More Haskell Railroad Memories

Last week we started telling stories of the old railroad days in Haskell. One story told by Haskell native Sam Pace involved his grandfather who owned the first Ford dealership here, and how they used to receive new automobiles in railroad box cars, dissembled and in crates, and the mechanics had to reassemble them.

Sam’s cousin, Dr. Jim Ratliff, remembers once when a dead whale was lashed to a flat car and parked on a sidetrack, in 1937 or 38. He especially recalls the awful stench of the rotting sea creature, but why the carcass was there, why it was parked in Haskell for a time, and what its destination was, are all mysteries.

He also remembers hearing stories from his parents and other family members about when the Ratliff family relocated to Haskell from Decatur, Texas, in the 1920s; he says his dad Roy, and older brother Dennis, had to ride in a cattle car with the family milk cow. (Dennis Ratliff would go on to become a successful attorney, a district judge, and a member of the Texas House of Representatives, but he when arrived in Haskell for the first time as a young man, it was in the middle of the night, riding with a milk cow on a mixed train…)

As we mentioned last week, Dr. Jim, Sam, and lots of other folks remember riding the “Doodlebug.” This was a self-propelled passenger coach that also offered mail and package service. The Wichita Valley Railroad operated a Doodlebug in the 1930s and 40s between Wichita Falls and Abilene as Trains 111 and 112.

Sam Pace says riding it is his “claim to fame.” He recalls taking a school bus to Weinert (or maybe Munday?), then riding the Doodlebug back to Haskell. Others remember the opposite, taking the Doodlebug from Haskell north to Munday or Seymour, then riding a bus back to Haskell. Woody Turnbow remembers riding it up to Munday, then walking to get an ice cream cone before boarding the bus for the trip back to Haskell. John Sam Rike III remembers when his first-grade class went on their field trip to ride the Doodlebug but says he didn’t get to go – he was out sick that day with an earache.

Students from Mrs. J.V. Vaughter’s class line up to board the Doodlebug in this 1947 photo. For many years, riding the Doodlebug was a much-anticipated field trip for Haskell students. Can you identify anyone in this picture?
(Photo from Images of America: Haskell County, by the Haskell County Historical and Genealogical Society, original photo submitted by Hess Hartsfield.)

Another Haskell native who recalls riding it was Fitzhugh Williams, son of longtime Haskell physician, Dr. T.W. Williams. Mr. Williams – known to some as “Buttermilk” – remembers boarding the Doodlebug for the trip up to Seymour, then riding a school bus back. He says the self-propelled car was a dark olive-green color with a cab that was painted red with yellow trim, and as he says, “yellow or white lettering.” One of his most vivid memories from riding the Doodlebug was going across the railroad bridge over the Brazos River just south of Seymour. He says he was very impressed and a little bit scared crossing that bridge, “because it was a long way down!”

Another detail he recalls about the Doodlebug is the name “Railway Express Agency” printed on its side. REA was a forerunner of services like UPS and FedEx. Mr. Williams says he remembers once when REA delivered a shipment of baby chicks. “They came packed in heavy cardboard,” he says, “with lots of vent holes in the cardboard. The crates were about six inches tall, and maybe 24 to 30 inches, square.” He also recalls Mr. Audie Stocks, who owned a truck and used to pick up shipments that arrived by REA and deliver them to people and businesses “all over town.”

Several of you have told me about fathers and grandfathers who drove cattle to local railroad stock pens for shipment to market; there were cattle pens north of town around Josselet switch, and others south of town, near where Overton Road is now. Numerous farmers also shipped out carloads of wheat and bales of cotton via rail – but times change.

A growing economy and changing infrastructure meant shipping by highway rather than rail. Trains are still a vital part of the national economy, and Amtrak still carries passengers between major cities, but locally, the rails were all gone from Haskell County by the mid-1990s.

But some of us recall fondly the days when railroads meant prosperity for a community. Some of us collect railroad antiques; others build and run model trains. Some of us like to read and tell stories about those days and what it was like to ride “that magic carpet made of steel.”

And some of us still get chills to hear the sound of a lonesome whistle in the middle of the night.

Railroad Memories

It’s difficult these days for us to realize how much significance our ancestors living a hundred years ago placed on the railroad, but imagine if the internet, the news media, your communications system, the mail, the future of your business, and your transportation system were all rolled up into a single entity? Throw in the chance for economic development as well as the opportunity for face-to-face social networking and interaction, and you have some idea of what the railroad meant to those who came before us.

