As is the Southern tradition, Ansel Head’s religious education started early. He faintly remembers attending the Mountain Brook Methodist Church in the heart of Crestline Village in the center of the Tiny Kingdom. That building, now sporting a reddish-purple paint, is used for more secular purposes. In order to better symbolize their high station, its members moved the Church early on to a grander structure with a lofty steeple rising ever upwards to the heavens.
Head remembers nothing of his lessons at the Methodist Sunday school; but he has never forgotten having to abandon his holster filled with silver bullets and two six-shooters and being forced into a collarless tweed jacket, ruffled shirt, hideous short pants, knee socks, and highly polished Buster Brown tie-ups. Had it been up to his father, Head could have avoided this degrading costume; but his mother controlled such events. The other ladies attending the services gushed at the young English lord’s outfit, purposely reinforcing his mother’s shameless resolve.
As is proper, his real religious education began in earnest at home. At night, his mother would sit on the side of his bed, fold his just washed hands together in the prayerful manner, close his eyes, and have him repeat these sacred words:
“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
No doubt, she had done the same with Head’s older brother when he was just starting out. He had probably understood what was going on. But for the less intelligent Head boy, this ritual was just another thing he had to do to get through the day. After performing this ceremony for many weeknights (supervising adults were preoccupied with adult activities on weekends), Head did successfully memorize the rhyming verse, but its words made little sense. First and foremost, no one had ever explained to him what a soul was; or if they did, the young Head’s frontal lobe was still too feeble to understand.
Then one fateful night, after dutifully reciting the incantation, ghosts appeared in his room. He awoke in a cold sweat despite being too young to know that he was in a cold sweat. Apparently he also let out a cry because his father immediately came to his rescue.
Head brought him up to speed. “There were ghosts. They wore sheets with holes for eyes. I think they hid under the bed when you came in. Get your flashlight and find them.”
His father immediately returned with the light. His mother remained in bed; hunting ghosts in a long, sheer nightgown was not something a Southern woman does. His father shined the light all around, got down on his knees and searched underneath both beds. He found nothing; the strong light and his bold actions had driven them away. His father then sat down on the side of the bed and stood guard until his youngest son fell back to sleep.
The next morning, the still concerned Head quizzed his sister. She too had recited the prayer with their mother before going to sleep. “Did you see the ghosts last night?” he asked.
Her eyes widened. “What ghosts?”
“The ones that flew around the room until Dad ran ’em off.”
“Oh, you’re just trying to scare me. There weren’t any ghosts,” she concluded.
“What’s going on here?” Head thought to himself. He had said the same magic words as did his sister with all the earnestness he could muster. He had left out no gesture. He had followed the ritual to the letter. Yet the ghosts had come into his room, flown about his head, and hidden under his bed. There was no telling what would have happened if his father had not come to his rescue.
Until then, he had found no fault with this religion game; but suddenly profane questions started oozing their way into his non-superior brain. “What’s the point of prayer, if flying sheets with holes for eyes can come into your room and drag you down to where the devil lives?” he queried. He noted that his mother had slept through the home invasion and the evil spirits had not bothered his sister.
“Maybe this religion thing,” he reasoned, “ works only for girls.”
Nevertheless, Head’s mother kept insisting, with the same determination she had shown in her selection of his Sunday school clothes, that their weeknight prayer meetings continue unabated. Head acquiesced and dutifully folded his hands, closed his eyes, bowed his head, and recited the words in a hushed tone. But from then on, the young boy never went to sleep without his Lone Ranger six-shooters underneath his pillow. The ghosts now knew where he lived and were not being deterred by ancient rituals. He wanted modern and meaningful armament in such perilous times.