This is part seven of The Story Book.
If Nashville is the buckle of the Bible belt, Abilene is the hole for the metal pokey part. A west Texas town barely big enough for three Christian universities, it’s the urban hub for hundreds of one stoplight towns from the lower panhandle. I don’t know if this is still true, but while I was there it was known for having the highest number of churches in the United States, per capita. At just over 100,000 residents, it had its own non-profit, listener-supported Christian radio station. Downtown Abilene has a single tall commercial tower, the Bank of America building. In the flat landscape it could be seen for miles, a lone digit in the big sky. Some of the locals liked to describe the Abilene skyline with their own single digit raised.
I went to McMurry College, the United Methodist one. When I started, it wasn’t even a university yet. It was the smallest of the three schools and the least funded. Methodists don’t have the same religious cache in the region as Baptists, who keep Hardin Simmons outfitted with a new building every school year, or Abilene Christian University, the flagship school for the branch of the Church of Christ that prefers skirts on its young women and curfews for its licentious boys. McMurry was known as the liberal school, which I suppose it was, although that’s like calling a cactus the greenest plant in Death Valley.
McMurry’s campus is 40 mostly treeless acres in the middle of town. They claimed 1400 enrolled students. My incoming freshman class in the fall of 1988 was smaller than my high school graduating class. I quickly realized most of them were holier than me.
The first person I met when I arrived on campus was my roommate Vance. He had a Guns-n-Roses poster on the wall, used a real spittoon for his Copenhagen habit, and talked about Jesus excessively. He was from Haskell, a one Dairy Queen town about an hour north. I am sure I was the city slicker. We got along well, because I was agreeable. I was agreeable with everyone, which I discovered later was a character flaw.
Vance had been struck by Paul-like lightning at church camp the previous spring and had recommitted his life to Christ. This later became a regular practice. I lost count of his baptisms. Shortly after we met he told me how he had decided to quit seeing his girlfriend afterward. This was between his grinning descriptions about their creative locations for sex. (Love ya Vance.)
Vance’s form of West Texas holiness created a spiritual struggle in me. I began to doubt the validity of my faith. I had never been hit by Paul lightning. Later I learned that there are also Peters in the church, people who just keep following Jesus and whose great achievement comes not in sudden gestures but in just showing up, until eventually something big happens. At the time, though, everyone around me was angling for some Paul lightning. I didn’t get it.
Like Vance, our two roomies on the other side of the cinderblock bathroom were also Paul Christians, but very different people. I had already met Aaron because he played trumpet at McMurry’s summer band camp. Most trumpet players I had known acted like life was a high F but Aaron was quiet. He had an Amiga 1080 computer, though, which made him the most popular freshman on the floor. It had actual 16-bit color graphics.
Tommy was a neat freak missionary kid with a huge smile and long hair. We all had mullets, since this was 1988, but Tommy had hippie hair. He had spent the bulk of his childhood in Africa. He smoked Swisher Sweet cigars, the kind you bought at Albertson’s with the plastic mouthpieces. He walked around campus barefoot, even in the occasional panhandle snow. In a culture of big hair and James Dobson, Tommy was exotic.
Our dorm rooms might compare to a present day jail cell with 1960s government tile flooring, white cinder block walls, a built-in desk and a twin mattress on a wooden bed frame. A few guys on our floor outfitted their space with Goodwill furniture. Jeremy, also known as Pyro, had very little furniture in his room, presumably to facilitate his fascination with the flammable properties of hair spray.
Early on the group of us hung out with a group of girls from the dorm across the street. I was popular because I could fit ten people into my 1973 Oldsmobile banana boat for a trip to the dollar show and some pool hopping in the neighborhood apartment complexes. Tommy and I bonded quickly. I was a good listener and let him complain about Aaron’s laissez-faire living choices. A few weeks into the semester he told me he wanted to install a hot tub in his dorm room.
“How in the world can you afford to do that?” I asked.
He giggled in reply. He giggled a lot. “Oh, I’m not going to buy one. I’m going to make it.”
I accompanied him as he went scavenging for his engineering project. We lifted a dozen milk crates from the back of the Albertson’s to raise his bed into a second story bunk and clear some floor space. I don’t remember how but we procured an unused blue industrial waste container for the hot tub itself. He cut it in half and set it up on top of four more milk crates in his room. Later milk crates became contraband, probably because of Tommy. He ran hoses to the hot and cold water pipes under the sink. I don’t recall a pump, which is sort of disgusting as I think back on it. Tommy was excited about his invention and showed it off on Sunday night during coed visitation.
A few days later we were all in his room killing time. Tommy got in the shower. Vance said, “Let’s trap him.” He locked the door from the room and I walked through the outer hallway to the other side of the suite and did the same. We laughed at our clever scheme for about 10 minutes, until Tommy appeared in the doorway in a little white towel, giggling. The monkey man had opened the bathroom window, jimmied down the pipe outside the building, walked around and through the front door and back up to our room.
Although I didn’t recognize it at the time, there was a specific reason Tommy and I got along so well. Like me, he exhibited a refreshing lack of west Texas holiness church culture. I was intimidated by the viscosity of faith expressions from the other guys on the hall.
One day I said to Tommy, “I don’t think I’m a Christian.”
He brow pushed down. “What? Why would you say that?”
“I don’t know. These other guys talk it up so much I can’t keep up.”
Tommy got angry with me. “Don’t ever say that. Don’t compare your faith to anybody else.”
Tommy insisted I not allow myself to be defined by the Pauls around us. Although neither of us used the comparison at the time, I later realized it’s okay to be a Peter, one who came to faith through a long sequence of experiences. He saved me from allowing myself to be defined by another’s interpretation of what it meant to follow Christ.
Over time, Tommy’s anger made me realize that I have my own story, and it is unique and important. And this is how my college friends helped me understand that everybody’s story is different, and part of growing up is owning your own.