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Ames K. Swartsfager

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Between the Devil and the Deep...:Memoirs of a Maverick Priest
by Ames K. Swartsfager   

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Books by Ames K. Swartsfager
· The Cruising Definition
· Down Island
· A Crusing Prayerbook
· The Bitter End Songbook
                >> View all



Publisher:  Xlibris ISBN-10:  144155582X Type: 


Copyright:  August 25, 2009 ISBN-13:  9781441555823


Ames' attempt to escape from the Mission District of San Francisco leads him into the priesthood, Central America, Woodstock Rock Festival,the Federal Prison System, the Caribbean, and to depth of dispair when he develops Myasthenia Gravis.

Ames wants to escape from intercity gang life in the Mission District of San Francisco, which challenges his physical, emotional and spiritual life. Attempting to break out of the gang related activities in which he is involved; he has to rely on his inner strength.

His journey takes him through dangers in gang fights, into the back streets of Hong Kong, to the city room of a newspaper where a deranged reporter wants to kill him, to missionary in Central America, to prison chaplain and to storms at sea. 

 Shadowing his life is the feeling he will slip back to being as evil as he was in the street gang. In the church, he has a reputation as a “maverick.” His path to escape his problems is the sea and sailing to far distant lands. Myasthenia Gravis, a neuromuscular disease, debilitates Ames. Suddenly he looses his ability to preach, to sail, to sing. Now what does God have in store for him? 

 Those who are interested in real life adventures, in mission work, prison ministry, or sailing will find this book entertaining and exciting. Many will find hope in this book for making their own escape from the ghettos of their lives. They also, like the author, can escape.

The boat lifts to the ten-foot wave, hesitates at the top with a fl ap of
the mainsail, then dips as it slides down its back side into the trough.
A shudder . . . water washing down the lee side from the foredeck, and
then she lifts again. The movement is hypnotizing.

I lie back and watch
the stars swirl through the clouds in the night sky. Fifteen knots of wind
from the southwest is on our starboard quarter. Things are going great.
The Gulf Stream is just ahead and it looks as if we will have a gentle trip
across this fi ckle river of water that lies off the East coast.

Just a few hours ago we were in the safety of the bay at Beaufort,
North Carolina. Close to a hundred boats lay at anchor with us, all
cruisers preparing for their voyages to the Virgins, Bermuda, Antigua,
and all points south to escape the cold of winter. We had joined them in
late October after traveling down the Chesapeake and the Inter Coastal

The major topic of discussion among the captains on the docks
was the weather.

"What do you think?” asks one.

“Dunno. The wind’s to the north,” suggests another.

“Might change soon,” hopes a third.

Our problems centered around crossing the Gulf Stream. It can kick
up a mighty fuss if the wind blows hard from the north. None of us wanted
to face a “fuss” so early in our cruise.

“I think Sunday will be a good day,” one skipper forecasts.

“Dunno, Monday might be better. Give the stream time to diedown.”

“I’ve made this trip 18 times,” said another. “It’s always bad and you’re
always on a port tack.”

“Maybe Monday,” I mentioned tentatively to Judy to see what her
reaction would be.

“Any time you think is good.”

That was not very helpful, because I did not know what would be a
good time. What I really wanted was to have someone, a “Wizard,” tell
me to go on such a date at such a time and to guarantee me a calm and
safe voyage.

There were some who paid for such a wizard. They contracted a private
weather service. We would gather around to look over their shoulders
and ask them what the situation was. Waving their fax, they would say that
today is definitely not a good day. We would all heave a sigh of relief

“What does it say about Monday?” I asked.

“Monday looks OK, but they recommend Sunday.”

I felt disheartened because we could not leave on Sunday. We had yet to provision, so Monday would have to be the day.

The motion of the boat makes me drowsy and my head keeps dropping to my chest. The auto pilot is doing all the work. My mind drifts in rhythm
with the motion of the boat.

I first got interested in boats, especially sailboats, as a method of
escape from the situation in which I lived.

My father was an Episcopal
priest and we had recently moved to a parish in the Mission District of
San Francisco. Now the Mission District, to put it in theological terms,was a “white-washed tomb full of dead men’s bones.” It looked nice in
comparison to other slums, but it was just as bad. Up to this time I had
lived a very sheltered life in relatively good neighborhoods in Texas.

I had fist-fights and arguments with other kids but this did not prepare
me for what I faced the fi rst day I went to school at Everett Junior High
in the Mission.

