C. of C.'s, CCM, And A Whole Lotta NCMO: The Youth Group Flashback — 4

york1.jpgIt seems that many, if not most, of my youth group memories involve a trip of some kind, usually to one of the weeklong summer camps that are so prevalent throughout the South and Midwest. They're often held on the campuses of Christian colleges/universities, presumably because even a secular campus can have corrosive effects on the spiritual development of impressionable teenagers, but the location is often secondary to the fact that anywhere you put young men and women together and lecture them about moral propriety as the girls idly pick at the frayed hems of their summer shorts and the boys stare at the girls' legs and try not to fall over dead in wonder — well, the situation takes on a life of its own. My youth group attended several camps each summer, but the main attraction was a camp in a tiny town in Nebraska, which took a usually brutal 15-hour ride in one of those big white Ford passenger vans to reach. (Regular readers of this feature will remember that this series actually started with my fuzzy memories of one of my youth group colleagues regaling a small group of us guys with the sketchy details of the brief fellatio he'd received on the van, but since apparently he was lying a little back then or my memory was way off [and it's probably a combination of the two], I should here point out that no one went down on anyone, at least on that particular trip up to Nebraska. Besides, the logistics are mind-boggling; those benches are close together.) But though the van trips were often fun, they were mostly filled with dead time, and we usually entertained ourselves by playing cards, reading, or listening to music. One summer toward the end of my time in the youth group, the youth minister, operating under the same kind of misguided hypocrisy that had previously led him to swear off R-rated movies but continue to view them on his own, declared that while we the teens would still be allowed to bring our personal CD players on the trip1, we would be prohibited from listening to any artists that weren't Christian. I had a big problem with this, as the only Christian artist I enjoyed at that time was Caedmon's Call, since they had the honesty to sing about doubt and boredom. But at 17, I was a painfully big fan of Dave Matthews Band, and the thought of sitting in a van for 15 hours without being able to listen to "Rapunzel" whenever I wanted to was intolerable. The youth minister even checked our luggage as we set off on the trip. I'd like to believe that the vague anti-authoritarian stance and general dickheadedness, as well as a desire to flaunt this man's stupid rules, that defined my personality at that age meant that I managed to sneak a wallet or two of my secular, hellbound music onto the van, and I really think that's a possibility. But the truth is I don't even remember. The youth intern was responsible for enforcing the rules, too; he was a frenetic, almost jolly kid of 21 who had already gotten on the youth minister's bad side by (a) befriending me, since the youth minister didn't like me all that much, and (b) organizing the night when some of us TP'd the youth minister's house and scattered pickle chunks in his garden, the smell of which did not sit well with his pregnant and occasionally bitchy wife. The intern inspected one young girl's music and told her that the James Taylor CD she was packing was unacceptable; when he refused to yield, the girl complained to the youth minister, who then told the intern that the JT was fine. "I don't care if it's not Christian, I just don't want the loud stuff," he told the intern. That guy. You know? Just ... man. The camps themselves were sweaty, confusing affairs built around spending a week in a group of 25 or so kids, most of whom were from other churches or other states, so you could experience all your emotional growth and breakdowns in front of total strangers. The Nebraska camp had a lot of ups and downs, especially when it came to sex. Most teens are already boiling in their own confusion when it comes to relationships — or at any rate, the guys are — but church camp adds another level of guilt by adding the fate of your immortal soul to the mix; touch that girl, and you could be lost forever. So of course, in an environment that scolds its young for expressing the frightening changes they're going through, you wind up playing a lot of sexually charged (for kids, at least) games, the most notorious of which was Kiss and Tackle. Everyone stands in a circle and is assigned either a number or letter by gender, and the ensuing game is a mashup of Duck Duck Goose that gives kids an excuse to run around after each other and attempt to kiss someone. This is intimidating for any geek worth his salt at age 15, but against the women of Grapevine it could be downright terrifying. It was as if every horrible dream you never admitted to yourself you had was being acted out before you in a grassy field in the Nebraska sun, and was condoned by grownups. That's what the camps were: A heady amalgamation of sexual wonderings and spiritual longing, where genuine change went hand in hand with the desire to score, or at least get some NCMO. Getting the non-commitment makeout, a mugging session with no strings attached, was the holy grail of these trips; my roommate got some all the time, so I guess wearing those Rollerblades everywhere really worked for him. One year, returning from camp, riding in a Suburban that had been brought for luggage, I held forth on the girl with whom I'd crossed the magical Rubicon, a brunette with long hair and a nice smile from somewhere I can't remember. My NCMO story was total bullshit, since all I'd done was hold her hand and walk her back to her dorm, but I felt somehow obliged to confess something big, as if we'd been busted by the youth ministers while she was giving me a lapdance or something. I don't even remember her name now, or what she looked like, just the shape of her shadow on the concrete. Those camps were something else.
1. Ah, life before the iPod. 2. She was a classic '90s Kojie: Kind of hot, wicked mean streak.