“There comes a time in a man’s life when he hears the call of the sea.
If the man has a brain in his head, he will hang up the phone immediately.”
Come on down, they told me again this year. It’ll be better than ever. Yeah, yeah, I thought. Not that I needed any convincing. I’ll be there. But it will be better, they said. This year, we rented a house right on the beach. Walk out the back door, and there’s the ocean.
And the date snuck up on me, like it always does. You plan out a year ahead, and what you’re planning is a year away. A long time. But then the weeks pass, and the months. And last week I sat up and took notice. Beach Week was upon me. On Saturday evening, I packed up and got ready to leave the next day.
This year, they got the house from Sunday to Sunday, not Saturdays like always before. That was different. And this year, as Janice promised, the house was literally on the beach. She had located it online on the way home from last year’s excursion. And booked it right there on the spot. Sure, it cost a few bucks more. But it would be worth it, she claimed. All the others in the group clamored in as well. Yes, yes, it would be worth it.
As I’ve stated many times before, I’m no beach hound. I totally don’t get how people can waste days and days, stretched out on big towels in the sand, soaking up the sun. I mean, there’s a whole lot of other things that are way more attractive to me. But ever since my first Beach Week two years ago, I have returned faithfully. Not because of the location, but because of the people. My friends. I’d hang out with them anywhere. In the mountains, in the city, wherever. And, of course, “wherever” includes the beach.
Other than the beach house itself, I figured this year would be different anyway. Because the last two years, my head was pretty much screwed up in one way or another. The first year, I was working on the book. Wrapping up a monthly submission. And that month, it was the Sarah story. So my mind was in a far place all that week, mostly. And somehow, it worked, to get it written with all the noise around me. I thought it might not, but it did. And when I got home from that first excursion, I emailed that chunk of writing to my Tyndale people the following Monday morning. And what you read in the book is pretty much how I wrote it at the beach.
Last year, I was just a mess, emotionally. It wasn’t just during Beach Week, it was the general state of mind I was in. Looking back, that came from the book as well. It had been out there a few months and was plunging about quite madly. I was sitting there, holding my breath in disbelief, hoping it would hang in there for a while before sinking into oblivion. It was all a bit of a tense time. And I have to say, I wasn’t that sociable last year at the beach.
And this year, well, there’s lots of different kinds of noises in my head. Concerning the book and life and a few other things, like a possible sequel. But this year, as the day approached, I made some promises to myself. This year, there were some things I would do, every day. No matter what else got done or didn’t.
I would read. Strange as it may sound, I haven’t read more than a handful of books in the last few years. Been too busy, writing. Sure, I read my favorite news and opinion sites on the web every day. But that’s mostly short stuff, essays and such, that take a few minutes to work through. Reading a book takes time and commitment. And I’ve been slacking on those, a lot. So I packed a book that has been on my list for a couple of years. Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, by Albert Jay Nock. The most learned social critic of his generation, Mr. Nock never enjoyed much popularity in his lifetime. Because he wrote it as he saw it, and he saw it through eyes that refused to worship or acknowledge the “goodness” of the state. He saw both World Wars and judged them for what they were. He wrote what he saw and what I consider the truth against all the prevailing tides of his times. I have long admired the man and figured to read his opus at the beach.
And by late Saturday night, I had it all stashed away, all the stuff I figured I needed for the week. And more. When I travel over the road, I always pack heavy. It’s easy to pile stuff in a suitcase. Better to have more than you need then to have to run out and buy what you left behind. That’s my philosophy.
Sunday morning. I woke up early, before six. Like a regular work day. On Sundays, I usually sleep in until 8:30 or so, then get up and go to church. But this Sunday would be spent on the road, not in church. I’d loaded some of my bags the night before. I showered and threw the rest of my stuff into my truck. Headed on over to Wilma’s house.
Wilma, my good friend, and a close friend to Janice, was traveling down to Beach Week with me for the second year. Last year was her first. She enjoyed the time very much. Last year, I drove my truck down. And this year, she offered to take her little car, providing we could pack all our stuff in it. A Corolla. That’s what she has. A cool little car. Gets a heck of a lot better gas mileage than Big Blue. I pulled in at 6:45. We loaded her stuff and mine, in the back seat and in the trunk. The car could have held a bit more, But not much. By seven, we hit the road, with me behind the wheel.
