Posted by: M. J. Arcangelini | September 6, 2009

JESUS IN A HIPPIE VAN (1972)

We were still a long way from Baltimore and now it was raining and getting dark.

Tim and I were standing in front of a gas station alongside a two lane blacktop road in rural Virginia. We had no clear idea where we were. One rain poncho between us. We were taking turns hitchhiking – one of us in the poncho on the shoulder of the road. The other hanging out with the backpacks in the gas station warmth, trying to dry out.

The gas station was closing.

Our moods were getting darker with the day. Colder and darker and wetter.

We huddled together under the single rain poncho. Our packs tenting it out so that the rain, being driven at an angle by a wind which had arisen out of nowhere, soaked our pant legs all the way up to where the packs sat at the top of our butts. One arm would poke out of the army green rubberized poncho, a hopeful thumb jabbing the air, anytime a set of headlights would approach.

I could feel ticks crawling across my skin underneath the clothes. We’d slept the night before in the woods off the side of a freeway in North Carolina. The ticks, so many of them, were hitching rides with the hitchhikers.

We were beginning to curse the friendly old couple who bought us ice cream cones and then dropped us off here in Middle-of-Nowhere, Virginia. Wet, cold, dark Middle-of-Nowhere, Virginia. A secondary highway, they’d said, but well-traveled. You boys shouldn’t have any trouble catching a ride from here. Looking at the dark wet woods around us, the thinning traffic. Wishing we’d stayed on the freeway where at least the gas stations stayed open all night.

One good thing – with the coming of the rain the mosquitos high-tailed it back to where ever they go to keep their wings dry.

We saw the VW microbus at the same time – a hippie van, if we were lucky. We both stuck thumbs out for this, praying what prayers the highway had taught us. As it got closer it didn’t seem to be slowing down at all. They had to have seen us by now. We threw back the poncho to flap in the wind so the driver, in the light from the closed gas station, could see our wet hippie attire and Tim’s long hair.

The van wove a bit back and forth between the lines of the road but still didn’t seem to be slowing. Then it jerked and swerved our way, causing us to skitter backwards into a puddle as the van veered toward us nearly sideways. The passenger side tires slid off the pavement into the mud. We could feel the close wind of its passing before it jumped all the way back onto pavement and kept going.

But not for long. We could almost hear the brakes applied as the van skidded, fish-tailing down the road, and finally slid, half off the pavement and stopped about a block’s length away. Mixed with the sounds of the rain falling through the trees, was the unmistakable flopping of the windshield wipers, whooshing back and forth like a rubbery metronome. The passenger side tires had dug a deep rut in the soft mud of the shoulder and sunk into it up to the rims.

The van sat there idling. Smoke churning out the exhaust.

We stood in the rain looking at it. Neither of us really sure if it had stopped for us or if the drunken driver had finally passed out. Rain was running down our faces into our eyes; dripping off our moustaches and chins

The passenger door opened. A young woman got out, not much more than a girl really. She looked back at us, shivering in the rain. You boys want a ride or not? she called out.

That was all it took. The erratic driving we’d just witnessed went right out of mind and we were running through the night rain toward that hippie van dream.

As we approached, the woman slid open the side door and got into the back. Tim, visions of wild, mobile hippie sex spilling out of his eyes, got in behind her. Handing my pack to him just before the door closed, I climbed into the front seat with the driver.

Welcome! The driver said. You boys look wet enough, that’s for sure.

I looked around and into the back to see what kind of situation we’d gotten ourselves into. It was a hippie van alright, and there was three long-haired hippies inside to prove it. The interior, what I could see of it in the moving light of passing cars, had been painted in bright primary swirls. There was some requisite psychedelia on display: a mattress with tie-die sheets; the remnants of a beaded curtain between the front seat and the back; and a homemade god’s eye hanging from the rearview mirror.

OK, said the driver, looking at me. Lets see if we can get out of here. Then, projecting his voice toward his compatriots in the back, he said: Might need another one of those miracles to get this old van back onto solid road. They laughed, knowingly. Tim and I shrugged to each other and started to settle in.

He put it in gear and gunned it. After a few tries, rocking back and forth, the one rear wheel that was on the road grabbed at the macadam. We lurched forward onto the roadway proper and straight across the center line into the path of something with awfully big, blinding lights.

Praise the Lord! exclaimed the driver, as he swerved out of the way of oncoming traffic and back into our lane. I was searching for a seatbelt without success.

