Coursing slowly down the sides of my cheeks and temples, thin rivulets of blood are seeping into the ever increasing pool of sticky redness under my skull. A paramedic fusses over me, flashing a torch into my eyes. I’m aware of four onlookers nearby, and many others behind me who have fallen relatively quiet after the recent clamour and screaming. Exhortations of prayer are being mumbled behind me. In my confusion I’m struggling to remember how this happened. Or why?
South Dakota’s warm summer of 1981 was marked by a swarm of Pentecostal preachers. Pastor Elton Linkletter had heeded God’s call and swaggered through the corn belt of Nebraska and the smaller towns of the Dakotas with his message of repentance, revival and redemption. There were sinners to be saved in South Dakota, and Pastor Elton was only too willing to be one of God’s shepherds. With the support of Baden Screech, Jack Kordell and Jack’s wife Tammy, the Pastor and his crusaders had brought salvation through a vast swathe of the state by booking out town halls, preaching hell and damnation, and scaring hundreds of Dakotans towards God’s tender love.
Baden J. Screech owned the gas-guzzling 1967 Chevrolet Impala which transported them between towns. He enjoyed the driving and felt that God had called him to this task. Jack Kordell booked the cheap motel rooms in each town, and recouped enough from the collection plates nightly to ensure the financial continuity of this revivalist crusade. A serial self-doubter, Jack needed the constant approval of Pastor Elton. Jack’s wife Tammy thumped a tambourine during the songs of praise, but she had no need to seek the Pastor’s approval. She knew only too well she already had his approval. It was writ large in Pastor Elton’s leering eyes and his flirtatious actions. Sister Tammy was puzzled by his attention but believed that God must move in mysterious ways…. ways which she didn’t quite yet understand.
It’s a warm July night in the Fort Leverick Town Hall. From a population of barely 1800 rural Americans, a little over 200 people have wandered in. There’s a mix of motivations – salvation, fear, hope, boredom…. And then there’s me, a serial antagonist. Baden and Jack had posted placards outside the hall. After the planned salvation of sinners tonight, there’s to be a healing service through a laying-on of hands by Pastor Elton. How lucky are the residents of Fort Leverick? To be plucked from the grasping clutches of Satan, and to be healed of their afflictions. It’s a bit like winning the State Lottery twice in one night.
I’d been slouching in the back row of the hall throughout the service, my crutches placed beside me in the aisle. This was gonna be a hoot. I was intent on popping Pastor Elton’s sanctimonious balloon. After a forty minute tirade about the sins God hates the most, and a detailed description of the fires of hell awaiting the unrepentant, 15 or 20 sobbing sinners had moved forward towards the Pastor to the accompaniment of Sister Tammy’s sweet gospel singing and tambourine thumping. Brother Baden and Brother Jack, seemingly riding shotgun beside Pastor Elton out the front, had their eyes closed and heads tilted back.
“Sweet Jesus… Precious Lord..… Praise God,” they were shouting towards the ceiling.
And when the emotion in the room had seemingly reached fever pitch, Pastor Elton appealed for any who had afflictions and would like the healing hand of God placed on their body. This was my cue. I leapt to my feet, probably too quickly, grabbed my crutches, then morphed into character and slowly and pathetically hobbled forward, struggling for breath after each accentuated swing on my crutches. Ahead of me was a mother dragging forward her reluctant, tubby son by the hand. He was sucking on a candy bar and determined not to be dragged forward. After the laying-on of Pastor Elton’s hands and his exhortation for God to cast out the demon of gluttony from the bawling kid, I was standing face-to-face with the Pastor.
I was as able-bodied as any elite athlete and determined to have my fun tonight. But having studied my gait as I’d approached, Pastor Elton inquired with an edge of suspicion about the nature of my affliction. “Palsy,” I replied, “Both legs.”
With the Pastor’s hands on my thighs, and a cacophony of supporting interjections of prayer from the faithful, the demon of palsy was cast out. This was the moment where I’d intended to turn towards the crowd, dramatically throw away my crutches, and scamper down the aisle shouting joyously, “I’m healed! I’m healed!” I pirouetted enthusiastically towards the onlookers.
It’s unfortunate that the howling little fat kid ahead of me had dropped his sticky candy bar on the wooden floor. The rubber stopper on the point of one of my crutches slid through it and I lurched awkwardly backwards emitting a castrato scream. My right arm flew upwards still grasping its crutch, which arced gracefully into the disco ball hanging from the ceiling of the Town Hall. Sister Tammy dropped her tambourine at the same time that the disco ball detached from its hook in the ceiling and, lying stunned on my back, I watched its surreal descent like a deer in headlights until it smashed across my face. Through a fog of stupefaction and humiliation, I tasted the saltiness of my own blood as the great revival meeting came to an abrupt halt amidst screaming and hurried exits. Pastor Elton and the Brothers were acutely aware that I was little more than a sinner and a scammer, and were frantically imploring their fleeing flock to return to the hall. The collection plate hadn’t been circulated yet. Sister Tammy, aghast at my injuries, was privately pondering this act of divine retribution towards a sinner which she had just witnessed, and was marvelling once again how God moves in mysterious ways.