Sunday, November 14, 2010

SUMMER CAMP - The Leviathan: Arrivals & Departures

Pastor Dan. That's what he asked us to call him. We'd been invited to be practically on a first-name basis with someone who was probably already at least twenty-four. He was from somewhere down around Apopka, or maybe it was Sanford. He was unmarried and handsome, I suppose, in a Nordic way and his arms and legs seemed to throb with muscles. He had wavy blonde hair and blue-as-the-Caribbean eyes and two deep dimples that were evident even when he wasn't smiling, which wasn't often. He carried himself with the ease of one who knows he has been "called" to greatness. He moved through and the sea of campers parted, then closed again to fill the empty space he'd left behind. And when he smiled and said, Praise the Lord," the girls really, for once, felt like praising the Lord.

Boys our age paled next to him and seemed, well, so boyish. There was just something about the way he looked and how he wore that sleeveless t-shirt and khaki shorts that kept the girls in my bunkhouse whispering long after lights-out each night. There was something about him that kept the girls painting their nails and brushing their hair until it shone. There was something about him, I think, that must've made them feel funny in their "parts."

        Oh brother, I sighed when I saw Sheryl Coker and Lynette Johns giving themselves over too to the mob adoration of the young pastor. I was baffled by what was going on with the girls. We all knew plenty of guys on the football team at school who had bulging thighs and curly blonde hair, the sleeves ripped from their shirts in order to show off their muscles. But things like that, frankly, just didn't impress me. What I liked was a guy with brain, a good mind. So the new youth pastor just wasn't that interesting to me. Not in the way he was for them anyway.

        What I liked about Pastor Dan was how he spoke in metaphors and allegory, always using one thing to talk about another, to shed a little light on what seemed difficult to comprehend. I liked how he began his sermons with little anecdotes and stories to make his point rather than lecturing or "sermonizing" like our counselors tended to do. And I found him curiously open-minded and nonjudgmental, a modern-day cross of Thomas Aquinas and the Age of Aquarius.

He'd announced right off that we could play our guitars each night at campfire and sing modern Christian songs like "Kum-Ba-Yah" and "I Wish We'd All Been Ready," thus abandoning the traditional hymns that few could ever remember all the words to, especially the new campers and converts. The first night at campfire, he'd borrowed my guitar and played and invited us all to sing "Amazing Grace" with him – but to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun." It felt delicious, singing like that, the holy and the profane commingling in the music. It felt right, somehow, like something whose time had come. It felt like we felt at that moment, our backs chilled by the night's cool darkness and our faces flushed hot in firelight. We began to feel something new, something dangerous, flaring up in us. And we almost wanted it.

In between verses, we would drop down into soft humming so any camper "moved by the Spirit" could stand up at fireside to testify. On the first night that summer, a boy confessed to having smoked pot and taking LSD and to stealing beer from a store when he was only 14. But last summer, at this very camp, he had given his sorry life over to Jesus; he had been baptized in the muddy lake and now those temptations were gone, gone from him forever. While he talked, he wrung his hands and a tiny muscle in his left eye jittered, like a shutter opening and closing in a fickle wind. Pastor Dan held his Bible up, lifted his face to the heavens, and closed his eyes as if he were in rapture and he said, Gracious Lord we thank you for the miracle of this salvation. Thank you for the Blood of Lamb who washsd away our sins and makes us whole again. Amen. And we all chorused, Amen.

Then on Monday night, during the bonfire, a petite, beautiful blonde girl none of us knew – a girl whose parents had driven her to camp themselves all the way from Ft. Lauderdale – stood up and told us how she'd gone all the way with a boy one time at the drive-in and had gotten pregnant and then had gotten the baby aborted so her parents wouldn't find out she'd had sex. The boy had been sent off to Boys Town by his people because he'd stolen money from them.  To pay for the abortion, she'd said. She told us she'd wanted to die lately so the guilt would finally leave her alone, even if it meant she had to take a whole bottle of pills to kill herself. Even if it meant she'd have to go to hell forever for taking her own life.

