I stood on the steps to the old First Baptist Church in Klondike for a few minutes before the celebration of a friend’s life began. The steps were the only thing left of the old country church. I tried to remember if I had attended a funeral there since my daddy’s was held forty three years ago. I couldn’t remember setting foot in the church since that day. I looked east through the trees and tried to recall details of the Methodist Church that used to be there.
My childhood memories of the church were bittersweet. I could see the inside of the church in my mind, the pews and pulpit, the picture of Jesus with bleeding hands, and I think there were stained glass windows. I remember being uncomfortable, as if I didn’t fit in, but always felt better after attending on Sunday.
As more cars arrived, I felt a little conspicuous standing on steps that led nowhere, so I walked over to the new metal building that now served as the church. We were there to honor and celebrate the life of Jerry Biggs, a Klondike resident and a character actor with a long resume.
I thought of the irony of attending a memorial service in tiny Klondike, the closest thing to a town where I grew up, for an actor who had starred in major films. If someone had told me that as a kid, I would have laughed.
The new metal building is nice, but it just doesn’t have the ambience of the old wooden church. I perused the gallery of photos of Jerry posing with famous Hollywood actors and regretted not sitting down with him more often when I had the chance to hear more stories about his interesting life.
True, in a small town and county where you are considered new until you have lived here for at least three decades, Biggs was still considered new. Even though he had lived here a very long time, he was not a native. He lived less than a mile from where I grew up and almost directly across from West Delta, the school I attended for eight years.
And he lived in a house I used as inspiration for one of the pivotal scenes in Rivers Flow, my first novel. As I listened to his life story told by friends and family, I was struck by the things I did not know about the man I called a friend.
Jerry and I had almost nothing in common, except a strong affinity for Lonesome Dove, the excellent made-for-tv movie where Jerry starred as reprobate Roy Suggs. He also had roles in many other notable films such as Silverado, Tender Mercies and Bernie, to name a few.
I loaned him my horse Rowdy to make a documentary film for the local university. Jerry had to ride down a hill into a small valley in the opening scene. By his own admission, Jerry was a much better actor than rider. When I cautioned him not to squeeze his legs and to push forward on the stirrups, lean back slightly, and pick up the reins if Rowdy quickened his pace.
I held my breath when Rowdy started to trot down the hill, then lope, then all out run as Jerry couldn’t keep from squeezing. I feared calamity, but Jerry managed to stay aboard and in one piece. He stepped down and began his speaking role in the film unperturbed, like the pro he was.
Some sixteen years ago, Jerry showed up at the site of a barn and arena we were building in my back pasture. He wore his tool belt and volunteered for work that day. Jerald and I were grateful, but looking back, I wonder if we had made him welcome enough and showed our gratitude properly. He brought us copies of his famous photo in character and costume as Roy Suggs.
As the service came to a close, I resolved to benefit from Jerry’s life. He had reached out to become friends. I did not reject him, of course, but I did not enthusiastically seek a closer friendship. I don’t know why, exactly. I think it was because it was a very busy time in my life, but that may be an excuse. Maybe it was because of our different lifestyles and backgrounds, but I am usually fascinated by people different than myself. Most of my best friends are different personality types than I am.
Whatever the reason, I knew I had missed an excellent opportunity to know a unique, talented, and fascinating character better. I will try not to let that happen again.
After the services, I stopped again on the old church steps and reminisced, recalling this scene from my second novel. Molly Beth squealed as the Mustang shot away from the Chevy. The little motorcycle was a drag racer’s dream, and Gray had it tuned to fly. He charged down Klondike’s main street, the Chevy following closely behind, unable to pass or gain. Just past Dad Flanagan’s, Gray turned off his light, cut across the Methodist Church parking lot through a field he had played in as a boy, then back through the Baptist Church parking lot. He passed between trees too narrow for a car to follow. The Chevy’s lights were not in sight.
And this scene from Go Down Looking . . . At the church in Klondike, a preacher nobody in the family knew droned on endlessly in a combination fire-and-brimstone and invitation-to-be-saved sermon. Mattie shook with sobs, ready to shatter like porcelain glass. Jake was on the verge of standing and telling the preacher to stop when he mercifully ended. An octogenarian male quartet sang “The Old Rugged Cross” out of sync with the nonagenarian piano player. Jake ached with grief and shame as the family left the church and watched the pallbearers load his father into the black hearse again.
Memories. The steps reminded me that many, if not most, of my old childhood haunts are gone now. Looking over the graves of my ancestors down Klondike’s main street at the old post office that my daddy built and Dad Moore’s store reminded me that other landmarks (and people) suffer the ravages of time and are not long for this world. Makes me pleased I captured at least some of them on the printed page.