Matters of Faith
Concrete hides under an earthen shroud behind the bulldozed clearing. A couple years ago kids were squirming through ventilation shafts and roaming the murk of a by-gone era, but we were late to the party and could only poke sticks at the slab laid over the escape hatch.
Cold War paranoia gave birth to the Kelley Butte Civil Defense Center, first installation of its kind on these shores. At any moment Russian planes could cross the arctic and unleash a holocaust, so the people pitched in to build a subterranean city hall stocked with rations, generators and showers safe from the blast winds of a nuclear attack. Portland organized and conducted Operation Green Light, a mass evacuation exercise which cleared downtown of a hundred thousand souls within an hour. The citizenry believed that if the mayor, city council, the police and emergency services continued functioning behind 26 inches of concrete then they could survive anything.
As the arms race raged on faith was lost. Russia and America amassed enough armaments to ensure that the human race would be eradicated a hundred times over if either side reached for the button. In 1963 the city council suspended funding for local Civil Defense and slowly the Kelley Butte facility was dismantled. Police used the site for training and an emergency communication center until Kelley Butte closed in the early 90’s when a new downtown 911 office opened. No one had any use for the 18,000 square foot relic. The radio antenna is gone. One hundred years worth of public records imprinted on microfilm is gone. The threat of annihilation is gone. All that remains is the frustrated graffiti of kids and walls leading nowhere.
The mayor will never run to Kelley Butte for cover, but others seek the sanctity of its trees and isolation. The couple sitting at the top of a terraced wall were either stoned or residents of one of the encampments scattered throughout the park. Pete employed his foreign accent and natural charisma while I slipped and tumbled down a hillside following drainage ditches and trash. In a joint where man and nature had called a truce someone had carefully cleared the land and transplanted shrubs. Stones were laid to define paths and a hedge of weeds had been sculpted to distinguish a garden from its surrounding wilderness. Domesticity pried from the clutches of someone’s lost dreams. In its own way Kelley Butte remains a refuge for people who have lost faith in the surrounding world.
* * *
Asphalt stretches for as far as the eye can see beneath golden domes, waiting patiently. City Bible Church is a place where you rock out to Jesus, entranced by conscripted youth laying down the beat of God while lyrics play across screens suspended above the alter. Hands in the air, praise the Lord, toss a couple bucks in the donation bucket. The church’s founder appears via satellite.
We missed it. Sunday morning this place would be packed with the faithful but the parking lots were empty. Year of Sundays fills the gaps. You can be hip and go to heaven. You can be gay and go to hell. You can fornicate and go to hell.
They believe in heaven and they certainly believe in hell, but mostly they believe that people are inherently good or else there would have been armed checkpoints to keep people like us out. Roads snaked through acres of land dotted with small castle turret dormitories and stopped before a trailer resting from bringing salvation to street corner urchins. Air brushed dinosaurs posed in front of a brick wall alongside religious graffiti. We did not spraypaint a joint in the pterodactyl’s beak. The domes were unlocked, doors opening into a corporate lobby with cafe, lounge and elevator to the mezzanine. Pamphlets welcomed visitors and encouraged parents to enroll their children in the church’s highschool and college. Learn computing. Get a degree in religious music direction. Youth ministry is cool. A yearbook had been left out and at least half of the graduating class was of Korean extraction. Either Portland is more diverse than I’d thought or there’s a lucrative market in foreign students.
Money was going to pamphlets but not towards the student housing or in replacing panels of gold roofing that were hanging off the domes. Staffing was light as well. One of the church’s young charges burst from the elevator and ducked behind an armchair. Another appeared on the mezzanine. They began shooting lasers at each other with their fingers and climbing on furniture. Neither seemed to notice they had an audience. Don’t these kids know there’s fornicators lurking in the lobby?
* * *
City Bible Church trades in salvation capitalism for a younger crowd. Refuge from the Jesus pop can be found a little further down the slope. A towering glass and steel cross pierced Rocky Butte causing Pete to nearly run a schoolbus of orphans off the road. Past an empty security kiosk through open chainlink gates, into a parking lot beneath crumbling walls and corroding railings. No one was around to yell at us or call the tow truck– what bad can come of it?
A monumental crucifix does not begin to relate the spiritual psychedelia waiting at the top of the stairs. The Grotto is a full-service religious awakening for the senses. Genuflect in the sparkling Chapel of Mary and marvel at imitation frescoes climbing towards the heavens. Pete scored surprisingly well on the Stations of the Cross chronology game but not enough to win any of the imported Chinese biblical hero statuettes in the combination gift shop and espresso bar. We had trouble finding the Kennedy memorial but didn’t want to interrupt the family of devotees tearing up for the camera beside a statue and artificial waterfall.
Union Pacific sold the land to the Catholic Church in the early 20’s and a shallow, artificial cave was dug into the hillside. A woman leaned against the prayer candles weeping while another buried her face in a rosary and knelt before the imitation Michelangelo filling the cavern. We walked aisles of empty benches which filled for periodic concerts, making do with choral music piped through speakers crucified to trees and too high to hit with rocks. Paths snake the grounds revealing hidden shrines to unknown saints, but none climb the face of Rocky Butte. There will be no Easter celebrations where parishioners suffer the injustices and cruelties of Jesus while dragging crosses up. Pay four bucks and ride the elevator bolted to the side of the rock.
If only we’d believed the investment would be worthwhile. Poles, Lithuanians and Filipinos have installed shrines throughout acres of gardens at the top. Wooden statues trace the Via Matris and depictions of Mary live in St. Anne’s Chapel. Aaron likes the hypermodern meditation chapel with its panoramic views of the airport. But we had pulled out of the parking lot, none the poorer but certainly none the richer.
* * *
Continue to stay alive and you will be dragged towards old age. It’s scary. Hair falls out, splotches appear and the weather has a more profound impact on your day. Old people don’t like change. They don’t like surprises. They want familiar places that feel comfortable and to always know where their damn teeth are at.
So they come to Tosis where the prime rib dinner hasn’t changed since the drive-in days preserved in pictures on the wall. They have absolute faith in the eternal booths and decor and are rewarded with familiarity, comfort and a waitress who remembers everyone’s name and what they can’t eat based on dietary restrictions. She was suspicious when I ordered a bagel sandwich without bacon—it costs the same, just so you know— but kept up with out insatiable thirst for lukewarm, watery coffee. The food wasn’t spectacular but it was cheaper than the carefully nostalgic restaurants trading in gourmet deconstructions of Americana. Ambient conversation was less murder inspiring too. Trying to remember if you liked tapioca or jello was a popular topic.
We’d rambled around town all day and needed to eat. Here was a place that didn’t require any thought, didn’t play to anyone’s ideas of a dining experience, and we trusted that the food would not afflict us with trichinosis. It did it’s job and everyone filling the booths thought it was a job well done. A nice, simple place to stumble upon without ever realizing it was there.
Pete took the picture of me hanging with my homies. For a bizarre trip into 1950’s America that features both the Kelley Butte Civil Defense Center and footage from Operation Greenlight treat yourself to an encore presentation of A Day Called X.