The first community in Haskell County to see the “Iron Horse” was actually Sagerton. The Kansas City, Mexico, and Orient Railroad was building north on its way to Kansas City in the summer and fall of 1905. The story is, they wanted to go through Stamford, but a wealthy rancher blocked them, so they went a few miles west and arrived in Sagerton on December 9, 1905. The town was actually named for local landowner William Sager, who donated land for the depot, the right-of-way, and certain town lots. Later the Stamford & Northwestern arrived there in 1909 on its way to Spur, making Sagerton the only town in the county to have TWO railroads. Historical accounts state that the two depots were located “some distance apart, to the inconvenience of the public.”

The “Orient Line,” as it was known, continued on its way north, creating the towns of Rule, Rochester, and O’Brien in 1905 and 1906. The KC, M & O was sold to the Santa Fe Railroad in the 1930s; it was salvaged in 1996, although some of the historical depots remain in the communities they served. (For now, I’m having to leave out some colorful stories, including a fascinating one about residents in northwestern Haskell County who, when they realized the railroad was bypassing them, just picked up and moved the town and became part of Rochester. But I digress.)

Early histories of the county reveal some of the negotiations – along with lots of broken promises and double-dealing – in the early efforts to bring a railroad to the city of Haskell. In 1906, the Wichita Valley RR, owned by Abilene rail entrepreneur Morgan Jones, was on its way to connect Wichita Falls with Abilene. They came through Weinert first, then they arrived in Haskell at noon on August 2, 1906. In their August 4 edition two days later, the Haskell Free Press described it as a “Consummation Long Desired,” adding “Haskell is now a railroad town, bound by bands of steel to the outer world.” The WV was eventually merged into the Fort Worth & Denver, then the Burlington, and finally the Burlington Northern. It was eventually abandoned and torn up in the mid-1990s.

Did you know that Haskell once had its own streetcar? A gasoline-powered streetcar owned by Mr. M.R. Hemphill ran from the WV depot to the square, then three miles north through what would later be known as the “Shook Addition,” to Hemphill Lake, and ending near the present location of the Haskell Country Club. The line operated from 1909-10 and cost ten cents to ride. At the lake was a bandstand, a golf course, and recreation facilities.

Haskell’s streetcar was in operation from 1909-1910. Pictured are Frank Craddock at the controls; Mrs. B. Baker, front seat; Mrs. C.L. Lewis, second row.
Photo from Haskell County and Its Pioneers, by Rex A. Felker.

Many of you have been kind enough to share with me some of your train-related memories from the old days of Haskell. Sam Pace tells the story of his grandfather, William Lynn Pace Senior, who owned Haskell’s first Ford dealership, near where Kay’s Cleaners is now. Mr. Pace also knew Henry Ford, and back in the day, the new Fords would arrive in Haskell by train, disassembled and boxed up in crates. Mr. Pace’s mechanics would go down to the depot and unload the crates, reassemble the cars, pour in a cup or two of gasoline, and drive the contraptions down to the Ford house.

One common memory that I have heard from several folks has been about “riding the Doodlebug” – a self-propelled rail passenger car. For many years in the 1940s, riding that railcar was a much-anticipated school field trip. Do you remember riding it? Do you have any pictures of it, or other rail-related recollections to tell from the old days of Haskell? We would love to hear from you! We will share some of those stories, and more, in our next column.

Where Were You?

This weekend marks the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on our country. In keeping with that solemn occasion, I want to do something a little different for my column this week.

This song Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning) was written by country music superstar Alan Jackson. I think he did a masterful job of expressing the wide range of emotions and reactions that many of us experienced on that day – anger, grief, shock and horror; from pride at the bravery of the first responders, to amazement at the courage of those gutsy passengers who fought back against the terrorists on Flight 93. The song received multiple honors, including being named “Song of the Year” and “Single of the Year” by both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music; it also won a Grammy award for “Country Music Song of the Year.”

The song is on the program for Friday’s anniversary ceremony at the Haskell County Courthouse.

God bless America.

Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?
Were you in the yard with your wife and children
Or working on some stage in L.A.?

Did you stand there in shock
At the sight of that black smoke
Risin’ against that blue sky?
Did you shout out in anger
In fear for your neighbor
Or did you just sit down and cry?

Did you weep for the children who lost their dear loved ones
Pray for the ones who don’t know?
Did you rejoice for the people who walked from the rubble
And sob for the ones left below?

