I was ten years old and had never been on a jet, nor had I traveled further than Canada, which borders Wisconsin and therefore does not really count as international travel (nor does Montana, I realize, but in terms of distance, it seemed very far away). A tyro to be sure. But I had read a lot of Judy Blume and considered myself very worldly. I spent weeks planning my solo flight, what I would wear, what I would do in the various airports. I was actually excited about receiving my punishment. AND I wanted to be a veterinarian so the opportunity to work with horses was another adventure I looked forward to with unbridled romanticism. I had visions of myself in a light cotton frock, riding a black stallion, bareback, as our long flowing hair waved in the wind, in slow motion, mind you.
The trip was great. I read another Judy Blume novel (Wifey, I believe) -- right in front of everybody on the plane. I wore my favorite 3/4 sleeved rainbow jersey shirt and my blue corduroys. I carried a purse. I was something.
At the airport in Billings, I bought cigarettes from a machine and went to the airport restaurant where I chainsmoked (I'm wondering now how old I thought I looked) as I ate my T-bone steak and drank my Pepsi. I called my dad and pretended to be very scared by the whole experience of traveling alone, but I was nothing short of ecstatic.
When my aunt (whom I had never met) greeted me at the airport in Helena, I'm sure I reeked of smoke but she smoked too. Bonus! Add to my vision of independence stealing cigarettes from her pack, which I did, all summer long. She didn't smoke menthols, but I learned to love her Benson and Hedges nonetheless.
As you can see, I was a girl in need of reformation.
And then my cousin arrived, the very next day, and brought the gleaming light of God with her, a God I had never seen even though I had attended church every Sunday until I was seven years old. Beth was a blond-haired beauty. She was 21, she loved Jesus, and she wore her hair in French braids every day, with little hand-tied ribbons running the entirety of their gorgeous length. She was an intense horse woman with a vicious temper when it came to other peoples' laziness (both moral and physical). She was a rabid anti-smoker and she was a power-converter. She told everyboy they were going to hell and became irrate when they didn't believe her.
Her approach with me was a bit more tender, however. She simply invited me to go to church with her. I agreed, figuring it was the usual Lutheran service (boring but something to do). To set the stage, I should tell you a little more about my experience with religion up to this point. As I said, we went to church every Sunday and I knew about Jesus and Adam and Eve and Moses and the Apostles but that was pretty much it. Oh, and I knew it would definitely be cool to be chosen to play Mary in the Nativity play (I, unfortunately, was given the role as the back end of the donkey and that ended my career in Christian drama). For example, my notions of the "holy spirit" were so confused that my friends and I made up a game called "Holy Ghost" ; it was just like tag but the person who was "it" made ghost sounds as they chased the others around and we only played it on Sunday after church as our parents chatted with each other in the church parking lot.
So off we went to church. I remember my aunt snickering "Have fun..." when we left as she lit her cigarette and sipped at her coffee. I knew this was going to be a very different experience from the moment we drove into the parking lot. In the first place, the lot was full -- there must have been 100 cars. The church itself was very modern, all glass and carpeted staircases. As we sat down, I noticed the "pulpit" was more like a stage (with a full rock band set up behind it). There would be no organ ladies here in orthopedic shoes stumbling their way through "A Mighty Fortress is Our God." And the people... they were so... happy... about being at church. And they were huggy and kissy. I was introduced to everyone as "my little cousin from Wisconsin." "Welcome! We're so happy to have you!" was the invariable response. And it seemed like they meant it. Weird. I detected no sweet midwestern insincerity in their voices... a sound I was very familiar with.
There's really no point in trying to describe the microphoned preacher, the emotional congregation, my reaction to hands lifted in the air, people speaking in strange languages, the river of tears cried in joy. It was surreal. What got me to accept Jesus as my personal lord and savior that very day was the sermon itself. It turns out, Jesus is coming back, a fact I had never heard before that day. And when he came back, the shit was going to hit the fan. I thought I had years to make up for sinning on La-Z-boys, but suddenly my arrival in hell by other means was a certain reality; and according to the preacher, it was going to happen any day now. I was terrified. So up I went to that rock-star stage, fell to my knees and confessed myself a ten-year old sinner (which as you know was undeniably true).
And then my life split in two. I was a bible-carrying born againer of the newly-converted type during the day, but at night in my bedroom I would smoke my aunt's cigarettes, read Danielle Steele and torture myself endlessly about my weakness for the Devil's temptations. This sorry state of affairs would continue until I was 19, by which time I had read the bible eight times, accepted Jesus about fifty times (in case it didn't take the first 49), attended summer bible camp six times, was touched by the holy spirit and spoke in tongues (which I faked but could never tell anybody), learned the horrible truth that The Beatles were satanists and their records, when played backwards, spoke of sex with corpses. I became a Christian puppeteer, a Sunday school teacher, a leader of the youth group in my born-again community back home, a rabid pro-lifer, a hater of gays -- a young woman of great potential, in other words.
And while I did fall prey to all this nonsense, I can never regret my time as a born-againer. It gave me many gifts. I became a great reader and interpreter of texts, a self-policing teenager who never drank (the smoking was a different matter but I hid it well), a daughter who could be trusted by her father and a more caring individual. My father was right to have sent me and it had unforeseen benefits for him; I did all my chores without being asked, never lied, and except for my occassional attempts to convert his doomed soul, he must have been very happy he sent me.
I'll write more later on the horsey aspects of this summer. I received other great gifts from that as well, one of which was the certainty that I did not want to be a veterinarian.