Kent the Baptist
The next time I remember getting saved was the summer after sixth grade. I may have raised my hand to assure a spot in heaven a few times at Vacation Bible School in between the Easter Bunny and that summer but most of those years are a haze of goldfish crackers, finger jello, and my friends’ dads dressed up as Bible characters.
My parents sent me to Outdoor Adventure Camp, which was fitting because sixth grade marks the beginning of the adolescent wilderness we all wander in, the merciless weed-filled desert known as The Big Awkward. Crooked teeth, fresh pimples, and insecurities the size of angry blue whales. Add voice cracks and new body hair to the mix and Outdoor Adventure Camp was the perfect place to send me for a week. They should’ve bought me a camel hair tunic and a jar of roasted locusts as well.
Campers spent one week sleeping in a no-wall shelter, learning to build one match fires, and how to hike according to a compass. That’s what the brochure said. I still can’t read a compass. I did master making campfires, in addition to tipping someone’s canoe, holding a flashlight with my teeth while using the outhouse, and lighting my farts.
Kevin, the man’s man, and Kent, the wildman’s man, were our camp directors. Kevin brought reason, order, and skills to the table while Kent brought insanity. On the second night, Kevin told us to quiet down and go to sleep. We protested that we couldn’t go to sleep with a campfire burning in the middle of our open air bunk room. Kent goaded the skinniest kid there, Mikey, to put the fire out using personal natural resources. Another thing I learned at Outdoor Adventure camp was urine can extinguish a fire but not without great cost to your nostrils. Mikey was dubbed Fireman Mike for the rest of the week.
On the second day, Kevin asked who wanted to go on a bushwhacking adventure and cut a trail using a compass and machetes.
I stayed back with lunatic Kent and a few others. About twenty minutes after Kevin left, Kent said, “I know where there’s a junkyard not very far from here. I think there’s an old bathtub there. Let’s go get it and bring it back here for camp.”
We all agreed.
At the junkyard, which was really a trash dump for the main camp, we found the tub, a long rusty pipe, and a four foot snake. Kent killed the snake by throwing an old sink on it. We claimed the pipe and the tub and transported them the half mile back into the woods.
“What are we going to do with the tub?” I asked.
“We’ll clear a space in the stream and set it down in it. Then we’ll take the pipe and rig it so water flows into the tub. Outdoor plumbing at wilderness camp,” said Kent.
“But won’t it be freezing?”
“Of course. It’ll be awesome!”
Three hours later, a nasty white bathtub nestled nicely in our stream as trickling ice water flowed through the rusty red pipe. Kent placed sycamore leaves over the drain. When it filled up, he jumped in with all his clothes on and screeched like a mating hyena. I was proud of my choice not to bushwhack seven miles with Kevin.
Camps breed camp romances. The world away from the world, the series of mutually enjoyed/suffered activities and the forced vulnerability naturally lend themselves to finding true love…for a week. I arrived unprepared for the irresistible pheromones of the Camp Crush Bug. Her name was Tracy but I called her Trace because I thought it sounded cool. She was three inches taller than me and taught me how to kiss. I think. How do you know when you’ve learned to kiss?
The last night, the seventeen Outdoor Adventure campers perched on our rough-cut picnic tables and nibbled at our hot and raw hobo stews. The majority of the guys were older than me and I noticed them start to make eye contact with each other like a pack of lions cornering an antelope. That’s when the chanting started.
“TUB! TUB! TUB! TUB!” they shouted in unison.
Unaware not only of camp romance, but also the tradition of last night pranks and tomfoolery, I had no idea what was happening. So I started chanting too, “TUB! TUB! TUB!”
The Lord of the Flies moment climaxed as they gathered around scrawny Fireman Mike and picked him up off the bench, his mouth full of potatoes, squealing in fear. Director Kevin jumped up and grabbed the arms of the older guys, “He’s had enough guys. Leave him alone.”
They placed the tiny fireman on the ground, paused, and picked up the chant again.
“TUB! TUB! TUB!”
I started again, too, “TUB! TUB! TUB!”
