Elmore Winfield led a remarkable life. Elmore Winfield led a senseless life. There is no contradiction. Certainly it was a life well spent as it was well explored. I never met a man who knew more than he thought he knew. Usually it’s the reverse; the blow-hard, the low self esteemed. When Whinny—that’s what people called him—revealed some nugget of wisdom it was as if he was discovering it the moment he said it. Not only his audience but he himself sat back and considered what he had just said. It was marvelous to watch. Everyone brightened as the meaning became clear. I always expected to hear theatrical music in the background; such as that which accompanied the planets in alignment at the opening of the movie, 2001, a space odyssey—a strident blast of French horns and dramatic pounding of kettle drums.
My first encounter with Whinny was at his mother’s house on North High Street. I didn’t know Whinny from Adam. Which was understandable since I am almost 30 years his senior. I knew his mother back in high school. She was Joyce McCants. We dated a few times. Nothing serious. I can’t even remember if we necked. I think I would have remembered if I had gotten to second base. Anyway, she called me out of the blue to meet her son who had just returned from God knows where. Whinny would never say, and Joyce never knew. He left home after high school and came back some fifteen years later.
I really can’t fault the kid. I did pretty much the same thing—left and didn’t come back for 28 years. Now I’m word-worn and retired. Well, The Herald Chronicle refers to me as Editor Emeritus. I got out of the business full time when I saw how far it had devolved. Where once we had 20 reporters and editors the Chronicle was now down to nine. The newsroom was an empty space underlain in rotten linoleum. The reporting suffered the same fate—went downhill fast. Nowadays the kids want to be on camera, they want the stories to come to them. The concept of enterprise reporting is foreign, and God forbid they do any investigative work. They won’t even challenge authority. I couldn’t stand to be a witness. I retired to my vegetable patch.
I still write a weekly column, which was why Joyce called. She wanted me to write a story about her son. When I asked why, she just said, you’ll see.
Whinny was neither handsome nor ugly. His DNA was plain vanilla. He was average height, average build, and average hair length. The only aspect that asked for attention was the thick black-rimmed glasses. I couldn’t determine if it was an attempt at being avant garde or old-style nerd. To accomplish the latter he needed masking tape around the bridge of the glasses. He wore simple clothes, chinos and white t-shirt under an open flannel shirt. He wore lace-up shoes which I couldn’t help but examine because I hadn’t seen anything like them in—in … well, ever. When I looked up I expected to see a pocket guard with a row of ink pens and a slide ruler.
I consulted his class annual, Greensburg High, 1999; The Millennia was what they named that edition. There was no evidence of him, not even a picture. A classmate mentioned that he and Whinny planned to join the Army, paratroopers at Ft. Bragg. I don’t know if he ever enlisted. I googled him and found a person by the same name that had joined the Taliban in Pakistan after a three-year conversion. Then there was another guy who had joined the Peace Corp. All Joyce could say was that he went “east.” Ft. Bragg was southeast and if he went too far east he’d have ended up in the Atlantic Ocean.
Joyce invited me over on a Saturday afternoon. Frankly I was pissed that I had committed to the arrangement. It was January and cold. There was an inch of ice/snow on the roads. Driving was dangerous. No one hereabouts has a clue how to negotiate ice. Rednecks think the secret is to go faster than the skid. Old ladies believe that if they peeked above the steering wheel every so often everything will be OK. And teenagers put Crispy Crème to shame with the number of doughnuts they make. Invariably their last doughnut is destined to meet another car or tree or something solid. And that something could have been me. Me, the 62-year-old me, whose medical insurance deductible has the girth of a sow. All I wanted to do was hid my head in the sand. That by the way is not necessarily a mixed metaphor since I dream of warm beaches this time of year. At any rate, I showed up with an aloe plant in hand, a gift for Joyce. I grow them or rather, I let them grow in my sun room. They are as prolific as my writing once was.
Joyce ignored the potted plant, setting it aside on the hall tree bench. A glance told me she hadn’t changed much. Her brown hair was still brown, unlike mine which was not gray but white. People say I look like Mark Twain, a persona I don’t abuse. She was a little thick in the waist but I’d still neck with her at the drive-in, if only we had one. She wore a sleeveless, black cotton lace dress which I approved of but questioned—it seemed more appropriate for a cocktail party than afternoon tea. Nevertheless, I admired her figure and remembered how much I enjoyed looking at women in something else besides pants.
