Billy Pullen

Receiving an MFA in creative writing from Sewanee May 2014, Billy Pullen is an IB English teacher at Germantown High School who has won numerous teaching awards, including Germantown Teacher of the Year, Shelby County Teacher of the Year, West Tennessee Teacher of the Year, the Don Jenkins Award from Tennessee Council of Teachers of English, and the Secondary Teacher of Excellence from the National Council of Teachers of English. He is also the recipient of the Tennessee Williams Scholarship at the Southern Writers’ Conference at Sewanee. His nonfiction pieces have been published in Bard College’s Institute of Writing and Thinking Literary Journals and in the online journal Narrative. His one-act play “Fallen Short of the Glory” won five major drama awards and was produced in New York City’s Theatre Row. Billy lives on the famous Beale Street and is also a chorister at St. Mary’s Cathedral in downtown Memphis.

 

Splashed Boy (December, 2014. Issue 48)

It happened at the annual gospel meeting at the Christian Chapel Church of Christ at the Crossroads. It was the last Sunday of the weeklong Come to Jesus He Will Save You Campaign for Christ in Monroe County, Mississippi. All the young people had put printed fliers on the windshields of every parked car they could find. Well, almost every parked car. Several of us begged and begged to go to the parking lot of the First and Last Chance Honkytonk. Sherry Gay West argued with the adults that the clientele at the First and Last Chance needed the gospel the most, but all the parents decided that safety should come first for the young people.
 
"But Jesus preached among the sinners, and God’s love ought to come first, “ Sherry Gay kept on. Then Sherry Gay's mother Lorene who had a growling alto voice told Sherry Gay to hush.

"You can't take a risk like that with the young people. I've heard they sell beer and cigarettes and Lord knows what else goes on in the parking lot," Roland Covington announced. Back at our house Mamma said that Roland ought to know all about it and when I asked her why, she just turned on the mixer to high speed for the pineapple upside down cake she was making for the Sunday Dinner on the Ground.

Anyway, the church had been bragging about the good crowds they've been having at the gospel meeting. On Wednesday night they had to pull out the folding chairs. It was teen night and all the other Churches of Christ in the area allowed their teens to come to Christian Chapel. Most of them had already been baptized. As everybody knows, the gospel means good news, the good news to know the truth that will set you free, and the truth is simply to hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized. The baptized teens came because of the new minister at Christian Chapel who looked a lot like Robert Redford and because nobody in Monroe County had cable TV yet. In fact, there was such thing as cable TV yet.

But this Sunday was the closing of the Campaign for Christ. Me and Eddie Ray got permission to sit together, and even more important, we had already received a "go ask your mother-go ask your father" response about Eddie spending the night at my house. The badminton set that Mamma had ordered from Sears came in and was waiting for two ten-year-old boys to put it together and play until it was way past dark. The backyard light and lightning bugs allowed us until the ten o’clock news came on or until Daddy made us come inside. The visiting preacher was Brother Ralph Ashby from up at Holly Springs. Even though everybody was about ready for the gospel meeting to end, they were a little skeptical of the whole week's experience.

"Brother Ralph can flat out preach now."
          
"You can tell he's been to college."
           
"I knew his daddy."
        
"He can sure quote Scripture."

“His mother was a West, wasn’t she?
        
"Wonder how long it took him to learn all that Bible?"
        
"He's learned some Hebrew and some Greek."
        
"He's a lot more polished than the last time he was here."

Everybody agreed on the polished part and that Brother Ralph could still preach the Bible and tell you how to be saved without knowing Hebrew or Greek. No, you didn't need college to tell somebody how to get saved.

Brother Ralph Ashby would appreciate all these comments from the congregation, but he knew that he would never be invited back to Christian Chapel unless the number of baptisms and responses went up. There was talk that his recent college education had kept him from preaching about hell and brimstone. "Folks got to be scared of hell before they take their salvation serious," Uncle Oliver said.

"You mean we're supposed to scare them into salvation?" Mamma asked, but Daddy gave her a look because he knew nobody could ever change Uncle Oliver.
        
In spite of fetching good crowds and attracting all the area teens with the new Robert-Redford-look-alike youth minister, we had only one response. Just one. And that was poor old Mavis Walters who had a habit of going forward and being restored. Mavis was baptized when I was in second grade, but she kept going forward, walking down the aisle during the invitation song, whispering something into the preacher's ear and then the preacher would announce to the congregation that God was good and had touched Mavis's heart for her to recognize her sin and for her to ask forgiveness. What the sin was nobody knew. Made you wonder. Like I said, Mavis had been down the aisle so much that old Uncle Oliver said that the current Come to Jesus He Will Save You Campaign for Christ couldn't claim Mavis.

"Mavis keeps them aisles hot," Uncle Oliver said.

“I wonder if she’s all there,” Daddy said.
        
"Well, at least Mavis is sincere," Mamma said.
        
"I don't think the girl gets enough attention at home," Aunt Lois said.
        
"Mavis is just plain crazy," Daddy said.
        
