Sunday, January 11, 2009

Chapter 16: Learning About Girls

There were only four of us in the Buick Roadmaster that dark Sunday evening: Dad, Philip, Paul, and me. Dad had taken us boys with him to Georgia for the weekend where he had been the guest preacher at a church near Atlanta.

Phil was riding shotgun with Dad. Paul and I shared the back seat. Because both of us were sleepy, I had volunteered to lie on the floor and give Paul the seat. I enjoyed snuggling on the floor. Just as I was settling down into the cozy pallet I had made for myself, Dad broke the silence.

“Boys,” his voice carried a tone that let me know what was to follow was unusually important. “You’re getting a little older now, and I think it’s time I told you where babies come from.”

Instantly, I was wide awake. I was nine years old and this was a question I had been asking my parents for half of my life. The only answer I had ever received was “You’ll have to wait. We’ll tell you when you’re older.”

Philip was 12 years old and I think he already knew about the origin of babies, but he wasn’t allowed to tell. It seemed unfair to me that Paul was going to learn the secret of this great mystery at the same time I was. He was only eight.

Dad continued by explaining to us that God had created people as male and female, and he described the difference in their anatomies. That was elementary. I had known about the human anatomy for as long as I could remember. After all, you can’t live in a house with so many brothers and sisters and not know those things. But I couldn’t see how that could relate to where babies come from.

“Babies,” Dad said, “grow from a tiny seed that God plants deep inside of Mommy’s tummy.” I knew that storks didn’t bring babies, and I had heard in church that they are a gift from God, but this stuff about a seed inside Mom was totally new to me.

Dad’s voice was deliberate and a bit strained, as if he were cautiously choosing every word. “When a man and a woman get married they sleep in the same bed together.” Then he went on to explain exactly how God put the seed into the woman. He said that was called sexual intercourse.

This was difficult to comprehend. I found the idea intriguing, but thought it was a shame that all of this happened while you were sleeping. I had heard the term “sexual intercourse” but wasn’t sure exactly what it meant, although I thought it had something to do with hugging and kissing without your clothes on. Now I learned it was what God caused married people to do in their sleep. I thought, when I grow up and get married, I’m going to just close my eyes and pretend to be asleep so I can see how it feels.

This previously forbidden knowledge made me think I was very grown up. Dad told us we were to keep the information to ourselves and not share it with our younger siblings, who were too young to understand.

I didn’t talk about sex or having babies with my younger brothers and sisters. I didn’t talk about it to anybody at all. But as time went by, I began to realize there was more about sex that I needed to know. Most of it I learned from other boys, and also from books.

When I was a young teenager, Dad would ask me from time to time if I had ever kissed a girl. I hadn’t. When he asked that question, it was always with a very stern voice which carried with it an implication that kissing was wrong. I knew that kissing was permitted between a husband and wife, because Dad and Mom were very openly affectionate toward each other. I saw them kiss many times.

There were at least a few people in our church, including one of my Sunday School teachers, who felt a man and woman should not kiss until after they were married, or at least engaged. I’d heard a few church people boast that they did not kiss their spouse until the moment the preacher pronounced them husband and wife. Any display of friendliness or affection between a man and woman was strictly taboo in church.

Frequently in churches I attended, the preacher would get up and say, “Everybody, turn to your neighbor and greet them in the Lord. Brothers, hug the brothers and shake the sisters hands; Ladies, hug the ladies, and shake the men’s hands.” A friendly hug between a man and a woman was unthinkable. Christians just didn’t do that.

In addition to hugging each other, a few of the folks in church also greeted one another with a “holy kiss.” This was according to the Scriptures (Romans 6:16, II Corinthians 13:12). Of course, men only kissed men and women only kissed women.

I knew which men in the church were kissers, and studiously avoided them. Occasionally when I was visiting a church where I did not know the people, some man would catch me on the lips before I could duck. Most of the men who did this were older brethren, and it seems they all had yellow teeth, bad breath, and were in need of a shave.

