Page 32 of The Last Juror

There was no immediate bloodshed. The threats were not forgotten, but as time passed they became less ominous. I never stopped carrying a gun - it was always within reach - but I lost interest in it. I found it hard to believe that the Padgitts would risk the severe backlash that would come if they knocked off the editor of the local paper. Even if the town was not entirely enamored of me, as opposed to someone as beloved as Mr. Caudle, the uproar would create more pressure than the Padgitts were willing to risk.

They kept to themselves like never before. After the defeat of Mackey Don Coley in 1971, they once again proved quite adept at changing tactics. Danny had given them enough unwanted attention; they were determined to avoid anymore. They retrenched even deeper into Padgitt Island. They increased security in the wasted belief that the next sheriff, T. R. Meredith, or his successor, Tryce McNatt, might come after them. They grew their crops and smuggled them off the island in planes, boats, pickups, and flatbed trucks ostensibly loaded with timber.

With typical Padgitt shrewdness, and sensing that the marijuana business might become too risky, they began pumping money into legitimate enterprises. They bought a highway contracting company and quickly turned it into a reliable bidder for government projects. They bought an asphalt plant, a Redi-Mix concrete plant, and gravel pits around the northern part of the state. Highway construction was a notably corrupt business in Mississippi, and the Padgitts knew how to play the game.

I watched these activities as closely as possible. This was before the Freedom of Information Act and open-meetings laws. I knew the names of some of the companies the Padgitts had bought, but it was virtually impossible to keep up with them. There was nothing I could print, no story, because on the surface it was all legitimate.

I waited, but for what I wasn't certain. Danny Padgitt would return one day, and when he did he might simply disappear into the island and never be seen again. Or he might do otherwise.

* * *

Few people in Clanton did not attend church. Those who did seemed to know exactly which ones did not, and there was a common invitation to "come worship with us." The farewell, "See you on Sunday," was almost as common as "Y'all come see us."

I got hammered with these invitations during my first years in town. Once it was known that the owner and editor of the Times did not go to church, I became the most famous derelict in town. I decided to do something about it.

Each week Margaret put together our Religion page, which included a rather extensive menu of churches arranged by denominations. There were also a few ads by the more affluent congregations. And notices for revivals, reunions, potluck suppers, and countless other activities.

Working from this page, and from the phonebook, I made a list of all the churches in Ford County. The total was eighty-eight, but it was a moving target since congregations were always splitting, folding here and popping up over there. My goal was to visit each one of them, something I was sure had never been done, and a feat that would put me in a class by myself among churchgoers.

The denominations were varied and baffling how could Protestants, all of whom claimed to follow the same basic tenets, get themselves so divided? They agreed basically that (l)Jesus was the only son of God; (2) he was born of a virgin; (3) lived a perfect life; (4) was persecuted by the Jews, arrested and crucified by the Romans; (5) that he arose on the third day and later ascended into heaven; (6) and some believed - though there were many variations - that one must follow Jesus in baptism and faith to make it to heaven.

The doctrine was fairly straightforward, but the devil was in the details.

There were no Catholics, Episcopalians, or Mormons. The county was heavily Baptist, but they were a fractured bunch. The Pentecostals were in second place, and evidently they had fought with themselves as much as the Baptists.

In 1974, I'd begun my epic adventure to visit every church in Ford County. The first had been the Calvary Full Gospel, a rowdy Pentecostal assemblage on a gravel road two miles out of town. As advertised, the service began at ten-thirty, and I found a spot on the back pew, as far away from the action as I could get. I was greeted warmly and word spread that a bona-fide visitor was present. I did not recognize anyone there. Preacher Bob wore a white suit, navy shirt, white tie, and his thick black hair was wound around and plastered tightly at the base of his skull. People started hollering when he was giving the announcements. They waved their hands and shouted during a solo. When the sermon finally began an hour later, I was ready to leave. It lasted for fifty-five minutes, and left me confused and exhausted. At times the building shook with folks stomping the floor. Windows rattled as they were overcome with the spirit and yelled upward. Preacher Bob "laid hands" on three sick folks suffering vague diseases, and they claimed to be healed. At one point a deacon stood and in an astounding display began uttering something in a tongue I had never heard. He clenched his fists, closed his eyes tightly, and let loose with a steady, fluent flow of words. It was not an act; he wasn't faking. After a few minutes, a young girl in the choir stood and began translating into English. It was a vision God was sending through the deacon. There were those present with unforgiven sins.