This Sunday to Sunday rental deal wasn’t half bad, we decided, as we cruised the lightly traveled roads. Almost empty, they were, compared to what they would have been the day before, on a Saturday. We stopped once, for a break and for some gas, halfway down. We both like to travel the same way. If you’re going somewhere, hit the road until you get there.
And by 2:30, we arrived in Nag’s Head, NC. Janice and her friends Brian and Melanie had arrived a bit before. They were waiting for us at Awful Arthur’s, a famous Nag’s Head hangout. We wouldn’t get the keys to our house until after 3 PM. So we figured we might as well eat a bit. It’s a great feeling, an indescribable feeling, to loaf around like that, waiting for a full week of vacation to begin. After eating, we stopped at Awful’s gift shop and picked up a few mementos. Then on to our Beach House.
We followed Janice and Brian and Melanie and soon pulled up to a long, lean, tall house on stilts. Three stories high. Let’s explore first, before the others get here, and pick out our bedrooms. As the older, crotchety, grumpy guy, I’m always allowed a good deal of leeway to pick a bedroom in a corner somewhere, far away from any late night partying. I last until midnight, usually, maybe a bit later sometimes. But then I want to go off to a quiet place. On the second floor up front I found the perfect room. Here I stake my flag, I said. And the others, too, rushed about and claimed their rooms. The latecomers, my nephew Steven and his friends from South Carolina, would be left with whatever remained.
The first and second floors contained bedrooms, game rooms, lounge areas, and more bedrooms. The third floor, though, that’s what took our breath away. A large open room with full kitchen in one corner. Off to one side, a twenty-foot long table, hewed from a solid slab of thick varnished wood. And there were folding glass wood-framed doors that opened to the deck. Open or closed, you could see the ocean from the dining room. Hear the crashing incessant waves. We stood there in awe for a few moments, then rushed to unload our stuff. Lugged all our bags and groceries to the first floor. But we didn’t have to drag anything upstairs. Because this beach house had an elevator. Small, very slow-moving, but there. We piled our stuff in, and distributed it about on the appropriate floors. And soon enough, the others all showed up, the group that we would hang with this week.
My nephew Steven Marner drove his large van from South Carolina. Loaded with a week’s worth of luggage, and loaded with friends. I knew most of them, but a few new faces appeared this year. We shook hands and introductions were made. Laid back people, all of them. An hour later, after we’d all unpacked, we lounged about upstairs in the main floor.
And I drifted among them, my friends from South Carolina, old and new. And I heard their lazy drawling talk, and marveled. They sat out there on the deck, comfortable and deliberate. Lit their cigarettes, sipped their drinks, and just talked. Visited is another word for it. They just visited. The threads of their conversations flowed here and there, utterly unguided, with no particular goal. Such a thing is unheard of where I come from. Sure, we talk of this and that, the little things. But everyone is in some sort of rush to keep pace with a hectic schedule. And our talk reflects that. Short, abrupt, terse, is what we are. I sensed no such undercurrent in their words or gestures, those South Carolina rednecks. None. They were here, in this beach house, settling in for the week. And they were relaxed, in no hurry whatsoever to go anywhere or to do anything. I thought of where I’d come from, and how it was like that back there, at least the visiting part. And I envied them.
And from that slow, unhurried rhythm, the week just launched itself. Everyone just chilled. On Monday, I set out on my first walk along the beach. To the south pier, exactly 1.2 miles away. Trudged along the soft sand, barefoot, in shorts, T shirt and camo cap. My legs sure felt it, the first few days. Walking 2-1/2 miles in the sand is like walking five miles on pavement, I’m thinking. The beach was sparsely settled, mostly. It’s like that after Labor Day, I figured. Little groups huddled here and there, people sprawled out on large towels. And the occasional lonely fisherman, casting out far beyond the break, hopefully waiting for a nibble. In all my time on the beach in the past three years, I have never seen a single fisherman hold up as much as a single tiny fish. That first morning, I wondered if they were just standing there to be standing there, mourning the loss of summer.
