Cross Garden - Hell's Warning Label
If the late W.C. Rice's stark Cross Garden doesn't save you, there's no one to blame but yourself. His frightening jumble of white crosses cling to hills on either side of a curving county road next to a trailer park. Rough wooden crosses and peeling hand-lettered signs bearing Bible scripture fragments are nailed to fences, trees, and each other. Everywhere, whitewashed signs explicitly warn -- in blobby black paint -- "You will DIE," and "HELL IS HOT HOT HOT."
Alabama is hot hot hot, too, even on a summer night after seven, when the sun carves eerie shadows across the weedy red dirt. We have arrived at the biggest warning label outside the Gates of Hell itself, a must-see folk vision and testament to one man's faith. On one side of the road is the "chapel," a dilapidated shack covered with Biblical graffiti. Out back is a hole in the hill, the " Tomb of Jesus." And crosses are everywhere -- hundreds. Damnation alerts are printed not only on the crosses, but on fragments of washing machines, air conditioners, and other large appliances.
Across the road, one pocket of signs has the theme "SEX PIT." Further on, a display railing against DRUGS is paved with a littering of beer cans. Odd sequences of numbers pepper some of the signage. One placard offers to sell the whole place for five million dollars -- CASH.
As we soak it all in, a couple of kids appear. They ask: "Do you want to talk to grandpa? He talks to everyone." William C. Rice was relaxing in a folding chair, under a tree [We were lucky enough to see him before he passed away in 2004]. Rice is wearing a crucifix around his neck -- the kind normally found on a wall. His short sleeved blue shirt is decorated with cross symbols, applied with a permanent magic marker. A black dog lopes back and forth among the crosses, half-delirious from the heat.
Rice agrees to an interview, but warns: "I get on one thing like it's a river. I can't answer all these questions, I tell people. I try to keep my mind on one thing while I answer the question. Like the ocean, too big. You just ask me the question and I'll try to answer the question you know cause I ain't no educated man, I ain't no smart man, I got my college degree, it's the greatest degree of all, from God, Jesus and the Holy GIT DOWN, ROCKY! GIT DOWN!"
Rice put up his first crosses in 1976, after his mother died, inspired, he says, by a crossed wreath at her funeral. "Down in the front there's three crosses and four pine trees. I believe in God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost...Pentecost, that's what we are. What I've done is what they told me to do. You know, they told Noah to build the Ark and he saved all those families, so I built it like they told me so I can save all MY families..." Rice hands us a couple of old Cross newsletters that chronicle the attraction's rescue of souls, notably some of his own kin.
"You know about a bird building a nest, a squirrel building a nest, all those wild animals building a nest... this is put together like a bird's nest. They go down and get some twigs and get started on it. They keeps working on it, keeps working."
Rice's words meander together. We get chastised for trying to ask new questions -- like what the deal is with all the YOU WILL DIE signs. "You're gonna die. I'm gonna die. But, we ain't finished up with the other question. That's what I'm trying to get you to understand. You just ask me one question at a time, and I'll try to stay on it." We try to choose wisely.
Souls are dropping off into Hell as we speak
The Cross Garden has been under continuous construction for twenty years, and Rice has slowed a tad -- a run-in with diabetes, his movement confined a bit by a walker. But the voices say his mission is far from over. "People die around the clock. The sad part of it is, souls are dropping off into Hell as we speak." The warning label is here, and some take heed. Rice knows time is running out. The Gates of Heaven are much narrower than the Gates of Hell, and the queue is already backed up. "There be few... a few ain't many. Like a trail down through the woods, there's one right behind the other, a very few, it's not four wide. .."
Who's not going to fit on that trail?
"I have sized up the 98 percent, and I believe it's gonna go to 98 AND A HALF. One or two percent of the people outta this whole world are gonna be saved. Now, what's gonna happen to that 98 percent? Huh? They're going to Hell. I'm giving you scripture. I didn't write it." Remember, it's HOT HOT HOT.
The sun dips rapidly; W.C. wants to show us around a little more. He hops up and steers his walker briskly over to the Cross Car, a bright red pickup truck with a tall cross mounted in the truck bed. It's been featured in Harrod Blank's book and documentary on "art cars" (in which W.C. comes across as the most "driven" of the car owners). On the front lawn is the neglected Cross Van, once used for taking the salvation message to the highways.
Among the crosses is Rice's one story brick house, where he lives with his wife. Rice has a thing for numerology, and notes significant integers relating to his mother scrawled near the kitchen. In the family room, there are Rice family photos, Rice family members. Sans the profusion of crosses on the walls, Jesus and Last Supper images, more scrawled numbers, this could be any family room in America.
It's part of Rice's uncompromising Ark of Safety for his family. In contrast to the be-gemmed grottoes of Catholic priests and the faith-frothed poetry of Finster-like peers, Rice's cross-mayhem has an apocalyptic strength of focus. It's the last image that'll flash before your eyes as you fall into the Pit.
"They say I've got God Jesus and the Holy Ghost spirit driven into my flesh body... and their spirit talks to my spirit. My spirit talks to their spirit. That's the way this thing is built."
Update: Jan. 22, 2004: William Carlton Rice passed away on Jan. 18, 2004, at home, surrounded by his family and his Cross Garden. W.C. had been hospitalized for a few weeks fighting pneumonia. He was buried at Prattville Memory Gardens. According to Montgomery Advisor writer Blu Gilliand, widow Marzell Rice said the family plans to maintain the Cross Garden. "We're going to keep it going," said Marzell. "We promised him that." According to Blu, the family may even add on to the Garden in the future.