Chapter Eight / Riddles the Clown


 The seminary summer field education was soon approaching. Faith would be closing her kindergarten doors just in time for us to head to Slayton, Minnesota. I was given the opportunity to be the intern at Lake Sarah Baptist Church which would then be followed by a position in the fall at Emery Baptist as the youth and adult choir director.


Our first detail of the day, when entering the small town of Slayton, was to meet at the church. From there we met up with a farm family who would lead us to our home for the summer. Faith was very excited. She grew up in a small town and enjoyed the farm life. I grew up in the large cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. I knew nothing of farm life, which was not an issue, since I wasn't planning on hopping on a tractor any time soon.


Our car conveniently followed the truck ahead into the driveway of an old two story farm house. Faith and I were accustomed to our small apartment above the drug store, so this new abode looked like a mansion. An old mansion. An old mansion with land in the front to the side where they said we could plant a garden.


"A garden?" I thought.


We were only going to be in Slaten for the summer. A garden felt like we would become permanent residents. Later, when Faith and I were in the house unpacking I asked, "Can you believe they said we could plant a garden?"


"Isn't that great!" Faith said.


"Great? What? No. Not so great. I have a lot to do. I don't know anything about a garden. Doesn't that take months and months and tractors, equipment, irrigation, seeds, and fertilizer? Good grief. We're going to put ourselves through all that?" I knew she would now see how ridiculous it would be to become farmers for the summer.


"It's a small garden off to the side in the front," Faith explained. "They said the soil would be perfect. Let's plant some carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, and beans," Faith said as though we were going to start that very moment.


"If you really want to, I guess we can do it. Do you just want boring things? How long does it take to make a watermelon?" I asked.


Faith laughed. "You don't make a watermelon. You plant it. They said we could use their seeds and maybe they started some indoor planting. People do that to get a head start on it."


"Really? Okay. Whatever," I said. "People plant gardens in their homes? I really don't know anything about this stuff."


Faith politely smiled enjoying my ignorance in something which was so familiar to her. "They plant the seeds in cups, or pots. Peat pots are best because then the plants can be put out, pot and all, without disturbing the roots. They could be ready in two months if the soil is as good as they say and we have nice rain."


"Okay,'Farmer Faith,'" I said. "We can talk to them about it at church tomorrow. The pastor is going to introduce me to the congregation and then they're having what they call a 'pot luck,'" I said laughing as I imagined hoping to be lucky enough to get the right pot.


I was nervous anticipating my responsibilities for the summer. I had never done anything like this before. I was a theater person from the big city. The small town farming community was not something I could relate to. But, I'm an actor. So act I will. I decided to do my best acting performance trying to play the part of a very comfortable and sociable intern who would thrill them all with my efforts on behalf of the church.


After a time of unpacking and getting settled in Faith announced, "Diner's ready."


"Wow," I said. "All of this?"


Several families had meals ready which just needed to be warmed up in the oven. It was like Thanksgiving. There was a pasta with peppers, mushrooms, zucchini and tomatoes flavored with Italian seasonings. The main lasagna dish had a combination of noodles in a tomato sauce with Parmesan cheese, and spinach. Of course a farm table in the 70's would have a carrot salad made with Jello-O and pineapple. Faith said the bread was home made. It was incredible.


After the meal we cleaned up the kitchen and went to bed. I was still anxious about meeting all the new folks, so I tossed and turned a bit. I finally dozed off, only to be awakened several hours later by a noise downstairs.


"Faith," I said giving her a big shove.


She gave a sound of annoyance and said, "What are you doing?"


"Do you hear that?" I asked hoping she would immediately know what it was.


"I don't hear anything," she said when at the same time another sound was clearly coming from the living room. "I heard that. What is that?"


"Bang, bang, bang," and then more banging from another side of the house. Then again, "Bang," on the front of the house. My heart was pounding and I said, "Faith, go check that out."


"You go check that out!" she demanded.


I corrected, "You're the farm person. You know how to deal with these things."


