One of the men in conference beneath the Tung tree at the corner of the yard must have yelled, “They’re here!” because several ladies dressed for house cleaning filed out the front door of the parsonage and shielded their eyes to get a good look at the new pastor. The tall dark-haired 29-year-old got out of the yellow-over-green Chevy Biscayne smiling broadly, his hand fully extended well before he reached Frank, Bill, Avy, Alex and Uncle Barney, the men who would become his lifelong friends. They introduced themselves and welcomed him to Shepherd’s Fold Church of God, in rural St. Tammany Parish,
about eight miles from Covington. Already hoarse with
the growth that would require surgery on his vocal cords later that year, Gene
chatted up the church leaders as if he already knew them, which in a way he did. He had contacted several of their former
pastors and learned all he could about the personalities he’d be dealing with,
so he already had a profile of each man’s tendencies in the art of handling
their pastors and running their church.
Child after child exited the car, causing a stir among the ladies on the porch.
“Would you look at that?”
“This will surely help attendance.”
“How many are there?”
Six children and a spotted dog jumped to freedom, but it was short-lived for the four girls. Their mother—snatching a sleeve here, a hand there, a tuft of hair as a little blonde head went by—caught them all and marched them toward the ladies on the gray porch. Randy and Ricky escaped.
The parking lot between the old wooden church and the new brick church with the sagging roof was covered with sea shells instead of gravel. Ricky fell to his knees and began picking them up, as if they were a rarity
Randy walked on, angling for the graveyard behind the old church.
A chubby boy was suddenly in his way. “You the preacher’s boy?”
“Yep. I’m Randy. That’s my brother Ricky over there.”
A smaller boy with big ears said, “You don’t look so tough.”
“That’s for me to know and you to find out,” said Randy.
These two boys—members’ kids named Dennis and Dale—would become great friends with Randy and Ricky. But that wouldn’t happen this day. First there was protocol to observe: when a new preacher-boy moved to town there had to be established, as in the animal kingdom, a pecking order.
“Our cousin could whip you,” said Dale, the scrawny one.
“Well, he knows where to find me,” said Randy.
“You stay here. We’ll be right back,” said Dennis.
The two boys were back in ten minutes with their cousin in tow. His name was Andy King and he, too, would later be a friend. When he killed an alligator in the pond on his grandfather’s personal golf course, Randy and Ricky would be the first ones he would call to come have a look. He would become such a good friend that he and Ricky would double date; would go hunting together; and Andy would have the honor of being the first person Ricky ever shot with a .20 guage. (An accident; he would survive.) But, on this day, Andy wasn’t there to make friends. He was Dennis and Dale’s gladiator.
Neither Andy nor Randy wanted to fight but the law of the universe as enforced by Dennis and Dale required it, so they put forth an effort. After a little pushing and shoving that drew no blood Andy quit and went home. Dennis and Dale, slightly chastened and very bored, went over to watch the men unload the preacher’s U-haul. Randy got his plastic horses and men from the car, sat in the dirt near the Tung tree and created a ranch, with lines in the dirt for fences.
A very big man with a baby-face came over and said, “You must be about nine or ten years old, huh?”
“Eleven,“ said Randy.
“Well, great. You’ll be in my Sunday School class. I teach the junior boys. My name is Alex Jenkins.”
He reached out a hand with a missing little finger and Randy shook with him. “Pleased to meet you, Brother Alex.”
Alex saw the ranch in the dirt and smiled. “You like horses, huh?”
“Yes, sir. I been praying for one all my life.”
“Praying for one, huh?”
“Yes, sir. My daddy promised he would get me one when we moved out here.”
That brief conversation set in motion the series of events that would lead to the purchase of the horse that would burn the parsonage down.
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