Friday, October 27, 2017

The Day Turk Pierce Got Religion.

I come from a long line of staunch Southern Baptists. John Pierce, my great-great-great-grandpa, and his wife Nancy came to Arkansas Territory from Tennessee in 1836. John was a circuit riding preacher, and he founded a bunch of churches that still exist today in northeastern Arkansas. The Pierces, at that time, were a prodigiously fertile bunch. John and Nancy had 12 kids, and they all lived to ripe old ages. My great-great-grandparents, Albert and Rebecca Pierce, produced 22 kids; twenty of them lived long lives. I have a photograph of Albert and Rebecca with their offspring, their sons- and daughters-in-law, and all the grandkids, great-grandkids, etc., that the photographer seemed to be able to squeeze into the photo. Albert and Rebecca both look somewhat drawn, like raisins with appendages.

One of the churches started by John Pierce was Friendly Hope Baptist Church. It’s a few miles outside Jonesboro. John also donated the land for the church and parsonage, and folks thought so much about it that they named the cemetery by the front door Pierce Cemetery.  

Turk (his real name was George) was one of those types that was at church every time the doors were opened, even if it was by force. Turk’s wife, Ruth, sang in the choir, so she never sat by Turk during service. He’d come in every Sunday, park himself in the next to last pew at the back of the church, place his forearm along the back of the pew in front of him, lay his head down on his arm, and promptly go to sleep.

Ruby was always furious that Turk did this, EVERY Sunday, but she was powerless to do anything about it, since she was always up front in the choir loft. As soon as Brother Don would start preaching, Ruby would start gesticulating toward the folks sitting around Turk to get him to wake up. It was hopeless, because everybody knew that Turk woke up from those naps with all the friendliness of a grizzly bear.

Reverend Don Vuncannon was one of those types of preachers that would occasionally scream “CAN I GET A AMEN!!!!!!” We would all shout “AMEN!!!” Even Turk’s hand would rise slightly. People always debated whether he agreed or was seeking absolution.

And so it was that Sunday in 1975 when a bunch of us kids lined up in the pew behind Turk. Our parents should have known better, such a gathering of our generation always led to no good.
It was me, my brother Shawn, my cousin Danny Ray, Brother Don’s daughter Debbie, and Linda Fisher. I had a firecracker with a short fuse. We waited until we thought we could perfectly carry out our plan in conjunction with a “CAN I GET A AMEN!!!!!!” from Brother Don.

And so it happened. “CAN I GET A AMEN!!!!!!” I timed it perfectly with that short fused firecracker. He lit it and dropped it right down the back of Turk’s pants just as the “N!!!!!!!” was escaping Brother Don’s mouth. The firecracker exploded, and old Turk Pierce jumped up and screamed “YAY-YUH!!!!!!” while smacking the back of his pants with both hands. He was, literally, on fire with the Holy Ghost.

Everyone got excited. The explosion seemed to be forgotten or not noticed. Our parents were all giving us stinkeye. People started praising and shouting, and Brother Don started everybody singing “When We All Get To Heaven.” That’s one of those songs that, at least in the Southern Baptist tradition, everybody walks around and shakes hands with everyone they can catch. Much to his chagrin, everybody wanted to shake Turk’s hand that day.

Turk never slept in church again. He started sitting on the front row. And Ruth would always smile at us.

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