TESTIMONEY OF ATENT PREACHER

Fire and brimstone in the upper St. John River Valley

ALDEN NOWLAN December 1 1972

TESTIMONEY OF ATENT PREACHER

Fire and brimstone in the upper St. John River Valley

ALDEN NOWLAN December 1 1972

TESTIMONEY OF ATENT PREACHER

Fire and brimstone in the upper St. John River Valley

ALDEN NOWLAN

TESTIMONY OF ATENT PREACHER

BY ALDEN NOWLAN

Fire and brimstone in the Upper St. John River Valley

My first and strongest physical impression of the interior of the Bible Deliverance Tent of Evangelist Floyd Cruse is that it stinks. Despite the wind that causes the canvas to crackle and the ropes to creak as if we were aboard a ghost schooner on the Bay of Fundy instead of in a vacant lot beside a dirt road in the village of Bath, New Brunswick, the air we breathe is pervaded with a musty fetor that until tonight I identified with caged animals. Now I realize that the stink doesn’t emanate from the animals and is not, as I used to believe, symptomatic of the degeneration brought about by their captivity. It’s exuded by wood shavings and cut grass suppurating for want of sunlight. Occasionally you find yourself in a situation where, for the first time, you grasp the full and original meaning of some cliché or hackneyed expression: tonight I know what it means when a preacher hits the sawdust trail.

Yet I suspect I’m the only person here who is troubled by the smell, as no doubt I was the only person here who wondered what the scrawny grey cat was chasing, or being chased by, when a moment ago it ran in one side of the tent and out the other. The teen-aged kids in tight jeans who conceivably might have cared about such mundane matters — those who sat through the first 45 minutes of the service to hear the big blond song leader belt out country-style paeans to the old-time religion while banging a tambourine against her knee — trickled away as soon as the preacher made his entrance from his house trailer parked across the road where, so I was told earlier, he fasts and prays (sometimes in unknown tongues) to prepare himself for his nightly sermon. Now it appears that except for me the only persons seated on these 100-odd metal folding chairs which form a semicircle around the collapsible stage and port-

"At some of his services, the Reverend Cruse has told me and members of his flock have agreed, at least 15 souls have been saved from hell, and there have been a number of miraculous cures — all of them the sort of thing that is next to impossible to either substantiate or disprove ...”

able altar are born-again, washed-inthe-blood-of-the-lamb, hallelujahshouting believers, and for all that I know about their particular brand of fundamentalist protestant theology they may also have received those other mysterious gifts of the Holy Ghost known as the Fire Baptism, the Second Blessing and the Double Portion.

At the moment their minds inhabit another world than this, another world that exists simultaneously in at least three different places: in their hearts, “Praise God,” and in a golden city beyond the stars, “Thank you, Jesus,” and most of all in that near-approaching time when Jesus will come again, “Hallelujah,” not to be betrayed and crucified as before, but to be enthroned as everlasting king of a restored Eden, an incorruptible New Jerusalem.

The preacher bounces about in front of the stage with a microphone in his hand like a nightclub entertainer, the cord trailing behind him, not so much preaching in the conventional sense as delivering an interminable extemporaneous monologue that is almost as formless as an exercise in free association. Like many of the revivalists who tour the Maritimes, he hails from the southern United States. He was born “in the big city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, where my daddy was an auctioneer,” and one of his bits of business is an imitation of a southern auctioneer’s spiel, in which he appeals for donations rather than bids. Part of his childhood was spent on the Chickamauga Creek “near Missionary Ridge where my greatgranddaddy was killed in the Civil War that you folks must have heard about up here in Canada.”

Partly because of traveling preachers like the Reverend Cruse and partly because of country music, especially the groups that live on cheeseburgers and sleep in their secondhand station wagons, and nobody ever hears about outside of places with names like Smuggler’s Cove and Grindstone Brook, there have been strong although extremely obscure links between the Maritimes and the American south for at least 50 years.

