Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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The country is barren, sand-hills and pines stretching from north to south for 400 miles in either direction from Norfolk to the Florida line. William Tecumseh Sherman stopped in February of 1865, fresh from the March to the Sea and the burning of Columbia. Finding nothing to destroy, he paused and then went elsewhere, looking for something worthy of his attention. The natives stayed on, rooted on the land, mournful, gradually becoming Americans with cars, trips to the K-Mart, factory jobs and televisions.
Pontiac, South Carolina would still rate as little notice as Sherman gave it in 1865. A motorist on U.S. 1 would miss it simply by driving the speed limit. A few small stores, a traffic light, and then you are moving north toward the state line, or south, eight miles into Columbia. Pontiac does not even have the dubious notoriety of its neighbor, Elgin, which changed its name from Blaney about ten years ago when the Elgin watch company built a plant there. The company decided to close its Elgin plant after about two years of operation, so the town was left with a meaningless name and wounded pride.
But since last December Pontiac has achieved a sort of fame. It was during the Christmas season that reports started to circulate about a cross that was appearing in the bathroom of a mobile home owned by Mr. and Mrs. Frank Harley. According to the Harleys, between thirty and forty thousand people have visited their trailer to view the cross.
Finding the Harley’s home is almost as large an undertaking as explaining where the cross comes from and why so many people have swarmed into Pontiac to see it. One drives down dusty, gravelled roads through pine barrens. The area, only a half-mile from the traffic on U.S. 1, has a strange, frontier quality, like those illustrations of Daniel Boone’s cabin in your fourth grade history book. You almost expect to see a log house with smoke curling from its chimney; instead, every 200 yards or so, you see double-wide trailers, set on semi-isolated lots hacked out of the woods. Most of the mobile homes have that incongruous, semi-settled look that comes over such dwellings when concrete driveways, pink flamingoes and corrugated sheds surround them.
The Harley’s trailer is almost identical to that of their neighbors. A chainlink fence marks the front yard, and is decorated with a Beware of Dog sign. There is a good reason for having this sign, as the Harley’s German Shepherd is capable of picking up a half-deflated football in its mouth. I was glad he was chained.
I was greeted by Mrs. Harley, a short stout woman in her early sixties who was making instant coffee when I arrived. She has an excited, confusing way of talking, jumping from one subject to the next without pause. One thing was made clear from the first, however; neither she nor her husband trusted anyone from the media. Stirring her Nescafe, she told me that the newspapers and television stations in Columbia had been unfair to them, trying to make her admit that the cross was a hoax. Lowering her cup, she looked me over.
“Are you out to do the same thing? If you are, I just wish you would leave right now.”
Before I could say anything, a man named Leonard Gunter and his wife Donnie arrived. Gunter is the Harley’s go-between with outsiders in search of a story. Mrs. Harley finished her coffee and told Gunter to show me the cross while she looked for some photographs.
At the bathroom door, Leonard Gunter began to ask questions about my purpose in coming. In the livingroom, Mrs. Harley was complaining in a loud voice about the problems writers had caused them in the past.
Gunter, in his forties, blue eyes in a red wrinkled face, said that several scientists had visited the trailer and had come up with no explanation for the cross’ existence. Visitors had tried to steal the window; two girls had touched the glass from the outside and their hands had been burned. A Richland County Deputy had tried to place black paper across the outside of the window, but had been knocked backwards when the paper touched the glass. Finally, he seemed satisfied with my intentions and I was allowed to look upon the Cross of Pontiac.
The bathroom is cramped. Besides the tub and toilet there are a washing machine and a large cabinet in a space barely six feet long. To see the cross during the day you must kneel on a small platform in the bathtub, put on two pairs of sunglasses, and lean toward the window. At night, I was told, the cross is so bright that it is totally visible to the naked eye.
Pressing forward, I saw it. It is not the traditional crucifix, more resembling a Maltese cross with elongated arms. An aura covers the center, with about a third of each of the four arms extending beyond it. I stared for several minutes, then removed the glasses. The cross was still visible but not nearly as distinct. A bit dizzy, I rose and found that Mr. Harley had finally come home.
