Warning: pictures after the jump may disturb readers who don't want to see humans who resemble campfire treats.
As the movie was nearing its end, the man whose life story was being portrayed sang in a hospital ward filled with sad-eyed men, many of them obviously discouraged and distraught with their ailments and their physical problems. One man was missing a leg, another's face was covered with bandages.The movie in question: He Restoreth My Soul. The singer who was happy again: Merrill Womach, a man who periodically pops up in discussions of odd/exotic recordings. It's hard to decide whether the way he exploited his physical disfigurement following a fiery plane crash in 1961 was exploitative, inspirational or both.
The main character of the film didn't possess Hollywood handsomeness. In fact, his face was a mass of scars. His eyes were little more slits in a face reconstructed by the hands of a plastic surgeon. The first sight of him early in the film wasn't pleasant. But as his story unfolded, the scars seemed to be replaced by an aura of love. That love had touched the hearts of the men in that hospital ward.
Womach had sung songs of praise from an early age and already had at least one record under his belt before the plane crash. He had also recently launched National Music Service, a Spokane-based company that provided music to funeral homes until Womach wound down its operations in 2007. While piloting his own twin-engine plane home to Spokane after a series of singing engagements along the West Coast prior to Thanksgiving 1961, Womach crashed shortly after taking off from a small strip in Oregon. "I opened my eyes and all I could see were flames." he told Christian Life's Roger Williams. "I groped for the door, ripped off my seat belt and staggered to the highway. How I got to the highway, I don't know...I remember singing all the way to the hospital and even while the doctors worked on me that day. One doctor told my wife that more people had died from shock than from the burns, but for me there was no shock. I guess it was the singing of praise to God that kept me from shock."
Womach placed much of the credit for his survival to the sport jacket he wore. While his face and hands were completely burned (his head was said to have swelled to the size of a basketball), his chest was protected. "That jacket was made of some synthetic material which melted. The doctors actually had to break it off...If I hadn't had it on, I would have died from the burns. And if I hadn't died immediately, there wouldn't have been the skin for grafting."
Even before plastic surgery began in earnest, Womach returned to singing to demonstrate that "with all of that burned flesh and only one small slit of an eye that I could see with," God had stood by him. By the mid-1970s, he earned a steady stream of engagements on the religious and secular speaker circuits. As to the effect of his appearance, he said "I know it is instrumental in getting me into places I never would have gotten before. From a salesman's viewpoint, where could you get anything better. If they can't remember your name, they can remember your face."
This will be the first of series of posts derived from a pile of Christian lifestyle magazines I acquired this summer after Sarah's great-aunt passed away. Most are issues of Christian Life stretching from the mid-1960s to the late-1970s. Sarah provides some context:
She loved pale blue and painted the kitchen and the sunny addition to her wartime house that colour so associated with Jesus and the sky. She died in a pale blue room at Lisaard House, a six-bed cancer hospice in rural/industrial Cambridge on August 1, 2009. She said, on my second last visit, “I think dying will be just like lying down in green grass, like in the Lord’s Prayer. Oh, I’d like that.” She was 91, ready for death, religious. My great-aunt Lilian was devoutly Christian—but, more, she was deeply human. She wasn’t pious, opining about others, offering simple Biblical answers to the many women who sought her, who came to her yellow house for conversation or prayer. Some of the women who came to her were Christian, some were Catholic, some, like me, agnostic or atheist. (I do not know whether others were Buddhist or Hindu or of other “Satanic” religions. It seems possible.) Some were new immigrants; some, leaving abusive marriages. Some were sent by ministers; others by local doctors. My aunt Lil was a listener by nature, but was trained in basic counselling skills by evangelicals, taking calls for prayer at 100 Huntley Street for a while. The doors to her house at 132 Spadina Road in Kitchener were always open to strangers, to friends, to family. (A stunning number came through them when she was diagnosed, given fewer than two months to live; one wave of visitors would ebb and another would crest.) She often said, pointing at me before starting a sentence, a gesture akin to capitalizing the first letter, that she was always learning from those who came through them. “Oh,” she said, “if I’d only known that seventy years ago when I was a girl!” Despite her religious affiliations, she never tried to convert me, not even at the end. She just said, “Living an honest life, being an honest person, that’s what’s important. I know you’re honest, Sarah.” Perhaps the stack of Christian Life magazines we found in my aunt Lil’s tiny house the week after her death, those Jamie took back to Toronto, helped her to live with the kind of honesty she valued in her friends and her family.
To be honest: while Christian Life is a laughably earnest religious magazine, while I share Jamie’s aversion for religious propaganda, while I appreciate the scorn of the ironist who takes religiosity as his or her subject, even after death my great-aunt Lilian counsels in empathy and ambiguity, the greys of life rather than the black or the white, the good or the bad, the saved or the sinning. Sentimental perhaps I am, but a caveat: in your imagination, try to keep separate the reader and her reading.
Many issues follow a similar pattern: a cover story that ties into at least two or three ads scattered through the magazine, paired with catchy headlines and short pieces on Christian celebrities like Pat Boone. The cover blurb that drew me into this issue: "Souvenirs Can Contaminate Your Home," or, as the article is actually titled, "Satanic Contamination." Did you know that you "carry a witness for Satan" if you bring back any souvenirs with non-Christian figures like see-no-evil monkeys, Buddhist teachers and miniature pagodas? Writer Nell L. Kennedy takes great offense at the possibility that possession of these idols/"other gods" will accidentally cause true believers to stray from the path of righteousness and deeply offend the almighty. Among the questions Kennedy suggests tourists should ask themselves: "Are you informed on what the idols are in the Far East and how the pagan worship is practiced, so that you can avoid it? There are eight million gods in Japan. Are you willing to hate them?" It's even more insulting when, after suggesting one should automatically hate alien culture, Kennedy insists that tourists should carry a copy of the New Testament in the language of the country they visit in order to spread the word and end the native worship of Satan.
So much for the idea of travel opening one's eyes to the wonders of the world.
Source: Christian Life, April 1976 - JB, SO