Looking back, I think for the most part I was a source of pride to my father before I left home for college. I excelled in school and could and did memorize long passages of scripture and all the books of the Bible when some competition required it, and I could take down any kid I ever met in a “sword drill.”
I guess it’s time for another aside since I suspect that there are those among the unbaptized -- and when I say baptized, I mean the real thing, dunking like a donut, not some sprinkling with holy water mumbo jumbo -- who don’t know what a sword drill is or was. The sword drill was the ingenious fusion of Southern Baptists’ desire to indoctrinate their young with Biblical minutiae, with children of the fifties and sixties fascination with westerns and particularly the cowboy gunfight. (Other sects may have adopted this rite, but I see that as somewhat like comparing spaghetti westerns with John Wayne and Wyatt Earp.)
Children were placed in a line before an adult with their Bibles hung like six-shooters at there sides. The adult would then say, “Present swords” and the kids would bring the Bibles up flat on there right palms, their left hands placed gently on the top, left thumbs rubbing the gilded edges of the leaves like itchy trigger fingers. The adult would then cite a Bible verse, say Malachi 3:12, and then, I believe, “Charge,” (although I like to think it was “Draw”) pages would rifle and the first child to locate the passage, me if I were in that line, would step forward and read the verse, smoke rising in a gentle plume over the pages.
If you were the best kid in your class or your church, the quick draw sheriff who kept the peace, I was the punk kid whose daddy you had gunned down, my entire childhood spent splattering Bible verses like whisky bottles tossed in the air, coming to gun you down. It would be a fair fight, but I would blow you away, and when the smoke cleared you would be found writhing on your back between the pulpit and the front pew, your life’s blood oozing into the carpet since medical science was not then as advanced as now, and a fusillade to the gut of “begats” and “wherefores” was usually fatal.
(Of course, the only thing that could have made this drill more authentic would have been to have eliminated the “Present swords” bit of business and just let us shoot from the hip, but I assume that the game’s inventors envisioned a scenario where greenhorns would lose their grip and send Bibles sailing across the sanctuary, possibly endangering candelabras and the picture of Jesus, if not the drill instructor herself.)
Meanwhile back at Daddy and me, I was saying my father was mostly pleased with me. In addition to being a book whiz, I enjoyed doing things he had as a child -- hunt, fish, hike, camp -- but I also was proficient at that only competition of (real) boys that then existed in Cherokee County, the Little League baseball field.
I have previously told you that it was on the baseball field that I was for the first and only time ashamed of my father. It was later on that same field, a perfectly manicured tract in a bend of the Etowah River, that I would later cause my father for the only time I can recall to say that he was ashamed of me.
Which is not to say I didn’t disappoint him at times, but these incidents were nearly always things involving property damage, rather than the wound to another human involved in the incident on the Etowah. I’m not even counting involuntary property damage, windows and windshields I shattered while honing my baseball skills, but rather things like the time when I was eight or nine when he came out of some church member’s house to discover me amusing neighborhood children by tossing a pointed carpenters file, Jim Bowie style, into the trunk of the only tree in their little front yard. He was disappointed in this error of judgment, but he didn’t say ashamed. He made me apologize to the host, who of course said it was nothing, and then spent a while explaining how old and valuable the tree was, how it was an ornament in these people’s yard, how long it would live and how I had left it forever scared. Up until then I’d thought nothing about nailing stuff to trees. Cowboys did it all the time.
(Although I did have this continuing thing with knives and wood. My nephew David [the worm gatherer] and I were returned to the scene of the crime and lectured after we’d used the pocket knifes we’d recently been mistakenly deemed old enough to own to surreptitiously bore holes in our church pew to ease our boredom during Sunday Night Service. Later when I was a sophomore in high school my father would have to make amends after Buster Byrd -- son of former Lt. Governor Garland T. Byrd, from somewhere in south Georgia -- and I spent our spare time during a summer debate workshop tossing Byrd’s bowie knife [again, Bowie style] into the solid wood door to our dorm room. In my defense I can only offer that to this day I can sing you the theme song to the early 60’s T.V. series, “Jim Bowie.”)
When I was eleven I played on a Little League team which lost every game. I had never pitched, but our pitching was so bad that one day late in the season I got the chance to record a couple of outs. For the next week I make my father squat with a catcher’s mitt on the carport with the utility room as the backstop while I battered his shins with errant pitches. The next game, when we were again down ten runs and the usual pitchers were used up, the coach came out to make the change and I was already a few steps toward the mound from my second base position when he motioned to the outfield for a ten-year-old who was his next door neighbor’s kid to come to the mound.
Things are generally very quiet when a kid’s baseball team is changing pitchers and they’re ten runs down. When I saw Waters trotting to the mound I said, to no one in particular, but, I was later to learn, loud enough for people down river to hear, “Waters? He cain’t pitch!”