A Dearth of Eagles – Chapter One: The Writer

A Dearth of Eagles – Chapter One: The Writer

Kalin Baronov was about to die.

Georgi Leonidov had saved Kalin’s life more times than could be remembered. Now he would cause his death.

On this black Belasitsa night, elite agents of the Durjavna Sigurnost advanced on him from three sides. Only the sheer cliff face at his back prevented their attack from a fourth. He could not see them. At rare moments, when the lacerating wind abated, he heard their advance through the heavily forested land just beneath the slope on which he lay. The line of boulders before him gave protection—and the two Belgian automatics clenched in his fists even more. He vowed that more than one secret police officer would this night return to Sofia in a box. He was unflinchingly still behind the boulder at the far right of the line.

They were in position. He knew because all sounds of movement ceased. Their attack was imminent. Even in the bone-numbing cold, Kalin’s palms sweated on the grips of his pistols. His heart pounded so loud in his ears that he was certain the DS agents knew his location to a millimeter. Focus, he willed himself. Death—not merely the DS—stalked this plateau tonight. Make it your partner, your ally, and rain its kinship on your enemies.

Georgi, he thought. Even in the blood-soaked acts of kill or be killed, his friend’s image was seared in his brain: the Ghost of the Belasitsa doing, for the hundredth time, what no other man could do—now, carrying over his left shoulder the limp weight of Raisa Aracheva as, with just his right hand and legs, he scaled the vertical cliff face that most athletic men could not climb at all; carrying her to freedom just kilometers away at the Greek frontier.

A withering suppressive fire erupted from the tree line 50 meters away. Bullets hammered the face of boulders and scarred the frozen earth, seeking to claw their way through rock and dust to nestle snugly in a hard man’s soft flesh. Kalin withheld fire. If they wanted him, they must charge. The scant seconds in which they were caught in the open would suffice; he and his friend, Death, would be waiting.

The DS agents did not lack courage. They rose from the trees and charged, black figures on a black night, at least six of them fanning out across Kalin’s line of sight, their AK-47s spewing hot pellets of steel. But Death played no favorites, Kalin knew; He came for Communists and freedom fighters alike. Flat on his chest, for one tick he waited as bullets whined overhead and careened off of rocks; then he fired just above and slightly to the left of the muzzle flashes; fired both pistols at the figure at the left of the attackers’ formation.

In the instant that muzzle flashes ceased from the figure nearest him, a hot projectile seared through Kalin’s coat and thudded into his left shoulder, jarring his body backward and rattling his teeth. Immediately he lost sensation in his left arm, and the semi-automatic fell from limp fingers. Sweat and tears streaked both cheeks as, with all focus he could muster, he fired repeatedly at the muzzle flashes newly nearest him. Then those flashes also terminated and Kalin rolled to the boulder’s right, head and shoulders shielded by its edge, legs extended behind him, out in the open. All firing ceased.

They were on their bellies now. They knew now that Death was here for them, as well; that relentless hours of high Balkan practice had made their foe a marksman with either hand; that countless midnight fire fights with the DS, alongside the Ghost of the Belasitsa, enabled that foe to face Death with courage even greater than his fear. There was only grim motionlessness from the two heaps that had, just moments prior, rained fire on Kalin’s position. Chastened, the surviving DS officers crawled toward the line of boulders as silently as they could.

Furiously, by touch, ears and eyes straining for evidence of motion before him, Kalin expertly dressed his wound with antiseptic and bandages; dressed it exactly as the Ghost had taught him.

Tonight, he vowed wordlessly, was his last battle. He would die—or he would write. There would be no other outcome. He was thirty-two and had risked his life a hundred times to aid his father and the Ghost ferry to freedom poor luckless souls trapped behind the Iron Curtain. No more. He was a freedom fighter by choice—but a writer by birth. He had known since childhood what he would do.

Even if he survived tonight, and never again faced a DS thug, how long before Death swerved from kinship to enmity and came, swinging scythe in hand, for him? There were dozens of ways to commit suicide—surrendering one’s dream was one—and nobody’s years were countless. Regarding guns, this was his final battle. The sole battle left was literary. His lips, tight against pain, parted briefly in a grim smile. The toughest battle of all.

