A Little Change in Your Future

When I was in the third grade (yes, a LONG time ago!), I was in Cub Scouts. One of the badges I was working on required me to start and organize some kind of collection. Now it so happened that my dad owned a gas station in those days, and my mom would go to the bank for him a couple of times a week, to make deposits and get change for the station, including some coins. She was opening one of these newly-acquired rolls of nickels one day, when to her great surprise, she discovered that the entire roll was made up of Buffalo Nickels – forty of them, to be exact. She gave me that roll to use for my project, and we got one of those little blue coin folders.

And that was how my interest in coins and coin collecting began.

I tell you that story because I went to the grocery store the other day and got a little change back from my purchase. I didn’t notice it at the time, but that evening, when I was emptying my pockets, I discovered that I had received a Buffalo Nickel back as part of my change. It’s thoroughly worn down, and the date is pretty much unreadable – I think it’s 1930, but I can’t be sure – but that famous Native American profile still stares stoically on the front, and that beautiful, shaggy, American Bison still stands proudly on the back of the coin.

Buffalo Nickels were minted from 1913 to 1938. The design actually began in 1911, as part of the Taft Administration’s efforts to beautify American coinage. Sculptor James E. Fraser received the commission to design the coin, and in spite of some objections, it went into production two years later. Unfortunately, although it was a beautiful design, the coin was subject to premature wear and degradation. After the minimum 25-year circulation period, it was replaced by the Jefferson nickel, which we still use today. However, Fraser’s design is still popular, and it has been used on various commemorative coins and some American gold pieces designed for collectors.

A 1937 “Buffalo Nickel.” The “F” under the date is for the designer, James Fraser, and the “D” under “Five Cents” indicates that it was minted in Denver.

So, who was the Native American whose portrait adorns this coin? Good question. Fraser himself gave several different accounts, but it seems most likely that it was patterned after a combination of two or three men.  Fraser was on record as saying once, “my purpose was not to make a portrait, but a type.” The American Bison on the rear was likely modeled after an animal in one of the zoos in New York City; again, Fraser’s story changed a few times – sometimes he said it was at the Bronx Zoo, sometimes at the Central Park Zoo.

Besides premature wearing, the coin had other problems. For some reason, the dies which were used to strike the blanks wore out at an unusually fast rate. Changes ordered by the mint to try and extend the life of the metal dies just made the problem worse. Even on newly minted coins, the date quickly rubbed off and became illegible; the “Five Cents” and other lettering was gone almost as fast. Nobody objected when the order to replace it was given.

But I just love this coin. When it was first released, it was praised for its bold American themes – the rugged Indian face and that majestic bison, more commonly known as a buffalo. It’s well-known that bison were hunted almost to extinction, and only through the dedicated efforts of ranchers and preservationists were they able to make a comeback, to be saved for future generations. There’s a lesson there, about the true spirit of America and never giving up.

Beyond that, finding that coin in my pocket the other day is a reminder of the little blessings that come our way, if we will take the time to notice and appreciate them. In this case, I received the blessings of recalling a sweet memory and an interesting little story and savoring a little patriotic pride.

Not bad for such a little coin.

“Chains Shall He Break…”

The music of Christmas has always been one of my favorite parts of celebrating this season of joy. When I was a child, I remember my mom had Christmas music playing during the entire month of December. Christmas music continues to be special to me, both the serious and the silly, the sacred and the secular. I want to tell you the story behind my favorite of all Christmas songs.

The year was 1847. Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was the commissioner of wines in a small French village who had some local fame as a poet. Although he was not a regular church-goer, the local priest asked him if he would compose a special poem for use at that year’s Christmas service, and Cappeau agreed, and soon completed the poem entitled, “Cantique de Noel.” But Cappeau felt that the poem needed to become a song, and so he turned to a musician friend, Adolphe Adams, for help.

Adams was a Jew, but he agreed to help his Gentile friend compose a song for a holiday that Adams did not celebrate, to honor a Messiah that he did not worship. The tune was finished, and three weeks later, “Cantique” was performed for the first time at the midnight Christmas Mass. The song found wide acceptance in churches across France.

But a few years later, Cappeau walked away from the church; meanwhile, French church officials discovered that the tune had been written by an unbelieving Jew. They denounced the song as being unfit for worship services, lacking in musical taste, and “total absence of the spirit of religion.”

