and accommodating people who put up with a very green youth director far from his native Alabama home – starting with my pastor, Pete Apple, and his wife Roberta, who taught English at the local high school.

Only Pete, needing to provide for kids aging their way toward college, left pastoral work to become a stock broker. Soon after, my two-year term ended, and I went back into the newspaper business. I lost track of almost everyone. Once the internet and social media came round, I tried to look occasionally but found nothing. Had the church, always limited by the small size of the town, finally gone under? Last year I found a Facebook page, but it was a bit cryptic – could’ve been a page by people who once were members of the church. But now, sitting in my interstate-side coffee shop, I discover an actual website. Under the “About Us” heading, I find a page mentioning the church’s “long and storied past.”

Only, there are no stories.

Hey, I can help with that – although they might not be the stories the church would want me telling. The Frisbee golf tournament on a windy day, lifting said Frisbees onto the flat roof – which, combined with our concrete pipe lattice over the office windows that was oh-so-perfect climbing, led an enterprising boy to clamber up onto the roof before I could yell for him not to. The chili cook-off I was asked to judge with along with two church elders – technically my bosses – who quickly came to the conclusion that we needed to wash out the flavor between tastings –and that this would be best accomplished with beer, which one of them smuggled into the junior high Sunday school room. (But in fairness, it was Schlitz – hey, as a small church, we were definitely all about the stewardship.)

Then came the first church service I ever led. With Pete away studying Spanish in Mexico, I planned the entire service. It didn’t occur to me that the hymns I enjoyed tended to be fast and short. And I couldn’t have predicted that in the conversational part of the Presbyterian service, there would be no “concerns of the people” – there was no one in the hospital, or facing a personal crisis, or anyone with any problem whatsoever that merited discussion. The biggest factor of all — I had never written and delivered a speech before. Anxiety spiking, sweating more profusely than Albert Brooks in Network News, I flew through my sermon, filled with complex sentences written to be read, not heard. Roberta, sitting in the choir, was kind enough to offer that “I heard some good language in there.”

At service’s end, the pastor and the liturgist – in this case Gene, head of the Worship Committee – walked to the back of the sanctuary. I was supposed to deliver the benediction from there, once the organist played a contemplative interlude and the congregation kept its head bowed in prayer. I had my own eyes closed as well – until Gene elbowed me. He pointed excitedly to the same digital watch he used in training for marathons.


Only, he grinned and shot me a thumbs up. (Hey, the Cowboys were on at noon.)

Gene relaxing in living room after our trip to the Alamo Cafe.

“I’d forgotten that story,” Gene tells me a few hours later. We were sitting in the Alamo Café, enjoying some exceptional fajitas. Last time I saw Gene, I’d taken him to Sole Proprietor in Worcester for chowder, so it was only appropriate that he’d match me regionality for regionality. (Portland was, in fact, the first place I’d had fajitas.) Now we’re having such a good time, I refuse to put out the recorder, decide to set aside my idea of asking him about his memories of me as an incredibly green youth leader almost 33 years in the past.

After all, I feel sure of the basics: Even though I gave two years of my life to the church on a minimal salary of a few thousands bucks, I got so much more than I gave. Being so green, I benefitted mightily from both the wisdom and kindness of the people around me. The guy sharing a beer with me was certainly among them – Gene and his wife Karin were both school teachers, and of course parents, so they both knew a thing or two about, as Gene told me after the roof-climbing fiasco, not letting “the kids walk all over you

The last time I was in Portland, Halley’s Comet was in the Texas sky. Twenty-eight years have passed since. Gene’s not sure who’s left down there that I’d know. He and his wife moved to San Antone a decade ago, and the church before that. When I toss out names, turns out most of them have moved on, too. I wonder if I should even take the trouble to drive two-odd hours to the Corpus Christi area; I could more easily just stay here tonight and wander the River Walk, probably find some bar full of rabid Spurs fans to give the NBA Playoffs some local flavor. Still, my gut tells me I should at least drive down, wander the old neighborhoods, and walk the church grounds.

Then, I told myself, I’ll know.

A few hours later, I’m there. A water tank boasts the new slogan, a pun on my own name, “Port/(the) Land of Possibilities.) “Well,” I think, “maybe back then.” Now this is threatening to be more of a “been there, done that” experience.

Still, I can’t help being curious. Without looking at the map or even remembering street addresses of the places I lived, I cruise the old neighborhoods. As part of the church’s obligation to Tithe of Life, I stayed in a series of member’s homes. The first, Olga, had been a bridge master. The second, Pat, was the widow of an oil executive who plowed money into a business in which she housed exotic cats – a lion, a jaguar, and three cougars – in her home, hoping to then make a buck off them through folks posing for photos or playing with them. (I wound up being the one playing with the cougars, who practiced their stalking skills by jumping me when I least expected it, playing Kato to my Inspector Clouseau.)

Then there was Helen Stone, the belle of the AARP. She might as well be the patron saint of my trip: While I lived with Helen, she celebrated her 78th birthday by going on her first whitewater rafting trip, down the Colorado River. (Me, I’m a mere pup of 56, so, hey, stop your whining.)

Then I cut under Highway 181 and feel my way to First Presbyterian.

First Presbyterian in the late afternoon light.

First Presbyterian in the late afternoon light.

It’s still there, locked late on a Saturday afternoon. There’s a single car in a driveway that I don’t remember existing in the 1980s, so I try the building’s door handles, but they’re all locked. I knock on the pastor’s office door, but no one comes. So I circle the grounds, take in what I can, wonder whether it’s worth coming in tomorrow morning, when what’s left of the church would be having it’s Mother’s Day service. I hear Gene’s voice in my head, suggesting I might not see anyone I knew, implying that perhaps I should protect myself from disappointment. But then I peer into the transparent front doors of the sanctuary, catch in the fading light the narthex wall, where a net hangs down from a sign that says, “God’s Catch.”

Zooming with the camera lens, I could just make out the names on the tags – and I see Apples. Lots of Apples. Roberta, then Matthew, still other Apples below. GrandApples?

Looks like I’m going to church.

Seen through the window, “God’s Catch” of name tags.

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