Side Trail Story
Robert Winchester Lamb
Steve Levi


Side Trail Story

If there was a single man – in both senses of the adjective – in Santa Zanni who was perfectly named it Robert Winchester Lamb. He was single, a wonderful attribute for a man in his profession, and his middle name hinted at American royalty. He never said he was related to the Winchesters of rifle fame but he did claim a familiarity with the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose which, even then, was considered the strangest home ever constructed. More subtly, the Winchester of his middle name was used as a snide reference by the unholy of Santa Zanni. They said that he was clearly a Winchester because once he put his sights on a target, he had yet to miss. As to his last name, the same people who mocked his middle name stated that his sir name was appropriate because he was a shepherd of the Lord but was much better at the shearing of the flock than the saving of the lambs.

Lamb arrived at a most propitious time in the history of Santa Zanni; propitious for him it should be added, not necessarily for the city. At one time there had been three men of God in Santa Zanni. One was a retired rabbi and there were no Jews in town. The second was a Catholic who had gone on to a larger congregation with better pay and had not been replaced. The third was a Unitarian and there were doubts as to just how religious Unitarians were because most of Santa Zanni did not consider them Christians. Hardly heathens but certainly not died-in-the-wool-washed-in-the-blood-of-the-lamb-God-fearing upstanding righteous folk who ate fish on Friday and wore a crucifix on a chain about their necks.

Thus when Lamb arrived there was a religious hungering in town that only a man of the proven cloth could assuage. The moment he announced his presence he was taken to the empty Catholic church – which had been an abandoned Methodist church before it had been an Episcopalian meeting hall – and was told that the City of Santa Zanni, which had taken the property for failure to pay property taxes, would allow him to preach the word of the Lord until such time as his congregation grew to a size to pay the taxes. This suited Lamb just fine because money now is more valuable than money later and bills due later have a tendency to never be paid.

Lamb had learned at a very early age not to take wooden nickels. There were plenty of ways to make money that did not involve breaking the law. Breaking the law was for ignorant people. Ignorant people got caught. The way to make money was to use the world as it was and take advantage of the weak places. The most profitable of those weakest places was the intersection of greed and stupidity.

From an early age he had learned to pick through the wreckage of that intersection. After he graduated from high school – and he did graduate because he knew he would need every skill taught in high school to be successful in life – he worked at a large bank. He had not taken the job as the start of a career; he was working in the bank to learn how money moved. He wasn’t sure how he could take advantage of that knowledge yet, but he was sure that what he learned would come in handy later.

It did not take him long to realize that he was never going to get rich working for an hourly wage. But he surprised his boss at the bank when he began showing up in expensive clothes. Since his employer knew Lamb came from a working-class family and no money from the bank was missing, Lamb was asked how he could afford to be living a $75 a week lifestyle on a $20 a week salary. Nonplussed, Lamb replied that there were about 200 employees at the bank. Every Friday he held a raffle for $5 per ticket to win his paycheck.

That finished Lamb at the bank.

Being fired made it very difficult for Lamb to find another job in the same community. So he moved on to a larger town. Life was no easier there because good jobs always go to those with social connections. It was not what you knew that mattered, it was who you knew. With all of the good jobs spoken for, Lamb ended up working with a collections agency. Times were not hard, which was a blessing, so collecting was just a matter of being a pest. The most successful collectors were those with a winning personality and that was one thing Lamb had in boundless supply.

Even more important, he was a creative thinker. He quickly endeared himself to the big cheese by coming up with a unique way to generate payment of bills. Whenever he was assigned a new client Lamb immediately sent out a Second Notice. The usual practice was to send a nice letter with the First Notice and hope the client paid. If that didn’t work a Second Notice would go out and it would contain a harsher warning. By sending out the Second Notice immediately, Lamb got unexpected results: more clients paid faster.

This was good news for the Collection Agency because it earned money faster but it was bad news for the client. The clients, businesses, made their money by being nice to customers so the customers would come back time after time after time. Being forced to pay their bills faster than usual drove away a lot of established customers. Many business lost long-term clients.