"What things?" she said. "I don't know what that is any more than you do."


"Bang, bang, bang," again and again. It sounded like someone or something was hitting the front, the back, and the sides of the house. "Maybe this is like an initiation or something?" I said.


"The church people wouldn't all show up and bang on the house to welcome us, or to scare us. Just go down there and see what it is," Faith insisted.


"Let's go down together," I said. "Wait, do you see anything out the window?"


Walking over to the window she said, "No, it's too dark. Is there a phone up here?"


"No, there's only one phone on the wall downstairs in the kitchen. Let's go down there," I said nudging her in front of me.


We headed down the steps and the banging was louder. It was too dark outside to see anything without getting right up next to it. Then there was one large "BANG" by the living room window. As I slowly moved the center curtain to the side, I saw a small animal.


"Faith, come here," I shouted. "It's a bear or something."


She slowly came over. "It wouldn't be a bear. Oh, look," she said. "Oh,these are sheep. Why are they banging on the house? That is so strange. They are banging their heads on the house."


"No, not their heads," I said and another 'bang' could be heard. "Look. That one hit against the house with his side; like he's leaning on the house. Ha, maybe they're trying to knock the house over. I guess they don't like the new people living here."


"Oh, I see what they're doing," Faith said. "They're scratching themselves against the house. There hasn't been anyone living here for a while so they haven't been shooed away. I'll go out and give them a scare."


That's what she did. Out the door Faith went with a broom making some type of sound which cleared the sheep away from the house in a few seconds.


"It takes a farmer," she said laughing returning to the house and closing the door behind her.


"Guess so," I agreed.


The night was quiet and the sheep did not use the house for a scratching pad for the rest of our summer.


The morning came fast and I tried to remain calm while imagining being presented to the church and having to say a few words. I was out of my comfort zone and the thought of being an actor only gave a small ease of anxiety since there was no script. What would they say? What would I say? Would I fit in? Do they have a sense of humor? Will they think I should know everything about farming?


Arriving at the church calmed me down. It was too late now. We were here. Whatever was going to happen was out of my control. Faith and I greeted a few people. We casually shared the "sheep scratching" story and shook the hand of the pastor and his wife. Soon the service began. Sure enough, a short way in brought the words from the pastor, "We have Steve and Faith Trag here with us. Did I say that right?"


"Close, It's Treague. Like a 'train' and an 'egg,'" I described.


"Trainegg?" said the pastor. People chuckled. "It's okay. We'll all get to know you and you will know all of us soon enough. We are thrilled you are here and look forward to working with you this summer. And now, from your hymn books page 344 . . . "


The service went on. "I don't have to say anything," I thought to myself with great relief. This is good. This is very good.


Later in the week discussions about our involvement with their Vacation Bible School program and five days at the church kids camp brought our offer to present a show at both events. We used the example of the never ending vase to convey God's never ending love as a description of how we combine a visual lesson with the message. They liked the idea.

At our summer home, after planting a few seeds and getting our garden started, Faith and I sat down to create a new character for the VBS and camp shows.


"Kids like clowns," I said.


"We could do that. What do we have with us to make that happen?" Faith asked.


I have some white grease paint in one of the two totes of props and tricks. I used that a few years ago in a play. I don't know about everything else. We can get a wig from town, and maybe use some red makeup for lines."


"Lipsick," Faith offered.


"Sure. Whatever. We'll go into town and get ideas while we look through the isles," I suggested.


Heading to town later in the week brought us to a Ben Franklin store which had a little of everything. We found a silly wig in the kids area and a good red color for the face lines. I thought I'd use some black liner for my mustache and eye brows. And this could be fun; glitter glue. I'm sure I could add that somewhere to give a fun look. We were set.


The VBS was a big hit. Faith and I sang familiar songs while I played the guitar. On the last day of VBS we got ready for the show while the children were in their lesson time. All the props were set and we would use the same cassette tape from earlier shows since it never mentioned the old man. Now for the clown.


