Uncle Walt died. He was my favorite uncle. For that fact, he could have been everybody’s favorite uncle. He was kind, generous, and just plain good. I always hoped to be like him but never made the grade. So the drive back from Florida loomed seriously morose.
I visited him six months earlier. I could tell his health was failing but not his spirit. He always had the right words to say. “You can take the bitterest fruit and make a refreshing drink,” he told me once. “Look for the good in all people. It’s there. And the man who finds it has found a treasure.”
I decided to take State Highways back home. They offer more, especially when you’re in no hurry and you want to reminisce.
I stayed in an out-of-the-way motel Saturday night. Sunday morning I crossed into Alabama. There’s nothing lonelier than an Alabama highway on Sunday morning.
I found a small restaurant open. The Sunday crowd had not yet arrived. The eggs, sausage, and potatoes were tasty and greasy.
Near 11:00 AM I spotted a church the size of a small school. On the sign at the driveway, it read, “Pastor Jumpin’ Jeremiah Johnson.”
“Could it be?” I mumbled.
I turned the car into the driveway and a well-dressed man waved me to an open parking space.
I started first grade with Jerry Johnson. When he was 10, he told everybody to start calling him by his given name, Jeremiah. It seems he was saved and the Lord spoke to him when it happened. He told him he was destined to be a preacher and his name would be Jeremiah.
Of course, we all wanted to believe, because that’s what fifth graders do.
Changes occurred in Jeremiah. He stopped sneaking smokes, peeking in the girls' locker room, and saying bad words. He was quick to condemn the rest of us. He soon became an outcast.
Jeremiah’s only acceptance was basketball. He was good. The best we had. He was only good by virtue of his god-given ability to jump, thus Jumpin’ Jeremiah Johnson.
This had to be his church. What a coincidence.
Like my Uncle Walt used to say, “That boy couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with a hand full of stones, But he could touch the top of the barn door without using a ladder.”
I was one of the last ones into the pews. Two older men tried to usher me to the front. No way, I dressed in jeans, a sport shirt, and sneakers.
After a long prayer by the associate pastor, a nasal dweeb in his mid-twenties. The choir sang a rousing rendition of The Old Rugged Cross and One Day At A Time, Sweet Jesus. The dweeb instructed the congregation to turn to song 104 in the hymnal, Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.
After the song Jumpin’ Jeremiah Johnson stood before the congregation with nothing but a Bible and his bombastic self-righteousness between him and the gathered sinners.
It was him alright. Still looked in good shape. He had a lot more hair than I remember. It was black with streaks of gray and combed backward in waves. As he preached the hair flopped in his face and he would brush it back. Everyone leaned in on every word. Hallelujahs were like applause lines.
He preached folks in and out of hell with a twist of a phrase. He was clever, much more clever than I remembered.
During the sermon, I could not help but return to those glory years when we were the representatives of our school battling in athletic competition for the honor of our community.
Jeremiah was a member of the team but not a part of the team. To him, if Jesus was not a part of the conversation, it was not a worthwhile endeavor. It was a struggle to be around him.
He considered that Catholic schools we played a part of the Antichrist. A nearby school was known for the number of bars in such a small town. He called them all heathens. Unfortunately, that was all they needed to beat us by 20.
Although his condemnatory ranting and arcane theology did not satisfy my need, it was nostalgic for me in a sentimental way. Good memories rose like balloons at a party.
At the end of his sermon, he said, “I’m Jumpin’ Jeremiah Johnson and I’m gonna ring the Lord’s bell.
He stepped to a small bell hanging on the back wall. Underneath hung a rendering of Jesus on a cross.
“Eleven feet!” he said and jumped.
He was short by less than an inch.
“That’s only happened one other time,” he said. “It’s when I had a twisted ankle.”
He jumped again and missed by more than an inch.
“Third time’s a charm,” he smiled uncomfortably.
He missed again. He swallowed hard. His face turned red.
In spite of any bitterness I had toward him, he was a teammate. I could not help but feel the burden of his humiliation.
I removed my sneakers and walked up the aisle toward Jeremiah. I held out the sneakers. “Nobody can jump in those shoes. Here, try these on.”
Jeremiah smiled. He grabbed the shoes and put them on. He jumped and rang the bell.
Everyone praised Jesus. There was a song and a prayer.
The church cleared empty leaving Jeremiah and me. We stood in front of the altar.
“Thanks,” Jeremiah said.
“Nothing I wouldn’t do for an old teammate.”
“The Lord sent you to me today,” Jeremiah said.
Jeremiah destroyed the moment with his self-indulgent piety.
I twisted my head and gave him a disappointed half grin. “You’re the one who couldn’t ring the Lord’s bell.”
I walked away.
Like Uncle Walt used to say, “Look for the good in all people. It’s there. And the man who finds it has found a treasure.”
Just not today.