The Vanishing of Belief


My aunt Gloria loved to tell the story about my baptism. The christening was on a hot June day in 1952. Her husband was my godfather. He wore Marine officer whites and a smile. Uncle Jack was glad to be back from Korea. The priest recited the rites and my aunt said as soon as he mentioned Satan that I started bawling like I was possessed by the Devil.

“You didn’t stop crying until you were out of the church.”

My aunt was a good Catholic as was my mother. They sent their children to Our Lady of the Foothills to educate us in the Ways of the Church and I had entertained an avocation for the priesthood until my best friend drowned in Lake Sebago. Chaney was a good boy. No god should have let him die, however my friend had perished without any divine assistance and I rejected the existence of god from that day on.

I was 8.

I refrained from telling my mother about this apostasy. She would have been devastated by my atheism and I acceded to her wishes that I serve as an altar boy at our local church.

“Who knows? Maybe one day you’ll be a priest like your uncle.” The priesthood was a favored destination for second sons.

“Maybe one day.”

But there was no chance that I would regain my faith. My soul was lost to heaven and hell. My godless spirituality was a secret to friends and family for years, since most Americans couldn’t get their head around the idea of life without religion. Non-believers were considered heretics to be avoided by the faithful until President Obama recognized non-believers in this inauguration speech.

We were on the map and neither the Vatican nor the Baptist ministry could deny our presence in the modern world. Our numbers are estimated to be about 15% of the US population and our ranks are growing so fast that the Vatican has proposed a meeting in Paris between believers and non-believers, although I can’t see any reason for dialogue with our persecutors.

They can go their way and I will go mine.

A man at peace with the cosmos.

We are not alone.

We are together.

Humans and the stars.

For I was only crying at the Baptism because I was rejecting not only Satan and all his deeds, but god and his too.

THE SMELL OF MOONSHINE by Peter Nolan Smith

Back in the late 50s my Irish grandmother took my older brother and me for a monthly visit to downtown Boston. We left from her house in Jamaica Plains and rode the trolley into Boylston Street. The El from Forest Hills to Washington Street was quicker, but Nana preferred the trolley. My late grandfather had driven them out of Forest Hills. Once on Washington Street she headed to St. Anthony’s Shrine for a ritual of lighting candles. The priest on duty heard her confessions. Her penance was five Hail Mary’s and one Our Father. Nana asked if we had been good boys. We nodded yes. At six and seven Frunka and I were too young to have broken any of the serious Commandments, especially since my childhood atheism was a secret to my family and friends.

Next stop was WT Grant for hot dogs and then we went over to the Orpheum Theater.

Nana liked handsome movie stars and she was particularly partial to Robert Mitchum. THUNDER ROAD was a hit in May 1958. The actor played a Korea war veteran running moonshine through the hills of Kentucky. A hot-rodded 1951 Ford, illegal whiskey, hillbilly gangsters, and a rocking title song.

“Don’t tell your mother about us seeing this movie.” Her accent was pure County Mayo.

“No, Nana.”

Neither of us were brought up to be rat finks.

We sat in the darkened theater and heard the rocking title song.

BALLAD OF THUNDER ROAD

And there was thunder, thunder over Thunder Road
Thunder was his engine, and white lightning was his load
There was moonshine, moonshine to quench the Devil’s thirst
The law they swore they’d get him, but the Devil got him first.

We left the theater singing the chorus. Nana warned us not to sing it in front of my mother.

“She doesn’t like whiskey.”

Years later I heard from my aunt that Nana had brewed whiskey and beer during Prohibition. Our Irish blood was true to our devotion to spirits. My juvenile encounters with alcohol were restricted to beer bought by the town bum, Red Tate, and hard liquor siphoned from our parents’ bottles. My next door neighbor and I rationalized this abasement of vodka saved the adults from drunken misbehavior.

Moonshine remained beyond our reach.

Only white trash drank ‘busthead’.

