A Visit to the Hospital

I went out to Haskell Memorial Hospital the other day. I didn’t go as a patient or to receive treatment of some kind, although I have done that before. And thankfully, I wasn’t going to see a sick or injured loved one, although I have certainly done that plenty of times as well. No, this time I went at the invitation of senior hospital management, to take a “behind-the-scenes” tour of the facility and to visit with some key staff members about what working at the eighty-plus-year-old institution is like, and what some of the rewards and challenges are that come from working at the community hospital.

Haskell Memorial Hospital was originally opened in 1939, with funding from a local bond election and a federal PWA grant.

First, a little background. In 1936, Haskell County Commissioners applied for a federal grant from the Public Works Administration to help fund a county hospital. While that paperwork was still working its way through the government red tape, county voters approved a $60,000 bond issue. That was on July 7, 1937 – a remarkable demonstration of vision and forward-thinking community spirit, considering that the country was still in the middle of the Great Depression.

Ground was broken for the new facility on March 9, 1938. Then finally, on June 22, 1938, the county was notified that the grant application had been approved. Construction on the expanded plans continued with a new budget of approximately $100,000, and the hospital opened on October 23, 1939. It was described in the Haskell Free Press as “one of the most modern and up-to-date hospitals in West Texas.” Ex­tensions and new wings were opened in 1952, 1972, and 2015. Unfortunately, the facility is now considered “landlocked,” and cannot be expanded further.

(By the way – were you born at Haskell Memorial? We’re trying to find the oldest person still living in the county who was born at this hospital. If you or someone you know arrived in the old maternity ward in 1939 or 1940, please email or call me ­– haskellstarnews@gmail.com, or 940-864-2810.)

Current Chief Executive Officer Michelle Stevens says that through all the years of its history, the hospital’s mission and purpose have remained consistent. “We are here to serve the community,” she says. “It is absolutely vital that the hospital continues to be available. Most of the patients that we see come from Haskell and all the communities across the county, as well as those from about 45 minutes out in every direction. We are also one of the largest employers in the county, so that is another major benefit.”

Chief Operating Officer – and Rochester native – Mary Belle Olson is proud of the many services that the hospital provides. “If someone needs an MRI or a CT scan, we can do that, right here. We can usually get them in for that procedure within the next day. It’s a lot better than having to wait for weeks for an appointment, then having to drive somewhere.”

I spoke with Louis Enriquez, the hospital’s Chief of Maintenance. He told me that one of the biggest problems they face is the old plumbing and sewer system. “It’s 1939 plumbing,” he said. “Every pipe is old cast iron, and a lot of them have cracks, especially the sewer pipes. They’re all 2” to 4” in size, and a flood is coming – we just don’t know when. It’s going to be a major expense when it fails.” He said the electrical conduits are also a problem. “They’re all very over-stuffed with wires. We really don’t have room to add anything else.” He noted that the concrete walls also make infrastructure repair and replacement a constant headache, and that the basement – where many of the records are kept – often floods following a heavy rain.

Chief Nursing Officer Tammy Mason pointed out that the patient rooms were in serious need of improvements, that most of the rooms did not even have a toilet, and that those that did had doors that were too narrow for a wheelchair or walker to get through. “We are so far out of ADA compliance,” she said, “and if we start trying to fix one thing, we have to bring the entire facility up to date.” She also noted that the rooms are too small for needed equipment and personnel when a patient “codes” and needs resuscitation. Assistant CNO Meghan Shelton added that a more centralized nurses’ station with better access to the ER would also be helpful in managing patient care.

But Nurse Mason also added that she loves being at the Haskell hospital. “We’re a smaller hospital, and I like that we are a lot more family oriented.”

And CEO Ms. Stevens summed up the sentiment that I heard from several hospital staffers. “We have really good people, providing really good care, and we are so much more than just a ‘band-aid station.’ We absolutely want to do as much as we can for someone right here,” she added, “without having to send them somewhere else.”

Saving the Battleship Texas

You may have seen news footage the other day of the big event. Starting before dawn on Wednesday, August 31, the Battleship Texas was towed out of its berth at the San Jacinto Monument near Baytown. A fleet of tugboats pulled the massive old ship backwards out into the Houston Ship Channel, then one got in front of it and began towing her down the channel, past the refineries, and down to the mouth of Galveston Bay. The ship was maneuvered into a giant drydock at a Galveston shipyard, where it will be repaired and restored and made ready for a new home.

The USS Texas, BB-35, was the second US Navy vessel to bear our state’s name. The original Texas was launched in 1892 and was actually the first American naval vessel designated as a “battleship.” That ship served in the Spanish-American War and later was renamed USS San Marcos so the old name could be given to a new ship.

