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John Dearing, President of the Corvallis Secular Society, wages a bitter struggle to keep the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) from allowing religious symbols (to mark traffic fatalities) on our highways. ODOT currently says these markers, almost always a Christian cross, are hazards; crews routinely remove them.
Morbid superstitious types revere the place where someone dies. One kid made a public stink when his cross was removed, and now some want the crosses allowed.
Those seeking to put crosses on public land inevitably don't want non-Christian symbols allowed. Amidst this controversy, several have erected small signs of protest (usually a cross with a circle-slash over it) to "memorialize the tragic loss of common sense." Some Christians then remove (and sometimes ceremonially burn) those messages with which they disagree.
I like ODOT's current position: this is public land set aside for traffic; obstacles and eyesores present a hazard. However, if ODOT decides to allow memorials, they cannot discriminate. Any symbol should be allowed -- any symbol -- and this will anger fussy Christians. Also, memorials should not be limited to traffic deaths.
If ODOT goes along with this madness, I will consider erecting a monument to an event that affected me more than any death has: my complete and permanent loss of faith. I promise you that any such depiction would upset these Christians more than their crosses offend Mr. Dearing.
Reality struck on November 22, 1985, at the Tualatin exit off Interstate 5, just south of Portland. I had moved here from my home town of San Diego earlier that year, hoping to find economic opportunity. Little did I realize that I had been suffering a major emotional breakdown.
Things went from bad to worse, and I eventually slept in my car and learned to live on nothing. The fierce winter came early, so I sold the car, stuffed my writings and memories into an Army duff, stuck out my thumb, and headed south.
After enduring eight hours of 17-degree snow (with only a light jacket), someone pulled over. He was drunk, but I took that risk on chance of finding a better location.
He spun out recklessly on the ice, and spoke of his impending prison term. Then he placed a pistol against my temple.
That moment changed me forever.
Interestingly, I felt no fear: I didn't shit my pants or "sweat bullets" or the like, but felt only a wordless, pictureless awareness that is almost impossible to describe.
At once I knew my position in reality: I am a feeble organism, struggling to survive against bewildering odds. I might easily have died from exposure. Now this nut could close my eyes forever and to him it would be like going to the drug store.
All is not One. No God looks after me. I have no unnatural influence over any situations. All earlier speculations along those lines came to a screeching halt.
I dared not make the slightest move.
He put the gun down, laughed, and let me out, stealing the duff that contained what I had once called my life. As my art and my old memories sped away, I stood up -- alive, but not yet out of the woods.
Copyright ©2000 Cliff Walker; Portland, Oregon