Oysterback visionary

January 10, 1996|By Helen Chappell

OYSTERBACK, Md. -- ''Now you take Pat Robertson. He say the Lord speaks to him. He speaks to Oral Roberts. He even communicates with that weasel-ly lookin' Swaggert character,'' Reverend Claude Crouch, the Traveling Evangelist, growls. ''So why shouldn't He speak to me?'' Behind his black-frame glasses, his colorless eyes snap with frustration. His callused fingers play up and down the handle of his chainsaw and his breath hangs on the frosty air like an unfinished thought. ''It ain't like I'm not listenin'.''

''I don't know,'' answers Duc Tran Swann, fiddling with her camcorder. She holds it up to her eye, safe behind the lens. ''Why do you think God isn't speaking to you.'' She pans the camera toward the huge wooden sculpture just behind the Reverend's shoulder so that all of it is captured in the frame. From the top of its head to the tip of its toes, the thing must be about 7 feet tall, hewn from a solid log of white pine. To Duc Tran's artist's eye, it looks like Godzilla with wings. Maybe it is Godzilla with wings. The camcorder hums. She waits patiently, still peering at the old preacher through the camera's eye. Behind him, crows settle on the empty branches of the sycamore tree.

The Gospel armor

''It ain't like I'm not ready willing and able to wear the Gospel armor,'' Reverend Crouch frets. ''Now, I'm not sayin' the Lord don't speak to me, mind you. It's just that he speaks to me in a different way.'' He turns and pats the knee of the sculpture. ''It was the Lord who told me to go out and start makin' these here statchoos,'' he confides. With a sweep of his hand, he indicates the wooden carvings spread out on the gravel around the Gospelmobile, the battered white Econoline Van that serves as his home and his studio. Today it is parked among the pickup trucks and lead sleds in the lot at the Blue Crab Tavern.

Duc Tran swings the camera around to give a good view of the chainsawed sculpture display. Giant crabs, crosses hung with garlands of flowers, a weeping Madonna, a howling coyote, a thing that is either an angel or a vulture. All of them are painted in eye-blinding neon colors laid on from spray cans.

''Now,'' Reverend Crouch continues with a crafty smile, ''If I was to tell you that God told me to take up a chain saw and carve up alla these things, you'd say I was crazy, wouldn't you?''

''No, I wouldn't say that,'' Duc Tran replies from behind the camera. She zooms tightly in on the Madonna's face. The tears are glued-on sequins. The Madonna's expression is dyspeptic. So is the coyote's. So is Reverend Crouch's, as if too many years of fast food on Route 13 between Oysterback and Virginia Beach have taken their toll on the evangelistic digestion.

''A lotta people would, so's I don't tell 'em,'' Reverend Crouch tells the camera. ''But it's true. God told me to carve them statchoos, so I done it.'' He takes a Frito from the bag in his lap and chews it thoughtfully as the camera watches.

''I take all my guidance from the Lord. When He said 'Claude, shut down the True Doctrine Transmission Shop and quit shifting gears for God on the sawdust trail,' I said 'I hear You, Lord!' And, when He said 'Claude, them Condos for Christ you sellin' in Wenona's all gonna blow over in that hurricane,' I listened.

''So, when the Lord said, 'Claude, put down that Treemaster 4100 and take up the 48-inch Lumberjack All Pro,' that's just what I done. And I think it shows, don't you? I'm getting a cleaner line and a better grain. You got to trust the Lord when it comes to carvin' out something like this statchoo of Jesus here.''

''Uh-huh,'' Duc Tram murmurs. It still looks like Godzilla to her, but she doesn't say so.

''No, I'm not crazy,'' the Traveling Evangelist says proudly. ''I'm a visionary. Innit that the word you used?'' He glares at the camera.

''Visionary.'' Duc Tran repeats. ''A visionary artist.''

''It's a gift from God,'' Claude asserts piously. ''Of course, alla these here statchoos is for sale. You be sure to put that part in. Doin' the Lord's chainsawing costs money. I got overheads,'' he adds darkly.

''OK,'' Duc Tran says. She flips a switch and the camcorder stops running.

Claude blinks once or twice behind his glasses then stands up on shaky knees. He cocks his head, as if listening, then nods. ''Yes, Lord! I will!'' he says, and starts up the chain saw. The machine's growl cuts across the hard, cold winter air. ''Gotta get back to work now,'' he shouts over the noise. ''The Lord wants a little more foreshadowing and perspective on Jesus.'' He swings the grinding chainsaw toward the big carving behind him, grimacing.

''The Lord says it looks too much like Godzilla,'' he shouts as he lays into the raw wood.


Helen Chappell is the amanuensis of Oysterback.

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