The Prodigy is a multi-part story, based on events taking place in central Kansas earlier this spring. This is Part Five. Earlier releases can be read at the following links: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four.
The weeks passed, and more often than not, Hanoch Warren would appear at Chris Pearson’s door early in the morning, covered in sweat and ready to play. The second day, following their first round at Paxico Flats, Pearson turned him away, telling him he had to go to school and there was no way he could convince his parents to let him play hooky for two rounds in a row. When he turned up again on the third day, Pearson explained to him that he attended school for five days every week, and that it was a waste of his time to come Monday through Friday.
“I understand,” Warren would say, and he’d trudge off to Fostoria Hills to hit balls on the range until lunchtime, when he’d go home for whatever passed as school. (I had learned from my brief time speaking with Hanoch’s sister Beulah that their mother, Sara Warren, was responsible for their education and and many of the other children in the Church of Luke. “She was accepted to college,” Beulah told me proudly, though she didn’t know which college, or whether her mother ever attended.) The next day, inevitably, Warren would be back.
“You couldn’t fucking reject this guy,” Pearson told me. “I actually started to admire it, but I still gave him a hard time every morning. ‘How many times do I have to tell you I can’t play when I have school?’ That kind of thing.”
Pearson played with him when he could, which was mostly on the weekends. He offered to play on weekday afternoons, but Warren wasn’t available then, and he quickly rejected Pearson’s proposal to pick him up at his home. In late June, Pearson’s sophomore year came to an end, and the two began to play almost every morning. Pearson estimates that they split those matches about 50/50, which probably means that Warren won more often than not. He admitted, though, that when Warren caught one of his hot spells, it was impossible to keep up.
“I still don’t know how to feel about it,” he said.
“What do you think explains it?” I asked.
Every story I had heard about Warren in the throes of his torrid stretches seemed to defy the principles of a rational world. In these moments, he would transform from a merely above average golfer into a transcendent star, would move about the course as if caught in a hypnotic trance, almost seeming to laugh or weep, depending on the light you saw him in, and—this was the hardest part to reconcile—it all seemed to be tied in, somehow to weather phenomena; as in, the magic would find him, and suddenly the sky would darken, or rain would fall, or, at the state championship, an unexpected tornado would rage through the prairie.
I put all this to Pearson, who nodded along, but he had no answers and I’m not sure why I expected him to.
“There’s something strange,” he said, but as usual when getting to the heart of this topic, the otherwise hyper-voluble high schooler would suddenly find himself submerged in thought, at a loss to put words to what he witnessed.
That July day at Pearson’s house, after I got him to admit that Warren was now living with him, I pressed the issue. What had happened?
Here, the protective impulse took over. All he would tell me was that there was trouble at the Church of Luke. His parents, who to this point had been so peripheral that they would seem to vanish into walls if you looked at them directly, appeared then to back their son, and to put me off my line of inquiry. This information was private, and potentially dangerous, and they asked me to keep Warren’s presence in their home to myself.
“Can I speak with him?” I asked. The way I presented the question raised doubts in my own mind about my ethics. I didn’t explicitly offer a deal—my silence for an interview with Hanoch Warren—and in fact I wouldn’t offer the deal, and would never tell anyone about Warren, but I was purposefully letting the idea linger that if the answer was “no,” well…who knows what I might say or write?
Whether they picked up this bit of subterfuge or not, the answer remained the same: Absolutely not. My bluff called, I tried to negotiate from a position of weakness. What if they were all present while we talked? What if I did it over the phone? What if I just gave them the questions, they could ask Hanoch, and then relay the answers to me? The answer was always the same: Hanoch Warren was off limits.
The next day, I flew home. I filed a story two days later that drew some attention in the golf community, but was not, to my mind, satisfactory or complete. My editors cut it down to a 500-word news item, and were right to do so. Subconsciously, I wonder now if I under-wrote the story intentionally, leaving out the best details, including everything about the Church of Luke, because I knew the story wasn’t fully told.
When I arrived back in North Carolina, one detail nagged at me, and it came from the four hours spent at the chaotic “service” at the Church of Luke. On one of the wooden posts that held the ramshackle building up near where I stood, I had noted strange words carved haphazardly by what I guessed was a small knife:
Bless the miracle at Thimble Shoals
I might have forgotten it, but Cainan the Revelator, in his bright purple chausable, mentioned “Thimble Shoals” twice in what passed for his sermon. In neither case was the context even remotely clear, but it served to cement the idea in my head.
When I Googled it, a day after filing my story, I immediately cursed myself for not being thorough enough to do so earlier. With a single click, I was reading about an American tragedy that nobody knew about, myself included, only because sheer luck had prevented it from being far worse.
