Thursday, March 6, 2014

A Fundamentalist at Bob Jones University: Part 3

Read Part 1 here.
Read Part 2 here.
Read the BRR excursion here.
Note - there are other posts in this series; look under the tags "memoir" and "fundamentalism."

The first morning back from the Bill Rice Ranch, I stepped into the convection oven that is July in Pensacola, and the heat and humidity told me that I was home. Tennessee summers are hot and humid, but not like the summers on the Panhandle of Florida. To outsiders the Panhandle climate is oppressive and tangibly antagonistic. To me, that morning, the air was heavy with gritty realness that had always seemed a contradiction to the fundamentalism that I was raised in. Being able to *touch* the air had always seemed to be a physical realness that was frowned upon within the ethereal-minded, vaguely-Gnostic church and school that I had attended. So, my break with the Bill Rice Ranch, my assertion to my dad that I was not going to be going back to Bob Jones University, and my longed for freedom were all physically manifest in the sticky, heavy, and hot Florida air.

First things first, though; I needed a job. The bakery in front of our trailer was closing. The owners, good friends of my parents, were moving out of state. They were getting rid of almost everything, and were in the process of having yard sales when I arrived. They told me and my brother that if we set up and ran the yard sale, we could keep the profits. That worked out well for the first week, and it put false expectations in my mind. Well, that and the couple in my dad’s church that made their living by operating a booth at a local flea market; they encouraged me to run yard sales full-time. Since my car was now my brother’s car, my employment opportunities were limited until he went back to BJU. I thought, based on my first week haul and the advice from the flea market entrepreneurs that I could make enough money running a constant yard sale to make it until mid-August when my brother was slated to leave.

It didn’t really work out. Of course. And, all the money I had made the first week was blown trying to impress a girl. Yamato’s, a hibachi grill, was my go to restaurant to impress girls[1]. Yamato’s wasn’t that expensive, but the arcade and laser tag where I took her after dinner got expensive fairly quickly. When you’re shoving quarters in machines, you don’t really realize how much money you’re spending until too late. And, by that time, the girl is hooked on your quarter supply, and you’re left hoping that your endgame comes to fruition before she goes through all of your money. Fast forward to the next day – I was now basically broke and “customers” had stopped coming by my yard sale[2]; I was back to needing a job.

Thankfully, my brother was smarter than I was, and had already dumped the yard sale and gotten a real job working at a tree service company. I asked him, and neither one of us can remember if he or my dad got me the job at the tree service company. The most likely scenario, considering how my brother felt about me at the time, is that my dad got me the job – chances are, he made my brother get it for me. Regardless of how the job was acquired, I all of a sudden found myself with a chainsaw in my hand, a tool that I had never touched before. My very first day on the job, I blew up a chainsaw. No one told me that when you put gas in a chainsaw, oil goes with it. At least I never cut a limb off.

I hated that job. Poetic praising of the Florida climate is all fine and dandy until you have to work manual labor in it. I may have hated the job, but I loved hanging out with the guys after the long day was over. My brother had gone back to BJU[3], so I was able to reclaim the ’66 Dodge Dart, which meant that I was tasked with driving home one of my coworkers. He introduced me to the joys of eating Buffalo wings and drinking beer on the porch after a long day at work. For that, I will be eternally grateful. What I’m not grateful for is that he taught me how to smoke. Well, sorta. I was never able to figure out how to light my cigarette while sitting in the bed of a moving pickup truck. No matter how much I cupped my hands, and no matter how hard I took a drag, I could never light my cigarette in the back of the moving work truck. My cigarette lighting failure didn't stop me from proudly buying our packs of Marlboro reds, though. He also introduced me to weed, but I realized a couple of years later that I had never actually gotten high during that time. But the drug Band-Aid had been ripped off. He swung the door wide open to several practices that I believed removed the stigma placed on me by virtue of having grown up in a Christian home.

