by Charlotte McElroy
strong cuppa French Roast
This story did take place in 1950 on a warm summer’s Sunday night in July. The stage was the First Baptist Church in Dimmitt, Texas, a small farming community located on the Panhandle Plains of West Texas. I was eight years old.
Some very old folks who witnessed this event still tell what they think they saw that night. I, being the center of the whole nightmare, have kept my mouth shut for sixty years.
Growing up in the great state of Texas is anything but a privilege if your daddy is a tenant-farmer and also the manager of the town pool hall. We actually did live on the wrong side of the railroad tracks and worst of all we did not belong to the First Baptist church or any other church for that matter.
Now it just so happened that the folks who lived about a mile down the road from us were good church-going Baptists. The Baptists never missed grabbing a sinner. I was a perfect candidate. I got picked up every Sunday morning for Sunday School and church by the Hance family. Mr. and Mrs. Hance were a “perfect” Texas family. They had a girl named Linda and a boy named Kent. Mrs. Hance, Beryl, stayed home and baked a lot of stuff for church social things and kept Linda and Kent real clean and nice.
Sometimes Mrs. Hance would come to our house to talk to my mother about being able to get into heaven. Kent, Linda and I would go out and play. I loved to play Tarzan. I had a rope tied to a branch of my favorite tree so I could swing down to the ground. Linda would sit in a chair because she didn’t want to get dirty. Kent was afraid to climb the tree so he could swing down and be Tarzan.
I decided he would be Jane. He didn’t seem to mind. So I did all the Tarzan sounds and swung on the rope. Kent just sorta stood around and grinned.
Kent grew up to be a Texas Senator. He actually ran against George W. Bush the first time he ran for office and Kent won. I never reminded Kent he once played Jane with the town hick.
Mr. Hance, Raymond, was the postmaster. He was considered “somebody”. Now, it was no secret he drank whiskey. Sometimes I would hear momma and daddy talk about how he had to be taken home by my daddy because he couldn’t drive home in his car.
Now I guess this was okay because on Sunday mornings he would go to the front of the church and bow his head and tell God he was sorry. Sometimes he would even cry. The preacher would pat him on the back and tell him God would always forgive sinners. Mr. Hance got forgiven a lot.
My daddy didn’t drink and he worked real hard to take care of us but he was a “nobody”. That just didn’t seem right to me. I told him he could be a “somebody” if he would come to the Baptist church with me. What he said to me that day would shape my thinking forever.
“You don’t need to go to any church to get into heaven. You just need to be kind to everybody.”
My daddy lived what he said. I saw him give money to homeless people to feed their kids and find them places to stay. A lot of these folks came from Mexico to work for rich Baptist farmers.
The rich farmers made them live in barn-like places that didn’t have bathrooms or clean water. My daddy made them real mad when he told lots of people and the farmers had to fix up the barn-shacks. The poor people liked him and their kids would hold his hand and smile at him.
My daddy also drove a school bus. He always made sure the Mexican kids got to school and nobody bullied them on his bus. I was proud of my daddy even though he got called a “wet-back lover”.
I didn’t understand why the rich kids called the workers and their families that name. I was glad we weren’t rich and mean.
There was also” town talk” about me being a wild out-of-control little hick with no manners because I got kicked out of Brownies for saying “shit” when my weenie fell of my roasting stick and I burned my hand trying to pick it up. We were in the park for one of our Brownie meetings. My favorite uncle said that word a lot. So I thought it was okay to say it.
I remember that was one of the worst nights of my life. The other kids were taken to another part of the park and told to play and I was put in a car and taken straight home. The Brownie leader ladies talked really loud at my mother and she cried. I felt really bad for hurting her so I didn’t mind when she washed my mouth out with soap because I deserved it. They told my mother God might forgive me on Sunday morning if I would go up and ask like Mr. Hance did.
I played like I was sick when Sunday came. I never did ask God to forgive me. I figured he wouldn’t listen anyway because I was a “nobody.”
I learned a lot about hell-fire and damnation and how I was born a sinner and I would go to hell unless I was saved by something called the HOLY TRINITY. There were three people in this Trinity group; God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost. I learned I had to be put under water to clean up my sins. They called it “being baptized”. So I began to scrub really hard when I took a bath to help Jesus keep me clean. I prayed he would see I was really trying to be good.
