It was January, 1977, and the Monsignor was so pleased with our work he offered us coffee and “biscuits” on our last day at the church, the day we got our check for remodeling the confessional at Saint Joan of Arc. The coffee was a treat because, as spiritual students, we weren’t really supposed to indulge, but since this was an offer of hospitality, we accepted. It made us speedy though, in even more of a rush to cash the check and go buy crates of two-inch PVC fittings for the crew in Guatemala installing a water system.
Meanwhile a few of our “ladies” (with newly-applied make-up and lipstick and “straight” dresses) were charming certain pharmacists into donating boxes of Povan (worm medicine), that, combined with the PVC fittings, would pretty much fill up our weekly Plenty pallet sitting in our backyard. Then the next day the pallet would be tarped and taken down to the docks because the United Fruit Company had agreed (thanks to the persuasive ladies again) to ship our relief supplies to Guatemala City on the empty banana boat’s return voyage.
There is enough to go around, in fact there is plenty, if like-minded configurations of people all over the world coalesced around good agreement and respectful use of the planet’s resources.
All this makes perfect sense if you lived in the alternative universe that was the Mobile Farm. We were thirty or so Farm people and children occupying three houses on a block straddling the Garden District and a middle-class black neighborhood. There was constant traffic along the sidewalk between our houses. What must the neighbors have thought? It never occurred to us to even wonder. We were too busy. We were on a mission. Multiple missions actually. Like: finish the confessional, drink the coffee, cash the check, buy the fittings, load the pallet, haul it down to the docks, connect with one of the ship’s mates to please keep an eye on it during the off-loading. Then do it all over again the next week.
The Mobile Center had begun as the brainchild of three Farm couples (Lloyds, Millers and Glesers) with the vision of manifesting (Farm jargon for making something happen) an ocean-going freighter (don’t laugh) from which to share our world view: There is enough to go around, in fact there is plenty, if like-minded configurations of people all over the world coalesced around good agreement and respectful use of the planet’s resources.
But then came the tragic earthquake of 1976 in Guatemala, and the focus of our rotating Mobile families and single folks shifted from freighter dreams to support of the Farm’s on-the-ground relief effort in Central America. This was like shortening the supply line by half. Napoleon might even have taken Russia if he’d had a Mobile Farm. Okay, that’s stretching it, but we were valuable, and we knew it, and the immediacy of our collective effort was like some high-test fuel we all ran on.
Nights found us grouped around the ham radio at the designated frequency and time “meeting place” where the barely-recognizable (think modulated Donald Duck) voices of close friends gave us the day’s news from the highlands around Sololá interspersed with a “shopping list” of needed items for various projects, or simply what was needed to maintain the health of Guatemalans and Americans alike. If antibiotics or medicines were needed, check — we could air mail smaller stuff like that. But hardware items or truck parts would be put on the weekly banana boat pallet that sat in the back yard of “the big house” on the corner.
Directly behind the big house was another world, the antebellum South, Oakleigh Mansion, a splendidly preserved example of classic white-columned architecture surrounded by drooping canopies of live oaks with Spanish moss in all the right places above yards and side-yards of azaleas, marble statues, and brick walks. If Scarlet O’Hara herself had descended the curving front staircase, it would have somehow seemed normal, inevitable.
In fact touristy trolley-tours of old Mobile passed Oakleigh three or four times daily, a small truck pulling a train of open-air covered wagons. This, of course, meant that the trolley-tour also slowly passed our big house, its backyard adjacent to the side street. And on every pass we heard the same snippet of the same piped-in travelogue: “Slaves dug, formed and kiln-fired all the brick used for Oakleigh right here on the grounds, and the resulting ditches were filled with top soil for the splendid gardens we so enjoy today…” Once, twice, three times a day we’d hear that line if we were at home.
