Back then, escape was just a bike ride away down a sandy path.
I could ride down the street, cut behind the Lains; place following the clearing where the utility lines ran through the pine trees, and in five minutes be at a sandy clearing, shielded by palmetto grass and scrub pines, with a view down to the lake. Not that my private spot was lacking in its share of risks.
Earlier that summer of my 12th year I had seen an episode of “That’s Incredible!” where John Davidson, with his beautiful green eyes, reported on how a teenager in Canada had spontaneously combusted while working outside on his parents’ farm. I stopped drinking from my Coca-Cola for a second, not believing what I was hearing. Sure enough, after looking up “spontaneous human combustion” in the family encyclopedia, I now had a new fear to add to my ever-growing list of things to cause worry.
That list of phobias also included the apparently very real risk of slowly being engulfed in quicksand. I grew up in the South, where sand was the only kind of soil I really knew about, being fed a steady diet of Mr. Howell being dragged down in quicksand on “Gilligan’s Island,” and David Banner struggling on “The Hulk” to free himself from its grip. It taught me that no matter how rich or how strong you appeared, quicksand was something that you didn’t mess around with. No, sir.
But perhaps my greatest anxiety was an interlocking one, a deep-seated realization that one reality was in diametric opposition to another supposed irrefutable fact, and that I had no control over either. As a kid going to church every Sunday, and then during the week for Wednesday night potlucks, and of course there was Vacation Bible School in the summers, everyone was constantly talking about Jesus coming back. The rapture. Oh, he was coming back all right, and it would be just. Like. That! A twinkling of an eye, I was assured. When you least expected it! In my impressionable child’s mind, Jesus was like some sort of celestial Mr. Furley who was going to come barging through our front door, breaking up any fun we were having, like on “Three’s Company.”
All of which was terrifying enough, mind you. But added to that was a new wrinkle of concern from one of the Christian tracts our Sunday School gave away to us kids like spiritual candy. “Chick tracts” were these little comic book-style pamphlets, pocket sized, with titles such as “The Poor Little Witch,” “The Visitors,” and “The Gay Blade” to warn about the dangers of witchcraft (duh!), of false religions like the Mormons and of homosexuals. When I read the ones about how awful the gays were, I had a sinking suspicion it was talking about me. My secret crush on my classmate in homeroom, Noel MacMillan with his curly blond hair, was a sin.
Looking back, I think I picked my private little hide-away because it reminded me of one of the scenes from the flannelgraphs used by Mrs. Thomas, my Sunday School teacher. Jesus was standing in a sandy clearing surrounded by his followers, teaching about loving one another, miraculously feeding everyone from loaves of bread and some fish. It was such a fantastic story, and it made me feel like this Jesus was someone who might accept me, even if I had these feelings for Noel MacMillan and for “The Six Million Dollar Man” Steve Majors.
It didn’t hurt that this patch of a clearing, so close and yet so far from home, gave me a view of the watering hole where Noel and his friends would swim, splashing each other and sunbathing on the pontoon raft anchored out past the slide. The raft was just beyond the delineation of the safety area, with its multicolored buoyed string bobbing gently in the water of the lake, in deeper water. That pontoon was a place that those athletic kids, without a care in the world, could escape to. While from my hidden plot, with all of my many worries, I could watch, and imagine myself, if for only for a brief moment, swimming out there and joining them on that wonderful raft.
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