Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Flash Fiction Friday (Cycle 43) The Best Show of the Summer

Flash Fiction Friday Prompt: A story involving your hometown. Make us believe we’ve been there.
Genre: Open
Word Count: 2000 words

(Author's note: This story is largely true, well as true as I can remember. Names were changed and characters compressed, the unabridged version could truly be a book. No offense was meant to anyone of faith. Excuse the typos, I'll get them as soon as possible.)

Seeing the ushers open the double doors at the rear of the church sanctuary that early August afternoon in 1973 created a much appreciated and eagerly awaited exit for all the children, including myself, who had just sat through another of Preacher Simpson’s long-winded sermons about the fate of all sinners. The preacher was a good man by all accounts with himself living a virtuous life as prime example of the saving power of Jesus Christ who in his own words had spent his younger years chasing strong whiskey and loose women. However, even the older and more dignified folks of the Georgetown Church of the Nazarene would sometimes whisper complaints that if running off at the mouth was a sin the old man was sure to spend eternity sniffing brimstone and swimming in the lake of fire.

That particular Sunday the entire adult congregation was aggravated even further by the stifling heat of the sanctuary because of the preacher’s refusal to turn on the newly installed air conditioning system. “Christ,” he said at the beginning of his sermon, “suffered far worse to save our souls and the least we can do is sacrifice our own comfort for a short time.”

A murmur rippled through sweaty people sitting uneasily on the wooden pews but Preacher Simpson never said anymore about it and quickly walked off the pulpit at the end of his sermon smiling manically. Much to the chagrin of my grandparents, I was the second kid to scramble out the doors to freedom that day confirming the suspicions the uneasy worshipers whispered during the service. Standing outside with the other kids we saw the huge circus-like revival tent being erected by a group of black men in the vacant lot next the church.

Thus began the unannounced annual week of revival, which would be seven days dedicated to the reawaking of the Christian faith of the good members of Simpson’s flock complete with impassioned preaching, public testimony, live gospel music and inadvertently some young adult drama. Seeing the tent being setup the now disgruntled Nazarene congregation knew from tradition older them all that they bore the responsibility of providing the food for the revival that would start later that evening. Despite the inconvenience of Old Preacher Simpson’s surprise, meant to shake what he saw as the congregation’s lethargy, everyone rushed home to prepare the food they would bring.

Above all else, by the early 1970’s Georgetown, South Carolina had become a mill town demanding clockwork precision twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Since the ending of the Civil War, the people who lived there largely made their livings through the growing of tobacco or from what they could haul from the ocean. The work was seasonal and the fates and livelihoods of most everyone was dependent on the price of the green leaf and whether shrimp nets pulled out of the water were empty or full. This created a way of life based on a foundation of religious faith with everyone coming together in the off months to pray for salvation and prosperity. For a long time this made the various preachers and ministers of the community unelected leaders and anyone who defied their guidance virtual outcasts.

With the opening of the new steel mill three miles away for the long-standing paper mill the majority of the people who lived in my hometown during my childhood were now earning their living from those two huge companies or from the secondary businesses that cropped up to supply their needs. Because of that, the rhythms of the Georgetown and its people changed to accommodate the needs of those workers.

This meant those people who observed the Sabbath as a day of worship and rest had to adapt to the changing times. Most people in my hometown did not mind this near heresy since their 24/7 operation meant dependable incomes and a growing affluence allowing a better standard of living for them and their children. For those who welcomed the growing affluence the changing times brought certain other cultural side effects were difficult to deal with, for those determined to live by the old ways the actions of young people were impossible to understand.

As much as the congregation was initially put off by Preacher Simpson’s surprise, it only took a few hours for attitudes to change. While revivals were meant to renew a church’s commitment to Christ, for poor southern folks they also served as the equivalent to a huge Broadway stage production complete with music and the drama only the saving of lost souls can offer.

The music would be provided by a gospel group called “The Singing Kings”, a North Carolina family who made their living singing for the Lord as far north as mysterious New York State and west as the wilds of New Mexico. Given the introverted worldview back then such places were as exotic as northern Outer Magnolia and Patagonia are now. Even more amazing to me at the time was that they lived in and traveled the country in an old converted school bus. The Kings family consisted of Samuel the father, Helen the mother, the twins Peter and Mary who were around my age, and the oldest daughter Rebecca who at the age of seventeen was the epitome of the chaste young lady working to save souls through music while saving herself for the man she would marry. As gospel groups go they could not hope to equal the energy of African-American singers but could easily put us poor white folks to tears by singing “How Great Thou Art.”