In 1970 I was attending BC. My college friends from the South extolled the virtues of ‘popskull’. Al Wincent and Hank Watson drove taxi together for Checker Cab in Boston. We were hippies, but liked to finish the night’s work waiting for the go-go dancers from the Combat Zone.

One night a blonde from Tennessee invited us to her apartment in the South End. We drank distilled alcohol from a jug. Its strength content was near-lethal, but Al slurred, “It might kick you in the head, but it doesn’t have the light. I can’t explain something you can’t touch unless it’s in your hands. Once you taste it, nothing else will taste like it.”

I accepted his explanation and in the summer of 1971 I hitchhiked to Virginia from Boston. The trip took 7 hours from Mass. Ave. to the Tap o Keg in Georgetown. Al was waiting for me. It was almost 1am, but the bars along Wisconsin Avenue stayed open until 4. The southern girls were friendly to long-hairs. A red-headed coed from hill country knew where to get some ‘shine. Her name was Billy.

Al made a call from the payphone and twenty minutes later we met a thick-tongued grit in a alley. He was standing next to a rusted Ford pick-up.

“You ain’t no revenuer?” His accent was Appalachian. He smelled like his burly body had been dipped in medicine. A .38 was in his waist.

“Jimbo, put away that gun. He ain’t no police.” Billy laughed at his accusation, but I understood his concern. The federal government frowned on the sale of untaxed alcohol.

“$15 for three.” Jimbo pulled a tarp off a crate in the flatbed loaded with clear glass jars. Al cracked one open.

“Smells like good shine. Watch.” Al lit a match to the liquid. A blue flame. “Good color. Won’t make you go blind.”

“That’s right.” Jimbo finished the transaction with the speed of a snake needing to take a piss. He drove away with a rumble. The V-8 under the hood was not stock.

“Here’s to ‘shine.” Al chugged a sip. His face went sour and then his body shuddered with spasms to every muscle. “Now that’s ‘shine.”

He handed me the open jar. I offered some to Billy. She waved it away.

“Ladies don’t drink ‘shine. It makes them crazy. You go right ahead.”

I brought the jar to my lips. Mountain Dew wasn’t made for sipping. I pour a good swallow down my gullet. White lightning splashed down my gullet and flashed against my spine.

“Now I understand.”

“I thought you would.” Al toasted my conversion to ‘shine.

Billy accompanied us through the night. She felt responsible for the two of us. The last thing I remembered was singing the chorus to THUNDER ROAD over and over until it faded to a mumbled lullaby. Morning came ten hours too early. I was in a strange bed in a woman’s room.

Al lay on the floor.

“How you feeling?” Billy lay next to me. She was older than us by a few years. 22 to our 19.

“Okay.” My hangover was survivable and I sat up in bed. There were no spins. “Did we drink it all?”

“Every last drop.” She pointed to the empty jar by Al. He looked comfortable in that position. “Your friend made sure of that. You feel like some breakfast.”

“Yeah, that sounds good.”

How about some bacon, fried eggs, and grits.”

A southern wake-up dish.

“Sounds even better.”

I was south of the Mason-Dixon line. My breath tasted of ‘shine. Billy’s accent was a drawl. Moonshine was good, then again I always knew it was, because like my Nana I liked Robert Mitchum too and he was a good ole boy.

To hear THUNDER ROAD by Robert Mitchum, please go to this URL;

Moonshine, Masturbation, and Eclipses By Peter Nolan Smith


Children are cruel by nature. Young boys and girls instinctively bully the weak and ridicule the infirm. There was nothing funnier than a cheap trick at the cost of a poor unfortunate in keeping with the ageless adage, “Comedy is when a beggar falls down the stairs. Tragedy is when a duchess does.”

In the early 60s our teachers and parents offered the blind/deaf/mute idol Helen Keller as an icon of individual triumph. Anne Bancroft won the Academy Award for her portrayal of the teacher who brings light to a young Alabaman girl without the power to speak, hear, or see in THE MIRACLE WORKER .

