The Four Spiritual Laws

Part Two (Did you miss Part One?)

When I graduated from my Mennonite high school, I chose a big-city state university instead of a Mennonite college in a Mennonite town. I wanted to launch into the world. But arriving in Philadelphia, I was disoriented and afraid. Being alone, I succumbed to temptation.

I remember the campus bookstore, and noticing the top rack of magazines. Playgirl. The cover was a muscled blonde with a python draped over him. As if in trance, as if no one could see me, I reached up for the magazine. I walked with it to the cashier, laid it on the counter between us. I smiled as she rung it up and I handed over the cash. It was easier than I imagined. I accepted the brown paper bag and went straight to a stall in the men’s room. Ten minutes later, disgusted with myself, Jesus’ words rang in my ears: Even gazing on someone with lust in your heart is adultery. I threw the glossy magazine into the biggest, dirtiest, smelliest dumpster behind the student activity center to ensure that its contents would not pollute anyone else.

I believed I had it under control. They were only thoughts. I never acted on those thoughts. That’s what I told myself, despite experiences like the bookstore. Because homosexuality was a choice that people made, I never considered that I might be gay; I would never choose that. When Lisa told me about her boyfriend being saved, converted from homosexuality, by Campus Crusade for Christ, the idea lodged in my brain: maybe Campus Crusade could help me eradicate my sinful thoughts.

In San Francisco.

In my room, on my bed, I read the packet from Campus Crusade. I learned the summer project would be the typical Bible study, but in place of evangelism on the beach, we would study ethnic groups and diversity, and develop new multi-cultural techniques for converting people to Christ. Students were hand-picked for maximum ethnic diversity.

I was hand-picked, I thought. My heart glowed. I didn’t consider the fact that I had been hand-picked to be the white guy.

I had four months to raise a couple thousand dollars for the trip. It was easier than I imagined. As I talked to people, I heard their ideas about the city. An old Mennonite man from my church, his long white beard bobbing as he talked, called San Francisco a place of depravity. A Sodom. A place that needed the message of Jesus. He wrote me a big check. I raised double what I needed. Most people wanted to help me; I wonder now if anyone thought I was planning my own escape.

God had a plan. I did not. I avoided any thought of depravity. Of Sodom. I stepped through the semester in a fog of self-imposed ignorance. I did not research the city. I busied myself with fundraising and maintaining my 4.0.

Maybe I felt happy. I know I was scared. But I also had hope.

From the time I was little I imagined freedom was found in California. Church taught me that Jesus was my savior, but what I really believed in was the 30-minute sitcom. I wanted to live in a world where no matter the mess up, you could always trust in the happy ending. I fantasized about sharing an apartment with Laverne and Shirley. Being the fourth Charlie’s Angel. I knew I would make a great Love Boat cruise director. And God was sending me to California.

I watched out of the plane window as squares of farmland gave way to soaring, snow-covered mountains, and then, the bay. I believed this was my chance. I had it all—Jesus, Campus Crusade and California. The sinful thoughts would be cured. I would become a normal boy. I was close to the happy ending.

At the San Francisco airport, Roy, a Crusade staffer met me.

“So, when was the last earthquake?” I asked as we walked toward the parking garage.

“Oh, hmmm, I think the last one I felt was, like, 3 years ago?”

Three years ago? I thought earthquakes happened all the time.

“Do you think one will happen soon?” I asked.

“Oh gosh! I hope not!”

Disappointed, I considered my other expectations: Sodom. I imagined outrageous displays, like gay people holding hands and kissing in public. I surveyed the airport crowds. People looked normal. I determined to reserve judgment until I could experience life on the streets. 

I learned that Roy was Filipino, hand-picked to be the Filipino-American representative for our maximum-diversity summer project. Had I ever met a Filipino before? I wondered.

Arriving at the Lone Mountain dorm at the University of San Francisco, I met my roommate Edwin, the hand-picked Chinese-American. Within a few moments of talking, he told me I seemed “very east coast.” What does that mean? I felt a spike of anger, but suppressed it, thinking, anger is probably very east coast.

“I’m from Tucson,” Edwin said.

“Oh yeah, that’s the city just south of Seattle, right?”

“Well, it’s really south. You’re thinking of Tacoma. Tucson is in Arizona.”

Arizona. I didn’t know where Arizona was on the map. I pictured tall cactuses with arms, and Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam on horses, leaping over canyons.

Edwin showed me Tucson in a road atlas. It had five or six major roads that dead-ended in vast patches of green.

“Small town, huh?”

“It’s a city, dude!”

I couldn’t imagine a city where the roads just dead-ended in the desert.