I didn’t think kissing a girl was sin, and often thought I would like to try it. But I was horrified of what Daddy might do if I ever did and he found out.I began dating at about the age of 15. What I called a date then would not be considered a date by most young people today. All I did was just sit with a girl in church, or maybe have a pre-arranged “date” to meet a girl and hang out with her during a church social activity.

Summer youth camp was one of the best times for meeting girls. Every year at camp, on the last evening, there would be a “date night” which simply meant that boys and girls could sit together for church service, followed by a social time at the snack shop, and then a movie.

My youth camp girlfriend for my 14th and 15th summers was Nita from Kingsport. She was the cutest girl I had ever seen. We were pen pals for the entire year between those two summer camps. On date night that second year, we were standing behind a tree which shielded us from the floodlights that beamed out from the snack shop. I wanted to kiss Nita so badly that I ached, but at the same time I was terrified by the thought. My concern was twofold: How do you kiss a girl? And, how would I answer Dad the next time he asked if I had ever done it?

Nita must have sensed my desire to kiss her. We were looking into each others eyes, whispering low and saying how much we were going to miss each other after camp was over for another year. Then Nita opened her mouth slightly, closed her eyes, and moved her face to within an inch of mine. I could feel the warmth of her breath and she looked more beautiful than any sight I had ever seen. I cleared my throat, swallowed hard, said something really stupid, and stumbled out from behind the tree and into the light.

It was two and a half years later that I got my first kiss. I was already preaching and was heavily involved in the Lee College Pioneers for Christ Club, although I was still a junior attending public high school. I had met my first serious girlfriend, Sylvia, when we had been together on a Pioneers for Christ “Invasion,” going door-to-door, winning souls for Jesus.

Sylvia was a brunette from Oneonta, Alabama, a college freshman, and two years older than me. We dated for about three months. Most of our dates consisted of going to church together on campus. After the service, students were allowed to walk to the canteen or the Student Center together until curfew at 10 p.m. On Friday and Saturday nights, the curfew was 11 p.m. A boy was not allowed to walk his girlfriend all the way to her dormitory. A yellow line down the center of the street was the goodnight point. A dormitory monitor stood at the line to be sure no one lingered too long, and that there was no touching.

In the Student Center, there was a “six inch rule” which was strictly enforced. A student council monitor was always on duty, with a ruler in hand. Every 20 minutes he or she would walk around the room, where students were sitting on couches and chairs, and announce “Hand check.” Everyone raised both hands to show they were not touching their date. Holding hands was strictly forbidden, and a violation resulted in demerits. The number of demerits given depended upon the seriousness of the offense. Get 100 demerits and you were expelled from school.

If the student council monitor thought someone looked like they were sitting too closely together, he would use the ruler to be sure they were a minimum of six inches apart.

As Sylvia and I became more and more intimate in our relationship, I finally got up the nerve to reach out one night and touch her on the hand. I had placed my overcoat on the couch between us in anticipation of my bold move. She reciprocated, and we began holding hands regularly, always under the coat. We were never caught.

One of our favorite date activities was to practice our soul-winning techniques. One of the things that attracted me to Sylvia was that she shared my intense devotion to the Lord. During these times, we would take turns playing the part of the sinner. First, I would witness to her, and she would answer me with some of the many objections we had learned to anticipate when we were out knocking on doors and telling people about Jesus. Then, we would reverse rolls and I would play the part of the sinner, allowing Sylvia to sharpen her witnessing skills.

We would do this for a couple of hours at a time. During these witnessing practice sessions, I didn’t hold Sylvia’s hand. It was hard to concentrate on the things of God when her hand was in mine.

Until just the year before, students had not been allowed to date off campus unless they were accompanied by a faculty chaperone. Some old-timers criticized Lee for going liberal and “letting down the Holiness standard” when they relaxed that law and began to allow students to double date. A couple could not leave the campus together without signing out, and without having at least one other couple along.

Sylvia and I were on a double date with another couple of students one Saturday night. We had been to a revival service together, and were on our way back to the campus. Sylvia and I were in the back seat, unashamedly holding hands, but still sitting about six inches apart. I wanted to kiss Sylvia so badly. It was exactly seven days before my 17th birthday. I hadn’t proposed marriage to Sylvia, but I was definitely thinking in terms of possibly being with her forever.

