This story is written as a stand-alone short story, but it may eventually wind up in the Growing Up New Jersey collection, a series of vignettes slouching their way into becoming a book. See more vignettes in this collection at the Short Stories &c. link above.
We were getting around Kentucky, the Blue Grass State, that particular June. Coming from New Jersey, I had never been to Kentucky before. But my girlfriend back then, who we’ll call Anne mainly because that’s her name, was from Kentucky. Born and raised. Well, in Louisville, which technically is part of Kentucky but as far removed from those eastern mountains we found ourselves in as you can imagine. Anne had never seen her own state, so we took that as a reason to explore Kentucky together, and that’s what we were doing that June.
Exploration is one thing, but we also had to make the best of some other things we hadn’t counted on. Things like finding ourselves in a deserted national forest campground, the absolute only people there since the season hadn’t yet started, listening to news reports on the car radio about two escaped prisoners, convicted murderers, armed and dangerous and believed to be on the lam in the very national forest where we found ourselves. We were sitting ducks should the two escapees wander down that hollow and into that deserted campground. It was kind of gray and overcast for part of our time there, as I recall, which only added to the mystery and sense of being on our own. But, of course, given the solitary isolation, we couldn’t resist doing what two healthy young people do, which was making love, as we prosaically called it at the time, everywhere we could think of. There was the tent, and the sleeping-bag-covered ground outside the tent. But there also was the picnic table, the hood of the car, and – best and most novel of all – the top of the nearby fire lookout tower, on a wooden platform a hundred-some feet above the forest floor, trees stretching off in all directions as far as we could see. There were no fire watchers that early in the year, and the only forest fires in sight were the ones we were stirring up between our sweaty bodies. Ah, Kentucky.
Anyway, getting back to what I was saying, here we were trolling around Eastern Kentucky, which so far had been pretty flat-to-rolly, when we passed Berea, home of Berea College, Appalachia’s own college, and finally passed into the Appalachian Mountains at a podunk of a place called Bighill. Or Big Hill, as it was named since before the Civil War, a place so called because two steep, forested green peaks, appearing to be a matched pair of vertical tits with the town sandwiched between them, burst suddenly, and lasciviously, out of the earth right there, at Bighill.
It didn’t take us long to figure out this was a different Kentucky from the one we came out of. Way different from Louisville. Or from Frankfort, the state capital, or Lexington. Nope, we weren’t in that Kentucky any more. It sure didn’t look like that Kentucky, either, or sound like it. And while Bighill looked calm enough on a weekday afternoon, we soon learned that the local hospital emergency room filled up every Friday night with all the roustabouts who would come down out of the hills, drink themselves stupid, get involved in various levels of bar and street fights, and eventually end up in the local ER, if not the morgue, with knife wounds, missing ears, bullet holes, and whatever damned thing else results from such fights in a town like Bighill.
We didn’t plan to be in Bighill on Friday night, especially not after hearing all this, so we moved on down the road. We began seeing cardboard signs here, there, seemingly everywhere, promoting a prayer revival that coming Saturday night in a tobacco warehouse up in Richmond, Kentucky. Some big preacher, whose name we didn’t recognize but who probably meant something to the local folk, would be presiding. Richmond wasn’t so far away, and here we were looking to soak up as much local color as we could, so this definitely seemed like something we’d want to drop in on. Not for the religious experience, which didn’t at all figure into our plans, but for the cultural experience, which promised to be rich and, well, colorful. I mean, how many Louisville girls or Jersey boys could say they’d been to a genuine prayer revival in a real-live southern tobacco warehouse? Damned few, less than that, even, that’s how many.
Well, in between exploring the hills and hollows and fending off escaped murderers and scandalizing the trees and small animals in the campground with our naked antics, Saturday evening rolled around and it was time for the big event. We put on our best going-out clothes in the tent and piled in the Renault and headed up the highway bound for the tobacco warehouse. It was still full light out, this being June, as we cruised up the highway, the construction joints thumping under the car, and we were as bright and eager for this new experience as the sunlight streaming in from the west.
After awhile we approached Richmond, and sure enough there was the tobacco warehouse on the left side of the highway. We pulled in, and already the gravelly ground around the warehouse was full of cars. There was a general hub-bub as excited people parked and headed inside to find their salvation. We also parked and joined them, blending in reasonably well with the crowd, even looking a tad hippy as we must have despite wearing our best going-out clothes, and found the warehouse already filled with hundreds, if not thousands, of people.
There was a big flat-bed trailer up front, book-ended with speaker towers, and this was going to be the stage from which the preacher would preach and lead the revival. We found a couple of seats about half-way back in the crowd where we had a good view of the proceedings, and close to the main aisle so we could make a break for it, should that become necessary. Overhead lights gave the warehouse an artificially bright aura, the light like that inside a circus tent or a pavilion at the state fair, and everyone was excited with anticipation.
