Category Archives: serpent handlers

Lovely east Tennessee and Catherine Marshall’s Christyfest

So much has happened these past 10 days! I got some very good news today (May 29) that has to do with my future job but I can’t share publicly what it is yet. So stay tuned. But I have already emailed my real estate agent to put my home on the market. May 23 was Veeka’s last day of second grade. I showed up a few days before that for a presentation for the parents and snapped some photos. It was a bittersweet time as Veeka’s sojourn at this elementary school has not been the happiest but all the

Veeka (right) and two classmates put on a play for us visiting parents in her second grade classroom.

Veeka (center right) and classmates put on a play for us visiting parents in her second grade classroom.

same, she has spent two years there. I’d also told her she may not see many of these kids again as it was pretty sure that we’re moving this summer. She gave a gift to Beverly Smith, a retiring teacher with whom she’d worked to learn extra reading and math skills and said good-bye to all her little friends.
We pushed off for Nashville, where we were to meet for lunch a man who is to be the agent for my serpent-handling book. It was a two-hour drive and we were meeting at a section of town close to the airport that is inhabited by a lot of immigrants. They call this area of southeast Nashville “little Kurdistan” for all the Kurds who live there. It’s the country’s largest concentration of Kurds, actually. We arrived just before 1 pm, when the local mosque was letting out. We peeked into some of the stores and ended up buying some delicious Middle Eastern flatbread that cost all of $3 for five large pizza-shaped patties. We ate a great meal at Shish Kabob, a Persian/Kurdish restaurant about a mile down Nolensville Road.

The mosque off Nolensville Road in "little Kurdistan."

The mosque off Nolensville Road in “little Kurdistan.”

By early evening we had ended up at Dogwood Cabins, a community of mountainside chalets overlooking Townsend, Tenn. We got a cabin called “Home Away,” which had pretty views of a mountain ridge. Finally, a part of Tennessee that I liked! The road to that and other cabins was so steep, I had to use the lowest gear possible. Nearly all of the cabins were clinging to the mountainside on huge stilts. Guess this is not an earthquake zone. The route from Marysville, a city 18 miles to the west, along the Senator Lamar Alexander Parkway, was quite pretty. Townsend is a place of 300 souls although surrounding Blount County has many more inhabitants than that.
The next day, Veeka and I drove 80+ miles to Del Rio, Tenn., the site of ChristyFest, a gathering of people who are interested in the part of the country that placed such a large role in Catherine Marshall’s best-selling novel “Christy.” There were about 55 people there that Saturday gathered at Del Rio Elementary listening to people who had done research on Catherine Marshall. One woman named Marilyn Mitchem had put together a 75-page presentation on how Marshall had come to write the novel and why it took her nine years to get it into print, which she finally did in 1967. She and her parents visited the area in 1959 to get her research started. Her mother, Lenore Whittaker, was a missionary to the area around Del Rio from 1909-1912 or

A booth near where we had our Sunday ChristyFest picnic near the Ebenezer mission.

A booth near where we had our Sunday ChristyFest picnic near the Ebenezer mission.

thereabouts. She married John Woods, a local minister and the two moved to Johnson City, where Catherine was born two years later. This was a part of the country that used kerosene-burning refrigerators, had no running water (in some parts until 2004); farm chores started at 4 a.m. and breakfast was at 5 a.m. because kids had to walk 3 miles each way to school. Appalachia was truly another world.
For lunch, we went to a local community center, where there was a cake honoring Catherine Marshall (the 100th anniversary of her birth is in September) and where there were two familiar people selling crafts on the front porch. They turned out to be Pam and Jimmy Morrow, both of them serpent-handling friends from a nearby church. It was so good to see them and I bought a walking stick for Veeka from Jimmy (with a snake carved on it, naturally).
Veeka and I returned to Townsend to find John Morgan, a friend, already there. He shared our 3-bedroom cabin with us because he was going to accompany us to a serpent-handling service that night in LaFollette, which was 80 miles to the north of us. John had accompanied me to Sand Mountain, another serpent-handling center in Alabama, a year ago, so he knew the drill. However, the folks at the LaFollette Tabernacle Church of God were much more open to photographers snapping photos and John took about 500 during the three hours we were there. He got some wonderful shots in very low light of people handling all manner of venomous reptiles, holding flames of fire close to their skin and chugging down strychnine. Yes, you read that right. There was a lot of dancing and singing going on too, so it was one very active evening.

Veeka and John with a pleasant woman in the middle who we met at Dollywood.

Veeka and John with a pleasant woman in the middle who we met at Dollywood.

