Monday, June 16, 2014

A Fictional Trip To The JFK Prep Academy

Here is basically chapter 7 of Sleep Of Reason. It is heavily influenced by a trip I took to the JFK Prep School I visited last summer, but is after all a work of fiction. Pictures of JFK Prep are shown throughout.



 Once trimmed evergreens reached upward but could not reach the height of the building’s three stories. While the large building still appeared in good condition, nearly every window in it had been broken. The driveway wound away to the right and they found themselves in the center of a collection of buildings.

In front of them was a structure rocks that housed within it a statue of some religious figure.

 Beyond that was a field between the buildings, a thin covering of early winter snow shining bright in the otherwise dull November day. To their left was what appeared to have been a dormitory, to their right a church with an impressively large steeple.



 In front of them, beyond the snow-covered clearing, was a cemetery with a quite orderly quantity of tombstones all of a similar size.


 Johnny signaled for Dave to park at the edge of the drive.
“This place was originally founded by Anton Oxner, a Catholic priest who left Germany looking for a place to practice his religion as he saw fit,” said Johnny. “Of course, you pretty much say that for everyone who came to you country, can’t you? Anyway, he came here with some followers after a little disagreement with the powers that be in the Catholic church with the intention of building a communistic community, someplace where nobody owned anything and everybody had to do some kind of manual labor. As a liberation theologist, the story attracted my attention.”
“A liberation what?”
“Liberation theology. I could fill you full of a lot of church doctrine, but basically it’s a movement within the Catholic Church that’s committed to social justice and peace. Of course, such an idea has it detractors. Anyway, these people, they came to be known as The Association, they created a well-functioning community here. And Father Oxner, he was a great healer, both a doctor and—some said—someone who could heal through miracles.”
Johnny’s willingness to believe was something Dave envied, but he was also a little weary of it. He had seen what too much belief could do. It had almost cost Mindy her life.
“What is it with cults and the supernatural?” asked Dave.
“This was not a cult,” said Johnny, a little perturbed. “Anyway, cult is a term the majority use to describe minority groups, groups whose viewpoints never make it into the mainstream. What people call a cult is a group of people who follow an idea without bringing that idea into the collective consciousness. All movements begin as cults, all begin as a single thought in a single person, actually. But what we call ‘cult’ in an intense desire for change that becomes frustrated. The world calls belief systems that have lost ‘cults’. And such frustrated desires for change lead to a spiritual festering of sorts, a coalescing of spiritual energy. So it is only natural that such a gathering of spiritual desiring would produce what people call ‘supernatural’ activities. But that is not what we have here. This was a thriving community.”
“If it was so thriving, what happened to it?”
“Chastity. While certainly an admirable virtue, it can be taken to extremes. But the community that lived here was so successful at it that they eventually died out.”
Johnny exhaled deeply, watched his warm moist breath disappear in the crisp cold of a November Morning.
“From what you’ve said, Oxner died a long time ago. These buildings, even the church, the look to be much more recent,” said Dave. The buildings he was looking at seemed to have been built in the thirties or forties.
“Like anywhere else, time keeps moving on no matter how interesting the history it buries. After The Association, they sold the property to another religious order. In one way or another, it has survived up until perhaps thirty years ago. Even now, there are hopes to re-open the church. And throughout its history there have been reports of unusual events.
“Like what?”
Well, the miraculous healings. In more recent days, ghost sightings. The usual. A nun who committed suicide, the victims of a pedophile priest, a student who was beaten to death by classmates, his body hidden in the attic. Stories made up to frighten others, mostly. But the place has gotten enough notoriety to have its own episode on some haunted places show. People coming in with their odd instruments and special cameras. C’mon, let’s check out the church.”
They walked across the field full of snow and crunchy grass to the church’s side door, which was surprisingly unlocked.

It was lit only by the day’s dismal light diffused through stained glass windows.

 It felt even colder inside, but Dave figured it was just the night air that lingered longer in the brick building.

