As my memoir Accidental Preacher comes out in print, I want to share a series of reflections with you. This unexpected calling to preach continues to be an adventure, one I am thankful for and overwhelmed with every day.
I got the call to write before I was called to preach. The week before our grand trek from Greenville to Colorado Springs for the 1960 National Jamboree, Scouts of the Blue Ridge Council received last-minute instruction. Scout executives announced the lackeys whom they had tapped for senior patrol leader, chaplain, patrol leaders, and quartermaster. “Williamson? Williston? Willerman? You are troop scribe.” Scribe? What’s that?“You write reports to the chief scout executive. He’ll send them to the Greenville Newsif they’re newsworthy.” What’s “newsworthy”? As our overburdened, dilapidated buses belched through Kentucky, I got the guts to ask the scoutmaster why I had been selected as scribe. “The popular boys were chosen as troop leaders,” he explained. “You gotta take what’s left.”
Every couple of days I dutifully mailed my dispatches to Mr. Stanley. Knowing that old man Stanley hired the ancient buses that broke down in Oklahoma, I described eighty boys sweltering on the side of the road awaiting a mechanic. Thank God for the first aid merit badge, I wrote, or we could have died in Soonerland. I quoted comments about Stanley’s logistical mismanagement. I informed my readers of the wasteland between Louisville and Colorado Springs; don’t bother taking the trip. I testified to the rundown motel in Missouri where we were delighted by the pool but unhappy about being awakened throughout the night by men banging on our doors calling out, “Myrtle? Are you in there? I paid! Myrtle? It’s my time.” I disclosed how Henry Taylor—who had climbed on the roof to retrieve his hatchet that had been thrown out the window during an argument—was locked out and forced to shiver in his briefs on the roof of Bates Motel until dawn.
Once at the Jamboree, I described the stew made by Scouts from the Congo—a week’s rations dumped in one smoldering pot from which they ladled three brownish meals a day, reasoning, “It all goes to the same stomach.” I marveled that Scouts from Texas conned New Yorkers out of fully embroidered Order of the Arrow patches, swapping them for horned toads that they swore made you hallucinate if you licked them.
I exposed the Scouts from Georgia who traded cockleburs nestled in small boxes of cotton to unsuspecting dolts from New Jersey as “Genuine Porcupine Eggs. Keep at 71 degrees for two weeks.” I noted that President Eisenhower looked too old to be running the country, and that the Scouts from Laurens were vowing never to get back on the Buses of Death even if they had to break up with their girlfriends and stay in Colorado through high school.
When we finally limped back home (including the Scouts from Laurens, who were forced on the bus by a scoutmaster screaming, “I don’t give a rip who your old man is!”), a crowd welcomed us at the Trailways Bus Depot. A reporter among them shouted, “Which one of you is, pardon my alliteration, William Willimon?” He waved a wad of clippings from the Greenville Newswith headlines “Scouts’ Travail in Tennessee” and “Scouts Unimpressed by Presidential Visit.”
“Hey, Walter Winchell Willimon. Your column got moved from the last page to the front after your second posting! How ’bout a big smile for your readers? The newsroom heard them northerners are still sittin’ on them porcupine eggs. What’d you Scouts think of that whorehouse in Missouri?”
My mother said little on the way home except, “Next time you engage in journalism, remember that, unlike you, I’m staying in Greenville.”