Roads Chosen

“Somewhere out on that horizon,
Out beyond the neon lights,
I know there must be somethin’ better.
But there’s nowhere else in sight…”
(1979) “In The City”, Recorded By: Eagles Composers: Joseph Fidler Walsh, Barry R. De Vorzon

Last week, my wife and I decided we would go out to dinner on a whim. We chose a certain national chain restaurant, common to most medium to large American cities. It was about 6:30pm when we found ourselves alone, waiting for someone to seat us there in the small waiting area. About 3-4 minutes went by without anyone approaching us. The dining area was empty with the exception of one couple eating at a table, and the bar area had 3-4 people on bar stools. Finally, an employee, dressed as if from the waitstaff, or kitchen staff, walked up to us.

He said, “It will be about a 20 minute wait.” We looked around again to find we were the only ones waiting for a table, and 99% of the dining area was empty. My wife asked, “You mean, you can’t seat us with all those empty tables and booths?” (You go get ’em, honey.) That’s when he said the most unheard of thing, “We don’t have a hostess here to seat you. For now, I can offer you the bar, or you can wait here in the lobby.” Guess how we answered in response. “Uh, no thanks.” We scratched our heads as we drove 10 minutes up the road to their competitors for dinner. As time went by, we thought the true story might be a lacking of kitchen staff, or waitstaff.

As I posted our experience on Facebook, many of my friends replied with similar situations. Most felt it was a sign of too many stimulus checks, and unemployment checks left over from the pandemic shutdown. Way too many are depositing more funds than the salaries from their last place of occupation. No wonder so many establishments have “Now Hiring” signs up.

This circumstance we find ourselves in would be very foreign to these students…

Photo: Traces of Texas. Dallas Telegraph College – Class of 1904.

Meet the class of 1904 from the Dallas telegraph College. Nobody looks real happy. If it was 98 degrees out, with those suits and ties, I can see why. My eyes were quickly caught up to the third row where a single woman proudly stands among the men of graduates. In those times, she was an oddity. I wish I knew her story. I am sure she was a bold, “grab the bull by the horns” lady.

Think back on those times. These were lads, and lady, from all walks of life, many from the country. No doubt some were from sharecroppers, ranch families, or hired ranch hands. Others might have been orphaned, just taking the opportunities for a work and trade. A selected few may have gone to telegraph school and worked at the hotel down the street as a bellhop at night. The female in this photo may have been a runaway. Much like my great-grandmother, Roberta Martin, from my granddad’s side of the family, who went to college in disobedience to her father’s demands. Her three sisters stayed at home where their father had told them it was their “place” in life, but not my great-grandmother. Roberta boldly left for college.

One thing is for certain, each and every one of these students of telegraph had to interrupt life as they knew it to reach a higher goal. Each individual had to drop the plow, hang up the spurs, or bought a train ticket to Dallas from out of state to enroll in the Dallas Telegraph College. The grads in the old photo didn’t believe in being spoon-fed. Instead, they all made hard choices.

Photo by Christian Heitz on Pexels.com

At some point, like all of us, each student came to a fork in the winding road, not a spoon. Am I right?

“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
Excerpt from: “The Road Not Taken” – Robert Frost

I have always loved Robert Frost’s work, especially, “The Road Not Taken”. It speaks and serves so well.

Jesus said something similar, although clearly an eternal view, but the principle is the same.

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is narrow and the way is constricted that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” -Jesus (Matthew 7;13-14 NAS)

Someone might have said to a boy looking at his fork in the road, “Stay on the farm, lad. Every man in the county got his own pigpen by staying on the farm.” Some desk manager possibly could have told a young bellboy, “Hey, someday you might be a night desk clerk at this hotel. Stick with the baggage, boy.” Our lady grad might have heard the words, “No daughter of mine ain’t goin’ go to that there college with all them boys! Why, who ever heard of such a thang? You best stay here and help your mother with house chores. After all, that’s what a man looks for in a woman.”

With that said, the roads mentioned above were more traveled, and wide, too. They were considered less risky. As you can see, the class of 1904 wasn’t a student body of 850. No, it was a more narrow path to work for that diploma. I am sure most said it was worth it… until a few short years later when this happened….

Photo by Eneida Nieves on Pexels.com

In 1914, there were about 10 people for every working telephone in America. After WWI, the number of available telephones for the public began to multiply. Suddenly, telegraph operators were out looking for other employment. No doubt, many of our 1904 grads were in that number. Technology moves onward, no matter what we want, or what we’ve trained for.