(By the way, there was also a guided-missile cruiser named USS Texas, CGN-39, in service with the Navy from 1977 through 1993. The current Texas, SSN 775, has been on duty since 2006. She is a Virginia-class, nuclear-powered fast attack submarine serving as part of Submarine Force Atlantic. Her motto is, “Don’t mess with Texas!”)

The historic Texas was launched in 1912 and commissioned in 1914 as the second New York-class ship to be built. These vessels were generally known as “dreadnoughts,” a class of enormous ships with larger main guns, steam-power, and other technological advances of the early part of the Twentieth Century. Texas’ main battery consisted of ten 14-inch cannon, which could fire 1,400-pound armor-piercing projectiles up to 13 miles. She was also initially equipped with 21 5-inch guns and four 21-inch torpedo tubes. The Texas also served as a technological “test bed.” She was the first battleship to have anti-aircraft guns mounted onboard, the first US ship to control gunfire with directors and range-keepers, the first US battleship to launch an aircraft, and one of the first US Navy ships to receive production radar.

The ship served faithfully in World War I before being refitted in 1925-26, designated as the “Flagship” of the US Navy, and serving with both the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets. When World War II broke out, she was initially assigned to convoy escort duty before participating in the “Operation Torch” landings at North Africa. Later, the Texas was part of “Operation Overlord” D-Day landings on Normandy. She supported the Rangers scaling the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, where she fired 255 14-inch shells in 35 minutes – a fire rate of 7.5 shells per minute. She then shifted her focus to Omaha Beach and continued firing at enemy positions along the beach and inland. During these operations, the battle cry was, “Come on, Texas!”

A few days later, she was engaged with the enemy near the French city of Cherbourg, when she was hit by German fire and suffered the loss of her helmsman killed and others wounded. She was also hit by a German shell that was a dud; this unexploded projectile is still on display in the ship’s museum. She was reassigned to the Pacific, and in 1945, participated in the heavy bombardment of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. She was decommissioned after the war and in 1948, the ship became the first battleship designated as a permanent floating museum in her namesake state. Today, she’s a survivor: the last of the dreadnought class, and the only remaining capital ship to have served in both World Wars.

She has been refurbished since coming to Texas, but not since 1988-1990. She is currently under the jurisdiction of Texas Parks & Wildlife. Voters in 2007 approved providing state funds for the ship’s maintenance, as well as creating the non-profit Battleship Texas Foundation to raise additional monies, to support preservation and upkeep. The repairs now beginning are expected to take two years and are being funded from a combination of public and private revenue.

What will become of the Texas? Good question. She’s NOT going back to San Jacinto. The BTF is considering several possible new permanent homes, including Galveston, Baytown, and Beaumont. (Personally, I’d vote for Galveston, but it’s not my call.)

The Battleship Texas, being towed past Pelican Island, on her way into a Galveston drydock. She will undergo two years’ worth of repairs before resuming her status as a floating museum.
Photo credit – KPRC-TV.

Wherever she ends up, here’s a salute to this fine old ship. May she continue proudly to bear the name of her state and hold out her valuable lessons about history and service for many more generations.

“Come on, Texas!” And in the words of the old sailor’s blessing, Fair Winds and Following Seas.

The Regency Bridge

A Sight Worth Seeing – A Site Worth Visiting

Kathy and I were in the mood for a little daytrip recently. We didn’t really have the time (or money!) to go on a long trip, but we just wanted to get away for a few hours and see some different sights. After talking about it, we decided to head south towards Goldthwaite and San Saba, and see the Regency Bridge. It turned out to be a drive worth taking.

You may not be familiar with the Regency Bridge by name, but you have probably seen pictures of it, crossing high above the Colorado River between Mills and San Saba Counties. It’s the one-lane suspension bridge featured on the opening of the TV program Texas Country Reporter, and it was visited by then-Governor George W. Bush when it was dedicated and reopened following repairs in 1997. It has survived long enough to become the last suspension bridge in the state still open to vehicular traffic.

The Regency Bridge is a one-lane, wooden-decked suspension bridge high above the Colorado River between Mills and San Saba Counties. The bridge is 16’ wide, and the main span is 343’ long; the total length with approaches is 403’. It soars about 75’ to 100’ above the river that it crosses.

It is at the intersection of Mills County Road 433 and San Saba County Road 137 (both gravel roads), near the tiny community of Regency (population 25). It’s a little hard to find – there aren’t very many signs pointing the way – but in my opinion, well worth the effort if you enjoy Hill Country-type scenery and interesting Texas history.

