BSWC came back to life in the summer of 1970. I had drifted away from the Wilkies during that time just as the Yodels had distanced themselves from me for our differences towards oncoming maturity. Once it grew too hot to play football, I had the idea of having a wrestling tournament to select a new Butler Street Wrestling Club champion. I can’t remember who came out on top between Mark and Ismael, but Israel and I made short work of them going into the finals. At long last I got to unleash the Iron Deathlock, and even Israel’s great strength was no match for my great and terrible hold. I had become the fourth BSWC champion, a title I would hold for thirty-four years until my father’s death in 2004.
Dean Street Baptist Church became our new gathering place as Samuel was determined to bring us into his new fold. There didn’t seem to be any way around it if we wanted to keep the Jets together; Samuel hauled the boys off for every church meeting, no questions asked. After my Catholic beliefs crashed and burned during my freshman year at Loughlin, I wasn’t against the idea of getting my religious beliefs back on track. Besides, my Mom was a Baptist, so my parents’ mixed marriage helped to facilitate the transition.
Pastor Earl Phillips was a pretty good fellow as preachers went, but I don’t think he was aptly suited to run a crew in a Brooklyn tenement area. He was a Canadian, and he had a passion for the great outdoors, which benefitted us on one great camping trip he took us on. He just couldn’t understand the urban adolescent mind, and though he tried hard he just couldn’t win us over. His help wasn’t much better, with Bob Fernandez (a borderline sissy) and Jack Wacker, an old-time Bible thumper, as his right-hand men. And, of course, Samuel, who was champing at the bit to start his own crew and be rid of Phillips.
One thing to remember was that Samuel had his own crew at Strong Place Baptist Church (the same street where I hooked up with the Wilkies). He was not happy to have lost his building for whatever reason, but he didn’t take it with the Christian spirit required of a pastor. Instead of deferring to Phillips, there was an undercurrent of competition that was not lost on the rest of us. We were Sam’s Kids, and in our shallowmindedness, we constantly poked fun at what we saw as the ‘competition’ at every opportunity. It’s easy enough to blame Sam, but I believe that Earl was just a bad coach on a bad team.
They certainly did try their very best, and at one point they succeeded far beyond their expectations. They set us up for a trip to a Youth Conference in Freehold NJ under the auspices of Daniel Hawthorne, who had invited a few other Spanish-speaking churches to attend. It was at this rally that I was ‘born again’ as a Christian soldier.
Hawthorne was a true leader and a figurehead in the Hispanic church network. Though he was an Anglo, he spoke good Spanish (with his American accent) and could deliver a strong sermon in either language. The way things worked out, Samuel had turned the Strong Place church (relocated to Court Street) over to Omar Reyes, who ceded it in turn to Hawthorne about a year later. At first we bumped heads with Hawthorne at the camp, but when he took over Strong Place Church we developed a mutual respect. He understood street kids much better than Phillips. He didn’t try to criticize or judge us, and we respected that. Moreover, he knew that change comes over time, and it certainly did for all of us.
Anyway, we went up there with our wise-ass Jets attitude, and quickly set ourselves apart from the rest. What turned into an enormous advantage was football. We began recruiting the kids in Cabin C where we were assigned, and soon we had a kickass team assembled. One thing in our favor that there was a large number of soccer players on board who had no problem running for long periods of time chasing loose balls. We taught them basic patterns and catching techniques, and soon I had an arsenal of weapons available for our pickup games.
Hawthorne had arranged a number of athletic competitions during the week, and closing them out with an American football game was a natural. I’m not sure how it came to pass, most likely because of my big mouth, but it turned out that they matched Cabin C against a team of recruits from the rest of the camp. This not only included campers but the adult counselors! I was so full of piss and vinegar I cared less, but at game time, I realized I was in for the challenge of my young career.
Poor Israel ended up the worse for wear at center, having to spend the afternoon blocking Oscar Reyes. He was one of the youth ministers, a lanky heavyweight who was after me like a cat on a rat. I spent half the game picking my ass off the grass until I finally decided the only way out was to put the ball in the air as soon as Israel hiked it to me. This enabled Ismael and my other high-flyers to go cherry-picking throughout the second half, giving us the game with a decisive scoring edge. Ismael and the team tossed me into the swimming pool afterwards, and I was quite the big man on the campground.
Being in a coed environment allowed my star to shine as never before, and soon there were girls around whose attention I could attract. One of these was Nitza Cruz, a beautiful Puerto Rican girl from Broadway Baptist Church who sat with her friends at our lunch table. Nitza and I got chummy, though she was very shy and not much on a conversational level. We exchanged numbers and made plans to hook up after the retreat, but as it turned out, I ended up with two romances for the price of Nitza.
Martha Suarez was a lovely Ecuadorian girl who had just come over to America along with her extended family, and was living in the Bronx where they attended Fremont Baptist Church. She was at the Youth Camp at Freehold NJ along with her sister, her cousin Clara, and other members of their church’s youth group. We got to talking one morning at prayer meeting, and it was almost a prelude to what would happen with Neysa Flores decades later. We ended up taking a long walk down the road together and ran smack into Mr. Hawthorne in his station wagon. He reminded us in no uncertain terms that camp rules confined us to the campgrounds, and, no parejas (pairs) allowed! Naturally, that didn’t keep us from bringing our groups together for the evening fellowship. I had Nitza sitting to my right and Martha to my left, and though I was the envy of every guy in the place, Nitza decided to bow out of the competition and left Martha as the last girl standing.
On the last night of the retreat, Julio Nieves delivered a tremendous sermon in a last-minute attempt to bring us to Jesus. He spoke no English, but whatever he said acted as a Holy Ghost-driven battering ram to the heart. I remember getting all choked up and asking Martha to help me along, and the next thing I knew I was standing before the bonfire giving my soul to Christ.
There are defining moments in one’s life that act as clear milestones along their charted course, and unquestionably this was the most important in mine. It was at this juncture that I considered myself born again, and though my baptism at Dean Street was somewhat of a charade, it was a confirmation of what had happened in Freehold. It would be about two decades before I underwent a truly profound spiritual transformation that actually surpassed it. At that point in time, however, I was on the rocky road and determined that I would not stumble to the wayside.
As you will see, there were quite a few pitfalls that helped define the journey of a lifetime.