The Light As Viewed From Here

A curious concatenation of events arose from my joining the Methodist youth group that led me to come out.

We were Catholic.

Yes, the Catholics had their own programs for young people, including the ever-popular Catholic Youth Camp in the summer, led by the charismatic Father “Tank” DeCarlo. He was a bear of a man, with a bald head, bushy mustache, and dark brown eyes. Like a pilgrimage, Catholic kids in Iowa gathered around Tank by Lake Panorama, summer after summer. They made lanyards, God’s eyes, and tie-dyed shirts. They sang silly songs, praised God, and cooked hamburger, carrots, and potatoes in foil packets over an open fire.

Maybe it was fun, for some people.

Still, the Catholics tended to stay close to home.

The Methodists traveled. To find fellowship and God by the mountains.

I wanted to go places.

I don’t believe that my dad wanted to get in my way. He was concerned about appearances.

Afterlick was all about appearances.

When I wanted to go to the bigger Catholic high school in Des Moines, my dad objected on the grounds that it would look bad.

“What will people say,” he said, “if the son of the superintendent of the public school went to private Catholic high school?”

“Well, you did,” I retorted, with defiance.

“Yes, but my dad wasn’t the superintendent of the public school.”

“Lucky for you.”

“Don’t get smart.”

“I already am,” I sassed back. “Haven’t you ever wanted to go somewhere else?”

With exasperation, he asked, “So, what would you gain by going to Geary High School?”

I paused. I was trying to make my case.

“Well, it’s a bigger place. More options. Different people. Somewhere else. And I want to learn French.”

Afterlick High School didn’t offer French. They only offered two years of Spanish. Even with that, I’m not sure that anyone from Afterlick would have been equipped to ask for directions in Guadalajara or a beer in Granada.

“French!” my dad exclaimed. “French? Why would you want to learn French?”

My dad had little use for French. He didn’t know anybody who spoke French. Why would anyone from Afterlick need to know French?

“Because I want to speak a language other than English fluently.”

Years later, I had a dream where I passionately kissed a man from Côte d’Ivoire in the Place Vendôme in Paris.

“Are you sure we should be doing this?” I asked with trepidation.

“Absolutely, we should be doing this,” he replied with a smile, as he thrust his tongue into my mouth again.

This is why we learn French, if only to ask whether or not what we are doing is forbidden.

My dad had consigned me to a future at Afterlick High and rejected the idea of my going to Catholic school. As a result, he was, with reluctance, more amenable to my joining the Afterlick Methodist Youth. I tried to join the Catholics, and he stymied me.

I was trying to find a place to be…that wasn’t here.

AMY. The nice girl on the block — catty and cliquish though she was. I was ready to go, and AMY was my ticket.

The Afterlick Methodist Youth left for the adventure to the mountains in July of 1983. We gathered in the small dark hours at the United Methodist Church in Afterlick, in the main hall.

With my sleeping bag, backpack, camera, and provisions of CrackerJack and chocolate bars ready to go, I kissed my mom goodbye. I hugged my dad.

“Have a good time,” he said. “Behave yourself.”

Reverend Dan, the pastor of the church and leader of the youth group, caught our exchange.

Like Tank DeCarlo, Dan was large and formidable, though also kind and gregarious. There must have been a rule book for youth group leaders back then. They must be big, happy, masculine, and impenetrable.

Like God, I suppose.

He grinned at my parents as he put a strong and steady hand on my dad’s shoulder.

“We will take care of him,” Reverend Dan said amiably, with a hint of sarcasm.“We welcome everybody. Even the Metholics and the Cathodists.”

We shared a laugh, noting this moment of ecumenical understanding. I felt like an ambassador, even though the amalgamation of “Metholics” and “Cathodists” sounded like drug addicts and urine bags, respectively.

As the sun began to rise in Afterlick, we assembled ourselves onto the vans and cars in waiting. There was the white van, the blue van, and the red car.

Dan drove the white van. His brother Jack, a pastor from another congregation out of town, drove the blue van. “The Aqua Van”, they called themselves.

“Red Bird” was the car driven by Diane Wellington. She had the hots for Reverend Dan. There was no mistaking her intentions about him. She willingly threw herself at him, which everyone could see. When she volunteered to chaperone the trip, we witnessed the longing in her gesture.

She was single and an elementary school teacher. She had needs.

Does lust find its way?

Miss Wellington thought she was in the dawn of claiming her captain, in the mountains, in a tent, amidst the romance of the alpenglow.