“What’s the problem?” Lamb asked his boss when he was told he was being released. “I was hired to collect money and I did.”

“Because too many businesses are complaining about how you collect,” said the big cheese.

“They got their money, didn’t they?” countered Lamb. “They lost long-term customers who are just going to go to some other businesses where they are going to run up their bill. Our clients should be happy: we got them their money and forced their bad customers to go somewhere else.”

The big cheese did not look at it that way and Lamb was on the lam again.

It was at this juncture in the life that he made the right decision. The one talent he had that did not require tuning, training or experience was his gift of gab. He was a great salesman. So he went into the ministry. It turned out to be the best move of his life – and the most lucrative. It was easier than selling bonds, required no heavy lifting and allowed him to sleep in mornings. Even better, there was an opportunity to make money on the side. There was a lot of loose cash in churches with very few people watching what came in and what went out. As long as greed did not get the better of you there was an invisible income stream. Lamb was not greedy and he made sure his money was in a bank in a different town than the one in which he was preaching.

He had not been a rich man when he arrived in Santa Zanni but in Salinas where he deposited his savings, he had more than a modest nest egg. Dollar by dollar he had been increasing his fortune city by church by congregation with no one the wiser. He seemed to have a sixth sense when it was time to leave a congregation and he had yet to be discovered for, as he had learned congregation by congregation, so many ministers were doing exactly what he was doing that not one of them wanted to upset the apple cart. So the ministers moved and the money flowed and as long as no one minister got greedy all profited, those that left as well as those who followed.

As Lamb approached the podium for his first sermon in Santa Zanni, he was well aware that this had to be his finest moment. You could always count on a crowd for the first sermon in any town, and particularly a small town, because everyone wanted to see for themselves what cut from the bolt of ecclesiastic cloth this man of God was. If he showed his mettle well, they would be back. If not, he might be on the road again fairly quickly. So Lamb had to be better than good; he had to be great. After all, he wasn’t on a salary here – at least not yet.

He chose not to start with a parable, that was so Methodist and it clearly hadn’t worked before because he was in the abandoned Methodist church. So he chose to be self-deprecating and twist a personal shortcoming into a spiritual lesson. He began by telling the flock how he had been raised in a good Christian family with limited means in a far-off large city that he did not name. One Sunday, he recalled, he had to go to church alone because his father was working and his mother had to take care of her two babies. “You’re old enough to go to church by yourself,” his mother had said as she handed him two nickels. “Here’s a nickel for you and a nickel for Jesus.”

“Two nickels!” said Lamb in his sonorous voice. “I’d never seen that kind of money before!” He raised his voice for emphasis. It was also to doubly inform the audience that he came from poor stock; he was one of them. “Two nickels!” he repeated for emphasis and shook his head in mock disbelief.

Then he talked about getting dressed for church, so proud that his mother felt he was old enough to go church by himself. Here he was almost a grown-up! Down the tenement stairs he went taking them two at a time. Then it was two blocks to the church. Across the street he scooted but before he reached the sidewalk on the far side of the street the toe of his right shoe caught an upraised edge of a paving stone and boom! down he went, flat on his face!

Lamb slapped the podium for emphasis.

“I got up,” he continued, “and I looked down at the front of my shirt and it had muck all over it. My pants had a rip on the knee and I was sure my mother was going to be v-e-r-y unhappy about that.”

Everyone knew what that meant so there were titters throughout the crowd.

“But worst of all,” he said as he tipped his hand until his palm was upward, “was that I had dropped those two nickels. Those two beautiful nickels.” His voice now increased in speed. “So I looked around on the street as cars were whizzing by desperate for that wealth, those two nickels, one for me and one for Jesus. I found one right away and I put it in my pocket so I wouldn’t lose it again.” His voice slowed as he put his hand into his pocket as if he were depositing that nickel.