What everybody at Christian Chapel was worried about was the number of responses. Last year there had been five baptisms and two restorations, not including Mavis Walters. When a person got baptized at Christian Chapel, it was well known that his or her name was added to the Book of Life. But on a more earthly matter, everybody wanted to see the number on the membership board (handmade by old Uncle Oliver when he was young) go up, up, up. And another baptism would make that number go up. That number had stayed at ninety-nine for nearly a year, and everyone worried that Christian Chapel was not growing like other Churches of Christ in the area. New Hope was growing by leaps and bounds. They were nearly three hundred. "That's just too big," Mamma said.
        
"Well no wonder they're so big," Daddy said." They got a fellowship hall with a kitchen and they're about to break ground to build a gym."
        
"Blasphemy! Blasphemy!" Granny Pullen said.
        
"The Church house is for worship only. You can cook, eat, and play ball at home!" Uncle Oliver said.
        
I better tell it here that the dinner on the ground I mentioned earlier was simply that. The dinner was outside, not inside the church, on homemade picnic tables. Eating inside the Lord's house was not allowed. For that matter, drinking, smoking, cussing, gambling, dancing, shorts, short skirts, playing cards, men with long hair, instrumental music, and speaking in tongues were not allowed either.
      
And now here it was the last Sunday of the gospel meeting and everybody had their hopes up to hit one hundred on the membership board. Some folks were thinking of me and Eddie Ray. We could make it one hundred and one. But we had already met with our regular preacher, Brother Hoyt Hathcock, who decided that we had not reached the age of accountability. Granny Pullen was devastated for me, or for her maybe. “I won’t live to see my only grandson be baptized,” she moaned. “I don’t know if I’ll make it to see Christmas this year.” Granny had been dying ever since I could remember. Brother Hoyt tried to calm her by saying that Jesus was 12 years old before he reached the age of accountability. I got confused thinking about that. Jesus was a grown-up man, over thirty years old, before he was baptized in the river Jordan by his cousin John the Baptist who ate locusts and wild honey and had long hair and a beard. Maybe I should wait another twenty years to be baptized. We didn’t have a river by the name of Jordan, but we had the Tombigbee River and I didn’t have any male cousins, but I liked the idea of a bearded  man who ate locusts and wild honey totally immersing me in the water, though it bothered me that the Tombigbee was real muddy. But I had never told any of this to Granny.
           
Brother Hoyt had always been my primary source on getting saved, but he was not preaching this last Sunday of the gospel meeting. Christian Chapel really needed that membership number to go up to a hundred and we all wanted to give Brother Ralph credit. He needed to walk away with a successful campaign for Christ under his belt. So far, there were no strong candidates for baptism. One of the teens, Patsy West, who had attended on the Wednesday Teen Night, had discussed being baptized again because she had been so young the first time and wasn’t sure so sure she had known what sin was, being so young and all. But after a long talk with the youth minister who looked like Robert Redford, she decided against it. I asked her why and all she said was that Randy, the Robert Redford look-alike, said that she had already been saved.
           
“And that’s all he said?” I wanted to know.
           
“I can’t doubt a man who said he got the call from God while he was drinking a beer and driving a tractor,” Patsy answered. “Of course, he doesn’t drink beer anymore.”
           
“Does he still drive a tractor?” I asked and then she just prissed off. Here I was giving her a dose of some common sense, and she simply ignored me.
           
One thing me and Eddie Ray had noticed on that Wednesday night was a boy and a girl a few years older, definitely within the range of accountability. They didn’t seem to be affiliated with any particular church. Mamma noticed that they were back again on Friday and here they were again on Sunday. Come to find out that, Shirley and Ronnie Motes were brother and sister who had been staying with their grandparents that summer. A long time ago folks at Christian Chapel had tried to save the grandparents, but Granny Pullen had reported that the Motes were just too far gone. I think it had something to do with them being Pentecostal or maybe Assembly of God. Anyway, they were not members of the Church of Christ, the only church mentioned in the Bible. Well, that’s what my family always told me.

“When you got drums, guitars, speaking in tongues, and an occasional snake handling, you might as well quit,” Grandma announced.

But there they were-_Shirley and Ronnie Motes. Word got out that they had been talking to Brother Ralph about their personal salvation. Shirley claimed that she had got saved at some Bible camp sponsored by the YWCA, but insisted that Ronnie had done nothing to get saved except for his recent visits. Shirley did all the talking. Come to think of it, nobody had ever heard Ronnie say a word, a sign right there that something was off.

I still wonder why nobody seemed to question Shirley’s salvation at the YWCA camp because getting saved had everything to do with baptism, and baptism had everything to do with total immersion versus sprinkling. Now I must confess that even though I may not have reached the age of accountability, I still knew that baptism meant total immersion. No, sprinkling does not count! I often worried about my Methodist friend Dennis and my Baptist friend Wanda and I wanted to tell them the gospel truth that according to Brother Hoyt, Uncle Oliver, and Granny Pullen, they were all going to hell because Dennis and Wanda had only been sprinkled. Mamma told me not to, which was a good thing I suppose. She grew up Methodist, but changed her wicked ways by being baptized after she and Daddy got married.