Every summer evangelists from the states of the old confederacy set up their tents in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, concentrating on New Brunswick’s Upper St. John River Valley Bible Belt. A surprising number of the ministers serving rural churches in the Maritimes are alumni of such southern fundamentalist institutions as Bob Jones University at Greenville, South Carolina. During the 1930s there was even a branch of the Ku Klux Klan in New Brunswick; I’ve talked with a man who, as a boy drummer, attended a ceremonial cross burning near Windsor, in Carleton County, where in the absence of blacks, Jews and Catholics, the object seems to have been to throw the fear of God into drunkards and fornicators.

These past several years the expressions “subculture” and “underground” have been passed around so much they’ve become as thin and shopworn as a Queen Victoria dime. Ironically, the terms generally are applied to certain styles and attitudes fashionable among the young which, far from being submerged, are among the chief obsessions of the communications media, besides being probed and publicized in everything from doctoral dissertations to antiperspirant commercials. On the other hand, there exist in North America scores of genuine subcultures, largely unrecognized by scholars and journalists alike.

The particular subculture to which this Tennessee-born tent preacher, the Reverend Cruse, and his New Brunswick flock belong is essentially WASP Underdog, and for a WASP Underdog there are no scapegoats available, there’s nobody you can blame for your condition except yourself or the devil in hell. Their mutual ancestors rallied behind John Knox when he belabored Mary, Queen of Scots, ih his First Blast Of The Trumpet Against The Monstrous Regiment Of Women. They are rural people in a world ruled by city dwellers. They inhabit regions that have been made the Horrible Examples and whipping boys of their respective countries — regions haunted by the ghosts of continued on page 66

TENT PREACHER from page 35 a golden age in which Virginia was the Mother of Presidents, and Saint John was the fourth most important port in the British Empire. And the people who return again and again to meetings such as this one tend to be those whom even the losers regard as losers. Their archetypal joke is: “Em holdin’ my own. I came into this here world hungry and naked and cryin’ and I’m still hungry and naked and cryin’, so I’m holdin’ my own all right.”

Now as the wind roaring down the St. John River continues to pummel the tent, and it begins to rain, the preacher smilingly assures us that this life is not worth living, and the sooner this world ends the better. Hearing this, most of his congregation smile back at him rapturously, some laugh aloud, and many of them shout, “Amen!” Only a few days ago, he says, he had to spend $20 on repairs to his poor old car. His listeners smile grimly: they know all about the trials and tribulations involved in owning an old car. “I been working for them car manufacturers in Detroit city all my life, just the same as you all have. Why, I started out workin’ for the car manufacturers when I wasn’t nothin’ more than a snotty-nosed kid driving an old mule down there in the State of Tennessee. Course, I didn’t know then what I know now. I just wanted me a car to go runnin’ around in. But I was working for the car manufacturers, sure enough. Just like any other poor old boy. Ain’t no way a

man can get ahead in this world. This here life is just plain misery for most folks. You know that as well as I do. Can you say ‘Amen’?” He smiles his arch, ironical smile, and they answer him with grins, chuckles and shouts of “Amen!” Because they know only too well what it’s like to pay the finance company $300 interest on a loan to buy a $1,000 car, only to find out before you’ve owned it a week that it needs a new motor.

He gives them more in the same vein: it is terrible to be poor, “Amen!” — but probably even worse to be rich. There was a time, not so many years ago, when people really lived, “Can you say ‘Amen’?” But all that has changed and nothing is the same as it used to be. The old world is in a worse mess than it’s been in since them old Bible times. But that’s not bad. That’s good. Because it means Jesus is coming soon. “Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Oh, yes.” And when Jesus comes again, nobody — leastways nobody that’s been saved and sanctified, and cleansed in the precious blood — will have to work for wages, or go on welfare, or fret about car payments and doctor bills. “Amen!” Because there won’t be no call for doctorin’. Nobody will ever again be sick, because every sickness and every plague is part of the curse that came upon man when he disobeyed God. “Amen! Amen! Amen!”

