Something in my soul today longed for winter. The cold, the gloom, the short daylight hours, and sweaters, coats, hats, and scarves. I wanted to skip the fall. Send it to Hawaii on a long vacation. The thing that provoked this feeling was related to an internal climate of cold. The inexorable slide toward mortal thoughts; that preoccupation of decay. It was a visit to Murfreesboro that took me down Northfield Boulavard and the old First Freewill Baptist Church at the corner of Sulphur Springs that caused me such consternation that 3 days on finds me longing for winter.
I know the place has been unoccupied for a long time. I don't know if the church went under or if it moved, but the vacant building has stood there on the corner reminding me of earlier days. They weren't even all happy days either. I spent a considerable amount of energy skipping church which often landed me in trouble with adults I despised. But first maybe I should tell how I got involved with First Freewill in the first place.
We lived on Poplar Avenue. The house is still there unlike many of the places where I lived that have been torn down. So I was either in the 1st or 2nd grade around this time. I liked climbing on the roof of the garage and then leaping off it. I played with Hot Wheels cars in the gravel driveway. I rode a cool yellow orange bike with a banana seat plastered over with stickers from Wacky Packs. One day my folks got some new appliance. It came in a box that was big enough that I made a playhouse out of it. I kept it under a tree in the front yard which is where I was playing one day when this lady and man got out of a car and asked to speak to me.
I ran to the front door of the house screaming. I had been taught to not speak to strangers. My parents would let me roam the toy departments of Big K, Clarks, and Roses by myself while they shopped and that was okay. But speaking to a stranger could mean my ass either way. My mother came to the door and spoke with the lady and man. After a few minutes she came inside and asked me if I would like to go to Vacation Bible School where I'd get to play with other kids, have snacks, and learn about God. Thus began my tenure at First Freewill that lasted until 7th grade interrupted for a spell when we lived too far out of town for the church bus to come.
That's how I got to First Freewill. I rode an old school bus painted blue that went all over Murfreesboro picking up children. It was driven by a man named Watson who lived near Bellwood. I remember this now because of two things. I went to a party at his house once back then and I remember the bus parked behind the house and I thought he lived in a really nice home for somebody that just drove snotty nosed kids around in a church bus. He had a son named Jeremy who I really didn't like, but was forced to play with him since we close in age. He went to Riverdale later and there's a picture of him in my senior yearbook spotlighting his 'breaking" skills.
Riding the bus wasn't too bad. It was even exciting one day when the bus got hit one Sunday morning as it tried to cross Allen Avenue. It had just picked me up. We had moved to Lynn Street by this time to a little yellow home just around the corner from our house on Poplar. Mr. Watson was upset in a very un-Christian like manner when the bus had the wreck. It didn't hurt the bus though. It was a big blue tank.
The church was, I suppose, much like others. There was Sunday School which was cool when you had pretty high school aged girls teaching it and incredibly dull and horrible when older ladies with moustaches called the shots. Sunday school was the absolute best part of the day when a pretty girl taught it. When I was 6th grade age I usually skipped the church services, but I never missed Sunday School since I had a mad crush on the girl who taught it. I was way beyond kool aid age by then and if she'd known what was going on in my mind I'm sure I would have served as a fine candidate for damnation.
Sunday School was fun. It was all memorizing Bible verses, coloring, and snacks and it never lasted long enough unless an old lady taught it. Then it was just like the church services. These were terminal, boring, and absolutely nauseating to me. There was a lady (the minister's wife maybe) who played the organ while we sang turgid hymns. When this was over they passed around a collection plate and I hated this because I never had but change to put in plus I was always tempted to take money out and even though I never did this aura of temptation created unfounded guilt in my heart. After this came the sermon and I cannot remember any of the one's heard upstairs in the adult church.
It was all just noise to me. I spent my time idly staring at the baptismal behind the minister who was named Mr. Van Winkle, while he sounded like a teacher from a Charlie Brown cartoon. I wondered if the water was cold and would they get mad if I jumped in for a bath. I learned to tie my shoelaces during one of the sermons. I'd flip through my Bible or poke holes in it with a pencil. They wouldn't let me sit with other kids because I liked to talk too much so I'd squirm throughout the service waiting for the altar call song "Just As I Am" (with every head bowed and every eye closed) hoping it would be over so I could shake the preacher's hand as I walked out the door. I didn't like to shake the minister's hand just because it meant freedom, but I honestly liked the guy. I might not have heard a word he preached or understood it, but he always seemed so happy to see me.
During 5th grade we lived on Manson Pike in a 2 story house with 5 acres. You won't find that house now because a medical complex now sits on some of that land. We didn't live there but a year or so and then it was back to Murfreesboro to live in some rental houses again. My parents would buy a house, find out they couldn't afford it, and then rent something until they thought they could buy a home again. So once we had moved into a home on Murfree the church bus came calling and I was back to Free Will, but the services had been changed. There was now something called Children's Church in place.
I know it was done precisely because the adult service went right over a kid's head. The children's service had sing alongs that were fun, it had snacks just like Sunday School, and it had skits and a more relaxed preahing style. The only thing it had in common was the "Just As I Am" altar call at the end and to this day I loathe that song. I guess it's not that song so much as it was the secetive nature of the "every head bowed and every eye closed" admonition that always preceded it. There was just too much shame passed around for me. Even though the adult service was dull by this time I felt a little too old to be attending something called Children's Church. So I started skipping it with this kid named Danny.
As soon as Sunday School ended we'd make our escape to the parking lot where we'd hide behind the bus. As soon as we thought the coast was clear we'd make a run for it and head across the street. We'd find a place were there was a break in a huge hedge and we'd spend the church hour hunting for crawdad in the little creek that runs beside Sulphur Springs. We'd splash around getting our church clothes dirty throwing rocks and have ourselves a good time. We'd head back to church and then ride home on the bus with no one the wiser. Until one day when we didn't get back to church on time.
Then all hell broke loose. Mr. Watson's wife saw us walking back into the parking lot and she went crazy. She screamed at us "I knew you too were skipping church" and then she threatened to whip us. I let her know that nobody whipped me except for my parents and licensed educators in the Tennessee public school system and it got to be a fairly ugly scene. She calmed down and told us she would let our parents know which was no big deal really. Our parents were the ones who made us ride a church bus every Sunday while they sat at home. It wasn't like they occupied some moral high ground.
It wasn't long after this that I quit going to First Free Will Baptist. I didn't miss it. I probably don't miss it now. But it's still sad to see it will probably soon be replaced by giant drugstore or something similar. Then the people shopping there won't smell the whiff of kool aid and hot dogs cooked on a grill at a Vacation Bible School. They won't hear the laughter of children exploring the field beside the church where an old abandoned silo sat like some alien from outer space. The building will torn down and some will never know that the Sunday School and Children's Church were downstairs and the adult services were held upstairs, but it wasn't really upstairs after all because you could walk out of the service onto a hill while downstairs was level with the bottom of the hill. It will all be gone.