“His Word My Hope Secures”

Do you have a favorite hymn? Hymns may not be as popular as they once were – there’s been some wonderful new worship music written in the last 25 years or so – but the old familiar standards are still very popular. “How Great Thou Art,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “It is Well,” “Blessed Assurance,” and other old favorites are always in the “Top Ten” of the most loved church songs.

And, of course, “Amazing Grace.” How that hymn came into being and who wrote it, as well as how it has been transmitted down to us, make for a fascinating story.

The song was written by the former captain of a slave ship, John Newton. He was born in London on July 24, 1725, the son of a ship’s captain and a Puritan mother. Unfortunately, his mother died when John was only seven years old. His father, who was gone much of the time, remarried, and left John in the care of a stepmother who pretty much let him do whatever he wanted to do. When he was eleven, he went to sea with his father. Later, he was pressed into duty aboard a British warship as a junior midshipman. He deserted, was captured, publicly flogged, and demoted from officer to a common seaman.

John Newton (1725-1807) was a former slave ship captain, and later, a minister in the Church of England and a prolific songwriter of many hymns, including “Amazing Grace.”

Later he became a servant to the captain of a slave ship and was engaged in the “Triangular Trade.” This was the common practice of cargo ships that would sail from England to West Africa, carrying manufactured goods. They would offload those items and take aboard freshly captured slaves, then sail to America. There, they would sell the slaves and load up with sugar, rum, and spices, for the trip back to England, where the whole process would start over. By his own admission, John was a very rough customer – his language was known to be so vulgar and coarse that even the other sailors were embarrassed. Eventually he became captain of his own vessel.

He became a Christian in 1748, after one particularly violent storm in the North Atlantic when it looked as if the ship would be lost with all hands. They managed to survive, and John became a believer. He continued in the slave trade for a while, but later, he became convinced that it was evil and morally reprehensible; how could he, as a believer in God and a follower of Jesus, be part of a system that treated others, also created in the Image of God, in such a brutal and inhuman fashion? He was ordained as a minister in the Church of England, and eventually became good friends with a young Member of Parliament, William Wilberforce. The two men began working together to abolish the slave trade.

Newton had always been a prolific writer, so with the help of a friend, William Cowper, they began writing new hymns for use in their congregation. They averaged writing a song every week, and so it was, for the first service of the new year 1773, 250 years ago this month, Newton published these words:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I’m found,
Was blind but now I see.

‘Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear,
And Grace, my fears relieved!
How precious did that Grace appear,
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come.
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far,
And Grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.

Originally there was no specific tune for the song. That was not unusual; in those days, it was common for lyrics to be written to a particular meter, and any one of several different tunes that fit that meter could be used. But a generation later, the words came to this country and became popular in Virginia, Georgia, and elsewhere in the South. No one is completely sure when, but it is believed that churches began using a popular melody that had originally been from a song sung by slaves. This is the tune that we still sing today. Also in the early 1800s, the song picked up several new verses, including these familiar lines:

When we've been there ten thousand years,
   Bright shining as the sun,
We've no less days to sing God's praise,
   Than when we'd first begun.

Newton lived long enough to see his friend Wilberforce get a bill passed in Parliament on May 1, 1807, that was the first step towards outlawing the slave trade in England. John Newton died just a few months later. If the familiar melody that we know was indeed originally from a tune used by slaves, it is truly a demonstration of God’s grace, that the words written by a former slave trader should be combined with a melody from enslaved people, to become the hymn that we still know and love.

Today, John Newton is recognized for the enduring hymn that he gave us, and for one other piece of wisdom. Very late in his life, he remarked, “My memory is fading, but two things I remember very clearly: I was a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior.”

Rediscovering an Old Friend

As far back as I can remember, music has been a big part of my life. In our home, when I was growing up, my mom always had either the radio or the record player going, and we listened to a lot of music of all kinds. Gospel (especially Southern Gospel), Country, Big Band, Western Swing – Jim Reeves, Ray Price, The Florida Boys, The Blackwood Brothers, the Happy Goodman Family, The Glenn Miller Band, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Mom had been a trumpet player and high school drum major in her younger days, and she developed a love of many different kinds of music that she maintained her whole life. In addition, she had a strong alto voice and for many years sang in a ladies’ quartet at church. I can still remember sitting next to her in church and hearing her as she sang the harmony on hymns and the old-time camp meeting songs.