Speaking of history – the current bridge is the third to span the Colorado at that location. The first was a traditional truss bridge, built in 1903. It only lasted 21 years – in 1924, a local rancher and his two sons were taking a herd of cattle across the bridge, which collapsed under the combined weight. The father and one son managed to survive, but the man’s nine-year-old son and several head of livestock were killed in the tragedy. There were no state funds available, but it was the only bridge for miles around, so Mills and San Saba Counties went in together and had the bridge rebuilt in 1931. Unfortunately, THAT bridge was lost in a flood in 1936.

Then in 1939, the counties hired the Austin Bridge Company out of Dallas to raise and improve the bridge at a cost of $30,000. They put up two tall welded-steel towers and strung – by hand – hundreds of feet of cabling to make the suspension bridge. The cables are 3.25” in diameter, each consisting of 475 strands of No. 9 galvanized wire, extending 16 feet beyond the bridge abutment towers and secured with tons of concrete. The wooden deck roadway is supported by timber stringers and steel floor beams with steel suspension rods.

To get to the bridge from Goldthwaite, take FM 574 West about 12 miles. Watch the County Road signs and turn off to the left – that’s south – on CR 432. You’ll go about seven or eight miles when you come to a dead end and a T-intersection. TURN LEFT – this is CR 433 – and go maybe a quarter of a mile, and you’ll see the approach to the bridge. Be advised this is a one-lane bridge with traffic coming and going from both sides. If you are approaching the bridge and see a vehicle coming towards you, be sure to stop short enough to allow them to get past you before you drive across. Also, please understand that cellular service is spotty at best, so don’t count on using the Maps app on your phone for navigation help.

When you cross the bridge in your car (and you’ll want to drive slowly to enjoy the magnificent views of the Colorado River), you can hear the rattle and rumble of the timbers as you drive across. And you can actually feel the bridge sway in the wind. Locally, it’s known as “The Swinging Bridge,” and this is why. But to really enjoy the bridge and the scenery, besides driving across, I’d suggest parking under the shade of some nearby live oaks and walking across. Anyone with a fear of heights, and families with young children should probably skip that part.

The Regency Bridge provides gorgeous views overlooking
the Colorado River between Mills and San Saba Counties.

Suspension bridges have several lessons to teach us. For one thing, as my dear friend, former Haskell pastor David Page used to teach: there are many spiritual truths which must be held in suspension against each other, just like the two ends of a suspension bridge – what he used to call “Biblical Tension.” Another lesson is to consider that the individual strands of cable that are used to hold up the bridge are tiny, almost flimsy. Bundle enough of them together, though, and look at the weight they can hold.

It’s an object lesson about teamwork and about the good we can accomplish when we work together.

Exploring Galveston

One thing about living in Texas – there’s no shortage of nice spots to visit, and fun things to see and do. I love going to Fredericksburg, and I enjoy the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex, and San Antonio is always great. But of all the terrific places to go in Texas (and no disrespect to another other locations), Galveston remains my favorite. I grew up just a couple of hours away from there, and I still love it.

There are just so many fascinating places to visit, and so many things to do. Or, for that matter, get a comfortable chair and just sit on the beach and do nothing. (Be sure to leave your phone in your motel room.) Here are some of my favorite things to do on the Island City.

Visit the Strand.

Beginning in the 1880s, Galveston’s Financial District was a prominent center of banking and commerce, the “Wall Street of the South.” Today, the restored buildings are home to all kinds of shops and stores, from upscale boutiques to architectural salvage, and from unusual antiques to old-school soda fountains and ice cream shoppes. You can spend hours walking up and down these old sidewalks. It’s also home of the city’s giant Mardi Gras celebration, and the annual Christmas extravaganza, “Dickens on the Strand.”

This brightly-painted mural is near “The Strand” in old Galveston.

Tour the museums.

Galveston is home to numerous museums – one of the largest is their Train Museum, located at the intersection of Strand Street and 25th. The high-rise Santa Fe depot has been restored and features several fascinating exhibits, with life-size mannequins posed as travelers from the past. Out back, they have one of the largest private collections of rail equipment in the country, including diesel and steam locomotives, passenger cars, freight equipment, and more. If trains aren’t your thing, there are plenty of other museums in the city, including Seawolf State Park, with the World War II submarine U.S.S. Cavalla on permanent exhibit. Want to learn a little science? Visit the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig and Museum, or tour one several art museums in the city. There really is something for every taste.

Ride the ferry.