She put her face down into her hands then and sobbed, she sobbed so hard her whole body shook. When she looked up again she said she'd been the worst a girl could be and all she really wanted just then was for Jesus to touch her life and save her from the shame of her sin and from eternal damnation. Her pale eyes were wide open and they darted wildly around the circle of campers, from one of us to the other, looking for God-only-knows-what. Her blonde bangs had shaken free of her ponytail and hung down limp and wet over her high forehead. Black mascara was smudged in circles underneath her eyes and was beginning to run down over her flushed cheeks. I saw snot trickling down the little cleft channel under her nose and drop over her upper lip, into her mouth.

She looked like a Jezebel to us. She frightened us with how easily she could step forward and expose her worst sins like that. Openly. We couldn't ever not know that about her now. It was forever, that kind of public confession. Why hadn't she just gone to the pastor and told him about all this in private? The campfire sputtered and seemed to grow hotter, like hell-flames had drawn close to us in her telling of the tale. We all were so flummoxed by her unexpected testimony – she who had been aloof and so proper, so snooty to the rest of us girls – we forgot to keep humming. There had been no Amens or Praise the Lords from us when she'd finished talking. We didn't know what to do with something that, like her. It was way beyond anything we had ever imagined. So we just stood there, silent as the abyss, studying our feet, toeing the sand.

And that's when Pastor Dan stood up and put his arm around her as if she were still as beautiful as ever, as if she were spotless as the Virgin Mary. In his other hand, he lifted his soft-cover black leather Bible up over his head and closed his eyes again. The gold edges of the pages flashed in the firelight. He prayed to Jesus to forgive that girl, and to bless her. And when he said Amen at the end of his prayer and none of us had echoed Amen after him, he fixed his blue eyes on us, one by one, and he reminded us sternly that Jesus had forgiven Mary Magdalene and had saved her from the thrown stones of the religious leaders and she had been the town harlot, so how could we not forgive this fallen young woman, too, whose only real sin had been to love too deeply the wrong boy at the wrong time. He thanked her for her courage then and she staggered back to her seat on the log, sniffing and wiping her eyes and nose on the back of her forearm.

Pastor Dan had told us earlier in chapel to think of a testimony as a candle to hold against sin's darkness, to think of it as a tether to heaven and to God and to whatever little piece of God was still alive in others around us. A tether to keep us steady in a rough wind, a wind so foul and strong it could sweep you away from all that you'd ever loved and wanted.

He spoke like that all the time.  That is why I listened to him.  That is what I liked about the youth pastor. . .though I did not like his way of smiling all friendly-like at the girls who fawned around him all day and night, vying for the seat closest to him at campfire. And I especially hadn't liked it later that night when I was taking the footpath to the lake and I'd come upon him and the girl from Ft. Lauderdale and overheard him murmuring something to her in that gravelly Rock Hudson voice he always reserved for the pretty girls at camp. On that footpath, I'd hesitated, wondering if I should turn back or find another way to the lake - maybe through the palmettos alongside of me - when he'd suddenly put out his hand and clamped it to her bare arm and pulled her roughly towards him. The gooseflesh rose on me in a curious and way then and I became kindred to stone.  My tongue rooted against the roof of my mouth. He'd turned down his flashlight then, his hand still around her upper arm, not saying anything. I couldn't see anything clearly. I didn't know whether he was going to pray for her or murder her. I didn't know whether it was kindness or malice I was witnessing in that moment. I just knew that something felt off ,especially when she'd tried to wrench her arm free a moment later. I must have made some kind of noise then because they looked back and saw me there finally. He had let go of her arm and they'd stepped away from each other. The girl headed, head-down, back to the bunkhouse and I stood there like a stump while she rushed past me and on up the path. I wasn't certain, suddenly, about this youth pastor who would clutch at a young girl on a dark path. Nor was I less uncertain about him when he'd folded his arms across his chest and hollered after me then, God go with you, Sister. . . . his voice trailing off where he would have added my name had he known or remembered it.

All that night and into the next day, something bothered me about what I'd seen on my way to the lake. I couldn't put my finger on it, exactly. I wondered if I should have reported it – but to whom? Maybe I should have said something to him, right there, should have asked him what was going on. But I was a coward, back then, and prone to getting tongue-tied and stammering and turning bright red in the face when I had to speak to any adult. And what would I say that he couldn't deny anyway or explain away? And even if I could say, clearly, that I thought I'd seen something about to go wrong, badly wrong, out on that path, who would believe me over that man? One moment I was telling myself that youth pastor was at fault. The next, I questioned that assumption and wondered if he hadn't been merely firmly stopping her from doing something wrong-headed. It was hard to know, standing in a dark place, what was actually happening right in front of you. So I spent most of rest of the week troubled and restless, wrestling with what to do and think, with what to make of what I'd seen and heard, or thought I'd seen and heard.