At orientation, we learned to say ‘the city’ and to never say ‘Frisco or San Fran.’ Staff gave us warnings about city life, including to not go out alone and the command: never go to the Castro.

We were a diverse group of 15 students and seven staffers. We were together all day, every day. I didn’t like the evangelism part, but I loved the multiculturalism class. Each week we studied immigration patterns, cultural heritage, issues of religion and faith and wrapped up with strategies for evangelizing. The syllabus: African Americans, Arab Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Pacific Island Americans.

I noted the omission of white people and felt guilty for even thinking of it.  

In class, my new friends told stories of discrimination and racism. I didn’t have those stories. I reacted from a sense of wonder. I asked questions. I got called out for enjoying the discussions. For not listening. For treating difficult and painful conversations with a lightness that grated on others.

One night, Edwin and I laid on our beds across the dorm room from each other. Propped up on my elbow, I asked if we were really that different. We were education majors at universities, middle class, our parents weren’t divorced. We both rode bicycles and drove Hondas.

“What do you eat for dinner with your family?” he said.

“I dunno. Normal stuff. Pizza. Chicken. Chili.”

He told me about a normal dinner at his home, and how they ate it. And he explained being a translator for his parents. And how the Chinese were kicked out after the railroads were built. He asked me what I thought about Mr. Magoo’s sidekick.

I felt ashamed and didn’t know what to say. It was painful to realize my ignorance, but Edwin wasn’t judging me. He was sharing his life.

Years later, after I had moved to Tucson in part because of Edwin, Edwin gently asked if I thought I might be gay. I did not repay him with the same love he had given me.

“HOW COULD YOU THINK THAT ABOUT ME?” I raged at him. “I’M A GOOD CHRISTIAN AND YOU KNOW IT!”

 I avoided him for a while. It was one of my lowest points. Even as I yelled, even as I walked away, I knew I was lying. My heart, just beginning to be able to feel, was crying out. Tell him the truth! But I did not know that God loved homosexuals; I did not know that I could live—live or die—without being afraid of Hell. So I lied to a generous friend who had never judged me.

That truth was a lead weight in the bottom of my heart, and in the end, years later, it helped me come out.

In Part Three, my urge to find myself gets a label: ignorance.

The Four Spiritual Laws

Part One

During college, I lived in Philadelphia. In a row house I rented with three other guys. It had a green door, which I opened one evening to the most beautiful man I had ever seen. Our friend Lisa’s new boyfriend that she met on a Campus Crusade for Christ summer project.

He was stunning. He made my heart hurt. Everything that terrified me about myself came unglued. It poured out. Silently. As Energy. My roommate Carl nudged me aside to let them in.

Lisa grabbed my arm and dragged me to the kitchen. She told me that he was a recovering homosexual.

“He is struggling,” she said, her eyes searching mine. “Campus Crusade is supporting his conversation therapy.”

I searched her eyes back, not knowing what to say. I wonder now what she was thinking. What had she sensed as I opened the door? What did she know? About me?

It was 1993, my third year of college, when I was the world’s best Christian boy. I had a 4.0 in my classes, but more, I was the vice president of an evangelical Christian student group at Temple University. The other leaders, like Carl and Lisa, were my best friends.

I knew the Four Spiritual Laws: (1) God had a wonderful plan for my life. (2) I was a sinner and needed God to save me. (3) Jesus Christ was the only path to salvation. And (4) I was walking the path God intended because I believed in Jesus. 

Did I know I was gay?

No.

I knew I was NOT gay. The Bible was clear—Christians were not gay.

My every thought was about being in service to Jesus Christ.

Except for those stray thoughts. The horrible ones. Like the ones that rose up when I answered the door to that beautiful man. Every Christian group I knew taught me that God hated sin and therefore, God hated homosexuality. The stray thoughts made me hate my sinfulness, and therefore, I hated myself.

In 1993, AIDS was killing people. Christians I trusted called AIDS God’s curse. Being gay was to be sick. Spiritually, socially, psychologically and physically. I was terrified. I kept my stray thoughts an absolute secret.

I had never kissed a boy or touched a boy. If there were gay people in my Mennonite world growing up, I never saw them. In my university classes, I sat far from anyone who seemed gay. I never looked their direction. I agreed during Bible studies or debates: The Bible was clear on homosexuality. God hated it.

Standing in the kitchen, my mind was over-filled. I had read about conversion therapy in Carl’s Southern Baptist student magazine. From those articles I learned that gay bars exist, and that gay men have casual sex, public sex, multiple sex partners, and that they abuse alcohol and drugs. They get diseases. The articles were meant to be scary. But what terrified me more than the lifestyle was the picture of the now-converted boy. I’d look at his deep brown eyes, the way his body fit into his clothes, and wonder. Are you like me? Could we love each other? My heart tingled.

