Maggie Dove: Here Lies Huckleberry Bitch: Memoir: May 2019

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I know that a Moon Pie is best served heated from the oven, is eaten with a knife and a fork, and is served on a dessert plate passed down from your great-grandmother who never learned any of the children’s names and referred to you strictly as “One of the “Young’ins”.

My mother is from High Point, North Carolina, where her family is so entrenched that one of the streets bears her family name, and my father is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, much to my mother’s family’s personal shame. They crossed many states and met under a swampy moon in Florida, where they conceived me in the back of a van to a Lynyrd Skynyrd 8-track cassette, as is mandated by Florida law. Although my Southern pedigree got mucked up by that Pittsburgh business, I am an unapologetic Southern writer, in that I know a good biscuit when I eat one, and I never know when to shut up.

Here Lies Huckleberry Bitch

People are surprised when they hear that I went to sleepaway bible camp when I was a kid.  I assume this must be because of the slutty clothes, foul language, and heavy drinking?  It could be anything really, though.  It would be hard to pinpoint.

I can tell you this much.  On the second day of bible camp, as I lay on the ground on my belly, sniper-style, and took aim at the target in front of me with my air-rifle, I’d never felt the love of the holy spirit more than when I pulled the trigger and hit the bulls-eye.  

Welcome to bible camp.

I’d had an argument with the shooting instructor when I first started Marksmanship class that day because I was missing the target by a mile.  I told him that this was because the sights weren’t lining up right, and he told me, “Don’t you think it’s more likely you just don’t have very good aim, honey?”

I had to then snottily inform him that I had been shooting “real guns” out back of my father’s double-wide mobile home into the woods for years, rattled off an expansive list of guns I’d shot (my father is a firearms enthusiast), and let this guy know that I knew a bad sight on a gun when I saw one.  For the record, as an adult I am a cheese enthusiast.

And, really, what grown man doesn’t love taking that kind of flack, not to mention actual frickin’ air quotes, off a 10 year old girl?  I was such an obnoxious little shit, I’m surprised the shooting instructor didn’t just BB pistol-whip me, push me into a hole, cover me with dirt and branches and leave me for dead.

Later, his conscience would get the better of him, and he would come back under the damp cover of Florida night carrying a handful of daisies and a grave-marker he had fashioned out of a decorative paving stone from the meditation garden.  As he lay the grave-marker softly on the ground, he’d replay the memory of the young girl saying, “…and a Smith & Wesson .38 revolver but shooting .357 ammo, and a Scorpion sub-machine gun, and a Sig Sauer 9 millimeter…” 

Then he would scrawl “Here Lies Huckleberry Bitch” out onto the grave-marker with a wild blueberry and chuck the daisies into a gulch.

Instead, he took the high road and begrudgingly swapped out my air-rifle for another one.

I hit the bulls-eye with the first shot from the new air-rifle, and then took the low road by looking back at him with a blank face, which contained everything I wanted to say to him:  “Don’t question my 10-year old Florida white trash tomboy girl shooting skills, Moses With The Most-est.  I will take you out behind a double wide trailer and make you look like a fool.”

Honey.

If you can mentally form a more “Florida” image (without incorporating an alligator) than a small, blonde girl-child firing a sub-machine gun out back of a double wide trailer into the woods, you win the State of Florida.  My condolences.

The reason I was at this sleepaway bible camp in Central Florida was because some of my friends had gone in previous years and raved about the swimming pool.  My family didn’t go to church, because the aforementioned slutty clothes and foul language were a family trait, but my friends were always talking about how awesome this pool was at bible camp, so that year I begged my mother to let me go.  

I wasn’t against religion, I just had no longer had any faith in it given how shitty our lives were growing up.  One of the first signs of my OCD emerged when I was in kindergarten as I would stay up for hours praying every night, making sure that I covered every person in every situation, or else I thought something bad would happen to them and it would be my fault for not praying hard enough for them.  It didn’t matter, though.  Terrible things still happened to all of us, no matter how hard I prayed.

