A Boy in the Woods

Ronnie Messer

In 1954 at the age of twelve, my dad got him some religion, and figured he’d better read the Bible, one chapter a day. In no time he just knew he had consumption, followed not long after by leprosy, but the big mother of them all was “divers diseases,” because it sounded mighty bad and seemed to be snatching all kinds of folks who couldn’t have been divers, because there wasn’t all that much water in Jerusalem. To this day he considers his first run in with the Bible a “terrifying experience,” yet he felt compelled to continue.

Today my dad is Ronald K. Messer, college professor and writer. In 1954 he was just scrawny Ronnie, living with his family on a small farm in Cherokee County, South Carolina, bordered on three sides by thick, dark woods where he spent much of his time alone, figuring out the world with whatever tools he had to hand. About this time, somebody told him that if he ran as fast as he could then blew on his thumb, he’d pass out, so naturally, he had to try it. He came to on his back, apparently none the worse for wear, and knowing something he hadn’t known before. He was also neck deep in reading scary comic books, which was how the devil came to trample through his dreams every single night. Ronnie’s devil was bright red with horns, a pitchfork, and enough brimstone to put the fear in any kid. Oddly enough he never did connect the monsters in his comics with the fiend haunting his nights. However, one magic day, he decided not to read those comics anymore, only to be utterly surprised at finding himself nightmare-free.

When he wasn’t too busy dying of leprosy, Ronnie read the King James version of Matthew 5:22 which clearly states, “. . . whosoever shall say Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” That curse didn’t seem nearly as frightening as divers diseases, until the day he was driving down the street with his mother, and an elderly lady stepped into the road right in front of them. “Old Fool,” his mother said to herself. Young Ronnie stared aghast, and was down for days, thinking certain-sure his beloved mother was going to hell, but he never said a word to anyone. Matthew also yielded another gem, “ . . . whosoever shall say, Raca, shall be in danger of the council.” Apparently, the council was not nearly so formidable as hell, because one day his brother Chad made him so mad, he called him the worst thing he could think of. “Raca! Raca! Raca!” This may have been around the time he hit Chad’s incandescently sunburned back, then took off running, but I can’t be sure.

I know my dad as the college professor who says things like, “Living on a farm is a very visceral experience,” so I have to look closely to perceive the twelve-year-old boy who discovered a nest of baby mice with his daddy. “They looked like shrimp. Daddy brought out a wooden handle and held it out. He said, ‘Do you want to do it?’” Young Ronnie knew what was coming, and wouldn’t touch it, so his father pulled back the handle. “You know I have to do this,” he said, and whacked the handle down, killing the mice in a single swift stroke. It cost him, though. My grandfather was a tender soul, all the way through. I’ve known that since I was a child.

Ronnie with his parents, Arthur and Evelyn Messer

Ronnie’s first real experience with death was not the mice, but Molly, the mule that pulled his father’s plow. They all loved her, so when she broke her leg and had to be put down, nobody could stand to watch. His daddy had to go out and shoot her in the woods, but it weighed on Ronnie, so the next day he went to see her. There she was, surrounded by buzzards tunneling through her carcass as he sat on a log to watch. Day after day he returned to observe as their family mule returned to the ecosystem, though he didn’t yet know that word. It was a macabre fascination, both captivating and horrifying. It taught him a fear of death.

That year about twenty stray dogs had converged on their place, aggravating his mother, whom we have already established as a possible candidate for hell. She probably suspected it was young Ronnie’s fault. It wasn’t that he was a particular dog lover, but a stray would come along, and he couldn’t stand for it to go hungry, so he’d feed it, urchin dogs being fairly plentiful in the South Carolina countryside. Finally, his mother reached her limit, “I’m going to shoot those dogs,” she said, grabbing a 14/10-gauge shotgun. Ronnie got wind and lit out. “They must have known they were in danger, because they minded me,” he said. He ran full tilt, dogs and all, leaping into a ditch to hide. Pretty soon, up marched his mother, and pointed that gun at the dogs, but there was my dad, twelve years old, holding as many in his arms as he could. She lowered the gun, a look of complete disgust on her face, and never said another word about it.

He saved the strays, but in time the tables were turned. My grandmother, who made Scarlet O’Hara look pale, got a little dog of her own that she would cook for, even when she wasn’t willing to cook for herself. I never knew my grandmother without her dog. My dad always laughs and says, “I want to come back as mother’s dog. She treats it better than me.” I don’t know though. In 1965 she was bent on driving clear out to Idaho (Ah-dee-ho) for my parents’ wedding, and my grandpa said, “Evelyn, ah wish you wouldn’t take that little car. Ah think it needs a new en-gine.” Grandma replied, “If ah need a new en-gine, ah’ll stop and get one!” A few years later, she again drove out to Ah-dee-ho by herself, with nothing but a tent, a gun, and “cash money.” My dad was worried, and she said, “If somebody reaches in mah tent to steal what ah worked hard for, he’ll draw back a nub.” I believe her, especially because my dad would not have been there to save him.

1954 was also the year of Dr. Crane. Anxious to please a God who had divers diseases in his arsenal, Ronnie felt honor bound to conserve any vagabond fragment of God’s word that fell under his eye, carefully ironing the pieces and collecting them in a cigar box. “Do you know how many scraps of scripture are floating around an old southern house?!” he said. I don’t, but I can imagine; the Bible Belt got its name from somewhere. As a televangelist, Dr. Crane benefitted from my dad’s anxiety because one day, when he happened to be on television preaching a little God’s love and damnation, Ronnie noticed that his eyes seemed to follow him, drilling straight into his soul. Pretty alarming stuff, and to the mind of a twelve-year-old, a sign that God must want him to listen. For fifteen minutes, Monday-Friday, Dr. Crane had Ronnie’s terrified and undivided attention, scared stiff, but too afraid to look away. One night his brother, Chad, complained, and young Ronnie thought he’d found an escape from the fearsome Dr. Crane. “Chad could have saved me,” my dad told me, but his mother, who was not particularly religious, stood up for Ronnie. “He wants to watch it, let him.” Ronnie’s heart sank. To add to the injury, he was working outside one Saturday, listening to rockabilly music on the radio, when on came a preacher who up and smote his conscience. From then on, he didn’t even get weekends off. Monday-Friday for fifteen minutes, and 10:00-10:30 a.m. on Saturdays, church on Sundays.

“I was a weird kid,” my dad said.

It all seems rather gothic, particularly in contrast to the father I know. Perhaps in 1954, out in the dark of the woods, a cauldron simmered with the tangy spice of six quarts religion whipped with a gallon of hellfire comic books. Dad claims he was a weird kid, and maybe he was, but over time he added words to his vocabulary, one day realizing that “divers diseases” had nothing to do with water, and enough context to realize that his adored and fiery-spirited mother was in no way going to hell. I never saw my father iron bits of scripture, or get taken in by just anyone claiming to preach God’s word. But the man who brought six daughters home from the hospital has never lost his kindness, or his commitment to honor God. Weird or no, scrawny Ronnie grew into the most amazing man. Maybe it’s a shame we don’t all have a year in the woods.

Ronnie with his father and older brother, Chad, at the Empire State Building

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