Did you burst out with pride
For the red, white and blue
And the heroes who died
Just doin’ what they do?

Did you look up to heaven for some kind of answer
And look at yourself and what really matters?

I’m just a singer of simple songs
I’m not a real political man
I watch CNN
But I’m not sure I can tell you
The difference in Iraq and Iran
But I know Jesus and I talk to God
And I remember this from when I was young
Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us
And the greatest is love

Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?
Teaching a class full of innocent children
Or driving down some cold interstate?

Did you feel guilty
’Cause you’re a survivor
In a crowded room did you feel alone?
Did you call up your mother
And tell her you loved her?
Did you dust off that Bible at home?

Did you open your eyes, hope it never happened
Close your eyes and not go to sleep?
Did you notice the sunset the first time in ages
Or speak to some stranger on the street?

Did you lay down at night and think of tomorrow
Go out and buy you a gun?
Did you turn off that violent old movie you’re watchin’
And turn on “I Love Lucy” reruns?

Did you go to a church and hold hands with some strangers
Stand in line and give your own blood?
Did you just stay home and cling tight to your family
Thank God you had somebody to love?

I’m just a singer of simple songs
I’m not a real political man
I watch CNN
But I’m not sure I can tell you
The difference in Iraq and Iran
But I know Jesus and I talk to God
And I remember this from when I was young
Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us
And the greatest is love

I’m just a singer of simple songs
I’m not a real political man
I watch CNN
But I’m not sure I can tell you
The difference in Iraq and Iran
But I know Jesus and I talk to God
And I remember this from when I was young
Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us
And the greatest is love

And the greatest is love
And the greatest is love

Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?

A Place Called Honey Island

(Dusty’s note – I have printed this article in the past, but it is my favorite story about Labor Day, so I’m going to run it again. I hope you don’t mind.)

Labor Day always brings back memories of family reunions at a place called Honey Island. How that came about is the story I want to tell you.

My grandmother, Mazura Linscomb Garison, died in July 1964 – less than a month after the picture was made. (The date shown, August 1964, was the processing date. Mom was a little slow in getting to the drug store sometimes.) Anyway, as I understand the story, after Grandma’s funeral, several family members were talking and decided that it was a shame that we needed a funeral to see each other. So, a few weeks later, our tradition of a family reunion began, with all of the cousins, family members, the Garisons and the Garrisons (we spell our name with only one “R,” but we do have some “2-R” cousins), the Linscombs, the Cottons, along with the in-laws, out-laws, and some assorted friends.

Here I am with my grandparents, my brothers, and a bunch of my cousins. I’m the shirtless one, second from the left. My grandmother died not long after this snapshot was taken.

In the heart of Southeast Texas, in the middle of an area known as “The Big Thicket,” you will find the towns of Saratoga and Kountze. And back in the day, there was a little place called Honey Island, where there was a large park with open air pavilions, picnic tables, and two giant swimming pools, fed by artesian springs. One of the pools was shallow and perfect for us kids, with water that went from about three feet to eight feet deep. The other (which mom wouldn’t let us go in) was deep, with a diving board that must have been 200 feet in the air! (Okay really, it was probably 20 or 30 feet over the water, but it LOOKED really high and scary to me.)

I remember the water had this vague, sulfur-y smell – kind of like the crude oil that was just under the surface in that part of Texas in those days. We didn’t mind the smell. It was a great place to swim, to play, and to see (or meet!) kinfolks we hardly ever saw.

Near the swimming pool was an open-air pool hall with a jukebox. CCR’s “Green River” and The Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” seemed always to be playing. (“Saturday night I was downtown, workin’ for the FBI…”) Momma didn’t want us going near there, but you could hear the music from the pool. And I remember a sign in the pool house/concession stand that said, “We don’t swim in your toilet. Please don’t pee in our pool.”

And the food that we shared at the potluck, of course, was great. Lots of (homemade) fried chicken and potato salad. Mom would sometimes fix a giant pot roast, with lots of potatoes and carrots, and always plenty of other good things to eat. Sometimes there would be homemade ice cream, and ALWAYS, lots of ice-cold watermelon. It was a great time to be a kid. And part of the family. The tradition continued for many years.

Eventually, of course, we stopped going to Honey Island. One by one, the older folks passed away. The kids grew up, moved away, had kids and families of their own. But I remember those good times of Labor Days past, and those cousins and family members I loved so much. Each funeral makes thinking of heaven that much sweeter.

