Saturday

HOLY ROLLER GIRL

by Randy Reynolds

Gene’s mother Maude was a staunch Baptist—though staunch may not be a strong enough word.  When they lived near a Baptist church, she and Bonnell marched the little ones to it every Sunday morning.  Later, they moved to the mill village, where there was no Baptist church—the Baptists and Methodists shared a building, alternating Sundays.  Maude didn’t go to that one, but Bonnell walked the children to it for Sunday School.  On Sunday afternoons, Mormon elders, who had no church building in Gainesville,  conducted services at the Reynolds home.  The elders had at least one night-service a week in someone’s house in the mill village, and they often held that meeting in the Reynolds’ home, too.

In addition to this exposure to adult religion, Gene played church with the neighborhood children.  He pretended to be a preacher when he was barely old enough to use snuff and to smoke, which was about the age of three or four.  (The child was a prodigy with anything related to tobacco.)  By day,when visiting Grandpa Allen Reynolds’ house, Gene the toddler smoked cigars and preached cusswords, pretending a Sears Roebuck catalog was his Bible.  Chesty Reynolds, his grandmother, would say to her husband, “Allen you ought to be ashamed.”  But it was just too side-splittingly funny to stop.   Gene also got a dose of serious religion on those visits to Grandpa’s because they were devout Mormons.  Each evening—on the porch in good weather, inside by the fireplace in bad—they read scripture, sang hymns and prayed.  


No wonder, then, that when Gene got old enough to skip school, he’d sneak into the woods and the thing he thought of to occupy his time was to preach to the trees.  At grammar school age, he also conducted services behind the chicken coops with neighborhood kids playing the part of his church congregation.

Religion was many things in young Gene’s life, including entertainment. There was no other show like it in the mill village or the county.

At Springway in July of his 16th year, word of a tent revival caught his attention.  A couple of fire-and-brimstone preachers, H.R. Appling of the Church of God and Roy Merck of the Congregational Holiness Church would be there to save the lost and heal the sick. 

The Reverend Appling often preached on street corners.  He’d put his little daughter Violet on a chair or a flatbed trailer and she’d belt out songs accompanied by him on the accordion until their singing and playing attracted a crowd for him to light into with a Holy Ghost sermon.  Violet was singing in the streets and in her father’s church at about the same time as Gene was preaching to the trees and to his playmates in the mill village.  Although Gene may have passed by one or more of those crowds when little Violet was singing her heart out, he did not remember her when Rev. Appling and Rev. Merck dumped that load of sawdust in Springway on a vacant lot across from the house of Ralph Miller, a devout Mormon, who often worshipped with the Reynolds family.

A tent went up over the sawdust,  and volunteers set out more than a hundred chairs, built a make-shift stage and strung electricity to it.  Flyers were distributed throughout the community and interest was high.

This tent revival was the turning point in Gene Reynolds’ life.  Here he would meet the girl who would spend the rest of her life with him and bear him six children, including me.  Here he would have his first exposure to the unbridled religious fervor of the folks that outsiders derisively called the Holy Rollers. It was here that a frightening and energetic style of worship struck a chord in the heart of this young boy who had read the Bible, studied religions and practiced preaching for as long as he could remember.

On the first night of the revival, undoubtedly the loudest gathering he had ever heard, he was impressed by the boisterous singing, the fervent preaching, the claims of miraculous healing and the dancing and shouting of people babbling in “unknown tongues.”  It was thrilling, intriguing, overpowering.  And so, more or less, was the beautiful girl he met that night—the daughter of a Holy Roller preacher.

They sat together in folding chairs sunk partway into the sawdust floor, paying furtive attention to each other, saying very little but obviously forging a connection.  He and the preacher’s daughter agreed to meet again the next night.  

Gene couldn’t wait to see the young girl again, and the feeling was obviously mutual.  Gene Reynolds would talk about her to his friends the next day.  And the preacher’s daughter, Betty Ann Young, would mention her handsome new boyfriend to her closest friend, Violet Appling.