Joyce ushered me into a bright, open room which had a dining table on the left and beyond was a long couch that served as a demarcation for the living room. In the far corner was a fireplace with gas logs burning and in the other corner a flat screen TV; 60 inches if I had to guess. Flanking the couch was an oversized leather chair and an upholstered settee, in the middle of which sat Whinny. He made no effort to stand, step forward and introduce himself.
For some reason I decided not to take the initiative and sat in the middle of the leather chair. Within seconds I slid into the hollowed out spot on the far right, up against the side table on which Joyce set my coffee, which I sipped out of politeness. I gave a cold shoulder to the chocolate cookies on a separate plate out of sheer will power. She introduced me as an “old and dear” friend and former classmate and finally as the editor of The Herald Chronicle.
I corrected her. “Editor emeritus, which means I’m an old fogy that they don’t know what to do with. So once a week they let me out of a closet, dust me off and tell me to write a column for Sunday’s editorial page.”
Whinny nodded as if everything from the dusting-off to the writing made perfect sense. A smile gave a gentle push to Joyce’s red mouth. I hoped it was in appreciation of my Churchill-esque wit.
There was an annoying silence. I felt uncomfortable, so I said, “So, uh, Elmore, what—“
“It’s Whinny,” said Joyce. “Everyone calls him Whinny.”
“Oh, so, uh, Whinny …” I paused, internally questioning why a 33-year-old man chose to be called Whinny. “So your mother tells me you’re, uh, you’re—you do something that would make a good human interest column.”
“Really?” He looked to his mother who peered shyly over her coffee cup. Whinny hadn’t wanted any coffee or cookies. I began to understand why—he hadn’t planned on staying long.
Joyce set her cup on its saucer and smoothed down her already smooth tight skirt. “I wanted Jay to hear—I wanted you to tell, uh, Mr. Ashley about—about your gift.”
As I said “Gift?”, Whinny said, “Why?”
“For the newspaper.”
“I don’t want anything in the newspaper.” His voice was deep and penetrating. “Not one word.”
“But that’s just it,” said Joyce. “That’s all you have to say.”
“Poor choice,” said Whinny. His countenance went from gentle to flinty in an instant. “Mr. Ashley, I don’t know under what pretext my mother invited you over here, but I am not interesting in having anything written about me. Really there’s nothing to write about.” He cast a severe look at his mother and added, “So if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll leave you two to catch up.”
“Hey, whatever, man.” Although I didn’t mean to, I threw up my hands as if in exasperation.
Whinny left without saying another word.
Joyce stared at the circular center table for a minute and then broke down in tears. I went to her, putting my arm around her shoulder. Her skin was cold. In no time she buried her face in my herringbone sports coat. I patted her hair. I hate to admit it—seeing as how I am spoken for—but I liked running my fingers through her luxurious wavelets.
After almost five minutes Joyce composed herself. She sat back, placing her long hands on my knee and thigh; a move which was innocent of any design but a move which my mind wouldn’t stop calculating. She apologized for her outburst and ran a finger under each eye. I handed her a clean napkin. She blew her nose, not at all shy about the noise she made.
I asked what was it that made her son so special.
“He says a word.”
“I don’t get it.”
Joyce asked me if I could come tomorrow to the McClellan Primitive Baptist Church for the Sunday service. As much as I wanted an explanation for why, I acceded to her request.
She smiled, “Good, I’m hoping he will say the word and then you’ll see.”
I got there early. The church was simple in structure and décor. In fact, it was so austere as to make a Catholic church seem decadent. The only real color was on the windows, squishes of yellow and green in no particular pattern. In the middle of the bottom pane was the name of a family that apparently had contributed the glass.
By TV ministry standards, this place was pint-sized. There were four pews flanking a raised floor, each accommodated four people. The nave consisted of fifteen pews which sat about ten. A choir of eight, stationed in the pews to the left, sang capella.
I took a seat near the front. Joyce and Whinny came in by a side door and sat in the section opposite the choir. Not conversant in primitive Baptist ways, I wondered if that area was reserved for honorees.
The church was only half full when Elder Eldon Shaw took the pulpit. What impressed me about the preacher was how square his features were. Slightly less than six feet, he stood as if he blocked off space; a chubby but not rotund block. His dark hair was blocked across the wide forehead and down the sides. The dark suit gave a crisp edge to the corners. His very pale skin seemed to be apt for a setting so stark; pews, pulpit, the elder’s chair and nothing else, certainly not an altar.
