A Trip Up the Demerara

This is probably the longest memoir I’ve written. I hope you will take the time to read as it is one of my favorite memories.

In 1962 Mom & Dad were assigned as Missionaries of the Church of God (Anderson, IN) to the small country of British Guiana (Guyana), South America. A new church had been started in the Back Dam on the Demerara River. The only way to get there was by ferry. We traveled that route several times learning a lot about the country from what could be seen along the shores. Observation from the upper deck of the S.S. Carr (pictured) revealed a tiny reflection of how fortunate I was. Humility captured my thoughts each trip, constructing piece-by-piece exposures of a different kind of life. An open admission of how deprived these people were, could not be hidden. This was a life I would never live, only observe.

East Indian women squatted on the banks with their body between their legs dunking clothing in the water and beating them with a wooden mallet. Ragged clothes hung between two trees and blew in the wind to dry. Children with only a shirt ran naked-bottomed through the yard chasing chickens, or rolling a rusty bicycle wheel with a stick for fun. A small boy, too young to work with his dad in the rice patties, or Bauxite (aluminum ore) mines, cast a net catching fish for a supper meal. Another child used a spear, or bow and arrow to impale fish. Waving to the captain, he returned the gesture with a toot-toot bringing large smiles. A rough growl, a convincing bark, came from an ugly dog running up and down the shore as we passed. Dugouts filled with harvest from large family gardens made its way down-river to market in Georgetown.

This is the kind of town Linden was in the 1960’s, an underprivileged Hindu town with people eager to hear about a man named Jesus. When the church first started it was held in a bottom house (Pictured). The country of British Guiana is under sea level. Homes were built on ten foot high stilts, leaving the under house open. With the exception of a few older church buildings, the start-up churches Dad worked with were held under these.

There was one problem. The Demerara divided Linden. The pastor, Rev. Daniel Watson, needed a boat to travel not only across the river but also deeper into the Back Dam. How else would he be able to minister and invite others to this new beginning? Dad agreed and contacted Anderson Headquarters to see if they would purchase a new boat.

Once approved a second problem arose. How would we get this new boat sixty-five miles up river to Linden? “There is only one way to move it to Linden,” Daniel said. “I will drive it.” Mom & Dad reminded him of how small the motor was, and that he would have an exhausting day driving it from Georgetown. “I know,” he said. “There is no other way to move it.

Dad had a separate conversation with him that we were unaware of until we got home that night. He laid out an amazing adventure. We were going to ride the first twenty-five miles to Atkinson Air Base, the only airport in the country. The base was also home to a handful of American and British soldiers who were stationed there. Past that point there was a road made of burnt earth. There is a procedure of laying seasoned logs in place covered in clay. There are many layers of each. Once set on fire, the logs bake the clay. This process creates a hard- jagged rock that overtime returned to the dirt and the mud it was originally made from. Because the road to Linden was not maintained, ruts and holes made it passible only to those who had a four-wheel drive vehicle, several spare tires, a lot of time, and strong teeth. This trip by boat sounded like a magnificent voyage. We were excited about the trip and stayed awake most of the night before.

We woke with a great eagerness for our day. Dad arrived early so he could sign the paperwork and accept the new boat around noon. “Where is it?” Mom asked. There were dozens of similar boats coming and going. The mission boat blended with others. “There it is,” Dad said. Pointing toward an armada of small boats we saw him. Brother Watson was recognizable by his safari hat and round glasses. No one else wore a hat like his. He saw us wave, smiled, and pulled up to the docks.

I was disappointed. Shouldn’t this be a little larger boat? From above the large shipping dock the boat looked like a dugout until it docked. I believed being a mission boat it would stand out from the others. Except for the canopy, this one was no different than any number of other boats.

Upon docking we viewed a brand-new, four-by-sixteen foot wooden flatboat painted industrial marine gray. The canopy had a slight contrast but I was not complaining. We would need this covering to keep us out of the tropical sun. The three of us boys said our goodbyes and boarded the boat. Mom & Dad waved from the dock and grew smaller in the distance.

The river’s deep brown color is primarily the result of the massive quantities of silt carried from up-river by the currents. So powerful are these currents, that the ocean retains the Demerara’s brown color for a considerable distance out to sea creating a shoreline of muddy beaches. Georgetown sits at the mouth where the river empties into the North Atlantic Ocean. The rivers width and depth allows oceangoing vessels up to 5,000 tons to navigate up to Linden. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demerara_River)

For a long time we traveled south of that gateway about thirty feet from the shore. Watching the water ripple along side the boat, I was enticed to drag my hand in the water. I didn’t dare. I was reminded of the many tropical dangers that could not be seen from above. I was not about to have my hand eaten off by piranha, or shocked by the electricity from a knifefish, or eel. This short distance from the ocean troubled me. There was no telling what might like to eat me for lunch. There were many legends about different river monsters in this, and the other rivers in British Guiana. Thoughts of danger continued to rear their ugly faces. What would happen if a large ship swamped our boat from its wake and we sank like others in the past? This was a shipping lane after all. I shook that thought off in a hurry.

I could not deny, however, that after an hour this adventure was not very much fun. I sat in a small, wooden, and insignificant craft half way to our destination with a native pastor I didn’t know very well. Conversation was minimal. My two brothers were bored. I could not get out and neither could they. We were speeding down the river highway at 13 knots, or 15 MPH. The view grew monotonous, as all I saw was weeds. Once in a while we passed another small boat going to or coming from market. We waved and said hello. Passing a native shack, we watched and waved at people we would never see again. Bamboo-covered banks overtook higher weeds. A fish splashed nearby. I wished I had a fishing pole, or something to occupy my mind and pass the time.

