Walter’s Camp

You would not have wanted to know me 15 years ago. When I think about it, I don’t want to know myself back then. I lost my parents by the time I was 18, and had been living on my own ever since then. I never started college because I had to work full time. And when that didn’t work very well, I got a second job, and I stayed that way until sometime in 2007.

What began to happen was that I felt hope begin to seep out of me–slowly at first, and then faster and faster as it became evident how my life was going to be.

It started pretty early. My parents had me when they were probably thinking they were long done with children, and after I came along, our house was not exactly like the Cleavers. It didn’t help any that I had a relative that was cruel in pretty much every sense of the word, and left me with scars both literal and psychological.

My parents were not much in the caregiving department. They tried, but from as early as I can remember, my mom had a pretty serious drinking problem–not to mention depression. And then she got sick (cancer). She had to kick the alcohol before the cancer could be treated, and was never the same after she’d gotten sober and had surgery–which happened when I was 10–she lived another 8 years.

My father, while there, was not a nurturing sort. As far as I could remember, he had little time to do more than yell at the television news, and have a beer or two with dinner. And later on, sail. So what happened was that my upbringing seemed to chiefly fall to my sisters, who also did the best they could, which considering they didn’t live at the house was quite a lot.

So I stayed out of the house as much as I could, and I hung out with friends, longing for the traditional sort of families they all seemed to have. My house wasn’t hell, and it could have been a lot worse, but the truth was that I did not feel loved, or protected, or safe.

As I grew, that stayed with me, and I began to develop a victim mentality, which by the time I was in high school, was very serious indeed.

Another thing I became a fan of was dark metal music, the more agressive and explicit, the better. I loved hearing the sometimes ridiculously explicit depictions of grisly murders, and decapitations, and goodness knows how many other horrible things.

I loved horror movies for the same reason, and the earlier novels of Stephen King, and others like him (I still read King, but my literary palate has matured a little, much as King’s writing has, and I don’t enjoy the graphic stuff so much anymore).

I never really got into the occult, but I knew people that did–several peripheral friends got together once and had a seance to try and talk to the ghost of Randy Rhoads, Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist, who’d died in a plane crash. As far as I know, Randy was busy when they tried to call.

I was close with my sisters for a while after high school, but then began to slowly withdraw from them, as well as the friends that had meant so much to me growing up. I made some new, casual friends, but never really let them get to know me, and I really didn’t get to know them, either.

I would pretty much just hole up in my apartment and comfort myself any way I could. Right after high school, I discovered cable TV in all its splendor, with all the dangers therein. Especially the type of entertainment you’d find late at night. Not exactly pornography, but almost. Close enough for government work, you could say. And it’s probably true that I avoided the hard stuff only because I was too embarrassed to go buy it.

I also began to consume mass quantities of whatever type of food I could get my hands on. I had very little money, so junk food was the way to go, and since my part time, evening job was at a pizza place, I ate a lot of that, too. I knew my family had serious addictive tendencies, so I never got started with alcohol, at least not until I was much older.

I would just eat, and eat, and watch cable. I told myself that I was OK, and when I did interact with my family, I did my best to convey the same thing to them.

When I was 19, I discovered that there were a couple people out there that didn’t mind dating me, and that situation had its benefits, too. I could get what I wanted from them, and they could get what they wanted from me, and no one got hurt, right?

I had one relationship that lasted longer than the others (there were actually only three of them), and that pulled me out of the cellar for a little bit, but when she decided to pursue college over me, it was back into the spiral, and I became worse than ever. I “blossomed” to over 300 pounds, and stayed that way. I could not run more than a very short distance (not that I really needed to), and climbing stairs was something I did as little as possible, lest I succumb to a heart attack, as my father had.

I would sit there in my apartment, and I would read horror books, and watch movies, and listen to hardcore metal. It began to feel like a chore to interact with people any more than I absolutely had to. It was much easier to just sit there and think about how much my life sucked.

I just tried to fill the empty places with anything I could jam into them, to keep the darkness from rushing in. Some things worked better than others, but all would eventually give way, because nothing really fit. Nothing. And it went on and on and on….

I never really thought of myself as depressed, yet thinking about it now, it’s very obvious I was. I never entertained thoughts of suicide, because I’d had a friend take his own life shortly after my father died, and it was horrible for all concerned. I just didn’t care about my life. If nothing good was going to happen to me, what was the point of trying to do anything? I just sat back, and let things happen.

And you know what? They did.

Then one day, something just told me to up and quit my part time job at the pizza place, and try something else, even though I couldn’t really afford to. So I applied at a movie theater in El Cajon, and got hired immediately. I started cleaning the theaters, then moved onto concessions, and the box office. After about a year, I became a projectionist/asst manager. It was shortly after that, my life began to change for the better. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but now I can see God working in my life through the people he brought into it.

I began to spend time with people that were healthier for me, and gradually felt comfortable enough with them to begin to share a little about my life. One of these people was a young woman I worked with at the theater who was a Christian, and probably the first one I ever met who did not seem to be a hypocrite. She was awesome, and made no secret of her faith. We never got involved romantically, but instead became very close friends (this caused me no small problem for a while, but I was thankfully able to move past it eventually). She never really proselytized, but she prayed for me, and her family did, too.