Friday night at campfire, as we were coming to the end of singing, starting to turn it down to a hum for testimonies, Pastor Dan had taken a seat on a log across the fire from where I was sitting. Sitting down in an empty place was how he cued us that it was time for testimonies of faith. I was already bracing myself for the lurid details and hysteria that the testimonials had been taking on as the week had gone by – one fallen sinner trying to outdo the next – when there was a low bellow, a rumble, across the night. Our humming dropped away then to the night-sounds of the swamp: mosquitoes, crickets, wild night-birds. We listened hard. A boy near me stood up and squinted out past Pastor Dan, somewhere just over his right shoulder, to the far, barely-lit edge of the clearing.

What's that?

He pointed and everyone else strained and squinted towards the dim-lit rim where the campfire's light thinned and melted away into swampy darkness. Something large and low to the ground squatted almost directly behind Pastor Dan. It wasn't moving; it was just hunkered down in the dirt at the light's edge. Someone else whispered that, gosh, didn't it have what looked like a jaw full of teeth hanging open and shouldn't we all move away from there quietly so as to not disturb it. In response, a few campers started to stand up.

Then one of the boys hollered, Gator! After that, there was the sudden loud chaos of campers and counselors jumping from their seats, bumping against each other, backing up, stumbling and falling down and getting back up again in their hurry to get away. Sheryl Coker moved off at a run towards the bunkhouse, dragging Anna Binkley along after her. I remember now being mildly surprised at how quickly Sheryl could move for a girl her size. Something I vowed to remember when time came to pick my team for relay races the next morning.

I stood slowly then and crept around the fire, moving towards that thing at the edge of light. I stared hard into the darkness at the clearing's perimeter. And when my eyes had focused sufficiently to convince me that it might not be merely a log that resembled a gator, I decided maybe I should move off too. Only a fool would tempt God – or a gator. But just as I was turning, Pastor Dan, who had stepped over the log and beyond the campfire's circle, to investigate, had also figured out it wasn't a fallen tree trunk. Turning, he ran, full-tilt, into me and knocked me backward over the log and into the sand on my backside. Without so much as an Excuse me or an Are-you-okay or a hand to help me on my feet again, he leapt over me and over the tree-log I'd fallen against. In his frenzy and terror, though, he'd misjudged the trajectory of his leap: he landed square in the bonfire, embers flying up in the black night.  Flying, like prayers: up, up to God.

Girls started screaming. Boys stood with their mouths gaping open, rooted in place, unable to move towards the sizzling man. I was still trying ungracefully to get up from the thick sand and to dust myself off. It was a good thing for Pastor Dan that the Hogan brothers had had the presence of mind just then to scoop up handfuls of dirt and to throw it over him, to "put out" his flaming britches before he could be seriously burned. A few others saw what they were doing and joined in too.

The gator had turned and roared off, startled by the sudden ruckus, toward the lake again, so all I'd heard when I stood and listened after him was the sound of something large knocking through the palmettos and thick underbrush. That quickly, the terror and excitement of the night were over. One by one, two by two, we'd all trickled back to our bunkhouses and one of the older boys had driven the youth pastor into town for gauze and ointment.

The next day, I struggled mightily to keep my mind on the morning sermon. Friday night's bonfire was still running through my head, over and over, forward and backwards then forwards again, like a film turning and turning between its spools. The responsive reading was from a passage in scripture where Jesus tells his disciples, "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the ends of the earth." But all I could think of just then was how, as that pastor had rushed to get out of that gator's way, the "end" that had gone by us, flaming, had been quite a sight to behold.

All that morning, in chapel, those of us who'd seen him panic the previous night had shuffled and fidgeted in the chapel's chairs, trying not to break into giggles, trying to be respectful. After all, he'd been a hero to us, better than us somehow, more perfect and godlike with his straight teeth and blonde good looks and his modern Christian music and the easy way he could forgive and accept even the worst of our sins. But then the terror had come upon him – as it comes to all of us sooner or later. Then the leap and bright fall.

Like Lucifer, I'd thought.

