Aug 27, 2010 | Shamrock, TX
Aug 27, 2010

I keep thinking back to last night.

I had just come from Groom, Texas, where I stumbled into the second largest cross in the Western Hemisphere, rising 19 stories out of a soy bean field in the middle of nowhere. Out on the road, a broken wooden sign had proclaimed, "A Spiritual Experience You Will Never Forget," but it was what came later, some 50 miles east of Groom and after dark, which is what I will never forget.

In Shamrock, Texas, it was the final night of "Thursday Under the Neon," a weekly summer tradition where four local cowboys play country music out on the sidewalk, under the stars and neon lights. Cowboys and their wives drive in from nearby farms to sit in folding chairs on the sidewalk, drink Dr. Pepper, and quietly listen to the music. Everybody was pretty old, and the songs they sang were old songs, songs that everybody knew.

Well I never been to heaven
But I been to Oklahoma
Well they tell me I was born there
But I really don't remember
In Oklahoma, not Arizona
What does it matter
What does it matter

And that kind of thing.

It was late, and they were going to play one more song.

"Well now, ya'll can sing along with this one," said the lead cowboy. "I know ya'll know this one, so ya'll sing along now. We always end with this one."

He strummed out some chords, and then started in on the old Carter Family song, "Can the Circle Be Unbroken?"

I got goosebumps and nearly started to cry as I stood there, leaning on a white pickup truck at the back of the crowd, and watched the dozens of white-haired, previously silent local men and women suddenly start singing along, at first quietly and then with more and more gusto.

Can the circle be unbroken
Bye and bye, Lord, bye and bye
There's a better home awaiting
In the sky, Lord, in the sky

They kept singing that line, "There's a better home awaiting / in the sky, Lord, in the sky," almost like a church chorus, and as they sang it, I kept thinking whether they really understood the words they were saying, and what those words meant for someone as old as they were, or if they were just cheerfully singing along to words they knew by heart but never really thought about.

Either way, standing there on the sidewalk, in that small Texas town, under the dark sky, with the bodies and faces of everyone lit up by red and green neon, and watching everybody's mouths moving and hearing a hundred voices singing those words, it felt like a very sad and sacred moment — the kind of moment you are not supposed to see unless you are in it.

As I looked around at the faces, they looked like they all really believed it — that they really believed there was a father up there, waiting to welcome them home, and I couldn't decide what I thought of that. Part of me thought how sad it was that they have been brainwashed into thinking the point of this life is just to prepare for the life that comes next. I thought what a marvelous tool Christianity can be for keeping people tame and under control, because here were all of these people gleefully singing along and bobbing their heads to the fact that they will soon die and go to a better place than here, and that this expectation of a better life might keep them from really living this one. This seemed amazingly sad to me. But then another part of me felt that they were the wise ones to accept death so happily, regardless of where they got the idea.

Then the music ended and I wandered through the crowd for a while, trying to look at people's faces and into their eyes, to see what I could see.

But soon the people got into their trucks and the sidewalk was empty except for the neon, and soon that was gone too.

So I wandered around by myself in the night for a while, I looked at the big orange moon coming up over the fields, I watched a toad hop across a parking lot, and I waited to become 31.