At the rate we were traveling our trip would take approximately two hours. I wasn’t sure if I could take this quest much longer, but I had no choice. Mom had packed a lunch and a few things to eat for the journey. A thermos with cold water had grown warm from the humid sun. Taking a snack, my brothers grabbed theirs and handed one to Brother Watson. I wanted more but knew it was too soon. My brothers learned long ago that if I ate mine early I would sneak, and without them knowing, eat theirs later. We did not need a fight while cooped up on this boat? Besides, What would I do later with all the goodies gone?

 The engine popped and sputtered generating a white smoke to rise from the back of the boat. What was wrong? I watched Brother Watson fiddle with a few levers on the motor. The motor straightened out and kept going for a while. Later the same thing happened. The pastor said a few unintelligible words; the motor sounded like a grinding chain but continued working. I grew worried that we would be stranded in the bamboo where anaconda and poisonous dart frogs lived.

The motor snorted and came to a complete stop. This time it would not cooperate with the pastor. He pulled the starter cord until he was exhausted. He sat down to catch his breath. I asked what was wrong. The answer I feared most was spoken. “I don’t know,” he said. That’s when I discovered we didn’t have any paddles to help us stay close to the shore.

The boat began to drift, not the eastern shore closest to us, but the western shore, on the other side of the Demerara. We were powerless. The shipping lane was in front of us.

Large ships passed on a regular basis. All we could do is pray one would see us in time to correct their course and not hit us. We continued drifting. With regenerated strength Brother Watson began cranking a cantankerous new motor, to no avail. The motor would not start. The tropical wind continued to blow us across the river at its widest point.

A bauxite ship passed at a distance and blew his horn. Was he saying hello, or telling us to get out of the way? We waved. He tooted again. By the time his wake hit the front of our boat it had faded to an inconsequential swell. Thankful hearts were grateful another ship could not be seen in either direction. The mission boat floated like a piece of driftwood captivated by wherever the wind wanted us to go. Drawing closer to an unfamiliar bank we visualized where our boat would hit the shore. We realized it was not a hospitable site. Humans did not populate this part of the Demerara’s west bank. The population here was mostly unseen, sometimes heard, others not. The land was a dense and dark jungle. Any creature you can summon in your mind probably lived there.

Easing into the underbrush and tree limbs hanging over the river we knew for certain this was not going to be an enjoyable situation. Native folklore spoke of an old hag who had a pet snake with a fishhook tail. The snake looked for vulnerable little boys. When found, he cast his hook out to catch the child. Paralyzing venom anesthetized its victim until he could drag him back to the old hag where she ate him for dinner. I knew this story was not true, but at twelve years old, in an unfamiliar country, and stuck in the abysmal undergrowth of a powerful river the tale did cross my mind. I just made sure I was sitting between my two brothers so one of them would go first.

There was nothing to do, but sit, pray, and hope for deliverance. Brother Watson tried the motor. It would not start. Small boats like ours did not travel this side of the river. Commerce was on the other side. What did this mean? No one was coming. The three of us sat in fear of our lives. A two-hour trip had turned into four. Evening was approaching and we were on the remote side of the Demerara with a dead motor, a large river, and shipping lane between home and us. We sat awhile. Brother Watson pulled the starter cord awhile. We sat awhile. Brother Watson pulled the starter awhile. Even us three boys tried pulling the cord a few times.

A short piece of wood floated past our boat. One of us harvested it from the water. I believe God sent this lumber our way. He even painted it white. This was a perfect piece of wood to use for a paddle.

“While you paddle, I’m going to let the motor rest awhile,” Brother Watson said.

Taking turns each of us used what strength we had to move the boat away from shore and toward the east. The boat seemed to be lethargic, as no movement was felt. The only motion was that of the water swirled by the makeshift paddle. The currents took us back toward Georgetown. The headwind was the same that had pushed us across the Demerara. Gauging our progress by watching the shoreline grow in distance, our determination built as we moved one grunt at a time. Needless to say, I was glad I had saved my lunch. While one paddled the others ate.

Another hour had passed. A ship headed toward us. Understanding the need to get out of her way before she reached us, we paddled that board with steadfast courage. She came closer. Our concern grew. Fear of not making it out of her path shook us to the marrow of our bones. She grew larger and wider the closer she came. Standing up, Brother Watson pulled the cord one single time. A chattering started. A wake grew behind us. The forward movement jolted us to our seats. A cool breeze refreshed our senses. The started motor helped us avoid a re-embodiment of driftwood. We were free of uncertainty for the first time since we left the docks that morning. God started that motor just as he had sent the board to move us from the underbrush.

By making it out of the shipping lane in time we were safe. A toot from the ships captain blew in the wind. Waving a final farewell our boat moved toward the eastern shoreline. There was still another hour before we would make it to Atkinson Field. The sun had set and twilight became our guide. There were several inlets covered in bamboo passageways. Finding one that exposed the highway, the mission boat maneuvered through shallow waters until it drug bottom. Tying off the boat to a bamboo. I hopped out and ran for help. The terrain was muddy and slippery but I managed to keep my balance and pulled myself forward one cane at a time. I no longer cared creature might lay in wait for me. I was ready to be free of the confines of that boat.

I climbed up to the road. My brothers were right behind me. A few cars passed along side, followed by a bus carrying more natives than it should. A few more minutes passed when a car pulled over. I was never so happy to see Mom & Dad. They got out of the car and ran to hug each of us. We hugged them just as hard.

