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Thursday, September 05, 2013

My Favorite Uncle Bobby Story

My Uncle, Elder Bobby Rider, passed away this past week. He was a lovely man.  He served as an SDA pastor and conference worker all his life, continuing to preach the gospel and minister to others long after he retired. He was a gentle good-humored man whom I always admired.  At Friendship Camp one summer, I saw an example of his low-key leadership style in action. It was a typical Lone Star Camp Summer - damp East Texas heat that sapped the energy out of you. We, camp staffers ran around in soggy cutoffs all day and beat the heat by hitting the lake, whenever we couldn’t stand it any more. Running from classes to meals to camp councils, you didn’t have time to change, so we stayed wet most of the time. As a result, most of us suffered from a condition known by the indelicate euphemism, “Crotch Rot”.

You get “Crotch Rot” through a combination of an energetic life style and damp blue jean cutoffs. The guys that wore regular bathing suits never had this problem and you would think the rest of us would have figured it out. But it was the 60's and cutoff blue jeans were what everyone was wearing, so, like fashion slaves in every generation, it never occurred to us to go out and buy swim trunks. Swim suits where what you wore if your mama packed your clothes for the summer. Instead, we just fought the rash as best we could and endured constantly damp shorts for the sake of being like everyone else, a practice we thought of as expressing our individuality. Most of us accepted rot as a normal condition of camp life and dealt with it without complaining. You slept naked and Vaseline was your best friend. Sleeping in the nude was the most widely accepted treatment for crotch rot and only caused us concern on one occasion that I remember. 

During the summer of 72, I bunked with the bachelor waterfront staffers up at the old North Cabin, a screened lodge overlooking the row-boating area at the upper end of the lake. It was a lovely spot. We had an indoor fireplace, huge shuttered screens that we kept open to compensate for the lack of air conditioning and steel WWII surplus U.S. Army hospital cots with extra long legs that lifted the mattress to the same height as the windows. The tall beds allowed us to sleep directly in the cross draft between the two 15 foot wide screened windows - one on the lake side of the cabin and one on the side facing the road. The high beds also meant you were entirely visible from the paths on either side of the cabin. This might have been a problem except that all of us worked on the waterfront and to a man had contracted varying stages of crotch rot. The discomfort associated with the rot had taken us long past caring about trivial things like personal privacy.

My roomies, Tim and Bill and I had developed a system that allowed us to sleep naked (part of the prescribed treatment for “The Rot”) without disturbing the delicate sensibilities of the young lady staffers who had, in an explicable outbreak of administrative trust in our youthful dedication to abstemiousness, been assigned to a room in the northernmost wing of the lodge.

The new boarders next door needed to be able to get past our windows and around to their cabin door without being flashed, so we made allowances for their delicate sensibilities and tilted the roadside screen so that it was mostly closed but still allowed the breezes from the lake to pass through the cabin, while still blocking the view of the girls passing by. Then, we warned our new neighbors to stay off the lakeside path around the cabin in the early morning and to use the slightly longer (and less "scenic") front path to get to their cabin door.

As far as I know, we had no problems that summer with Peeping Thomasina's (at least no one actually lodged a complaint) until Friendship Camp, when Mrs. Overby moved into the north wing. Mrs. Overby always came as a volunteer during the annual charity camp and was a regular feature of the hot East Texas summers--like drought and mosquitoes. As a Christian and a Goldwater conservative, she heartily disapproved of our hippie lifestyles, our music and our long hair. Of course, we gave her the standard warning about the lakeside path, and congratulated ourselves on being quite thoughtful and reasonable young men. Mrs. O., however, took exception to our sleeping attire and having to walk round the front path to get to her door. She had two impressionable and very proper young ladies staying with her that summer and the mere idea of three Bohemian nudists lounging about the next door cabin, cooling their chafed thighs in the night breezes filled her with Victorian horror. She decided to complain.

Now, every summer, Mrs. Overby went ballistic over some perceived outrage that one of us had committed and there was a sort of pool going about how many days she’d last before she’d lose it and come stalking up the trail to the camp director’s office in her flowered frock and Minnie Pearl hat to complain about us heathens next door.

Uncle Bobby was the Texas Conference Lay Activities Secretary at the time and the one charged with organizing the weeklong camp for underprivileged kids. At his right hand was my aunt, the famous and feared Hattie Lee, who believed in a strict hierarchy of command and required instant obedience of us camp staffers. She put on a stern front, but could be incredibly kind and thoughtful as well. The two of them made an incredibly powerful management team.

One morning halfway through the week, I ran into Uncle Bob talking to a couple of pastors out by the cafeteria. He motioned me over and told me Mrs. Overby had been to see him.

"She’s complained about you guys sleeping in the nude and wants it stopped immediately!” Uncle Bob said sternly. Next to my roommate Tim (who later became a pastor himself and actually worked for Uncle Bob), I was the one most intimidated by authority figures. I shifted uncomfortably on the hot sand, more from embarrassment than from the heat on my bare feet. I figured Aunt Hattie had passed along orders for us to immediately cease from “sleeping nekkid” and all such other ungodly behavior.