I settled into my reading that first day, too. Albert Jay Nock’s masterpiece. As I’d figured, I was instantly drawn by the subdued brilliance of his prose, then immersed in the breadth and depth of his knowledge. Very few social critics in all of history have really seen things the way they are. Nock is one of those very few. Quietly persistent, this book is still in print and still being read two generations after his death. It will be read for many generations more. And no more than that needs to be said, I think.
And the days just kind of rolled by. We bummed about, each doing “what was right in his own eyes.” We checked out the local tourist traps, where everything was half price. Every evening, the ladies cooked up the lone formal meal for dinner. We dined on grilled steaks, chicken, seafood. And we loafed to our hearts’ content. The musical among us sang and strummed their guitars. On Wednesday night, we had our traditional Mennonite hymn sing. Janice didn’t forget the hymnals this time. Fred played the guitar and Greg, a newcomer, picked his banjo as we sat in a semi-circle and sang a great many of the old favorites. We finished with a rousing 3-group sing-around of “All the Way.” We all made joyful noises, those who could sing and those of us who couldn’t. The house rocked with our great roaring. I don’t think this house hears many hymn singings like that.
Thursday night was poker night. A quick refresher lesson for me, and off we rolled. I lasted for two hours before giving away my last lonely little chip. I lost exactly ten bucks, which is less than it costs to see a movie these days, and I had a lot more fun. Of course, the wine and spirits flowed freely every afternoon and evening. This is the beach. We were safe in a beach house. And not once did I see or hear a single person in our group get over loud or out of control. Not even close to it. It was all calm, happy, relaxed, paced.
It was an entirely different experience from other years, to be right on the beach like that. To look out the living room windows and see the incessant rolling waves. And to hear them crashing against the shore. It was wild, beautiful, and calming. I grasped the fullness of all that late one night, early in the week. After midnight, and people had drifted off to bed. I puttered about the kitchen, getting a drink of water. About then, my nephew Steven wandered in and sat down with his iPad to check his email. You up? I asked. How about sitting out on the deck with a nightcap? He agreed instantly. And we mixed some sort of concoction in a couple of glasses, and sat outside on the third floor deck in the darkness. Just chatting, catching up. Less than two hundred feet away, the white capped waves roiled and roared. It was almost surreal, the setting. And the minutes rolled away as we just hung out for more than an hour. Late night, good company, good drinks. No worry about getting up to meet any schedule the next day. That’s the magic of Beach Week. And this year, it was the magic of the beach itself.
Yesterday morning, during my beach walk, I strolled up to a grizzled old man, standing there stolidly, holding his fishing rod and reel. Looked like he’d been out on the beach for a while. He nodded and said hi. I stopped. How’s the fishing? “No so good,” he said. His answer made little sense to me. Do you ever catch a thing? I asked. “Yup. But this week it’s too windy.” Of course. That explains it. I stood and chatted for a few minutes. He claimed that on a good day, presumably when the wind was calm, he sometimes caught as many as a dozen fish. In one day. I’m sure you do, I thought. I’m sure you do, I said. I left him then, still standing, immovable, leaning into the strong winds.
And with all the week’s walking, reading, and general times of great merriment, I hardly got a scrap of writing done. I barely cobbled this blog together in time for posting. And this week, that’s just perfectly fine with me. I am where I am and it is what it is. It’s a different dimension, down here by the sea.
And in this different dimension, down here by the sea, a few things became very clear to me this week. I’ve known these things instinctively, just never took the time to process them. Now I have. There will never be a so-called “sequel” to my book until I reach that state of mind where it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. Or what anyone’s expectations are. Not anyone, anywhere. Not in my readers’ world. And not in my publisher’s world. Once I reach that distant point, once I can see the cresting ocean waves in my head, once I can stand at the shore fishing, it doesn’t matter if it’s too windy, it doesn’t matter if it makes no sense to anyone else, then, and only then, it will come, the writing of my story. I’m not there yet, and won’t be there for a while. But I know now where I need to be.
