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Hand Book of a Hidden Man, Part 4: Ritual [updated]

10-24-2021 | By Dan Zimmerman | Issue 118

It was Sunday afternoon and we were home after church. Dad had worked hard all week on his sermon, and now that the morning service was over, he just wanted to rest. He went into a little room next to the dining area, drew the curtains, turned on the television, and sank back onto the sofa to watch westerns.

It was a ritual. The tube began to glow with the familiar Indian-head test pattern. I joined him there, sitting at the base of the couch, eager to watch a hero ride across the screen on horseback. The western had become significant myth for me too.

But I think I must’ve picked up on the contrast between these tales and the hard, unyielding realities that even I, in my diminutive state, faced on the mean streets of southern California.

Like the way people were, for instance. Even though I was familiar with the outside of people, I began to see that their facial expressions were animated by something inside them. I’m not talking about an organ or a muscle, nothing physical like that. I couldn’t see what it was, but it was certainly messing with their heads.

Meanwhile on television, however, things were much easier to sort out. There were good guys and bad guys. And sometimes the actors even wore white hats or black hats. Usually, the show was named after the hero. He was obviously a good guy, and it didn’t take long to figure out who was supposed to be bad. There was a comforting simplicity to these dusty, greyscale sagas.

I soon realized, however, that normal people weren’t easy to figure out. In real life things were messy. One moment, you were struggling with  a  human being, and the next thing you knew, you wondered if you might not be wrestling with an angel. You could almost call it a spiritual western.

That may be why my father loved westerns so much. There was an elemental clarity to these simple tales. They were such a needed break for him, after dealing with knotty problems and people difficult to understand all week long, even in sunny California.

Every Sunday morning, he preached a carefully prepared sermon, in an effort to bring comfort to his congregation. This wasn’t a tv show. He didn’t ride in on a horse, but it was still a majestic entrance. He almost floated down the aisle, robed in soft, flowing ceremonial attire, ready to enact a meaningful Sunday ritual.

So on Sunday afternoon, he just wanted to kick back and let his brain relax. On the streets of a Hollywood western, your mind didn’t have to work so hard. It was a landscape bright and lean, where everything was clearly delineated, unlike the messy atmospheric conditions he encountered in real life.

And it was all such great fodder for the imagination. Both of us drifted off to tv land.

All drawings by Dan Zimmerman