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Notes of a Former Theosophical Shipping Clerk

Kurt Luchs


rowing up in Wheaton, Illinois, we were surrounded by churches and religious organizations, nearly all of them Christian, and the majority of those Evangelical. You could barely throw a stone without hitting one. And if you did throw a stone, some wide-eyed Wheaton College student was bound to ask you whether you thought you were without sin. Wheaton College, of course, was and is one of the preeminent destinations of higher learning for Protestant Evangelicals. Founded by Christian abolitionists in 1860 “for Christ and His kingdom,” the school later graduated Billy Graham, and still later added the Billy Graham Center to its campus. The Billy Graham Center once included, and may still include, something called “The Heaven Room,” inspired by some maniac’s bizarre notion of the ethereal realm.

The effects of this excess of religiosity in a small Midwestern town were largely irrelevant to a child and future adolescent. There was a little more Christ in our public-school Christmas celebrations. So what? The few of us who had been raised by agnostics or atheists didn’t mind. It didn’t matter to me that the town was dry (though turning water into wine was the first public miracle performed by Jesus). I was too young to drink, and nearly everyone broke that law anyway. Why should I care that Wheaton College professors had to sign a pledge to neither drink nor dance (though King David danced, according to the Psalms)?

Our parents sent us to the nearest church we could walk to, which happened to be the First Baptist Church. This was not to instill any particular belief in us—they had none—but simply to get rid of us for a few hours on Sunday morning so they could be fruitful and multiply, as the Good Book said. During the week they were busy committing adultery, like most of their neighbors.

The Baptist church services proved to be an almost total loss. The hymns were hideous, the sermons moronic, and the building itself, like almost all Baptist churches everywhere, was a monument to ugliness rivaled only by the intentional gruesomeness of their women, seemingly intended to keep anyone from making a pass at them. The one saving grace was their use of the King James Bible, then standard issue. If the metaphysics of it escaped me, the poetry did not.

Meanwhile, only two blocks away from our home was a spiritual organization having nothing to do with Christianity, except possibly of the Gnostic variety. This was the national headquarters of the Theosophical Society, “an unsectarian body of seekers after Truth” founded in 1875 by Russian spiritualist Madame H. P. Blavatsky, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and 17 others. The 41-acre campus is named Olcott after the Civil War veteran who co-founded the Society and served as its first president until his death in 1907. The building was erected in the mid-1920s and first occupied in 1927, set amid a beautifully landscaped estate. It houses a spiritual library of 25,000 volumes, a number of them rare Sanskrit texts, along with the offices of the Theosophical Publishing House (TPH), the Quest Bookshop, and the shipping warehouse serving them both over the years.

Nearly every member of my family worked at Olcott in one capacity or another, including me. In my last two years of high school I was a shipping clerk in the publishing warehouse. After high school and an aborted attempt at college, I returned to work as a groundskeeper. The shipping clerk job gave me a crash course in theosophy and all of its roots and branches. During breaks and lunch hours I read just about everything the Society published, along with many other related volumes stocked in the Quest Bookshop.

Some of this material was already known to me. Of the thousands of books owned by my parents, quite a few were by such theosophical fellow travelers as Carl Jung, Alan Watts and Aldous Huxley. They had The White Goddess by Robert Graves and Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, as well as the Tao Te Ching, the I Ching, the Bhagavad Gita, the Dhammapada, Confucius and heaven knows what else. Through my stint at the Theosophical Publishing House I encountered the official Theosophical writings of H. P. Blavatsky (unreadable), C. W. Leadbetter (crazy) and Annie Besant (sane but insipid). It turned out that the most interesting Theosophists were former Theosophists.

The list of those that got away included Jiddu Krishnamurti. He had been groomed by Leadbetter and Besant to assume the mantle of a new world teacher, until he broke with his mentors, rejected the messianic role assigned to him, and dissolved the Order of the Star in the East, the organization supporting the World Teacher Project. By the time I began working in the TPH warehouse in 1970 this rift was long forgotten. TPH had even obtained reprint rights to some of Krishnamurti’s best-known works, such as The First and Last Freedom. After refusing the structured role planned for him, he nonetheless became a world teacher of a sort—the sort that encouraged spiritual seekers to figure things out for themselves. He taught his own version of quieting the mind, a technique found in Hinduism, Buddhism and their offshoots. This is supposed to open up a more direct, immediate perception of reality and a state of cosmic consciousness. I say it’s supposed to because I wouldn’t know personally. I have never been able to quiet my mind.

