Mitch Millison’s Last Act
Our family attended Oakdale Emory United Methodist Church, just up the road from where we lived in Olney, Md.
After we’d moved to Maryland, my Sunday morning activities included waking, eating breakfast, and the excruciating “getting ready for church.”
For some reason, raising children suddenly meant my parents were responsible for my (and my brother’s) eternal soul.
Church would fix that up right quick.
I vaguely recall the layout of Oakdale Emory, its pastor, the congregation, except for a few small things: Sunday school in the church basement and potlucks that, in late summer, were held at a congregant’s sprawling house surrounded by what seemed to be a deep pine forest.
Sunday school class was run by a dour old woman with hairs sprouting out of a mole on her chin. It was one of those things you just couldn’t ignore, and a source of more fascination than the mysteries of the Eucharist, the Apostles’ Creed, or the Transfiguration combined.
The church basement smelled vaguely of mold and rotted wood. The kids in Sunday school were cowed, quiet, indifferent. We often worked on poster projects with paint and colored construction paper.
I was completely bored.
How could you not get wise to this bullshit?
Little boys and girls shepherded by an eerily ambiguous Jesus Christ—did he mind if you wore denim or had a house in the suburbs or spent hours in the bathroom doing unmentionable things to yourself or that you put up your hair in pigtails? He just wanted you to get excited about eternal life!
But I had it pegged: they wanted you to be excited about this “idea,”—parents, adults, authority figures, teachers—an idea not much different from their Sanka coffee commercials or daytime soap operas.
Really, I tried—mightily tried—to invest some emotion in all those biblical stories with their angry God and Daniels in lions’ dens, their fiery furnaces, beheaded prophets, and creepy handwriting on walls.
Our parents bought us a Children’s Bible (image at left) which still haunts me with its realistic illustrations—a dead body face-up in a river (much like Ophelia in Hamlet), parapets, tapestries and horsemen, beguiling princesses who betray the king (like Guinevere in Le Morte d’Arthur) … all fine and exciting.
But this angry God thing just seemed—well, tacked on.
I didn’t buy it at all.
So I found a foil: art, poetry, expression, music, all as ripe with imagination as the honeysuckle bushes beyond the school’s jungle gym. Mrs. Husman’s class planted the seed; in 1969 it was just germinating. As a class we’d put together our book, “Something From All of Us”—into which I inscribed: “I dedctite [sic] this book to the hard work of the children of Mrs. Husman’s 4th grade class of 1969–1970.”
In the book, my girlfriend Mandy included a poem on her favorite topic, “Sports”:
I love football
I hate golf
I really do,
I also like basketball
Its fun to play
Especially on a nice day.
I love to swim
Then lay in the sun,
All of this is really fun.
I contributed a limerick:
There once was a man from Japan
Who ate Chop Suey from a can,
When he was all out
He changed to sour kraut
And that was a man from Japan.
Lame last line, I know. But we were learning that language was fun and, more importantly, it could pack a punch. All that began in Mrs. Husman’s class.
This was my pivot point, a hugely creative time for me, particularly around elementary school functions like field trips to Capitol Hill or the Smithsonian.
Or, the school plays that were put on with frightening regularity.
This was the first time I felt a personal “mojo”—after being vetted and rubber-stamped for approval by the most popular girl in my 4th grade class, after finishing our class book full of poems, stories, and artwork—I took it upon myself to write my first play. And intended to stage it for the entire school.
It was titled The Joust of the Black Knight. Can’t recall where I first learned what “joust” meant, but the idea of knights and armor made it all so dramatic, so I went with it.
Then classmate Mitch Millison got involved as my collaborator. I wrote a draft and was stuck on the final act. The folks drove me over to Mitch’s house where we worked out the details. All I remember about him was how exacting and “different” he was from the other boys (now we might translate that as just about anything: nascent sexual orientation, a sensitive nature, or manic-depressive tendencies, I don’t know, but he was a standout).
The vision was clear: it had to end in a final battle, the joust between the Black Knight and his adversary. But how would it end? What would be dramatic enough for our elementary school audience? What would really put it over the top?
Mitch had the answer.
A tornado. The joust should be interrupted by a tornado.
In the end the play was never staged and somewhere—somewhere—I still have the draft. But it was the beginning of my interest in writing, writing that could be staged, heard, performed before an audience.
That alone was powerful stuff, made possible with the encouragement of one teacher, a few classmates, and a guy named Mitch Millison—all of which existed a universe away from a dank church basement with Scary Grandma Molehair.