Murder Among Friends: A Quaker Mystery

By Chuck Fager

Chapter One

"Sic Juvat Transcendere Montes." (Thus it is enjoyable to cross over the mountains.)

    --Motto of Governor Alexander Spotswood's 1716 expedition, claiming the Shenandoah Valley for George I

"On a clear day in 1864," I said, pointing to the northwest, "you could see all the way to Winchester from here, twenty-some miles."

My arm swept a few inches to the left. "And even farther from over there at Signal Knob. That air almost won the Civil War for the South."

"It wouldn't help them much today," Eddie Smith said, squinting into the haze. "I can barely see the other side of Front Royal."

We were standing at the Shendandoah Valley Overlook, the first one after the northern entrance to the Skyline Drive. To a reasonably tuned-in observer of Washington area biped fauna, we would have been as easily identifiable as a whitebreasted nuthatch to a practiced birder:

Eddie in shirtsleeves and Levi's, mid-thirties, a short beard, close-cropped wavy black hair and glasses. Me, William Leddra, in a battered Baltimore Orioles cap, prescription shades and chinos, pushing the mid-forties and the 190s, my beard a little thicker and a lot grayer.

Add to that my veteran Toyota. It had decals for WETA Public TV and Amnesty International on the rear window, plus a Greenpeace "Love Your Mother" bumpersticker Added up, these signs would leave no room for doubt what we were: A couple of liberal policy wonks on vacation.

Mark that one off in the back of your Peterson's, Ethel. What? You say it's already checked? Figures. Too many of that kind around here anyhow. Oughta have open season on 'em, if you ask me. Clear some out.

Front Royal, Virginia lay a mile or so below us, squashed up against the rim of the Blue Ridge. From here the city looked mostly like a collection of roofs, streets, motel logos, and billboards urging us to visit various sets of commercialized caverns.

We were just far enough away, fortunately, that I couldn't see the yellow ribbons that, at ground level, had sprouted there, as they had everywhere, like some new variety of unstoppable kudzu.

The last big parades for Operation Desert Storm were, thankfully, a few weeks behind us. Americans were just beginning to notice that, after the months-long diversionary orgy of war-fever and pumped up patriotism, their country was still sliding quietly yet steadily down the tubes. The ribbons remained; but the sheen was wearing off, fast.

Beyond the city, the two shimmering forks of the Shenandoah River, North and South, came together at the end of their more or less parallel, twisting sixty-mile passages down the Valley's green expanse. On the other side of the river, the countryside was marked by rippling cornfields and dark stands of trees, but soon faded into a vague, impenetrable pollution grey.

That grey was the color of progress. It was also the color of the future, because we were headed right into it.

"Which one was Signal Knob?" Eddie asked. "And who was it that climbed it?"

"It's the hooked nose on the end of Massanutten," I said, pointing again at the mountain a few miles west of us. "The big one there." Behind it, over in West Virginia, a line of slate-colored thunderclouds was building and moving slowly, menacingly towards us.

"And General John B. Gordon of Georgia climbed up it, October 18, I believe it was, 1864. He was planning an attack for Jubal Early on the Union forces, under Phil Sheridan. They were camped several miles north, across Cedar Creek. Gordon said the view was so good he could even see the sores on the Yankees' horses, and the pips on their uniforms. Now that was clean air."

"So did he do it?"

"Do what?"

"Figure out how to attack Sheridan."

"Sure did. They snuck up through the fog before dawn on October 19, caught the Federals mostly still asleep. Ran them all the way to the other side of Middletown, some of them stumbling in their underwear. Gordon even had a troop of cavalry assigned to swoop down and kidnap Sheridan."

I gestured dramatically to the north. "Hell, a couple more lucky breaks for him and Early, and we'd need passports to get up here. And Martin Luther King would have grown up picking cotton. Jubal Early almost turned the whole civil war around that day."

"Almost."

"Yeh. Turns out Sheridan wasn't there. He'd spent the night in Winchester, after some big meeting in Washington. When he heard about the battle, he jumped on his horse, galloped ten miles down the Valley Pike, rallied his troops and counterattacked. Pushed the Confederates all the way back past where they'd started. It pretty much finished off the Confederate army in the Shenandoah."

"Hmmmmmm," Eddie mused.

"That's not all," I said, warming to the subject. "Sheridan's victory at Cedar Creek also guaranteed Lincoln's re-election a few weeks later. And that--"

Eddie cut into my lecture. "Isn't it a bit unseemly," he said, "for a card-carrying Quaker like you, a conscientious objector during Vietnam no less, to be obsessed with the Civil War, the bloodiest American war of them all?"

I shrugged. "We all have our perversions. And besides, this one will be useful at the conference. That's what got me invited. I'm supposed to organize local history tours for the Friends from afar. Anyway, there's plenty of Quaker history in the Civil War too, though most of it's untold. Especially in the Shenandoah Valley. And particularly around Winchester. In fact--"

"I can wait," he interrupted again. "We should go."

Back in my car, winding down the mountain to US Highways 340 and 522, Eddie studied the conference brochure. "'The 1991 All-Friends Conference,'" he read aloud, "'will attempt to bridge the gaps of history, doctrine and practice that have divided Friends for generations, in hopes of beginning a process of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation.'"

He looked up at me. "You think he can bring it off?"

"Old Lemuel Penn?" I laughed. "If anybody can, he's the one. Remember, he spent ten years as a Quaker representative in Tel Aviv, shuttling from there through Cairo into Syria and Lebanon and back. And what better preparation could you have than trying to make peace between Arabs and Israelis in the Middle East for an even tougher assignment--making peace among Quakers in the Middle West? Penn's the closest thing to a Quaker statesman we've got."