Seated together near me in the back row are about a half-dozen men who appear to be in their middle or late thirties,

the kind of men who attend services three and four times a week at the local Pentecostal church and hold peripheral jobs such as part-time sales clerk in the general store or free-lance door-to-door salesman of window cleaners or light bulbs. In most cases the jackets and pants of their suits don’t match, and they wear white or yellow socks, and white shirts with open necks. They stand out from the crowd, singing louder than anyone else, clapping and stamping to the music of the big blond, who plays 12-string guitar and banjo, and the preacher’s wife, who projects a wholesome sensuousness reminiscent of June Carter or Cornelia Wallace, and plays accordion and organ. One of these men is pointed out by the preacher as having been for a time so weakened by a bad heart that he was unable to get out of bed — this was before the Lord gloriously healed him. In confirmation of this, the man who, like his companions, has the eyes of a stray dog that has sighted food and is torn between hunger and fear, and seems to have scrubbed his pale skin until it is chafed and sore, cries, “Glory to Jesus!” and the others chorus, “Amen!”

The flies have become very thick in the tent, and the wind has turned colder: I’m beginning to regret leaving my jacket in the car. Sitting here I think back to when I was a 12-year-old country boy in Nova Scotia and wanted to grow up to be a prophet: to add books to the Bible beginning, “The Words that the Lord God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, spake unto His servant, Alden . . .” It wasn’t piety that motivated me but the will to power; I wanted to be able to call down fire from heaven on the heads of my enemies. If the dice of fate had turned up a different number it might have been me up there quoting Isaiah: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” And Floyd Cruse might have been sitting here trying to make notes without being conspicuous: he said to me that afternoon that his ambition was to be a writer. “I’ve studied it,” he said, “I know all about them semicolons, and all that.”

As for the man with the bad heart: my diagnosis would be acute indigestion. He looks dyspeptic enough, the product, like almost everybody else in the tent, of six generations of malnutrition and spiritual self-flagellation, with too much starch in his belly and not enough of it in his backbone. Still, it’s a funny thing about miracles. Years ago when I lived in the little town of Hartland, in the Upper St. John River Valley, I knew a character called Bible Bill who “lived by faith,” as the saying goes among fundamentalists, meaning that he sought to continued on page 68

TENT PREACHER continued obtain the necessities of life by praying for them. I suspect that he and his family lived mostly on spaghetti and potatoes — but they did live.

Frequently when I drove from Hartland to Woodstock, 12 miles away, Bible Bill would be hitchhiking in the same direction, and I’d pick him up. On one such occasion he was accompanied by his daughter, who was about 10 years old. “The Lord sent you,” he said to me, as they got into the car. She was barefoot; and he was taking her to town to get her a pair of shoes. He hadn’t a cent in his pockets, but he had prayed for the shoes and now they were going to fetch them. “Well,” thinks I, “that’s a pretty broad hint for The Nowlan to further assist in the Lord’s work by shelling out a cash donation, but this fish isn’t gonna take the hook.” So I dropped the two of them in the downtown section of Woodstock, and went off to pick up a. bottle of Demerara rum, affectionately known in the Maritimes as “Demmie,” which tasted like a decoction of brown sugar and turpentine diluted with swamp water but outsold everything else at the local New Brunswick Liquor Control Board store, accounted in fact for more than half of the store’s entire business, principally because at seven dollars for a 40-ounce bottle it was the cheapest means of getting drunk between St. Louis du Ha Ha and Come-By-Chance.

