And so, eighteen-year-old Johnny Witherspoon came to Wilkins, renting a dilapidated Airstream out at the Wildwood Trailer Park on Highway 301. When not in school, Johnny spent the majority of his time talking about true spiritual identity and soul transformation with the transient drunks, drug addicts and prostitutes who were his neighbors.
The unredeemed in the wilderness of Wildwood Trailer Park had seen their share of church folk. Pairs of well-intentioned men in suits and ties reconnoitered the area, usually in the evening of the second Tuesday of the month. Bandying heavy black Bibles, they searched for evangelistic prey willing to listen and sober enough to remember the next day what they had heard.
By 9:00 p.m., the teams of men retreated back into their fortresses of temperance. After a good scrubbing to wash away the filth of the trailer park, they slipped into bed next to loving wives and clicked off the light, forgetting Wildwood until the second Tuesday of the following month at 7:30.
Johnny Witherspoon, however, lived among the outcast of Wildwood Trailer Park. Dressed always in a fringed, deerskin jersey pulled tight at the waist by a leather belt with a large brass buckle that read “Live Free or Die,” he moved among the trailers and tents offering spiritual guidance to hung-over construction workers, disease-ridden addicts, and the high school students who ventured into the park in search of drugs and alcohol.
One Sunday morning Johnny tacked a hand-written notice on the bulletin board of the park’s public bathrooms inviting the residents to an evening cookout at his trailer. Figuring that by Sunday most of the community were too broke to imbibe in their various addictions or buy food, Johnny set up a rusty Black and Decker grill and prepared a thick stew consisting of grasshoppers, katydids and vegetables served over boiled rice. He had learned the recipe from is mother, Elizabeth, when times were tough and money was scarce.
At first nobody came except a gaunt prostitute called Flower, whose withered body lacked the appeal to produce even a meager income and Roscoe, a legless, wheelchair-bound veteran who refused to return home to Wichita, Kansas after the war because his wife didn’t like handicapped people.
Flower, wearing a floral print smock draped awkwardly over her bony, sexless frame, helped Johnny set up battered lawn chairs he had borrowed from the Wildwood community center, while Roscoe sat stirring the stew and brushing away flies with his Semper Fidelis Marine Corps cap.
When Johnny announced the stew ready, Flower insisted on serving the men since that was the way a real family worked and she so very much wanted to be a part of a real family.
Roscoe enjoyed Flower’s attention and told her how pretty she looked all dressed up and wondered if she’d done something special with her hair, because it sure looked like she’d done something special with it.
Flower blushed. She had forgotten how wonderful it felt to be admired by a man who wasn’t renting her body. She smiled at Roscoe and thought how handsome he looked in his military cap even if he didn’t have any legs.
“Something sure smells good,” Willie Harbigger said, walking up to the smiling threesome. “Saw your writing on the wall, Johnny. Offer still stand?”
“Sure, Willie,” said Johnny.
Willie loaded up a plate and squeezed his massive frame into a lawn chair that bowed slightly under the strain. Ten years of lifting weights and fighting in a Pitt County correctional facility had kept Willie, who otherwise might have been overweight, in prime condition. The heavy work in the tobacco warehouses maintained his exceptional physique and the few people unwise enough to make derogatory racial remarks in his presence kept his boxing prowess at a respectable level.
“You sure are a strange kind of kid, Johnny Witherspoon,” Willie said, wiping bits of rice and grasshopper from his lips with the back of his hand. “You ain’t got no mamma or daddy, but you go to school, study real hard, and try and teach a bunch of losers like us ‘bout faith and forgiveness. Where’d you come from, son?”
“It don’t matter where any of us came from, Willie. Ain’t that right, Johnny?” Flower refilled Roscoe’s plate and handed it back to veteran. “What matters is where we’re going. Johnny’s always talking about where we’re going once we’re free on the inside. Right, Johnny? It’s our insides that’s wrong, huh, Johnny? It don’t matter where we came from.”
“I never knew you were so smart, Miss Flower,” said Roscoe. “If I had legs I’d give that speech of yours a standing ovation.”
Something stirred within Flower—an emotion she thought long dead but now discovered had merely atrophied from disuse. She smiled at Roscoe. “It’s been a long time since anyone called me Miss, Mr. Roscoe. Thank you.”
“God calls you Miss too, Flower,” said Johnny.
While Flower was away in the trailer park restroom crying and not understanding why, other residents of Wildwood wandered over to Johnny’s place, drawn more by the smell of the stew and the sound of conversation than his handwritten notice.
