August 1948, I stepped on a Trailways bus in front of the First Baptist Church of Enid taking 50 of us three hours south down old highway 77 into the Arbuckle mountains to the Falls Creek Baptist Assembly where we would join more than 5,000 teens from Baptist churches across Oklahoma. Though my 65-year-old memories suffice to adequately describe that and several similar experiences subsequently, they in no way serve to explain its significance to me and other campers then and hundreds of thousands to follow.
Fortunately, this week I read the biography of one of my classmates in Ms. Bertha Duerksen’s first grade at Woodrow Wilson Grade School. She started us writing stories at age 6, and Calvin turned out to be the best writer in class. *
Calvin’s descriptions of our years between 12 and 20 brought back the crucial insight to understanding the popularity — and significance — of Falls Creek
Because a creek ran through it, J.B. Rounds and W.D. Moorer chose that area in 1917 to establish Falls Creek as a place for annual retreats where Oklahoma Baptist youth could escape the routines of life and refill their spiritual buckets.
My first year, over 14,000 persons registered — including many non-campers who drove in nightly for the evening services. By my last year, 1951, attendance had grown to 20,000. Last year registrations reached a record 52,978.
Days began with classes in small “arbors.” My first music class was taught by William [Bill] Reynolds, who accompanied singing with a small pump organ. Leading music in worship services was legendary B.B. McKinney.
Afternoons were for naps, team softball and volleyball, ping pong, and hiking. Boys and girls swam in separate pools. (They still do!) Camp evangelists drove into Sulphur to swim at the Vendome and Bellevue pools heated by artesian wells.
The name of the game for all kids was to find someone of the opposite sex with whom you could hang out. Hooking up then meant sitting together in services, senseless conversation at one another’s cabin, aimlessly walking around or going to the campus center for a snack, and the homerun activity — romantic strolls in the dark holding hands. Many marriages began at Falls Creek.
Evening services involved altar calls in which scores at a time “walked the aisles.” (This year, 2,469 conversions and 1,277 calls to the ministry were recorded.) Days ended with Bible studies, testimonies, and prayer. We were once kept awake by a boy from Perry playing his trumpet. Guards made him “sit on the wall” as punishment. The old wood tabernacle is gone now, replaced by a new, air conditioned one seating 7,200. It’s dedicated to that boy from Perry — Johnny Bisagno. (He dated a girl from our cabin, Lova Lou Merritt.)
Page 2 of 2 - Letters
Back then campers stayed long enough to send postcards and letters back home — typically involving a plea for money. This week, Paul Day sent me a card I sent to his wife dated Aug. 10, 1951, which read, “Dear Patty, How is things? I am having loads of fun. I play left field on our softball team….I went to Lake Murray twice. 162 came forward in church last nite. Love, Bob” (Patty is now in Hospice care in an Alztheimer’s Unit.)
Bob Williams wrote in a postcard to his mother, Bonna dated July 29, 1965, “Mom, Going to Turner falls Thursday to spend money. And I am fine. See ya Friday. Chick.”
Calvin and I became Christians as children. After, we experienced a new normal in our interior life that gave us a special affinity to fellow Christians in church but tended to separate us socially from “the world.” Puberty, roughly coextensive with teen years, the new normal physiologically warred with our new spiritual normal. It created 10 years Calvin called, “The most wretched years of my life [in] a world I found so unfriendly….I can hardly make any real sense of those years.” *
We, the “Silent Generation,” lived in the “golden years.” My classmates agree our childhoods in Enid were almost magical. There was, however, a downside for Calvin and me.
There were conflicts. A boy raised by and with women might have behavioral mannerisms that incited bullies. Male groups also didn’t like their buddies to be too smart either. Cursing, foul talk, inappropriate behavior with the girls, and defying school authorities were the things that endeared you to the in-crowd.
Being a Christian brought new norms, making me a part of the church crowd but separating me from my buddies, creating inner tension and social conflict. I found two places where I could escape this psychological and social discord — my church and Falls Creek. (Years later, Calvin would find a third place where he fit in and excelled e.g., OBU.) Like a terrarium, Falls Creek was an isolated, closed system within a larger, hostile society, one where we were safe, accepted, and nurtured. In microcosm, it was “Thy kingdom on earth as it is in heaven” [Mt. 6:10] where all things within and between individuals are united in love.
I’m confident that someday I’ll meet Calvin again in heaven and find him a happy camper.
Calvin Miller, “Life Is Mostly Edges: A Memoir,” Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008.