This aspect of Krishnamurti’s teaching had an analogue in the writings of Carlos Castaneda. He often spoke of a technique called “stopping the world.” His books about his apprenticeship to a Yaqui Indian sorcerer named Don Juan were also available in the Quest Bookshop. Hell, they were available everywhere. Castaneda had even made the cover of Time magazine. It’s hard to believe now, when his books are so completely forgotten, but there was a time when he held tremendous sway over many American young people, including me. And not only young people but many in the literary establishment. Joyce Carol Oates was a big fan. He had presented his mysterious shamanistic tales as nonfiction, a stance he maintained to the end. Yet it is easy to see now that he was writing novels, albeit very unusual novels. If you think their fictionality invalidates their spiritual and metaphysical precepts, think again. One could argue that all of the writings behind the world’s great and not-so-great religions began as fiction that was mistaken for factual reportage. Hinduism has a slight advantage here because it embraces the mythic nature of its scriptures.

I could go on discussing the books I encountered in my work at the Theosophical Society. I am a book-loving humanoid, after all, and I assume you are too or you wouldn’t have read this far. But that would be leaving out the people, who were ultimately more important to my experiences there.

The director of the Theosophical Publishing House and the Quest Bookshop at the time I worked there was a man named Clarence. He was highly intelligent, good-natured and well-read. I recall a book review he wrote for a TPH newsletter where he talked admiringly about the work of French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. You wouldn’t think the man who said “Hell is other people” would hold any attraction for the gentle souls who generally became Theosophists. However, in his review Clarence described him as “the irrepressible Sartre,” a phrase that has stuck in my mind all of these years. That’s one of the things I liked best about Clarence, his open-mindedness.

He was also not a bossy boss, able to manage quite effectively without putting distance and layers between himself and his employees. Nearly everyone brought their lunch to work. Rather than eat his in his office or with the other white-collar employees, Clarence would always sit with us in the warehouse. He seemed genuinely interested in what we were reading, what we were thinking. He had a loud, raucous laugh like a seal barking, and I enjoyed being able to make him laugh. The last time I saw him was some years later in 1977 at a concert at the Fermilab auditorium by the Celtic group the Chieftains. He appeared as chipper as ever, perhaps even more irrepressible than Sartre.

The senior employee in the warehouse was Harvey. He was about the same age as Clarence but a good deal less jovial. In fact, he was downright dyspeptic, a real sourpuss. Part of this could be ascribed to his marriage—he always referred to his wife as “the war department.” And part of it was due to his religious differences with all the rest of us. You see, Harvey was a Mormon. What’s more, he was a Mormon of rather high rank and pedigree. During the 1950s he had lived and worked in Washington, DC, on the staff of fellow Mormon Ezra Taft Benson, who served as US Secretary of Agriculture under President Eisenhower. It must have been a major comedown for Harvey, from those heady days of power and influence to working the machine that wrapped all of the TPH book orders in plastic to prepare them for shipping. He did not accept his descent gracefully. Harvey viewed the rest of us with barely concealed contempt. I think what galled him more than anything was that the Quest Bookshop and TPH stocked The Book of Mormon as if it were on all fours with the mystic creeds of the East and such New Age tomes as The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ. He was easy to offend. I once made his face turn red when I suggested that the Angel Moroni had one too many “i’s” in his name.

There were two more staffers in the warehouse, brothers whom I will call Tom and Dick in honor of the Smothers Brothers. They were just a couple of years older than me, and they were both attending the nearby Catholic school, St. Benedictine College. How Catholic were they? I’d say even more Catholic than Harvey was Mormon. They not only knew the Bible, which most Catholics do not. They had also read Augustine and Aquinas. They were politically conservative Catholics, too. In their theological pantheon William F. Buckley Jr. ranked only slightly behind Jesus himself. They looked upon me as a New Age hippie at first, and understandably so. In those days my attire consisted of ragged blue jeans, a tee shirt I had imprinted with a smiley face on the front and the words “Stop Me Before I Kill Again” on the back, fringed leather boots, love beads and tinted yellow granny glasses in the manner of David Crosby. In the colder months I also sported a Mexican serape.

I amazed the hell out of Tom and Dick when they learned I liked Buckley as much as they did. I could even quote from Quotations from Chairman Bill because, yes, my parents had that one as well. They stopped trying to pin me down after that. Their biggest mistake was revealing that they shared Buckley’s admiration for J. S. Bach (as did I). Thereafter I made a point of always referring to Bach as “the world’s greatest Lutheran composer.”

All things must pass, as the quiet Beatle reminded us. So did my time in the TPH warehouse. I graduated from high school, married my high school sweetheart, tried college for a year, gave up in despair of anyone there helping me learn how to write better poetry, took a job as a janitor in a Volkswagen dealership, gave that up to escape a German mechanic who had been a member of the Hitler Youth (my second such experience, believe it or not), tried and failed to be a telemarketer for the Chicago Tribune (“The World’s Greatest Newspaper”), and finally wound up back at the Theosophical Society, only this time on the grounds crew.