Mom & Dad had spent the afternoon, while we were stranded, driving up and down the road in a panic looking for us. They had stopped and asked if there had been any boats capsize or sink during the day. They asked if anyone had seen three white boys and an Indian walking around the area. Each was anxious and worried that we had been hurt, or worse. A two hour exploit had become and all day calamity.

In the end, this day had been an adventure. Though not planned the way it turned out I should at least say it was daring, and a memory I will never forget.

Rev. & Mrs. Ralph Coolidge (took Mom & Dad’s Place in Guyana. Mom, my two brothers and me. Rev. Watson at the motor.

*****

One year later Dad found out that Reverend Watson was using the mission boat to make personal money ferrying people across the river in Linden rather than for mission use. Dad took the boat from him and gave it to an associate pastor who continued the ministry and grew the church. Since that time other churches have started in bottom houses of other small villages throughout the area.

Note: the country of Guyana is now 40% Christian, PTL!

 

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Cathead Biscuits and Cave Spiders

worldform.com

Photo from: worldform.com

Pushing and grunting did no good. Kicking did no good. Three twenty something year old men could not push a snag down a mountain in northern Tennessee. Though dead, the tree was still standing and we struggled to move it. “Come on, we can do this,” Ash said. The resolve to our purpose of knocking this deadwood off the cliff would certainly be rewarded with a manly feeling of achievement. Commitment to the task culminated in the tree rocking back and forth. Woody debris fell from its sides. With each push and moan the base of the tree became weaker. Anticipation grew. We knew it was going down.

A desperate chittering and clicking at the top of the tree forced us to stop and look up. A frightened squirrel flittered back and forth at the top investigating the demolition. She leaped into the air and displayed a graceful glide down the mountain. What a site! This flying squirrel was one of the most beautiful creatures I had ever seen. The parade was not over. One by one, her pups climbed into view, hurled themselves into the air, and coasted down the mountain to their mom. Not one, not two, but four of these babies put on a show of magnificent beauty.

We stood in awe and humility, astonished that while we loved nature, we had no respect for her. We had nearly destroyed their home. Together we agreed to move on and let the tree stand.

Our first day ended and we hiked our way down the mountain to Mike Ashburn’s Grannie’s house. Grannie’s home was typical in rural Tennessee. Built in the 1940’s it was an old clapboard siding home with a tin roof and neighborly front porch. Her life was set in the old ways, unfamiliar to me. Echoes of hardship grooved a patterned face acquainted with rural life. Her home was small but open and welcoming. I shall never forget the pencil portrait hanging on her living room wall—two old mules, husband and wife. Someone had given it to her to remind her of her husband who had passed many years before. I could tell by the way she talked, she loved that drawing, but not as much as she missed him

Though it was late spring there was coolness in the mountains that would bite you in the butt if you didn’t cover up. We slept on old feather beds covered in handmade quilts. At the end of the bed was a thunder mug to keep us from trekking the darkness to the outhouse. Most enchanting was the fireplace sitting on the floor against the wall. It was not a wood fireplace. I was so tired from hiking the mountain that first day, sleep overcame this unacquainted odor of sulfur from coal. Morning brought a refreshing air about it. While snuggling under the quilts I could hear Grannie wrestling pots and pans in the kitchen.

 Cathead Biscuits - dmataflour.com

Cathead Biscuits – dmataflour.com

Yes, there is a God. Hearing Ash hug his Grannie, I walked into a favorable aroma of fresh bacon in the kitchen. I was ready for an amazing breakfast. With the aforementioned came farm fresh eggs, and cathead biscuits. I don’t remember what kind of jelly she pulled from her pantry but it was homemade and delicious. In case you don’t know why they are called cathead biscuits, it is because they are about the size of small cathead and very fluffy (recipe: http://www.mtnlaurel.com/recipes/766-old-fashioned-cat-head-biscuits.html)

Our purpose for being in Tennessee was to go caving. I had never experienced this sport but was eager to try. Grannie warned us to be careful. “There have been people lost in those caves and never found,” she said. Her caution made us a bit nervous. Still, we were young and stupid and moved on in our manly pursuit.

Photo from: Penterest

Photo from: Penterest

The first cave greeted us with a huge, amphitheater entrance. We entered walking tall and daylight showed our way. The path began to narrow to a point where we had to crawl on our knees. Not too far in, the ceiling started moving. Huge cave spiders crawled upside down. I knew they would not hurt me but it was still creepy wondering if one would fall on my back and into my clothes.

We arrived at a point where the stark reminder Grannie had given earlier made us aware of possible danger. We were able to stand again and walk through eight to ten foot tall cavern trails. Awareness that water had, over time, carved these rugged walking channels brought caution. Yes, we had marked our journey so we would know how to get back to the mouth of the cave, but what should we do if water arrives? This thought initiated our climb to the top of these walls scooting forward with only spread out arms and legs holding us above the floor.

A small opening, illuminated by our flashlight, suggested we climb in to see where it would go. On our bellies we crawled a few feet before I said, “Stop!”

“What’s wrong?” my little brother, Dick, asked.

www.richard-seaman.com

Photo:                    richardseaman.com

“Back up, I am face to face with a bat.” My light shined on a bat, just inches away. I am glad I saw it before I climbed through and knocked it awake. I shudder to think my reaction to that proposition. The response would not have been a calm one, I assure you.

