One of the most significant landmarks of my upbringing was Crider Road. Nestled between two Dallas suburbs, the trees clung to its entrance like heavy curtains making it feel more like a passage into Middle Earth than a service road in North Texas. The road wasn’t gravel but couldn’t be defined as fully paved either and just beyond the turn, the trees parted to reveal a mile and a half long stretch of hills that babbled like boiling water. The thin concrete sliver attempted to tame each rise and fall, dodging and swerving around aged crepe myrtles, desert willows and small ponds that had gathered themselves in the valleys. In the cool of the morning, a dense fog slowly worked its way through the countryside like it was trying not to be noticed. It was poetry and for that stretch of road, the dried-up Texas terrain was replaced with a storybook escape. Driving to my high school on that winding one lane road each morning provided my day with a near perfect opening number.
On the cusp of the bend near the top of the road sat a white Victorian-style house. Its third-story roof peeked out from behind the trees meant to conceal it and as you breached the last hill, it ominously stood guard over the countryside. The Crider House, as it was called, stood as a hidden wonder known mostly to those who had to use the squiggly little road and it was rumored to be haunted by a man who murdered people inside it. While this was merely a fun fable to tell freshmen on the bus, the Crider House was indeed a porter of secrets. It sat empty for most, if not all, of its 99 years patrolling the hillside and while nothing concrete was ever known about its origin, I actually know what caused its demise: high school students.
At 99-years-old, the house looked its age. The white paint was chipped and veiny, the front porch columns were netted with vines long baked and hardened by the summer sun, and the windows had become opaque suggestions of what they’d once been. However, its place on the dark corner of the unindustrialized road meant curious explorers didn’t have to risk being seen as they wandered about the property. The field around it made for a make-shift parking lot, dense rows of trees kept any activity hidden from the road, and the cavernous house made for a prime location for high school students who wanted to drink without fear of being caught.
The night the Crider House ended its run, a large group of high school students were having a laughably stereotypical party within its dilapidated walls. I’d gone with a few acquaintances to check out the house, not to drink. I didn’t really go to large parties, but I’ve come to like them. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald writes in The Great Gatsby, “I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties, there isn’t any privacy.” We, the less popular teenagers, knew we could go without fear of judgment because there were enough other people there who’d serve as a buffer. The entire experience felt like I was living out a scene from American Graffiti or Grease.
We weren’t there long. The house was mostly a shell of itself, the idea of its grandeur was far more intoxicating than what was actually left of it. It felt like an abandoned movie set, a façade meant to stand in for a plantation, and after we’d had our fill of trespassing—something that was invigorating in the way rule-breaking feels invigorating when you’re young—we left. Around midnight, something at the party went wrong and within minutes, the dried out wooden house was engulfed in flames, splintering toward its cremation.
On Monday morning as I approached the bend in the road, there were no rooftops peeking out from behind the trees to greet me. There were a few lingering trucks from the fire containment efforts, but all that remained was a pile of charred walls, stairs and rooms, embers crackling with a century’s worth of history. Campus buzzed with news of the Crider House being snuffed out and while no one took credit for having set the blaze, many proudly gloated they’d been there at some point that evening.
A conspiracy took shape in the local news that suggested premeditated arson might be to blame. The house was a year away from becoming a state historical landmark, something that would’ve protected it from being bulldozed to make way for a pending housing development. It was a viable theory but the truth is, high school students’ carelessness set the fire. Adding insult to injury, not only was the house gone but Crider Road was unceremoniously closed the following year. A larger road had been built to accommodate the traffic from the housing boom between the two cities it connected and without the house to serve as a landmark, the road and all of its hilly wonder fell into the past tense.
Today when I’m in Dallas and I drive down the large road that now flattens out a pathway through that hillside, I still look over at were Crider once was and quietly mourn that gravid old house and the winding road it watched over. Neither are left to defend themselves, to spin their stories or jumpstart the imaginations of high school students peering out school bus windows. Not that those kids would notice those things anymore even if they were still standing; their faces are now plastered to their cell phone screens.
It sounds almost insipid to reminisce about a world of disconnectedness, but when I was young, my siblings and I killed time by riding our bikes to the grocery store or by climbing our backyard tree. Today, we kill time by scrolling through Facebook to see where insignificant people from our past went on vacation, who they voted for and what they ate for dinner. However, in a sea of unimportant and mostly negative posts, there are blips of things that matter. Today, between an over-confident selfie from an “actor” and an ad for hair plugs I’m convinced a hateful and possibly Satanic programmer set to taunt me, I saw a picture of the church in which I was raised being demolished.
Looking at the image of a building halfway standing and halfway dismantled was like looking at the deterioration of my upbringing. Every memory I cherished from Life Memory Number One took place there and now it looked like war torn rubble. The picture reminded me of Sunday afternoon choir rehearsals, of handbells and of kick-the-can.
Kick-the-can is a fairly simple game. One team hides, one team seeks, and when you uncover a hidden person, you have to beat them back to a central location where a can sits in the middle of the hallway. They who kick the can first are still in the game. We only played this under the cover of darkness when the teenagers from the youth group stayed at the church overnight for one reason or another.
In the depths of the old church building we would hide. No crevice was off limits. From the spaces under the stage to the closets and cabinets inside pastors’ offices, dozens of teenagers crawled and slid into the darkest, most obscure places we could find. There were hallways that doubled as black holes, where no light got in or out and if you could temper the sound of your breathing, you could lay along the wall without being seen or sensed as someone stumbled and felt their way down the blackness. Epic chase scenes took shape as from one end of the church, the sound of someone shouting “I found you!” would echo down the long pitch black hallways and within moments, the silhouettes of two sprinting teenagers would take shape in the red glow of the exit signs. No game has ever been as invigorating, as suspenseful, or as thrilling as kick-the-can in an unlit church at 3 in the morning.