The drama for the revival would be provided by the middle-aged veteran of saving souls Preacher Calhoun Murphy and his new protégé, the young and charismatic Preacher Daniel Barnes. The likes of Calhoun Murphy do not really exist anymore, while a true man of the cloth he was also an intelligent and very well read person who could quote the likes of Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Shakespeare, Voltaire, and many others to the point he scared some less sophisticated folks for whom reading is akin to witchcraft.

Daniel Barnes on the other hand was a harbinger of the coming age of shallow and ambitious televangelist preachers for whom the only education they cared about looking good and maximizing the profit margin. Right from the start it was easy to tell Murphy did not like his young student but it was their job to energize the congregation and get them dancing in the aisles and motivated for entire year. 


By Sunday evening, the amazingly resourceful ladies of the Georgetown Nazarene church had thrown together a remarkable collection of home cooked dishes, which now sat on several tables underneath the large revival tent. My grandmother’s contribution to the menu consisted of a heaping plate of fried chicken, her special potato salad, and twelve ears of freshly cooked corn, which she took great care of placing well away from similar items so they would stand out. After she was satisfied, she joined the other ladies of the church who were ogling the handsome young Barnes but trying not to seem lustful about it. Dressed in a tailor-fitted black suit with brilliant white shirt and razor sharp black tie for the older ladies he was as dashing as Rock Hudson or any other handsome American actor.

Now my grandfather and I slipped out of the tent to pay our respects to Preacher Murphy who was holding court behind the church building sipping cold beers with the rest of the guys, a scandalous behavior sure to draw condemnation from the wives if they were not so enchanted with Barnes. Murphy looked the aged and tired opposite of Barnes dressed in a similar but rumpled black suit with a stained white shirt and wrinkled blue tie. His appearance was so scruffy he looked like he made a habit of sleeping in his clothes. Topping it all off in a way he actually resembled Albert Einstein in the face, who Murphy claimed to have met on a train in 1949.

After the required socializing was over the business of saving souls began with the King family beginning a series of gospel songs to set the mood. Samuel and his wife Helen each sang with Peter playing the guitar and Mary the tambourine with the beautiful Rebecca singing backup while playing a portable piano.

When the sermon began an hour later, Preacher Murphy took it from Matthew 19:24 about how it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Even though I was only nine years-old at the time I remember his words as clear as day even now and figure if some pastor attempted such a near socialist sermon now in the south a bunch of white folks would immediately run that preacher out of town, if not lynch the guy.

When it came to the altar call for people to rededicate themselves Preacher Barnes took over with his own sermon, which included the laying on of hands to heal the sick and infirmed. Swooning old ladies quick fell in behind each other with a couple actually tussling over their place in line.

“In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ I command you foul demon to leave the body of this servant of God!” Barnes would yell out while placing both his hand on the head of the person in front of him. So charged was the atmosphere with spiritual energy that the person seeking healing would let out a deep and loud moan then scream before passing out on the floor. Ushers would then come forward collecting the apparently unconscious person so the next in line could receive the same treatment.

As the night progressed dinner was the last thing on the agenda and by that time with everyone was so hungry that nothing of the huge amount food brought was left to put away. It was during these feasts that nearly all formality was forgotten. Kids ran and played games like hide-and-seek all over the church grounds, ladies gathered around and gossiped despite the glaring looks from Preacher Simpson who had kicked back and relaxed all night, and the men folk collapsed in the chairs underneath the tent patting their full stomachs.

The only real problem came when it was time for some of the men to go and get ready for work. Since the ladies wanted to stay longer to socialize the men began to depart sharing rides with the ladies and children leaving a little later. After everyone left the Kings would retire to their bus, Preachers Murphy and Barnes would sleep on cots in the church with everyone ready to do it all again the next night.

That was usual plan for the entire week but by Wednesday night it was obvious to everyone that the twenty-something Barnes and seventeen year-old Rebecca King had taken a strong liking to each other. Barnes had clearly staked what amounted to a claim on the young lady and with his authority as a preacher had effectively run off the boys her age. This being the 1970’s the general belief among the group was that it was a harmless infatuation that would end once the revival was over and everyone went their separate ways. No one for a minute believed the young ambitious preacher nor the beautiful young woman would do anything to soil their purity. But times were changing with all sorts of assumptions were being proved wrong every day.

Thursday night right before dinner was served Samuel King began looking for his daughter; he felt the urge to play more songs and wanted to get his family back together on the small stage they were using. The trouble was that after looking in the family bus and all through the offices on the first floor of the church he still could not find Rebecca. Eventually Samuel approached Preacher Murphy and Simpson who were seated close to each other under the tent with Bibles open discussing theology to ask if they had seen his daughter. That was when my friend Timmy Gibson and I walked by and mentioned that we believed Preacher Barnes was laying hands on Miss Rebecca in private given how he was screaming and she was moaning up in one of the classrooms on the second floor of the church.

