If you are reading this, keep in mind it is a work in progress and as such has jumps and breaks and fits and starts. I never claimed to be a Hemingway or anyone else for that matter. This is the story of much of my life as I remember it; others may remember events differently . . . that is their prerogative.
Chapter 1 (probably)
“Oh, come to the church in the Wildwood”
I was an eighteen year old high school senior before I found out other people spoke in tongues too. Up til then, I’d thought Mama, Papa John, Big Granny, Aunt Lib, Sister Anne and just a bare handful of others were the only people in the world since the Book of Acts who were Pentecostal and had the Baptism of the Holy Ghost and Fire.
In my spiritual world stood our little white cinder block church where Papa John preached; outside of it was the rest of Christendom. At Welcome Holiness, we had church Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday evening, and special singing and prayer on Saturday night. Until I was twelve years old and Mama stopped demanding my attendance, I spent much more of my free time than I would have chosen sitting under my Papa John’s preaching or listening to Mama or Big Granny or someone else or some combination sing “I’ll Fly Away,” “Looking for a City,” or some of the songs Papa John had written. Sooner or later, the Spirit would descend and someone would launch out in a message in tongues after which the running of the aisles, walking of the pews, and general shouting glory would commence. That was my cue to pull out my latest novel and read. I wasn’t frightened about what went on. To tell the truth, it always made me feel good inside, like all was right with the world. As long as Mama sang while Papa John played his red guitar and preached, as long as Sister Anne or Aunt Lib or someone shouted glory until her pinned up hair fell streaming down her back, then the answer to the age old question, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” would remain a resounding no. When the day came that the circle finally did break, my world broke with it and it was a long time coming back together.
Now, whenever I spent a Saturday night with Daddy’s parents – Papa and Granny Wham–, I visited Beulah Baptist Church where one of the Sunday School classes was named for Granny Wham who, when she was finally forced by age and infirmity to resign her class, had been teaching the Word of God in Sunday School for fifty-one years. Beulah was a proud member of the Southern Baptist Convention, which I took to mean that, besides no one speaking in tongues, shouting glory, or playing the guitar, services could only last one hour and not a minute more.
Since I stayed with Papa and Granny Wham while Mama worked second shift at the textile factory, I attended Wednesday night prayer services at Beulah and it’s where I became a Royal Ambassador for Christ, which is sort of like the Southern Baptist Convention’s version of the Boy Scouts only without the sharp uniforms and about a fourth as many badges and awards.
From kindergarten through sixth grade I also attended Vacation Bible School for a week every summer at Dials Methodist Church where Granny Wham had been a member until she married Papa Wham after he came home from the War. I always thought Dials was a little strange because every other Sunday, they held Sunday School after preaching and the never had Sunday night or Wednesday night services. To be quite honest, even though several of my good friends attended Dials , I wasn’t quite sold on the Methodist religious orthodoxy because not only did the worshipers fail to ever speak in tongues but I was pretty certain no one could be a faithful Christian attending only one sixty minute service per week. They, along with the Presbyterians and Episcopalians, only went to church on Sunday mornings. I grew up knowing in my bones that The Devil would have a field day with such casual Christians and the pastor was obviously being lax in his duties.
I know it seems excessive to anyone who didn’t grow up like I did, but it’s just how things were in rural Upstate South Carolina when I was a boy. The first question asked of any stranger once the small talk tapered off was going to be, “So, whereabouts do you go to church?” Literally everyone, except the town drunks and their “disreputable” ilk, went to church somewhere come Sunday morning. What may or may not have taken place Saturday night or the other five days of the week was held of no consequence. Sunday meant church, but what I was to find out as I got older and what I know for certain now is here in the South, Sunday may still mean church to a large portion of the community, but church does not necessarily mean Christian, at least in action. That was a lesson hard and broken-heartedly learned
Chapter 2 (maybe)
“Here’s a little ditty ’bout Jack and Diane”
Had President John F. Kennedy (a Catholic, by the way) not gotten our country more involved in the clusterhump that became the Vietnam War, I most likely would have never seen the light of day. At a barest minimum, I’d be five or seven years younger than I am.
Mama and Daddy met in 1966 when they were fourteen and sixteen. December 27, 1968, over the objections of all my grandparents, they were married. In Mama’s words, “Your father was leaving and I didn’t know if I would ever see him again, so I wanted to be his wife. We were young, too young, but we were in love.” I was not the reason for the rush. Daddy had been convicted of a crime he did not commit (that has now been proven) and rather than face a possible prison term, he opted to enlist in the army and automatically be sent to Vietnam.
