I was in the fifth grade. Chuckles said to me, "Boy, I woodn't wanna be in yo' shoes, when yuh gits to heaven. You steal from da' church. You is takin' from da Lord. Da Lord gonna send yuh straight to da devil." Then he chuckled. That's the way he ended everything he said. Hence, his nickname. Chuckles would say something and then go, "Huh, huh, huh." Kind of a sarcastic chuckle. Like he knew about something nobody else did.
Chuckles was a little wrinkled, bald-headed, black man, with light pigment splotches all over his arms, hands and one side of his face. Contrary to his nickname, he was not a happy man. He looked after the grounds of the downtown, red-bricked Presbyterian church in Franklin, Tennessee.
Chuckles kept his head down, slump-walked and chain-smoked. Talking to himself. It always sounded like he was arguing with somebody.
Chuckles would start ranting with that cigarette hanging off his lip. The cigarette would start bobbing up and down, and he'd start walking in circles. He'd throw his hands up and holler out the names of women in his life and verbally read them the riot act. "
Once, Chuckles complained to me, "Boy, deez church peoples is workin' da hell outta me. Huh, huh, huh." That made me think. I threw it back to him with, "Church is supposed to get the hell out of you, Chuckles." That made him think. And he thought some more. I could see him ticking.
Then he jumped up and said, "Boy, git yo' little white butt up outta here! Git yo'self home! Right now! Huh, huh, huh." He chuckled, but I knew he was serious. His brood had set in, and it was time for me to go. On my way out, he said, "And yuh better hope some lightnin' don't hit yuh on yo' way home. I done told yuh to leave dem pigeons alone." I was already on the sidewalk when he came to the church's side door and yelled out, "Dey is da church's pigeons!"
Things between Chuckles and me were a little dicey. We were sorta competitors.
Every once in a while, the church would have Chuckles go outside and fire off a 12-gauge to scare the pigeons away. According to Chuckles, the preacher said that bird droppings on the sidewalk and steps that led to the entrance of the church were not only downright nasty but might leave an adverse and unfavorable impression with the congregation. When it came time for them to drop their monetary thanks into the offertory basket, the preacher didn't want the church members to be thinking about "pigeon poop."
You gotta hand it to those Presbyterians. They think of everything.
Chuckles didn't just shoot the shotgun up in the air. He shot to kill the pigeons. Then he'd eat them. I, on the other hand, shimmied up to the top of the church and caught baby pigeons. I took them home and fed and watered them for awhile. Then I sold them to kids in the neighborhood for $3 apiece.
I wasn't on the best terms with the preacher. He had caught me, red-handed, sneaking into wedding receptions. In good weather, they'd leave the church's front and side doors wide open. There was always great food, fancy appetizers and desserts. The aroma of fried chicken and potatoes oozed all the way out to Main Street.
I'd run home, put on my Sunday School clothes, return to the church and do my best to blend into the crowd. That summer, I pretty much attended every wedding reception held at the church. Sometimes two or three a week. I couldn't get enough of their fabulous foods. Shredded chicken, thin-sliced tomatoes and baby shrimp on a cracker. Filet mignon! Ice cream! Not to mention engaging conversation.
With his hand around the back of my neck, Rusty, an assistant to the preacher, escorted me all the way out of the church. He told me to go home and never let him see me at another reception and that the preacher wanted to see me the following morning.
I showed up.
The preacher started in on me. By the time he was finished, I felt like the worst mortal sinner of all time. He convinced me that my life as I knew it would never be good until I redeemed myself with the Lord.
Of all people, Chuckles came up with the solution. He told me that most everyone of the preacher's flock gave the church 10 percent of their earnings. I should do the same for each pigeon I had taken from the church. I gave Chuckles $1.50. Five birds at 30 cents each. He assured me that he'd pass it on to the preacher. I was relieved. There was a part of me that wondered if Chuckles passed on my monetary offering to the church. Maybe. Maybe not.
I figured God observed the transaction. Surely, he had to know that I saw the light and was trying to do the right thing by giving him 10 percent of my gross. I had repented. I was squared up. Chuckles, not me, would someday have to answer up to the Almighty about the missing $1.50.
I stopped taking pigeons from the church and crashing their wedding receptions. I attended a couple of receptions at another church on the other side of town. I think they were Baptists. Could have been Methodists. They had some pretty good fried chicken. Their coleslaw wasn't bad. I even got a couple of compliments from old ladies on my Sunday School clothes.
I believe that all people of faith are good and decent. All churches and denominations are about doing the right thing. And I believe God opens his heart to us all, regardless of what religion we practice.
But there's something about those Presbyterians. They sure know how to party.
Bill Stamps spent four decades in the entertainment business before moving from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tenn. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Facebook.