As striking as his physique was, the way Shaw preached was amazing. His cadence aped that of an auctioneer. I never saw him inhale but he had to because he went on at such length about how Christ was this, how Christ did that, how Christ made this, how The Lord saved that …. He strung out these phrases for ten minutes, never once pausing. It was a tour de force of eupnea.
That said, the crowning highlight of the service was yet to come. No sooner had Shaw finished and the choir began to sing than Whinny rose from the front pew. He stepped onto the platform and approached Elder Shaw, who looked at him in befuddlement. The closer Whinny got the tenser the preacher became. Finally Whinny held his palms out in a calming gesture. Shaw didn’t relax until Whinny whispered into his ear.
The moment Whinny backed away Shaw reached for the pulpit, gripping it for support. After the lunge his motor skills left him. His mouth was half open, his eyes unblinking, and his face even paler. Whinny held him by an arm and escorted him to the high-backed chair. In taking his seat, the minister displayed a rubbery flexibility.
While all this was going on, there wasn’t a sound, either inside or out. Not so much as a murmur, a rustling of cloths or a huff of an inhale. Spellbound as everyone else, I had to tell myself to breathe. My body felt weightless. My eyes were fastened on Whinny who patted Shaw on the shoulder and returned to his seat.
The stillness that prevailed contained what I would describe as peace of mind. The congregation was reposed, imbued with a peculiar serenity. But the spell only lasted until Shaw cleared his throat.
With tremulous arms he hoisted himself from the chair and walked on stilted legs to the podium. He wheezed and coughed several times and then uttered, “I know—I know now there are three ecstasies, and now is one of them.” He looked at the people and then over them. “Please go in peace as one.”
No one moved. The attrition we know as our internal clock ground to a stop. There was no measurement of time, only duration, a mindset which we accepted without hesitation. Actually without really thinking about it. Nothing or no one made demands on us. Everything stopped. At least until Joyce and Whinny made their exit. We were too transfixed to notice. One minute they were there and the next gone. I don’t know if I was the first to break the rapture but I made a bee-line for the side door. I wanted to know what everyone in the church wanted to know—what had the man said? Outside I found myself out of breath, as if I had run a race. Gasping, I bent over, my hands on my knees. After a moment I surveyed the parked cars, not spotting Joyce’s red sedan until it was puttering down the side road, its exhaust smoking.
Back inside, the congregation encircled Elder Shaw who sat on the edge of the platform, hands covering his face. The way he slumped over suggested exhaustion. Those in front of him knelt, while those behind him stood. No one spoke. After a while, the minister straightened. He rubbed the fabric on his thighs and said, “Well, shall we go?”
“But what did he say?” came from several directions.
Bracing his hands on his knees, he looked about, “I can’t … I don’t …” He took a deep breath. “I can’t say because I don’t know. It was more like an experience than him saying anything.” He looked at no one in particular. “It—I don’t—I don’t know that he said anything.”
Just as I was about to ask, someone did it for me. “What kind of experience?”
“I …” He sighed and shook his head. “I felt like I was in a garden, a beautiful …” He slapped his hands on his thighs. “I don’t know. I don’t know what to tell you.”
“I bet it was the baby Jesus,” said a little girl.
Shaw stood, patted the girl on the head and said, “Maybe … It was like nothing I’ve ever—ever felt.” He added, “I suppose that’s the word, felt?”
I drove to High Street. Joyce’s Nissan was in the narrow driveway. I knocked on the front door but got no answer. I rang the bell. Joyce opened the door, still in her heavy coat. She didn’t step back to allow me inside.
“He’s mad at me. Says I made him to it,” she said.
“What is it that he did?”
“He said the word.”
“I don’t know.”
“Hasn’t he said it to you?”
She nodded yes. “But I still don’t know—I mean, I know but I don’t know how to tell you. I mean, he said it but …” She shrugged with a pained expression, adding, “But I can tell this. I am a changed person. It’s like I belong—belong to an ever widening, uh, widening group, I guess.”
I didn’t reply because I didn’t know what to say.
“Are you going to write a story?” Before I could answer she said, “Please, don’t. He doesn’t want anyone to know.”
I shoved my hands deeper into my overcoat pockets.
Joyce said, “I’m sorry I asked you to come over. I didn’t mean to upset him; I didn’t mean to bother you.”
I placed a consoling hand on her shoulder and told her if she needed me to call.
She did. After the You Tube episode.
According to Joyce, Elsa Burrows, the fourth grader who lived next door, asked and then begged Whinny to come to career day at Jeb Stuart Elementary. Elsa as well as her mother Sara had already heard the whispered word and the girl wanted her classmates to hear it as well.