Personally, I think that’s a good thing, but I digress…

Anyway, that might have been the end of “Cantique,” except the song found its way to America a few years later, and was given new life by a staunch abolitionist, John Sullivan Dwight. You probably never heard of him – frankly, neither had I – but he prepared and published a new translation of Cappeau’s poem into English. Dwight was especially moved by the third verse of “Cantique.”

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love, and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother,
And in His Name, all oppression shall cease.

Sweet hymns of joy, in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us, praise His holy Name:

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever!
His power and glory, Ever more proclaim!
Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever!
His power and glory, Ever more proclaim!

And so, “O Holy Night” became popular on this side of the Atlantic, at first in northern homes during the Civil War, and later, throughout the country.

There is a legend that says during the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, a French soldier on Christmas Eve stood up, exposing himself to enemy fire, and began to sing “Cantique de Noel.” The Germans held their fire, and when was finished, a German soldier began to sing “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” a Christmas hymn by Martin Luther. The story goes that troops on both sides observed an unofficial Christmas truce.

“O Holy Night” became involved in another Christmas miracle of sorts a few years later, in 1906. Reginald Fessenden was a 33-year-old university professor and former assistant to Thomas Edison. On Christmas Eve of that year, using a new type of generator, Fessenden began to speak into a microphone: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed…”

Across the country, and far out at sea, wireless operators who were used to hearing only coded dots and dashes over their equipment heard a man’s voice, reading them the Christmas story! It was the first known radio broadcast. When he finished reading the story, Professor Fessenden did something even more remarkable. He picked up his violin and began to play a Christmas hymn – “O Holy Night.” And so it became the first song ever heard on the radio.

I love this carol, and it always moves me to tears, in part because of its soaring melody, and also in part because it answers the “So What?” question of Christmas. Jesus came to Earth – so what? He taught us about the love of God – so what? This song reminds us that we must live out the meaning of Christmas in the way that we treat others, to love God by loving our neighbors, and to join the work of Christ in breaking the chains of sin and injustice.

A Look Back: 19 Years Ago

There are certain days that stand out in one’s memory. In fact, you can often tell a person’s age by the first significant news event that they remember.

For some people, it’s Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1941. For some, it’s JFK’s assassination, November 22, 1963. Some folks have January 28, 1986, seared into their memories, as the day the Challenger exploded. They are days where you know that the world has changed. History has been made, right in front of your eyes.

Nineteen years ago today – September 11, 2001 – was such a day.

Terrorists succeeded in hijacking four airliners. Two were deliberately crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, New York; both hi-rises caught on fire and collapsed. One plane crashed into the Pentagon, causing significant damage to the military office complex. Another was also headed for Washington, D.C., perhaps to be dived into the Capitol building or the White House, but some gutsy passengers fought back, and the flight crashed instead into the Pennsylvania countryside. Thousands of our fellow citizens died in the first major attack on American soil made by foreign terrorists.

Much has changed in the years since the attack. The United States has gone to war in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and our nation has paid a costly price to bring about a more secure world. We have learned many lessons as a people, and along the way, discovered things that are now more precious to us than before.

One of the lessons that 9/11 taught us is to appreciate our first responders: our police officers, firefighters, paramedics, EMTs, and others, who are the first to answer our calls for help. I wouldn’t say that they were completely UNappreciated before 9/11, but I believe that the events of that day helped us to see just how special those men and women really are. There were entire battalions of New York City firefighters who were practically wiped out by the tragedy of that day when they went to Ground Zero to help the people there.

These are the people who answer our calls for help, 24/7. These are the folks who run INTO burning buildings; they are the ones who run TOWARDS the gunfire. They are some of the everyday heroes who walk among us. And I believe that the events of 9/11 helped us all to see, perhaps a little more clearly, how special these first responders really are, and how much all of us depend on them.

And so, on this anniversary of the September 11 attack, let us all pause and pray for the families who lost loved ones on that horrible day. Let us pray for our service men and women, and their families. But let us not forget also to offer a prayer of thanksgiving and support for those who serve us as first responders, and for their families. More personally, when you see one of these quiet heroes, be sure to give them a “thank you,” and let them know you appreciate their work

And, God bless America.

Here’s Looking at You, Kid

Today – Wednesday, May 16, 2018 – has been declared “National Classic Movie Day.” In that spirit, I want to tell you about my favorite movie, Casablanca, and why I enjoy it so much.

