“The worst thing in the world”

After her death, Beth’s long-time counselor suggested that this period of her life was more horrific than any other childhood horror story that she had heard.

Del Nita and Teri

Del Nita and Teri in Yakima

There was nothing to take young Del Nita and her sister Teri now, out of the path of their drunken and molesting grandfather, or their “angry, dominating, dissatisfied” grandmother.

Yakima is located in south central Washington State. The city’s official website gives this accounting of its history:

The first American expedition into the region occurred in 1805. Explorers Lewis and Clark made their way through the area and shared tales of abundant wildlife and rich soils. In 1847, a Catholic mission was established in what is now known as the Yakima Valley. In 1858, an American army garrison was sent by U.S. President James Buchanan to build Fort Simcoe and deal with ongoing battles between the native tribes of the area and white settlers. With Fort Simcoe in place and the so-called Yakima Indian Wars over, more white settlers came.

Yakima City was incorporated in 1883, but about a year later, a dispute between land owners and the Northern Pacific Railway Company led the railroad to establish a new town about 4 miles north of the original site. More than 100 buildings were moved by having horses pull them along atop rolling logs. The new town was called North Yakima and was officially incorporated in 1886. The Washington State Legislature officially renamed the city “Yakima” in 1918.

Washington became the 42nd state in 1889.

Beth’s “Great Grandma Perkins” settled there, having come to the town as a little girl in a covered wagon. Juanita Perkins was born there in 1912. Delmont Orr married Juanita in Yakima on December 23, 1937, and Vickie was born in 1940. Beth also had an “Uncle Frankie” Orr, who was probably older than her mom. I don’t recall Beth talking about other siblings.

Somehow, Vickie met the traveling singer George Airel and Beth herself was born, as she says, “out of wedlock”. I don’t know how and when they became married, and the family soon moved to Inyokern.

* * *

At the south of the town was the old town of Union Gap. There’s a mall there now, but in 1970, her father dropped Del Nita and Terri off at the home of Delmont and Juanita Orr, a trailer home that was at the end of a dirt road. My understanding is that the location has since been razed in favor of a shopping district.

After Vickie had fallen in the grocery store, she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. For much of the rest of her life, to my knowledge, she was incapacitated, and severely so near the end of her life.

Del Nita loved school and hated summer vacations. Summer vacations meant full-time with “Papa” and “Grama”. I never did learn what it was that he did for a living.

While I knew about the rough outlines from this period of time, there is a lot that I never learned about it, and I was not able to find out much more through further investigation. Beth was not eager to talk about it, and I didn’t press. After her death, I talked with Beth’s long-time counselor, who suggested that this period of her life was more horrific than any other childhood horror story that she had heard.

Now that the girls lived with him, “Papa” had unfettered access to them, and he made regular visits to them. Their grandmother, too – now burdened with a crippled daughter and two granddaughters that she never bargained for – seemed to resent them as well. Rather than drawing together, and the sisters ended up in a rivalry with each other. It was much like the scene near the ending of George Orwell novel “1984

For a moment he was alone, then the door opened and O’Brien came in.

‘You asked me once,’ said O’Brien, ‘what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.’

The door opened again. A guard came in, carrying something made of wire, a box or basket of some kind. He set it down on the further table. Because of the position in which O’Brien was standing. Winston could not see what the thing was.

‘The worst thing in the world,’ said O’Brien, ‘varies from individual to individual. It may be burial alive, or death by fire, or by drowning, or by impalement, or fifty other deaths. There are cases where it is some quite trivial thing, not even fatal.’

He had moved a little to one side, so that Winston had a better view of the thing on the table. It was an oblong wire cage with a handle on top for carrying it by. Fixed to the front of it was something that looked like a fencing mask, with the concave side outwards. Although it was three or four metres away from him, he could see that the cage was divided lengthways into two compartments, and that there was some kind of creature in each. They were rats.

‘In your case,’ said O’Brien, ‘the worst thing in the world happens to be rats.’

A sort of premonitory tremor, a fear of he was not certain what, had passed through Winston as soon as he caught his first glimpse of the cage. But at this moment the meaning of the mask-like attachment in front of it suddenly sank into him. His bowels seemed to turn to water.

‘You can’t do that!’ he cried out in a high cracked voice. ‘You couldn’t, you couldn’t! It’s impossible.’

‘Do you remember,’ said O’Brien, ‘the moment of panic that used to occur in your dreams? There was a wall of blackness in front of you, and a roaring sound in your ears. There was something terrible on the other side of the wall. You knew that you knew what it was, but you dared not drag it into the open. It was the rats that were on the other side of the wall.’

‘O’Brien!’ said Winston, making an effort to control his voice. ‘You know this is not necessary. What is it that you want me to do?’

O’Brien made no direct answer. When he spoke it was in the schoolmasterish manner that he sometimes affected. He looked thoughtfully into the distance, as though he were addressing an audience somewhere behind Winston’s back.

‘By itself,’ he said, ‘pain is not always enough. There are occasions when a human being will stand out against pain, even to the point of death. But for everyone there is something unendurable — something that cannot be contemplated. Courage and cowardice are not involved. If you are falling from a height it is not cowardly to clutch at a rope. If you have come up from deep water it is not cowardly to fill your lungs with air. It is merely an instinct which cannot be destroyed. It is the same with the rats. For you, they are unendurable. They are a form of pressure that you cannot withstand, even if you wished to. You will do what is required of you.

‘But what is it, what is it? How can I do it if I don’t know what it is?’

O’Brien picked up the cage and brought it across to the nearer table. He set it down carefully on the baize cloth. Winston could hear the blood singing in his ears. He had the feeling of sitting in utter loneliness. He was in the middle of a great empty plain, a flat desert drenched with sunlight, across which all sounds came to him out of immense distances. Yet the cage with the rats was not two metres away from him. They were enormous rats. They were at the age when a rat’s muzzle grows blunt and fierce and his fur brown instead of grey.

‘The rat,’ said O’Brien, still addressing his invisible audience, ‘although a rodent, is carnivorous. You are aware of that. You will have heard of the things that happen in the poor quarters of this town. In some streets a woman dare not leave her baby alone in the house, even for five minutes. The rats are certain to attack it. Within quite a small time they will strip it to the bones. They also attack sick or dying people. They show astonishing intelligence in knowing when a human being is helpless.’

There was an outburst of squeals from the cage. It seemed to reach Winston from far away. The rats were fighting; they were trying to get at each other through the partition. He heard also a deep groan of despair. That, too, seemed to come from outside himself.

O’Brien picked up the cage, and, as he did so, pressed something in it. There was a sharp click. Winston made a frantic effort to tear himself loose from the chair. It was hopeless; every part of him, even his head, was held immovably. O’Brien moved the cage nearer. It was less than a metre from Winston’s face.

‘I have pressed the first lever,’ said O’Brien. ‘You understand the construction of this cage. The mask will fit over your head, leaving no exit. When I press this other lever, the door of the cage will slide up. These starving brutes will shoot out of it like bullets. Have you ever seen a rat leap through the air? They will leap on to your face and bore straight into it. Sometimes they attack the eyes first. Sometimes they burrow through the cheeks and devour the tongue.’