Having family reunions is a lot of bother and fuss, no doubt about it. But I deeply appreciate my parents for going and for taking us, and for all the trouble they went to so that we could enjoy those times together with family. Those memories are very precious to me.

Meanwhile, here’s a shout-out to all those cousins and loved ones who remember with me our family reunions at Honey Island. And to all of us, let me say, cherish your families. Try not to wait for a funeral to see each other.

Happy Labor Day.

The Altar of Freedom

Part of our recent trip to DC included visiting two memorials that commemorate significant events in our nation’s history. The World War II Memorial opened in 2004. It is located between the Washington and Lincoln Memorials, near the end of the rectangular Reflecting Pool. The installation features two large, semicircular areas – one honoring the European Theater of the war, the other for the Pacific.

When you start talking about that war, it’s easy to get “bogged down” in the minutia of historical details, dates, places, and people, and to get lost in arguments about the political and economic causes about what started the war and how did it conclude. But the designers of this memorial have made sure that you don’t forget those who “more than self, their country loved, and mercy, more than life.”

It was during World War I that families of military personnel first began displaying Service Banners with blue stars for each member of the family that was on active duty in any of the branches of the armed forces. If that family member were killed in action, the blue star would be replaced with a gold one, and so the term “Gold Star Family” came to be.

The “Gold Star” wall at the World War II Memorial

At the World War II Memorial there is an enormous curving wall over a pool, and on that wall are placed thousands of gold stars. At one side is a small panel explaining what Gold Stars mean, and that each of the 4,048 stars on the wall represents 100 Americans. Do the math, and you can figure out that more than 400,000 Americans were killed or remained missing after that war. Let that number sink in a minute: so many sons, brothers, husbands, fathers. Such a dear price paid for our freedom.

Later that afternoon, we had a chance to visit the Vietnam War Memorial, with the names of more than 58,000 service men and women who were KIA or MIA engraved on those somber black stone walls. It was a controversial design when it was dedicated in 1982, and to some, remains so today. But whatever your opinion about the wall, there is no denying the impact that seeing it creates.

I didn’t serve in Vietnam – it was winding down by the time I graduated – but one of my best friends from high school did, and I know many others who did as well. One Haskell boy who served was Charles B. “Chuck” Goodwin.

Chuck is remembered as a good boy from a hard-working family. After graduating from HHS, he joined the Navy and became an aviator, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. He flew off the deck of a carrier to provide air support for the ground troops, and then one day, he didn’t come back. He was listed as “missing” for many years, but his body was eventually recovered, and he is buried in the Veteran’s Cemetery in Abilene.

When Kathy and I first moved here in 1980, I met his mom; she was a member of the Christian Church where I was preaching, and she lived over on South Avenue L, I think. In her living room was a shadowbox with Chuck’s picture and his medals, and next to it was a framed pencil tracing of his name, made from the memorial wall. With our guide’s help, I was able to look him up in the directory and find his name on the wall.

LCDR Charles Goodwin – Naval Aviator, Hero & Haskell native

At the Vietnam memorial that day, not far from the Lincoln Monument, I thought about a letter that President Lincoln had written to a grieving mother, Mrs. Bixby. He had been shown a file that five of her sons had been killed in Civil War battles – information that turned out not to be completely accurate; “only” three of her sons had died – but his letter still remains a powerful tribute. Let his words honor all those who never came home.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln

Visiting DC

During our recent vacation, we went to Baltimore, to visit our daughter, Brittany; while we were there, we took a day and went down to Washington. My wife had toured DC several years ago, but although I had been through there, I had not been able to visit any of the historic locations in that city on the Potomac. We made reservations with one of those companies that offer guided bus tours, and off we went.

Brittany helped us plan how to navigate the commuter trains to get there and find the starting point for the tour. Any day that begins with riding a train is a good day as far as I’m concerned, and we had no problem finding our way through the maze of above-ground and subway trains, and sure enough, when we came back up into the sunlight, the tour buses were right in front of us.

A word about these buses: they were about the size of a short school bus, but made with a retractable, open roof, especially designed for tour purposes. We checked in, and were assigned to a particular bus, and didn’t have to wait long before Craig, our driver, and Alisha, our tour guide, came on board and welcomed us to their city.

