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!

Stepping Into the Past

My wife and I recently took advantage of having a little time off, to visit the National Ranching Heritage Center, on the campus of Texas Tech in Lubbock. The trip took us 140 miles from Haskell, and about that many years into the past.

The NRHC began about 55 years ago, as a way of preserving and celebrating Texas’ ranching history. Along the way, they have collected over 40 historic buildings and other artifacts, gathered together from the 6666, the Spur, the Pitchfork, XIT, King, and many other famous ranches and communities. Ranch homes, log cabins, bunkhouses, dugouts, barns, cattle pens, windmills – if it was found on an old ranch in the 19th and early 20th centuries – you name it, and the Heritage Center probably has at least one example of it. The collection also includes a ranch commissary, a blacksmith shop, a one-room schoolhouse, a church building, and much, much more.

Our toured started at the beautiful, spacious headquarters building which contains several galleries, including a walk-through exhibition on the history of ranching and beef cattle; also on display is a collection of “Guns that Won the West,” beautiful Western sculptures, an authentic reproduction of a Wells Fargo stagecoach, “Burk” Burnett’s personal horse-drawn buggy, and more. From there, you step outside and onto the self-guided walking tour of ranching history.

The first building you come to is Los Corralitos, a replica of what may be the oldest standing structure in the state of Texas, dating from about 1780. Unlike just about everything else on the museum grounds, this building is a reproduction, because when historians were researching the old ranch fort, they discovered that the remains of five members of the land grant family may be buried beneath the original structure. It’s a fascinating building to examine, with its 33-inch thick walls of sandstone and mortar, no windows, and six gun ports for defending one’s family.

There are several dugout cabins, as well as log cabins, constructed before the railroads made lumber available. The interpretive signs along the way give you information about what you’re seeing. For example, you’ll learn about the Jowell House from Palo Pinto County (actually two buildings), two stories tall and made of cut stone – a replacement Mr. Jowell built to take the place of his original log cabin, which was burned in an Indian raid. And just in case you need a reminder of how hard life on the frontier was, also exhibited are the original headstones of five of the Jowell children, all of whom died between the ages of three and nine. (The original markers were replaced a few years ago.) Influenza, measles, snake bite, marauders, and accidents – it was not an easy place to grow up.

Of all the buildings that we saw, the one nearest Haskell County was an old mail cabin, made entirely of small, cut stones, dry-stacked to make a one-room structure, and originally from Knox County. Apparently, government riders from the postal system or the Army would use it as a stopover, to sort and drop off mail to and from various area ranches.

This cut-stone cabin, now at the NRHC, was originally located in Knox County. It was built about 1875 and was used to sort mail and messages for area ranches. (Photo courtesy, NRHC.)

It takes the average visitor about 60-90 minutes to see everything, but as the museum brochures explain, that depends on your level of interest. There is no admission charge, but donations are welcome.

So much of the center reminds you of how hard life was on the frontier; every gain was at the expense of a great deal of hard work, and every improvement took considerable creativity and problem-solving skills. For the most part, there were no outside resources or help available – if you needed something, you made it yourself or did without. If it broke, you fixed it. Weaknesses in one’s character simply were not tolerated.

As an example – before they could build above-ground cabins, many settlers would construct partially-buried dugouts in which to live. Of course, since they had dirt floors and walls, the people who lived there had to constantly be on the lookout for tarantulas and scorpions. And in the fall, when the first cold wind came and mama built a fire in fireplace, the rattlesnakes would come crawling, driven out by the heat.

It was a hard life, and the NRHC helps you appreciate a little more those who came before us. May we always be worthy of that heritage.

Lessons from St. 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.

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Patrick was not Irish by birth; he 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.

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 that sees me,
Christ in the ear that 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!

Remembering MLK

Earlier this week, we observed the national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Personally, I have long been an admirer of Dr. King – he consistently stood for justice, for peace, and for non-violence. He believed in the Kingdom of God, and he believed that Christians, regardless of color, ought to do all they can to create outposts and colonies of God’s Kingdom here on earth – to create what he called “beloved community.”

When I was in graduate school, I did a project on Dr. King’s rhetorical skills, looking at the way he was able to take traditional black preaching styles – with the use of Biblical storytelling, rhythmic phrasing, and uplifting hopefulness – and combine that with the best of white preaching styles, with its rhetorical structure and its use of logic and Aristotelian reasoning.  (And thanks to my lifetime friend from college, Kurt Stallings, for giving me the idea!) The result for King was preaching which communicated to both white and black audiences.

In the process, I read just about everything that Dr. King ever said or wrote. Here are a dozen of my favorite quotes from him.

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?”

Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”…was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand I can do no other, so help me God.”….And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? … Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

The moral arc of the universe is long, but it tends towards justice.

Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.

Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.

Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.

Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

The time is always right to do right.

But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here is not eros, a sort of esthetic or romantic love; not philia, a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends; but it is agape which is understanding goodwill for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.

A Little Change in Your Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not bad for such a little coin.

Come Before Him with Thanksgiving

Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord;
Let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before Him with thanksgiving
and extol Him with music and song. - Psalm 95:1, 2

Thanksgiving is one of my very favorite holidays, for a variety of reasons and sweet memories.

Some of my earliest memories of this day go back to my grandparents, Archie & Sallie McMillan. When I was a young child, for some reason, I wouldn’t call her “Grandma.” I heard other people call her, “Sallie,” which I tried to do, but she didn’t like that. I started calling her “Sa-Sa,” and the name stuck. So we would go to Sa-Sa & Pa-Pa’s house.

My grandmother, Sallie McMillan – “Sa-Sa”

I don’t really remember usually having turkey for that meal – I recall that she usually fixed a big hen, and usually in a pressure cooker to make it fall-off-the-bone tender. But what I REALLY remember about Thanksgiving at Sa-Sa’s house was her fruit salad. It had lots of big chunks of apples and bananas and fruit cocktail, along with chopped walnuts and coconut.

Of course, we had lots of other stuff to eat, and plenty of desserts, but I always loved her fruit salad. What was especially great was, if there was any left over, she would freeze it, and we would eat it at Christmas. Pa-Pa died in 1969, and Sa-Sa passed in about 1988, but I still remember them both, especially today. And I’m thankful for her, and for such sweet memories.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! Let your
gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious
about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with
thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God,
which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your
minds in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:4-7

Thanksgiving also means football, of course; in our family, that meant the Cowboys. The greatest one was Thanksgiving, 1974, when George Allen’s “Over the Hill Gang” laid a vicious 3rd quarter hit on Roger Staubach and knocked him out of the game. The ’Skins were up 16-3 at the time, when an untested rookie from ACU came into the game as the Cowboys’ backup quarterback, Clint Longley. He had earned the nickname of “The Mad Bomber” from his teammates, because of his default tendency to throw deep in practice.

What happened next, Cowboys fans still talk about. And Redskins fans have never gotten over.

This rookie put together what might be the most improbably comeback in team history. After leading the ’Boys to two other touchdowns, with just 35 seconds to play, Longley found a streaking Drew Pearson racing down the sidelines, and he scored. We won 24-23. It’s still one of the greatest wins in Cowboys history.

Four years later, Kathy and I were celebrating our first Thanksgiving as husband and wife. I was a senior at Dallas Christian College, and she and I were in a singing group known as Revelation. Thanksgiving weekend, 1978, we were in the recording studio, cutting a record. (Do I need to explain what “records” were for any of the under 40 crowd?) Since we couldn’t go anywhere for the day, Mom & Dad came to Dallas, and we had Thanksgiving in our tiny apartment.

Fast forward to 2010. My mom had passed away just two months earlier, and we were sharing our first holiday without her. My brother David and his wife Gina hosted the whole wild & woolly bunch of us at their home in Spring. He fried a turkey, my nephew made some amazing cranberry dressing on the stove, and everybody fixed their favorite recipes. I made one of my Jack Daniels Chocolate Pecan Pies. We shared the day and the warmth of shared memories as we surrounded our dad and comforted each other and gave thanks for the legacy we shared and the sweetness of her presence still in our midst.

I am thankful for family, for friends, for sweet memories and for wonderful times together. I am thankful for my job and for all of the blessings we enjoy. I am thankful for Jesus. And I know that the blessings I have received are not mine exclusively to enjoy but have been given so that I can in turn be a blessing to others.

I hope your holiday is filled with everything wonderful, and that whatever the circumstances, you can give thanks with a glad and sincere heart. Happy Thanksgiving!

 Enter His gates with thanksgiving,
 and His courts with praise;
 Give thanks to Him and praise His Name.
 For the Lord is good and His love endures forever;
 His faithfulness continues through all generations.
 Psalm 100:4-5 

My Favorite Season

Autumn leaves frame a railroad track. And no, I didn’t take this picture, but if YOU did, please let me know. I’ll be happy to give you credit, or take down the picture.

I love autumn. It’s absolutely my favorite season of the year, for several reasons.

Autumn means we’ve made it through another long, hot, dry Texas summer. Autumn means crisp mornings and warm afternoons, but with a hint of coolness. It’s the time for campfires and hot chocolate, hayrides, and a good bowl of chili.

The fall means football, the beautiful fall foliage, and of course, anticipating the holidays bringing fun and fellowship with family and friends. And one generation telling the next the stories of what it was like.