And that was Beach Week for one more year.
Housekeeping note. On Friday evening, Sept. 28th, I will be doing a book talk at Grove City College in Grove City, PA. The book talk is scheduled for 6:30 in the Moreledge Great Room of Rathburn Hall. The event is free and open to the public. I’ll be happy to sign the book you bring, or the book you buy there. For more information, contact the people at the college switchboard at 724-458-2000.
Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which
of us is not forever a stranger and alone?…We seek the
great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven…
Twenty-one years ago, I packed up all my earthly possessions, which consisted of a fairly meager little pile. A sparse assortment of clothes, a few dress pants, jeans, a few dress shirts, and a couple of suits. And a couple of boxes holding a decent collection of books. And many boxes of odds and ends, the dust of living. More than enough to fill a car. And I loaded all my stuff into my ugly tan-gold T Bird. I felt it in my head and heart, the loss of leaving the familiar. But I had accomplished all I could here. It was time to leave the land that had been my home for the past three years. Daviess.
I sensed it would be for good. And I felt it, the fleeting sadness of knowing the great things that had happened here in the past few years were over. Here, I had approached and entered a shining city on a hill. Vincennes University. And here I had conquered the odds and emerged victorious and confident. And now I would leave behind the friendships and relationships that would fade with distance and time. Sure, you tell your friends. We’ll stay in touch, and I’ll be back. But you know it will never be the same.
I left Daviess on a Monday morning. The sagging T Bird kind of staggered down the highway. I turned to the south and headed out. My destination: Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina.
Bob Jones University. The place that almost rivals the Amish, when it comes to legends and myths. Even back then, I was told. If you tell someone you went to BJU, get ready to duck or pucker. Because you’ll either get slugged or kissed. It hasn’t been quite that bad, but there’s something to the saying. Over the years, I’ve heard just about every rumor there is out there about how things really are on campus. And always, when I heard the stories, I just laughed and shook my head. Where did you hear a thing like that? Are you sure it’s true? Well, let me tell you how it was when I went there, back in 1991-93. And people kind of drew back, astounded. “You attended there? But you seem so, well, nice. How could a guy like you have come from a place like that?” Maybe because the “place like that” isn’t quite the ignorant dump you think it is, I thought. But I usually just bit my tongue.
“It’s a racist school,” some people snarled contemptuously. “It’s militaristic,” my liberal friends gasped in horror. But the most persistent myth I’ve run into: “Oh, yeah, that’s the place where they have separate sidewalks for guys and girls.” Countless people know that fact without the slightest doubt. Even when I tell them I was there and never saw such a thing, it’s still true, in their minds. It’s all a bit strange. It’s like facts don’t matter.
I will always be proud to be a BJU grad, and I look back over those years with a lot of fond memories. A few negative things cropped up here and there, sure, but those will come at you in any setting. I walked into BJU mostly intimidated. I’d heard how tough they were academically. And how they had, like, a thousand rules of conduct. But still, I chose to go. Because at that moment, it seemed like the best choice. Or at least the choice I was most comfortable with.
And looking back, it was almost lackadaisical, how it all worked out that I ended up at BJU. It could have been just about anywhere else. Somehow, though, a few figures I admired in my plain Mennonite world steered me there. Sang the praises of the place. So during my second year at Vincennes, I sent for an application. Filled it out and mailed it in. I was, of course, accepted. Right on, I thought. This will be the place for me.
The rulebook they sent made me a little uneasy. Dress codes, infinite specific rules of conduct, how long your hair may be, and on and on. I had just emerged from a world of infinite rules, seemed like. But I was more comfortable in a structured setting, I think. However tough the rules, I could take it if I set my mind to it. That’s what I figured. Besides, there were a few other things that that drew me.
The first and primary thing. I had family in the area. Sister Maggie and brother Jesse and their families lived over close to Abbeville. And Nathan lived and worked in Seneca. All points within an hour’s drive or so. I’d hang out weekends. And that strong pull of family just settled it, in my head. But there was still more.
