The Devil Billboard is back. The world-famous religious sign hangs beside I-65 just like it did forever-ago. And I’m glad about it.
The billboard sits outside Prattville. It looks as pretty as always. It displays the image of a cheerful, fun-loving Satan—who bears a striking resemblance to my Uncle Tommy Lee.
For nearly thirty years, the sign has been warning motorists to:
“Go to Church or the Devil Will Get You.”
The sign has been out of commission for a long time. Without it, the interstate has been nothing but a den of iniquity.
Now the sign is back. My wife and I just saw it. It’s pure nostalgia.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t BELIEVE the sign. But the point here is: the billboard is back, and so are the memories.
The earliest memory I have of the billboard was when I was riding in the backseat of my aunt’s car. My aunt pointed out the window and said, “Look, there’s the Devil! Doesn’t he look just like your Uncle Tommy Lee?”
My cousin and I laughed.
It was true. The billboard featured a red creature with lanky legs, a tail, and a face that looked like Uncle Tommy Lee at a Wednesday night foot-washing service.
My cousin and I would wave at Beelzebub, yelling, “Hey, Uncle Tommy Lee!”
And, each time we passed the sign, my aunt would discuss the finer points of the Rapture. She would end her mini-sermons by playing a Bill Gaither Greatest Hits cassette.
Then, she would ask if we had sins we needed to confess. She would play the music at an earsplitting volume until we started repenting.
So we invented sins to repent of, or else we would’ve been subjected to “Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior” all the way to Greenland.
And these were my people. They believed in the power of billboards. They believed that in the twinkling of an eye, they would be translated into immutable Glory, and perpetual Gaither Homecomings.
I came from folks who believed in five church meetings per week. Folks who volunteered to prepare, not one, but three casseroles for mid-week potlucks.
We were people who joined hands across church aisles to pray hard against wicked things like: horse racing, greyhound tracks, casinos, tobacco, prom, jogging suits, Vancouver, and certain species of penguins.
The I-65 billboard means something to me, silly as it sounds. Maybe it’s because it makes me remember. Or maybe because it reminds me of when I was a teenager.
Long ago, I took a spring-break trip to Birmingham with friends. I was eighteen. It was dark when we passed the sign.
My buddy Daniel was driving. I was in the passenger seat. The boys in the backseat were sound asleep, producing bodily odors that could gag most domestic goats.
That night, I was sad. A girl had broken my heart. The details don’t matter, but I was a real downer. I cried in the car—on accident. Boys don’t usually cry in front of each other.
And it was during this exact moment that we were passing the Devil Billboard.
“Look!” said Daniel, pointing out the window. “You ever seen that before?”
“‘Course I have,” I said.
He pulled over.
It was a juvenile thing to do. We woke the others, we crawled over the guardrail, through the tall grass, and posed for a photo bedside that billboard.
Daniel placed his arm around me, and I’ll never forget what he said:
“She didn’t deserve you, man. It was her loss. You’re gonna be just fine.”
The others patted my back and said the same sorts of things, being careful to use the lowest-pitched voices they could.
The photograph didn’t turn out, it was too dark outside. But at least we did it. We hiked across a steep embankment and posed with the Devil on I-65. And wherever Daniel is today, I hope he knows how grateful I am.
I’m glad they put the sign back up.
Uncle Tommy Lee never looked so good.