Welcome to Your New Home – Enjoy the Mites!

When I was ten, my parents decided it was time to move from the suburbs of Mobile, Alabama and our comfy suburbanite home where I had lots of friends, a great school, and an active social life at church, to the relative quiet and serenity of the country out in Semmes, Alabama. Which would have suited me fine in my forties, but at the time it was not something I was prepared or excited for, as a ten-year-old.

We didn’t have a house yet, but we had some land. My father had purchased five acres of property from a family friend and the plan was that we were going to build the house ourselves, or as much of it as unskilled labor can, and on the cheap. What fun!

Perhaps sensing less than a complete lack of buy-in on my part, my parents thought it would be fun to spend an evening at the property, camping. At that point, the access to the center of the property consisted of a bare-dirt road leading from the very end of a connected neighborhood, served entirely by its own dirt road. I lived in that house for nearly a decade and the year I moved out, the county paved it. Go figure. But, once you had turned off the neighborhood road and gone about 1/10th of a mile into our property, you were literally on the outer edge of approximately 100 acres of woods, which, to my knowledge, had never been logged and was generally pristine, virgin forest.

As years went by, I explored the surrounding woods tentatively. Past one side of our property, I built a lean-to fort. This fort wasn’t meant for stealth, but rather for showing off. Leading up it, I cleared a walking path and put down pine straw I gathered from the forest floor, and then edged the path on both sides with fallen tree logs. I was quite proud of it. In another part of the woods, I found a roughly 60×60 slight depression that held water anytime it rained. Many times I’d go back there and wade around in the ankle-deep water reveling in this strange, natural pond in the middle of nothing. And then, if you went far enough in a couple of directions, you hit a creek, though to be honest, the woods got so dense and creepy that I never actually went down to the water. Still though, for a bored, lonely kid, it was a magical place even if it didn’t exactly start out that way.

We arrived at our new home site on a Friday evening and dutifully unpacked the car; sleeping bags, meager groceries for dinner and breakfast the next morning. There were no bathroom facilities, so the idea was you only went #1 and if you needed to go #2 you either held it or found a log somewhere, preferably a long way from camp. We never really talked about the scenario, so I assume that was the plan.

Dusk set in and we got a fire started. I’ll spare you the minute-by-minute, but suffice it to say that we ate, looked at the stars and hit the sleeping sacks. It was pretty uneventful. The next morning we rose early as we always did, stiff and slightly chilled. We packed up the car and headed back over to my uncle’s house where we were staying since we’d sold the old house and didn’t have a place to live right then.

Later that day, I started getting an itching sensation all around the lower part of my body. At first, I didn’t pay it much mind but it finally got to a point where I was scratching so often and so hard that I was raising welts on my skin. And then, I noticed I was actually getting bumps on my skin; inside my pants and behind my knees. As the hours passed, my itching and scratching became almost intolerable. The worst of it was all around my groin. As a young boy, I’d yet to have any experience with anything having to do with my groin, so I was quickly getting pretty freaked out.

Finally, in a fit of despair, I found my mom and told her what was going on, only to find out that she too was suffering the same as me. Turns out, we both had chiggers. If you don’t know what a chigger is, it’s a very small bug that burrows into your skin. The warmer the location, the better, which is why they prefer your nether regions and behind your legs.

There is no cure for chiggers, but there are plenty of home remedies. And we tried them all; vinegar baths to drive them out; clear fingernail polish to suffocate them. Nothing worked, except time. In about four days the little devils had digested enough of our skin that their lifecycle was complete and they began dying off. The relief we felt when finally the itching starting subsiding was palpable.

Throughout this, my father maintained he didn’t have any chiggers and never had in his life. Whether that was true, or whether he was just trying to be the big man, I’ll never know. And I’d love to say that we learned our lesson and never got chiggers again, but we did. Never as bad as that first time, but we still got them. Or rather, I still got them. I don’t think my mom was ever really out in the woods like that again except for in the winter cutting firewood with us. But, chiggers don’t survive in cold temps, so winter usually offered a reprieve.

We never did really find a sure-fire method of killing the mites once you had them. No, your best bet was prevention and that meant liberally spraying your socks and waistline with repellant anytime you knew you’d be in the tall-weeds.