I never finished those articles I would close up the magazine, put it down and walk away.

While I could hate myself, it was hard to hate the brown-eyed boy. Jesus forgave him, I’d think. But compassion was risky. Compassion got mixed up with lust. His soft eyes, my soft heart—lust spiraled me back to self-loathing. Hate was easier. With hate, I could hold steady.

“What a nice guy!” Carl said, coming to the kitchen after Lisa and her boyfriend left. “What are you doing in here?”

He was implying that I had been anti-social. I ignored it.

“He’s doing conversation therapy,” I said, aiming to shock.

“What?”

I told Carl what Lisa told me, feeling my joints tighten with righteousness. Carl got quiet. Then sad. I was jealous that Carl could feel things, and love people.

“It must be so hard,” he said.

Carl’s open heart made my anger and self-righteousness feel petty. I could not be compassionate. I went numb. I walked away.

I went to my room. Laid on my bed. I remembered opening the door, the way my heart jumped. Such a beautiful man. I imagined his body, smelled his smell, tried to relive the energy I felt passing between us. Masturbation was over too fast and the void of shame sucked all the light from my room. It was a horror, every time.

Rage followed. I used to smash things, but yanking clothes from hangers and throwing them around my room was less destructive. A quieter way to burn it out of me. On this day, I also twisted the empty hangers into shapelessness until my palms hurt. Catching my breath, rage slid into grief and kept sliding, back to the familiar.

You disgusting pervert. Stupid. Pathetic weak sissy. Why can’t you keep it together?

If Hell had not been so real to me—death being just the beginning of Hell—I would have wished I was dead. I might have made it happen. I wonder now if I had thrown myself into evangelicalism so that I could know the Bible well enough to find a loophole. That might save me.

I reshaped the hangers and hung the clothes. All back. Displayed neatly, as they should be. As it was before.

The next week an envelope was delivered through the brass slot of that same front door. I collected the stack and noticed a letter from Campus Crusade for Christ. My heart raced.

Ripping the envelope open, I scanned the front page of a thick packet.

“Oh my word, I got accepted!” I said, running up the stairs to Carl’s bedroom.

Carl was going to be a Southern Baptist summer missionary. In Iowa. I had applied for a Campus Crusade summer project. They happened on the beach, in cities like Daytona.

“So, where are they sending you?” he asked as I burst through the door.

I hadn’t noticed. I skimmed the letter again. Not my first or second choices. Not even my third. It was a city I had not selected.

“San Francisco,” I said.

“Wow!” Carl said.

I stared at the page. San Francisco? Was San Francisco on the beach? I didn’t know.  

Then Carl crooned, singing, “I left my heart in San Francisco…”

I didn’t know the reference. What did I know? I knew it was full of homosexuals, but I don’t remember thinking of that. Earthquakes jumped to mind. Movie stars. Palm trees. The dancing raisins on TV. Cable cars and Rice-a-roni.

I’d never been west of Pittsburgh.

I was being sent by God to be an evangelist to the people of San Francisco. Fear was my first reaction. Then I thought of Jonah and the whale. Jonah was afraid and ran from his calling. He got eaten by a whale. Campus Crusade was my calling. Telling people about Jesus, about The Four Spiritual Laws. I considered Spiritual Law number one and believed.

God had a wonderful plan for my life.

In Part Two, I discover more of God’s wonderful plan, along with the wonders of Sodom.

My Name

Part Two (If you missed Part One, start here)

My mom believed in the mysteries. The story of Adam and Eve was real, just like Hell, the devil and our daily battles with demons. Battles you could lose just by forgetting to pray before bed.

The snake pit experience became a warning to a new Adam. Be careful. One slip and something could go horribly wrong. Your eternal soul is at stake.

I started to sense snakes.

Can you pick Adam out of the 1987 Mennonite freshman?

Years later, I faced the call from a bearded prophet across crowded high school hallways: “Adam! Wo bist du?” I was just beginning to understand that my attraction to other boys was not something I would grow out of. The best description of how that felt: terror. I thought I was the only Mennonite boy on earth with this problem. Adam, the first gay Mennonite. But I didn’t even understand that ‘gay’ was what I was—I was just evil. Full of lust. A sinner.

So, I hid.

In high school, the memory of the snake pit was challenged. I went with friends to see Indiana Jones. Inspired by his escape from the pit of vipers, after the movie I told my friends my snake pit story; they accused me of exaggerating.

