Columns » Bob Lancaster




You remember Bro.-Gov. Huckabee, the Floridian who, foolish man, occupies himself these days building a house on the sand. He's made news again wanting the whole herd of us forced at gunpoint to tune in and turn on to some loony preacher historian who's running around loose. The only trouble with that is, now that we can pack in church, this bird as he starts his spiel might pretty quickly find himself in a Mexican standoff. Hammers being cocked all around.

Did that legislation pass, inviting you into the Lord's House with your loaded piece, almost ordering you in? Doesn't really matter if it did or didn't, because it's what's in your heart that counts: somehow, anywhere, you can make a deadly weapon out of whatever raw materials present themselves.

Even a Bible, if it's one of those doorstop models from the old drummer days, can in a doctrinal pinch wreak ponderable blunt force trauma. Gives a new dimension to Bible thumping.

My Grandfather Speck used a hymnal to swat wasps and those hardshell dive-bombing beetle-like bugs that used to destroy the solemnity of revival meetings with their aerobatic derring-do. This was back when churches used their take to feed the hungry and comfort the bereaved, to crutch widow and orphan, and not for preacherly perks or congregational comforts, padded pews and air-conditioning, so in hot weather you had to raise the windows (raiseable then) and that's how the bugs got in.

Gramps wouldn't really swat them. He'd wait until one started one of those long buzzing dives in his direction and at the critical moment he'd hoist the hymnal above his head with mathematical precision and the sumbitch would smack into it like it was a brick wall. He could debug Pine Knot Abundant Life inside of a footwashing, better than a fogging of DDT.

Bibles, hymnals, neckties.

The necktie became part of the unusual-churchhouse-weapons lore when Hatfield tried to garrote McCoy with his'n that time — a formal go-to-meeting nylon string tie with a silver clasp in the shape of a banjo. Hatfield and McCoy  weren't their real names, of course, but theirs had been that type of longstanding clan feud that went back probably to the Great Awakening. It was a Sunday evening service, McCoy sitting on a second-row pew next to the center aisle, unaware that Hatfield had slipped into the sanctuary and taken the third-row pew seat directly behind him.

Hatfield might've taken that place innocently, without malice aforethought. He might not have known McCoy was sitting directly in front of him, as the back of McCoy's head was very ordinary looking, not at all distinctive. With the pocked red neck and Easy Rider noggin knots, it might've been the back of the head of any of a dozen Abundant Lifers. And attendance might've been at capacity that night, those third-pew seats taken by Hatfield and Mrs. H. the last ones available. No one remembered such critical details in the later retelling, or at least no one agreed on them.

So as was customary midway through the service, Pastor Ted called on a member of the congregation to offer the pre-sermon prayer, and the member he called on happened to be McCoy. This perturbed Hatfield, who muttered threats and mild oaths through McCoy's long drawn-out supplication, at one time lurching forward in a menacing way but restrained by the missus, who whacked him smartly with her Good Shepherd fan. McCoy recognized whence this heckling came and nearing his amen thanked the Lord for about the twelfth time for all the blessings He'd bestowed "on your obedient servants here." Then he said, "And I'd like to offer a personal word of gratitude for your not having made me one of that snot-nose Hatfield bunch."

That triggered another Hatfield lunge, and this time he got his large hands around McCoy's gander neck before Hatfield could take evasive action. McCoy was a tiny warty man — indeed he looked more like a Duncan or a Mayhew than a McCoy — and within a moment Hatfield had him raised from the pew, dangling and strangling. He broke free once, just long enough for a life-saving gasp, but then Hatfield made another grab, caught McCoy's banjo tie, and hauled him up again by that. McCoy looked like Howdy Doody, like a single flopping goggle-eye on the bottom hook of a fish stringer

Time sort of stood still as Hatfield got in a few of what he later called "bonus Jesus licks" upside the McCoy physiognomy. Preacher Ted stood gawking at the two of them, agape in astonishment. Everybody else seemed paralyzed too, and I'm sure McCoy's life, such as it was, flashed. But then another McCoy laid into Hatfield, then several others piled on, and it was quite a hubbub there under the pews a-kickin' and a-gougin' in the boot-bottom cow manure, the blood, and the spilled communion grapejuice, before Mildred the organist struck up something in D minor that she thought would be calming (and it was), and the Parmalee brothers, who were rough characters, dragged the whole kaboodle of mischief-makers outside and turned a water hose on them.

I don't remember the point I wanted to make here, but that's the story in gist of the Hatfield-McCoy churchhouse rumble as I heard it at least 50 times growing up.  

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