Tales of Barranco Lagarato: THE UNITARIANS OF THE DESERT AND THE 14TH AMENDMENT
There is an old adage that just as commerce drags civilization behind it, the latter brings with it morals, monogamy and monotony in that order. In the early days of any city, the general rule is that ‘anything goes’ as long as money is made and the rich do not abuse the poor too badly. Money is its own curse and as more is made, competition rears its ugly head. Then rules are required to keep the rich from eating each other alive.
Civilization came to Agua Minerale expectedly. First came the bank, then the school and finally the Unitarian church. Unitarians were an odd lot, even by Agua Minerale standards. First, as can be seen by the last two words of the second line in this paragraph Unitarians do not have churches with a capital “c.” Their churches are blessed with a small “c” because their buildings are not houses of God, with a capital “G.” The buildings are just structures. The congregations therein are called ‘fellowships’ because, like the Quakers, all are equal in the eyes of God and no one is special though all are blessed.
Further, in a nation that sometimes refers to it as ‘Christian,’ almost always with a capital “C,” Unitarians are the most misunderstood of all Western religions — in spite of the fact that many of the Founding Fathers of the United States were Unitarian. John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore and William Howard Taft were officially Unitarians while Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe were deists which, by today’s definition, made them Unitarian. Abraham Lincoln was a deist as well.
Generally speaking, Unitarianism is the belief that the Trinity is a unity. That is, while many Christians believe in the Holy Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — Unitarians believe that all three of these entities are part and parcel of each other so they cannot be distinguished one from the other. Complicating matters, there are no hard-and-fast Unitarian principles. Some Unitarians believe in the divinity of Christ and others do not. Some Unitarians are comfortable in Catholic churches while others are not comfortable in any church whatsoever and look at the Unitarian flock as more of a Sunday morning klatch to discuss morals. Some Unitarian gatherings have a cross present, others do not and many have a mixture of religious icons of which the cross is one of many symbols of the almighty.
All in all Unitarianism was the best possible church — with the small “c” — to be the first to arrive in Agua Minerale. It was gathering of the faithful, of whatever view of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and imposed no penance upon the wicked or unrepentant. For the latter reason, the Unitarians were allowed the gathering to take place in the Apex meeting house.
The spear point of the arrival of morals, monogamy and monotony was George. Not Reverend George, Father George, Brother George or any other moniker preceding the man’s first name. Just George. His last name was Nelson, not that anyone used it. He was simply George and he was the minister — also with a small “m.” George came to Agua Minerale with a suitcase and smile. His first stop was the Kincaid Roadhouse where he ordered a glass of wine and, when told none was available, asked for a beer. As he was drinking the beer, he introduced himself to the Kincaid couple in the best of all possible manners: he was ordering a second illegal beer that he knew was illegal and paying for both beers in cash.
George knew people. With two beers he had converted the entire community. He convinced the population that he was not against drinking, had no problem with the rougher elements, could turn a blind eye when was required and still had the backbone to ask the Kincaids for a donation for the new church — with a small “c” — and urged them join the fellowship. Jerome Kincaid immediately liked George for more reasons than that he paid in cash. What Kincaid did not want was a fire-breathing Evangelical proselytizing against the sins of the demon rum and loose women, both of which Jerome had in copious supply. Further, churches were good for business. They healed the sick and tended to the unfortunate, neither of which Kincaid cared to see near his establishment. Finally, as Philistine as he was, Jerome had grown up in poverty and had only risen above it late in life. During his unfortunate days he had watched the Catholic Church drain communities of money that would have been better spent locally. The money collected locally was sent to Rome and it never came back, a sin in the eyes of Jerome Kincaid of there was one. Jerome, of course, was no friend of money leaving the vicinity of his business and therefore viewed the Catholic Church as a great drain for the pennies, nickels, dimes and dollars that rightly should have been spent locally. In his establishment primarily but, at least, locally. Unitarians did not send their money out of the community. They spent it locally so that any pennies, nickels, dimes and dollars collected by the church would be spent by the church and as that money ran around the small town of Agua Minerale, some of that money would inevitably end up in the Kincaid coffer.