Ash told Dick and me this cave was very long. No one knew where it came out. Dye was placed in the channels many years before and it turned one of the rivers red. There was still no sign where the cave ended. The suggestion was that the cave traveled under the river and seeped up into the riverbed through an underground spring. We enjoyed the cave for several hours, memories of this one time event were gradually embedded in my mind. We had one more cave to explore but desired a much-needed rest for our throbbing muscles. We went back to Grannie’s for lunch and enjoyed her company while she listened to our adventure.

When Ash told her we were going to the cave by another grandmothers home, this upset her. She raised a second red flag. “That cave is too dangerous. Some have even drowned and washed into the mountain and never been found. There are underground springs that gush through the rock this time of year without warning.” She didn’t beg us not to go, but her voice pleaded.

Okay, so now we have fought off cave spiders and a bat—worried about getting lost in a huge cave that has no end, and now we have to be fretful about an underground torrential river burying us in the mountain for eternity? These are the thoughts I kept to myself on the drive to this cave. I was unsure I wanted to continue this exploration. But, being the man I was, I sucked it up and persevered with the other two manly men.

https-_farm9-staticflickr-com

Photo: https-_farm9-staticflickr-com

The entrance to this cave was smaller and extremely wet. We were still able to walk in. Once inside, the area was small. There was an opening in the wall just large enough to crawl inside. Filled with thoughts of this being my last day on earth, I went last. There was a choice. Go right, or, go left. The right tunnel would take us uphill, the left tunnel would take us downhill. Uphill was chosen. We slow crawled on our bellies through a narrow passage with shoulders rubbing both walls. The floor held about an inch of, “colder than a frog’s butt,” standing water soaking our clothes. The chill prompted me to remember Grannie’s warning. There had already been water rush through here, and not too long ago, I thought out loud. “I’m backing out and getting out of here,” I said. Crawling backwards was slow. I didn’t think I would ever reach the entrance. When I did, I climbed through to live another day. My words must have been what the other two wanted to hear; they were right behind me.

We met Ash’s other grandmother, a beautiful Appalachian woman. We stood outside her home to visit. Our clothes were too nasty to go inside even though she asked. Wet and cold we left for Grannies. We spent one more cold night snuggled down in feathers and covered in quilts. We left for Anderson (IN) early Sunday morning.

This was an adventure I will never forget. Considering the unpleasant thoughts of death at any moment, I never want to go caving again. Once was enough.

 

One Night of Terror

My little brother, Dick, and I decided to go fishing at the Salamonie Lake in northern Indiana. We stopped and picked up the required fishing license, some food and drinks, red worms and a bucket of minnows to entice the fish to our hook. Because it was late afternoon when we arrived we quickly found a primitive camping spot on top of a hill overlooking the lake. Laying out our sleeping bags and gathering wood limbs for the campfire, the camp was readied. Grabbing our poles and tackle boxes we headed downhill to the lake and fished for a few minutes before dark—we caught nothing. Arriving back at camp the prepared fire pit was lit and we pulled out hamburger meat and began frying.
Now, I don’t know if you have ever experienced the joys of primitive camping or not. There are so many unexpected things that you cannot prepare for, or, for that matter, do anything about. As we began frying our burgers the firelight brought the arrival of hundreds of large beetles. Flying above the light, and sometimes too close to the fire, they would pop and fall into the frying pan. Dick was cooking, so he flipped them right out on the ground while another fell in the pan. I must say it was one of the best burgers I’ve ever eaten. It must’ve been the bug juice.
There is nothing I enjoy more than being outdoors, in a secluded location, enjoying the peace and quiet of brotherly conversation. We talked into the night. Once we realized that if we were going to get up at the crack of dawn and feed the fish a few gold-plated Eagles Claw hooks with a worm of minnow attached we fell asleep.
The tree-covered night was pitch black when all hell broke loose. Sounds of a war zone competed with fear and trepidation when it entered the camp. Startled from our sleep with the ripping and shredding of a peaceful nights sleep in these woods terrified us. There was nothing we could do but lay still and wait on death to suck the last pant of breath from our lungs. Neither of us had a gun. Dick lay in his sleeping bag with our only defense, a long machete. Of course, that was no comfort to me as I didn’t know Dick had it with him. Even if I had, how would that help me, if I was chosen first? We had flashlights but could not turn them on; we certainly did not want this enormous creature to know our locations.
We were paralyzed to move. Not a noise was made as the clamor grew into louder racket emulating raucous reverberations of destruction. What ever was coming our way meant business. The horror and vulnerability of being reduced to chicken feed intensified, bringing with it panicky thoughts of extermination.
The clatter of pandemonium stopped as fast as it had begun. We did not move until the morning twilight began its revelation of stately trees. They covered the moon and stars through the night yet witnessed this ceremony of venomous hysteria. If only the trees could talk and tell me if the demon was gone, then, perhaps, I could get up. Dick climbed out of his sleeping bag, looked around and started laughing. I followed his lead and pulled myself from the safety of a warm bag, stood, and chuckled along with him.
I believe the bug juice flavored burgers was the first thing that alerted this devil to our location. But, the sniffing around our camp and destroying a Styrofoam minnow bucket  made that little raccoon’s night. While he ripped and shredded, scaring us senseless, and feasted on fresh minnow, Dick and I each had a penitent conversation with our Maker. Don’t you laugh, unless you’ve been in our camp.

A Question For Mom and Dad

EPSON MFP image

Meriam Gladys Boze and Edward Lincoln Oldham were married March 26th 1947. This photograph was taken in the living room of Miriam’s home at 1741 Glenmore Avenue, Baton Rogue, LA. The snapshot shows the two of them dancing at their wedding. Conceivably it shows Meriam dancing and Edward just standing there. It is interesting that my parents brought up their three children of the 1950’s and 1960’s to believe, as Christian’s, it was wrong, perhaps even a sin, to dance. Yet, here I see the two of them doing what we could not.

