"What's PTL?" I asked, with "Pass The Lighter" as a possible explanation blinking in my head. He gave me this look I'd seen before that said, "Doesn't this girl know anything?" and really, when it came to North Carolina, I didn't.
It was the mid-80s. I'd just moved to Charlotte for a job as a sales rep, and I was as ignorant of televangelists as I was of the area.
Although local people referred to it as PTL, the Christian resort part of the Bakkers' ministry was officially named Heritage USA. Despite not having a clue as to what or where it was, I ended up experiencing the place in a curious way. Recent news of its possible sale and development nudged memories of the two contrasting Heritage USA's I witnessed: one at its zenith of popularity, and one sliding toward becoming the decrepit ghost town it is today.
I glimpsed the crawling-with-Christians version on my first trip out there to deliver the samples. Stationed at the entrance and all along the winding drive were young Aryans dressed in red, white and blue and waving, as if they were mechanical figurines, at the incoming faithful.
Ironically, I happened to be wearing a blue dress that day with white polka dots and a red bow tie. How weird that even though I'd never heard of such a thing as a religious resort before, I'd arrived clad in the perfect camouflage for one, like I was caught in some Twilight Zone episode where I'd be brainwashed and pressed into joining the army of robotic wavers.
As I drove onto the grounds I was amazed at the number of vehicles pulling up and discharging whole families looking as blissful as if they'd just reached the parking lot of the Promised Land itself. The place was a beehive of so many people dressed in Christ-adorned T-shirts you'd have thought He was Mick Jagger and they were attending a Stones concert.
I made my way to the grand hotel lobby, an opulent, overstuffed hall decorated in a style that can only be described as High Victorian Whorehouse. A huge chandelier hung from the multi-storied ceiling, and high-backed velvet sofas dotted lush floral carpets.
For a religious place it seemed awfully heavy on the ornamentation. It looked like Jim Bakker had set out to give fans the maximum materialistic bang for all those bucks they'd sent in to his show. Female employees attired in formal black-and-white maids' uniforms rubbed cloths along the scrolled banisters, so apparently social equality was no more welcome than simplicity in this "heaven on earth" extravaganza.
I walked up a sweeping staircase and looked back down from the second-floor balcony. An older black woman was sitting on a purple sofa dressed in her Sunday best with a cardigan folded in her lap and a suitcase by her feet. She looked content, as if the hard-earned dollars mailed in good faith to Jim had finally paid off and she'd landed in heaven's lobby.
As I was watching her I overheard two male employees talking.
"Yesterday he blew through yelling about fingerprints on the banisters," said one. I had no trouble guessing who the "he" referred to. Mr. Jim, he sure was riding tall, and he was just about to take a fall.
After the scandal, we moved into our first house and discovered we were surrounded by former PTLers! More Twilight Zone theme music. The couple next to us and the one across the street had all worked for PTL and lost their cushy TV-show jobs. They were refugees from the glory years, Eden outcasts struggling to hack it in the desert where no river of contributions flowed.
At the suggestion of one of the wives, she and I took our sons to PTL's playground numerous times. By that point the place existed in a strange half-life, with the hotel and mall limping along but the extensive grounds practically empty most days.
For our boys, the highlight was an amusement train ride that circled the lake. Although a schedule was still posted, it had long been abandoned, so you never knew when the train was running or if it would even show up at all, adding mystery to the outing. On several occasions we waited futilely in the weedy little station.
The atmosphere was creepy, but it was peaceful, too, and pleasant because of all the land and trees. My friend told me it had been an idyllic place for her and her husband to court, like a woodsy college campus that just happened to have a religious theme park in the middle of it.
That couple eventually decided to move, seeking a ministry to work for somewhere else, hoping to hit again the kind of paydirt that usually rolls around just once.
On our final trip to PTL, the train not only arrived but was on schedule, proving miracles could still happen on Jim's holy turf if you believed like the legions before you.