Memories of Pasadena

by J. Orlin Grabbe

1979

 

The arrival of Franz Josef Strauss had generated an atmosphere of eschatological ecstasy and hubris. Speculation was rife. Perhaps the church would not flee to Petra in advance of the German-led European takeover of America. The church might still be around, headquartered in California, but allowed to escape because we knew the Führer personally.

Strauss would address the student body. The press would be there, if for no other reason than to discover why the Bavarian politician should be visiting an obscure private college in Pasadena.

As editor of the student newspaper, I was charged with chronicling the significant events of the "latter days." Remembering photographs I had seen of Hitler, out in his garden on a sunny day, affectionately petting his dog or stroking the chin of a blond-haired Mädchen ("der Führer loves dogs and children"), I decided to show Strauss in a relaxed, unofficial moment, since it wasn't good public relations to brand him with a swastika. The photographer struck pay-dirt. He caught Strauss in the make-up room, in preparation for an interview on The World Tomorrow, Ambassador College's telecast of news, prophecy, and pith. The Beast, as Strauss was generally known around Ambassador, was wearing a bib and beaming Gemütlichkeit.

While growing up in the Texas panhandle, I had never heard of Strauss. But I knew all about the Beast, a symbol for an European-based empire, as well as the man who would run it. Knowledge of the Beast was born of revelation and boredom. Before I learned to read there was little to do when herding cattle or sheep on horseback, other than to sit in the saddle, look for rabbits, and day-dream. Afterwards, I always had a book or, on Saturdays, a few pieces of free literature from Ambassador College in Pasadena, California, whose radio programs were all over the Texas airwaves late at night.

Sometimes I would sit behind the saddle, or crossways, or backwards, or perched in a yoga posture. Or I might stand in the grass holding the reins, with my back to the sun to keep the glare off the page. Thus I learned about the Germans. The Nazis had gone underground after the war and spent the post-war era perfecting a master plan to conquer the world, starting this time with the U.S. Hitler had fled to Argentina in the final days, and the Germans would welcome him with open arms upon his reappearance, at which time he would pretend to have been resurrected by the Pope.

Ambassador College monitored the progress of Nazi re-emergence with continual news reports on Europe and the Common Market, which were calculated to lead the public to the proper interpretation of Daniel and Revelation, expounded in works like 1975 in Prophecy. The illustrations in the latter booklet, provided by a church member, an established artists whose work frequently appeared in Mad magazine, were not calculated to comfort. One saw bulldozers at work, pushing mountains of bodies into vast chasms. Gaunt figures with clubs chased rats for food, silently monitored by vultures in gnarled trees. Mushroom clouds rose from metropolitan areas, while terror-stricken suburbanites clogged the streets in flight. The text foretold the return of concentration camps.

It was not predestined that I would attend Ambassador. It only seemed that way. Though the Ambassador publications always struck me as slightly naive, I attributed that to the mysteries of Providence. In those days I despised religion and religious people. My feelings were only partly assuaged by the fact that Ambassador College served as the nerve center of a church that thumbed its nose at all other sects and religions, with the exception of Judaism. Fundamentally I believed the prophecies, and hence there was no escape. I was constantly tempted to leave the infinite flatness of my home town, to forever forget Ambassador, and to explore the world. But that seemed futile if the Germans were coming.

Then there were the Jews. Despite growing up on unleavened cornbread for Passover, I never became conscious of Jews per se until I arrived at Ambassador. The central pillar in the orthodox interpretation of prophecy was that the people of the United States, Britain, and the countries of Northwestern Europe were descended from the ten lost tribes of Israel. Following the reigns of David and Solomon, ancient Israel was split into two parts—Israel and Judah. The kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in 721 B.C., and the ten tribes that comprised the kingdom eventually made their way into Europe, melted into the surrounding people, and lost their identity. By contrast, the tribes that composed the kingdom of Judah survived until 586 B.C., were taken captive by the Babylonians, but later returned to their homeland and preserved the ancient traditions. They became known as Jews. Thus, in one sense, Jews were just part of a large family of nations, descended from Jacob (Israel). This view of history, know as British-Israelism, had once merited great respect. Its first manifesto was published in 1649 by a Puritan member of Parliament. Later, Queen Victoria and King Edward VII were patrons of the movement.