There are two ways on and off the island in your car – one is the causeway and bridge coming down I-45 from the mainland, and the other is by the free ferry boat operated by TxDOT, between Galveston’s eastern side to the Bolivar peninsula. Visiting Bolivar is worth the trip – there’s a beautiful historic old lighthouse there – but even if you don’t need to drive up there, I would recommend driving to the ferry, walking up and riding it across and back. Watch for dolphins as you head across the ship channel.

Hit the beach.

As an island, of course, Galveston has miles of good beaches. If you enjoy fishing, there are several jetties and piers for you to indulge yourself – just be sure to have a valid fishing license and know the regs, because the game wardens will check you and your catch. And there are great places to walk in the surf, or just sit and enjoy the sights and sounds of the gulf. If you’re driving on Seawall Boulevard, there are plenty of good places to park. You’ll have to pay, but it’s cheap, easy and secure to just use your phone and bill a credit or debit card.

Our family enjoys visiting the park at the west end of island. It’s less crowded, and if you go at low tide, you can find some gorgeous seashells, and maybe even a sand dollar or two.

Sunrise over the Gulf, as seen from our hotel.

Learn a little history.

Galveston was a major port during the Civil War. After that war, it was where Union troops landed, and it was there that General Order #3 was announced, proclaiming an end to slavery. That day was June 19, 1865, known since as “Juneteenth.” There’s lots of history all around you on the island. You can take a driving tour of numerous historic homes – many predating the “Big Hurricane” of September 1900. Which, by the way, is still the most catastrophic loss of life due to natural causes in the nation’s history – something like 8,000 people perished.

Climb aboard the tall ship Elissa, and “learn the ropes” of antique sailing vessels. Tour the beautiful Victorian-era Moody Mansion. And so much more.

Enjoy some good food.

There is absolutely no shortage of great places to eat around here, regardless of your price range. If you’re on the Strand, visit the Hubcap Grill for one of their awesome burgers. Or check out the Star Drug Store and see their authentic soda fountain.

Of course, where you find the sea, you’ll find the seafood, and Galveston has plenty. Gaido’s on the Seawall has been open since 1911, and features a nautical theme. It’s a bit pricey, but the food is amazing. If you’re near Pleasure Pier, check out the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, based on – you guessed it – the well-known Tom Hanks movie. (“Momma always said life was like a box of chocolates.”) Or try a really awesome shrimp po-boy sandwich at Benno’s Cajun Seafood. And of course, there are plenty of chain restaurants and fast-food places, if the kids insist on eating chicken nuggets.

However you enjoy your “down-time,” you’ll find something to like about Galveston. I’m ready to go back. As far as I’m concerned, it’s always “Island Time.”

“Jefferson Survives”

As we approach the Fourth of July, I want to tell you a true story of American history – one that is so remarkable, if some Hollywood scriptwriter came up with it, he or she would be laughed out of the room, for inventing such nonsense. Except that in this case, it’s really true. It’s a story that revolves around two of our nation’s Founding Fathers.

Over their lifetimes, Thomas Jefferson (left) and John Adams were co-signers of the Declaration of Independence, the best of friends, and the worst of enemies. They would eventually rebuild their relationship through a series of personal letters, before dying on the same day – July 4, 1826.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were about as different as two people could be in the 1700s. Jefferson was tall and lanky; Adams was short and stocky. Jefferson was a slave-holding Virginian and a farmer; Adams was a Massachusetts abolitionist and successful lawyer and author. Jefferson believed in the supremacy of state’s rights and feared a strong central government; Adams thought that a strong central national government was essential, especially regarding the economy, trade, and foreign relations.

Yet despite these differences, the two men became fast friends and each of them held a deep and mutual respect for the other. They were co-signers of the Declaration of Independence, on July 4, 1776. In fact, some historians believe it was Adams who insisted that Jefferson be the primary author of the final draft of the Declaration. Adams served as George Washington’s Vice President, while Jefferson became the young nation’s first Secretary of State. That was when the relationship began to fracture.

Divided over opposing views of the French Revolution and the future of American government, the two became bitter political enemies. Their feud was so bitter, so angry, that when Jefferson defeated Adams in 1800 – involving what some said was a corrupt vote in the House of Representatives. Adams left town and would not attend Jefferson’s inauguration. They would not speak for twelve years.

Finally, another of the nation’s founders, Benjamin Rush (also a signer of the Declaration), came up with a scheme to reunite the old friends. He wrote to each of them, claiming that he had been in touch with the other, and saying that the other man was wanting to rekindle the friendship. On January 1, 1812, Adams wrote a short note to Jefferson at Monticello. Over the next 14 years, the two would exchange 158 letters.