It didn’t take long for Helen Keller jokes to hit the grade school circuit.

How did Helen Keller’s parents punish her?

They moved the furniture.

Her triple affliction gave healthy children comfort that they were normal, however our parents and teachers swiftly instilled a new fear in callous youth unafraid of the Devil.

At age ten my sins were small; mostly disobeying my parents and telling lies. The priest in the confessional announced my penance in a hushed voice, “Ten Hail Marys and two Our Fathers.”

These prayers cleansed the black spots from my soul, however my innocence was soon challenged by a deadly scourge signaled by waking in the middle of the night with pajamas soaked by a sticky substance. This oddity was a terrible embarrassment for a 12 year-old.

Bed-wetting was for babies.

I hid my shameful affliction by washing my PJs the next morning.

My father was dumbfounded by my obsession with clean bedwear.

“You’re pissing in his bed,” my older brother kidded me about a regression to infantilism.

“No, I’m not.” I threatened him with a beating. I was taller by two inches.

“I’ve seen the wet spot.”

I didn’t know how to handle my shame, until my best friend Chuckie Manzi solved the mystery by opening the Boy Scout Handbook to a small section entitled NOCTURNAL EMISSIONS.

“It’s when your balls are too loaded with semen and you shot a load without even knowing it.”

“That’s not what they say in the Handbook.” I showed him the text.

“At times the glands discharge part of their secretions through the sex organ during sleep. This process is called a nocturnal emission or a “wet dream”. It is perfectly natural and healthy and a sign that nature has taken care of the situation in its own manner.

“There you have it, even the Boy Scouts say it’s normal.”

Normal was important to us. No one wanted to be weird.

I read more from the Handbook, which stated that there are boys who do not let nature have its own way with them but cause emissions themselves. This may do no physical harm, but may cause them to worry.

Any real boy knows that anything that causes him to worry should be avoided or overcome. If anything like this worries you, this is not unusual – just about all boys have the same problem. Seek the correct answer to any question which bothers you about your development from boy to man. But be sure to get your information from reliable sources – your parents, your physician, your spiritual adviser.

“I’m not talking to the priest or my parents about this.”

Chuckie shook his head.

“Keep your confession to the normal and never tell the priest about that.”

“Why not?”

“Because some of them are not right.”

By ‘not right’ Chuckie meant that they liked to touch boys. None of our parish priests were that way, but I limited my confession to swearing and disobeying my parents, even after I osmotically learned how to effect nocturnal emissions.

No boys told the priests about touching themselves after dark, for masturbation was a mortal sin threatening the immortal soul.

For the Church sex was strictly for procreation. Pleasure in the act disrupted the natural order of life and the priests warned their young male parishioners that wasting the holy seed of life endangered the sense of sight.

“You could go blind or suffer from effeminacy.”

The man across the street from my parents’ house was queer. Arthur flew jets for Eastern Airlines. His boyfriend, Joe, coached football. Chuckie and I suspected them of masturbating each other.

“It’s what queers do, isn’t it?”

“How should I know.”

That spring the mystery of men with men was solved by the discovery of rotting stroke books in the woods of the Blue Hills. Queers did everything married couples did in bed and more according to the moldy paperbacks titled ‘JOCKS ON FIRE’ or ‘COCK-MAD COACHES’. I whacked off to pages 75-78 of THE ITCH about seven hundred times without losing my eyesight, although my sight worsened throughout the end of grammar school.

My seat was moved to the front of the class. I got good grades. Bullies didn’t like smart kids with glasses. The beatings were painful, but at least I hadn’t had my eyes plucked from their sockets like Tyrone Power in PRINCE OF FOXES. Orson Welles played Cesare Borgia.

Blind teenagers were sent to a special school for the blind, deaf, and dumb. The nuns taught them how to live in the normal world. People said those school were more special for other reasons and none of them good.