First of all, the basics. Casablanca is a 1942 production directed by Michael Curtiz, and starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henried. It also features Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, and Dooley Wilson. The film is set in the Moroccan city of Casablanca during World War II. The North African city is controlled by the French Vichy government, which means it is ultimately under the rule of the Nazi government.

Bogart plays Rick Blaine, the American owner of a nightclub known as “Rick’s Café Américain.” He is a cynical, world-weary guy with a mysterious past, who says he is determined to look out only for himself – that is, until Ingrid Bergman’s character, Ilsa, shows up. She is married to the Czech Resistance leader Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), but she and Rick once had a torrid love affair – and still care deeply about each other. She and Lazlo are trying to escape Nazi-controlled Europe, so that Lazlo can get to America, to organize Resistance efforts against the Germans.

What will Rick do? Will he help Lazlo and his former love escape? Or will his passion for Ilsa force him to follow his heart and reclaim his lost love?

Casablanca won Academy Awards for Best Picture (1943), to Michael Curtiz as Best Director, and to brothers Julius & Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, for Best Adapted Screenplay.

SPOILER ALERT!!! If you’ve never seen the movie, be aware that the rest of this article will discuss plot points that will give away key aspects of the film.

First – here’s the original trailer for the film.

So, what’s the big deal? Why do I (and so many others) love this movie so much, and consider it among the best ever made? Well, I can’t speak for others, but for myself, here are three things that I appreciate.

The Movie’s Backstory

Casablanca started out as an unproduced play, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” by Murray Bennett and Joan Allison. In the process of turning that into a movie script, the writers couldn’t decide on what to do with the characters. Does Rick help Lazlo escape with his wife? Do he and Ilsa get back together, but send Lazlo on his way? Back and forth the arguments went. Just giving them the documents they needed to get away seems so, well, anti-climactic. And just handing someone a piece of paper is not exactly dazzling filmmaking.

The Epstein brothers had been assigned to handle the screenplay, but then they were called away to another project, so Howard Koch took over. The brothers would later return to help complete the work. All of this further added to the confusion about finding a good ending for the film. Somehow, though, it all works. In spite of the back-and-forth (or perhaps because of it), the movie just works.

The movie also benefitted from the war news. The Allies had invaded North Africa in late 1942, and President Roosevelt went to Casablanca in January, 1943, to meet with Winston Churchill, so the film took advantage of that free publicity. Its initial release was in New York in December, 1942, with the general release in early 1943.

Another factor that I and lots of other fans really appreciate is that many of the extras who were “customers” at Rick’s – including several with speaking parts – were actually themselves refugees from Europe. Some of them had even been interred at Nazi concentration camps during the 1930s, before making their way to this country. Their accents – not to mention the passion they brought to this anti-Nazi film – added a layer of authenticity that simply could not be imitated.

Sparkling Dialogue

Another thing that I really appreciate is the crackling, rapid-fire dialogue. This film holds the distinction of being the greatest source of lines of any movie on AFI’s list of the Top 100 best movie quotes. From “Here’s looking at you, kid,” to “We’ll always have Paris,” from “Round up the usual suspects,” to “This is the start of a beautiful friendship,” everyone has a favorite Casablanca quote.

Here’s an example from a conversation between Rick (Bogart) and Claude Rains’ character, Captain Renault –

 Captain Renault: I’ve often speculated why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with a senator’s wife? I like to think you killed a man. It’s the Romantic in me.

Rick: It was a combination of all three.

Captain Renault: What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.

Captain Renault: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.

Rick: I was misinformed.

Sparkling!

Of course, there’s one line that’s often misquoted. No one in Casablanca ever, EVER, says, “Play it again, Sam.”

Rick’s Redemption

Of all the great things about this movie, my favorite is the redemption of Rick’s character. We learn that he had risked his life fighting fascism during the 1930s, in both Ethiopia and Spain. He was understandably tired of the struggle, tired of seeing good people on the losing end of fighting totalitarian leaders, and especially tired of seeing the evils of fascism being victorious. He wants nothing more to do with it. Let the Nazis do as they want.

Until now. In one transformational moment, he makes the decision to take a stand. In this scene, Rick and Victor Lazlo are talking upstairs in Rick’s office, when the Germans in the café downstairs commandeer the piano, and bully their way into singing one of their anthems. Lazlo immediately heads down the stairs, and tells the house band to play “La Marseillaise” – the French national anthem. The band members look to Rick for his approval – watch for his affirmative nod. As they play, all the people in the club stand and sing together, and together, they overwhelm the Germans in the “battle of the anthems.”