I was 12 years old and in the seventh grade. The first day I walked
to school and when I got there I was sure it must be the wrong place. It
looked like a prison. My last school was a two-story building with a large
grass athletic field. Maybe there were 300 students, but I doubt it. What
I saw at Everett were 16 foot-high fences enclosing a cement recreation
yard. The entrance to the yard had a barred gate.

I thought then about
running away. I sure did not want to go to a school like this. If I had
known the Hell I was about to enter, I do not think I could have walked
through that gate.

The noise in the hallways, the hall monitors, and the strangeness of
the “black” kids overshadowed everything. In Texas there had been strict segregation, although I was not really aware of it. I never even thought of it. Sure I played with some black kids who lived near us, but I never stopped to think where they went to school. I was very curious to see not only the black kids but also Navahos, Filipinos, Mexicans,Japanese, and kids from other strange places who looked different and spoke assorted

There were two negative experiences that first day. First, my lunch
was stolen. The second experience was more than anything else . . .embarrassing. I was trying to find my way to the gymnasium. I had to ask one of the hall monitors where the gym was and he gave me directions.

By this time, I was late and ran down the hall muttering, “Left turn at room
103, right turn at room 110, halfway down the hall, fi rst door on left.” I
went busting in through the door amid screams, squeals and laughter.

The monitor had directed me to the girls’ gym.

The most serious event at school came the following week. After lunch
a bell rang and we all had to line up to go inside. I got in line as usual
and was waiting to go in, when the guy in back of me pulled a knife and
told me he did not want any prejudiced whitey going to his school. He
was African American and was reacting to my southern accent. (In the South, I had gotten into fights because I had a Yankee accent.)

I was terrified. I had been in fights before but no one used weapons. I
was angry. It was too much! I hauled off and smashed him in the face. He
fell. I grabbed his arm and twisted it hard. He dropped the knife and a
friend of his grabbed it and ran.

A teacher came and hauled me into the
principal’s office. I did not have a chance to explain what had happened.
It was obvious to the principal that I was at fault because,

“It’s clear from your accent you are prejudiced against blacks.”

My parents were called and my father came to school. He did not believe my
story about the knife either.

That afternoon,I received a note.

“Because you hurt one of our gang, we are going to beat the shit out
of you! Black Beauties.”

If I was attacked with a knife on the school grounds, what would they
use if they caught me on the way home?

After detention, I ran home.

Friday was a strange day at school. No one stole my lunch and I made
my first friend, Milo. I received a second threatening note and had to
make a mad dash for home again. This time I was chased by about ten
members of the Black Beauties but I was too fast for them and made it
safe behind the gate to our house.

Saturday Milo came over. He wore his hair in a “DA” style and was dressed in black pegged pants, striped shirt and an imitation leather jacket. His face had a ruddy complexion and his mouth sported a friendly grin. We went out and bought a pack of Phillip Morris cigarettes.

I lit up,successfully suppressed a cough, and related my problem.

Milo lit his cigarette by flipping open the match book cover and lighting the match and his cigarette with one hand. I was very impressed. He took a deep drag, let the cigarette hang from his lips, and shoved his hands deeper
into his pockets as he listened. He frowned as I finished.

“Hell, you have three choices. One, you can continue to run every day. Two, you can face them and probably get killed, or three, you can
join a gang who will protect you.”

“I’ve heard about those gangs. You have to be initiated don’t you?”

“Yeah, and it’s generally hard and painful.” Milo took a drag on his
cigarette, inhaled, and blew the smoke out his nostrils.

“You belong to a gang?” I asked, attempting to inhale like Milo, but
ending up in a fit of coughing. Milo ignored my coughing and I was

“No, not yet. But if I do I’ll join the White Shoe Gang that uses 22nd
Street as their turf.”

“I don’t want to join a gang. There has to be another way. Maybe I
could talk to them.”

“Ha! That’s a sure way to get killed. They have sent you a warning. They
can’t back down now. They’ll lose face. Bad for their rep, ya know.”

We smoked in silence.

“I got an idea,” Milo said, flicking his cigarette toward the gutter. “Let’s
explore and map out an escape route. If you can get away from them long
enough, maybe they’ll forget.”

We spent the rest of the day exploring service entrances and alleys between my house on Julian Avenue and the school. I used this escape
route with great success most of the time. Once or twice guys who were
pursuing would catch me at our gate, but I could hold my own against them
one at a time.

As we were exploring, Milo asked me if I knew how to French-kiss. I did not have any idea what he was talking about.

