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.)

 

So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Goodbye

No matter how much we try and plan for the future, none of us can know the twists and turns of “what’s next.” The truth of this principle has recently been reinforced to me. I have resigned from CCC, effective by the end of February. How this came about is a bit of a long story, but I think it’s a good one, so please bear with me.

My 88-year-old dad has been battling a crippling neuro-muscular disease for about 10 years. (Some of you may recall that I wrote a post about him back in the fall of 2016.) This disease has left him unable to walk, confined to a wheelchair, and essentially homebound. He lives in Orange County, Texas, between Orange and Beaumont, in the same house where I was raised, and on the same piece of land where he was born and raised. Recent events, including a visit last month to help care for him, have convinced my brothers and me that dad is simply no longer able to stay by himself.

My brothers and I have discussed this at length, and considered all the various options available – hiring an outside caregiver, relocating dad to live with one of us, moving him into a nursing home. For various reasons, none of these options can work for him, or for us. We have decided that the best course of action would be for me to move in with dad and serve as his full-time caregiver.

While I am looking forward to spending more time with my dad and serving him, I am overwhelmingly sad about leaving Abilene and the non-profit I work for, Connecting Caring Communities. In the nearly nine years since I joined CCC, I have been blessed to make some wonderful friends and see amazing things done, working with neighbors and others to better our community.

(I’m also going to really, REALLY miss our church, Beltway Park, and so many friends from our Sunday School class and our Bible Study life group. The folks in my Sunday class gave me a great send-off yesterday, with lots of prayers, hugs, tears, kind notes & cards, and even gifts of cash and more. Our Sunday night group had a farewell dinner for us last night. It was a very rich, full day of love and friendship, and one more thing I will miss about Abilene. But right now I’m talking about work…)

I have learned so much during my time with CCC – especially about what it really means to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The opportunity to meet some great people, to get to know neighbors from different backgrounds, different cultures, different religions, and to host them in our home – these have been priceless blessings that I will always cherish.

I think of friends I made who have passed away: people like sweet Sandy, a tattooed elderly lady that I met through Meals on Wheels. Sandy, you must have lived an interesting life in your younger days; I’m sorry I never got to hear the stories I’ll bet you could have told. People like David, confined to a wheelchair, yet always with a smile on his face. Rhonda; Jimmy; Paul; all of you blessed me with your friendship, and I thank you. I will continue to miss you, and remember you fondly.

I think of the kids who spent part of their afternoons with me and our volunteers at “Kids’ Club,” and the parents who trusted me to watch their little ones for a while. It was my honor, and my pleasure. We had a good time doing homework, drawing on the sidewalks, climbing trees, doing crafts, and more. And I remember the Bible stories we told – “they say stories like that make a boy grow bold, stories like that make a man walk straight.” The Fruit of the Spirit and the Armor of God, David, Deborah, Moses and Esther. Mary & Joseph, Peter and John and the boys, and best of all, Jesus, the manger, the parables, the miracles, and the cross. And the twelfth and final egg, which is, of course, empty.

I think of the meals, and all the laughs we had around the table and out in the yard. Easter egg hunts and Halloween carnivals. Banana boats and dirt cake, hot dogs and Frito pie. A dunking booth on a certain very cool October day, and kickball games. Swing sets and bluebonnets. The prayer walks and recruiting volunteers. Working with teens for the “Young Leaders of Abilene.” Finding unexpected skills, like the time I handed my neighbor Diego the spatula during a cookout, then couldn’t get it back, only to learn that he used to be a short-order cook! I wouldn’t trade a minute of any of it.

And I think of so many friends who have supported, and continue to support, our work through your prayers, your gifts and your financial participation, a huge and heartfelt “thank you.” We literally could not do this without your gracious assistance and partnership.

To the colleagues I’m leaving behind, past and present: Please know that I’ve enjoyed every minute of working beside you. It has been a privilege to serve with you. I’m praying for your continued success.

Working for CCC has been one of the greatest blessings of my life, and I shall always cherish the opportunity to live out the call to love our neighbors, to bind up the broken-hearted, and to seek the shalom of our city. Thanks to everyone who participated in this ministry, and may the Lord continue to bless and guide all of you, as you continue to work on behalf of CCC, our neighbors, and our community.

The God of Saturday

It’s Good Friday as I write this.  The last few days have been filled with all sorts of special observances and activities, from neighborhood Easter Egg hunts to special Holy Week midday church services – days have seen both secular and sacred activities, observances that have in some cases had pagan origins, and others that form the foundational truth of Christianity.