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Thursday

A BROTHER'S KEEPER

By Randy Reynolds                                               


Bullies didn’t mess with Gene Reynolds and it was not because he was a good fighter.  He described himself as puny during those first years after his bout with encephalitis. During five days of almost nonstop convulsions, Dr. Weeks had kept him knocked out with chloroform.   When he awoke, the doctor had pointed to the ceiling and said, “We didn’t do anything.  HE did.”  (Meaning God.)  Seeing as how chloroform was the doctor’s only weapon, he was undoubtedly right about his ineffectiveness.

God called Gene to preach soon afterward, so here was a boy who owed his life to God and was planning to devote his future to the service of God and was getting plenty of practice preaching to the trees and to the kids of the neighborhood gathered in worship behind the chicken coops, where Gene not only preached but took up a collection. Many years later, when Gene was staying with Rodney and Sandra Jeffords for a revival, she says she caught him preaching to a mirror.  “Just warming up for the service,” he said.   It seemed that he’d been warming up all his life to spread the teachings of Christianity—including stuff like if you get smitten on the cheek, turn the other cheek so your enemy can smite you again.

Though he was already teaching this to his congregations of trees, children and chickens, he didn’t live it.   He didn’t have to because if anybody smote him on the cheek, Gene’s brother and uncle would smite them right back on his behalf.

His brother Winfred, two years older, wouldn’t  let anybody mess with Gene.   His Uncle Gold, four years older but in the same grade because of his late start in school, was country-strong and also looked out for Gene.  When Gene was picked on at school or around home, one of these two often came to his rescue. 

Gold, however, had a strong sense of fairness, so his help depended on the circumstances. 

When Gene dared Junior Smith, the grocer’s son, to come up a little hill, one of two on their school playground, Junior stepped right up.   Gene scrambled up the other hill and said, ‘You better not come up here” Junior came up that hill, too, and stood toe-to-toe with the future preacher.  Uncle Gold saw it all and when Gene said, “Gold, this boy is picking on me” Gold refused to help.  “You started it, so get back in there and finish it.”  Junior Smith gave Gene a butt-kicking that should have taught him not to dare people, but it didn’t.  Gene was a slow learner about some things.

When the Reynolds family lived outside the New Holland mill village, a kid named Junior Martin lived across the street.  Junior and Gene were third cousins and great buddies, but one day Gene felt like establishing his superiority and/or territory.  They weren’t mad. They hadn’t been arguing.  But Gene, just like he’d done at school with Junior Smith, issued a challenge. “I dare you to cross this street.”

Junior didn’t know what was going on, but he couldn’t refuse a dare without losing face, so he crossed the street.  Gene backed up to the sidewalk and said, “You better not step on this sidewalk.”

Junior came onto the sidewalk.   Gene hurried up the cement steps leading from the sidewalk up to the Reynolds yard and said, “I’ll whup you if you come up here.”

Junior came up to the yard.

Gene retreated to the porch and said, “I’ll make you sorry if you come on this porch.”

Junior started toward the porch and Gene turned to go in the house only to find his daddy standing behind the screen door.

Gene was frantic.  “Let me in!”

“You go right back out there and take your medicine,” said Bonnell.

Junior Martin tore him up and Gene decided if anybody else wanted to fight, they could start it their own self.  

Gold and Bonnell had both stood up and made him do what they considered the right thing.  He had challenged somebody to a fight, so they had made him fight.  But Wint wasn’t that hard on his little brother.  He didn’t care who was picking on whom, he always stood up for Gene.  Not that Gene ever returned the favor.

When some Springway boys, including the Reynolds brothers, were walking home from a basketball game one night in 1944, they had to go through Rabbittown.  Some tough boys lived in Rabbittown and they didn’t like Springway boys any better than Hatfields liked Mccoys.  Going through Rabbittown on foot at night was dangerous and the Springway boys knew it, but they figured there was safety in numbers and there were five of them in the crew, the 16-year-old Wint being the oldest.

When five Rabbittown boys blocked their way, Gene knew his group was in trouble.  It was five against five, but the Rabbittown’ers were bigger and older.  They looked to be 19 or 20.  So Gene did what his genes told him to do and Winfred did what his instructed.  Gene took off running and Wint stayed to fight.  The other three Springway boys ran after Gene, so Wint was left to fight the five Rabbittown men all alone.

When Gene ran till he couldn’t run anymore, he began to have second thoughts.  “We better go back and see what happened to Wint.”

The other boys agreed and they turned around to begin the search for Wint’s body.

