(Note to the reader: I feel a sense of inadequacy in telling this story. The events themselves are, at least to me, so amazing that I do not believe I am doing them justice. I apologize if I get a few of the details wrong, or if I present it in a way that is only a mere caricature of how it really happened. After hearing the tale many times, this is how I understand it)
From the time I was a child, I have always been fascinated with cause and effect. From bristling with excitement at putting pennies on rail road tracks waiting for a train to come along and make them paper thin, to striking matches on my jeans, I marveled at how the slightest action could produce such unexpected results. Growing up, I could not escape the sense that the world itself was ablaze with these miraculous interactions. Moreover, I realized that with each of these explosive reactions that I had my hand in, while intelligence may not have factored into the equation, at the very least intent was required.
This preoccupation has landed me in my fair share of trouble over the years, and on occasion has very nearly led to my untimely demise. In fact, there is a good chance that when I pass from this life, my death announcement will be not found in an obituary column but instead listed as an entry for the Darwin Awards.
To illustrate, I think back to the time when the battery to my first wrist-watch died. I did not have another battery to replace it, and so I wanted to see if I could use another source to power it. I chose the most readily available power source in our home, an electrical outlet. I found some wire cutters, cut the cord off the fan in my bedroom, stripped the wires, and plugged the plug into the outlet. I then touched the exposed wire to the back of my watch, where I had removed the battery. POW! There was a bright flash just before the breaker tripped sending the house into darkness. My mom called out, “what happened to the power?” I yelled back, “I don’t know.” When the power was restored I found my watch and discovered that the components had been melted. “Wow, Cool!” I thought.
If I do leave this world in some ludicrous fashion, it would only be fitting given the bizarre sequence of events that led to my existing in the first place. For some people, when they see a string of unexpected events, they feel a sense of randomness to the universe. For me, especially when I think about how I came to be, I do not see randomness, but rather a conspiracy. The wild twists of events speak to me of something as more like a plan than just mere happenstance. It is one of the reasons that I cannot help but believe in God. Furthermore, in telling the tale, it may also become clear to you why I am such an insufferable narcissist, secretly thinking such things as: that the Divine Hand had arranged for a meeting between the Pope and bishops from around the world, called the Second Vatican Council, for the purpose of bringing me into being. But I am getting ahead of myself.
In order for a cause to produce an effect, it is often necessary that disparate things must coincide. In my story the disparate things that were brought together to result in the bizarre outcome that is me, were my dad and my mom.
My dad was raised in a blue-collar, culturally protestant, household. After my dad graduated from high school he entered the army. Because of his strong aptitude with languages, he was accepted into the army language school where he learned Russian. After his training, my dad was sent to Turkey, near the Russian border. He was part of military intelligence and his job was to listen to Russian short wave radio broadcasts, translate them, and send up the chain of command. While he was in Turkey, he visited some of the ancient Catholic churches that the Muslims now used as barns for their livestock. He was fascinated by the people who built these magnificent structures and it evoked in him a curiosity about Catholicism. When he returned stateside, he decided to become a Catholic. After a short while, my dad felt that he was called to the monastic life, and so he entered the Trappist monastery at Gethsemane in Kentucky.
It was the 1960’s, and my dad was quite happy at Gethsemane, and would have been content to live out his days as a monk. However, when the Second Vatican Council happened, it ignited a ripple of changes throughout the Church. One effect of was that the Trappists decided to drastically alter their way of life. These modifications were significant enough that my dad felt that this was no longer the life that he had signed up for. In his words, he did not leave the monastery, it left him. My dad and the Trappists parted ways and he moved to Columbus, Ohio where he enrolled in some classes at The Ohio State University.
My dad had begun life as a monk in the early 1960’s, and he left in 1968. Just to paint a clear picture, the world that he was entering into in 1968 was: commonly thought of as the year of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, the year Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, the year of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, and the year that race riots and antiwar protests peaked in this country. This strange world that he was entering into was quite different, disorientingly so, from the one he had departed less than ten years prior.
My dad moved into a boarding house. Shortly thereafter, he made friends with a guy named Rolland, which, by the way, is never a smart idea. One night, Rolland took my dad out drinking and they ended up at a bar in an all-black neighborhood. Rolland decided to take my dad’s car somewhere, without my dad in it (today we would call this “grand theft auto”, but back then it was just called “borrowing”). So, there was my dad, the only white guy on the street, at the height of racial tensions in Columbus, Ohio, having had too much to drink. So, he did exactly what one would expect a former monk do in such a situation: he started asking people where he could buy some marijuana. The residents of the neighborhood were not sure whether he was crazy or a narc, so they called the cops on him. The Columbus police arrived, took one look at my dad, and hauled him off to the drunk-tank.