He heard a light scrape of boot against the cliff face above him. The Ghost was back! Any noise was deliberate, to attract attention away from Kalin. The DS agents let loose at the sound—Kalin fired repeatedly at the muzzle flashes—and Georgi Leonidov, with no need of stealth, did not rappel but flew down his rope like a descending eagle. Above the crashing guns that drowned the wind, Kalin heard his friend’s death-defying laugh.

Leonidov hit the ground and dived. “The Ghost!” he roared at his foes a name more terrifying than his weapons. “Of the Belasitsa!” From behind a boulder to Kalin’s left, Leonidov, with magician’s hands—ever in motion, ever unseen—lobbed two grenades into his enemy’s position, buried his face in the frozen earth, and, after the shattering explosion, rolled into the open, firing from his M-16 a swathe of lead across his enemies’ placement. Kalin waited for his friend to clear his line of fire and then emptied his clip into his foes’ last known position.

With one hand, Kalin replaced the magazine. The Ghost had reached the tree line from where the enemy had charged. No fire was returned at either of them. The high plateau was still. Where was the Ghost? He was, Kalin knew, ceaselessly moving—and, as if genetically engineered to wreak destruction, possessed an animal’s instinct to smell, hear, or see his foe, even on the blackest night.

Kalin heard nothing, saw less—but nonetheless shivered in a form caused not by cold but by something primeval; for, as though by preternatural instinct absorbed by osmosis from his friend, he knew where the Ghost was; slithering snakelike, silently, on his belly, semi-automatic—now silenced—clutched in his left fist, a ten-inch, wickedly barbed sheath knife in his right, sensing, like a shark, his enemy’s blood, and prepared to spill every fluid ounce of that belonging to State Security agents who assailed his friend and impeded, to the death, his sacred quest for freedom.

Then it was over. The Ghost ambled toward him, whistling lightheartedly, melodically, as though strolling, with his love, hand in hand, the Champs Elysees in a fresh May mist. But the viscous red fluid he wiped from his blade did not speak of romance.

“Dead eye shooting, Kay-Lee!” he roared jovially. “I observed it from up—”

Then he noticed that Kalin lay motionless in the grass, wan smile slowly fading. Instantly, he was on his knees, by his friend’s side, hands and eyes moving swiftly over Kalin’s body, until he felt the bloody mess of his compatriot’s left shoulder. Swearing in three languages, he jerked open Kalin’s coat, ripped off his sodden bandage, and pulled from his pack a fresh one. He applied it and squeezed with all desperate strength to be summoned from his wiry body.

Kalin fought to maintain consciousness. Momentarily, his eyelids fluttered open.

“Georgi,” he whispered. “I’ve got books to write…about heroes…”

The Ghost vigorously nodded.

“About yourself, Kay-Lee.” Even on a black Belasitsa night, with consciousness growing increasingly blacker, Georgi Leonidov’s smile lit the landscape as though powered by untold amps of spiritual force. Kalin passed out.

He awoke once, unsure whether his shoulder or his head hurt more, upside down, slung over the Ghost’s shoulder, blood rushing to his brain—his friend struggling under a man’s full weight, but tortuously ascending the cliff face, millimeters at a time, fractions of measurements, but refusing to quit, determined to carry to safety the man as much a son to him as to Todor Baronov; determined, even if it meant his own collapse and death.
Kalin was delirious.

“The literary world…must know…such deeds…” The thought passed half-formed through a foggy brain. “Much more…then Bulgarian freedom…depends…”

The world spun crazily, an out-of-control top in a gravitational field. Had the Ghost fallen? He had never been so nauseated. He was going to retch—he was falling, hurtling downward into an abyss, downward into a bottomless pit of unrelieved blackness and undisturbed silence.

(c) 2017 Andrew Bernstein. All rights reserved.

