Thursday, June 16, 2011

PK: What It Means to Be One

“He can’t have no fun!”  The bigger kid sneered as he looked around to the other boys for affirmation of his observation so eloquently stated. 

“He can never do nothin’ fun, ‘cause he’s a preacher’s kid!” He continued, eliciting nods of agreement from the group.

“I can too, I can do anything I want!” I shot back, lying like a rug. 

I had to respond, even if it was a lie.  It’s the Law of the Playground.  The Elementary School Boys Code.  And while it was a lie—I couldn’t do anything I wanted to do—I could have fun.  I had fun all the time.  Just not doing whatever bad thing the bigger, bad kid wanted me to do.  Truth was, I didn’t even want to.  But at that moment, in that pressure cooker environment facing the gang mentality of some of the boys from Eugene Cole R-V elementary school, I really hated being a preacher’s kid—a PK.

I have been a PK for all but the first three years of my life.  (More on those first three years in a moment.)  During that time, I have heard it all—good and bad.  I have heard every preacher’s kid joke and told a few of my own; I’m pretty sure that I’ve been spanked twice as hard and twice as often as other boys simply because I was a preacher’s kid.  I’ve been held up as the “Why Can’t You Be Like Him” ideal to other kids because I was a preacher’s kid.  To be fair, I’ve also been held up as the “Whatever You Do, Don’t Be Like Him” model because I was a preacher’s kid.  I’ve had many moments when I was so very proud to be a preacher’s kid.  But those playground experiences can be especially tough on a 10-year old boy, and during those exchanges, it was the last thing I wanted to be. 

“Then why doncha do it!?”  The bigger kid taunted, elbowing the boys next to him, relying on the ages-proven concept of peer pressure.

And that’s when I saw my chance.  I pulled the hammer back and fired my best come-back at him, confident of a kill shot.  “’Cause you’re not my boss!”

A brief, rapid-fire exchange followed, wrapping up the entire affair in a matter of seconds.

“’Cause you’re chicken, ‘cause you’re a preacher’s kid!”
“Nuh-uhh, ‘cause you can’t make me!”
“Can’t make a monkey twice!”
“That’s so funny I forgot to laugh!”
“Shut up!”
“I don’t shut up I grow up and when I look at you I throw up!”

The recess bell rang.  Battle over.  Score one for the PK.

Being a preacher’s kid carried a sack full of responsibilities that I never asked for.  You have to be polite.  You have to be nice.  You can’t cuss.  You have to keep your clothes looking nice.  You have to set a good example for the other kids.  You have to go to church every time the doors open.  You can’t cheat.  You can’t---well now that I think about it, Mr. Eloquence from the playground was right.  You can’t have no fun. 
On the other hand, there is a priceless advantage to growing up in a spiritual environment and in church, being raised by loving Christian parents.  It is grounding.  It is a compass that stays with you through all the storms of your life and always points true, always to what is right. 

And there is an inherent and intangible coolness in the fact that your Pastor is also your father.  His stories seem funnier; the truths he speaks from the Bible seem truer; his altar calls—the invitation, even more earnest.  And no preacher I’ve ever heard could take an old "Knight’s Illustration" and make it more personal and relevant than my dad.   In short, he made being a PK more bearable—even for a boy constantly subjected to the Law of the Playground and the Elementary School Boys Code. 

Besides that, the alternative to not being a preacher’s kid in my family was unthinkable.  And that brings us back to that first three years of my life.  See, my father was an alcoholic.  I was too young to remember, but my older sisters remember all too well.  So does my mother. 

My father gave his heart and his life to Jesus and asked God to save him when I was three years old.  Within days, he had surrendered his life completely and answered God’s call to the ministry.  I have heard the stories from my sisters and my mother, about his life before that life-changing moment and since.  So let me think, I could’ve been “Red Wilson’s boy—you know Red, that ol’ drunk.”  Or I could be “R.V. Wilson’s boy—you know Brother Wilson, that preacher who tells such good stories over there at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church!”  Being a preacher’s kid doesn’t sound like a bad deal at all. 

I’d love to be able to tell that to the bigger kid from the playground today.  I think it might go something like this:
“Remember me?”
“Yeah, you’re that preacher’s kid who never could have no fun.”
“You were wrong.  Fact is I’ve never had so much fun, being Brother R.V. Wilson’s kid—growing up as a PK…And I wish I would’ve told you that back then.  But we were just kids.”
You were.”
“You were another one.”
“Shut up!”
“I don’t shut up, I---“

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

PK: What Not to Take to Church

The preacher stopped in mid-sermon as the sudden, mysterious rattling sound commanded the attention of both congregation and himself. It did not take the fifty or so congregants and the preacher very long to determine the source of the sound, even if they could not determine what it was that caused the odd sound.

A young boy, sitting toward the front to the left of the preacher, sat frozen, as though his self-induced catatonic state might throw the spectators off suspicion. His beet-red ears, clearly visible to all those behind him because of their prominence, pointed directly to him as surely as a neon sign flashing above his head reading “HE DID IT!”

It took several seconds for the rattling sound to subside. In the meantime, the preacher resumed his sermon, hoping to draw the attention of the revival attendees at the small Baptist church back to more important matters. He was marginally successful. From the rouge shade of his own ears, it was clear that his level of discomfort was almost as great as the boy's, and he would deal with the young miscreant after the benediction was rendered.