“I wasn’t so lucky with the other one. I saw it under a grate by the gutter. I grabbed that grate and tried to lift it but it was too heavy. Worse than that, it was cemented into the pavement. There I was on the street. There that blessed nickel was under the grate. And there was nothing I could do about it. And I said to myself, ‘Well, there goes then nickel for Jesus!’”

The room erupted in laughter.

Lamb had made his intro to Santa Zanni in style.

Lamb’s tenure in Santa Zanni was idyllic. The longer he stayed the larger the congregation grew. By the end of his second year he was making regular payments on the church. Catholics were starting to arrive, not unusual since many of the railroad workers were Irish, and there were a few non-denominationals as well. There were no Unitarians or free thinkers which was fine with Lamb and the Mormons clung with their own which, again, was fine with Lamb.

Lamb also endeared himself to the community by being chaste. He was single and he was sure to be seen around town with enough single women that no one would think he was a sodomite. He did not marry which made him perpetually available. Those sins of the flesh in which he did indulge he committed in San Francisco under an assumed name which, in 1919, was not only possible but commonplace. As a Protestant he did not recognize the Catholics as having a unique channel of communication to God, as a Christian he did not recognize Jews as having a unique relationship with Jesus of Nazareth and in San Francisco he did not recognize anyone from Santa Zanni.

One man who was not taken in by Reverend Lamb was Rodney Snodgrass. Snodgrass had seen his fair share of schemers and in his eyes Lamb was simply a con, albeit a very good one but one, nonetheless. But there was nothing Snodgrass could do about it. Lamb knew that Snodgrass had sized him up correctly but there was little he could do either. Lamb was becoming a fixture in Santa Zanni. As there was only one church in town Snodgrass was expected to be in church every Sunday because he was a community leader. So Lamb continued to preach knowing that Snodgrass believed him to be a charlatan and Snodgrass continued to show up because he had no choice.

But subtly, each man took swipes at each other. Once when Snodgrass was asked what he thought of the previous Sunday’s sermon, the banker replied that he enjoyed it and admitted that Lamb had great oratorical powers as there had been some “splendid flashes of silence” during the sermon. For his part, Lamb took jabs at Snodgrass from the podium. What particularly galled Snodgrass was that Lamb used those jabs to raise money for the church. Snodgrass was thus doubly cursed.

As an example, one Sunday Lamb told of being a minister in a small rural town. One day a farmer needed a loan and went to the only bank in town. Everyone in Santa Zanni knew what that was like. If Rodney Snodgrass turned down your loan that would be that. So there was a bit of unease in the audience because no one wanted to appear to offend Snodgrass.

Lamb told how the banker in this small town had once worked in a mine and had been hit in face by a piece of machinery and had been blinded in one eye. The doctor couldn’t save the eye so he replaced it with a glass one.

At this point everyone in the audience relaxed because it was clear that Lamb was going to tell a humorous anecdote rather than take a swipe at Snodgrass.

“Well,” Lamb said raising his hands and turning his palms upwards, “the loan was right on the edge. It could have gone either way. So the banker said to the farmer, ‘George, I’ll tell you what. I’ve got a glass eye. If you can tell me which eye is glass, I’ll give you the loan.’

“Without hesitation the farmer pointed to the banker’s right eye. ‘That one.’

“The banker was surprised. “How did you know it was my right eye?’”

“’Because I saw a flash of compassion there,’ replied the farmer.”

The audience erupted into laugher.

Then Lamb went on to say that all people are bankers because they have something to give, lend or offer and sometimes we are not as compassionate as we should be. “There are times in our lives when we have to have two glass eyes,” he said. “That’s what being a good Christian is. It’s not just about the leap of faith on Sunday. You have to make that leap on Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday and Friday and Saturday.”

When Snodgrass was asked about the banker with the glass eye, he simply laughed. That was all he could do.