In the relative darkness, Dave could feel a certain unease rising within him. He knew if they were to encounter anything that fear would tinge his senses so that he would not be able to fully trust them. Fear warped his ability to see things as they truly were, created  barrier between himself and reality. But as he felt a subtle fear creeping into his consciousness, he was also aware of a fleeting revelation that he had been able to observe: most people live their lives in fear, perceive the world around them through a lens of fear, never able to see life for what it was. At least he was aware of the existence of this barrier that fear created. He just needed to remember no to stick too long seeing things from one perspective. It was like first learning to drive: even if you’re afraid, never permit your awareness to be stuck on a single focus. Remember to look in the mirror, in front of you, at the speedometer. Keep with the routine regardless of the fear, and you’ll be okay.
“Ghosts can’t hurt you,” said Johnny. Apparently, Dave’s apprehension had not gone unnoticed. “Ghosts can’t do anything physically to you. The only damage they can do is by getting inside your head. Don’t let that happen.”
“And what if I can’t not let that happen.”
“That way lies only madness. If you give them power over you, they can cause you to hurt yourself, jump out of a window or slash your wrists. That is why you must stay in control.”
“What if I don’t have a choice?” Dave was not so frightened as he was concerned to take every precaution.
“You always have a choice. Remember that. Now snap out of it. We’re in a church, it’s not going to be one of those encounters. We’re talking about a priest, for heaven’s sake.”
Priest or not, Dave felt very uncomfortable. A church in disrepair where one can see one’s breath is a disturbing place to be. One would think God would take some care to its upkeep.
The sun shone through the east windows, giving a glow to the colors and images of the stained glass.

Some saint that he might have recognized had he paid more attention in catechism was pictured in that imprecise and awkward manner that older church art used. The light that filtered through tended to highlight the darkness and shadows it did not touch, leaving the better part of the church shrouded in mystery. The place felt deserted of whatever made it a place for worship:

whatever frail and ineffectual spirits may have filled this place in the past, it was now abandoned and left to other forces. But something still remained of it former spirit: while seemingly none of the windows in the old school had been spared, the windows here were all intact. Whatever damage done to the church had been done by time and weather rather than vandals.

What kept the church from the abuse the school experienced, Dave did not know. Perhaps it was the attitude people had towards churches, perhaps it was some spiritual force or something in the very makeup of the church that protected it, Dave was unsure. And when he thought about it, he was not really interested in knowing. Some things should remain mysteries. Some things are beyond what a human needs to know, should know. He found himself retreating somewhat from the boldness he had felt of late, found himself welcoming somewhat the walls and ruts that had sheltered him the better part of his life. Perhaps it was just being in a church for the first time in a while that brought back memories and attitudes from his childhood, when respect for the world that adults had created was still strong in him. Perhaps it was some remnant of faith that still belonged to him that spoke of trust rather than evidence. But perhaps such a faith was something that locked people into little boxes, kept them praying to little gods. And perhaps faith after all was not clinging to a belief in small things but a conviction that an honest search for truths would not go unanswered.
He looked around towards Johnny and found him kneeling in a pew, his tattooed head bent in reverent prayer.

Dave found himself envying him for having found answers that satisfied him. But he remembered that those who seemed to have found such answers had usually found them through great loss and sacrifice. Dave wasn’t sure if he was willing to go through such ordeals, wasn’t sure if he could survive them. Answers seemed to be provided only after an agonizing process that tested nothing but a person’s ability to endure. Life’s rewards were given only after seemingly endless suffering that changed a person, altered their very essence until they became something quite different than what they would have intended. Dave wanted to forge his own way in life, wanted to become what he wanted to become, not be shaped by an invisible hand. Perhaps in the end it all came down to the same thing. Perhaps our will and desire to be who we are meant to be permits us to endure trials we never would otherwise. It seemed that only in a church could he come to such unsatisfying answers, as though he were trying to fit together two ideas that did not mesh.
Not knowing what to do while his friend prayed, he kneeled in a pew behind Johnnyn and searched his mind for some sort of prayer. Fragments of long unused prayers floated in his mind like flotsam in dirty water. They were individual items, artifacts without purpose. Dave’s yearnings for a higher power had always left him feeling incredibly alone, like an unwanted child. In such times, a feeling of unworthiness crept over him as though it were the only response that might gain approval. He felt himself again willing to abandon any essential part of him for some recognition from God, but he was unsure how to let go.
“So you’re a praying man, too, eh?” said Johnny, done with whatever communion he had been involved in.
“What? Oh, I don’t know. I’m not even sure I know how to pray anymore. When I was a kid, I could say the prayers I was taught, but they never really meant anything to me. Now, I can still recite the words, but it seems that it’s not me that’s saying them, just some pre-recorded message that comes out of some part of myself, some thoughtless action performed by a lower brain function.”
“Aw, you’re just in between places right now. You’re not a spiritual child anymore, but you’re not quite a grownup yet. Sometimes you just have to hold on even when you don’t believe in what you’re holding on to anymore. Sometimes you have to hold on to empty and distant memories, even if it feels like there isn’t any ‘you’ left. I think that’s what faith is all about, doing what you need to do even when the feeling isn’t there anymore.”
“Is that really faith?”
“Well, faith is jumping off a cliff, knowing you’re going to have to fly. Once you’re falling from a cliff, flapping your arms like a madman isn’t really faith, I suppose, it’s just the logical consequence of faith. It’s where the devil waits to tempt us, it’s the forty days and nights spent in the desert. It’s that experience we all must have in our time on earth of what life would be without God. We all have to be tested.”
“Why?” Dave wanted to ask, but remained silent. He didn’t want to sully the greater faith of another with the constant doubting of his own. Part of him was afraid of doing so, afraid to find out that his doubt would prove the stronger. But there was something in The Bible about not putting God to the test. He would have to live with a certain amount of unanswered questions, that was part of faith.
“C’mon, Dave,” said Johnny. “There’s nothing unusual about this church, at any rate. Let’s wander the grounds a little and see what we can find.”
They walked outside the church, making footprints on the light layer of snow that covered the grounds. Moisture was visible in Johnny’s breath, and a hint of steam rose from his bald head. Behind the church was the grouping of white gravestones, uniform and identical.