 

“This is an exhilarating, love-infused story of mystery and adventure. The story builds an edge-of-the-seat momentum as the protagonists fight for both heroism in American literature and freedom behind the Iron Curtain. Beware: Andrew Bernstein’s story may embolden the hero in you. This is destined to become a classic, read by students young and old worldwide.” — Ellen Kenner, Ph.D.  Co-Author, The Selfish Path to Romance: How to Love With Passion and Reason

A Dearth of Eagles presents the grandest view of an action-packed hero’s life with a philosophic punch. As the narrative drama accelerates the reader forward, the underlying conflict of values reveals itself as the true driving force. The intellectual spy thriller has a new voice in Andrew Bernstein.” — Eric Daniels, Ph.D.  Head of School, LePort School

A Dearth of Eagles, by Andrew Bernstein, is fast-paced fictional work tells the story of Bulgarian freedom fighters during Communism’s final years, of their valiant attempts to smuggle dissidents to freedom in the West, and of their desperate battles with the Durjavna Sigurnost, the Bulgarian secret police who seek to kill them. It tells also of a parallel conflict, of one of the freedom fighters—a member of the tiny band, an émigré, a writer living in New York City—who engages in the story’s fiercest struggle, seeking to publish serious stories about these dauntless men in a Western literary culture that rejects heroism for anti-heroism.

Order a copy of Andrew Bernstein’s novel A Dearth of Eagles!

 

Heart of a Pagan, Chapter 2: The Coming (Part 4)

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.”

“Tell me.”

“Your soul.”

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

Heart of a Pagan, Chapter 2: The Coming (Part 3)

Adapted from Andrew Bernstein’s Heart of a Pagan: The Story of Swoop.

We received a hero’s welcome when the school’s bus returned to Hoppo Valley. The small Hoppo Valley radio station had always broadcast the school’s games, but now virtually the entire population, not just a sizable segment, was listening. Close to one hundred met us on our arrival. Within a week, after two more convincing wins, Swoop and Coach had been interviewed on local radio, and the town’s newspaper, The Daily Independent, had run a feature story on the team. In Iowa, where every basketball success is news, the former sad-sack team in Hoppo Valley was becoming closely watched. The high water mark of media attention was Swoop’s interview on KBUZ, “The Buzz,” the area’s most powerful station, located an hour-and-a-half away in Des Moines.

Ron Zatechka had an aggressive, in-your-face talk show on week day mornings. His style was simple and non-sectarian: he insulted everybody. “Get up, farm boys, and milk the damn cows!” he boomed before dawn. He condemned Hollywood, Washington, Moscow and the Vatican. He hated politicians, journalists and Presbyterians. He brought ministers on only to abuse religion. He scorned all causes but one–Zatechka–and knew only one god: more volume. He was short and hard and spent hours pumping iron. He chain-smoked cigarettes, talked through the smoke and blew it in environmentalists’ faces. He hated bankers and clergymen. He lived alone, had no friends and called his fans “imbeciles.” He denounced liberals, Christianity and Wall Street with equal zeal. He refused the governor an interview and berated the mayor daily. He hated movie stars and professors. He called local militias “fascists.” He swore, told sexually offensive stories and insulted homosexuals. He was damned at cocktail parties, charity functions, Sunday services and Republican fund raisers.

He had the most popular radio show in the state.

“What you going to do, kid!” he roared. “Turn the town on its ear?”

“Or stand it upright.”

“Take these pig-farming clods to the top and be a hero?”

“When they get to the top they won’t be clods.”

“Yeah, touch

Heart of a Pagan, Chapter 2: The Coming (Part 2)

Adapted from Andrew Bernstein’s Heart of a Pagan: The Story of Swoop.

But though his sauntering gait took him out of sight in moments, it was not that easy to forget him. His departing glance had lingered on me. But why? I was not one of the players. I couldn’t work out with him and contribute to his grandiose quest. It made no sense that he had asked me to follow. I told myself that it also made no difference, that I desired no part of either him or his pretensions, but for several days I couldn’t shake images of him from my mind. Though I bridled at his insult, it was neither his words nor his final glance that stuck in my mind. It was only the gliding motion of his departure.

Although the starters refused to work out with The Troop–then or ever–the story of Swoop breaking up the prayer meeting was soon all over town. What the town didn’t know, what its residents had no way of knowing, was the meaning behind his departing words that day.

Two days later, when the players walked into the locker room after their last classes, they found the wooden cross gone, taken down and replaced by a huge poster of Hermes, the wing-footed lord of the wind, depicted in soaring flight, sword drawn, head high. “The patron god of athletes,” Swoop said. “He’ll stand by us throughout our championship run.”