Adams tended to write longer letters and used a LOT more words (perhaps true to his background as an attorney and a writer). Those who have studied the correspondence note that Adams was more confrontational and aggressive, while Jefferson maintained the cool composure for which he was so well known.

They talked about their views on religion and philosophy, and they discussed the long-term effects of the French Revolution, which had been one of the main causes of their initial dispute. Jefferson acknowledged the unfairness of the name-calling done against Adams by some of Jefferson’s followers. Eventually, each had regained the trust of the other. In July 1813, Adams wrote, “You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other.”

Their later letters continued to cover a wide range of topics and subjects – even anticipating the growing sectional differences that would eventually lead to the American Civil War. But what really comes through their notes to one other is the tender affection and abiding respect each had for the other. Even as the two elderly statesmen grew older and more infirm, they continued to correspond. In 1823, Jefferson wrote, “Crippled wrists and fingers make writing slow and laborious. But while writing to you, I lose the sense of these things, in the recollection of ancient times, when youth and health made happiness out of every thing.”

Jefferson, 83, was suffering from an intestinal disorder on July 3, 1826. He lapsed into a coma that afternoon and lingered in a semi-conscious state before dying just after noon the next day. Five hundred miles away, John Adams, now 90, was dying from typhoid – the same disease that had claimed his beloved wife Abigail, in 1818. Historians note that his final words were, “Jefferson survives”– not knowing that his beloved friend, foe, correspondent, and fellow patriot, had in fact, died only hours earlier.

It was July 4, 1826 – exactly fifty years to the day since the Declaration of Independence.

The USS Haskell – A Little-Known Story of World War II

It has been said that there are numerous acts of heroism, bravery, and service during a war that are seldom remembered or celebrated as they should be. In my opinion, one such story is that of the USS Haskell, and the Haskell County sailor who served on her.

USS Haskell, APA 117, was the lead ship of a class of vessels known as “attack transports,” one of 119 ships of that designation, built and launched in 1944 and 45. Designed to carry troops into battle, most of these ships were named for counties across the U.S.

The Haskell was named for counties in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. She was 455 feet long and 62 feet wide, with a maximum speed of 17 knots (about 20 miles per hour). Her crew consisted of 56 officers and 480 enlisted men. Besides being able to carry over 1500 combat troops and their equipment, the ship had 29 landing craft for deploying them on the beach. She was also armed with numerous anti-aircraft weapons and had a complete hospital on board.

The USS Haskell, APA 117, docked at San Francisco Bay, 1945.

The Haskell was launched June 13, 1944, and commissioned September 11. She arrived in San Francisco on October 18 and began loading troops and supplies. She crossed the equator and the International Date Line before participating in the New Guinea offensive.

Throughout 1945, she repeatedly carried troops and supplies to assault enemy-held beaches. She was attacked three times by enemy submarines and survived their torpedo attacks, and came under fire in numerous air attacks. She shot down her first enemy aircraft on January 11. She participated in two hostile landings in the Philippines and another at Okinawa, where she also served as a hospital ship. During her combat, the Haskell suffered one fatality and 28 wounded.

The Haskell was in friendly waters in Seattle on August 12, when “V-J Day” was announced, but her service was not over. The ship began ferrying replacement personnel and occupation forces across the Pacific and bringing home demobilized troops. During one of these missions, the Haskell had to ride out a violent typhoon, with winds of 185 mph. She also brought over 1,400 released Allied POWs to Manila for further medical care before returning to the U.S. The ship made two more trips across the Pacific as part of “Operation Magic Carpet” before being ordered to sail for Norfolk, Virginia, via the Panama Canal. She arrived in Virginia and was decommissioned on May 22, 1946. She became part of the Reserve Fleet but was eventually scrapped on July 30, 1973. During her service, the Haskell sailed over 120,000 miles, crossed the equator four times and the International Date Line ten times. She visited more than 15 foreign countries and transported and/or landed over 14,000 allied military personnel on enemy beaches.

Serving on the Haskell during her entire tenure was a young man from Rochester, Leroy Wreyford, the son of Lawrence and Hattie Mae (Hester) Wreyford. The Wreyfords had a laundry just east of town on the Weinert Highway and were the parents of three sons and a daughter – Alton, Leroy, Donald, and Georgia – and all of the boys served in the war. Lee was born May 7, 1926.