It was a morning-long session where dads discussed their occupations. There was no shortage of lawyers and firemen, two CPAs, one civil engineer, a medical PA, a teamster, a soldier and Whinny, who went last.
Unlike the others who blathered on about their professions, Whinny said he had a talent for whispering; whispering one word. He showed the first volunteer. The child seemed so taken by the experience everyone in the class, including adults, got in line.
Whinny never paid much notice to a teacher’s aide in the back, even though he saw her holding up a smart phone. He was too enthralled with the children to be concerned. But the woman posted the video on YouTube. Within three weeks it went viral.
Now I had to write a story because Whinny became a cause célèbre and as a result, a police matter. People from as far away as California made pilgrimages to the house on North High Street. The votives ended their journey by knocking on the door and pestering Joyce and Whinny at all hours of the day and night. Interruptions turned into annoyances which turned into vexations. When the seekers pitched tents in the front yard, Joyce called the cops.
Dispersing the crowd was easy in comparison to corralling the press. Which arrived in droves. There were vans, semis and cherry pickers, all mounted with broadcast towers, satellite cones and antennas. For every vehicle there must have been ten men and one pretty blonde.
The pandemonium lasted three days. Once news of Whinny’s exodus made the rounds, the press broke camp. In all my years as a journalist I can say I never became part of the story; that is, until this one.
The escape plan was simple. Zealots, even those in the guise of the working press, were less than vigilant during the small hours of the night.
Just before midnight on a Wednesday, I waved—as arranged—to the two patrolmen at the barricade and ducked down the driveway to the back door. I wore a hoodie and clothes Joyce said Whinny had in his wardrobe. Finding black-rimmed glasses proved such a problem that I finally had to buy frames at Pearl Vision.
Thirty minutes later, with the lupine bystanders all but gone, Whinny came out, dressed identical to me. He gave the cops the high sign, a two-fingered wave, and proceeded past the crowd-control sawhorses. He sauntered down the street. Around the corner was Barney Howell, a latter-day hippie whose microbus was running. In spite of the psychedelic paint job, the men made their getaway without attracting any notice. Police chief Hutto personally thanked me the following morning.
My status as emeritus changed to full-fledged reporter. I wrote what turned out to be a series of stories about the word Whinny whispered. The most articulate interview turned out to be with Elsa’s teacher, Etta Hollowell.
She said, “You almost don’t hear it. It’s like you see it and then comes the feeling, an indescribable feeling, almost euphoric. It was very peaceful. My defenses were down …. No, not down. They were gone. I had no inhibitions at all. I had no questions. You know, the kind you asked but never find an answer to? Those kind of questions. There were no problems to solve, no worries, no concerns. It was freedom, a freedom of mind and body. I moved about as if drifting effortlessly. Your mind is open to whatever comes its way because—because you know the way. It is so simple. I could have smacked myself in the head. It’s been there all along, and I’ve never noticed it.”
I asked her what had been there all along.
“The way,” she replied as if addressing a moron.
“I don’t have words for it. Let me—suffice to say, if you are, you are responsible—for yourself, for everyone.”
I stifled the urge to say, That’s it?
One thing in all of this that troubled me was how no one seemed outwardly different. Of course, upon hearing the word they manifest wonder but afterwards they just seemed to go on about their business. When I asked Etta Hollowell about it she used a word which never would have occurred to me to select. She said she was growing into an understanding of connections between her and people.
“Into?” I said.
Etta just sat there, smiling.
I returned to Elder Shaw who had an upholstery shop on Wythe. He looked so pedestrian in a brown apron and rim-less glasses. I asked him to expand on his analogy of a garden. “Yes,” he said, nodding as if I was the one who had explained it to him, “a garden. Idyllic. Like in a woman’s gardening magazine. Everything in bloom, quiet, sunny. It’s a little overpowering the way it hits you. It’s like something you never thought of, much less whether it could be possible. And then a sense of fear comes over you. And at that point, you know—you know better than you’ve ever known anything that this is the beginning.”
“Of what? The beginning of what?”
“Why, wisdom, of course.”
I wanted to say, “Oh, yeah, right. I knew that.”
I asked Elder Shaw about this growing into an understanding.
He said, “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Well, that might be a good definition for wisdom, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Could be.” He acted so indifferently it infuriated me.
I asked if he thought he had changed, not only inwardly but outwardly.
“I don’t believe I look any different.” He added, “Suppose you put a genius and an idiot side by side, do you think you can tell which one was which?”