The cage was nearer; it was closing in. Winston heard a succession of shrill cries which appeared to be occurring in the air above his head. But he fought furiously against his panic. To think, to think, even with a split second left — to think was the only hope. Suddenly the foul musty odour of the brutes struck his nostrils. There was a violent convulsion of nausea inside him, and he almost lost consciousness. Everything had gone black. For an instant he was insane, a screaming animal. Yet he came out of the blackness clutching an idea. There was one and only one way to save himself. He must interpose another human being, the body of another human being, between himself and the rats.

The circle of the mask was large enough now to shut out the vision of anything else. The wire door was a couple of hand-spans from his face. The rats knew what was coming now. One of them was leaping up and down, the other, an old scaly grandfather of the sewers, stood up, with his pink hands against the bars, and fiercely sniffed the air. Winston could see the whiskers and the yellow teeth. Again the black panic took hold of him. He was blind, helpless, mindless.

‘It was a common punishment in Imperial China,’ said O’Brien as didactically as ever.

The mask was closing on his face. The wire brushed his cheek. And then — no, it was not relief, only hope, a tiny fragment of hope. Too late, perhaps too late. But he had suddenly understood that in the whole world there was just one person to whom he could transfer his punishment — one body that he could thrust between himself and the rats. And he was shouting frantically, over and over.

‘Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me! Julia! Not me!’

For the girls, “the worst thing in the world” was the visits from the grandfather. And while these two should have been the most natural of allies, the situation forced them to turn against each other for self-preservation – “No, do it to her!” became the cry of desperation of the sisters.

And Del Nita, being the older of the two, quickly learned the kind of survival skill of re-directing the negative attention onto her sister. Her sister ended up getting the worst of it. And Teri hated her for it.

Beth purposely did things to get her sister in trouble. Years later, Beth told the story of having to care for her mother by emptying her catheter. The urine had to be drained from the catheter, and it was disposed of outside in the field. Her Grama made Beth and her sister take turns carrying it out. Beth hated doing this. One day she took her grandmother’s dentures and put them in the can with the pee. It was her sister’s turn to dump them out in the field. Naturally her grandmother discovered her dentures missing. Beth told her where they were, and that her sister did it so she would get the beating.

Now this all may sound callous and selfish but self-preservation is a basic human instinct. She was trying to survive.

“Jane”

“Jane recognized the sensation of not being in control of herself. It had happened all her life.”

How accurately does “Jane” describe this little girl?

How accurately does “Jane” describe this little girl?

What was the young, sexually-abused Del Nita like? It’s hard to say, but this is a selection from a short story that she wrote, but never published, entitled “Dick and Jane”. The protagonists are an adult married couple, but the little girl Jane, described here, is the daughter of “George” and “Vickie”:

Jane recognized the sensation of not being in control of herself. It had happened all her life. In her earliest memory, she remembered losing control just before her fifth birthday. Her mother had asked her to do something in the bedroom. It was either to clean off the bed, or, to pull up the sheets, or something or other to do with tidying up the room. It had been so long ago that the exact chore wasn’t an issue any more. Jane only remembered that she didn’t want to clean up her room and that she had wanted to color in her new book.

“You may not come out of your room until you finish your work.” There was a soft click as the door closed.

Jane went into a rage. She ripped the curtains off the window. It felt good.

“That will hurt Mommie,” she thought. But, she wanted to hurt Mommie more.

Jane tore the sheets and ripped up the bedspread with her teeth and did what damage she could do with her new paper scissors. She rolled up the dirty clothes and stuffed them under the bed. She took anything that she could and put anything anywhere that it didn’t belong. She wanted everything upside down. It felt good to mess up her room and to hurt Mommie. The more she destroyed the better she felt.

* * *

Jane woke up and looked into the dark. Her bedroom window showed a picture of night and pretty stars. She was thirsty and hungry. She pretended to ice skate in her fluffy yellow slippers down the wooden floor hallway to find her Mommie. Mommie’s voice sounded scared and sad. Daddy was talking low and soft.

“She only threw a temper tantrum,” her father said.

Jane stopped skating by her Mommie and Daddy’s room and held her breath.

“No! She did not just throw a temper tantrum, George. She was like a crazed, wild animal in there. She pissed all over her bed and rubbed shit on the windows and walls. There is something wrong with her! That’s not normal,” her mother slapped her face in her hands and started to cry in sobs.

Jane peeked through the cracked open door into her parents’ bedroom. They were sitting on the edge of the bed. Her mother’s head was down in her hands and her father was sitting by her looking down at the floor.

* * *

The hall between Jane’s room and the master bedroom was dark and small. A sliver of light glowed from the little crack that was slightly ajar by the doorway.

“I dare you to press your nose on that door,” the voice in her head taunted.

“What good would that do?” Jane whispered. But she knew it would be fun to listen and see them without getting caught. If she bumped the door sneaking too close to it, it would be bad.

Jane sniffed around the curb instead. Daddy’s Vitalis hair tonic fumed behind the door and smelled wonderful. She could hear them better closer to the door.

“Why don’t we go to bed and see about this in the morning,” he sighed. “I’m tired and I have to go in early to the office with revised blueprints.”

“You just go home, it’s one o’clock in the morning now and you have to go in early?”

Jane frowned. “Mommie looks very mad at Daddy.” Jane wanted to cut Mommie with the big scissors that were in the top kitchen drawer. Jane liked the idea to hurt Mommie. She watched them without making a sound in the hall.

“What Jane did today was not normal!” Her mother cried harder. “George, you weren’t here and you didn’t see what she did. You go ahead and go to work and pretend it’s only a temper tantrum, but I’m taking her to a psychiatrist in the morning. I’ve already made the appointment.”

George slapped his leg and stood up, “Al right then, what do you want from me? I’m going to bed.” He started to walk to the door where Jane was.

Jane backed up through the hall, keeping her eyes on her father until she couldn’t see him anymore. She turned around the corner and flew into her bed, diving onto the mattress under the covers in one smooth move. “Why was her Mommie sad and crying like a baby? What did I do?” She didn’t remember anything except jumping up and down on her bed. She did remember a bath and some help from Mommie putting on her pajamas today. “What happened? Daddy said I just got a little out of control. Jane loved her Daddy. Daddy didn’t seem mad at her, she thought. The last thing he said to Mommie was, “Try not to make more out of it Victoria.” He seemed mad at Mommie. That made Jane feel good and smile. She still had her fluffy slippers on but her feet were cold anyway. She curled up on her side and went back to sleep with a big grin on her face. The sleep that takes babies away came for her.

“She was lotioning my feet”

In 1970, when she was 10, with her seven-year-old sister Teri, Del Nita was dropped off to live with and be a dependent of the sexual abusing grandfather.

Abuser-papa-1961

“Even when I was this age, he was messing with me”

George Airel may have been preserving his own life, but he unknowingly placed his daughters into a very hellish situation. Both of them were being sexually molested by the grandfather.

Vickie was from Yakima, Washington. Del Nita was born in Sacramento, CA. The family moved to Inyokern, in southern California. No doubt there were family trips between the two locations. Vacations.

Not long after we met, Bethany showed me the photograph which appears nearby. The man in the photograph, her grandfather Delmont, was sexually fondling her even at that age. At first he was simply licking her ears. Even when she and her sister were small, he would hold them in his lap and “let his hands and fingers wander while watching TV.”

In one of her later journals, she had written a story about another early experience when she first caught him masturbating. He was drinking and wearing an open bath robe.

In those early years, he would make her get hand lotion and she would masturbate him. Their mother once walked in on the two of them at one point.

“She was lotioning my feet,” the grandfather said.

