God and a southern boy
A Southern Boy and God
We grew up next to a dirt road. God was in the three churches that lined Church Street. First the Baptist. Then the Presbyterian at the other end of the block and then the Methodist on the street to the cemetery. We always hoped they staggered VBS so we could hit all three. But during the year we went to the Baptist for RAs. The Methodist for MYF and the only time we had anything for the young at our Presbyterian building was when Dr Scott was alive. We lost him early.
I was a Presbyterian because my neighbors were. And I guess or maybe it was coincidence so were my grandparents. We had a peculiar deal with the dad across the street. If we went to church on Sunday we could come over and play that day. Fine with me as I liked going to Sunday School. If you think this story is about religious doctrine or conversion you may be disappointed. It is mostly about a southern boy and his journey when America was waking up to secrets it had kept for too long.
Let me explain my earlier acronyms. RAs was the Royal Ambassadors for God, I suppose. We had a little workbook and a male member of the congregation gave us some instructions in biblical directives. We nodded thoughtfully but mostly we were thinking about playing steal the moss outside in the dark as soon as he tired of leading us out of darkness when we could only think of darkness and that game. That game served me well my many years on a playground. For many kids it was their favorite game. And many that hated running laps would run the whole time in that contest.
MYF stood for Methodist Youth Fellowship. I loved this as a teenager. The church was right behind my neighbor’s house (where you had to attend church to play on Sunday). Daryl was the preacher and he would lead the discussions. He once had a former or current Hell’s Angel speak to us. That was eye opening. But even better, Daryl was a Kentucky boy who loved basketball. He took me to Alligator Alley in Gainesville where the gators played because you could play pickup games there all the time. I loved basketball. Once playing some college guys they asked me if I was a freshman. I said yeah, a freshman in high school, 9th grade. Basketball was my game. One day Daryl and his wife took me to Morrsion’s Cafeteria after playing. I was introduced to the world of instant food you could just point at and then eat soon after. It was a dirt road boy coming to town and seeing the real world. I loved that place and made many returns thanks to my future inlaws. Eating as a teen was my second favorite pastime after basketball.
So back to God and my journey to faith. I went to church pretty often as a young boy and even as a teen. My close friends and neighbors had to go so I followed along. I liked the singing part in church. It was a very old building with ancient pews. We had a hard time keeping preachers because it was small and I guess the meager collection plates were not a real source of attraction to potential ministers. We did have a very nice house next to the church. We called it the manse. Don’t ask me why but that is what a Presbyterian preacher house was called, We had to mow that whole property of house and church and it was huge. It bordered the McNeil property on two sides. Even with a large riding mower it took much of a day. At least half of one.
Some time during my religious instruction a wonderful man named Scott came to be our preacher. He loved kids and did things for us at church that had never been done. I guess he asked if some of us would like to become bonafide members and be baptized. I must have said yes because we soon had classes in his office and he took us through a litany of things we needed to know. Soon after I was baptized. It was not one of immersion in water. They sprinkled you with water. I guess it was not as good because it did not really take. I never got all the ritual or rules that needed to be followed to be a Christian. Of course I am not the smartest man that ever spent time in church so I hope my deeds speak louder than words in regards to my after life.
Church for me and my two brothers went like this on Sunday. Dad would get us all in our Sunday best. Coats and clip on ties were the apparel of choice. He would line us up in the small bathroom and apply the Brill Cream and comb. We were slick. We also got a dime to put in the collection plate for Sunday School. I hated it when he only had a dollar and asked me to bring back change. How do you make change in a moving collection plate? I guess I got it done a few times but it was uncomfortable.
As I got older I would stay for regular church at times. We had a very older minister that would come at different times. Preacher Gordon they called him. He was like an Presbyterian icon. He would bring candy and have children come up for it during the service. I liked that it was not so formal a child could interrupt the adult importance of trying to find God.
Now let me explain how I found God but not Christianity. I was sixteen years old. I played football and basketball on the varsity in 9th grade. I loved sports. It was my life and my passion. But then one day I began talking to a girl in my class. She had moved to Archer in 7th grade. Like me she was motivated to perform and made cheerleader in 9th grade. We were not actually talking in class but at the playground of my old elementary school. She was easy to talk to and seemed to laugh when I was trying to be funny. The perfect storm I guess. She told me about her life and I instantly was smitten. She was not just a cute girl anymore but this human being with problems I had never imagined in my seemingly safe world.
