The Cross Garden
Prattville Alabama is hot. The AC gave out 100 miles ago and the sun beats down on the roof on Jason's truck with enough intensity to melt the music cassettes that litter the floorboard. What little wind comes through the rolled down windows is humid and sluggish. I stare at vague directions written on a Jiffy-Mart napkin and tell Jason to take a left after the country club.
"Man it's hot", says Jason, stating the obvious.
I just nod, squinting thru the windshield trying to make out the next landmark and trying not to think about how the heat is making me stick to the vinyl seat. Suddenly over a hill I see a single cross rising up thru the landscape like a radio tower to God. Then I see more of them, dozens, and then hundreds of crosses, lining both sides of the road. We've found our destination, the Cross Garden.
Jason pulls off the road and stops on the Alabama clay. I quickly get out to document the scene, sweat running off my brow like a river. Crosses of every shape and size line both sides of the road and lay on the ground. They're made of fence posts, old telephone poles, and two by fours. Apocalyptic signs are tacked to them, admonishing us that "hell is hot" and "you will die." A junked car stands up on side of an embankment with more dire warnings that our life is going to end.
Across the road is a tiny shed / home made church covered in holy graffiti. "No ice water in hell" it says and standing beneath the Alabama sun I believe it. A business card size note tells us that "Jesus saved my mother April 27th 1976. There's 8 #27's each one has a message. The Lord will save all my immediate family from Hell Fire, Hot, Repent. W C Rice" Eight 27's? What does it all mean? I scan the apocalyptic landscape searching for clues.
Everywhere I look more holy commandments shriek at me. The force of conviction is so strong here that I can feel the devil grabbing hold of my legs ready to drag me down into the fiery pit. I know that every breath I take will be the last and I'm scared to meet my maker. I have to talk to the man who made all of this, who was filled with such a raw, yet holy vision I grab Jason and start walking up to a brick home sitting atop a small hill, certain that the man inside is home to greet us.
A knock on the door gets us a yelled "come in" and we enter. More crosses line the living room walls and ceiling. Half hidden by this plethora of religious icons is a 70-year-old man sitting on a La-Z-Boy recliner and sucking on a hard candy.
W C Rice
"You here to talk about the crosses." He says, it's not a question but a statement. Like he knew we were coming. I move closer to the man and see that he's wearing several crosses around his neck on frayed cords and even the shirt he is wearing is covered in crosses written on by magic marker.
I nod my head and pull up a chair next to W C Rice, the creator of the cross garden, eager to ask questions. A standard interview, I soon learn, is not what W C has in mind.
"You just let me talk for a while and then when you've heard enough ask me something."
He then starts talking, first about his life and how he was saved in 1960 " . . .on April 24th at 2 am" and then about the religious meaning of the number 27 that has kept reappearing in his life.
"My mother was born on the 27th, she died on the 27th, and the burial plot I just bought for myself is #27. There's some others but we'll get back to those later."
Indeed W C has several one sided conversations going on all at once, all of them tied to his crosses and the fact that he's going straight to heaven. He skips from subject to subject, knowing that my time and attention span is limited and he needs to cover all the bases.
He talks about fate, he talks about saving people and grabbing the devil out of them, and he talks about how the Lord commanded him to start the cross garden after his Mother died. W C may be in ill health with diabetics but he's not about to let that stop him from preaching the gospel as he knows it. At one point I ask about the flea collar tacked up on the wall between all the crosses and his wife, Marzell, speaks out from her perch on a nearby sofa.
"That was his dog and it would follow W C around all day. When W C would go to the church out there the dog would follow him and pray along side of him. That was a good dog."
W C doesn't let his wife interrupt his sermon and I shift my attention back to him as he speaks on about how he talks to the Holy Ghost, "just like I talk to you sitting right here next to me."
I listen to W C and let my eyes wander around the living room, taking in the crosses that hang like kudzu from the rafters, the black velvet Jesus that hangs above the couch and the numerous 27's that are repeated endlessly everywhere on the walls. If the holy spirit was in this room then I'm sure he felt comfortable amidst the décor.
After an hour or so we hasten to make our farewells, W C admonishes us to sign the guest book and we do. From the shelf next to his La-Z-Boy throne he pulls out sheet after Xerox sheet of articles written about him in magazines and newspapers. He gives them to us so that we can spread the word about what the cross garden means. I promise to do so and after 5 minutes of farewells Jason and I are walking between the crosses and back to the truck.
As we pull away the crosses come into sight in the rear view mirror making sure we realize that "life is short, but hell is hot, hot, hot."
Interview with W C and Marzell Rice, June 29th
Pictures and video by Derek Barnes