I pitied him then, the man. I pitied him in that deep, heart-felt way that only a very young girl can pity a man when he suffers and falls short of the glory others expect of him and think he should rise to, always. Maybe it was because I'd recognized on his face something of the humiliation that had haunted my own face at times.

All through that sermon, I wrestled with whatever devil in me loves to run wild stories over and over through an idle mind. Somewhere in my heart's core, I wanted deeply to be a good Baptist, a good girl, one who could listen earnestly as a youth pastor in a shirt and tie and dress slacks moved the sermon through the parable of the Prodigal Son and whatever good lessons about forgiveness it had to teach me. But my mind kept drifting back, again and again: to that great brown lizard bellowing and thrashing off in the dirt and pine straw, trying to get back to the safety of the swamp where it was most at home. I kept remembering a bunch of skinny white kids screaming, testimonies and faith in God forgotten, guitars flung into the outer darkness of the night. I kept recalling that man of God leaping, in his terror, over me and straight into the bonfire which, with the sweat of his body, popped and sizzled like I imagined the hell-flames might sizzle when the damned are tossed in.

Come that afternoon, Pastor Dan was wearing again his torn t-shirt and khaki shorts. We could see, on his scratched, muscled legs and on his scraped knees and blistered shins, places where the hair had all been singed away. And I am woman enough today to admit to you that I took a sinner's delight in trying to imagine what other body parts might have been scorched in that impressive leap into the fire. I can also admit to you that I delighted secretly when the other girls in my bunkhouse stopped fussing with their nails and their hair and took to snickering and calling him Hotpants behind his back which, as it turned out, was a fortunate thing for the boys our own age who had resumed being the objects of our affection and curiosity. Bunkhouse talk returned to them, those boys we had grown up with all our lives, and we drew big hearts in our notebooks again and wrote their initials inside of them. 

All of us except for that girl, the girl he'd so eloquently forgiven that first night at campfire. Oh sure, she sat with us now behind the backstop at the boys' softball games and had her meals at the tables with us. But her eyes followed Pastor Dan. And she sought him out for new-convert counseling on those afternoons when the rest of us girls decided it was more fun to swim in the lake with boys our own age or to lie about, slicked up with suntan oil and mosquito spray, on our bright beach towels in the hot afternoon sun while the counselors went off to do the things counselors do when teenagers are enjoying an afternoon away from Bible study and prayers.

I do worry a little that this story, written down like this, will make its way into the hands of some other Baptist camper from that summer who might, out of some old spite or sense of indignation, show it to that man. Surely, he will recognize himself in it. Surely he will feel again the old wasp-sting of humiliation, even after all these years, he who had quietly reminded us on the final day of camp that "whatever happens at camp should stay at camp." Meaning, I supposed, that we should never tell anyone else how he'd gone yellow, how in his zeal to get away from a sleepy old gator, he'd run over a girl and had leapt over her and straight into the flames then, by accident, and set himself on fire.

Maybe I'm wrong about that though. Maybe there were other, darker ways in which he had fallen from grace that summer. Maybe he'd needed the adoration and attention of adolescent girls to convince himself he was powerful. Or desirable. Maybe he'd done more, before camp was done, than merely let his hand linger on a girl's bare arm in the charged heat of a humid summer night. I don't know for sure. But if it's any consolation to him, for my part in telling it all here like this, I think I'll send a little money after all – maybe out of some old flame of Baptist guilt that lingers in me still – to that blonde, smiling middle-aged preacher in this photograph who wants to bring those unhappy-looking boys to a Baptist camp next summer, to bring them in touch with whatever bit of wilderness might still exist out there somewhere in the swampy summer Florida nights.

(Most of the names here have been changed in order to protect the innocent and the unintentionally-wicked.)

