Dating can be difficult
I met a young girl named Rebecca who was a poster child for natural beauty, with flowing light brown hair that went well past her waist and pale blue eyes. She didn’t wear makeup or even lipstick or lip gloss. She dressed like an Amish girl, only with different colors each day, not the bland uniform of that group. I once made the mistake of calling her Becky and was gently corrected that it was Rebecca, like in the Bible. It didn’t take a neon sign flashing for me to pick up on her lifestyle. She was a “church girl.”
Rebecca had two brothers going to the same school as we did; Mark who was a senior like myself, and Luke who was younger than Rebecca. They had the same hair color and features as their sister, but with a haircut that would make a Marine proud. Unlike the other students of that time they wore plain clothes and always, as in every day, wore long sleeve shirts that were buttoned up to the top.
Coming from the drug crazed world of South Florida, when I saw long sleeves in warm weather I immediately suspected arms with needle tracks. Not so with these kids. They were anti drugs, anti alcohol, anti tobacco in all forms, and didn’t even cuss. They were as “church” as their sister, if not more so. Which was cool, and they weren’t out to convert anyone or hold a revival in the school cafeteria. They were harmless, right?
I was getting along great with Rebecca and worked hard on not cussing, or being too obvious with my admiration of her smoking hot girl shape which was hidden by the “plain jane” clothing, (but not too well.) Her brothers kept their eyes on me and made hushed comments to Rebecca at times, no doubt explaining the evil intentions that they felt I had for her. I wouldn’t call them evil, exactly.
A dance at the school came and went, but Rebecca was not allowed to attend such functions. I was at a loss for how to get some more time with this girl. We talked every day at school and the subject of animals was a frequent topic of discussion. She was surprisingly well informed about reptiles and wanted to hear all of my snake chasing stories. This girl lit up like a Christmas tree when I told her about knowing Dr. Bill Haast from the Miami Serpentarium (which made me grin from ear to ear.) Imagine, a gorgeous girl who likes snakes and knows who one of my heroes was… Incredible!
It wasn’t long after that very conversation that Mark and Luke warmed up to me and quit looking like angry, protective brothers. I still had the problem of getting some time with Rebecca to deal with and was at a loss about how to resolve it, given her restricted freedom.
Then like Divine intervention, the solution appeared. Rebecca invited me to go church with her family. I could do that! I had sat through all kinds of church services and bible studies and figured that if I could handle the Hellfire and brimstones of the First Southern Baptist Church, I could handle any of them.
Their church was one that I had never heard of before, “The Church of Lord Jesus with Signs Following.” I hadn’t lived in the area for very long and told her that I didn’t know where that church was, but I would look it up in the telephone book and meet her there. “Oh no,” she said, “It moves around a lot. We will have to pick you up and take you to the location.”
That should have alerted me that something was different with this church, but my eyes were on the girl. If they had said that we were meeting Satan at 666 Hell Canyon Road, I would have said “Cool, I’ll be there.”
Rebecca said that sometimes they met at people’s homes, or in the back room of a business. When I asked if it was a big church, she said, No, there are only about 70 true believers in this area.” She said that sometimes people did come from other places like Sand Mountain, Alabama where they (her family) lived before, if the minister speaking was a big name.
The meeting place for this Sunday service was not revealed to me before hand and when all three siblings showed up in an old faded red Ford pickup truck (with Mark driving) to pick me up, I just blindly got in the cab with them. Naturally Luke sat between Rebecca and me, so there would be no accidental touching of legs. I sincerely hoped that this “separationist” chaperoning would not go on all day.
When we had driven every back road in the county and even doubled back on a few, we arrived at what appeared to me to be a barn. It was really an old wooden church made out of weathered grey barn lumber. The exterior was as plain as the dress code of the church members … humble and decent in every way.
I noted right away that every woman had long, plain dresses on, and no makeup or hair coloring. The men all had the Marine hair style and to the last male person they had on long sleeved shirts buttoned up to their cleanly shaved chins. I had seen pious and plain before, but these people put the ‘nilla in vanilla!
OK, all good. I had been briefed by Luke on the dress code and had complied, mostly. My hair wouldn’t pass inspection and my shirt was a Western style long sleeve, but with pearl snaps. A little flashy, but not one to get me excommunicated right away I thought.
I kept my hands in my pockets and off of Rebecca, not even daring to touch her arm with every set of eyes in the place on me. The reception out front was friendly and I saw musical instruments being carried in, which I liked. It showed promise of being better than many services I had attended. I was pleased when we were all called to come inside and Rebecca took my arm and held onto me as we went in. We found a seat on one of the long benches a couple of rows from the back wall.
The church wasn’t as bad as it looked from the outside. It even had electric lights and indoor plumbing, and she pointed out the door to the bathroom should I need it. That was the sweetest thing a girl could do at a church meeting!
Services began with the reading of two bible verses:
And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover (Mark 16:17-18)
Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. (Luke 10:19)
This should have been enough for any prudent and aware man to hear and make a wise choice from. The fact that Rebecca’s brothers were named Mark and Luke still escaped me, as did the importance of the statement that the minister standing at the pulpit was Rebecca’s father. It was all just so much trivia going past my hormonally challenged ears.
The greetings to the congregation seemed normal and full of “churchy” stuff, quoting of yet more bible verses and proclamations of true belief. I did wonder when the “true believer” and “protection of those who truly believe” became frequently repeated items. That seemed a bit boring, but the warmth of the leg that I was up against and the smell of her shampoo did have me distracted, I’ll admit.