In high school the brothers were hip to drugs. The vice-principal held an assembly to inform us of the danger of looking into the sun. The guest speaker was an acid head who had stared into the sun during a total eclipse.

“All I can see is the sun. Nothing but the sun.”

I used my savings to buy prescribed sunglasses. Eclipses were rarely announced on teenage TV. Being an ex-Boy Scout I had been trained to ‘be prepared’, plus Ray-Bans were the height of style in the 1960s.

Girls thought that they were cool. The bullies stopped hurting me. They liked the girls who liked my glasses. The nuns tried to stop me from wearing them in classes. My optometrist said I had sensitive eyes.

Doctor Shaw wasn’t scared of the nuns. He was Jewish.

The last threat to my eyes was moonshine.

Two year ago I bought a gallon from a Mississippian hanging around Frank’s Lounge in Fort Greene. I tried a few sips of Homer’s concoction and the corn mash burned a light in my stomach. A match to a spoon filled with the illegal alcohol ignited a blue blaze. This meant the ‘shine was clean.

A yellow fire was cause for caution, for rotgut moonshine can blind or kill the unsuspecting, mostly if the manufacturer isn’t too tidy with his contraptions such as a car radiator, which offers a deadly concoction of lead and anti-freeze.

A high-minded distiller will 86 the ‘foreshot’ of the batch i.e. the first offering from the still. After that it’s white-line fever and I see the light.

And I still suffer from nocturnal emissions.

It’s only natural.

Not Hot LP Covers

As a young boy in the 60s LP covers were hot as a Playboy centerfold.

Herb Alpert stuck a blow for overt sexuality with the creamy cover of THE TASTE OF HONEY.

Not all LPs were the same.

Show us that love.

Strangely the Gap Band’s DROPPED A BOMB ON ME was not covered on this long-playing record.

Amazing what gets on vinyl.

To hear THE TASTE OF HONEY please go to the following URL

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z_KDPUTyDyQ

ROADS OF THE FLYOVER Chapter 1 by Peter Nolan Smith

The Old crew met at Miguel Abreau’s Gallery on Orchard Street to honor Brock Dundee’s documentary about Afghanistan for the UK MoD. The Scot had flown in helicopters to battle sites and crossed the mountains on foot with the assassins of the SAS. At dinner Dannatt joked that his old friend was a spy.

“Spy?” Brock gave the art critic a steely squint.

Dundee was a Scot same as everyone employed at MI6, including James Bond, although according to my sources Brock worked for no one.

For the rest of the night Dannatt’s jokes were at everyone’s expense other than the happy Scot. Dannatt knew his place in the world. He was not a Celt.

Brock was in an expansive mood. He had money in his pocket. His wife Joanna was selling her paintings and his kids were healthy.

“It’s nice to be someplace you can drink a beer without having to worry about a bullet chaser.” Afghanistan wasn’t a joke and Brock asked, “You?”

I haven’t seen my kids in months.” They were on the other side of the world like their mother. “I’m working on 47th Street.”

“How’s that going?” Brock was familiar with my gig in the diamond district.

I was the shabbath goy.

“I’ve had better years.”

That bad?”

“Sometimes worse, but I’m working on a million-dollar ruby sale.” I had met the client in January. She loved the 6-carat pigeon-blood red ruby from Burma. Her husband was fighting for a better price.

“And?”

“My boss thinks it’s a dead deal.”

And is it?”

Manny had little faith in miracles, but miracles were my speciality.

“I’ll surprise everyone.”

“I know.” Brock was familiar with my strengths as well as my weaknesses.

“At least I’m taking care of my kids.”

Supporting four children were a struggle, but one which I fought with honor.

“How’d you like to take a trip?”

“Where?” I hoping to hear Thailand.

“Chicago-St. Louis-Kansas City-Iowa City-Minneapolis-Chicago.” Brock was serious. “I’m shooting a film about Barry Flanagan.

“The Irish sculptor? Doesn’t he do rabbits?”