SUMMER CAMP - Parts 2 & 3

The newly-built chapel at Lake Yale, circa late 1960s

Part 2 – Campers, Happy and Otherwise
For seven days each summer in the 1960s, Baptist parents in my hometown and other small towns up and down the Florida panhandle sent their children to Lake Yale Baptist Assembly Grounds, a summer campground that hovered at the edge of a lake, a lake that was more a wide, boggy pond in those days than it was a recreational lake. The campground itself was a strange aggregate of concrete, barracks-style bunkhouses outfitted with stacked metal bunk beds and old standing lockers arranged in no particular order between the painted concrete floor and the exposed, unpainted rafters from which cobwebs dangled and blew about in the hot summer breeze. Torn screens were all that stood between us and mosquito swarms and all the other assorted, bloodthirsty flying things that take up summer residence near bog-lands. 
Shower rooms, sinks, and toilets were, largely, communal affairs. The chipped porcelain sinks were stained brown and the handles were, inevitably, reversed so that the tap's cold water was marked with an H while the hot water was marked with a C. That always made for an interesting start to the morning. The water in the bathrooms, both hot and cold, was riddled with a foul sulphur smell and a light mustard color: an altogether unappealing combination for the camper . . . though, should we be tempted to complain about it, we would be tersely reminded that our "modern" facilities were not as rustic as those neighboring secular summer camps where outhouses were still in use.
For propriety's sake, the girls' toilets were housed in individual wooden stalls with latching plywood doors and, between each shower-head in the bunkhouse bathroom, a plastic, mildew-speckled curtain hung from rusted metal hoops which, while unattractive and barbaric, still afforded Baptist girls the modesty which they'd been encouraged all their lives to uphold. The camp showers may have been primitive, less elegant than the bathroom accommodations at our homes, but at least they weren't like our gym locker-room shower at Lakeshore Junior High School, which was open, and uncomfortably public. At school, there was a large tiled trough which ran along one end of the locker room from ceiling to floor. From it, twelve sleek silver showerheads and twenty-four handles and twelve soap dishes stood in sharp relief against the white tile and grout. Most Baptist girls shuddered to even consider that oversized shower stall, to think of stripping down and standing there among the shapely secular girls who were lathering up, shampooing their hair, and talking about boys or class assignments . . . as if their everythings and altogethers were not on display for just everyone to see. Baptist girls learned, instead, to tolerate the ripe after-smell of sweat and dirt on our bodies, or to muffle that fragrance with a generous sprinkling of baby powder.
It had a devastating effect on me, I'm certain, in ways that I'll probably never fully comprehend or own up to, that struggle between remaining modest as the Church insisted I should and the deep-seated, and probably devilish, desire I felt back then to move into the wider circles of adolescent society. I suspect I had grown up classically repressed, or so the psychologists would have probably diagnosed me had my parents believed sufficiently in psychology or therapists to send me for therapy. But no; what my parents believed in most was honesty and humility; they believed in right-standing with God and modesty of the flesh and the spirit. They believed in in the Word of God and its commands to avoid all worldly enterprises that might cause me to fall into temptations of the flesh. So, like most Baptist girls from my church, I avoided anything to do with exposing my most-private body parts to anyone around me, even if that meant I had to stay clear of showering after gym class. That practice provoked Bobby Thompson to loud ridicule of us when, to get a laugh from other kids at school, he'd announced one day in the hallways between classes that "You can smell a Baptist coming before you can see a Baptist coming." I put my head down and kept walking and praying whole-heartedly that there would be a special place of torment awaiting that little pervert in the After-life. Baptist girls might smell odd after gym class, but that sure didn't stop him from trying to cop a feel from one if he found her alone.
What seemed most odd to me at summer camp though, looking back on it now, were the yearly rumors that circulated among the girls about the boys' dorms and toilets at Lake Yale. The boys may have been having a good time at our expense, but that didn't occur to us back then. We’d heard that the boys had been instructed to sleep with both hands out from under the sheets, folded across their chests. To insure that the new rule was followed, the counselors made nightly flash-light checks in the boys' bunkhouses.
Why? I asked once and Wendell Harris told me that there should be no "touching" of their privates, even in sleep. What made counselors think the boys would touch themselves while they slept?  Unless.  Unless they knew it could happen because it had happened to them too, once-upon-a-time. Still, it was hard to imagine such a thing, looking at some of those camp counselors – some of whom were only a year or two older than we were. Some of them looked so androgynous, it was almost hard to imagine they even had fully-loaded privates.
My second summer at camp, Granville Jones had whispered to me that the long wall of urinals in their bathrooms had been "altered" for privacy: plastic hinged lids had been fitted over each urinal and, somewhere about halfway up the front of each lid, a circle had been cut out – all so a boy's modesty could be preserved while he peed. He just had to unzip and quickly flip his “member” into the porthole in the lid. No one would be tempted to satisfy his curiosity by peeking at another's parts or making comparisons or, God forbid, be tempted to anything lurid or lustful. Or perverted.