I had given up obsessively praying by the time I was 8 and switched over to piss-poor attitude as a way to deal with my anger.  By the time I reached the age of 10, I was roughly as jaded as a 50-year old, one-legged, pirate hooker.  Any tiny little shred of love and devotion that I still had kicking around was ear-marked for teen heartthrob Corey Haim, whom I assumed would rescue me from poverty and marry me.

Regardless, pirate hooker or not, I needed to get in that bible camp pool.

The air-conditioning (and everything else) in our house broke somewhere in the early 80s and we didn’t have any way to fix it until the early 90s, after a collection was taken up from the extended family when they saw the way we were living.  Had nobody intervened, there was no way the air-conditioning, the broken doors and toilets, the trash hoard, or anything else in the house would have ever gotten fixed or cleaned up.  At the rate that house was deteriorating, in another year it would have just been a conga line of cockroaches carrying wet pieces of drywall.

It was typically over ninety degrees inside the house during the summer.  It was so hot inside that we used to walk a mile to the Winn-Dixie up the street just to hang out barefoot in the frozen foods section until a manager would tell us to leave.

We didn’t have any money for bible camp, so for my birthday, my mom’s then-boyfriend put a $50 bill in a birthday card for me and wrote “Camp Money” on it.  I assume it was worth it for him to part with the $50 if for no other reason than that he wanted to enjoy five straight days without me constantly asking him, “You know what I hate?” and then providing him with a list of my grievances with the world that day.

Every now and then he would interrupt me to ask, “Why don’t you tell me about something you like?” and then I would sit in silence for a good thirty seconds trying to think of anything.  Then I would tell him how much I hated people who liked things.

Regardless, I now had a ticket to ride.

To the pool.

Via Jesus.

Now, just so that we’re on the same page here, I was no dummy when it came to faking my way through bible events.  I had spent the years prior to that phony-ing it up at countless afternoon vacation bible schools that were held at neighbors’ homes during the summer.

Because they had air-conditioning.

It wasn’t the fear of Hell that pushed me towards vacation bible school every year; it was the fear of the South Florida summer.  I know.  If you’ve ever lived in South Florida, you’re thinking, “Same difference.”

On top of that, there were free cookies and Hawaiian punch at vacation bible school, and if you memorized enough bible verses, there were even prizes to be won.  The year that one of the prizes was a gold-plated Jesus fish pendant was my year, and I suited up for it accordingly.  It had to be mine, and I would do whatever it took to win it.

Fast forward, of course I won the pendant that year.  It was a free piece of jewelry, for crying out loud.  I would have sold my soul to get my literally grubby little hands on it.  I wouldn’t have cared if it were a gold turd pendant instead of a fish.  It was free stuff.  Poor people love free stuff, right?

Except that the only people who love free stuff more than poor people are rich people.

I remember feeling distinctively icky when a visiting youth group was teaching one year and they were trying to raise money to go on a mission trip to Fiji.  Even as kids, we were all thinking, “Hang on.  You fresh-faced carpetbaggers are in this shitty neighborhood to raise money to go on vacation to pass out bible tracts in a South Pacific paradise?  How about you raise some money for 9-year old Joanne and her dad, who are living in a flower truck parked right down the street from here?”

When we arrived that first year at sleepaway bible camp, we were sent to the cafeteria for orientation.  I looked around the room at how smiley and friendly everybody looked.  I took stock of the gleeful bible camp faces and thought, “All I’ll have to do is say ‘I heart Jesus’ like one time and these chirping rubes will be convinced.”

The totally boss swimming pool was just out back from the cafeteria, and I stared at it through the window until my eyes hurt from the glare of the sun reflecting off the top of it.  Then I looked away for a second and then stared back at it again.  I didn’t even mind the pain it was inducing in the back of my eyeballs.  I actually kind of liked it.  It was physical proof that I was mere steps away from the pool.

I started fidgeting.  Gimme that pool, Jesus.  