They found Wint staggering up the road, alone and bloody, holding a hand over his chest.  They’d worked him over pretty good and he was unable to stand upright. 

Gene says, “Wint didn’t have sense enough not to fight.”

Which was a good thing.  He saved Gene’s bacon many times.

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Sandra Bowen Jeffords Gene and Violet were visiting with Rodney and me...he was in his room with the door open preaching to the mirror. He looked up and saw me and said he was warming up for the service that morning.

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Wednesday

CHICKEN HAWK

by Randy Reynolds

Gene was showing off in front of his good friends Harold Washburn and Joel Taylor (not the mill village Joel Taylor Gene had shot; this was three years later and Gene’s family had moved back to Springway; this was the Springway Joel Taylor.)

Gene, who had been practicing with his Bowie knife, pointed toward a wire cage where a dominecker rooster was  in solitary confinement, being fattened up for Thanksgiving.  “Watch this!”

Gene threw the knife. It went through the wire, the blade struck the rooster in the head and he proceeded to expire on the spot. 

“Awwwww, man, did you see that!” said Joel.

“That was a one in a million-million shot!” said Harold.

Gene retrieved the knife and wiped it against his leg.  “Nothing to it. Let’s go roast him.”

Beyond the hill behind the Reynolds’ yard was a little clearing where these same chicken thieves had feasted on rustled poultry several times the preceding summer, though none of it had been slain in such a spectacular and efficient manner as the rooster. The clearing wasn’t that far from the house, but was hidden by the hill.


Fat from the plump dominecker on the home-made spit dripped into the fire, sizzling as it sent up a thin column of smoke.  The chicken was turning golden brown and its smell was so enticing it was torture for the boys.   

“Gene!” It was Maude Reynolds' voice and not all that far away.

Joel panicked. "It's your mother! What we gonna do?"

“Y’all be quiet,” said Gene.

Maude was getting closer. “What’s all that smoke?"

"Just a minute! I'm coming!" he yelled.

“Are y’all playing with fire back there?” asked Maude.

Gene ran over the hill before his mother got to the top of it.

“We just roastin’ some marshmellers!  I’m being careful.”

“Well, y’all put out that fire good when you’re finished.”

"We will.  And I'll bring you some roasted marshmellers if the boys don't eat 'em all."  Gene smiled beatifically.

Maude smiled, too.  Her boy was always thinking of his mother and that made her so proud.

"I'll be doing laundry," she said.

"Marshmellers comin' right up," said Gene.

Maude walked down the hill to a pile of clothes outside the kitchen door. Gene watched her begin loading them into the washing machine in the yard before he turned around and made his way back to the clearing, ravenous now for some of that chicken, smacking his lips, anticipating how good it was going to taste cooked just shy of crisp, steaming hot and, best of all, stolen.

But when he got there, the fire was out, the stick spit had been kicked apart and Harold, Joel and the rooster had disappeared to parts unknown.  Gene cussed them to the limit of his talent.


That day (in late November) was Maude’s birthday and she had baked a chocolate cake to celebrate.  After supper, she walked behind each person at the table, dishing out cake as they held up their plates.

“Funniest thing," she said to no one in particular. "That dominecker rooster I had in the cage is missing.”

“Well, maybe a hawk or something got him, probably," said Gene.

“We’ve had the most hawks this year,” said Maude, ladling brown gravy onto Bonnell’s cake the way he liked it.

“How in the Sam Hill did a hawk steal a chicken that was cooped up?” asked Bonnell.

Gene said,  “Ohhh, you mean that dominecker?  Was he supposed to be left in the cage?  I thought he was in there by mistake.”

Willeen, just behind Gene in birth order, sensed an opening. “How does a rooster get locked up by mistake?” 

Toddler Katrina said,  “Maybe them hens locked him up ‘cause he’s always fightin’ and gettin’ on top of ‘em.”

Willeen's eyebrows went up and she said, as casually as she could,   “Seems like hawks took a lot of our chickens last summer. Not to mention the one that was ‘accidentally’ killed with bb’s.”

Winfred smiled, remembering Christmas Eve when Gene had tried to convince their daddy that a dead rooster in the back yard was the victim of a pure de out accident

“Me and Wint tested out our new bb guns last night, shootin’ out the back door.  We must’ve hit the rooster by mistake.”

