Serpents and Doves
Author: G. Lloyd Helm
Excerpt Heat Level: 1
Book Heat Level:
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Buy at: www.roguephoenixpress.com
Reviewed by Joseph Allen
Mr. Helm’s touching coming-of-age tale starts as quietly as a light breeze as he introduces Stephen Mitchell, who has just graduated from high school at a private Christian academy in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles. We know right away that Steve’s hormones are raging, and that he is very easily distracted from anything by the scent of a girl. Charmingly told, by the way, enough to make a grown man smile in remembrance.
Steve is bound for a school in Tennessee that is run by a Protestant group that seems pretty mainstream, but in spite of the southern flavor and the biblical bent of the institution, this is a school and a faculty that are determined on all kinds of equality. The year is 1967 and Steve’s roommate is a black student whose father is a Protestant minister.
Steve has an epic freshman year. His heart is broken by a Lilith-like character, he is beaten up by a rogue cop and then by the new boyfriend of his would-be love. He is on academic probation by Christmas, manages to start smoking cigarettes and drinks enough bourbon to experience his first awful hangover. Never gets a haircut, and is aware of his body smells and his crotch constantly. Boys will be boys.
He’s not like me particularly, but he is the archetype of every kid who goes off to college without a red carpet being rolled out in front of him. I cannot tell you how many times I had tears in my eyes. All the issues of the 1960s are built into this remarkable story – Vietnam, Arabs v Israelis, KKK v civil rights marchers, the sexual revolution, closeted gays suffering from sin complexes. Even Simon and Garfunkel.
And the most remarkable part is that it is not the least pretentious, in spite of telling a story of a very complicated and upsetting time with elegance and elan. I withheld a half star in my rating because I think a couple of the arms of the plot were resolved more harshly than necessary, and seemed unduly judgmental, which I do not think would reflect Mr. Helm’s personal feelings.
Stephen Mitchell did not know what he was getting into at a small church college in Tennessee. Sex, protest, friendship, and Civil rights.
The title “Serpents and Doves” comes from the warning Jesus gave to his disciples as he sent them out to preach the gospel, knowing the dangers they were going into. He said “Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” Stephen Mitchell learns first-hand what that warning means when he goes to a Tennessee church college in the midst of the turbulent sixties. He learns about friendship, war, protest, the sexual revolution, and civil rights.
The bunk creaked and groaned as Stephen Mitchell rolled onto his back, but he hardly heard the sound. Years of sleeping on the upper bunk with his younger brother Mike on the lower bunk made him immune to the noises of the California night. Mike's soft breathing, the moans from the bedstead, the musical chirring of the crickets in the ivy and the calm hum of the breeze were all the mixture of silence to him.
Stephen didn't usually have trouble falling asleep, but this was a special night, the night before the day he had been thirsting for and dreading his whole senior year of high school, and especially this past summer. College, but not just a trip over to Valley State or even to UCLA to continue school, to continue life as it had always been with Mother, Father, Grandmother, Brother, and friends. College was far away in Tennessee. Two thousand miles, give or take a few, and that whole journey began tomorrow at seven minutes after ten AM. Stephen pushed a leg out from under the covers. His feet hung over the end of the bed. They had been hanging over that way since he was fourteen. He'd gained a few inches since he first noticed he was too long for the bunk, but they had crept up on him in such a way they made no difference. He had been long and skinny since he could remember. A kid named Dennis Conover had called him 'Stork' on the first day of first grade and the name stuck. It bothered him a lot at first. He hoped to lose it when he transferred from public school to Hardtwick Christian Academy in sixth grade, but he couldn't shed the name even then. His new classmates looked him over like he was some strange animal, and Lance Stanley, the class wise guy, said, "He looks like a potato with pencils stuck in for legs."
"Mr. Potato Head, only walking," Joey Cushing, Stanley's best friend agreed.
"Betcha he stands on one leg when he sleeps like one of those pink birds at the zoo," Stanley said.
Stephen was almost mad enough to fight, but he bit back the urge. Fighting on his first day would get him sent right back to public school and that was something he didn't even want to consider. He hated that place much more passionately than he wanted to mash Lance Stanley's slightly hooked nose all over his smirking face.