Thus, upon their arrival at Ambassador, it sufficed that recruits from the Kentucky Hills and other areas of philosophical tohu-bohu realize that differentiation between the descendants of Israel and other—gentile—nations was the key to past-present-future. But one quickly learned that not all Israelites are the same. Each tribe had its special characteristics according to the prophecies in Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33. In particular, Jews were brilliant. Superior. This was partly the result of the fact that, unlike the other tribes, such as Ephraim which had settled in England, or Manasseh in the United States, they had kept their identity and hadn't intermingled with inferior races or adopted pagan customs. And it was partly a consequence of the fact that God intended it that way. Jews were natural leaders in any endeavor according to the prophecy "the scepter shall not depart from Judah nor the ruler's staff from between his feet."

The Chancellor of the college, and head of the church, Herbert Armstrong, claimed to be a descendant of ancient King David. Another executive averred that it was his "Jewish nature" that got to people: he was not to be faulted for an acerb disposition, since that was a natural concomitant of his cunning, executive ability, and genetic lordship.

The fear of the Jews fell upon everyone. It was usually not long after his or her arrival at this academic outpost of the millennium on South Orange Grove, before each student had discovered a Jew or two in the family tree. And those of more immediate Jewish origin learned to press their advantage for all it was worth. I entered Ambassador with Stan Levi, who was in manner and practice a thorough gentile. We would sit in church history class and hear about the brilliance of Einstein and Bernstein, as well as about Jewish tendencies of tenacity, haggling, and obsession with money. Slowly Stan began to mold himself in accordance with the vision. Though bright, he never bloomed to brilliance, but he did learn to dicker and make deals. In the end, there was nothing he couldn't get for you at a better price. When someone would occasionally suggest he was being a little materialistic for an Ambassador senior supposedly rounding out his spiritual development, Stan would shrug: "I can't help it; it's in my blood."

The main problems with Judaism were perceived to be a Talmudic tendency to footnote footnotes, and accumulate excess commandments. And, naturally, that Jews hadn't accepted Jesus as the Messiah. The Jews misinterpreted the role of Jesus because they hadn't kept Passover properly, and hence failed to identify him as the sacrificial lamb. Otherwise all the Judaic writings were combed for insight, since these works reflected the forgotten heritage of all Israel. Ambassador kept the Sabbath, the commanded festivals from Passover to Sukkoth, and viewed Sunday-observance, Christmas, and Easter as vile non-biblical practices adopted from pagan religions. Historical Christianity was essentially seen as a Vatican conspiracy, stemming ultimately from the ancient Babylonian priesthood. "Outsiders" found all this confusing.

Once, some years earlier, I had left home without notice, ostensibly to attend Sukkoth—the feast of tabernacles—but really to get away from the monotony of dried bones and burnt grass. A few hundred miles down the road I met a local sheriff who thought I ought to be in school and hauled me in for vagrancy. I explained that Sukkoth was something like a Jewish Oktoberfest. This led to more questions, like, what church is this, who founded it, is it Jewish. I didn't like his attitude and decided to be snotty and tell him the truth.

"Radio Church of God." So it was called then. "It was founded by a Jew named Jesus in 31 A.D.," I said.

He looked nonplused. Then, after a moment's thought, he leaned forward with a sudden glint in his eye, ready to pin me to the wall with unassailable logic.

"It couldn't have been founded by Jesus because they didn't have radios in his day," he said.