I arrived at BJU a few days before my 30th birthday. Students have to live on campus until age 25. After that, they can live off campus and work. Basically have a normal life. And that’s what I planned on doing. And with my head swimming with vague, great dreams, I pulled into Greenville with my loaded T Bird. Eagerly. I was here, whatever might come. And, of course, a few snags jumped up instantly. My planned lodging didn’t work out, and the IHOP restaurant manager who had promised me a waiter job reneged when I walked in. Eventually, though, I found another waiter job at Swenson’s Ice Cream Gazebo, and lodging in a little trailer in a trailer park near the campus. Some kindly, simple guy named Jim had a spare bedroom in his trailer. He’d prayed about it, he told me later, and decided he would rent it out. And I just happened to show up. We had little in common, which I’ve found makes for the best roommates. In daily interaction, we talked and got a glimpse of each others’ world. But otherwise, no expectations.
It was late August, and it was hot. I timidly walked about the campus, trying to get my bearings. Lots of clean cut people swarmed about. Students, teachers, administrators, and more students. Everyone seemed positive and upbeat. At least they smiled as if they were. And I signed up for my classes, and got ready for the first day.
It’s a beautiful place, the University. Impeccably groomed grounds. Whatever was done there was done right. That attitude permeated the place. BJU is a fundamentalist Baptist school, where everything is done for the Lord. It’s pretty much a self sufficient campus, complete with hospital, large modern auditorium, the greatest collection of old religious art in the world (or one of them), its own security force complete with cop cars, dorms and class rooms. And I realized on the first day that I wasn’t in Vincennes anymore. Not in any sense, including the quality of the education. Not knocking Vincennes, here. Just saying, a private four-year University is going to be much tougher sailing.
During my second year at Vincennes, I took 21 hours of classes both semesters. And easily breezed right through. At BJU, I bravely signed up for 18 hours the first semester. Surely I could handle that much. But before the first week ended, I did what I never thought I’d do. I dropped a class, reducing my load to 15 hours. And even that seemed overwhelming. These people smiled and smiled. And then they piled on the work load and upped the expectations. They demanded the very best efforts from all their students. You won’t sail through any classes at BJU. I can guarantee you that.
And I uneasily settled in to my routine. This was a new place, an entirely new culture. Everyone looked and dressed the same, pretty much. Skirts and blouses for the girls, suits and ties and wingtips or tasseled loafers for the guys, at least until noon. You had to dress up in the morning, which was a serious problem for me. I had never really learned to “dress up” and so my wardrobe was quite limited. A half dozen shirts. Four or five dress pants. But mostly, I dreaded the mornings because I was different. And being “different” was a big part of the reason I could not abide with the Amish.
I was a member of a plain Mennonite church in Daviess. Where the women wore coverings. And the men wore those detestable straight-cut suit coats with no tie. When I entered BJU, I had never worn a tie. Never, in all my life. I came from a place where sermons were preached about how a tie can only be a symbol of pride. And to their credit, the BJU people made a rare exception in their rigid rules for Mennonites like me. I was allowed to wear the detestable straight-cut suit coat, and no tie. But it was so different and I was so painfully aware of that difference that it almost ruined my first semester. Everyone was staring at me. I could feel it wherever I went. In class. Walking about. And at chapel. As the weeks crept by, I actually nursed in my heart the vague hope that some mild misfortune would befall me, so I could get out of this place with some dignity. Something, anything, that’s what I wished for. Maybe an accident, like a broken arm or leg. That would do it. I could leave and never look back. But no such misfortune ever showed up. So I slogged on, day after dreary, dreadful day.
In my plain straight-cut suit with my friend, the lovely Elizabeth Reed.
By the fountain inside the front gate sans suit coat, obviously after lunch.
In the meantime, though, I faithfully trudged to classes every day, too. Kind of found the rhythm of the place. Go to class, find your seat in the back. The professor takes roll call. And then we bow our heads to pray. The professor speaks to God for half a minute. And then it was down to the business of learning.
