Texas USA
John the Baptist
Neighborhood eccentric with shack in the woods fires childhood imaginations

Yao Xiao

John’s woods were a finger of woodland that existed within and apart from Dallas’ Pleasant Grove area. The woods provided a haven or hideout or no-man’s-land or sacred spot where our group could hike, hang out or swing on the tree swing built by the resident hermit. The hermit lived in a ramshackle structure on the edge of the woods with his chickens, mixed-breed dogs and toothless uncle. We called him John the Baptist because he wrote Bible scriptures on pieces of pink paper and decorated the woods with them. In the spooky dark night of our imaginations, John sported a cap made of baby ears scrunched down over eyes that shone like Mercury dimes.

The woods were John’s private fiefdom. He roamed the deep gullies and constructed a tree swing of steel cable so he could swing Tarzan-like from one cliff to the other. Beneath his house, it was said, began a tunnel that led to a system of tunnels catacombed throughout the woods.

Sometimes it seemed as if John the Baptist was just ahead of us, knifing through the brush and stabbing those Bible passages on the bushes. “The wages of sin is death,” said one, and another said something about being cast into a lake of fire. There were a host of others, and our motley group collected them, making a game of who could gather the most in an afternoon.

We always thought John and his scripture-writing were our secret, unknown to the wider adult world of Pleasant Grove, but that wasn’t the case. Betty Wadkins’ backyard faced those woods. She was a leader of the San Jacinto Elementary School Parent Teacher Association, and one Thanksgiving she was chosen to deliver a food basket to the hermit. The years have dimmed her memory of that charitable moment, except for one phrase: “John was weird.”

Indeed, John was a mighty enigma, a whispered legend in his bramblebush kingdom. We would have explored there, anyway, because it was the largest stand of woods in the area, and it had that massive gully, at some points 25 feet deep and 35 feet across. John’s woods were wild, thistly, thick and twisted, but the mystery of never seeing John was the real draw. The tension of knowing that someday we would see him grew slowly. We wondered what we would do and, more important, what he would do.

Then, one day, the toothless uncle surprised us while we were horsing around on the swing. One of our group reclaimed speech long enough to break the silence, asking what time it was, insinuating that we might just disappear into a light vapor if the uncle did as much as sneeze. The old man squinted up at the sun and said “half past five” in a funny, muffled, flappy sound.

We were grateful that John the Baptist’s uncle didn’t yank off one of our arms and bludgeon the whole pack of us with it.

But before we could hear anyone approaching, John himself appeared among us. And to our astonishment, John didn’t have worms for eyelids or claim us as his sacrifices. He just stood there on the edge of the cliff, an unexpected combination of stealth and swagger, a hybrid hobo and panther. He didn’t talk about Jesus or the devil or do anything weird.

He was about 40 years old with a beard and a kind of Willie Nelson cool, and he showed us some fancy tricks on the swing by hanging from his knees. All of a sudden, it was wonderful to be alive. We were watching the greatest tree swinger give us tips on finesse. We were sharing woods with a three-dimensional, sun-drenched legend. Heck, man, we were partying down with John the Baptist! From that day on, we called him “John” and felt the smugness of a tight and privileged society.

We even torqued up enough courage to approach his house, but he turned all his dogs loose, reminding us that we were just visitors. And, yes, religious-zealot hermits really are different from you and me.

A couple of years later, John disappeared, and his uncle died, and the house burned down. We kept going to the woods. After a rain, we could slide down the cliff where the slope wasn’t sheer and get real muddy. The humidity and the thorns and the spiderwebs created a strange elixir.

But if you went down there by yourself, you could really be alone. You might not think about anything. You’d just sit there and then you’d go blank, and then some noise or movement would bring you back, and you’d get curious about whatever it was, or get scared or bored with it. Then you’d start the whole process over again.

As we became teenagers, the trips to the woods came less often. Once a group of us was arrested on a Sunday afternoon for possession of alcohol by a minor because one person had a beer and wouldn’t claim it, and macho kinship forbade anyone squealing.

Later on, we started having practice swing sessions in the evenings, building bonfires on the gully floor. We’d swing wildly over it at night, watching our shadows go through the fire, hoping we wouldn’t fall into the fiery pit below, making a prophet of John the Baptist.

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Freelance writer and Texana author Bill Sanderson lives in the Pleasant Grove area of Dallas.