Which demonstrated that attempted communication with the goyim was futile. The leading gentile nation was Germany, a nation descended from ancient Assyria. Any German was viewed with suspicion at Ambassador. If not a closet Nazi, he was, at a minimum, a mean son-of-a-bitch. One of my roommates, for example, was obsessed with Germans. He would stumble into the study area in the morning, click his heels, give a mock stiff-arm salute, and then get down to the important business of proving the continuity of German plans for world domination from the 1890's to the present day. He reflected a general preoccupation. We were all in archival pursuit of the Nazis, uncovering the source of continuing influence, exposing the evil we expected to engulf the world once more. The recommended reading list for aspiring leaders at Ambassador contained some forty books on Germany, works like The New Germany and the Old Nazis, Germany Tried Democracy, and The Grand Design. The latter book was by Franz Josef Strauss. Opinion was divided whether it was a snow-job, designed to mislead the reader regarding Germany's real goals, or a blueprint of things to come, in the grand tradition of Mein Kampf. It certainly urged the creation of a United Europe.

Ambassador had long prophesied the emergence of a United Europe lead by Germany. Originally, the return of Hitler from exile to assume the leadership of this union was expected. But as the years passed, and the hiding Hitler grew older, Ambassador began to look around the German political arena for a strong-man replacement. It selected Strauss as the most likely possibility, on the basis of occasional flashes of demonically-inspired speaking, as well as what were perceived as neo-Nazi leanings. That he had also written a book about a United Europe added to his credentials. Thus it was that Herbert Armstrong told Strauss, as they sat in the kitchen of the Chancellor's residence, "We think God has a special job for you." The statement shook Strauss up a bit, Armstrong would boast. Armstrong did not, of course, elaborate on the nature of the employment he had in mind for Strauss, but the word had gotten around some years later, when the official press secretary for the West German government asked an Ambassador representative if he though Willy Brandt was "the Beast." German Intelligence had prepared a file of Ambassador publications and determined that the Beast would be a German leader. The rest was a matter of extrapolation. The Ambassador representative wisely refrained from explaining that the organization was looking for someone slightly more right-wing.

The beginning of the 70s was a time generally for stirring the political cauldron, co-opting the opposition, and spreading messianic fever. A few months after the Strauss visit, Amstrong was reading Zechariah to Zalman Shazar, the President of Israel: "On that day I will make the clans of Judah like a blazing pot in the midst of wood, like a flaming torch among sheaves; and they shall devour to the right and to the left all the people round about, while Jerusalem shall still be inhabited in its place, in Jerusalem."

"This is a prophecy directed to you, Mr. President," Armstrong said. "Israel is a flaming torch that devours the surrounding Arab nations." Shazar grabbed Armstrong's hand. "Mr. Armstrong, I want you to know that I know all about your church. And I have the highest respect for it."

It was money, media power, and a penchant for helping Yahweh fulfill prophecy that brought Ambassador to the notice of foreign political leaders. When I had first arrived in Pasadena, in the fall of 1966, Ambassador was still so enshrouded in shrubbery that some customers of the supermarket across Green Street had shopped for years in blissful ignorance of the college's existence. Then, one day, the foliage was cleared with much pomp and circumcision. And in the midst of the clearing rose a giant honey-combed administration building that couldn't fail to capture the attention of the most stubbornly myopic. The Ambassador campus quickly became the architectural marvel of Pasadena.

During my freshman year, the student body had given a standing ovation to a disc jockey from Pittsburgh, out of gratitude that such a distinguished and accomplished "radio man" would deign to visit our little campus. By contrast, at the time of my departure from the group, in the fall of 1973, Chancellor Armstrong was writing his fans: "In these past four years, I have had personal meetings with twenty-three heads of government—of whom four are kings, two crown princes, nine presidents, seven prime ministers, and one governor—besides many foreign ministers, ministers of Education, etc., and many legislative members, such as senators and congressmen." Then, having writ, he was off in his Gulfstream II to see Prince Mikasa of Japan, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India, and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. It was necessary to carry the warning of the impending End to the great gentile nations also.