Right away, what came into my mind, as Granville talked, was how some of the smaller boys – like the Hogan brothers, twins from Apopka who wore little round John Lennon spectacles and Beatles' bangs – would have looked, stretching as high as they could on the tips of their toes, trying to reach that porthole, or how the larger, taller boys would have had to squinch down, knees bent east and west, in order to get to it, all of those boys with desperately-full bladders, all of them fumbling with zippers, holding their privates in their hands.
Of course, the "flaw" in my imagining was there, right there, right where I'd arrive at the specific moment of their desperation: though I had both a brother and a father at home, they too were typically Southern Baptist in their modesty, so the only penises I'd ever seen belonged to pets or barnyard animals.  Somehow, the amusement I'd felt at imagining the absurdity of those covered urinals was forestalled by having the imagined boy fumbling to extricate from his breeches something which faintly resembled a cow or goat or donkey penis.
The bunkhouses, which our counselors called "dorms," spindled outwards from the two larger, more significant structures of the camp. The largest was, in our later years, a new chapel with arched, open, wooden rafters and stained-glass windows. It was a magnificent structure with its stained wood inside and outside. No painted drywall anywhere. And the traditional pews had been replaced by folding chairs set up in a line or semi-circle, which seemed oddly at odds with the wood siding and interior woodwork of the chapel. The second-largest structure – and perhaps the most intimidating to campers – was the dining hall where we took our meals three times a day. It was an oblong concrete-block building that had been badly white-washed and which was peppered with doorways which were badly-fitted with unpainted screen doors which banged ceaselessly whenever a wind came up. Inside the dining hall, rows of folding tables and long metal benches were arranged haphazardly. At one end, nearest the doors, were several ping-pong tables – but never any paddles or balls. Useless things. White-trash décor.  That's how we spoke of them. And along the far wall, nearest the kitchen, was the infamous "food line."
Each morning, we rose from our bug-infested bunks to shiver in cold showers and brush our teeth with the foamy yellow gunk our toothpaste became when it was mixed with the cold sulphur tap-water. We rubber-banded our ratty, sleep-tangled hair into ponytails and pulled on clean shorts and t-shirts after shaking them wildly to free them of any spiders or ticks that might have taken up residence in them overnight. When the morning bells sounded, we took ourselves, Bibles in hand, en masse, across the dew-wet pine straw and dirt paths through those torn screen doors of the mess hall, to face again the long double-rows of industrial-sized metal trays of the food line which were heaped with rubbery pancakes and thick grits and the grayish-yellow lumps that hand-lettered placards identified as "scrambulled eggs." Some days there were sausage links but, after a first summer at Lake Yale, most campers knew enough to religiously avoid ALL breakfast meat.
At the end of the food line was a bucket-shaped plastic jug filled with grape jelly. Over it, all morning, the flies circled and did touch-and-go landings, lifting off again after having deposited into the warm purple goo all their gathered bacteria and, probably, the microscopic eggs of their young. Beside the jelly jug was a charcoal-riddled steel pot, about the size and shape of a football helmet, which had been suspended over a lit Sterno can. In it, hot syrup roiled: for the pancakes, if you dared to eat them. Which we did. Every morning. Those powdered eggs were unthinkable to us. Well, to all of us except Sheryl Coker who ate them and rolled her eyes to heaven and praised the Lord and Jesus and the Holy Ghost for such yummy yellow miracles as scrambled eggs by the heaping plateful. She was a twelve-year-old from Palatka and she was crazy for the Lord, and for the abundance of the earth, even then weighing in somewhere around 170 pounds.
The buttered white bread, toasted on one side only, was soggy on the underside and scorched on the topside and it was obvious to even the inexperienced campers among us that the long ragged gashes on the toast-top meant that the more severely-burned layers had been scraped off into the trash barrels. The smell of burned bread hung in the air, suspended there among the other lunchroom smells: dish detergent, souring garbage, the bite of ammonia in old mops and cleaning rags, and the reek of human sweat.
On Sunday – the Lord's Day as it was called at camp – there were the inevitable weekly flecks of green and red "vegetables" in the recycled egg mix which had been flattened somehow and cut into squares and were being passed off as "Vegetable Omelets." Most of us recognized that those flecks were the leftover, already-going-soft green and red peppers from Saturday evening's dinner salad, so we mostly bypassed the Sunday special and continued working the rubbery pancakes with hot syrup.  We also had large jugs of Ovaltine on Sundays, something to stir into the glasses of lukewarm powdered milk. If you added the syrupy mix to the milk, it turned an unappealing shade of gray. If you didn't use the Ovaltine, you just drank the same watery-looking milk you'd been drinking all week long.
But because it was Sunday, and because even Baptist lunchroom staffers felt compelled to ease the burdens of the less-fortunate among them in any small ways they could on The Lord's Day, there were also little plastic tumblers of cloudy apple juice. Also warm. But after a week of powdered milk and sulphur tap water, the pulpy juice tasted good as sin to us, like something that would do you in on any day except the Sabbath. . .and maybe on the Sabbath too if you were reckless: some of the first-time campers went back for second helpings of that apple juice. After stomach cramps and the skittles took them down for a day and night, they never did that again.
That, we were all told later, is what greed will get you.
That, they assured us, is the wages of gluttony.