Was I? Could that have really happened? Maybe I dreamed it.

That night I asked Dad. More than a decade had passed; we’d never talked about it.

“I have this memory,” I started. “We were in the swamp after a flood and there were lots of snakes…”

“Hundreds,” Dad said, folding the newspaper over his leg and sitting straighter in the recliner. “I never saw anything like it before or since.”

Part of me was amazed that it really happened, and part was relieved that my memory was true. Still another part of me continued to wonder—why me?

The challenge made me question other odd memories, like Pop Doc. I approached Mom in the kitchen.

“I have this memory of Pop Doc,” I said. “He was covered head to toe in bees.”

“Oh yeah,” Mom said from the sink, shaking a strainer full of steaming spaghetti. “He was a bee charmer.”

The phrase, bee charmer, was new for me. I liked the magical quality of it.

“He would go collect the honey from the hives without any protection. He swore up and down that he’d never been stung.”

 Mom directed me to get out the green canister of grated parmesan cheese, then she talked on about Pop Doc.

“He could touch a mother’s belly and know if the baby was a boy or girl. He was never wrong.”

“Did he predict me?”

“He sure did.”

I told Mom about remembering standing in the barn with my cousins, we had followed Pop Doc to the stall of a collapsed horse. I got woozy as he pushed his arm into the horse, all the way to his shoulder, and then, he extracted a tiny horse.

One of the only pictures I have of Pop Doc, Caldwell Reiter. Connected to animals, he has his hand on the dog’s head.

“He would help people with their animals. With things like breech births—he didn’t have training—but folks knew he was a healer.”

That’s how he got the name ‘Doc.’

Caldwell was his real name. I was surprised when Mom told me that Caldwell was supposed to be my middle name. They changed their minds and picked something from a baby-name book. I didn’t ask why, and I felt conflicted.

The old man I had known squinted at us kids and clomped past. Never talking. We were in his way as he carried on the work of the farm; work he did until he died in his 90s. I remember following my cousins into the chicken coop in the spring. It was a fuzzy yellow carpet of tiny bustling peeps. Pop Doc had tromped through moments before carrying a pail of slop for the pigs. My cousin Brian showed me his footprints. Every few feet, dead baby chickens. My heart hurt.

While I was glad to not be saddled with his name, I wondered about his mystical qualities. His connection to life’s secrets, like charming bees and predicting snake pits.

“He was also famous for his foul mouth,” Mom said, laughing, handing me a stack of plates for the table. “Pop Doc could lay down a curse as fast as cure your cow!”

That was my chance to ask about Pop Doc’s curse of their land. About her belief that the snake pit happened because of Pop Doc. I didn’t ask. It felt too delicate.

Curses. Like being banished from the Garden of Eden. Or to be an animal that moved across the earth on its belly, vulnerable. I didn’t want to ask. Growing up, in my Mennonite universe, being queer was a curse. And death often seemed like the only escape—except that death was not an escape.

“Even if I kill myself,” I thought, sitting in Dad’s car in the garage, key in the ignition, knowing that I could not go through with it, “I will go to Hell.”

1975

When I was four, at my family’s cabin in northern Pennsylvania, my parents sat with me at the kitchen table to tell me about rattlesnakes; they told me about fangs and venom that kills.

“Don’t wander too far off, and stay alert,” was Dad’s warning.

I was barely listening. Longing for the cool air outside. When excused, I made a break for the door. On the stoop was a snake. I stepped on it. With bare feet.

I don’t remember the snake. I don’t remember the screaming or falling or lingering unconsciousness that are my parents’ story of this event. I remember dying.

“I am dying,” I said.

They laid me on the kitchen table where I stayed, still, repeating the mantra aloud.

“I am dying.”

Visions of the Illustrated Children’s Bible glittered behind my eyelids. Why didn’t I listen to my parents? The story of Adam and Eve. The piles of writhing snakes in the swamp. Warnings from God. To me. About me. About consequences. I had not paid attention. Now I was paying the price.

“I am dying.” I went on this way for over an hour.

“Adam, it was a garter snake,” Dad said.

Each time I repeated my line, Mom stroked my forehead and said, “No, honey, no you’re not.”

Mom was right. She was probably right about the horse being a cow too. My contrary spirit.

I did not die.

The book of Genesis says that God didn’t set Adam and Eve outside of the garden gates naked, God made clothes for them. But now they had to work to survive. God made Adam a farmer. He was in touch with the earth and animals, just like Pop Doc. Pop Doc touched Mom’s belly to predict my sex. Did he know I would be queer? If I was Adam Caldwell, would I understand life’s mysteries the way Pop Doc did? Would we have shared a queerness that goes back to the garden, where bees were friendly?

