“That’s a dandy way to raise a future serial killer,” I thought when I saw them on that sweltering August day on a street corner in Pensacola, Florida.
The little boy was nine, tops. He wore a pair of long “go to church” pants, a bright white, long-sleeved shirt, green clip-on necktie and hard, dirt brown, lace-up shoes. Just like his daddy, who stood beside him shouting into a large megaphone.
“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved! Jesus hates sin! If you died tonight, would you spend eternity in Heaven . . . or in Hell? Repent of your sins! Ask the Lord Jesus Christ to save you from Hell! The party in Hell has been cancelled due to fire! Warning! You will burn in Hell! Turn from Sin. Repent!”
I tried to see the little boy’s eyes when the traffic light turned green and we passed closer to where the street preachers had set up. I couldn’t. His eyes were squinted shut, whether from the bright glare or embarrassment, I couldn’t tell. His thin shoulders rounded over his chest in what looked to me like self-protection. The child’s body language silently screamed, “Get me out of here.”
I turned into the parking lot at our neighborhood Publix grocery store. Waves of heat nipped at my heels like surly yard dogs. I heard the preacher’s shouted exhortations all the way to the entrance, but when I passed through the air-conditioned portals his noise was instantly, blessedly, muted.
I got to thinking about those ubiquitous street preachers and how their methodology is identical. Who trains these people? Check it out. Search for street preachers on the Internet. You’ll find “Street Preacher’s Manual” by Gerald Sutek, published by Chick Publications. It helped me understand why the boy was part of the tableau. “If women and children are part of your army on the street, be sure to always keep them in view.” That quote is found in the “Mechanics” section of the manual.
This type of lurid display seems to get hauled out every time somebody north of the Mason-Dixon Line makes a movie about the South. It’s not deceptive. It’s a common sight. I even put it front and center myself as an attention-getter.
But if you try to understand sin or the South by focusing on the histrionics of street preachers, you’ll be barking up the wrong tree.
In my experience as a child of the South, the essence of what constitutes Southern Sin can be summed up in one word: sex. Well, maybe six words: crazy, hot, go-to-hell sex. And the ultimate authority my siblings grew up fearing and defying was not some faraway God, but omnipresent and almighty Mother.
Mother believed that sinning led to sex, and so everything that tended toward fun was highly suspect and likely to become a prohibited activity. That’s why drinking, dancing, card playing, loud music, eye shadow, sitting too close on the piano bench with that boy, dimly lit rooms, going to the beach, and a host of other fun things that lively young people like to do were forbidden. Going to church regular and often was okay, although church socials could lead to trouble. Church picnics down at the local swimming hole made Mother nervous, mainly because they involved young people, revved up hormones, and a certain amount of exposed skin. Her default position was “No, you can’t go.” Every now and then she would give in, but only if she drove me to and from the event and stayed there the whole time watching my every move.
Is it the heat that makes us think about sex all the time? Maybe it’s the extreme humidity, where secrets grow in the sultry darkness and bloom in the fragrant night air. Or could it be the smoldering sensuality of our food, where a bland circle of plain old grits with their tiny hard kernel in each grain, is turned into a slick volcano by the addition of a lump of butter poked into its middle, every delicious drop licked up by delicate flowers of Southern femininity?
Mother knew something about the price a family can extract from a young person who jumps the traces, so I can’t blame her for trying to protect me the only way she could think of. She was born in 1914 and raised on a Mississippi farm with six brothers and three sisters. Her father was a Baptist preacher/farmer. Her deeply-religious mother ruled the roost. Mother would tell my brothers, sisters, and I about how she had to pick cotton all day and how she hated it, how she would lean on her hoe sometimes and dream about getting an education. This sounds like the self-serving tale of a mother trying to use stories to urge her kids to do their homework. There was an element of that, no doubt. She was bitter, too, that it was made clear to her early on that there would be no money or support for her or her sisters to go to college, but that each of her brothers went on to get advanced degrees, several of them obtaining doctorates, all with support from home ranging from money to baskets of homemade food to hand-sewn clothing. Understand, these are themes played out by Mother, and are part of her own mythic past.
She committed an unpardonable sin at 15, when, in her words, “I finished drying the supper dishes, walked out the back, and ran off with the boy next door.” This would have been around 1929. I can only imagine the scandal in that small community. And when her first baby, a girl, died within minutes of being born, Mother was just 16 and ruined. She had shamed the family and brought damnation on herself by defying her parents, especially her mother. I’m sure she was told the dead baby was God letting her know that he was personally displeased with her.
