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The Road to World Conquest: The Jellystone Caper

I’m not sure the Baptists meant to kidnap us that morning.

It was already getting warm that Florida summer day in 1974. My brother Donnie and I wrestled in the grass under the shadeless chinaberry tree in the middle of the front yard. Nothing good on TV yet, and even if there were something to watch, we couldn’t, because our stepfather dozed in the master bedroom of our little tract house on Ursula Street. He worked graveyard shifts at Walt Disney World. Mom worked as a secretary for a law firm in downtown Orlando.

So, Dad slumbered when the whitewashed Bluebird school bus rolled to a stop in front of the house with plain black letters on the side: FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH. We broke up our scuffle, sitting on the grass and plucking sandspurs from our hair as we looked toward the church bus. A man with puffy white hair and a powder blue suit leaned out of the open doorway of the bus. He asked, “You boys going on the picnic?”

I was 7, going on 8 in a couple of months. My brother had just turned 5. If we stayed home, lunch would probably consist of Golden Grahams and whipped cream on Wonder Bread. I suspected this might be a better deal. Of course, Mom always told me never to talk to strangers, but this guy was with a church, probably the preacher, and the bus was full of kids who were laughing and smiling.

“Where?” I asked.

“Jellystone Park!” he answered.

Well, he didn’t have to say anymore. We were huge fans of Yogi and Boo-Boo. This bus would take us right to them!

“Sure,” I said, and then led my brother aboard the bus. We didn’t run inside to tell Dad we were leaving. We didn’t file a flight plan with the tower. We just got on. The door hissed shut behind us as we walked down the aisle and took a seat near the back.

We hadn’t signed up for any picnic. We weren’t Baptists. We didn’t know anybody on the bus. But we were a couple of hungry latch-key kids who couldn’t resist the chance to go to Jellystone Park for lunch and mini-golf.

When the preacher and his wife started handing out brown bag lunches, the other kids traded shiny silver quarters for the paper sacks. We didn’t have any money. I neglected to mention that we also didn’t have specific permission to be here. They took pity on us, letting us have the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for free. Everyone bowed their heads in prayer. Even us. We didn’t care. It didn’t matter that we weren’t Baptists. We were in Rome, right? Their food; their rules.

We didn’t see Yogi or Boo-Boo, which was disappointing. However, we did play a round of mini-golf and goofed around on the playground equipment. Eventually, though, the preacher announced that it was time to go.

Everyone piled back onto the bus. It was early afternoon. As I settled into my seat, it finally occurred to me to worry that our stepfather might be waking up soon to get ready for work. We wouldn’t be there. We’d be home before too long, though. Maybe before he even had a chance to notice!

Unfortunately, the bus didn’t take us home. I couldn’t be sure where we were going, although some streets looked familiar. I certainly knew the railroad tracks, which ran roughly east-west through the area. Finally, the bus arrived at a modest white church with a steeple that backed onto a cattail-lined pond. We disembarked with everyone else, but hung back near the bus while all the other kids ran inside to get changed into cotton shifts and the preacher strode out into the pond to wait for them.

“What are they doing?” Donnie asked.

I wasn’t sure. I led him around the shore of the pond so that we could hide behind the cattails, but still observe the ceremony. We watched as the children stepped into the water, one by one, so that the preacher could say something and then shove them below the surface.

I didn’t know what that was all about. However, I did know that we wanted no part of it. If we wanted to ride home in the bus, I reasoned that we’d probably be forced to go through the ritual. We were in Rome, right? So, the bus was out.

“We’ll walk home,” I said.

“Which way?” Donnie wondered.

Neither of us knew where we were. But we had the railroad tracks. We ran off through the scrub, up a gravel embankment, and then followed the rails east. After a few miles, we reached the familiar intersection near the Li’l Champ convenience store and the dormant Spring Lake Elementary School.

Home safe, sweaty but unbaptized, before Mom and Dad even realized we’d been gone.

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