As soon as I’d made my purchase I headed out of town. Standing almost in the same spot where I’d left them less than 10 minutes earlier were Bible Bill and his daughter; his thumb was up and as I came to a stop I saw there were shoes on her feet. “We was waitin’ for you to come back,” said Bible Bill, grinning complacently. “The Lord touched the heart of the manager of the shoe store, just as I knew he would.” I’m convinced the man wasn’t lying. Perhaps the shoes were a pair the manager intended to throw away, and quite probably he wanted to get Bible Bill and his barefoot daughter off the premises as quickly as he could; maybe he was simply a generous man or was in a mood to play philanthropist that day. Bible Bill would have regarded such explanations as irrelevant, as from his point of view they were. He’d prayed for the shoes and he’d got them — not only that, but he’d got them as quickly as he would have done if he’d possessed a car and a bank account. He knew that God had granted him a miracle.

Now the preacher is telling us that he has not gone to a doctor or obtained medical treatment since he received his call from God to preach 15 years ago. “The doctors are always talkin’ about practising medicine,” he says. “And that’s what they do: they practise medicine. But God don’t need to do any practising. Can you say ‘Amen’?” He opens

his Bible and reads: “Peter said to the man who had been sick for eight years, ‘Aeneas, Jesus Christ maketh thee whole: arise and make thy bed.’ And he rose immediately, and all that dwelt at Lydda and Saron saw him, and turned to the Lord.”

Since he abjured smokin’, card playin’ and drinkin’ and accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior, the preacher says that he has been healed by faith in God of a heart condition, several nervous breakdowns, and a number of lesser ailments. He says that at one point his body was “all drawed up” by the Spirit of Infirmity, and proceeds to demonstrate to the congregation how he looked when he was so afflicted — pressing his knees together tightly while standing on the tips of his toes with his heels far apart, bending forward from the waist as if in search of relief from an agonizing pain in his belly, his arms hard against his chest, his fists clenched under his chin, his eyes shut and his teeth clamped together, his head thrown back and to the side so that the veins in his neck stand out and his ear rests on his shoulder: a three-dimensional cartoon of a man in anguish. He remains in that position for only a few seconds, and this description may err slightly in its details, since of necessity it is not taken directly from life, but from a mirror in a motel room where several hours later I will try to reproduce it in my own body, while my wife, acclimatized to my madness, searches unsuccessfully through the yellow pages of the New Brunswick Telephone Company’s Northwestern Directory for the name of an all-night restaurant.

There are sympathetic murmurs and sighs; it is as if the congregation believed that the preacher’s old ailment had come back to torment him: perhaps, after all, the devil walks among us, seeking whom he will devour. But, no, the preacher snaps erect, throws up his arms and smiles, as he must have done after a victory in the ring in the days when he was a professional middleweight boxer. (“Brother Cruse, he used to be a prize fighter,” the song leader, Bonnie Leighton, said to me. “One of the best there was. He could of been champion if he hadn’t been called to do the Lord’s work. The other night there was a bunch of motorcycle hippies come to our tent, and they were trying to disrupt the service, throwing their helmets up in the air and catching them, and stuff like that, and, well, it may be a tent, but it’s a church, too, and we expect people to act like they were in church, and so Brother Cruse he took off his coat, and he told them motorcycle hippies to behave themselves. And they did.”)

“The doctors like to give fancy names to things,” the preacher says, and there are fervent cries of “Amen!” from continued on page 71

TENT PREACHER continued

people who all their lives have been unnerved and frustrated by the fancy names given things by schoolteachers, bosses, policemen, welfare workers, and bureaucrats. “They give fancy names to things, but Jesus calls things by names that anybody can understand.” Oh, blessed Jesus, who will simplify, simplify, simplify, so that the universe will cease to be the private property of them fellers that talk as if they’d swallered the dictionary. “There’s only one disease and that’s the Spirit of Infirmity brought into the world by that old devil, Satan. Tell Hezekiah, thus saith the Lord, I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears: behold I will heal thee.” The man seated near me whose bad heart is said to have been miraculously healed is praying, passionately but inaudibly. His face is almost radiant; he seems to have been lifted into a mystical state; his eyes are closed, and I am prepared to believe that he sees visions. Then, for an instant, he snaps out of it, his face takes on an utterly commonplace expression, he actually yawns and looks at his watch, before throwing himself back into his seeming ecstasy and praying as passionately as before.