In the Christmas spirit, their Daddy had let them off with a warning. “It ain’t easy to kill a rooster with a bb gun by mistake! If anything like this happens again, I’ll take them guns back where I got ‘em.  Now, y’all dress this chicken and take him to Maudie.”

Gene had watched Wint clean the chicken.  “Dammit, I wanted to take that chicken over the hill and roast him.  We could’a had a mighty fine meal off that rooster.”

Wint had said, “We’re gonna eat ‘im anyway.  What’s the difference?” 

“It just tastes better outside.”

“You mean it tastes better  if you sneak and do it.”



Now that everyone had been served a big slice of birthday cake, Maude took her seat.  “I just can't get over that chicken hawk stealin' chickens right out from under our noses."

"That's what chicken hawks do," said Gene.

When he became a preacher, Gene knew when to shut up. As he would often say, “You gotta stand up to be seen, speak to be heard and shut up and sit down to be appreciated." But shutting up at the right moment—timing, some people call it—was a skill that had to be learned, and Gene had not yet perfected it. 

He talked on (as salesmen would say) past the point of the sale.  “That rooster must have thought it was his lucky day when I opened the cage and let him out. But then he got unlucky if a hawk saw him. How did I know a chicken hawk was gonna get him?   I was just trying to do the right thing, like I always do. ”   

Bonnell said, “Hell’s bells, boy, I don’t know what I’m gone do with you!”

A fork clanged against Maude’s plate.  “Bonnell, don’t use profanity at the table.”

Bonnell mumbled something too low for Maude to hear.

Winfred smiled. 

Gene said, “A person sure don’t get appreciated much around here for trying to help.”






Tuesday

SHOOTING A MAD DOG FOR MARGARET

by Randy Reynolds

The Joel Taylor that Gene Reynolds shot with a .22 rifle was not the Joel Taylor that later helped Gene dress like a girl to stop traffic at Springway.  The Joel Taylor that was shot lived right across the street from Gene and right next door to Margaret England, the girl Gene was trying to impress when he shot Joel.

Margaret was Gene’s soul mate—for the Fifth Grade, anyway.  Margaret realized it  before Gene did, so she passed him a note in class:  “Dear Gene, I like you. Do you like me?  Check Yes __ No__ Maybe___.”  He thought about it a moment and checked Yes and they began their courtship, which consisted mainly of making sweet eyes at each other across the room and sitting together on the school bus.  She also became a member of the little congregation Gene preached to behind the chicken coops.  Because of his desire for Margaret’s nearness, Gene spent as much time as he could playing with her little brother Ralph and visiting with her neighbor, the Joel Taylor who was going to get shot.

It was little wonder that Margaret chose Gene to give her heart  to.  He was a good-looking little ragamuffin and as all the neighborhood children and some of the chickens well knew, he could preach up a storm.  In addition to which, he had his own transportation—the goat and wagon that he frequently drove up and down the street in front of Margaret ’s house.  Gene was her hero.  And when called to action, the day the mad dog appeared, he responded like a hero.

Margaret’s daddy had been put in the asylum for what her mother described as a nervous condition.  Mrs. England was somewhat nervous herself, and it scared her when a dog came into her yard.  She accused it of foaming at the mouth and having a fit so she went inside and got her rifle.  Margaret, Joel and Ralph got out of her way, but Gene saw his chance to impress Margaret and said,  “Gimme the gun and I’ll shoot him for you.”

Mrs. England handed him the loaded single-shot .22. 

Gene pulled the hammer back and his brain gave the command for his finger to press the trigger at the same moment Joel’s brain gave his hand the command to grab the gun.

“Here, let me do it!” said Joel, grabbing the barrel as Gene fired.

The bullet went through the fleshy part of his leg, not far from the groin, blood started gushing and Joel screamed hysterically.  A neighbor-man, Mr. Allison saw what happened and rushed into the yard as Gene picked up the boy who was almost his own size, and ran to Mr. Allison.  They got a tourniquet on the leg despite the assistance of Joel’s mother who had come out to see what was going on and began screaming like she was the one that had been shot.  With Joel, Mrs. Taylor and Gene in the backseat, Mr. Allison sped to the clinic at the New Holland cotton mill.

