|A Teenage John Coulter|
In the Sixties when the old Glarryford railway halt was operational, dozens and dozens of us Presbyterians from the Clough church would pile onto the platform and eagerly await the steam train to ‘The Port’.
It would be a day-long venture and there would be no problem falling asleep that evening when we returned home.
After the halt was closed, it would be a fleet of buses and cars which would leave the Presbyterian church car park as the convoy made its way to ‘The Port’.
While it was known as the Sunday school excursion, all organisations in the church attended - the Bible class, youth fellowship, bowling club, Presbyterian Women’s Association, Mid Week Bible Study, Boys’ Brigade and Girls’ Brigade. It was traditionally held on either the last Saturday in June or the first Saturday in July.
Whatever date, for me, it marked the official end of the school year and the start of the summer holidays. The church families would either decamp to the West or East Strand carparks in that wonderful seaside town.
In my primary school years, my first port of call was a wee corner shop which always sold the Summer Special editions of The Beano comic. Whilst I was an avid Topper and Victor reader, The Beano Summer Special was always a ‘must get’.
And no trip to ‘The Port’ would be complete without a trip to Barrys amusement arcade, especially ramming each other in the dodgems, known as the bumping cars.
Generally speaking, many in the congregation would arrive in Portrush just in time for lunch - which was a feast of home-made salad sandwiches, washed down with very sugary tea, and a host of traditional Presbyterian tray bakes.
But the best part for me of the excursion was buying the water pistols! For 364 days of the year, squirting someone with a water pistol was heavily frowned upon in the Presbyterian congregation.
But on the day of the excursion, almost like a scene from the horror series The Purge, that ban would be lifted, water pistols would be bought and the soakings would begin - anyone and everyone from the congregation was fair game as targets.
Indeed, the next Sunday when we would gather in church, the talk would usually be of who got soaked the most, rather than the good weather, what we had for lunch, or even the fun at Barrys.
And so the water pistol curfew would begin for another year. The one sin you did not commit was to bring the water pistol to any church event. Water pistols were only to be produced at the Sunday school excursion at ‘The Port’.
Needless to say, as the Presbyterian minister’s son, there was one member of the Kirk Session I despised because of the way he had made an example of me. I gave him the nickname Bald Eagle. He’s dead now, so he’s not here to defend himself.
Bald Eagle had once been my Sunday school teacher. He was a bad-tempered bachelor Presbyterian farmer who lived on the family farm with his spinster sister and elderly mother.
Theologically, Bald Eagle was certainly on Presbyterianism’s liberal wing so during my horrific year in his class at Sunday school, I learned nothing about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We were a lively class and all the lads were great craic. But Bald Eagle didn’t appreciate us having a laugh. One Sunday when I had only been a ‘born again’ believer for a short time, he decided that this weekly craic should end.
His way of doing it was to punch me in the face in front of my classmates, reducing me to tears. I was being made an example of simply for being the minister’s son. From that day on until I finished the Sunday school year in Bald Eagle’s class, I never smiled at him.
I only spoke when he asked me a question from the catechism. It was my first bitter lesson that there were those in Presbyterianism who would single me out simply for being the minister’s son.
I later caused a diplomatic row in the congregation when I refused an invitation to go to Bald Eagle’s farm to watch the FA Cup final on a colour television.
In 2020, colour TV is taken for granted. In the early Seventies, it was a luxury and a Presbyterian minister certainly could not afford to buy a colour set. I loved watching the live FA Cup final on the BBC.
Bald Eagle’s sister was completely the opposite in personality to her older brother. She was one of the most pleasant souls I have had the privilege of knowing in Presbyterianism.
Their farm was a short cycle ride from the Presbyterian Manse and one of my chores was to go to the farm for my mum to collect a dozen eggs. After Bald Eagle punched me in the Sunday school class, I always made sure that when I was dispatched for eggs, he would be out on the farm on his tractor and nowhere near the farm house.
Bald Eagle’s sister had learned of my love of football, and had invited me to watch the final in colour. I had gone there for two consecutive finals, but after Bald Eagle hit me, I point blank refused to accept another invitation.
Thankfully, another Presbyterian elder defused the situation by inviting me to his farm to watch that year’s Cup final on his colour set. While it clearly states in Scripture that ‘vengeance is mine, I will repay saith the Lord’, I really wanted to pay Bald Eagle back for humiliating me in front of my peers.
But that was a very dangerous route to travel along. Bald Eagle was an influential liberal Presbyterian elder; a big noise in the community’s Loyal Orders, had served in the security forces, and in my honest opinion, had the worst temper of anyone in the congregation.
There was only one solution - ambush him at the Sunday school excursion with a water pistol; soak the elder - and use your cross-country Boys’ Brigade and Ballymena Academy skills to make a run for it!
Or what about the ultimate payback? Maybe I could soak him at church when he was wearing his Sunday ‘best’? But as water pistols were banned in the church, if I’d done that - and recalling my past experience of the thumping in his class - he would have kicked the living daylights out of me in retaliation.
The thought of another punch in the face, or worse, from Bald Eagle put me off that notion. There was only one solution - hunt him at ‘The Port’. For the next few years, after buying my yearly water pistol at ‘The Port’, I roamed that seaside town looking for Bald Eagle, but he was nowhere to be seen.
I was later told that he was one of the few members of the congregation who never went on the Sunday school excursion, even though he was a Sunday school teacher! Maybe his training in the security forces had taught him that a certain minister’s son was planning a payback!
From the day he reduced me to tears in that Sunday school class to the day of Bald Eagle’s passing, I never again spoke to him except to answer questions in that Sunday school class. I cheered in front of mum and dad when I was informed I was moving to another Sunday school class!
Even in later years when I entered journalism, I would occasionally meet Bald Eagle on his tractor. We never spoke. We just looked at each other as if he was North Korea and I was South Korea staring across the demilitarised zone.
My Super Soaker from my days at ‘The Port’ sits ready in my man shed should Bald Eagle’s ghost ever come to haunt me!
Listen to Dr John Coulter’s religious show, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.30 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM, or listen online at www.thisissunshine.com