Autumn can be a sad time for some people. We think about broken relationships and “what might have been.” We grieve the empty chair around the table, and we remember the ones we’ve lost since the last time we were together as a family. Autumn can be a time for regret, or becoming distracted by unmet goals, but it doesn’t have to be. We can make autumn a wonderful season of refreshment and reminding ourselves of what is best, if we will.

Here are some thoughts on making the most of your autumn –

Explore some new colors. One of the best things about the fall is the bright colors that we see around us –beautiful crimson, the harvest gold, bright yellow, all shades of brown. Autumn is a great time to take up a new hobby, read that book you’ve been meaning to start, take a trip you’ve been dreaming about making. Trying new things can be as invigorating as a cool fall morning, so go for it!

Let go of anything holding you back. Trees are shedding old leaves and dropping their dead stuff. Sometimes we need to do the same. Let go of past regrets, self-condemnation and old grudges. Let bygones be bygones and forgive. We forgive, not because others deserve it, but because WE do. As long as you’re holding onto that pain, you’re giving the offender the power to keep hurting you. When you forgive, their power over you is destroyed. So forgive. And forgive yourself, as well.

Appreciate blessings while they last. Autumn in Texas doesn’t last long; winter will soon be here. We need to appreciate the blessings that God gives us while they last. As C.S. Lewis once observed, “The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and pose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bath or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”

In other words, enjoy the blessings that God gives, but realize they are never permanent.

Here’s wishing you and yours a blessed and happy Autumn!

Reflections on a Fire

It’s been said that fire is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master. The wildfires still burning in California and Colorado certainly prove that. But some of my fondest recollections of childhood involve being around a campfire with my dad and my brothers. It may have been a family camping or hunting trip, a Scouting event, or a church men’s retreat – but it seems like, we ALWAYS had a fire.

“The wonderful smell of burning piñon pine takes me back in my mind…”

Recently Kathy & I added a backyard fireplace, a chiminea, to our back porch, and I am really enjoying it. The wonderful smell of burning piñon pine takes me back in my mind, and the warmth certainly feels good on these cool evenings.

Fire has always held a fascination for people. When the ancient philosophers talked about the “Four Elements,” they were referring to Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. So what is it about fire that attracts so many of us, that makes us stop and stare into the flames?

In part, I think, it’s the attraction of home. Historically, anytime settlers would build a cabin or a cottage, there would always be a fireplace. It provided warmth for the home. It provided a means of cooking, and it provided light for those who lived there. Fire was pretty basic (and essential) to survival. And I think it was Louis L’Amour who once wrote, “No man is so poor that he can’t afford a fire.”

It was at one of the first Boy Scout camping trips I ever went on – I guess was in the fifth or sixth grade – that I remember building my own fire and cooking my own lunch over it. It seemed like quite an accomplishment to me at the time.

Besides cooking, fire was an essential component at blacksmith shops. Being able to heat metal, refine it, work and shape it into various tools and implements – these were needed skills on the frontier. They used to say that the two worst sins that a blacksmith could commit, were to not charge enough for his work, and to let his fire get cold.

But I think that one of the best things about fire is that it creates community. Many of us have had the experience of sitting around a campfire, with family or friends, and enjoying each other’s company. It’s a good time for telling stories (true or not!). More than that, it’s a good time to just be still – to sit and stare into the flames, to think and reflect, and just be.

When I think about good fires, it’s not surprising that God often uses fire as a symbol for Himself. It was in a fire – a “burning bush” – that God revealed Himself to Moses (Exodus 3:1-3). It was in fire, along with other signs, that God descended to the people on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19:18). It was with fire that God answered the prophet Elijah against the false prophets (1 Kings 18:38). When God poured out His Holy Spirit on the disciples at the birth of the church, one of the signs that was given was “tongues of fire” (Acts 2:3). And when the Apostle Paul was teaching the Thessalonian church about how to treat one another, he advised them, “Don’t put out the Spirit’s fire” (1 Thess. 5:19).

In our crazy, hyper, noisy world, with social media, cell phones and the Internet all clamoring continuously for our attention, we can all benefit from just slowing down and enjoy the company of loved ones around a nice, warm fire – or just to be there, sit still, and be alone and quiet with God.

No Matter Where It’s Going

I love trains.

I mean, I always have. My mother used to say that, as a child, I could say “choo choo” before I could say “Mama.” I love watching trains, hearing trains off in the distance, reading about trains. And I especially love riding on them.

Trains were a major part of my life growing up. We used to spend a lot of time at my maternal grandparents’ home in Grayburg, Texas, between Houston and Beaumont. It was right on the Missouri Pacific mainline between Houston and New Orleans. There was a long passing siding there, and also a small rail yard where pulpwood logs would be off-loaded from trucks onto flatcars for transit to the paper mills of East Texas. There was also a small passenger station and freight dock. The station was a two-tone beige and brown structure with the typical bay window that jutted out to give a clear view of the tracks in both directions. And of course, on both sides of the station, a large black and wide sign that read “Grayburg,” and the red and white Missouri Pacific “buzzsaw” logo.

