A while back, I wrote about the Rev. Riley Wright, whom everybody called Preacher Man. He was the good pastor of the First Church of Christ in a small Middle Tennessee farming town 12 miles south of Columbia.
My mother, my two brothers and I lived there in the mid-'50s.
Head out from Columbia on two-lane Hampshire Pike. Run through Cross Bridges, a spot in the road. Roll around a couple of wide curves and, in a few miles, you begin to pull the hill. We called it Hampshire Hill. When you get to the top and begin your descent, you're heading straight for the little town.
Almost every day, I walked my bike to the top of the hill and flew back down. I didn't have a speedometer, but I figured I was probably going about 300. At least it felt like it. Maybe only 250. Let's put it this way, if my hair was still wet from swimming in the creek, it was dry by the time I hit the bridge going into town. I was pretty sure I held some sort of world record.
Coming down the hill, there were barbed-wire fences and sloping green pastures on both sides of the road. Guernsey milking cows and a few bulls grazed out in the open, and a few more hung out under the shade of tall elm and maple trees.
A little further down, on the left, was Widow Thompson's fine white two-story house. It sat off in the distance up on a little hill. The milking barn was a short walk behind it. Mr. Thompson, before he passed, had bought brand new milking machines. The swooshing kind.
Widow Thompson was a big woman, kinda built like a wrestler. She smoked "roll-your-owns" and occasionally chewed tobacco. She was kind in her own way. She didn't talk much. If you asked her too many questions, she'd spit some of her chaw at you.
The widow and her deaf son, Earl, milked their cows every morning. After Earl got the cows in the barn and hobbled, Widow Thompson would get up from the kitchen table, put on her sunbonnet, lace up her ankle boots and head on down to the barn.
Along the way, she'd scoop up a handful of rocks and put them in her apron pockets. Inside the barn, she and Earl generally worked a few stalls apart from one another. When she needed to get Earl's attention, she'd chuck a rock at him.
Below the house were rows of apple, peach and pear trees. During the season, Widow Thompson let families in need pick some. Many times, as a gesture of gratitude, they'd bake her pies and cobblers and have one of the kids run them up the hill to her. They said that Widow Thompson could polish off a full pie in one sitting.
I figured that was one of the reasons Widow Thompson looked like she was gonna explode any minute.
She was rich by the little town's standards. That didn't take much. Most everyone else was poor — hard-working, God-worshiping farming families who spent their lives barely making ends meet.
A short pedal across the bridge, over the creek, and you're officially in town. On up the sidewalk, past a few houses and tucked on a side street, a few doors down from the only gas station, was Preacher Man's church. Two big magnolias grew in the front yard. Preacher Man lived in the back.
There was an old boarded-up building on one side of the church. It was owned, like pretty much everything else in town, by Mrs. Stephenson. She lived in a really pretty gray-and-white-trimmed Victorian on the other side.
Mrs Stephenson was a retired schoolteacher in her late 70s who had lost her dearly beloved to the war. For company, more than income, she rented out one of her upstairs bedrooms.
Miss Swann, a teacher, boarded with Mrs. Stephenson. Miss Swann, a very proper lady, never married. She had given her heart to the Savior. She read the Scriptures at night and taught adult Sunday School and played the organ at the church. She had a strong singing voice and sometimes sang for Preacher Man's congregations on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings.
Miss Swann was a big-boned woman, with muscular arms and big calves. Square jawed. Rit-dyed black hair, a touch of makeup, heavy rouge on her high cheekbones, the proper color and amount of delicately applied lipstick and painted eyebrows to match her hair. She spoke declaratively. She had some kind of accent. Kind of like one of those opera people.
She wasn't a beautiful lady but was well put together. Her saving grace was that she had soft blue eyes that were somewhat magnified through her dark-rimmed glasses. She wore schoolteacher dresses, brooches and, most of the time, a string of pink-white pearls around her neck.
Miss Swann opened Sunday church services with a five-minute organ solo. The very short pastor, Riley Wright, made his way to the podium and she'd sit to the side, nodding and smiling at every word Preacher Man hollered to the sinners who had come to get saved.
Miss Swann would say, "Rev. Wright delivers the word of the Lord so very brilliantly." Pretty much everyone knew she was sweet on Preacher Man.
Aside from being the best Christian in town, Miss Swann was a detective. A good one! She reported her findings of foul play back to Preacher Man. He'd take it from there.
On the shade side of the gas station, where the restrooms were, was a red metal ice chest filled with bottles of soft drinks. Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Orange and Grape Nehi, Brown Cows and Royal Crowns. The bottles hung by the necks on rails. When you opened the wide metal top, all you saw were the tops of the bottles. The bottle caps. After dropping a nickel and a penny into the coin slot, you'd slide the drink of your choice over to the right corner and pull up. If you didn't pay, there was a mechanism that prevented the bottle from coming out.
Sometimes, late in the summer afternoons, I would sneak around the corner with a bottle cap opener and a straw and help myself to a few Cokes. I knew it was wrong, but I just wasn't able to control myself. Summer gets hot in the South.
Preacher Man saw me and my dog, Prince, coming up the sidewalk. He called me over and put his hand on my shoulder, stared through my soul and said, "Son, I'm afraid you're going to hell, and there's probably nothin' I can do about it. The Lord and I talked about you for near on a hour last night. We're worried about you, boy."
He went on, "How many times are you gonna break one of his commandments? Thou shalt not steal, son! Thou shalt not steal!"
I was just a kid, but I thought I was having a heart attack. I burst into remorseful tears and begged Preacher Man for forgiveness. What could I do to right my wrongs? I'll do anything.
He said, "Son, this is gonna take a lot of prayer. As a matter of fact, I'm gonna ask sister Swann to join me in prayer and help me persuade the Lord to forgive you. Maybe, between the two of us, we can convince him to give you another chance. The trouble is, you've gotten him mad at yuh. Let's see what we can do."
We agreed to meet at the church, around back, in his quarters, later that evening.
When I came through the back door, there sat Preacher Man and Miss Swann on the couch, sipping some of the leftover church service wine. Miss Swann's eyes were red, and she had a little smile on her face.
I sat across the coffee table from them and awaited the verdict.
Preacher Man looked at me and said, "He forgives you." I was sure I heard a choir of angels singing, "Hallelujah!" What a relief! Then he asked me, "How many Cokes you figure you stole from Mr. Floyd's ice chest?" I really had no idea. Two or three? Preacher Man said, "Seventeen."
He cleared his throat and continued, "Now, here's how you're gonna pay Mr. Floyd back. You're gonna help Miss Swann paint her classroom at 6 cents an hour. Miss Swann's gonna give that money to Mr. Floyd til yer all squared up." And that's the way it went.
Painting in the summer, in a classroom, while all the rest of your friends are down at the swimming hole, is no fun. But to my way of thinking, it sure did beat having God mad at me.
It's going to be warm today. Later this afternoon, I'm gonna sit out front and have me an ice-cold Coke. And with a clear conscience.
Bill Stamps spent four decades in the entertainment business before moving from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tennessee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Facebook.