I remember 1997 well. It was the year that the Ricky Martin phenomenon hit the rural Victorian town of Echuca. The girls at my high school were losing their minds over how hot he was. Little did they know that they were wasting their time. It was the year, too, in which I fully committed myself to a life of music. My drum teacher reckoned I ‘had what it takes’ to make it as a pro, and this was all the prophetic input I needed to chart out the course of my life. But 1997 was also the year of religious enlightenment, for it was in this year that I finally conceded that the Church had more than its fair share of nut-jobs (myself included). There were plenty of warning signs, mind you. But this particular Sunday in February was to take the cake for weirdness.
I remember that Dad was preaching his usual kind of sermon. During this phase in his ministerial career, he seemed to be focussed on the Old Testament. Although I can’t remember exactly what the theme was that day, it was probably something to do with ‘the principles of living in God’s Kingdom’ (a favourite theme of his at the time). He was even harping on about this stuff up home. My Brother and I couldn’t commit any minor misdemeanour without Dad reminding us that we were failing to live up to the ‘principles of God’s kingdom.’ Of course, very few people know exactly what God’s kingdom is. Even Jesus never specifically told anyone. But Dad knew, and apparently, it was related to combatting insubordinate behaviour from one’s sons.
Whatever the topic was that day didn’t matter to me one iota. You see, I happened to be in love with Melissa, and she was sitting a few rows over from me. I couldn’t seem to take my eyes off her. We had recently shared our first kiss in the back of the youth van on our way back to Echuca after an underwhelming Christian concert in Melbourne. After going in for the kill I was surprised and relieved to find her kissing me back with just as much passion. I felt bad for Marie who was sitting next to us, but what can you do? It was young love and by the time we got dropped of home our relationship status had become ‘official.’ Since that time things had progressed nicely, although the constant intrusions of our parents were a real thorn in our sides. We had taken to going for long outdoor ‘walks’ by the Murray River to get our desired alone time.
Anyway, as I glanced sideways at Melissa on this warm Sunday, I couldn’t help but think of all the things I would like to do with her (within the sanctity of marriage of course.). She was responding to my borderline psychotic glare by giving me this cheeky scolding look as if to say that she loved the attention but was also aware of where we were. She was killing me softly just by looking at me. I was utterly transfixed; a teenage boy reduced to a pathetic entanglement of nervousness and infatuation. Even writing this makes me feel awkward, and I kind of feel like I want to punch my teenage self in the face and tell him to stop being so nauseating. But such was the depth of our longing, which we were sure was going to last forever. Nothing could break the spell of our love (note: she left me a few months later), and I planned on gazing at Melissa adoringly until the service ended. These plans, however, were rudely interrupted by the arrival of the Wizard and his family of freaks.
I say Wizard more as a visual reference point than a vocational reality. His long, thin, wispy beard reached down just above his slightly protruding stomach. It was grey, with flecks of brown hair dotted throughout. He was wearing a matching sports tracksuit that looked old and tattered. But what I remember most was his eyes. They were the eyes of a sneaky, wily, and potentially dangerous individual. They kept darting around the room, sussing it out for any potential threats or opportunities. There was a cold and calculating shrewdness in them that immediately raised the hair on my arms. His menacing disposition was complemented by the corner of his mouth, which was turned slightly upward in a faint smirk. If the Norse God Loki was amongst us in physical form, I can imagine him looking exactly like this guy (minus the tracksuit, perhaps).
Although I sensed trouble, I contented myself with just keeping an eye on him. If possible, I wanted to pre-empt some sort of attack that he might unleash. Perhaps he had explosives strapped to his torso? Maybe he had a syringe loaded with some sort of contagious virus? It pays to be prepared for every scenario. As I watched, however, I noticed that he seemed focussed on listening to the sermon with an intensity that would make even the most devout of believers envious. The Wizard rocked back and forth in his pew, with each vocal crescendo of my Dad’s sermon elevating his enthusiasm to a fever pitch. He started dripping sweat, although at least part of this because the Church was located in a stifling former school demountable. Whatever the cause, the sweat accentuated the manic quality of this random visitor and made me even more worried.
In turned out that these fears were well and truly justified. Arriving at the central point of his sermon, my Dad implored the congregation to follow the precedent of Scripture and apply it to our own lives. Without further encouragement, the Wizard stood up unannounced and proclaimed to the entire congregation that he would do exactly what the sermon said. Now, this might sound all well and good, but one got the sense that the reason for this public display was motivated less by a passionate response to the Lord and more by the desire to be seen and heard. The Wizard gazed intently around the room as he made his statement of conviction, almost challenging us to some sort of fight. Once his eyes had completed their 360- degree survey of the congregation they returned to focus solely on my Dad.
Dad, to his credit, took the interruption in his stride. He calmly reassured the Wizard that he would chat with him more about the sermon after the service. He probably assumed that the Wizard was merely caught up in a moment of religious zealotry and would settle back down in his seat like everyone else. This particular Pentecostal church was known for its public outbursts of spiritual adoration, to say nothing of the random outbursts of flatulence from one particular member whom, it was said, had endured a brain injury in childhood. Yet if my Dad sensed that his corrective to the Wizard was the end of it, he was very wrong. Offended by what he interpreted as my Dad’s rebuke, the Wizard struck back in a tone revealing his combative intentions: “But Pastor, I want to talk about it NOW!”
Not one to back away from a confrontation, my Dad stood his ground. “Please sit down and wait until after the service. We will talk more then.” His tone was polite but firm and conveyed a sense that this was a non-negotiable point. This was all the impetus needed for the Wizard to reveal his true purpose. To the shock of the gathered faithful, the Wizard arrogantly strode toward the front of the church, yanked the microphone from my Dad’s hands, and whacked him on the top of the head with it. This was done with considerable force. Dad was knocked out cold, and it is to my lasting shame that I confess I found this image mildly amusing. It’s not every day in which you get to see your own father temporarily unconscious in church due to the actions of a visiting Wizard.
Instead of calling the ambulance, the congregation saw it fit to host a prayer meeting in which we prayed for my Dad’s speedy recovery. This was led by a more conservative member of the congregation who, despite her fundamentalism, really enjoyed the glam rockers Poison (she once told me that the tune Fallen Angel summed up her life prior to conversion). Another strapping gent from the gathering took the microphone (which still worked) and proclaimed to all and sundry that we had just witnessed an attack of the devil. The threat of coming under demonic attack spurned an even more vigorous prayer circle.
This divine supplication must have worked, as after a few moments Dad came to and sat upright. Bewildered, he smoothed his ruffled hair and laughed the incident off. Meanwhile, the Wizard had gathered his family together and forced them outside the church building and into the family car. Here he proceeded to do donuts in the parking lot while laughing and shouting maniacally about something understood by no one but himself. Eventually, he drove off down the street never to be seen or heard of again, except in the faithful retelling of this story at family get-togethers where it has become the stuff of legend.