Sunday dinner was the big deal meal of the week and attendance was mandatory. No one ever had to urge my participation, the fried chicken alone assured that I would be there and ready to pig out. My mother was a good cook and she had all of her mother’s recipes. My grandmother was to country cooking what Ted Williams was to hitting a baseball. Dead on the best there was.
The mandatory aspects of the meal were really aimed at my gin-playing father, he had been known to lose track of time at the card table and miss the whole deal. He would just as soon have a plate warmed up about three o’clock, but it would send my mother into orbit. She would be angry for a week and everybody’s life would be miserable. I always called the club about thirty minutes before we were to sit down and remind him to come home. This usually worked. HHHe didn’t like conflict or confrontation and my mother was the drama queen of the Delta. She thrived on recreational confrontation.
Dad showed up on time and the meal went off without a hitch. I helped clear the table and dried the dishes. I made inane small talk as part of my new “mother manipulation “program. I had to be sure to use a very light touch; it could be very dangerous to manipulate the master manipulator. I was trying to beard the lion in her den and it would be very easy to screw it up. I managed to make it through the cleanup and eased over into nap time.
Every Sunday afternoon my parents took a nap after dinner. My little brother was forced to participate, but I was allowed to skip the nap time, if I got out of the house. This suited me fine and as everyone retired to their rooms, I headed to the ballpark for tryouts. I biked to Benny’s house and gently knocked on the back door. Benny came out, admonishing me to be quiet.
“She went back to bed when he left to go play golf. I got him to sign the permission slip as he left. He didn’t even read it. You get yours signed?”
“Yeah, it required some doing, but I have it.”
“Now we have to make the team. It would be a bitch to have to watch them play from the stands.”
When we got to the park there were about twenty guys standing around and no sign of Rushing. Another dozen or so candidates drifted in before the old battered pickup rolled up. Coach Rushing dismounted and motioned for everyone to gather around him and take a knee.
“’I’m glad to see all of ya’ll. Now we are going to move right along and choose our team. Does everybody have their permission forms signed?”
This was met with a chorus of, “Yeah, Coach.”
“Good, pass them up to Benny; he is going to be my assistant this afternoon.”
This was a positive start. I doubted that Rushing would make Benny his assistant if he didn’t plan to pick him for the team.
“Here’s how we are gonna do this thing. First, we are going to check out everyone’s speed and quickness. Let’s line up on the first base line and we’ll sprint to the fence in left field and back.”
Let me say right away that speed and quickness were not my long suits. I just needed to finish in the top twenty or so. It’s like the two hikers being chased by a grizzly bear; you don’t have to out run the bear, just your fellow hiker.
Following the sprints, we went through the usual fielding drills with Rushing hitting fungos to each of the guys. Benny and I were pretty good fielders and we passed this test with ease. Fortunately, Rushing did not ask us to demonstrate our long throwing ability and I slid by unnoticed. When the tryouts ended, Coach Rushing said that the final roster would be announced at the next meeting of the Royal Ambassadors after school on Wednesday. He got in his truck and left. A couple of guys wanted to get a game up, but Benny and I decided to bike over to the Keen Freeze and get a coke. I wanted to make sure that whatever took place at my house on Sunday afternoons had plenty of time to reach a climax. A couple of hours should be plenty.
The new baseball team was the hot topic the next week at school. Everyone who had tried out showed signs of anticipation and anxiety. I was sure Benny had made the team, and I really thought that I had, but you never know when adults are in charge. They tend to make some really strange decisions. Finally, on Wednesday afternoon Benny and I rode our bikes straight to First Baptist and the Royal Ambassador’s meeting.
We parked at a bike rack just outside the door to a building with a sign proclaiming “Fellowship Hall”. The whole complex was much different than it had been during my Sunbeam days, and nothing looked familiar. We were trying to figure our next move when we saw Coach Rushing walking across the parking lot. He waved and said,
“Hi guys, we’re going to meet in one of the large Sunday school classrooms. Give me a minute to drop by my office and I’ll let ya’ll in.”
“Thanks, Coach” we replied as we noticed several other guys looking just as confused as we were.
“Hey, ya’ll come over here, Coach has gone to get the keys to our meeting room, and he’ll be right back.”
By the time Rushing returned pretty much the whole contingent of hopeful players was on hand, plus some guys who must have been nonballplaying members of the Royal Ambassadors. He led us into the Fellowship Hall and opened the door to what appeared to be your standard school class room. There were large windows facing the outside of the building, chalk boards in front, bookshelves on the third wall and a storage room in the back
There were religious posters all over the place, most depicting scenes from the Bible and some showing missionaries at work in pagan lands such as Mexico and Canada. Coach asked everyone to find a seat and turned the meeting over to Larry Bemis, the current president of the club. Larry stood up and said,
“Let’s all bow our heads and open our meeting with a moment of silence followed by the Lord’s Prayer.”
