Lake Effect, Spring 2012, Volume 16: A Personal Evolution of Prayer

Curtis Smith


A Personal Evolution of Prayer

      My shadow stretched across the roof of a Rust Belt factory. 1979, and I was nineteen. Lathes droned below, a heavy metal hum for my boots and bones. I was a college kid, and the factory regulars treated me the as they would any seasonal curiosity, a cursory glance, an eyebrow arched in recognition of another year’s passing. They were lifers, as rooted to this place as their hulking machines; I was a breeze through suddenly opened windows. First the robins, then the summer help, both of us appearing weeks after the last Great Lakes snow had melted; gone before the leaves changed. May through August, I drifted through the factory’s shops, filling in for vacationing or incarcerated laborers. I shoveled mountains of metal shavings, fed the lathes their oil-water mixtures. I pushed wheeled boxcars and skids, delivered milled parts between shops, sweated in the heat treatment and foundry. When I wasn’t needed in the shops, I headed to the roof.
      Chuck, the maintenance foreman and overseer of the roof crew, was a compact, silver-haired man, his grip made strong by a lifetime of wielding wrenches. His urgent strides left me, a man a third his age, hustling in his wake. Behind his back, we called Chuck “The Reverend,” a nickname he re-earned each morning when he greeted our crew with his callused hands raised skyward and a cheerful cry of: “It’s a glorious day for the Lord!”
      Growing up, religion had been a Sunday-morning affair, a discussion that went no further than what church one attended. But times had changed, and The Reverend was the latest embodiment in what I considered a perplexing, ever-more-aggressive form of faith. Earlier that year, the girl I’d been spending time with in my freshman dorm returned from a weekend at home, starry-eyed in her confession that she’d accepted Christ into her heart; and no, she didn’t want to make out with me anymore. The seven-hour car ride that separated campus from my parents’ home passed through the wilderness of Pennsylvania’s northern tier, long stretches of I-80 where my only companions were truck convoys and Christian radiobroadcasts, morality plays whose intonations and effects harkened back to radio’s golden age but whose message never strayed from a soul’s ultimate fate of salvation or eternal fire. The recent phenomenon of cable TV introduced me to televangelists, a breed of men I found as disturbing as they were comical. Even Bob Dylan, who’d spoken to my soul with 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, now gave me Street Legal, an album I bought with great anticipation but which left me feeling betrayed.
      The factory’s main building dated back to the late 1800’s, and from it radiated other shops of varying heights, the structure resembling a senseless web of brick walls and tarpaper roofs. “Watch that first step!” the lifers would laugh as our crew headed out. Balanced upon the roof’s slightly angled stretches, I joined the other summer help and a handful of grumbling maintenance men. The sky opened above us.