“Not until they speak.”
“Maybe not even then.”
One of the CPA’s, Danforth Ward, described it as “a reckoning.” He said, “I came to a point where I understood there could be no end, not when I was among it, in it, a part of it. I belonged to it.”
A day after Ward’s remarks were printed, a professor at UVA called, asking me to explain what the man meant by “among it.” I said I had asked Ward that very same question and provided Ward’s response—“There are no orphans. We are all parents, we are all each other.”
“Say what?” was the reply I wanted to pose to Ward.
“Hmm?” said the professor.
Not long after I retired, the new regime inserted a column called, The Public Wants to Know. It was a gimmick, an easy and economical way to fill a page. You didn’t even have to have people calling or writing in, you could just make up questions and answers.
Since the advent of Whinny, however, our readers did participate in the feature, asking me, the resident expert, such questions as—How many syllables does the Word have? What sort of inflection did Whinny use? How much was Whinny paid to whisper the Word? Why didn’t I show this Whinny character to be the charlatan that he was? Was I in cahoots with this mountebank? Why didn’t this guy tell you what the word was?
Of course, there were more thoughtful queries, ones which I couldn’t hope to answer—If we are all each other, am I because we are? Isn’t this man a misologist because how else can you explain the notion that one word can bring peace to you and the world at large?
The story eventually lost traction. I returned to my position as emeritus. My stint on Golden Pond lasted until July. It was very poor timing on Joyce’s part since my vegetables needed all my attention. She called, asking me to trek to Sturgis, South Dakota. When I learned that Sturgis was in the Black Hills, I envisioned Whinny making mashed potato mountains a la Close Encounters.
For those not into the Harley Davidson scene, Sturgis accommodates the largest motorcycle rally in the world, or so it claims. Nine days of sheer … Well, noise for one thing. OK, I am old and set in my way, but a new chapter in our story beckoned.
Sturgis is named after some Yankee general. It’s the size of a small liberal arts college. In the three days I spent there I never saw one scholar. And I only saw one dirt bike. There were tricked-out Harley’s in every shape and size.
The town caters to this mob with its parlors such as Fat Cat Tattoos, the 160-acre party at the Buffalo Chip, the live concerts in town and out at Broken Spoke and finally such activities as daredevil slides, midget bowling, mud doughnut contests, fire eating, bus jumps, over-the-road cruises, impromptu races and gleam-machine shows.
In town rock music issued from every saloon, and there were many. No matter the time of day there was that constant low rumble of choppers whop-whop-whopping up and down the drag. There were more tattoos than clothes and more bikini tops than a Myrtle Beach boardwalk. There was long hair, short hair and no hair; there were so many asses on display thanks to cut-out leather chaps and jeans that a geezer like me could only drool.
Joyce asked me to go to Sturgis because her son had sent her photographs of him in the midst of what looked like a Hell’s Angel’s posse. She had visions of what the Angels did at Altamont. My assignment was to make sure he was all right and stayed that way. Needless to say, the Chronicle’s editorial budget had no room for such incidentals as mileage and lodging.
Besides the bike gang, Joyce couldn’t reconcile why her son nixed an appearance on Letterman in favor of the rally. Skeptical me tested the veracity of this TV gig and called the network. Without hesitation, a spokeswoman said Whinny hadn’t walked off the set, Letterman had. The segment was too boring. In its stead was one of the Spear’s girls—I believe, Brittany—disporting a substantial jelly roll around her waist.
My obligation to Joyce—if one ever existed—wasn’t what compelled me to leave my Big Boy and Summer Girl tomatoes. It was the thrill of the highway. My obligation to my vegetables required me to go it alone, leaving Sarah, my companion, to tend to their needs.
I met Whinny at the Swap Shop, an emporium for t-shirts, Indian jewelry, leather goods and clothes, high-end cigars and drug paraphernalia. While I visited the shop, I nested at Gold Pan Pizza, next door, or down the street at the Bank Saloon.
Turned out the so-called posse was a group of disciples; born-again men who searched every day for converts. They brought in hundreds. The Swap Shop owner, a guy named Zeek, didn’t mind because it gave the appearance that his store was immensely popular. He had rearranged the back, pushing t-shirts to the side to make room for a circle of foldout chairs. Whinny sat at 3 o’clock.
My first question to Whinny was how he had gotten to Sturgis. I shouldn’t have been surprised when I heard it was Zeek whom he had met on a ramp on I-64 outside of St. Louis. Zeek looked to be the twin of his namesake in the Doonesbury strip.