When he held workouts at Healey Park–replete with appeals to Athena for wisdom and to Zeus for strength, alternated with the pounding practice sessions of The Swoop Troop– dozens of townspeople showed up to watch.

And when he spoke before hundreds of thronging fans at Homecoming, a crowd including several Religion majors and a pair of ministers, proclaiming that “the gods demand of champions the two

Heart of a Pagan, Chapter 2: The Coming (Part 1)

Adapted from Andrew Bernstein’s Heart of a Pagan: The Story of Swoop.

Chapter 2: The Coming

“Hoppo to the heights now!” Swoop roared that afternoon when he walked into our locker room for the first time.

He swaggered through the door and slung his purple gym bag to the floor. All eyes followed as it skidded to a halt, then his laughter echoed through the lockers.

“Going to take this squad to the top!”

In the quiet that followed, the only sound was the sharp intake of someone’s breath. Nobody spoke — it’s possible that for several seconds nobody even breathed.

I couldn’t see. I stood in the rear of the trainer’s room, behind the table, away from the door opening onto the lockers. I stood transfixed, because of his proud boast unable to move nearer, but because of his brash vitality unwilling to turn away. Though I couldn’t see, I could hear, and my mind somehow held a clearer picture than it ever had before.

He punctuated his words by thrusting his finger at the team, and several players backed off. He ignored it. He advanced upon them until he had several pinned against the lockers, then he swiveled to face the team. There was no laughter now and his voice sounded like he pronounced the elemental truths of arithmetic.

“I will change your lives,” he said.

Nobody moved and everybody, even Coach, was speechless. I shifted uncomfortably behind the trainer’s table. When I moved, the congenital ailment that afflicted my right leg since birth caused a sharp jolt of pain. It seemed stronger than usual. But the players neither knew nor cared what occurred in the trainer’s room, because for now they all stood gaping at Swoop. After the ensuing scrimmage, such gaping became habitual.

Because of the team’s long string of losing seasons, it was the butt of endless jokes in hoops-mad Iowa. Everybody–the players, the town, people throughout the Valley–hungered to see Swoop play, to see if this hotshot New York import could live up to his advance PR. He’d been the country’s high school player of the year several years ago but, despite heavy recruiting from the major programs, had refused all offers and dropped out of sight. Rumor had it that he’d been playing invitation-only private games against pros. Nobody knew why he’d finally chosen a nowhere school barely on the map — but people’s ignorance only fueled their imagination. One of the school janitors, not known for his sobriety, told me that Swoop had been incarcerated and, in a prison league season, had averaged 100 points per game. Speculation in bars downtown was that he’d been rejected from Duke and Kentucky for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs — and a passing stranger swore Swoop barn-stormed the east coast, playing high-stakes pick-up games and never losing. In the days leading to his arrival, the stories whispered grew taller and the town’s mood more feverish.

The players themselves were divided. Some expected to find a washed-up loser who had squandered his talent. But others had followed his high school career and remembered the state championships he had won. Nobody knew what to expect and the buzz was undeniable.

Coach didn’t disappoint, playing him with the scrubs to see what he could do against the starters. The reserves had never beaten the starters, though they practiced against them daily, and Swoop grinned when Bobby Stenaker told him so.

“The last are about to become first!” he boomed, then added modestly. “Under Swoop’s tutelage, of course.”

On the game’s first possession, he stole the entry pass to Freddie Zender and then rocketed upcourt. When defenders swarmed at him, he zipped a no-look, one-hop dart to Raif Lockett for a lay-up. On the next play, he swatted E.J.’s jumper off the glass, grabbed the carom while still airborne and hit the deck with both feet moving. He found Bobby Stenaker racing upcourt and fired a court-length strike like a quarterback to a streaking receiver. On play after play he sliced to the rim, breaking down defenders with breath-catching quickness, then skying over them for slams or dishing off for easy lay-ups. When he took point guard Drew Doherty incessantly off the dribble, Doherty–a barbell-hefting, beer-swilling safety on the football team–cursed in his face. When Swoop stated, his voice earnest, that “The gods prize deeds, not vulgar words,” Doherty–certain now to lose his starting spot–fired a whistling elbow at his face. As the games wore on, and Doherty and the other defenders backed off, leery of Swoop’s slashing thrusts, Swoop drilled jumper after jumper, singing “Make it rain!” as his high-arcing shot dropped softly from the sky. After two hours, a glassy-eyed Coach called a halt: the scrubs had whacked the starters five straight, spanking them worse with each game. Players on both sides just stared, and fans who had shown up for Swoop’s debut scurried from the gym to report what they had seen.