That night, as we were going down a dark country road with the radio playing Southern Gospel music, I decided to take the plunge.I clumsily made a lunge for Sylvia, mouth puckered but tightly closed, and planted a quick peck on her lips. They were warm and soft, but I fairly bounced off, not lingering at all. I knew nothing about open mouth or tongue action kissing. I knew even less about women. To my great relief, Sylvia didn’t recoil or slap me. She smiled and reached out to hold me now with both of her hands. In a few minutes, we were back on campus.

I was experiencing a flood of confused feelings. There was a tinge of guilt in that maybe I had done something wrong, overshadowed by the elation of my first kiss that made me feel light and giddy. Also, in the back of my mind there was the nagging fear of how I would answer Daddy the next time he asked me if I had ever kissed a girl. I would have to tell the truth and take the consequences. Fortunately, he never asked me that question again.

As I said “goodnight” to Sylvia at the yellow line in front of Nora Chambers Hall, I muttered to her with fumbling words, “Sylvia, you’re the first person I’ve ever kissed, and I hope you’re the last.”

She just said “Goodnight.”

The next afternoon, in a rather matter-of-fact telephone call, Sylvia broke up with me. I was devastated. I had kissed her and to me that meant we would in all likelihood get married someday. I apologized profusely for being so forward as to kiss her the night before. I asked if she had been offended and if so, to please forgive me and I would not be so presumptuous as to kiss her again.

She said that the kiss was okay, but she just thought we shouldn’t see each other again because of her own personal reasons. That was it. No more discussion.

A couple of days later, one of Sylvia’s friends told me she didn’t want to date me any more because I didn’t know how to kiss.

I continued to date Lee College girls for the next couple of years, while I was still in high school. One of those girls was kind enough to teach me how to kiss.

In my freshman year at Lee, I met the girl who would become my wife. Our dating routine consisted mostly of attending church and going to college activities together.We dated for well over a year and became engaged to be married. One evening, we were sitting together on a couch in the Lee College Student Center. We were the required six inches apart and were not holding hands. However, that evening I dared to lean over and give her a short peck on the lips. Unknown to us, Ray H. Hughes, the college president, was watching through a window.

Almost immediately after the kiss, I heard the door opening and looked up to see Dr. Hughes appear. He stood in the doorway for a brief moment, looking directly at us until he was sure we had seen him. Then he waved, turned, and left.

We felt sick to our stomachs. As innocent as that kiss had been, we knew we had been caught and shuddered at what the consequences might be. The next day I was walking across campus and saw Brother Hughes. As we passed, he gave me a knowing smile and said, “Hello, Stephen.” There was no mention of the night before. I knew he would not ignore the matter, and my stomach was in knots as I wondered what would come next.

Ray H. Hughes was a man I had known very well since I was a small child. Our families had gone on picnics together; many times I had played with his children in their house and yard. I had been in countless camp-meetings across the country where he and my dad were the preaching team. I had even been out on Lake Chickamauga with Dr. Hughes in his motorboat with my brothers and his sons where he had taught us to water ski. But I knew none of that would help me now. Ray H. Hughes could be harsh, dictatorial and unyielding; I was horrified of him.

For three long days I waited for the other shoe to drop, expecting to be called into Dr. Hughes’ office to give an accounting for myself. The call never came. Instead, I received a letter on his official letterhead, a copy of which had been sent to the college dean. Without a hearing, I had been given 40 demerits for “conduct unbecoming a student.” Furthermore, I was banned from the Student Center for the remainder of the school year. My fiancĂ©’s letter was even more severe. Not only did she receive 40 demerits and a ban from the Student Center, but she was also fired from her part-time job at the college switchboard. Hughes called her “unfit to sit at the doorway of Lee College.”

The next morning in chapel service, Dr. Hughes publicly told of the incident, without giving our names. He said we were an example and that other students should take notice that no displays of affection between a boy and girl would be tolerated on campus. No one was exempt, he warned, saying that the young man involved was the son of a high ranking official in the Church of God. Dad was, at that time, the First Assistant General Overseer, the second highest executive position in our denomination.

Everyone turned and looked at me.

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