Things were feeling electric when the preacher finally came out onto the flat-bed trailer and began his pitch. There was a lot of talk about hell and brimstone and what gruesome fate awaited those who didn’t accept the Lord Jesus Christ into their lives. That preacher really laid it on, and it was as scary a fate, hell was, as he could paint it, his voice rising and lowering with the emotion, echoed by the people gathered to hear him. Now, having gone to Catholic school as a child, followed by a Jesuit high school, I was pretty inured to talk about hell and brimstone and all that. If I had a dollar for every time some priest or nun promised me the everlasting fire of hell for my sins I probably could have bought that tobacco warehouse. But that was me. Anne, on the other hand, was raised Jewish, and never had gotten the fire-and-brimstone pitch before, Judaism not so keen on the heaven and hell thing.
The preacher was on a roll, his sermon growing in pitch and tenor, and at some point everyone was on their feet, moved by the fervor of the whole thing. We joined them to be civil, and it was then that the preacher asked who was ready to be saved. It wasn’t us, that was for sure, especially after our recent escapades in the campground and on the fire tower, but we watched dumbfounded as one by one, and in pairs, people started coming out of the rows of folding chairs and walked up the center aisle, up toward the preacher and the flat-bed trailer. It seemed as if they were in a trance, walking like ghosts up the aisle in their white starched shirts and dark trousers and cotton print dresses to the front of the tobacco warehouse, up to the flat-bed trailer and that preacher, walking forward to be saved.
Like I said, all this fire-and-brimstone talk was pretty familiar to me, and while I wasn’t used to seeing people walking like ghosts to be saved, it wasn’t totally unexpected to me, either. But it was to Anne, and before I knew what was happening she was in tears, actually sobbing, totally freaked-out by what she was witnessing. I had never seen her like this before, and it was clear to me that the experience was exceeding what she had anticipated or was prepared to handle, never mind that she grew up in a state where people handle poisonous snakes to prove their faith.
I think I was about to suggest we bug out while we could when it happened. First, people around us noticed what was going on with Anne and they were clapping and chanting and making us the center of their attention. They had big smiles on their faces, as if a miracle was happening in their midst, and then the preacher noticed, too, all the way from the flat-bed trailer. Things were unraveling faster than we could understand, and while Anne was freaking, signs that I unambiguously recognized, the others interpreted her tears as indicative that she had found the Lord and was having a spiritual experience and was ready to be saved. Of all the hundreds of people in the tobacco warehouse, now we were the ones everyone focused on, something we neither anticipated nor sought.
None of this was lost on the preacher, and he began signaling that we should be brought forward to receive the word of God directly from him, as it were. It was like being caught in a strong current at the beach, the kind you can’t fight against because it’s just too powerful and, surrounded by believers, we heathens were escorted forward to meet the preacher, who greeted us with great joy and expectation. He had someone before him who clearly was feeling the spirit and whom he would lead to salvation. We were caught in a maelstrom of miscomprehension, and there was no way out.
Led to seats in the front row, we now were guests of honor, as the preacher went back into his sermon, complete with more fire and brimstone and the need to accept Jesus Christ to be saved, looking directly at us and smiling from time to time, like he had some sort of special bond with us. Finally, all this just got to be too much for Anne, who by then had escalated into a full-blown panic attack, evident to no one but me, and that was when she leaned over and loudly whispered into my right ear, “Get me out of here. Now!”
There was no graceful way of extricating ourselves from this situation we had unwittingly gotten into, so we didn’t even try. We both just jumped up from those folding chairs and, without a word to anyone, least of all the clearly startled and sorely disappointed preacher, ran up the aisle where all those entranced believers had made their way forward, and headed for the doors at the back. We were out of that tobacco warehouse in a heartbeat, and Anne was still shaking and crying when we hit the evening air. We clearly had bitten off more local color than we were able to digest, and I can say it was the last revival either of us attended, on that trip or any other. And I suspect, if he’s still alive, that preacher probably still wonders about the two that got away that night.
I had a lot to explain to Anne as we drove away, as far away as we could get from the tobacco warehouse and our close call with being born again. Things like how all the talk of damnation I had gotten in my Catholic upbringing made what the preacher said more understandable and less shocking to me than it was to her. How, like James Joyce, I grew up being told that the fire and brimstone of hell awaited sinners for all eternity. How this stuff was told to small children, and how screwed-up is that?
Anne eventually calmed down, and I can’t say that we worried much about being hell-bound as we pursued more unabashed sinfulness that summer, in Kentucky, and all across the continent.