Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Pantless Karaoke?

By Phil Campbell

JUNE 21, 1999:  I sit on the edge of the bed in the room and stare at the ground. My friend Mark stands a few feet away, pacing. Whenever I glance up, furtively, I notice that he, too, is caught up in his own conflicting thoughts and emotions. I can't fully read his expression, though. His blue eyes are distorted by a cheap pair of wrap-around sunglasses.

As much as we want to avoid it, we both know that the moment of truth is at hand. At the behest of a Flyer editor, we have come to this very private resort in Middle Tennessee with the express purpose of violating society's accepted laws of conduct -- some would say morality -- without remorse and without laughing at each other. We are excited, apprehensive, and a little tired from all the driving.

"All right," Mark says, sighing. "All right, dude." His fingers slide down to his waist, and, with one quick motion, seize the bottom fabric of his T-shirt and yank it upwards.

Mark is still uncomfortable with all this, but his abdomen is clearly not. Suddenly liberated, his ivory-colored, dough-filled stomach flips and flails as fast as gravity can seduce it. His belly-button ooh-la-las with giddy abandon as it accompanies alabaster skin, resting only when it reaches his belt buckle. His chest hairs ripple and sing and dance with delight.

The next things to come off Mark are his red baseball cap and his shorts. Then he takes off his underwear.

"I'm going to go with the shoes on," Mark decides.

Grabbing what courage I have, I, too, strip. I try to forget about my body's shortcomings, but I can't help mentally enumerating them one last time. My shapeless legs have not been challenged physically in years. My neck, serrated in the back, cranes out like a giraffe stretching for a piece of fruit. My left nipple is much bigger than my right nipple, and it itches any time it looks like rain. My shoulder blades protrude out of my back like a pair of dull battle axes buried in soft loam. My ribs, never having possessed an attractive casing of muscle, have yet to inspire anyone at the beach to make lewd comments about adding barbecue sauce.

Before I can consider my meager pecs, my scarred knees, or my piteously dry skin, I am done. Mark and I stand in the middle of the room. Our clothes are folded and packed away.

The strain is almost unbearable for Mark. "Dude, I have got to pee first," he says to me apologetically. He disappears for 10 minutes. I sit back down on the bed and nervously await his return.

When he does, he is still wearing his sunglasses. Looking around, he grabs his hat and puts it back on. Mark steels himself with another intake of breath. "I'm ready now," he says.

Naked, we go outside to get dinner.

Timberline Resort is a 200-acre retreat in the middle of a small woods outside Crossville in Middle Tennessee. After driving just a mile off Interstate 40, you have to first pass through an electronic security gate and then drive down a long, winding gravel road. A modest clubhouse called the Tree Top Inn stands at the end of that gravel drive. Beyond that is a shallow swimming pool and a snack bar. Farther away is a spring-fed, man-made lake that's stocked with bream, bass, crappie, and catfish. Camping grounds are available for whoever wants to "rough it." The center of the resort is occupied by a dozen recreational vehicles whose owners pay a fee to have a semi-permanent parking space. About seven miles of well-marked trails circumscribe everything.

It's a nice place for a weekend getaway, but there is something about Timberline that separates it from other campsites I've seen. It's clothing-optional, and the vast majority of visitors come with the specific intention of opting out of their clothing.

Glenn and Bea Terry own Timberline, and they are happy to accommodate a visit from the Flyer. Upon arriving, Bea is too busy for us, but Glenn greets us at the entrance of the resort with a serene smile, as if we are truth-seekers entering the remote monastery. He is short with thinning white hair and an amiable spark in his eye. To make delivery people, vendor representatives, and other clothing-loving visitors more comfortable, Terry doesn't strut around the resort in the buff. Instead, he wears light blue shorts with an elastic band. They look like they could be removed hastily, perhaps in the event of an emergency.

"We don't have mosquitoes or alligators," his soft voice intones. He's so placid, Mark and I invent a new phrase: "Glenn Nudism." This rhymes with Zen Buddhism. "You'll find folks are very open and honest, not pretentious at all. The rooms are never locked." More precisely, there are no locks on the room doors.

Terry introduces us to half a dozen nudists, all of whom react warily to the fact that I'm a reporter. Nobody gives me their last name. One naked woman, Sandy, emits a small shriek and says, "A reporter? I don't think so!"

Terry politely reminds us not to take photographs of anyone who doesn't want their photograph taken. He also tells us not to miss karaoke this evening at the smaller clubhouse by the lake.