Uncle Bob let me squirm a bit, then broke into a broad grin. “Weeeeell,” he winked at the other snickering pastors. “I figured Mrs. Overby and the girls weren’t going to have a whole lot of other excitement up there this week, so I didn’t worry about it too much,” he chuckled. To my amazement, he never said anything else about it. I waited anxiously throughout the rest of the week. I just knew Mrs. O. would go over his head to my Aunt Hattie, but to my relief, I never heard another word about it.

I told the other guys about the complaint. Partly in fear of my Aunt Hattie, Tim & I adopted a basic beach towel loincloth for our sleeping attire. The loincloth was a compromise between modesty and comfort. It looked like a standard loincloth worn hanging over a leather belt strapped around the hips - kind of like Tarzan. You could drop the flap in case of emergencies or raise it up to catch the breeze. Bill, an ex-Army medic who’d just come back after serving a tour of  Vietnam and tended to be a little jumpy, refused to compromise at all and continued to sleep crotch-to-the-wind as usual, except that he inexplicably began leaving a light on beside his bed at night. He may have been using heat from the lamp as a drying agent. We weren't sure. Bill was a  little scary sometimes, so we didn’t comment on this unusual practice. On being told of our half-hearted compromises and realizing we were younger and had more energy to put into the struggle over the nudity issue, poor Mrs. Overby gave up complaining. I think she was afraid we’d stage a protest and burn some undergarments or something. Anyway, she chose to cope with us by refusing to even acknowledge our existence for the rest of the week. I don’t think she ever spoke to us again, at least not that I can remember.

Nothing else interesting happened the rest of the week until Mrs. Overby’s young roommates startled a sleeping water moccasin on the lakeside path at 3 o’clock in the morning the last night of camp. They said they had quietly sneaked out to the ladies’ shower building early, so as to enjoy a warm shower and so as not to wake Mrs. Overby.  Coming back, they claim to have "accidentally" taken the wrong path in the dark. On the trail, they saw a "snake".  Startled by their flashlight, the "snake" apparently rushed at them, and then crawled off into the bushes. At least that’s how they accounted for all the screaming and giggling outside our window in the middle of the night. The girls weren’t bitten, but their screams startled Bill who sat straight up in bed, decided the V.C. had sneaked inside the perimeter and reached instinctively for his M-16. Not finding it, he swatted the bedside lamp into his lap instead. Unfortunately for Bill, the lamp was still on. The light bulb was also naked. Fortunately for Bill, the layers of Vaseline protected him from serious injury. The bulb made a little sizzling sound and then blew out. The snake, as far as we can tell, got away clean!

I'm sure Uncle Bob heard about it, but he never said anything to us, though there was a lot of snickering and meaningful looks among the pastors the next morning at breakfast.

Uncle Bobby was a problem solver of the first order. The previous summer at Friendship Camp, we had a larger number of campers than usual. These were under-privileged kids that churches throughout the state paid for so that they could attend summer camp at Lone Star. I was rowing instructor that summer and the first morning of Friendship Camp, I came to rowing class and found 27 campers crammed on the benches ready and waiting to go boating. I had 5 boats and 9 life-jackets. When I polled the group, I found that half could not swim at all. The other half couldn’t speak English. I delivered the safety drill and sent as many kids, as I could get lifejackets on, out in 4 boats with two each aboard. No one got much on-the-water time that day and someone, probably the counselor, who had to sit on shore with the kids that were waiting for their turn, apparently complained bitterly to my Aunt Hattie. 

Meanwhile I compared notes with my buddy Mark over in canoeing and discovered he had  the same problem I did. While we were having a good old gripe about it, Aunt Hattie came by. My Aunt Hattie is something of a force of nature. She was dreaded and feared throughout the conference by all evil-doer’s and shirkers. Even I was a little intimidated by her and I was kinfolk!  She promptly order Mark and I to "take all the kids out on the water the next time." 

“Without life-jackets?” we asked incredulously. We’d seen most of the kids’ swimming prowess demonstrated, usually after they fell into the water getting out of the boats. 

“You’re both being insubordinate,” she snapped.  She spun on her heels and went looking for Uncle Bob. We ran into him later in the day and he called us over. My Uncle Bob, always a problem solver, asked us if we could handle the group if we had enough life jackets. We shrugged and said we supposed so, but we wouldn’t be able to do much teaching with that many kids.

Here I learned a most powerful life lessons. 

Uncle Bob smiled at Mark and I in that benign, pastoral way of his and asked, “Can you make sure they have fun?”

My Uncle Bob changed the way I thought about camp and teaching and almost everything else I ever did in my life. He drove straight to town and bought enough life jackets for everyone and the next day, Mark and I dutifully loaded the kids up in every boat we had that would float (and in some cases gave brief instruction in the fine art of bailing) and set sail with the most ragged, overloaded and joyful flotilla of campers I ever worked with. We kept the kids safe and we made sure they had fun. That was the point of the whole thing, after all as Uncle Bob explained to us. 

In the process of solving the problem, Uncle Bob managed to praise our concern for safety and at the same time to help us understand what we were really supposed to be doing with those kids. Then off he went to town to fix the problem. The lesson lasted me the rest of my life. Whenever I faced a problem or difficulty, I always hearkened back to Uncle Bob's question. "Can you make sure they have fun?" He never had to say, "Think about the real reason you're here." He didn't lecture.  He just grinned the way he always did and asked the question we should have been asking ourselves – "What's the point of what you're doing?"  

God go with you, Uncle Bob. I learned a lot from you.

Tom King

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