Before the End would come, in the Ambassador prophetic scenario, the word had to go out from Jerusalem. So (in 1967) Armstrong had negotiated an exclusive contract with the Jordanian government, for the broadcast of Ambassador's radio program from Jerusalem, a contract aborted by the Six-Day War, when Israel seized control of both sectors of the city. Ambassador took pause, wondering how to slip a semi-Christian Yahweh past the Israelis. Then a fellow in the German office met a photographer. The photographer knew Leopold, the ex-king of Belgium. Leopold glared when Armstrong addressed him as "Sir" instead of "Sire," but was still interested in funding for his anthropological films of the "Belgian Congo." To Armstrong's surprise, he found that, with the proper introductions, a rich man who came bearing thousand-dollar pieces of Steuben Crystal as token gifts was accorded welcome in the hallowed halls of worldly muckamucks in Belgium, the Phillipines, Thailand, Indonesia, India, Japan, Germany, and Israel. Amstrong detailed the visits with full-color spreads in The Plain Truth, a college-church sponsored magazine with a monthly circulation of two million. Naturally, the CIA would take notice.

Back from one of his first trips to Israel, Amstrong announced a new additional purpose of the empire, which he had discovered by reading the Book of Malachi. Jesus would be returning to Jerusalem and sit on the throne of David. David's throne was in Zion, south of the Temple Mount. Therefore, Armstrong realized, it was necessary to polish up the throne according to the prophecy "I will send my messenger to prepare the way before me." It wouldn't do to have Jesus dirty his hinter parts on the "gentile debris" that had collected over the centuries. Therefore, Armstrong said, he was donating funds for a joint Ambassador College-Hebrew University archaeological dig at the site (under the supervision of Benyamin Mazar), and moreover would supply fifty students as laborers each summer. A few eyebrows were raised over the issue whether an archeological dig was the most efficient way to remove rubble. But, at any rate, selected students were happy, Jerusalem-bound, except they had to pay their own way.

For we took everything in stride at Ambassador. It was self-evident to us that we were destined to change the world. We were, as it were, extra-terrestrials, dropped on this strange planet, which we were now duty-bound to roam as our domain. International events would affect us, and we would interact with them. As students, life was intrinsically so serious, that we never appeared to take anything seriously. We busied ourselves with the past and future, which we acted out in myth and ritual. Even Armstrong himself could never quite fathom our approach. One year, in accordance with the vision that today's world was an era of sin matched only by the "days of Noah," we did a skit which depicted Noah building an ark in a corn-patch, with degenerate tourists arriving by bus to take pictures and make catcalls. A sudden thunder-burst sent the scoffers into a chorus line singing a revised standard perversion of "Oh No! Don't Let the Rain Come Down." All this had perturbed Armstrong, in that he felt it failed to reflect Ambassador's motto to "recapture true values." So the next year we wrote a scene in honor of Armstrong's new-found position in the vanguard of scientific research—the upcoming Jerusalem dig. The single prop was a large papier-mâché mountain which a sign carefully identified as "Gentile Debris." Armstrong loved it.

The Hebrew movement was given a new birth. Getting into the "original Greek and Hebrew" of the bible had always been a tradition at Ambassador. Greek or Hebrew roots served as Rorschach blots out of which aspiring scholars produced revelations that were a combination of folklore, insight, and asininity. The more upwardly-mobile and anti-intellectual students, however, who knew that the basketball team was the most direct route to a field appointment where they could exercise church authority and teach people how to live right, took a dim view of an occupation that was always engendering heretics. So they devoted themselves to "being balanced"—drinking beer, dribbling, and learning to preach.

The rest of us set about finding roots. Historically, getting into the Greek and Hebrew at Ambassador had meant getting into the Greek. But now Hebrew took over with a vengeance, partly because of the Jerusalem dig, but mostly because of those of us who demonstrated a revealed preference for the Old Testament above the New, and were always somewhat put off by that Pauline creation which George Bernard Shaw called "Crosstianity." One fellow arrived back from New York after a summer's study with a rabbi and became the uncrowned king of the Hebraicists. Right away in Genesis he noticed that the root for "female," nkv, could also mean something that was pierced, or a hole in the ground. Thinking of the obvious physical analogy, he investigated zkr "male". To his puzzlement the root only served to designate something in remembrance, like a memorial stone. Then, pitom! One remembers something because it has pierced the mind. Hence the Hebrew for "male" and "female" meant "piercer" and "pierced."

