Place: Chattanooga, TN
“Pump me, Mickey. Pump me.”
There was no way in hell I was going to “pump” that girl. I didn’t care how much she pleaded with me. She was nine and I was seventeen. There were laws against that kind of thing.
“Come on, Mickey. Pump me. Please pump me.”
“Pumping” was the term the day campers at the Girls’ Club used to describe a method they invented to make the swings go higher. The way it worked was one girl sat on the swing with another girl sitting in her lap, facing the opposite direction. The girl on top wrapped her legs around the waist of the girl sitting on the swing. Each girl took turns swinging her legs, which achieved greater altitude than one girl could by herself.
Having a nine-year-old girl sit in my lap with her legs wrapped around my waist while we pumped our legs back and forth would have been wrong on so many levels. I told her she would have to find someone else to help her go higher.
I had gotten my summer job as a day camp counselor for the Girls’ Club through my girlfriend, Linda. We had been dating for a couple of months. She was another in my growing collection of tall, skinny, Gentile girlfriends with long dark hair. Linda wore big round-rimmed glasses. She used sarcasm with laser beam accuracy on anyone who pissed her off.
Linda had no trouble talking me into taking the job because it meant I would get to hang out with her every day. After I was hired, I discovered that there were only three counselors for the entire day camp; Linda, her best friend Claire, and me. Camp was held from nine to two at a Victorian house with a big yard that had been converted into a playground.
I thought the job at the Girls’ Club would be easy. I had been a day camp counselor before at the Chattanooga Jewish Community Center. My previous job experience didn’t prepare me for a day camp that was all female and all African American. I had no trouble with the six to ten year olds. The sixes greeted me with big smiles and climbed on me like I was a human jungle gym.
It was a different story with the eleven and twelve year olds. To them, I was the worst thing in the world. A white male. I was The Man. They glared at me with a mixture of distrust and disgust. Since I was the only male counselor, my boss decided that I should be in charge of the oldest group, the eleven and twelve year olds.
Linda and Claire decided that the first thing we should do with our groups of campers, once we had separated them by age, was to come up with a name for each group. Claire named her seven to eight year olds the Ladybug Brigade. Linda named her nine to ten year olds the Sparkle Musketeers. I named my campers the Glorious Ladies of Pastor Mick. On the spur of the moment, I had created this alter ego named Pastor Mick, a revered messenger of funky truths. I thought Pastor Mick was inspired. My campers were confused, though they didn’t mind being referred to as Glorious Ladies.
It took a couple of weeks, but I finally convinced most of the Glorious Ladies that I wasn’t there to oppress them. Some refused to stop hating me just on principle. The younger girls still loved me. At the end of each day, I sat with them on the house’s big wraparound porch as they waited for their mothers to pick them up. They enjoyed twisting my frizzy hair so that it stood off my head even frizzier. Usually they only finished one side of my head before either losing interest or having to leave. I often went home with half an afro.
My favorite camper was a nine-year-old named Venus. The first time we met, she put her hands on her hips and warned me not to make the obvious jokes about her name.
“You mean, Venus being the Goddess of Love?” I asked.
“No,” she said, stomping her foot, “Venus Flytrap! I heard that enough times and I don’t want to hear it no more. Goddess of Love? What’s that?”
The lady who ran the day camp decided that each group of campers should put on a short play for the other groups. I hated the idea. Leading a group of overactive girls from arts and crafts to a game of kickball was taxing enough. I really didn’t need the added pressure of writing an original skit.
I procrastinated as much as I could, and then forced myself to sit down and write. I decided to write a play about the Glorious Ladies of Pastor Mick, except The Glorious Ladies didn’t interest me at all. I wanted the play to center on Pastor Mick.
I ended up writing what could only be described as a bizarre comedy sketch where Pastor Mick lectures all the campers about life and the pursuit of funkiness. My script was loaded with jokes that were only funny to me. I had the only speaking part. All the Glorious Ladies were required to do in the play was dance wildly to the music of Kool and the Gang, once at the beginning of the play and again at the end.
I had an image of Pastor Mick in my mind. He was a funky black man in outrageous clothes. He looked like J.J. Evans, Jr. in the sitcom “Good Times.” Like J.J., Pastor Mick was dy-no-mite!
To do the play right, I would have to dress the part. Getting the proper wardrobe was no problem, but I had to figure out how to look like a black person. I found boxes of donated cosmetics in an upstairs closet. In one box were dozens of small vials of some kind of greasy stuff that I think was eyeliner. It was dark green. Close enough to black. With Linda and Claire’s help, I used a shitload of the stuff to cover my face, hands, and forearms.
I was way too involved in the process of creating Pastor Mick to realize how inappropriate it was for me to appear in blackface. Even if it had occurred to me, I probably would have done the play in blackface anyway. I wanted to be shocking. Shocking was cool. Besides, who was going to see me, except for a room full of little girls?
Despite the July weather, I wore a long-sleeved shirt and jeans so that there would be less of me that had to be covered. Multi-colored socks were all the rage at that time, so I wore a pair of them pulled up to my knees. Along with my green face and arms and crazy socks, I had on a large floppy hat and a pair of mirrored sunglasses.
The plays were performed in the living room with the campers crammed into two couches and the rest sitting cross-legged on the floor. I hid in the kitchen during the plays by the Sparkle Musketeers and the Ladybug Brigade. I didn’t tell the Glorious Ladies what I had planned. We never had a rehearsal. My only instructions to them were to wear something nice and whenever they heard “Hollywood Swinging” to get up and dance.
When it was our play’s turn, the Glorious Ladies stood in front of the other campers as if they were in a chorus line. A couple of them were wearing formal dresses, which looked out of place on a bright sunny afternoon. I started the music on a turntable I had set up in the next room. As soon as Kool and the Gang hit that funky beat, the Glorious Ladies began to gyrate wildly while grabbing handfuls of air. I only let the song play for about thirty seconds before stopping the record abruptly with a loud and unintentional scrape. The Glorious Ladies acted like someone had pulled their plug. They stopped moving and their arms hung limply at their sides.
I strode into the room. Adrenaline burned through my veins. The Glorious Ladies turned around to see why all the girls were gasping. The mouth of every girl in the room became a giant “O.”
“Listen up little sisters,” I said, “I am Pastor Mick and Pastor Mick is here to tell you how funk can save your soul. Because, if you get funky, then life will treat you right. If you get funky, all your dreams will come true. Can I get an amen?”
Except for Claire giggling, the room was silent.
“When man accepts the funk, he will go to war no more,” I said, “Because a man with funk in his soul has no room to hate. When man accepts the funk, no one will have to pay taxes anymore. Because a man with funk in his soul has no time to collect money. He’s too busy being funky! So hear me now, little sisters, and hear me good. No matter what you do, no matter what you say, and no matter where you go; do it funky. And if you are being funky, try to be more funky. There is no such thing as too funky. That is all I have to say. Time for Pastor Mick to get the funk out of here.”
I hurried over to the turntable and started the record. The Glorious Ladies danced to the music. I blew kisses and waved goodbye as I left the living room.
I thought I delivered an outstanding performance. Claire loved every minute. Linda shook her head and rolled her eyes. Campers’ heads turned to one side like confused dogs. If I was supposed to have been some kind of green alien, then why did I talk like a preacher?
If any of the campers told their parents what they had seen that day, I never heard about it. Maybe a few of them did and their parents either didn’t believe them or simply shrugged it off as something crazy white boys do.
For me, the play delivered everything I needed. I got to express myself creatively. I received attention for my art. I was able to escape the ordinary, and since everyone shared the experience with me, nobody got left behind.