On Easter Sunday, 1969, the fun loving, caring young man that my mother knew and loved got on a plane for southeast Asia and never returned. After a year in ‘Nam, the smile was gone from his face. Though he has seldom talked about his wartime experiences and never at any length, I learned from Mama and Papa Wham that Daddy had been in some of the thickest, bloodiest fighting of that whole ungodly war. He had seen many of his best friends die before his eyes and had killed people he had no argument with. That changes a man forever. Mama has often told me very sadly that her Frankie died in Vietnam, a forgotten casualty of an unforgettable war.
Chapter 3 (?)
“The first cut is the deepest”
Chapter 4 (?)
“Dear Mr. Fantasy, play us a tune; something to make us all happy.”
I was eight years old when Papa John told Mama the Lord had told him earlier that day we were going to be rich beyond all our dreams. Papa said he was leaving one of the local factories where he’d just applied for a job and when he got to his yellow ’65 GTO, despite the light mist falling, he thought the parking lot would be a good place to adjust the clutch cable that had been giving him trouble shifting. He went to the trunk and got the wrench he needed for the job and a tarp to lie down on and keep his suit pants off the asphalt. When he got back to the front of the car, he spread the tarp behind the front driver’s wheel and knelt down so he could lie down and slide under the car. At the moment his knee touched the pavement he was surrounded by a warm golden light and he heard God tell him in an audible voice, “John, you’ve been faithful to Me. You don’t have to work. I’m going to bless you with money.”
Welcome to the rabbit hole. Papa told Mama and Mama told me. To this day, I don’t know what Papa did to merit such divine consideration, but I was 8. It was a little above my head. Mama believed this so completely, she bought a beautiful, huge, and expensive double wide trailer then promptly got laid off from Union Carbide.
Many months passed and “The Money,” or “The Blessing” as we came to call it, had not materialized. Papa was distraught because of the faith Mama and I had put in his pronouncement. In the late spring of 1981, as he was long into a sleepless night praying, Papa claimed to have had a vision. In the vision, he saw a room like a hospital, but he knew it wasn’t a hospital room. A man’s body lay on the bed covered with a sheet as if someone died. Mama and I stood by the bed. I wore a bright red shirt with a big “8” on the front and back. Mama wore a blue knee length dress. I actually owned such a shirt and Mama owned a dress like the one described. In any event, as Papa stepped into the room, the body on the bed “evaporated” and the sheet settled down onto the mattress. Papa heard ten year old me turn to Mama and say, “That’s done, do you think we should tell Papa ‘The Money’ is here now?” Then the vision ended. Until the day he lost consciousness the final time, Papa maintained to me adamantly he was not asleep and he’d not had a dream.
Meanwhile, Mama defied the Laurens County Sheriff to take our foreclosed home because we “were under God’s protection.” Well, I don’t know if the good sheriff was a believer or not, but he did take our home away . . . literally, since it was on wheels. For the next several years, Mama and I bounced around from relative to relative still waiting on The Blessing. Being Pentecostal, someone in the church would often get a word from the Lord like, “after you have sorrowed, then the money will come” which made a lot of sense given our sad situation. Once, a member said the Lord told her, “Money home, under house.” So that night after service, Papa crawled under his house with a flashlight and a long, thin steel rod and probed the entire crawlspace on hands and knees. Nothing.
Then I was 18, The Money still hadn’t appeared but Papa’s health failed completely. He never was “robust” but now a series of strokes and heart attacks left him partially paralyzed on his left side. As he was trying to recover under Mama’s care, he again heard the Lord saying, “John, I will heal you completely.” About the same time, Mama heard God ask her, “Do you believe I can make your father young again?” So now we were waiting for The Money, but Mama was waiting even more strongly for Papa to be miraculously healed and walk, preach, and play his red guitar while singing gospel songs again.
Years passed. I turned 25 and married Dana. I told her about everything; she was the first person outside the family I’d ever told. More years passed. Papa got sicker and frailer. I never worried about it because the worse he got, the greater glory God would get when Papa was miraculously healed. Then twelve years ago this October, Papa was rushed to Hillcrest Hospital. He had an intestinal blockage requiring emergency surgery. The cardiologist and the surgeon told us Papa would die on the table; he was too weak to survive the surgery. Without surgery, he would die of sepsis. Papa made it off the table, but he never regained consciousness. Mama and I sat by his bedside holding his hand in ICU until Mama couldn’t take it anymore because Papa had begun “guppy breathing” which the ICU nurse said signaled the end was near. Mama told him goodbye and said he could go on Home then she left with my stepdad in the midst of a breakdown. I was alone by his bed still holding his hand for the last hours.