“What’s a French-kiss?” I felt my face flush with embarrassment.

“It’s a very special kind of kiss.” Milo winked and smiled craftily.

“Hell yes. Let’s go,” I replied with more confidence than I really felt.

We walked up a street and Milo rang the bell and waited for the answering buzz that unlocked the door. Rosie lived on the third floor.

As we climbed the stairs to her flat, the smell of stale cabbage and urine assaulted me. I could hardly breathe and was ready to turn and run. However, by then, we were at the open door and Rosie was looking at me.

“Hi guys. Whatcha want?” Rosie stood with her hand on her hip and
a wad of gum in her mouth. She was wearing a pleated blue skirt and
a very tight beige sweater. She was older than we were, maybe thirteen,
stacked. She had dark hair and was somewhat plump, but pretty. Her
mother yelled from the back of the house.

“Don’t just stand there. Get out and don’t come back until fi ve!”

“Mom’s got company,” she said, straightening her raven dark hair
with her hand. “Business as usual.”

“What kind of business does she run?”
Rosie and Milo started to laugh.

“What’s so funny?”

“My mother’s business is f—king. She f—ks for money. What rock did you find this cat under, Milo? Don’t he know nothing?”

“Ah, he just moved here. He’s a country kid, Rose. He don’t even
know how to French-kiss. In fact, that’s what we came here for. Thought
you might teach him.”

I turned a bright red and wanted to run. But I knew if I ran I would
lose Milo as a friend.Besides, I really did want to learn to French-kiss, whatever that was,might come in handy later.

“I thought so. Treat me to ice cream and a coke and I’ll think about

We went to a little cafe on the corner of 20th and Mission and had
ice cream and cokes. Rosie said we needed to find a quiet place for the

“Can’t you just explain it to me?”

“Jesus Christ, this kid is a real clod. You can’t explain a French-kiss.
You have to do it.”

“I have to kiss you?”

“I don’t think you’ll fi nd it all that bad. Come on, let’s go.”

“Where?” asked Milo.

I took a deep breath. “Come to my house. Got lots of places with
privacy there.”

At home, we went into the basement of the Parish House of the church
and I proceeded to learn how to French-kiss. At first, I did not like it but
it grew on me . . . in more ways than one.

Under Milo’s tutelage, I became a
firecracker dealer at school. We
would go down to Chinatown and buy cherry bombs and other good things, selling them at school for twice what we paid.

Later we branched out into the pornography business. We wrote
pornographic stories, even though we had no idea about real sex. I
would type them on the church’s typewriter and run them off on the
mimeograph. The stories sold for fi ve dollars each. “The Teacher and the
Well Endowed Student” was our best seller.

At the Marina Green, I saw sailboats for the first time. They were so
beautiful and full of promised adventures. They look like they’re straining at their docklines ready to leave to seek adventure in the South Pacific, I thought. I would watch for hours as some of the boats sailed past the park toward the Golden Gate Bridge.

I tried to visit the boats every Sunday. I had a fantasy that the captain of one would see me and call out, “Son, you want to be a sailor?”

“Yes sir,” I would reply.

“Well, we’re heading for Tahiti and are short a cabin boy. We leave in
five minutes. Are ya game, boy?”

I would say “Yes, sir,” and jump aboard as the lines were thrown off.

I eventually had to join a gang for self-protection. The White Shoe
gang’s turf was at Twenty-Second Street and Valencia. The initiation
was bad, but it was something I had to endure in order to become a member.
I had to beat a kid they pointed out. At least they did not make me
use a knife. I had to crawl through the tunnel of fire. That is where you
have to crawl between the gang members’ legs while they beat you with
their belts. It was almost a week before I could sit down again. Then I
had to steal a carton of cigarettes from a store and something off a car,
preferably the whole car, and be on the front row of the next gang fight.

I did it all. I knew my father would kill me if the police caught me and I
went to jail. The guys in the gang took pity on me, knowing that my father
was a minister. They let me get away with stealing the hubcaps from a ’53
Ford. Nevertheless, in the gang fight I got a bad cut on the leg. I told my
parents I had fallen and cut it on the sidewalk. I am not sure the doctor
who sewed it up bought that story.

So here I was, at the age of thirteen, a street-wise gang member. I did not like it and was terribly angry with my father for placing me in this stuation. The only way out was escape. In addition, the only escape
I could see was the sea.

Someday I knew I would be needed on a ship leaving for Tahiti.

Someday . . .

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