This click of the camera reminds me of a time in 1962 when the two of them took us three boys with them to the mission field in British Guiana (Guyana). While we were waiting on the mission home to be completed we stayed in the second story of an apartment building. Chubby Checker had released his new song, The Twist, the year before on Parkway Records. The radio stations in Georgetown were playing it several times a day. One evening we were listening to the radio (there was no TV in the country, unless you were extremely wealthy) and our entire family started moving to the music. Most of the others were dancing much like Dad in this photo, but at eleven years old, I began dancing The Twist the way I had seen it on American Band Stand back in the United States. I was quickly called out and shamed to tears.

barb-andy-dancing_bw_cropped_5015_edited-4I have only danced twice since that time. Once was right after Barbara and I were married in 1982. I love her to death, but she made so much fun of the way I danced, I quit and never danced again until October 8, 2016 at my son Raife and Caitlin’s wedding in Fredericksburg, VA. I didn’t enjoy one minute of it, and, as you can see from the photo, I dance just like my Dad.

I would love to have questioned my parents about this dance, if only I had known this photograph existed prior to their deaths in 1995 and 2005.

 

 

 

SPONTANEOUS VACATION

Our Oldham family was by no means well off in the early 1950’s. Of course my two brothers and me never knew that. We thought we were just right. The only thing I can remember that would indicate otherwise was when Dad said something I have never forgotten. “These rich folks that live in $20, 0000 homes have it made.” Why I remember that, I don’t know. I guess it was the first indication that I was born into a poor family in south Louisiana.

Even still, I did not understand the implications of these words, at the time, and continued playing with my friends. I loved the era and the upbringing in which I grew up. Living a life of understanding black-eyed peas, fried SPAM, and cornbread was good for me, I still find them delicious. However, it was these years of innocence that I now look back upon as an adult and appreciate the very few real vacations that we took as a family.

Dad worked full time for the NATB (National Automobile Theft Bureau) as a Louisiana State Trooper. He took a second job pastoring the small Church of God in Tickfaw, Louisiana. Mom worked as a bookkeeper. With these three incomes we were able to enjoy vacation moments that were short and adventurous. Sometimes we went fishing at Old River or False River on the western side of the Mississippi River. These used to be a part of Old Man River until he changed course and cut them off, making nice fishing lakes. Otherwise, if we weren’t fishing in someone’s pond, or the creek bottom, we were swimming in one of them—if we could shoo the snakes away.

Andy, Bill, and Meriam Oldham June 1955

Andy, Bill, and Meriam Oldham
                                    June 1955

Yet the spontaneous outings Dad created were the ones I am most fond of. The one captured in this photo is just one of many such impromptu adventures. We were driving through the country roads of south Louisiana when Dad saw a Forestry Fire Tower and pulled in the driveway. As usual Mom said, “What are you doing Edward?” My older brother Bill and I stood to attention when we heard the answer.

“I’ll be right back.”

In a few minutes Dad waved goodbye to the Forest Ranger and returned to the car.

“Come on boy’s, we’re climbing to the top.”

Bill and I hopped out of the car and raced to the bottom of the stairs. The walk was exciting at first, but it did not take long for a four and six year old to tire out. Dad snapped this photo while we were resting. After catching our breath we climbed to the top and looked in every direction, over thousands of acres of trees.

Even though I was a month from turning five, I have never forgotten this small memory. A smile calms my grin each time I see a fire tower.

Duck Hunting With Murray

header-mallard_edited-2He said it would be fun. He said we would get in the marsh before daylight and leave early because we would have our limit. I told Julius Murray he would have his limit because I had quit hunting a long time ago. Since I had never been duck hunting I seized the opportunity to get in the swamp with my camera. I would be shooting a different way.

On a cold December morning in 1987 we tromped through the high grasses of the northern Ross Barnett Reservoir. Most of these stalks of weed were taller than me by two feet. Some were tough to push over and in some cases so thick we had to machete them down to get through. The ground became wet bog in some areas but we continued through the mire. Arriving at a small opening I saw an area that was like a small pond. Shining my flashlight revealed fallen trees. Upon our presence, I could hear, but not see, turtles scampering into the water. Clunk, clunk, clunk drew apprehensive nerves toward their departure. Was it really turtles, or something else? Little did they know I would capture them later when they thought we were gone.

The sun was not up. There was faint light from a toenail moon setting in the west. We waited in the dark of morning with a flashlight, a cup of coffee and whispered conversation. Our hands tightened around our thermos bringing a hint of warmth. Quiet broke in shards of stress when movement here-or-there tuned our heart to any strange noise around us. The thought of gators was constant, but I trusted Julius’s skills to keep us safe.

Google Photo

Twilight revealed a light fog encompassed our blind. The long sacred wail of a Loon said a good morning to his mate asking. “Where are you?” Moments later a higher pitched wail lets him know, “I am over here.” Evocative sounds, never be forgotten, will forever establish the tranquility of the swamp and deminish fear.