Perhaps her own mother had been abused by him. Beth didn’t know. Her grandmother may or may not have known what was going on.

So in 1970, when she was age 10, with her seven-year-old sister Teri, young Del Nita was dropped off to live with and be a dependent of the sexual abusing grandfather. George Airel then drove away, and vanished into the air, even though young Del Nita chased his car up the road as far as she could as he drove off. She desperately wished for him to return, but she would not see him again until she was married with five children.

“Bethany Muscles”

“Beth comes from a very long line of angry women. Her great grandmother, ..., was very angry and domineering as was her grandmother and mother. There seems to be something hereditary about it.” – From her father.

Here is Beth and her father, when he took us to visit her childhood home in Inyokern, June 2000.

Here is Beth and her father, when he took us to visit her childhood home in Inyokern, CA, June 2000.

Beth was born in a Sacramento hospital to George Airel and Victoria (Vickie) Orr; he was a graphic artist who created mock-ups of proposed weapons systems for a US military contractor, and on the side he played country guitar in a bar band. Vickie was a 17-year-old girl, and a very respectable looking girl, from the nude photos that George gave me later.

On her father’s side, I have no record of her grandfather, Robert Airel. He had apparently lived in Texas, and married Elizabeth La Masters of Albuquerque – this is probably the French lineage that Beth described to us. Her grandmother, Elizabeth, had three sisters and also a brother named Dave. “They are all gone now,” her father said in a letter to me, but apparently there are a lot of relatives living in Albuquerque, NM. I’ve never looked them up.

On her mother’s side, her “Great Grandma Perkins” had travelled across country in a covered wagon, and must have settled in the south central Washington area early in the 20th century. Beth knew her well, and in fact, was married in Grandma Perkins’s wedding gown. She always talked lovingly about Grandma Perkins as having “come over in a covered wagon, and lived to see the space shuttle”. Great Grandma Perkins evoked good memories.

Her daughter Juanita was born in 1912. Juanita married a Delmont Orr, whom Beth said frequently talked about Bobby Orr, the Canadian hockey player who played for the Boston Bruins in the 1960’s and 70’s. There’s no way to tell if there was any relation, but Beth did have a strong handshake and very strong wrists, and she was very strong for a woman. I talked about “Bethany muscles” because she was so strong.

Beth grew up in Inyokern, CA, a small town east of Bakersfield, CA, and more than half way between Los Angeles and Death Valley. She had generally happy memories of those years in Inyokern, living with her mom and dad, and her little sister Teri. There was an open field nearby, and the girls learned to beware of scorpions and vinegaroons. “We’d take toilet paper rolls out to the field and catch them and shake them up”.

Even as a small girl, though, young Del Nita was being sexually fondled and molested by her grandfather, Delmont. Delmont and Juanita (“Del and Nita”) lived in Yakima, a town in south central Washington. I don’t know how George and Vickie met, nor how they got from Yakima to Sacramento to Inyokern. Beth hadn’t seen her father since she was 10 years old. I knew that her mom had gotten sick with MS, and shortly thereafter, her father dropped mother and daughters off in Yakima when she was 10 years old, and she never saw him again. The first years of our marriage, she always hoped that he was a rich artist and musician who would ride over the hill to rescue her.

That wasn’t the case. We met her father in 2000; I found him because of some bankruptcy proceedings that had been posted on the Internet. She was 30 years old when she saw him again for the first time in more than 20 years. I had written him some years later, after Beth got back from the military. She was diagnosed with PTSD, and she was in counseling for anger issues. Here’s his accounting of her family history (I’ve retained his spelling):

I am very sorry to hear that you and Beth are having marital problems. Although I’m not very surprised about the nature of it. – Beth comes from a very long line of angry women [emphasis in original]. Her great grandmother, who’s name I’ve forgotten, was very angry and domineering as was her grandmother and mother. There seems to be something hereditary about it. I believe that I’ve written you before about my eleven wasted years with her mother. – Strangely, they all chose mild mannered men for husbands and dominated them with anger. Beth’s grandfather, Delmount, (Del) was a very nice, mild mannered guy. He was an amateur artist and musician and we got along very well. Beth’s grandmother was angry, dominating, dissatisfied, and nagged poor old Del to death. He turned to liquor to dull the pain. He tried to escape from her several times, but she would run him down wherever he was and “sweet-talk” him to come back to her. Then the process would begain all over again. I’m sure that death was a relief for him.

There’s plenty more to say about this. Interestingly, George contrasted his experience with Delmont’s:

I was of a slightly different breed. – In 1969 at the age of about 37 years, I decided that I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life like that. I came right out and told Vicky that I wanted a divorce. Boy! Did that ever set her off! She screamed and hollered for hours but I held my ground. – Then later she tried the same old trick her mother did. She told me she would change and would be sweet and loving. But after eleven years of living with her I knew better. – She would never change.

I’ve already mentioned that a formative incident in Beth’s early life was the time when she, Teri, and her mom were in a grocery store; her mom fell down and evacuated her bladder and bowels, and there was no one to help the small girls. Shortly thereafter, George said:

I made all the arrangements for her to keep the kids and move out to be with her parents in Washington state. I gave her the lions share of our savings ($6,000.00) and agreed to child support. I sold some real estate we owned and other community property and split the money with her. And of course, I paid for the lawyer and the divorce. And I bought her a car. (Which she wrecked).

Let me tell you, when all was said and done, I was so relieved and happy. I had no regrets at all. I figured I had saved my own life. In retrospect, I don’t think I realized how miserable I was while I was living with her.

Now this all may sound callous and selfish but self preservation is a basic human instinct.

Indeed, self-preservation is a basic human instinct.

The Providence of God

Nothing happened by accident, but everything was somehow the will of God.

Four Spiritual Laws

For a while, as a teen, I collected religious tracts like this one, and would read them in my free time.

People who know me today (and who know me as a blogger) would never believe that I once considered studying for the Roman Catholic priesthood. But I considered it seriously, and I had even applied for, and was accepted to, the local Catholic seminary.

When I was in high school, I had some friends who were “Born Again Christians” (a term that became popular with the presidency of Jimmy Carter). They did some strange things, like pray between classes at their lockers, and give me religious tracts on the “four spiritual laws” and things like that.

At first, what the tracts were saying didn’t add up with me. I’d been taught that the Gospel of Matthew said “Thou art Peter and on this rock I’ll build my Catholic Church.” When there were free periods, or substitute teachers, and the discussions would lead to talks of religion, I would defend the Roman Catholic side. There were a number of occasions during which I would argue with these friends. But I’d also read their tracts, and I learned a few things. I learned that the Bible said something different from what the Catholic Church had been teaching me all these years.

I never had a girlfriend in high school. And nor did I really ever have a girlfriend in college. During those years I worked in a Ponderosa Steakhouse restaurant. There were a number of girls I liked – I could “get a crush” on a pretty girl at the drop of a hat. I was incredibly shy. And I had no idea how to ask a girl out on a date. But during my sophomore year of college, there was one girl, Carol, who was a couple of years younger than me. She and I would frequently close the store at night, and while she lived within walking distance of the restaurant, she’d frequently end up waiting for her father to come and pick her up. He worked as a security guard at a local mall, and most of the time she’d have to wait for him. I’d wait with her so she wouldn’t have to be alone. And sometimes I’d even have the car, so I would ride her home.