Most importantly to me, she accepted me as I was, with all my messiness and issues. She did not give up on me as a friend or in any other way. She was always there for me, and she still is.

I eventually began to develop a curiosity about God, and we had several very deep conversations about what he’d done in her life, and what I felt he hadn’t done in mine. She did not speak platitudes to me, and did not spout the comforting rhetoric I’d become accustomed to hearing from “Christians.” She just talked about her relationship with God, and what it had done in her life.

I attended her church for a while out of curiosity, and heard the Gospel on a regular basis, but it still didn’t really sink in.

I began to hear various people’s testimonies and most of them were so heavily dramatic that it was hard for me to relate to them. I had never done hard drugs, or been in a serious car accident, or been in a war, or gone to jail, or overcome a dependency of any sort. I felt a little relieved–it was like I didn’t have much to worry about compared to these people. I had to be scoring a lot of points with God, didn’t I? I knew I was a pretty nice guy, and I never deliberately did anything to harm people. I should be golden.

But make no mistake, I still had my moments. There were times when I was incredibly down (the holidays, of course), and when I was in one of those moods, I was insufferable. It was those times I’d still seek my comfort from places that were dangerous–I had another empty relationship while my friend was off dating someone, and I finally discovered the wonders of alcohol. Beer tasted good, and it was even better than food at numbing me. I didn’t drink all that frequently, but when I did I really did. It didn’t so much take anything away as dull my wits, and that was OK. Better than OK.

Shortly after that, my brief relationship ended, and I began spending time with my friend again as well. I started going to Grossmont College, and it was there I met the person that would finally be able to reach me–a guy almost the exact same age as me who had been through many of the same things I had, more even–he’d been a drug addict, and the drugs had nearly cost him his marriage. We became close friends. He started attending his wife’s church to try and save his marriage, and it worked. And not only did he save his marriage, but he reached out to Jesus and was saved himself.

And then I started going to his church, still curious, but now seeking in earnest. And I met the pastor, and ex-Navy Chaplain named Tim Wakefield. He was sincere, kind, and funny, and he always took the time to talk to me after services. I found myself drawn to him, and we began to develop a friendship as well. As this was happening, I found myself binging less, and trying my best to clear my head–it seemed like I’d been in a daze for a hundred years.

Then, on motorcycle ride to Arizona, Tim was killed. And once again, the wheels came off for me. In the short time after it happened, I reconnected with my drinking buddies, and looked forward to being able to feel numb again. I tried to tell myself it shouldn’t bother me that much. I hadn’t known Tim for very long at all–yet he had touched my life. And I had begun to have hope. Then, it got yanked out from under me just…like…that.

Still, I remember trying to just put it behind me–my buddies and I had our annual trip to Peoria, AZ planned, to check out a couple of Padres games, and more importantly, get really plastered over a three day weekend. So we stocked up on beer, and bad food, and climbed into my SUV for the drive. Traditionally, on the Friday before our first game, we would stop at my friend’s father’s place on the end of the Colorado river, in a little cluster of cabins and houses called Walter’s Camp.

The cabin had a dock going down to the river, plenty of beds to crash on, and a large fire ring out front for bonfires. So that first night we showed up, and my friend fished the key out of its hiding place. We stowed our sleeping gear inside, and then took the beer coolers onto the back porch to relax for a bit, enjoy the sunset, and have a few drinks and some Oreos (trust me, beer and Oreos is a lot better than it sounds–it doesn’t make sense at all, but it works). After a couple hours of talking trash and drinking, the guys went out front to make a fire.

I sat in my chair for a few minutes and enjoyed the evening. It had gotten dark, and lights were coming on in the cabins near my friends. Two cabins down, a good-sized party was beginning, loud music coming on, and people spilling out onto the patio area, and onto the dock. Thankfully, the cabins were far enough apart that you couldn’t really make out any faces, or see far enough that it felt like you were invading anyone’s privacy, or they were invading yours.

I heard a call from out front to bring the coolers, and I stood up, picking up one in each hand. And it occurred to me I hadn’t thought of Tim at all since we’d been there. I had a pretty good buzz going, and that was enough. And then a very strong urge came on me to walk down the ramp to the dock. There was a small fishing boat (or more accurately, “frogging boat”) tied to the dock, and I sat the coolers down next to it, and then looked up at the stars. And I thought about Tim. I thought about how he’d been riding his motorcycle to see his father, and had gotten killed instead. I thought about my college buddy, and how he’d changed so much, and had no regrets, and about the work done in his life. And I thought about all the events of my life that had brought me to that place in time, on that dock, looking across the river to Arizona–all the prayers, too, over the years. It was like I had a sense of them leaving hearts and entering God’s ear I thought about how alone I felt, even there with my friends. I thought about how I’d never really felt comfortable anywhere, never really felt like I belonged, or mattered. The one thing I’d always felt somewhere inside was that the world was a place I was never really supposed to be, and while I wasn’t going to do anything deliberately to leave it, what I’d been doing in not caring for myself was a sort of latent and apathetic way to end things. I guess in a way, I was waiting for something to happen, the same as I’d always done.