Self-awareness as a general construct in my life began in that moment.
The mob turned toward me, bobbing and stepping in motion to the chant. My eyes widened, recognizing for the first time my size in comparison to theirs, and that my bloodlust in yelling “TUB!” gave me no exemption from being the target of the war cry.
I grabbed the picnic table. I grabbed the bench. I kicked and strained my neck. I hugged a pavilion pole on the way out of our rustic dining hall. I reached for saplings and branches. I perfected my own crocodile death roll. I made it miserable on them, but the strength of the mob prevailed. Bumbling through the forest, we arrived to the source of my glory and pride a few days before, but now transformed to a shrine of shame.
The mob stopped. They centered my body over the white tub, brimming with cold mountain water. It was dusk in the woods. I remember my view, parallel to the ground, watching rain begin to drop through the gray darkness of the forest canopy.
Like most mobs, it had a general purpose fueled by emotions rather than genuine leadership. No one counted to three or took control of the pubescent initiation. Assuming his job complete since I successfully hovered above the baptismal waters, the gentleman holding my head let go. My skull cracked on the edge, the vat of water echoing dully in the woodland air. The chanting stopped. The last guy figured out what the noise was and quit laughing.
My head hurt, but I remained conscious, half-submerged, chicken-wing arms draped over the edge of the porcelain tub. Blood seeped out of the gash and colored the water pink in the dying sunlight. The mob erupted into a variety of reactions.
Director Kevin asked for a flashlight. Someone volunteered to run and get one.
“And the first aid kit!” he yelled.
The kid who dropped my head, Justin, screamed, “It’s my fault!” and ran off into the woods. Another kid, Devan, ran in the opposite direction mumbling something about blood.
“Someone go after them,” said Kevin. “And someone go tell the girls and Nurse Tina what happened.” Two guys stopped staring at my head and scurried off.
Thirty minutes later the dining hall was a MASH unit, three adult counselors presiding over five teenage patients. Wildman Kent decided stitches were overrated and braided a few strands of my hair across the wound and sealed it with super glue. He wrapped my head with a whole roll of gauze. I was a TIME magazine photo of a revolution gone bad.
Kent handled my head trauma because Nurse Tina was busy holding brown paper bags for the two teenage girls at the other table. Trace, the love of my life, on hearing the news her holy Romeo probably wouldn’t live to sign her camp shirt the following morning, broke into hyperventilating sobs. Her best friend from the cradle, Sarah, on seeing Tracy incapacitated, invented the condition known as “sympathy hyperventilating." Nurse Tina, her arms spread wide like a gentle eagle of Lamaze, spoke the word “Breathe” over and over in reassuring tones as she held the two bags to the girls’ mouths.
After Kent wrapped me for an Egyptian burial, he went over to Justin, the kid who had dropped me. As he fled in shame, he poked his eye on a low hanging branch. He sat with one hand over his eye like he was taking an eye exam, but instead of saying “LEFT RIGHT UP LEFT,” Justin mumbled about whether I was going to make it or not.
Kent reassured him, “Heck, Justin, Matt’s fine. I got bigger goonies on my shins carrying that tub than he does on his head.”
The last charge in our kitchen hospital was Devan. Turns out the month before Outdoor Adventure Camp, while playing with friends, Devan had solved a missing person’s case in his hometown by discovering the murdered body. The sight of my blood freaked him out and caused flashbacks. I ignored Trace and her true-love-induced struggle with breathing and strained hard to hear through my gauze turban what Devan was describing to Keith. Guess that’s why I woke up the next morning and found Trace in the outhouse line holding hands with Fireman Mike.
After apologies and hysteria ran their course, the three guys marched back through the rain to the sleeping pavilion where we found the rest of the boys awake, flashlights in hands reading their bibles. They welcomed me back and cheered me on, apologizing for what happened. I acted like it was no big deal, but it really had been. I wanted to read the bible in my bunk, too, and be a part of the spiritual vibe my head wound spawned.
I got saved again that night. It seemed the right thing to do.