I paused. "But, to be perfectly honest, I don't know if he can pull it off. Last time they tried it was back in 1977, out in Wichita, and that one almost went up in smoke."

"What happened?" Eddie asked.

"You mean you don't know?" I chided. "Oh, these younger Quakers, nobody teaches them their heritage. No wonder the Society of Friends is in a mess. Well, here's a hint: What was there about the summer of 1977 that's important in gay liberation history?"

He thought a moment. I glanced sidelong at him as he pondered: slender, carefully-groomed, good-looking but not one of your pretty boys. His temples were receding, and, just now, his brows were furrowed. But it didn't take him long to come up with the answer:

"Sure. Anita Bryant. The Miami gay rights ordinance fight. The orange juice boycott."

"You got it. Now: What do you suppose would happen to a Quaker conference that summer where you had not only the hardest core of our evangelicals coming, but also a group from Philadelphia that arrived under the banner of the H-word?"

He nodded. "Trouble."

"Nope," I said. "BIG trouble. The evangelicals threatened to walk out and picket, and the gays threatened to counterpicket."

"In Wichita?" Eddie was mildly incredulous.

"Yep. Turns out they'd just had Gay Pride Week in Wichita, with parades and the whole nine yards." I chuckled at him. "But why are you so surprised? You're the one who keeps telling me, 'We are everywhere.'"

He grinned back. "Yeah, but lots of us were still in the closet then, especially in the middle of Kansas."

"It was news to me too," I said, "but that's the truth. Made for great cheap entertainment, but it totally disrupted my own agenda there."

"Which was?"

"What else: Shopping for eligible Quaker women," I said. "Hell, man, I've got a sexual preference too."

"So how did it turn out?"

"A lot of behind the scenes mediation went on, and they managed to patch things up enough to get through the conference. Lem was involved in it, though I don't know the details. But afterward, most of the evangelicals said 'Never Again.'"

"No," Eddie said. "I meant, how did your search for Friendly females turn out?"

"Oh, you know," I sighed. "The old story. All the good ones were either married--"

"--or straight," Eddie broke in. "I know how that goes."

"But hope springs eternal."

"You're a romantic," he said.

We were silent a moment. Then Eddie said, "I need some music," and hit the power button on the radio.

But Washington's Number One classic rock station was gone, faded into the hazy ozone somewhere behind the Blue Ridge. In its place came a man's voice, so smooth it must have been slicked down with about half a quart of mousse.

"This is WVCR, Valley Christian Radio. And we're listening to excerpts from last week's conversation with the Rev. Ben Goode, pastor of the Good Life Baptist Temple in Harrisonburg."

"Jesus," Eddie swore, and reached for the dial.

I headed him off. "Wait," I said, "I wanna listen for awhile. Some of this stuff is interesting. And after all, the first rule of war is Know Thy enemy."

Eddie snorted. "It's thine enemy. And there you go talking about war again." He leaned back and looking out the window, pretending not to listen.

"--the crusade," said the announcer, dripping maple syrup all over the speakers, "is your biggest campaign so far, isn't it, Dr. Goode?"

A deeper, more authoritative voice answered. "That's right, George. We're going to put everything we have into a nationwide Crusade for Family Values, to reclaim American culture from the gays, the pornographers, the radical feminists and abortionists, and stop the promoters of godless secular humanist and New Age lies in our schools."

"That's a mighty tall order," said the announcer.

"Yes," Goode agreed, "we know it will be an uphill battle, but God has brought us important allies for the fight. We're in tune with the White House, and some of the finest pro-family talent in Washington will be on our team. Of course we'll need the prayers and support of all the Good Life Family members, here in the Valley and around the country."

"I think you know you can count on us," the announcer fawned.

"I am counting on you," Goode said. "Together, with God's help, we can win this war, take back our culture and uphold biblical marriage and families against the attacks of the gays and the media sex peddlers."

"Thank you, Dr. Goode," the announcer said. "I'm sure--"

"Christ," Eddie shouted, "this is awful. Do we have to listen?"

"Look," I said, "I can't help it. I find Goode and Falwell and all that crowd fascinating, at least in moderate doses. I think of broadcast evangelism as a marvelous indigenous American folk art form; like Elvis sightings, except that these guys are real, more or less. I never miss a supermarket tabloid article about Bakker and Swaggart."

But Eddie's face was serious. "That's easy enough for you to say," he insisted angrily. "You're safe. You don't run an abortion clinic or a gay rights advocacy group. You'll have options when the Christian fascist death squads come around."

He pointed a thumb at his chest "But I'm gay, always was, always will be. And I'm out--way out, the goddam Co-Clerk of the Lavender Friends Fellowship, for God's sake. You might as well paint a target on my ass. Where am I gonna hide when his Crusade crap hits the fan?"

I glanced down, and saw that his hands had balled into fists.

"I mean it," he went on. "Goode and his hate campaigns may be entertainment for you, but they're a matter of life and death for us. Have you ever watched him on TV? Just looking at his sanctimonious face makes me ill."

I felt a little shamed by his vehemence. "Well, all right," I said, "we can find something else."

Now a woman was talking. "--The plant closing will mean pink slips for 350 more Valley workers," she said. "It's the third major shutdown in the Shenandoah region this year." She paused and shuffled a paper. "Weather for the weekend coming up, right after--"

I hit the SEEK button, and kept punching it until it turned up a guitar riff that sounded familiar, dark and pulsing. It was the Rolling stones, doing "Gimme Shelter."

We listened to Jagger in silence, driving on into the grey afternoon.

Copyright by Chuck Fager. All rights reserved.

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