"They are called flamingos," Stephen began with a light contempt in his voice. He'd used this tactic before—a sort of verbal jujitsu. See where the other guy is going and give him a strong pull in that direction. "I'm no flamingo, I'm a stork. Storks build big nests in chimneys. Dutch people think they are good luck." He ran his eyes up and down Stanley's form and, with a good deal more contempt than before said, "You probably think they bring babies," then turned back to the book which was open on his desk.
Stanley didn't quite know how to cope with this kind of verbal jiggery-pokery. He thought maybe he had been insulted, but he wasn't sure and he didn't have time to come up with a riposte because Mrs. Hudson, the steely eyed, steely haired teacher, stepped into the room.
Stephen was pleased with having shut Stanley's mouth but the outcome of it wasn't much to his liking. He wound up with the nick-name he had hoped to leave behind. Consequences. There were always consequences, he told himself as he lay awake. He closed his eyes, tried to force sleep to come, but he found himself staring at the reddish haze inside his eyelids. That was dull. At least with eyes open there were less dull shadowy lines in the ceiling and walls.
He reached into his underwear and scratched his groin. The itch went away but Stephen felt a thickening in his loins. Blood was trickling into him, making him harden. He hadn't wanted that to happen, but there was hardly any way he could touch himself anymore without the stirrings. Sometimes when he went to pee the very act of opening his fly and taking himself out to do what must be done caused his penis to harden.
It embarrassed and shamed him, though he mostly covered it well. There was a knot of guiltiness about it that he hated, but that was with him almost constantly. It intensified when he tried to ignore it and the desire to satisfy that hunger was almost unbearable. It wasn't so much the act of stroking and fondling himself that had guilt with it as it was the pictures, like movies, which unreeled behind his eyes as he did it. Naked girls who wanted him, who touched him, who offered themselves to him. Sometimes they were blank-faced strangers who conformed to the idea of voluptuousness he had formed. "Dirty Magazine" women with large breasts and legs coyly closed. There was never any hint of pubic triangle hair in those pictures. Some artist with an airbrush erased any such hint of humanity from them. Other times his fantasies were more specific. Girls from school whom he slowly undressed before making savage thrusting love to them. In ways these girls were like the others. Somehow he could never picture the reality of what a female human looked like between her legs. A mental airbrush wiped out the detailing.
This time Stephen's mental movie was Sherry Kinert. She was a junior when Stephen was a senior. She was pretty, but not beautiful. Her long brown hair hung fetchingly down before her breast all the time. He had taken her out to a movie a couple of weeks before.
The date came about rather strangely. During all the summers since Stephen was fourteen he had worked for the school he attended during the winter. Hardtwick Christian Academy was constantly building on land acquired through gifts. It was being built by those most concerned with it, the students and their parents. Stephen started working by donating his labor. After a month of coming in every day five days a week, Harry Elton, the school supervisor, hired him at below minimum wage.
This summer was different from all the previous summers. This summer, for the first time, a girl was hired on. Sherry Kinert. Stephen found himself working with her, painting the inside of new classrooms. They talked as they worked and after hours of painting and talking they began to talk very intimately. Stephen found himself admitting to his desires and fantasies and hearing Sherry's admissions. Her admissions brought the question, "What would you do if a guy tried to put his hand down your pants, Sherry?" The question caused his loins to thicken, but he didn't even try to hide the growing lump in his faded, paint-spattered jeans.
"What do you mean, Steve?" she asked, not put off by the question and apparently not noticing the rising in his groin.
"I mean, would you let him?" Stephen asked. His mouth was dry and there was a burning at the back of his throat.
Sherry stroked paint on the wall for a moment then said, "It would depend on the guy. If I liked him a lot and was pretty sure he wasn't going to hurt me or go telling his friends—maybe."
She looked over at him and the serious consideration she had given the question showed in her clear golden eyes. She didn't give any other indication, neither a "come along" nor a "hold it buster," just the thoughtful, considering look.
They stopped painting for a moment and stared at each other, embarrassed to have been so frank. Both blushed under the speckles of light green paint on their faces, then went back to brushing paint on the wall with a little more vigor than a few moments before. They painted quietly for the rest of the afternoon, only speaking in short non-committal sentences.