Things That Go Bump in the Mind

Things That Go Bump in the Mind
Look for a new post every Sunday morning.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Tang of Reality

     The tapestries of our lives are so tightly woven that it's surprising to discover the seemingly disparate memories that can come from pulling upon a single thread. Thus, as I consider the beginnings of my difficulties with organized religion, it seems odd to me that some of my troubles began with Tang.
     As a child growing up in the 1960's, I was fascinated by Tang. Tang was a brightly-colored, powered, orange drink that came in a long, glass jar. Tang wasn't just powdered orange juice, it was better. All Mom had to do was spoon a little Tang into a glass, mix in some water, and - voila - there it was: the perfect beverage.
     I knew it was the perfect beverage because the commercials said so on TV; "Holy Smokes!"(as Rocky the Flying Squirrel would say to Bullwinkle when he got really excited), Tang had been created for astronauts to drink in outer space. I was 8 years old the summer Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon, and words can not adequately express the excitement and coolness I experienced by being able to guzzle the same drink as the space heroes of Apollo 11.
     At least a quarter of a century has passed since I had my last glass of Tang, but I can still taste it: an orange flavor as it would have been replicated on the Starship Enterprise. "Warning! Warning! Will Robinson!," I could imagine the robot from Lost In Space saying upon analyzing a glass of real orange juice and finding pulp in it (few things were as repulsive to me as a child as orange juice pulp). Tang was everything a kid could want from a drink: sweet enough to make your eyes pop, tart enough to make your lips pucker, and smooth enough to swallow in a gulp.
     I remember holding a jar of Tang, unscrewing the lid, staring into the bright, orange powder, and thinking, "Science is so cool." As an adult, I don't know if Tang had really been developed by NASA scientists (picture this: a group of NASA scientists all wearing long, white lab coats at an important meeting. The chief scientist is holding a clipboard as he stands at the head of a long table. He looks at his clipboard for a moments and says, "Alpha team reports little progress in the development of an 'O' ring that can withstand the intense temperatures of reentry; Beta team is struggling still with the detachment of the second stage boosters, but, hey, good news, Omega team has perfected the process of turning orange juice into powdered sugar granulates.") or if Tang was created by someone who was a genius at marketing products to children (picture another room: this one contains the 1968 annual awards ceremony for advertisers. Standing at the dais is a man dressed in a tuxedo, and he's holding a trophy with something that looks like a small golden cow pie on top of it. "I'd like to thank the Academy," he says, "for winning 'Best Scam on American Youth' for the third year in a row. But I'm not going to rest on my laurels, I'm in the process of developing a plot to sell tennis shoes to teenagers for $100 a pair." A gasp goes through the crowd; "It'll never happen," someone whispers.). The point is, however, I believed Tang had been created for astronauts because that's what I had been told, and that's exactly what children do: they believe whatever they are told.
     Some folks see nothing wrong with exploiting the credulity of children, and furthermore, find it charming or amusing to tell a small child anything. I expect (though I've never read any research to confirm this) that very few people suffer any permanent damage from the discovery that their parents are in reality the ones who hide money under their pillows in exchange for lost baby teeth. Unfortunately, the problem I had in being so gullible as a child was that I tried to believe too much at one time. In church I had been led to believe that Hell lies a couple of miles beneath the surface of the ground, and Heaven floats on top the clouds just above our heads. I had no problem believing this because first, I was a child; and second, the integrity of the people who told me these things was beyond question.
     As a child, there was no question that Heaven floated on top the clouds within the atmosphere of this planet because I had been told so in church, and while I could imagine angels poking holes in the clouds to keep an eye on us down here below, I could not imagine the people in church lying about it. Church, as far as I could surmise as a child, was the very last place a person would want to tell a lie. Furthermore, the idea that Heaven is located in the clouds just a few miles above our heads was supported in dozens of ways. In Sunday school, I was taught the Bible story of how God had grown angry when a group of people had built a tower so tall and so close to Heaven that it trespassed on God's personal space. God not only knocked it down, but He scattered the people who built it across the entire planet and made them speak different languages so they wouldn't try it again. Also, my mother owned an oversized, illustrated Bible, and I can remember the sense of awe and wonder I felt at looking at an incredibly rendered drawing of Jacob lying at the foot of a magnificent staircase with angles ascending and descending from Heaven in the clouds. Moreover, I had no reason to doubt the ministers who assured us that after Jesus had risen from the dead, eyewitnesses had watched him ascending into Heaven. On the day of the Ascension, Christ had floated up into his home in the clouds; he had not merely grinned like Alice's Cheshire cat and disappeared.
     Every bit of religious instruction I had as a child taught me that Heaven was a real place that floated on the top of the clouds. The evidence from Bible stories, the testimony of Sunday school teachers and ministers, the portrayals of oil paintings and other illustrations in everything from religious literature to magazine advertising convinced me of the truth of this. And yet . . . there was Tang, the preferred beverage of astronauts. I had held the amazing jar of orange powder in my hands; I had watched with my own eyes the miraculous transformation of plain water into the world's most perfect beverage. And, with every glass of Tang came the confirmation that people had traveled straight through the clouds on their way to the moon, and they never saw hide nor hair of the denizens who lived there.
     After Moses left Egypt to wander with his people lost in the wilderness for 40 years, God sustained them, I was told, with manna that fell from Heaven. I've never tasted manna; however, twenty-five years after my last glass of that tart orange drink, I can still taste the Tang.
     Keep thinking rhetorically and I'll be back next week.

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