Remember, many of those actors were Europeans; some had been imprisoned by the Nazis, others had been refugees, including the actress Madeleine Lebeau, who shouts “Vive la France! Vive la democratie!”

Remember, too, that when this movie was made, the outcome of the war was still very much up for grabs. But the emotion Miss Lebeau and the crowd exhibit is very real.

I love this movie, and I appreciate this opportunity to share it with you. Thanks for reading.

Now, I think I’ll go make some popcorn, put my feet up, and one more time watch Rick, Ilsa, Victor, and the rest, in the eternal struggle of good vs. evil. I’ll listen again as Sam sings, “As Time Goes By.” And I’ll rejoice as the good guys win again. Because we’ll always have Paris.

And once again, here’s looking at you, kid.

Remembering a Very Special Trip

Today – February 10 – is the anniversary of a day that is very special to me, part of a very special trip that I was blessed to take, nine years ago in February. (If you would like to read the details about the trip, and the miraculous way God worked it so that I COULD go, see “Visiting Israel,” from this blog for Feb. 18, 2013.)

February 10 was my favorite day in Israel.  We started out driving up to the top of the traditional site where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount.  It was very cloud and misting rain that day, but this picture shows the side of the mountain sloping down to the Sea of Galilee below.

Then it was on to the coastline itself, to the area where it’s believed that Jesus cooked breakfast for the disciples after His resurrection  (John 21), and then He and Peter went for a walk along the beach – “Feed my sheep.”

We went to Jesus’ adopted hometown of Capernaum next.  Words cannot really describe how special this part of the trip was for me.  We know about more miracles per square foot that took place there, than any other place In Israel.  The synagogue leader’s daughter, and the woman with the issue of blood.  The centurion’s servant, and the paralyzed man whose friends lowered him down through the roof.  Peter’s mother-in-law, and a miraculous catch of fish.  And on, and on, and on – yet most of the people did not believe.  (This picture shows Pastor David leading us in our morning devo, in a little park just outside the ruins of the synagogue there.)

Something very special and personal happened to me while we were in Capernaum. (This picture shows me standing in the synagogue there.) I began to think about all that Jesus did there, and all the stories from the Gospels – inviting Peter and the others to become “fishers of men,” visiting Matthew’s tax collecting booth, teaching in the synagogue, and more.

Capernaum is not a very big place – the entire village would easily fit on the campus of ACU – and all the spots where these things happened were just yards from where I was standing.  Here’s the weird part: it was almost as if I could see the faces of all the Sunday School teachers that I had when I was a kid, and I could almost hearing them telling me those stories again.  And here I was, standing in the midst of where all those things happened.

I had never felt the Spirit of Jesus more keenly than I did in that moment.

After lunch in Tiberias, we went to the museum of “The Jesus Boat” – a truly stunning archeological discovery of a wooden fishing boat from the time of Christ, very typical of the kind of boats Jesus and the disciples would have used. I won’t go into how they discovered and preserved this boat, but it’s a fascinating story.

From there, we walked down to the lake (AKA, the Sea of Galilee), and boarded a small motorized boat of our own, for a ride out on that famous body of water. (We call it the Sea of Galilee, but it’s actually a freshwater lake.)

Brenton Dowdy began leading us in worship, but in just a matter of moments, the weather changed from a sunny, pretty, spring-like afternoon, to a cold, windy, rainy day!

Remember those stories in the gospels about storms coming up suddenly? Well, God let us see one in action. (That’s rain you’re looking at in the picture – and a few whitecaps!)

Finally, with the day winding down, we drove south to where the lake empties into the Jordan River. There, many of us chose to be baptized in the Jordan. It was cold and still raining, but it was a very special, sacred moment, and the perfect close to a wonderful day.

For my part, I still hope to return to Israel some day, maybe even to lead a group over there. It is no exaggeration to say that the things we saw, and the experience of being there, continue to shape and inform every sermon I preach and every lesson I write. I thank God for the opportunity to go, and I still pray blessings over the anonymous friend (or friends) who made it possible for me to go.

“I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD.’ Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem… Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” (Psalm 122:1, 2, 6.)