When I first talked with the Reverend Cruse on the telephone, asking him would he object to having his services written about and photographed, he said, “Well, we’re doing the Lord’s work and don’t want to be ridiculed.” I assured him that I had no intention of ridiculing him, that I would simply tell the truth as I saw it — which is what I’ve done, and "am doing, and yet as I hear him say something about St. Paul’s necktie (which brings to mind a radio preacher of a similar faith whom I once heard describe how the Philistines, led by the giant Goliath, had come down against the Israelites with their machine guns a’blazing), I feel a touch of the guilt that must at times be experienced by all but the most insensitive spies. For the moment, dear reader, I resent you and dislike myself, feeling that neither of us has the right to be here. It’s like the night several years ago when to my own astonishment I became furiously angry with a roomful of my best friends who were drunkenly singing, The Old-Time Religion, accusing them in my alcoholinduced paranoia of mocking my ancestral faith in a way that they — good bourgeois liberals all — would never have dreamt of doing if I’d been, say, black or Jewish. I went so far as to tell them that The Old-Time Religion was one of the hymns sung at my mother’s funeral, which was a lie that none of them would have believed if their roots had been the same as mine. (Come to think of it, I suppose that’s why I chose that lie rather than another: the ignorance they displayed in readily accepting it reinforced my momentary delucontinued on page 72

TENT PREACHER continued

sion that I truly did belong to a different ethos than they.) But, then, if the Reverend Cruse putting a necktie on St. Paul is ridiculous, so too, as I freely confess, is the St. Jude’s medal in my pocket, bought for sixpence in Dublin at a time when I believed, and had good reason for believing, that my death was imminent — more than ever ridiculous because of the reason I continue to carry it: having decided that St. Jude, being the patron of the impossible, must also be the patron of those of us who cannot believe in saints.

As the service nears an end, the preacher issues the altar call, pleading with sinners to repent and inviting the sick to come forward that he may pray for them to be healed. This is the apex of many revival meetings, a time when it’s no exaggeration to say that the tension can be as overwhelming as in the final moments of the act of love. There can be that same awesome intermingling of the desire to prolong the joy and the need to relieve the stress without which the joy could not exist. At other such meetings I’ve seen men and women join hands and dance in circles until many of them sank unconscious to the ground and the others leaped over their prostrate bodies. I’ve heard them babble, frothing at the mouth, supposedly prophesying in languages that ordinarily were unknown to them, until they fell to their knees, weeping with exhaustion. Doing the Jericho Dance, Slain Out Under the Spirit, Talking in Tongues, Under the Power. But, partly to my disappointment and partly to my relief, nothing remotely like that happens here tonight. It’s as Old Lodgeskins says in Little Big Man: “Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

A small child wakes up and starts crying; its mother slaps it, hard, and it cries louder; she slaps it again and positions her hand to strike for a third time, not angrily, her hand merely responding to the child’s bawling as Pavlov’s dogs responded to the bell, and the child, its reflexes similarly conditioned, restrains itself and is silent until it goes back to sleep. Nobody asks to be saved, and nobody asks to be healed, although at previous services, the Reverend Cruse has told me and members of his flock have agreed, at least 15 souls have been saved from hell, and there have been a number of miraculous cures — all of them the sort of thing that is next to impossible to either substantiate or disprove: a woman and a child suffering from partial deafness are said to hear better now, and others are reputed to be less lame than they formerly were, or to suffer less pain. No one claims to have been cured of cancer, although cancer seems to be a favorite subject of conversation with the preacher, his wife and the 18-year-old song leader. Indeed it seems to me that

they discuss it with a positive relish, lingering over the horrible details of cases they’ve seen or heard about, actually smiling. Presumably they’re smiling with delight in God’s goodness and from faith in his healing powers. Still it makes me queasy to see the song leader, Bonnie Leighton, who says of herself, “I’m as healthy as a horse; I even look like one,” beam as she describes to me the three skin cancers that she says grew on her father’s face until in the space of a single night God caused them to disappear. I couldn’t smile about cancer, even if I were absolutely convinced that at certain times, in certain places, under certain circumstances, it pleased God miraculously to cure it.