Now there is nothing at all of interest in this story about Carol and me – except that I had one of my many crushes on her, and she didn’t feel the same way about me. During the summer and fall of 1978, I was able to muster the courage to ask her out, and she and I probably went on a couple of dates together, but by Christmas of that year, I knew something was up because she had invited her long-time friend Marty to the “snowball dance” (she had a crush on him!) – The “break-up”, if you can call it that, was extremely hard on me. During the next several months, I had a palpable pain in my chest from a broken heart. If I ever lost faith, or rather, if I ever tried to lose faith in my life, it was during those months. I tried to be selfish and self-centered and even went on a cussing binge. But this was short lived. I just couldn’t do it.

I was a runner during those college years as well. That summer, I tried to forget about the pain from this loss by running harder – that was the only year that I ran through the winter. By the following summer I was in good running shape. But I ran too hard, and tore a sheath in my lower leg. It wasn’t a problem except that it would only hurt when I’d run!

So late that summer, in addition to feeling the pain in my chest that never went away, I couldn’t run to try to forget about it! Around that same time, I turned back to the religious tracts that had promised meaning in life, and I also started reading the New Testament that I’d been given by my priest for my high school graduation.

One day, reading the Gospel of John, I had an undeniable encounter with God’s love for me, through Jesus’s prayer for his disciples: “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” Now, I knew a little bit about Augustine, and his doctrine of the Trinity, and there was something really special about this love between the Father and the Son. And here was Jesus, saying “You have loved them even as you loved me”. The same kind of love. This love overwhelmed my young heart – the pain in my chest went away instantly, and I remember looking up from that passage knowing that I had had that “new birth” experience I had been looking for.

While it wasn’t at that point a theological mandate in my life, I ended up leaving the Roman Catholic Church in phases. This “infallible Church” had nothing in its infallible doctrines or sacraments to account for this new birth that I was keenly aware of. First I went to a Catholic Charismatic group. Then I found some Protestant Charismatic friends. And it didn’t take too long before I was out the door.

But I didn’t have an easy time with it. When I decided to leave Roman Catholicism for the first time, my father and I had terrible wars over it. I was in college at the time, and I was dependent on him financially. He grew up in a poor rural area during the depression and had developed a hatred for “Proudestants” some time during his youth that I was not aware of. He was determined that his son was not going to be one

Most teens in those days, the late 1970’s, were rebelling with “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” I was rebelling by reading the Bible and going to prayer meetings.

Because I had been “sovereignly captured” by the Lord in my new birth experience, I came to believe in such Protestant doctrines as God’s Sovereignty and Providence. Nothing happened by accident, but everything that came was somehow the will of God. And it was almost immediately following my graduation from Pitt that the Lord put Jeff Steinberg in my path.

I was graduated from college in May 1981, right into the middle of a recession. Later that summer, I ended up getting a job with Jeff Steinberg (www.tinygiant.com), a Christian singer who had a voice like Neil Diamond. He was born to a Jewish family in the early 1950’s, a “Thalidomide Baby,” with no arms and legs that were badly deformed. He had become a Christian as an early teen, through the witness of an elderly couple who visited him at his “home for crippled children”. They’d take him to Gospel music concerts, and he learned to sing by turning up the volume on their record albums and singing along with the various vocal parts. His mere presence on stage was a powerful testimony to our God-given ability to overcome adversity; his music both enriched and challenged my soul.

He lived in and worked out of Memphis, Tennessee. I became his driver and sound man and personal assistant. From 1981-1986, we traveled thousands of miles every year, to churches all across the US and in a couple of foreign countries, with Jeff performing concerts and telling his life story about how he had grown up in foster care and how he eventually became a Christian.

And during that time, I did two “religious” things. First, I became a part of a Protestant church, where I learned about the Reformation and the origin and meaning of central Protestant doctrines such as “Scripture alone”, “Christ alone”, and “justification by faith alone.” These doctrines filled my heart and mind to the point that I wanted to study them more – and indeed, I looked to attend a Protestant seminary.

But second, as we traveled, because Jeff was active in pro-life groups, I met some devout Catholic people, who encouraged me to give Catholicism another chance. And one individual who became a very good friend said, “why not go to a Catholic seminary?”

There are things about Roman Catholicism that are attractive: especially the solemnity, the quiet and worshipful nature of the typical Roman Catholic Church. The devoutness of some of the people, like this man’s family. It put my brain on overload. And it was another kind of turning point for me.

So during the summer of 1984, I seriously considered this question. Each Sunday when I had the opportunity, I attended my Protestant church service in the morning, and then went to the Roman Catholic Mass later in the day. I came to the conclusion that there were beautiful opportunities to worship the Lord in Roman Catholicism.

But on the other hand, as a person who has wrestled with Roman Catholicism all my life, on both sides of the Protestant/Catholic divide, the one question that kept coming back to me was, “why is the Roman Catholic religion so different from ‘the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3) that’s so plainly evident in the New Testament?”

I could not figure it out. But one of Jeff’s songs was “Bloom Where You’re Planted”. I had been “planted” within Roman Catholicism. And so I decided to look for and cherish those opportunities to stay put.

* * *

During those early years when I traveled with him, and because we had long hours to talk about personal things, Jeff knew how quickly I could fall for a girl, and the loneliness that came with it. So he liked to play “matchmaker” for me during those years – after a concert, he’d give a “record pitch” – I’d stand up on stage with him, and hold up his albums and cassettes, and Jeff would remind people to buy these products after the concert. Then whenever he’d introduce me, he’d say, “John is single, available, anyone who’d like to marry him, see me back at the record table.”

Well, sure enough, there were a few takers. The summer of 1982 one girl, Donna, from Corning, NY, came back and took Jeff up on his offer. She and I went out on a date that week, and later that summer, I visited her in Corning. Jeff made another match for me too that summer. Roxie was working in the emergency room of a hospital in Oklahoma City that we needed to visit when Jeff’s son got his finger smashed in the van door while we were traveling. She worked in OKC, but she lived in Bethany, OK. Yes, I fell in love with both of them at the same time – and of course Jeff fixed me up with dates. Later, I traveled to visit both of them. It was a heady time for me.

That summer, I learned about “French kissing,” but always the perfect gentleman, my hands never roamed. Then in 1983, when Jeff was singing in Germany for the US Army chaplains, there was a girl named Tammy, from the eastern part of Washington state. She was a Chaplain’s assistant – basically a secretary – she and I spent a little bit of time together, roaming around Germany, getting lost on the trains, and I fell in love with her too. Jeff and the Chaplains traveled to Switzerland one day – but Tammy forgot her military ID, and so she and I had to spend the day on the German side of the Rhine river. We could see the hills of Switzerland, and if I recall, we spent some time kissing and enjoying the scenery. What a beautiful day with a beautiful young lady.

But mere days would come and go. And because we were traveling, and even though I could travel to have a vacation with these young ladies, each of these “long distance” relationships left me ever lonelier whenever I had to get back on the road. I had this sense that I didn’t want to marry someone in Oklahoma and be largely cut off from my family in Pittsburgh.

The issue of studying at a Catholic seminary, and going into the priesthood, kept coming back to me. There is a sense of “ought-ness” about Roman Catholicism, almost an obligation that I “ought” to do more, and to do the most, it seemed, would involve embracing the pain of my loneliness, and seeing my shyness and failure with girls as a sign that the unmarried life of a priest might well be God’s plan for me.

So I came home in September of 1984, applied for the seminary, and was accepted.

