|A Teenage John Coulter|
There were two very poignant lessons I learned as a preacher’s kid about the north east Ulster Bible Belt - firstly, blood is thicker than water, and secondly, some rural Presbyterians could turn on you like a taunted rattlesnake.
In the first instance, I had arrived in the early Sixties in the north east Ulster Bible Belt from the heart of County Tyrone, which effectively meant I had no blood relatives in that Presbyterian community located in the depths of the north Antrim hills.
The perception was that everyone was related to everyone else somehow - except me! It was not uncommon for a first cousin to marry a first cousin in that north east Ulster Bible Belt.
Indeed, I recall as a young Christian in my early teens a schoolboy chum confiding in me that he had fallen in love with his first cousin and did I think that God would see it as a sin if he asked her out for a date!
The bottom line in terms of ‘blood being thicker than water’ was that in the event of an argument, family loyalties and ties came first no matter what the rights and wrongs of the dispute. Arguments in that Bible Belt did not ‘blow over’ in a matter of days - they could spark family feuds which could last for generations.
While preaching the Gospel was my late dad’s first love as a Presbyterian minister and born again evangelist, dad also took his spiritual counselling and pastoral care duties very seriously.
But what would infuriate me specifically as a minister’s son was how quickly some folk in the Bible Belt would conveniently forget about or ignore the pastoral care dad had given them and turn on him, as I’ve said, like a taunted rattlesnake.
One such person I gave the moniker The Slurry Gulper. That was not his real nickname in the Bible Belt community; simply the name I gave him.
He was not particularly well liked in that community and folk had given him an equally crude moniker, which I will not use as that would reveal his identity. He had also been the butt of rather cruel practical jokes because of his unpopularity.
As with characters I’ve written about before in this series on my life as a minister’s son, such as Bald Eagle and Sour Puss, I never called these people by their nicknames to their faces. It was one of my coping mechanisms - along with tranquillisers, anti-depressants and pain killers - for the stress of being a preacher’s kid.
I must emphasise, too, that Bald Eagle, Sour Puss, and The Slurry Gulper are all now dead, and are not here to defend themselves against my accusations. Then again, all three went into eternity not knowing about the monikers inflicted upon them by me.
Why The Slurry Gulper as a nickname? Simple, he was ‘as thick as pig shit’! Again, I must stress that during the period of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties in reflecting on my time in that Bible Belt, The Slurry Gulper never physically abused me (unlike Bald Eagle) or verbally abused me (unlike Sour Puss).
Indeed, it may even make me look like a hypocritical Biblical Pharisee when I state that on a number of occasions when I won awards in my time in the Boys’ Brigade, The Slurry Gulper would be among the first to congratulate me.
I can also recall at least two occasions when my dad counselled The Slurry Gulper through two difficult and challenging situations. So why the apparent venom with which I write about The Slurry Gulper?
Eventually, life got so bad for us as a Presbyterian minister’s family that we had to get out of that locality. Dad had to get a job in teaching, and I abandoned all notions of wanting to be a Presbyterian minister, opting instead for a career in journalism.
We had to leave the beautiful Victorian Presbyterian Manse and rent a small farm house while we completed a family bungalow. Enter The Slurry Gulper at this stage.
When dad indicated we were leaving that rural Presbyterian charge, a number of churches expressed an interest in him. The Slurry Gulper told my dad to his face that if dad got another Presbyterian church, he personally would go to that church and disrupt dad’s services!
The hate was boiling out of The Slurry Gulper towards my dad. In dad’s early years in full-time lecturing, a number of churches did approach him. All were refused.
While there were additional reasons for dad not going to those churches, The Slurry Gulper’s threat was always lingering there; would he actually be crazy enough to carry out his threat, or even devious enough to encourage others to carry out his threat for him?
Thankfully, however as it turned out, The Slurry Gulper - in my honest opinion and as his moniker suggested - had ‘neither the brains nor the balls’ to carry out his threat.