Answering a call we all have heard, Whinny’s friend Barney Howell headed back to New York to rekindle an affair with a cute technician on the Letterman show.
Whinny’s first question was what was I doing in Sturgis. That I was trying to bring a certain balance to his mother’s state of mind endeared me to him. I sat at his right side during some of his sessions. These men and women, road-smitten scruffs and sluts to be sure, didn’t seem to have the same reaction as Elder Shaw and the others.
My initial impression was that they were too jaded or had smoked too much dope. Then it occurred to me that they were more accepting of Whinny’s message. I’m not sure accepting is the right word; perhaps they weren’t as surprised as the others. Or maybe it was an issue of innocence; i.e., the lack of. I finally settled on the conclusion that they had been seekers all their stony lives and now had found what they traveled miles and miles to find.
The conversations, generally after the whispered word, were startling. Whinny would say such things as “the goal here is among us and to be among us.” There it was again—among. When I asked – and I was the only one who apparently didn’t understand—what he meant, he said, “If you are, you are responsible. For yourself. For everyone.” The bikers pressed their lips together, nodding in agreement. Whinny went on, “This notion of God prevails because it serves as a cause. We need causes. Making God (I don’t know if I should be capitalizing here, but …) one of our causes was the first step we took together. God is a cause, but It is not an answer to a purpose. Those who haven’t heard will make it a purpose, but it isn’t. It isn’t really necessary. For answers we need only look among ourselves.”
Later on in that session Whinny said, “Only what is not ripe wants to live.” At that I stepped outside to call Sarah to find out how my crop was faring. She assured me all was well, so I ambled down to the Bank Saloon to consider what Whinny had said.
On the second day of my visit Whinny asked if I wanted to hear the word. From the very beginning I had no desire to hear it; I only wanted to know what he told people. In the face of my reluctance, he insisted, telling me it was only one word. When I questioned how just one word could possibly influence—admittedly for the better—a person, he replied that the word had a rhythm which struck cords and resonated.
“Say what?” jumped out of my mouth.
Whinny’s response was to tell me I was afraid. He asked, “Have you ever been hypnotized?”
Without waiting for an answer, he said, “No, no, you haven’t. But you’ve had an opportunity to but turned it down. You turned it down because you won’t let yourself go. You don’t want to lose yourself.” After a moment, he added, “And you will lose yourself. Of that there is no doubt. Because the rhythm will open memories. And you will remember outside of time.”
“So you’re saying what you do is hypnotize people?”
“It’s not even close. We all begin with the idea that living among the living is being. But I take you to being alive, which proceeds from being.”
My momma raised me to have manners, but I burst out laughing. After I apologized, I said, “You’re getting a little too mystical for me, swami.”
Whinny smiled, pushing his glasses up onto the bridge of his nose with his index finger.
His remarks unsettled me. For some reason I had to say something. “Yeah, well, how come not everyone hears the word. You told me these bikers get it, but I’ve seen some of them walk away, no better or worse for hearing it.”
“True. Sometimes it takes time to hear it.” He added, “What I say is not for everyone but it should be …. And it will be one day. Until then there are many like you, Peters walking on the water and then giving way to doubt.”
“So there’s a religious theme in this?”
“Not hardly. Spiritual, maybe. Religious, no. But it is an old idea, one renewed, revisited. One we’re returning to.”
“Zeek give you any of that weed he and I smoked last night?”
He shook his head, smiling. I thought to myself this is what the Fool-on-the-hill looks like.
“OK, let’s compromise. Yes or no, is it something as corny as l-o-v-e?”
“No, it’s five letters.”
“Nope. Want one more try?”
“Let’s see … No s-e-x is only three.” I ran through a litany of trite and tried words such as bliss, poise, power, smile, maker, etc.
Whinny said, “It’s a common word. We hear it all the time.”
“Well, why the hell can’t you just tell me?”
“I can. Let me whisper it.”
“C’mon, man, just tell me. What’s the big secret?”
“It’s not a secret. It’s just been forgotten.”
“So how come you know it and no one else does?”
“Who said no one else does? We all know it. We just have to be reminded.”
“Jeez Louise, I give up.” I waited a moment to see if he would relent. “OK, how about this? Just write it down for me.”
He shook his head, his hands spreading out from a steeple formation.
His response to my why-not was that the written word contained no sound. On that score I could have argued at length but I didn’t see the point.
“It goes from one person to another. Not from the page to person.”