Sunday, we went to a ChristyFest picnic near the Ebenezer mission which is where Lenore ministered a century ago. It was the most out-of-the-way hollow I’d even seen, down the longest road into the country but when we got there, I was amazed at the number of homes that were there. Talk about off the beaten track. But dropping by there meant that we missed the Sunday service in LaFollette but we got to the dinner afterwards where I interviewed a bunch of folks.
Monday, we visited a most charming amusement park in nearby Pigeon Forge. It was Dollywood, named after Dolly Parton, and it’s built on the side of a mountain. The weather was gorgeous and it being Memorial Day, the crowds were thin. John took Veeka on several roller coaster rides, as I refuse to get on the things. The kiddie rides were lots of fun and we also took a train through the park, ate lots of cotton candy and French fries.
Tuesday was the day we drove through the Great Smoky Mountains national park, which begins within five miles of where we’re staying. We went hiking to Laurel Falls and to Veeka’s delight, all of us hikers saw a mother bear and her two cubs in the hollow below us. The fuzzy babies were climbing up and down trees and squeaking so loudly, we could hear them. Then we drove quite a distance up to Clingman’s Dome some 6,600+ feet into the clouds and then climbed an exhausting half mile up a VERY steep trail to a large concrete viewing platform where we could see into several states. We spent WEdnesday back in LaFollette talking with Andrew Hamblin, the best-known of the serpent handling pastors, as I had lots of questions I needed answered for this book manuscript. After we said farewell

Veeka playfully wrestling with John as we were all enjoying the views from the McCloud Mountain resort.

Veeka playfully wrestling with John as we were all enjoying the views from the McCloud Mountain resort.

to him, we drove up to McCloud Mountain, a site overlooking Powell Valley, the place in which LaFollette sits. It was the loveliest view with Kentucky off to our left, Tennessee below us and Virginia in the distance. There was a restaurant, helipad, a small inn, a large cross bolted into a rock (which lights up at night) and even a field of live buffalo atop that ridge. During a week of pretty views and restful vistas, this was one of the nicest sights I got to see. I’d wanted to drive up there for some time but it was always closed when I was in town. And today we spent by a pool owned by the outfit that runs Dogwood Cabins, which was restful for me in that I’ve driven hundreds of miles in recent days. John took us out to dinner to celebrate this new job-in-embryo and a local police officer who was eating there gave Veeka some really nice gifts from a stash he keeps for local kids: sunglasses, a water bottle, stickers, that sort of thing. We will leave Townsend with some nice memories.

One more press conference

Before I got into the second half of the snake handling saga, just want to say that I’ve started yet a second blog for my social media class. This one is called Single Christians Adopting and it’s still very much a work in progress. (I was going to create a separate blog about serpent handlers, but I just couldn’t find the right combo of colors and formats, so I switched to another pet cause: the nasty way that so many singles are treated when they want to adopt. And some of the worst treatment comes from one’s fellow church-goers.)

My little Kazakh beauty with the former Kazakh ambassador to the US - now I'm encouraging others to adopt

My little Kazakh beauty with the former Kazakh ambassador to the US – now I’m encouraging others to adopt

And I have also been reading about the way social media influences events in our class text by Clay Shirky. He used the example of the Boston Globe’s 2002 series on abusive Catholic priests and why that caused so much buzz whereas previous articles on some of the same topics didn’t get near the reaction. The reasons? Because by 2002, people were able to email copies of the Globe’s work to other Catholics instead of having to cut and paste and send copies via snail mail. The former took a few seconds. The latter took 10-15 minutes not including a visit to the post office. By 2002, nearly everyone had email and some had blogs, which they could use to call others’ attention to the abuse. That was not the case with the Globe’s similar stories back in 1992. Starting in 1993 when I took over the religion beat, I covered the abuse phenomenon so a lot of what Shirky wrote was quite familiar. And yes, blogs, email and instant transmission of one’s articles made all the difference in the world.
Back to this week, which got unexpectedly busier when I heard that Andrew Hamblin, the other half of the serpent handling team on the reality show Snake Salvation, wanted to give a press conference. He wouldn’t do it by phone; we had to drive to east Tennessee for it. So I woke Veeka at the crack of dawn for a 347-mile trek across the state. Seems that I’ve worn ruts in I-40 from driving back there so much: Four times in the past three months.
When we arrived at the church, Andrew was dressed all in black.

Andrew at his church talking with reporters.

Andrew at his church talking with reporters.

“How are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m here,” he said flatly.
“Who’s your mentor now?” I asked.
“I have me,” he said. I asked him what God was telling him. “Keep on going. Don’t stop,” he replied. He seemed so bereft.
He went outside to make a call and I went outside to absorb some sun rays. Two or three other reporters eventually sauntered in, all from local media. Andrew sits forlornly on a bench in front of the pulpit. It’s chilly inside and someone turns on the heat.
“When I was depressed and lonely, I’d call him,” he said of Jamie. “No one will ever know the pain. He called my children his grand kids. No one will ever know how much I miss him.” His little church has elders, he says, but “I have no elder now.”
I pitched the first question. Considering what has happened to Jamie, what’s Andrew’s position on seeking medical help if snake bit?
His answer was round about. What did it say to the world, he asked, when someone dies an agonizing death? “There is your appointed time to die,” he said. “So what does it mean to get bit and go home and swell and suffer and lose limbs when you were inside a service where God has moved on you?” Obviously he’d been doing some thinking about some of the unsolvables in his movement: If God is controlling the service, why such messy deaths?
“Would you seek help?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. Jamie had made a vow to God he’d never seek medical help, he said, “but I never made a vow that I’d never go to a doctor.” He went into some detail about the first time he was bit in July 2010; his twins had just been born; he had major reasons to keep on living and he had been airlifted twice to two hospitals in Kentucky. His lungs kept filling up with blood and doctors told him that unless the meds they were giving him kicked in, he wouldn’t make it.