One of my new coworkers was Dan, a fellow I had known in high school as a kind of Abbie Hoffman knock-off, bright, mischievous and very funny. Like Hoffman, his head was crowned with a white man’s afro. By the time he reached the Theosophical grounds crew he had taken a thousand acid trips. When the Beatles did that, it led to Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road. When Dan did it, he developed acute schizophrenia. One day he stopped coming to work because (we learned) he had been committed to a mental institution. It was just in time as far as I was concerned. He had already threatened to brain me with a shovel during one of his paranoid episodes.

Another coworker was also a high school acquaintance, Jim. It was on this job that he became my best friend, which he still is. Jim was a Da Vinci-like polymath, a genius who seemed capable of almost anything. While I didn’t get to know him well in high school, we had some friends in common and I enjoyed his exploits from the sidelines. He had an interesting band, for one thing, modeled on the Mothers of Invention. That meant their act was somewhat controversial, especially for Wheaton, Illinois. He changed the name after every gig to avoid being blacklisted, though there was a certain recurrent theme for the fans to follow: Bazooka Jim and the Gums, Banana Jim and the Splits, etc. Jim played keyboards and bass. After high school he played in a professional jazz band headed by a Chicago trumpet player whose name I no longer recall. Warren something. Maybe he was a sax player at that. I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled, as a series of Burma Shave billboards once remarked.

When we connected on the Theosophical grounds crew we had the whole day together, and we spent it in far-flung conversations about anything and everything. If the “work” became actual work, threatening to disrupt our dialogue, we would tell our boss Fritz that were going down to the pond to “check the flow.” This imaginary process could take hours.

A word about Fritz. He was an elderly German man who had survived World War II, we were never told in exactly what capacity, though he did sometimes allude to the Russian front in a way that suggested firsthand experience. Just to be clear: he may have been a soldier but he was never a Nazi (my other experience with a coworker who had been in the Hitler Youth, aside from the one at the Volkswagen dealership, was at my first job as a dishwasher in a bakery run by a Pennsylvania Dutch couple). Fritz was a kindly, gentle soul who still somehow managed to possess a few traits that seemed, in a word, Germanic.

For example, the grounds crew were often called upon to dig holes. Our natural American tendency was to make them round. Fritz insisted that holes in the ground should always be square. When he said that, he would insert a “v” between the “q” and the “u,” turning it into “sqvuare,” and then he would draw a square in the air with his hands. It was like a scene out of Hogan’s Heroes and never failed to amuse us. Fritz’s big claim to fame as a Theosophist was that he had used holistic healing (before that phrase even existed) to what he had been told was terminal stomach cancer. He had gone on a 40-day grape fast, somewhat reminiscent of our Lord’s time of temptation in the desert, and that had done the trick.

Back to Jim. Our newly planted friendship sent tendrils out in all directions and had many lifechanging results. We shared a love of the classic film comedians as well as the avant-garde comedy that was still trying to get born in our own time. I taught him about Firesign Theatre and he taught me about Frank Zappa and P. D. Q. Bach. In addition to being a gifted musician, Jim owned a Teac four-track reel-to-reel recorder, which was somewhat hard to come by in those days. He taped his own bands and occasionally cut demos and records for other musicians. He had already become an excellent producer.

I, on the other hand, was a frustrated poet who was about to give that up, along with my marriage, to start a comedy act with my three brothers. When the Luchs Brothers formed in the fall of 1975, Jim was there to handle the sound and to record our every live performance. Later he would produce our studio works, starting with our 1978 novelty single, a Sex Pistols parody called “Kill Me I’m Rotten” backed with “Losing My Lunch Over You,” a nod to Alvin and the Chipmunks, among other things. Jim wrote and produced the music; the Luchs Brothers wrote the lyrics and “sang” (music historians are adamant about putting quotes around that verb). The A-side got a fair amount of coverage in the music press, while the B-side got played on Dr. Demento’s syndicated show, the same venue that launched the career of “Weird Al” Yankovic. The Luchs Brothers were to face a very different fate, but that was years away. Meanwhile, Jim married our older sister, and for the brief shining length of that union he was not only a Luchs Brother but a Luchs brother-in-law.

He will always be family to me. Nor will I forget that it was the Theosophical Society that had brought us together, the same Theosophical Society on whose grounds Wheaton College students had once burned crosses in the 1920s “for Christ and His kingdom.” Jim and I had a chance to return the insult in a lighthearted way when we secretly and without any permission or warning photographed the cover of “Kill Me I’m Rotten” in the basement of the Wheaton College gymnasium. It was a picture of Jim in a police uniform pointing a pistol at my head as I sat tied to a chair with a gag in my mouth. The Luchs Brothers were method actors, in their fashion. Anyway, the gun was real.

Kurt Luchs

Kurt Luchs