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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A Question For Mom and Dad

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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.

 

 

 

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.

 

The Night Bessie Bumped Her head

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John Neil Ider “Ida” (Owens) Oldham was better known as Grannie to my two brothers and me. Her daddy wanted a boy and he told his wife it did not matter if it was a boy or a girl. When the baby was born he was namin’ it John Neil. His wife told him she did not care what he named her, she was naming her Ider. Most folks understood her name should be pronounced Ida, of course. In later years, she would have trouble with her name when needing identification because her name did not match her gender.

One of the things I enjoyed most, in growing up in Louisiana, was going to her house during the summer time and spend a week; just the two of us. The summer of 1959, at nine years old, is one I have never forgotten. Pioneer, Louisiana was a small town with one wood frame country store and one gas pump. Because it was a farming community there was always danger on every corner if you did not stay fully aware of your surroundings.

Papa had died in 1954 leaving Grannie to tend the forty-acre farm alone. I was only four when he passed. She was lonely at times and enjoyed having company. TV was watched every night with the shows in black and white. Bedtime for me rolled around at 8:30PM. I was usually afraid to go to bed alone. A farm in the country is extremely dark in the middle of the night. One consolation was the .22 rifle standing next to the bed. I had used it several times looking for rabbit and squirrels. I knew if I needed to protect myself the rifle was there.

It was a privilege to sleep with Grannie each night, of course I never knew for sure she was there because, if she came to bed it was well after I was asleep and she was up before dawn. The thought that she slept with me offered some facsimile of security.

I discovered the truth about where she slept one night when all hell broke loose. Heavy breathing entered the room. I could hear it but not see it; the room was too dark and heavy clouds blocked the moonlight. At that instant the clouds dissipated and illuminated two large eyes staring right at me. I sat straight up in the bed. Grannie was not there!

I sat gripped with quiet anxiety while I fought off the dragons of fear. The breathing was only feet from me–then a snort. I screamed bloody murder. I could hear Grannie running down the hallway at the same time Bessie, her milk cow, pulled her head up, and bellowed like I’m the one who scared her. She jerked her head back out of that window as fast as she could, tearing out the glass and the wood frame that held it.

Grannie ran down the hall, entered the room and stuck her head out the widow yelling some words that I did not hear. Bessie skedaddled back toward the barn where she belonged. It was the first time I had seen Grannie with no teeth. Flapping her lower jaw against her upper, she turned to calm me down and found me aiming the .22 right at the window. She relaxed me into the reality that she was not there to hurt me. I dropped the gun and climbed under the covers where I burst into tears. Grannie climbed in beside me, wrapped her arms around me and slept the rest the night, or least until I woke up to find her cooking cathead biscuits, scrambled eggs and grits.

Made you smile!

Papaw’s Lesson From The Watermelon

“You shall teach them diligently to your children,

and shall talk of them when you sit in your house,

and when you walk by the way,

and when you lie down, and when you rise.”

Deuteronomy 6:7 

           Photo By:       Mathew Steinhoff

Photo By:
Mathew Steinhoff

I was sitting on the porch swing with a close friend discussing special moments in our lives. Her Papaw grew watermelons and like many garden plants, a melon is the result of a very large and yellow bell-shaped flower. It blooms, wilts and falls off the vine. In a short time you notice a marble size ball on the end of that same stem. Don’t get excited, there is a good chance that marble may fall off as well; the survival rate is 50/50.  Once this future delicacy grows to the size of a golf ball you can begin to see how well your crop is going to produce.

When my friend was six her Papaw took her into the watermelon patch and let her pick out her own melon. She picked one that was about seven inches long. As the two knelt next to it, Papaw picked up the tiny melon and gently placed it in her hands. She leaned back on her knees and held it in her lap while he took out his pocket knife and lightly carved her name on the side of the melon.

Why is my name so small?” she asked. The name was barely visible.

“Because you are so small,” he answered. “When this melon grows up, so will you.” He smiled at her and continued, “In order for this melon to be the best melon ever, you have to nurture it. That means when you come to visit you have to pull any weeds that are nearby, so they don’t sap the nutrients and moisture the melon needs. You will also need to take this rag and wipe off any dirt and keep it clean and shiny. That will make it the bestest and sweetest melon you ever had. The greatest part is that it’s all because of the way you raised it.”

She smiled and went on just being a little girl. Every week she went with Papaw to cultivate her melon and watched it leisurely grow to maturity. As they drove the old tractor to the field and walked into the patch, there was one thing she looked forward to. You see, as the melon grew her name grew with it. Her enthusiasm grew and she could not wait to see how much her name increased in size with each visit.

 I had to try this myself. I was so excited and impatient I didn't let the watermelon fully mature.    :-(

I had to try this myself. I was so excited and impatient I didn’t let the watermelon fully mature. :-(When the time came to harvest the melon, the name was so big she could see it from several yards away. She was proud of her name standing out among all the other melons. From one end of the dark green melon to the other, her name was engraved in big bold cream-colored letters. She helped Papaw carry it and as she climbed up on seat he placed the melon on her lap. She smiled all the way to the house. The rest of the family was waiting at the picnic table in the back yard ready to chow down on sweet melon. Everyone was patting her on the back and rubbing her head saying, “Way to go!”  My friend was privileged to make the first cut and pick out the first piece, a memory she has never forgotten.