He graduated from Rochester High in 1943 and joined the Navy. Of his service he would later say, “I boarded the USS Haskell, 10 September 1944, as a member of the landing craft crews. I was assigned as one of six to the Beach Control Boat Crew, always landing in the first wave. I remained on the Haskell the entire time she was a commissioned Naval vessel. She covered a lot of miles and did a magnificent job in her short service to her country.”

Seaman 1c Leroy Wreyford, USNR, of Rochester.

For his service on the ship, Seaman First Class Wreyford earned the World War II Victory Medal and the Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon with Bronze Star, given for “outstanding heroism in action against the enemy.” He also earned the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two Bronze Stars, and the Philippines Liberation Medal with Bronze Star. He died on December 26, 2020.

So that’s the story of the USS Haskell, her service to our country, and the Rochester man who served aboard her. Many thanks to all those who helped me research and bring it to you, including Johnny & Teresa Scoggins, Billy Wayne Hester, Linda Short, Jane Short, Susan Turner, John & Mary Rike, and of course, the wonderful ladies at the Haskell County Library.

“…Lest we forget.”

Mr. Spafford’s Testimony

H.G. Spafford was a force in Chicago in the early 1870s. He was a wealthy, senior partner in a major law firm, a real estate developer, and a devout elder in his Presbyterian Church. He and his wife Anna loved to entertain guests in their comfortable home, and they became friends and supporters of the world-famous Chicago minister Dwight L. Moody. They were the parents of a son and four daughters.

Chicago lawyer and businessman Horatio G. Spafford. Spafford was a devout elder in the Presbyterian Church. In the 1870s, he and his wife Anna were the parents of five children.

In 1870, their four-year-old son, Horatio, Junior, died suddenly of scarlet fever. Then in October of 1871, a massive fire swept through downtown Chicago and the city’s north side, where Mr. Spafford was heavily invested in a real estate development. The immense blaze cost over 300 lives and left more than 100,000 Chicagoans homeless. Even though their entire investment was gone, and being close to ruin financially themselves, the Spaffords nevertheless continued to demonstrate Christian hospitality, showing the love of Jesus in the face of tragedy.

Two years later, in 1873, Horatio and his wife decided they would take their four daughters and go to Europe for a lengthy visit. Even though his business interests had been hit hard in the national Financial Panic of 1873, Horatio and Anna intended to help their friend, Evangelist D.L. Moody, who was then planning an extended evangelistic crusade in England. The family booked space on the steamship SS Ville du Havre, but last-minute business complications forced Horatio to remain in Chicago. The plan then was for Anna and the four daughters – 11-year-old Anna, 9-year-old Margaret Lee, 5-year-old Elizabeth, and 2-year-old Tanetta – to go on, and Mr. Spafford would join them as soon as he could.

On November 22, 1873, the Ville du Havre was struck by another ship, the freighter Loch Earn. The passenger ship sank in only 12 minutes, and 226 people died in the disaster – including all four of the Spafford daughters. Only 61 passengers and 26 crew members survived, but miraculously, one of those rescued was Anna Spafford. She was found unconscious, floating on a piece of timber. She would later tell a fellow survivor, “God gave me four daughters. Now they have been taken from me. Someday I will understand why.” When the rescued passengers reached Cardiff, Wales, Anna sent a telegram back to her husband that read, “Saved alone.”

Horatio booked passage to rejoin his devasted wife. A few days later, as they were on their way across the Atlantic, the captain of the vessel summoned Mr. Spafford to the bridge and told him, “We are now passing over the spot where the Ville du Havre went down.” Mr. Spafford went back to his cabin and began to think of his four young daughters, dying in those cold waters, three miles deep. And then he began to write,

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
   When sorrows, like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
   It is well, it is well, with my soul.

It is well (it is well) with my soul (with my soul),
   It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Later, when American hymnist Philip P. Bliss wrote a melody for Mr. Spafford’s words, he named the tune after the ill-fated liner, calling it “Ville du Havre.” It was first published in 1876. Personally, I particularly appreciate the verse that says –

My sin - oh the bliss of this glorious thought! -
   My sin - not in part, but the whole -
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more:
   Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

The hymn, of course, is still sung to this day, and we continue to hear Mr. Spafford’s testimony through its message, so let me respectfully suggest something. The next time you sing this song, take a moment and reflect on Horatio and Anna Spafford. Remember the tragedy they suffered, then give thanks to God who has used their incredible faith in such a beautiful way over the years, to create a hymn that gives us such a powerful testimony. May we be encouraged, and may our faith be strengthened, so that we can join in and affirm with them, from our hearts: It is well with my soul.