Have you been there before? Did you ever feel like you were put out to pasture? A nurse from 50 years ago would have to go back to nursing school today. Telephone operators from the 1990’s found themselves out of work due to the internet and telecommunications technology. The communicator from the Star Trek series on Captain Kirk’s belt is now in every pocket in America. Not a whole lot of phone booths are left.

We plan our course. We draw up our five-year plans. We obtain mortgages based on those plans. We choose our majors and minors. Still, most grads don’t stick with the degrees they earned. Things change. Times develop. Our forks continue to face us. Pandemics come, we get sidelined. Washington throws money at us while we wait. Things open back up, and many are faced with the road of being spoon-fed, or earning their true worth. At the same time, many will forget the plans God has for each footstep. So many of us refuse to ask Him to show the road not taken.

Although it has nothing to do with career, or income, I am facing a new fork in the road currently. It will change our lives drastically. I didn’t ask for this fork. I didn’t exactly know when the fork would arrive. Yet, it’s here. I am faced with heavy choices. Dare I say, I am forced to make a choice? Yes, in honesty, I am.

Somewhere, there’s a hostess from a local restaurant trying to make a clear, worthy choice. Hopefully, she’s not standing in a line at the Dallas Telegraph College.

No need to ask Siri. When choosing the right road, find directions in fuel for the race.

“In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps.” – Proverbs 16:9 (NIV)

Plates A-Spinnin’

“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,
Cryin’ all the time.
You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,
Cryin’ all the time.
Well, you ain’t never caught a rabbit,
and you ain’t no friend of mine.”
(1956) “Hound Dog” Recorded By: Elvis Presley Composers: Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller (Originally Recorded By: Big Mama Thorton in 1952.)

What’s not to love about a hound?

Photo by cheptu00e9 cormani on Pexels.com

Well, maybe a little less drool, and a pair of shorts would be nice. But for a country raised kid, who loves raccoon or rabbit hunting, you just can’t get any better than the amazingly instinctive radar nose of a good hound dog.

It happened around 1905, Young County, Texas. William “WR” Brown, my Grandpa Brown (From my dad’s side.) was a hunting lad with a rifle and a couple of excellent hunting hounds. Later in life, he also had champion wolf hunting hounds. If you’ve ever read the book, or saw the movie, “Where The Red Fern Grows”, then you already have the picture of kids living out in the boonies, raising pups for wild game hunting. Dinner on their mother’s table depended on it. (Sorry PETA, that’s how it was…is.) It’s difficult for me to imagine him as a young teenager. This is how I knew my Grandpa Brown during the 60’s and 70’s…

Before I move on, I must explain a bit of what life was like in west Texas in those times. My family was a pioneering clan which aided in establishing the county, about 2.5 driving hours west of Dallas, Texas. I have written about my Grandma Brown’s father who rode a mule from Georgia right after the Civil war settling in Young County, Texas. My Grandpa Brown’s folks moved to the same area not long after. Life was rugged. You lived off the land, or you starved. You carried a firearm wherever you went as the land was not tame on several levels.

A view from our family homestead in Young County, Texas close to the Brazos River.

They lived along the red waters of the Brazos River. In those days, a hunter had to watch his back at all times. They shared the land with bears, wolves, cougars, panthers, rattlesnakes, razorback wild hogs, etc. A boy grew up by his father’s side when roughing it through the brush hunting for the next meal. By the time a kid was 12 years old or so, he went out solo with a rifle strapped to his back. Often it would be an overnight hunt, especially when it came to chasing down raccoons. I remember well my one and only time raccoon hunting overnight with my cousins. Watching the hounds tree a raccoon was like watching a choreographer at work. It was such a learning experience.

At the age of 15, or so, my Grandpa Brown and a friend, gathered their hounds for an overnight raccoon and possum hunt starting along the banks of the Brazos on foot. The night would prove to be frustrating as the critters outsmarted the hounds a few times. The boys were trained to be persistent, never letting the word “quit” come up in their minds. Following the sounds of their barking hounds, they ate-up the clock and the miles deep into the west Texas wilderness. In fact, youth’s enthusiasm drove their steps much further than they had anticipated. To this day, the family still can’t say how far they traveled through the relentless terrain. Some estimate they must have crossed county lines, but no one can be sure.

The miles were unforgiving through the mounting hours. Calling back the hounds in a state of total irritation, the two boys realized they had gone way beyond their intentions while chasing the ever eluding varmints. Exhausted, the boys huddled with the dogs, made a campfire, and nodded on and off in the pre-dawn hours.

Just before sunrise, the two hungry hunters put their heads together to calculate how long it would take to get back to the Brazos. With a quick step, they retraced their journey among the cactus and mesquite trees.

