This month marks the 20-year anniversary of a little incident I like to call “The Time I Jumped Out of a Tree and Nobody Caught Me and I Almost Completely Shattered My Back and Kind Of I’m Still a Little Mad at Those People Who Didn't Catch Me.” Sure, I’ve had 20 years to come up with a better title, but I’m not very good with titles, so that’s what you get.
It was summer, 1988, my friends. George Michael was still straight (maybe), Guns n’ Roses were welcoming me to the jungle, and Def Leppard was requesting that I pour some sugar on them. (Which, under no circumstances, was I about to do. It’s unsanitary and it creates a horrible mess.) Growing up in southern California, the summer was rife with trips to the beach, water skiing, pool parties, and theme parks. But perhaps nothing was as highly anticipated each summer as what is commonly known in the LDS world as Youth Conference.
Ah, Youth Conference. An annual event for Mormon adolescence, ages 14 to 18, that spans three to four days, promotes new friendships and affords youth the delights of engaging speakers, well-organized games, obligatory dances, and if all goes well – opportunities for smoochin’. But not this year. No, this was the year of a “new” Youth Conference. A “fresh” Youth Conference. A Youth Conference “outside the box.” A Youth Conference “nobody wanted to attend.” Brothers and Sisters, I give you… “The Wilderness Youth Conference.”
For this special Youth Conference, we were to spend Friday, Saturday, and Sunday camping in the mountains above Santa Barbara. There was no electricity and no showers. On top of that, the rules were that there was to be no make-up for the ladies, no toiletries for either gender, and no Walkmans or music of any kind. (See kids, a Walkman is the predecessor to the iPod. It weighed 8 to 10 pounds, included headphones the size of fighter-pilot helmets, and played what the Smithsonian calls “cassette tapes.” Cell phones, iPods, laptops, and any paraphernalia of that nature had not yet been invented, but you can bet your Drakkar Noir cologne that they wouldn’t have been allowed either.)
The final blow was when the leaders told us we would be placed in assigned “family groups,” and not able to handpick our friends to be in our groups, or to even have down time to hang around them. They then told us there would be no traditional Saturday night dance. If they expected a mutiny on this issue, they were sorely mistaken. Nobody was excited to slow dance with anybody who had been marinating in their own B.O. for 48 hours, or kiss someone whose teeth felt like they were wearing a sweater.
We met at the Stake Center on Friday morning, broke into our groups, and headed to the campsite. There was much weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. Friday was mostly spent eating dinner, setting up camp, finding a nice, soft spot of dirt to sleep on, and hoping to slip off into the dark after everyone was asleep so you could find a member of the opposite sex, and borrow their contraband toothbrush.
Saturday was Event Day. Each “family group” went to different event tents to participate in obstacle courses, parlor games, and object lessons – with each activity designed to teach some principle of the gospel or attribute or character trait, etc. You know – “do unto others as you would have done unto you,” or “a penny saved is a penny earned,” or “if you want to head off a balanced attack, you must first learn to balance a tack hammer on your head.”
The second event for our little family group was what you might recognize as a Trust Fall or Faith Fall, where the chump de jour climbs a tree – somewhere between 15 and 126 feet – and falls backwards into a net that is being held by his extra special “family”…who would never dream of letting something bad happen to their new friend, who is exercising such great faith and trust in them.
As I climbed up the tree, I must admit I felt an imminent sense of doom. But I had it in my mind that I was going to do this. I was in no way going to appear a total wimp to this group made up predominantly of strangers, none of which I was going to slow dance with or kiss. With my back to the crowd, I stood on a branch no less than 839 feet above the ground (or so). The warm summer breeze felt cool against my profusely perspiring body. All surroundings went silent. I let go of the branch and fell backwards.
I hit the ground.
My faith, as you can imagine, was in the pooper.
I couldn’t breathe. My back was screaming profanities at me, but I couldn’t apologize to it. I wanted to try to roll over onto my side, but couldn’t move. I didn’t know if I was paralyzed or partially paralyzed or was experiencing my last few minutes of mortality. The thought running through my head was “Would it kill one of these leaders to run to my side and apply deodorant so I could die with some Old Spicey dignity?”
I was given a priesthood blessing and promised that this accident would not inhibit me from fulfilling the things I was sent to earth to accomplish. My priesthood leader wasn’t taking requests, but I wanted to tug at his shirt and inquire if he could include “…and that you won’t be doing them from a wheelchair…say ‘and not from a wheelchair’….”
I was hoisted onto a stretcher and taken to base camp, where I was blessed to have many friends and visitors stop by to check on me. And a younger brother to drag me on his back, into the woods, to occasionally do my “business.” (Once again, I thank you, Justin.) One of the young women (with hair that smelled as if it still carried trace amounts of Aquanet) gave me a kiss on the cheek (making the Youth Conference experience complete) and I was ready to go home.
And 20 years later, my back still occasionally swears at me. But while it is something I will always have to deal with, that priesthood blessing has certainly kept things in perspective for me. I have never been hindered in doing what I have felt I should be doing in this life. Except owning my own island in the Caribbean. But I hardly think I can blame my back injury for that. (And yes, I’ve tried.)
There is still some mystery as to what exactly happened that fateful morning. I may have landed too close to an edge of the net and the impact was too much for little 14-year old girls to hold. Or there is also a story that it was one of the young men who shouted to me “Ready!” when in fact, they who were on the ground were not ready and he was making a joke because they knew they were not ready; so the net was never pulled taut to catch me in the first place. But since I wasn't facing them, I didn't know that.
No, I never did figure out what precisely went wrong – but the truth is out there. And the truth is, just like in some campy horror flick, I am going to spend my remaining days tracking down each one of those individuals from my “family group,” and delivering a debilitating throat-punch to every last one of them. Then I’m going to write a movie about it. It will be called I Know What You Did At Youth Conference. Or wait, I’ve got it. Remember Wilderness Youth Conference, Circa 1988? Me Too! Or perhaps I Don’t Know If You’ve Forgotten About Wilderness Youth Conference, But I Sure Remember It Clearly and Frequently! See, again, I’m just not so good with titles.