The wayward of Wildwood met one another in halting, defensive conversations that eased as the night progressed. Johnny Witherspoon moved among them like the breeze that rose off the Tarboro River to the north, refreshing weary hearts and cooling tempers rubbed raw by a day of sobriety.
At midnight, as the moon rested low above the trees in waxing luminescence, Flower suggested that since it was Sunday and they were all together kind of like church, maybe they could sing a song. When the few protests were quickly quieted by Roscoe’s enthusiasm and Willie Harbigger’s biceps, Johnny stood and led the fifty or so forgotten folks of the trailer park in what (they would later explain to the police) was the most beautiful version of Amazing Grace they had ever heard.
“We held hands and cried,” Willie told one detective, who blew out a stream of cigarette smoke, doubting that an ex-con like Willie would ever hold anyone’s hand other than to break it.
“Johnny started speaking to the group about how God had made us special and that it wasn’t our conduct God wanted to change but our hearts,” Roscoe told another investigator at the police station. “He said God had given each of us a special identity and destiny but that we had lost it along the way. He said God wanted to restore our true identity back to us.”
The investigator in the interview room pushed his chair away from the table in disgust. “Was God going to restore your legs that night too, Roscoe?”
In the weeks following the initial cookout, 60-year-old Chester Cheetham Jr. noticed a marked improvement in the atmosphere of his family-owned, pain-in-the-ass trailer park. Rent payments were not only coming in without eviction threats, but they were coming in on time. So intrigued was Chester with the drastic drop in assault and malicious wounding complaints, that he ventured into the park one Sunday evening to visit this Johnny Witherspoon who was said to be the agent of Wildwood’s transformation.
He watched in disbelief as a familiar, waif of a woman worked with a man in a wheelchair, laughing and struggling against the wind to tape plastic tablecloths to ten picnic tables lined up along lot 37. Wasn’t she the hooker he used to see working down near the train station at night? She was still bone thin, but she looked healthier, more alive than Chester remembered. And she was actually socializing with that belligerent, cripple from lot 6. Chester thought the disabled vet’s only friend was Jack Daniels.
“How ya doin’ there, Mr. Cheetham?” Willie Harbigger laid a heavy, ebony hand on the old man’s shoulder that felt like it weighed ten pounds. “You here for the meeting?”
Chester turned to face Willie and the six other men standing with him. “What meeting, and who are these guys? Am I going to be calling the sheriff on you again tonight, Willie?”
Willie leaned back his head and laughed from deep in his belly. The half dozen men with him, each of whom looked as if he just as soon kill Chester Cheetham Jr. as talk to him, relaxed and smiled.
“Tell you what, Mr. Cheetham. Why don’t you come over and meet Johnny, taste some of his mamma’s stew and stay for the singing. You ain’t been in the trailer park after dark in a long time. You’re going to be real surprised at how nice things have got.”
At Willie’s insistence, Chester Cheetham Jr. did meet Johnny and thoroughly enjoyed a plateful of the young man’s increasingly popular stew. Chester couldn’t decide if he was more surprised by Johnny Witherspoon’s gracefully soothing manner or the number of people who came that night to hear him speak.
By 9:00 p.m., Chester figured that all 162 residents of Wildwood were spread out across lot 37, along with a dozen or so teenagers from the high school. He marveled at the way the community of troublemakers and riffraff behaved—greeting one another warmly and conversing in concerned tones as if they actually cared about what the other person was saying. So enamored was Chester with the phenomenon, he stayed through the singing and listened nearly without breathing as Johnny Witherspoon talked about a life free from the bondage of the past; a transformed life full of hope and realized dreams.
“I want that life,” cried out a man at a picnic table closest to Johnny. He rushed forward and fell at Johnny’s feet. Sobbing, he said how much he missed his wife and kids. “I left’em a year ago and I want to go back and be a husband and a daddy again. I want to be alive. I’ve been dead for so long.”
Roscoe wheeled up next to the man and patted his back. “Do something for him, Johnny. He’s hurtin’ real bad.”
Johnny Witherspoon raised his hands outward to the people before him and asked, “Who wants to be baptized into a new life?”
“We all do,” hollered Willie. “But where?”
“In the pool,” shouted Chester, feeling as if the voice were not his own, but emanating from some warm, forgotten section of an otherwise icy heart. “I’ll unlock the gate and we can all get baptized.”
So, the nearly 200 people gathered at the Wildwood swimming pool and stood silently as Johnny waded into the shallow end.