Outside of the actual job, things were going great. I was making good money, had a friend who took me to bars to meet girls, and my parent’s never questioned why I smelled like cigarettes. The only thing that I needed was my own place, and in a couple of months I’d have enough money to move out. Then, for the second time in two months, I got myself fired. This time was actually not my fault. Whoever had hooked up the chipper to the truck at the end of the day, forgot to fasten it. The truck was stopping at a red light when it came off; the safety chains were connected, so it didn’t do much damage. I think the owner was just scared that he had barely escaped a lawsuit, and was looking for a scapegoat. I was the most expendable, considering I knew the least about the job, and, so, even though the site foreman vouched that I hadn’t been the one to hook up the chipper, the owner blamed me for it and fired me.

I was pissed, but I wasn’t worried. I could get another job, and I did hate the tree service work. I still had my freedom, and that was the most important thing. The next day, my dad came to me and said that he and my mom had some extra money, and they’d like to pay my way back to BJU. Thinking that since the semester had started the day before there was no way that BJU would let me register, and thinking that since I was safe I could say “yes” to my dad and everyone would be happy, I told him that I'd go back to BJU with the unstated belief that it wasn't going to happen. Except BJU apparently hates me, because when my dad called, the school agreed to let me register late. As pissed as I was at my boss for firing me, I was even more pissed at BJU for letting me come to school late. The next day I found myself back on the campus of Bob Jones University, completely unprepared to be back in that environment.

I was placed in the hall leader’s room. Our other roommate was a freshman farm management major from the middle-of-nowhere Michigan. I began that semester a whirlwind of anger and resentment. One of my first acts was to kick my freshman roommate out of his bunk because he was in the one I wanted. That was followed up by my removing the Missionary prayer cards on the door and replacing them with pictures cut out of surfing magazines and a Clinton/Gore ’96 sign[4]. I have to say that my hall leader roommate was far more gracious than I deserved, because I began that year as a complete asshole and I remained so for the rest of the year. In fact, every single authority figure, except one[5], bent over backwards to accommodate me that year. If I didn’t know better, I would think that there was some sort of collusion going on to love me into the Kingdom of God.

My bosses at the Campus Store moved schedules around to give me hours, which meant that some of my coworkers lost hours that they had been counting on. No one complained, in fact several of my coworkers expressed regret that they couldn’t give me more of their hours. I didn’t care, and I never said “thank you.” My professors told me that if I wanted to come by their offices, they’d be happy to help me with the work I had missed. I didn’t take any of them up on it.

The very first evening that I was back, I walked into the Snack Shop and up to the table where my brother and some of his friends were sitting, looked around, and then announced “This place sucks! I’m going to a movie.” I then walked off of campus, crossed Wade Hampton Blvd., and watched Bordello of Blood in the old movie theatre where Wade Hampton High now sits. After I got back to my room, my hall leader roommate asked me how my evening had been. I told him that I’d gone to a movie. He looked at me, and then said, “You know that’s against the rules.” I responded, “I know.” He never said another word about it, which pissed me off.

In fact, over the course of that year, my hall leader roommate went out of his way to keep me out of trouble. First semester, I wanted to get kicked out (second semester, not so much, but more on that in my next post), and I went beyond the maxim that if you act like you’re supposed to be doing it, no one will say anything. That maxim generally works well with things like wearing jeans to class or leaving class early, but there are certain things that are against the rules no matter how good you are at pretending that you're supposed to be doing. Like all bad BJU boys, I wore a necklace; unlike the other bad BJU boys, I didn’t try and hide it. My hall leader roommate would warn me, “Other people can see your necklace.” I would leave my contraband walkman[6] sitting out on my bed only to find it under my pillow later in the day. I couldn't get that dude to give me demerits to save my life. 