The photo of that crumbling building exposed more than its insides, it also exposed my hiding place. The vaulted wooden roof came to a peak above the sanctuary in a way that was reminiscent of the high ceilings of a European abbey. At once sacred and earthen, this room full of pews was the birthplace of my faith; the choral echoes of which rang out each Sunday. Behind the back wall of the balcony, there was an attic that stretched to the top of the roof – an enclosed oaken cathedral filled with set pieces from musicals, long ago discarded sound equipment, and me. A small door mostly unaware to the rest of the teenagers let you into the cavernous hideaway and even if someone were to look inside, once you climbed up into the rows of rafters, no one would be able to find you. It was my tower and I it’s Quasimodo protecting its secrets. But in that photo, it sat exposed.
I don’t really live in the delusion that the space was mine and mine alone, but in my head, there was no more hallowed vault than the warm stale wooden air of that attic. Every time I pass a pile of fresh lumber, my mind escapes for a moment back into those rafters, hiding in the dark like a hamster in his cedar home and feeling completely safe.
The last time I was inside that building I was in sixth grade, but in my head, that glorious attic, the library with overstuffed leather sofas and the empty gymnasium where I broke my arm are still very much intact. The sunlight still shines through the stained glass in the sanctuary, the stage is still aflutter with magic in the form of angels dressed as cowgirls and kids dressed as singing mice, and the handbells are still gonging and clanging in the choir room. It’s all still sitting in place, exactly where I left it; memories stored tightly in zip locks, unchanged by age, time or distance. That church building on a bend in the road was the site of Easter egg hunts on the lawn, of picnics and of paintball games. Those memories don’t age just because I have.
When our congregation relocated, a new building had been built across town and the church began fresh. The move into a new church home coincided with my family’s move to in a new city, with new schools and new opportunities. Now living only minutes down the road, my siblings and I were free to be as involved with church activities as we wanted to be.
As a kid raised in church, I longed to be in the youth group. There was something mature-sounding about being a part of the youth group and no longer attending service with the kids. It’s not that I didn’t love children’s church. There were songs and games and puppets and our children’s pastor was the coolest guy we’d ever met. The coolest guy we’d ever met told us how much God loved us even though we weren’t perfect and never would be. That’s a good place to be.
But I grew out of children’s church and on the horizon was the youth group and the awesome pastor who led it. Turns out, not only was my youth pastor the most awesome man alive, but his wife was the most talented woman alive. They could sing. They could play instruments. She had perfect pitch. He played video games all night. It was everything this awkward junior high kid thought was awesome. For years, they were our mentors, creating opportunities for us and teaching us what it meant to use our gifts in a positive way.
As a teenager, the adults I was closest to weren’t actually my parents, they were my youth pastors. I think that’s the case for many kids in church culture. It’s easier to be close to an adult who’s not the person you have fights with at home. So, after countless group sleepovers at their house, endless amusement park trips and weeks at summer camp, they’d become the two people so many of my friends and I were closest to. Most of my happy teenage memories are tied to them in some way.
It was late in my high school years when their partnership began to come off the hinges. Because of how close we’d become, my friends and I were witness to the deterioration of their marriage; the arguments, the shouting, the tears. I’m not sure what it was that made them implode, but their marriage came apart at the seams and they moved away.
Not only did their divorce split their family apart, but their absence left a gap in our church’s leadership that never fully closed. Though other youth pastors came and went, each trying to rebuild our broken group, it never fully recovered. That’s a lot of pressure to retroactively place on two people, and yes, there were other factors that contributed to the downhill slalom of that church body, but it’s been said that the heart and future of the church rests not in the old but in the young. With unhappy teenagers, parents left to find a place that would provide the teaching and opportunities their kids wanted. This further damaged a limping church body. I was lucky, sort of. By the time they separated, I was a senior in high school. I’d already begun to make the turn around the bend toward college, but when the things we believe to be infallible suddenly crack, it changes you.
That change was the profound moment I realized these people who I’d looked up to were human. We all come to this realization at some point; when the world flattens out and you realize we’re all on the same playing field. I believe this realization plays out in stages, illuminating us like fireworks. For me, the first was the day they told us they were separating. Boom. The pastoral divide that existed between us evaporated and it was as if I was seeing them for the first time; real people with real problems. The second firework wasn’t until 15 years later when I turned 33. I realized I was the same age my youth pastor had been when we were so close. Standing at that point in my own adult personhood, I was able to finally connect to the brokenness of their human moment so many years earlier. We’re not all that different after all. Boom.
When the moving trucks drove them away to their separate new lives, I was 18-years-old, the age in which someone is considered an adult. I know that distinction is just a number on a page as many of us had to grow up much sooner or chose not to do so until much later, but seeing these two people who I loved with such fervency exposed as themselves, as humans and not “pastors on a pedestal,” shifted my thinking from that of a child to that of a man. It was a loss of my adolescent naiveté that forced me to see people as people, not as the title that comes before their name. It was a tearing down of the perceptions I’d constructed in my mind and it changed my life.
The ending may not have been as joyful as the beginning, but I’ll always be exceedingly thankful to both of those people and the lasting Impact they’ve made on my life. They greeted me when I began my winding journey through adolescence, walked with me as I grew into myself, and waved me on as I turned the bend to the next phase of my life. I grew up with them, and then I grew up because of them.