My dad’s musical tastes were somewhat simpler. As far as he was concerned, there were only two kinds of music – country, and western. George Jones was one of his favorites – the “Possum” was a native of our corner of SE Texas – but dad also loved Merle Haggard, Ray Price, Johnny Cash, Roy Clark, Jimmy Dean. Dad had picked a guitar in his younger days, and always greatly enjoyed times when my brothers would get out their acoustic guitars and other instruments and lead out in a jam session around the living room, or around a campfire.

Like mom, I also listened to a lot of various kinds of music. When I was riding with friends in their cars, we would listen to the Beatles and other famous bands. I had one friend who was really into this Blues-Rock garage band from the Houston area that was just getting started – their first paying gig was the Junior-Senior Prom at a neighboring high school. A little group known as “Z.Z. Top.” But I listened to a lot of Chicago and the Doobie Brothers. Also like mom, I also liked classical music, and listened to a lot of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. And like dad, I enjoyed several different country artists, especially Glen Campbell. But one of my favorites was Tom T. Hall.

Tom T. Hall (1936-2021) was a Hall of Fame Country music singer, songwriter, guitar player. He was known as “The Storyteller.”

Tom T. Hall was born in 1936 in a place called Tick Ridge, Kentucky, and grew up playing “hillbilly” music (as it was then known). He was worked as a part-time musician, served a tour in the Army in the late 50s and worked as a DJ and radio announcer before moving to Nashville in 1964, with a job as a songwriter. He wrote songs for many other artists before having a monster hit in 1968, with the song “Harper Valley PTA,” released by Jeannie C. Riley. Somewhere along the way, he picked up the nickname of “The Storyteller.”

My introduction to his music came through my Uncle Rusty, who sang Hall’s song, “The Ballad of Forty Dollars.” I thought it was a pretty good story, and I started paying more attention to Hall’s music when it would come on the radio. Another favorite from those days was “The Monkey Who Became President.” The coach who was my driver’s ed instructor was a country music fan, and I remember listening to that song when it was my turn behind the wheel.

Another favorite was the classic, “Old Dogs and Children and Watermelon Wine.” It’s a true story about an actual conversation he had with a man in a hotel bar one night in Miami – honest storytelling at its best. His songs ranged from the funny (“Faster Horses”) to the sweet (“I Love”) to the bittersweet (“Homecoming”), with everything in between.

I stopped listening to his music at some point – I don’t know why. I was probably in college at the time and decided I was too “cool” to listen to country anymore, or something stupid like that. By that point in my life, I was really into The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt, and a picker from Kentucky who sang simple ballads just didn’t seem to fit. But then, as sometimes happens in our lives, something occurs that will re-expose us to things we used to enjoy, and we may find that we still like them.

Recently, I was watching the HBO series, The Newsroom by Aaron Sorkin, with Kathy and our friend, Loren, and one of the characters was listening to Hall’s song, “That’s How I Got to Memphis.” Honestly, I didn’t know the song, so I went on iTunes (something we didn’t have back in my younger days!) and found it. While I was there, I rediscovered and downloaded a bunch of his stuff, which I have been listening ever since. It’s still good, and I’ll give him the last word:

That night I dreamed in peaceful sleep of shady summertime,
  Of old dogs and children and watermelon wine.

Do You Know Jack?

C.S. Lewis was one of the greatest Christian thinkers and authors of the twentieth century, and he is, by far, my favorite author. His writings, both fiction and non-fiction, have shaped my thinking and helped me become who I am today.

Christian author and thinker, C.S. “Jack” Lewis:
November 29, 1898 – November 22, 1963.

Clive Staples Lewis was born November 29, 1898, in Belfast, Ireland. As a small boy, he took the nickname “Jack” after a family pet, and so he was “Jack” to his friends for the rest of his life. His mother died while he was still young, and her death was a factor in him renouncing his Christian faith. He later wrote that he considered himself an atheist, although he also said that he was angry at God for NOT existing. He served with British troops in World War I and was wounded in a friendly fire accident that killed two friends. Eventually, he returned to faith, in part with the help of his friend and fellow author, J.R.R. Tolkien, and he would go on to hold prestigious academic positions at both Oxford and Cambridge. He passed away on November 22, 1963 – yes, the same day that President Kennedy was assassinated. (British author Aldous Huxley [Brave New World] also died that same day.)

If you haven’t read much of Lewis and are looking for a good place to start, I would recommend A Year with C.S. Lewis. It’s a collection of 366 brief readings of his material, gleaned from some of his best works, and arranged in a convenient, daily schedule. Spend a few minutes every morning for a year with Jack, and you will be amazed at how much better your clarity of thought will become.