“I will baptize each of you tonight, but I want you to know that there is another one coming to Wilkins who is better than me. I’m not even worthy to be called his friend. I can teach you about a life transformed by God, but he will live it out before you in a way you’ve never experienced.”
One by one they came and Johnny baptized them. Willie lifted Roscoe from his wheelchair and with Flower holding the veteran’s hand, the three descended into the water together.
It was two weeks later, on a Wednesday that Russell Hicks moved to Wilkins and was baptized, along with other folks, by Johnny Witherspoon in the Wildwood Trailer Park swimming pool.
The day was a chilly, overcast anomaly for an eastern North Carolina, August afternoon. The repentant entered the icy water with gritted teeth and clenched fists and once plunged beneath the cleansing flow, they scurried, blue-lipped and redeemed to awaiting towels.
Russell Hicks waited in the baptismal line trembling. Oblivious to the weather, his quivering hands resulted from the realization that his life was beginning that day. He hadn’t existed prior to this particular Wednesday and he understood that once he emerged from the Wildwood swimming pool there was no turning back. The old Russell Hicks; the son of Mary Beth Toberson of Cooleemee, North Carolina, would pass away and the new Russell Hicks would come. The pool was filled with the amniotic fluid of new life and his cousin Johnny would deliver him out into his true identity; into his eternal mission.
Nervously, Russell kicked the discarded remains of a Twinkie toward a group of four pigeons rummaging around a poolside trashcan. The pigeons devoured the treat and then looked to Russell for more. It occurred to him then, how much he wanted to help the people of Wilkins County. They were like these pigeons; rummaging through life, searching for morsels of inspiration and affirmation that would make their lives, however briefly, worth living.
Leaving his place in line, Russell searched the depths of the trashcan where the pigeons were unable to descend. After three minutes, he emerged with a half-eaten cheese sandwich and an apple core. The pigeons flocked around him as he pushed bits of bread, cheese and apple into greedy, snipping beaks.
“Hungry,” he whispered. “So hungry.”
“Who’s next?” Johnny called out.
Russell dropped the food scraps and climbed down into the pool. He stared deeply into his cousin’s eyes, remembering the summer days they spent playing together as children. He recalled the first time, as a twelve-year-old, that he had told the preacher and the deacons at his mother’s church, that he and Johnny were special people—chosen by God.
“That’s precious,” they all said, nodding and winking at one another. They offered he and Johnny brand new, pocket-sized, Gideon Bibles but they refused. The church leaders did not find the refusal so precious.
“We already read the Bible a bunch of times,” Russell explained. “We don’t want to read it any more, because we want to try livin’ it out, instead.”
The church leaders drifted further away from finding the young cousins precious, and now thought them precocious. When Russell, rather matter-of-factly shared with them that from their understanding of the New Testament, he and Johnny felt fairly confident that in order for them to really live for God, they were probably going to be murdered at sometime or another, the pastor and the deacons called them preposterous.
“The time has come, Russell,” Johnny said, numb from the waist down in the chilled water. “Are you ready to do it?”
“I’m afraid, Johnny.” Russell shivered uncontrollably. “It’s going to be hard.”
“We’re going to do it together.” Johnny slipped his left hand around his cousin’s back and Russell covered his nose and mouth with cupped hands.
“Russell Hicks, do you surrender your life to God and seek to be transformed by Him into a new creation?”
Russell shuddered. “Yes.”
“Will you be who God wants you to be and do what God wants you to do?”
“Then I baptize you, Russell Hicks. The past is buried with God,” Johnny swung his cousin down into the sanctifying depths, “and you are raised into newness of life with Him.”
As Russell broke forth from the water, a single shaft of sunlight burst through the afternoon’s grayness, illuminating him in an angelic splendor that made the onlookers gasp.
Johnny said, “You see the sunlight, Russell? Feel its warmth? It’s like God is telling you that He loves you and is happy that you’re obeying Him.”
Before Russell could respond, a pigeon, hoping that perhaps Russell could save it from its insatiable appetite, lighted upon his shoulder and pecked at his ear.
“It’s just like the Bible, Johnny,” Russell said, fighting the tears. “We’re going to die.”
Immediately something within Russell drove him from the Wildwood Trailer Park. He gathered some supplies from his small apartment in Wilkins and went camping out in the woods behind the Firestone tire factory. He stayed out in the woods for a week struggling with the temptation to forget the idea of giving his life for Wilkins. At night wild animals foraged around him in the darkness, so he prayed that God would send angels to protect him.