It was in the early sixties, and my mom was starting to suspect she had a little homosexual on her hands.
I didn't play with paper dolls or dress up in Mama's clothing (not that there's anything wrong with that and even if I'd been so inclined Wanda's taste in fashion was abysmal) but my interest in contact sports was casual and I had a pronounced aversion to hunting and killing wild animals. I enjoyed reading and painting pictures and writing stories and watching reruns of old movies on TV. I kept my room tidy. In the Texas Bible Belt, boys like me were viewed with suspicion. Wanda later told me that when I expressed an interest in piano lessons, her worst fears were realized. She resigned herself to giving birth to an artistic child, "artistic" being the traditional euphemism for Queer-As-A-Three-Dollar-Bill.
I was nine years old and Grandma had written to tell us her need for child slave labor would occur earlier than usual that summer. This meant I would be as free and restless as a hummingbird by the time August rolled around. My mom just couldn't abide having youngsters underfoot for long stretches, a fate as abhorrent to her as scrubbing the toilet or toiling over a hot stove. Her hand-wringing ceased, however, when our pastor recommended Piney Woods Youth Bible Camp as the perfect vacation spot for a troublesome son. Phone calls were exchanged, forms filled out and signed, money set aside, reservations made... for two.
My pious cousin Darlene was ordered to accompany me to the child indoctrination center, presumably to make sure I didn't besmirch the family's good name. She certainly didn't need any supplemental salvation. My cousin had accepted Jesus Christ as her personal savior at a tender age; some say while she was still inside the womb. In matters of faith, I was rather more circumspect. I couldn't believe God expected me to cringe and grovel before our Baptist congregation, many of whom I knew to be hypocrites. When at the end of each Sunday service the preacher's wife dutifully played "Just As I Am" on the Spinet piano, my ass stayed planted in the pew. As Brother Clarence beseeched sinners to come forward and get washed in the blood of the Lamb, I tried to ignore the encouraging glances of nearby worshippers who could not fathom why I resisted The Call To Jesus and preferred to remain damned, forsaken, and unsaved. Darlene pretended to be astonished that I didn't jump up and rush forward to throw myself across the altar rail, sobbing, as the backsliders did. She cast sorrowful glances in my direction and sighed loudly, as if my stubborn pride was breaking her heart. (Contrary to parish gossip, Darlene was the real drama queen in the family.)
So anyway, every Sunday morning when members of our church bawled out the refrain "Lamb of God, I come," I took a raincheck. Spiritual considerations aside, proclaiming oneself to be "born again" has always struck me as redundant.
Aunt Dot drove us through the Piney Woods in her creaky Chrysler. The exhaust pipe on the old station wagon belched more white smoke than an active volcano. Of course in those days vehicles were not equipped with GPS systems, and in East Texas one red dirt road looks pretty much like another - so we were disoriented almost before we left Cherokee County. I'm afraid Aunt Dot was a hopeless driver. Chain-smoking, fiddling with the radio dial, yanking out hair curlers, checking her teeth in the rearview mirror, inspecting her fingernails, adjusting an errant bra strap, applying lipstick, really doing anything except watching the road in front of her. Aunt Dot drove us into a ditch when she swerved to avoid hitting what she thought was a squirrel but turned out to be a paper bag from Piggly Wiggly. There was mud and skidding tires and swear words I'd never heard before. In Alto we ran out of gas, sputtering into the town's two-pump filling station, coasting on fumes. Darlene, for whom tardiness was a deadly sin, criticized Aunt Dot's navigational skills. She primly reminded her that camp registration was set to begin at 9am and conclude by noon. Aunt Dot rolled her eyes and drawled, "I'm getting us there as fast as I can. But you're welcomed to walk if this mode of transportation doesn't suit you." We didn't reach our destination until nearly sunset.
The Piney Woods Youth Bible Camp consisted of thirty acres of dense woods, white clapboard buildings, makeshift sports facilities, a lake, a chow tent, and an impressive outdoor stadium where revival meetings were held not once or twice but three times a day. It was Disneyland for religious zealots - or perhaps I should say white religious zealots since "colored" children were not allowed.
For boys, participation in team sports was compulsory. These activities fell between PWYBC's sunrise prayer service and mid-morning Bible studies class. Softball and touch football were popular. Older youths could elect to be schooled in boxing and horsemanship, but riding lessons were available only to those kids with well-heeled parents. I was not permitted inside the stables, and could only watch wistfully as the rich boys saddled up.
I saw little of my cousin Darlene except during worship services, which all campers were required to attend. Boys and girls were segregated and warned against fraternization. Contact between the sexes would result in dire consequences, we were told. The "Young Christian Ladies Dormitory" was located half a mile away, on the north side of the lake. The girls would magically appear at the edge of the water, lofty and serene as angels, for our thrice-daily sermons - and they'd be whisked away before the pipe organ's last honk.
There was a sermon between eleven and noon. Then Cook rang the big brass bell and we all queued up for lunch - corny dogs and slender hamburger patties, served with mounds of french fries and onion rings. The meals provided by PWYBC could be broken down into two categories: fried foods and deep-fried foods. Our supper was comprised of sliced ham, greasy pork chops, greasy chicken or greasy catfish. Dessert was fried apple fritters or doughnuts. It's a wonder nobody was rushed to the emergency room with coronary thrombosis.
Afternoons were filled with extended Bible studies and Crafts. I'll admit I did enjoy Crafts. It was my favorite camp activity. While the other kids were busy making gifts for their mothers - clutch purses in the shape of a cross, jewelry boxes in the shape of a cross, potholders in the shape of a cross - I created a sock puppet of Our Lord. For consistency's sake, I attached it to a cross. The cross was fashioned from a pine branch, and when my polyester-blend Jesus was suspended on the wood with upholstery tacks and a crown of sticker burrs, I stuck my hand inside the sock and made him cry out piteously: "God, my God. Why hast Thou forsaken me?"