Since this month is the anniversary of both his birth and death, I thought I would present five of his quotations that have really resonated with me over the years. Do you have a favorite Lewis quote? Please email me at haskellstarnews@gmail.com.

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is openedThe Great Divorce

…Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. Mere Christianity

We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world. The Problem of Pain

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. The Weight of Glory

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. Mere Christianity

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.

My First Cook Book

Probably like many of you, when I was growing up my favorite comic strip was “Peanuts” and following the adventures of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, Linus, and the whole gang. So it’s only natural that the first cookbook I ever owned was the Peanuts Cook Book, published in 1969 by United Feature Syndicate. The original version of this book contained 47 recipes in a thin little hardcover book that was about 6” by 6”, with a lime-green cover and hot pink pages. Most of the dishes were named after different characters from the strip and interspersed with the recipes throughout the book were some of their daily comic strips that related to food in one way or another. The cartoons, of course, were by Peanuts creator Charles Schultz; the recipes were by June Dutton.

Also that year, Scholastic Book Services released their first printing of the book in paperback, with a cover price of 60¢. This version only had about half of the recipes in the main edition, but it did include some helpful safety tips for kids, with reminders to be sure and read the recipe all the way through before starting, to be careful around hot stoves and sharp knives, to get your mom to teach you how to light the oven, wash your hands and always wear an apron to protect your clothes, and of course, clean up the kitchen when you’re through cooking.

The Peanuts Cook Book was originally published in 1969 by United Feature Syndicate, Cartoons by Charles Schultz, Recipes by June Dutton. Scholastic Book Services also published this abridged version especially geared for kids.

It was a great little book for kids, and I still have mine somewhere. Some of the recipes included were “Charlie Brown’s Brownies,” “Divine Divinity,” “Beethoven’s Green Beans with Bacon,” “Freida’s French Toast,” “Happiness is a Hot Cheese-Tomato Sandwich,” “Sally’s Scrambled Eggs,” and more. There was even a recipe for “Snoopy’s Steak Tartar,” with the warning that it was “For DOGS only, and maybe cats.”

Looking back, there were lots of things for breakfast, desserts, and side dishes – not very many “main courses.” I guess that’s to be expected in a book aimed at kids. I remember mainly enjoying the comic strips inside the book, more than any of the particular recipes, but I do recall fixing a few of these in particular.

One favorite was always “Security Cinnamon Toast.” The name of this dish relates to the character of Linus, who was known for carrying his security blanket, even into his elementary school years. One of his famous lines was “Security is a thumb and a blanket.” I always loved toast with cinnamon and sugar, so this one was right up my alley!

SECURITY CINNAMON TOAST

8 slices white bread
½ stick butter
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 scant tablespoon cinnamon
Melt butter with sugar and cinnamon. Cook gently while toasting bread on ONE side only in broiler. Spread untoasted side of bread with sugar mixture and place under medium-hot broiler until sugar is crusty and bubbly. The sugar’s hot! Be careful!

Another way Linus does it is to make toast in the toaster, then he spreads it with butter immediately, and shakes a spoonful of cinnamon sugar (2 tablespoons sugar mixed with a teaspoon of cinnamon) over the buttered toast.

Another favorite of mine was Red Baron Root Beer, which called for putting one long-stem Maraschino cherry into each compartment of an ice cube tray, then filling the tray with root beer and freezing it. After it’s frozen, you put a couple of these cubes in a glass and fill it with more root beer – that way, the melting cubes don’t “water down” the taste of the root beer. Yum!

I was easily amused in those days.

Diamonds & Dirt & Heading for Home

In honor of this week’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game, and with your kind permission, I’d like to repeat a column I wrote some time ago about why I enjoy the game. Because, as many others have said before, there is wisdom we can learn from baseball that translates directly into a well-lived life.

For one thing, I love the more-realistic expectations of baseball, especially compared to other sports. The best hitter who ever lived (Ted Williams), in the best season he ever had (1941), had a batting average of .406. That means that six times out of ten when he came up to bat, he FAILED to hit the ball. Can you imagine a successful wide receiver who dropped six passes out of every ten thrown to him, or a basketball player who missed six out of every ten shots he took? Not likely. The truth is, many of us fail more often than we succeed. Success in life is measured, though, not by how many times we fail, but by how many times we get back up and keep trying. Or, as my youngest daughter has been known to say, fall down six times, get up seven.

Another thing about baseball – you have to focus on the situation at hand. You can only play one game at a time. Learn to stay in the moment, and don’t worry too much about the past or the future. When you make an error, shake it off, and be ready for the next ball hit to you.