Facebook is flooded these days with all sorts of memes, featuring pictures of a cross, an empty tomb, and more, and lots of Bible quotations.  People keep repeating lots of bumper sticker theology, but I wonder how many of us are actually thinking about the truth we say we are professing.

Now, please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying.  Yes, we NEED to talk about Jesus’ suffering.  We must teach and understand the atoning work of Christ on the cross.  And by all means, we should exult – and exalt – the resurrection.  The historical fact of Jesus’ bodily resurrection is the founding principle on which Christianity is based.

But what about those who are still waiting for God to come through for them?  They want to believe in God, but they’re not seeing the victories and the good times that others are talking about.  Maybe you can relate to:

  • A loved one who died, even in the face of many, many prayers.
  • A marriage that shattered, in spite of your best efforts.
  • A job that didn’t materialize.
  • A situation that you were sure was God’s will, that has now fallen apart.

The awful moment has passed.  You’ve left the hospital, the police station, the cemetery.  Now you’re left with shattered hopes, broken dreams, and wounded faith.  You want to believe that God will come through and make it all okay, but you are afraid to hope too much.  Well-meaning friends tell you that God will not put more on you than you can bear, and to just keep praying for the victory.  The Friday of your crisis is over, but you haven’t seen the Sunday morning of your renewed hopes yet.

You’re stuck in Saturday.

Saturday is a terrible place to be.  It was the attitude of Saturday that left the disciples hiding behind locked doors out of fear (John 20:19).  It was the same attitude of despair you can hear in the words of Cleopas, even as they encountered the Stranger on the road to Emmaus – “But we had hoped…” (Luke 24:21).

Surely you have experienced a Saturday.  God hasn’t done things in a way that makes sense.  Your expectations have been turned completely upside-down.  So now what?

Even on Saturday, we must hold on.  Keep on trusting.  Keep on hoping.  This is the truth King David understood when he wrote, “Weeping lasts through the night, but joy comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)  Or the psalmist in Psalm 42 & 43 – “Why are you so downcast, O my soul?  Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him.”

This is the meaning behind the scripture that Jesus quoted from the cross – Psalm 22.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Like any good Jewish boy, Jesus knew He didn’t have to quote an entire passage, in order to reference an entire passage.  And Psalm 22, the crucifixion psalm, also contains some of the most confident outpouring of hope in the entire Old Testament.

Psalm 22 may be the most – human – of any psalm ever written.  Who has not felt abandoned by God?  Who has not felt forsaken?  But I reject the theology that says that God “turned his back” on Jesus here.  I think Jesus was experiencing the very human emotion of feeling distant from God.  Haven’t you ever felt that way?  When you felt alone and abandoned, had God really turned His back on you?  Of course not.  And I don’t think He did here, either.

Jesus is quoting Psalm 22 to remind Himself of its glorious truth – that God is still God, even when I can’t figure out what’s going on.  God is still God, even when I can’t feel Him.  In Psalm 22, David pours out his heart to remind himself that even though it’s bad right now, God has always come through before, and He will again.  Psalm 22 begins in despair, but ends in triumph.

Faith is hard when you’re in a Saturday.  It’s easy to feel offended by what God has – or has not – done.  Unmet hopes gnaw at us, and unfulfilled dreams mock.  The enemy is constantly in your ear, telling you that God is not to be trusted, to cut your losses and move on.  Or maybe just lower your expectations, go through the motion of going to church, but don’t risk too much.

But the truth of the Bible, and the word of our testimony both say, HOLD ON.  God will come through.  Maybe not in the way you expect.  Maybe not with the timing you think best.  But He will not forsake you.  He will not abandon you.  He will bring ultimate victory, and He will make all things new again.

God is still God, even when I don’t understand.  He is still God of my life and God of my hopes.  And He is still God, even of my Saturdays.

Saturdays are long and painful, but there IS hope.  Don’t give up on God, and don’t give in to despair.  Keep on trusting.  Keep on hoping.  Keep on praying.

Sunday’s coming.

(Originally posted in 2013.)

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.

morgan_jones

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.

18

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.

SONY DSC

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.

Jones grave

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.

15X5 Abilene & Southern photo

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

Looking Back: The First Year

It’s hard to believe that nearly a year has gone by since we moved into the North Park neighborhood. It’s been an eventful year! Here are some of what I consider highlights of the just-completed twelve months.