Brother Hoyt Hathcock often used an anecdote about baptism. His sermons were serious stuff and he could scare the hell out of anybody preaching about hell fire and damnation, but he told us this story about some young boys that came across some stray cats. They decided to play church and among many props, they made do with what was an old washtub full of water so that they could baptize all the cats. Each cat was totally immersed as the child playing the preacher proclaimed, “I now baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” The children even threw in a few songs such as “What Can Wash Away My Sin?” and “Though Your Sins Be As Scarlet.” When the children got down to the last cat, things went awry. The boys just couldn’t hold that cat under. It howled and yowled and scratched and clawed with panic. The cat kept on scratching and biting until the weary child-preacher remarked with defeat and acknowledgement, “We have done all we could, brothers. We’ll just have to splash some water on him and let him go to hell.” The whole congregation busted out laughing, except for Mamma. “Now see here, brothers and sisters, out of the mouths of babes!” announced Brother Hoyt.
   
And here we are now at the final minutes of the Come To Jesus He Will Save You Campaign. Brother Ralph has outdone himself. He came real close to preaching hell fire and brimstone, but mostly he talked about how beautiful heaven must be, where there would be no sickness, no pain, no death. He even requested the opening song “When We All Get to Heaven” but requested we change the words to “When the Saved Get to Heaven.” He went on and on about heaven and how joyful it would be. Nobody would ever get old in heaven. Nobody would have to pay a mortgage in heaven. Nobody would have to pay taxes in heaven.

When he finally quit, it was time for the longest invitation song that I can remember. After all the stanzas of “Just As I Am,” nobody went forward to be saved and everybody thought that we would be stuck with 99 on the membership board. After “Just As I Am” couldn’t be dragged on any longer, Brother Ralph told the song leader to lead us in just one more invitation song, “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling.” Just when we got to the “Ye who are weary come home” part, Ronnie Motes commenced down the aisle. He kept looking back at his sister, Shirley, who motioned him to go on. He’d take a couple of steps more and stop to look back at Shirley. Finally, Ronnie made it all the way to the front to Brother Ralph who grabbed Ronnie’s hand and helped him sit down on the front pew. Brother Ralph put his arm around Ronnie and leaned in. Ronnie was trying to whisper something. Brother Ralph nodded, and would whisper back. Ronnie whispered again, and Brother Ralph just beamed. He stood up and announced to the congregation that Ronnie had expressed his intention to be baptized. Everybody was so relieved. I think they would have clapped if the church had allowed it. Some of the old women started crying. Brother Ralph asked Ronnie to please stand before the congregation.
           
“Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?”
           
“Sir?”
           
“Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?”
           
Ronnie paused and then stared back at sister Shirley who smiled and nodded.

“Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God?” Brother Ralph repeated. Even I knew that this was not a hard question, but Ronnie’s silence was getting scary.

“Sir?” He asked again. I think “sir” is the only word we had ever him say. Ronnie didn’t really look like he wanted Brother Ralph to repeat the question. He looked like he wanted to run out the closet door he could find. Brother Ralph repeated that same question. Folks were getting fidgety. The old women who had been crying were now leaning in to hear Ronnie confess.

Finally, Ronnie nodded yes. He didn’t speak, but that nod soothed the nerves of the congregation. Brother Hoyt went to back of the altar to help Ronnie dress in his baptismal robe since there was no other male relative. Since getting dressed would take a few minutes, the song leader led us in several verses of “O Happy Day” to kill the time. After the fourth refrain of “He taught me how to watch and pray/And live rejoicing everyday,” the curtains in front of the baptistery opened and there stood Brother Ralph in all his baptismal glory, rubber suit and all, with a petrified Ronnie who kept looking out at the audience toward his sister. They were both standing in water that was about up to their chest. As was the custom, Brother Ralph was facing out and Ronnie, in white baptismal robe, was standing with his profile to the right.

Brother Ralph placed his right hand on Ronnie’s back and held his left hand up to God. He then closed his eyes and prayed, “I now baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” After the prayer, Brother Ralph tried to lead Ronnie into the water for total immersion. It was supposed to be a sweet moment, but Ronnie started crying and resisted Brother Ralph who wasn’t about to let Ronnie get away. The crying got louder and Ronnie looked as though he were facing his execution. His cries became more pitiful and confused the congregation. As Granny said, “He was way too old a boy to be crying.”

He seemed to be crying for Shirley, but no one could understand him. He grabbed at the glass petition and he grabbed at the curtains. He even tried to climb over the glass petition onto the pulpit, but Brother Ralph became Ronnie’s opponent. It turned into a wrestling match. Wiry Brother Ralph was trying to dunk an overweight teenage boy. Just when we thought Ronnie was going to break the glass, Brother Ralph jerked the curtains closed and we all sang, “O Happy Day When Jesus Washed My Sins Away” for yet another round.

The membership board changed to 100, but Uncle Oliver still claims the boy wasn’t totally immersed. Since Brother Ralph was the only witness, he claimed he got the boy completely dunked and thus saved. There could be nothing worse, at least in Monroe County, Mississippi, than being known as nothing but a splashed boy.

The Legendary