Alisha was a young, vivacious, African American woman with the build of a long-distance runner. In the course of our tour, she mentioned that she had been working as a guide for over five years (which meant she was older than she looked to me!) – a Washington native and a fan of both learning and telling history. As Craig chauffeured our bus, Alisha gave us some background on the city, how it was laid out and when construction began.

We parked near the Washington Monument, but she began moving us in the opposite direction for our first stop. We came out from behind some trees, and what I saw, literally took my breath away.

Here I am, standing on the South Lawn of the White House

It was the White House. We were standing on the South Lawn, which it turned out, was as close as we could get. It didn’t matter. I was thrilled to be there, and to see the Executive Mansion where every president since John Adams has lived. She pointed out some of the other historic buildings that were within our view, before shepherding us back across the street, to get a better look at the Washington Monument. Later on we would stop off at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue and see the Capitol Building.

We headed over to the World War II memorial. This is one of the newer structures in DC, having opened in 2004. It features two large, semi-circular areas – one for the European Theater, and one for the Pacific. There is a special “Gold Star” wall, honoring the more than 400,000 Americans who died in that war. Later, we visited the Vietnam War Memorial, and on that famous black stone wall, I found the name of a young man from Haskell. I’ll have more to say about both of those walls in a future article.

From there, it was on to the Jefferson Memorial, where his statue stands next to some of his words from the Declaration of Independence. And that was just the first of several locations that we visited that day, that call to mind some of the words that are important to our country and to history. Words are important, because they carry ideas – ideas that are truly foundational to our republic. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal.” Words of power.

Our next stop was a further reminder of this, as we visited the memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King. There, engraved on the arches leading to and away from the stone statue that honors him, were 14 of his most famous quotations, including one of my favorites: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

A quick lunch, an enjoyable boat ride on the Potomac River, and then it was on to the installation honoring President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and again remembering his words – “Fear itself” and his “Fireside Chats” – words that led this nation out of the Great Depression and through the darkest days of World War II.

From there, we had another powerful demonstration of the power of language at the Lincoln Memorial, with his Second Inaugural Address engraved on one wall, and the Gettysburg Address on the other: “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

God Bless America.

The Train to Yesterday

I have been fortunate enough to get to take a number of passenger train trips over the years. One of my favorites was a special trip a few years ago with my youngest brother, David Ray. He’s a pastor at a church in Spring, Texas, just north of Houston.

My brother David and I in front of Amtrak’s “Sunset Limited” in Houston.

He and I had often talked about trains and taking a trip together on Amtrak, so we did just that – not so much to go anywhere, but more just for the experience of riding a passenger train together. We boarded the eastbound “Sunset Limited” in Houston, and toot toot, we were gone, headed for Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Now as my friends can tell you, I love trains, but as great as that part of it was, an even better part was getting to spend time with my youngest brother. We grew up in a family of four boys – he and I are the bookends, with me as the oldest and him as the youngest. Our mom’s parents lived in the small Hardin County town of Grayburg, between Beaumont and Houston.

The old Missouri Pacific RR main line ran right through there, and when we were kids visiting our grandparents, we used to spend hours down by the tracks at a small railroad sidetrack where they used to load freshly cut pine logs onto flatcars, destined to be turned into paper at one of the mills in East Texas.

(Yes, I know we shouldn’t have been playing there, and that it probably wasn’t safe. Get over it. We never wore bicycle helmets, either.)

How we loved to see freight trains coming through! The big blue and white MP engines, the long trains, and the red caboose at the end. The box cars with names of faraway places – Bangor and Aroostook, Atlantic Coast Line, the New York Central and Central of Georgia, Chicago, Burlington & Quincy and the Santa Fe, the Denver & Rio Grande and the Illinois Central, just to name a few. And when they came roaring through, it was all noise and power, sound and fury, speed and excitement. We knew to get well off the tracks and wave from a safe distance. And as Johnny Cash once observed, it was always very important that the conductor in the caboose waved back.

Somewhere I still have some flattened pennies that we made, and I remember running back to the tracks after the train had passed, to find those little squished pieces of copper, still hot from the friction of the wheels that ran over them.

And the smells on those hot afternoons – the oily odor of the creosote from the ties, and the zingy smell of hot steel in the Texas sun. We would walk along the rails and practice our balancing skills and watch the distant signal lights, hoping they would turn red, heralding the approach of another train. I have a very sweet memory of sitting on the freight platform with my dad, next to the tiny beige and brown depot, absolutely enthralled as the massive trains roared past, and watching the rail joints move up and down as the car wheels went across them.