As the fog lifted we hunkered behind tall reeds and watched hundreds of duck and geese fly above and around us. Julius raised his gun and followed each bird in his gun site. When he didn’t shoot I questioned him. “We cannot fire until 6:00 o’clock, it’s the law,” he said. Hearing others fire their guns reminded me I was proud to be his friend, and of his integrity to remain silent until time. I continued to snap photos of the wonders around us, including the turtles.

a_mixed_flock_of_ducks_and_geese_fly_from_a_wetland_area_edited-1Did these birds have a Timex, or what? The big hand struck twelve and they vanished. There were one or two honks from Canadian Geese in the distance, but in a gun site looked like tiny fragments of dirt blowing through the air. Being the patient man that he was, Julius waited another hour only to be disappointed. There were no birds close enough to bring home for dinner.

Julius was right. I did have fun, but he did not get his limit. I got better shots with my camera. We went home with no duck and the promise of beautiful morning photos waiting to be developed.

If  you’d like to hear the sound of a loon check this out:

https://video.search.yahoo.com/search/video?fr=tightropetb&p=sounds+of+loons#id=3&vid=36e32f289d44a870ad2eb79965d35c6b&action=view

When Chaos Arrived

What was that? Dad turned to hear a furious noise behind him. With limbs breaking and leaves crackling his anticipation grew. The closer the noise the more anxious he became. This was, after all, his first time. He didn’t know what to expect. Grunting grew to point that he felt as if the animal was going to attack him. Dad heard each hoof hitting the ground and the dogs continued their incessant barking. The animal feared for his life and ran as fast as he could.

Dad raised his gun. All he needed was for it to appear in his site. The louder the confusion between man and beast, the more intense and passionate he became.

Deep bulging sounds—panic in the air—chaos was about to debut. The noise stopped. Where was he? Dad eased his gun to left, nothing. Questioning his whereabouts he moved back to the right, nothing. He took his eyes off the site to look around.

The dogs got louder and Dad wondered if he had missed his objective. Chaos burst through the Colorado Spruce and ran toward Dad. He turned his gun for a perfect shot. His finger was on the trigger. He lowered his gun. The Elk ran a new direction.

Bugling Bull (male) Elk Yellowstone National Park Wyoming near the Madison River ** Note: Shallow depth of field

Google Photo

Dad had hunted in the Louisiana woods his entire life, but never like this, or for the largest land mammal in North America. He had just moved to Denver to pastor the South Denver Church of God. The men in the church invited him to go Elk hunting. They took him to the license bureau to apply for a hunting license and Elk tags. He was told that to get a tag you must first sign up, and then wait on the lotto drawing. If you were lucky you might get a bull Elk or cow licenses. If you didn’t get either, you got to stay home, or at the camp while the others hunted.

Dad was excited when he received his tags in the mail. He hadn’t won a bull tag. There was not a cow tag inside either. His tag said he could hunt both. When he told the men of the church of his luck they were amazed. One of them told him they had lived in Colorado their entire life and never won both tags. They patted him on the back and assured him he had won the Lotto.

When hunting day came he was taken up in the mountains and placed on a big flat rock. He was told to, “Sit right here, be still and wait.” He would soon hear the dogs and they would run the animal toward him. “When you hear all the commotion, get ready.”

Dad did as he was instructed and sat patiently. Even with the bull Elk in his site he could not pull the trigger. He stood in awe of his beauty. The display of power and dominance impressed him with an indescribable reaction for the animal. In view of vigorous muscle, huge antlers, and breathtaking presence Dad lowered his gun.

When Dad told us this story he said, “He was too beautiful to kill.”

elk-2Google Photo

Do It Over!

As with many native pastors in the 1960’s, Pastor Oscar Lupe didn’t have a baptism tank at the church he pastored in Buxton, British Guiana. He used the one 18.3km away, at John Street Church of God in Georgetown.

After arrival at John Street, the front right pew was moved to the other side of the church and the unnoticed doors were pulled open from the floor. Under the wood boards was a concealed baptismal tank full of water. Brother Lupe, as we called him, entered the church with those who wanted to be baptized and placed them in pews toward the front for perfect viewing of each other.

Oscar was older and was the only Church of God pastor who wore a clerical white-collar. He asked Dad (Edward Oldham) to do the baptizing because he was too old to get down the steps to the water.

EPSON MFP image

Dad was happy to oblige. Pastor Lupe stood by the side of the tank, with his hands folded behind his back, and watched each person get baptized. After several men and women ascended the steps there was one last woman to be immersed. Dad raised his hand and said; “In the  name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit . . . “ He placed his hand over hers and lowered her into the water. Being an extremely heavy woman she fought going under. The buoyancy of the water allowed Dad to hold her on her back. But he could not get her to go under the water. She fought the decent like a cat with her claws out. Dad held her in his arms while she paddled around the pool uncertain of life. Her hair was soaked and matted when she stood up, wiped her face and began praising the Lord.

“Do it over,” Pastor Lupe said. “You did not go under. You have to go all the way under.” The woman looked at Dad and they tried it again. “Do it over,” said a stern voice a second time. “You have to be submerged all the way.” The woman looked at Dad and they tried it again, and again, until it was done right. Then everyone praised the Lord!

© All Rights Reserved – Andy Oldham

Weekend Memories

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Six years into our marriage my wife and I decided it was time to take a get-away-weekend to the gulf coast, just the two of us. We continued a tradition her family started, and stayed in a quaint little hotel called the Alamo Plaza on Highway 90 in Biloxi. We were excited to get away from the kids and have some time just for the two of us. Reservations were made and we arrived about noon on Friday.

The first thing we noticed was the hotel had been painted pink. Who in the world would paint a hotel pink? It didn’t matter too much for the old fashioned charm was still inviting and we overlooked the upgrade.