"Repent!" Preacher Bob shouted, and heads ducked.

What if the deacon was talking about me? I glanced around and noticed that the door was locked and guarded by two more deacons.

Things finally ran out of gas, and two hours after I sat down I bolted from the building. I needed a drink.

I wrote a pleasant little report about my visit to Calvary Full Gospel and ran it on the Religion page. I commented on the warm atmosphere of the church, the lovely solo by Miss Helen Hatcher, the powerful sermon by Preacher Bob, and so on.

Needless to say, this proved to be very popular.

At least twice a month, I went to church. I sat with Miss Callie and Esau and listened to the Reverend Thurston Small preach for two hours and twelve minutes (I timed every sermon). The briefest was delivered by Pastor Phil Bish at the United Methodist Church of Karaway - seventeen minutes. That church also got the award for being the coldest. The furnace was broken, it was January, and that may have helped shorten the sermon. I sat with Margaret at the First Baptist Church in Clanton and listened to Reverend Millard Stark give his annual sermon on the sins of alcohol. With bad timing, I had a hangover that morning and Stark kept looking at me.

I found the Harvest Tabernacle in the back room of an abandoned service station in Beech Hill, and I sat with six others as a wild-eyed doomsayer named Peter the Prophet yelled at us for almost an hour. My column that week was quite brief.

The Clanton Church of Christ had no musical instruments. The ban was based on Scripture, it was later explained to me. There was a beautiful solo, which I wrote about at length. There was also no emotion whatsoever in the service. For a contrast, I went to the Mount Pisgah Chapel in Lowtown, where the pulpit was surrounded by drums, guitars, horns, and amplifiers. As a warmup for the sermon, a full-blown concert was given with the congregation singing and dancing. Miss Callie referred to Mount Pisgah as a "lower church."

On my list, number sixty-four was the Calico Ridge Independent Church, located deep in the hills in the northeastern part of the county. According to the Times archives, at this church in 1965 a Mr. Randy Bovee was bitten twice by a rattlesnake during a late Sunday night worship service. Mr. Bovee survived, and for a while the snakes were put away. The legend, however, flourished, and as my Church Notes column gained popularity, I was asked several times if I intended to visit Calico Ridge.

"I plan to visit every church," was my standard reply.

"They don't like visitors," Baggy warned me.

I had been greeted so warmly in each church - black or white, large or small, town or country - that I could not imagine Christian folks being rude to a guest.

And they weren't rude at Calico Ridge, but they weren't too happy to see me either. I wanted to see the snakes, but from the safety of the back row. I went on a Sunday night, primarily because legend held that they did not "take up the serpents" during daylight hours. I searched the Bible in vain for this restriction.

There was no sign of any serpents. There were a few fits and convulsions below the pulpit as the preacher exhorted us to "come forth and moan and groan in sin!" The choir chanted and hummed to the beat of an electric guitar and a drum, and the meeting took on the spookiness of an ancient tribal dance. I wanted to leave, especially since there were no snakes.

Late in the service, I caught a glimpse of a face I'd seen before. It was a very different face - thin, pale, gaunt, topped with grayish hair. I couldn't place it, but I knew it was familiar. The man was seated in the second row from the front, on the other side of the small sanctuary, and he seemed out of touch with the chaos of the worship service. At times he appeared to be praying, then he would sit while everyone else was standing. Those around him seemed to accept him and ignore him at the same time.

He turned once and looked directly at me. It was Hank Hooten, the ex-lawyer who'd shot up the town in 1971! He'd been taken in a straitjacket to the state mental hospital, and a few years later there'd been a rumor that he had been released. No one had seen him, though.

For two days after that, I tried to track down Hank Hooten. My calls to the state mental hospital went nowhere. Hank had a brother in Shady Grove, but he refused to talk. I snooped around Calico Ridge, but, typically, no one there would utter a word to a stranger like me.


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