Seminary required a year’s worth of “philosophical prerequisites” before you could start your studies in theology. In an effort to save time, I asked if I could take the prerequisites in the January semester so I could start seminary in September. But their response was, no, start philosophy in September, and attend the seminary a year later.

I was impatient, and so in January of 1985, frustrated with the slowness of the process, I went back out on the road with Jeff. He had hired another driver by that time, Tommy, and I traveled with Tommy and Jeff for most of the next year and a half.

But I remained Roman Catholic, and I became more persuaded that, while I couldn’t attend the seminary on the time frame that was laid out for me – I was far too impatient for it – I could find a vocation with an order such as the Capuchin Franciscans – and I spent time and effort looking into that as an option.

* * *

During this same period, late 1984, and early 1985, Bethany was finishing up a tour of duty as a Military Intelligence analyst in Augsburg, Germany. She was a “Specialist 4,” the equivalent of a corporal.

She was, no doubt, a good soldier, having successfully experienced the Army’s strict military discipline. This was the post-Vietnam era, and the beginning of the Reagan era, when the military was on the rise and held itself in high esteem. She was proud to be a Soldier.

Just to show a bit of Bethany’s attitude at the time, I have a document, a “Disposition Form 2496, that describes a disciplinary incident from “21MAR 84” (The names have been changed here):

1. On March 20, 1984, at appr. 2030 hrs. I, SP/4 Airel, entered the kitchen on the third floor of bldg..155.

2. SGT. Eek was standing in front of the sink as I approached the sink, SGT Eek slid to the side.

3. At the sink, while I was filling a water jug, I turned to SGT Eek and said, “You know what?” STT Eek then replied, “that you’re an asshole?” I then in turn said, “I’ve always wanted to tell you that you were a dumb cunt.” At that time I left the kitchen.

4. However, when I initiated the conversation, it was to ask SGT Eek if she knew anything about the burn marks on my door name tag.

5. There were witnesses but when I spoke with PFC [Name] this morning he said he didn’t hear SGT Eek’s comment. I do not know who the other people where [sic].

6. I didn’t go out of my way to be disrespectful. This was blurted out in self-defense.

AIREL, DELNITA E.
SP/4 USA
1st OPSDE3rd PLT

There are two supporting documents; one seems to be another official explanation, “Disposition Form 2496, which reads as follows:

1. I SP/4 Airel, feel I have been harassed by SGT Eek for the past 7 months. SGT Eek has told lies to the husband of my immediate supervisork [sic] SGT Golly, who inturn questions me about them. The most prominent incident being, in Dec 1983. SGT Eek told SSG Golly that she when [sic] to SGT Winky’s room to get some paint. SGT Eek reported that I supposedly threw myself to the floor, grabbed SGT Winky around the legs and begged SGT Eek “not to take my man.” SGT Golly questioned me about this to see if my personal life was ok. I then informed SGT Golly that this incident did not occur.

2. There are constant reoccurring minor incidences that SGT Eek does to belittle me. IE. 1) Whispers or giggles when I pass her in the halls, be it at work or in the barracks. 2) She has deliberately let a door slam in my face. 3) She makes comments to other barracks personnel about me/.

3. I have felt all along that I had no recourse in solving this matter. Because I’m a SP/4 and she is a SGT. I have even gone to SFC Brake about this who is my PLt SGT. It seems as if NCO’s=can do as they please and because I’m not I have to go along with it. I am respectful of rank, and don’t understand how SGT Eek can do this as an NCO. Especially since NCO’s are supposed to show the way and lead by example.

AIREL, DELNITA E.
SP/4 USA
1st OPSDE3rd PLT

I’ve reproduced these documents with as much exactness here as I could; they appear to be the carbon copies of typed documents.

There is one other document – actually, I have two separate copies of the same document that goes into further detail about the incident:

I am presenting this statement on my own behalf in regards to an incident that occurred on 20 March 1984, between myself and SGT. B. Eek. I have been advised by my supervisor not to state anything that may incriminate myself, but I have earlier admitted to calling SGT Eek a “dumb cunt”, however I wish to restate that I only did so after being provoked by her. I entered the 3rd floor kitchen (building 155) and was 2 to 3 feet away from her, when she called me an “asshole”. The group of people in the kitchen were engaged in conversation at the time and SGT Eek spoke in a normal voice which may not have been heard by the other people who were not paying particular attention to us, and were 5 to 6 feet away. I was very angry by SGT Eek’s remark and I made my remark in a very loud and angry voice.

It is no secret that SGT Eek and I have a long standing personality conflict. I had requested prior to this incident, through NCO channels to be moved to the 3rd Floor of Building 154 to help reduce the chances of a confrontation with her. I understand that disrespect towards and NCO/Superior is a serious offense, but I feel that an NCO that displays behavior unbecoming of an NCO they can expect some loss of respect for their rank. This does not make my actions right, it only illustrates that I am a young and inexperienced soldier who can make a mistake. I wish to point out that I have been assigned to 1st Ops Bn since August 1981, and have never been involved in any incidents of a derogatory nature. I have always tried to look and act in the proper manner, my supervisors both past and present will verify that I perform my duties in an outstanding manner. I realize that I made a mistake, one that I will not make again, and that my past be considered if there is to be any form of reprimand or punishment.

DELNITA E. AIREL
SP4, USA

This is the only record of the individuals mentioned here, and except for Sergeant Winky (who was her “man” at the time), she had no further record or mention of them.

What was striking to me was that she had called herself a “young and inexperienced soldier”, even though she had been in the Army, in one form or another, since 1980; she was an SP4, the equivalent of a Corporal, and no mere green recruit. But she used what she could – something nearby that was plausible, and maybe it worked for her. There were no further discipline papers in her stack.

This was her world – the world that she had come from before we met. And in fact, this was merely the tip of the iceberg of her world. Aside from my own brief experience alongside the Army in Germany, I couldn’t have understood this at all. There was so much that I didn’t know about her.

Our First Date

“She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!” – John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

"Keats urn" by John Keats (1795-1821)

“Keats urn” by John Keats (1795-1821)

In the meantime, I was working in retail sales, for a company called Color Tile, and my schedule involved working “retail hours”. As for timing, on a Monday in those days, I would have worked an evening shift. And so, to accommodate my evening classes, KC, my manager normally scheduled me Monday nights, then a day shift on Tuesdays, and all day off Wednesdays.

That night at work, I told the guys that I had met a girl, and that I had a date with her. In those days, little kids didn’t grow up to want to be retail flooring salespeople. Like Seinfeld’s “moving in with your parents”, when you worked in retail selling floor tile, it wasn’t a sign that your life was on track.

Nevertheless, I liked the guys I worked with – “Jay”, Dave, Don, and KC. I had just recently turned 27, and except for me, KC was the youngest of the group – maybe he was 30. He was conscientious about his job; he had been promoted to manager because he was a genuinely good salesperson. Color Tile, a division of Radio Shack (The Tandy Company back then), was all about making sales. We earned a straight commission in those days – with a draw against commission, which assured we made minimum wage – that had to be paid back, before we would earn anything extra.

Dave was probably the oldest – and he was a hard-working guy to boot. Jay – whose name was really Jim, but it was changed to Jay when he started because there was another guy named Jim, and they wanted to avoid confusion. Because we worked on commission, you didn’t want a customer coming in and asking for you, but getting the wrong guy.

