I arrived around dusk. The congregation laughed and kidded while they worked, lots of “thank you, darlin'” and “put that over there, darlin’.” Their preacher watched as his flock pulled boxes from their trucks and station wagons. They piled the boxes in a clearing cut deep in the Piedmont’s loblolly pines.
I did what I still do. I walked about with my notepad and my camera, trying to find a story, but I was just a kid playing the role of a writer. I still am.
“What are y’all doing out here?” I asked a guy in his mid-twenties. He looked like he belonged with a group of heshers, smoking dope and listening to Sabbath.
“Brother Tom asked us to come,” he said, and he dumped another box into the pile.
“But why? What are you doing?”
“We’re getting rid of the Devil.”
I wandered around, asked the same questions and got the same answers. Occasionally someone asked whether I was with the Herald-Journal and I answered best I could without lying. “In 28 years I’ll write a short story about tonight,” I should have said. “Fourteen people will read it.”
The Devil’s pile grew taller and taller, a humpbacked mass of records as high as a grown man.
“You don’t really believe all these records are Satan, do you?” I asked the man standing next to me.
“Yes sir, I do.”
“They’re just records. They are inanimate objects.”
“That’s how the Devil works, son. He disguises his self.”
My hesher friend from earlier jumped in: “I was just like you, brother. Before I accepted Jesus as my Lord and personal saviour I worshipped KISS, man. They was all I thought about. That’s how the Devil does it, brother. That’s how come they named themselves The Knights In Satan’s Service.”
“I don’t like KISS,” I said. “Well, the early stuff is cool.”
One of the older men dumped a can of gasoline onto the bonfire, presumably a symbolic act since the pile was nothing more than paper and discs of petroleum-based vinyl. The congregation circled the pile and their preacher led them in prayer.
“Dear Lord, we are gathered here on this beautiful summer evening in Your house to cast out evil.”
“We ask that You heal us with Your sweet love, Jesus, and that You remove these temptations from our hearts.”
“And help those among us who don’t believe in Your healing love to open their hearts and let You in, for the flames of Hell are hot and eternal and only Your loving grace can quench them.”
“In Jesus name we pray, Amen. Okay, Danny, light her up.”
The pile of records went up with a whoosh and the congregation cheered. The mothers broke out sticks and marshmallows for their kids.
“You aren’t really going to let your son eat that, are you?” I asked the woman next to me.
“Well, for one thing burning a pile of records is pretty toxic.”
“What about the Devil? Aren’t your kids eating the Devil?”
“Are you being funny or hateful?”
I took out my camera and snapped blurry photos of the blaze. The congregation played to the lens, walking to my vantage point before tossing more records onto the fire.
“Wait a second,” I said. “That last one was The Carpenters.”
“It don’t matter. It’s all the Devil.”
“The Carpenters were Satan?”
“That girl was sick from the Devil. Besides, if it don’t leave room in your heart for Jesus then that’s Satan working.”
“Here is the real Devil.” Three college-aged guys stood on the perimeter of the circle. The speaker held a small piece of paper in one hand and a disposable lighter in the other. “This is what you all worship, the almighty dollar.” He lit the bill and held it aloft. I ran over to snap a photo.
The preacher approached us as a group. “All right, boys, you had your fun. Why don’t you go on, now.”
“Can I ask you a couple of questions?” I asked.
“Are you from the Herald-Journal?”
“I’m a photojournalist,” I said. It was a simpler explanation than the I’m writing a story in 28 years thing. “Why are you doing this?”
“It’s my calling,” the preacher said.
“You save souls.”
“And you think that The Carpenters are evil?”
“It doesn’t matter what I think, it’s what they think,” he said. We turned and looked at his flock around the bonfire. Someone threw NASCAR jerseys and a Smurfs sleeping bag on the fire.
“The Smurfs are evil?” I asked.
“If that child puts the Smurfs before Jesus, yes.”
“I thought that this was a record burning.”
“It’s an opportunity for people to free themselves of things that are holding them back.”
“They are wasting. That stuff could’ve gone to charity.”
“That’s not the point, son.”
“Charity is not the point of Christianity?”
“It’s not the point of this gathering. We’re here to purge ourselves.”
The college kid fired up another dollar bill and offered another rousing monologue to the disinterested crowd. I turned back to the preacher.
“We’re here to do God’s work, right?” I asked.
“So do you think that God wanted you to kill all the trees and birds in the immediate area with a toxic cloud of petroleum smoke?”
“The Lord doesn’t care about a few birds, son. He cares about your soul.”
“But He made the birds and the trees, didn’t He?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “That seems like an odd God.”
“Why don’t you come pray with me, young man? Invite the Lord Jesus Christ into your heart and all your questions will be answered.”
I looked back to the bonfire. Otis & Jimi At Monterey curled in the flames, the copper from the cover photo burning a mellow green.
“No thanks. I think I have all the answers that I need.” As I walked away I reached into the fire and grabbed the half-burned Jimi Hendrix/Otis Redding album cover.
“Hey, put that back,” someone yelled. “That means something to somebody.”
“You’re right, it does,” I said, and my piece of the Devil and I wound our way through the pine trees, away from the prayers and the singing, and back toward salvation.