I had just graduated high school in 1976, and my new girlfriend’s church’s music director invited me to summer camp. It sounded like a great way to spend time with her and a much-needed break. I was working two jobs (one was the third shift at a yarn mill) to save money for college the following fall, and somehow, I wrangled a week off from each.
I knew I had made a massive mistake as I stepped off the bus. The camp was called The Wilds in Brevard, North Carolina, and I later found out that Bob Jones University, a white supremacist fundamentalist Baptist college, ran it. All the guys had buzz cuts, dockers, and fake smiles, and the girls would not make eye contact and wore demure monochrome skirts and long-sleeve white blouses.
The counselors gaped at me and then started licking their lips. They had a new pagan to convert. At that time, I was sporting an afro at least six inches high, wearing tie-dyed jeans with colossal bell bottoms, a multi-colored silk shirt with huge billowing sleeves, and red and gray platform shoes with wooden heels. A black power afro comb protruded from my back pocket. My best friends in high school were black. Thank the gods they did not come with me. The ONLY things I had going for me were my white skin and maleness. There was not one person of color there.
The counselors told (ordered) us to be at the mess hall for dinner in thirty minutes. As we walked in, I was stunned to see that the girls and the boys were seated separately on opposite sides of the hall. There were around 600 campers, and a counselor showed us our assigned seats. We were immediately taught a freaky religious chant and told to be ready to sound off at any time. So much for spending time with my girlfriend.
Then, they forced us to attend chapel in a sterile building with an organ and orange carpet without artwork or adornment. The service started with the most boring music I had ever heard. We listened to an insane fundamentalist red-faced preacher scream about shame and sin, eternal punishment, and hellfire and brimstone. Again, they had us stand up with our cabin during lulls to do weird military chants. It was a contest to see who could be the loudest.
As night fell, kids in tears from our church surrounded me (I was the oldest) and begged, “Randy, get us out of here!” I asked to speak to our pastor, and they told me that I was not allowed to see him and that he was in a different retreat several miles away.
Each counselor assembled their boys around a fire ring and began the most fanatical devotional time of my life. Ours talked (in King James English) about the evils of sex and temptation and that we were not allowed to be with girls to protect us from evil. He then said the Bible teaches that holding hands with a girl was fornication. By that time, I was getting fed up. I laughed out loud and said, “well, if that is true, then I am doomed to the bottom of hell.” My cabin mates (not from my church) looked at me with mouths and eyes wide open.
The next day, they marched all of us boys into a classroom, and the training began. They ran it like a military boot camp. An instructor with a flat top and chiseled body channeling a drill sergeant began to teach us self-defense. He said the persecution of Christians had only just started, and we must be ready to defend ourselves and, if called upon, to go on the offensive to a martyr’s death for God and our faith.
We bug-eyed kids were taught that it only takes two pounds of force to crush an opponent’s nose with the heel of our hand. He sneeringly said, “any of you jerks can do it, even you runts.” We were taught how to break fingers, arms, and knees, and if God (or our Christian authority) told us to do so, how to kill a person.
During this week from hell, we played pillow basketball, and the counselors coaxed us to fill our pillowcases with the heaviest things we could find. I remember bloody noses and broken arms as the counselors whipped us into a frenzy. We were forced into the lake (I could not swim, and it did not matter) to play a game like a combination of rugby and football. There was a trash bucket on each side of the lake, and the objective was to get a greased watermelon into the opponent’s bucket no matter what it took. Again, they whipped us into a seething frenzy as the girls screamed and cheered from the land. It was like the movie Gladiator.
By this time, I was furious. The week was all about competition for the most points. They had refused to let me go into downtown Brevard to “witness to souls” because I would not cut my hair. They had a freaking barber shop at the camp. They shamed me for costing my team 25,000 points, not going, and dooming souls to hell. I laughed in their face and said, “oh no, you are responsible. I’m perfectly willing to go, but you would not let me.”
They had never had a camper like me. I was so angry about my ruined vacation and inability to see my girlfriend that I began to wreak havoc in their games, winning everything. Again, the leaders were furious because I was a long-haired hippie and a bad influence on the other campers. But I could tell my cabin counselor was secretly delighted because our cabin (the senior cabin) was beating the hell out of everybody and winning all the games and the points.
They disqualified me from the talent show (another 50,000 pts lost) because my singing sounded too worldly, too much like “Bill Gaither.” The judges told me that I should never show expression while singing. My face was too sensual. On the last day of camp, they solemnly said that Elvis had died earlier that week. Still, they had waited to tell us at the end “so as not to glorify him and his devil-worshipping music.”
I will never forget this hell week. It made me realize how dangerous and fanatical these delusional Christian militant fundamentalists are. We all saw them (some of us for the first time) on Jan. 6 waving their Christian banners as they stormed and murdered at the US Capitol. T***p emboldened them to come out from undercover and threaten the foundation of American equality and freedom. Beware. The Wilds is still doing boot camps to this day. And militant Christianity is alive and well.