My world was not perfect by any means but it always seemed secure because both parents worked and made sure we had food, clothing and a good house to live in. But momma had a drinking problem over unresolved issues with growing up and even her sexual identity. And it became worse as the years went by. I remember a few nights she came home late screaming at dad, very drunk, about taking us away and that dad was a gutless wonder or some invective like that. I would put my pillow over my head to sleep. Mom would try to get into my room but dad would stop her. Finally, it escalated to where dad filed for divorce and kept us there while mom got an apartment in Gainesville. I was probably about fourteen. It was certainly for the best. Mom had demons that were beyond my ability to comprehend. But I came to realize she did the best she could for a long time but could not resolve her issues in our house. I doubt she ever did but stability did come to her in the form of Donna. They stayed together until both of them passed away in that small house on Archer Road.
My new found girlfriend and I were in love in 10th grade. At least I was. She had a large family and oddly enough a mom that had some problems like mine. That just struck me as I typed it. Maybe this putting words to screen is even a journey to self discovery or at least recovery of things past I had not realized before.
Love was something new to me at sixteen and my passion was way past that of basketball. One quick memory of her and basketball. I was playing in the neighbor’s backyard when she and my FIRST girlfriend came over to talk. They were best friends. I know this sounds weird but it was a small town and everyone knew everybody. I was shooting at the goal I had shot at literally thousands of times while I was talking. She finally asked me if I was “showing off”. I asked her why and she said “You never miss”. Like I said earlier, basketball was my game.
We went along for almost a year together. She was having problems at home I guess with her mom and needed to discuss it with her older sister in a town much further north from us. The plan was to move up with her sister. I was devastated believing she was going to leave. So the weekend she left I went to a small party in Gainesville. There were older girls from our high school and even close friends of ours and her brothers. My mother was living there and beer was needed. I volunteered to see if my mom would buy it for us. She did and then the night got interesting. One of the girls was in my English class and she had that classic beauty of 1950s movie stars. She even had that persona. She was certainly a fantasy girl and we were pretty good friends in our class together. She is sitting with some boy and smoking a cigarette. I was feeling the effects of the cheap beer and totally out of character told her I wanted to do something. I leaned in and kissed her. The person that kissed her was someone that was not me and did not show up again until thirty years later. Maybe I will discuss that one day, too. She acted a little surprised and later said “don’t let this change our friendship and be weird about it” It didn’t change anything but change was coming with my true love.
The news got back to her and she was devastated. I think she had decided to stay and then this changed her mind. She came to my door when she found out and was crying. I thought I had lost her anyway and the beer was my catalyst for the kiss that caused the problem. Anyway the shyest and most naive lover boy on earth was dead in the water. I was inept with girls. Always was and still into later life.
I told her the kiss meant nothing and the beer was my excuse. It was like an old movie scene except I was the villain. Helpless to change anything and ignorance was all I had to look inward at my stupidity. She moved and I was heartbroken for what seemed years. This is when I turned to God as I perceived God.
I was so sad about her and worried about her. I could not sleep well. I finally got up one night and walked to my church just 200 yards up the dirt road and across the railroad tracks. The door was unlocked as was most places back then. I walked in there in the dark up to the front. I believe there was a stained glass window way up high behind the podium. It may have been of that modern day image of Jesus. I cannot remember. That night I began to pray for peace and that she would be safe in her life with her sister. I did this multiple nights I don’t believe I prayed for myself but for her. I hurt for a very long time. I finally asked a girl out in 11th grade. And we dated maybe a few times. But I could not get the first love out of my mind. Time and life finally helped me get past it.
Now this was my revelation as I moved past college into my career and marriage with children. After losing my first love and praying for her my life seemed to hit a trajectory that was always positive for me and her. I went on to find someone I had known for six years and we became a couple. I worked for a year to save money for college. Those savings paid my tuition for four years. My new love graduated college a year before me and we were married the weekend after I graduated from college. I found a great job in my field (literally) and she did too. We had two children and began to live happily ever after. My first love? She went on to college and then vet school and became a very successful veterinarian. So did we all live happily ever after? Not really but I was always blessed and lucky it seemed until I got in my own way. I still pray a lot. Maybe more so the last two decades than ever before. I am not positive about God and I am sure he wonders about me, too. I do not attend church anymore but feel someone is watching over me. I have for a very long time.