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel, opened in 1964, is a 17-mile monolith connecting the Virginia eastern short with the greater Norfolk area across the mouth of its namesake body of water. It replaced a ferry system, and was utilized to such a degree that in 1980, a second parallel tunnel was constructed along both the Chesapeake Channel to the north, and the Thimble Shoal Channel to the south. After just a year, due to flaws in the concrete used by the German manufacturer, the new southbound Thimble Shoal tunnel began to crack from the outside. Water pressure from the bay widened these cracks, and one Thursday night in the summer of 1981, the crack burst and rapidly expanded on the interior. Water flooded into the tunnel through the breach beginning around 10 p.m. ET, and went mostly unnoticed for over an hour. At that point, a larger chunk of concrete broke off due to the massive water pressure exerted on the structure, and at 11:22 the encroaching water changed from a trickle into a burst. The effect of the new breach multiplied, and while at least four vehicles managed to navigate the flood safely and place a phone call to authorities when they reached the Virginia Beach side of the bridge, the situation in the tunnel was spiraling out of control. By the time a second chunk of concrete broke off, this one roughly six feet by six feet, the moderate flood became of torrent of water.
Seven cars containing 17 people were either in the tunnel at the time, or entered before the water flooded through to the other side, cutting off the entrance. Fifteen of those people were drowned or presumed drowned. The nightmarish tragedy would have been worse, except for the fact that it happened so late on a weeknight, and the bridge itself did not collapse after the tunnel was compromised, and the estimated 120 cars on the bridge at the time were able to retreat safely back to the Virginia Shore landing to the north.
Only two of the 17 people stuck inside the tunnel when the wall was fully breached survived. A husband and wife, naval engineers based in Norfolk and traveling with their two sons, 8 and 5, had made the fateful decision to come home early from a vacation from the Wachapreague Shore area in Virginia. They were the second-to-last car to enter the tunnel before the entire bore was flooded, and when the husband attempted to reverse, it was already impossible due to the water lifting the car off the ground. All four managed to get out of the car—the mother had to take the five-year-old out of his car seat—and stood in waist-deep water attempting to wade the 100 yards back to the tunnel’s northern entrance and the safety of the bridge. They made it only a few steps before the main body of water overwhelmed them.
The father and the eight-year-old son were declared dead two days later, and their bodies were deposited by the current after a week on the beach of Mobjack Bay, 10 miles to the east, near the town of Roanes. The mother clung to her five-year-old son, and unlike the father, who she saw thrown into the tunnel wall, was washed backward through the tunnel. The force of the torrent carried her another 100 yards past the entrance, where, still clinging to her son, she was able to fight to the surface and spot one of the bridge stanchions by the soft light coming from the bridge above. It was close enough to make the swim, and was able to cling to the post with both legs and an arm while holding her child above the surface. At approximately midnight, she was finally able to get the attention of emergency responders above, and was retrieved with her child by a coast guard boat within five minutes.
The woman’s name was Dahlia Warren, wife to Frank Warren. Her surviving son was Terrence Warren, who would one day found the Church of Luke and have children of his own, including Hanoch.
Dahlia Warren was still alive at age 71, and remarkably—at least to me—she lived in the town of Dam Neck, just south of Virginia Beach, less than ten miles as the crow flies from where her husband and son had been killed.
She agreed to meet with me, and I made the 3-and-a-half hour drive to see her in late July. She remarried (another naval engineer) and had two more children in her 30s, and now, in retirement, she lived in a well-kept three-story beach home on the ocean. She and her husband gave me the tour of their home, and we sat on the lanai, with a soft breeze blowing in from the west.
Like all the Warrens, she was soft-spoken, but though I worried that I was once again wasting my time, she had a quiet self-confidence that belied a demeanor that initially read as timid. We spoke briefly about the night at the Thimble Shoal tunnel, but I had read most of the details in various sources and didn’t want to fixate it. I did wonder, though, why she never left.
“What’s the point?” she asked. “My job was here. My home was here. There’s no significance to the place beyond what we make of it in our own minds.”
This strain of rationality was total in Dahlia Warren, and in fact, she drove the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel often, in both directions. If the memory was obviously painful, she was rigid in her determination not to attach that memory to a place, nor to let it affect how she behaved. She was not scared of tunnels. She was not scared of water. She did not panic when passing the spot, and after a year or two even the bad dreams went away. Life, she told me, was about the old cliche of never looking back. And so she had made a new life for herself, had forged a new happiness, and didn’t spend more time in mourning or regret than was absolutely necessary. She was a strong woman, but not one who would describe herself that way; in her mind, she was simply living to her own values.