Then he disappears to deal with other affairs. We are left to our own devices, so to speak.

"You want to go for a walk?" Mark asks.

"Dinner's in half an hour, dude," I respond. "We'll eat and then we'll go for a walk." We are lounging by the pool, sitting on lounge chairs and listening to the Muzak-style jazz emanating from the snack bar. I try to read, but I am too distracted. Resting a copy of Anna Karenina on my stomach, my supporting fingers underneath keep hooking themselves on hairs I didn't know I had. Still, I don't want to move the book. It's my only protection.

"Yeah, I know, but I'm real tired now, and if I eat steak, I'm gonna ...," Mark trails off. He's wincing behind his sunglasses. "I don't know. I'm not as comfortable as I should be." I had asked Mark to accompany me because I thought he would be able to adjust quickly to the nudist lifestyle. One time, on a relatively quiet night at the Hi-Tone Cafe, he got a crazy look in his eye, ran out of sight, tore off everything he was wearing, ran to one of the front windows of the club, jumped up, and shook everything he has at me and some other friends. Then he ran away to retrieve his clothes.

Mark decides to stay put, and dinner is served sooner than expected. Afterward, we think of ways to kill time before the evening's festivities. We wander around the grounds aimlessly. We play horseshoes. We shoot pool and match off against each other in a couple games of foosball. We study the paintings and photos of naked women -- never men -- that are hung on the interior walls of all the buildings. We read the aphorisms on the inspirational posters that adorn the same walls.

After a little while, we start to grow bored. We never quite forget that we're naked, though, especially during our foosball games. Those spinning, thumping foosball rods are at a level just below our stomachs, and we are reckless barroom amateurs who aren't wearing jeans.

We have to entertain ourselves because no one else is around. All the nudists seem to have disappeared into their RVs, tents, and rooms. We find a canoe and set out on the lake, where we meet Randy, Stacy, and Tracy. Stacy and Tracy are two heavyset, sister-similar women who flank Randy, a medium-sized man with a thick mustache and a mullet-style haircut who sits on the dock feeding the fish. The three never explain how they know each other, but they all live within an hours' drive of Timberline. We talk to them while we paddle along the lakeshore.

Randy doesn't want to be here. "I could be working on my Harley, but I'm not. I'm here," he says, his voice laden with remorse. He tosses huge chunks of bread into the water. "I have two Harleys. We've been here for four years now. It gets pretty old. But we're still here. We've played volleyball, pool volleyball, played horseshoes, canoes ." With each activity he names, his voice dips into a deeper depression.

Maybe Randy is just having a bad day. Maybe Tracy or Stacy forced him to come when he just wasn't in the mood. In any case, he is an anomaly from the true Timberliner. Mark and I learn this when the karaoke starts around 9 p.m.

The dance hall in the smaller clubhouse looks like a stage set for a high-school production of Saturday Night Fever. The ceilings are plywood. The floor is a series of colored squares encased in a hard plastic shell. The disco ball and colored strobes are a standard detail.

The nudists stream into the dance hall sporadically. It has been getting cooler out, so almost everybody has put on a shirt or a blouse -- but nothing more. After so many of the resort visitors are gathered in one place --perhaps 25 -- it's easier to get a basic profile of Timberline nudists: They are male and female, Caucasian, and between 40 and 55 years old. A minority are in good shape, some are just a little out of shape, most are overweight. Many of the women have strategically placed tattoos, and they don't go heavy on makeup or hair dyes, preferring the natural look.

And -- I can't help but notice -- all of the men have about the same-sized equipment swinging between their thighs. The only difference seems to be the amount of pubic hair, which ranges from desert bald to forest-preserve protected. Mark and I are about average.

We hang out with the first group that comes through the doors. Charles is wearing a bright yellow, short-sleeved shirt and a small necklace. He has a bright sun tattooed above his right butt cheek. He's 52 years old, but he bounds around the room with the energy of someone half his age.

"Are you The Man? The reporter?" Charles asks Mark. He poses the question as if Mark is a federal narcotics agent and he's a drug kingpin.

"Oh, no," Mark says quickly. He points at me. "He is."

"Who is?" interjects a 47-year-old woman with blond hair and a black blouse. She looks at me. "I'm Rosebud," she announces. "And that's all I want you to call me." Then the deejay -- a clothed Knoxvillian named Bobby Dee -- begins pumping "Gloria" through the speakers. Rosebud does a twirl. She looks mischievously around, then opens up her blouse. A red rose is tattooed above her left breast.

