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.)