Lines: A Southern Journal
I was four years old when my mother made her first Southern friend over a plate of leftover biscuits and sausage gravy. She was a fellow Cracker Barrel waitress named Shirley Copper with a figure that reminded me of a Butterball turkey sprouting a mound of chemically fried curls the color and texture of straw. Her shape confused me for in no way did it resemble the tattoos—which answered my questions concerning the appearance of the fully developed female body—scrawling the arms of her beefy, red-headed husband, Roland.
Shirley and Roland had five chubby, freckled children. Lynette, the eldest, had grand mal seizures which caused her to gnaw her tongue into a bloody pulp until Shirley stuck a silver sundae spoon down her throat like a tongue depressor. Because Roland was a truck driver for Frito-Lay, he was allowed to take home the bags of chips about to expire, and for the longest time, all I knew about him was he kept our snack cupboard stocked in dill pickle and corn chips, and Mother told my brother and me not to look at his tattoos. Once I was older, around thirteen, Mother finally told me the story about Roland Copper—A.K.A. Firecracker Red—and his prison past.
About five years before Shirley and Roland had their shot-gun wedding in the Montgomery, Alabama courthouse, Roland was arrested in Las Cruces, New Mexico for organizing a drug smuggling ring and for evading arrest by beating a cop beyond recognition. After his hearing, he was sentenced to life without parole at San Quentin. It was here that Roland obtained the name Firecracker Red for his red hair and temper which arched as rapidly as a firework and would just as dramatically explode.
After beating his cell-mate until blood graffitied the walls, Roland was placed in solitary confinement. Rocking back and forth on the floor of his 8 by 10-foot cinder block cell, Roland—on the precipice of insanity—plucked out his ruddy beard, one hair at a time. Then, in an odd course of events, Firecracker Red was given a second chance. On September 26, 1970, a power line snapped in eastern San Diego County, raining down sparks upon a withered bed of chaparral and sage scrub. Within seconds, the Santa Ana winds lapped at the flames until, in the course of 24 hours, it had roared down through Laguna and was carried westward, slurping up the cities of El Cajon and Spring Valley. As the fire continued to devour hundreds of homes, the California fire fighters realized they did not have enough manpower to fight the flames. In an act of desperation, the low-security prisoners in the areas surrounding San Diego County were released so they could help the residents flee the fire.
The flurry of activity following this announcement caused the San Quentin prisoners to erupt into a frenzy bordering on pandemonium. As the chaos continued, no one thought twice as Firecracker Red was released along with his fellow inmates. After the San Quentin bus delivered the prisoners into the heart of the heat and lapping flames, they were presented with their first option in many years: help the people inside the line of fire or help themselves. Roland Copper—A.K.A. Firecracker Red—felt he had no choice.
Bounding through the flames, Roland entered the smoke-swathed homes and found many of those he was there to rescue did not want to leave what they’d spent their entire lives accumulating. After arguing away time that could not be wasted, Firecracker Red’s temper flared, and he decided to take another course of action. He went into each house, knocked out the occupant before they had a chance to spout a protest, and carried them on his back to safety.
Eight lives were saved that day due to Firecracker Red’s heroic if heedless behavior. When President Nixon received a pardoning petition highlighting Roland’s bravery, he shocked the San Quentin prisoners by releasing their most hot-tempered inmate.
As the prison gates clinked shut behind Roland Copper, and he began walking down the road as a free man, he knew his second chance at life was not just a coincidence. His Bible-believing momma from Altoona, Alabama had prayed him home.
But regardless of his momma’s prayers, Roland Copper did not feel compelled to surrender to the ministry. Instead, he got a job hauling chips for Frito-Lay in Birmingham and started dating a woman who was a waitress at a 50's-style diner named Shirley. When Shirley became pregnant with Lynette, they got a waitress from the diner to be their witness and were married in the Montgomery, Alabama courthouse.
Two years later, driving down Highway 82, Roland saw a billboard emblazoned with a Bible verse he had memorized in his childhood. Careening his semi onto the shoulder of the highway, 6’3’’ Roland Copper folded in on himself like a collapsed fan and began to sob.
After giving his life over to the Lord, Roland felt what his mother had been praying for all along: he was being called into the ministry.
Knowing Roland’s testimony would tantalize visitors enough they would want to become a member of Abundant Grace Baptist Church, the deacons voted for Roland Copper to become their pastor. But not long after the ballots were counted and Roland was sworn in, a debate arose over which version of Scripture to use during the Sunday sermons. Because of Roland Copper’s background with the less educated of society, he believed the more colloquial versions of the Bible would be easier for new church goers to understand. The deacons banded together and a line in the sand was drawn. It was either the King James Version or Roland Copper could find himself another church.
Wounded by the first church he had stepped into in the past 25 years, Roland Copper chose to leave everything behind, including his Bible-believing momma and newly found faith. He uprooted his now five-member family and moved into a doublewide in Centerville, Tennessee. Instead of entering the ministry again, Roland checked to see if Frito-Lay had any trucking openings in Nashville, and they did.
Jolina Petersheim's publishing credits include Cicada, Maypop, Waiting Room Magazine, Washington Poets Association, Pensworth, Branchwood Journal, The Patriot, and The Robertson County Times. She lives near Cookeville, Tennessee, with her husband, 40 acres, and novel-in-progress.
Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012