 “Train up a child in the way he should go;

even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

Proverbs 22:6

When our children are born and we scribe their name on a birth certificate the cultivation and nurturing begin. It is our duty to keep the bad weeds away so that they receive the nutrients we provide and keep those things away that sap strength and sweetness from them. The almost invisible names we engrave on their heart, when they are but marble size, stand out among others in the world and speak not only their name, but ours. Our children impart integrity, truth, honesty, sincerity, value and even God’s love to places where these virtues may not be present. When presented to the world they become an illuminating path to God’s love; an everlasting memory carried for eternity.

Someday, our family of believers will welcome us to the big table in the back yard of heaven, slapping you on the back and saying, “Way to go!”

The Bone Digger

R.W. OLdham - Papa 065_edited-1

Part 1

I went bone diggin’ this past week. It was a lot of fun. The first grave yard I wen….Whoa Nellie. Grave yard??? Bone diggin’??? That’s gooder’n pot luck on cornbread. Laugh out loud! I can just imagine what must be goin’ thru your minds when you mingle those two thoughts. Well, slow the wagons while the cream rises and I will explain myself.

Before retirement I was always too busy working and rearin’ children to have time for all the things I enjoy. I have several passions. I love to collect stories and southern sayings. I love photography and I love to write. When I merge all of these together I come out on top. After I retired last year I decided to do one other thing I have planned for years; I am writing my memoirs. To do so requires a little bone digging and by that I mean looking for my ancestors.

I live in the heart of Dixie and love being a southerner. The South has a rich history and there is lot to discover here. My ancestry is revealing and deeper I dig the more bones I find. I’m goin’ deeper y’all. This is important not just for me, but for my descendants who follow. I want them to know their heritage and that Christ has been at its center for a very long time. I only knew my grandfather (pictured above) the first four years of my life. I know nothing about him other than he was a farmer in Louisiana and that my Dad loved him so much that he stated many how he couldn’t wait to see Jesus first and then hug his dad.

Now you see? I’m not out diggin’ up graves ‘cause the jaws of hell are gapin’ for anyone that’d do that; I’m just diggin’ up bones. I have lots to tell so I will begin this with the first part of several. Following is an article I wrote with another bone digger for our local paper. You can settle your mind and relax while I tell you how many fish make up a mess.

Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear shall live. ”      John 5:25

After a cousin died I realized that in each family there is one who seems called to find the ancestors. We put flesh on their bones and bring them to life. We dig deep into the past and tell their story knowing that somehow they approve. I have collected stories my whole life. Some I have lived and others I have been told. Oh if only I had listened more closely, more intensely.

 

     It is not a chore; it is a duty, a warmhearted gathering of facts breathing life into all who have gone before. We are the story tellers of the tribe. All tribes have one. I am the one chosen. It is as if the genes have called out to reunite us for our future descendants. If not documented now, who will record it in the future? Who will hear the story? Who will witness it?

 

            It is as if I am an old soul listening to those who have gone before me. With each new revelation I hear their voice. No one remembers them, or even knows who they were. “Tell our story,” they say, “and, find yourself.”

            With each new death I am reminded of those who went before. Memories bring a smile, while a tear rolls down my face. I stand before my parent’s grave and yearn for just one more hug; just one more conversation to tuck safely in the repository of and share with the future. I am saddened that my grandchildren will never know them, they will never experience the joy I carry with me. I must become their joy.

             While walking through the grave yard there seems this calling from each stone to tell children that they need their story told, too. “Find my children,” they say. “Tell them I am here.” Oh, how I wish I could help, but I have my own story to find.

 

            A friend of my cousin said it like this: Finding the story requires dedication and more than just the facts. “It goes to who I am and why I do the things I do? It goes to seeing a cemetery about to be lost forever to weeds and indifference and saying I can’t let this happen. The bones here are bones of my bone and flesh of my flesh. It goes to doing something about it. It goes to pride in what our ancestors were able to achieve. How they contributed to what we are today. It goes to respecting their hardships and losses, their never giving in or giving up, their resoluteness to go on and build a life for their family. It goes to deep pride that they fought to make and keep us a Nation. It goes to a deep and immense understanding that they were doing it for us so that we might be born who we are, that we might remember them. So we do. With love and caring and scribing each fact of their existence, because we are them and they are us. So, as a scribe called, I tell the story of my family. It is up to that one called in the next generation to answer the call and take their place in the long line of family storytellers.

 

            This is why I dig for bones. It is not just a genealogy; it is the story of my family. My prayer is that someone will be called in the next generation to pick up the mantle and place flesh on my bones and send forward.


 

Child's GRave

A Child's Grave

A Child’s Grave

 

I hope you have enjoyed this so far. It is hard sometimes to deal with death in a positive pose. It is not my purpose to tell you all my family secrets. Rather, just to have you think of all that your dependents will miss if you do not scribe the stories now, before there is a time when no one will know them.

 

Phoenix Cemeter

Phoenix Cemetery

Note: I took the above pictures in two small country cemeteries found in Ogden and Phoenix, MS.