I was born into a family of Baptists and raised as a Baptist for all of my formative years. Whether this was always true or not from the time I was old enough to make the distinction I was raised a Southern Baptist. Not that I really understand the distinction now, but at least I know we are a separate group. Southern Baptists are not really as stodgy an fuddy duddy as you may have heard; they can be a fun loving bunch. They do have their limits. On a fine spring Sunday morning back in 1974 or maybe 1973 a fellow church going Southern Baptist and I pushed those limits.
It those distant days people observed a certain solemnity as concerns Sunday morning worship services. For one thing us men folk wore very uncomfortable clothes and shoes. Probably because being uncomfortable and having fun tend to be mutually exclusive things. Young folks were expected to act with decorum. Wearing slick bottom shoes can ensure a certain measure of decorum when traversing waxed and polished floors. Every Sunday the ushers of the church would hand out these stiff, singly folded, color printed pieces of paper known as the Sunday bulletin. That was their first mistake. Parents often allowed the young men to spend Sunday worship service in the balcony. This was their second mistake.
You see, church bulletins are stiff and thick. They are in fact the perfect material for the making of paper airplanes.
In those days I often sat on the first row of the balcony with a friend who would eventually graduate from high school with me named Blake. Blake and I created a number of airplanes. We would place our creations on the edge of the wall demarcating the end of the balcony. Often, when the congregation would bow their heads and close their eyes in solemn prayer these paper construction would creep over that edge as if by accident.
Now, for the most part, paper airplanes made from church bulletins tend to fly pretty good, but the widely recognized method of folding the paper makes an airplane that tends to corkscrew. Most of our creations either nose dived or just turned and flew back under the balcony where few people ever sat. Southern Baptists tend to see relative pulpit position as a badge of faith. Such churches tend to fill up from the front, which seems to be the exact opposite of normal human behavior but what can you do? So, while we felt gloriously naughty and bold our creations in reality were mostly duds.
Until one fine Sunday morning I threw accepted airplane construction technique out the window and created the one, perfect Church bulletin airplane. I won't divulge my design secrets here. Because....
THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE!
My creation found itself in the position of many other such creations. Perched upon that edge marking a separation between the balcony and all that empty air above the heads of some fifteen hundred solemnly serious Southern Baptists, waiting for a moment of prayer. That moment came when all the ushers moved forward to the front of the church for the offering. We call that passing the plate. With the ushers lined up in front of the pulpit, the preacher enjoined the congregation to bow their heads and offer up a prayer. As soon as every head was bowed and every eye closed, my creation leaped into that great empty expanse.
What happened next very nearly cause Blake and I to rupture an internal organ in a supreme act of laughter suppression. My airplane seemed to soar with a will of its own. It never deviated from its course, turning neither left nor right. Instead it soared straight ahead in a perfectly level, gently descending flight. Unseen save for Blake, Me, and God it slowly floated all the way down over all those bowed heads and pegged the pulpit stand dead center with an audible thunk. From there it landed smack dab in the middle of an offering plate.
Seconds later the prayer came to amen, and the ushers came forward. One of them grabbed the plate with the airplane, seemed to pause in confusion, then promptly stuffed it in his pocket.
By this point me and Blake were fairly hurting. It was all we could do. I remember having my head between my knees trying to hold it in.
Shortly after the offering had been given and received and the service got back into full swing we were still in the grip of laughter when suddenly we found our ears gripped between the thumb and forefinger of one of the ushers, a man named Durham Phagan. Which I must say is one heck of a name. I will never forget what he said to us.
"I have been mistaken before, but this time I don't think I am. I do believe there will be no more paper airplanes falling off the balcony from this point on."
Well, all I can say is he was not mistaken. Our career in Southern Baptist Aviation had come to an end. But what a glorious end. It was the one, perfect, church bulletin paper airplane. I bet even God had to smile over that.