Jay was a guy whose first marriage had crashed because of alcohol, and he lost his career as an English teacher as well. At 38, he already had gray hair; it was as long as you could get it and still be within the appropriate workplace limits – this was the 80’s after all. And it usually seemed uncombed. He had big blue eyes, a skewer for a nose, and thick gray mustache. He and I had a lot in common, and we frequently talked shop – literature shop – while we stood around waiting for customers to come into the store. Recall, I was taking a course in English Romantic Poetry; Jay’s favorite poet from that era was John Keats.

And finally, there was Don, 45, a divorced alcoholic with a 12-year-old daughter named Bethany, and so when I brought up that I had a date with a girl named Bethany, we had something important to talk about.

On hearing about the date, KC joked with me and said, “I hope you get lucky”.

I remember getting up in the middle of the night to call Beth at her store, and maybe I even had picked her up in the mornings to give her a ride to school, or rides home in the day. By later in the week, my next evening off – did my Wednesday class cancel, or was it Thursday or Friday? – Beth and I were on our first date, to see the movie “Platoon”. Since she had recently been in the army, I thought that suggesting a military-based movie would be meaningful for her. I was, at that point in my life, accustomed to being turned down by women, and I wanted to have everything in my favor that I could get.

When I picked her up, the evening sun was shining in through the front window of her apartment, into the kitchen and front room. Her hair was magnificently brushed, like a lion’s mane, and she wore her blue silk throw-over jacket with a Japanese symbol embroidered on the back. Her hair draped over her throw-over and covered the symbol in the back. She moved constantly, puffing her hair, spraying it lightly, puffing again. She smoked a cigarette as she finished primping, and we got in the car.

Even though she smoked, she hated the smell of cigarette smoke. She always carried a spray bottle of some female splash, and she sprayed herself lightly. I was amazed, but this took off the edge of the smoke. She wore black high-heeled ankle boots and black nylons, and I clearly remembered the nylons. And she had on too much bright red lipstick. Her lips were thin, I noticed. But she looked luscious. She carried a clutch of some type – most likely it was her journal, and a large bag over her arm.

I’m cautious and indecisive, and when we walked into the theater, I stopped for a second at the back to look for an open seat, and when I looked again, she was half-way down the center aisle, walking quickly toward a large open area of seats in the front. For some reason, I had never sat too far down in the front, out of the risk of getting a stiff neck from looking up. But she made it work well.

During the movie, as was the standard plan for a guy in those days, as I recall it, I put my arm around her, and soon afterward, we kissed. She eagerly kissed me back, with a passion that I was unprepared for. Her lips were thin and soft, and from that moment on, I never tired from kissing her. For most of our lives together, when we were making love, whatever else we would be doing, we would always be kissing. And as the war scenes played out on the screen, Bethany and I continued to kiss passionately, coming up for air for moments, and then leaning again into our impassioned embrace.

Without a doubt I became aroused. I tried always to be the perfect gentleman, and especially at that time, the thought of having sex never would have come up. Of course, I thought about it, but I never would have hinted that we should try anything. She seemed to like that gentlemanliness from me.

After the movie, maybe we had dessert at Denny’s or another open-late restaurant that was on the way to her home. Likely I would have dropped Beth off at her apartment to change, and then would have given her a ride over to the A-Plus. In those early days, I was dropping her off, maybe hanging around for a while, and then driving home. My brother worked nights, and my soon-to-be brother in law Larry was sharing a bed with him at the time, sleeping in shifts. I got back from the date very late, and Larry was still awake. Later Larry told me he remembered me coming in and just being thrilled about having a girlfriend. Not long afterward, he did meet Beth, and he understood why I was captivated with her.

During those first few weeks, I remember calling her in the middle of the night, while she was working, and visiting her on several occasions during her night-shift. For sure, I wasn’t getting enough sleep in those days. Then I’d drive out and pick her up in the mornings and drop her off at the college. If I wasn’t working during the day, we’d have lunch together. One sunny day she and I had a bagged lunch outside, on the lone picnic table that the college kept out on the lawn. We finished sandwiches and she fed me tangerine wedges. I noticed her fingerless gloves.

“It’s not warm enough to go without gloves yet,” she said.

“I’ve heard that cutting the fingers off your gloves symbolizes emasculation.”

“I know,” she said.

Later I understood she had good cause to be in favor of emasculation in some cases.

“If it were January,” I said, “we could get the thick-skinned California seedless oranges. The best oranges always come out right after Christmas. By March you can’t find them anymore.”

“We’re outside, you can just spit the seeds in the grass,” she said, very matter-of-factly, and we laughed. She had a mischievous grin, with her red lipstick and her small, smoke-stained teeth. One of her front teeth was chipped. She stuffed another tangerine wedge in my mouth. I stuck it out like a tongue, and she bit it off and we kissed again. Years later, her friend Suzie told me that she loved kissing, because it made her feel loved.

I would try to hang around with her whatever chance we would get during those early weeks, and she appreciated my attention and my affections. I am a person who can fall in love at the drop of a hat, and between the attention I was getting from her and the actual time that we spent kissing, I could not imagine being closer to heaven.

* * *

From an early age, “Heaven” was frequently “top-of-mind” among my concerns. Some of my earliest memories involved being in church with my mom. For the most part (but not totally!) I paid attention in CCD. Second grade was awesome, with confession and first communion. As a curious little boy, I was one of several who claimed that the unblessed host we had been given in the walk-thru had gotten stuck to the roof of my mouth, and I wanted to try and practice with another one. The priest took us back to the sacristy and gave us another practice wafer. “Whatever you do,” he told us. “if it does get stuck to the roof of your mouth, don’t stick your finger in your mouth to get it down.”

I was one of a much smaller group of kids who were confirmed in 7th grade. I knew who Augustine was, and I understood his doctrine of the Trinity. And I was strongly persuaded that the Biblical verse used as a proof-text for the papacy, read, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Catholic Church.” I came to this persuasion not ever having actually read the Bible.

* * *

It didn’t take me long at all to fall completely head-over-heels, senselessly in love with Bethany. After our first date, the next morning, I picked her up and rode her to school before going to work. She kissed me on the cheek, leaving a red lipstick mark, and I left the mark there as I strode into the store, right into the pack of guys whose primary role seemed to be to razz me.

K.C. asked me if I got lucky. I told him, I certainly did.

Red Lights

“I know things between John & I have been fast, but I loved him in a week & I seem to love him more everyday with no doubts what so-ever” – Bethany, from a journal entry dated, May 3, 1987.

An aerial view of the block where Bethany lived when we met

This is an aerial view of the block where Bethany lived when we met

Things happened quickly for us.

Now the first thing to say at this time in my own life is that I wasn’t quite “a man with a plan”. Or, if it could be admitted that I had a plan, it was a very vague one.

Jerry Seinfeld has a line, “there’s no way that moving in with your parents is a sign that your life is on track”. And that was the case with me. At age 27, I had just spent the last three years thinking I might want to be a Roman Catholic priest, in one form or another. Granted, that thought had diminished to the point of nothingness over the three years, but in one sense, my indecision prevented me from moving in other directions that might have been useful for a young man seeking to develop a career. As my own pastor once said in a sermon, “Today I have a Master of Divinity Degree, which, if I weren’t pastoring, wouldn’t qualify me to be a manager down at the local Burger King”. Indecision prevented me even from moving in that direction.

