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After my parents lost our farm and we moved into town, I started attending an evangelical Quaker church with my friend Brad. I wasn’t sure I liked it at first, but as the months passed with my mom and dad rarely speaking, I did start to find something like peace when I prayed. Then Brad went away to a summer camp and came home fired up about the Lord and saying that heavy metal was the devil’s music. He was burning all his albums, he declared, and he kept pestering me to do the same. In his mind heavy metal glorified blood and gore and Satan. I had to choose between his friendship and the music I loved. So that fall, as I entered tenth grade, I found another friend who’d let me go to church with him.
Keith’s church was a loosely assembled Presbyterian congregation, set squarely on the edge of Prairie Creek between expansive fields of corn. The sanctuary was actually two double-wide trailers joined end to end. They had caulked the seam, but drafts still got in during our Sunday-school class. Rob, the teenage boys’ youth pastor, had dark circles under his eyes that made him look sick or beat up. The rumor was that he had been married and divorced twice and used to smoke pot before he’d given his life to Christ. During my first class Rob announced an upcoming dance for Christian teenagers, then immediately cautioned us against being “lascivious,” which he said was a form of wickedness. The term sounded cool to me and reminded me of heavy-metal music, but after what had happened with Brad, I kept this fact to myself.
The big dance was to be held in three weeks in the hay barn of a deacon. In preparation Rob made us read Scriptures that spoke to our potential lasciviousness. Apparently it all started in a sinful heart (Mark 7:21–22), then made itself flesh in actions (Galatians 5:19), and could lead to a state of being “past feeling” (Ephesians 4:19), which Rob said meant we would get feverish and crazed. I pictured an animal with rabies, frothy and wild-eyed and needing to be put down.
Rob asked us to raise our hands if we’d ever had impure thoughts about girls. (Their Sunday-school class was held across the hallway in a room that had been painted bright pink.) “Come on, guys,” said Rob, pacing in a circle, one hand on his hip. He reminded me of our gym teacher. Even the silver crucifix dangling over his fuzzy sweater resembled a whistle. Rob’s regular job was delivering propane to farms. I remembered him delivering to ours once, when we’d still lived there.
Even then, before the foreclosure, I’d wanted some connection to God. My classmates talked about going to church on Sundays, but my family had never belonged to one. My mother had been raised in the coal-mining churches near Terre Haute, Indiana, but Dad didn’t care for religion. Mom had secretly given my four siblings and me small Gideon Bibles, and she kept her full-size white-and-gold one hidden away like contraband.
This was 1984, and farms were going bust all over the Midwest. After ours was gone and all the implements auctioned off and our household goods picked over as if we’d been killed in some tragic accident, each family member tried to cope in his or her own way. My two older brothers, Darren and Derrick, had Budweiser on their breath most of the time, while Dad’s was whiskey laced when he was home between twelve-hour shifts at the ceiling-tile factory. Mom bounced from depression to mania, obsessively sewing when she wasn’t working at a fast-food franchise. Dina and Dana, my sisters, kept the house clean, did their homework, and clipped head shots of Scott Baio and Ralph Macchio from Teen Beat magazine, taping them to the walls above their headboards. I opted for the unlikely combination of church and heavy metal. I honestly didn’t understand how Gene Simmons spitting blood onstage was much different from Jesus Christ shedding his on the cross.
“Listen, men,” Rob said, pulling up a chair and sitting down, legs spread. “It’s natural to have these feelings.” His voice became conspiratorial, almost a whisper. “I mean, I get boners sometimes when I’m out delivering propane.” Several of the younger kids snickered. Rob smiled broadly, stood up, turned the chair around, and sat back down, his arms crossed over the back, his chin resting on his forearms. “So, when this dance comes around, how are you going to keep your thoughts pure?” He lifted his eyebrows. A white-haired kid I didn’t know, his skin so pale he looked like an overexposed Polaroid, raised his hand. Rob pointed to him.
“We could recite the Scripture you gave us in a huddle,” the pale kid said. “You know, like football players do before a game.”