Neighbor Lunch. One of my favorite things about this neighborhood is the tradition of meeting every other week to share a meal. The Friendship House hosts the meal, and I get to prepare a main dish, and the neighbors all bring side dishes – usually veggies and desserts. As we eat together, we sit around the table and share life together. It’s a wonderful slice of real community, and I’m happy to say that I’ve made many special friends – and had some great food! – sharing neighbor lunch. (The tradition continues, every 2nd and 4th Thursday of the month. Come join us!)

Serving Line 4 Thanksgiving Meal. Speaking of eating together, one of the real highlights of the past year was sharing a Thanksgiving meal with about 25 neighbors and friends. The kitchen “island” was filled with a massive assortment of delicious dishes, and we had extra tables set up where folks could sit, and it was a wonderful day of visiting and enjoying each other’s company.

IMG_20150604_145902Youth Day Camps. Thanks to a generous grant from the Ruth & Bill Burton Family Endowed Fund at the Community Foundation of Abilene, CCC was able to plan and conduct a series of youth day camps across the city during the summer of 2015. Our plan was to bring together a team of older teens, train them, let them practice, then have them serve as staff members and counselors for the younger kids who would participate in the camps. The camp was a great success, and it started with training week here at the North Park Friendship House.

IMG_20150718_094520Landscaping Project. The Bailey family have been friends to CCC since before the Friendship House ever opened, and it’s been a blessing to share life with them. For his Eagle Scout project, Tanner Bailey wanted to do something to “give back” to the Friendship House and to this neighborhood. He planned, and with the help of his BSA troop, carried out a massive landscaping project that included new crepe myrtle bushes, planter barrels, mulching flower beds, and installing a new basketball goal. We are so honored by his generosity and unselfishness.

Neighborhood Cleanup. Late last spring, I was approached by some Hardin-Simmons students who wanted to organize a neighborhood cleanup as a service project for this fall’s incoming freshmen class. And so on, in late August, over 300 new HSU students spread out through the neighborhood, picking up trash, hauling off junk, getting to know their neighbors, and making a difference. Then they all came back here, and with the help of neighbor Jay Barbian, we cooked hot dogs for them. It was a great morning, and I hope they received as much of a blessing as they gave to others.

Meeting Great Neighbors. The best part of any neighborhood are the neighbors! It’s been such a joy to get to meet and get acquainted with some incredible folks who call North Park home. World War II veterans, young families, teenagers – North Park is blessed with a variety of wonderful neighbors who give the community its heart and its character, and all of whom have great stories to tell. I’m blessed by their friendship.

It has indeed been a great year – what’s next? In the year to come, I look forward to continue meeting and getting to know our neighbors. We’re planning to resume another old tradition of an “end-of-summer” swim party at HSU. We’re helping organize a neighborhood observance of National Night Out. We’re looking into how we could offer some exercise classes. We’re hoping to put in a community garden – at least a small one – share the work, and share in the harvest.

We’ve made a good beginning, but this is no time to quit. I know that, working together, and alongside with our partners at Hardin-Simmons, we can continue to make North Park an even better neighborhood for everyone.

 

 

A Place Called Honey Island

(This is a rerun of an article I originally published in 2012. I’ve got a new blog that will post tomorrow.)

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 this picture was made. (The date of August, 1964, was the processing date.  Mom was a little slow in getting to the drug store sometimes.)  This picture shows me with my brothers and many of my cousins.  I’m the shirtless one, second from the left.

Anyway, as I understand the story, after Grandma’s funeral, all of the cousins, family members, in-laws, out-laws, Garisons, Garrisons (we do have some 2 R cousins), Linscombs, Cottons, and others decided that it was a shame that we needed a funeral to have a family get-together.  So, a few weeks later, our tradition of a family reunion came about.

In the heart of East 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, at least, there was a little place called Honey Island, where there was a large park with open air pavilions, picnic tables – and two large swimming pools, fed by artesian springs.

I remember the water had this vague, sulphur-y smell – it smelled 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 that had 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 jukebox 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, and plenty of other good things.  And 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.

A few months after my mom passed, there was a family get-together, which I didn’t get to attend.  Maybe we’ll have another soon.  I hope so.

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.  And don’t wait for a funeral to see each other.

Happy Labor Day.

Remembering Ginny

Ginny KloogWhile others were enjoying a lingering Independence Day holiday on Sunday, I was thinking about Ginny. It would have been her 60th birthday.