I’ve thought about it a lot since then, all that praying going on. And it seemed to me after a month or so that these people weren’t that different from the Amish, not when it came to praying. No, they didn’t use a little black book. But their prayers were rote. How could they not be? I mean, how fresh can a prayer be, how heartfelt can it be when it’s mandated? When it’s just spouted out like clockwork? I might be way off here. I’m not saying the prayers weren’t valid, or that they weren’t heard. But even way back then, I recognized the formula of the prayers on campus.
And every week day morning around 10:30 or so, the entire student body trudged off to chapel in the huge modern new auditorium. Forty-five minutes or so. That’s how long it lasted. Attendance was mandatory, of course. You had your assigned seat, and ushers checked at every service to make sure you were there unless you had a valid excuse. I’m not knocking the practice. Not at all. I soon reached the point where I actually looked forward to chapel services, because the quality and depth of the preaching was so far beyond anything I had ever heard before.
And I heard all the guys who were anyone back in those days. Dr. Bob Jones, Jr. was a grizzled bent old man in his 80s, but he could sure punch out a good sermon. He roared like a lion and cooed like a dove. Hellfire and brimstone. Come to Jesus. It was old time southern preaching from a century ago, and I feel privileged to have heard it from him. And we heard Dr. Bob Jones III, too, a tall gaunt man with a rather harsh rasping voice. His sermons tended toward vitriolic diatribes against the evil Catholic Church and the occasional broadside against the “false teachings” of Billy Graham. These guys were exclusionary, oh yes, they were. Which I’ve never had a problem with, because that’s what freedom of religion is. The freedom not only to worship as you see fit, but also the freedom to exclude.
And I heard, too, the sermons of various local preachers and the many Preacher Boys in training at BJU. It was quite an honor for them, I learned, to get asked to preach at chapel. And for the first time in my life, I grasped what it was to really dig into the Scriptures. Amish sermons are mostly extemporaneous, often rambling. The Mennonites I had joined were a little more prepared with their sermons, but still, they tended to bebop all over the place, while preaching a lot of light fluffy stuff with neat little lessons wrapped up at the end. Not the BJU guys. They got up there behind the podium and belted out an entire half hour sermon, not from one chapter. But from one verse, sometimes. And sometimes one phrase from one verse. I marveled at it all, the apologetics of Christian Fundamentalism. And I absorbed their words.
And while I thought their messages edged to the harsher side of Christianity, I didn’t fuss unduly in my mind. I would take from this place what I could, and apply it to my life. And besides, I wasn’t quite sure where I stood on many peripheral issues. Hey, I would be here for two years. Then I’d move on, back to my little Mennonite world. That was my plan back then. Maybe I could even tell them about this marvelous in-depth preaching I had heard at BJU (that’s a joke).
There was one aspect of their teachings that bugged me, though. And that was their eschatology. Their end-times teachings. BJU is (or was back then) stridently pre-tribulation rapture. Jesus is returning very soon, maybe even today or tonight. We’ll all get raptured out, to meet Him in midair, Dr. Bob III would thunder. Then the great tribulation will be unleashed upon the earth. Satan will take over the whole world. He’ll take over this University, too, and use it for his evil purposes. But we’ll be with God, up there, so it won’t matter what Satan does down here.
But wait a minute, I thought, even back then. If Jesus is coming back soon, maybe tonight, for sure by next week, next month, or maybe even as late as next year, why are we at this University? Why am I paying you for an education? Why are you demanding my best efforts in my classes? What sense does that make? Why plan for the future, why study for the future, why get a degree for the future, if it will all be for naught? I couldn’t grasp it, quite, that line of thinking. And it still makes no sense to me.
And it’s still one of the most short-sighted, destructive teachings in all of Christendom, that pre-trib rapture stuff. My opinion. And it’s certainly not exclusive to the BJU people. It’s embraced by millions of Christians from many denominations, people who cling to the desperate hope that somehow they won’t have to die. To all of them, I’ll say this. Stop fretting about the end of the world, or about Christ’s return. Get on with living your life with joy in this moment. And instruct your children as if they will have a long life, too, and a productive future. Stop hoping not to die. I believe that every person alive today and those to come for generations to come will one day die. And if I’m wrong, hey, I’ll gladly concede my error in midair. What I’m saying is, concern yourself with your own life, and your heart before God. The “end of the world” will come for each of us when we pass from this earth.