But, it was an auspicious beginning to our new life in the country. It did get better. We eventually finished the house, though we did move in literally as soon as it was habitable, which meant we didn’t have carpeting and not all of the rooms were sheetrocked in. In truth, the house was a work-in-progress the entire time I lived at home.

Then again, when you have a DIYer in your house–like my dad and like me as it turns out–is any house ever really “finished?” I don’t think so.

Bored at Granny’s – A Holiday Story

Christmas 2020 was an altogether different experience for everyone, I imagine. For our family, it meant far fewer of us gathering and eating, laughing, and holding our tongues at something someone on “the other political side” said over the never-ending election ads here in Georgia.

Despite the fewer numbers, we still managed to get a couple of families together–properly distanced of course. One family did end up with two COVID cases, but it didn’t spread to the other four in their house (including a 6-month old) and none of the rest of us who were around them caught it either. But with less going on, I noticed that, by and large, everyone spent less time at my in-laws’ house. We all showed up; sat around a bit while lunch was finalized; ate; sat around a while until it seemed that we’d done all there was to do short of an activity that might put us all at a COVID risk; and then we all went home.

My wife and I left earlier mostly because of the kids. They didn’t have any cousins to play with this year so it was basically just like being home with each other, only, with a lot less to do. And who needs more of that? Amiright? Amiright?

While sitting in the living room desperately trying not to engage anyone in conversation–thereby avoiding any unnecessary drama–while watching my kids very nearly melting into the carpet from boredom, I was reminded of my own childhood spent at my Granny’s house during the holidays. “Granny” as she let me call her, lived alone. Her husband (a pastor and a drunk) had left her and their five children decades earlier and by the time I was in the picture, all of Granny’s kids were grown with families of their own. Granny spent the next two decades with just herself and Jesus to keep her company and she seemed almost jealously happy with the arrangement. She was a prayer-warrior of a woman, but boy did she love her daytime Soaps!

Granny lived in a tiny modular home on a great space of land adjacent to one of her daughters and their family. Having lived alone for so long, her house was decidedly not child-friendly. In fact, the only entertainment to be found was a 30-year old pail of tinker toys and some cards if you were lucky. The rare times my Uncle Buddy, who lived across the way, invited the older boys to go snake or dove hunting on his 30 or so acres of adjacent property, approximately five acres of which held water well enough to qualify as a swamp, were a treasured rarity and not something you could count on happening. If there was any fun at all for a kid to have, it usually required making it yourself.

At Thanksgiving and Christmas, 15 or so of us would all pack into Granny’s tiny home, heated by a single, gas-fueled space heater, which, when combined with 15 additional bodies and four roaring gas burners and a stove, more than amply heated up the home at the holidays. So it was, that, after the meal, your options were to either fall asleep in the drowsy heat of her living room on twenty year old couches that sucked in bodies like the softest memory foam, or do what my cousin and I did, which was escape outside and make our own fun.

My cousin Tamara was my age, so we got along pretty famously for two kids thrown together by marriage rather than blood. When we were much younger, we played “Kitchen” making mud pies out behind her mom’s hair-dressing shop, which was behind their own house out in Tanner Williams, AL. As we got older, we spent more time indoors just hanging out, or if it was summer, shucking corn or shelling peas at her parent’s behest before they’d allow us to go swimming in their above-ground pool.

Once we’d escaped outside where you could take a deep breath of fresh, cool air, our entertainment of choice during family gatherings at Granny’s was, “Whose car is it?” It’s a very simple game where two or more players (but it was only ever the two of us) sat on Granny’s front porch and waited for cars to come down the lonely stretch of road that ran into a four-way at the Alabama-Mississippi line about 1/4 of a mile past Granny’s, eventually running into Big Creek Lake if you kept going straight, or dead-ending into even lonelier parts of “the country” if you went right or left.

The rules of the game were as such: Each car that came down the road belonged to the next player whose turn it was. There were two options for the car: it was either yours (by turn), or if you didn’t want the junker, you “gave” it to another acquaintance of ours, a girl we both knew from school and who drove us both bonkers. Oh the hours Tamara and I whittled away laughing at the junkers we gave to our mutual annoyance, and the rare sports-car gems that came down the road made every disappointment worth the wait.