I dropped that subject but brought up another that troubled me. “OK, here’s something else I don’t understand. When we first met you ran like a scalded dog from the idea of publicity. And now look at you. You’ve got these guys going out recruiting. A couple of times a day some reporter interviews you, some of them for national pubs. What gives?”
His smile seemed so natural; he was seldom without it. “Yeah, I was wondering if you’d ask. You haven’t really forgiven me for not giving you the scoop, have you?”
I returned his smile. “No, man, this is your baby. You do with it what you want. I’m just on the sidelines.”
“Glad to hear you’re not mad.” He paused, “So anyway, while Barney and I were traveling—you know, he’s really quite bright. And I’m not even sure he graduated from Greensburg. But anyway, while we rode around, it came to me that—and I’m not trying to be funny—but it came to me that the word was meant to be spoken, meant to be shared, and the more who hear it the better we’d all be.”
I shook my head in agreement. “Fair enough.”
The third day, my last day, I attended one of the morning sessions. Thinking back on it now, I am still amazed at the reactions. Here we had men, big burly brutes who looked and acted mean, talking about peace and understanding. And then there were the women, all tatted up, wearing chains for belts, in cut-off shorts over which was the alluvial discharge of flab talking about love and harmony. Whinny made two statements which still rock me:
“Joy is the opposite of pleasure. It has meaning which lasts, primarily because it can sustain itself among us.” There it was again—among. And his audience nodded, solemn as ancient judges.
The second was: “You may be criticized for hearing what I say. You may be ridiculed for listening to me. But remember it is not you that feels the sting of such criticism. The critics do, they are separate from you and me. They are alone. All they know are strangers. We will never see a stranger again. There will never be a center, a periphery, an edge, an inner, an outer, an in-between, as long as we are.”
When I left Whinny gave me a hug, even after I called him Maharishi. He said, “If you won’t let me whisper the word, maybe you’ll let Joyce.”
“You call your mom Joyce?”
“It’s her name, isn’t it?”
“And she’s a whisperer, too?”
“Once you hear it, there’s no forgetting. Accepting it is another matter.”
Whinny said he was going “to hang” for a few more days and then he and “some of the gang” planned to head to Albuquerque for the Spirit of the Winds balloon festival.
Nipping on one of the two bones Zeek had rolled for me, I toured the Black Hills before heading east to Greensburg. Throughout the excursion I kept thinking about the American Indians and how the land, majestic as it was, missed them.
The next time I saw Whinny was not in person. It was on YouTube. Months had passed since Sturgis. He continued to attract news coverage, but now it was worldwide. The video was the result of a conference in Rio sponsored by TED, a non-profit devoted to ideas worth spreading. Believe it or not, Whinny debated Stephen Hawking, and Hawking looked less the nerd.
Hawking opened with the draconian notion that mankind was exhausting its natural resources and that within a century a cataclysm of unprecedented scope awaited us. The reason why, he said, was because man was hot-wired to be aggressive, and nothing or no one could prevent the fulfillment of man’s combative nature. The expression used to be—so it was written. According to Hawking, it was—so it was coded. The only solution, he said, was to flee earth, invade space.
Whinny, not in the least intimidated, fired back declaring Hawking to be a theorist and he a realist. “Don’t you see that we seek the same thing? But instead of jumping off this planet, I seek to unite it.”
No criticism of Hawking, but his speech was irritating, labored as it was. Finally he said, “Let’s cut to the chase, Mr. Winfield. Please indulge me and whisper your word.”
There was no difference in the physicist’s expression. His perspicacious appearance remained steady. There was a long silence. Finally Hawking said, “Mr. Winfield, I advise you to get on the first spaceship out.”
The bastard meant to be mean. I couldn’t believe it. He wanted to humiliate Whinny and he succeeded.
Although there was news of Whinny from throughout the world, a half year passed before I spoke to him. This, it turned out, was the second to last time. A Skype hookup at Joyce’s enabled us to talk for an hour. She and I sat shoulder to shoulder in a bedroom she had converted to a study. We peered into her laptop as if kids into a kaleidoscope. While Joyce focused on her son, I couldn’t keep my eyes from admiring St. Peter’s Basilica in the background.
Pope Francis hadn’t any interest in hearing the word, much less any inclination to talk to Whinny. Vatican Secretariat of State Cardinal Parolin had requested and paid for a visit, an unofficial visit.
According to Whinny, the prelate asked him to go to Somali to see if “his word” could restore some semblance of order. Parolin worded his request very carefully. Whinny called it “a round-about way.” He said he would not operate under the auspices of the Vatican and should anyone try to connect Whinny’s appearance in the African country to the Papacy, Parolin would deny it.