My Name

Part One

My name is Adam. The story of Adam from the Bible is the first account of human disobedience. My mother knew the Bible, she chose the name, and in her mind, I had a contrary spirit from the start. Throughout my life, when I disobeyed or contradicted her, she told me the story of the cow.

“You could barely talk, just a baby really, but when I showed you a cow, you insisted it was a horse.”

Mom believed that I lived up to my name.

In the Garden of Eden there was Adam, Eve, lots of friendly animals, and the devil in the form of a snake. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was there; Adam and Eve were never to eat the fruit, but the snake talked them into it. God used to come hang out with Adam in the garden, but God has never hung out with me. The snake, on the other hand, has been a constant in my life.

I live in Tucson, Arizona. In desert mountains infamous for snakes. One afternoon while hiking, a creeping sensation slithered up my spine. My internal snake-sensor—I am familiar with this tingling. Slowing my pace, I studied the path ahead. I saw two snakes. I stopped, squinted, and they came into focus: a manhole cover and a stick. Not snakes after all.

But as I walked on, just after the manhole cover, there was a snake. A real one. A rattlesnake, its cascabels in the air. I jumped back, startled, and then found myself smiling. I knew you’d be around here somewhere! I greeted the snake with a bow of respect.

I sense snakes. When working in my desert yard, trimming branches or watering fruit trees, if the creeping feeling climbs my spine, with a little scanning, I find a snake. The creeping feeling could be described as the hair standing up on the back of my neck, but my connection to snakes is not just fear. Perhaps it’s something in my soul. A past life connection. A spiritual intertwining.

Or maybe it’s because of my name.

Why did my parents name me Adam? I have mined this mystery for meaning all of my life. In the Hostetter family, every first-born son has been John or Jacob since the immigrant (Jacob) from Switzerland in the 1700s. But my parents disliked both names, so they “started over” with Adam. That’s the story they tell.

Can you find Mr. Dietz amidst the other Mennonite teachers?

I was the only Adam in my Mennonite high school. Mr. Dietz had a special greeting for me. An ancient teacher with a long white beard, Mr. Dietz wore a traditional black collar-less coat, buttoned to the neck; the other teachers wore suit jackets and ties. When he saw me in the hall, he would shout out in Pennsylvania Dutch: “Adam! Wo bist du?” As he passed me, Mr. Dietz would smile and wink. But I felt shame, and the presence of God.  

 “Adam! Where are you?” God called to Adam in the garden. Naked, aware of his vulnerability, and ashamed, Adam was hiding from God. Mr. Dietz exposed me: a sinner on par with that first great sin.

When I sense a snake, death is my body’s first reaction. A jolt of anxiety, stiffening of the spine and joints, hyper awareness, adrenalin pumping. When I can take a moment to relax, exhaling as I scan for it, the knowledge that a snake is there comforts me. I locate it before any damage can be done, and I bow with respect, grateful to have sensed it.

Starting as early as infancy, sitting on Mom’s lap in the green rocker-recliner with the Illustrated Children’s Bible, I learned the story of a woman reaching out to pluck fruit from a tree. A snake with a broad head and fangs hangs from a branch. A naked man watches from his seat in the grass. I can’t remember how Mom explained it, but I knew that when God found out what Adam and Eve had done, he kicked them out of the Garden of Eden. Because they disobeyed, we would all suffer and die. And the snake was cursed.

I turned to the image of Adam over and over. This is Adam, I thought. I am Adam.

“Adam,” Dad called, “Get your raincoat. Let’s look at the creek.”

March 1975, I was four years old, and our new house on an eastern Pennsylvania hill overlooked an old-growth woods with towering trees, swamps, and a winding creek.

A rain storm had washed the snow away and caused the creek to rise. The woods flowed with brown rapids. Trees were down. Power was out, but that morning we had sunshine.

Dad and I walked into the swamp where the creek curved around a low place. We stood on a mound of high ground.

“Hey look,” Dad said, “there’s a snake.”

I saw the snake.

And then I saw another.

“There’s another one,” Dad said, pointing. And another. And another.

We realized we were seeing a bed of snakes. Snakes upon snakes upon snakes. The ground was alive and moving. The entire low spot was writhing with thick gray water snakes, golden colored snakes, green striped garter snakes. They were fighting their way toward higher ground, toward us.

“They’re cold blooded,” Dad explained as I slipped my hand into his and leaned hard against his leg, “That why they’re moving so slowly. They must have been washed down by the flood.”