By the time the first semester ended, I was just stepping into full stride. I came through with decent grades, mostly A’s. And I changed my major from English Education to straight English, against the advice of my professors. “What will you do with an English degree?” They asked. I don’t know and I don’t care, I said. I want to study real literature here. I want to absorb the great works of the past. They backed off, then. And I walked forward into the classes my heart instinctively cried for, the classics. Shakespeare. Dante’s Inferno. Milton. The major poets. Marvell. Pope. Keats. Shelley. And Emily Dickinson, one of my favorites. American literature. Mark Twain. William Cullen Bryant’s Thanatopsis. Faulkner, who ran with his coon hounds and hick country buddies at night, and churned out his brilliant stuff during the day. And on and on. I devoured it all. Guided by some of the greatest teachers I have ever known.
And after that first semester, my detestable straight-cut suit coat never bothered me again. I was who I was. I made friends, both with my teachers and many students. Some few of those relationships still remain decently strong today, twenty years later.
At the beginning of my second year, almost exactly twenty years ago, I stumbled upon the greatest literary voice ever to emerge from the American landscape. Thomas Wolfe. I didn’t meet him in the classroom. I just randomly picked up a ragged paperback copy of You Can’t Go Home Again at a used book store. I took the book home and opened it. Began to read. And from the first page, I was hooked. Between classes and work I devoured the book in the next week. I stumbled about, my head in a daze, barely conscious of the world outside those pages. His powerful, passionate soaring prose spoke to me like none other ever had. Stirred something deep inside. Absorbing it all, I sensed the innate knowledge in my heart that one day I, too, would write my story. I had no clue when or how. It was just a thing I knew.
There were so many good things about BJU, not least their high appreciation for the arts. The University was saturated with performance art. Shakespeare plays of the highest quality, with faculty and students playing all the roles. Internationally acclaimed orchestras appeared twice a year or so. Opera, performed by professionals. And classical music in all its forms. And we were required to attend. To which I thought, what? Required to attend? You couldn’t keep me away. To me, it was a huge privilege. And I went, sometimes with a girl, dressed in my straight-cut suit, and just drank it all in. Those moments remain among my most cherished memories of BJU.
And life in general bumped along. Every fall, when the students return, the University holds several nights of “revival” meetings in the big new auditorium. Good old home gospel preaching for the lost. And during those meetings, they fully expect people to stand, to recommit, to be saved if lost. Maybe even be re-saved. Dr. Bob Jr. officiated over both of the annual revivals I attended.
And he preached the gospel. Because Christ was proclaimed. But at the end, he unleashed some of the most manipulative methods I have ever encountered. Just to get people to stand. He was determined that all 6,000 people in the auditorium would be standing before he closed out the final night. First, he called out for the lost. If you don’t know Jesus, you can know Him tonight. Won’t you stand? We have people standing by, to lead you through those steps. And that was fine. But then, it was on to other goals. Do you have sin in your life? Unconfessed sin? It’s not too late. Tonight is the night. And a great many people stood. And then it was if you want to be a better witness for Christ, stand. Who can resist that? And so on and on, all the way out to where if you didn’t stand, you were admitting that you were lost.
The first year, of course, I leaped to my feet at some point late. By the second year, though, I was in no frame of mind to be led by a nose chain like a common simpleton. I wouldn’t do it just because everyone else was. I dug in, irritated. Whatever he said, I wasn’t going to be manipulated. Not this time. I would not stand. And I didn’t, as the drama intensified. His final call. Unless you are not a Christian, stand. I sat there stubbornly. I could feel the eyes around me. No. I will not stand. I will not. Dr. Bob Jr. closed it out then with a prayer that encompassed every soul in whatever state. Including mine. And there I sat.
As we were dismissed, one guy behind me came up and tapped my shoulder. Smiled hesitantly. “Here’s my phone number,” he said, handing me a little torn slip of paper. “Call me.” Nope, I replied. I’m fine. And I walked out of there in my detestable straight-cut suit coat, the only Mennonite in the place. And one of the few deemed “lost.” I also emerged with a new perspective of how things really are sometimes. And so my second year began.