“Not rabbits, hares,” Brock explained further that the sculptor was very sick. His project was to film Barry’s sculptures around the USA and show them to the artist in Ibiza.

“Before he dies.”

“Of what?”

“Motor neuron disease.”

“Shit.” The great Yankee first baseball had died of a similar disease.

“Not a good way to go.”

“Is there any?”

I shook my head and asked the Scot, “Why do you need me?”

“Because I can’t drive.” Brock shrugged with a wry grin.

“No?” Every spy in the world could drive a car.

Especially James Bond.

“Never have, so I’ll pay you $1500 plus expenses to be my getaway driver.”

“Count me in.” I loved road trips.

Two weeks later I met Brock at his midtown hotel. He had been drinking most of the morning.

“I left Kabul two days ago.”

It was a hard town and even more so because it had been a paradise for the hippies with its hashish and tribal life.

This times were gone and gone for good for a long time.

“Well, you’re back now.” I could smell the Khyber Pass on him. I paid the bar bill. The bartender said, “You be careful. The airlines might not let him on the plane.”

“He’ll be fine.”

I was Irish. We believed in good luck.

Brock slept throughout the taxi ride to JFK.

We hit the Sushi Bar at the Jet Blue Terminal for raw tuna and cold saki.

“I could use a little pick-me-up.”

I felt that I was the minder for Kingsley Amis. Afghanistan had obviously been worse this trip and I kept pace with Brock.

I had a reputation for drink too.

An hour later Jet Blue called our flight. Brock and I boarded the overcrowded 737. I opted for the window seat. Brock lifted his bag into the overhead compartment. The chubby steward closed the door on my friend’s fingers.

“Ouch.”

Brock winced in pain.

The steward regarded Brock and declared with religious disdain, “You’re drunk and you’re not flying to Chicago on this plane.”

He marched us to the front of the plane. The pilot and co-pilot stood at the door. We were not 9/11 terrorists and I explained to the pilot that Brock had returned from Afghanistan.

“Back in the 90s he had traveled with the Mujahideen. He’s not Army.”

“Oh.” The pilot caught my drift.

In 1842 only one British soldier escaped the fall of Kabul.

The army had numbered 15,000.

I couldn’t say what Brock had been doing over there, but I believed that he had been making a film. I knew his protectress the honorable Alice. We were all good friends.

The pilot bought the story, because it was true.

“We’ll put you on a flight for tomorrow morning.”

I thanked him and ordered Brock not to say a word.

Stranded at JFK we booked into the Ramada Plaza. The hotel had fallen on hard times, but the bar was filled with Deadheads migrating from the legendary band’s New York stand to the next gig in the South. We hung out with two guys from California. They were both named Steve. They didn’t care that Jerry Garcia was dead.

“The Dead will never be dead.”

We drank to the souls of Jerry Garcia and Pigpen.

The bartender cued up DARK STAR and ST. STEPHEN.

It was a good night to stranded at the Ramada

Te next morning Brock and I caught the early flight. The flight attendants showed us to our seats.

Two hours later we hired the rented car at O’Hare. I drove on the Interstate. I-70 took us directly to St. Louis. The truck traffic on the Interstate was a horror.

“You mind, if you take back roads?”

“That’s why you’re here. To drive. This film is as much about the trip as it is the sculpture. Barry’s dying. He wants to see the world.”

“Then I’ll show him the Fly-Over.”

A million square miles of corn, wheat, and soy on flat plains.

“Fly-Over?” Brock was unfamiliar with the term.

“It’s what people from LA and New York call the land under them on Trans-continental flights.

I got off the highway to enter a world forgotten by all.

“Two hundred years ago no one traveled on roads. The rivers took them south to New Orleans. The Mississippi, the Illinois, the Missouri and many others.”

“America,” Brock said the word, as if it were holy.

We drove south without seeing any red lights.

Joliet was on the Des Plaines River. We passed the Correctional Institute, which seemed to be the only thriving business in town.