Parking under the plaster entrance I walked inside to register and found new management. The older couple we had grown to know as Pop and Gerdy had retired several years earlier. The new management did not speak very good English and granted us the first indication that things would be a little different this stay.

When you drive through the entrance there are two rows of rooms on either side. We unpacked the car on the right side and got settled in. My wife put on her swimsuit.

“Let’s go to the beach,” she said.

“Already?” I answered with a slight attitude.

“Come on,” she said, “It will be fun.”

Now I am usually a peacemaker and don’t say too much when it comes to things I don’t like. However, you need to understand. I love going to the coast, but I am not much of a beach person, especially in the middle of the day. My idea of fun on the beach is at sunrise or sunset, a time I can enjoy the Mississippi Sound in peace and calm while watching the sun rise and set. There is something about fewer people and less noise that creates freshness about this time of day.

We made our way across treacherous Highway 90’s busy four-lane boulevard. Stepping into the hot sand told me I was here because I loved my wife and for no other reason. We laid our beach towels out, sat down and began rubbing on the sunscreen. The experience of sun poisoning was not a happy moment many years earlier. For me the only thing I wanted was a suit of steel armor. Since it was a hard commodity to find, and it was definitely not a floatable device, I chose the next best thing, Coppertone SPF30.

It was a dull day for lying in a gritty pile of sand and feeling the heat of the sun as ultraviolet rays charbroiled each of my cells, one at a time. I knew that in a few days I was going to look like I was covered in dried red wine and rolled like a truffle in dehydrated coconut flakes. Like I said I don’t enjoy the beach in the middle of the day and I was anxious to leave for the air-conditioned room.

The day did become a little more exciting however when my wife stood to walk in the direction of the water for a quick swim. Before she could reach the shoreline a seagull began to attack. He instigated a flurry of other birds to join in pecking at her hair, her shoulders and anywhere they could peck her. She screamed and I jumped up and swung my towel at them. All that accomplished was for one of them to fertilize my tee shirt with a little slimy excrement. It was obviously time to leave the beach. She ran toward the hotel holding her towel over her head. I picked up our gear and ran with her, swinging and shouting at these flying persecutors. Before she could reach the highway there were so many seagulls attacking her you would have thought she had a loaf of bread attached to her head. She hit her knees and began to crawl toward the highway, screaming and crying. No matter what I did to protect her I found they were not after me, but her and kept up the assault.

Seagull 3Once we reached the highway I turned to see the birds fly back toward the shoreline. Even though we were both a little upset I managed to smile toward the sky and whisper thank you. I did not have to suffer the sun any longer. Once in the room she began to calm down. I checked her head for wounds. Mostly red, but no broken skin, I ran a hot tub of water for her to relax and recuperate.

A blood-curling scream came from the bathroom. I ran to see what was wrong and found her standing on the toilet lid, wrapped in a towel and pointing toward the floor. We have all heard of cockroaches, but this was the cockroach king. I tried to hit that bug-eyed, antennae horned, prehistoric demon devil with my size nine flip-flop. I think it just looked at me like what is your problem dude? I hit him again, and again. Finally he crawled under the sink cabinet where I couldn’t get to him. I still don’t know if I killed him, but he had to have one huge headache. I did, that’s for sure. His appearance was the first sign of our intrusion on a community of giant creatures from behind the walls.

“I’m ready to go home,” she said.

“What? We just got here,” I told her.

“This is a horrible weekend and I am ready to go.”

“I don’t know what the problem was with those seagulls, but it has never happened before today and will, most likely never happen again. Okay?”

“What about the roach?” she said still whimpering.

I wrapped my arms around her and told a little white lie. “Honey, that old roach is dead. I killed him with my flip-flop.” Of course I didn’t know for sure. I wanted to stay because there was so much more to do. You know like the shopping and restaurants?

Mary Mahoney’s Old French House Restaurant was first. We loved to patronize this place. On our honeymoon we actually met Mary. She was in her ninety’s now and celebrated out marriage by providing champagne and two wine glasses. I’m not a drinker so I sipped a small amount and left the rest. The ambiance provided a romantic and intimate setting for two and the gulf seafood was unmatched by any other place.

Returning to the room we were prepared for a good nights sleep and climbed under the covers. After snuggling for a while we fell asleep. The terror began. I was awakened to something crawling across my face. I swatted it away and tried to go back to sleep. Then I heard a fluttering noise that ended in a thud. Then another flutter, and a thud. By the time I reached for the beside lamp, my wife was awakened. The light illuminated the room. I don’t know if you have ever heard of Zepar, the Grand Duke of Demons who appears as a soldier commanding some twenty-six legions, but I swear he was here with at least one of his legions of cockroaches.

Coackroach 1I’m guessing the four-inch roach I attempted to kill in the bathroom earlier was Zepar who had returned to the nest and announced they had visitors for the night. Celebrating party-time hundreds of these little terrorists buzzed the room and persecuted us. Flutter, thud. Wipe one off the covers. Flutter, thud. I couldn’t talk my way out of this one so we grabbed our things and ran out the door. Since no one answered the bell at the night desk we slept in the car. I was not in an good mood, at all!

“I want a refund on my room last night, and I don’t want any apologies,” I all but yelled at the clerk behind the desk.

“What wrong, Mita Oldham,” the foreign clerk said.

“We had a horrible night. There were ten gazillion roaches and we slept in the car. Now I want a refund.”

“So sorry, Mita Oldham. How ‘bout I give you one free night in room on other side where no roaches?”

I chuckled. “No roaches?”

“No roaches’ sir, we spray there last week.”