He is tall and thin, about his wife’s age, weatherbeaten. Despite the western-style shirt he wore that day, dotted with flowers and wagon wheels, one thinks of photographs from the 1930s of dispossessed farmers. Frank Harley was the first person to see the cross.
He “became aware” of it on November 17, 1976. He didn’t tell his wife, as he thought the cross was a prank committed by one of his grandchildren, all four of whom live with the Harleys.
Mrs. Harley, however, is not one to keep such a thing a secret. To say that she is a fundamentalist does not accurately describe her religious attitude. God manifests Himself in direct and striking ways. The cross is the way that has touched her most deeply. She has been a regular Bible reader since she was a girl, but feels that organized religion, and especially ministers, have caused people to turn from God’s word. Lighting a Winston, she settles into a purple stuffed chair.
“Churches put money first. They got too many man-made laws. They have forgotten the word of the Lord.”
It is through television that Mrs. Harley finds the kind of religion that she feels most comfortable with — she regularly watches Rex Humbard, Jimmy Lee Swaggart (the cousin of Jerry Lee Lewis) and the PTL (Praise the Lord) Club.
She saw the cross on December 10, and laughs when she thinks about how her husband kept it to himself.
“I felt joy and happiness and fear all at once. Donnie (Gunter) and me were home that night, listening to a tape by Jimmy Swaggart, when we heard a tapping sound. I checked the bathroom to see where the noise was coming from, and when I turned the light off, the cross lit up the whole room. I just stood there. Donnie came in and couldn’t even speak. Then we ran outside to see if the cross was in the yard. Nothing there. We got scared, but went back to the bathroom. Donnie was too afraid to go in, but I just got right down on my knees and prayed and laughed and cried. When I told my husband about it and found out that he already knew, I was mad because I could have been looking on this miracle that much longer. I knew right away that it came from the Lord.”
People started coming to the Harley’s trailer, too. Friendly Ben Diekel, a West Columbia disc jockey and right-wing radio commentator, saw the cross and reported that it made him a better Christian. Soon people from all over began to make the trip out U.S. 1.
Problems arose. Pilgrims lined up in the front yard, despite the German Shepherd, until three in the morning. Food vanished from the refrigerator, as well as decorations and pictures from the walls. Fifteen visitors, looking for the cross’ source, climbed onto the trailer’s roof and put hundreds of dents in its metal surface. The carpets were worn out and the grandchildren had their Christmas presents smashed by visiting children.
Glancing around the trailer, it is not difficult to imagine what it must have been like when the huge crowds were there every night. They came from 49 states, Germany, France, Korea. An image emerges of a packed room. Above the heads of the crowd float the religious pictures that cover the trailer walls; the face of Christ on a large, lacquered piece of pine, the Last Supper in 3-D, Jesus ministering to the little children, Praying Hands and a tapestry of Christ with the lost lamb.
Mr. Gunter cleared his throat and said that these people seemed to forget their religious differences while in the Harley’s trailer. All faiths came together. Catholics sprinkled holy water in the yard, and when the water touched the earth, it seemed to turn into a field of miniature fireballs.
Miracles had occurred every night for weeks. A wealthy couple was cured of alcoholism. A small child was healed of paralysis. A woman who had spent thousands of dollars on medical bills for her crippled legs walked away without her crutches. Many had talked in tongues, and others had been “slain in the spirit,” lapsing into a religious trance when viewing the cross.
The Harleys still seem hurt that not everyone had taken the experience seriously, or with proper consideration. Mrs. Harley leaned forward, and in almost a whisper said that some young men had actually been smoking marijuana in the hall leading to the bathroom.
“You know how it smells, sickening.”
The Gunters nodded in agreement. They had smelled it too and had thrown the boys out. Others drank in the yard and some threw cigarette butts on the floor as they waited to see the cross.
“The Devil was the cause of these problems,” says Mrs. Harley. All things considered, she is glad that the cross has come. It is a sign from God, a symbol of His will. Ministers from the area had tried to discourage visits, but nothing could keep the people away. They were of all types, rich and poor. Mrs. Harley paused for a moment.
“And the colored people were the nicest ones. So quiet and respectable.”
