Baptizing in the Pond

by Fred Prince

 

         When Daddy got hurt real badly working in the oil field, we moved to northwest Louisiana where my mother had inherited a small farm. It was during the depression and the farm offered no modern conveniences in the rural community of Shiloh. We had no electricity, no running water, and the toilet facilities consisted of a little outhouse with two holes.
        Daddy had gotten his jaw bone broken in a freak accident that knocked out all his top teeth. While he waited for the healing and the new dentures, he could eat only soft pliable food. He dearly loved chicken and dumplings and since Mother was famous for making the best in the area, every night for supper we would have chicken and dumplings, the next morning for breakfast we had chicken and dumplings and, would you believe we had chicken and dumplings for lunch? It seemed that for the nine months it took Daddy to recuperate we had chicken and dumplings for every meal.  I promised the good Lord that if Daddy ever got his new false teeth, I would never eat another bite of chicken and dumplings. To this day I cannot tolerate that culinary treat.
        During this time, our primitive habitat was very appealing to our city-bred cousins.  James Elbert and Hazel were a little older than Donnie, Marthe and me, but they thought a vacation at our idyllic retreat was great fun.  They were so sophisticated that we three little country bumpkins were rather awe-struck when they visited. 
        If Hazel stubbed her toe she would say, "God... bless America!” with strong emphasis on the God before adding softly the bless America.  Even with no adults within hearing distance, we three unsophisicates were dumbfounded at such audacity.  We could just see visions of mouths being washed out with Octagon soap!  This was standard procedure for young'uns who said cuss words.  It was a yellow lye soap used to wash grimy work clothes.  A new bar came wrapped in a cover that had a coupon in the shape of an octagon.  All the missionary society ladies at the church cut these coupons out and sent them to the orphanage to help buy a bus or something for the poor little children that didn't have any mothers or daddies.  It took hundreds of coupons to buy one bus, so you can imagine how many bad words it took to get one of those busses!
        Once when our cousins were visiting, Mother had to mail a letter.  The rural free delivery mailbox was one mile down a dusty dirt road.  It takes a long time to walk down and back a dusty road in the hot Louisiana summer time, so Mother put on her bonnet that Aunt Fanny had made out of a flowery sugar sack, and took off on her unpleasant trek.  Her parting instruction was, "Now don't you young'uns get in that pond while I am gone.  That water is stagnant.  The cows have been using the bathroom in it and I don't want y'all wading in it.  You might catch the leprosy or something!"
        She had hardly gone around the bend in the road when James Elbert said, "Let's go play baptizing.”  Now you must understand that all our clan are dyed-in-the-wool Baptist.  We don't have any of that sissy sprinkling-water-on-the-head type of baptizing, no siree, Honey.  When we baptize them we hold them under water until they gurgle!  And where else, might I ask, can you play baptizing on a hot summer afternoon than the slimy green pond where the cows had been using the bathroom?  My sisters and I warned James Elbert of the dire consequences that could occur from disobeying Mother.  We knew from personal and bitter experience, but he and Hazel assured us that since they were company, Mother wouldn't do anything.  Besides our hair and clothes would be perfectly dry by the time she walked all the way to the mailbox and back.  We thought, She will never know , --so we abdicated to his superior charisma.  Besides, playing baptizing was fun!
        James Elbert was the preacher.  He did just like Uncle George did when he baptized people for real in the creek.  First he lined us all in a row.  Then one at a time he bent us backward under the water, intoning in a deep sepulchral voice, "I baptize thee, my sister, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost."  Then he would hold the candidate under water until he gurgled several times. When the candidate was lifted back to his feet, spitting green slimy water and gulping for breath, everybody would holler real loud, "amen", and “praise the Lord!" "Amen", and "hallelujah!"
        We traded places several times, even letting the girls be the preacher.”  We invented new methods of baptizing.  Sometimes we would dunk the candidate three times, one for the Father, one for the Son, and one for the Holy Ghost.  After everybody had been baptized several times each, James Elbert decided it was time to get out and let our hair and clothes dry before Mother got back.  While we were still standing in the green slimy mud at the edge of the pond, we noticed a big cloud of dust following a pick-up truck coming down the road.  It was Cousin Ralph, and to our horror-stricken eyes, he stopped even with the pond and Mother got out, thanking him for the ride.
        At one glance, she took in the whole situation, marched to the bank of the pond, broke a long rubbery limb off a conveniently located willow tree, stripped off its leaves, and said, "All right, every one of you come right up here on this bank."  Then she took one of Marthe's hands, and with her other hand she administered corporal punishment--mostly to her tender little legs, eliciting great cries of anguish, repentance, shame and remorse. 
        In chorus with Marthe's cries were those of the other culprits, simultaneously howling in anticipation of their own turn, sharing in her emotions, thoughts and mostly her feelings--feelings like short-legged pants that can't be pulled down over naked, vulnerable legs!  There also were the awful feelings of embarrassment that had brought us down to the level of inferior criminals, publicly exposed, with witnesses we could never deny or put a more unscrupulous interpretation on what happened to us.  At some distant time, this odious subject would surely be recalled and discussed. 
        Next James Elbert got his licks, along with such admonitions as, "You are the oldest young man, and you should set the example for the younger ones…”
        Finally, above all the hollering and sniffling came Hazel's turn.  "You can't whip me," she wailed.  "I'm not your little girl!" 
        To which Mother replied, "You just get yourself up here young lady.  Any little girl who can't understand plain English and wallows around in stagnate old cow ponds gets the same treatment as the others".  And I suspected she got it worse than the others did because Mother was as adverse to little girls who sassed adults as she was to little girls who disobeyed them.
        Lordy, it seems all this happened a hundred years ago.  Eventually we were all legally baptized in clean, sterile baptisteries, with pictures of the Jordan River flowing in the background, and robed choirs singing, "Shall We Gather at the River,” and the organ quietly playing, "In the Sweet Bye and Bye."  And come to think of it, I don't believe a single one of us ever got the Leprosy!
        In the years that followed, when we gathered annually on the Second Saturday in May for "grave yard working" at Shiloh Cemetery, invariably some adult would bring up the story of the baptizing in the cow pond.  No one, but me, ever remembered exactly how it happened.  Everybody had a different interpretation of what happened.  James Elbert would argue 'till he was blue in the face that he was not the one who instigated the affair.  Donnie says it wasn't Cousin Ralph who picked Mother up, but Uncle Arthur, Ramona's daddy.  But they are all wrong.  I remember exactly how it happened.  They have "senior moments" and forget things.

 

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