by Dennis Vannatta
I still miss the tent. It was big enough that it could hold a hundred people on folding chairs, easy, and in those towns where Pop couldn’t beg or borrow folding chairs from some school or church whose preacher didn’t see us as much of a rival for his dollar, it’d shelter as many lost souls as were willing to stand or sit on blankets. Some would even bring lawn chairs, having witnessed with us before and knew we were unlikely to scrounge up folding chairs for the two or three nights we’d be in town. It could get hot and airless under the tent in the summer and cold in the spring and fall, and a tent doesn’t stand much chance against a tornado, as events were to prove. Still, I loved that tent, loved the smell of it, musty like an attic when it was folded up but when it was spread above us smelling like a spring storm on its way. Then one spring a storm did come, and a tornado dropped down like a black snake out of the clouds and snatched that tent up into the sky, and we never saw the tent again.
I said that the tent was like a snake, but that was because I’d seen The Wizard of Oz at the drive-in in Pine Bluff and thought all tornadoes must look like the one in the movie. In fact, it came in the middle of the night and I never saw it.
The next morning, a fellow told my dad that the tent had come down on the farm of a fellow named Kip Means, who’d let Pop have it back for one-hundred dollars. I went with Pop out to see this Kip Means. Pop told him he was much obliged to him, but he wasn’t going to pay him one-hundred dollars for his own property. He wasn’t going to pay him one-hundred cents. Kip Means told him that, well, the tent had taken out two of his pecan trees when it came down, so either he was going to have one-hundred dollars, or he was going to have the tent. Pop said that wasn’t any way to treat a man of God, and Kip Means laughed and said, “Hell, you ain’t no preacher. You’re just a damn ham actor.” That was a pun on our name, see: Hamm. Arnold Hamm, my dad, Teresa Hamm, my mom, Lisa Hamm, my little sister, and me, Jerry. Pop never called himself a preacher, never claimed to have a church. “I’m Arnie Hamm, come to share my Jesus with you.” That’s what he’d say. “I don’t have a church. I don’t have a congregation. All I have is the solid rock upon which I stand, inviting you to stand with me, all of us lost souls looking for God.” Yes, he could sling the words, but it didn’t work with Kip Means, who told him to go whistle for his tent, and Pop told him he’d go to the law, and Kip Means laughed again and told him to go right on ahead. The law in that county was named Bob Means, and he had the same mom and pop as Kip did. As we were driving away, I was surprised to see Pop looking cheerful. “Jerry,” he said, “that tornado was sent by God, God doing us a favor. The truth is, I’ve been thinking about getting rid of that tent for a long time now and was just too timid to get off the dime. That tent has always been a pain in my ass.” No, it wasn’t the first time I’d heard Pop use language. He used language quite often, to be honest, but he said he always asked God’s forgiveness for it. “We’re all fallible,” he said. Truer words . . .