I was excited. God had promised so the worse off Papa got, the greater this miracle was going to be. I pictured a huge revival with Papa telling how he had been at death’s door when God raised and healed him. I was holding his hand when he flat lined and felt butterflies explode awake in my stomach because now he was clinically dead. This was it! NO ONE would be able to deny the miracle. We’d have charts and printouts from an actual hospital to prove everything.
The next day, in a driving rainstorm, I preached Papa’s funeral and the benediction would be the last prayer to pass my lips for seven years.
So, what does it mean? Well, until October 18, 2006, I knew I could not and would not die unless and until the events in Papa’s vision came to pass. No one who hasn’t lived it can really tell another person how it feels to live when you are absolutely certain you can’t die. In my particular case, I did whatever I wanted to do. I stared down bullies and fools with guns pointed at me and laughed because I knew bullets couldn’t kill me until the vision came to pass. I was the craziest driver and teenager you could imagine. Later on, I used to comfort Dana whenever I refused to go see a doctor about a sickness or pain by saying, “Budge, I can’t die . . . the vision hasn’t come to pass yet.”
Secondly, since God had told our family we were going to be rich, I never bothered saving or investing. Why bother when I was going to be able to have anything money could buy? Why not go into ridiculous debt when we’d be able to pay it all off in an instant. I used to see children crying in the toy department of a store and I’d smile inside knowing what I was going to buy those random children once The Money came. I was going to get homeless people off the streets and make sure sick people went to the doctor. If I had money, EVERYONE was going to have money. It was going to be glorious and all to God’s glory.
Also, I was absolutely certain Papa and Mama couldn’t die either. Until the promise was fulfilled, we were safe. Papa was going to be young in body and spirit again and he and Mama would be able to hold their heads up in company with all the people who had attacked our little church for so many years.
Most of all, bad times didn’t mean anything. After all, we’d heard from God that, “after you’ve sorrowed . . .” We just figured for three decades this or that batch of trouble was the price we had to pay for The Blessing and Papa’s healing. No matter how bad it got, it was temporary and would be worth all the pain and misery; so we soldiered on. Mama lost interest in the money years before Papa died. She just wanted Papa healed, but Papa and I never gave up. Every time we’d go for a cup of coffee at the Waffle House, we’d go back over all the vision and messages and stuff and none of it ever changed. Then he died.
It got worse on March 25, 2013 when I held Mama’s hand as she died. Now, they are all gone – Papa, Mama, Big Granny, Aunt Lib, Uncle George, and a handful more. I’m the only one left to tell a tale no one but me cares anything about. Pastor Matt Williams said the most honest thing anyone has said to me to date when I told him a shorter version of this same story in his office not long after Dana and I started going to Grace Church. He said, “You know, you spent the last 35 years of your life in a fantasy world, don’t you?” I suppose I did.
Chapter 5 (?)
“Them that don’t know him don’t like him and them that do sometimes don’t know how to take him; he ain’t wrong, he’s just different.”
My daddy is an extremely complicated man and my feelings towards him and about him mirror that level of complexity. I love him and I know he loves me. That much is certain between us, but little else is. Our relationship has been stormy over the years, but in the last few years, most of the old grievances between us have started to settle down. Still, it is complicated.
January 6, 1971, I was born and Mama said that Daddy was never prouder. He took me away from the nurse and paraded around the waiting room showing me off to everyone who would look: It was after witnessing Mama’s difficult and painful labor that Daddy vowed no woman would ever have a child by him again. Looking back, it’s hard for me sometimes to realize that Daddy was several years younger than I am now when he became a father and he, unlike me, had not been to college or even finished high school. His only degree, as he likes to boast, was from the school of hard knocks.
Several strong images stand out from my early childhood involving Daddy. I remember him outside on the tailgate of his old blue truck talking with his friends and drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon. The cans were red, white, and blue and Daddy always maintained that he was drinking Pepsi until Mama told him I could read what the cans said. He seemed startled at first, but then he beamed at the thought that his three-year-old could read and he told me then how proud he was of me. I would graduate college before Daddy ever told me again that he was proud of me.