Another miracle! called out the woman in the back.

Praise Jesus! all three of them exclaimed, slightly out of sync. I caught a glance at Tim in a passing headlight and saw the look on his face; the same horror I was feeling. They were hippies alright, but they were that most dread of sub-species: Jesus freak hippies. There would be no pot smoking and easy sex on this ride.

And they were going all the way to New York City, right through Baltimore. So I looked out the window at the increasingly stormy night passing by on the other side of the glass, gritted my teeth and asked myself how long could this ride really last anyway?

The three of them never stopped talking – actually preaching was closer to the truth. They seemed inexhaustible. At first I was lucky, I had only the driver’s monologue to deal with. Tim had two of them working him over in the back, tag-team style. The driver started out by bringing me up to date on the reason for their travels.

The story was that they all lived in a Jesus commune somewhere in Georgia and the day before they picked us up the driver had a vision: Jesus was sending them to New York City on a mission. While vague on what the mission was, he expressed no doubt that reason would be revealed once they got there. But none of that was the first miracle they had referred to; such visions were apparently commonplace at the commune.

When the Lord told them to go to New York there were no working vehicles available, so they turned to the van. It had been driven there several years before on its last legs and died a short stretch from the gate. No one knew what was wrong with it. They just pushed it onto the property and left it to rust behind the barn, where weeds quickly grew around and within it. Critters from the woods were known to hang out in the old van, and more than a few cats had birthed more than a few liters of feral ferocity within its relatively safe confines.

The three of them set to cleaning it up. First they cleared space around it so it could be pushed into the driveway. There they emptied it and scrubbed it, inside and out til the stink of critter piss could no longer offend a Christian nose. They loaded an old mattress into the back, piled on blankets and what few belongings they might need for their mission.

That night the entire commune gathered into a circle around the decrepit vehicle, held hands and prayed. They poured cans of gas into the tank and primed the engine. Then the driver got behind the wheel, pumped the gas pedal a few times and turned the key, which had been sitting in the ignition for years waiting for that moment.

The initial grinding of the starter was enough to bring tears to a mechanic’s eyes – at least the battery had some kind of juice. Then, with a cough of smoke out the tail pipe, the engine started. The van idled fast for awhile before catching its breath and settling into a nice even rhythm.

That was the first miracle. Getting out of the mud was the second, though lesser, miracle. Now they had their sights set on Tim and I, whose conversions were to be miracles three and four.

As I listened to him, (and what else was there to do except listen to him?) I reluctantly found myself admiring his faith and feeling somewhat envious of the certainties that drove his life. How wonderful to be so sure of one’s position in the universe. How good it must feel to have someone, something, directing your every move and holding all the answers – like being in a particularly healthy parent/child relationship that never ends. Like being a child with none of the anxieties or doubts that plagued even my budding, delayed-as-long-as-possible entry into adulthood.

The driver continued, explained to me that Jesus had placed Tim and I on that highway to be a part of His plan for the mission in NYC. They still had no idea what that mission was of course, but the chorus of responsive amens from the back voiced unanimous agreement that we were part of it.

I told them we really just needed a ride to my Aunt Mary’s house in Baltimore and that was it, thank you. But any resistance only served to feed their determination, causing them to put increasing energy into our salvation; the fact of which was taken for granted.

After a while the guy from the back began leaning over the front to spell the driver on the preaching, so the driver could take the occasional breath and watch the road. The driver, of course, kept preaching as well. Now I was getting it double barreled, just like Tim had been.

Do not doubt the powers of their persuasion. To a man who was cold, wet, hungry, tired, too far from home, and infested with bloodsucking bugs it all sort of started to make a weird kind of sense. Why else had we found our way to that back road? Why had we changed our minds about going to New Orleans & turned back? Was it really the rednecks brandishing guns and yelling threats out of pickup truck windows that changed our minds? Or was it God himself whispering into our ears? We didn’t seem to have any more idea of what we were doing than they did. Why couldn’t we all have been called for the same purpose? Placed on that road, dispirited and desperate, waiting to be picked up by God’s own messengers?

It seemed plausible.

By this time, I had worked my legs up in front of me so that my feet pushed flat against the edge of the dashboard, bracing for the crash I never stopped expecting. Curled like that in the seat, I tried to relax into their coaching, trying to let it run over me like the rain; unfortunately it seemed like it was starting to sink in.