MoPac’s famous “Buzzsaw” Logo

When I was in about the 2nd grade, Mom dropped off my dad, my brother Buzzy and me at the train station in Beaumont, and we rode the train the 25 miles or so to Grayburg. It must have been around 1963. (Yes, I know, I’m old.) I remember the green tufted chenille upholstery on the seats, and the cheap black rubber floor mats over linoleum on the floor. I remember feeling really high up off the ground as I watched the train cars in the yard go by at eye level. And I remember the conductor hurrying us off the train when we got to Grayburg. He put the little stepstool on the ground, we stepped off, he waved to the engineer, and they were moving again. We stood there and waited for the train to finish going by before we could cross the tracks and walk the short distance to my grandmother’s house.

The station there was torn down in the late 60s, but I still remember it, inside and out. There were MoPac calendars hanging up inside, a couple of pews along the wall, and a restroom with a sign that said, “Whites Only.” But that’s a story for another day.

Thinking about Grayburg always makes me smile. I’m sure you have some favorite memories from your childhood that do that for you. But I remember hours of watching trains and playing with my brothers. Climbing all over the railcars (in hindsight, unsafe, I know), putting pennies on the track for the train to flatten, and waving to the train crews as they went by. Sweet times.

People have often asked me why I love trains so much. I guess partly it’s the sight of a powerful locomotive laboring to pull a long string of cars, the sounds of horns and steel on steel and brakes squealing, the smells of creosote and hot steel on a Texas summer day. Partly it’s the romance of travel, of passing countryside, of new places and new sights. A lot of it is the sweet memories of those days. I love it all.

I will give the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay the last word, from her poem, “Travel.”

The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn’t a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.

Meet Archie McMillan

Paw Paw and me, about 1957

Let me tell you about a man I used to know. His name was James Archie McMillan. Most people called him Arch or Archie. I called him Paw Paw. He was my mother’s dad.

Arch was born in 1912 in Hardin County, Texas – that’s deep in the Big Thicket country of Southeast Texas, and he was the youngest of five boys born to James Duncan and Mary McMillan. As a matter of fact, Paw Paw was a Leap Day baby, born February 29, 1912. He married my grandmother, Sallie Walker, in 1934, and they had two children – my mom, Tommie Beth, and my uncle, Duncan.

My Paw Paw described himself as a “jack of all trades, and a master of none.” He was the first guy I ever heard use that phrase. During World War II, he was a machinist and worked at a shipbuilding plant in Beaumont. I still have the Vice-Grip pliers that he carried in the factory with his initials engraved in them. Later, he worked in the oil field as a driller; if you’re not familiar with oil field hierarchy, the driller is sort of like a shift supervisor, in charge of a crew of men working on the rig.

His ethnic heritage was Scots-Irish, except he always called it “Scotch-Irish.” Not a big surprise with family names like Duncan, Archie and McMillan. He was a big baseball fan and loved the Detroit Tigers because their farm club was in Beaumont. And he smoked two packs a day of unfiltered Camel cigarettes.

Paw Paw loved to tease and pick, and I loved to tag along with him. I used to go and spend a week with him and my grandmother during the summer, and I would ride with him to go places when he was home from the oil rig.

He died in January, 1969. He was 56. I was 12 and remember it like it was yesterday.

He had suffered a heart attack about three weeks earlier and was in Baptist Hospital in Beaumont. These days, they would put in a stent or two, maybe do bypass surgery, and he’d be home in a week and back to work in a month. But in those days, they couldn’t do much for him.

I remember going up to his room to see him on a Sunday afternoon. He couldn’t talk – I guess he had on an oxygen mask or something, and he was very weak – but I remember him squeezing my hand and looking deep into my eyes. I can still see those eyes. The next day, he had another heart attack and died. Later, I would learn that his own father – James Duncan McMillan – had also died in his mid-50s, when Paw Paw was only 4 years old.

I bring this up, because I had a birthday a few days ago. Now, I’m not superstitious, nor am I especially morbid about these things, but thinking about this brings up some questions. None of us is guaranteed tomorrow. If I knew this was going to be MY last year to live, what would I change about my life? Ask yourself: if you knew you were going to die within the next 12 months, how would YOU live? What would you do? Where would you go? With whom would you spend some of that precious time?

There’s a hard truth in this. Unless Jesus comes first, one of these days each of us will die. It may be when we are 56, or 66, or even 106, but it will come. So cherish the moments. Love deeply. Laugh often. Treasure each day.

Psalm 90:12 says, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” In other words, we need to live with eternity in mind. That seems like good advice, no matter how many birthdays you’ve had.

Thanks, Paw Paw.