Ginny and Mike were among the first friends my wife and I made after we moved to Brainerd, Minnesota, where I was a newly-installed pastor serving my first church. Later, we moved back to Texas, to Haskell, and about a year after that, they followed so Michael could go to work at the Paint Creek WTU power station.

Ginny was pretty and vivacious, and a smile that could absolutely light up a room. She had an amazing soprano voice and could play the guitar, and she and my wife would sing together for hours, their voices naturally harmonizing. They knew the entire John Denver catalog of songs, and covered lots of other artists as well – my personal favorite was always, “The Sweetest Gift,” as performed by Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd they frequently sang together in church.

She had lots of other talents, as well. Ginny loved kids – ALL kids! Ethnicity, income, color, whatever, didn’t matter to her. For several years, she ran an in-home day care center, and helped raise a whole generation of kids in the Haskell area – our son Drew, included.

She loved Christmas, and enjoyed singing in community musicals. And she loved art – she taught art classes at the Paint Creek school, and left an indelible mark on dozens, if not hundreds, of students.

Over the years, our friendship grew, changed, matured. We had our kids, and she and Mike had theirs – first two daughters, then later, a son. She taught Sunday School at church, and also became the song leader, and I swear, I never grew tired of hearing her & Kathy sing together.

That all changed one year just before Christmas. Ginny had had a bad headache all that day, then that evening (at a Christmas party, of all things) she had a stroke – a bad one. She was just in her 40s. Ginny worked really hard, and managed to regain a lot of what she had lost. But then in 2005, she had another stroke, from which she could not recover. She passed away on December 16, 2005.

Why am I telling you all this? I don’t know. For one thing, I guess, just to share Ginny’s story: she was a remarkable woman, a dear friend, and I wish you could have known her. Beyond that, her story is a reminder that life is short, so cherish every moment, and make it count. Tell the people that you love how you feel. Smile. Sing. Laugh.

Ginny would tell you, that really IS “The Sweetest Gift.”

 

 

Great American Railroad Stories

(Note – I am on my way to Guatemala this morning for a mission trip, and will be gone into next week. I’ll tell you all about it when I get back. Meanwhile, here’s a book review that I wrote for our local model railroad club’s newsletter.)

GreatAmericanRailroadStoriesTrains magazine recently celebrated its 75th anniversary, and to mark the occasion, Kalmbach Publishing has released a new book – Great American Railroad Stories: 75 Years of Trains Magazine. The book is available both as a softcover and hardcover.

As the name suggests, it features 51 stories chosen from across the magazine’s three-quarters of a century, including stories by some of the most famous railfans in the country: Lucius Beebe, A.C. Kalmbach, J. David Ingles, David P. Morgan, Jim Boyd, and many others. The stories include selections from the magazine’s first year of publication (1940), up through 2009, but many of the stories are historical pieces that document earlier railroad history – from the wild ride of “Death Valley Scotty,” to a firsthand account of taking a transcontinental train ride just weeks after it opened in 1869, and others.

There are stories about working on the railroad, whether as a fireman or a telegraph operator, and stories about riding trains; some pay tribute to a favorite locomotive or railroad, while others tell about memorable people encountered on the rails. One of my favorites is “Confessions of a Train Watcher,” from 1957, by David P. Morgan, where the then-editor of Trains magazine explains his fascination with railroading.

The book is beautifully produced, with 256 glossy pages and an easy-to-read typeface. The cover has only a single, small photograph of a stream locomotive pulling a passenger train – appropriate, since the emphasis is on the best stories from 75 years, and not necessarily the best pictures. But there are plenty of great pictures; the editor notes that they used the original photos to accompany the article whenever possible, but he acknowledges that there are fewer pictures, to keep the focus on the writing.

If you like reading great railroad stories, or have an interest in how trains shaped American life, you’re going to want this book. If you have a friend or family member who is a railfan, he or she will DEFINITELY enjoy it. It’s probably not the kind of book you would read from cover to cover, but more like a magazine, where you skip around and read the stories that really interest you. The softcover has a list price of $24.99, and is available both at local book stores and online. It’s a little cheaper on Amazon, but if you have to pay for shipping, it probably comes out about the same.

Great American Railroad Stories: 75 Years of Trains Magazine (Kalmbach Books, Waukesha, Wisconson) is a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I highly recommend it.

 

Grayburg Memories

(Dear Readers – I’m taking a few days off, so with your kind permission, I’m re-running a blog post from 2013. Thanks and God bless.)