My heart was racing. I wanted to close my eyes but could not look away. Let’s go, I thought. But Dad stayed, crouching down to get closer, fascinated.

Back in the house, Dad was exhilarated. I was melting down. Dad told Mom. As soon as Mom looked at me, I crumbled to the floor.

“We can’t live here! I don’t want to live here!”

I was remembering a prophet and his message. 

Pop Doc, my mother’s grandfather, had visited the land before Mom and Dad started building the house. A white-haired giant in blue-jean-overalls and heavy leather boots, he clomped and slid as he walked. That sound—CLOMP, slide, CLOMP, slide—was how we would hear him coming. He terrified me. Everyone started yelling when he came around.

“HOW YA DOIN’ POP?”

I clapped my hands over my ears and squeezed my eyes shut. Everyone sounded so angry. As a 4-year-old, I didn’t understand that Pop Doc was deaf.

On his first visit to Dad and Mom’s new property, he irritated Mom with a shot of pessimism; Mom referred to it as his ‘curse.’

“You can’t build here,” Pop Doc said. We were in the driveway, beside a hole, home of the electrical transformer guarded by a medieval-looking metal grate and a constant hum.

“This is a snake pit,” He said.

Frightened, I looked into the darkness of the humming hole, expecting snakes.  

Later that afternoon, Mom complained about him to her sisters over the phone. I heard her retell the story three times. Each time Mom’s voice sounded angrier, as if Pop Doc had literally cursed her ground. Anxiety hung over me like the broad-headed viper in the Illustrated Children’s Bible hanging over Adam.

And then, just a month after moving in, the snake pit was real. Dad, a computer engineer, brushed it off. Mom, squeezing me in, wondered aloud, “Maybe Pop Doc was right.”

Come back for more snakes, mystics and Indiana Jones in Part Two!

Gorilla!

Part Two – starting here? Read Part One first!

Mark snapped me back to my job: keeping campers safe.

campground.jpg

“I’m calling the police.” I said, a spontaneous reaction that pleased me. Maybe I really did know what to do. Maybe I knew more than the security guard. More than the adults. With renewed confidence and a sense of duty, I marched back to the office.

As I reached for the phone, I thought, what do I say? Campers were crowding in.

The dispatcher had questions: “A gorilla? A real animal? Is it loose?”

“Well, probably a person in a gorilla suit. Riding a bicycle.”

“Is anyone injured?”

“No. I don’t think so. He’s scaring people. Throwing bananas.”

“Throwing bananas.”

“Right.”

“Can you see the gorilla now?”

I turned the question to the campers, “Can you see the gorilla?” They clustered at the windows, tucking their heads into the ruffles. Mumbling, no…it’s dark…there a glare, let’s turn this light off…

“No, um…we can’t see the gorilla.”

By the time I hung up, the gorilla had disappeared. Campers headed back to their families. Alone, I locked myself in. I worried. I wondered where Mark had gone. I paced. After a while, I nodded off. It was almost midnight when the police arrived. Flashing blue and red lights lit up the office. Out on the porch, the campground seemed normal, quiet and peaceful except for the flashing lights.Officers Arrive

“We got a call about a gorilla?”

I tried to tell them everything. Pointed out the bananas on the ground.

They nodded. Took notes in tiny spiral notebooks.

“Where is the security guard now?” one of the officers asked.

“I don’t know, he’s usually in the booth, but…”

They checked the booth. Mark wasn’t there. The officers split up to walk around the campground. Moments after they vanished into the shadows, Mark was beside me.

“I never saw it again,” he said, squinting. He adjusted his cap.

“Maybe the police will find something,” I said.

The police talked to a few campers but found nothing.

“Well, if the gorilla comes back, let us know.”

We watched the officers get into their car and drive away.

“Fucking nuts,” Mark said.

I watched his bow-legged walk as he went back to the booth.

That night I had nightmares about the Planet-of-the-Apes-eyes behind the mask. About Bigfoot lurking in the campground. My mind whirled. Was the gorilla real? What if something happens during the night?

The next afternoon I asked Darlene, the morning shift gal, if she heard anything.

“About what? A what?”

“Right, I know. Crazy. But last night there was a gorilla here.”

No one had said anything. I was disappointed. I had expected a buzz in the campground. I imagined basking in praise. Being recognized for outthinking security guards and adults. I wanted to be held up as a model employee.

“It really happened!” I said. Darlene was busy getting her car keys from her purse.

“It was scary!” I said as she maneuvered around me toward the door.

Darlene left; I was alone in the office. The ruffled curtains made me feel sad. The gold wall phone seemed to accuse me. Call the police for any stupid little thing. I wondered if the gorilla had really happened. Maybe it was a dream. Then Mark came in.

