I was playing in the street after sunset as the blue sky began to turn dark. Another boy shouted and I looked into the sky. A rocket high up among the lowest stars was exploding, spewing a rainbow trail behind it. I didn't know what it was at the time. I dropped my baseball and stood transfixed. Over the years, mom, whispering in my ear, had told me It would come like a "thief in the night." I ran inside my house, hiding under the dining room table in fear and shame, grieving over a lost chance for redemption from the fires of Hell. Why?
Mom was drawn into religious fundamentalism as a young woman. Her best friend taught her the doctrines of a fringe group from a dusty, desert oil town in Central California. Their friendship ended when the friend thought doctors took second place to the power of prayer to heal the sick. Otherwise mom shared the same world view. I was eight years old at the time. Our church was a single-story clapboard building with a steeple sitting along a two-lane highway and railroad track. We were a poor white conregation from the south and midwest by way of the Dust Bowl's second wave west. "Brother Jones" was our preacher, "Sister Jones" his wife. Everybody else was similarly addressed if they had confessed Jesus as Lord and Saviour and had been fully immersed in water baptism. You were not otherwise saved from the torments of Hell.
Preacher Jones was a young, stout, good-looking man in his early thirties with raven-black hair and a passion for both the Lord and the ladies. He could speak in teachable terms about the virtues of the Christian life, or, picking up rhythm and steam, rant about " the pride of life and the lust of the flesh". And if the world news of the day was troubling , launch into a frightful scenario of the end of the world, quoting the red letter words of a vengeful Christ:
"For just as the lightining comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so shall the Son of Man be.....and then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all of the tribes of man will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the Clouds of the sky with power and great glory. And he will send forth His angels...and they will gather together His elect...from one end of the sky to the other...Then the King will say to those On His right, 'Come , you who are blessed...inherit the kingdom prepared for you'..."Then He will also say to those on His left, 'Depart from Me, accursed ones, into eternal fire."
On occasion, the preacher would stop if a frieght train was rumbling through on the nearby tracks, wiping a mouth of spittle with a white handkerchief until the noise subsided, providing the raptured conregation a moment of stark thought. This was one of those times. But If the delay was long enough the impact of the sermon was in danger of being lost. Mother made sure it wasn't lost to me, especially when my squirming around in the wood, fold-up church seats became a distraction. I would end up in the parking lot with the nodes of a springtime mulberry switch implanted in my rear end. The second sermon was in the car on the way home. She was fond of quoting the Book of Revelation:
"I know your deeds, that you are neither cold or hot; I would that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot or cold, I will spit you out of my mouth."
I had not been baptized, but I wasn't lukewarm. Baseball was my life.