Skull Rock and the Garden Tomb

When I was a kid, a name like “Skull Rock” sounded spooky, a little creepy, very adventurous. It was the sort of place where Peter Pan and the boys from Never, Never Land would hang out. It was a fun place to visit at Six Flags over Texas when I was younger, with its slightly scary green lighting and its fun, twisty slide to play on.

This foreboding cliff looks like a skull when the sunlight hits it just right.
It is part of the area known as “Gordon’s Calvary,” near the Garden Tomb.

It never occurred to me that there might have been a real Skull Rock. And that it would be anything but fun to visit. At least, it never occurred to me, until I actually went there.

I have written before about my 2009 visit to Israel. During that trip, I learned that there are actually two different sites identified as the possible location where Jesus was crucified. Although they are both within the main environs of Jerusalem now, both would have been outside the city walls back in Jesus’ day. Both have elements to recommend them as the “real” location, and both have shallow caves nearby, where Jesus could have been buried, in keeping with the story as told in the Gospels.

One, of course, is the site contained within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is the historically accepted spot, with visitors going back at least to the 300s. It’s there we find the oldest traditions about the rocky hill on which Jesus was crucified and the nearby, borrowed, tomb of Joseph of Arimathea where He was buried. The final few stations along the famous “Via Dolorosa” – the Way of Suffering – are located there.

But over the years, the old location has been gilded over and gold plated. It’s had shrines erected over and beside it, so much so that only with the greatest stretch of imagination can you picture in your mind what it must have been like 2,000 years ago, when Jesus was actually there. Metal shields have actually been installed in some parts, to prevent souvenir hunters from chipping off a chunk of rock to take home with them. The candles, the incense, the fabric draperies – it all seems more fake, more “Hollywood,” and less like a location where public executions took place.

At least, that’s the reaction that a lot of American visitors, especially Protestants, have. And so, while that location definitely has the better historical claim to being the actual site of the crucifixion, there is another spot that is more preferred by a lot of Christians who want to see the spot where Jesus died, was buried, and three days later, rose again.

Gordon’s Calvary is about a third of mile away. Charles Gordon was a British General and amateur archeologist who helped popularized the location, and so his name is associated with it. One of the things that is so special about it is a limestone cliff, jutting up from the ground. Two deep depressions in the side of the cliff remind visitors of a skull’s empty eye sockets – and so the cliff is known, unofficially, as “Skull Rock.” (Both “Golgotha” and “Calvary” refer to a skull in their original languages.) If this was the execution spot, it would have been an appropriate name – both for its appearance, and for the painful events that took place there.

So imagine, if you will, that you are a visitor to Jerusalem in those days, coming in from Jericho. As you enter the city, near the main gates, you see a large cliff, and there, in front of that cliff (and not on top of it), you see a number of crosses there, with the prisoners being executed. And a few dozen yards away, a number of shallow caves in the side of the cliff have been hollowed out to serve as graves.

This is the Garden Tomb. And those caves are empty.

Was this where Jesus was crucified? Honestly, we don’t know. As I said, both the traditional Golgotha and Gordon’s Calvary have their advocates. But wherever it was, I invite you to join with me this weekend as we remember those events. Let us give thanks that wherever the tomb of Jesus was, it is empty!

Anticipating the Bluebonnets

One of my favorite parts of living in Texas will soon be with us again. It’s almost time for the bluebonnets, our state flower, to make their annual visit.

When I was growing up in East Texas, bluebonnets were not as common as they are now. The state had not yet started the practice of seeding wildflowers along Texas highways, and the beautiful blue flowers were not as widespread as they have since become. We had plenty of the pink primrose wildflowers – my brothers and I used to call them “buttercups” because of their yellow center – along with a type of daisy, crimson clover, and lots of other types of “pretty weeds,” but bluebonnets – well, not so much.

I was in high school the first time I saw a giant field of “Lupinus Texensis,” as the most common variety is known. We were on a school trip, going to Brenham, and I spied what I thought was a beautiful blue lake beside the road. It was a pasture completely covered in bluebonnets; to me, it looked like looked like there were two skies, one above the other. Fifty years later, I still remember how beautiful they were.

My mom tried for years to get some bluebonnets to grow at their home in Orange County, but without much luck. Even under the best of conditions, they are hard flowers to get started, and it’s just too wet in that part of the state for them to do well (that’s hard for folks in West Texas to imagine!). But bless her heart, my mom kept trying. And then one spring after she passed, my dad sent me a picture he had snapped of mom’s bluebonnets blooming there on their place. He was so proud. She would have loved it.

