when i was 17 years old, i went to the Christian Leadership Conference at Hargis Christian Retreat in Chelsea, Alabama. today, its website describes Hargis as having “hiking trails, a lovely lake for fishing and canoeing, and fields for games and activities.” the site also invites visitors to “play outdoor basketball and volleyball,” or even take a dip in their generously-sized swimming pool. but in the summer of 1990, i almost added to these amenities, without any intention of doing so.
we had arrived early in the evening, traveling in a motorcade from the Bessemer YMCA–the only place i had ever worked–for three-quarters of an hour to and through the back roads of the rural, woodsy south. we’d had just enough time to find our lodgings, claim our bunks, and head down to the dining hall for what was no doubt a delectable dinner, and then it was time to get down to the nitty gritty: leadership. that’s why we were all here. this weekend, leaders would lead us into being leaders also, through games, activities, and…square dancing? yep, that too. and at the end of this marathon of summer fun, we would all return to our respective daycamps, and rip camp counseling a new one–all in the name of the YMCA creed of “body, mind, spirit.” also in vogue that summer (according to our own Christian leader): “seize the day.” our director had recently seen Dead Poets Society, and it had left him mesmerized, from the tips of his toes to the top of his mini soccer ‘fro, back down to the edges of his red shiny shorts. and “shorts” was the right word for them, as they were a good four inches shy of being just long enough. little did we know he would be saying “carpe diem” all summer long, with crazed eyes and a smile that looked as if it were pressed on life fake nails–the cheap kind you get at the drugstore. so here were were, seizing the day. in the dining hall. dinner was over, and now we were in the incubator–young skulls of mush, developing into strong minds of despotism…commanding, authoritative personalities…confident, supreme captains of influence and administration…or at least teenagers who could lead a game of kickball. and for the moment, we hundred-and-fifty or so caterpillars–made up of camp programs from all across the southeast–were in a cocoon of word games and small-group synergy, riveted off of our round, colored, attached-to-the-table lunchroom seats.
about an hour later, gung ho as we no doubt were to continue our fun YMCA symposium on leadership, the night’s organized festivities were over. we were now free to go. free to hang out. free to pal around outside near the coke machine, or explore the grounds of Hargis, maybe find a fellow counselor (i’d met one from Marietta, GA) and make a move by the lake, or go back to our cabins and plan middle school pranks for unsuspecting co-workers. i’m sure all of those things were in motion, and there was an excitement of “free time” all across the retreat, but mostly, people stayed around the dining hall. and a lot of people stayed right inside: people still hunkered down, still talking. intra-camp sit-downs were happening all over the room. it was still packed, and a crowd lingered right outside the door.
i thought to myself…what did i want to do? my options were wide open…the world was my oyster, the camp was my pearl. i was 17 years old. the place was full of guys and girls, my age and up through their twenties. it was a beautiful Alabama summer night. the stars twinkled above the picturesque pines. the moon glistened off the lake. i felt cool. i felt great. i felt clean. i felt…full…the salisbury steak, the mashed potatoes, the cranberry sauce in the shape of a metal can…what was for dinner? our bountiful harvest had filled me up…i was about to bust. it was time…it was necessary to… i needed to find a bathroom.
the restroom in the dining hall was at the very front of the room, right behind where the speaker had been standing at his little podium. i walked in and took care of things. well done. masterfully executed. but no big deal for me–i was used to this sort of expert handling of the situation. except:
i approached the sink to wash my hands, immersed in the soundtrack of a still-running, just-flushed toilet. i stood there, my soapy hands under the water, thinking about my plans for the next hour or two. multi-task…plot during the usual: lather between my fingers, scrub the tops and bottoms, look to the left…look to the left…look to the left…i looked left, and i noticed that not only was the toilet still running, but the water was about an inch away from the top of the bowl. rising, rising, rising. RISING. QUICKLY. and…
“over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go…”…that song from elementary school seemed to play in my mind, seemed to the fit the visual of the water proudly and rapidly frolicking over the porcelain edges, spraying down the sides, and drowning the floor around the toilet. then, the choir kids stopped singing, and i was frozen…jolted and hypnotized by the guilt and humiliation that was rushing toward me like the foamy waves of the Atlantic. it was only a matter of moments before the water reached the edge of the bathroom. what should i do? what could i do???? i knew nothing about plumbing. and i’d never built an ark. i would mourn the loss of my fellow conferencees. but there was no time for them. i had to save myself. i could only hope that they would be washed away to some paradise. my only consolation was the fact that we were all trained lifeguards.
and so i made my decision, the only decision i could make. i stepped out of the bathroom and shut the door. IT IS FINISHED. as i looked down, a bit of water reached through the large, inch-and-a-half gap under the door, and splashed against my brand new, black and white k-swiss. loose-fitting as they were, i already thought they looked like boats; and now they might need to be.
i took a few steps away from the door, walking across the rustic, wooden floor of the dining hall. the water was reaching out like the hand of God over a sinful race. it rushed forward and wide, left and right, and i had to hasten my walk to distance myself from the expanding shoreline. unbeknownst to the crowd of people scattered along the dining tables, as well as those standing around, forming puddled cliques across the cafeteria, we were all caught in the midst of a Tidal Wave bubble gum commercial. this was NO PUDDLE; the river of filth was rushing everfurther into the room, and my walk was slowly transitioning into a full jog. past the guest speaker. past the Hargis staff. past circles of conversation. looking back, looking forward, bobbing my head around like a paranoid, rubberneck neurotic stuck in the back of a ’57 Ford Woodie burning rubber through Pothole City. my feet jetted me to the door, as i looked back once more to take in the calm before the storm, or should i say the hurricane: there they were, crowds of people, all talking, all smiling, laughing…all unaware. and behind them, as if it were CGI’d and therefore the green screen hadn’t alerted them to the danger, was a flood, a flood, a FLOOD. RUSHING OUT, and now only inches from the guest speaker’s feet. i had to get out of there. and never, ever come back.
