Every time church was open my family was there. We went every Sunday of my life, and Wednesday, too. My dad was an elder on the board wherever we were attending, and my mother always sang or directed the choir. Church was the hub of my parents’ social life.
Church was simply a given for me in my youth. My parents made us participate in all the activities: we sang in the choir, we played the hand bells in musical performances, and we had to partake in the plays that our youth group would perform. This was not a problem early in my youth; I had friends there and I didn’t know enough to feel embarrassed. But by the time I was a young teen, it was torture.
Every year they would enroll us in our church musical theater group. We sang, we danced, we acted – there would be dance routines with choreography. As a young man who was trying to establish himself as cool and independent, it was humiliating. I never felt so embarrassed. But I had to do it. My parents made me, literally. The only perk was that there were girls there and some of my other friends from church were involved. At least we could hate it together.
When we had perfected our performance over months of practice, we would go on choir tour. The director would book us at churches across the neighboring states. We would stay in cheep hotels and be given a small food budget. Despite the humiliating performances that we had to do on a semi-daily basis, the tour was actually very fun.
I had a pretty solid group of church friends – guys I could trust to be exciting – who weren’t so religious as to be soft and boring. When we all got together, we were more of a handful than most other young men. On this leg of the choir tour, they booked me and four of my friends together in the same hotel room.
As young boys there was nothing Christian about us. We knew the ideas and the names, we knew Bible verses and hymns. But all we wanted to do was smash girls and play with fire and knives. We wanted action. The religious concepts could not penetrate the youthful testosterone of our adolescence. We knew they were ideas we should respect, and we repented at prayer time. But we rarely allowed them to inform our decision making.
As four unsupervised male youths in a hotel room, we all upped the ante with what we could find to do in the room. I had brought a lighter with me as part of my travel kit, as was the code with Dan and I. We found a can of hairspray and began blowtorching items in the room. We dared each other to stick our hands in front of the flame burst; we ran though the flame as the other person sprayed it. We sprayed it through the lampshade and across the TV screen. Our whole room smelled of singed hair.
I thought it would be funny to throw a stack of cocktail napkins in the air and flamethrow them out of the air, like shooting skeet. I figured they were small enough that they couldn’t do much, and the flame probably wouldn’t ignite them anyway. I was wrong.
I threw the stack and my friend Tony shot the flamethrower. The flaming hairspray stuck like napalm. The whole bundle burst into flames and scattered on the floor, burning more intensely now. We stomped around desperately trying to put them out. Sparks scattered and smoke billowed.
When we were sure that everything was out we assessed the damage. The floor was black with ashes and several large burn marks marred the carpet. Panic set in as we realized we would not be able to hide the damage. We grabbed wet towels and tried to sponge up the black mess, leaving a mass of soggy, blackened towels by the sink. Most of the ashes came up but several spots had been singed. The carpet had melted into hardened puddles.
We scrambled about trying to fix what we could. One of my friends had invited a kid from another room to come in and hang out. This kid was soft; I knew he would rat. He looked uncomfortable the whole time. I watched him squirm as we cleaned and before we were done he had left. Within minutes he returned with one of our staff.
The staff marched into the room. We all froze and looked at him in silence. The room reeked of smoke and burnt hair. “Why is the carpet all black?”he asked in an accusatory tone. I took the lead, “Our feet were muddy, and we spilled a soda.” He looked me right in the eye. “Really,” he said, “because I heard you burned it.” Our hearts skipped a beat. My face flushed red.
He got down on all fours and looked closely at one of the burnt patches. He drew his pocket knife and began scraping vigorously across the spot with the back of the blade. Ashes and melted carpet came up, and after a few minutes of vigorous scrubbing the patch just looked black instead of melted. We helped him do the rest. We scooted the beds around to hide what we could. It looked better, but still damaged.
He thanked us for being honest about the incident, which we most certainly were not. Shortly I was called into the room of our director. She and her husband chastised me severely and took my lighter. I knew I was in the wrong, I didn’t need more guilt. But shame is the name of the game when you’re in the company of church folk.
The tour went on for three more days before we returned home. I knew my ass would be grass when we got back. I enjoyed the rest of the trip the best I could, anticipating my eventual punishment. The trip ended all too soon.
My aunt picked me up from the church and drove me home. I remember on the drive having a deeply philosophical moment. I was not in trouble on the drive, but I would be once I got home. Every moment that passed brought me closer to the end. I could not stop the flow of time, only watch helplessly as it passed. I could not cling to the present nor prevent the future no matter how hard I tried. It was so inevitable that it was practically imminent. The future and the present were one. I was sucked into an intense awareness of the present and all that it contains. It was quite trippy.
My parents were pissed. Royally pissed. My dad asked where I had gotten the lighter. I said I found it, but he knew I got it from Dan. He asked if Dan gave it to me and I conceded; at least they’d be mad at him instead of me. I was grounded immediately, but like always the shaming was the more important part of my punishment, and the guilt. I sat for what felt like hours listening to my parents’ harangue.
Life went on. None of my friends got in trouble. Even though several of my church friends were as rough around the edges as Dan, my parents were still more lenient about the trouble caused with church friends than with school friends. I still don’t understand that at all.