I put on the white grease paint and patted baby powder on it to set the make up. The red lines were put on with a brush dipping into the lipstick. It was a challenge since the baby powder should have been used last. A blackened mustache and eye brows finished the look. The kids were coming in. I forgot the glitter glue, but knew I could try that a different time.

The program was well received. We had a few fidgets and restlessness since the message was solemn and too complicated. But we got through it. For the 70's, our presentation was already a few years ahead of its time. Not too many clowns with visual object lessons accompanied by a cassette tape with dialogue and music were often seen in the sanctuaries of midwest churches.


I had many other duties at the church as well. I would accompany the pastor to a studio where he did a weekly radio spot. The message was recorded for later broadcast. Editing was not an option so the message was given, I sang a song, a bit more message, a closing song and the final good-bye was all accomplished without a mistake. The pastor would compliment me on getting through both songs without a "hitch."


The time for camp soon approached. There hadn't been much rain the week before our Lake Sarah Camp adventure which prompted garden irrigation. Amazingly the produce was a testament to the earlier proclamation of the fantastically fertilized soil. Everything was growing up beautifully. I looked forward to pulling it out of the ground when we got back from camp.


Lake Sarah Camp would be the first in hundreds of camps we would attend in the years ahead with "Riddles the Clown." Since there was only one 45 minute program in the repertoire, our other duties during the week were spent directly with the young campers during their lesson times and activities. On the last day of camp all were excited to attend the greatly anticipated "Riddles the Clown" show. It would be the same program already done for the church. We chose the name "Riddles" giving a description to the tricks we performed as being accomplished with a puzzle or a mystery to be solved.


Faith and I began preparation for the program several hours before show time. The first hour we set all the props on a long table. Each trick had numerous parts which were sometimes elusive to locate if a piece of one illusion was placed in the other tote. After checking and double checking, I was ready to "become Riddles."


The white, the red lines, the black, the wig and then the powder. No, wait. Not the powder yet. The glitter glue had not been applied. I planed to put the shape of a diamond under each eye. Without reading the instructions, the tiny hole at the end of the bottle was perfect for applying a very thin line. Under the right eye was first done. The application had a bit of a sting, but the show must go on. Ten minutes later, the left eye presented a perfect glittery diamond shape underneath. The right eye was stinging more intensely and the left was catching up. For a moment, I thought I might remove the diamonds, since something was undeniably wrong. But the children were entering the chapel and there would be no time to redo the entire make up. The diamonds remained.


During the program, I was distracted with the sting under my eyes. Riddles the Clown never spoke a word so I could not whisper my emergency to Faith. Everything continued as though nothing was wrong. After the program I hurried to the back and wiped off the glitter. Two red diamonds remained. They were very sensitive to the touch.


"What's under your eyes?" Faith asked when she came in to put several props away noticing I had removed all the make up.


"I don't know. It really hurts," I said.


Faith picked up the glitter glue. "It's from the diamond shapes you put under your eyes. Did you read the instructions on this?"


I had to admit I didn't.


Faith obliged, "It says, 'Skin Irritant. Do not use on skin or near eyes.' Those are burn marks. That's not going to go away. Those could be permanent scars."


I wouldn't accept that. How would I be able to go back to the church with two diamond shapes burned under each eye? What would people say? This was so embarrassing. Thankfully, my glasses fell almost completely in front of each mark. Hopefully, no one would notice.


Certainly, when returning to the church, the marks did not go undetected. My explanation drew a pat on the back, a lesson learned, and a comment or two about instructions being very helpful. We had grown as a family with the church members and no one sought the mishap as an opportunity to tease or belittle. What a relief. But our Lake Sarah adventure was about to end. The summer was drawing near and the Emery Church was waiting for their new choir director.


It was time to pack up and head back to Sioux Falls. Several families came to the farm house to wish us well. Our suitcases and totes with props were carefully packed. A small amount of produce was bagged for our use when returning home. I enjoyed the many compliments of how well the garden provided for us in the last weeks of our summer. Hands were shook and several hugs were given. The summer was successful. "We did that," I said as we drove away feeling very thankful for the adventure God blessed us with.