…until Liz came along.

Liz, with her wavy hair, trim and tanned body, blue eyes, and sparkly smile, showed up in the pinkish and golden light of the sunrise as one of our trip chaperones.

Like a model from Hiker’s World magazine, Liz was by Dan’s side. Welcoming us. Helping us. Guiding us onto the waiting vans and cars.

She was also Dan’s girlfriend.

A minister’s wife? Not the usual prototype.

The pin-up girl for a spiritual odyssey to the mountains? Absolutely.

“What the fuck??” I imagined Diane saying to herself. This wasn’t part of the plan. As far as she knew, there was no girlfriend. No beautiful, tanned, fit, trim, and perky woman who rode shotgun with Reverend Dan.

“What am I supposed to do now?” she thought, if I’d had entry into her imagination. “This is bullshit! I have to chaperone a bunch of teenagers on a trip that I wouldn’t have taken if I didn’t think it would end up in a marriage proposal from a very handsome and eligible man of God??”

“And I have to put all this mileage on my car!”

As it happened, Diane Wellington took the trip. And put mileage on her red car.

“Red Bird has five,” she reported over the CB radio, with a fair amount of disgust, bitterness, and accusation in her voice.

Lust found a way on this trip. Sideways. For Diane Wellington. And for me.

Over the course of the trip, Diane Wellington knew, in her aching loins, that her much-anticipated rendezvous with the reverend would never come to pass. She had been thwarted by the lovely and lithe Liz. She had lost her chance at being the minister’s wife. School would be starting again soon. Yet again, she would welcome August with the clatter and rhyme of six-year-old voices, basic addition, and the Ginn reading series, only to go home alone to her duplex with the white siding on the south side of town, night after night.

The other mothers on the trip — Carol, Connie, Karen, and Joyce — had already mothered and then some more. They volunteered for the trip out of a responsibility to community and, putatively, to God. Redolent of mid-priced perfume and made up in the best way they could with mirrors the size of credit cards in campground bathrooms, the matrons cared for appearances acceptably while mumbling in hushed tones about how to eradicate, or at least conceal, the sprouts of mid-life mustaches and unbecoming whiskers.

The trip mothers focused on the tourist-friendly views, their duty, the mountains, and their standing in the Ladies’ Auxiliary. Even while sandwiched between Afterlick’s unwashed, with the barely-brushed teeth and the long-neglected attention to deodorant and showering, the chaperones persevered. They remembered their families back home. Sometimes they wept with nostalgia, in their tents or on mountain trails, about the fragrance of freshly-bathed children, baby powder, summits never reached, and dreams that had become dust.

Diane Wellington was the first up with the coffee and the last to retire after extinguishing the embers. She warned us all to use sunscreen. She made sure we had sandwiches. She warned us about grizzly bears. She told us how to prevent blisters in our hiking boots and even applied the moleskine. Diane Wellington mothered us. She mothered us more than our own mothers. She mothered us so much sometimes that we had wished we didn’t have mothers.

While Miss Wellington channeled her attention toward the maternal, Reverend Dan and his consort Liz kissed, cuddled, and cavorted in front of her with an unscriptural lack of hospitality and compassion. Dutifully and resentfully following behind the White Van and Aqua Van in her red bird, Diane drove herself and the rest of us crazy.

I hoped that she had her own tent.

Diane needed attention. I needed attention, too.

I was the “Metholic/Cathodist” guest, and I was obnoxious.

I made fun of the other campers with the unbrushed teeth and the teenaged body odor that brought to mind Parmesan cheese, cumin, and rotten potatoes. I called them names and contributed to their usual sense of isolation and ostracism.

A church-sponsored trip doesn’t mean that the same rules of social capital don’t apply. God forgives all.

I accused another camper of stealing money from me. I looked around for better offers when someone from a lower caste asked me to hike with them. I hounded one of the chaperones, a lovely blond college student from a nowhere college in upper Iowa, to teach me Swedish. Camille had been a high school exchange student in Sweden. I was grateful for her patience, of which I took full advantage. I still know how to say “777” in Swedish because of her, though I’m sure she had wished I’d go away.

“Do you know how to say ‘777’ in Swedish?” I boasted around camp. “I do.”

I casually mentioned that I was the state champion in floor exercise in gymnastics in my age group to anyone who would listen, just so they would say, “Wow! Show me!” It’s hard to fit that into everyday conversation, apropos of nothing. I did.

