As a kid growing up in Orillia, summer vacation not only meant time off school, it was also the chance to ride my bicycle night and day. I would explore the neighbourhood where we lived for blocks around- all with two wheels, a bum and a bell.
Sometimes during those carefree vacation days, borders were imposed by the Mum and Dad "don't go there” border police.
I heard: Don't go to the train station where those ”hobos” are living. Don't go hanging around the White Rose Gas Station. Don't go over to your Grandma's, she's not feeling well today with this heat and she's lying down.
One of the biggest "invisible borders" erected every summer was the border surrounding the Traveling Gospel Tent. The Preaching Extravaganza under canvas and lights was usually set up on a huge field at the foot of West Street, South where number 12 Highway slices the South Ward in half.
The huge tent spilled out from the center of the freshly mown field all the way to the marsh on the north to the corner of Regent Street and West Street to the south.
“Don't let me catch you going down there to that Gospel Tent, you and young David. I want you to stay away from there. Do you hear me?” David was a neighbourhood friend. David passed from cancer a couple of summers ago.
I barely got the plea for a border pass to the tip of my tongue when I heard the same old answer.
“No Buts. Just stay away.”-said Mum as she sat down on the front porch clutching a hot cup of tea.
“But why Mum?
"Don't `why Mum me', just do what you're told. Don't ask why. And don't bother to ask your father either. He's having a lay-down after supper. Anyways, why would you want to go over to that dirty old tent to watch the sinners congregate?”
I shrugged my shoulders- "Why Not?”
Mum just shook her haed and took a sip of tea.
Of course in the whole scheme of things I'm sure Mum knew that Davey and I would go anyhow. It was just her way of saying-be careful and watch out for the cars.
So, off we'd peddle our bums the few blocks away to the big Tent in the middle of the field on West Street South-near Highway 12.
As we peddled up to the field, we could see the flaps on the sides of the tent were pulled back. This happened on especially hot and humid evenings. There must have been a distinct lack of air inside that Holy Tent. That didn't seem to stop the “sinners” from showing up though. Strings of clear light bulbs were strung back and forth around and above the huge poles supporting the blanket of dirty, white canvas. Up at one end of the tent there was a crude raised platform made with crates covered with sheets of plywood. About a dozen chairs were placed in two rows of 6 each along the front edge, closest to the audience. A big brown upright piano anchored the back of the stage with a Red Ensign flag draped across the canvas at the rear of the platform.
A man and several women-perhaps some of the sinners Mum warned me about, were placing little red books on row after row of folding chairs throughout the entire tent. Every now and then the man would pull a white handkerchief from his back pocket and wipe his brow and the back of his neck.
“Let's take our bikes and sit over there”, I said to Davey as I pointed to a
big old tree stump a few yards from the open flap. As we kicked our bike stands into place, the first of a dozen or so cars entered the field in a processional row and parked near the tent. Suddenly “That Old Rugged Cross”- one of my Grandma's favoutite hymns, was being pounded out on the piano by one of the ladies who had been helping the man place the books-hymn books I guessed, on the folding chairs.
“Look Davey, Sinners. Just like my Mum said!”
Davey nodded in agreement.
In the next several minutes more and more cars with headlights blazing drove across the field and parked in neat “sinner-type” rows. Song after song was played from the stage. A choir dressed in purple robes took their place in front of the twelve chairs as the last of the sinners took their seats and began thumbing through the little red books raising their voices in song.
From the rear of the tent a big ,tall, black man in a glowing white robe approached the makeshift stage with his arms in the air and salvation in his heart. I once heard my Grandma talk about Salvation in the Heart, so I guessed that was exactly what he was doing flinging his long arms skyward to reach salvation. The singing reached a fevered pitch and when that ended, the big man looked out over what he referred to as his “flock” and began preaching to the sinners. We heard words like “hell-fire” and “damnation”.
“The only way to walk the path to glory was through the Lord Jesus!” he cried.
Shouts of “Hallelujah” and “Praise Be” echoed from the assembled multitude of sinners. Davey and I could feel the earth tremble beneath our running shoes as the crowd stomped and sang and clapped their way towards the Gates of Heaven. It was easy to get swept up in the excitement. Davey and I marveled at the site of all these poor sinners being saved in that old, hot, canvas tent in the middle of that field on West Street South at Highway 12.
After an hour or so of watching the proceedings Davey turneds to me and said:
“So Whaddahyawanna do now?”.
“Dunno”-I said, “Go back to my house I guess.”
“Let's go get a big bag of chips at the White Rose on the way”-added Davey with a huge smile!
“Okay, but I get to shake the vinegar into the bag this time, Okay?”
“Cool” said Davey as we crossed the grassy field to the sidewalk and rode back home.