Religious Pitchmen of Radio

 They were preaching hard truths, and the spirit was moving, and the power was falling, and the long midnight highway of South Texas stretched out before us as dark as a night being born. We had driven for miles and miles and seen nothing but miles and miles, and the only distant sign of life was a dead armadillo by the side of the road.

The little towns had closed down, shuttered their windows, and the gas stations had all locked their gas pumps. The white lines on the highway cut through the brush country where cattle fed on mesquite beans when times were hard, and most of the beans were already gone.

One radio station played out, then another. Most stations did not last too far past the city limit sign in a land where the world was flat and could prove it. Music – good, bad, or otherwise – was scarce and lost somewhere on the ragged edge of static that played across the countryside like frayed streaks of dry lightning.

But the preachers were loud and clear on 1570 AM.

They were sucking air, chastising the devil, washing away sin, healing the afflicted, and, at the drop of a hat, always willing to pray for pay.

The hard truths were coming out of the three-hundred-foot towers of XERF Radio, reaching far above the adobe huts of Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, and blasting the border with 250,000 watts of pure, raw, and unadulterated power that reached, some said, from Canada to South America.

The devil had to run hard and fast to stay ahead of 250,000 watts.

The preachers were never far behind.

But wait.

They may have been preaching hard truths against old Lucifer, but they weren’t after him.

They were after my money.

They were the original religious pitchmen of radio. And, Lord, they were good at prying the last dime out of an aging widow’s coin purse.

One was peddling autographed pictures of Jesus Christ for a dollar.

He may be lying, I told my sidekicks – photographer Gerald Crawford and artist Rick Rush.

You think?

Well, he sorta was, and he sorta wasn’t.

I squeezed out a buck and ordered the picture of Jesus Christ, and, sure enough, it was autographed.

The preacher or one of his minions had scrawled his glorified name across the bottom of the glossy 8 X 10.

Another gravel-voiced airwaves evangelist had just returned from the Holy Land and was offering thimbles of water from the River Jordan and splinters from the cross.

He may be lying, I told my sidekicks.

You think?

Well, he sorta was, and he sorta wasn’t.

I ordered the splinters.

And, sure enough, the preacher sent me splinters.

Probably from a cross. He just never did say which cross.

One preacher suggested that we put five dollars in an envelope and send a new envelope every three days, and he would send us his Holy Ghost-filled “all points emergency prosperity package.”

God don’t want you poor, he said.

God wants to make you rich.

His “all points emergency prosperity package” would make you rich.

He may be lying, I told my sidekicks.

You think?

Well, he sorta was, and he sorta wasn’t.

I stuck five dollars in an envelope and shipped it off to his post office box number.

He sent me back the numbers to play in the lottery.

God had the lottery rigged.

The preacher may have not have been lying, but he had misplaced the truth.

We marveled at the number of times an air-sucking preacher – without blinking, hesitating, or even having second thoughts – could slip his name and mailing address into his sermon.

Brother Al, Post Office Box 536, Fredonia, California, had no equal.

Then.

Or now.

In six minutes, he had given us his name and address seven times without missing a beat or catching his breath.

On air, somewhere within the shadows of XERF, Ciudad Acuna, he began to pray for a poor man afflicted with a crippling disease. He said, as the choir hummed softly in the background, “Lord, I’m placing my hands on this dear brother. Lord, honor these hands. These hands belong to Brother Al, Post Office Box 536, Fredonia, California.”

And the night was as dark as it had been in a long time. The road rolled on forever, long and straight. And the skies crackled with lightning from XERF. You could almost smell the sulphur in the air.

A few years ago, I received a letter and a green and white checked prayer cloth from a famous evangelist from a Radio Church in Atlanta. He had been led by the Lord, the letter said, to fly to Dallas and meet with me personally. The Lord had big plans for me, and the preacher could not wait to see me.  Be at the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas at eleven o’clock, he said. He would be waiting for me.

And, oh yes, be sure and bring a twenty dollar bill.

I walked into the Fairmont Hotel at exactly eleven o’clock. After all, the preacher had flown all the way from Atlanta, Georgia, to meet me.

Personally.

The lobby was filled with two thousand more pitiful and wayward souls that the preacher had come to see.

Personally.

And all were carrying their precious twenty-dollar bills in their hands.

A couple from Greenville sat on the front row. They had arrived two hours early. They were young. They were desperate. They were broke. He was out of work. She was pregnant. They had a sick and hungry baby. If the Lord had big plans for them, they needed to know about them now. Tomorrow might be too late.

They listened to the preacher man preach.

They clung to every word like gospel.

He was not there to save their souls, he said, but to make them prosperous. But first, they had to make an investment of their faith, and the price tag was at least twenty dollars. Remember, he whispered into the microphone, the more you give, the more you get.

They marched up front when the time came and placed their twenty-dollar bill in a collection plate. It was the last twenty dollars they had in the world. But that was all right. The preacher still wanted to see them and them alone.

Personally.

When they opened their eyes after the final amen, a door was slamming.

The preacher was gone.

The young couple walked out into the parking lot, still full of hope, still remembering the promise.  Like the widow with the mite, they had given God all they had.

They climbed into an old Oldsmobile, covered with more rust than paint. The young man turned the key in the ignition.

Nothing.

The battery was dead.

It was then that I saw a grown man cry.

The Good Book says that the wages of sin are death.

Only the Good Lord himself can calculate the wages of a cold, hard lie.

 

Originally written for and published by The Writers Collection.

Caleb Pirtle III is author of Place of Skulls, Gamble in the Devil’s Chalk, and Other Voices, Other Towns.

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