I was graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in April 1981, with a degree in non-fiction writing. But thanks to “the steel mill crisis” that I alluded to earlier, the unemployment rate in the area in the early 1980’s hit as high as 25%. So the summer after my graduation, at a time when I really didn’t have much going on, I took a job working for a Christian singer and entertainer, Jeff Steinberg (who has a singing voice like Neil Diamond and is still doing today what he was doing back then. See http://www.tinygiant.com). Jeff had been born without arms, and his legs were badly deformed. He was looking for someone to be a sound man, driver, and personal assistant. The commitment was to travel with him for a year. I ended up hanging around with him for five years – the last two years of that I was preoccupied with this issue of the priesthood.

As a priest, you don’t marry. I had been thinking about that a lot during those years, and I left Jeff’s ministry in April 1986 a lonely young man. I moved back home with my parents, and I enrolled in Pitt’s “College of General Studies” that fall. By the time I met Beth the following March, I had nearly completed 12 English Literature credits and was hoping to enter a Master of Fine Arts program for writing. I had already put in my application. I was taking two classes that semester: “Psychoanalysis and Literature”, an honors course, Tuesday nights, on the 38th floor of the Cathedral of Learning – the 40-story building that’s the center of the University of Pittsburgh campus, and “English Romantic Poetry” on Wednesday nights.

On that Monday when Beth and I met, ordinarily she would have taken a bus home from school, but after lunch that day I offered to drive her home, and she happily consented. I knew as soon as I met her that I was going to try not to let go of her.

The day we met was Monday, March 9, 1987. Over the years we would celebrate this date as an anniversary. The springtime was warm and sunny that year, which made it a beautiful time in our lives, and I was overwhelmed to be in the presence of such a beautiful woman.

I remember walking out of the front door of the college that day, into the bright sunlight. As we walked, we were separated by the respectful distance of two people who had just met each other. She was talking about the Army even then, and I didn’t catch on immediately that she had only recently been in the Army.

I had parked in the lower lot, and as we walked across the driveway to the stairs that led there, I remember yanking on her purse strap to point something out to her, a gazebo maybe. She looked over and up at me and leaned toward me while we walked, as if she would have been receptive to me to putting my arm around her or even giving her a kiss. She was smiling and I noticed how very beautiful she was.

I remember much of this time very clearly, and the dates are verifiable, if exact conversations and the precise sequence of events are fuzzy.

Generally I knew how to get to Clairton, but not specifically. I drove a white Dodge “K-car” – my parents’ car. I opened and held the door for her, she slid in on the red bench seat, and I closed the door behind her. At least my parents had taught me how to be a gentleman.

Driving out to Clairton from the college, she did most of the talking. I learned more about her role in Military Intelligence. She was stationed in Augsburg, Germany, and her role was listening in on Soviet radio transmissions. I would have found out that she smoked cigarettes; she was wearing jeans, not solid, but with a floral pattern. I noticed her shoes, which were brown leather slip-on shoes that covered up her ankles like high-tops. They had flat soles and elastic sewn into the sides rather than ties, and she said they were very comfortable.

I had large front teeth, and I was extremely self-conscious because when I was much younger, I had been hit in the mouth with a baseball; it cracked my teeth and turned them brown. I was tall, very thin, with glasses too big for my face, though that was the style. I was more than thin, I was skinny. Later she used the term: “emaciated”. But on her part, there was no hesitation to know me.

Clairton had a reputation for being a bad neighborhood, and though I only lived a couple of miles away, I rarely had ever been there. She lived above a thrift shop on the main drag, St. Clair Avenue, the “New and Nearly New” shop. The building is still there; it’s used as a pre-school now. The entrance to her apartment was in the back alley. So to drive there, we had to go to the next block, make a left, make another left, and head back up the alley. The staircase was wooden and painted battleship gray; it led to a battleship gray wooden porch and from there, there was a door into the kitchen.

Entering, the kitchen itself was large with a yellowing linoleum floor. I recall, there were dirty dishes piled up high in the kitchen sink, and the refrigerator was one of the old-style latch refrigerators. Later when I saw it with the door opened, I could see that the built-in freezer had become filled in with frost and ice, to the point that it was not usable. She never was all that concerned with “kitchen things”.

To the right from the entrance was a large opening, first of all to a dining room set-up, almost in the fashion of an efficiency apartment, where the dining room table was an old metal folding table with a cloth. And even though it was almost a month after Valentine’s day, the table seemed to have several cards at least two heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and maybe even some drying-up flowers.

Her “dining room” and living room were all one big room. There was a huge silver Sony TV in the corner, and beyond a half-wall divider there was a larger “bedroom”, barely divided off from the rest of the apartment. Against the side wall of this bedroom, there was a single-person bed with its head against the wall, beneath two bare red light bulbs above a mantle. The red lights remained constantly on, in a couple of sockets located symmetrically in the wall above the bed. The entire room had a reddish cast to it.

She seemed to have no cognizance of flowers and candies on the table, and she focused her whole attention on me. As well, I was taken by her presence. I must have asked her out immediately. In any event, I found a way to get in touch with her.

“Would you like to go out, maybe see a movie?” I said.

“Sure.”

Given her recent experience in the Army, I knew that “Platoon”, which had been released in December, had been nominated for a number and was still playing in theaters. So we settled on that.

“Can I get your phone number?”

She didn’t have a phone in the apartment but she told me I could call her at work, at an A-Plus Mini Mart which was up the block across the street, where she was working night shifts. She carried a 6”x9” spiral notebook, and she wrote down “Johnny” and my parents’ phone number.

As it turned out, after a day of school, she was headed for an afternoon nap in preparation for a night of work. So with her phone number in hand, I left to get ready for a Monday evening shift at Color Tile.

DelNita and the House of Poverty

“My thoughts while receiving my birth certificate: ‘I was born and discarded as waste’” – Bethany, from a journal entry dated July 3, 2014.

DelNita Airel Grave MarkerShe was given the name “DelNita” at birth, but at some point she decided to call herself Bethany. That might have been a move to take her from the frying pan into the fire; “DelNita” was a one-of-a kind name that her mother dreamed up, based on her own parents’ names, Delmont and Juanita. They were known as “Del” and “Nita”, and so in that way, “DELmont” and “JuaNITA” combined to make “DelNita”.

While her mom may have thought it was a clever way to pay tribute to her parents, Bethany hated the name. She told me frequently about her grandmother calling that name when she was in trouble … “Del … NITA!” – to be scolded, but scolded with a name that she hated, a name that represented, in many ways, the two most hateful people in her life.

She was called a number of things throughout her life. When she was a young adult, some called her “Dee” or “DeeDee” (or variations of that). When she was in the army for the first time (1980-1985), she became Beth, or Bethany, based on the suggestion a teacher had given to her, derived from her middle name, “Elizabeth”.

I’m sure she thought that “Bethany” was a good biblical name at some level. And it was – the town of Bethany in the Bible. But that town came from the Hebrew words bêt and ʿănı̂â, literally, “house of misery/oppressed” or “house of poverty”. I think if she had known that, she would have chosen a different name.

Nevertheless, it seems as if both of her names were characteristic of the struggles that she faced all her life, and it was representative of something that we dealt with all of our lives together.

It certainly was not an intentional thing, and it certainly was a thing that she struggled against mightily. In fact, she struggled to break free from a kind of poverty that she seemed to have carried with her all of her life.

But the other side of the poverty coin is a poorness of spirit –and as Jesus said, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” Scholars debate what that means, [and in our lives, we didn’t pay too much attention to what “the Kingdom” was to mean – because we always struggled to make ends meet].

