‘What the hell’ moment leads to adventure of a lifetime | Whale’s Tales

Each life is composed of an infinity of tiny brushstrokes.

I suspect we’ll only see what they sum to at the close. Better to say, I hope. Because as I write this, at 61, life still seems a muddle.

I’ve heard people go on about what’s called the doctrine of “hidden hands.” By that they mean the chance encounter with another at the precise moment, the unlikely opening of an opportunity at the right time, the uncanny escape from death, all pointing, it seems, to some sort of divine assistance.

The jury is still out on that. But when I was a year out of college, floundering for a time, not knowing which way to turn, I said to myself, “what the hell” and joined an itinerant Christian theater company called Covenant Players, based then in Oxnard, Calif.

For good and bad, the year and a half I spent with CP made for one of the big adventures of my life.

To get to Los Angeles, where the training center was, without spending a pile of money, which importantly, I didn’t have, I hopped a ride on a discount bus line called The Green Tortoise. Now, the Tortoise was as stripped down and bargain basement as could be found.

As I soon learned, there were reasons a-plenty for the deep discount. For one thing, there were no seats on that bus; one sat on the floor. The cabin was filled with various counter cultural types, among them a Charles Manson look-alike, with freaky, wild hair and bugged-out eyes, which glared at me all the way to San Francisco. I must have looked like a conventional lump to him, with my short hair and such.

At the hottest part of the day, the bus stopped at some place near a river in Oregon, I have forgotten where, and the driver announced there’d be a salmon bake. “Clothes are optional,” he says. In an instant, naked people everywhere. I was part of the inhibited contingent, trying to look inconspicuous, which I maintain is impossible with a bunch of naked young women milling around. Well, I said to myself, this is different.

When I reached LA, I got on the wrong transfer bus, which was not headed to Sepulveda where the church was, but to Watts. When the driver stopped for a moment to fix something that had gone wrong at the back of the bus, he took note of the general discontent, and then addressed his passengers in the following words.

“I understand some of you have a problem with my driving,” he said. “Keep it up. Cause I’m gonna go back there and I’m gonna kick all your asses.” As if by magic,all grumbling ceased. Well, I said to myself, this is really different — bus driver threatening to thrash his passengers.

When I finally got to where I needed to be, I checked into a hotel for the night, put away my things and turned on the television. And just as it flashed on, people from the aforementioned, pious theatre organization walked in — to see me goggling at a pornographic movie, which had popped up without my bidding. I got quite the fish eye from them.

My first tour was in Missouri. The Show-Me state introduced me to the heat and humidity of high summer in the Midwest, and to ravenous chiggers lying in wait for my hapless ankles in the weeds.

In the city of Poplar Bluff, thieves broke into the van and stole everything, including our clothes and our last can of Who Hash. Torsten, the German fellow who was leading our unit and I spent that night in a men’s shelter. In the morning, I noticed bags under his eyes.

“How’d you sleep?” I asked.

“Bad,” he said in an intonation you must imagine as pure Arnold Schwarzenegger. “The man above me spent the whole night buhrping and fah-ting!”

When that first mission trip ended in early December, I rode another van almost all the way back to Washington state. But before we reached home, doing 60 mph, we hit a patch of black ice outside of Boise, Idaho. The van rolled four to five times, but the most serious injury anyone received was a cut to the hand. Something of a miracle. When a ride could be arranged back home, I took it.

The next mission took me to South Carolina. I sampled Frogmore stew, and met a wonderful array of eccentric characters. In Beaufort, I met a fellow whom I liked very much but who had never gotten over the South’s loss in the Civil War: “Mister Lincoln put those troops in Charleston Harbor, Sir,” he said, referring to the shelling of Fort Sumter, which began the war in 1861.

In Anderson, Jesse Jackson’s hometown, I had my first experience with an unseen presence, when a cat that had been sitting peaceably on my bed, suddenly fixed its eyes on a vacant corner of the room, sat bolt upright, arched its back, and with each particular hair standing on end like quills upon a porcupine, let out the most god-awful feline screech I’d ever heard, then bolted from the room. That episode convinced me that animals see things we humans don’t.

On my final mission, which was to Michigan, I found myself on the Upper Peninsula on the very night of the Loma Prieta earthquake in far-off San Francisco, where I experienced my first blizzard, caught the resonant soundings of the UP accent and heard nasty jokes Scandinavians tell on each other.

But, you know, for all of the weird stuff and scatterings of unpleasant, I wouldn’t change a thing. Part of the mosaic of my life. May you all have such adventures and memories.

Robert Whale can be reached at rwhale@soundpublishing.com.