“Some folks,” says the Reverend Cruse, using one of those plays on words beloved of clergymen, “are so heavenly good they’re no earthly use.” Before I set out to interview him I prepared a fairly lengthy list of questions, typed them and attached them to a clipboard. It was a waste of time. The only answers I wrote down were “45 years ago in Tennessee” and “1955” — being when and where he was born and the year that he was converted. The other questions were mostly about the history and psychology of revivalism, and the place of the oldtime religion in the space age. Looking back I can see that I was being naive. My prepared questions were meant to be fuel for a dialogue. That was stupid. I ought to have remembered that it’s impossible to question a man who has all the answers. The Reverend Cruse simply doesn’t give a damn about the place of the old-time religion in the space age. He doesn’t care if it’s the space age or the age of the stage coach. Assuming that his convictions are sound, why should he? He handed me three pages of typewritten, single-spaced quotations from the Bible, headed Salvation And Divine Healing.

He has those deep brown eyes possessed by so many southerners and his head twitches like a boxer’s — not like any boxer that I’ve ever seen in the flesh, but like a bit player dodging imaginary blows as Humphrey Bogart, trenchcoated in the gymnasium, asks him what he knows about the fix. It seemed to me that his head twitched only while he talked about his career as a fighter: he fought in “preliminaries,” he said, “you know what they are, don’t you?” But then again he was moving about so much and so rapidly when he preached that it would have been impossible to distinguish a nervous twitch from his other movements. I dwell on this only because I kept searching — no doubt presumptuously and probably irrelevantly as well — for clues as to whether or not he was a phony. I talked with him in his 28-foot house trailer. (There was a sign, GOD BLESS OUR MO-

BILE HOME, a record player and a stack of records, the one on top being by Floyd Cramer, family photographs including a wedding picture, a typewriter, a Bible, hymnbooks, an electric fan, a small Canadian flag and a plastic model of a moose, but like all such trailers the place looked curiously unlived-in, as if it were still on display and a potential buyer was expected at any moment.) He had spent the earlier part of the afternoon across the nearby international border in Maine, where he’d had $40 worth of dental work done. (He mentioned this again in his sermon at the same time as he told about spending $20 on his car.) “I guess the Lord can heal the body but can’t do anything about cavities,” I said to him, smiling. “The Lord’s even been known to fix bad teeth,” he said, smiling back.

Floyd Cruse compares with Billy Graham and Oral Roberts the way those

cheeseburger and station wagon bands I mentioned earlier compare with Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. He’ll never breakfast with the President of the United States or appear on the Johnny Carson Show. But he’s a fairly typical representative of an old and continuing tradition.

While waiting for the preacher to return from the dentist’s I talked with Bonnie Leighton, physically a young Mama Cass in a blond ponytail and a yellow dress, who told me that she had been taken to church for the first time the day she was born. She comes from Benton^ NB, a place so small that Bath with its population of 800 must have seemed like a town to her. She had worked with the Reverend at earlier services near Woodstock, NB, and was going to work with him again in St. Stephen, NB. Her ambition was to marry a young evangelist and continue in the Lord’s work. Her favorite singer was Charley Pride, the only black man ever to make it big as a country and western singer. She hoped to make a record.

Had she ever doubted the truth of the faith into which she was born? “Never,” she said, looking at me as if I had asked her if she had ever doubted that fire was hot and ice was cold. “But you’re only

18,” I said. “Yours is the generation that’s supposed to be questioning its parents’ values.”

“But what my parents believe is the truth,” she said.