Terrence, her son, did not have it so easy.
“He always wanted to know the why,” she told me. “It needed to mean something for him, and it didn’t matter how often I told him that it didn’t mean anything at all. You’re getting my opinion here, but I’m not a god-botherer, and I don’t need every story explained to me.”
“You’re comfortable with the mystery,” I offered.
“Only if you call ‘bad luck’ a mystery,” she shot back.
The loss of his father and brother devastated Terrence. There were behavioral issues, an inability to make friends, depression—Dahlia threw facetious air quotes around the word “depression,” which was my first hint that her strength came at a price, and that perhaps she wasn’t the ideal mother for a child like Terrence in their extraordinary circumstances—and then, when he was older, drugs. He had been arrested once for possession of marijuana, and when she caught him with a bottle of methaqualone at age 17, she kicked him out of the house. She admitted to me that this was a relief; he didn’t get along with her new husband, and she worried about his influence with her new children.
He came back intermittently, and it was on one of his last trips home that he brought up religion. He found an unwilling audience in his mother and step-father, the former a staunch atheist and the latter a lapsed Catholic, and though he made several passes at them, the encounters only ever ended in frustration. On his final trip, they met Sara, Terrence’s future wife, who Dahlia described as a “smart girl, but plain. I think she was a college dropout.”
By the time I mentioned the Church of Luke, her husband had joined us. She had not been in touch with Terrence since 1994, and hadn’t heard of the church. Her husband had, though. He explained it to her with me.
“You knew?” she asked him.
He nodded—he had looked up Terrence out of curiosity—and it was notable to me that Dahlia never asked why he hadn’t told her. She wouldn’t have wanted to know.
“He has five children,” I offered tentatively. I didn’t have the heart to mention that the number was truly four, and that the oldest, Caleb the Messiah, had passed.
“Does he?” Dahlia asked. For the first time, I saw her eyes water. It was a brief moment, so brief that I later questioned whether I had seen it at all, but I knew by the way she quickly turned her head to look at the ocean that it had affected her.
“Well,” she continued, “I already have grandchildren.”
And, as far as she was concerned, that was that.
But while she shut off all curiosity, it only deepened mine. Terrence Warren made more sense now; a victim of an unthinkable tragedy at a young age, desperate to make it mean something, and cursed with a mother whose method of coping was highly effective on herself, but couldn’t have been a worse match with the sensitive child she clung to in the warm waters of the Chesapeake.
Her son acted out, then tried to bury the pain, then turned at last to an extreme faith that had as its central tenet a belief in the singular special-ness of its followers. He had to have been saved for a reason on that night, and that reason—the one he’d ultimately accept, and that would fit and let him continue in this life—was God. And this God of his, of course, would be vengeful and cruel, because hadn’t He taken his father and his brother from the earth in a swift stroke?
It was a short leap from there to the idea that one day, he would give birth to the messiah.
What I wondered, and what continued to puzzle me, is how neither Terrence or anyone in the Church of Luke had made what seemed to me like the obvious leap. In their midst, they had a boy who appeared to pull off athletic miracles on the golf course. Granted, it was a game of leisure that fit in no way with their collective values, but a prodigy is a prodigy. Why hadn’t their minds turned in this direction? Why hadn’t they seen Hanoch, not Caleb, as the messiah?
The answer was that they didn’t truly understand the magnitude of what he could accomplish on the course. It turned out that my story, insufficient and disappointing as it was, helped them see. Cainan had gone looking for it after my departure, found it easily even with his limited Internet proficiency, and brought it to the attention of the flock. It wasn’t long before the exact thought process I had imagined began to take root, and what made it more immediate for the Church of Luke was the fact that Hanoch Warren was gone. Nobody knew where he was, but what they did know was that they wanted him back.
On Aug. 10, I received a phone call.
“You need to get the fuck back here.”
It was Chris Pearson’s rattling voice in my ear.
“The story’s over,” I said.
“It’s just starting,” he shouted back. “They’re after him, and I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“Why are you calling me?” I asked.
“Because I need some fucking help from someone who understands!”
“Chris, I don’t know–”
He cut me off then, and I could hear the disgust in his voice.
“If you don’t care, then don’t come.”
Silence took over—the first silence of the call, and maybe the first silence of my entire time with Chris Pearson.
“Fuck yourself,” he said, and hung up.
I spent five minutes telling myself every reason why I couldn’t go. There were some very good ones, and in no time at all, I had won the argument in my head.
Five minutes after that, I booked my flight to Kansas.
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Has LIV Golf signed Hanoch?