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holy rollers
by dirk cotton
11.14.09
general

My grandmother was a Holy Roller. That's the pejorative label they give members of the primitive Apostolic Holiness Church in the Bible Belt where I grew up. The label is attributed to an 1893 memoir by American humorist, Charles G. Leland, in which he says, "When the Holy Spirit seized them. . .the Holy Rollers. . .rolled over and over on the floor." I went to church with my grandmother at the corner of Trim Street and West Arcadia Avenue on several occasions as a small boy. In fairness, I never saw anyone roll on the floor, but I did see a few dance in the aisles and, frankly, it scared the hell out of me.

A large, stern woman, diabetic, with long gray hair she wore in a bun, my grandmother was a foot taller than my grandfather, or so it seemed. She had a beautiful name, Ursula, that my grandfather unintentionally butchered with his southern English. It came out, "Urshel", sounding more like Herschel than Ursula, but he meant no disrespect; he was madly in love with her until the day he died.


If the church doors were unlocked, my grandmother was there. Church may have begun on Sunday mornings, but it continued through Sunday evening services, Wednesday night Prayer Meetings and other special services that seemed to fill up about every day of the week and she was always there with my grandfather obediently in tow.

A little lawn graced the front of the small, white, one-story, clapboard building. A stoop by the front door was reached by a half-dozen concrete steps with lead-pipe handrails leading down to a sidewalk that dissected the lawn and led to more concrete steps down a steep, red clay bank to the highway. There was no place to park along the highway, and thus no need for those stairs. I can't remember them ever being used, except for kids playing on them in their Sunday best. People parked along the side of the church on Trim Street.

A white sign with changeable messages, clever musings like "There's no air conditioning in hell, either", which showed up in August, or "Honk if you love Jesus", stood at the front corner of the lot facing the highway. The church wasn't air conditioned, nor was most of the South in the sixties. Ladies tried to cool themselves with fans printed with pictures of Jesus on rectangular cardboard with rounded corners and a thin, flat wooden handle glued to the bottom. They could sit perfectly still, the only movement a slight flicking of the wrist and an occasional blown strand of hair near their eyes.



The church had a single, double-hung window just to the left of the front doors as you entered. This window opened into the church's small bathroom and played a strategic role in the church services for us kids. We would tell our parents we had to go to the bathroom, jump out the window onto the front lawn, and play with the other kids who had done the same. Sometimes we'd get bored, go back to our parents and then do the same thing again a few minutes later. Occasionally, this irritated them and they'd tell us to "sit still". More often, they were glad we were out of their hair for a few minutes.

Members of the Apostolic Holiness Church called each other "Brother" and "Sister". The preacher, therefore, was Brother Edwin J. Bayer from Indiana, and his wife was Sister Bayer. In our rural, southern tongue, though, "Bayer" came out "Bear", so the preacher was Brother Bear, at least as I understood it.

Brother Bear wore black suits and cowboy string ties and he stared heavenward while strumming hymns on his guitar. In his early fifties, less than average height, he was almost completely bald, with a ring of prematurely gray hair around the sides and back of his small, round head. Brother Bear was as friendly a person as I ever met, easy to talk to and always smiling, always greeting someone with a handshake or a pat on the back.

Brother Bear's son, Johnny, and I sat in the back pew one Wednesday Prayer Meeting night, whispering about whatever small kids discuss during church services. Baseball would be a good guess. Johnny was a couple of years older than me, tall and skinny, and he usually ignored me, but I was the only other boy in the church that evening. Occasionally, Brother Bear would signal the start of a hymn by ducking his head under the wide, leather strap of his shiny, black flattop guitar and digging a flat pick out of his pocket, while Sister Bear strapped on an accordion and their older daughter arranged sheet music on her piano, but most of the prayer meeting was taken up by a quiz of bible knowledge. Brother Bear would ask a question and the congregation would race to find the pertinent verse in their bible.

Suddenly, as I was in the middle of giggling with Johnny about something he had said, Brother Bear pointed at me from his pulpit and in his most dramatic fire and brimstone voice roared, "The boy in the back row! How many daaaays was Jonah in the belly of the whale?"

Brother Bear stood there, pointing at me from his pulpit and staring. Petrified, I fought to avoid eye contact. Everyone in the church turned around to look at me, smile, and hold up three fingers. Now, this is the nightmare of every small child who ever went to church, the preacher and the entire congregation turning around to stare at them in the back-most pew, but it had become quite real for me. Johnny kept whispering, "Three. Three!", but I couldn't make a sound come from my throat no matter how hard I tried.

Brother Bear waited a few seconds that seemed like hours and the congregation kept smiling and waving three fingers at me, but my mental energy was focused on physically shrinking until I completely disappeared. It didn't work. Eventually, Brother Bear said, "Johnny?"

Johnny yelled, "Three!"

Brother Bear shouted, "Hallelujah!", several of the congregation echoed, "hallelujah!", and the service moved on.

Occasionally, Holy Rollers, more often than not the sisters-- in fact, I never witnessed a brother-- "get the holy spirit". They dance in the aisles, holding their bibles under their arms, crying while they carry on a dialogue with Jesus, or more specifically, Sweet Jesus. I thought they looked like the Native Americans we saw in cowboy movies dancing around campfires, chanting, while their heads bobbed up and down. And while their intentions may have been holy, they scared the holy crap out of me. When this happened, albeit rarely, these women seemed possessed. They were possessed.

After church services, the men would gather in a small group by the parking lot, smoke cigarettes and talk while they waited for the women to catch up socially.

"Did you hear about the old boy in the choir down there at the Baptist church gettin' smacked twice during church last Sunday?"

"Twice?" one of the men asked cautiously, a single eyebrow skeptically raised.

"Yes-sir. The woman in the choir standing in front of him turned around and smacked him right in the middle of The Old Rugged Cross. A minute later, she turned around and smacked him again."

"Sure 'nuff?" That's Southern for "bullshit", I'd later learn.

"Yes-sir. He and his buddies were walking out of the church after the service and one of them said, 'Why did she slap you?' He says, 'Well-sir, it was hot there in the choir loft and I noticed that her choir robe was stuck in her crack. I thought, well, that looks mighty uncomfortable, so I pulled it out for her and she smacked me.' His buddy says, 'Well, why did she smack you the second time?' 'Well-sir,' he says, 'I thought about it for a minute and decided if she felt that way about it, why hell, I'd just put it back!'"

"The hell you say," they all laughed, and headed to their cars to meet their wives and drive home in the dark.

I climbed into the middle of the backseat of the two-toned, white over brown '62 Oldsmobile that my grandmother would eventually drive for nearly thirty years, barely turning over the odometer once in all that time. As we drove home down the two-lane country road to their farm, the interior of our car lit momentarily once or twice by the headlights of an oncoming car, I thought about horror movies, vampires, and noises in the night and how none of them were scarier to a fourth-grader than Brother Bear and his ole' time religion.


ABOUT DIRK COTTON

Dirk Cotton is a retired executive of a Fortune 500 Internet company who loves to spend time with his family, fly fish, shoot sporting clays, attend college baseball games, sail, follow the Wildcats, and write. Everything else he does is just for fun. A computer programmer-cum-marketing executive-cum-financial planner who now wants to be a writer, he apparently can't decide what he wants to be when he grows up. He and his family moved to The Southern Part of Heaven in 2005 and couldn't be happier with that decision.

more about dirk cotton

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