I love the teamwork of a well-disciplined ball club. I mean, certainly I understand that teamwork is a part of football, basketball, etc. They are, after all, called TEAM sports. And of course I realize that no running back is going to do very well without a good line blocking for him. But to me, there is unmatched beauty and elegance in watching an infield execute a beautiful – even graceful – 5-4-3 double play (the ball is hit to the third baseman, who throws it to second for one out, who then relays it to first for another out). These guys have practiced so long and so effectively together, they make it look easy and effortless. And I assure you, it is not.

Even something seemingly simple like a fielder hitting the cutoff man, who fires to the catcher, to cut down a runner trying to score – such things take mind-numbing hours of work and skill to accomplish.

You have to trust your teammates. A pitcher has to trust the fielders behind him, to provide good defense. Fielders have to trust that pitchers will make quality pitches. So also in life. Surround yourself with Godly companions and support each other.

Baseball is the only sport where the DEFENSE has the ball. It’s up to the offense – the team that is batting – to make something good happen.

Some other principles from baseball that apply to life:

  • Realize that sometimes, the ball just takes a bad hop on you.
  • There’s a time for preparation, and a time for performance.
  • Speaking of time – Baseball has no clock. You play until you’re done. Sometimes, you play extra innings.
  • Even the best players will sometimes have an off day. And even the most average player will sometimes have the game of his life.
  • In a regular season, every team is going to win 54 games; every team is going to lose 54 games. It’s what you do with the other 54 games that counts.
  • Blown calls and bad trades are part of baseball. Deal with it.
  • Sometimes you have to take one for the team.
  • Play with passion. Don’t be afraid to dive for the ball. It’s okay to get dirt on your uniform.
  • There’s a time to bunt, and a time to swing for the fences. Each is valuable in its place.
  • Make the most of the opportunities that you have. Don’t waste good chances; you don’t know how many you’ll get.
  • The bigger the situation, the more you need to relax. Too much tension is never good.
  • You can’t steal first.
  • You win some; you lose some; some get rained out.
  • Above all else – the main thing is always to get safely home.

Now – Play Ball!

Remembering Brother Ronnie

In my days at Dallas Christian College, back in the 1970s, I was blessed to have a number of excellent professors. Some were great thinkers. Some were excellent students of the word. But I never knew a better man of God than Ronnie Hanna.

Brother Ronnie, as we called him, served 18 years at DCC, sometimes as a professor, sometimes also as an administrator. But his real talent was as a man who loved people. He had one of the most amazing memories I have ever seen for remembering names and faces. On more than one occasion, I saw him – without any notes – go around a room of a hundred people or more, from all across Texas, and introduce every one of them, telling something interesting about each person. He genuinely loved people, and more than that, he genuinely loved the Lord’s church. In his time at DCC, he toured extensively throughout Texas and the Southwest on behalf of the college, and I think once he met someone, he never forgot.

And he told the corniest, goofiest dad jokes you have ever heard.

During my four years there, I was blessed to get to travel with him a lot, visiting different churches, so I heard all those jokes many, MANY times. Driving down the road, he would point to a field of fresh-cut grass and say, “Hay!” If there was a period of silence in the van, he would say, “Look! What’s that up there in the road — a head?” He would pull up to a railroad crossing and announce, “I believe a train was just by here.” When some gullible freshman would ask, “How can you tell?”, he would say, “It left behind its tracks.”

Ronnie & Janet Hanna

Sometimes he would say, “Don’t be bitter – reconsider!” I never knew exactly what that meant, but he said it a lot.

By his own admission, Ronnie was sometimes, shall we say, directionally challenged. He generally knew – approximately – in what part of town a given church building was located, and he would get in the right area, but then he’d have to drive around a while to find the exact location. Once we got there, he would just chuckle in his good-natured way, and say that he had known where he was all along, and that he was taking us to our destination via a “scenic tour.”

Brother Ronnie taught “Life of Christ,” which was a freshman-level class. One of the first things he covered was to define for us, exactly what Jesus was talking about when he described the Kingdom of Heaven / Kingdom of God – “The reign and rule of God in the hearts and lives of men and women.” To this day, I’ve never heard a better explanation, and I’ve used it, without exception, every time I have ever taught on the Kingdom. It’s not a place, it’s not just something in the future – God’s Kingdom is here and now, and it’s made up of all those who humble themselves before the living God to let Him rule in their hearts.

The other thing I remember about his Life of Christ class was that he had us read “The Cost of Discipleship” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, with its famous quotation, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Great stuff, life-changing stuff.