I also got in trouble for asking Miss Forsen, the Sunday School teacher, if the Ghost I saw at Halloween was the Holy Ghost. Her face turned red and she yelled at me and that made the
other kids laugh at me and call me dumb. I had to sit in the corner and face the wall.
My momma and daddy didn’t talk to me very much so there were a lot of things I didn’t know and they got mad at me when I bothered them.
It was along about this time I began not sleep so good at night because of nightmares. The
Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Forsen who was also our school principal, said God watched us all the time and knew every little thing we thought and did. I felt by now that all my thoughts and everything I did was bad. Miss Forsen, would be in my dreams as big black crow chasing me with a stick.
My poor mother did her best to try to make me into a proper little Texas lady. I was forever in trouble. I played in the dirt, climbed the two trees in our yard and slid off the barn roof on to the backs of the poor unsuspecting pigs in their pens. If my little “sissy” sister was heard crying, I was to blame. She never seemed to understand she just needed to stop following me around.
I hated the pink frilly dresses my momma made for me. Not because they were home made but because I had to sit down all the time to keep them clean and unwrinkled. Kids did however, make fun of my homemade feed sack clothes. I also hated wearing my hair in long blonde curls. The minute I got out of the chair after a long elaborate combing session it was a mess.
I hated being a girl. I asked my mother once why couldn’t she have made me a boy while I was in her stomach. Wrong thing to ask. I got the soap mouth wash and a long lecture on how that was God’s business to do the making and He would be real mad knowing I didn’t like what he did.
My favorite uncle that said bad words, told me I could kiss my elbow and turn into a boy. I tried and tried until my whole body felt sore and I felt guilty because now God knew I was mad at Him. I didn’t like my uncle so good anymore because he lied to me and laughed at me.
He also told my mother I would be normal when I got older and found a boyfriend. Well little did I know that “boyfriend” thing would never work out for me especially when I learned women in Texas had to be beautiful and dutiful and have a lot of boy babies to carry on the family name to work on the farm.
But for now, I kept telling God I was trying. I really was trying. It just wasn’t working. I felt guilty. I begin to have lots of stomach aches and head aches. I was losing weight too. The doctor said it was just growing pains. To make it worse, the Hances who took me to Sunday school, said it was time to be saved!
Forget waiting for the boyfriends and listening to the doctor about growing pains. Mother went straight for the “lets-get-saved” idea. So the big date was set. At least God would be okay now and He would be happy and I would be normal and cleansed and born-again.
There was just one HUGE problem for me. I was terrified of water. I prayed to God every night to help me be brave. If He had known what was going to happen, I think He might have tried harder to help me.
Mother decided I would wear last year’s Easter dress. It was pink chiffon with a sash that tied in a bow in the back. I would wear my black patent leather shoes with pink ankle socks.
Now, the biggest discussion centered around underwear. We did have mom’s egg money to spend on the best underwear we could find. The panties had to have lace and they had to be white.
My hair had to be perfect. I got dizzy during the ride to the church because I forgot to breathe in fear of messing up Mother’s perfect Texas Hair Do.
I was delivered to the ally door of the church and left in the care of Miss Forsen. I wanted to cry because I knew she didn’t like me. She led me up the dirty concrete steps to the church. We went up another narrow set of steps to a dark hallway covered in an old, dirty carpet with ugly, red flowers that looked like they wanted to swallow me.
We entered a room that smelled like wet, sour clothes. It was the perfect dark closet for naughty kids like me. She put me in big wooden chair, took off my shoes, stood me up, raised my hands over my head, took off my dress and messed up my hair.
My heart began to pound. Was I really standing there in my new underwear? Were the people going to see me this way? Was this the reason Mother demanded I wear new panties? What about my perfect hair?
I don’t think she understood this being baptized “thing” any better than I did.
When I opened my mouth to speak a sheet was pulled over my head doing further damage to my hair. Was this part of the Holy Ghost thing? If so, God and Jesus must be there too because they were always together. Would they see my underwear?
I heard the church organ start to play “Bringing in the Sheep”. I ask Miss Forsen if that meant I was going to be in God’s flock. Seems I got that wrong too. It’s sheaves.