Oftentimes though, our scene was more of an attraction than the scripted one: beautiful hippie women in flowing garments hanging out wash or reading to a group of children. Longhaired, bearded men wrestled with construction tools, jump-started an old truck, stacked boxes on a pallet, or threw a Frisbee. There was a baby crying, a baby getting its diaper changed, groceries going in the back door, perhaps a guitar or two being played on the steps after work — “Forget Oakleigh,” the trolley tourists must have thought. “What the heck is going on over there?” And sometimes you could hear the tour-guide take the mic to try and re-capture their attention, “Now over here, folks, over here, on the other side, you’ll see…”
The priest at Saint Joan of Arc Roman Catholic Church (just down the street) had heard that we were part of a spiritual community so he decided our finish carpentry crew would be a perfect fit to re-work the confessional booth in the rear of the sanctuary. The worldwide Vatican II Council in the early 70s had dictated changes throughout the church, one of which was that parishioners should now have the option of confessing face-to-face with the clergy.
My wife Kathy and I had just arrived from the Tennessee Farm, and this was one of my first jobs for Port City Remodeling, our company. My crew in Tennessee had been the Motor Pool, an almost out-of-control daily scene of revving engines, shouts of, “Monkeys!” to come push a broken-down truck, the arc of welding, the whine of grinder wheels, arguments over who got to use which car next, touch football games at lunch, the squawk of turned-up CB radios. It was widely described as a “yang” scene. The jive level was high. We pushed the envelope of what was appropriate behavior for Farm spiritual students (what we all were first and foremost). All this I was used to.
What I was not prepared for was the dark echoing quiet of a Catholic church. Incense. Candles. Hushed voices barely whispering at the nave yet almost audible in the back where Cliff (our lead carpenter who would eventually end up in Guatemala) handed me a pry bar my first day at work and pointed to the confessional’s ancient molding that I was to begin dismantling. I hit the pry bar with my hammer to start its edge under the old trim. The noise was obscenely loud. I stopped. Cliff said, “Keep going. It’s okay, they know we’re going to make noise.” I hit the bar again. Terrible. I pried at the molding. Nails that had been in place for a century all screeched in unison, the sound racketing throughout the hammered-beam ceiling. Women were crossing themselves, lighting candles down front. I was in another world.
We heard from Guatemala of exciting new projects underway down there. A boat ambulance service that was to link villages with emergency healthcare along Lake Atitlán. A gravity fed water project was in the works (hence the request for PVC elbows and unions). Plans for a soy dairy had been approved.
All this required supplies, money, and during that winter the Mobile Farm served as a major support vehicle for Plenty in Guatemala.
So we went out and worked. Mostly we disc-sanded then painted huge Victorian houses (the dawn of urban gentrification) while our paint-spattered FM radio blared Hotel California, Carry on My Wayward Son. All We Are Is Dust in the Wind. And our favorite, The Pretender — “And when the morning light comes streaming in/we’ll get up and do it again, A-men … I’m gonna be a happy idiot and struggle for the legal tender…” We took any jobs we could find. We built garages, did odd jobs. We built pallets down at the Alabama state docks. We remodeled a confessional. And we always took our pay in one large crew check that got handed over to the crew ‘bank lady.’ She then allotted as much as possible to supplies for Guatemala.
Norman was from Canada so he started calling the Saint Joan of Arc priest, “Monsignor,” which I thought was very cool. The Monsignor’s black robes touched the wine-red carpet so it was almost like he was a hovercraft coming up the aisle to check our work. Under the old confessional seat we found that the original craftsmen had signed it near the start of the century, mostly Italian names, and now here we were, spiritual lotus-eating hippies re-working the booth because the Vatican had said it must be done. All so our new soy dairy in San Bartolo could start cranking out soymilk and tofu for a protein-poor Mayan area. Many years later former Peace Corps volunteers who had served in Guatemala would tell me how they used to take the bus to the Plenty soy dairy to have some soy ice cream. They also reported that the children started seeming stronger, more healthy as they neared San Bartolo.
And on my 30th birthday (I remember this scene because I was taking stock of myself, thinking I had to at such a milestone) our crew was taking an afternoon break in the cool winter fog on the front steps of Saint Joan of Arc. You could hear foghorns coming from two directions. Confederate jasmine never stopped blooming. We were close to finishing, and the Monsignor came out to tell us how pleased he was with our work, especially the stain match we’d kept experimenting with till we got it right, finally matching the 80-year-old patina of the original confessional that looked like a chocolate house, something straight out of Hansel and Gretel. “Winds of change, my boys,” he said. We waited for him to go on because we knew he loved the pregnant pause. “Are blowing through the church,” he finished. We nodded. We so knew what he meant.