In the locker room after, Swoop held court.

“No way this team’s going to have a losing record again. Three-and twenty-four? That’s bulls__t! Twenty-four-and-three this year–at least!”

He paced the room as he spoke. It was a small room befitting a low-budget team from a bush-league conference. It held only three rows of lockers, the small trainer’s room and shower stalls in the rear. As its only adornment, a large wooden cross had been hung by Coach and Freddie Zender on the front wall next to the door.

He turned at the room’s far end and strutted back, pointing at his teammates as he moved. Some of our farmboys were built like tractors–their girth should have dwarfed Swoop–but the room suddenly seemed smaller than it ever had before. He was lean, barely over six foot, with a litheness of motion that more resembled ballet than athletics. His hair was not quite blond, but a light brown, worn wavy and long in a style that contrasted with the buzz cuts of his new teammates. He had green eyes that, when he spoke, cut into his listeners more sharply than his words. He spat words like commands–this stranger and mere player assuming authority like a conquering general–and yet, what mesmerized me, holding my focus like a trap, was the gliding flow of his movement. But I woke in time to hear his final prediction.

“Next year,” Swoop concluded, his voice low. “We’re going to win the national championship.”

Coach wrapped one of his paws around his shoulder and introduced him to each team member individually. I was last.

“Swoop, this is our trainer, Duggan Claveen.”

He grabbed my hand and jerked me to him, so that our chests were inches apart. I was too startled to move and his eyes held me even more than his grip.

“Digs,” he said, “I like you. I’m going to let you carry my bags.”

I was aware in the abnormal silence that followed that his teammates stared with eyes too big for their faces. Freddie Zender’s look was more a scowl than a stare. He frowned, this strong man who made time for hours of charity work in the midst of his duties as medical student and team captain–frowned at an overbearing creep who would treat as a porter a man suffering from a crippling birth defect.

But it wasn’t clear in that first instant Swoop grinned at me–with current pouring from his hand and eyes like conduits–whether I wanted to swing at him or stand transfixed and bathe in the energy. I did neither. I stared at him — at the supple hips and ease of motion — and felt a hard resentment pulse somewhere in my gut. Who the hell was he to have so much when I struggled to heft up a flight of stairs an armful of hardcover texts? I jerked away, bristling at his arrogance, and sensed the soft glance of Freddie Zender on me, solicitous now as he turned from Swoop. After all, it was for me that they carried equipment, for me that they opened doors even when my hands were empty. Freddie’s eyes told the story: I was the scrawny crip to be bullied by the cruel and coddled by the kind. Brusquely, I turned from him and returned to my work.

Although Swoop said nothing else, neither to me nor the team, his promise regarding the national title seemed a good bet in those first months following his arrival.

He dominated our daily intra-squad pick-up games, treating every practice like a playoff game. He rose hours before dawn to run, lift weights and shoot thousands of jump shots. When the pre-season games started, he single-handedly buried opposing teams, then bristled when Coach pulled him out, though we led by thirty.

The reaction, in this basketball-crazed state, was predictable. When we routed tough Bethel College at their gym, getting them down twenty before half and not letting up, the townspeople welcomed us home, meeting the team bus on Main Street, waving the school colors and pictures of Swoop. When Bobby Stenaker approached him seeking help, Swoop coached him regarding both conditioning and specific basketball skills. When several of the other reserves, weeks later, noticing Bobby’s improvement, asked for the same, he formed them into a unit, dubbed it “The Swoop Troop” and demanded of its members the same exhausting regimen as his own. When townspeople saw them running in the pre-dawn darkness, some smiled, some waved, some called “National champs!”

