Ten years ago, I didn't even own a pair of sunglasses. Supposedly, sunlight is a source of vitamin D that can enter the body through the eyes, a process thwarted by sunglasses. Whether or not this is true, I enjoyed the unfiltered sun, and it never bothered my peepers.
Well, in another of the myriad side effects of aging you don't find out about until you get there, I've grown sensitive to bright sunlight. Now I sport oversize, dark sunglasses that wrap around over my regular glasses. I like to think I look like Ray Charles and not at all like a nimrod.
The sun reflecting off fresh snow is especially potent, so an afternoon drive from Burlington to Swanton and across to Rouses Point in just such conditions had me doing the Ray Charles thing all the way. Hit the road, Jack.
"So, Ron," I queried my customer sitting beside me, "how'd a Louisiana boy like you end up in New York's North Country?"
Ronald Albertino chuckled at the question. He had a sonorous voice and a stocky body to match. "Yup, I guess my N'Orleans accent is a dead giveaway," he replied. "Me and the wife were actually living in Mexico the last 20 years. But she's having problems with her heart and wanted to be near her family who lives here. So we've been in Rouses Point for about a year now.
"Colder'n hell it is!" Ron continued. "I really don't see why anybody wants to live up here. If I had my druthers, I planned on spending the rest of my days in Mexico."
"What were you guys doing in Mexico?"
"I'm a Pentecostal pastor, and we set up a church in Paso del Macho, which is inland from Veracruz. By the time we had to leave, we had works established in about 10 surrounding towns. Those folks are hungry, hungry for the Holy Spirit, I guarantee! One time, we went into this devil-worshipping town, where the people would dress up as various demons. Well, I just set up our traveling pulpit and began singing this gospel tune I wrote."
Ron began to sing, and it sounded like a Buck Owens song rendered in Spanish. He was quite good, and I began to beat time on the steering wheel. I couldn't understand a word, though I did hear "diablo" a lot.
"Well, wouldn't you know that, within a few months, they gave up their devil worship and came to the Lord. Praise God. But even before my wife took ill, things were gettin' dicey for me. The drug gangs had me on a list for assassination because I had invited an American reporter down there to expose all the evil they were perpetrating. So it was a good time to leave the country."
I liked this guy, his big presence and energy. That being said, my hackie sense told me he was clearly a storyteller, and I needed to take everything he said with a grain of salt, if not two or three.
I once saw a TV special on the investigation of a murder that took place within an Eastern European Romany community (the term they prefer over "gypsies"). As the police detectives began interviewing potential witnesses, they came to understand that the Roma have a different relationship with facts — what we call objective truth. What matters to them, according to this show, is how the story subjectively strikes the listener. A compelling story, the one most entertaining and satisfying, becomes accepted truth, actual truth be damned. As you could imagine, this drove the police batty, and ultimately the crime was left unsolved.
Happily, Ron wasn't a witness in a murder I was investigating, so I was free to enjoy his stories — which were many and fascinating — without the pressure of assessing their truthfulness.
"How'd you take up preaching?" I asked. "Didja go to a Bible college?"
"I did, but I didn't get the calling until I was close to 30. I was a long-haul trucker, and I began to give testimony on the CB. My handle was 'Bible Guy.' Eventually I got quite a following, and it kind of grew from there."
As we came up on the Swanton exit, Ron told me about the Revelation, when hell will be released on Earth. Those who have been saved by Jesus will ascend to heaven, but for the unlucky others, things will be, well, hellish. I anticipated he would broach this, but I was interested in hearing his particular take on this core evangelical theme.
Sadly, though perhaps not unexpectedly, it quickly devolved into a conspiratorial political rant.
"The signs are everywhere," he explained. "Soros and Obama have set up Hamas terrorist training camps in Mexico. And the Chinese have military bases all throughout the Southwest. They're just waiting for the word from the UN one-world government before they spring into action."
"So, you admire President Trump, I imagine?" I asked.
"Yes, I do. God is using him. He's far from perfect, but what politician is? At least he understands and is fighting the invasion coming to our border."
Ron shares the Romany approach to truth, I realized. This fantastical story — a tale that is believed by perhaps a few million Americans, God help us — is the one that was most meaningful to him. Despite its total disconnection from reality, it nonetheless represents a strain of paranoid narrative that can snowball to unspeakable results in the real world — cf. the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Rwandan genocide.
My younger self would have gotten angry and attempted to argue with this man. But I know better now; there was nothing to be gained — not for him and not for me. Instead, I just said silent prayers until he exhausted this vein.
For the remaining stretch to the Rouses Point Bridge, he spun more colorful tales of his life, interspersed with a number of his songs. His last offering, delivered as we approached his home, was a jaunty number with the rousing chorus, "Hell is a reality."
Reality can be a surprisingly fluid affair, I thought, reflecting on my hour with Pastor Ronald Albertino. Ditto for hell.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.