There was a knock on the door. It opened and a large man was standing there. I couldn’t see his face because the light behind him was so bright.
“Take me hand child. It is time to go”, said Reverend Stalkup.
He led me up more narrow stairs and down another dark smelly hallway.
My thoughts were racing. “Does heaven stink and do you climb a whole bunch of stairs to get there”?
Finally, Reverend Stalkup opened a tiny door. He bent way over and pushed me toward a big glass tub into the clutches of Miss Forsen. Did God like her so much He would let her help baptize me? I was really scared now. What if she thought it would be her chance to drown me to please God?
The tub was really glass so when my sheet floated up the people would see my underwear. You were never supposed to show your underwear in public. This was really turning out to be a BIG mess.
The water looked dirty. The whole thing looked like the big tank at the County Fair where they kept the catfish for the big catfish fry. This was not right. I couldn’t get cleansed in dirty water. I opened my mouth to scream.
It was too late. Reverend Stalkup lifted his robe and stepped into the tub. He had on rubber boots like my daddy’s muddy irrigation field boots. I saw his hairy legs. I wasn’t supposed to look at hairy man legs. Would I be forgiven? It wasn’t my fault!
Miss Forsen picked me up and handed me to Reverend Stalkup. He lowered me into the water.
I couldn’t keep my sheet from floating up around my neck. I was going to drown with a sheet over my head and my underwear showing.
Reverend Stalkup must’ve seem the terror on my face because he pushed my sheet down and spoke in a quiet voice.
“It’s okay my child. I won’t hurt you. I want you to cross your hands over your chest and pinch your nose shut with your thumb and finger on your right hand. You must hold your nose really tight so water won’t get in you mouth. I will be holding you all the time.”
I suddenly saw a huge gold curtain start to open and the organ got louder and I began to see the people in the church pews.
Reverend Stalkup began to say some words about God receiving me. Was The Trinity in the water with me? I began to feel the water in my ears and on my face and hair. So much for my fancy hair do. My face was under water. I panicked!
I let go of my nose and opened my mouth to scream. In rushed the water. I started clawing at Reverend Stalkup’s robe and kicking as hard as I could. I grabbed something that felt like a hard but still flexible piece of rope. I heard Reverend Stalkup scream and I felt him start to fall backwards toward the audience. My piece of rope was moving with him. I squeezed harder and harder. Reverend Stalkup screamed louder and louder. He grabbed the gold curtain. It came loose and fell on us.
This was IT! I was going to die in dirty catfish water hanging on to Reverend Stalkup’s rope thing.
The audience was screaming and the organ was playing loud horrible notes I had never heard before. I was suddenly yanked out of the water coughing and choking. I tried to talk but more water just came out my nose, ears, mouth and eyes. Was this what they meant by dying to be born again? I was supposed to feel God’s blessings. It was supposed to be wonderful.
Either someone lied to me or I blew it and failed the whole Baptizing Thing. One of me friends was a Methodist. She had told me she only had to be sprinkled with water. If I lived after tonight, I was going to ask her if I could go to her church.
I was dragged back to the dark smelly room, shoved in a chair and thrown a towel and told to get dressed. The door slammed shut and I sat in silence. I was going to be left there to die. Nobody cared about me, least of all God and his Trio. I wanted to cry and scream at Them!
Finally, my mother came with dry clothes. I dressed and she took me home. She was quiet all the way home. Her face was red and it was one big frown. Didn’t she know it wasn’t my fault and I didn’t fail Baptism on purpose. She didn’t talk to me except to say I really embarrassed her. I asked the Trio to help me die so she wouldn’t be so hurt.
I was pretty sure they didn’t want me either so as I grew older I gave up the church thing, especially when I understood I was gay. Then the church really let me know I was something bad. It has taken most of my life to know they were wrong.
Reverend Stalkup said there had been a demon in the tub that grabbed him and pushed him that night. He said it was a sign he had to leave Dimmitt before he got hurt.
We left the next year also because Mother was so sad all the time. She cried a lot because the town ladies said I was cursed and it was her fault.
As for me? Well, I figured out it was no lifeline I grabbed that awful night. It is still my secret.