Holy Roller: Excerpt

In this rollicking memoir, environmentalist, Gulf Coast shrimper, and Unreasonable Woman Diane Wilson wants to take you back to where it all started—back to her childhood in rural Texas and into her family of Holy Rollers.

By night at tent revivals, Wilson gets religion from Brother Dynamite, an ex-con who finds Jesus in a baloney sandwich and handles masses of squirming poisonous snakes under the protection of the Holy Ghost. By day, Wilson scratches secret messages to Jesus into the paint on her windowsill and lies down in the middle of the road to see how long she can sleep in between passing trucks.

This prequel to Wilson’s first book tells the story of the Texas childhood of a fierce little girl who would grow up to take on Big Industry and win.

The following is an excerpt from Holy Roller: Growing Up in the Church of Knock Down, Drag Out; or, How I Quit Loving a Blue-Eyed Jesus by Diane Wilson.

There were too many girls in too little a space and three of us slept in the same bed and never with me in the middle, but me at the window with my head on the windowsill, where I wrote and scratched out and wrote and scratched out so many messages that there was no paint left on the windowsill. It didn’t matter who I wrote to. Jesus. A hay bailer I saw riding on the back end of a truck. Myself, to not backslide into the mud. Or what dream the messages came out of. It just mattered that I wrote. So I wrote, “I will see Jesus in three months.”

Now, how did I know that message dropped from heaven and didn’t come up from hell? How’d I know that? For Holy Rollers, this was a very important question because you just never knew where the devil abided. Well, I knew because it fell on the third Saturday of the third month with three sisters in the same bed between the hours of nine p.m. to three a.m. (the exact reversed hours Jesus spent on the cross!) and God liked the number 3! Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Simple simple. God also liked the numbers 7, 12, and 40 but not nearly as much as he liked the number 3. To be absolutely certain, though, I asked Grandma, who was the expert on messages and angels from heaven, and she said it was a sin to dream true dreams. That was witchcraft. Unless, of course, Jesus sent them or sent angels to send them and that was the gift of prophecy. So who did it? The devil or Jesus? And I said I believed it was Jesus sending angels through my dream doorway.

Grandma said well, she certainly hoped so, because saying Jesus was coming in three months sounded pretty lazy, kinda fishy to her. The Bible said the Rapture was like a thief in the night and a twinkling of the eye and nobody would know so it’s best to always be prepared. Because how are Holy Ghost people supposed to act? First, last, and every time—waiting on the Rapture! Three months might give saints the idea of a deadline.

Anyhow, Grandma said, that’s not to say dreams can’t be helpful. Just don’t get too familiar with those messenger angels on your own. Don’t go hocus-pocus on her. Their home (these dream messenger angels) was the same home as the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Yes yes, but also home to Satan and his demons. And you upset their nests and they’re liable to swarm down on you like a pile of mean yellow jackets. And I’d seen that, now, ain’t I? Yesss ma’am, I had. And these demon yellow jackets attached themselves to people like ticks on cattle and sucked their juices of human blood and possessed them. And even if they’re possessed, they don’t act like it. No, ma’am. They act like saintly people. Good Christians. Why, some could even speak in tongues and perform minor miracles. Heal the sick, that type of thing. Yes ma’am, they did. So a real helpful test to see if this saintly person ain’t nothing but devil inspired is to ask him to say “Lord Jesus” three times. He can’t do it. Now say it, child.


Okay, child. You’re okay for the minute. Now, this middle realm. That’s the home of palm reading, insanity, and abnormal passions. Don’t go there neither.

I wasn’t about to go there. I was going to my trusty windowsill to make a running list of the important men in my life. And don’t ask me why. I don’t know why. It just popped into my head same as that time I decided to write the numbers one to a million on the windowsill and used up all the space. That’s why the paint came off. Anyhow, Daddy wasn’t on the list because I didn’t much care for my daddy at the time, so my Important Man List was a short list and went like this: Jesus, Brother Bob, Abraham Lincoln. Of the living, I loved Brother Bob the best. He was our regular preacher down by the bayou church and was in the middle of going bald.

Now, why I didn’t like Daddy.