 

Meet Me in St. Louie, Louie

In a previous post, I described my trip on Amtrak from Ft. Worth to St. Louis – I guess you could call it a birthday present to myself. I had two reasons for choosing St. Louis as the destination. For one, it was the farthest point I could get to and still have enough free miles to get back home again (that’s important!). But beyond that, St. Louis is home to one of the finest collections of railroad equipment anywhere in the country, at the St. Louis Museum of Transportation.

From the downtown Amtrak station, I caught another Amtrak train, the Missouri River Runner, to the suburb of Kirkwood. From there, it was just a short Uber ride to the museum. It was lightly raining off and on throughout the morning, but not enough to dampen my plans.

A guided tour had just started when I arrived, but I was able to catch up with the volunteer and the handful of guests he was leading, and we began walking the grounds of the museum. We took advantage of a break in the rain to tour some of the exhibits that were out in the open, including a collection of unusual freight cars, a caboose or two, and a Texas & Pacific baggage car that has been converted into a classroom on wheels for school groups.

three-locomotivesWe also saw a beautiful, side by side display of three locomotives, headlined by a rare, stainless steel Burlington engine, the “Silver Charger,” #9908. This unusual diesel-electric was built by EMD in 1939 to pull the “General Pershing Zephyr” between St. Louis and Kansas City, and was the last of the “shovel nose” units in service. A Frisco RR 2-10-0 steam locomotive and an early diesel switcher from the Sabine River & Northern sat beside the shiny passenger engine.

mp_eagle_obsUnder their sprawling pavilion, the museum has a nice assortment of passenger equipment, locomotives and more, including a number of rare and one-of-a-kind items. One of the things I especially enjoy about passenger trains from the 1950s and 60s were all the bright colors, and the museum does not disappoint, with the blue and cream of the Missouri Pacific’s “Eagle,” the two-tone light and dark greens of the Northern Pacific, the shiny silver of the Burlington, the maroon and red of the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio, and more, all proudly on display.gmo_obsnp_passenger

gm_demonstrator

Scattered throughout the museum grounds are numerous other items of significance to any railfan, including a brown & yellow GM Demonstrator locomotive from 1939, part of the famous “Train of Tomorrow” that toured the country in the 1940s.frisco_1522

The famous Frisco locomotive #1522 is there, along with a UP 4-8-8-4 “Big Boy,” an enormous “Centennial” diesel, and much, MUCH, more, including an extremely rare “Aerotrain,” aerotraina futuristic train that looks like some- thing out of a science fiction movie, but actually saw service in the 50s and 60s on the Rock Island and other railroads.

st_louis_stationTime was beginning to get away from me, and I had more that I wanted to do before my train back to Texas left, so I caught a return ride on Amtrak to downtown. I went up to the top of the St. Louis Arch, saw venerable Busch Stadium (home of the Cardinals), and toured the famous (and historic) St. Louis Union Station (no longer used by Amtrak), built in 1904 for that year’s World’s Fair, as celebrated in the Judy Garland musical, “Meet Me in St. Louis.” I also had a fine seafood dinner before making my way back to the Amtrak station.

The southbound Texas Eagle was on time, and I boarded and found my way to my room. I deposited my gear and headed for the dining car, just in time for dessert and coffee. From there, I went back to my room and slipped between the sheets and was soon asleep, rocked by the gentle rhythm of the rails.

tp_400Epilogue: When I woke up the next morning, I wasn’t exactly sure where we were until I looked out the window. Even in the foggy, gray, half-light of that early fall dawn, I knew we were in Marshall, Texas, because right outside my window I saw the steam locomotive Texas & Pacific #400, which is parked beside the historic Marshall depot. I showered and dressed and headed for breakfast. Even though this train ride wasn’t yet over, I was already thinking about where I could go on my next #AmtrakAdventure.

“Chains Shall He Break…”

The music of Christmas has always been one of my favorite parts of celebrating this season of joy. When I was a child, I remember my mom had Christmas music playing during the entire month of December. Christmas music continues to be special to me, both the serious and the silly, the sacred and the secular. I want to tell you the story behind my favorite of all Christmas songs.

The year was 1847. Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was the commissioner of wines in a small French village who had some local fame as a poet. Although he was not a regular church-goer, the local priest asked him if he would compose a special poem for use at that year’s Christmas service, and Cappeau agreed.

With the Christmas story from Luke in mind, Cappeau began to imagine actually being in Bethlehem and watching the events of that night unfold, and he soon completed the poem, which he entitled, “Cantique de Noel.” But Cappeau felt that the poem needed to become a song, and so he turned to a musician friend, Adolphe Adams, for help.

