Adapted from Andrew Bernstein’s Heart of a Pagan: The Story of Swoop.
One hundred enthusiastic voices quickly spread the word through town–and a number of throats opened to reply with something less than enthusiasm. “He removed the cross from the chapel. Can you imagine?” said one minister appearing as a guest on Ron Zatechka’s show. “Thinking of only yourself on Christmas–and in a church?” asked my Religion professor in class. “Is this an attack on everything held as holy in the heartland?” queried a letter to the editor of the town newspaper.
Swoop’s supporters fired back on all fronts. Fredric Westegaard, editor and publisher of the local paper, The Daily Independent, wrote on the editorial page a fervent defense of the right of every free man to seek passionately after his own personal happiness. Westegaard was a fervent defender of the First Amendment and, more broadly, of an individual’s Constitutional right to pursue his own fulfillment. He was regarded as a pariah, even an apostate by the Valley’s more fanatical residents, because he embraced any cause upholding a man’s right to live as he chose. He made clear in his editiorial that he saw in Swoop’s “Celebrate Self” party a means to advance his own cause. Judging by the increasing crowds at The Troop’s practice sesions, a significant segment of the Valley’s population agreed with him.
I personally felt no compulsion to answer my professor’s criticisms, but Kathryn Gately did not agree.
“Where better to think of yourself?” she asked, her question a challenge to the teacher and the class in general.
Kathy was a Religion major whose red hair flamed only slightly less brightly than her passion for the sublime. Despite her family’s allegiance to the Church, her zeal for God was more catholic than Catholic. She believed that God rewarded only a personal quest for spiritual insight and improvement that questioned every rule mandated by religious authority. More than once I had told her that in the Middle Ages she would have been burned as a heretic — and her impudent smile never sparkled as brightly as when she responded: “But you would have joined me — right? — so I wouldn’t have suffered alone.” Now, I missed the professor’s scholarly response, because my ears still heard only her words, and my eyes saw only the mouth that uttered them.
Swoop ignored all criticism. On Sunday morning he told two hundred championship-crazed fans jammed into the gym that “we are the vanguard of a new faith, the creed worshipping an individual’s own loves,” and that “after we win the title, the members of other churches will see the light.” He proclaimed: “We must recognize that for each of us to embark on a championship crusade in our own lives is to follow the only true religion.” The crowd stamped and whooped throughout The Troop’s ensuing workout.
Others, too, stamped and whooped when The Daily Independent printed Swoop’s words on page two. These included some fellow students on the Hoppo Valley campus. Members of the Campus March for Redemption advertised their Wednesday night meeting, usually reserved for Bible Study, as a response to the threat of what they termed a manic presence in our otherwise Christian community.
I was torn. I wanted to hear what the Bible-thumpers said — wanted to study it as part of my on-going research and because it represented a counterattack against Swoop’s thrust into the Valley. But what did I care about Swoop’s goal to transform the community? I had enough in my life to keep me busy. Sure, I had attended his “Celebrate Self” party — and yes, I had even been temporarily moved — but every time I saw that swaggering creep glance at me with his knowing look — half pitying, half projecting himself as my redeemer — I wasn’t sure if I wanted to kick him in the stomach myself or root for the Bible brigade to sweep him out of town. Or, perhaps, to root for a turn of events very different.
I didn’t go. I stayed in the stacks of the library basement, immersed safely in my studies, determined to ignore the ruckus that his activities had kicked up. But when I overheard Freddie Zender describing it the next day to two of his friends at lunch, I immediately sat down and swamped everybody else out of the conversation with my questions. I realized only later that the creep’s influence extended to me as well.
Freddie’s description was vivid. The meeting was not held in the CMR’s small office in the Student Life Building. Rather, they had received permission to hold it in Marian Auditorium, anticipating a large turnout. In fact, they drew thirty-three students in addition to their fifteen full-time members. The lights were dim in the auditorium, to underscore the somber mood, and the first person to speak was the young leader — whose name turned out to be Rodger Huntford — that had confronted Swoop earlier on the steps of the library.