Another picture in my mind involves Daddy and I sitting on the couch watching Chuck Connors play The Rifleman. I would impress Daddy by reading the credits out loud as they rolled past Chuck’s Model ’73 Winchester rifle on our old black and white TV. Daddy loved any Western and I can remember watching dozens of cowboy and Indians pictures with him. Deep in my soul I cherish those memories and I wish they could have lasted.
Nothing gold can stay, however, and my parents’ marriage fell victim to changing points of view, differing ideologies, and what sociologists today call “the seven year itch.” Mama became a Christian when I was three, which ended her practice of accompanying Daddy to pool halls and beer joints. To his credit and by all accounts, Daddy tried to accommodate Mama’s new lifestyle, often going to church with us and never discouraging Mama as long as he could. However, the Bible has a reason for saying be not unequally yoked and when it became apparent Mama had left partying behind for good, Daddy found a woman who shared his interests and tastes. In the end, Daddy left Mama for her and my parents divorced in 1978. I was seven years old and, as I watched Daddy pack his old blue truck and drive out of the yard, I knew my life would never be the same.
My Daddy leaving had a profound effect on me. I stopped going outside because I associated outside with Daddy. The beagles were gone and I was petless except for Queen, my bulldog. Most of all, and to the horror of my kindergarten teacher, I stopped speaking. She was so concerned that she called DSS who investigated my mother to be sure I was not being abused. In my mind and despite Mama’s protests, I felt responsible and in my little heart, I vowed two things: I’d never make Mama cry and I would make Daddy sorry that he left me. I failed miserably on both accounts.
The years after the divorce were sad ones to say the least. Mama and I had been thrown on our own resources, but we got by. What I remember the most about those years was the infrequency with which I saw Daddy and the intense joy I felt when I was with him. Being with Daddy meant being outside or working with my hands. Daddy took me fishing and hunting. We built birdhouses together and I remember so well how he patiently tried to teach me to read a square and a set of blueprints. What little math proficiency I have, I owe to Daddy.
One of my most beloved memories of my times with Daddy came in the summer when I was thirteen years old. We had been driving old dirt roads as Daddy tried futilely to teach me to drive his old truck. I had finally gotten the hang of it when we rounded a curve in one pigpath and there was the biggest mudhole I had ever seen in my life. I had caught five pound bass in smaller bodies of water than the one that lay before us. I looked at Daddy wondering what to do, and he smiled and motioned for me to change seats with him.
As I slid into the passenger’s seat, Daddy remarked that we’d probably need old Hank Jr. to get through that hole so I reached into the glove box and pulled out Daddy’s copy of “A County Boy Can Survive” and popped it into the tape deck. As Hank sang, daddy backed down the road a ways, put the truck in granny Iow gear, and sped towards the obstruction. We hit the hole and I can still feel my head hitting the roof as we slipped and slid our way through the morass.
Safe and muddy on the other side, Daddy turned to me and said, “Son, let that be a lesson to you –don’t ever back up unless you need a running start and when you have a running start, there’s no mudhole in the world that can hold you.”
Still, I resented Daddy for leaving. I fussed and carried on every time he would bring me back to Mama, and I would beg him to come home to us. I told him I hated him for leaving me, hated him for marrying the woman he left Mama for, and later on I told him I hated him for bringing my half-brother into the world. When he would lavish gifts on me I accused him of trying to buy my love. I felt that any love or loyalty that I gave him was an act of treason towards my Mama. I thought that by his actions he was some sort of monster. Things I forgave Mama for, liking missing school events because of work, I hurled into his face as a sign of his indifference to me. I never realized that I only knew one side of the story. Mama has since confessed that Daddy wanted to get me more often, but she refused to allow me to be around my stepmother. Forced into a choice, Daddy stood by the woman he now loved and I’m old enough now to admire him for that.
In the final analysis, I must look at Daddy through two pairs of eyes. On the one hand, the child in me will always harbor a feeling of resentment if for nothing else but the time lost with the person who was supposed to be my mentor and most prominent male influence. I will always wonder what might have been if my father had been present more during my younger years and would our relationship be richer? Yet the man I have become can look back with an objective eye and realize that Daddy was not a monster as I sometimes imagined him to be as I grew up without him. In reality, he was not even an exceptionally bad person. He was a twenty-year-old kid thrust into a role as a father that his own background had not prepared him for. He did the best he knew how for as long as he could. I realize that, by my feelings and actions towards him, I essentially placed a yoke upon his neck that I have proven unable to bear myself — seeing how I have fallen prey to many of the same things Daddy did. I will always be grateful to the many teachers who influenced my life and I will always hold my mother up as one of my guiding lights, but I also will remember that Daddy deserves his place in my past, present, and future.