A place like BJU could not function without toadies. Students who cozy up as aides to the big poobahs, students who are “groomed” for leadership. Toadies are universally despised by the average students. And toadies are also indispensible, to keep the system running smoothly. Especially the system of demerits.
There were demerits for just about any imaginable offense. You could get a demerit for thinking wrong, I think. But mostly it was stuff like being late for class, not showing up for daily chapel service (we all had assigned seats, and ushers checked to make sure they were filled), to the more serious but not unheard of stuff like drinking, smoking, and touching someone of the opposite sex. You were never, never supposed to be alone with anyone of the opposite sex, in any room or place, anywhere. But probably the most detested of all demerits, at least for the guys, was the dreaded weekly (or biweekly, I can’t remember) “hair check” when you walked into chapel for the morning service.
You never knew for sure which day would be hair check day. Sometimes the word buzzed that it was such and such a morning. But you could always tell as you approached the entrance to the massive auditorium. Extra toadies with craning necks stood on each side. And as you walked by, you could feel their eyes, scanning your hairline from the back, checking to make sure your hair wasn’t a shade too long.
And one morning, during my fourth and final semester there, I got nailed. A tap on my shoulder. I turned in surprise. I’d never been bothered before. An ugly little toadie stood there, in shabby suit and tie, frozen smile and all. “Your hair won’t pass”, he said. He handed me a ticket. Five demerits. I stood there, outraged and appalled. My hair was not too long. I didn’t say anything to the toadie, that wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere. But I seethed silently. And that afternoon I stopped by the Dean of Student’s office.
The Dean, a lean gravelly-voiced humorless man whose name I don’t remember, was back in his inner sanctum and unavailable, his toadie told me. What could he do for me? I presented my demerit ticket. I got it this morning. Look. I turned around and pointed to my hair line. It’s not too long. It’s not. I want to see the Dean to get the ticket reversed. The toadie smiled patronizingly.
“That’s not possible. He can’t be disturbed right now,” he said. His name was Henry, if I recall right. I stood there stubbornly. Then I’ll wait, I said. I’m graduating this spring, and I have never gotten a single demerit. I don’t want one now, not for a judgment call like this. I’ll wait.
Henry was perturbed, not used to such blatant obtuseness. “Look, the ticket is what it is,” he protested. Then I’ll wait for the Dean, I said. And back and forth we went, for a few minutes. When he finally grasped that I was really not going anywhere, he suddenly reached out, took the vile little slip of paper and tore it in half. “All right, then, there you go,” he said resignedly. “I’ll make sure it’s struck from the records.” You’re the man, I said, shaking his hand. Thanks very much. And I was out of there, before the Dean could appear and mess it all up again.
I never did get a single demerit. Not in my two years there. It’s such a rare and shining achievement that Dr. Bob III sent me a personally signed letter of congratulation after I left. One day, I think, I will frame that letter. If I can dig it out from wherever.
In the summer of 1993, I graduated from Bob Jones University Magna Cum Laude with a degree in English and a minor in History. A degree that was not even accredited. BJU refuses accreditation from any government entity. They reject it out of hand. Leave us alone. We are doing our work, as we see fit. We are training the next generation of our people. And that’s a thing I respect and understand and admire. I value my time spent there. I would stack a BJU education against any university in this country, when it comes to academic standards. And I will always defend their right to be just exactly who they are.
The Lord’s vineyards are scattered everywhere. And Bob Jones University is one of those. The people there are serving Him to the best of their knowledge and their faith. Sure, they might not be as exclusive, not as special as they like to believe they are. But that’s OK. They labor there in obscurity, all those professors, and all those administrators, in the vineyard to which they have been called. I will always respect them for that.
The world is a funny place sometimes. You step out and start off on a path, not quite sure if it’s really the right one. But you strike out on the journey, and push through to the end. And years later, you look back and realize that whether or not it was precisely the right path, it was one you would not change if you could.
That’s me, looking back on my entire experience at Bob Jones University. I would not change a single moment in that stretch of the journey, not even if I could.