When you are 9 years old, it's a pitifully short flash that streaks across your mind's eye when you know you are going to die. I knew I was dead the moment the plastic box flipped open unexpectedly as I tried to pry it open. I knew it when I saw, in slow motion, the tiny lead spheres spray in every direction, each landing with a series of bounces as it struck either the hardwood seat of the pew or the hardwood floor. That wooden floor, slanted toward the front of the sanctuary peculiar to old rural churches in that day. The little lead balls were everywhere—and still bouncing. And I would be dead before the evening was over. Or wish I was. I could see that much in the face—and ears—of my father as he tried to continue his sermon.

The plastic box, closed securely, had held two 20-Gauge shotgun shells worth of Number 8 Bird Shot lead pellets. I had carefully cut the shells open, poured out the pellets into the plastic box (which I am sure I had secured from one of my sisters, and which had most likely previously held something stupid and useless like hairpins—we called them “bobby pins", or maybe curler picks). I know there were two shotgun shells worth of pellets, because that's how much gunpowder it took to form my initials, KW, on the concrete floor of our basement—the parsonage, which I then lit on fire to burn the letters onto the floor. (How brilliant was I? “No, Mother, I didn't do that...I don't know whose initials those are!”).

Why I kept the bird shot in a plastic box I do not know. Why I put that box in my pocket and took it with me to that revival meeting, I do not know. Why I decided, during my father's sermon, to take that box out of my pocket and try to open it...Well, that is a question for the ages.

The message that evening seemed to end sooner than normal. When we were in the car, my father said simply, “You're going to get a whippin' when we get home.” He may as well have beheaded me then and there. I would rather he had. The car ride was a sentence and execution in itself.

Now, my father very rarely administered the whippin's. That was left to my mother. After delivering the testimony, the evidence, and the verdict, my father would retire and my mother would begin searching the kitchen and/or yard for the implement of my sentence. Any one of the items used to spank me with over the course of my childhood would be enough to make a government employee of a Children's Services department faint and fall in it today.

Yet somehow I survived. And somehow, the revival attendees had the opportunity to “revive” their spiritual relationships, in spite of the distraction and interruption caused by the preacher's kid. And we all moved ahead.

And what did I get in trouble for? This nine-year old boy did not get in trouble for playing with shotgun shells; for cutting them open and lighting gunpowder on fire in the basement of the parsonage. No, this P.K., this "Preacher's Kid" got in trouble for “acting up” in church and causing a disturbance. And of course, for embarrassing his father in front of all those people. 

But somehow I survived. Somehow, without government involvement, without years of therapy, without blame and psychological explanation, I survived.  My parents managed to raise me. They managed to survive me, and I them.

After that fateful night at that little Baptist church in the country, I never took another plastic box of lead bird shot to church with me again. Ever. Lesson learned. Oh, it didn't stop me from cutting apart shotgun shells, and I still burned my initials on the floor in gunpowder. I just never saved those tiny pellets to take to church. 

I took them to school.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

On Being Humorous

Disclaimer: I will be using Mark Twain as a reference here.  Please do not assume that I am comparing myself with Mark Twain.  Except maybe for my hair, which seems to be getting whiter.  And my rumpled clothing.  And my rural Missouri upbringing.  And perhaps even my own warped sense of humor and odd way of looking at life.  And my disdain for governmental bureaucracy.  But as a humorist, there is a thin minority of those who could compare.  I am in the majority.  I am not even a humorist.  I'm just strange. Having therefore disclaimed all things that might be incriminating, I push ahead using the format most preferred by those of us who could not otherwise be published: the vanity press of facebook and the Internet.

If one has a sense of humor, particularly if it is warped, and one has lived one's entire life in that enterprise, one risks being taken as a sort of court jester or class clown who, even though adulthood--advanced adulthood--has clearly landed upon one, finds it difficult to be taken seriously.  This is particularly true when one continually refers to oneself as "one."

Mark Twain, perhaps the greatest American humorist, because he was not only a great writer but also a gifted lecturer and entertainer, suffered this malady.  It is told that, during a lecture at a prestigious women's university, he intended to read a poem he had written, at the insistence of a friend.  He announced, "And now ladies, I am going to read you a poem of mine."  This was greeted by an outburst of laughter from the audience.  "But this truly is a serious poem," he insisted, only to be answered by even more laughter.  Put off by this response, he put the poem back in his pocket and said, "Well, young ladies, since you do not believe me to be serious, I shall not read the poem," at which the audience almost went into convulsions of laughter.

Mark Twain once said, "It is a very serious and a very difficult matter to doff the mask of humor with which the public is accustomed, in thought, to see me adorned.  It is the incorrigible practice of the see only humor in the humorist, however serious his vein." [emphasis added]

I have been told, throughout my own life, that "it is impossible to take you serious."  I have been told, by more than one woman, "I just can't think of you that way--I would always be expecting a joke."  I have even been told, after writing a serious piece, that "it wasn't that funny...not your best effort."

So while I cannot possibly sit on the same bench as Mark Twain, I do understand his statement of the "incorrigible practice of the see only humor in the humorist..."

I'm not sure how Mr. Clemens handled it, late at night when no one was watching or listening.  But I've decided that it's worth it.  Besides, at this point in my life, I have found it very convenient to say "I'm too old to change now."

My apologies to any who thought there was still hope for me.