“That way we won’t get boners,” said one of the Goolsby cousins. Everyone laughed, and Rob smiled but gestured for us to keep it down. Outside our door the girls’ class was letting out, so Rob dismissed us too. As we filed into the hallway, Keith was pushing me from behind. His older brother had told us to be in the gravel parking lot right at noon, or we’d be walking our dumb butts back home. The floor of the double-wide church shook as everyone raced onto the weathered and sagging deck.
Keith and I were scanning the parking lot for his brother when a group of girls walked out of the church. I’d seen them during the service. They went to a different high school than we did and all wore lip gloss. I tried to act like I was helping Keith look for his brother, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off one of the girls, who was as angelic as Olivia Newton-John. Someone said her name — Amber — just as Keith spotted his brother’s Nova. “Come on,” he said, yanking me down the steps.
All the way home the Nova vibrated with the drums and guitar licks of KISS. As empty fields blurred past, the girl’s name thumped in my brain in time with the bass line: Amber, Amber, Amber. When the heavy door of the Nova swung open to let me out at our faded rental house, I didn’t know which made me happier: the thought of maybe dancing with Amber in three weeks or the fact that Keith and his brother were headbanging to “All Hell’s Breakin’ Loose.”
The house had only baseboard heaters, so we were often cold above the ankles. During the week the place was mostly empty. Mom and Dad were always taking overtime. Darren and Derrick were working too, and out drinking when they weren’t. After school it was usually just my sisters and me. In the kitchen Dina and Dana assembled off-brand bologna sandwiches, which they bagged and stored in the refrigerator. For months it had been like this: I’d open the fridge door and see stacks of the beige sandwiches on the top shelf, handy for school lunches, long factory shifts, or Mom’s fifteen-minute breaks at Burger King. We ate them to survive, never with pleasure, and always with the grim understanding that it was all we could afford.
Dina and Dana finished their sandwich-assembly and laundry duties while I did my chores: swept the porch, raked the leaves next to the garage, and folded all the males’ Levi’s. Outside, the early-November sky darkened. Dina and Dana sat at the kitchen table, flipping through the old Teen Beats they’d bought when we’d still gotten allowances for working on the farm. They’d nearly worn the pages out. The rental house didn’t have enough bedrooms, so my room was in a walk-in pantry. Darren and Derrick had helped me shove my bed into the space, gouging the walls with the frame and leaving curls of torn wallpaper dangling. “Well,” Darren had said, inspecting the finished job, “we’ll never get that back out of there.”
I crawled into my bedroom cubby, which had a spice rack on the wall and a curtain for a door. Mom had stayed up late sewing it, painstakingly creating a zigzag pattern on the trim. She’d used denim and decorated it with an iron-on motocross patch: a checkered flag and a yellow Yamaha bike flying through the air. I grabbed my orange Gideon Bible from under the bed and sat back on the thin mattress to read the verses Rob had told us to study. I wanted to impress Amber with my Bible knowledge the following week — if I could get up the nerve to talk to her. I tried hard to stay focused on the tissue-paper pages, but I couldn’t do it. I thought maybe if I put on my headphones and listened to some metal, I’d be able to pay better attention to the word of God.
At the auction a year earlier, Mom had told each of us to pick an item to keep, something that we didn’t want sold. She’d whispered this to us after dinner, while Dad was taking a nap before another twelve-hour shift at the factory. Darren and Derrick had ignored her. Dina and Dana had picked their stacks of Teen Beats, the hair dryer, and a set of Nancy Drew books. I’d chosen our old RCA record player. Dad had bought it for Christmas in 1978, and Mom liked to play Roger Miller and Johnny Cash albums on it. She seemed doubtful, when I picked it, that we could keep it from auction, but she packed it up and put it on the porch with a few boxes of clothes and pots and pans. The auction came and went — the tractors and combines and farming tools were the big draw — and when we moved into the small rental house, I put the RCA on a flaking pine shelf in my tiny bedroom.