I thought for a second. As long as there is no chemical smell and there are no roaches, why not? “Okay,” I said. “Let me have a key and I’ll go check out the room. If my wife approves, we’ll take the free night.” It did mean a savings I could spend elsewhere.

The wife was not happy but I convinced her of all the benefits of the free nights stay. After scouting the room she approved and we settled in on the far end of the left row of buildings. It was actually a very nice room. All the other rooms were filled toward the front of the complex. Being on the far end we were away from everyone and we would have a cozy and quiet room with no one slamming doors and talking outside in the middle of the night.

We ate a wonderful breakfast buffet at the Beau Rivage and gambled some of our motel savings on a slot machine. I won about thirty dollars but lost it before we left. It was the typical lose, we got you, win back and snicker situation for the casino. It was still fun and I could rationalize my loss by remembering that I lost more than that at the fall fair in Jackson every year trying to win a stuffed animal.

“Ready to go to the beach?” I cannot believe I asked my wife to go to the beach in the middle of the day. Am I nuts? Did I forget I hate the beach?

“Nope,” she replied.

Yeah! I thought to myself. “W…what? I thought you loved the beach.”

“Don’t you remember what happened yesterday?” She snapped at me.

I didn’t answer. I sat in quiet, thankful solitude that I did not have to sit in the sun.

“Let’s go to the Beauvoir,” she said.

The southern home of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis was a beautiful home with a museum and library. The two of us enjoyed visiting this home each time we went to Biloxi. When we left the Beauvoir a woman offering special gifts if we would go to the D’iberville Hotel and listen to a short seminar approached us in the parking lot. We were short on things to do so we took her up on it. After listening to a 15-minute presentation on why we should pay seven thousand dollars for one of their special rooms for a single week each year, and a grand tour of the rooms, we were escorted to a boardroom where they had a list of open weeks displayed on a huge blackboard.

“Now, Mr. Oldham, which week can we sign you up for.”

Without hesitation my wife said, “I don’t like being confined to the same week every year. What if I wanted to purchase the entire summer?”

The ladies jaw dropped so fast she nearly had to stop it with her hand.

“Well, we can certainly do that,” she said with great anticipation.

I looked at my wife and thought, have those seagulls pecked your brain so hard it’s full of holes?

She looked back at me like have you lost your sense of adventure.

“Let me and my husband discuss this over lunch and we will be back, okay?”

The sales lady was so excited she gave us two gifts. One was a cheap Polaroid camera and the other was a free lunch at a very respectable restaurant.

“What are you doing?” I asked on the way to the car.

She started laughing and said, “Just having fun. There is no way I am buying one week let alone the entire summer. I just wanted to see her reaction when I asked her about it. Besides we got a free lunch they promised for listening to them, and a camera to boot.

Of course, later, we discovered we actually had to buy one of the time-shares to get a camera that worked. I know that poor lady was so excited she probably skipped lunch waiting for us to return with good news for her commission check. It didn’t happen.

After lunch we returned to the Alamo Plaza. I inspected the bathroom, checked around the walls and even searched under the bed for any signs of Zepar and his cronies. Thank the good Lord I thought, we were going to get a good night’s rest. We nestled under the fresh clean sheets and drifted in to La La Land. Sleep in Nirvana was so peaceful. Snuggled up next to my wife and feeling her warmth against me. I was truly enjoying what I had come to Biloxi for, rest.

“I don’t care what you say! This world is the pits and I’m tired of living in it!”

Startled, we both jumped up when anxious words interrupted our slumber. I looked at the clock and it flashed a good morning to you at 1:30am.

“What was that?” asked my wife.

“People next door coming in.”

The springs started squeaking and banging against the wall. We lay in our bed and listened to moans and groans as each one worked its way through the wood paneling.

A temporary gratification was achieved and we were able to drift back to sleep.

“I hate this world! I’m going to kill myself!”

The neighbor’s words reentered our room with intensity.

“Oh baby, it’s gonna be okay,” his lover cried.

The bedsprings commenced their noisy protest of squeaking and squawking. The headboard resumed pounding our wall.

Oh brother!

Fulfillment achieved, a second time of quiet arrived and we drifted back to paradise.

“I’m gonna shoot myself! It’s not worth living!” Several more of these threats were spoken throughout the night.

By 4:00am I had enough. I didn’t know what to do so I got up and walked around the room. I questioned whether cockroaches or people were the worst pest. My wife was agitated enough from seagulls and legions of bugs to stand and fight. She stood up on the bed and beat on the wall.

“Either kill yourself or shut up!” she shouted.

Silence

Shocked, I didn’t say a word. She lay back down. No springs squeaking, no crying–nothing. I got back in the bed, pulled the covers up and waited for the man to beat our door down and shoot us. Her words must have worked. The couple slamming their car doors and leaving at dawn awakened us. I didn’t even want to look out and see what this chump looked like. I had a vision embedded in my brain and I surely didn’t want to ruin it.

Words were left unspoken while we got dressed and packed our bags to leave. We didn’t get much rest that weekend. Mind portraits of great times are brought home that are still laughable to this day.

We are saddened that there will never be any more memories born and enjoyed from the Alamo Plaza Motel. On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina wiped it off the shoreline of Highway 90. We pass by now and look at an empty lot and carry our smiles on down the highway to a new tradition.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Note: The stories in this memoir are all true. There is actually only one issue that makes it fiction. This writing is a compilation of several happenings at the Alamo Plaza over several years in our travels to Biloxi. I felt it easier, this time, to put them all together and make one story rather than try to write several different stories. Hope you don’t mind.