Such esoterica was mostly noted in bible margins to wow the folks out in the field. Others felt, however, that if inspired designations, such as those for male and female, were good enough for Yahweh, they were good enough for the lingua franca of the modern-day sons of Israel. Take Bohu, who, driven out of Eastern Europe one cold winter with his brother Tohu, settled into the sunny Southern California bed next to mine, where he would stare at the ceiling and deliver speculative discourses on the thought processes of angelic beings. When two ministers came over to visit the apartment one evening, Bohu was on hand to greet them in the Ursprache: "Glad you two piercers could stop by."

And so we passed the time, preparing for the end to come, and delving into politics. The Israeli connection nearly aborted before getting off the ground. It was the end of the first summer of the Jerusalem dig, when the diggers were on the bus, heading to the airport for the return to Pasadena. Behind them they noticed a curious spiral of smoke rising from the Temple Mount. Denis Michael Rohan was in the process of creating an international mini-crisis by attempting to burn down the Al Aksa Mosque. At the time of Rohan's arrest later, Israeli authorities found Ambassador literature in his possession. From it, Rohan learned that the ungodly Moslem structures were a fulfillment of prophecies about the "abomination of desolation," a sacrilege which had existed since 667 A.D. Rohan decided he would do everyone a favor, and ignited kerosine-smoked rags in one of the most sacred Moslem holy places.

Rohan had once applied to Ambassador. He was rejected, according to the evaluation in the files, on grounds of being "a nutty guy."

But no one was surprised that it was someone like Rohan in the center of the news. Nor that the initial intense embarrassment would end with the President of Israel declaring he had the highest respect for us.

We saw the invisible web that permeated the universe and connected all things. There were no coincidences. There were only synchronicities. There were no surprises.

We were not surprised when Bobby Fischer, the chess prodigy, applied to Ambassador. Nor that he was turned down.

We were not surprised that Teddy Kollek would want some of our material translated to Hebrew for distribution in Jerusalem. That Anwar Sadat would ask us to carry a confidential message from Cairo to the U.S.

We were not surprised when the name of the Chancellor's son, Garner Ted Armstrong, was found in Sirhan Sirhan's diary, following the Robert Kennedy assassination. When you're different, and vital, all the misplaced of the world seek you out, perhaps sensing a kindred spirit.

We were not surprised that the Emperor of Japan would ask to co-sponsor with Ambassador an institute for comparative study of eastern and western religions. That King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand would literally cry on Armstrong's shoulder. That other leaders would treat our pronouncements as the oracles of God.

We were not surprised that the intelligence services of three nations made regular reports of our activities.

We were not surprised when members of Henry Kissinger's staff asked to edit certain articles in our magazine, The Plain Truth, for "national security reasons."

We were not surprised at the regular attacks waged on us by fundamentalist Christians.

When the apocalyptic events, described by the prophets of old, would occur, we expected to ride out the storm, under God's protection, in the ancient rock city of Petra. This was based on an interpretation of Isaiah. During the civil war in Jordan, in 1970, we thought it probable Israel would expand its territorial control eastward to the Lawrence of Arabia railway. We would certainly not have been surprised to find Petra in the hands of our brothers, and new-found friends.

In retrospect, I do not see all this as a bizarre story. There are no bizarre stories. Only stories, far away, seen through the wrong end of time's telescope. It was at that time, that I began to systematically explore Kant's three questions: 1. What can I know? 2. What ought I to do? 3. What may I hope? One finds the answers starting from wherever one happens to be.

Those questions and my answers to them would eventually lead me away from Ambassador. It was a path that still lay in the unsuspected future.

But I lived in the present, that day of the Strauss visit. I stood in my office in the top floor of the Hall of Administration, looking over the hillside. At the campus stream, bubbling down to a pool which mysteriously never overflowed. At the tree-flanked steps which swept up the hill to the former mansion of Hulett Merritt, a scene that had served as the opening shot in an old TV series The Millionaire. At the tops of the towering palms reaching up behind the mansion. At the sun, hanging low in the sky, dark red, partly masked by fronds.

It was the End Time. And it was good to be living in it.

James Orlin Grabbe passed away in his home in Costa Rica on March 15th, 2008.