So it was in the interest of the Kincaids to contribute to the formation of the fellowship. In turn, so did the rest of the Six Scoundrels. It was all done sub rosa, of course, since no one wanted to be known as a hypocrite, giving money to a church on one hand and stealing from its flock on the other. George, being a man of the world, understood the arrangement being made. He would continue to receive money from the Six Scoundrels as long as he did not start any moralizing campaign that would threaten their income stream. This was not a problem for George as Unitarians concentrate on converting the wicked to righteousness through the power of logic, not fear of the afterlife.
Moreover, George and his wife Phyllis were patriots of the old school. They could have cared less about the Declaration of Independence because there was not a single legal tooth in the entire document. But the United States Constitution was propped up with a police force — city, county, state and national — as well as a court system, from Magistrate to Supreme Court Justice. Here was an entire mouthful of legal teeth! And in that document were the words that George and Phyllis held most dear, the first 28 of the 14th Amendment:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.
In a nutshell, it was these 28 words that made America. George and Phyllis felt that the phrase “all men were created equal” was nothing more than verbal elegance; it was good theater but that was about as far as it went. Everyone knew that all men were not created equally. To state otherwise it was, to use a modern term, a crock. Rich people were not created the same as poor people and the only black children who were created equal were the ones who had a white father lurking in the woodpile.
But it was the 14th Amendment that made all of God’s children in the US of A equal. It took America four score and seven years to get around to acknowledging the fact and another half century for it to become a reality in Agua Minerale. That was the quest of George and Phyllis Nelson and they were dedicated to the proposition that all men and women were the same in the eyes of the law. And in the educational system. And it was in the educational system where they made their mark.
If there was any one thing in which the Nelson team was spectacular it was in finding federal dollars. And specifically federal education dollars. This was a Godsend to the community for BN, “Before Nelson,” schooling was catch-as-catch-can because the schoolteachers only stayed long enough to sober up before moving on to better paying jobs in San Bernardino, Victorville, Palm Springs and Las Vegas. But the Nelsons were in Agua Minerale to stay. George Nelson found the money and Phyllis taught the classes — class in the singular in the 1920s and by the end of the decade Agua Minerale had a schoolhouse with six rooms, one for each grade, and a dozen fulltime employees, half of them teachers.
If there was any one thing that the Six Scoundrels loved it was more people in Agua Minerale. The community was never going to be a San Bernardino or a Riverside but it could be as large as Victorville. There was a lot of money running around Victorville because there were a lot of people there. More people in Agua Minerale meant more money cycling through the community, through the bank, the roadhouse, the general store, etc. So having the school expand from a one-room shack to a modern, ten-room building was good news. Even better, it was federal money that paid for the school to be constructed but the building material came through the Gibraltar General Store. Labor was provided by the Ramon Ricardo Jerome Maria de Marina General Contractor and the teachers — paid for with State of California and San Bernardino County moneys — were housed at the Rancho Mirage and all the money for the school from design to janitorial services went through the Shackleton Bank. The Absquatulaters were strong supporters of the local school because it meant that the mixed ethnic stock that they called kith and kin could learn the basics of education without being sent of out of town. [And did I mention that the school was also a large contributor to the property tax base of the community as well as the largest purchaser of electricity, fuel, chalk, brooms, dustpans and medical supplies all of which were purchased locally?]
Thus the school was a heavenly addition to the community. On paper. There did not seem to be a downside because, after all, how can there be a downside to a monetary cycle — particularly when one happened to be an integral part of that cycle?
But there was a downside. It was not a downside to the Nelson but it certainly was to the Absquatulaters. And the parents of the sons and daughters of the business community. While there was money coming in front door of their businesses because of the school, there was evil lurking around the back door. That evil came in the form of the Evangelical spasmodics. As far as the United States government and the State of California and the County of Riverside were concerned, the school for which they were collectively paying had to be open and free to all children in the community regardless of race, color, creed, sex or religion. It was the last of these that stuck in everyone’s craw. It meant that the children of the spasmodics were legally required to come to the local school.
Unless the spasmodics had a school which they did not.
