The excitement in the Valley was palpable that Tuesday evening as the good folks made their way to the fellowship hall of the Methodist Church for what would soon be known as "The Debate of the Century."
The atmosphere was similar to that of a county fair or street carnival as members of the VFW waved signs proclaiming, "Down with the Federal Re-serve!" while the Ladies of the Auburn Hat Society passed out lemon cookies to children trying to hang on to their parents along the crowded walkway.
Campaign attire revealed the sentiments of those in the crowd. Raymond Cooper’s supporters proudly wore "In Your Heart, You Know He’s Right" buttons, while those of "Silver Tongue" Dick Bland’s adherents proclaimed "God’s Own Man."
Absent from the festivities were any signs of support for Juliet Stoughton, the last-minute candidate who tricked Cooper and Bland into taking part in a debate just two days before the mayoral election. I suppose it was hardly a surprise as only a handful of Valley residents had met Juliet in the year since she moved to the Valley.
Iris Long hurriedly finished laying out Wednesday’s issue of Lennox Valley Hometown News, leaving only space for a front-page photo and story about the debate.
Next to the debate story she listed the results of a just-completed poll of Valley voters under the headline, "Valley Poll Full of Surprises."
Iris left the newspaper office and hurried over to the debate site carrying her well-worn camera and note pad. This election was the biggest story of her long career and she wasn’t about to miss the fireworks about to take place at the Methodist Church.
Neither Lennox Valley nor Springfield was big enough for a network-affiliated TV station. However, students at Spring County Community College were on hand to broadcast the debate over the local cable access channel.
Using her influence as secretary of the Spring Valley Chamber of Commerce, Vera Pinrod made arrangements for Matt Pinkin, meteorologist at Channel 6 News, to travel the 60 miles to Lennox Valley to moderate the debate.
All the ingredients were present for a slugfest of historical proportions. The candidates lined the stage in three chairs, with Mayor Dick Bland in the center seat.
A single podium graced the stage, blocking those along the center aisle from seeing Bland clearly. A microphone was mounted on the front of the podium connected to a portable speaker on the floor below.
Moderator Pinkin took the stage, provoking an almost deafening roar from the audience.
Celebrities were rare in the Valley, although 1998 saw more than its share between TV evangelists and performers at the county fair.
As the crowd watched in silence, a coin was tossed determining who would speak first. Raymond Cooper would be first, followed by Mayor Bland, then Juliet. The moderator told each candidate to make a one-minute opening statement.
Cooper approached the podium as a sizeable portion of the audience cheered. Looking over the assembly, he paused, then asked everyone to bow their heads.
As everyone except Iris Long lowered their heads, Raymond began to pray, "Let not the foot of pride come upon me, and let not the hand of the wick-ed drive me away.
There the doers of iniquity have fallen. They have been thrust down and cannot rise."
His fans were beside themselves. Their champion once again was led by God to deliver a heartfelt prayer. That it came straight from Raymond’s "Book of Famous Prayers" was unknown to them.
Dick Bland was a seasoned politician. Not to be outdone, as his 60 seconds began, he also asked the audience to pray with him.
Quoting directly from Judges 15, "Silver Tongue" prayed, "Lord, I have been smitten by the jawbone of an ass."
That’s when things began to get out of hand. Cooper supporters took the prayer personally as Bland loyalists cheered the mayor on. It was obvious the meteorologist was in over his head.
Just when it seemed that the debate might have ended before it began, the crowd hushed as Juliet Stoughton took her place behind the podium.
Slimp currently makes his home in Knoxville, Tennessee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.