Gene had blood all over his clothes and the doctors, at first, thought he was the one who had been shot.


Joel had trouble with that leg for the rest of his life, but he and Gene remained good friends.  The Margaret soul mate thing didn’t work out though she probably never forgot her first hero Gene Reynolds, the Pied Piper in the goat-wagon who preached sermons behind the chicken coops and tried to impress her by shooting a mad dog.

Monday

THE LAST SNIPE HUNT

 By Randy Reynolds

Most people don’t know it, but there really is a game bird called the snipe.  It flushes like quail and is hunted with bird dogs.  Pranksters also use the word in a practical joke that, for generations, older boys have played on younger boys and country folk have pulled on city slickers.

Mormon elders snowed in at the Allen Reynolds place in the Glade in Hall County, Georgia, in the winter of 1943 were perfect candidates for a snipe hunt.  Or so thought young Gene, who was spending the week with his grandparents and his Uncle Gold. 

Gold was four years older than Gene, who was 13 at the time of the Last Snipe Hunt. They were in the same grade at school owing to the fact that Gold’s daddy (Gene’s grandpa) had kept him in the fields full time before finally allowing him to start school at the age of 10.  Uncle Gold and his nephew were big buddies.

The elders had been proselytizing in the hill country in the northern part of Hall County, Georgia, spending their nights with first one family and then another till the snow locked them in at the Reynolds farm.

As nightfall neared and conversation waned, Gene said, “Perfect snipe weather, ain’t it, Gold?"

“Oh, this is just right, Gene.”

“I sure would love to go hunt some snipes, but we ain’t got enough people.  There’s me and there’s you, that’s two.   But we gotta have four.  Who else can we get to go?”

Chesty (Gene’s grandmother/Gold’s mother) allowed herself a barely perceptible shake of her head, not wanting them to pull this prank on the honored guests but also not going to tell them not to.  Allen Reynolds, warming his feet by the fire, stared into the flames, pretending not to notice what his son and grandson were cooking up.

“Y’all probly ain’t never hunted no snipes before,” said Gene.

“Can’t say as I have. I’ve just never been much of a hunter, myself,” said the eldest elder.

“Me neither,” said the younger elder. 

“Aww, they ain’t nothin’ to it,” said Gene. “All you do is wait down in a slough while me and Gold go to the other end and run the snipes to you.”

“What are we supposed to shoot ‘em with?” asked the younger elder.

“Ain’t no shootin’ necessary,” said Gene. “You just hold a burlap bag and stay still and don’t make a sound, and when you hear the snipes a-coming, all you got to do is open your bag and they’ll jump right in.”

Gene was a lying prodigy, so Gold did not participate in the sales phase of the gag. 

“How do we know it’ll work?” asked the younger elder.

“It’s just in their nature, Brother.  When snipes get scared, they look for the first hole to jump in and when they see a open bag, why that’s the biggest, safest hole they ever seen.  They jump right in.”

The elder elder said, “Really?”

“Ahhh, man, you’ll have a bagful in no time.  We’ll bring ‘em back here and Grandmother will cook ‘em for us, won’t you, Grandmother?”

Chesty chose her words carefully.  “Well, Gene, if you bring back some snipe, I will cook ‘em for you.”

“You ought to taste the way Grandmother cooks snipes,” said Gene.  “Mmmmmm, mmmmmm. Nobody makes snipe gravy like she does.  I mean nobody.  Aint that right, Gold?”

“I ain’t never tasted none better.”

Gene had the ability to look a person in the eyes and speak to their soul.  A handsome charmer who had never met a stranger, he would grow up to be a highly accomplished salesman of everything he would ever try to sell: brooms and mops at age 17, cases of Standard coffee at 19, insurance policies on occasion and religion for more than 60 years.  With less than a 10th grade education, he would nonetheless become a member of a college Board of Directors.  The same sales ability that would help fuel his rise to such prominence in denominational circles also helped him become the most polished boyhood liar in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

So, once he started in on the snipe routine, it was a foregone conclusion that the elders would bundle up and follow him and Gold out into the cold night.