the doors flew open, a little too loudly. people right outside turned and looked. i glanced away and down, and picked up the pace. a few seconds later, i was running. i passed the first cabin in a full sprint. my k-swiss were kicking up dirt like a cyclone. i ran as fast as i possibly could. as i plowed across Hargis Christian Retreat, i thought about the ramifications of this recent turn of events: would i be paying for a new floor in the dining hall? honestly, i’d seen the tide, and it would probably be cheaper and to their benefit just to change the sign. how much could it cost to replace “Retreat” with “Water Park?” “so anyway, Blanche, we went to Hargis Christian this weekend. little Clint and Jennifer love the water cannons and the kiddie tubes. Mark loves the wavepool with the hardwood floor. and i love the lazy river. it starts by the teatherball pole…” maybe this would work out for everyone…maybe i just did them a favor. at least, i could hope. i was 17…i wasn’t emotionally prepared for this…the only thing i’d had to worry about for the past year was how to put the moves on my friend’s younger sister. she was a year’s worth of an older woman to me, and she was built like a filing cabinet with the top drawer open. maybe my pioneering of central Alabama’s only aquatic extravaganza would draw her to me like a moth to a flame. someone had built a cement slide on the side of a mountain near our neighborhood recently, but i could only imagine people being skinned alive by the paved flume before wrongfully shooting across the road like a bad snow sled misfire, landing in the softball field, and not climbing up for a second go. there was no comparison: in the world of water park mavericks, i would reign supreme. maybe. but for now, i had to put my plans of romantic domination aside, forget about my high school fantasy and her top drawer, and think. and run. and run…by the time i reached our lodge, i was covered in sweat, partly from the workout and partly from the worry. i needed a plan, and quick. by this time, everyone was surely evacuating the area…looking for mops…and trying to inflate their shirts like the Boy Scouts. and they were probably all reflecting on that nervous-looking kid, the one who got out of there like he was on fire, the one who busted through the doors and took off into the night. fortunately, they were all strangers–everyone from our camp had left the building. i thought fast. i knew what i had to do. i rifled through my stuff, thanking god that i was a chronic over-packer. and i changed. everything. my shirt. my shorts. my watch. i put on a hat. i changed my shoes. i even changed my socks. and then, as fast as i could, i went down to the main building and assimilated into the crowd. like nothing had ever happened. and anyone who saw me, if they were thinking i was that guy, they had to give pause: “hey, wait a minute, though, that guy wasn’t wearing a hat. and he had on k-swiss. yeah, it’s not him.” i went everywhere. i talked to everybody. i wanted every single soul to see me, with that face, and those clothes, and know that i absolutely was not THAT GUY.
and so, i fooled them. i only told one person; and he was like a vault. otherwise, nobody knew. just me. not a single person had any idea that I WAS THAT GUY. I OVERFLOWED THE TOILET. I FLOODED THE DINING HALL. no one knew. i walked among them. i talked among them. i looked like them. but i was different. there was something that set me apart: i had a secret.
and now, in the present, sitting in my apartment in los angeles, i was in that same situation. i looked like a normal person. i walked among normal people. but i had a secret: i had a ticking time bomb in my head. one that could lead to blindness in my left eye. or paralysis. or worse. much worse. it could happen during my surgery. or due to complications from my surgery. or from waiting too late for surgery. people would see me and say, “hey, how are you doing?” sometimes i would say, “i’m okay.” but other times, i would just say “i have a brain tumor.” silence. who knows what to say to that? but it’s the truth. it’s “how i’m doing.” at work, everything would be fine, and then all of a sudden i would wince from the intense pain shooting through my brain. one night, it hit me so hard that i almost went back to the hospital. i kept my phone on me. i kept medicine in my pocket. i didn’t drive too far. the brain surgeon told me not to fly. i asked my roommate to sleep with the door unlocked, in case i needed help during the night. i had been planning my will in my head, and telling friends what i wanted done. not that i have a lot for someone to inherit, but still, there were considerations. who would take care of the piggies? what about all my recording equipment? my car? my intellectual properties? these were reasons to make my wishes known.
i had a secret. because i had a problem. but really, we all have secrets. how many people do you pass on a daily basis? how many names do you know? how many of them have horrible relationships. or suicidal thoughts. or dreams of leaving their life altogether, and starting over somewhere else? how many are desperate. or on the edge of doing something terrible, that they know they shouldn’t. we are all running to the cabin, in one way or another, eager to appear in different clothing, and hide what lurks deeply beneath. this is the world we share: one of appearances, one of layers. and for me, the deepest layer has a mass inside it. there’s a rock in my head. i sit at my computer, and in an act of sheer poetry, i write words from my brain, about the thing in my brain, which may eventually shut my brain down. but for now, i will continue to write, and continue to plan my life. and continue to dream. about a filing cabinet with the top drawer open. and a water park i haven’t been to. and a summer i haven’t yet spent. and i will let no secret hold me back. i am running. under the moon and stars. and i will continue on.