Quite likely she had never in her life talked with anyone who doubted that protestant fundamentalism was God’s eternal and immutable law for the universe. She had grown up in an environment where there were saints and sinners, but no skeptics. Such sinners as she might have known were not rebels against God but merely God’s disobedient children who would no more have disputed with the saints than the small child I saw in the tent would have thought to dispute its mother’s right to strike it. “I know that Jesus saves,” she said, and her facial expression added: “Surely there can’t be anybody anywhere dumb enough to doubt that. You must be kidding me.”

“Do you believe in a literal hell of fire and brimstone?” I said, knowing in advance that the answer would be, “Of course,” and another stare of astonishment. “What about non-Christians — Buddhists, Hindus and Moslems, for instance — do you think they’ll burn forever in hell just because they don’t believe as you do?”

“They throw babies into furnaces,” she said, beginning to pout a bit as though she were getting a little impatient with this line of questioning.

“What?”

“Those people you’re talking about, those heathens in India, they throw babies into furnaces.”

“Oh, come on now. Who told you that?”

“I don’t remember exactly. It was a woman who had been a missionary. But you must of heard about it. Everybody has.” For the first time she looks a bit uncomfortable. “You’d better ask Brother Cruse about things like that.”

“Okay. But what do you think about the charge that fundamentalists preach a pie-in-the-sky gospel? Here in the Maritimes, for instance, we have some of the poorest people in Canada. Some of them come to your services. And you tell them to forget about being poor and not having a job . . .”

“If anybody won’t work they should be allowed to starve. That’s what I think.”

“Gosh, isn’t that awfully un-Christian?”

“Huh?”

“Un-Christian. Isn’t it un-Christian to say that people should be allowed to starve?”

She laughed, utterly sure of herself again. “Now I know that you’re kidding,” she said. “I thought so before but now I’m sure of it.”

“How come?”

“You couldn’t be serious in saying continued on page 74

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that I’m un-Christian. Why, I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior when I was 11 years old.” And she smiled at me benignly, pleased with herself for having found me out.

It’s too bad there can’t be a unit of measurement to denote the metaphysical distance between places. Following the Trans-Canada Highway north from Fredericton it’s less than 100 miles to Bath, but in another and truer sense the distance between these two points is greater than that between Fredericton and Vancouver. While you’re in Bath the rest of the world becomes more and more unreal, and when you leave it’s as if Bath existed only in your imagination. The illusion is intensified by the fact that it’s one of those villages in which literally nothing ever seems to change. You drive north on its tree-lined main street, with the St. John River on your left and a row of old but impermanent-looking white wooden buildings on your right, and it’s easy to imagine that everyone you see from your car window stood in precisely the same spot, doing exactly the same thing, 10 years ago. The two young men whose heads looked naked in their short back and sides haircuts, and who wear the matching green work shirts and pants listed in mail order catalogues as bus drivers’ uniforms, their large but doubtless almost empty wallets protruding from their hip pockets and fastened to their belts by chains — surely they were leaning against the wall of that same service station, drinking from those same bottles of Coca-Cola a decade ago and will still be leaning there, drinking from those same bottles, a decade from now; and for all of those 20 years, and more, they’ll have repeated the same conversation, over and over, in which one of them says, “How’s she goin’, Jack?” and the other answers, “Fm hangin’ ’er tough, Billy, I’m hangin’ ’er tough.”

Tonight as I leave Bath and drive through Bristol and East Florenceville toward the Trans-Canada Highway, the fog rising from the river is so impenetrable that I keep the speedometer down to about 20 miles per hour. As I try to sort out and organize the events of the day, I decide that the first thing I’ll do when I get home is telephone my mad Italian-Australian friend Leo Ferrari, erstwhile butler to Cyrus Eaton and incumbent president of the Flat Earth Society of Canada, an authority on St. Augustine, to whom he refers affectionately as “the old guy,” who makes mead and drinks it like a Viking, stands on his head, dances the sword dance, does surrealistic oil paintings, sings in Gaelic and German, laughs at his own jokes and the jokes of others until he falls off his chair and rolls on the floor, and knows damned wel’ that life is worth living. ■