We were reminded, in case we had forgotten, of all the starving children in Africa who would be glad to share a glass of apple juice between themselves. . . .

Part 3 – Instructions in Sin
We were told other things too. Each morning after services, we were sent off to be "counseled." Girls were counseled separately from boys, so I can't tell you what the boys were told, because even my good friend Donnie Ledbetter wouldn't tell me what went on in the boys' counseling sessions. I figured it must be pretty bad because, whenever I tried to press him too hard for information, he'd turn red in the face and start making circles in the dirt with the toe of his tennis shoe.
We girls were told by our counselors that Lake Yale would tolerate no "fraternization" between boys and girls. We belonged to the Lord. Our bodies were his temples.  Holy.  Holiest of holies.  We were expected to "save" ourselves for marriage. Just what part of that holy temple we were supposed to save for marriage was mostly unclear to us back then. They didn't explain and we didn't yet have the courage to ask. All else, however, was spelled out pretty clearly.  No sneaking off. No kissing. No necking or petting. No buttons unbuttoned. No zippers undone. No pressing up against another.
These things, we were told, would get a camper sent straight home. And not a one of us wanted to go home just then any more than we wanted to bring the awkward temples of our girlish bodies, saved or not, to marriage. Not even the ticks and snakes or the counselors or the sulphur water or the long daily sermons were as bad as sitting back in Duval County all summer, bored, hot, and with no social life to speak of because everyone interesting in our world was at summer camp.
The problem with Lake Yale Baptist Assembly Ground was that it had been built – and solemnly dedicated to the Lord's work – on swampland. This guaranteed that campers got eaten alive by mosquitoes all the blessed day long and then had to pick the ticks off each other after campfire each evening. And trust me when I say you don't want to hear about the chiggers and gnat-swarms. Even if we'd known, back then, what necking and petting were, even if campers had wanted to engage then in a little harmless touching, who could have withstood the lemon-Pledge fragrance of our mosquito spray? What boy would have had even a fighting chance with buttons or zippers given the oil-slick of our bodies, perpetually-thick with Coppertone, insect repellent, and sweat. What boy would have thought any of us even remotely attractive with our shins skinned from volleyball games in the sand, or our arms and faces and legs covered with scabs where we'd scratched, endlessly, the bug bites?
But all that never seemed to occur to the counselors. Our inability to fathom even the simplest sins seemed just beyond them. What mattered to them, most of all, was that we would never be able to say, from those summers onward, that we hadn't been warned.
Sin. We were to avoid it. Strenuously. At every turn.
In order to avoid it, one red-haired girl from Sanford suggested to the counselor, don't we need to know exactly what sin is?
Oh, you'll know it, said "Sam-which-is-short-for Samantha," our fierce, muscular counselor who looked solid and beefy as a football player in her short-shorts and tank top.  You'll know, she said emphatically, fingering the tarnished silver cross knotted onto a leathery string around her neck, her sweat-stained "Jesus-is-Lord" ball cap covering hair so severely shorn you'd have sworn she was a guy had you walked up behind her.
You'll feel the warm glow of it all over you at first, she warned us, and it will seem sweet. So sweet. You'll feel so happy.
A far-off, dreamy look had come over her then, a look like old folks get sometimes when they speak of their lost youths, that look they get that tells you that the better years of their lives are far behind them now, mere memories.
So happy, she repeated dreamily.  Yes, little sisters, that's what sin will make you feel like. Black, bitter sin.
But the way she said "black" and "bitter" and "sin" soundly oddly sweet. Delectable. Like rich chocolate cake. Like a triple fudge brownie. Like a hot fudge sundae topped off with whipped cream and nuts and a maraschino cherry on top of it all, saluting you honorably the whole time with its little red stem. And that was always the problem with these little sessions: the counselors never seemed to realize they were taunting us with sin, tempting us to it, even as they strenuously forbade it.