I felt I had already earned pool rights since they made me listen to contemporary Christian rock in the van the whole way to camp.  I was told I wasn’t allowed to bring my cheap knockoff Walkman to camp with me, which meant that not only would I have to endure Christian rock, but I’d have to go a whole week without having the option of my beloved hair bands to dull the pain.  I know, this was a travesty, but I somehow persevered through the strife.  Had this happened in 2018, I would have started a GoFundMe page called “No Bon Jovi But They’re Teaching Us To Shoot Guns?  GIVE NOW.”

First up were cabin and counselor assignments, and then they sprung a “Chore Wheel” on us.  Everyone had to do different chores/jobs each day, and it had to be a different chore each day, so that by the end of the week each person had gone through all of the chores on the wheel, including bathroom cleaning.

As an adult, this seems like a fantastic idea, character-building and all, but I was such a mad little asshole at that age, I was flabbergasted by this.  I leaned over to my friend and said, “I paid good money for this, and they expect me to work?  This is bullshit.  When are we getting in the pool?”

After we were sent to our cabins to unpack our stuff, we were told to report back to the pool deck in our swimsuits.  If this were a television show, this is the part where I would have yelled, “Thank God!” to the sky, and then upon receiving shocked looks from my cherub-faced cabin mates added, “For this beautiful cabin!”

I went into the cabin and changed into my magenta swimsuit with the white stars all over it.  I walked down to the pool deck looking like a tiny, angry Ziggy Stardust, all 75 pounds of me ready for some red-hot pool action, only to be stopped by some terrible woman wearing a whistle on a cord around her neck and holding a stopwatch.

Whistle Witch pointed to a line of girls behind her about thirty deep and said, “Anyone who wants to swim in the deep end has to prove to me that they can tread water for five full minutes without their head going under.”

Why should I have cared?  I was a good swimmer, taught by two of the best swim teachers in my neighborhood.  Those would be my older sisters, who weren’t “swim teachers” so much as they were my “Appointed Tormentors of Watery Death”.  I had to either learn how to swim on the quick or let them just go ahead and murder me.  When they weren’t dragging me out as far as they could swim in the Atlantic Ocean when I was 5 years old and then screaming, “Shark!  Shark!” and then dashing back to shore as fast as they could and leaving me crying alone in the surf, they were holding my head underwater until my lungs were on fire.  I knew how to swim, that was for damn sure.  I could have survived a Salem witch trial at that point.

I was especially appalled by this tread-test because the last time I had checked (which was never), when you paid $50 to stay at what I considered a resort (I had never been to a resort before and this wasn’t a resort to begin with), they didn’t make you tread water long enough to hydro-power the Unabomber cabin before they would allow you get in the pool.  Sure, I could have just skipped the test and stayed in the shallow end of the pool, but when you’re 10 years old?  The shallow end is for LOSER BABIES and everybody knows it.

I waited in line for my tread-test forever, standing there in full blast of the hot Florida summer sun.  Sweat poured down my body as my pale skin turned splotchy and pink.  I waited and waited, feeling like a piece of wilting albino spinach as the sun relentlessly cooked me.  It seemed like hours had gone by.  I would have become born-again and prayed for salvation had I not been so busy fantasizing about Corey Haim giving me mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Finally it was my turn.  I climbed down the ladder into the pool and started my tread-test.  Whistle Witch leaned over the edge, held her stopwatch out, and said, “Go!”

I started treading water.  Any time my head started to dip even a little bit towards the surface of the water, she would yell, “Head up!  Head UP!”

I was huffing for air, paddling and kicking, but eventually got into a steady rhythm.  After a few minutes, steady rhythm or not, my arms and my leg muscles were heavy and burning.  My heart was pounding in my ears.  This felt like torture.  It would all be worth it, though.  I would not be one of the loser babies.

Finally, the whistle blew.  I had successfully done my five minutes.  

I let my head go under the water and rested my exhausted limbs for a second.  I popped back up out of the water and started to float on my back towards the other side of the deep end, softly kicking my tired legs back and forth while I made plans to impress the older girls with my back-flips and hand-stands.  I was ready.

Then the whistle blew again and Whistle Witch yelled, “Okay, everybody out!  Pool time is over for today!  Time for silent prayer and meditation!”