Two more healthy babies, an abusive husband, poverty and a tough row of stumps later, Mother married my Dad, a divorced, tough-looking man from Alabama with olive skin burnt to an espresso color by hard work in the southern sun and missing part of one finger from working in a box plant and part of one ear lobe from a bar fight. He drank until he got saved and turned his life over to the Lord. After that, some sunny part of his heart that had been scabbed over and hidden emerged. Low and behold, Mother had finally found herself a good man.
They moved, together with my half-sisters, to a pristine land of opportunity: Florida — Miami, first, and then the Tampa area, where they stayed until he died at 51 from a heart attack, leaving an unprepared wife and three young children. My older sisters were out of the nest and married by then. I hope Mother never thought that the mental illness which eventually clouded and befuddled her brain was some further statement from on high about her fitness as a human being.
Growing up, we were down at the Southern Baptist Church every time the doors were open: Sunday School, Church, Training Union, Wednesday night prayer meeting, Vacation Bible School, Sunbeams, Bible sword drills, and seasonal tent revivals nearby with circuit-riding evangelists and chalk artists. Those circus-atmosphere salvation shows polished the idea of wickedness to a high luster. The door to all that dark excitement had cracked open. I peered in, and wanted to see more.
Sin’s dangerous attraction was part of the landscape, an enticing backdrop filled with intriguing characters. Uncle Sherman, one of my Daddy’s half-brothers, was my favorite. I don’t believe we ever met, but he became a hero to me through whispered kitchen-table stories told by my aunts. He drank, rode the rails, lived in flophouses, got tuberculosis, disappeared and reappeared. But the man had to have had something to recommend him, because according to the tales, his wife never divorced him, never took up with another man, and opened her heart and her home to Sherman anytime he showed up on her doorstep tired, hungry, beat-up like a stray Tom cat, and ready for the love of a good woman. His twin, my Uncle Herman, didn’t have the travelling gene, or at least kept it under control. He was at every family reunion, sweet Rochelle by his side.
There were two words I heard a lot growing up: “He drinks.” They explain everything and nothing, but they were a useful code, signifying trouble in the camp. There was a man whose scaredy-cat wife and skinny children came to our church sometimes. She was a redhead that looked like she might have been pretty before the bruises and the puffy face, before him. Sometimes things got so bad, she called our house and appealed to my Daddy for help. By this time, he was a Deacon at church and a member of the Brotherhood. Without fail, the next Sunday her sorry excuse for a husband would be at church, downcast, pores excreting Saturday night beer, repenting of his bad ways and asking Jesus for forgiveness. Usually he couldn’t wait for the “Just As I Am” hymn to be sung at the end of the service, but stagger-walked down the aisle crying and throwing himself on the mercy of the Lord, not to mention my father and the other men of the church, and promising to be a new man.
The spiritual patch usually held for a month to six-weeks before another round of repentance was demanded. He finally really did find Jesus when his boys got big enough to tell the son-of-a-bitch they would kill him if he ever touched their mother again.
I had a part-time job in high school playing the piano for the church choir. It gave me a front-row seat to the angry couples, the sullen teens, the stultifying rituals, and more. I witnessed more than once, hardly grasping what I was seeing, the seemingly accidental brush of hands between the pastor and the soprano-not-his-wife in her choir robe. There were lonely widows and widowers, and more than a few gentle true-believers. My perch at the piano afforded me a bird’s-eye view of the congregation and time to study them. It gave me an appreciation of life in a fishbowl, and I determined to postpone any serious sinning until I was swimming in a larger pond.
Mother was right to fret about me and what I might do once I got out of her control. I left home to start college at the University of Florida during the summer semester after graduating from high school. Couldn’t wait until the fall term to get away from my jailer and start sinning, hoping it might eventually lead to sex. What can I say? It was 1969, the summer of love.
For the next 12 years, I became a connoisseur of sin, although not in all of its variations. For instance, I never could abide card playing.
These days I’m a doubting, distant Episcopalian, comfortable as an old cat, sunning myself and purring in a hundred acre wood of old Longleaf pines on Florida’s Gulf coast. How convenient for me that fiery hell has cooled to the point that it is now a concept rather than an actual place. I sowed my wild oats decades ago and have been basking in a life of ecstatic monogamy for more than thirty years with a man who thank God doesn’t have the geezer gene.
Were my sins uniquely Southern? Much as I enjoy the license to live only half-tamed that seems to come with the territory of being a Southern woman, the idea is laughable and insulting to sinners everywhere.
My thoughts on sin have changed. I worry now about whether I missed the spiritual boat by playing it too safe, by only taking care of my own – and that defined within a narrow circle – by doling out love in thimbles to those outside my self-defined orbit as though it were a zero sum calculation. I’ve come to the conclusion that sin is like a hurricane. We get blown to pieces on the front end, sail through the eye on a sea smooth as glass, and then reap the whirlwind.