They ran through the heart of town at the crack of dawn, Swoop leading some of the time, but more often dropping back, insisting that one of the others set the pace. But whoever led, they ran the same five mile course every day, Swoop pushing them along the town’s busiest and most affluent streets.

The town of Hoppo Valley, though rural, did not lack for cultural life, for the state college on its western outskirts had an enrollment of 4,000 with several accomplished faculty members, especially in music and religious studies/philosophy. Music faculty members regularly gave recitals on campus and a small art museum had recently been established in one wing of the Humanities Building. The town itself, lying near the center of the valley, had the largest population for over one hundred square miles, and the rural hamlets surrounding it added a thousand more. The community was able to support a major newspaper and a small radio station.

The Troop ran the half-mile along Highway 40 to the business district, a well-maintained four-block stretch of Main Street lined with thriving shops on both sides. They continued past the stores, then made a left up Broadway and ran the “Salvation Mile,” the roughly one-mile distance between Main and Walnut that was home to the Catholic and several major Protestant churches. At Walnut Street they turned right and ran the block to Douglas Avenue, the exclusive, tree-lined, north-south boulevard where resided the Valley’s wealthiest citizens in a series of stately homes. At the corner of Walnut and Douglas stood the imposing stone structure of the First Episcopal Church, a sentinel guarding the elite’s cherished values. Its extensive lawn curved gracefully down to the street on both Walnut and Douglas.

Although they conceded the benefits of such training, The Troop members still indulged extra-curricular activities that Swoop insisted hampered their development. Raif Lockett, the six-seven Nebraska plow-boy, a reserve forward, had a taste for a wide range of alcoholic beverages. Ricky Crockett, a willowy eighteen-year old freshman, immediately dubbed “Davy” by Swoop, idled hours in the rec room, hustling pool and pin-ball. Where others saw only that Davy was a skinny six-three, too small for the forward position he played, Swoop saw his smooth moves and soft medium-range jumper, and did everything he could to encourage his development. Dandy Halliday, Freddie’s back-up at center, a self-styled homeboy from Lenox Avenue in Harlem, had cultivated, despite his strict Baptist upbringing, a refined fondness for certain illicit, though non-toxic substances. Bobby Stenaker, the lithe, sandy-haired Montana cowboy, a five-eleven shooting guard, characteristically kept late hours — and with a variety of female companions. Swoop didn’t preach to them; he merely lived clean and dragged their rumps through the streets at five AM. Slowly, imperceptibly, and not without back-sliding, their hedonic tendencies began to wane. Coach, who fully agreed with his friend College President Robert MacPherson’s frequent denunciations of vice-filled campus life, smiled warmly when Swoop was near, and gave him, without prompting, a key to the gym.

One Saturday morning in late October, Raif was severely hung over, and Swoop struggled to wake him up. When several minutes of lusty pounding at his door succeeded in waking half the floor but not Raif, Swoop added a song to his onslaught. I lived near the end of the third-floor hall that housed many team members, six doors down and across the corridor from Raif. I’d been up till 3 AM reading, and had fallen asleep with the Ross translation of Aristotle’s Metaphysics on my chest. When Swoop’s clamor woke me, the reading lamp by my bed still burned. Swoop’s voice sang jauntily, though off-key, as the wood of Raif’s door vibrated under his attack.

“Oh, it’s great to get up in the morning when the sun begins begin to shine! Four and five and — ”

“Shut the hell up, you sick bastard!” croaked a surprisingly firm voice from next door to Raif’s room, giving vent to a generally negative evaluation of Swoop’s serenade. But Swoop ignored the catcalls and continued his concert.

” — six o’clock in the good old summertime! Even when the day is rainy — ”

I groaned and rolled over, wrapping the pillow around my head. But it couldn’t deaden the harsh sound of a door banging open at the other end of the hall near the stairs.

“I got a shotgun in the truck, boy!” shouted a voice with a distinct redneck twang. “Just for assholes like you!”

By the time Raif finally opened the door, Swoop had half the floor threatening his future and the other half cursing his genesis. Raif didn’t sound pleased either.

“Damn, Swoop,” he groaned. Bystanders said he was white as he clapped his hand to his head. “Run five miles now? I think I’d die.”

