Picking up the story again . . .
“Mr. Wahl, I presume?” I asked as he reached me, doing my best Henry Morton Stanley greeting.
“Yes,” he replied, reaching out for a handshake. “Jedidiah Wahl. Good to meet you. Please just call me Brick, Johnny. Everybody does.”
Our hands clasped, and we each held our shake for an extra moment or two, carefully eyeing each other and sizing up just what we were seeing. It was an old routine, and an ancient kind of mental dance between new team members. Pretty much, according to the theory, fresh partners can tell in just the first few seconds if the new “marriage” was going to have a chance or not. I had engaged in this dance myself a time or two over the years, and I could tell that Mr. Wahl was no stranger to it either.
I wondered if I were passing the test, as a thin smile finally came to his face, and a moment later, one to mine as well. Basically, we were to the altar, metaphorically speaking, as well as almost literally. It remained to be seen if we were going to be able to get to the “I do” part anytime soon.
It was shaping up to be an interesting day.
We broke off the handshake as Brick motioned me into a nearby pew.
“Your first time to the Shrine?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied. “First time ever to the Detroit area in general.”
“Well, I was born here,” Brick said. “Or a little more exactly, in a suburb called Walled Lake. It’s about twenty-five miles to the Northwest. It was a sweet little town back when I was a kid—barely a wide spot in the road. Grown up big now though. Driving down Woodward Avenue, and past this Church, well that was something we did all the time. We never thought much about it, one way or the other. Dad wasn’t really a religious guy. Me either—at least when I was young that is.”
“Dad was born in 1949, a little too late to be very familiar with the history of this building, but grampa lived right around here in its heyday. Which was back in the 1930’s.”
“What was the history?” I asked. All of this was very interesting to me, but still, I did want to get to the crux of the matter that had brought me here. Little did I realize at the moment, that Brick was talking about just exactly that.
“Father Charles Edward Coughlin. A Roman Catholic priest and an Irishman to boot. A lot of clout, and that was even before he grabbed a microphone and became one of the biggest radio stars of the 1930’s. Always a lot more political in nature than religious, he was one of the first politicos to reach a huge audience in what was the mass-media of the day. Up to thirty million listeners per weekly broadcast. He did his thing from the Charity Crucifixion Tower—the rather large stone structure you saw as you entered this building. It once had a rather impressively tall radio transmitting tower attached to the top of it. The Catholic Church built the Charity tower in response to the Ku Klux Klan rampages in the south. It has a crucifix on the side. Made of stone. One cross, the Church said, that the Klan couldn’t burn.”
I lifted my eyebrows a bit in impatience. I hadn’t know Mr. Wahl very long at this point, but I was already pretty sure that I was not going to be able to reel him in very much, at least before he had imparted all of the information that he wanted me to have.
“He broadcast from the tower for nearly a decade before the Vatican finally pulled the plug on him and jerked him off the air in 1939. But in that period of time, the man spewed out a lot of hate.”
“And now you’re getting to the point of your story—correct?”
“I am,” Brick replied.
“Which is?” I prodded.
“Which is,” Brick continued, “that the man was a virulent anti-Semite, although he always denied it. He was also a Hitler supporter and booster. Remember, at the time, Hitler was not yet recognized as a madman. The Jewish holocaust hadn’t yet started. Hitler had not yet invaded anyone, nor had he yet tried to conquer the world. But Father Coughlin recognized a kindred spirit. Coughlin blamed the Jews, and Jewish bankers in particular, for most of the ills of the world and of the United States—just as Hitler blamed them in Germany. Coughlin was the first to advocate violence toward Jewish businessmen, in thinly veiled form, of course. Hitler just took a page from the good Father’s playbook and removed the veil.”
“So—this is where it started, Johnny. In this very place. Nearly a century ago, an Irish Catholic priest became one of the first men on the planet to package and market hate and broadcast it out into the thin air. It’s still going on today. Now it’s the Internet, and before that it was television—but it’s all the same thing. Now days it’s not just the Jews that are hated. Now it’s the Christians, right along with them. And it’s not the Nazi’s either, doing the hating—and the killing. Now it’s ISIS, and dozens of other crazy radical Muslim organizations like them, that hate us. That want to kill us. And they want to put us into concentration and extermination camps. Good ideas never grow old Johnny. They just get re-cycled. Radical Islam is very much like German nationalism. It’s a whole lot more a death-cult than it is a religion.”
Brick paused to take a breath, and for dramatic effect, letting his words settle onto me.
“But this is where it all began. This hallowed ground, Johnny—is where Satan first went high-tech. That’s why I wanted to meet you here. To begin at the beginning. It’s no wonder that this place, this area, is the epicenter of the hate and violence we came here to stop. Father Coughlin’s chickens have come home to roost,” he concluded.
“Do you believe in Satan, Brick? I mean really believe in him? As a living, breathing, walking, talking, humanoid entity—not as a symbol.”
“I do,” he nodded, and without hesitation—not the hint of a smile on his face. His eyes bore into mine. Do you, Johnny?”
I paused to consider my reply. I remembered Kylie Blakely’s headless corpse-littered horse barn, and blood-soaked torture chamber. I thought of Ingrida Barbaraslovia’s slowly draining life-fluid pooling at my feet in blood-alley, and her guts spilling out onto the cobblestones. As I did, the slash-wound that Jack-the-Ripper’s knife left on my forearm throbbed slightly. I remembered the sight of his dreadful blood-flecked face, and insane eyes burning out of his head.
I paused a long time, before I answered. Probably three full seconds. “I do,” I replied.
Silence hung in the stale air like a palpable presence for several seconds before either of us spoke. Finally, Brick broke the silence.
“What do you say Johnny, that we get out of here for a while and go for a ride? I’d like to show you something else.”
“Sounds good to me partner. Where we going?”
“Into the city. A little stretch of pavement on what is now the surface of the moon. It’s called Nevada Street.” “Sounds to me like a good place to get into trouble,” I replied. “Hope you’re packing. My guns are still back at the hotel—in the safe, of all places.”
“That’s another thing I need to tell you Johnny. You might want to hold off on that officially making me a partner business just yet. I come with some baggage. Some baggage that might just have an effect on you.”
I raised my eyebrows again—question like. “I don’t carry a gun, Johnny. I haven’t touched one in years. And I never will again. I’m telling you this Johnny, because it has the potential to sort of become a big thing between us, somewhere along the line.”
I was beginning to see that Mr. Wahl might just be a master of under-statement.
“Sounds like an interesting story,” I observed.
“It is. Maybe I’ll tell it to you—one of these days—if I decide I like you.”
Good luck on that one, I thought to myself. “Your car or mine?”
“Yours,” he said. “I don’t drive either.”
“How the hell did you get here?” I asked.
“Bus,” he said, heading for the door.
I shook my head a bit as I followed him out. Why, I wondered, can’t anything ever just be easy? The words of my old best friend echoed in my head. “Because then it wouldn’t be a Johnny O’Brien story.”
I half smiled to myself as we got into the Town Car and headed back down Woodward Avenue. Toward Nevada Street. Toward the surface of the moon. Toward some new revelations. And toward one really old, old ghost. A gentleman of a ghost, and one that I would carry with me in my heart and mind for the rest of my natural life.
The slate-gray sky had turned to snow, as flakes began to accumulate on the hood of the car. It was a good day for Satan to come a calling.
Thanks so much for reading. Be back in a few days with some new material. Until then . . . Goodnight!
Dumb joke of the day: Question: How many cops does it take to screw in a light-bulb? Answer: Just one. But he’s never around when you need him.