You wouldn’t think such a simplistic game would offer much of a diversion on wintery holidays in Alabama, but when the options were that or the snooze-fest going on inside, yelling, “That’s my BUICK!” wasn’t a bad way to spend an afternoon. We both usually sat on Granny’s porch-swing while playing, which added an additional benefit of movement.

I was reminded of this while looking at my own kids at their grandparent’s house at Christmas. There, they had a big backyard. They’d brought balls to throw to each other. There was a trampoline–not to mention they each had their phones–and there they sat, bored as anything and ready to go home.

What I wouldn’t have given to have had half their entertainment options growing up. I suppose every generation of parent has those moments where they look at their offspring in a bewildering combination of disgust and amazement over the opportunities wasted. It’s a rite of passage generations old, I guess. Doesn’t make it any easier to accept as an aging adult, though. I wonder how it will be for my children? Likely, their kids will just be sitting there in a near-vegetative state while playing video games in their heads thanks to the internet-connected cybernetic implants making it unnecessary to ever move.

Then again, we all thought we’d have flying cars by now too.

Photos Do Not Bend

You never know what’s going to set off a memory and today’s path down things best left forgotten comes from a photo mailer. You’ve seen them. They are those moderately rigid cardboard envelopes you mail photos in; the ones that say, misleadingly, “Photos – Do Not Bend!”

But they DO bend and therein lies today’s memory…

When I was in Air Force boot camp, our dormitory was a self-contained mini-prison. Sleeping quarters were divided into two wings, each with two rows of bunks with a locker beside it to store our gear. Each dorm also had a full bathroom, with enough facilities for 50 guys to use at the same time during morning dress and showers.

Our drill instructor–we called him our Technical Instructor or “TI”–also had a large office, complete with a cot for him to sleep in, which he only did for the first few weeks until he was sure no one was going to go Private Pyle on the Flight and start popping caps in folks.

At the very end of the dorm hallway was our “Day Room.” It was so called because it was the only room with windows low enough to see through and twice each day we gathered there for a group meeting in the morning and mail call in the evening. There were no chairs; we sat on the floor, most of us cross-legged. On one wall near the front was a door leading to another dormitory containing our “Brother Flight.” They were called that because they came to Basic a couple of weeks after us and technically we were supposed to help teach them how to survive. Other than one or two short trips over to show them how to iron T-shirts or to bang garbage cans to wake them up, we had little do to with them on a regular basis.

Evening mail call was a special time because for the first few weeks we weren’t allowed to call or write home. We couldn’t eat candy or drink soda either, so the mail brought an opportunity for something special…or so we thought. Anyone who received a package from home was forced to open it in front of everyone and pray to GOD that it didn’t contain anything contraband…which was pretty much anything good!

I remember one poor recruit we called Barney. Unlike most of us, Barney was at least in his late twenties when he enlisted. If memory serves, he had no marketable skills and after barely scraping by, he decided to join the Air Force in hopes of giving his wife and his only daughter at the time, the opportunity at a better life. But Barney’s wife and friends did him wrong. During our third week, I guess his wife and friends decided he might be lonely, so they thought it would be funny to send him an inflatable sex doll. When he opened the box and started unpacking his “gift,” it was as if Christmas had come early for our TI, who reveled in embarrassing his recruits any chance he got.  Barney never lived it down.

Military food has gotten a bad rap through the years, no doubt due to the MREs, Meals Ready to Eat. They are those freeze-dried, super-preserved meals that have been vacuum-packed for field readiness. With the exception of the chocolate bars, just about everything else in an MRE is about what you’d expect from something that was once cooked, then dried beyond recognition and/or powdered for easy storage and transport. However, the food served in mess halls (or the “Cafeteria” as we called them in the Air Force) was not bad.

Unfortunately, in Basic Training you have neither the time, nor the inclination to sit and enjoy your hot-meal, so everything is gulped down with nary a chance to think about how it tasted. Which means, by week three of Boot Camp, most of us were dreaming about fast food and sweet deserts.

But short of a sex-doll, there weren’t many things worse to receive in the mail from home, than a Care Package full of food. If you were unfortunate enough to get food in the mail, you had three choices:

A. Share it with everyone. The problem was that there was never enough to share with 49 other boys, leaving you with either Options B or C.