“They filmed THE BLUES BROTHERS here.” Brock was a film buff.

“The opening scene.”

“The classics.”

After crossing the river at West Jackson, we passed under I-80 on the way to Peoria. There was little traffic along the river road.

The Illinois River valley was wide.

Once hundreds of ships plied the river’s muddy current.

Today Peoria was a ghost town of abandoned factories.

Its steel was turning to rust.

The Caterpillar factory was working a single shift.

Someone somewhere still had money for gas and I stepped on the accelerator to get us out of town.

The farmlands were desolate through Illinois.

We arrived in St. Louis.

There wasn’t much left of the city on the Mississippi.

Brock said, “St. Louis is a zombie movie backdrop.”

We opted against staying at the downtown hotel and drove to a suburban motel not far from the Cahokia Indian Mounds.

Over ten thousand people had lived here in the 1400s.

It had been bigger than London.

I had slept atop the ancient monuments in 1972 and had seen a single ghost.

It had been a ghost town.

That night Brock and I shared a room. The Flanagan family was paying us a per diem. We went down to the bar for happy hour.

On my third margharita my cell rang.

My wife Mam was calling from Sriracha in Thailand. My son Fenway was sick. I had to wire money. The only Western Union was in East St. Louis. I beelined into a dark neighborhood of abandoned buildings and empty lots and wired $150 express.

On the way back to motel a highway cop stopped me on the highway. The trooper said that I washed been speeding and I explained my story about sending my sick son money via Western Union. The receipt helped. He believed me and let me go. I was a lucky drunk.

In the morning we topped the rental car with gas and drove to the Canokia Indian Mounds.

“These were the largest structures in North America until the 1900s.” Canokia’s population had been greater than any 13th Century city in Europe. “I once camped on the top of that mound.”

“Alone?”

“No, I was with a Texas insect professor. His van had been packed with spiders. Sleeping under the stars seemed safer.” It had been quiet that night.

Today I-70 generated a constant grind of traffic.

Brock and I climbed the hundred-foot high earthen pyramid. The Mississippi shone in the distance. Tall trees blotted out most of the present.

“It could almost be any time, if you shut your ears.” Brock filmed our surroundings.

The highway was closer than I remembered from 1972.

Five miles down the road a rival mound had ben constructed from garbage.

No one was allowed to climb on garbage dump and we rode over the Mississippi into St. Louis.

“It looks different in the day.” Brock focused on the Arch.

“St. Louis was once the fourth largest city in the USA.”

“And now?”

“58th.” I had read that information online at the motel.

In 1996 Barry Flanagan had erected the Nijinsky Hare next to the new St. Louis Hockey Arena. I recounted Bobby Orr’s goal against the Blues to Brock. I doubted the Checkerdome’s replacement had a photo of that iconic goal.

“What do you think of the Hare?” Brock broke out his camera. He was shooting commando-style without a permit.

“The Hare is good for all.” I told myself that I had to read something about these statues.

Brock interviewed workers and commuters coming off the trolley.

Everyone liked the Hare.

After leaving the Gateway City we meandered up the Mississippi. The river was lapping over the banks. Floods were a serious business along the Father of All Waters.

This was Mark Twain land.

“Do you have any friends out in the Fly-Over?” Brock was speaking to me. I was the only person in the car.

“In Kansas City and Iowa.”

“Are you going to see them?”

“I guess.” I hadn’t seen Ray and Rockford in years. “They’ll give you another view of America.”

“Barry will like that.”

And me too.

I turned west at Louisiana and crossed back the river into Missouri on the Champ Clark Bridge. The five-span truss bridge ran high over the Mississippi for over 2000 feet.

“Good-bye, Illinois,” said Brock, filming our passage.

“And hello Missouri.” It was a second time in the Show Me State today.

We were on our way to Kansas City and according to Wilbert Harrison, “They had a lot of pretty girls there.”

And one of Barry’s hares too.