Slow Joe used to refer to the semi-grifter preachers who set up storefront churches as ‘pork chop preachers.’ They preached just enough to keep themselves in pork chops. There was no particular opinion as to whether they were sincere or not but the inference was that they knew just enough of the Bible to buy their daily pork chop and no more.
He tended to move slow, though he could move fast. He tended to speak slow, but any inference that he was slow-witted would be wrong. Rather, he spoke slow so that every word he said would land with the blow of a hammer if he wanted it too, which he frequently did. His voice was very deep and very stern. He would, back in the day, call on young people even though they had not raised their hands—I have never known anyone else so bold and oblivious to normal human decorum to do this. Children were afraid of him, unless they loved him, as many did. The ones who endured later came to reminisce on him fondly. Not a few adults were afraid of him, as well. Surely there were some who must have told him off.
Slow Joe went all the way back to representing Jehovah during the days of World War II. Many of our people were accosted by mobs during that time. A few died. Many were beaten up, some tarred and feathered, or forced to drink castor oil. Countless numbers were tossed into prison, sometimes without charge—their neutrality made them simply too contemptible in popular opinion during those nationalistic times to be afforded the normal rights that would be accorded everyone else.
There is a stereotype of Witnesses ‘turning the other cheek’ and being mild mannered no matter what the ordeal. It probably is true with most, but it wasn’t with Slow Joe; he was not averse to defending himself with fists. “We use to stack em up like cordwood,” he would say of certain ones who came out to attack, though it was not easy to draw this remark from him.
Through chance and unforeseen circumstances many years later, I found myself a new and very green elder in a congregation that didn’t have too much more in the way of experience. Only one other elder could be described as all-around and experienced—there were several others but they were all hobbled in some manner. “Maybe be can raid that other congregation—they have plenty of elders—and draft Slow Joe,” I said to the co-elder.
We arranged to meet with him. Slow Joe sat there scowling, seemingly, as he ever seemed to, but he was a good man—we knew it and he knew that we knew it. He said that he would think about it. A week later he showed up at the meeting with his wife. He didn’t say a word to us, chatted with some of the friends afterwards, and left. Later, the other elder and I emptied the contribution box and found his Publisher Record Cards. “I guess we have his answer,” that brother said to me.
I am very grateful to Slow Joe. He didn’t have to come. He was old by then, could easily have gone into cruise mode, and no one would have thought any the less of him for it. And he did bring a wealth of experience. “Brothers, I think we’re going about this all wrong,” he said at a certain elder’s meeting where we were going about something all wrong. Then he set us on a way that worked out better. Moreover, Black Mack, another extremely experienced man, joined the congregation shortly thereafter—I think Slow Joe recruited him.
Black Mack had equal stature with Joe—he had long served as an elder but he wasn’t one at the time. He was even separated from his wife, and I surmise that both circumstances were essentially the result of his rigidity and unwillingness to yield to which way the wind was blowing. He thrived in the new atmosphere, in time resolved all problems, and was again appointed an elder. If I recall correctly, he groused over having to go through the stages of ministerial servant first, since he had not forgotten the spiritual things that he once had as an elder—he wanted to skip that step—he was deleted as an elder, he should be ‘reinstated’ as an elder, he thought. “Look, just do it, won’t you?” someone said. “It’s how we do things. Yield for once in your life and it will all be well.” And it was.
Soon afterwards Davey the Kid came along, straight out of Bethel, a phenomenally talented ‘people person’ whose every touch turned something into gold. He talked his way immediately into some hot-shot job but quit when his new employer wouldn’t grant him time off for the convention. “They’re just like the Russians,” he told me, ‘crying that they aren’t doing this and they can’t do that, when all the time they are churning out weapons to beat the band.”
Having quit, he had to do something to support himself and growing family, now including an infant son. So he walked into the eight-story Medical Arts building to secure the janitorial contract. The manager showed him around, noted a few special challenges, but then allowed that he himself didn’t know much about cleaning. “That makes two of us!” Davie told me he thought at the time, as he wowed the other with pure chutzpah. “It’s my gift,” he told me. “They never say no.”
It was all good training for me. I had prayed for experienced help ‘tending to Jehovah’s sheep’ and in short order three three titans came along. I even called them ‘titans’ in the final chapter of ‘Tom Irregardless and Me.’ I related the time—it was real and I was there—when Davey the Kid gave his first student talk in the congregation before Slow Joe, the School conductor. With only mild exaggeration on both sides, I wrote that never in his life had Davey the Kid not been awarded a G following a talk (it stood for ‘good’) and never in his life had Slow Joe awarded one. I dramatized it for all I was worth and put it in a setting of the old West. I spoke of the climactic moment when ‘you could hear a pin drop.’ Solely because I like to play with words and images, I substituted that ‘you could hear a plane drop.’ Laura, who reviewed parts of the manuscript prior to self-publishing—Laura, who know nothing of the background, suggested that my substitution didn’t make any sense. What was I to tell her—that it did?