|A Teenage John Coulter|
I have in the past summarised those personal experiences using the title of one of the most famous spaghetti Westerns - The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, starring Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood.
Being a heavy metal-loving preacher’s kid in the heart of that Bible Belt was challenging enough, and readers may conclude that many of the problems and criticisms I faced were self-inflicted.
After all, if only I had conformed to the rural Presbyterian stereotype of the minister’s son who would listen to classical music, opera, Country and Western - but not heavy metal - then life in the Bible Belt would have run a lot more smoothly.
However, what should never be underestimated was the kindness of many of those rural Presbyterians.
In spite of the brutality of the Troubles, the late Sixties and most of the Seventies was an era when, at church, you could leave your cars unlocked in the church carpark and return to the vehicle after the services and it would be untouched.
Even in the pre-lockdown Christian Church of 2020, many places of worship would post ‘guards’ in the church carparks during the services to combat anti-social behaviour.
But in that idyllic life in the 1960s and 1970s, it was not uncommon for dad and mum to leave their car unlocked at the Presbyterian church and for a worshipper to tell them: “I’ve left you a wee something in the car, your Reverence!”
In that predominantly farming congregation, we would return to the vehicle to find a bag of spuds, vegetables, even an array of plants neatly packed in the boot or the back seat.
On many occasions, when dad returned from congregational visits, he would come into the Manse with a fine selection of delicious home-make cakes and tray bakes.
While throughout the globe, historical Ireland may be known for the ravages of the notorious Potato Famine which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Irish folk, I can honestly admit that we in the Presbyterian Manse never wanted for spuds in that rural congregation.
I know in my reflective articles I have been sore in my criticism of my tormentors, such as Sour Puss, Bald Eagle and The Slurry Gulper, and have more anguishing tales to unfold to you about characters I dubbed The Pregnant Gorilla, The Bee With An Itch, Super Bitch, The Poisoned Dwarf and Mrs Lucifer, not to mention Doodle Bug Dandy and Captain Yellow.
While some of these misfits targeted me as the minister’s son, my dad as the minister, or my mum as the minister’s wife, I must stress that not all my experiences in that Bible Belt were nasty ones.
It was just before Christmas in the very early 1970s. We had just enjoyed the delights of the annual ‘Bring And Buy’ sale in the church hall organised by the congregation’s ladies group.
As we were about to leave the church that winter’s evening to return to the Presbyterian Manse, a cheery farmer in a broad north Antrim accent said to dad: “Your Reverence, I’ve left you something a bit different for Christmas in your car.”
Coming up to Christmas each year, there was no shortage of gifts of bags of potatoes, vegetables and cakes for the Manse - even a turkey or two!
But as we drove up the long avenue of the Presbyterian Manse, the faint sound of ‘quack, quack’ could be heard from the car boot. At first, mum and dad thought it was myself and my younger sister fooling about.
However, the quacking got louder and the source was only discovered once the car was parked in the Manse yard and the boot opened - out jumped a fully grown duck! The generous farmer had certainly wanted us to dine on duck that Christmas, but didn’t happen to tell us the duck was still alive.
But none of us could muster the courage to kill the duck, so it joined the ranks of official family pets at the Manse - Bessie the white rabbit, and Pluto the miniature Shetland sheepdog. Quackers the duck was welcomed into the Presbyterian menagerie.
The looks on people’s faces when they would be greeted by a friendly sheepdog and a mad quacking duck as they parked at the Manse were something to behold.
When we had to leave that Presbyterian Manse in 1978, Quackers the duck spent his final years at a Tyrone farm. All offers from members of the congregation to kill and cook Quackers for us were graciously refused.
As well as Christmas, there was another occasion which I thoroughly enjoyed in that rural Presbyterian calendar - the annual harvest thanksgiving services in October.
It was not just the Sunday services themselves, but the previous Saturday would be spent decorating the church. On this occasion, the ladies of the congregation would take the lead in terms of what decorations went where, and the menfolk had to make the tea for the busy women.
A massive array of fruit, flowers, vegetables, corn stacks, would arrive in the church hall, but within a few hours, all would be delightfully placed around the main church building.
Leave it to the menfolk, and nothing would be organised, but those Presbyterian ladies knew exactly where every apple, potato and daffodil should go - and placed there at breakneck speed, too.
While the annual harvest services were great spiritual outreaches, it also signalled the traditional fashion parade when the ladies of the church would unveil their winter outfits!
Many’s a neck was strained to see if Mrs ‘So and So’s’ suit matched her hat and gloves. The fashion critics of the congregation had a field day commenting on the winter styles as the ladies tried to outdo each other.
The previous day, they had all worked together effectively and efficiently to decorate the church, but on the harvest Sabbath, the fashion rivalries came to the fore!
With the harvest service celebrations and supper over on the Sunday, all the produce on show would be dispatched to nursing homes and hospitals and the elderly or disabled who could not attend church.
But like Oliver from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist asking for some more gruel, I always made sure as the minister’s son that I could ask for a wee bowl of fruit, such were the privileges of ‘rank’ in that era!
I knew my ‘acting talents’ from the rehearsals from the annual Sunday school Soiree would come in useful. How could anyone refuse this wee skinny, specky-four-eyed minister son’s request for a delicious fruit basket?
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