Grayburg.  That was the little community where his grandparents lived, and he loved going to visit.

His grandparents lived in a small white house on two lots, with two gigantic sycamore trees in the front yard.  He loved everything about the place, and he especially loved that during the summer, he could come and stay for a week, and have his grandparents all to himself.

His grandmother’s name was Sallie, and when the boy was little, he had a hard time knowing what to call her.  His other grandmother was “Grandma,” so he tried calling her by the name he heard other people calling her.  But she wouldn’t allow him to call her “Sallie.”  So somehow, “Sallie” became “Sa Sa.”

There was lots to love about going to Grayburg.  The boy loved walking down to see Sa Sa’s sister, Aunt Bib.  Her name was Vivian, but everyone called her Bib.  Aunt Bib was cool.  She taught him how to play dominoes, and how to do leathercraft.  And she had a BB gun he could shoot!  She also had bee hives, and always had lots of fresh honey, whipped into a creamy spread for morning toast.  And when he spent the night, she would let him get up in her bed, and they would put the covers up over their heads, and hold flashlights, and she would tell great stories.  Her version of “Three Little Pigs” was the best.

There was another sister, too – Aunt Hazel.  So Grayburg had lots of family connections.

Walking from Sa-Sa’s to Aunt Bib’s house was an adventure.  The streets were paved with old-timey blacktop, and in the summer, the sun’s heat would soften them to the point that the boy could push down into the pavement and made little dents with his feet.  He thought that was really cool.

Sa-Sa was a great cook, and his favorite was her chicken and dumplings.  The dumplings weren’t the lumps of dough that most people made – hers were more like thick, wide strips of chewy deliciousness.  She would take a hen, and put it in a pressure cooker for hours to tenderize the meat.  And she had another secret – when she was making the dough for the dumplings, instead of adding water to the flour, she would add chicken stock.  The flavor was amazing.  As was the smell going through the entire house.  And the hissing and clattering of the pressure cooker as the steam vented and did its thing.

There was a lady who came and helped Sa-Sa with her cooking and cleaning, an old black lady somewhere between the ages of 60 and 200.  Her name was Daisy, and she was wrinkled and thin with wiry gray hair, but she had a smile that could light up a room.  Daisy had been Sa-Sa’s friend and helper as far back as the boy could remember.  Farther than that – his mother said that Daisy had been a fixture in their home for almost as long as SHE could remember.

One of the boy’s earliest memories was going with his mother Sa-Sa and driving WAY back in the Piney Woods of East Texas, to an old shack where Daisy’s mother lived.  It was important to the boy’s mother, for reasons he didn’t understand.

Of course, one of his favorite parts about Grayburg was the trains.  Sa-Sa’s house was only a block or so away from the Missouri Pacific mainline between Houston and Beaumont, and on to New Orleans.  So there were lots of trains.  There was a long siding there, where trains would stop and pass each other, and a small yard where pulpwood was loaded onto flat cars, to be taken to sawmills.  And there was a small station there.  It was a sort of creamy yellow-beige color, with dark brown trim.  There was a freight deck on one side, and the station had a bay window where the agent could look down and see trains without having to leave his desk.

Inside, the station was painted in a tired ivory color, that might have been pretty at some point, but now was just dull and sad.  There was a potbellied stove for the occasional cold days, and a ticket window with an iron grill where you could buy passage to all points.  And there was a single small restroom in the corner.  Over the restroom door was a small metal sign.

Whites Only.

One time, the boy asked his dad about it.  “But, if Daisy were here and needed to go, where would she go?” he asked in all childhood innocence.

As it turns out, there was an outhouse out in the weeds and mud at the edge of the railyard.  His dad pointed out to the old privy and said, “I guess she would have to go there.”

The boy just looked at his dad.  He didn’t say anything else.  But all he could think about was how unfair that was.

EPILOGUE: This story takes place in about 1961 or 62.  And it’s a true story, because I was that little boy.  And what I remember was how many people seemed content with things as they were, and seemed not to notice unfairness.

And I guess my point is this – Jim Crow segregation laws are long since a thing of the past, thank God.  But unfairness and prejudice are still with us.  In society.  In our churches.  And in our hearts.  Jesus told us to pray for God’s Kingdom to come.  Surely the first place it must come is to our own hearts and our own lives.  And that means being willing to notice unfairness wherever it is.  And to work to change it.

No matter how uncomfortable it might make us.