Reverend America

By Kris Saknussemm


Dark Coast Press
February 2012


"Casper," as in the Friendly Ghost, came in jail. 

Gaspenny is a German name, like many that had gotten mangled into some Anglo-Saxon approximation in the rugged anthracite hollers of West Virginia where he'd been born.  As far as he knew, he'd taken his first breath in Mink Shoals in the drab frost bound month of March 1952, a blink-once town in Kanawha County, on the Elk River—although his mother (believed to have been but 15 when she gave birth) turned him over to a Methodist-run way house on the outskirts of Charleston the very next day. 

Charleston is of course much larger than Mink Shoals, and is the state capital (one of those that people get wrong, thinking that the answer is Wheeling—and the answer is never Wheeling).  But that's not to say it's a city as such.  It was then the kind of place where rumors circulated about the Mickleburtons, a family of melonheads who ate tomcats and sucked on the windshields of lovers' cars.  He spent the first five years of his life there in the custody of the church.  He never met or heard from his birth mother and knew less than nothing about his blood father.

His first memories were of an austere shingled house . . . four or five other children at any given time . . . scoldings . . . a hot water bottle he used to hold when he cried.  Sometimes there was marble cake—and once Dowdy the fixit man brought in some venison that he'd killed and dressed.  "You're one of the Fortunates," he was told.

Plops of sticky oat porridge in the morning (that "fought back" as Dowdy put it) . . . with cane syrup if you were lucky . . . gravy and tooth breaking biscuits at night . . . cabbage rolls . . . sauerkraut . . . horseradish sauce.  Squirrel was often served.  The adults savored the brains.  More often than not though, the meat was from tins of old war surplus—Spam and Rado, a heavy smelling sardine paste that came in a bright orange can.  It tasted bright orange—with so much salt you needed dripping bread and a glass of water with every bite—along with an amber jelly at the bottom that he imagined had been squeezed from the belly of the Snaggletooth Fish that the mountain people mythologized. 

All manner of fun modern food was out of the question, along with television, picture books, board games and bedtime stories.  The only radio they were allowed to listen to was Reverend Quintus Jones' Sunshine Gospel Hour, where they learned to sing "Jesus comes to us alone, Jesus comes as one Unknown."  The Bit-O-Honey Little Rascals life of other children doors away was as remote as the far side of the moon.  There were no jawbreakers, Milk Duds or wax fangs on Halloween.  On Thanksgiving there was never a golden bird packed with stuffing, with pumpkin pie and whipped cream afterward.  They had a "Prayer Loaf" (the less said the better), canned pear crumble and cottage cheese.  Christmas morning brought nothing bright like a robot or a silver cap gun.  The Lord's birthday meant new underwear and a Hope candle—and if there had been sufficient donations during the year, a slice of brown sugar glazed ham and flaccid carrots.  If not, corn beef and Jell-O salad. 

The children shared the same room, with metal frame cots that were always cold.  Every day they got a bristle bath with no model boats or toy frogmen to distract them.  Anuses and genitals were inspected.  Lotion to repel head lice applied.  Using the toilet was a matter of strict observation and control.  Wetting the bed provoked "wrist basting" (implemented with what a street away was understood to be a spatula, perfect for flipping griddle cakes and piling them on plates of oily link sausages and huckleberries).  Anything perceived to be an act of willful disobedience or "uproar" met with a bare bottom "blistering." 

In fact, the spankings weren't that severe.  As intended, the real punishment was the humiliation of bending over exposed before the others, gripping your ankles and trying not to topple forward.  The one gray woman who really was mean was only there his last few months.  The other ladies called her "The Duchess."  The Duchess insisted that you buckled your knees together when "adopting the position," so that the brown eye was visible to all.  She was a big one for seeing the brown eye.

Something "devilish," such as a tantrum or unexplained crying fit, required a cold ducking, and the heavy steel bucket that was used was hung in plain sight from a tow hook in the sleeping quarters as a continuous warning every bit as ominous as the bloody Christ nailed to his Cross that hung on the opposite wall. 