Word spread like wildfire. With more and more campers attending my daily crucifixion show, I figured it was time to freshen up the act. A red-headed boy in our dormitory had brought some plastic Civil War soldiers, and those stood in for Roman centurions pulling guard duty at Golgotha. Three discarded sweet potatoes were transformed into the Virgin Mary, her sister Martha, and Mary Magdalene. If an audience became antsy, I had my Sock Savior belt out a rousing rendition of Leslie Gore's "It's My Party And I'll Cry If I Want To," an upbeat tune I deemed appropriate for the situation. (Years earlier, Santa Claus had brought me a Howdy-Doody puppet and I developed a talent for speaking without moving my lips. It helped satisfy my prepubescent desire for a career in the entertainment industry.) Needless to say, when our camp councilors got wind of these theatrical productions, my passion play was closed down.
After Pastor Billy Hammer was informed of the Crafts Sacrilege (as it soon became known) I was summoned to his mobile office for a lecture and a paddling. I dropped my khaki shorts and bent obligingly over a stool while the good minister delivered four stinging whacks to my delicate butt flesh. When that was over he told me that making fun of Christ was about the worst sin he could imagine, and then he added for good measure: "It is my belief that ventriloquism is a form of demonic activity. I foresee a lot of pain in your life, Max Jr. But that pain can easily be avoided." I wanted to tell him that not hitting me again would be a pretty good place to start, but of course I chickened out.
"You haven't been saved yet, have you?"
"No, Sir." (Good grief, not that again.)
"Are you prepared to accept Jesus Christ as you personal savior?"
"I try to be prepared for anything."
"Don't be a smartass. You're facing a lifetime of hurt, followed by everlasting damnation."
"Let me think about it."
Now you may not believe the last part of this story but I swear on my furkids' lives that it's true. This happened during the final evening prayer service at the end of PWYBC's two-week-long session. I remember the sermon being particularly terrifying that night. Campers were listless and fidgety. Beneath the arena's blinding lights, mosquitoes and June-bugs dive-bombed our perspiring faces. Brother Hammer rolled up his shirtsleeves and set a terrycloth towel on the podium. We knew we were in for some serious preachifying.
Satan's Lair was described to us in tantalizing detail. Unrepentant sinners screamed in agony, devils danced, sizzling skin fell from charred hands, boils erupted on arms and legs, intestines melted, eyeballs exploded, tongues blackened and split. It was remarkably vivid. More than a few kids started weeping, and one little girl threw up her dinner. As Brother Hammer concluded pleading for our souls, he declared: "If anybody has not been saved and feels Jesus calling to them tonight, come down here to the altar and kneel beside me."
I'm not sure exactly how I came to be confused. Perhaps the choir was singing too loudly. Maybe it was the heat, which was oppressive. Or the bugs, which were downright diabolical. But I misheard what Brother Hammer said to us. I thought he said: "If anybody has not been saved, come down here to the altar and kneel beside me."
"Just as I am, without one plea,
But that thy blood was shed for me,
And that thou bidst me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come..."
Ever an obedient child, I did as I was instructed. I got out of my folding chair and took that long walk down the aisle to where seven or eight other youngsters were already slumped over the stage, cringing and begging for Christ's mercy. I hung my head in contrition. Brother Hammer was walking from child to child, placing his large hand on each of their heads and making soothing noises. When he came to where I was kneeling, he froze. He peered at me for what seemed an eternity, a quizzical expression on his handsome face. I looked up at him through tear-stained eyes. He dropped to his knees beside me and murmured, "At last you've come to Jesus."
At that moment I realized my fatal error. He hadn't asked for unsaved campers, he had asked for unsaved campers who now believed they were saved! I gasped: "I think I've made a mistake."
"Why are you here at the altar of the Lord?" Brother Hammer thundered.
"I don't know," I blubbered. "I thought it's what you wanted."
Something shrewd flickered behind the preacher's eyes, and the corners of his lips curled slightly.
At that point Brother Hammer lifted me up and hugged me to his broad chest (not an altogether unpleasant sensation). To the assemblage of campers, he shouted: "This young man was so driven by the Holy Spirit that he is mystified by his presence here! Praise be to God! It's a miracle!"
And I was thinking: 'It will take a miracle to get me back to this fucking madhouse.'
In what some might consider an odd denouement to the story, early the following morning I was presented with PWYBC's "Best Camper" award, a tribute voted on and bequeathed by members of the staff.
Why was I chosen for this honor? I honestly have no idea. I supposed it was a nod to the Prodigal Son parable, and also because Brother Hammer had included me in the previous night's miracle.
As I dashed across the grassy concourse to receive my prize and ring Cook's brass bell (a much-coveted privilege), I saw Darlene standing in the crowd. Her cheeks were aflame, she was absolutely livid. My cousin obviously believed that her holiness far outmatched my own (it did) and that she was more deserving of this award (she was).
The pitying smile I bestowed upon her was uncharitable, I suppose. But what did it matter? For one brief shining moment our roles were reversed. I was fleet-footed David, beloved of God, and Darlene was the craven Philistine.
I held on to that silly trophy for many years. It never failed to lift my spirits. More than a decade later, after Art and I had moved in together, I was still dragging the thing around. When my partner showed me his honorable discharge papers from the Marines Corps, I was able to reach into a box and whip out my slightly tarnished, pint-sized loving cup. Hey, he wasn't the only fella with accomplishments.