Cargo cult

Looking at pictures of the skimpy multitude gathered on the Mall at Washington for the Great Inauguration, one thinks irresistibly of John Frum, or Brum. A figure of cultic veneration on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu. An American World War II serviceman who will one day return and bring back the wealth and prosperity fleetingly glimpsed and snatched away by evil forces. A so-called cargo cult. Frum, or Brum.

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In 1955 I graduated from high school and had been accepted in a religious academy or training school for the fall and had therefore the summer to fill. I got a job in an apartment building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, through a connection of my father’s, a Norwegian super named Angel Jensen. I ran the elevator at night and once carried Jackie Gleason and what I took to be a showgirl. I also saw my first penthouse apartment, my first Russian wolfhound dog, my first naked woman. That job lasted two weeks.

I went to Maine after that and painted farm buildings and dug a cistern for another friend of my father’s, Johnny Hope. That didn’t work out very well, although I lasted the summer and saved the life of an old man and his wife lost in the woods, which I have always been pleased about. Johnny and I had a row and I stole away one night and walked to the highway and hitch-hiked back to New York.

The driver of a semi let me out at the foot of the Bronx–Whitestone Bridge in Queens and I remembered it wasn’t far to the house of an old girlfriend, whose half-brother Buddy was at home and was at loose ends. He had a car, and I hadn’t saved enough money for tuition at the religious training school, and we worked out that we were anyway called to preach in Mexico, and so we set off at once.

We only got as far as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where we saw placards and followed a crowd to a tent where Oral Roberts was holding healing meetings.

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We learned from nosing around that you could make money selling subscriptions to Oral Roberts’s monthly magazine Healing Waters. The deal was that if you sold a life-time subscription, which was something like fifteen dollars, you could keep half of it on the spot. There was no point in bothering with anything but lifetime subscriptions and we quickly became good at it. That you only had to turn over half of what you collected meant you had some leeway with the punters and could offer discounts, or it might be inflate the price a bit.

We slept in Buddy’s car and made half-hearted attempts to pick up girls, but mostly took to the subscription business with gusto, for all the days of the crusade. The tent was vast and the perimeter porous and fluid, like a circus midway, and so there was no time when one might not freely solicit custom, while the sounds of the healing business somewhere in the brightly lit centre wafted out inconsequentially. “Heal!” would come. A hush. Groans and cries. Applause. A refrain struck up. More quiet. “Heal!”

I made enough money to take up my place at the religious training school.

Oral Roberts eventually expanded the healing business into a prosperity gospel, a cargo cult for the left-behind, and changed the name of Healing Waters to Abundant Life. Neither of those titles exists any more. I find myself curious about those lifetime subscriptions.