For any infraction more grievous than this, you went to the Lonely Room—a chamber next door to the dorm area that could've been converted into a game room or rumpus room—but which had been left stark white with a low watt bulb, the only object inside, a dog bowl filled with water. 

Day to day, life at the way house consisted of sleeping, bathing, eating, praying, and adjourning to the Lesson Room, a parlor fitted out with a blackboard, a liver spotted globe, and shelves of Christian periodicals and Bible stories for children, the only illustrated books they were allowed to see (along with Bibles and copies of The Book of Common Prayer). 

The lambs and camels . . . men in gleaming robes and Roman soldiers shimmered into rich fantasies of travel and adventure.  Casper seized on them the way other boys might've embraced Bat Masterson, the Flash or Y.A. Tittle.  These color-saturated pages with their cribbed fables and watered down Biblical passages opened the world to him, making him hungry for the salvation of amazement.

The strangest inhabitant of the Lesson Room was the globe, because the only time he remembered it being used, there were but three places on it:  the Holy Land, America and West Virginia.  The word "Earth" had to be managed with caution (as in Heaven and Earth) and any discussion of the planets was off limits because that might lead to talk of alien invasions.  The important thing was that God had made everything.  Anything hinting at "the marvels of science" was forbidden.  Concerning matters like electricity, the usual answer had something to do with the government via the grace of God.  The Lesson Room was just another Lonely Room in spite of its furnishings. 

Even the slightest reference by one of the older kids to swordfights or Space Patrol meant excommunication for a full day to the white silence.  There was no jungle gym or monkey bars—no bats or balls.  The children were let outside in a fenced-in area behind the house to scuffle and sing "Skip to My Lou," the one non-religious tune they were free to enjoy.  Flies in the buttermilk, shoo fly, shoo. 

After lunch and before the afternoon nap, they were marched around the block in single file.  It was a big block of somber houses, many imposing and decaying nearby, others more working class around the corner.  Twice a day there was a prayer meeting and every afternoon a singing lesson, when they'd struggle through "A Door Was Opened in Heaven."  Casper much preferred the hymns of the Black Sojourners, the Only Men, as they were called—early traveling preachers who'd often once been slaves . . .  "Time of My Time" and "When I Faced the Devil Down"—those seemed real and heroic songs to him.  The lyrics were simple and yet the music was more rousing.  He'd later come to realize that what he responded to was more interesting chord progressions and always a time signature change in the chorus.  He took to the singing, savoring every moment.

The lessons took place in the foreboding brick church next door and required crossing past the brick and stone home of the pastor—what the Baptists down the street called the Pastorium, but the Methodists referred to as the Manse—although the term Rectory would've been more apt. 

The sanctuary was stone, brought to life only by the rose colored light that streamed through the stained-glass windows.  They attended every church service and the prayer sessions, sitting with lips sealed in a pew at the back. 

Coober Titch, who wore flood pants and had a perspiration problem, was the organist—after Loralia Meegus had "given up the ghost."  He played the hymns an octave too high for even the choir to sing.  Great is thy faithfulness . . . great is thy faithfulness. 

There were many funerals in the church, sometimes open casket affairs, which stirred nightmares amongst the children (especially when Dowdy told them that coffins were like Mexican jumping beans, with the bodies always trying to get out).  Often there were mining accidents—not big ones that made the national news, just quiet tragedies—and the women bathed the soot from the bodies of the dead miners out in the back of the kitchen.

Once one of their own died.  An older boy named Everett, who had no hair and walked on metal crutches.  A spastic girl named Amelia was sent grunting somewhere else—perhaps to the State Orphanage, which they were shown photographs of to make them feel blessed.  But Casper made friends with a blind girl named Carina and taught her how to clap in time, singing, "I took Jesus as my savior, you take him too."  Music came easily to him.

It was in the church where they were all baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, for lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.

From the beginning he was raised on the Bible, cod liver oil, the broom and the bucket.  But he learned to sit up straight, to spell and to write, some basic arithmetic, to wipe himself, and to accept Jesus as his savior.  As it turned out, his saviors proved to be an older couple with a dubious past and even more questionable motives.  But he found a way out of the way house at least.  As his adoptive father often told him later, "Any way is often the only way."