Adams was a Jew, but he agreed to help his Gentile friend compose a song for a holiday that Adams did not celebrate, to honor a Messiah that he did not worship. The tune was finished, and three weeks later, “Cantique” was performed for the first time at the midnight Christmas Mass. The song found wide acceptance in churches across France.

But a few years later, Cappeau walked away from the church and became part of the socialist movement, and French church officials discovered that the tune had been written by an unbelieving Jew. They denounced the song as being unfit for worship services, lacking in musical taste, and “total absence of the spirit of religion.” (Personally, I think that’s a good thing, but I digress.)

Anyway, that might have been the end of “Cantique,” except the song found its way to America a few years later, and was given new life by a staunch abolitionist, John Sullivan Dwight. You probably never heard of him – frankly, neither had I – but he prepared and published a new translation of Cappeau’s poem into English. Dwight was especially moved by the third verse of “Cantique.”

Truly He taught us to love one another,

His law is love, and His gospel is peace.

Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother,

And in His Name, all oppression shall cease.

Sweet hymns of joy, in grateful chorus raise we,

Let all within us, praise His holy Name:

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever!

His power and glory, Ever more proclaim!

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever!

His power and glory, Ever more proclaim!

And so, “O Holy Night” became popular on this side of the Atlantic, at first in northern homes during the Civil War, and later, throughout the country.

There is a legend that says during the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, a French soldier on Christmas Eve stood up, exposing himself to enemy fire, and began to sing “Cantique de Noel.” The Germans held their fire, and when was finished, a German soldier began to sing “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” a Christmas hymn by Martin Luther. The story goes that troops on both sides observed an unofficial Christmas truce.

“O Holy Night” became involved in another Christmas miracle of sorts a few years later, in 1906. Reginald Fessenden was a 33-year-old university professor and former assistant to Thomas Edison. On Christmas Eve of that year, using a new type of generator, Fessenden began to speak into a microphone: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed…”

Across the country, and far out at sea, wireless operators who were used to hearing only coded dots and dashes over their equipment heard a man’s voice, reading them the Christmas story! It was the first known radio broadcast. When he finished reading the story, Professor Fessenden did something even more remarkable. He picked up his violin, and began to play a Christmas hymn – “O Holy Night.” And so it became the first song ever heard on the radio.

(The above material taken from “Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas” by Ace Collins, Copyright (c) 2001, Andrew Collins. Published by Zondervan.)

I love this carol, and it always moves me to tears, in part because of its soaring melody, and also in part because it answers the “So What?” question of Christmas. Jesus came to Earth – so what? He taught us about the love of God – so what? This song reminds us that we must live out the meaning of Christmas in the way that we treat others, to love God by loving our neighbors, and to join the work of Christ in breaking the chains of sin and injustice.

One of my favorite versions of this hymn is by Point of Grace. I hope you enjoy it.

From our family to yours, Merry Christmas.

The National Game of Texas

In 1887, in the tiny North Texas town of Trappe Spring, two young boys had a problem. Twelve-year-old William Thomas and 14-year-old Walter Earl both really liked playing cards – not games of gambling, but trick-taking card games similar to Bridge, Spades, Whist, and the like. The problem was, both young men came from devout Baptist families, and playing cards was absolutely forbidden. What to do?

Playing dominoes was allowed in their homes, but the boys found regular dominoes to be, well, boring. So they set out to invent a new game, using the strategy and skill of their favorite card games, but utilizing dominoes instead of the sinful pasteboards. After a few months of trial and error, they had their game, which they taught to their families. Their families enjoyed this new game, and taught it to their neighbors. They liked it, too.

When their families moved to Fannin County, they took the game with them, and taught it to their new neighbors. It caught on there, too, and gradually spread across the whole state. And thus was born “The National Game of Texas” – 42.

domino-square_0Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Texans of all backgrounds and social levels would meet to play. In rural communities and big cities, neighbors would bring covered dishes to someone’s house on Saturday nights after work, and eat together. Then, after the dishes were done and while the kids played outside, the grown-ups would sit and sip their sweet iced tea (these are mostly Baptists, remember!), and play 42. The game was played in homes, at churches, on picnics, and around campfires.

When the Texas boys went off to World War II, they took the game with them. There are lots of stories about G.I.s teaching the game to their buddies from New York and California. But at its heart, it was – and is – a Texas game, officially recognized by the state legislature as the “Official Domino Game of Texas.”

