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Ann Browning

© 2002

Creative writing:

Deacon Blues
(A Work in Progress)

August 1980.
I put on my headphones and listen to Steely Dan. I’m on a cross-country Greyhound bus trip from Minnesota to Reedley, a small town in the San Joaquin Valley of California with my friend Becky Klassen. We’re seventeen.

Becky Klassen (if you’re Mennonite you would recognize the Mennonite name) is a Mennonite but a suburban Mennonite. Her Sicilian looks—black, downy moustache, thick black hair, deep tan skin—give away her adopted identity in relation to her very white-skinned parents who believe that even though they were suburban Mennonites (and even though it is 1980) Becky must do missionary relief work to become a full adult member of the church body. The pictures in the Mennonite Relief Services pamphlet showed opportunity for spiritual redemption through relief work in none other than sunny California (with side trips to the ocean and mountains!) for high school girls and boys. Becky’s parents just left this piece of bait out on the kitchen table and Becky bit. She brought the pamphlet to Jay’s Pizza and said all I’d have to pay for was a bus ticket out and back—cheap in those days. She knew me too well—I was always up for adventure—and besides, she knew this scheme had all the elements of what my parents couldn’t say no to: religious service, overseas relief and, the pamphlet assured, chaperones: one for the boys and one for the girls.

Since I was raised suburban Catholic and was soon on my way to being an ex-Catholic, my parents were continually dismayed at my increasing interest in the religions of my friends’ families, and my increasing disinterest in my own. My answer to that was a request for a Catholic relief project in sunny California (of which there were exactly none) and that was that. I was going to be with the Mennonites, captured, for three weeks.

Up until the trip, I’d been a golden student, straight As, accelerated academics, a full mouth of braces sparkling in the limelight of school plays, musicals, choir concerts, piano lessons, a bunch of clubs. The Mennonite California experience was like a bridge to the realization that to be seventeen and female in a lower-middle class first ring suburban high school, you were screwed. Like the Janis Ian song, “at seventeen I learned the truth.”

So here we are on the bus at the onset of this adventure guaranteed to win us spiritual points, my headphones blaring Steely Dan, my mouthing the words (all to prophetic at this point) “they gotta name for the winners of the world, I wanna name when I lose.” Because I could feel it already, this trip was doomed to be a strange, darn and twisted experience across an America that was on the verge of electing Ronald Reagan, an America filled with pockets of cults tucked away in the mountains around dry California towns like Reedley, when poor white kids went to those cults, or to the KKK, to find a place to belong, a tribal affiliation.

We were off to understand what the word redneck really meant when the rednecks used words like “wetback” and watched films about the mark of the beast and the horses of the apocalypse in pristine whitewashed Mennonite church basements.