I had Ronnie for other classes, and he taught me other things, but if for only those two things, I will always be grateful to have been his student.

After he left Dallas, Ronnie and his beloved wife Janet moved to Colorado, where he ministered for many years. They moved back to the Dallas-area after his retirement. He passed away about ten years ago. But I remember him with genuine fondness and respect. He was a decent, good and gentle man, who loved his God and loved his family. And he loved the Lord’s church and spent his life ministering before the Lord and training others who would do the same.

Thanks for everything, Brother Ronnie. It was an honor to know you. And I bet you didn’t take a “scenic tour” on your way to heaven!

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.”

My Most Unforgettable Character: Gordon Baxter

One of the most interesting people I’ve ever known was a pilot, a radio DJ, and a writer for several of the little weekly papers in our corner of East Texas: someone I greatly admired and wanted to be like. His name was Gordon Baxter.

Bax was born in Port Arthur, Texas, on December 25, 1923. He was also an entertainer, singer and emcee for little country bands in that area. I grew up listening to Gordon while I was getting ready for school, mostly on AM radio powerhouse KLVI in Beaumont. He was on every morning beginning at 6:00 am. For the first hour, he would play only gospel songs – he called it “Come to Jesus” music. He featured a lot of Mother Maybelle and the original Carter Family Singers.

He would talk about how beautiful the dawn was. He would tell funny stories about everyday things. One morning he kept playing the same song, over and over, and when someone would call to complain, he told them he was playing different songs – their radio must be stuck. He would play music guaranteed to poke fun at the folks who took themselves too seriously – “Little boxes, on the hillside, little boxes, made of tickey-tackey” was one that I especially remember. And he loved to make his audience consider things that sometimes made them uncomfortable. “Go on, think about it,” he once said during the Civil Rights struggles in the late 1960s. “How would you feel if you were black? How would you want people to treat you?”

He used to say that radio was the most personal of all forms of mass communication. “It’s from my lips to your ears,” he would say. “What’s more personal than that?”

Gordon was good friends with another Beaumont radio personality, J.P. Richardson. Baxter and their other friends mostly knew him as “Jape,” but he was more famously known as “The Big Bopper” for his breakout hit record, “Chantilly Lace.” When Richardson was killed in a plane crash along with Buddy Holly and Richie Valens, Bax wrote a song, “Gold Records in the Snow.” Later, he did an on-the-air, moment-by-moment description of his friend’s funeral procession.

Bax served in the Merchant Marine in the South Pacific during World War II. When his ship was sunk out from under him, he joined the Army Air Corps and became a gunner in B-17s. More than once, I remember, he would fly a little single-engine aircraft into the edge of a hurricane and radio back a live report to his listeners on the Upper Texas coast.

Flying was his real passion. When the editor of Flying magazine visited Beaumont in 1970, Baxter cornered him as he was heading out the door and shoved three of his articles into the man’s hands. He stood there and read them, then asked, “Why aren’t you writing for us?” And so his column, “Bax Seat,” began and continued for more than 25 years. He also wrote for Car and Driver magazine, as well as authoring a dozen different books, most of which are still in print.

When the editorial board at Flying wanted to do a feature about an old-school, “seat-of-his-pants” flyer learning to fly by instruments, they asked Gordon to do it. He said, “Instrument flying is an unnatural act, probably punishable by God.” But he went ahead and did it. I remember hearing him talk about it on his radio show and write about it for the magazine. He went on to earn a number of advanced aviation certifications, but in his heart, he always remained an open cockpit, stick and rudder, “pasture” pilot.

Gordon Baxter – Pilot, Author, DJ

I got to meet Bax on several occasions. Once, for a high school dramatic reading assignment, I read a story he had written about going skydiving and breaking his ankle. “It was worth it,” he wrote. “Any good folly is worth whatever you’re willing to pay for it.” I called Bax later, to tell him about it. He laughed and dedicated the next record to my high school speech teacher – “The Day I Jumped from Uncle Harvey’s Plane,” by Roger Miller.

Gordon died June 11, 2005, leaving behind a wife, nine children and 16 grandchildren. Among other honors, he has been inducted into the Texas Radio Hall of Fame and the Lone Star Flight Museum. His family donated his broadcasting archives – 50 years of recordings – to Lamar University and their campus radio station, KVLU, which still airs his “Best of Bax” program every week.

So thanks, Bax – thanks for keeping us company, for the great songs, the way you made us laugh, and the way you made us think. For the way you loved flying, and the way you made us love it, too. You were definitely one of a kind.

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!