Now I unsheathed my favorite record, the Scorpions album Blackout. I’d listened to it so much I knew the lyrics by heart and the exact spot in each song where the guitars thrashed the loudest. It had helped get me through the humiliation of the foreclosure even more than the Gideon Bible. The album cover showed a man’s bandaged head, his mouth open in a scream, with fork tines gouging his eyes, all of this viewed through shattered glass. I loved the blaring guitar riffs and the pounding drums and the shrieking vocals of Klaus Meine. The lyrics seemed to capture my feelings the way people at church often said that the word of God spoke to them. I also owned albums by Judas Priest, Alice Cooper, Anvil, and Iron Maiden, plus many lesser-known metal bands. I’d bought them used from friends who were switching over to cassettes, or bartered for them, giving up my high-tops, part of a coin collection, and bottles of schnapps I’d filched from my brothers’ rooms. I’d also saved up enough money from working weekends at a tire shop to buy some albums new, but, like Mom hiding her Bible, I’d conceal the store-bought albums, sometimes even scratching up the covers with a nail to make them appear used. I felt guilty buying full-price records when we all had to eat bologna sandwiches.
Lying back on my saggy twin mattress, I pulled on my bulky headphones. (The right one worked only sporadically.) I reached for the knob on the RCA, turned up the volume, and flipped through my orange Bible as the music thundered in my ears. When Brad had tried to get me to burn my albums, I’d searched for verses to disprove his cultish ideas. That’s how I’d found Psalm 95:1, which I’d underlined in red ballpoint: “O come, let us sing unto the Lord: let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.” When I’d read this to Brad, he’d gone on a rant about how all heavy-metal bands were employed by Satanists who put hidden chants on the records. Then he’d played Mötley Crüe’s “Shout at the Devil” backward and told me to listen for the devil worshipers’ woozy voices urging kids to kill their parents. It sounded to me like a record played in reverse, nothing more. That’s when Brad told me if I wasn’t willing to burn my albums, I couldn’t come back to youth group. I had to show I wasn’t going to let “blood and evil” guide my life.
I cranked up the next Scorpions song, “Can’t Live without You,” and fell asleep, waking up hours later in the darkness, the record skipping in my ears and the little Bible clenched in my hand.
I agonized over my outfit for church the next weekend, settling on a sweater and a less-faded pair of Levi’s. I knew I needed to talk to Amber after Sunday school if I had a prayer of dancing with her at the deacon’s barn in two weeks, but I couldn’t hang around if Keith’s brother was badgering me to hurry up. So I convinced Darren to drop me off and pick me up. On the ride there he was quiet, tired, and hung over, the skunky smell of beer permeating the interior of the old GMC truck he’d managed to buy. He was working two jobs: one for an electrical-supply store, hefting boxes on the docks, and another out in the country, serving as a farmhand for a family who’d been fortunate enough to keep their place.
We were a mile from the double-wide church when Darren asked, “Why are you doing this?” He rubbed his face with one hand as he steered down the flat country road with the other. In the dull fields the stubble of stalks looked like a million grave markers. I didn’t answer. “Whatever,” Darren said. “Just don’t let any goddamn person make a fool out of you.” He sounded like our father, and was starting to look like him too: handsome, with dark, intense eyes that could be intimidating. I muttered, “OK,” and got out at the church. As I watched Darren drive away, I thought about what he’d said. Was someone making a fool of me? I considered waving for him to stop and asking if I could drink beer with him and Derrick, but it was too late. Besides, I had to keep going to church if I wanted to dance with Amber.
In Sunday school Rob didn’t even mention the dance or how our bodies could betray us. Instead he spent the hour rambling about being “on fire” for Jesus. “You mean, like Evel Knievel jumping through a flame ring?” asked one of the Goolsby cousins. Rob ignored the question and droned on about our hearts’ being like an inferno as Jesus set them ablaze.
The boys’ Sunday-school class let out first that day. The girls’ leader, Mrs. Kilpatrick, continued to talk to her students behind the door. I lingered in the hallway, which irritated Keith. When I told him I didn’t need a ride home, he just shrugged and mumbled something before heading to the parking lot. I figured I’d likely severed another church friendship.