B. Eat it all by yourself right there, right then while everyone stared

OR

C) Throw it away without touching it

The smart ones simply threw it away, but the first couple of recruits actually tried to eat a full load of brownies and ended up sick and humiliated.

All things considered, the best thing to receive in the mail was a letter. It was simple; it was fairly private, and it was usually safe from prying eyes, though not always.

Our TI had this little game he liked to play where he would sit in the front of the room and after calling your name because you’d received a letter, he’d try and fling the letter sideways like a flying disc, across the floor and under the door separating our Day Room from our Brother Flight’s Day Room. If he was successful, he thought it was hilarious (and quite frankly so did we as long it wasn’t OUR letter being launched). If the letter didn’t make it, you got to pick up your letter and immediately read it. If it did make it through, you had to wait until you had some free time to go over and beg them to return the letter.

Besides letters, some recruits also received mail packaged in our good friend the Photo Mailer. The very one that says, “Photos-Do Not Bend,” to which our TI always replied, “Oh, but they do…” as he proceeded to bend and crease them to his heart’s desire. Once mangled, the poor kid who received it had to then open the mailer and show everyone whatever pictures he’d been sent of Mom, his girlfriend, whomever; and of course this opened him up to all sorts of derision from both our TI and from the other recruits.

After one or two letters, I think most guys wrote home and asked them to stop sending things because after a while, mail call petered out, which was just fine with me since I never received anything anyway.

So that’s today’s memory brought on by a quick trip to my kitchen where I have a stack of photo mailers sitting on the counter. I’ll get them out at some point, but right now I’m enjoying just looking at the envelopes and remembering Basic Training and the Day Room.

How One Night At Church Youth Camp Changed My Life

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I grew up in a home that believed the sun rose and set on the likes of Billy Graham, Benny Hinn, T.D. Jakes, and the *cough* infallible *cough* Kenneth Copeland, just to name a few. If we weren’t AT church, one of these guys was on the television, OR Kenny Rogers and Ann Murray were belting out tunes on the turntable because they too, were god-like.

You might think that, by the time I was 16, I was firmly indoctrinated in the church. But no. Like those preacher’s kids you had in homeroom, the moment I got a taste of freedom I went in the opposite direction for a short while. However, after years of having the church and these mouthpieces of God’s word pounded into my brain, my actions–and the guilty thoughts they generated–were never far apart.

To confuse a young man even more, I experienced something once at a church youth camp that, to this day, I cannot explain and I cannot ignore–though I have tried mightily.

It was the year of my 10th birthday. I was still cute; thin. I sang frequently at church and though my voice was still that of a young tenor, I had good control and I wasn’t overly nervous on stage, which made me a perennial favorite. Truthfully, I never quite “got it” myself. There were other singers, much older and more talented than me, but somehow I still got called on regularly. Amy Grant was all the rage for young church singers then and thinking back on how I butchered “My Father’s Eyes” makes me cringe to this day.

But that year at church camp was my year. I won “Camp King” AND the talent contest. It was THE best year of my life. It was also the year right before everything changed, so it has remained a high point for me.

At camp, every morning started out in church, right after we finished scrubbing our cabins and eating breakfast. During the day, we played ball and mostly ran around like unsupervised hooligans. After supper in the evenings, we had church again. The night services were the serious ones and they could go on for two hours or more depending on how “the spirit moved.”

Up to that point, I’d never had a real personal conviction of Christ. Oh, I believed in that most revered godly creation, “The Trinity,” but, I’d never heard the voice of God or felt moved by him in one direction or another.

It was nearing the end of the service on the next to last night of camp. As usual, the pastor was ending the service with an altar call.  These were, and still are, so formulaic that they must teach it at seminary. How else can you explain every Church of God/Assembly of God pastor acting out the same ritual Sunday night after Sunday night all across the country?

Here’s the Formula; stop me if you’ve heard it: The pastor begins with a prayer. Then, “with every head bowed and every eye closed” he asks for people to raise their hands if they have a need they want him to pray about or if they want to know the Lord better. Or “maybe, you know the lord but it’s been a while and you just need a refreshing and want to ask the lord to come into your heart again.” A few initially raise their hands, then more as others in the congregation peek up from their own shuttered eyelids and see the other brave souls who have already raised their hands. The pastor promises “I don’t want to embarrass anybody here tonight, but please, raise your hand,” which emboldens a few others.

