During August I’m blogging about Our Lady of the Hills Camp near Hendersonville, North Carolina–now owned by Highland Lake Inn. I transplanted the camp to a Florida beach town for my novel, Kicking Eternity. E-copies on sale this weekend for .99! An excerpt appears at the bottom of this post.
After pulling the overnight waitress shift at a Daytona Beach HoJo’s for a month—just me and a big black ex-con flipping burgers—camp never sounded better. But I hadn’t counted on a different kind of danger driving into Our Lady of the Hills in 1977 in the back of Father McSweeney’s station wagon.
A car load of boys—all attitude and dirty blonde hair—from Charlotte Catholic High School oozed onto the dirt in front of the dining hall like liquid sex.
Our high pitched voices silenced in the middle of words.
Saturday Night Fever played from somebody’s transistor radio in the gazebo where we stood.
The guys slung their duffles over their shoulders, barely nodded to us, and hiked past like they were about to serve ten weeks of hard labor.
I think I singed my eyelashes just watching them saunter by the office and up the hill.
As chatter swelled in the gazebo, I took a deep breath. The air smelled of pine, grilled cheese, and change.
Eddie Falcone had graduated from law school and disappeared into life. The camp boys we’d grown up with had stayed home to lifeguard or work on road crews. Father McSweeney’s boys and a couple of malcontents from Camp St. John, our shoddy sister camp in Florida, would take their place.
Sure, we’d still sing Edelweiss for grace and make pilgrimages to Carl Sandburg’s Connemara. We’d rinse our hair in cold North Carolina water to make it shine. We’d eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with whole milk and green Jell-O.
But nothing would seem right this year.
Mid-summer, I stood on the office porch, trying to ignore the two Charlotte Catholic staffers flirting with several female counselors on the road below. A queasy mix of desire and fear sloshed in my stomach.
I squinted at the far side of the athletic field.
Catfish, aka Mike Alewine, one of the Camp St. John defectors and an undergrad at the University of Florida, wielded a mop like a drum major at the front of a scraggly string of campers.
I jogged down the steps and across the road, careful to skirt ten feet around the Charlotte temptations.
Behind Fish, two shyly grinning campers, a boy and a girl, trotted to keep up while balancing foil-covered Burger King crowns atop their heads. Bath towels were tied around their shoulders and they carried cans of Spam.
The girls’ counselor brought up the rear, doing her best to copy Fish’s antics.
The other campers hip-hip-hoorayed as they snaked between the counselors.
I waved at my little brother, R.J., and tried to decide if he’d changed his shirt since yesterday.
The girls peeled off toward archery and the boys followed Fish’s Floridian co-counselor, Wes, to the Canteen.
Fish collapsed on the grass, spread-eagled between the pitcher’s mound and home plate.
I fended off the backstop and walked over to him. “You made those kids nobody would have noticed feel great.”
He sat up and shrugged as though the event were nothing special. “At Camp St. John—”
I held up my hand. “Don’t ruin it.” I’d already heard enough about Camp St. John.
Fish had spent his summers making the Florida campers believe he was half catfish by diving into the St. John’s River and hiding under the dock until the kids became believers. He’d zipped along the river on a yellow motorcycle, teaching archery and riflrey, staging vegetable boycotts, inciting his charges to ditch crafts to raid the kitchen or ogle the girls in the swimming pool.Fish blew on a blade of grass between his thumbs, a skill he’d teach his boys to attract mountain lions.
When he perfected the technique, we discussed his obscure bands—Ian Hunter, Mott the Hoople, Jethro Tull—my lousy tennis backhand, and Thursday night’s mass.
Sunny silence settled between us.
Fish leaned up on his elbows. “You know, I almost became a priest.”
Somehow I wasn’t surprised. Even I’d considered the convent.
Fish spoke of Father Foley’s belief in him, how he’d been spurred to follow his mentor’s vocation.