Anyway, our grandparents have long since passed away, but the little town is still there, and so are the freight trains, now operated by Union Pacific. And when you take Amtrak heading east towards Beaumont, you go roaring right through there.

So David & I climbed aboard in downtown Houston, checked in with the conductor, and headed for the dining car and lunch. We both had a pretty good Angus beef hamburger and enjoyed a nice visit with an older lady and her niece who were returning to Florida after a trip to California. After lunch, we walked to the observation car as the train rolled through the Southeast Texas countryside and past the little towns.

Grayburg is literally just a blur when you go through there on a fast train.

The Grayburg depot is long gone, but the siding is still there, and it doesn’t take long to go past it. As we went through there and saw where we used to play, I looked over and saw my brother wiping away a tear. I asked him what he was thinking.

He said he thought he saw four little boys running over to the tracks after the train went by, looking for flattened pennies.

Remembering Dad

Harry Louis Garison, Sr., was a remarkable man. Known to his friends as “Buddy,” he was born at home on August 25, 1928. When he got married, his father gave him an acre of land across the road, where dad built a house for his new bride. He lived in that house for the rest of his life. It was where my brothers and I grew up, and that was where he died on December 6, 2018 – about 75 yards from where he was born. When Hurricane Harvey flooded us out in August 2017, dad had to go live in a nursing home while my brothers and I rebuilt the house, but other than that, and the time he was in the army, he lived on that same piece of property in Orange County, Texas, his entire life.

My son Drew with his “Paw-Paw”

Dad had a long career as a mechanic and a business owner. When we were boys, my brothers and I took turns working for him. Watching him went a long way towards making me who I am today.

One of the most important things learned from my dad is that Christianity is not something you just talk about; it’s how you live. Dad lived his life in accordance with the scripture that says, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do” (James 2:18).

Dependability, honesty, hard work, loyalty – these were the principles by which dad carried himself. It was how he operated his business and how he raised his family. To his final days, he remained a role model for my brothers and me. Always tell the truth. Treasure your family. When you give someone your word, follow through, even if it’s not easy. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Give a fair day’s work for a day’s pay. Do it right the first time.

One thing in particular that I remember about my dad as a working man was how diligent and focused he was at work, but when the working day was over, he had that special gift of being able to shut it off, come home to his family, and not think about work. He was that most rare of breeds – an honest mechanic. And I wish I could put into words how proud it made me whenever I would meet someone who would say, “Oh, you’re Buddy’s boy. You know, your dad is the only man I trust to work on my car.”

Another thing I learned from him was patience. (He was a lot better at that than I am.) Whether it was fixing some stubborn problem on a car or dealing with a difficult customer, my dad always modeled patience for us, even though he would probably say he didn’t do a very good job at it.

In his last years, dad showed great patience in another way. He suffered from non-diabetic neuropathy, which destroyed his balance, crippled his ankles and feet, and left him confined to a wheelchair. It also turned his hands into claws and left him unable to use his fingers. He had to get very creative to find ways of doing things he used to do without thinking about them. He still got them done; it just took longer. But he was patient enough (and stubborn enough) to keep working at the chore in front of him, until he finished it.

There’s plenty more I could say about my dad, but one story reveals a lot about him. One of his favorite treats was ice cream; he used to buy frozen goodies from the Schwan’s truck that came to his house. One day he bought a box of ice cream sandwiches, and decided he wanted one right then, so after the truck left, he opened the package and took one out, and was putting the box in the freezer above the refrigerator. As he was stretching up in his wheelchair, he lost his balance and fell, spilling ice cream sandwiches everywhere. Just at that moment, his home health nurse arrived, and came into the kitchen to find him sprawled out in front of the fridge. “Oh my goodness!” she exclaimed. “What are you doing on the floor?”

“Never mind that,” he said. “Help me get this ice cream back in the freezer before it melts!”

That was my dad.

Honoring Old Glory

This coming Monday, June 14, is Flag Day – the day set aside to honor our nation’s flag. It was on June 14, 1777, that the Second Continental Congress officially designated that the new national flag should be “…thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” President Woodrow Wilson was the first to issue a proclamation recognizing that date in 1916; Congress made it an official designation in 1949, even though it is not a federal holiday.