Even worse, my hall leader roommate took an interest in me. He would take me out to eat on his dime. He took an interest in my interests including my fake interest of surfing, and would ask me questions and force me to have conversations with him about things that I liked. And he would talk to me about how much he loved Jesus. I couldn’t stand that guy. So much so, that I ignored his pleas for help early one morning when my hall leader roommate fell out of his bed and, lying in pain, called out to me; I pretended to be asleep. You see, something was wrong with his legs, and he was in constant pain. At the time, the doctors didn’t know what was going on. Our other roommate had already left for his job on the BJU farm, and he needed my help but I was so bitter and angry that I decided that legalist didn’t deserve my sympathy.

The other guys in my prayer group were a cool bunch of guys, and I was unable to resist having fun with them, no matter how hard I tried. The room leader (apc in BJU lingo) in the room across the hall from me was a dude from Pittsburgh. No matter how hard I tried to isolate myself, that Pittsburgh Pirate loving Yankee wouldn't let me. That semester, I wanted to eat by myself in the dining common so that I could stew in my smug superiority, but Jason, the apc from across the hall, would see me and insist that I eat with he and his friends. Jerk. The guys in my prayer group lovingly and graciously inserting themselves into my life aside, my main social interaction was off campus. I would either walk off by myself, or a friend who had already graduated and lived in town would pick me up and we’d go hang out. I was with him on the night that best exemplifies my attitude about being at BJU that semester. That evening, we went to Corner Pocket downtown Greenville. If you currently live in Greenville, I’m not talking about the current, yuppie, sanitized version of Corner Pocket, but the old, dive-bar version. In stark contrast to my BJU image, I ordered glasses of white zinfandel. But, alcohol is alcohol and I got drunk. This wasn’t my first time going back to my dorm room drunk[7], but this was the first time that I didn’t care if I got caught. I didn’t take my usual precautions that evening.

The next day one of my Campus Store coworkers who also lived down the hall from me, asked me what had been wrong with me the evening before. I had no idea what he was talking about, and said so. Very incredulously he asked, “You don’t remember coming by my room last night?” I didn’t remember, and I told him so. I also don’t remember most of that evening, including returning to BJU. I remember getting in the car, and then the next thing I remember is waking up at 3 in the morning, fully clothed and lying on top of my blanket. Prior to that semester, having a gap in my memory like that would have been cause for concern; hiding wrong-doing requires being in control. But I didn’t care. Not that semester.

I somehow made it to the end of the semester. Granted, I had failed most of my classes, and had well over one hundred demerits[8]. Heading into Christmas break, going back to Bob Jones University or not the next semester wasn’t something that concerned me. I just assumed that as long as the status quo of me essentially getting away with pretty much whatever I wanted to do continued, I may as well enjoy the ride. I didn’t realize how complicated the ride was about to get.    

[1] Out of all the things I’ve admitted in this series of posts, THAT may very well be the most shameful.
[2] I realized afterwards that all of my “customers” were people who had boots at flea markets. They bought everything of any value that I had, and then sold the stuff for more money. After they had picked me clean, they dumped me.
[3] If the rest of this post’s timeline seems too compressed, keep in mind that my brother went back early for his job at the Campus Store. I had just over two weeks of glorious freedom.
[4] The Clinton/Gore sign didn’t remain up for very long. Less than a day. Which was a half a day longer than I expected.
[5] I was sitting with my legs stretched out on a bench and a grounds crew staff member told me to put my feet down. I asked, “Why? Can you see up my pant legs?” He turned me in to the discipline committee. The dorm supervisor tried to hide his smile when I went to DC. I got 5 demerits for failure to follow instruction.
[6] The assumption was that if you had to listen to your music through headphones, it was probably the devil’s music.
[7] The first time was first semester my freshman year. With the same guy, in fact. We bought a bunch of Zima and broke into the pool at an apartment complex. When I got back to the dorm, the guys in my prayer group were confused as to why I couldn’t stop laughing, but I was in control enough to not get caught. FYI, pepperoni sticks are a great way to mask alcohol on your breath. 
[8] 150 got you expelled. 100 got you campused (you couldn’t leave campus). 75 got you socialed (weren’t allowed to talk to members of the opposite sex.)

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