By David Ray Skinner
Steve was late. I didn’t know whether to be angry or disappointed. But, after all, he was the one with the car, and beggars can’t be choosers. Or, in this case, passengers can’t be picky…or complainers. That’s because I was living in Steve’s house, or actually, his parents’ house in the San Francisco Bay Area. Still, I was sorry to be missing the “Seven O’Clock Wednesday Night Church Dinner” that I had been looking forward to all week. The meal was to be in the church’s dining room in San Francisco’s Fillmore District—an hour and a half driving time from Steve’s parents’ comfortable home in the ‘burbs—and a quick look at my watch told me it was already after seven.
It was 1975, and although it was eight years after the city’s famous “Summer of Love,” as a musician, I had long wanted to trade in the country strains of then-provincial Nashville for what I thought would be the much hipper music scene of San Francisco. Back when that famous summer of 1967 was happening in real time, I was totally unaware of its significance. I was in my mid-teens, and my priorities that year were aimed more at helping in my church’s Vacation Bible School, taking a week off for my church’s high school youth retreat and learning my lines (and playing harmonica) as one of the token radical hippies in the youth choir’s musical, “Good News.” Little did I know that the role would become reality a few years later.
That late summer of 1975 had found me straggling across the country by train, by bus and by thumb—whichever one was most convenient and cost-effective at the time. My mother had passed away three years before that—she was only 46—and only the year before, I graduated from my Christian college after a series of “disagreements” with the administration over the campus newspaper, of which I was editor-in-chief. Both circumstances had left me angry and bitter at the status quo—God, church, and college; in fact, I had seldom darkened the door of my church since my mother’s funeral, which had been held in its sanctuary.
And then, I got the invitation to the Wednesday night church dinner in San Francisco.
First of all, I had always loved church dinners (my church in Nashville had also had Wednesday night dinners), but more importantly, Curt—the guy who invited me and gave me a card with the address and details—had promised that there would be “lots of beautiful people and of course, delicious food.” I had been exploring the University of California’s campus in Berkeley and Curt had approached me at the entrance to the campus’s eucalyptus grove and invited me to an “afternoon picnic under the trees.” It sounded like an adventure, plus I’d never seen nor heard of eucalyptus trees, so my curiosity made it easy to ignore any sort of warning signs that I may have gotten from this strange young man. He was a walking and talking paradox. On one hand, he was a blur of energy, yet, at the same time, he seemed like he was in some sort of trance—like a fast-moving robot.
As strange as Curt was, however, that afternoon, he seemed to easily fit into the atmosphere surrounding the campus, the Bay Area and the state of California. And for that matter, the “eucalyptus picnic” that we rolled into was nothing less than bizarre. There was no food; only people pretending to have a picnic. Curt sensed my confusion and told me about the Wednesday night supper, which would have real food with real, beautiful people. When he handed me a makeshift invitation—it was more like a business card with the church’s address on it—I asked him if Steve could come with me; he was my transportation, I told him. No problem, Curt said, the more, the merrier. Everyone was welcome at their church, he explained. Yes, everyone.
But, as 7:00 came and went that Wednesday night, I realized that Steve and I had missed the boat—or at least, the dinner. When Steve finally got home, he was apologetic for having to work late, explaining that his boss gave him one more task to complete before he could leave. “Sorry about the dinner,” he said sheepishly, “But if you hop in the car, I’ll treat you to a consolation Big Mac!”
That following Monday, I was back in San Francisco, once again meandering around, when I found myself beside the St. Francis Hotel in Union Square—in the middle of a throng of people. I didn’t see Curt, but I was approached by several people who were from his church. I recognized the church’s logo on their nametags—and their glassy-eyed excitement. I mentioned Curt and his invitation to the dinner and my disappointment at missing it. “We’ll tell Curt,” they said, “And don’t worry, we’ll have another Wednesday night dinner this week and next week and the week after that…”
“And today, at least you get to see the President,” his friend said calmly.
“What president?” I asked.
“President Ford is here,” he said, pointing toward the St. Francis Hotel. “In there.”
Just as I had never seen a eucalyptus tree, I had also never seen a real American president up close and in person. So I waited a block away (the closest I could get), marveling at the fact that President Ford would be out in public so soon after the recent attempt on his life (by Manson Family member Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme only a few weeks earlier in Sacramento).
Then, as the President emerged from the hotel, a middle-aged woman, Sara Jane Moore, jumped out of the crowd, firing at him in what would be the second assassination attempt that same September. This time, Secret Service agents quickly covered and shoved the President (who, once again, was not hit) into his limo, which sped away as the crowd converged on the shooter, wrestling her to the ground.
That was the last straw for me. Being in the middle of history is one thing; being in the middle of dangerous history was quite another. Once I returned to Steve’s house, I packed up my bag and guitar. After thanking Steve and his parents for allowing me to be a guest in their home, we said our goodbyes and Steve drove me to the Greyhound station, where I caught a bus back to Nashville.
But, once back home, the same feelings of anger, resentment and rebellion resurfaced, along with a new sense of restlessness, and I eventually took a job at a music magazine in New York City. One Sunday morning in November, as I read the Sunday newspaper in a Brooklyn café, the front page was covered in a large photograph. It featured hundreds of members of that California church that had relocated from San Francisco to Jonestown, Guyana. They were all dead beneath the lush jungle trees, which hung heavy over them—eerily similar to the eucalyptus trees in Berkeley’s grove.
All these years later, I still wonder what happened to Curt—whether he ended up in Jonestown or if he was able to somehow break free from the “church.” There are a couple of lessons that I learned from those days and events back in ‘75. First of all, every person on this earth has a God-shaped hole in their heart that they have to fill. And money, fame, and even religion is a poor substitute for the Real Thing; the more important take-away from this is that it helped me understand the power of God’s grace, forgiveness and mercy. Even during the period of time when I was the most rebellious and resentful and angry, He was still watching over me and keeping me safe.
I don’t even like to think about what could have happened if Sara Jane Moore’s gun would have been pointed in my direction and gone off as they wrestled her to the ground (I was just a block away and perched up on a streetlight’s concrete foundation, above most of the crowd). Or, even more pointedly, I really don’t like to consider what would have happened if I had made it to that Wednesday night dinner with “all the beautiful people.” I’d like to believe that I would have seen through the deceit and apostasy, but I did blindly (and robotically) follow Curt into the eucalyptus grove to an imaginary picnic, after all. So, I can’t really be sure of exactly what I would have fallen for.
However, I do sometimes wonder about what sort of extra task God asked that boss to have Steve finish before he could clock out that Wednesday night 44 years ago. Whatever it was, it undoubtedly falls under the heading of “grace.” Grace, pure and simple. Amazing grace. And, therein lies my thankfulness—thank You, Lord, for watching over fools and children. And thank You especially for that gift not understood at the time, but gratefully realized and accepted on a Sunday morning years later—that incredible gift of paths denied.
David Ray Skinner is a writer, musician, illustrator, designer and the creative director of FaithLines. His recent book, “Rubine River” is available on Amazon/Kindle, Scribd, iBooks and a variety of other online book sites. His website is DavidRaySkinner.com.