Huntford was as young as he looked — sixteen to be exact — and had graduated with honors from Christian Calvary Prep in Des Moines. Tall and slender, with light brown hair worn short and close to the ear, he looked like Swoop except for the haircut. Like so many in this burg, he suffered from a severe case of earnestness.
“It’s Christmas,” he said, reaching out past his comrades to the other students who had joined them. “A time to be thinking about love of God and our fellow man, not about ourselves. An all-night reveling in self-indulgence, and in a church, at precisely this time of year is a deliberate and decadent mockery of every principle held dear in our community. We cannot let it go unopposed.”
Huntford’s quiet words were echoed by the message of the other CMR members. Most of the students agreed, and they decided to draft a written statement for College President MacPherson, urging him to look into those extracurricular activities of students that blasphemed against Christian teaching. The school authorities, the group believed, must be a vigilant watchdog regarding the moral character of its student body.
Early Tuesday morning, when dozens of fans lined up outside the gym to attend The Swoop Troop’s extracurricular workouts, they found themselves joined by a silent group of picketers, who filed past them solemnly, hoisting placards that read, “Lost Sheep: Return to the Fold” and “Sin is not an Achievement.” When Swoop approached the gym entrance, they called to him, “The Savior loves you.” He stopped and looked sadly. “But does He love you?”
I tried to ignore the religious hubbub. As a man dedicated to logic, I had no use for the bizarre beliefs and zealous holy wars of those committed to faith. Although I had been raised in rural Iowa, the son of a small-town doctor, I had been frightened by people who talked seriously of burning bushes that spoke and virgins who gave birth. All of the biology, chemistry and physics courses I had excelled in as my high school’s valedictorian, and as a pre-med major my first year at Hoppo Valley, only confirmed my commitment to observation and science, and my rejection of unthinking unbelief. Now the guardians of conventional faith were beginning to stir up the flocks against this brash interloper who preached his own brand of resurrection. I tried to turn away from it, to immerse myself in schoolwork and forget the religious agitation. I succeeded, anyway, in filling my life with the study of secular philosophy.
The turmoil accelerated after the college paper printed a story about the protest, including a photo of the picketers circling the gym. The Daily Independent, which treated Swoop’s attempt to win national gold as the biggest story in recent Hoppo Valley history, picked up the story and ran it in its news section. Dean Pearsall, who had issued a national press release regarding Hoppo Valley’s hold on the conference leadership and its design on the national title, could not be described as happy. His office informed campus groups that picketing would result in the revocation of funding and in their decertification as recognized university organizations.
A pair of irate parents called the Dean’s office, the campus paper printed several letters of protest, and a DJ on college radio labeled the Dean’s act an un-American suppression of free speech. When Pastor Buttle of the First Episcopal Church called for student groups to picket not the basketball team but the Dean of Student Life, an Independent columnist seconded the idea, Zatechka drove to Hoppo Valley to interview both and Pearsall began moving toward the center of the storm swirling into Hoppo Valley.
Then Judas Bittner addressed the faithful. He was a student at Hoppo, though older than most, having spent years as a missionary in Brazil. As the star preacher for the First Commandment Missionary Church, he lived for and by only one thing — the Bible. Some regarded him a saint and others a lunatic, but I avoided him altogether. For several months he had lain low, saying nothing about the heathen presence taking root in his home territory, awaiting the propitious moment. He spoke now, though he still said nothing about Swoop. But then, according to some, he did.
It was at Bible study, in a mid-week sermon delivered before twenty-five members of the flock at the First Commandment Missionary Church. Freddie Zender, E.J. Speed and several of the team’s other starters were there, though none of the reserves. Bittner, a lay preacher and a Religious Studies major at the college, extemporized on his favorite passage in Judges. He was short and slight, though possessed of a powerful voice that often boomed through the narrow confines of the ramshackle church. When he spoke of divine justice, he pulled up to his full height and, with the unconscious pride of a devoted man of God, seemed to speak down to his audience from on high. He spoke of Samson now.
