David Lossing stood in a circle of light at Disney World Fort Wilderness Campground. He jutted his chin toward the furthest tent in our M.A.S.H.-like village stuffed with more than fifty members of New Smyrna Beach High School’s Spanish Club. “I’m headed to the party tent.” He waggled his brows.
Son of St. Paul’s Episcopal priest, David sprouted wild oats like the corkscrew curls springing from his scalp.
“Wanna come?” He tossed it out like a dare he didn’t think I’d do.
“Aren’t you afraid of getting caught?”
He surveyed the kids lolling around the tents. “You see any chaperones?”
Laughter littered the October night over football droning from someone’s radio. The only adults in sight were an elderly couple John Scrivano and Kyle Avery chatted with beneath a Crimson Tide banner.
Our chaperones—teachers still conversant with their twenties, but cornering old age if you asked me—had probably turned in after the bedlam of tent setup and herding us to and from tonight’s New Smyrna Beach High School 30-0 shutout of Kissimmee.
Something rose in my gut and wanted to wipe that smirk off David’s face. No one knew about my Mary Jane junkets after CYO in Stuart. Call it a personality quirk, but shocking David would deliver a certain punch. I glanced over my shoulder at Diana Knox unrolling her sleeping bag at the mouth of our tent. “Let’s go.”
David’s jaw dropped. “You’re kidding me.”
I shot him a steely look. “Try me.”
He shrugged, his expression still skeptical, and headed toward the party tent.
I ducked under the tent flap after David and peered at the kids crammed in knee to knee. I could only make out the faces right beside me in the dim haze.
A guy guided a stubby joint into my fingers. I sealed the rolling paper, lumpy with warm marijuana, to my lips, sucked in the smoke.
It burned all the way down. My lungs balked and a cough caught in my chest. The whole tent would think I was a weed virgin. I pinched my mouth shut, willed my diaphragm to calm, and shoved the roach at David.
He stared at me, disbelieving, until he burned his fingers. Dazed, he handed the joint to the girl beside him without taking a hit.
Now I was the one sporting the smirk.
I ducked out of the tent before a second toke could land me in a coughing fit and kill the coup.
I walked off to find Diana, my throat feeling like I’d swallowed a campfire, ashes, smoldering logs and all—vowing that was the last time. Forty years later, I won’t even eat smoked bacon.
The next night, replete with pretzels shaped like mouse ears, Mickey sightings, and It’s a Small World marching circles in our heads we school-bussed home in the rain.
Kyle slept open-mouthed in the seat in front of me. Bits of John and Diana’s conversation buzzed around the surface of my mind.
John said, “We ate with some tipsy Alabama fans—hey, we were starving and they had something besides hot dogs and marshmallows—till we got reamed for leaving the school campsite…”
Diana was saying, “Our tent reeked of mildew so badly Mark Conklin and I slept with our heads outside…”
Diana’s mother must have caught wind of the students’ creative tent reassignments because the next time Diana asked permission to go on a Spanish Club trip, her mother burst into laughter. Diana didn’t even get to, “Go ask your father.”
Rain slicked the window at my cheek making me feel melancholy. Emptiness yawned inside. Maybe it was the crater where Dad used to be. His absence since the divorce usually landed in the blessing column, but tonight something essential felt missing.
Somewhere in my catechism I’d heard God was a father to the fatherless. How could God be the Daddy I craved who held me in His arms when I cried?
Instead of holding me, Dad had said, “I’ll give you something to cry about.”
I cried rarely and alone.
The next morning, I scurried beside Mom and R.J. into Sacred Heart’s sanctuary, ten minutes after Mass had begun, like every Sunday. I settled on the pine pew, last night’s emptiness base-lining beneath my Disney-bleary brain.
A glint of light flashed at the corner of my eye. Fall sun filtered through the stained glass windows, casting yellow-red-blue tints across the shiny pews. A cloud passed over the sun and dulled the colors.
Beauty brushed the deepest part of me, but it came in elusive gulps that never satisfied.
I pulled down the kneeler and slid onto it, rose and fell with the rhythm of Mass. I counted the ceiling tiles, said the prayers I’d known from childhood, stared at the terrazzo floor until the spots melded together.
The ache to know the unknowable had been inside me as long as I could remember. Something important and invisible hid under the wood-carved Stations of the Cross, beneath the altar cloths and Crucifix. Something existed in these four walls and in the wall-less world. God, my gut told me.
My stomach growled.
Maybe it was God, the perfect Daddy I hungered for.
I spilled down the steps between my mother and my brother in the flow of people fanning onto the asphalt.
I waved at Jim Russell, wearing the same Harley Davidson T-shirt and chain running from belt to his wallet I saw every week at school.
He grinned and told me I needed to party more.
Mom smiled an aren’t-teenagers-amusing smile. R.J. made a dash for our Duster between the bumpers of two station wagons lined up to exit the lot.
I swallowed, recalling last night’s raspy throat. “Right.”
In the car a couple minutes later Mom was saying, “…a nice Catholic boy…” while R.J. sing-songed an ornery rendition of, “K-I-S-S-I-N-G…”
“Whatever,” I said distractedly, my mind still chewing on the possibility of God.
The next day we’d learn our classmates’ Milt and Debbie Wilkins’ parents died in an accident on the way to Friday night’s game at Kisimmee to see their kids play and cheer. Eric and Janet Bensen would lose their mother to cancer a couple months later and their father before Janet graduated. While I graded my dad against Perfection, my classmates lost their parents permanently.
The Wilkins and the Bensen kids navigated their grand canyons of pain.
I wound my way through my Daddy disappointments and other disasters life divvied me. I learned to cry in God’s arms. And I always go home—more often in my mind than in person—to New Smyrna Beach where I was folded into the fabric of life when I needed it the most.