Momma, Pill (my baby sister), and me tarried (born-again Christian talk meaning “waiting on the Rapture”) out back in Quiet Land (our portion of the yard) and Daddy tarried in Secret City (his portion of the yard). When Daddy wasn’t out shrimping (and he was always always out shrimping), he was under the pecan tree with a handy cup of coffee, a pack of nasty Camel cigarettes tucked in his pocket, laying marine plywood on the deck of a new boat like he was turning out finished cabinets on Momma’s walls. If he wasn’t doing that, he was net patching (which took lots and lots of cigarettes). Daddy hunkered over a torn-up, wrecked net spread on the ground, his eyes just slits to keep out all that cigarette smoke and one cigarette after another getting plunked into his mouth. Sometimes an entire ash cigarette hung off his lip! Then the ash cigarette came tumbling down his shirt and he left it there until one of us girls rushed over to brush it off and he’d swat our hands off, saying, Go away. Easy-like, gentle gentle, like a baby watermelon rolling across a sandy field and bumping your hand. Go away.

Momma never knew what Daddy was doing in the front yard because Daddy was a man’s man and didn’t talk unnecessarily to women, and he had been smoking cigarettes since he was four years old. He also never shut the gate to the henhouse and never touched a farming utensil if he could help it (he was a FISHERMAN) and was a big believer in separating a man’s business from a woman’s ear. So what net or shrimp boat he was working on or how much it cost or how many boats did that make for him wasn’t her business to know. Once Daddy bought a skiff for a price he wouldn’t mention and it was hauled into the yard and spent a solid year gathering leaves, and ever’ time Momma asked, “Whose that boat out there, Billy?” Daddy said, “Don’t know, Goldie. Don’t know.”

That’s why Momma was on the OTHER side of the yard. Daddy had lived in Secret City ever since his Navy days and we had lived in Quiet Land ever since forever. Momma didn’t own an electric nothing so she hung clothes on a fishing line tied to a rain cistern where I drew a million Gypsies with long black hair and heart-shaped faces and plunging dresses with tasseled ends and on their arms dozens of bracelets, doodads dripping everywhere, and long, sharp fingernails with nickel-sized ruby rings on at last three, maybe four fingers.

I drew interesting-looking men, too. Hay bailers with long hair hiding their eyes and strong, dusty arms to turn hay and deckhands who drifted into town off boats from faraway places like Terrebonne Parish in Louisiana or Port Bolivar across from Galveston. And everyone wearing boots. Rattlesnake boots, alligator boots, boots with shooting stars, toe-peeled boots, unraveled and busted-out boots. Sometimes I drew them wearing rubber boots just like my daddy.

I know, I know, I was a hypocrite and a confused little girl but I was nine and not thirteen (the Age of Accountability and God’s line in the sand saying, Old enough to know better) so I wasn’t shooting to hell just yet. I was four years short of shooting to hell and like the perilous beginnings of all great descents, little boxes need to stack up before little boxes can fall down. Anyhow, Pill was disrupting my evil drawings a dozen times with a made-up song about baby Moses floating down the Nile and she sang it so loud and long that her voice went hoarse, and I knew and Momma knew that Pill would sing the bark off a fence post so to shut her up some Momma said, “Save it for the missionaries next Sunday, baby.” (Momma always called her “baby” like she was two years old and the cutest part in the Christmas play.)

Holy Rollers loved missionaries. Hey, I loved missionaries too. They were the generals in God’s army! That’s why I was a Junior Missionette (girls nine to twelve years old). Missionettes always met on Sunday evening right before the night church service so we could get from one church thing to the next church thing without indulging in any worldly nonsense like riding around in cars and chewing gum. We all wore the same Missionette uniform too. White shirt (purity and submission), navy blue skirt (labor for the Lord), and a little gold pin (golden streets of glory), stamped M in the middle and pinned to our shoulder. We’d sit around a metal table in an empty part of the church—ten little girls number-painting Jesus’s face in oil and eating vanilla wafers and drinking red Kool-Aid until our lips were red as a horde of Jezebels. We had a huge responsibility on our little white shoulders: just by sitting there we were setting good examples and winning souls to Christ and it was unfortunate that nobody could see us.

After the Jesus faces and the Kool-Aid ran out, the pastor’s wife lined us up to test our memories on books of the Bible. My limit was about seven. I’d go straight for the easy ones: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Then I’d hop over to what I called the devil chapters: Deuteronomy and Revelation. Finally, I gave up with the easiest one of all: Genesis.

My momma was a serious serious Christian woman with two preachers in the family and a mother who obsessed over a radio evangelist from San Antonio. But her emphasis was cleanliness was godliness and no body part was too low to be in service, so she wasn’t much for batting books of the Bible around with her kids. That was a huge waste of time! She could have two lines of wash strung out before the pastor’s wife said Deuteronomy or Ecclesiastes. So the same girl won every time and the pastor’s wife always handed her the same prize: a scrapbook full of pictures of Christians wearing heavy coats at a revival somewhere in Alaska. We didn’t know who they were.

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