“What this nugget of God’s word shows us,” he said, his voice modulated, barely above a whisper, “is that any weapon, so long as it is employed against an onslaught of the Philistine, is sanctified by that alone.” Witnesses said that a hush fell over the church, as it often did when Judas wrestled with the profundities of revealed truth. An air of expectation filled the room, as if the listeners sensed that an insight of great moment would imminently be unveiled. Judas lowered his voice further, making his listeners work to earn the wisdom he bestowed. “Even so prosaic an instrument as the jawbone of an ass, in the right hands and wielded against the true foe, becomes an instrument of retribution. Jawbones and slingshots,” he concluded, “can fell even the most vainglorious of the heathen.”
Most parishioners remained calm, but several members of the Hoppo Valley basketball team started to rise, shouting “Amen!” Freddie Zender was able to restrain all except E.J. Speed.
But Swoop had unlikely supporters, as well as detractors. One day after practice, as I left the gym, I saw him standing on the stairs leading down to the lawn and the walkway to the cafeteria, engrossed in conversation with a slender woman in a full-length camel’s hair coat. Swoop listened as the woman did most of the talking, emphasizing her points with an occasional touch on his arm. Though uninvited, I approached them with no hesitation.
Janet McMenamin held a Ph.D. in Psychology and was the Valley’s only psycho-therapist. She was a member of the university’s adjunct faculty, and regularly taught an upper division class in Clinical Psychology, which I had taken two years previously, though I was only a freshman at the time. She was also outspoken, challenging many of the community’s beliefs and, predictably, had made enemies. In her quiet way, she stood up to them all. She smiled warmly at my approach.
“Hello, Duggan,” she said. “How’s the star student?”
“Good, Dr. McMenamin. How are you?”
Though not tall, she was an athletic woman in her late thirties with a rich head of hair that flowed gracefully to her shoulders. She spent most of her spare time outdoors, gardening and biking, so that her face and arms were brown from exposure, contrasting with her blue eyes and red hair. Her private sorrow, she often said, was her lack of height. “But then,” she added, “brains and beauty are not bad compensations — are they?” She had a quick smile and was slow to anger, but could be merciless towards those who made the mistake of provoking her. The past year, in an auditorium full of hecklers, she had given a talk on abortion rights. When several of Bittner’s followers accused her of supporting the practice of baby butchering, she responded unhesitatingly that it was unfortunate abortion had not been a legal option in their mothers’ day.
She half-turned so that her glance and conversation included us both.
“Remember what I said,” she stated, reiterating her point to Swoop and filling me in at the same time. “People know what they love. Even those whose lives are floundering. If they’re directionless, it’s not because they lack knowledge of what they want. It’s because they lack the courage to acknowledge that they want it. I see it in my practice all the time. Events like the “Celebrate Self Party” can give them the inspiration they need.” Her hand took Swoop’s arm in a gentle grip, and she smiled self-deprecatingly. “I’m no guru to tell people what to do, but I hope you’ll continue.”
Swoop stood motionless as she held his arm, and if he looked toward town, not at her, it was because the understanding they had established seemed at some level deeper than a glance required.
“Inspiration is what I do,” he said in a tone so devoid of guile or self-consciousness that for one second I wanted to hug him and, shocked, I turned quickly and faced the psychotherapist.
For several moments she was silent, then she released her grip on his arm to wipe her eye.
“Great things are ahead for this town,” she said softly. She shook her head, as if to get back from some vision of her own to the present moment. “Though, to be as honest as you, I must warn you that I will use you to push my own agenda.”
“I’ll trust your agenda, Dr. McMenamin,” Swoop responded immediately. “Anytime.”
“But you just met — ” she began, then stopped. “Yes, I suppose you would.” She smiled wryly. “You also know full well that now I have to live up to that.”
She turned and walked away.
In the midst of the town’s upheaval came our conference showdown against Huntington State.
Their only loss had come against us at their gym, a game in which Swoop poured in twenty-five in the first half and we blew them out. They remembered, and came stomping into Hoppo Valley like gunslingers in a two-horse town.
“We’ll deck him, he gets hot on us,” Tetzel, their power forward, had said in a radio interview. The editors of The Independent plastered that promise all over the paper’s sports pages. Local fans spoke of assaulting the Huntington bus just outside the town line and hundreds arrived at the gym early, drinking beer in the parking lot and waving banners with drawings of Swoop.