I try to introduce myself to the shorter, dark-haired woman next to me. "I know," she says sharply. "Glenn introduced us."

"Oh, you're Sandy?" In the time since our meeting she has thrown on a blue blouse. I did not recognize her with clothes on.

"We all have to do 'Louie, Louie'!" Charlie insists. "That's what all of us will do." They consult the list for a solid 15 minutes, picking and choosing a dozen songs from a songbook that includes Travis Tritt, Garth Brooks, Hank Williams (Sr. and Jr.), Alabama, and one Madonna cover.

When the party begins in earnest, everyone sings at least one song, and some sing about four. Mark, dressed in nothing but a white T-shirt, does a rousing rendition of Johnny Cash's "One Piece at a Time." He clutches a Budweiser in one hand, the microphone in the other, and barely moves his lips as he concentrates on the words on the screen. Everyone hoots and claps with appreciation when he is done.

In the spirit of things, I attempt to sing Bob Dylan's "Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35." My voice rises and falls with the grace of a man on crutches trying to pick up a 50-pound bag of cement. Rosebud tries to help out by urging a group of nudists to join in, but they don't seem to like the song. When I'm done, I slink back into a dark corner, sulk in my beer. I feel a draft between my legs.

With the exception of Mark's performance, the karaoke is painfully discordant. To break this up, the deejay adds some familiar party tracks. He plays "Twist Again" by Chubby Checker, and the nudists flock to several hula-hoops that hang on the wall. They throw them around their waists, but they can't seem to get the hang of it until after the song has ended. They put the hula-hoops back just as a hard-driving bass number by C & C Music Factory comes on. There's a flurry of confusion before they attempt to keep time with the song.

In between karaoke sets, the nudists limbo. They do the hokey-pokey. They do the chicken polka. They make a feeble attempt at the Electric Slide. They two-step. My notes are really confused at this point because I'm getting drunk, but I can't recall the nudists ever forming a conga line.

All this time, I have been sitting next to Randy, Tracy, and Stacy. Randy, actually, is between Stacy and Tracy, and he has his arm around Tracy (Stacy?) while he rubs the back of Stacy (Tracy?). Randy's mood appears to be improving. "Yeah, I pretty much know everybody here," he says, with a trace of satisfaction. He doesn't add anything more, and he never gets up from his seat between the two women.

Charlie makes himself the center of attention. He bounds across the dance floor, keeping his own rhythm, and beckons to the women. He sashays over to his wife Cathy and throws up his hands in a gesture, a universal signal for "Why not dance with me?" Cathy responds with an equal dose of pantomimed exaggeration. Charlie dances with every woman here, including a blonde, thirtysomething bombshell named Cessili. She is tall, with long, smooth legs, and she wears black Nancy Sinatra boots, a flower print miniskirt with no underwear, and a low-dipping, black bra. When she finally takes off her bra, at the pleadings of a female nudist during a Kool & the Gang hit, Mark and I are relieved.

As our night at Timberline wears on, an indelible truth becomes evident. Take any strip club in America and give it an opposing, color-negative dimension, and this is what it would look like. Instead of individual lap dances, pole acrobatics, and $10 ATM service fees, there would be co-ed limbo, tuneless co-ed sing-alongs, and running bar tabs. Instead of topless young women gyrating on a spotlighted stage, there would be pantless, middle-aged guys two-stepping on a fake disco floor. Instead of nudity as a feral, pornographic source of vicarious sexuality, there would be nudity without any connotation whatsoever, as unrepressed and as common as crying babies, sprawling suburbs, and blue-collar profanity.

One of the nudists, a sandy-haired man who's been coming to Timberline for seven years now, catches my attention. Look at everyone, he tells me. Almost no one is drunk, but they are all having the time of their lives. "If there's one thing people don't have a lot of around here, it's hang-ups, about religion or anything else," he says. "We welcome anybody." That's probably true, but like any other clique, nudists tend to get along best with other nudists. Anyone who comes to Timberline for the weekend already has something significant in common with the regulars here.

By midnight, Mark and I get hungry. Putting clothes back on, we get in our car and leave Timberline, in search of Waffle House pancakes and hash browns. After satisfying our stomachs, we return to the resort, strip again (this time without thinking or hesitating), and try to find the party. I'm tired, though, and soon give up. Mark ends up hanging out with several nudists in the resort's hot tub until 1:30 a.m.

