My Only Mission Trip

Proud church-goers tend to wear their mission trips like badges of honor. My one and only mission trip happened when I was a kid. I didn’t, and still don’t know how it came about, but one summer our church became involved in an exchange program with an Indian tribe, and several of us got to go to Cherokee, Oklahoma and live on an Indian Reservation for one summer. (The Indians were not Cherokee, by the way, but Comanche.) I’m calling them Indians, because at the time that’s how we referred to them. It’s how they referred to themselves. No one worried about being PC, and the term “Native Americans” was not yet in vogue.

Turns out, summer on the reservation was fairly primitive. We lived in a tiny church, slept on wooden pews, took care of privy matters in an outhouse, and brushed our teeth and bathed by hand pump. Another non-PC term we adopted: “Indian Time.” If one of locals said something was going to begin at 7pm, that meant sometime after supper but before sunrise the next morning. “I’ll get to it soon” could mean ten minutes from now, or ten days. Life on the reservation was just not as rushed what we were accustomed to. Our first example of Indian Time came on the second evening. The loosely scheduled entertainment was to be a real pow-wow. Pow-wows look exciting on TV westerns, but this one was an excruciatingly long and dull affair – with bad food.

Most of that summer was an excruciatingly long and dull affair. The highlight of the day, every day, was when the train came by in the afternoon. We kids would hear the train in the distance, and drop whatever we were doing – which was usually nothing – and rush to pile any bits of interesting trash we could find on the tracks to watch it get crushed. Chains made from soda can pull-tabs were a favorite. (I’m dating myself; who remembers pull-tabs? To put things into context: Leisure suits were still in style, and the big hit that summer was “Renegade” by Styx.)

We spent much of our time making up stupid lyrics to campfire songs, most of which were not suitable for family ears. Since it was a church trip, we decided we should have an official hymn. The hymn thus honored was “The Old Rugged Cross,” to which we did not know all the words, so we substituted our own:

On a hill far away
Stood an old rugged cross
An old rugged cross on a hill
And that old rugged cross
Was an old rugged cross
And that old rugged cross is still rugged!

We sang this frequently, and by “frequently” I mean incessantly – enough to become very annoying to the adults present.

My two prize souvenirs from Oklahoma, aside from some smashed trinkets, were a turquoise pendant and a tiger eye claw on a chain. I lost the pendant early on, but I wore the claw around my neck intermittently for many years. When I was 19, it fell off its chain and broke on the hard kitchen floor of the pizza restaurant where I worked. The train-track trinkets had long-since been thrown away. Things get lost, but not memories. My friend Spencer was along on that trip. Not long ago, after not seeing or hearing from each other for over thirty years, we met up by chance in a crowded theater lobby, where we entertained our embarrassed wives with an impromptu rendition of “Old Rugged Cross.” And yes, that old rugged cross is still rugged.