A visit to an unfamiliar venue.
Roland Gelb was an enormous man. Not tall or muscular, you know, just enormous. He made you think of a loaf of bread which had been left to rise too long and presented a generous appearance when baked but when cut was found to be filled with coarse pores and offered more air than nourishment. He was married to a little dark stick of a woman with a face like a dried-apple who taught square dancing at the YMCA.
Roland was the religion editor of the local newspaper. Since the paper was a miniscule affair with more titles than staff, he was also the religion reporter and it was his task to keep the local populace informed of how God was faring in the hinterlands. It was a secret indifferently kept that Roland was also an atheist which might have been considered a handicap in his profession were it not for the fact he was a talented writer and nobody outside the city believed in atheists anyway, thinking them to be mythical creatures like unicorns or manticores.
I met Roland when I was a sophomore in high school and for some reason he took an immediate fancy to me. It could be that he recognized a kindred spirit who scorned the slow pace and conservative life-style of the barely-large-enough-to-be-a-city place which held us both captive. In any event, he took me under his pudgy wing. He and his wife semi-adopted me together with some other oddities from the little pools that tend to form around the great puddle of a southern metropolis.
We used to meet at the Gelb house and do readings from the more daring and anti-clerical writers. Then we would indulge ourselves in what we fancied to be the sort of 'salon' conversations which took place in the eighteenth century and in the Paris of Sartre and de Beauvoir. Oh, I can tell you, it was heady stuff.
Apparently, I acquitted myself well enough at these gatherings to pass muster into the inner circle, since it was not long before the great man himself approached me with a suggestion. He was going to one of the more rural communities to report on a revival meeting at a Pentecostal church and wondered if I would like to accompany him. He had often regaled us with stories about his adventures in Jesus-land and made the yokels sound so funny that the opportunity to be his companion on one of these journeys was irresistible. Without hesitation, I said yes and hugged myself in anticipation. Remember, I was very young then.
The revival was to be an all-day affair at the huge frame church which served the farmers and small tradesmen as a place of worship and as the center of the social life in the area. It must be understood that the people in this part of the south did not then and still do not much take to commercial entertainment, feeling that the devil is somehow involved with anything that smacks of 'them city-folk'. So, left to their own devices and fearing that same devil will make work of their idle hands, they tend to seek their own godly amusement where they can. Revivals are a favorite recreation. Some of these people have been born-again enough times to have outdone the most ardent advocate of re-incarnation.
It was to this place, Roland Gelb and I made our way. We were to attend only the evening service because not even a professional like Roland could steel himself to face an entire eighteen hours of solid preaching. We arrived after the 'supper on the grounds' as it was called. The slightly rancid fragrance of long-fried chicken and turnip greens wafted its aura across the trampled grass of the lawn surrounding the church and over the once carefully swept bare ground of the space just before the steps. Roland grinned at me as I wrinkled my nose and pressed onward.
I had thought we would sit at the back where we could easily escape in time for my reporter friend to file his story but he pointed me toward the front where places in the first pew had been saved for us. Explaining that noise would prevent him from hearing and seeing just what was happening from further back, he took my elbow and steered me down the aisle. It was summer, the church was already crowded and the smell made me a little sick as I wound my way through all the people and tried to avoid touching their persons.
When we were ensconced on the hard bench, me drawn into myself as tightly as I could, we watched the preparations for the evening's show. Sweating, self-important men went around throwing up the windows to their full width to let in as much of the warm night air as possible. Funeral home fans and broken-back hymnals were placed in racks attached to the pews. Fliers urging people to come to the altar were scattered like dandruff on the seats and children, excited by the prospect of staying up past their bedtime, ran freely through the crowds. Roland laughed at my expression and told me the best was yet to come. I began to wish I had not accepted his invitation.
Finally, without my actually noticing it, the service began. This being one of the more primitive Pentecostal congregations which did not believe in the use of musical instruments, those gathered together starting singing more or less at will with little attempt made for harmony or even coherence. It was as if a mob of disparate beings had suddenly decided to make a joyful noise without consultation one with the other. The cacophony was astonishing. When one hymn died down another started with neither leader nor direction. I did not dare look at Roland for fear of dissolving into hysterical whoops of laughter which I would be unable to control.
Then, at some unseen signal, everybody sat down and a stout man in a tight shiny suit ascended to the pulpit. This was the featured evangelist who was currently roaming around the vicinity conducting revivals at the various churches for a cut of the collection plate. It was generally understood that he was doing all right for himself. He positioned himself behind the podium, his red face gleaming like the light of a watch tower, and proceeded to give his hearers hell. Not the usual sort of genteel warnings about behaving oneself and not breaking the Commandments, but a most literal and carefully delineated HELL! He described that lake of burning fire, those forbidden drops of water on parched tongues, that peeling of the parboiled skin, those bubbling eyes, that weeping, that wailing, that gnashing of teeth. How happily and with what gleeful relish did he tell his congregants what awaited them in the hereafter if they did not at once subscribe to the doctrine he was offering.
And the dam broke. First singly, then in small groups and then in masses, the people left their pews and swarmed toward their savior. They threw themselves at him until I feared for his safety. But he remained barricaded behind the pulpit and the monstrous mob of terror-stricken men, women and children fell over one another, crawled, scratched and screamed as they tried to reach him to swear fealty to his words. There were persons babbling in nonsense syllables, tearing at their garments until their modesty was in danger of compromise. Others were rolling across what empty spaces of floor they could find, eyes tightly shut and teeth clenched, apparently seized by a bizarre form of epilepsy. I drew my feet up onto the pew when one of them bounced against my ankles. Roland's head was thrown back and at first I thought he was overcome by the spirit of the meeting before I realized he was helpless with laughter, sitting toad-like on that bench with the hysterics around his feet, howling like a veritable devil.
I pulled desperately at his sleeve and finally he noticed me. Without a word, he reached over, scooped me up in his arms and, kicking his way through the ecstatic throng, carried me out into the relative freshness of the open air. I was still dizzy with alarm and the after effects of exposure to excessive body odor when he stood me on my feet and anxiously inquired, "You all right?"
"What were they doing?" I asked. It was all I could think of to say.
"Oh, honey, they're just speaking in tongues. That's what they do when the weather's hot and the crops are in and they got nothing else to do." He patted my back reassuringly.
"That's religion? That mad house?"
"That's all they got. Now let's go home and write this sucker up." Still chuckling under his breath, Roland led the way to the car.