Dad was able to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ well into his eighties with no interruptions to religious services. As for The Slurry Gulper, events were to take an unusual twist in the late 1980s.
Almost a decade had elapsed since The Slurry Gulper’s face to face threat to dad. As well as entering lecturing in further education and preaching the Gospel, dad had also entered politics and was elected as an Ulster Unionist Party councillor to Ballymena Borough Council in 1985.
While Paisleyism had overshadowed North Antrim politics since 1970, the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement signed by Maggie Thatcher had acted as a rejuvenating spark for Ulster Unionism in that DUP-dominated constituency.
Ulster Unionist branches, especially in rural areas, which had either folded or been forced to meet in people’s homes under the political weight of Paisleyism, began to get revived.
I was, by the late 1980s, a full-time senior journalist with the Belfast News Letter. It was a winter’s evening that I found myself covering a packed UUP meeting in a comfortably warm Orange Hall in the north east Ulster Bible Belt.
I had got my story and now it was supper time. When it comes to producing homemade egg and onion sandwiches, the UUP is streets ahead of the DUP, Sinn Fein and Alliance!
There I was, seated snugly in the front row of the UUP meeting, happily munching on my delicious egg and onion sandwiches, washed down with sugary tea. A party branch officer called for a vote of thanks, and from behind me, up stood a man to deliver the vote.
As he spoke in that broad north Antrim accent, my reaction was: “I know that voice - its The Slurry Gulper!” A quick glance over my shoulder confirmed it was indeed this ‘gentleman’ whom I had not seen for almost a decade.
So what, you might think, could possibly annoy me about a vote of thanks at a UUP meeting? I had just taken a huge mouthful of my super sandwich when The Slurry Gulper in the middle of his speech uttered these immortal words: “ … and my friend the Reverend Coulter …”
Bearing in mind that threat The Slurry Gulper made to dad years earlier, my reaction was instantaneous. Try to utter the words ‘what did you just say’, munch an egg and onion sandwich and swallow sugary tea all at the same time was impossible for me; it could only end one way.
I began to choke and sprayed the front table of the meeting with a concoction of tea and sandwich. This was my chance to pay The Slurry Gulper back for what he had threatened to do.
I would interrupt his speech by publicly challenging him about his threat. Quickly wiping my face of crumbs and tea, I turned to give The Slurry Gulper my verbal broadside, but as I did, I caught my dad’s eye as he was sitting at the front table.
Such was the unbreakable father/son bond I enjoyed with my dad, that he instantaneously knew what his hot-headed son was about to unleash. Gently, but quietly, he put his index finger to his lips and beckoned me to remain silent.
That simple gesture was enough to calm the blood boiling within me. I just got on with the job of cleaning the remnants of the sandwich and tea which were splattered over my shirt, tie and jacket.
I never saw or spoke to The Slurry Gulper again. But that ‘confrontation’ became a tale of mirth at select family gatherings where I would do my Mike Yarwood-style impression of The Slurry Gulper delivering his vote of thanks, complete with the hilarious line … ‘and my friend the Reverend Coulter’.
Even in the latter weeks of his life in 2018 at the age of 88, when dad knew that he had lost the battle against cancer and would shortly enter eternity to be with his Saviour Jesus Christ, he still managed a chuckle when I would recall that evening in the 1980s in that Orange Hall and I would do my impressions of The Slurry Gulper’s speech.
Ironically, The Slurry Gulper is buried in the same cemetery as my late parents.
Since starting research and writing this series of memoirs about life as a Presbyterian minister’s son, when I visit that rural village cemetery to put flowers on mum and dad’s grave, I now dander over to The Slurry Gulper’s resting place and whisper: “Hello Slurry Gulper, how’s the friend of the Reverend Coulter keeping?”
I will keep my other tales about The Slurry Gulper firmly under wraps for the full memoir.
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