With enough hands raised, the pastor begins his prayer, which usually runs about two minutes. Any less and he can’t cover all the necessary topics, but any more and he risks losing people to sleep.

With the prayer said, he throws his promise out the door, “Now, I’d like every one of you who raised their hand to come down here to the altar.”

Wait, what happened to the “I don’t want to embarrass anyone” part?

So predictable.

At first, only a few venture down. Then a few more. Then the pastor asks “the elders” to come down and pray with them, which makes it look like a nice, anonymous crowd where, someone who maybe wanted to come down but didn’t want to stand out, might feel safe.

With the altar full and the band softly singing a rhythmic tune that just blends into the backround, people begin praying. The pastor moves from one person to another, laying his hands on them and pleading with the Lord in a loud voice to come and bless this person!

At this point, I was still standing in my aisle by my seat, unmoved by what was going on around me. The volume of prayer coming up from the altar began steadily increasing as did the tempo and volume of the music–all planned and carefully choreographed. I could see one particular friend of mine–a girl, but not one I was “into” more than as a friend–had gone down to the altar. I knew a bit about her home life and it wasn’t good. Having a taste of that myself, I had empathy for her and in a show of support, I moved out of my seat and walked down to where she stood, crying, her hands outraised, praying silently but with her lips moving.

I stood there for perhaps a minute before reaching out to her (we’re big on the “laying on of hands” in Pentecostal churches).

The moment I touched her, I felt a bolt of lightning go through my body and I hit the floor, knocked out! Pentecostals call this “being slain in the spirit.” It is believed that when this happens, a person is actually touched by God. In itself it doesn’t really mean anything. You don’t wake up with superpowers or the ability to talk to animals. It’s just a “thing” that happens; a supposed proof that God exists and that he does, in fact, move in this world despite the ample evidence to the contrary.

I came semi-awake sometime later, on the floor, crying, and praying. There were several people kneeling beside me praying with me. I lay there a few minutes honestly too embarrased to open my eyes so I pretended like I was still “out.” But finally, I cracked my eyes just a bit, then a bit more until finally, those around could see that I was awake.  More than still a little embarrassed, I tried to stand up on my own but I didn’t have the strength in my legs, so a couple of people grabbed me under the arms and half-walked, half-dragged me to my seat.

It took me about 15 minutes to fully recover and by that time, the service was all but shut down and everyone gone back to their cabins. I followed suit a few minutes later.

The rest of camp was uneventful and certainly, I didn’t get knocked out by the Holy Spirit again. In fact, I stayed away from the altar the rest of camp. But, nobody really talked about what happened to me, including me. I’m not sure even my parents knew.

To this day it remains the only real evidence I have that God exists and that he’s paying any attention to my insignificant candle of a life. But, it’s something you can’t just shake. I know I didn’t make it up. I know I didn’t “will” it to happen, but it did happen and I cannot explain it away.

As the years passed, my spirituality wavered, then came back strong again during times of difficulty as these things usually do. Today, though I don’t attend church regularly and though I put almost no stock in “men of God” at all, particularly those on television, that night at camp keeps me praying. That one moment where–maybe–God actually intervened in my life, keeps me cognizant of my actions and the things I do in this world.

I like to think that most of us are innately good. That, lacking a divine mandate like everyone used to get from church, we would all still be basically good people, looking out for each other; careful not to hurt others’ feelings. But, it does feel like that’s less so as the years go by. That scares me. People are capable of terrible things. Without boundaries, our own narcissism can easily overcome our innate safeguards leading us to do and say things that make us feel good, but which are not things civilized people do and say to each other.

Too often, the very people who demand equality and respect for others equally, are the first ones to condemn others for their beliefs. In that respect, we’re losing the fight for humanity, and that’s a difficult thing to watch.

I may not still go to church and it’s rare my radio seizes on the local gospel radio station anymore, but I cling to the belief there is a God and that he does still care. I don’t believe, as a race, we can afford not to.