The music kicked in all of a sudden and that woke me up from my daydreaming and made me pay attention. Then one of the women got up in the aisle and started jabbering in a language that I could not for the life of me figure out. I was pretty good at recognizing languages having grown up in an international community, but this had me stumped.
I turned to Rebecca to ask what language was being spoken, and her eyes were rolled back in her head a little bit. She seemed to be caught up in this act too. Unsure of what to do, I decided to get up and stand along the back wall where I could see. The people in front of my seat were all getting up and dancing around and it blocked my view. Moving turned out to be a good move.
The doors we came in through were now barred and blocked by two huge gentlemen standing with their arms crossed in the classic guard pose. So I just found myself a spot along the wall and leaned there while watching the “show.”
I could see from my new vantage point that there were bottles sitting on the pulpit with the tell-tale skull and crossbones logo of poison substances prominently displayed on them. “Oh sh*t I thought, this can NOT be good!”
The minister then called for the “pure and moral true believers” to come forward and take up the serpents. When Rebecca got up to go to the front of the room, I was inclined to go with her. I liked snakes, and if they were going to play with snakes I was in!
It was a good thing that I was all the way at the back of the room and not up front. There would have been many more people to have to wade through to retreat.
The first serpent out of the boxes (that I thought were full of musical instruments), was a five foot long Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake. The second was a very heavy four foot long Water Moccasin, and the third was a Copperhead that didn’t seem happy to be there. I don’t know what they pulled out next because I felt the call of nature and decided it was time to use that bathroom that Rebecca had so kindly pointed out when we came in.
I am certainly not afraid of any snakes, including venomous ones. I had grown up handling them, and always with respect. But I have a real allergy to crazy people. Especially ones who drink poison and play kissy-face with angry death-dealing rattlesnakes. They are the dangerous animals, not the snakes they yank around like sock puppets.
I was able to make my way to the bathroom and locked the door behind me. The window was too small and heavily framed to get through, but looking at the wall on one side I could see that it was that same old, weathered barn wood I noticed coming in. I did stop to go to the bathroom before I started getting all energetic, figuring that I might be sorry if I didn’t when I threw my body against the wall.
Throwing one’s body against things like doors is never like it looks on the TV when the good guy bashes the door in with his shoulder. Feeling the weight of the door when I came into the bathroom I was fairly certain that it could withstand a “religious assault” should my hosts decide that I was being ungrateful, and come to get me to complete my indoctrination or whatever.
It was while “zipping up” that I heard the person rattling the door and calling my name. I wasn’t too worried until I heard the male voice say, “go get the key to the bathroom.” Rats! They were supposed to bash their bodies against the door and give me lots of time to figure this out. I was out of time that quick!
I grabbed up the plunger to use as a weapon, (hey, use what you got, right?) and instead decided to stab the wall with it to see how tough the wood was. The hard oak handle went right through the board like paper. I quickly sat down facing the wall and kicked it with both legs. They went right through the wall!
Hearing the key in the door lock, I reversed direction and hit the wall with my head and hands in a rush that would have made my linebacker coach from Florida very proud of me. I went about ten feet past the wall before I got up off my hands and feet scrambling like I was going for a fumble.
Around the building on a dead run I went, straight to the red Ford truck that we arrived in, because I knew that the keys were still in the ignition. I did glance back as I yanked open the door of the truck and no one was following me, yet.
I did not think twice about taking that truck, as I was purely in survival mode. I cranked it up and twisted and turned my way through the parked vehicles like a snake; a departing snake. I swore that I could still hear those rattles as I hit the gas and swerved into the country lane and headed for the city.
The way back was not as bad as I feared it would be, because I caught a break with a wrong turn and found a paved road with a highway sign on it. I was only twelve miles from town and didn’t waste any time heading for it.
Fearing that I would be charged with stealing the truck, (because I kind of did), I had a bright idea; I would drive the truck to the police station and leave it there with the keys in it. It couldn’t be stolen if the police had it, right? And the owners would report it stolen and the cops would say, “oh no, it is right here, come and get it.”
It was a good plan and my end of it worked out well enough… the rest, not so much. The police did take note of the truck parked outside their door and investigated it. They were a bit upset with the burlap bag with four rattlesnakes in it they found under the seat. No wonder I could still hear the rattling when I peeled out and bounced the truck around.
I didn’t know that religious snake handling had been a felony in Georgia until two years earlier (1968) when that law was repealed. The minister knew that the snakes were in the truck and likely figured that I would have told the police a story about being kidnapped and forced to participate in the rituals. They had a rough time of it with law enforcement in Alabama when people died during snake handling services there.
Rebecca and her brothers never returned to our school and I was told by another girl that they had moved to West Virginia where their church and religious practices had always been legal.
Their old red Ford truck was never claimed and was put up for auction as is the custom there. No one would bid on it due to stories and rumors about snakes inhabiting the truck and crawling out to bite you if you drove it. It was finally sent to the scrap heap. Rumor has it that as it was being smashed in the crusher a rattlesnake was seen by the operator crawling out just before the crush was completed.
I am glad to be a Buddhist. We don’t speak in tongues, or drink poison, or dance around waving unhappy serpents in the air. I do still handle snakes, but always with respect and never, ever, in a church. Amen.