After several weeks back in Sioux Falls the Emery Sunday was fast approaching. Looking in the mirror daily I could only hope the diamonds would show an effort of fading away. But no. They just took on a deeper red color. It looked like this could be permanent. Lake Sarah became a family and they looked at the symbols under my eyes with a smile but no judgment. But the Emery people had never met us before. And I was supposed to give a five minute "hello" during the service.


None of this was in any way the theater experience I loved. There's a separation between stage and audience in the theater. Everything is well rehearsed. There are no surprises. On stage, diamonds under the eyes would be there for a reason and no one would question it. But here we go. Another church with new people who will be getting their first impression by what we say and how we look.


Getting to the Emery church was an hour drive from Sioux Falls. My arrangement was conducting the choir each Sunday morning and working with the youth choir every Wednesday. It was a big commitment in addition to attending seminary classes during the week. On the drive to Emery I contemplated how I might distract everyone from the diamond eyes. My glasses helped to make the symbols less obvious. Yes, if looking straight on they could be seen. Possibly during a conversation I could keep my head moving around to avoid having anyone get a good look. Faith encouraged with, "No one will even notice a thing."


Arriving at the church I had the notion to turn around and just avoid the misery. But we went in. I put on my rehearsed smiling face and became "social Steve." "Hello," and "How are you. Yes, I'm the new choir director." I thought there were a few direct stares at the marks under my eyes, but, nothing was said. After a while I even forgot about it since it seemed as though it wasn't being noticed.


During the service my time to speak had arrived. I prepared a note which I secretly placed in my Bible. I opened to a specific verse and began with that, since the note was hidden between those very pages. I had an ability to look at the lines of my script and yet speak those words in a conversational manner as though I was thinking of what to say next. I was sure to put the words "Bible" and "God" strategically in the note so I could look down again at my Bible on the podium each time those words were mentioned. My last line was memorized in advance so I could have full eye contact with the congregation. They clapped and I sat down. Faith gave me a smile. I thought I was free and clear from diamond discoveries.


After the service I was welcomed again by many. There were a few, "Glad you chose Emery," and, "We look forward to your efforts at the church." Just as Faith and I were about to head to our car one more person came to welcome me as the choir director and added, "I wondered what that was. When you were giving your talk in the sanctuary I thought I saw something under your glasses but supposed it could have been light reflecting or something. But, no there it is. What is that? Clara," she commanded to a friend. "Come look at this."


"Really. I'm not a mannequin," I thought. "And please don't invite your friend over here. It's bad enough you see it."


"Clara," she said. "Don't those look like diamonds?"


"They do," she answered. "I just thought something was reflecting on his glasses when he was talking at the podium. That's what everyone around me thought, anyway. But it's real. What is that?"


Even though I wasn't directly being asked that question I explained a small incident with the wrong type of theatrical . . . hating to say the words "make up" . . . while in a performance.


"Oh, that's too bad. I hope that's not permanent," Clara consoled.


"Me, too. Well, Faith, let's be on our way," I said.


The diamonds slowly disappeared along with my interest as a seminary student. The Greek class was my final indication. When we began the analysis of the anarthrous per-verbal predicate nominative "theos" I said, "No. I cannot memorize and I cannot remember any of this," I told Faith. It's a waste of time and money. I just don't feel like being a pastor is where God is leading."


Faith was very supportive. I dropped out of the seminary, but finished my first year with the Emery church. They were amazing and supportive people who were willing to try whatever I tossed their way. Our Christmas concert was the first time they had ever sung to a background music tape. The piano player wasn't happy about it, but the response to the concert was very positive.


With Emery and the seminary now behind I said to Faith, "I did that." I then decided to use my elementary major and applied for teaching positions. In no time at all I became the 5th grade teacher at All Saints School in Sioux Falls for a six thousand dollar a year salary. A new journey had begun.


Chapter Nine / Teaching / Children and "You're Fired"

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