I am going to write a series of posts where I recount memories. They may be slightly embellished or multiple memories merged together, but will be completely accurate in their essence.
It was the day we were to leave for the feast in Dayton, Ohio. The feast (or Festival of Tabernacles) was a seven day religious conference held in different communities. Members were expected to save ten percent of their income over the year and then spend it for this convention. This year (somewhere in the mid to late 80s) my family went to the site in Dayton, Ohio.
It had been a rainy night. I don’t recall any thunder, but the rain was nonstop. Around 4 or 5 am the rain stopped. We got up around sunrise at 6 am, early enough to watch “AM weather” on WGTE. A front had come through overnight and the air was cool and had a bite of fall.
As was the tradition every year, there were a few things that had to be taken to the car. As I walked from the house to the garage, the sky was a perfect crystal light blue, and there was a long line of perfectly straight clouds to the East. The sun was not visible but I have only rarely seen a sky that beautiful since. Finally we got in the car and headed off to Dayton, which was a 150 mile drive, about three hours. The sun was just rising and it was beautiful.
We stopped at a Denny’s before our journey started in earnest, and ate breakfast. One of the wonderful things about the feast was we got to eat out – something we rarely got to do for the rest of the year. This was back in the era when restaurants had a smoking section, and the smell of stale cigarettes and coffee still hold a special place in my heart. I reefer being asked “smoking or non smoking?” I haven’t heard that in so many years. We always chose non smoking, of course.
After breakfast (I used to love the little mints) out drive started in earnest, south on Interstate 75 (back when it was only four lanes). It was not a long drive by adult standards, but to but to a child it was kind of interminable. I remember going through Findlay and Lima, and thinking that they must have been fairly large cities because there was no median. It was mostly just farmland, though. Sometimes we would see people pass us with the green parking stickers for the feast, and honk and wave.
Once we got to Dayton, we found our motel and checked in. To this day, there is nothing like stepping into a motel room for the first time – all the excitement of the feast comes rushing back to me. We would unpack the car (for a family of four, it would take a few trips) and then get something to eat.
Something you have to understand is the character of the city changed as people showed up. EVERYONE (or almost everyone) was excited. Sure, we would have to sit through some interminable sermons by blowhard ministers, but then we could spend money and do as we wanted – things we would never get the chance to do normally.
As opening night approached, we would put on our dress clothes, and head over to Hara Arena, where the event was held. The excitement was palpable, and as we would pull into the parking lot and be guided to our spot, it was such a time of possibility, new friends, and excitement.
After eight days the feast would end, and we would check out of our hotel. We would attend two two hour services on the Last Great Day, and then very sadly head home. Honestly, we would already be looking forward to the next year. As much as that church and the feast kinda sucked objectively, it was, at least most of the time, the highlight of the year and we would be sad to see it go.
The feast lost some of its luster as I grew up, but I have always mourned its passing. It went away when the church did. Some splinters still celebrate it, but it wouldn’t be the same. It is one of those things that, looking back on it, was just a glorified vacation with a common purpose – kind of a gussied up, spiritualized religious conference. Still, it was an important part of my life, and I miss almost everything about it. One of the reasons vacations are ruined for me, now, is that they never measure up. Never. The hotels aren’t the same, the food isn’t the same, the sights aren’t the same, the shared sense of excitement and purpose isn’t the same, nothing is right. I don’t miss the theological bullshit (I am by no means condoning what they taught, but everything else… everything else I wish with everything I have I could experience again. And it is with a great sense of sadness that I know it is never to return.
It wasn’t all good. I have some bad memories too, mostly focused around my father. He was as selfish at the feast as he was for the rest of the year, and sometimes it caused significant consternation. But it’s as much my childhood as Disney World would be for a normal child and its loss hurts. Sometimes a lot.