So the children of the spasmodics attended the Agua Minerale school. They rubbed shoulders with the children and grandchildren of the banker and the grocer and the blacksmith and the pharmacist and the newspaper editor. All children were in-and-out of every structure in the community and, as they grew older, all were employed in the business enterprises of the parents and grandparents of their friends.
But it was not the association of the spasmodic children that caused the disharmony in the community. It was the presence of the Evangelical elders that was the heartburn. Since every parent had an equal say in matters of education, the elders went through the textbooks to be bought by the school with an eye to ferreting out evil before it arrived in the classroom. This meant references to Mormons, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Moslems and other religious riffraff such as pagans, heathens, agnostics, atheists, deist and skeptics. Library books were culled for Satanist content. Prospective teachers were put through an inquisition before they were hired and subjected to surprise visits by Elders whenever certain subjects were taught, subjects like health, history, biology and civics. Mathematics and chemistry homework assignments were plumbed for any hidden meaning by the secularists.
It would not have been so bad if the objections — and there were many — could have been resolved at the local level. After all, the function of a school board is to make decisions for the local school district. But the Evangelical spasmodic elders were wise to the ways of the world. That which they could not achieve locally they attacked at the county, state and federal level. If they were denied an iota of what they unilaterally demanded, they protested to the county, state and federal officials. This had the effect of slowing down the funding source of the school and once, when the spasmodics objected to a section in a textbook on slavery, the entire order for the text was canceled and students were forced to use the old books for another funding cycle: five years.
It could not be said that the problem with the spasmodics –or, from the spasmodics point of view, the secular leaders of Agua Minerale — was ever resolved. The monthly school board meetings were as close to a civil war as one could get without muskets. No compromise was possible for the religious believed they spoke with authority of God, their God. Every change in the school structure became a major campaign until it got to the point where it was easier to drop the educational requirements for graduation. A student did not have to take a class in biology, history, civics or health to get a diploma.
In the end the spasmodics defeated themselves. Their children came out with a lopsided education, an average understanding of mathematics and chemistry and not much else. One cannot live by mathematics and chemistry alone and the Bible is not an adequate substitute for a good understanding of history, civics, biology and health.
It was with no small measure of joy that the education-minded of Agua Minerale welcomed the departure of the Evangelical spasmodics in the early 1930s — mid-May of 1933 as a matter of fact. The departure of the spasmodics was not the result of a weariness of dealing with the petty politics of the community. Rather it was the turnabout of the same federal government that had been the source of their ability to manipulate the local school board.
It was money that had brought the spasmodics to Agua Minerale and it was money that hastened their departure. On May 1, 1933, Executive Order 6102 went into effect. In a nutshell this made the “Hoarding of Gold Coin, Gold Bullion, and Gold Certificates” by American citizens illegal. Any and all gold in raw form, coin or bullion had to be sold to the United States government at a set price, $20.67 per Troy ounce. There would not more wheeling-and-dealing with the gold that the spasmodics swore they were not pulling out of the abandoned Pinto Basin Mine. However, a little more than 100 miles away, the Mexican border beckoned. Any gold ‘found’ on the other side of that arbitrary line in the sand could be sold at world market rate which, over the years, was substantially more than $20.67 per Troy ounce. So, one day in May of 1933, the spasmodics simply disappeared.
The only people in Agua Minerale to regret the passing of the Evangelical spasmodics were the Nelsons. All children were God’s gifts and it was not the parents that determined a child’s future; it was that child’s education. Until the day they died, George at the end of the Second World War and Phyllis before the start of the Korean War, both Unitarians reveled in the fact that they had saved “six generations of children” from lives of penury. They were half-right. The sons and daughters and grandchildren of the bankers, grocers, editors, schoolteachers and pharmacists never seemed to have fallen into the cycle of poverty. As far as the spasmodic children were concerned, all that was known for sure was that several became lawyers and at least one was an elected official in a small community in Arizona. “If that’s success,” my grandfather said on more than one occasion, “there’s not much value in religion.” I’m sure George and Phyllis Nelson would have said it differently: “You can’t save everyone because sooner or later some child is going to become a lawyer or a politician.”
[This story comes Steven Levi faux history TALES OF BARRANCO LAGARTO available on Kindle and ACX.]