Perfection is only a gift of God for the moment. Just as every torrential downpour will cease so will every good time. Nothing lasts forever and one had best make hay while the sun shines because the sun is not going to shine forever. Sooner or later storm clouds will cover the sky, the creek will rise or a snake will invade your Garden of Eden. In the case of Robert Winchester Lamb it was the last of the three and, surprisingly, it came in the form of a colleague.

That compeer came from the South and he took the Midwest tent by town by temblor. He was Billy Sunday and his revival circus swept the Evangelical nation. His chapel was of canvas, his antics bench-jumping and he preached the words of the Lord as if he truly believed them. When the spirit gripped him he would gyrate while he stood behind the pulpit. He would dash from one end of the platform to the other and sometimes slide as if he were going for home plate. Smashing chairs was not unusual. Could he preach! Lord, could he preach! He preached against every sin known to man or, at least, committed by men, and women. It was a sermon of damnation for the sinners and salvation for the righteous.

By the time of the Great War more than 100 million Americans had seen Billy Sunday face-to-face along what was known as his “sawdust trail.” He would hit a town and stay for a month, four Sundays, and then move on. His sermons would be printed in the local papers and he was more popular than the President of the United States.

In the South.

In the North he was considered something of a dangerous fraud. But he had an audience and that audience voted. And watched movies. So being seen with Billy Sunday was part of a ritual of politics and entertainment. He was a personal friend of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Douglas Fairbanks to name a few.

In Santa Zanni he was viewed as the kind of person that people in the Far West left the South to get away from. He was a fire and brimstone evangelical who preached simple values while his family wore tailored clothes, handmade boots and jewelry. The people who wept in his audience were sod kickers while Billy Sunday owned an apple orchard in Oregon.

What made Billy Sunday so hard to swallow in Santa Zanni was that Sunday espoused social views they did not have. America may have been one nation but there were many parts to that nation and every one of those parts was very different from all the other parts. The Far West in particular was composed of the descendant of the refugees, deserters and riffraff from the other parts of the country. Yes, they believed in the solid American values of individualism, personal responsibility and being in control of your own destiny. But Billy Sunday took a hard-right turn when it economics. To Billy Sunday the government was evil and the less of it there was the better. This might have played well with the rural crowds in the South where the government was indeed evil, but the further west one got, the less popular was this concept.

In Santa Zanni, for instance, the residents were not fools. They did not believe in black magic, the boogey man or Santa Claus. The fact of the matter was that life was unfair. Some people had money and some did not. People with money did better in life than those with no money. What made America different than every other country on earth – and what made the Far West better than every other part of the country – was that everyone had the opportunity to move up financially. Just because you were born into a working-class family on the West Coast did not mean you had to end your life there. Moving up was not easy but it was possible.

Even more important, there was a chasm between what Billy Sunday was preaching and the reality of life in America. Billy Sunday was saying that if you worked hard, were a good Christian and the government didn’t get involved in money-making process, you could become rich. Just about everyone in Santa Zanni and, for that matter, in the Far West knew this to be a crock. Working hard was necessary. Being a good Christian was sound moral advice that even Rabbi Ben Shalom agreed with – except that he did not believe that Jesus Christ was the one and only son of God. But Billy Sunday was grossly in error when he said that government should stay out of regulation. It was government regulation that kept the big businesses from stealing from the people. When there is no regulation, the rich will steal from the middle class until there is nothing left to steal. What the rich did not care to understand was that their wealth came from the middle class. What the middle class understood was that it was the greed of the upper class that kept them from moving up the economic food chain.

While the bulk of the residents of Santa Zanni were hardly reformers, they were well aware of the machinations of the one big business in town, the Santa Zanni and San Francisco Railroad. They saw firsthand what happened when the Railroad wanted to cut the wages of its workers. The Railroad simply cut the wages and that was that. What that was that meant to the city were fewer sales in the stores, less money into the Santa Zanni Bank, a drop in patronage at the blind pig, fewer rooming house rentals and a drop in Vaudeville revenues. No one was saying that the Railroad should be overpaying the railway workers; but they understood there was a direct relation between the greed of the Railroad and the dollars-and-cents impact in the city’s financial health.