Back in my room, it is so cold that I have to put my jeans and shirt on to stay warm. The irony is so overwhelming that it's the only thing I can think of until I fall asleep.

10 Other Things to Do With Your Clothes Off

All of us know intellectually that the wearing of clothes is an artificial contrivance. Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Sartoris made this eloquently clear in the middle of the last century, and, besides, it's common sense. But we are still squeamish; for most of us, baring the soul is as nothing compared to the anguish associated with revealing all that nature hath -- or hath not -- wrought. (And forget the notoriously repressed Carlyle; like the rest of the Victorians, he was always dressed to the nines.)

So, as an aid to becoming au naturel, and in case the accompanying reportage by Phil Campbell does not put to rest your inhibitions, here -- by way of reminder -- are 10 other things (yes, we are going to skip the obvious one) that you can do with your clothes off. Read 'em; then get nekkid.

(1) Full-body tanning requires that you expose every last jot and tittle to the sun's rays or to the ersatz ones for rent in any given health spa or tanning salon. Care and moderation need to be exercised with regard to either. When, in the middle of last summer's heat wave, Al Gore thought to say, "This is what I mean by 'global warming,'" we finally got it. If there is a hole in the ozone, it increases your risk for skin cancer. The most obvious high side of full-body tanning -- which can be done in your own backyard if you have enough tree or fence cover -- is that you'll never have to flash any annoyingly pale skin strips when you change your summer beachwear.

(And yes, it will tan, right along with the rest of you; just watch out that you don't burn it.)

(2) Medical check-ups these days generally employ those halfway robes, something like cooks' aprons, which don't quite tie up around you but preserve a modicum of personal modesty. Fahgidaboutit! This counts as naked.

(3) The same goes for full-body massages, although the cover provided you by a reputable salon (and, if you can't tell one of those from the sleazy kind run by assorted jerk-offs, you deserve to have your chain pulled!), tends to be more sail- or sheet-like. Same difference. It wouldn't be much fun if you weren't buck, now would it?

(4) Self-scrutiny: now, come on, admit it. Your navel isn't the only thing you contemplate in those moments -- generally before, during, or after baths or changes of clothing -- when you're alone with yourself. Aside from the more obvious mantras, there are stray pockets of (sigh!) cellulite that can only be evaluated on such occasions. What is it they say? Know thine enemy. Also: You shall know the truth, and it shall set you free.

(5) Did we mention bathing? Well, besides the obvious tub or shower kind you enjoy at home, there are the steam or sauna rooms at your Y or club or health spa. Some of these require an obligatory (and usually quite minimal) wrap; others do not. These latter venues (generally same-sex, of course, and no, not that kind of same-sex) are to be preferred for the most obvious of reasons: What's good for the goose is good for the whole goose. And the whole gander.

(6) Performance art is a mode that increasingly employs various odd concoctions (chocolate has been a recent favorite) applied to the base of the unalloyed skin. For all the naughty and novel associated with this, it's really the same old Same Old that Caryle discoursed upon, now isn't it?

(7) Then, of course, there is what is (somewhat misleadingly) called the Legitimate Theater and those roles (in Hair, Equus, et seq.) that require getting down to it. Since some of these productions are downright hoary by now, the shock has more or less worn off. Maybe that's what the chocolate is all about. A little sugar coating, if you will.

(8) And, to stretch this out a bit, if you're reasonably in shape, you can be a body double for somebody in films who's both famous and squeamish and whose contract calls for somebody else to, er, front for him or her in those scenes which call for The Whole Truth (which, in art as in life, is often indistinguishable from fiction).

(9) And never mind if you're in shape or not, the art colleges still need people to do nude modeling, and, in the age of Duane Hanson (the recently deceased dude who did all those true-to-life -- if fully clothed -- body molds, using mainly middle-aged Fatbodies), the standards ain't what they used to be.

(10) Finally, here's a really practical one: For free room and board, you need only doff your clothes along with your inhibitions and take a walk along whatever wild or not-so-wild side suits you. So long as it's public, you'll be sure to attract the notice, sooner or later, of our local constabulary, who will, sooner or later, arrive to find you new, if temporary, lodgings. Keep in mind, though, that you'll be furnished a new and mandatory wardrobe, one which is a bit limited and severe for most tastes. -- Jackson Baker

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