“Sounds like Mission Impossible,” I said.
“Yeah, it is pretty cloak and dagger stuff. I’m suppose to hook up with a Father Canali who’s there not as a priest but a civilian on a humanitarian mission.”
Joyce immediately tried to persuade Whinny from going. To ease her misgivings he said he would have two plainclothes Swiss Guards accompanying him.
“Yeah, man,” I said, “and the Rangers in Black Hawk Down had Delta Force behind them.”
Saying that was a mistake. Joyce cried, “I don’t want to see you dragged through the streets. Please, Whinny. For my sake, please don’t go. When have you ever listened to anyone in the Catholic Church? You’re not even a member, for godsake. These people mean nothing to you.”
Her tears failed to dissuade him. He said, “Mother, you are, Jay is, and I am. And these people, they are. I will show them.”
“They will kill you,” she screamed.
After everyone recovered from her outburst, she said, “Darling, listen. If you won’t listen to me, let me get Elder Shaw to talk to you. You’ll listen to him, won’t you?”
“Why, because he’s a preacher?”
“Because he’s your preacher?”
“Not mine, yours.”
“Does that mean no?”
“It means whether it’s a Baptist, a Catholic, it doesn’t matter. One way or another I would have taken this road. If not this one, then certainly one very similar. It’s what I’m meant to do?”
He flattened a smile and gave a slight tilt to his head.
I said, “Listen, Whinny. This war over there has been going on for years. You don’t have to go right away. The warlords will do just fine without you. But in the meantime you might want to think this through.” I added, “And since when do you listen to some fat-ass cardinal in Rome? What kind of sway does he have over you?”
When there was no answer, I said, “That’s right. None. I mean, they won’t even acknowledge you, much less give any credence to what you say and do. These people are using you, man. Using you! I can’t believe their audacity. You’re not even a friggin’ Catholic and they’re asking you to march into hell.”
There was silence.
Joyce said, “Whinny, please listen to Jay. You don’t have to do this right away.”
I added, “Hey, man, this ain’t Sturgis.”
“This is life,” said Whinny.
“And I want you to keep yours,” Joyce sobbed.
Whinny said the African expedition was to take off soon, but soon turned out to be weeks. In the meantime, there was a national discussion in the newspapers and journals that Whinny be a candidate for man of the year. Such good news notwithstanding, what really fragged my ass was when Whinny met with the Dalai Lama—in Rome, no less. Here is one of the world’s foremost spiritual leaders traveling from Asia to sit down with Whinny when all the while Pope Francis was right next door and never once deigned to give Whinny an audience.
This papal rejection came in the face of what was now a worldwide discussion about a simple man with an even simpler message starting a movement without such structures as canons and swaying the millions toward a beatitude called peace.
I felt proud to have been a part of it. But not Joyce. Her outpouring of
tears vacillated from one day to the next. Sometimes she went on for hours. Believe me, I know. Most of the time I was there.
We spoke with Whinny once more. Joyce dominated the conversation, trying to dissuade her son. After thirty minutes, I realized there was no changing the man’s mind so I said, “Hey, remember what I told you in Sturgis, how you only hate the road when it comes to an end? Well, my friend, happy trials. May they go on and on.”
My remark angered Joyce because she interpreted it as conceding defeat. It wasn’t a concession; rather, a blessing. Whatever it was, I was persona non grata at North High Street. I didn’t know if I would ever be welcomed back again.
I was. As it turned out, regrettably.
Whinny left the day after our last conversation. Two days later Joyce received the news from the state department. Whinny never had an opportunity to whisper one word to anyone.
He arrived at Mogadishu airport under a sun so high it cast no shadow. No sooner had he set foot on the ground than a car blast cut him down. Authorities could not identify the target of the bomb; there were no officials arriving or departing. In fact, the facility was almost empty except for those coming in from Rome.
Joyce and I flew to Cairo to collect his remains.
I know you’re asking yourself if the word died with Whinny. I know it did not. Too many people have heard the word. As to what the word is, I can’t say for sure. Joyce told me. If she’s right, I can’t see how it could have had such an impact. But it did. That’s why writing it down on paper, as Whinny said, wouldn’t work.
In the end the one thing I do know for sure is that before long—maybe not in my lifetime—we will all hear the word. Whether we accept it or not is a different story. But I think I’m beginning to understand that between is between two and among is among many. And no one is ever left out of the among.