“Last night was fucking hilarious!” he said. “Can you believe that shit?”

I blinked. Laughing, Mark slapped the counter. He turned away shaking his head and leaned back on his elbows.

“That dude was one realistic looking gorilla,” he said.

I exhaled. It had happened. To Mark and me. I waited for Mark to tell me what an amazing job I did handling the situation. He didn’t. He wasn’t quite as sexy to me after that.

Later that evening the owner, my big-boss, eavesdropped on a phone call. Other employees had warned me that he did this, to ensure an employee was on-point.Wall Phone

“The village seems expensive. Is it worth it?” a caller said.

Whenever a caller asked me this question, I answered truthfully. They had to know that Amish buggy rides across the covered bridge cost ten bucks per adult and were not included in the entrance fee. I owed it to them.

This may have been what my mom meant when she called me “too honest.”

“Well, are you planning to camp here, in the campground?” I asked the caller.

“Yes.”

“Then it is totally worth it because the entrance fee is part of the campground registration fee-.”

“WHAT?” The big boss’s voice barked through the line. Startled, I dropped the phone. As I grappled with the curly cord that attached the handset to the receiver on the wall, I could hear him bellowing.

“ARE YOU SUGGESTING THAT THE VILLAGE ISN’T WORTH THE PRICE?”

“Hello?” I heard the caller trying to understand what was happening.

I considered hanging up as I slid the handset against my ear.

“Hello?” the caller said again. Then she hung up.

In the static silence I heard the owner’s heavy breathing.

“ARE YOU THERE?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Did you just tell that woman that the village WASN’T WORTH IT?”

“I told her that camping here was—“

“Don’t EVER SAY THAT AGAIN!”

The line went dead. I placed the handset into the silver cradle on the wall. No one told the big-boss about the gorilla! He had no idea that I had single-handedly saved hundreds of campers. I grabbed the phone’s handset, ready to dial the big-boss and tell him. But then, I hung up.

I’m so stupid, I thought. Weakness in my knees, I sank to the stool behind the front desk. I knew that I would be fired, if not tonight, soon. For a flicker I thought I could walk out right now and never come back. But I didn’t. Instead I applied for a new job.

I was surprised to get an immediate offer, just a few miles away in Paradise, PA—a brand new steamboat-shaped hotel surrounded by a moat in the middle of a cornfield. I worked both jobs for a few weeks, then one day, I was fired. By the big boss’s mother, who ran the country-crafty candle-perfumed gift shop. Her exact words were: “We don’t need you anymore.”

I didn’t need them anymore either. What I had needed from my evenings in the office I got, not from Mark or the big boss or the demanding campers, I have the gorilla to thank. He taught me that I could do something.

One evening, just a few months after starting my new job, some concerned guests approached the front desk. They told us that a man in full military fatigues and boots walked into the Steamboat’s swimming pool. The two adult front desk clerks twitched and wrung their hands. They all looked at me. I stepped out from behind the front desk and made my way to bow of the boat.

“I’m so sorry sir, but you’ll need to get out of the pool. I’d hate to have to call the police.”

He complied and dripped on the carpet as he walked back to his room.

Relieved guests thanked me. “Of course,” I told them, brushing it off. However, walking back the lobby, I stood straighter, adjusting my bow-tie and red polyester tuxedo jacket. I felt like a superhero. I remembered the gorilla, and my heart softened.

Who was that gorilla? I wondered.

gorilla 2

Gorilla!

Part One

mill-bridge-campground-705My senior year of high school I worked at a Pennsylvania campground, adjacent to a “colonial village” with a restored eighteenth-century grist mill, a working water-wheel, and everything from a do-it-yourself butter churning shop to Amish buggy rides. I manned the office, and by closing time I was the only person around. One night, just as I was beginning the close-out checklist, a gorilla was reported in the campground.

“He’s on a bicycle,” the frazzled camper said, bursting into the office. “He won’t talk to anyone! He just grunts!”

I blinked.

“The guy in the trailer next ours got hit with a banana!”

I knew how to check-in campers, take payments and sell mosquito spray. The problems I could solve included posting information for late arrivals and fixing clogged toilets.

“You have to do something,” he said.

The phrase buzzed between my ears. A feeling of shame heated my face. I imagined what I could do. Stay in the office and lock the door.

A second camper entered slamming the office door. “He is throwing bananas at us!” she said.

“See?” Camper #1 said.

Camper #2: “We were at our picnic table and heard a bicycle,” she said.

Camper #1 folded his arms.