I have also begun to realize that my Daddy influenced the way I teach in many ways — some good, some not so good. For instance, Daddy never bragged on me to my face. He never really said much about my good grades at all. On the one side, I worked harder to try to please him, but it hurt never getting the affirmation of my worth that I craved. I have in turn been reluctant to shower praise on my students because I don’t want them to be complacent. In a way, I do it completely subconsciously. I hope I can instill in my students the strong sense of honor that my Daddy taught me. Never say you’ll do something and then back out. Through the struggles I’ve faced dealing with my Daddy leaving, I hope I can show my students that they can overcome and make the best of a bad situation. Finally, I hope through Daddy’s influence I can teach my students that they should never back up unless they mean to get a running start and that once they have a running start, no mudhole in life can hold them.
Chapter 6 (?)
“God blessed the broken road that lead me straight to you.”
The tale of how Budge and I met and married involves deceit, subterfuge, lots of luck, and, more than once, the intervention of the hand of fate.
Chapter 7 (?)
(Need Chapter Title, can’t think of the right song)
After Daddy left, life got interesting for Mama and me. We stayed in the singlewide trailer she and Daddy had bought and put on the Willis homeplace in Owings and for a while at least, everything went as good as could be expected I suppose. I had a few issues, like not talking for days at a time. It got so bad that my kindergarten teacher, Miss Coggins, was going to call Child Protective Services to come check me out because she thought I was being abused. Fortunately, she called Mama in for a conference and found out about the tremendous amount of discord we had at home. From then on, we just got by.
Mama worked at an electronics factory and for three years or so, it was me and her against the world and we seemed to be doing okay. Then
It’s a hard thing to stand in the yard and watch strangers put the wheels back on your house then pull your home away. I didn’t cry, though. It just didn’t seem worth it. Faced with no where to live and no real prospects, Mama and Randy made the decision to move to Columbia. So for a grand total of three months, late May to late July, I lived in the furnacle infested armpit of South Carolina.
I was sleeping on the couch when Mama shook me awake and said we were going home. I told her I thought we were home, but she said we were going “back home.” So, in the middle of the night, the two of us left Columbia – and Randy – for good. I had no idea where Mama was planning on us living at the time. As far as I knew, she planned to pitch a tent on the homeplace. She had a plan though, and my god what a plan it was.
We moved in with Papa and Granny Wham. It had been bad enough when Mama was living on her ex-mother-in-law’s land, but now she was living in her ex-in-laws’ house and sleeping in her ex-sister-in-law’s old bedroom. It was not an ideal situation.
Mama’s cousin, Wanda-Faye, got word to Mama that she needed a roommate to help pay for the house Wanda had just bought. I guess Mama figured anything beat living with her ex-in-laws and I couldn’t blame her. So, we packed up and moved for the third time in less than a year. Wanda’s house wasn’t much to speak of.
After a while, Mama got fed up with all Wanda’s cussing and fussing and generally maniacal behavior. We couldn’t eat “her food” and stuff like that. Mama passed on one trait to me and that was never stay where you aren’t wanted, so we didn’t. We packed up the Pontiac Station Wagon, again, and moved to the only place we had left to go – Papa John’s. Now that was the start of some good times.
Now I have no idea what the machinations were that led Granny and Papa Wham to buy a trailer and put it on the homeplace for Mama and me to move into. I do know they didn’t exactly break the bank on creature comforts with their choice, but by that time, Mama and I were so sick and tired of moving around and living with other people that we’d have been satisfied with a mud hut. Turns out, we didn’t get much more.
So the summer before I entered eighth grade, Mama and I moved into The Little Barn. I would spend high school, college, and a couple of years after in and out of The Little Barn. It was a 1965 model singlewide budget brand mobile home, which basically means that it was cheap in 1965 and the intervening twenty years hadn’t done much to improve it. The carpet was what had been in my Aunt Cathy’s house and she’d given it to us to put down. We had no central air, just a window unit in the living room and one in my bedroom in back. The one in the living room fought a losing battle against the South Carolina summers and the one in my room was installed improperly and poured cold water down the wall and ruined my Goodwill headboard and several of my prized books. Still, that was better than winter because we had no central heat either. The furnace kicked on one time the first cold day we lived there and then it just gave up the ghost and died. That meant we were reduced to kerosene heaters. I refused to have one in my room because the fumes smothered me, so I had to contend with frost on my top comforter on the coldest of mornings.