And although some think of it as a game for older people, it’s actually making a comeback among younger players. In fact, every year in Halletsville, there is a state championship, to crown the best “42” player in the state.

Like many great games, 42 is easy to learn and hard to master. The game is played with four people – two teams of two people each. You draw seven dominoes, then you bid on how many “tricks” you can take for your team. There’s a total of 42 points for each round – hence, the name. Knowing how to bid well is the key to being a good player.

winning 42If you want to know more about the history and strategy of playing 42, you need to get a copy of Winning 42: Strategy & Lore of the National Game of Texas, by Dennis Roberson. There are also online versions of the game, where you can practice against computer-generated players.

The competition, skill and strategy of a well-played game is certainly enjoyable. But for many, the real pleasure of the game is the time spent with friends – the fun of getting together with neighbors to talk, to visit, and to share life together.

We played “regular” dominoes in my family when I was growing up, not 42, but a few years ago, I got to play a few hands when I was visiting a friend at her nursing home. Then last month, the teenagers of our “Young Leaders of Abilene” group were helping out at Cobb Park’s monthly game night, and there were some folks there playing 42. As I sat and watched, I remembered how much fun the game was. I began talking with some of my neighbors, and sure enough, discovered that several of them are devotees of the game.

So, coming up on Saturday, April 2, (4/2 – get it?), several neighbors and friends will get together here at the North Park Friendship House. We’ll set up tables, get out the dominoes, choose up teams, and play 42. At some point, we’ll stop long enough to eat, then we’ll play some more. Are you a 42 player, or do you know someone who is? Come join us.

William and Walter would be proud.

Remembering the Abilene & Southern

Many people know that Abilene was founded by the Texas & Pacific Railway in 1881, but not as many remember another railroad that served this area for much of the twentieth century – the Abilene & Southern.

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Morgan Jones

The A&S was the brainchild of Col. Morgan Jones, a Welsh immigrant who came to the US in 1866, and assisted with the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869. He later helped built the Texas & Pacific, as well as numerous other rail lines throughout West Texas. In January, 1909, he began work on the Abilene & Southern.

Jones’ original vision was to build a railroad from Abilene through Winters and Ballinger, and then on to points south and west, but for various reasons, those plans were never completed. Ultimately, the line stretched almost a hundred miles, from Ballinger in the south, through Abilene, and northward to Anson and Hamlin.

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A&S Engine 18, a 4-6-0 “Ten Wheeler” type

The Abilene & Southern was very much a West Texas road. Its primary traffic over the years was grain, cattle, bales of cotton, and cottonseed oil. Passenger traffic was usually handled by a passenger coach attached to the rear of a freight train. (In the world of railroading, combined freight and passenger service is known as a “mixed” train.)

Those who rode the mixed train report that it was common for the passenger coach to be set out on a side track at a station while the train crew went about their switching duties, picking up and dropping off cars. They would then re-couple to the coach and be on their way. It must have really played havoc with the conductor trying to keep the train on schedule! Mixed train service ended in the late 1950s.

TimetableDuring Col. Jones’ lifetime, the A&S was operated as an independent railroad, interchanging with the Texas & Pacific in Abilene, and the Santa Fe at Tuscola and Ballinger. In 1927, however, after the old man’s death a year earlier, the profitable little railroad was bought by the Texas & Pacific, which continued to operate it for decades to come.

1914 Pass AAlas, economics and the dwindling populations of the towns it served finally caught up with the A&S. The tracks north of Abilene were abandoned in 1937. In 1972, the line from Winters to Ballinger was pulled up. Ownership of the line passed from the T&P, to the Missouri Pacific, to the Union Pacific, which finally abandoned the remaining portion of the line south of Abilene in 1989.

Today, only about seven miles remain, interchanging with the Union Pacific and serving industries in east Abilene. Southern Switching Company handles these chores, and their green switching engines can be seen trundling back and forth along the former A&S tracks.

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A&S Depot in Ballinger, TX

There are still a few reminders of the A&S today. The station in Ballinger, with its unique stone twin turrets, is still standing. Drive along the highway between Ballinger and Abilene, and if you look carefully, you can still spot the old right of way. The old A&S Freight Depot has been moved and incorporated into a brew pub on South First. And, when he died in 1926, Welshman Morgan Jones was laid to rest in his adopted hometown of Abilene, Texas.