My mom was raised in an upper middle class WASP family, which had been transplanted from the east coast to Columbus, Ohio. When my mom was in her late teens she decided to become an Episcopalian. When she told her parents, their reply was, “Episcopalian, good God, they are almost Catholic.” Upon hearing that, rebel that she was, my mom could think of nothing she would rather do than become a Catholic, and so she did.
A couple of years later she met a young man that she convinced herself that she was in love with. Using her considerable feminine wiles she convinced him to buy a Ford Mustang convertible. From that day on, without realizing it, she became more in love with the car than she was with him. As a matter of fact, she was often behind the wheel more than he was. One day while she was out driving the Mustang, with its top down, through the countryside. As she approached a crossroad, she blacked out. At that same moment another car was barreling down the intersecting road. It plowed into the driver’s side door of the Mustang, totaling it and nearly her as well.
Her dad received the call from the hospital that she had been in an accident. He rushed to the hospital. When she emerged from surgery, they put her in recovery and her he was finally permitted to see her. Her injuries were so severe; he did not recognize his own daughter. Recovering from her injuries took quite some time. During her recovery she received a letter from her boyfriend. In it he talked about her pretty blue eyes. My mom’s eyes are brown. Realizing that the best part of her relationship with this rube was his car, she ended the relationship.
A couple of years later my mom began dating a guy named Lloyd who was the love of her life. His mother owned a rooming house and he and my mom would hang out together there regularly. Lloyd was in the reserves and he was called up to active duty. She then found out that Lloyd had rekindled a romance with an old flame, which ended her relationship with him. Over the next few weeks, because my mom remained friends with several of the guys who lived at the boarding house, she would hang out there regularly. This was the same boarding house my dad had just moved into.
So there was my dad, sitting in jail for public intoxication, allowed only one phone call. He called the only number he knew, the one to the boarding house. One of the guys answered,who a friend of my mom’s, and he talked with my dad for a minute. The conversation sounded interesting, and when my mom’s friend hung up the phone, my mom asked him, “What was that about?” He replied that one of the residents was in jail and was calling to get bailed out. He asked my mom if she wanted to come. It sounded like an adventure, so she said she was in. So, that is how my parents met: my mom bailed my dad out of jail.
Getting Them Together
I doubt there are two people more ill-suited to be a married couple than my mom and dad. So, they’re getting together was anything but certain. In fact, if they had met at any other point in their lives, that incompatibility would have been obvious to them and they would not have ever gotten married. It was their common pain was what brought them together: my dad was hurting over the loss of his life as a monk, my mom was hurting over the end of her relationship with Lloyd. However, even then they needed an extra push in deciding to get married.
The two of them had formed a friendship and were hanging out quite a bit. On one occasion, about three weeks after they had met, they ended up staying up all night, at the boarding house, talking. That morning, my mom’s parents showed up at the boarding house, demanding to know what my dad’s intentions were. Her parents were terrified their reputation would be tarnished. Put on the spot, my dad did what comes natural to us Stephens’s, he started bullshitting. He told them that he wanted to marry my mom and that he would support her by getting a job as a Russian translator for the United Nations. They bought it, hook, line, and sinker. Whether he wanted to marry my mom or not, I do not know, but once my dad said it, he was not going to back down. That is not his style. So he asked my mom to marry him, and she accepted. My mom’s parents then set about planning the wedding.
My parents agreed that they wanted to be married in the Catholic Church. So, they arranged for a meeting with a priest. Upon listening to their story, the priest advised them that they should wait to get married. If my parents had been receptive to clear-headed rational thought, then I would not have existed. Fortunately for my sake, the wheels of this grand conspiracy were already in motion. My dad pointedly told the priest, “If you do not marry us, I will find someone who will.” Surprisingly, the priest caved, and the date was set; it was roughly one month and three weeks after they had met.
So, what should not have happened, did happen; these two people, who had no business being wed to one another, got married. It turns out that I was conceived on their honeymoon, which is a piece of information I could have gone my whole life without knowing.