Billy Sunday put Robert Winchester Lamb into a very tight vise. On the one hand, Lamb could not disavow the evangelist because the bulk of Billy Sunday’s message was correct. While hard work and being a moral person were certainly steppingstones on the way to up the financial ladder, they were not the only such cobbles. Other stones included taking calculated risks, being willing to think unconventionally and putting up with the snide remarks of your in-laws just to name a few shortcomings. Luck favored those who worked hard, something Billy Sunday never mentioned.

But Lamb did.

This lead to ecclesiastic complications. As the pulpit power of Billy Sunday grew and his doctrine infected newspapers across the country, Lamb had to bifurcate his sermons. He had to praise the message of Billy Sunday in the start of his sermons but then carefully point out some Far West realities by the time he asked for contributions. It was a balancing act. Much like the vaudevillian who spins plates atop sticks, Lamb was keeping a half-dozen religious concepts spinning in full view of the audience without dropping any one of them.

Oddly, what killed Billy Sunday and saved Robert Winchester Lamb were the very forces that Billy Sunday preached against. When the Great War started, the United States government-imposed austerity regulations far exceeding Sunday’s wildest sermon. And big business loved it! Suddenly the United States government was buying their products by the hundreds of thousands of pounds and units. Americans were buying War Bonds to support the buying of those products.

As an example, the United States Food Administration was specifically established to urge Americans to eat less so the food not eaten could go to the doughboys. The residents of Santa Zanni loved the meatless and wheatless days because the pounds of meat and wheat not eaten in Central California made it up the Santa Zanni and San Francisco Railroad as cargo. More cargo meant more railroad workers were needed to handle the increased cargo load. More teamsters were needed to move cargo from the farms to the railroad and more stevedores were needed to load the meat and wheat. The more men that were hired, the more of their paychecks ended up in Santa Zanni businesses which, in turn, had to hire more workers to service the new demand.

Businesses flourished and with it the economy of Santa Zanni, California and the United States. So government regulation wasn’t so bad after all. Billy Sunday had been wrong, so wrong some said that if America hadn’t listened to him in the first place, we might all have been a lot better off a lot sooner.

Leaping forward in time before the saga of Robert Winchester Lamb can be concluded; the very forces that made Billy Sunday killed Billy Sunday. He began on what was called the “kerosene circuit” because he had to light his revival tent with kerosene lamps. By the end of the decade electricity was in common usage. So was the radio. Billy Sunday made the leap to radio without considering its consequences. Yes, he reached more people but if those people were not actually in his tent he could not pass the collection plate. The radio was also a double-edged sword because now he had to compete with radio dramas, advertising and other preachers. He was also caught in the entertainment chasm of America. Vaudeville was on its final legs as moving pictures were coming in. Stages were being replaced with screens. Billy Sunday then had to compete with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, the Keystone Cops, Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

Inevitably the moral rot he preached against appeared in his own family. His sons engaged in every sin Billy Sunday did not and blackmail payments had to be made to save his family from scandal. One son had to be saved from financial ruin. All in all, Billy Sunday’s last days must have been ones where he paced the sawdust of his tent wondering where he had personally gone wrong to have children who had fallen so far from the parental apple tree.

For Robert Winchester Lamb the slow disintegration of Billy Sunday was truly a gift of God. As Billy Sunday’s star fell Lamb relished each degree of descent. The Great War also gave Lamb new grist for his sermons and enhanced the concept of giving. Lamb was as astute in his view of the future was he was in understanding of the human psyche. When he was the only preacher in town he filled all the pews. By the end of the decade three more churches, one at a time, had established themselves in Santa Zanni. At that point Lamb knew it was time to go. To a fond farewell he turned his pulpit over to a recent divinity school graduate who knew less about bookkeeping than he did the dark recess of the human soul. Still single, Lamb left for retirement on the East Coast. He only made one stop, the bank in Salinas which had his savings, and after that he disappeared from the historical record of Santa Zanni.