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Morgan Jones’ final resting place in the Abilene Municipal Cemetery

And that is not all. Although the colonel never married and left no direct descendants, his nephews and other members of his extended family remained in Abilene, and continued to use the profits from the A&S – as well as their own fortunes – to benefit the entire community. There’s a huge wing of Hendrick hospital named for a nephew, Percy Jones, and his wife, Ruth Leggett Jones. The planetarium at Abilene High is named after another nephew, Morgan C. Jones. And every non-profit in town is familiar with the philanthropic investments of the Dodge Jones Foundation.

So the next time you’re sitting in the comfortable Percy Jones waiting room at Hendrick, think about the old Abilene railroad. The next time you’re driving along US Highway 83 through Winters and on to Ballinger, notice the old roadbed that was there before the highway, and remember the men who built that line, and those who operated her.

The next time you’re on Treadaway Boulevard, and you see those little green switchers shoving hopper cars loaded with grain, remember the Abilene & Southern.

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A&S Engine #20, a 2-8-2 “Mikado” type, August, 1949.

Dining Cars and Cantaloupe Pie

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This charger plate was used on dining cars of the Missouri Pacific and Texas & Pacific lines. It featured the state flowers of the states served by those railroads.

Back in the day when travel was an adventure and most people got from here to there by rail, one of the highlights of any trip was taking a meal in the dining car. For many, the amazing food and impeccable service was made even better by the pleasure of meeting new people and making new friends while sharing a delicious meal together in the rolling diner.

The railroads would often specialize in serving regional favorites that represented the part of the country through which you were traveling. Thus, if you were on board the Union Pacific, you might have one of their famous Midwestern “Prime Steaks.” If you were riding on the Northern Pacific, you could enjoy a “Great Big Baked Potato” from Idaho. Riders going through the Rockies on Missouri Pacific’s “Colorado Eagle” were served delicious rainbow trout.

t&p logoAnd the Texas & Pacific? Well, it seems that the railroad that founded Abilene and crossed West Texas was nationally famous for a dessert:

Cantaloupe Pie.

Back in 1916, Mr. M.L. Todd and his business partner, Mr. D.T. McKee, began growing cantaloupes in Pecos, Texas. They contracted with the T&P, and agreed to supply them with cantaloupes for their dining cars.  By the 1920s, they were shipping cases of melons via Railway Express all over the country.

But of course, as with any perishable commodity, some of the fruit would become overripe on its way to market. That’s where Mr. Edward Pierce enters the picture. Mr. Pierce was a College Station native and a 42-year veteran of the T&P, and he couldn’t stand seeing the melons go to waste, overripe or not. He went to work and came up with a dessert that became a favorite on the T&P dining cars.

Happily, in 1992, a writer for the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Anita Baker, tracked down Mr. Pierce, who shared his recipe, which we now pass along to you.

Serve it to your guests to enjoy a taste of elegant travel from days gone by.

  • 1 very ripe cantaloupe (over ripe yields the most juice)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cups sugar
  • 3 tablespoons flour (more or less depending on how juicy your cantaloupe is)
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 9-inch prebaked pie crust
  • 3 egg whites
  • 6 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  1. Slice cantaloupe in half, deseed and remove rind, reserving all juices. Cut into small pieces.
  2. Place melon with juice and water into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring often. Mash the cantaloupe as it heats.
  3. Mix sugar and flour and slowly add to hot mixture, stirring constantly.
  4. In a large bowl, beat egg yolks; add a little water to yolks. Add a little of the cantaloupe mixture to egg yolks in order to heat yolks gradually. Stir egg yolks mixture into cantaloupe mixture.
  5. Add butter and nutmeg, stir until butter melts. Continue cooking, stirring, until thick and creamy.
  6. Cool and pour into prebaked pie crust.
  7. To make meringue, beat egg whites until frothy. Gradually add sugar, continuing to beat until stiff peaks form. Add vanilla or other flavoring. Spoon onto pie, spreading to crust edge to seal filling in. Bake at 325° for 15 to 18 minutes, until nicely browned.
  8. Refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours before serving.

Friendships are formed through experiences shared together, whether it’s a meal, a piece of pie, or something else. Because of their proximity, neighbors have opportunities to share experiences and work with each other to build a stronger, safer community. Like passengers on a train, we will find that our journey is more interesting and pleasant as we make friends along the way.