I wasn’t covert in my flirting with Kent, either. Another chaperone, Kent played on the football team of a locally-esteemed college, was muscular and fit, professed acceptance in a ministerial way (though he obviously had his favorites), had brown eyes and nice lashes, and made the girls blush whenever he spoke to them.

I took lots of pictures of him.

I wanted him to take pictures of me, if only he had seen me and thought I was remotely interesting.

Lauren Seagram, one of four daughters of the local real estate titan, was positively smitten, too.

“I promise to go to every one of his games,” she gushed to her girlfriends and anyone else within earshot. To her credit, I think she went.

It’s cute when 14-year-old girls are attracted to college-aged men. It’s awkward when 14-year-old boys have the same feelings.

By the second week of the trip, through the Badlands, the Black Hills, and the Big Horn Mountains, I had had enough. The secret conspiracy of teenaged girls is legendary, for good reason, and the gang-like mentality of teenaged boys should not be underestimated. They close ranks quickly. They will let you know if or how you belong.

After we had eaten at the campsite by Jenny Lake, in the Grand Tetons, Diane Wellington did the dishes singlehandedly, at her insistence. The rest of us sang songs around the campfire. We thanked God for the bounty of nature and for our community.

It only takes a spark to get a fire going,
And soon all those around can warm up in its glowing
That’s how it is with God’s love,
Once you’ve experienced it,
Your spread the love to everyone
You want to pass it on

After the singing and the nightly prayer, to mark the day’s end, we were expected to retire to our tents.

Some of us wandered in the darkness, instead, as the fire burned down and emitted a subtle glow and heat.

The moon was full on July 24, 1983, over Jenny Lake.

A group of girls — Sara, Carrie, Wendy, Laura, and Betsy — said that they were going down to the lake to see the moon.

They were good girls. They were basketball players and babysitters. They did their homework, got good grades, and showed cattle at the county fair. They wore little crosses on delicate gold chains around their necks and helped with vacation bible school.

Some grew up to be the wives and mothers we expected them to be, and at least two of them were lesbian.

A group of boys — Andy, John, Bill, Sam, David, and Jeremy — announced that they, too, were going down to the lake to admire the moon and whatever else might show up on the way.

They were masters of code switching. In front of the adults, they exuded a “boys-will-be-boys” rambunctiousness and gasconade that reflected back, to all of us, the aspirations that we were supposed to hold dear. In the mornings, over our cereal or toad-in-the-hole, the boys told animated stories about their adventures of the night before — spying on other campsites, meeting girls at the vending machines in the central camp, daring one of their own to go skinny-dipping in the cold lake — while the Reverends Dan and Jack chuckled approvingly. Kent grinned, too. They had been those boys.

In private, with each other, the boys kept scorecards about the attractiveness of the girls on the trip. Most of the banter centered around “who would you like to make out with?”, until Matt Styles, precocious and experienced for a 14-year-old, volunteered that he had stuck his finger in a girl’s vagina earlier that summer. Matt immediately became the flag-bearer and guide for how to romance girls. Suddenly, making out wasn’t good enough at all.

I didn’t fantasize about kissing girls or putting my fingers in their vaginas. My idea of a good time was to pretend that I was a Yugoslavian exchange student who was lost. While I didn’t know Serbian or Croatian, I spoke enough Russian to dupe the unsuspecting stranger into giving me directions to the visitor center, complete with wild gesticulations and clearly-enunciated instructions. I perfected my halting English, with the right amount of unidentifiable Slavic intonation and linguistic uncertainty. When I was by myself, I derived immense satisfaction from my stunt, and I pulled the ruse on more than one occasion. At the very least, I discovered, Americans usually want to help foreigners and those who are lost, even if they talk very loudly when they do it.

We went as one group down to Jenny Lake until the girls detoured one way, and the boys charted a path elsewhere. I wasn’t sure who I wanted to follow. I ended up alone.

I didn’t think much about getting back to camp. There’s always a path, especially under a brightly-lit moon. I figured that I’d find my way.

I was lost in the moon and my own thoughts. The beauty, solitude, and tranquility of it all gave me some peace.

“Would you like a closer look?”

Startled, I sprang to my feet and apologized.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t — “

He was reassuring and laughed.

“No, no! Don’t say you’re sorry. It’s a beautiful night. That’s why I’m out here.”

He laughed again.

“And to get away from my fucking family.”

