Friday, June 10, 2016

The Dropoff

It wasn't a long drive from our house, maybe ten minutes or so, but it was long enough for me to build up anxiety for what was about to happen: I was going to be dropped off at a new place with lots of people I'd never met, and although I was a reasonably social high school junior, this wasn't what I had bargained for on that Sunday night.

A souvenir picture from our OWS 2010 reunion
My mom had become interested in this church halfway across town in East Memphis. She had heard that it was a growing congregation with great youth activities, and I guess she felt it was time we found a church again. We'd left our previous church several years before, and we hadn't really seriously looked anywhere since. My uncle was a Methodist minister in California, so it only seemed appropriate to maintain some level of religious involvement. My dad, owing to the recent lifting of blue laws, spent most Saturdays and many Sundays working at his grocery store down on Lamar Avenue, so my mom and I were pretty much on our own on the weekends. And so, one gorgeous Sunday morning in the fall of 1971, we packed up and headed to Mullins United Methodist Church, at the corner of Walnut Grove and Mendenhall.

From the moment we walked in, we liked the place. It was a bit more modern in appearance than our previous church, and it didn't have a stuffy feel, which appealed to both of us. The minister, Reverend Tom Wilson, was a friendly fellow who seemed to wear a perpetual smile and was genuinely engaging with members of the congregation. We liked the music, and we liked the fact that lots of people greeted us and made us feel welcome. We called it a wrap and decided we'd come back the following week, but my mom went one step further: she decided that I would attend Methodist Youth Fellowship (MYF) that same night. I guess she figured that if you were going to jump into something, it might as well be at the deep end of the pool. That being said, I wasn't much of a swimmer in those days.

Anyway, there we were, with me sitting in the car, saying I was not going to get out. I was adamant. However, my mom in her youth had been a fiery redhead of strong opinion, and her tenacity had not dissipated over the years. In short, I lost the battle and with an air of obvious resignation, I headed into the church to attend the meeting. I was 16 years old, and here I was, sitting among a very large group of kids roughly my age, none of whom I had ever met. You remember how it is at that age: you're hypersensitive about anything you do or say, fearing that you might be labeled an outcast, but in this case, that never happened. On the contrary, I found that people actually appeared to want to talk to me, and somehow, it was natural to reciprocate.

The theme of that night's MYF meeting was the recently released album "Jesus Christ Superstar," and although I played multiple instruments and listened to music constantly, this was something I had never heard. I lived and breathed Grand Funk Railroad and could sing Creedence in my sleep, but I knew very little about "Jesus Rock," as it was called in those days. But I was somewhat taken by it. We listened to a few songs from the album, and then our youth leader Richard asked if any of us played instruments. Since I had played guitar for about five years in a series of garage bands, I tentatively raised my hand. Richard wondered if, given the size of our church, we might be willing to start our own "group." He offered to serve as director, but he didn't want to call this a "choir," because that sounded very uncool to us early 70's types. We did some thinking and came up with a name: The One Way Singers.

Almost from the beginning, everything just clicked. At its peak, we had well over 100 singers, some of whom came from other churches just to be part of the group. There were six of us in a band that accompanied the group: a keyboard player, drummer, lead guitar (yours truly), rhythm guitar, bass guitar, and percussion. We rehearsed diligently, meeting every Sunday afternoon about 4:00, after which we would have dinner in the church basement, followed by our regular MYF meeting. It seemed that everything at Mullins took on a new flavor, and the group gained momentum.

By the next summer, despite a change of directors, we were ready to embark on our first tour to Louisiana and Texas. Our outfits were amazing and so totally hip for the time: lime green jumpers for the girls, lime green polo shirts for the boys, with white pants, white belts and white shoes. Every day of the tour was a new experience. We played in churches large and small, and one night, we even played at an orphanage in New Orleans. Each evening except for one, we split up and stayed overnight with church members. We had some of the kindest hosts: they would give us tours of their communities, talk to us about our experiences and interests, make big breakfasts for us, and even wash and fold our laundry. We hung out with families at their pools, talked about whether the universe had an end, and made midnight snack runs. The tour was an unqualified success.

The next year, we changed up our outfits and broadened our geographical horizons, heading north to play in Indiana, Michigan, Ontario, and Ohio. We spent a day at Greenfield Village, got to explore Toronto's Yonge Street when our bus broke down there (a frequent occurrence), stayed overnight with a hippie musician, and spent a wonderful, memorable day at Niagara Falls. Since I had just graduated from high school and was headed to Chicago in the fall to attend Northwestern, I realized that this trip would really be my last hurrah with my Mullins crowd. I'm not exaggerating when I say that to this day, that week remains as one of my best memories, a time when everything seemed to come together to prepare me for launching into whatever life might deliver.

I headed to college in the fall, but I would make a point of stopping back at Mullins to visit whenever I was on breaks, and each time, it would feel like I'd never left. Back in those days, it didn't seem that I was completely home until I had strolled through the peaceful little cemetery that separates the parking lot from the church door. A few years ago, the One Way Singers held a weekend reunion, and on that warm Saturday night in late July, as I walked into the church with my friends from so long ago, my black and white Stratocaster over my shoulder (I didn't end up playing it), everything came flooding back, and I silently thanked my mother for making me get out of the car all those years before. If she could have been there at that moment, I know that she would have been smiling from ear to ear.