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  • Writer's pictureSteven Cornelius

A Special Church Service in Eastern Kentucky

I was nine years old and back on the road with my Aunt Beulah and her daughter Peggy deep into a cold December day in eastern Kentucky. It was late Saturday afternoon and we were winding down a visit with kinfolk. I leaned my straight-backed chair against an outside wall near the wood heater and watched the light coming through dusty, west facing windows grow weaker by the minute; a deep black nightfall chased the fading sunset west. As I sat looking out past a distant ridgeline my kinfolk lapsed into silence; after two days, they were finally talked out. Outside, the darkness was now utter and complete, as though our small cabin had been dropped into the depths of Mammoth Cave. My time in winter gray Kentucky was pleasant enough; I mainly spent the daylight hours working one end of a crosscut saw turning a ten foot high pile of oak and hickory logs into a much bigger pile of firewood.

After we left it would be someone else’s job to work a sledge and wedge, splitting the large chunks we’d cut into sticks that would fit into the stove. Watching my great uncle head out the backdoor to the woodpile and then return, I jumped out of my chair and helped my great uncle carry in a half-dozen sticks of firewood, stuffing the heater full enough to last until morning. A bit later, we ate a fine supper and began winding down. A couple of hours later, as we prepared to turn in for the night, Boo told me and Peggy that she had promised her sister we would attend church services the next morning. We were supposed to leave for home right after breakfast, but now those plans had changed. I shrugged and offered, “Once we eat breakfast, whatever comes next is okay with me.” Early the next morning, we got our things together for the long trip home and then joined everyone else already working in the kitchen. Aunt Boo and my maternal kin made a fine breakfast that would stick to our ribs; eggs, a large platter of biscuits, a gallon of gravy and mounds of sugar cured, thick cut maple smoked ham, pulled right from their smokehouse. The aroma drifting out of the kitchen was indescribably good. The last fifteen minutes before we could sit down to eat was tough on all of us. Finally, the table was set and steaming mugs of hot coffee poured for the adults; with a glass of ice cold water drawn right from the well for us youngsters.

An hour later, everyone had been fed and the dishes washed and put away. We packed up what we brought and then some, throwing everything except sandwiches for the trip home into the trunk of Peggy’s 1954 Ford Crestline. The three of us piled into that black Ford sedan and sat shivering while Peggy ground the starter, furiously pumping the gas pedal trying to coax a cold soaked engine to life. The engine sputtered and finally caught. A minute later we were bouncing along a hilly gravel road dusted with traces of a light snowfall, residue from the night before. Trips anywhere in Hazard County always seemed to take longer than anticipated. My great uncle made me smile one day when he said, “Hit’s only fifteen miles to town, but if you was to stretch the road out straight it would be twiced that.” He was a good man, and I learned a lot from him. The Pentecostal church were were headed for was about ten miles up the road from their homestead. By the time we crunched to a stop in the gravel parking lot, the old Ford was just warming up enough to thaw out our frozen toes. I was relieved to see a thin wisp of white woodsmoke spiraling from a black metal stovepipe on the backside of a rusty roof; a promise of warmth to come. We stomped up snowy, frost brittle steps, filed into the small church and found a pew four or five rows back on the left side of the pulpit. Early arrivers sat huddled together, shivering as they waited for the potbellied stove in the back corner to throw off enough heat to drive away the persistent winter chill. I burrowed deeper into the small warm pocket I’d made between Boo and Peggy, settling in for what past experience told me would be a long sermon. It never failed that once a preacher...any preacher got wound up, it was tough to get them to stop and turn the congregation loose.

Sitting there, so cold I could see my breath, I wasn’t thinking of eternal salvation. Instead, my mind drifted toward a warm ride home munching on tasty ham sandwiches wrapped in wax paper, tucked inside a well-used paper bag…or poke as my great aunt called it. Thirty minutes later, the wood heater finally had a rosy glow, and the small church was warming up nicely. By now, almost all the pews were packed with kin and neighbors. I caught the sound of the front doors creaking open and then quickly closing against the bitter cold and thought with some satisfaction, well the preacher is finally here, and we can get this show on the road. Instead of the preacher, a tall, rail thin old man wearing creased and starched blue overalls with curly silver hair and a wispy white beard clomped down the aisle, the sound of his deeply scuffed, heavy winter boots echoing off the bare, sawmill cut walls. The old man held a fairly large brown burlap sack in his right hand, which he dropped directly in front of the pulpit before shuffling to the right and dropping heavily onto the first pew to our right.

A couple of minutes later the preached strode down the center aisle, quickly climbed three steps, stood behind the pulpit, greeted the congregation and began preaching. I sat daydreaming for several minutes while the preacher warmed to the task and really got going. According to him, hellfire and brimstone was in store for almost everyone on earth…unless you had unquestioning faith. After a bit, I glanced at that sack and noticed it was beginning to move. I leaned over and whispered to Aunt Boo, “What do you think is in that sack?” Aunt Boo shook her head and shushed me. Well, I didn’t have long to wait for the mystery to be revealed. A couple of minutes later, the preacher, now really worked up, stepped down from the pulpit, quickly knelt and pulled the twine string holding the sack closed. After a few seconds, he closed his eyes and reached his right hand inside and pulled out a half-grown Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake. Holding the snake about six inches behind its triangular head, he stood and thrust it upward, his face red as a beet and covered with sweat as he waved the writhing pit viper around, shouting to his flock, “If you have unquestioning faith, come join me!”

The preacher pointed toward the bag, urging others to come forward and prove themselves, and many did, rushing toward the sack, reaching inside and randomly pulling out a poisonous snake: some fished out smallish rust-brown Copperheads, others grabbed more deadly dull silver and black rattlesnakes and amazingly enough, two people reached in and brought out my old friend the water moccasin. Warmed by the heater and human touch, the snakes shook off their lethargy, coiling around the handler’s arms, swinging their heads back and forth, tongues rapidly sampling the air trying to figure out who or what to strike. I was taken completely aback. I attended church almost every Sunday back home, but I had certainly never seen anything like the scene unfolding before me. I watched reasonably smart adults exercise very poor judgment by indiscriminately handling poisonous snakes and found it unnerving.

I leaned against Aunt Boo and whispered, “I don’t like this, I’m going to the car,” and then quietly slid down from the pew and made my way outside, quickly climbing into the backseat of that unheated Ford. I sat for ten uncomfortable minutes pressing my round face close enough to fog the back side window. I gave a sigh of relief when I finally saw my aunt and cousin hurrying down the front steps of the church, jumping into the Ford as well. As we drove away, I leaned forward and asked, “Did anyone get bit?” Aunt Boo shook her head no, and then quickly added, “Them snakes was really beginning to move around and get frisky, and I didn’t want one crawling in our direction, so it was time to go.” Relieved to put distance between us and that church, I sat back and nodded vigorously…” My thoughts exactly!”

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