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A Preacher's Kid is exposed

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By BILL MAXWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2001


CRESCENT CITY -- The little old woman, probably in her 80s, stared at me far too long. Although we were at least 10 yards apart, she knew that she recognized me. I vaguely recognized her.

"You're Elder Bentley's grandboy, ain't you?" she asked, now standing in front of me.

"Yes, ma'am," I said, suddenly feeling claustrophobic.

"You such a good boy." She patted my arm.

"Yes, ma'am," I replied, trying to hide the bottle of wine behind my back.

I grinned and backed toward the cashier. If she saw the wine, she did not let on. I paid and literally ran from the store. I had returned to Crescent City, where I spent several childhood years, to settle a property matter.

Climbing into my Blazer, I knew that life finally had caught up with me. Reality had come crashing down, no more pretense, no more hiding, no more nice Preacher's Kid, or PK, as I was called as a child. The cloak had been removed.

Elder Bentley's grandboy, PK, had been spotted buying wine in broad daylight, no less.

Yes, I had been reared as a PK, at least when I lived with my grandfather, a Presiding Elder in a local Pentecostal denomination. My greatest challenge, as it was for all PKs, was to avoid bringing "shame" on the family. Called the House of God, Church of the Living God, the Pillar Ground of the Truth Without Controversy, my grandfather's denomination had absolute bans on drinking, smoking, chewing, dipping, gambling, cussing, listening to secular music and fornicating. These were sins that, without forgiveness, would send you straight to eternal hell.

PKs were a special breed. We walked a straight line -- at least in public. During my pre-teen years, I went with my grandparents to church every Sunday, all day. I was quiet around parishioners and sang in the children's choir. My voice was awful, but I sang anyway, always off key, which endeared me to many of the women. They thought I was cute for trying so hard.

In church, I pretended that I was listening to the sermons and testimonies. In reality, I enjoyed a secret life: I was thinking about the stories I had read during the week -- the tales of Jack London, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Pearl Buck, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Thomas Wolfe, Sinclair Lewis.

I also daydreamed about the adventures portrayed in National Geographic, Look and Life magazines. Church was boring and I hated it. I wanted to hop on a train or a ship and experience new places and new people.

The closest I came to religion was my color-illustrated book of Bible stories, which I still own. Many of the tales in the Old Testament were plain scary. The New Testament was repetitive and unreal. But I loved the drawings of Jerusalem, Calvary, the rugged mountains of Palestine and the incredible buildings and other structures in Egypt. (To this day, I love that part of the world.)

I never told anyone that my buddies and I did not believe the story of how Mary became pregnant. It did not make sense to our young minds. We used to fall down howling at the very notion of an angelic impregnation. We knew how babies were made. We long ago had dismissed that stupid stork.

But there I was, a PK, a quiet child, sitting in church pretending to be attentive, faking that I, too, wanted to be a preacher.

As a teenager, after getting my driver's license, my grandparents let me drive them everywhere. When my grandfather participated in out-of-town tent revivals, I was in heaven. I felt like a big shot driving our shiny green Chevy into new towns. The other boys envied me, a PK. The highlight of those trips came when my grandfather started trusting me enough to let me take the car while he worshiped. I would invite local boys to come with me and show me around. I was their hero.

I took great care of the car, so that my grandfather would let me drive whenever I wanted. During all the years that I drove the Chevy, I never had an accident or got a scratch on it. Every Saturday, I washed and waxed it and swept it out with a whisk broom. I considered it my car.

Unlike most other children during those years, PKs cultivated the fine art of staying off the radar screens of adults. We knew that to get away with real mischief, you had to put up a good front whenever an adult was nearby. That way, you built up trust and a reputation for being the "nice Preacher's Kid," one who could be trusted.

After you developed such trust, you could get away with murder right under adults' noses. Well, not murder, but lying through your teeth, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, reading pornographic magazines and messing around with girls.

Indeed, no adult ever saw me commit a serious wrong, as far as I know. I was the perfect PK, the kid who chauffeured his aging grandparents, who wore starched white shirts and shiny black shoes, who made good grades in school, who never talked back to grown-ups, the college-bound football player. I even went with my grandfather sometimes when he visited sick church members.

When I graduated from high school, the church gave me an unheard-of $300 scholarship. I was the first person connected with the church to attend college. The money paid for my train ticket to Texas. It also financed a semester's worth of cigarettes and beer. I never told anyone back home about my budding profligacy. PK's were a tight-lipped, secretive bunch.

Driving away from that store in Crescent City, I remembered exactly who the woman was: one of the church members who raised my $300 scholarship in 1963. On that day, she had seen me buying wine. For the first time in many years, I, a 55-year-old man, felt ashamed -- as if I had done something really, really bad in the presence of an adult.

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