Bluebonnets were designated as the “official” state flower in 1901, and contrary to popular belief, it is NOT illegal to pick them. It is not recommended, though, because like any wildflower, they will wilt almost immediately after you pick them. And it’s a right of passage for Texas families to take pictures of the kids, posing in the middle of a bluebonnet patch. Just be careful doing that: in some parts of the state especially, you’ll need to watch out for rattlesnakes in the middle of the flowers.

There are believed to be six different versions of the bluebonnets, from the common ones that are best known, to the giant “Big Bend” variety that can be found in that part of Southwest Texas. Some versions that are totally white, and the research plant specialists at Texas A&M even created a maroon variety! But the familiar blue and white kind are the best known. And whether you call them buffalo clover, wolf flower, or even by their Spanish name of “el conejo” (“the rabbit”), they are close to the heart of most Texans. And I’m thankful for the work of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the Texas Highway Department for their efforts at expanding the flower’s coverage.

Besides bluebonnets, of course, be sure to look for the many other gorgeous Texas wildflowers, including Indian Paintbrush, the red-and-yellow Indian Blanket (also known as Firewheel), the pink or purple Coneflower, Giant Spiderwort, various colors of Phlox, and many more. By the way, Coneflower is a type of echinacea, which has long been used in natural medicine and which can be found in different types of cough drops.

Central Texas around Austin, and the Hill Country, are great places to see big fields of bluebonnets. Ennis, Texas, is also a popular location, along with Burnet, but the best places in the state will vary somewhat from year to year. If you’re interested in taking your own road trip, you can check with the Texas Highway Department and their magazine, Texas Highways. I also highly recommend printing out your own free guide to Texas wildflowers, downloadable at ftp.dot.state.tx.us/pub/txdot-info/trv/wildflowers/wildflowers_brochure.pdf.

However you choose to enjoy the bluebonnets, have a safe trip as you spend time with your family and enjoy the awesome Texas scenery and perfect spring weather. And God bless Texas.

Lessons from Saint Patrick

One of my favorite days of the year, March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day – is almost here. It’s one of my favorites not because I especially love wearing green, but because there really was a man named Patrick who deserves to be remembered.

Patrick was not Irish by birth but was actually born in England or Wales in the late 300s. By his own account, he was NOT a Christian as a young man. At 16, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and taken as a slave to Ireland, where he stayed for six years. He spent much of that time tending sheep, and he also became a believer. Eventually he managed to escape his captors and return to Britain, but after studying for the priesthood, he had a vision of the people of Ireland begging him to return to their island and bring them the gospel.

Ireland at the time was a coarse, pagan land – tribal chieftains competing for power, constant battles, the people worshiping various pagan gods and goddesses, widespread kidnapping and slavery. Patrick brought his faith, and in one generation, Ireland was at peace and slavery had been abolished.

How he brought about such a great social change is too long a story to relate here, but part of it involved Patrick selecting a group of young disciples and pouring himself into them. He would spend about three years, teaching them and showing them how to walk out their faith – then he would send them on their way to put their Christianity into practice. Some of them would become farmers, some shepherds, some craftsmen – and some would become pastors and begin gathering followers of their own. Meanwhile, he would gather up another group of a dozen or so, and start over.

Their influence spread, and it changed the entire culture. For Patrick and his students, Christianity was not a set of doctrines to be studied – it was a way of life to be followed. The message of the gospel wasn’t just about saving people’s souls – it was about making a real difference, improving people’s lives in the here and now. Celtic Christianity wasn’t about going to church to find God – it was about recognizing that God shows Himself in every sunrise and sunset, every blade of grass and mountain stream, and we can see Him through His creation, if we will just look.

This style of cross is known as a “Celtic Cross,” pronounced with a hard “k” sound at the beginning – “KEL-tic.” The circle represents eternity, and the beautifully engraved knotwork symbolizes a bond that cannot be broken. The three steps remind us of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and that God is always with us – past, present, and future.

There are many legends about Patrick; one says that he used the three-leafed shamrock (already a sacred plant in Irish life) to teach the people the doctrine of the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If that’s true, it certainly fits with what we know of Patrick’s teaching that we should never worship creation, but that the creation points us to the Creator, and it is the Creator we must worship.

One of my favorite things about Saint Patrick is a prayer attributed to him, known as “St. Patrick’s Breastplate,” and also as “The Cry of the Deer.” It expresses a prayer that is very close to my heart, and says in part –

God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me
.

And another part says,

Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye of everyone who sees me,
Christ in the ear of everyone who hears me.

If you want to learn more about Patrick, I suggest How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. I think it’s one of the most entertaining history books ever written.

So Happy St. Patrick’s Day. And Erin Go Bragh!