Finally, as I was looking at a flier about the dance on the bulletin board, the girls’ class let out. I couldn’t make myself turn around, instead acting interested in all the information pinned to the warped cork. Girls whispered and passed behind me. There was a pop machine in a little kitchen down the hallway, and I decided to head in that direction in hopes of running into Amber. As I turned from the bulletin board, there she was, alone, struggling to put on her dark-blue coat. Her purse had become tangled with a sleeve. “Can I help with that?” I asked, my voice sounding cartoonish. She nodded and smiled. I lifted the strap from her shoulder and held the purse out in front of me like a fish I’d caught. After she’d put on her coat, I handed it back. “Thank you,” she said.
I asked where her friends were.
She wasn’t riding with them today, she said. Her aunt Sheila was picking her up. “How about you?” she asked. “Don’t you usually come with the guy whose brother honks a lot?”
“Right, Keith. His brother thinks he’s an army general or something,” I said, which made Amber giggle, and I truly felt as if I were on fire, but not for Jesus.
I forced myself to walk casually alongside Amber as we headed out the back exit and onto the wooden deck. “There’s my aunt,” she said, pointing to an idling car. “Maybe I’ll see you next Sunday, then.” Amber started down the steps.
“Are you going to the dance?” I blurted out. She smiled and nodded before getting into her aunt’s car. I waved, then hoped she hadn’t seen me do it.
© Frank Hamrick
The dance for Christian teenagers was on a Saturday night. Dina and Dana helped me choose one of my brothers’ sweaters to wear: a purple crew-neck with a busy geometric design. Keith told me he wasn’t able to get a ride, saying his brother was sick of driving him around without being paid gas money. I didn’t want Darren dropping me off, so I arranged to ride in the church van, which left from the Handy Andy convenience store in town.
There were only two other kids in the van: a brother and sister I didn’t know by name. They chose to sit apart like strangers. I sat in the back. We bumped along the county roads, past the double-wide church and the empty cornfields. Then the van slowed, and the driver turned down a long driveway. Dusk had swallowed everything up. A bonfire blazed beside the barn up ahead. Its doors were open, and white Christmas lights twinkled inside. I recognized Amber’s aunt’s car and was glad to have a pack of cinnamon gum in my pocket.
I climbed out of the van beside the brother and sister. I half wished one of my sisters were with me too. The walk alone to the barn was agony. I thought maybe this was how Jesus had felt when they’d made him carry his own cross. To my right the bonfire crackled and popped, and Rob and the other church leaders, guys who volunteered to coach softball and run the fritter dinners, stood around the flames, rubbing their hands. A pickup truck was parked a few feet away, its tailgate down, and a couple of men were hauling crates from the back. When Rob saw me, I looked away and ducked through the massive doors into the barn.
The floor was made of native-elm planks as wide as sidewalks. The Goolsby cousins, toothy and hyperactive, were standing next to a refreshment table covered with two-liter bottles of Sprite and Coke. I steered clear of them and pretended to inspect the hay bales. Everything in the barn — the dusty loft, the scent of alfalfa, the hewn beams — seemed strangely holy. It also reminded me that my family and I were no longer farmers. The Crandells were now city dwellers, loosed from the earth, drifting away from the land. I sat down on a bale, hoping to look relaxed.
Amber walked into the barn with a friend, her pert nose pink from the cold air, glossy lips glistening. I suddenly felt foolish to think she’d want to dance with me. Then she waved, and she and her friend walked over. “Hi, Doug,” Amber said, and my name was transfigured. One of the adult sons of the deacon put on some music: Amy Grant, a saccharine Christian singer all the youth-group members wanted to nominate for sainthood. Amy was pretty, but I hated the song. It was called “Sing Your Praise to the Lord,” and it seriously needed some screaming guitar. I pictured Amy’s dark hair teased to a frenzy, her big brown eyes outlined with black, some blood-red polish on her nails.
“I love this song,” cooed Amber, and she took my hand, and her friend’s hand, and led us both onto the dance floor. She and her friend started to sort of bounce in place. I tried to follow their lead, feeling silly but filled with an energy I’d never experienced, especially whenever I brushed lightly against Amber or caught the smell of her perfume.
