We had the best luck with Christmas travel. As I was taking connecting flights to and from Seattle, I had little margin for error. We left Nashville on Monday afternoon the 23rd and the weather was perfect – west of the Mississippi, that is. Up near Michigan – another story. We spent a happy week at my parents’ place seeing family and some old friends; specifically two of my high school friends I had not seen in decades. We attended the Christmas Eve children’s service at St. Mark’s Cathedral; had lunch with a cousin who has moved within a few miles of my parents; I tried helping my dad with computer problems as his laptop is acting up and generally did little else that week. One of the highlights of Veeka’s Christmas was getting an iPad from Oma and Opa. Now she’s wired. Just after Christmas, the latest of my Wall Street Journal stories on the legal hassles surrounding Andrew Hamblin was finally published. Andrew is the best-known of the Appalachian serpent handlers and the one who is being dragged into court by the Tennessee Wildlife resources folks. I decided that when we returned to Nashville, I’d head east 200 miles to go to his New Year’s watchnight service in a kind of two-year anniversary of the time I spent there at the end of 2011, never suspecting that my visit to Tennessee would lead to all sorts of things.
Fortunately the weather gods were with us going back. We were a bit delayed out of O’Hare but nothing like some of the poor souls holed up there. We got into Nashville very late and showed up at a friend’s house after 1 a.m. where we collapsed on her futon. The next two days were gorgeous weather and driving as I headed east towards Knoxville, then north to LaFollette. As we had on the last day of 2011, we dropped our stuff off at the hotel in Jacksboro, then drove through LaFollette and arrived at Cumberland Gap National Park – a gorgeous place where the three states of Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky meet – in the late afternoon. The winter sky was a bright blue.
Retracing our steps of two years ago, we raced up Pinnacle Road to the overlook over Powell Mountain, Powell Valley, the Poor Valley Ridge and thousands of blinking lights as dusk raced toward us. So much had happened since I’d driven 530 miles from Washington two years ago on a whim. I looked west, south and east towards many of the churches I have visited since then. Everything was dusky blues and yellows. The sun sunk fast in a blaze of puffed white clouds. The trees were completely bare. Ice cycles hang from the rocks. It is 39 degrees when we climb out of the car. Twenty minutes after we rush back from the overlook, it is 33.
After our 30-mile drive back to LaFollette on Rt. 68, so we stop by Sonic for a kid’s meal, a banana split and old time’s sake. LaFollette is still a maze of Food Lions, Dollar General stores, banks, insurance companies and cheesy Christmas lights. Then we head east on Tennessee Avenue, past the huge chicken at the gas station across from the police department where I first met Andrew and followed him to his church. Just like two years ago, it’s a clear, cold night with a sky full of stars. Right away I notice huge differences. There’s the beginning of a porch constructed on the west side of the church. There are more instruments up front. My first Journal piece occupies a spot in the narthex. The church is already half full 45 minutes before the service and Andrew has set out extra new red folding chairs.
“No one under 18 is to be messing with these serpents,” he announces. “If you’ve come to fight and argue, go back to the house. We come to worship in spirit and in truth. We only want believers to handle snakes on this hardwood.” There’s clearly a defensiveness and wariness he did not have two years ago. But then again, he didn’t have the state of Tennessee after him back then. He goes on to talk about the rules for photos and he asks those who don’t want to be in pictures to raise their hands. About five do. About 80 people are there by 8 p.m., the starting time, and the number drifts up to close to 100 as the evening progresses. Two years ago, there was barely 40. Andrew is dressed in a suit, white shirt with cufflinks and black tie. A bevy of young men up front look natty in dress shirts and suspenders. People are a better-dressed than they were in 2011.
The band swings into “I’ve got the devil under my feet” and I notice a new talent. It’s Andrew doing some wonderful riffs on a white electric guitar. Before becoming a pastor, he played a lot of professional music gigs. This is the first time I’ve heard him play this much. But I don’t recognize any of these people from two years ago. Before the service I’ve approached a few to ask how long they’ve been coming and no one has been there longer than a year. Andrew asks how many people have come because of “Snake Salvation.” About 5-6 raise their hands. My informal poll finds that people came more by word of mouth and what they read in the LaFollette paper than because of the reality show. Veeka does start bellyaching 45 minutes into the service about the earsplitting noise. I refuse to budge. She’s 8 now and will have to just get used to it. The snakes first come out not even an hour into the service and Andrew’s stance holding them all in both hands reminds me of a sacramental offering and a priest holding up the bread and wine. I snatch Veeka’s new iPad and find that it takes way better pictures than my digital camera. One of the handlers, who notices me snapping away, sidles up and asks me not to use his name, as he assumes I am from the media. He points to my iPad. Actually I’m not reporting for anyone but it never hurts to take photos there. One never knows. Turns out he’s terrified of some Tennessee wildlife officer showing up at his door with a newspaper clipping in hand and a lawsuit at the ready. Before the evening ends, several people ask me not to snap photos of them or their loved ones. One of the weirder requests was a man who objected to me photographing his wife handling a rattlesnake for the first time. One would think he’d be more upset with his wife for touching a poisonous reptile than at me for recording her on film but no, it’s me he cautions.
Towards midnight, several dozen people milling about the front, praying over each other, weeping, dancing, playing various instruments and more. About one minute before midnight, to my horror, Andrew grabs a handful of snakes – five copperheads and rattlers I find out later – and hoists them up. Noooooo, I want to yell. Remember what happened at the stroke of midnight two years ago?
Andrew got bit, that’s what happened. But this time – even though he holds the snakes or passes them onto others for a half hour (I timed it), he was not bitten. As the drums, organ and guitars ground away, he danced from one person to another offering them a chance to try serpent handling. Several people do so. His wife takes a snake in hand and dissolves into tears. Later she wiped her face with the snake. I’ve headed up front with the iPad. Veeka, who’s been complaining all evening, finds a small tambourine and gets a second wind, dancing about on the front row – but a safe distance from the pulpit area, I might add. Eventually we are outside under the early morning stars where we miraculously find Veeka’s new Barbie doll on the sidewalk where she’d dropped it and it’s back to the hotel on the way to which one of Jacksboro’s finest stops me for going 12 miles over the speed limit and having an expired license plate. That will cost me about $175.