Swoop paused, and his words were so soft that I couldn’t hear them, and was told only later.

“You just might, Raif,” he said.

But the groans were louder and more widespread when Swoop turned to admonish the on-lookers.

“You should be striving for achievement,” he said. “Not sleeping your lives away.”

While Raif staggered back inside to get dressed, Swoop shooed away the crowd, ignoring their complaints about being awakened before six. Several minutes later, they set out from the dorm’s side entrance for their five mile run. Raif, unable to keep up, limped along painfully in the rear. I, as I often did, sat at my desk by the window and watched.

Word soon got around that, rain or shine, in sickness or in health, The Troop worked out every day. Dozens of locals started attending team practices, some even watched the extra-curricular workouts of The Swoop Troop, and the sports editor of the local paper predicted in his pre-season preview that we’d climb from the cellar to the penthouse of the Iowa Valley Conference. Several merchants downtown displayed the team’s picture in their windows, conversation in the local bars centered on basketball, and pre-season ticket sales were the strongest in school history. Local interest in Hoppo Valley basketball, high even when we lost, was rising.

The Dean of Student Life, J.T. Pearsall, caught the scent in the wind. He had long sought recognition for Hoppo Valley among the member schools of the Iowa state university system, and he immediately paid more attention to the basketball program. He had his picture taken with Swoop and Troop members, attended all exhibition games, traveled to road games on a school bus decked out with “Hoppo to the heights” banners, and increased funding for advertisement of team games. The result was that school administrators, leading merchants and even town council members began attending all home games.

But the ascent was not without struggle.

It was in the pre-season, during a pick-up game one Saturday afternoon, that Swoop challenged the starters. They still refused to work out with The Troop, and I had heard them criticize the newcomer’s arrogance on more than one occasion. After soaring over the much taller E.J. and pinning his lay-up from behind, Swoop jerked down the rebound, darted up the far sideline and smashed home the game winner. He turned to his beaten foes.

“You got to go stronger around the rim, guys, go up and slam it. Work out tonight with The Swoop Troop and I’ll show you.”

“Listen, Hotshot–” E.J. began, but Freddie cut him off.

“We’ve got a prayer meeting tonight,” he said.

Swoop’s patience was limited.

“Forget the prayer meeting!” he exploded. “We’ll make our own miracles.”

E.J.’s face turned red and he glared. The others watched calmly, silent, looking to Freddie for their cue.

“We’ll pray for you, Swoop,” the captain said.

He motioned the others to leave, and when they turned and walked away we all thought that was the end.

But when Swoop strode that night into the First Commandment Missionary Church–Judas Bittner’s home base–he found them on their knees.

“On your feet!” he roared.

He strutted down the aisle in long, gliding strides, clutching a basketball in his left hand. There were four of them, not just Freddie and E.J., but the core of the team. They rose as Swoop approached, the same question in eight eyes, but Swoop answered it before any of them could speak.

“You’re searching for God,” he said. “But He’s not here.”

When one of them retorted, “How would you know?” Swoop replied, “Because I know God better than you do.” When they stared blankly, he pointed out the door, which he had left open.

“He’s in the gym,” he said. “It’s where we’re going. Now.”

He didn’t wait for a reply. He turned on his heel and started down the aisle.

“Maybe we don’t want to practice with you,” one of them protested.

“Good,” Swoop said, whirling to face them. “Because this isn’t practice.”

“No? What is it?”

“Worship,” he said, then resumed his march to the door.

He stopped at the last pew at the rear of the chapel, where a lone figure sat, observing, taking notes, doing field research for his Comparative Religion class.

“Big Brain,” he said to me. “Philosophy major, student extraordinaire, IQ near genius.” He paused. “But a sad, pathetic little wannabe.”

I put down my pen and carefully laid my notebook on the empty pew next to me. I looked into the green eyes staring at me.

“What do you know about me?”

Swoop laughed. But he didn’t smile.

“You’re not the only one who does research. You, too. To the gym now.”

I sat in my pew, feeling the way a raccoon must after being flattened by a car. But the guys, though bewildered, didn’t hesitate. They knelt again, re-opened their Bibles, and led by Freddie, read: “