The flag is a beautiful and meaningful symbol of our country and the values we hold dear. White represents purity and virtue; blue stands for justice and vigilance, and the red represents courage, and of course, the sacrifice of those who have shed blood defending that flag. It is a powerful national symbol, which is why so many Americans find flag burning and desecration to be so offensive.

At the risk of upsetting some of you, I would point out another type of flag desecration that is all too common by some people: neglect. I have seen many flags flying that should have been taken down and retired a long time ago –the flags have been shredded from the wind and faded by the sun, and their edges are frayed to threads; sometimes, the flag is reduced to less than half its original size by the wind and the weather. It may not be deliberate misuse, but perhaps that makes it even worse, because it shows a lackadaisical attitude of thoughtlessness and neglect.

Many years ago, when I was a Boy Scout, I remember one time when our troop held a “flag retirement” ceremony. Our Scoutmaster, Oscar “Red” Davis, had several old, torn, faded flags. He gave some of our more senior boys scissors and directed that we carefully cut out the blue fields, then cut the red and white stripes into separate strips. Mr. Davis then had one of our Eagle Scouts read a poem about the meaning of the flag and what the colors symbolized. Then with care and reverence, we burned (yes, that is the honorable, appropriate way of disposing of a faded flag) the different components of the flags and buried the ashes, again with great respect.

You see, Mr. Davis was a combat veteran – he had been with the U.S. Army in Korea, in that brutal winter of 1950. He knew how precious that flag was, and is, and he instilled in us – in me! – an awe and patriotic awareness that continues to this day. So I don’t worship the flag but I do hold it in high honor, with deep appreciation for all that it means.

On a lighter note, if you’re looking for a scrumptious, sweet way to think about the flag, you might try my daughter Brittany’s “Flag Cake” recipe. Coconut – strawberries – blueberries – what’s not to love? She often makes it for summertime events. The recipe is attached below.

One interesting local story relating to the flag relates to a certain community in eastern Stonewall County, Texas. The town was originally laid out in 1903 by G.R. Spielhagen; he was one of several German immigrants to the area who had arrived beginning around 1900. Herr Spielhagen called his town “Brandenburg,” after the German city of the same name. When the Stamford & Northwestern Railway bypassed the community on its way to Spur in 1909, the citizens picked up and moved the town to the trains, renaming it “New Brandenburg.”

During World War I, there was a strong, anti-German sentiment across the country; “Hate the Hun” was a popular slogan. And so, to show their pride and allegiance to their new homeland, the folks in New Brandenburg petitioned the post office to change their town’s name, choosing instead the most patriotic name they could think of. And that’s how, on August 9, 1918, the community of “New Brandenburg” became known as “Old Glory.”

God Bless America.

Brittany’s Flag Cake

Ingredients

  • 1 “Classic Yellow” cake mix (brand of your choice), along with its required ingredients (eggs, vegetable oil, water, etc.)
  • 12-16 oz. Cream of Coconut (found in the mixers aisle of the grocery store)
  • 8 oz tub of Cool Whip
  • 1 cup Shredded Coconut (sweetened or regular) 
  • 3/4 cup sliced strawberries
  • 1/2 cup whole blueberries

Directions

  1. Bake the yellow cake according to the instructions on the box in a 13×9 inch glass or metal pan.
  2. Set aside the baked cake to cool in its pan for 1-2 hours. Remember to set out your Cool Whip to thaw (if needed)!
  3. Using the skinny end of a wooden spoon or toothpicks, poke small (1/4 inch) holes in the cake that reach all the way to the bottom. The holes should be about 1.5 inches apart.
  4. Pour 3/4 cup of the Cream of Coconut over the cake, spreading with a knife to cover the entire surface and fill the holes.
  5. Mix the remaining 1/2 cup of Cream of Coconut into the thawed cool whip, and then spread the entire mixture over the cake.
  6. Sprinkle shredded coconut over the cake as evenly as possible.
  7. In the upper left corner of the cake, place blueberries in rectangular pattern to create the field of blue in the American flag. Slice the strawberries width-wise and place on the cake to create the stripes of the flag (remember, the top stripe is white, the very bottom stripe is red).
  8. Refrigerate until ready to serve. 

Brittany’s note: This recipe is easily adapted to celebrate any flag! Rearrange the blueberries and strawberries to make the Texas flag, or use sliced kiwis and strawberries to create a tasty homage to Mexico or Italy. 

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.

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 trip to Israel that I made a few years ago. 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.” 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 tradition 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 the tomb is empty!