And yet they seemed to sit like buoys on the ocean, as if they were rising and lowering as the ground seemed to ripple ever so slightly. It must have been some optical illusion caused by the slight snowfall, the breeze, or some unknown source of heat that excited the air molecules. Perhaps it was the cold that caused his eyes to blur up with tears, but as he walked through the path that led down the center of the tombstones, the ground seemed rather unsteady beneath him.
Beyond the rows of gravestones sat a smaller building, hardly larger than a tool shed. Johnny seemed to know where he was going, and Dave had little choice but to follow.

 “This is where Father Oxner was buried,” said Johnny. He opened up the door, waited for Dave to enter. His eyes adjusting to the inner darkness again, Dave found himself within a small chapel with enough pews to seat perhaps a dozen people.
“I thought this was Oxner’s mausoleum,” said Dave.
“I said this is where he is buried,” said Johnny.
“Where…?”
“There, under the alter,” said Johnny, using a quiet, reverential tone.
“Why there? Why not a grave next to all the others?”
“Anton Oxner was an important man. He was trained in medicine, but they say his abilities in healing went far beyond anything medicine could perform. His reputation spread far and people were known to visit here from as far away as North Carolina and New York. It was an ability that soon spread to the other brothers here, to a lesser extent. So respected were their healing abilities that the town did not even have a doctor of hospital until after their passing.”
Dave scanned the little chapel, waiting for Johnny to receive whatever information he was searching for.

“There’s nothing here,” said Johnny. “Nothing I can pick up on anyway. You?”
“Me? No, I don’t feel anything.”
“We’ll check out the dormitories, then,” said Johnny, a hint of disappointment in his bearing. “They were built long after Oxner and The Association had all died off. Still, there have been enough reports of ghosts to make it worth a look. Of course the stories could be nothing but bunk. Give somebody a good story, and it’s only natural to add a ghost to it. Then again, if there is some kind of ghostly presence, maybe it results from something that happened after the passing of The Association.”
Again, disappointment seemed to arise in Johnny. As they made their way towards the Dorms, Dave asked, “This isn’t just a visit for curiosity’s sake, is it? What are you looking for?”
“I’m looking for healing. I’m looking for a miracle. Maybe it’s too much to ask, but if miracles do happen, I’m open to one.”
“What’s the matter, John? Asked Dave, quite concerned.
“With me? Nothing’s the matter with me.”
“Then who?”
“Julie.”
“And who’s that?”
“She’s the one who did the imagery on me,” Johnny said, looking at Dave as if he were not used to talking about the subject. For a moment, Dave could catch a glimpse of the man behind the tattoos.
“She’s still alive? I’m sorry, I just got the impression—“
That she was no longer with us? You’re not far from the truth. She has advanced ALS, Lou Gerhig’s disease as you Yanks know it. I used to make fun of her when the symptoms started, called her clumsy when she tripped over her own feet. And then she was diagnosed with ALS, and I couldn’t forgive myself for teasing her. But she just kept on smiling, as though it wasn’t going to slow her down. At first I thought she was just in denial about her illness, about how deadly it was. I didn’t find out until later that the smile was one of her symptoms. Uncontrollable smiling. Not the sort of thing you’d think would be associated with an incurably fatal disease.”
Johnny said no more, and Dave would not allow himself to ask any more questions. But this revelation suddenly changed the situation. He had been depending on Johnny’s experience in such matters, but now he wondered if Johnny was emotionally compromised. But there was little time for him to dwell on the matter: they soon arrived at the dormitory. Again, the building appeared structurally sound but was missing many of its windows. A No Trespassing sign was posted prominently on the door of the building, but it did not seem that it was going to effect Johnny.
“Is this a good idea?” asked Dave.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” asked Johnny, opening the door. There were too many doors and too many windows for whomever owned the place to attempt to keep people out with anything other than threats. They entered the darkness, Johnny pulling a flashlight from within his jacket.

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