They walked for thirty minutes into the wooded hills behind the Reynolds farm till they came to a shallow holler with a partly frozen creek at the bottom.  The boys handed each man a burlap bag and then Gene told the last, best lie of the night, the one that sprang the trap:   “We’ll be right back. You’ll see us running behind the snipes.  So y’all hold your bags open and don’t move.”

When Gene and Gold were out of sight of the holler, they meandered back home in a roundabout way so as to ensure that the elders couldn’t follow them to safety.

The boys huddled next to the fireplace, laughing and bragging on themselves.  They described every detail of the trick and their kinfolk laughed along with them—maybe even louder than the boys. There was much hooting and hollering about what suckers the elders were and how cold they must be by now in the holler waiting for snipe to jump into the bags.

After a while, Chesty smiled that sly smile of hers and said, “Gold, you and Gene better go back and get them men.  They’re from the city, you know, and I’ll bet they’re scared and cold by now.”

Gene and Gold wanted to wait a little longer, but Allen told them to go.

Once they were out the door, the elders came out of the warm back room where they’d been hiding ever since they’d gotten home ahead of the boys.  The younger elder, the elder elder and the Reynolds family had a rip roaring good time at the expense of Gene and Gold who hunted for the missing men till midnight.  

Or, as I expressed it long ago when I was in my "poetry" phase:

THE LAST SNIPE HUNT

“Them’s big ‘uns,” Gene said,
Cocking his head
To pretend to be listening.
Gold’s eyes was glistening,
'cause he knowed when Gene spoke
It was time for the joke.

“Snipe hunt would be nice,”
He said once or twice.
“But look at that snow—
“Only brave men would go.
“Who the heck could we get?”
Gene started to fret:

“Been many a year
“Since a feller could hear
“Snipe of that size.
“We’d catch us a prize
“If we had someone strong
“To take along.”

“There’s me and there’s you,”
Gene said. “So that’s  two.
“But it’s four we desire.”
Then he looked by the fire
Where two Mormons stood
And asked if they would.
The elders said “Sho!
“If you need us, we’ll go.”

Uncle Gold and young Gene
Knew it was mean
When they left them with sacks
And the wind at their backs,
Sittin’ by a cold stream
In a frozen  ravine.

Home at fireside
They laughed  till they cried.
Scorning the elders
As gullible fellers.
Then Chesty spit snuff
And said, “That’s enough.
“Go bring them back in.”
So they went for the men.

But the elders was gone!
Gene, chilled to the bone,
Gold, wide-eyed with fright,
They searched through the night,
Their hearts filled with dread.
It popped in Gene’s head

A search party was needed
And so they retreated,
Stumblin’ and freezin’
And coughin’ and sneezin’
Gettin’ home at midnight--
Where, in the firelight,
Them elders, God bless ‘em
Was smiling like possums.

They’d tricked Gene and Gold
And run in from the cold,
Hidden their sacks
In the room in the back
Till the boys left again
Then they’d come on in
And laughed themselves sick
‘bout the tricksters they tricked.

Gene don’t know as how
From then until now
He’s enjoyed very much
Huntin’ snipe and such.

~Randy Reynolds, 1974


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~Randy Reynolds, 1974



Sunday

KING OF THE AVENUE

By Randy Reynolds

Gene Reynolds was the center of attention when he drove his goat and wagon down Georgia Avenue in the Gainesille mill village. Children swarmed him, shouting questions, wanting to ride with him, yelling at their dogs to shut up, the little crowd swelling as it went.  Santa Claus himself could hardly have gotten a more enthused reception.

It was 1938, Gene’s first year in third grade (the first of two.)  His dad had made a singletree and some broomstick shafts for the wagon, “shalves” he called them, and a harness for the goat.  Gene felt like the King of the Avenue, if not the universe, when he drove along surrounded by the commotion of his playmates.

But nothing lasts forever.  Not even the reign of Gene, the King of the Avenue.

The third-grader, a straight-A student with a remarkable memory, sat on the couch, unable to concentrate on his homework.  His daddy saw him wincing.

“What’s the matter with you?”

“I have a headache.”

“Aww, you’ll be all right.  It’ll go away,” said Bonnell.

Gene asked for a glass of water and his mama called from the kitchen that she would bring it to him.