Remember these were different and far more innocent times so neither Timmy nor I understood why Murphy and Simpson went running towards the church or why Mr. King came back by a few seconds later with a shotgun. We finally did understand when a much less handsome and happy Preacher Barnes, his wife Rebecca, and baby Barnes returned with the rest of the Singing Kings the following year. Overall Preacher Simpson was still quite happy the revival, and everyone else thought it was the best entertainment they had all summer .


Cloudia said...

anther time and place....

Aloha from Waikiki;

Comfort Spiral
> < } } ( ° >

Windsmoke. said...

Nothing like a bit of scandal to get tongues wagging especially if it involves the church. Well written once again :-).

Akelamalu said...

Oooh I definitely felt as though I was there - Alleluia!

goatman said...

I suspect that the mills are closed and those left have to survive on fish and whatever tobacco is still grown (the Chinese like it).
It is sad that the simple life cannot go on forever.

Mike said...

True Love and a shotgun. Congratulations to the Right Reverend an Mrs Barnes. Nice story, BB.

Nance said...

You take me back. Well done!

Two incidentals: I remember the King Family. My mother collected their recordings in her seniority. And I thought of you just now when I was reading a post from my friend Steven at Projections blog. He was saying he reads wooden boat magazines to help calm him after heated politics had worn him out. I sent him a link to Georgetown's Annual Wooden Boat Show and Fair. They often have some fine music. It's October 15th this year. Perhaps you'll go and, if you do, you must let us know.

Will "take no prisoners" Hart said...

Hey, at least this Barnes fellow married the girl. Elmer Gantry/Burt Lancaster tossed poor old Lulu Baines/Shirley Jones to the trash heap and didn't even think about it. I even think that he went, "Ha ha ha ha ha."

Beach Bum said...

Cloudia: Yeah, it had its good and bad points.

Windsmoke: It was talked about until the church closed up for good around the early 90's.

Akelamalu: Thank you, not completely happy with the story but its the best I can do.

Goatman: The steel mill essentially closed up around 2005 after a decade of financial problems. It was sold several times but never could make a profit. The very bad thing about the steel mill is that it became a toxic waste dump from taking in radioactive scrap metal to the pollution it discharged into the enviroment. It is so bad that a small skeleton crew still works on site to escape federal regulations on cleaning the site up.

The paper mill went through several difficult periods coming close to closing a couple of times itself but it is still in full operation.

Mike: Actually if I heard correctly "Barnes" did get himself a church to pastor and settled down at some point. His ultimate fate is unknown.

Nance: I will try to make it down there. I desperately need a trip down to the coast.

Will: Given the shotgun Mr. King had Barnes had no choice but to marry Rebecca.

Randal Graves said...

People had sex all the way back then?

Pixel Peeper said...

You paint a great picture with words!

I have a Calhoun Murphy type minister in my history. Smart person, great preacher - taught us youngsters about evolution and laughed about a lot of the religious phonies and fanatics. And yes, he looked a little on the rumpled side.

Sue H said...

Sadly true that some people/leaders of faith imagine themselves immune to rebuke - and usually those outside the faith are quick to point the finger at those hypocrites!

Shame so many good 'servant-hearted' people get betrayed by people like that.

BeachBum, this was a wonderful read with so many images conjured up - and I could almost smell Grandma's fried chicken! ;-)

Veronica Marie Lewis-Shaw said...

An observation only, not a judgment...

It sometimes seems that those who would witness against another have more than a passing familiarity with the alleged sin they are accusing someone else of. One wonders what Preacher Barnes would have done if he hadn't been caught red-handed, so to speak?

Very well told, Beach! Thank you.

Marja said...

Beach you are a great story teller. I enjoyed it a lot and yes the heart creeps where it cannot go. Good they married.
Your story gives me also quite a great insight in your culture. Laying hands on people to drive out demons and gospelsingers are to me only known from TV.

Beach Bum said...

Randal: Yeah, but its all just stories for me.

Pixel: I still consider the person I called "Preacher Murphy" one of the most important people in my life.

Sue H: The crazy thing is that I left a lot out, one being a lost possum.

Veronica: Good question, he was an ass and like I wrote a prime example of the coming wave of television preachers that hit us hard in the 80's.

Marja: Laying on hands is a weird thing to see, I still think a lot of the now passed "Preacher Murphy" but some things I will never understand.