While I’m a tee-totaler, the headline on my column today may give the impression I’ve been consuming a bottle of moonshine before putting pen to paper.
The lockdowns and restrictions of 2020 have been a stark reminder of how important taking exercise - and where we can safely take exercise - has become.
Going for a walk in the countryside was something I took for granted during my late dad’s days in parish life. In many cases today, the need for social distancing has challenged where we can go to get a our daily dose of much-needed exercise away from the requirements of digital technology.
Ironically, such challenges took me back to my school days in the 1960s and 1970s and life as a Presbyterian minister’s son growing up in that rural Bible Belt.
Agriculture was one of the main industries in that north east Ulster Bible Belt, but as the Presbyterian minister’s son, I had absolutely no interest in farming and its associate organisations.
During Boys’ Brigade camps, when us lads first came in contact with a tee-shirt shop, while I got my schoolboy nickname - Budgie - emblazoned on my tee-shirt, most of the other BB boys got the make of a tractor on theirs.
Indeed, your dad’s tractor preference crossed the sectarian divide in the Seventies. There were fights on our school bus - not between Catholics and Protestants.
The main fights centred around those lads - both Catholic and Protestant - whose dads farmed using a Massey Ferguson, and those lads whose dads drove a Universal!
Being the Presbyterian minister’s son, dad didn’t even have a tractor so I was exempt from joining one of the so-called ‘tractor gangs’!
Then I got a break through in becoming a ‘tractor hard man’. Dad got the loan of an elderly farmer’s tractor to help with the building work at our new Manse.
It was a Fordson Dexta. So when, on the bus, I was asked which ‘gang’ I was in, I enthusiastically replied ‘The Fordson Dexta Group!’ My response was met with bemusement from Protestant and Catholic alike - I was the only one whose dad had a Fordson Dexta!
And no one wanted me for their ‘tractor gang’ as even in the 1970s, a Fordson Dexta was viewed as a vintage vehicle!
Okay, there were still fights on the buses, but at least it wasn’t over sectarian hatred of one another.
But in that north east Ulster Bible Belt, many of my farming friends joined their local Young Farmers’ Clubs.
I personally could not see the point of me joining as I had no interest in agriculture – apart from the occasional bout of paid potato gathering in October, or strawberry picking in the summer.
Every year, some club would write to me kindly inviting me to join. Some of my fellow preacher’s kids did join a club, but I suspect that was more to placate their parents or a club rather than any burning desire to develop their agricultural skills and knowledge.
My friends talked about their stock judging skills. I tended to adopt a very flippant view of what they saw as an essential youthful art.
Indeed, as a smart-assed, young grammar school teenager, I was challenged by a teacher who was very bemused as to why a wannabe theology student wanted to join a careers trip to one of Northern Ireland’s leading agricultural colleges. My flippant response: “Sir, I want to study the history of the hen!”
It would not be until I became a full-time journalist covering the annual agricultural shows - and especially the annual two-day North Antrim Agricultural Show in Ballymoney for the Belfast News Letter - that I would gain a proper understanding of how important such activities were to developing a new generation of farmer.
And that vital role which the YFC movement played in building and investing in a new generation was really rammed home to me during my late dad’s time as President of the annual Ballymena Agricultural Show.
Another important influence on my later life in terms of appreciating the very comprehensive role of the YFC movement was the UUP partnership which was formed in 2007 when dad and Robin Swann - now the Stormont Health Minister - were the party’s two candidates in that year’s Assembly poll in the North Antrim constituency.
Robin had served as a Past President of the Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster movement and later as Chairman of the influential Rural Youth Europe organisation.
However, in the 1970s, the clubs who invited me to join all tended to meet on Monday evenings – but that was a big homework night for me, and the start of the week’s training for cross country.
The last thing I wanted to do was go to a farming club and discuss sheep, cows or tractors all evening. It became a source of mutual irritation that I would not ‘join the club’. Some of their leaders could not understand my unwillingness to sign up, especially as some other preachers’ kids had joined.
I did not want to be rude and tell them – I find farming boring! What has judging sheep got to do with heavy metal, was my opinion?
I was more interested in developing my skills as a heavy metal lead guitarist with my band, The Clergy, rather than updating my exceptionally limited farming knowledge.
There was also a perception that clubs in the Seventies located in that north east Ulster Bible Belt had two key factions. One was involved with stock judging, competitions and drama; the other was a hard-drinking, partying lot.
Unfortunately, the latter’s alleged activities were getting the former a bad name. It was another excuse for not getting involved in the club. I always harboured the suspicion the leaders just wanted my name; just to say: ‘Oh the minister’s son is one of our members’.
The worst times were after church on Sundays after dad had taken services in predominantly farming congregations. For weeks on end, some member of a club would approach me and politely invite me to meetings. I generally always had an excuse, usually to do with cross country training.
A few clubs, unfortunately, had been getting an alleged poor reputation for heavy drinking at so-called ladies’ night functions, which generally descended into binge-boozing sessions.
Finally, one Sunday in the mid-Seventies, one leader from a particular club asked me point blank after a church service why I refused to join the YFC.
Frustrated with his persistence, I blurted out: “Because I don’t drink beer!” A totally daft and childish answer I know, but it did the trick.
However, it almost got me a hammering in that church in the process. That particular YFC leader knew I was making a jibe about the organisation’s alleged problems with binge drinking.
He momentarily lost his cool, grabbed me by my jacket lapels and slammed me up against the church wall. Then he realised what he was doing. He set me down and walked away.
Never again was I invited to join the YFC. But it came at a price. The movement effectively shunned me for daring to talk about the unspeakable.
Maybe if I had joined, I would have had a better chance of dating a particular farmer’s daughter that I had a teenage crush on in those days. In my puppy love mis-spent youth, she epitomised the most beautiful woman in the world.
She knew I had the mother of all crushes on her, but could I persuade her to go on a date with me? Not a chance. She was the one girl that telling I was a preacher’s kid would not work. I could have been the son of the Moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly and she would have said ‘no’.
Some girls would simply go out with me, not because I was a hunk male model, but merely to keep on the right side of their mums and grannies. It allowed these women to boast that their daughter or grand-daughter was ‘dating the minister’s son’.
Having dodged membership of the clubs, there was, I must confess, only one YFC event which I thoroughly enjoyed - a club’s annual concert, which allowed club members to demonstrate their talents at singing and drama.
Such events could give the annual Presbyterian Sunday school soirees a run for their money in terms of variety acts. And, of course, there was those delicious YFC suppers afterwards.
In spite of my constant opposition to joining a club, I generally was given a ‘by ball’ in terms of attending such YFC events because dad would have been invited to either give the opening devotions, say grace before the supper, or give the epilogue.
I had an alternative motive - the annual YKC concerts provided me with perfect opportunities to ‘chat up’ a few farmers’ daughters and arrange some dates!
And, equally importantly, enjoy the endless supply of Presbyterian egg and onion homemade sandwiches on offer during the supper. For one night only, jibes about ‘heavy drinking’ would be forgotten by one and all and the wee minister’s son could become a ‘farm boy’ for the evening. Yeeehaaaaa!
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