More Christian rock songs played, and, tired of dancing, we sat on the hay bales and tried to think of something to talk about. The deacon’s son put on Amy Grant again, a slow song called “El Shaddai.” Suddenly he lifted the needle with a scratch and held it poised over the spinning record while he announced that it would be OK if the boys and girls wanted to “couple up” on this one, as long as there was at least a stack-of-Bibles distance between us. I asked Amber to dance, and we moved onto the floor, where we shuffled in a circle while successfully keeping our midsections from grazing. I finally understood what Rob had been talking about: how our bodies could betray us. I had the urge to lift Amber over my shoulder and carry her away. I felt as though I had the flu with a 104-degree temperature.
At the end of the song Rob and the other churchmen began gesturing for everyone to come outside. Rob announced that they’d prepared a “surprise activity” that would “seal your bond with the Lord and with each other.” Something turned in my stomach, and I remembered Darren telling me not to let them make a fool out of me. Just by being here I was behaving like someone I wasn’t. To push the thought away, I focused on how Amber’s hair billowed as we left the barn.
The bonfire flames shot six feet high. Rob held up his hand to quiet us. “I want each of you to grab a stack of these albums,” he said, pointing to several crates behind us. He held a copy of KISS’s Lick It Up. On the cover Gene Simmons extended his tongue lasciviously. Rob referred to KISS as “Satan worshipers” and their music as “filth.” Kids were laughing, hurrying to grab albums and toss them into the inferno where they belonged. The cover of one reflected the flames as a teen giddily cast it in. My stomach tightened: I owned most of those albums. They had kept me company as my family fell apart, and I’d come to think of them as holy. To burn them felt sinful.
Amber entwined her fingers in mine. “Come on,” she said, and we took a step toward the crates. I could make out Black Sabbath, AC/DC, and Quiet Riot being tossed into the conflagration, the cardboard instantly igniting, then the paper sleeves, and finally the melting vinyl. The others’ glee felt more sinister than any metal song.
People started singing “El Shaddai,” off-key and loud. Amber handed me an Iron Maiden album, while she clutched one by Def Leppard. We stepped to the edge of the bonfire hand in hand. Amber threw Pyromania into the blaze and looked expectantly at me. I held Piece of Mind against my chest like a hymnal.
“Go ahead,” she said.
I didn’t move. The others continued to sing, and some kids stepped impatiently around me, tossing several albums into the fire at once. Plumes of black smoke hissed into the air.
“Why aren’t you throwing it in?” asked Amber.
I wanted to tell her that heavy metal was as important to me as holding her hand, but the pressure on my chest was too great. In the firelight her hair glowed, and her blue eyes shone.
“Please,” she said. “Do it for me.” She squeezed my hand. “Please, Doug.”
I stepped closer to the fire, closed my eyes, and tossed the album into the flames, my cheeks hot with embarrassment. When all the albums were burning, Rob said a prayer about purity and the various temptations we faced from the occult. Standing there, the crackling blaze heating my face, I was truly ashamed for the first time since the foreclosure. I held Amber’s hand and hoped God would forgive me. I doubted I could forgive myself.
That night, after getting a ride home from a Goolsby’s older brother, I crept into the pantry and crawled into bed. I was so tired I had trouble getting my boots off. I closed my eyes and saw the bonfire and Amber’s shiny lips. I hated myself for burning the albums and decided never to tell Darren about it.
I’d share a few more youth-group functions with Amber before she’d get pregnant by some guy from Hamilton County. Within a year I’d leave the double-wide church and never talk to Keith again. I’d go back to the Quaker church, where I’d hear more about being “on fire for the Lord” and would secretly admonish myself for never feeling the same level of passion for Jesus that I did when heavy metal rocked my soul.
In the dark confines of the pantry, on my flattened mattress, I fumbled to find the Gideon Bible, and I prayed on it for strength, for my family, for forgiveness, for faith. Then I put my headphones on and drifted in and out of sleep, hearing God in the mighty screams and the righteous guitars.