With deftness, he set up his telescope on one tripod and his camera on another. As he assembled his gear, he handed me some binoculars.

“Take a look.”

The binoculars were much more substantial than the pewter-gray plastic field glasses I’d looked through before.

“I can’t see anything,” I said, with fumbling and frustration.

Gently, he turned the binoculars around so that I was looking through the viewfinder lenses.

“That should help.”

And there it was. The moon. The luminous, full, and eternal moon.

I dipped the binoculars to catch the light on the water. Like white and silvery brushstrokes on a canvas of the darkest and deepest blue, the moon gleamed with incandescence in the sky and on the water, as it had forever.

“Wow. It’s fantastic. It’s like I can reach out and touch it.”

“Yep, the moon is where it has always been,” he told me. “We’re just in a different position to see it like this.”

His name was Doug. I never liked the name “Doug” because it sounded like something related to dirt, muck, and sadness. This Doug wasn’t like that. He was taller than I was, lean, with round wire-rimmed glasses, short hair parted on the side, khaki shorts, a Glacier National Park t-shirt, and Birkenstocks.

He smelled like sweat and Dr. Bronner’s, and his teeth were bright white even in the dark.

“I’m going to Carleton College this year. My family wanted to have one last hurrah before I went away to school. Honestly, I can’t wait until we get to Northfield. They’re going to drop me off before they go back home to Illinois. My mom and dad keep acting like this is the last time they’re going to see me. Two more weeks. If I don’t scream at them first. Or hitchhike.”

Doug showed me the stars through his telescope.

“The brightest stars aren’t always the brightest. They’re just the closest to us. The ones we see.”

“Apparent magnitude?” I offered timidly.

“Yes! Right! How do you know that?”

I thanked Mr. Mallory, the eighth-grade science teacher with the horn-rimmed glasses and nicotine-stained breath. Astronomy never felt so flirtatious.

“I am a nerd. And I pay attention.”

Doug bellowed and patted me vigorously on the back. I noticed his prominent Adam’s apple and was suddenly aware that I found it handsome.

“Hey, bud! So am I!”

He held up an imaginary glass and toasted me.

“To the nerds!”

To the nerds.

“Are you here with your family?”

“No, I’m here on a youth group trip.”

“Out by yourself after dark?” he asked playfully.

“I…lost track of the others,” I said, trying to appear confident and self-assured. “They went one way…and I decided to stay here.”

We talked about the moon, the stars, parallax, apparent and absolute magnitude, marmots, and the places we had hiked. Our itineraries were uncannily similar. We agreed that the Badlands and the Big Horn Mountains were underrated. Yes, Jackson Hole was a tourist trap. We commiserated about the everyday inconveniences of traveling with others and the overwhelming desire to be alone.

At fourteen, I felt like I knew what it meant to fall in love.

“Hey, can I take a picture of you?” Doug asked. “You look so great with the moonlight on your face.”

Sure, I thought. Take all the pictures you want. You can even kiss me.

“Um…okay. What should I do? Should I look at you?”

“No,” he said. “Just sit there. Like you are. Looking out on the lake.”

I heard the clicks of the camera.

I had been remembered.

“Should I send the photos to you when I develop them?”

“Hmmmm…I don’t have a pen and paper.”

“Write to me at Carleton. It’s a small place. I’ll send them to you.”

Doug packed up and went off to his annoying family and his future at college, while I walked back to my youth group, under the guidance of the moonlight.

Doug from Carleton. I didn’t even know his last name.

He has photographs of me by Jenny Lake.

The rest of the trip didn’t really matter.

I helped Diane Wellington with the dishes on the last night of camp in South Dakota before we made our way home to Iowa.

The campers and chaperones were gathered around the campfire, in one last communion. Reverend Dan played the guitar. Some people held hands.

I wish for you my friend
This happiness that I’ve found
You can depend on Him
It matters not where you’re bound
I’ll shout it from the mountain top
(Hey, World!)
I want my world to know
The Lord of love has come to me
I want to pass it on

“Well, bless your heart,” she said gratefully. “I just thought I’d do the clean-up myself so that everyone else could enjoy a nice time by the fire.”

Diane tilted her gaze up at the people around the campfire, allowed herself to be serenaded for a second, and then she got back to work.

“Happy to help. That’s how it has been.”

I appreciated her martyrdom and service.

“Have you had a good trip?” I asked.

She smiled wanly but didn’t answer.

Photo by Jim Radford