Just try saying it, the driver gently, persistently urged. It’s easy. Just say: Jesus, come into my heart. And he will come. You’ll feel it. It feels like nothing you’ve ever felt before. Better than the best pot you’ve ever smoked, the best sex, the best wine – none of it compares to the feeling of joy and fulfillment when Jesus enters your heart that first time and you know Him at last.

The stormy darkness outside wasn’t going away any time soon. I closed my eyes and quietly joined them: Jesus, come into my heart. Over and over. A chant. A mantra. At first it was the three of us in unison getting louder and louder. At some point they dropped out of the chant and began feeding me encouragement. Soon it was my voice alone above the others calling out JESUS COME INTO MY HEART. JESUS COME INTO MY HEART. All the others, except for Tim (who had proven more resistant than I), were alternately shouting and whispering Hallelujahs and Amens like psychic punctuation. I was chanting faster and faster until the words blurred into a manic cry of longing and fear. All the frustrations and deprivations of the road were pouring out of my mouth in a sustained cry of anger and need.

Then, through the fog of mania, I heard one of them exclaim:

Thank you, Lord Jesus! He’s speaking in tongues!

That stopped me cold.

When I suddenly stopped chanting, or speaking in tongues as they would have it, they all went silent too, expectant. My breathing was fast and heavy, as though I’d been running. The wind whistled and whined around us. Windshield wipers seemed to slap harder, more insistently at the glass.

I felt the driver put a kindly hand on my shoulder. He asked me: Are ya feelin’ the love of the Lord Jesus within your heart? Are ya?

The first thing my opened eyes fell on was a road sign announcing Aunt Mary’s exit coming up. We were in suburban Baltimore. I had no idea how long I had been chanting like that, but the worried look on Tim’s face told me it must have been substantial.

I looked at the driver, feeling as though we had bonded in some odd way during this drive. Feeling like I owed him, if nothing else, an honest answer.

No. I told him. Don’t feel anything different at all.

The driver put his hand back on the wheel, clearly disappointed. There was general head-shaking disbelief all around. But no one seemed to have much to say. After that, things stayed kind of quiet, except for me directing the driver to my Aunt Mary’s house.

It was very late when we arrived, but Aunt Mary was awake anyway, watching t.v., waiting for Uncle Oscar, a security guard on the graveyard shift, to come home for his middle of the night lunch.

The Jesus hippies asked to use the bathroom and Aunt Mary said that would be fine. But when they started preaching to her in her own kitchen, she shoo-ed them off like flies at a barbeque, telling them she was Catholic and she already knew all about Jesus.

Before they left, the driver put a fraternal hand on my shoulder again and said:

We failed somehow. Not enough faith, I guess. You just keep trying though. One of these days Jesus will fill you up with his love.

Yeah, maybe. But it hasn’t happened yet.

first draft: 05/10/05 – 02/12/06
santa rosa & san francisco, ca
revisions completed: 04/26/06
san francisco, ca

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Responses

  1. If I’ve ever heard this story, I’ve long since forgotten it. ‘Tis a slim line between faith and madness indeed, for those of us who hang around churches or things resembling churches. Some say “reason”, “tradition” and “experience” are every bit as foundational as Scripture. Sounds like this one might be a case of “experience” that done run away with experiencers like a doomed 18 wheeler coming down a mountain with its brakes gone. For others, “reason” and “tradition” are all that is visible; no compassion, no faith, no good works … sometimes I feel slightly guilty because of an inherent (or learned?) inability to feel joy. Not just in this area, but anywhere. Yet, I know the promises of “I will take your heart of stone, and transform it into a heart of flesh”. I know that transformation is real, and at least can feel that. I keep coming back to brother Mike Glenn’s church for doses of common sense. When confronted with dogmatic intolerance, Mike just says “ya’ll don’t do that, that’s wrong.” I keep coming back to one of his primary talking points: “for most folks, we’re gonna be the only Bible they ever see. So you need to do more listening than talking most of the time.” More church people oughtta hear this story.

  2. Your piece truly captures the time period–and one of its oddest aspects of the hippiedom. I wonder if some of us just aren’t hardwired for religion. In times of trouble, we’re as likely to turn to Jesus as to Gilda the Good Witch. By the time I was old enough to understand Christianity, I dumped Jesus as I did the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus–though I must admit at age 13 I fell in love with Baptist boy. I even allowed him to “save” me just to be close to him.


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