But some residents wished secretly for Tetzel’s threat to come true, and others came to the game to cheer Huntington. A dozen picketers ignored Dean Pearsall’s warning and circled the gym, hefting posters that read, “Bittner and the Bible” and “Swoop, Pearsall, Satan: Hoppo Valley’s New Trinity.” A fight broke out with local fans, one shattered a beer bottle on a picketer’s skull, and the Hoppo Valley police sent every available man. Several belligerents were dragged off by the cops, the injured picketer rushed to the hospital, and the Huntington team escorted to the locker room. Campus Security insisted that our players also receive an escort.
“Since when do our guys need protection at home?” a fan asked as the players ducked through the mob. “Since God’s gift got here,” E.J. shot over his shoulder and walked on. Freddie said nothing but walked by his side, eyes staring ahead, the veins of his neck straining like wires.
The day before the game Swoop had approached me in the library. I had an hour between lunch and my three hour intensive in Ancient Greek and I was at my usual table, barricaded behind rows of texts, poring over a volume of Aeschylus, engrossed in translating Prometheus Bound, when a shadow on the page caused me to look up.
“Why don’t you make some noise when you approach people?” I snapped, the sight of him immediately engendering rudeness in me. He was unruffled.
“Would you hear it if I did?”
“I’m not deaf.”
“No, not deaf,” he said.
He stared at me with a solemn look befitting the enterprise in which I engaged, but trespassing, boring holes in some private part of me.
“Why do you badger me? You see I’m busy. What do you want?”
He waited patiently until I finished.
“You know what I want.”
He could have been asking to borrow my watch, he spoke so simply, and it was his very openness that demanded a depth of authenticity to match it.
“You can’t have…” I started, but knew suddenly that I could achieve greater honesty with this man than with any other, and started over, finishing in a whisper, “You have it already.”
He let those words hang in the air, silence as his acknowledgment and tribute, and as he waited–staring at me like we stood in a temple–something cracked inside of me, some wall erected to keep him at a distance, and tears welled in my eyes.
“You’re moving toward a bad end,” I said.
He took that in too, but for him warnings were only open declarations of alliance that represented further opportunities.
“Men on a sacred quest are disparaged by non-believers,” he said. “You belong with The Swoop Troop.”
“I know,” I said, helpless to deny it.
“We work out every morning at five. Weekends too. You’re the trainer.”
He didn’t wait for a nod or even a grunt, but turned and started away. Then he stopped and turned back to me. “No one else will do.”
“Thank you,” I said, so softly that he couldn’t hear it.
As I watched him stroll away, my eyes went to his hands, the hands that surprisingly were too small to palm a basketball but which I had seen many times efficiently tape the ankles of his comrades. Some half-formed thought stirred within, questioning whether The Swoop Troop required a trainer. But when the logic asserted that I needed his ministrations far more than he needed mine, I pushed the thought away before it spawned an anger that threatened the fragile bond just formed. The bastard knows it, a hard voice within me said. True, answered an equally-implacable voice, but he’s not the only one who knows it — is he?
But that evening, when a fellow student in my Comparative Religion class repeated Judas Bittner’s words, several in the class nodded and I looked up from the text to see Kathryn Gately pin the culprit with her eyes.
“Yes,” she said. “Jawbones and slingshots can be sanctified weapons. And Mr. Bittner is right. Samson is a religious hero — a mighty man showing us God’s will.” She paused, and the insolent derision of her voice was directed at neither the Biblical hero nor her classmates. “Can you think of anybody like that in the community today?”
And though her question silenced them, some quality in the room made me want to cry out.
“Where does Swoop live?” I blurted to her in the hall after class.
“Swoop? I’m not sure.” She laughed, a glittering sound so full of vitality I almost forgot my fears. Standing next to her, the fragrance of her hair filled my nostrils, as her tall, slender shape filled my eyes. Whenever I looked at her, I saw far more than a brilliant student and tireless activist for religious freethinking. I saw her paintings–the sales of which financed her way through the Religious Studies Department–of the most robust, intensely-alive scenes imaginable; especially those depicting Freddie Zender in action, straining, battling, reaching heavenward against taller foes. I looked away, unable to forget those scenes of her fianc