This is the beginning of the good news about Russell Hicks, the firstborn son of a single mother named Mary Beth Toberson.
It started with an odd warning submitted to the Wilkins Daily Tribune by someone identifying himself as Isaiah Cranston. The Tribune’s editor, Nelson Wallthorpe, ever watchful for not-to-weird-weirdos who might increase his newspaper’s readership, ran the bizarre admonition in the Saturday Life in Wilkins section, between the marriage announcement of Katherine Arnell Homsby of Kinston to Dustin Patrick Wells of Simms and a 25% discount coupon for readings at Madame Guyan’s Palmistry Center in Zebulon.
Cleverly, Nelson titled Isaiah Cranston’s brief submission: A Voice in the Wilderness Warns Wilkins. The editor wasn’t a particularly religious man, but like everyone who had grown up in Wilkins, he had done his time in Vacation Bible School, which on occasions such as these, proved of some value. Beneath the pithy title the warning read:
Get ready, Wilkins.
God knows you’re tired. He knows you’re discouraged. A messenger is coming to prepare the way. Then, another will follow. A lot of you people are going to be blessed, but there are some of you who aren’t going to like what is about to happen.
Get ready, Wilkins.
The warning caused a small stir among the 1,500 or so Tribune subscribers, especially the parents of Katherine Arnell Homsby who called the paper to complain about the “ravings of a lunatic” being printed next to the announcement of their daughter’s “blessed event.”
There was a distracted conversation in the checkout line at White’s Grocery, where a gaggle of child-laden women waited patiently for the teen-aged cashier to confirm the sale price on paper towels. They wondered what the warning meant and if the police had been notified.
Across town at the Tavern, proudly the only drinking establishment to have weathered Wilkins’ religious fervor, the regulars gathered to watch college basketball and argue about which North Carolina basketball team was the best.
Arnold Dayton saw the warning first while scanning the page and thinking that the Homsby girl was crazy to marry a guy with a degree in sewage treatment. “Pretty girl like that ought’a marry someone in tobacco where the real money is,” he began, and then, “What the hell?”
The beer infused discussion that followed, once Arnold read the paper to everyone at the bar, lasted about three minutes with the conclusion that whoever Isaiah Cranston was, he was either crazy or just plain insane.
The following Sunday morning, the warning gained a larger audience, when much to the delight of Nelson Wallthorpe, the Reverend Jonathan Edwards Sikes of the First Church of God referred to the words as prophetic gibberish. “The Canon is closed,” he declared in rich, seminary-trained tones. “It defies the hermeneutical imperative and as protectors of the sacred text we must rally against such nonsense.”
The majority of the congregants had no idea what “hermeneutical imperative” meant, but it sounded impressive and they were certainly against anything that defied it.
After the service, enthusiastic protectors of the hermeneutical imperative, continuously interrupted Nelson Wallthorpe’s lunch at the Golden Corral, demanding Saturday additions of the newspaper so they could see exactly what it was that they were rallying against. Nelson made a list of names on several napkins and the Wilkins Daily Tribune set its greatest ever Saturday sales record in the history of the periodical.
“The whole thing started out with such innocence and humor,” Nelson would say in a Washington Post interview later. “I even tried to find Isaiah Cranston to see if he’d write regularly for us. You know, as kind of a satirical thing. Who’d of thought he was telling the truth? How could he have known that those two high school kids we’re going to come to Wilkins? Maybe they read Isaiah’s warning and then made themselves into what they thought he meant. But they must have believed it to be true or why else did they die? I’ve never seen such a thing in all my life.”