Sam-which-is-short-for-Samantha went on: It might feel good at first, deep-down in the pit of your stomach. Or in other parts.
Parts?  Anita Knold interrupted, What parts?
Sam snapped back then, looking around at us as if she'd just remembered we were there. She cleared her throat and was fully back with us then. And fully, wholly determined that we should understand the spiritual and physical consequences for "giving in to boys."
Women, she said, are vulnerable to certain kinds of sin. And she went on then to tell us how, as females, our souls were in peril and, if we ever found ourselves feeling "that way" in our parts, we should run as fast as possible to the chapel and fall on our knees at the altar of God and pray, pray, pray for our eternal souls. With each pray, she slammed her hand on the cover of her Good News Bible so that all the crimson ribbons marking scriptures fluttered and shook like a belly dancer's scarves.
Belly dancers. Good and evil were taking each others' hands, in every thought I had. Even then.
Thus went the girls' counseling at Baptist summer camp.
Each summer the faces changed: ours, the counselors'.  Our bodies changed too. As did the yearly definition of sin which, with each successive summer of counseling, swam more and more sharply into focus. Still, we were reminded, we were Southern Baptists. No dancing. No drinking. No fraternization between ourselves and those boys who seemed to be studying us with ever-growing interest. No matter what changed, year to year, for Baptist girls, the message never changed: thou. shalt. not.
And therein for us lay one of the chronic problems with being Southern Baptist: nothing ever changed, really. Once saved, always saved. Henceforth and forevermore. Our Catholic girlfriends had Vatican I, then Vatican II. Our Mormon girlfriends had a living prophet; when he died, they got a new one. First they had polygamy, then they had monogamy. And then there were the Methodist girls, who were always the most enviable among us: they got to dance and play cards. When they came of legal age, they would be allowed to drink in moderation. Dancing and drinking, though even they couldn't "go all the way" with a boy at the drive-in and they still had to "save" themselves for marriage. But dancing could get pretty close to fornication the way we Baptist girls saw it from the sidelines. All that grinding and hip-bumping to the music at school dances. All that steamy dance-floor sway-and-rumba with boys.
Sometimes it is pure torture to be Baptist, Anita Knold sighed once from the sidelines of the junior-high school dance, and every good Baptist girl around her sighed in agreement because that's how it felt to be a known quantity – a "good girl" who wouldn't let a boy get to first base. I'd sighed too, sweating indelicately in my borrowed blue chiffon gown with the spaghetti straps, that white orchid pinned awkwardly to the left strap stabbing my shoulder whenever I slumped. I'd meant it too, that sigh. Lord God in heaven, how I'd meant it.
Shortly after that dance, shortly after the whole blasted evening of standing at the side of the gym while other girls got asked to dance, summer was upon us again and we were heading back to summer camp. Most of us were fifteen by then, almost old enough to start dating. Each of us owned a new transistor radio which we tuned to the Big Ape, WAPE. Each of us were curious about love and romance and all those unnamed ways we could fall, with a boy, from grace. Each of us wanting to know exactly what went on between boys and girls in those parked cars at the drive-in movies. Each of us wearing our first bra, an uncomfortable contraption with stitching around the cups that made them look pointy and unnatural, no matter how well-endowed we may be. Each of us waiting, hopefully, for some first sign of "The Curse," so we might have to use those sanitary napkins our mothers had packed in the bottom of our suitcases, just in case.
We expected seven days of Bible lessons and memorization of scripture. We expected nights around the bonfire with guitars and singing. We expected to meet other Baptist teens from Baptist churches in Sanford and Apopka, from Palatka and Clearwater. We expected counseling sessions and sermons daily in the new chapel. We expected miserable meals and bugs and stinky water.
What we weren't expecting was the arrival of a new youth pastor. . . .