For some reason, of the three brothers and five sisters in my dad's family, only Matilda--my Aunt Til--ever attended church services while I was growing up. She was very active in the Missouri Synod Lutheran church in Crown Point. She not only practiced the ritual and commandments but also ran virtually all of the volunteer activities. She was a pillar of strength to Reverend August Biester and the congregation. Likewise, my mother did not attend church in all of the years before dad died.
The only strong religious belief I was aware of in all those members of the family was a persistent antipathy toward the Pope and the Notre Dame football team. Dad was a member of the Masonic lodge, though I don't think he attained more than the lowest degree of Masonry. He went to the lodge hall occasionally to play cards and took me to annual father-and-son dinners there a couple of times. He also had at a passing interest in the Ku Klux Klan when it was at its peak in the 1920s. I can recall attending a night-time rally with him at the fair grounds. It was a wierd scene, with a swarm of figures milling around in white robes against a background of flaming, smoking wooden crosses on the wooded hillside above Fancher Lake. I don't recall his doing anything more than watching, or that he made any effort to explain or rationalize what we were seeing. At the annual Wagenblast clan reunion, in the woods on Rettigs' farm, the crowd of two or three hundred relatives occupied two distinct groups of tables for their picnic dinner. There were the catholic tables and the somewhat larger number of non-catholic tables--including ours, and ranging from agnostics to Holy Rollers to devout Lutherans.
My closest friend from age two until eighth grade was John Krieter, who lived with his widowed mother and his six older siblings in the house across the alley from us. Mrs. Krieter was mainly German-speaking. She was a devout catholic and saw to it that all of the kids were, also. The fact that I spent a great deal of time among the countless statuettes and paintings of saints in that household did not seem to bother my family at all. Perhaps the Krieters were, as the folks often used to say in connection with their biases, "the exception that proves the rule". Mrs. Krieter's younger brother lived with his wife and 21 children (!) on a small farm on the edge of town just a couple of blocks south of us. I remember their house, too--small, crowded, disorderly, literally not enough chairs or anything else to accommodate the family--but a few religious icons around and occasional blessings from Father Geuthof.
Against this background, when I was age six, my mother decided that I should attend Sunday school. For some reason--I think because of several of her card-club friends--she decided it should be the Methodist Episcopal Sunday school. At 9:30 on the appointed Sunday, in my best woolen trousers, white shirt, and tie, I entered the church and was guided to the pew where my class would meet.
I will always remember the majority of those Sunday school classmates. They were Wilford Brown, Crowell Knight, Roland Lisius, and Warren Houck. We would play baseball, softball, kick-goal, and touch football together. We would map the town, bicycle together, explore the rough, wooded moraine land of Sauerman's and Coleman's woods together. We ice skated and coasted together, swam and ran the half-mile race track at the fair grounds together, camped together.. We helped one another from tenderfoot through first class scout tests and a few merit badges; and we went together to usher with the boy scouts at the Notre Dame and Northwestern football games and the Cubs and Sox baseball games. We helped one another in high school politics. They were key members of the staff when I was editor of the high school yearbook. Only after that did we drift apart, rapidly, when first they, then I, went off to college.
All of those boys came from homes that were quite different from mine in one very important respect. The homes contained significant numbers of books and a fair assortment of periodicals. Three of the families even subscribed to more than one daily newspaper. Mr. Brown, Mr. Knight, and Mr. Lisius were attorneys. Mrs. Brown, Mrs. Knight, and Mrs. Heisey (Warren Houck's mother, a widow who had remarried) were college graduates--former school teachers. The homes of the three lawyers were larger and better furnished than ours; but all four of them had a quality which I never really bothered to describe to myself but which I found to be simply inspirational--an atmosphere of openness, gentility, reason, consistency. Not that those were missing at home, but they were less cultivated and consistent. There were adult characteristics that seemed worth imitating, that added something to the ideas of honesty and hard work that my own family exemplified.
At some point--I suppose about eighth grade--I began to remain after Sunday school and attend the church services with my friends and their parents. The liturgy and ritual were interesting, but they did not inspire me in any way. I can recall slickly avoiding going through baptism on more than one occasion. I was afraid of baptism. It seemed like making a lifetime commitment to something I didn't think I could live with for that long. On the other hand, I think the preaching and the community service functions of the minister were compelling to me. You could not help but note that this man had an opportunity to study, reflect, and teach. He could formulate ideas that related basic moral principles to the issues that were puzzling and tormenting his neighbors. He could earn their respect, do things, and leave everyone a little bit better off for it. Most influential was Rev. Merrill McFall, who happened to be an alumnus of DePauw University.
Occasionally I chanced to hear the minister talk to his wife or a close friend about his work. At Christmas for a few years my friends and I delivered food packages to poor families under the direction of the church and the scout troop. (Both the church and scout leaders were the same people, and they included the fathers of my four Sunday school friends.) It was unforgettable to go into the houses of some of the poorest members of my own school class, and the elderly living alone. There were no welfare workers, no social security, no public medical care. These people occupied the oldest houses in town, which meant many had no indoor plumbing, no central heat, and sometimes no electricity. The houses only looked a little dilapidated from the outside. But inside the squalor and even the odor was a new and almost unbelievable experience.
After high school, when all of my best friends had gone off to college, I gravitated more toward the church for social contacts. I even went to meetings of the young people's Epworth League. There was some intellectual content, and both the fellows and girls were decent. Ultimately, the minister emerged as a major influence in my decisions both to attend college and where to go.