“Once he was in the light we realized it was a gorilla. He terrified the children!”

I nodded. Both campers looked at me. Expecting something.

Camper #2: “Well, I just asked him who he was and what he was doing and he started grunting and howling.”

Just then three more campers arrived.

“Someone has to talk to this guy!” one of the new campers said, slamming his flat palm against the desk. “He’s out there scaring folks.”

Adam 1990
Adam, 1990

These were adults staring at me, commanding me to action. They were angry at the gorilla, but it felt personal. A hollow feeling in my stomach. I felt hot; I touched my forehead and noticed my hand was shaking. I was kid, but I knew I had to do something.

Then, I thought of Mark, the night security guard.

Mark. I was in love with him.  The way his Levi’s hung, his green John Deere hat, his small, tight farm-boy body. He was my age, and he was the first security-type man who didn’t intimidate me. My heart fluttered when he leaned one hip against the front desk to chat. I pretended to know about football and even lied, saying “oh yeah” when he asked me if I liked Metallica. Every night at closing time he was asleep in the booth.

Feeling a sudden sense of knowing-what-to-do, I said, “I’ll get the guard.”

Outside, the campground looked unchanged. Dark and quiet, lightening bugs glowed near the creek. I could see a few campfires burning and smell hotdogs. While the campers stayed on the porch grumbling, I started toward the guard shack at the campground entrance.

I didn’t get far.

I was illuminated by the headlights of an RV turning into the driveway. It was a huge one. The kind with multiple slide-outs, solar panels and satellite dishes. It crept toward the guard booth, then stopped.

RV tires quiet, I heard the sound. The bicycle, I thought, freezing in place. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Out of the darkness, a gorilla on a bike passed under a dim light post. Then it went back into shadow.

The RV driver turned on a giant spotlight. I lifted my hand to my forehead. Blinking, I heard the sound of a skidding bike tire. Looking into the pool of light, I saw the gorilla’s long shadow.

The bike was on the ground, in the road. The gorilla was knuckle-walking toward the RV. He raised one arm toward the windshield, waggling a banana.

“There he is!” a camper yelled.

Do something! I reacted, running toward the gorilla and grabbing the bike. I looked up as the gorilla reeled back and launched the banana directly into the RV’s windshield. The driver pulled the air horn. I cringed. We never heard the splat.

Mark burst from the guard station with his hands over his ears.

“WHAT THE FUCK?”

The gorilla started screaming—grunts and screeches—waving long arms—it ran toward me. Toward the bicycle I was holding.

I gasped for a breath, then said, “I need to know who you are.” Did my voice crack?

The gorilla took hold of the bicycle, shaking me. My heart was pounding.

“I’m serious,” I said, gripping the cold metal of the bike frame, knowing campers were watching me from the office. “You’re scaring people.”

The gorilla looked up at me, scouring my face with fast moving eyeballs. I held my breath—the mask was so realistic. Was it a mask? The gorilla leaned in and howled in my face. I let go of the bicycle, but not my resolve.

I squeezed my eyes shut and yelled back at him: “WHO ARE YOU? ARE YOU A CAMPER HERE?”

I opened my eyes to see him swing up onto the pedals and ride off into the darkness.

Mark was beside me now, hands still over his ears even though the air horn had stopped. I could see his dirty fingernails on either side of his John Deere hat.

“WHAT THE FUCK?”

The RV turned off the spotlight and a thick darkness fell. Campers were clicking on flashlights. I was blinking to adjust my eyes, I felt dizzy.

“Mark,” I said, “there’s a gorilla—” but before I could explain, a bicycle flew from the shadows, the gorilla skidded to a stop and faced Mark and me.

The gorilla and I made eye contact. Its eyes didn’t look human. Not enough iris. Maybe it really is a gorilla, I thought. It held out a banana. I watched as my arm reached out to accept it. Peace offering?

I noticed Mark backing away and knew I was on my own. The campers were watching. I took charge. “Look dude,” I said to the gorilla, “you gotta take the mask off. People are freaked out.”

The gorilla was still, breathing, holding my eyes. The banana in my hand, I felt curious. What is this gorilla’s story? I felt a sudden a softness.

“Talk to me,” I changed my tone. “You don’t want to be scaring people, right?” gorilla

He grunted, lifting his chin to me. For a moment I thought I had earned his respect; that he knew I wanted to protect him. Just as my heart was opening, he howled, stomped and waved his arms in my face. I closed my eyes. When I looked, he was riding away into the darkness.

I lost him. A sensation, like I might cry.

“What. The. Fuck?” was all Mark could say.

Find out what happens in Part Two!