I gulped a mouth full of sunshine and courage, then told my story for the first time.
I’d stared at Jesus on the cross in the chancel my whole life, but I’d always seen His forgiveness as a ginormous blanket over everybody. A Baptist at Florida Southern College where I’d just finished my freshman year pointed out that Jesus died for Ann’s sins. I had to believe that included the real sins underneath the sanitized ones I created in Confession.
I shot a glance at Fish to make sure I hadn’t shocked him, but his thick brows scrunched together in concentration.
Protestants at college said odd things like if I’d turn over my romantic life to God, He’d pick out the one.
Geez. Whoda thunk? Since I’d only dated a frat guy for five minutes after dating Mike Smith last summer, it didn’t seem like much of a sacrifice. By the end of first semester I dumped the other categories of my life into God’s lap for Him to run.
Now, instead of wondering if God read my letters, I saw Him answer in subtle ways—gut feelings, circumstances, truths I spotted in the Bible. He was still invisible, but somehow more literally present.
I peered at Fish, trying to gauge whether he thought I was a wing nut.
But he stood to join his boys as they filed past. “God as micro-manager. I like it.” He grabbed the mop and drum majored double-time to catch up to his boys.
Out of the corner of my eye I spotted one of my friends walking into the gym, shoulder to shoulder with a Charlotte Catholic bad boy. Maybe if I wasn’t such a chicken that could be me.
As summer wound down, my girls told Mrs. Duemmling to shoot our cottage photo in front of the Virgin Mary.
I arched a brow at them, not sure what they were up to.
They said the picture was in my honor. Then, they pressed their palms together and smiled beatifically at the camera.
After the photo, I blinked wetness from my eyes and hugged them all, feeling like one of Fish’s Spam Queens.
I hate endings—sunsets, autumn, and good-byes, but they happen whether I’m ready or not.
Multiple friends had been charmed out of their innocence by the bad boys. One took home Charlotte Catholic DNA to gestate, birth, and own her heart forever. Girls like me, chock full of Daddy issues, usually cop to sex, but this year cowardice counted for something other than a character flaw.
I didn’t know this off-kilter summer was my good-bye to being a kid, camp, and Catholicism.
I didn’t know God tacked so much happy history to the tail end of a sad childhood.
I didn’t know, nearly forty years later, I’d roll over and find Our Lady of the Hills, my Catholic roots, Catfish, and a cadre of camp friends still curled up in my heart.
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Enter during August to win a paperback copy of Kicking Eternity here. [Excerpt below.]
ON SALE THIS WEEKEND FOR .99!
Stuck in sleepy New Smyrna Beach one last summer, Raine socks away her camp pay checks, worries about her druggy brother, and ignores trouble: Cal Koomer. She’s a plane ticket away from teaching orphans in Africa, and not even Cal’s surfer six-pack and the chinks she spies in his rebel armor will derail her.
The artist in Cal begs to paint Raine’s ivory skin, high cheek bones, and internal sparklers behind her eyes, but falling for her would caterwaul him into his parents’ life. No thanks. The girl was self-righteous waiting to happen. Mom served sanctimony like vegetables, three servings a day, and he had a gut full.
Rec Director Drew taunts her with “Rainey” and calls her an enabler. He is so infernally there like a horsefly—till he buzzes back to his ex.
Raine’s brother tweaks. Her dream of Africa dies small deaths. Will she figure out what to fight for and what to free before it’s too late?
For anyone who’s ever wrestled with their dreams.
Click on the covers for info on my books.
Kicking Eternity excerpt:
A downpour sheeted against the classroom windows cutting Cal and Raine off from the world. He heard water running in the tin drainpipe on the corner of the building. The room was dark except for the shop light he’d clamped to his easel and the lamp bathing Raine in amber.
He dipped his brush in the white smear of paint on his pallet and added faint smudges of light to her face. She was staring at the window behind him—praying, he was certain. There was an other-worldly glow about her. What if it was Raine’s spirituality that attracted him? But Raine had sexuality, too. Maybe one didn’t rule out the other.