The ultra-cool atrium area at the Gaylord resort at Opry Mills

The ultra-cool atrium area at the Gaylord resort at Opry Mills

“I lay there and thought of my options,” he said. “I prayed, ‘Lord, if you want me to live, let me hear Jamie speak in tongues.’ Two-three minutes later at the hospital, the curtain flung open and there was Jamie speaking in tongues.”
I kind of wondered if the reporters were understanding all this but that was their problem. Andrew went on about how he and Liz have worked out funeral arrangements if he gets bit; how he’s already chosen the funeral home, planned his wake (12 noon to 7 pm) and an all-night vigil and a church service the next day.
“So if you’re bit and die, does that mean you’re not anointed?” someone asked. Andrew mulled that one over.
“Jamie had three snakes in his hand,” he said. “The one that bit him had been handled by us all.” Two of the snakes had been handled to the point they were just limp, he said. And then suddenly the third one turned and bit Jamie.
“As long as I’m under the anointing of God, I won’t be hurt like I was in July 2010,” he said. “I know people who’ve been bit and walked away from it. These are puff adders, vipers; some of the most deadly snakes in the world we’re handling.” Adding that he had been bit four times, “I’ve seen Jamie go elbow deep in snakes or laid them around his neck. And then what killed him was a 2 ½-foot snake. Why that little bitty serpent, I’ll never be able to answer. But there is God’s appointed time to die.”
Yes, I thought, but usually not when you’re 42. It was clear Andrew was still working through why this and why now. We asked him to run down what happened that dreadful night one week ago. Andrew said he wasn’t usually at Jamie’s Saturday services but he felt moved by God to get off from work at the grocery store he was running a cash register for. Jamie had been handling three snakes in front of the pulpit and then he flexed his hand. The snakes fell to the floor. Jamie scooped them back up.
“Dad’s been bit,” Cody told him. Andrew, who himself was handling a snake, put it down and accompanied Jamie as he headed to the bathroom along with Cody. Jamie was rubbing his face. “I feel like my face is on fire,” he was telling them.
“He was real red,” Andrew told us, “because we’d been singing and shouting.” Cody offered to end the service. Jamie lifted his arms up as Andrew loosened his clothes.
“Lord, come by,” Jamie said. Then, “Oh, God, no.”
“He turned around and looked at me,” Andrew continued, “and said, ‘Sweet Jesus’ calm and peaceful. Then his eyes set and he started to slump. I yelled ‘Dad!’ and then he fell.” Andrew felt something wet and realized Jamie’s bowels had loosened as those of dead people do.
“He died right there,” Andrew said. “I was smacking him but he never opened his eyes again.” I knew exactly what he meant about the eyes. The moment my favorite cat died in my arms, I saw the eyes glaze over and harden.
“I believe in the last 30 seconds of his life, Jamie knew he was dying,” he said. “He was not looking at me, but past me. And then his eyes set. I believe he died standing straight up. There is no anti-venin that could have saved a man that night. A serpent’s fang is like a hypodermic needle. It goes in that quick.”
No one knew who called the medics, but, “You could tell he was gone by the expression on their faces,” he said. Jamie’s pulse was down to about one every 30 seconds. His body was nearly shut down. They took him to the house, changed him out of his urine-soaked clothes and laid him in his chair. Finally it was clear he was completely gone.

Veeka and I at the NRB convention laden with stuff.

Veeka and I at the NRB convention laden with stuff.

I asked if they had raised enough money to pay expenses. Andrew didn’t know the answer but the funeral home demanded a $1,000 downpayment, which the Coots didn’t have, he said. He got his own church of about 50 people to come up with that amount during one offering that Sunday morning.
“Do you sleep much now?” I asked.
“No,” said Andrew. “We’re all just up and down. You don’t sleep at night and you wait for his phone call.”  My heart went out to him. We drove back towards Nashville that night, then met some friends the next day who were at the National Religious Broadcasters convention in Nashville. They let us use their hotel pool, I got a press pass and Veeka and I wandered about the exhibits and filled our bags with all sorts of freebies. And Veeka was beyond delighted at the venue, which was at the Gaylord convention center at Opry Mills. Overarching the hotel rooms and an island of restaurants was a huge glass dome, which delighted her to no end. It’d been hard for her to sit through the press conference and put up with all the driving, so I was glad that she found something to be merry about.