Donnie Gunter looked up from the Gin Rummy game she was playing with one of Mrs. Harley’s grandchildren.
“They like to be called blacks now, you know.”
Mrs. Harley lit another cigarette.
“You know that 95% of the people have been good. The Devil only made them act the way they did. And it’s no wonder. You know that some people these days say that we are descended from monkeys and baboons? Imagine that!”
Donnie Gunter looked up again from her card game, shook her head and clicked her tongue.
Mr. Harley smiled at his wife and then told of one man who was so anxious to see the cross that he burst into the bathroom while Mrs. Harley was in the tub.
I asked if he might not have wanted to see Mrs. Harley.
She laughed. “Oh Lord no! He would have been crazy to want to see me.”
Then it was time to go. Mrs. Harley showed me two dozen photographs of the cross at night, and a letter from a woman named Diana Phelps of Missoula, Montana. Miss Phelps had read about the Pontiac Cross and had written to say that she lived in a mobile home that also has a cross in the bathroom window.
Mrs. Harley looked up at me. Her eyes were clear and she seemed to gaze past me toward some great object.
“Who can tell how many others in this country have a cross in their houses?”
Outside, Leonard Gunter showed me the window. A fuel tank is beneath it, the same one the deputy had been knocked from. He mused upon the Harley’s cross.
“Only the Lord could have made such a thing happen. There’s no other way to explain it. People have tried and they can’t do it.”
It was getting dark and was unseasonably cold for April in South Carolina. I shivered a bit as I drove back down the dusty road. Lourdes, Fatima, Guadelupe Hidalgo, churches in Mexico where the statues bleed at Easter, 15-year-old Perfect Masters, visions and space men and cures for cancers and warts. And Pontiac, South Carolina. In the land of the faithful all questions are answered before they are asked.
There was a rumor circulating that the cross had disappeared. I called the Harleys during an electrical storm to find out if the cross had, indeed, vanished. Mrs. Harley didn’t want to talk because she was afraid of lightning, but she said that I should come on out and see for myself.
That afternoon I found the Harleys working in their front yard. We sat on the screened porch, smoked cigarettes, and talked about the cross, which seems just as bright as ever.
A black minister, the Rev. Montgomery of Cherryville, N.C., had been the cause of the trouble during the last several weeks. His first visit had come a couple of weeks before Easter. He praised the Harleys for their faith and became a fixture around the trailer. The Harleys were glad to have him around, especially since most ministers had been hostile to them. Then he began to say he was responsible for the appearance of the cross. One morning he appeared at the trailer carrying a large sword. He planted the sword in the backyard, and let it be known that he would give $10,000 to the person who could remove the sword from the ground. He then showed the Harleys a sermon that he had written which was preserved in a glass case. The sermon, said Rev. Montgomery, was to be preached upon his entry into heaven. His behavior became more erratic, and he claimed that the sword had never been touched by human hands, excepting his, of course. Mrs. Harley assured me that this couldn’t be true because a trademark on the blade clearly stated that the sword had been manufactured in Missouri. Finally, the Harleys called the police to remove the reverend. A plainclothes deputy also removed the sword, which is still in the possession of the Richland County sheriff’s office. As to the Rev. Montgomery, it appears that he has launched a campaign to make the Harley’s trailer into a national shrine.
The curious and the faithful still come to the trailer in a steady stream, though the throngs of last winter seem to have let up. The Harleys are glad of this, as they don’t want any more damage done to their home. The outside world still complicates their lives, however. Mr. Harley showed me a letter from Galaxy Creations, a jewelry company in Alstead, New Hampshire. Galaxy wants to create a line of rings and medallions depicting the Pontiac cross. They assure the Harleys that they will receive healthy royalties from the production of such items.
Before I left, Mrs. Harley asked me to read a pamphlet written by a minister in Pensacola, Florida. The pamphlet is concerned with the coming of Armageddon and the prevalence of vultures in Israel which will be needed to clean up the battlefield after the final struggle between the forces of the Lord and the Anti-Christ.
As I climbed into my car, Mrs. Harley handed me a cucumber from her garden. She couldn’t understand why the cucumbers were so bitter this year.