He concentrated on her face, making sure he captured the freckles dusted across her nose and the tops of her cheeks—so tiny, most people wouldn’t know they were there. He moved the easel closer to Raine.
The lashes that framed her eyes were lush, hiding the person he almost missed under the homeschool-Bible college banner. His mind flicked to Aly’s spare, pale lashes which hid nothing.
Forest green shaded with lime had worked for Raine’s eyes. He would add sparks of maize later. Now, he dotted pinpricks of white on her irises, the light that came from inside. What was it? Purity? He couldn’t label it, but he could paint it.
“Painting Raine in the rain.” His voice felt rusty from not talking all evening.
Her eyes found his. “Cute.” She went back to staring at the water he could hear sluicing down the window behind him.
The rain beat down relentlessly. It didn’t sound like it would let up till morning. For a little while he would stretch a sheet across the future so he couldn’t see the impossibility of loving Raine—a girl with fire for God and Africa when he was a guy with fire for neither.
His gut reached out to Raine, bonding with her in the silence—almost against his will. He wanted to touch her.
Funny. He’d finally held Aly, something he’d wanted to do the first few years he knew her. The steam had gone out of the experience like a hot iron on a damp cloth. After the steam quit, you had to get out of there before you got scorched.
Would Aly laugh at him if she knew he was a virgin? It was probably Mom’s fault. The chastity pep talks she gave him with annoying regularity. She’d married Dad when she was eighteen. Why was he twenty-two and still buying her rhetoric? He was a carton of milk four years past expiration. But a guy didn’t have those kinds of thoughts about a girl like Raine—at least not ones that made him feel good about himself.
Her dark hair flipped up and away from her face. He wanted to get the Godiva dark chocolate color right, the strands of black, and deep henna when the sun caught it.
“Do you mind?” He reached for her hair and rubbed it between two fingers. Coarse, like corn silk.
He stood and crossed the small space between them. “May I?” He splayed his fingers at her hairline around her face.
Her chin tilted up toward him, her eyes wide with questions he didn’t know the answers to.
He ran his fingers through her hair toward the nape of her neck. Part of his mind registered strands of her hair spooning together like couples at the beach. Other strands struck out alone, each with its own kinks and bends unique to itself. But mostly, he was caught by her full, dusty rose lips he’d taken such pains to translate into paint. They were slightly parted now as she sucked in a breath. Her cheeks filled with color, and he wanted to kiss her more than he wanted to breathe. He cupped her face in his hands. He leaned closer and stopped, waiting to see if she was a girl with rules against kissing.
Raine eased her chin from his grasp and he let his hands fall, disappointment weighing him down like a chest full of medals he didn’t want to wear. He sat back on the edge of the table. The drum of the rain softened, moved on.
“You’re beautiful.” He let the air out of his lungs. “That’s the artist talking.” His eyes bored into hers. “And the man.”
Her color deepened. She looked down at her lap and back up at him. He reached out and stroked her cheek with knuckles. “Ever think about staying?”
Unshed tears sheened her eyes.
His hand dropped to his side “What are we going to do, Raine?”
The lodge screen door banged and heavy footsteps came down the hall. Drew walked in reaching for the light switch. He stopped with his hand in the air. “Oh. I thought somebody left the light on.”
Drew glanced at him. His gaze traveled to Raine and stopped. Then, he looked at the painting that was facing the doorway. He could feel the seconds tick off while Drew stared at the portrait. Like someone reading over your shoulder, he didn’t want Drew looking at Raine’s painting—ever. But it was too late now.
Drew turned around without saying a word and left. His footfalls moved down the hall, then nothing, not even the banging of the screen door against the door jam.
The sound of the rain stopped and, with it, the sense of intimacy.
Raine stood and stretched. “Let’s clean your brushes.”