Once the prayer was out of the way, there were some opening ceremonies to be observed and the meeting was called to order. We then sang a ragged rendition of Onward Christian Soldiers and someone read the Royal Ambassador’s creed. Larry then read a Bible verse dealing with the parable of the Good Samaritan and we were all invited to comment on what we thought the parable meant. After a lengthy discussion with no real consensus, Larry announced that next week’s Bible reading would be about the wedding in Cana. So far no mention of baseball.
Finally Larry suggested that we move on to the business portion of our meeting and asked for a report on the RA Project. Another kid that I didn’t know reported that the RA mothers’ cake sale had netted $23.89 and that amount had been sent to the Chapter’s mission church in Kenya. Still no baseball.
At long last, Larry suggested that Rev. Rushing had an announcement concerning the RA baseball team.
Coach Rushing stood and said,
“I have posted the final roster for our new baseball team on the bulletin board in the hall. I suggest that each of you who tried out for the team consult the roster as soon as the meeting ends. For those of you who have been selected, our first practice will be at the Volunteer Fire Dedpartment’s main field at 3:00 pm tomorrow. Now Larry you may close the meeting in the usual manner.”
Two prayers and one hymn later, having found our names on the roster, we were back in the parking lot getting our bikes.
The team had a couple of weeks to practice before the season started, and by the time we played our first game, we had put together a pretty good ball club. Coach Rushing knew the game and he coached with a light, but firm hand. Our games were after school on Tuesday and Thursday which left us time for our regular Saturday pickup games at the park.
By the time school ended in early June, we were about half-way through our schedule with a record of 8 wins and 4 losses. Not the best in the league, but far from the worst. If we could keep it up, we’d make the playoffs for sure. The winner of the Delta League would go to Nashville and play in the Royal Ambassadors World Series. We were in the hunt. Benny and I faithfully attended the RA meetings, Sunday school and Church. Everything was going along just fine.
It was the last Sunday in June. I got up early and did my acolyte duty at Holy Trinity and steered my bike toward First Baptist. The full heat of the Delta summer would not come until the end of July or the first of August, but today was probably the warmest so far. I had plenty of time to ride the six or so blocks between churches and I tried to stay on the shady side of the street and take my time.
Sunday morning is generally a quiet time in most of rural America and this was a nearly perfect early summer day. The blue sky was accented by a few pure white clouds and the warm air smelled of morning glories and honeysuckle. The leafy residential streets of Cumberland were ruffled by a light breeze that felt good as I rode slowly along.
I parked my bike in the rack, went into the First Baptist fellowship hall and found our Sunday school classroom. Benny and John Tong, the catcher on our RA baseball team, were sitting waiting for class to begin.
“Hi, guys,” I said, “What’s up?”
“Nothin much” John said, “How ‘bout you?”
“Just plowing through my Sunday morning obligations, I’ve done the Episcopal thing and now its Baptist time.”
After Sunday school there was a break before Church started and Benny, John and I decided to skip the punch and cookies and take a walk in the nice weather. We strolled around the block and managed to kill the thirty minutes before the main service started. The three of us dutifully filed into the main sanctuary and scored the last three aisle seats in a pew about half way to the front.
The service started with the choir singing The Old Rugged Cross. There was an opening prayer that was all encompassing and called God’s attention to most everything and everybody. The church was filled almost to capacity, and with no air conditioning, became warm and stuffy. Soon the ushers were moving down both sides of the sanctuary opening the large windows and letting in the light summer breeze. Immediately the level of comfort improved considerably. The Pastor was reading the Old Testament Scripture for the day and as he finished the congregation broke into a spirited rendition of Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken which was followed by Wonderful, Merciful Savior.
I have to admit, I really enjoyed the old traditional hymns sung at First Baptist and to this day recall that part of my Baptist Summer with affection. When the last strains of the hymns died down the Pastor read the New Testament Scripture and the combination of beautiful music and the summer breeze had a soothing effect on the soul and body. When my soul and body were soothed, I tended to nap.
Following a rousing version of Rock of Ages, The Pastor launched into his sermon for the day. The three of us were attempting to look as attentive as possible as he assailed sin in all of its many forms. The gist of the message seemed to be that Satan would test each of us in many ways before we could enter God’s glory. At about this point the soothing overtook the potential sinning and I lost touch with the here and now. The droning of the Pastors voice coupled with the warm, sweet scented air lulled me into my own thoughts and I became disconnected from my surroundings. I wasn’t’t asleep, but darn close.