That was when, for want of a better expression, God reached down and punk-slapped me. It wasn’t so much a voice–either a shout or a whisper. It was more like I was suddenly conscious of a few things at once, and when they all came together, it literally forced me to my knees on the rough wood of the dock, with an Igloo cooler on either side of me. The first thing was that I became aware of my sin–all at once, and it was shocking, because I’d always thought of myself as a nice guy, a good guy, and it had always seemed like enough. But the truth that it wasn’t enough, and never had been suddenly fell on me, and right behind it was the knowledge that the ultimate price was death, and always had been, and the weight of that knowledge was tremendous, stifling, and so heavy, so profound that all I could do was fall forward and cry out for someone to take it from my shoulders, for Jesus to lift it from my back onto his. I realized at that moment, he was the only one who could carry it. I didn’t want it anymore, I never had wanted it, and for the very first time in my life, I asked God for help. I realized I would probably literally die without it. Maybe not right away, but eventually, and the way I had been living and running my life was no life at all.

Then everything changed–and nothing changed. I could still hear the party going on two cabins down (a live recording of the Rolling Stones’ Midnight Rambler was playing at a very high volume). I could hear my friends calling me from the front of the house. I could hear frogs down at the edge of the river. But over all of them, I could hear Jesus answering in my heart. And it was good.

It wasn’t all good after that, of course. Not even that weekend. But it was a start–and the main difference was the important thing after that–I had hope. I was able to dry most of my tears before I went out front with the coolers, but it was most of the night before I could form much of a sentence. All I could do was think about this new thing in my life. I didn’t really know how to pray, but I did the best I could.

And when I got back, I sought out people who could help me. And it began….

Things are considerably different now. I have found a helper, and he lives in my heart. The spots that were empty and aching are filled. I’m not just talked about suddenly finding out I have a liege-lord, or being slave to some indifferent diety. I’m talking about having a father. I’m talking about just beginning to find out the person God wants me to be, and has always intended. It’s thrilling. That person is not a victim.

That person has friends, and family, and people that love him. That person is safe, and when trouble inevitably comes, he has somewhere to turn for solace.

I have, with much prayer and healing, been able to find forgiveness for the person in my life most directly responsible for many of my woundings, both physical and psychological. I still have to pray about it all the time, but I can say with surety that it’s working. I believe the next step is an attempt at reconciliation. I don’t know what will happen, but I know that with Jesus, I can at least try, and that’s more important than the result.

I have began to walk in what my pastor calls my “spirtual authority,” which is the most amazing thing of all to me. I have never been a leader, nor been in a position to lead much at all, but now I find myself feeling called to that very thing, and though it is in my nature to resist that call, I know I’ll eventually capitulate (how couldn’t I?). And that when the time comes, Jesus will let me know what to do.

I have a choice about how my life will be, and I have hope–how strange and amazing it is to have hope, when I spent the first 30-plus years of my life wallowing in despair and self-pity. It’s not all peaches and cream by any stretch of the imagination. Everyone who knows God knows this. Things will still happen in your life that are bad. You will be hurt in many different ways. But you have hope–I have hope. I know that I am not alone and never was. I know, as Brennan Manning says, that God loves me “as I am, and not as I should be. Because I’m never going to be as I should be.”

I’m not perfect by anyone’s description, least of all my own. But I have hope for a future, and all I know is I want to tell people about it….

I found this picture online (thanks, Google). I don’t have any pictures of my friend’s cabin, or the dock where my life changed, but this is the river (the Colorado) that runs directly through Walter’s Camp. I tell people I was born in San Diego, but in a very real sense, I was born here, with frogs, and the Rolling Stones playing on a really loud stereo.

God is so good to me…

4 thoughts on “Walter’s Camp”

  1. God is so good! I thank God that he allowed the river of life to flow into your life, and roll those gnarly stones out of your heart. Even though I haven’t known you long, I know without a doubt just how truly special you. I also believe that God is going to bless you in a tremendous way.

  2. I’ve been to Walter’s Camp 2 or 3 times over the years, on the job with the Bureau of Reclamation. The first was 22 years ago as a volunteer driver for Bureau of Land Management “Hotshot” crews. They operated a base camp to fight a brush fire in the area. I was sent to Blythe for an order of some 175 hamburgers. McDonalds turned me down but Burger King, bless their noble heart, filled the order. I volunteered one more time as a fire fighting camp driver, but decided since then to bag the volunteer stuff (we were never asked again). I found myself superfluous to fire fighter’s needs and possibly contributing to a government boondoggle. It didn’t help to hear speculation of some brush fires possibly set deliberately to bring federal money and fire fighting jobs into an area.

  3. Tom, I’ve been tromping around your blog for about 45 minutes and I just wanted to say thanks for your words. You are a very skilled wordsmith and your words are touching. Our backgrounds are similar and to read about your healing and growth has been … well I can’t think of a word to describe how it affected me that doesn’t trivialize it. Anyway… just thanks.

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