Her voice was the last thing he remembered until he woke up 5 days later.  His father, who was part-Mormon, had  called in a couple of elders and they were anointing Gene’s forehead with holy oil when he opened his eyes and asked his mother to bring him some water, as if he’d been frozen on that one thought during the entire 5 days and nights of his encephalitis-induced coma and convulsions.  

Gene stayed out of school to recuperate for five more weeks during which his mama pampered him to within an inch of his life.  When he went back to class, he was not the same student.  Whereas he had previously been at the top of his class, now he was at the bottom.  He had learned his times tables with no problem. He had been a quick learner in spelling and had shown an unusual ability to memorize stories, poems and Bible verses. Now, after his long absence, he couldn’t concentrate at all and it hurt his head to read.  He’d do his homework at the bus stop in the mornings by marking down random numbers as the answers to math problems, so it was not unusual that he would get a zero for his homework. 

Gene’s mama didn't mind him taking it easy after his frightening illness.  She allowed him to miss many days of school, little realizing that he was skipping many more on his own, hiding out in the woods. It was beyond the scope of her imagination to suspect that her little angel boy was playing hooky, so the huge number of absences on his report card raised no red flags with her.   His grades fell from all A’s to D’s and F’s, but Maude Reynolds didn’t question that, either.  She assumed it was some after-effect of his brain fever and she, for one, was not going to press him about it. If anyone at the school was concerned, they had no convenient way to discuss it with Gene’s parents who, like their neighbors, had no phone.

At the bus stop, it was not unusual for the boys to go off into the woods to pee behind a tree.  Gene pretended to do this and loitered behind the tree until the bus came and picked up the other children.  Once they were out of sight, he was free to do what he wanted for the day.

He preached sermons to the trees, though they were not his first congregation....   During the summer, when all the kids in the mill village played outside all day, Gene would call some of them together and play church.  He’d preach to them, quote Bible scriptures, and threaten them with hell like the notorious Boyd Flinn threatened his oxen.  As their preacher, Gene exercised his prerogative to pass the hat and the children would contribute what they had:  a marble, a stick of gum, a penny, a  cigarette butt or a little plug of tobacco.  He asked God to bless those who gave and those who didn’t have it to give.   Reverend Gene collected a lot of loot from his little congregation and showed off his status like a preacher in a Cadillac by driving his red goat-wagon up and down the street, stylin’ and profilin’—Mr. Dude, as his brother Wint called him.

If trees could kneel, he could have converted a lot of them during that first year in third grade when he spent almost as much time preaching to the trees as he spent in school.  He kept up his truancy (and his preaching) during his second year in third grade, as well as both years of fourth grade.  He had heard a voice telling him to preach and he was sure the voice was God’s.  And so he preached.

His study skills and memory had not left him after his illness; he had only lost  his motivation. He eventually got re-motivated with sports and that lasted until a greater motivation--love--turned his life upside down.  He was the leading scorer on his Airline HIgh School basketball team.  One night in tenth grade he led  them to a victory. The next day he didn’t show up for practice and someone told the coach that Gene had run off to be married.  He was 17 years old. 

Gene Reynolds would go on to be a preacher of some renown.  With a near-photographic memory, he could look at any page for a couple of seconds and absorb almost everything on it.  He read pages in seconds, chapters in minutes, most books in less than an hour.  He memorized passages in the Bible so lengthy that congregations would sometimes break into applause.  As he recited, people would read along in their own Bibles to confirm that he had not missed a word.  But those days were still ahead of the boy who’d spent two years in the third grade and two years in the fourth and left school in the tenth.

Shortly after he married Violet Appling, who was two years younger than him but way more mature, he brought a goat to their home on Myrtle Avenue in Gainesville.  He hadn’t gone out looking for a goat, but he had happened upon a man who had one, his landlord, who also happened to be his daddy’s cousin Butch Reynolds.  Butch owned a meat market and had a great big goat, whose days, apparently, were numbered. 

“How much would you take for that goat?” he asked Butch.

“Two dollars,” said the gruff butcher.

"That's a month's rent," said Gene.

"Two dollars," said Butch. 

Gene bought the goat, borrowed some boy’s little red wagon, roped the goat to it and drove home, King of the Avenue once again.   

Violet clearly wasn’t happy when she came out to the porch and saw her husband being pulled up the avenue by a goat, followed by an excited bunch of children.     She went back into the house and slammed the door.


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