It seems that cases of wanderlust are spreading among us as surely as cases of — well, you know. Even a casual glance at recent blog post titles suggests a certain restlessness: “Give Me a Road Trip Any Day”; “Rambling Through the Month of May”; “Running on Rhythm”; “Americana on the Road.”
As I’ve done my own day-dreaming about where I’ll go when free-wheeling travel again becomes possible, the urge to re-post one of my all-time favorite ‘travel’ stories became too strong to resist.
Some of you have read this tale before; others will find it new. In either case, I hope you enjoy it. It’s said that humor is the best medicine, and I suspect we all could use a dose or two at this point.
It’s a flat, expansive piece of Panhandle real estate, a land marked by impossibly distant horizons and barely distinguishable days. Strangers develop a habit of looking around, as if to orient themselves. Even Texans who’ve grown up with the wind, the dust, and the storms say it aloud now and then, as if to remind themselves: “This place will run you nuts, if you let it.”
By the time things settled down, people wondered if Sammy Rodriguez and his brother Danny hadn’t been run nuts because of just those circumstances: too much wind; too much work; too little ability to get their bearings while facing the limitless horizons of life.
Whatever the cause, when they disappeared along with eighteen of their relatives, Floydada Police Chief James Hale heard about it as soon as some of the Rodriguez’s kinfolk tracked him down to report the missing brothers. The family members mentioned to Chief Hale that the men had been saying some strange things. “They made statements like the Devil was after them, and Floydada was going to be destroyed if they stayed here,” Hale said.
Later, someone remarked that Floydada wouldn’t be much of a loss if it was destroyed, but he said it quietly, and away from the crowds.
After more than twenty years, people in surrounding towns — even the Baptists, Methodists, and Pentecostals who tend to take their religion pretty seriously — still keep clippings about the story close at hand. When I saw the article tacked onto a refrigerator in Idalou, torn rather than clipped from the newspaper and starting to yellow with age, it still bore witness to the best part of the story: every living word of it is true, perhaps excepting those conversations the preacher had with the Devil. But no one’s sure about that.
The broad outlines of the story were clear. The Rodriguez family fled Floydada in five or six cars, abandoning one in Lubbock and a second in San Angelo. A third was found in Galveston, filled with clothing, purses, wallets, and other personal items. Eventually, all twenty people crammed themselves into one car and headed east toward Florida, only to be stopped short in Vinton, Louisiana.
The troubles in Vinton began after a campground owner called police to say the group had tried to commandeer an RV. When a Calcasieu Parish deputy stopped their car, the driver seemed willing to answer questions, but when he got out of the car, he was clad only in a towel draped around his mid-section. Vinton Police Chief Dennis Drouillard said, “When the officer went to ask what was going on, he jumped back in and took off.”
The group not only took off, they took off down Vinton’s main street at speeds approaching 90 mph, until the car plowed through a fence at the baseball park and hit a tree. At that point, fifteen adults and five children piled out of the 1990 Pontiac Grand Am.
“They were completely nude,” Drouillard said. “All twenty of them. Didn’t have a stitch of clothes on. I mean, no socks, no underwear, no nothin’. Five of them [the children] were in the trunk. The Lord told them to get rid of all their belongings and go to Louisiana. So they got rid of all their clothes and pocketbooks and wallets and identification and the license plate off their car and came to our gorgeous state.”
The car was totaled, but the injuries were minor. Sammy Rodriguez was booked on charges of reckless driving, flight from an officer, property damage and assorted minor traffic violations.
Like the police, city prosecutors found themselves bemused, and tended toward leniency. In exchange for Rodriguez paying a $650 fine and picking up the $975 tab for fixing the fence and a telephone pole, they dismissed charges of criminal damage to property.
In a fit of good sense, no charges were brought for indecent exposure. As Court Clerk Mary Vice said, “The statute states that for indecent exposure, you have to be exposing yourself in order to arouse someone. That wasn’t their intent.”
Magistrate Kent Savoie gave Rodriguez 90 days to pay for the fence and 30 days to pay the fine. He was ordered to spend 17 days in jail, but after being given credit for six days served, the balance of the sentence was suspended.
Once the proceedings ended, Savoie asked Rodriguez, pastor of the Templo Getsemani Assembly of God Church, why he and his nineteen relatives left their clothes behind in their flight from Texas. Rodriquez said he had a vision from God on August 17, telling him Judgment Day was at hand, and he and his family were to go to Florida. At some point in the journey, they became convinced the Devil was in the details of their clothing, so off it came.
Whatever Savoie thought of the response, he seemed to accept it. “I don’t know what possessed you to do what you did, but I’m relying on the statement you were told to do so by some higher being.” By that time, Rodriguez had been thinking things over. “It wasn’t God, sir,” Rodriguez answered, his voice nearly inaudible. “I would like to apologize to the people of Vinton and Floydada for everything, and I ask for their forgiveness.”
Rodriguez said he planned to leave immediately for Lubbock and then Floydada. “When I return to Floydada I am pretty certain that I will no longer be the pastor of my church, unless the people there can forgive me,” he said. “I plan to look for a job as soon as I get back.” Rodriguez’s wife’s family sent her a plane ticket, and she returned ahead of him. A relative drove the other 18 people on to Wauchula, Florida.
And that would have been the end of it, had not a fellow named Chris Stuart heard the story ten years later. Deciding he had enough material for a song, he went to work. In the end, he wrote a memorable one — good enough to be included in a collection of Car Talk Car Tunes put together by National Public Radio for their popular Saturday morning show hosted by Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers.
Whenever I listen to the song, I laugh. I wouldn’t be surprised to know God laughs every time he hears the story, and taps his toe to the song. Let’s face it. Humans can be good for a laugh now and then, even when we’re trying to be serious.
Twenty Naked Pentecostals in a Pontiac