“The Kingdom of Heaven” as used by Matthew, and the “Kingdom of God” as related by the other Gospel writers, are the very thing that Jesus came to preach. “The Kingdom of God is at hand”. Even though, on the surface, our lives certainly did not seem to bear any of the marks of the kingdom. But she and I shared a love and a treasure that is rare in this world. I believe she and I shared in that Kingdom, here on earth.

I just recently revisited the small town where she lived when I met her – Clairton, PA – itself a seat of poverty. In the Pittsburgh area, Clairton was one of the small steel-mill towns along the Monongahela river that once was prosperous during the 1950’s and 60’s and 70’s, but which had come to characterize the term “urban blight” when most of the steel mills closed down in what an acquaintance of mine (whose life revolved around steel) called “the steel mill crisis”.

When I was growing up in the 1960’s and the 1970’s, it seemed as if the steel mills flourished. And when I was in high school, my friends whose dads worked in the mills also could get summer jobs in the mills, and these were the guys who always had a lot of money. Some of them would go to college, but many of them would just graduate from high school and look forward to a life in a steel mill job.

That didn’t last. In the late 1970’s, when I was going to college, and into the early 1980’s, the steel industry changed dramatically in the Pittsburgh area especially, and employment in the mills went from a high of about 120,000 at one point, down to barely just 20,000. (Wikipedia, citing official government records, notes that “in 1980, there were more than 500,000 U.S. steelworkers. By 2000, the number of steelworkers fell to 224,000.” Much of that reduction occurred in the early 1980’s, and it hit the Pittsburgh area especially hard. Unemployment in the Pittsburgh area reached 25% at one point in the early 1980’s.)

Clairton, a steel mill town, was hit very hard during those years. And Providentially, that’s where she had landed in 1986, after her first tour in the Army.

The Bethany that I first knew lived in the heart of Clairton when I met her. For all practical purposes, she lived at 429 Main Street, right in the heart of that small city. She was, it seemed a perfect jewel set amidst a backdrop of coal and soot and odors from the local coal-burning “Clairton Coke Works” – the odor of “hydrogen sulfides that smell like rotten eggs”.

But somehow, none of the taint of any of those things could be discerned on her when we first met in the little typing room at the back of the community college library. Certainly she was not perfect. I was living my life in my quiet and unaggressive way, and it was only by the hand of Providence, I am sure, that she and I found ourselves sitting together, alone in that small room.

I didn’t know it at the time, but she had traveled globally – and neither of us was aware of the other’s lives or travels or even the presence of each other – nor of the Providence that shaped our journeys and that put us together in that one small room.

But there we were. At the time, I was working full time as a floor-tile salesman, taking night classes and hoping not to be a floor-tile salesman at some point in the near future. I was taking night classes, trying to beef up my credentials to get into a Master’s degree writing program at the University of Pittsburgh. My classes were at the University of Pittsburgh, where I’d gotten a BA in English Writing about six years earlier. I was at the community college typing room there because it was close to home, and my mom worked there.

Bethany was crafting a couple of poems, ostensibly for an English class, but more directly, poems that were devoted to two male “friends” who had recently entered her life. I still have the original typescripts.

The first word I ever heard her say was, “God dammit”. Her voice, high and full like that of a young girl, cut the air like a siren, and I heard her hand slapping against the big beige typewriter. The sound of it startled me from my focus on whatever it was I was writing. I looked around, and my God, I saw the most beautiful golden blond hair I had ever seen on a woman. A second later, I could see she was struggling with her typewriter.

She and I were sitting catty-corner from each other in a typing room at the Community College of Allegheny County (“CCAC”), and all I could see was the back of her head. It was a small room in the back of the library, set up with maybe six or eight IBM Selectric typewriters on tables set around the perimeter of the room.

I had had my back to the door, and I hadn’t heard her come in. I wasn’t even aware that anyone else was there. She was adjusting the paper in the carriage, and she appeared to be trying to persuade the machine to erase something.

Always a gentleman, I said, “is there something I can help you with?” Making an offer to help is the only way I would ever have talked to a woman who looked as beautiful she did. Otherwise fear would have gripped me and I’d have let the opportunity to talk with her pass by.

“I can’t get this damn thing to erase,” she said.

I couldn’t imagine why. “This damn thing” was a IBM Selectric typewriter, and in March of 1987, when this occurred, IBM Selectric was state-of-the-art.

I was in my mid 20’s at the time, taking night classes at Pitt, and trying to get into an advanced English degree program. Over the last couple of semesters, I had typed many papers in that small typing room, though I had never seen her before.

And sure, personal computers had been out for several years by that time, but they were expensive, and except for the Macintosh, which was rare and odd back then, you had to know DOS.

For a guy like me, a writer at the time, erasing on a Selectric was a kind of a holy grail. Before I had run across the Selectric, I had owned several manual typewriters, and there was no erasing. You simply ripped the paper out of the roller and started all over again. It was bad when you had to start over after you’d typed most of a page already.

But the Selectric made things easy. “Do you mind if look at it?” I said. She stood and I moved over into her seat. The Selectric was my good friend, and the problem was immediately obvious to me. In order to see better what she had written, she had advanced the paper off the original line, something you could do with the push of a button. The machine’s precision erasing feature was off-line, and the sticky tape used to pull the lettering off the page was missing the stencil letters. I backed the paper down to where it needed to be, and letter by letter, I erased enough so that she could see how it was done.

“You’ll have to erase each letter individually now because the machine thinks it has already erased it for you, and then once you moved it off the line, it cleared its memory,” I said. “You have to backspace it one letter at a time. Just key in each letter individually, and hit the backspace button.” I erased the errant line for her, working backward through the whole line, letter by letter.

“How’s that?”

“WONDERFUL!” she said. “My hero!”

My recollections of those moments are somewhat faded. But after the typewriter incident, She and I walked out into the library. She introduced herself as “Bethany Ariel” (“Air-ree-ell”, not “Air-el”, as it was spelled), and she gave me a good, firm handshake. That was another thing to notice about her – the very firm and direct handshake.

The day we met most certainly was Monday, March 9, 1987; I was a Color Tile salesman at the time. I sold floor tiles, wall tiles, and wallpaper. Remembering back, I would have been scheduled to work that Monday night; I had classes Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and so those were my regularly scheduled days off.

So I asked her to lunch that day, thinking of the nearby McDonald’s. I think that she rather said that she also needed to get to work, but that I could join her for lunch where she was meeting some friends in the cafeteria.

Walking out of the library, she bumped into a short and pudgy EMT named Shawn that she knew. She introduced me, we chatted briefly about some aspect of his work, and we were off again. Down in the cafeteria, she introduced me to her friends Cindy (a dark-haired heavy-set woman with a deep voice), and a tall, thin, pimply-faced youth named Kevin.

She always seemed to have a constellation of acquaintances hanging around her in those days, though none were really close. But she knew a lot of people. At the time, too, there always seemed to be a lot of male friends hanging around her, and it seemed to me that this was because she was beautiful, outgoing, and she gave off an air of availability.

It came up that we were both working that night, and that she needed to take a bus from the college back to Clairton. I offered her a ride, and that day, I drove her to her poverty-stricken apartment above a second-hand shop right on Main street in the urban blight town of Clairton.

How in the world did a woman of her beauty come to be living in a town like Clairton? I was soon to find out.