Suddenly the organ blasted away with the first bars of How Great is Our God and everyone in the congregation stood. John tapped me on the shoulder and whispered,
I assumed that the service was over and John wanted to get a head start on our exit. The three of us, led by John, started moving out of our pew, but rather than turning left and heading toward the exit, John hung a right and started down the aisle toward the front of the Church. Like lemmings Benny and I followed behind him and the three of us walked slowly toward the Pastor who was standing at the pulpit with his eyes closed and his arms outstretched.
At this point my head began to clear a bit and I realized two horrifying facts. Church was not over; we were at the point known as The Invitation. It was now that anyone who wished to accept Jesus Christ as his personal Savior was invited to come on down. The second fact was that John Tong was in a state of spiritual rapture and heading for salvation. Benny and I had been scooped up in the net of John’s new found fervor.
I desperately looked for an escape route. There was none. We were caught up in events beyond our control with no choice but to go with the flow. Now it became a matter of making the most out of a bad situation and saving face. When we reached the Pastor, he opened his eyes and a huge smile split his normally stern visage.
“Praise the Lord.” he shouted, “These three young men have been moved by the spirit to accept Jesus as their personal Savior. Praise the Lord.”
Two of the deacons came up and led us to the side door in the sanctuary and into a hall that led directly behind the pulpit. We entered a small dimly lit room that smelled just like the dressing rooms at the swimming pool. We came out of our church clothes and stripped to our skivvies. One of the attending deacons handed us a white jumper that looked like a nightshirt. We were then led to a room that held a large tank of water with steps leading into it. There was the Pastor who had changed clothes and now wore a set of black and white robes.
He descended the steps into the water which came up about to his chest and motioned for John to join him in the tank. The water came up almost to John’s neck and the jumper kept floating revealing his skivvies. At that point, the heavy red curtain that stood behind the pulpit began to open and we were facing the entire congregation of the First Baptist Church of Cumberland. The front of the tank was made of glass and everyone had an aquarium view of John Tong’s shorts.
The Pastor put his thumb and forefinger on John’s nose and dipped him backwards into the tank until his head was underwater and said,
“John, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Welcome into Christ’s Church, John!”
Beaming with divine sanctification John ascended the stairs to dry land and I was invited to descend into the tank. After my baptism, Benny followed and soon we were all back in our church clothes and rejoining the congregation.
The service concluded with all six verses of A Closer Walk with Thee after which we were the center of congratulations and attention for about another twenty minutes. When the crowd began to drift away and head home for fried chicken or pot roast we three new workers in the vineyards of righteousness found ourselves alone in the parking lot.
“Exactly how in the hell did that happen?” Benny asked, with some amount of irritation in his voice.
“Don’t ask me,” I said, “I was following Tong.”
John, who seemed to be coming out of his advanced state of grace, looked a little puzzled and said,
“I’m not really sure what happened. One minute I was perfectly sane and before I knew it I was swept away in the moment. All I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“I guess it will be all over town within the hour.” Benny mused, “I better get home and prepare them before my aunt has a chance to call.” He grabbed his bike and quickly pedaled out of sight.
“Yeah, this poses a couple of possible problems for me too, not the least of which is that this was my third baptism. I hope that the three of them don’t cancel each other out or something.”
John had not said another word but was standing there with a stricken look on his face.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Not really,” he said, “I’ve got to go explain this to my Buddhist parents. This will probably disturb the karma of some seventy generations of my ancestors or at least my mother will say it does.”
In the end, John decided that it would be best if he didn’t mention his conversion to his parents. He rationalized that since they didn’t speak very good English, it would only confuse them. This also assured that he would be able to continue playing on the RA team.
Benny’s parents didn’t seem particularly interested in his new found faith and pretty much left it with an “Isn’t that nice?” comment. His aunt never mentioned it.
I checked the whole thing out with Father Mullen and he allowed that it would not affect my status in the Episcopal Church , and what the heck, it couldn’t hurt my spiritual condition. My mother wanted to know all about it and seemed fascinated. I was afraid she would show up at First Baptist some Sunday morning ready to take a dip. Dad just rolled his eyes and muttered something about religious fanatics. Things returned to normal and we made the playoffs, but got beat before we got to Nashville.
Coach Rushing declared the season a huge success and said that he looked forward to next year. Before we knew it football season was underway and my adventure in the Royal Ambassadors drew to a close.