After dawn, they caught the rich aroma of smoked venison floating through the dewy brush. Being so tired and hungry, they let the hounds guide them to the area where the meat was being prepared. Without a traveled road anywhere nearby, they came upon an old one-room shack with prairie hens pecking the ground. They could see the glow of an oil lamp through a window near the front door. Unaware of who lived there, sheer faith and boldness kicked-in as the boys decided to approach in hopes of a bite to eat. Knowing the times of that day, along with the pioneering spirit of new Texans putting down roots, I imagine the place looked something like this…

An actual photo of a home built by one of my relatives sometime in the 1880’s.

The rickety plank door opened as they approached. An old ragged man, holding a rifle, greeted the two teens and their dogs. He asked who they were. As the duo told him their names, along with their failed adventure, the old man sized them up, realizing their obvious circumstance, and generously invited them in. He told them he was just rustling up some breakfast with plenty to spare. Putting my imagination together, I can say he probably looked much like my relatives in that time, like the two gentlemen from family records show…minus the Sunday-go-to-meetin’ clothes.

An actual photo of two of my Timmons clan from Young County. Unsure of the date of this shot.

The old man invited the hounds to enter as the boys hit a fine wall of cooking eggs and smoked venison. Inside, by the roaring fire, sat his two hunting hounds eagerly waiting for a plate of food. The small cabin was dusty, with a scent of musk competing with the pan on the iron-cast stove.

As the old man directed, the boys took a seat on a wooden bench at a table near the fireplace. As he asked them about where they were from, as well as, information about their folks, he added a few more eggs to a pan after pouring some hot coffee into a tin cup they were to share. It was clear that the old man and his two hounds lived alone with nothing but sage as a neighbor. As the food was about done, the old timer reached up to an opened shelf where he grabbed three tin plates.

The trio had a fine time sharing stories of the country, hunting and fishing spots, and the wildlife. The cabin was warm, the food was hot, and the bellies were filled.

When the plates were emptied, and the conversation began to slow, the teens wiped their hands on their pants, mentioned how terrific the food was, adding how they needed to get back to retracing their original trek. The old man nodded his head stating he sure enjoyed the unexpected company. He admitted, “Ya know, I never see a soul in these parts. Not hide, nor hair.” Just then, the old man picked up the tin plates, and the iron pan off the stove, and placed them on the creaking floor right by the table leg. Stating as a matter of fact, with a slight chuckle, “Come on hounds, have at it! They always lick the pans and plates.” As if waiting for a cue, the old timer’s hounds raced toward the pan and plates, mouths first. As the tongue-lashing began, the plates started to spin with the force of eager tongues, until the dogs instinctively put their paws on the plates to stop the circular motion. The teens laughed as they watched the licking fracas at hand, partially from the sight of it, but also because back home their mothers would’ve never allowed it. As every drop and morsel had been lapped-up, the aged hermit picked up the pan, along with the plates, and placed them back on the shelf where he retrieved them. My Grandpa Brown and his hunting buddy, never went back there again.

True story.

Are you appalled? Of course, we must put ourselves in the position of this old hermit. No doubt, this man’s habits were out of the norm, but not from his perspective. Obviously, for years, maybe decades, he allowed his dogs to clean his plate and pan. After all, a hounds tongue is long and wide, covering a lot of surface in very little time. For him, it sure saved him a lot of well water. From his viewpoint, those plates ended up looking very spotless. And I’m sure they were after the hounds had their way with it all. However, for my grandpa and his pal, they saw the opposite. They saw hunting hounds, who fetched animals in their mouths, dead or alive. These are the same country hounds who would looked forward to finding a leftover stiff carcass in the woods just for the satisfaction of something to chew on. Yes, as cute as they are, they’re the same animals who clean themselves, every part of themselves, with their tongues. Certainly, these canine tongues should not be a poor man’s dish washing machine.

How hungry are you now?

I align it to taking a black felt-tip pen and finely dotting a white poster from corner to corner. Tape it to a wall in a dark room. Go to the other end of the room, hold a flashlight, turning it on with the bulb facing away from the poster. What do you see? In the darker part of the room, you see, through the ambient glow, a blank white poster on the wall. Even taking a step or two closer to the poster, you still can observe a white poster. Yet, if you shine the flashlight on the poster, you suddenly see the speckles you made with your pen. If you dare to bring the flashlight closer, the dots become very present to the eye. What appears to be a clean white poster, is indeed flawed with black dots.

Al Capone, the notorious gangster, murderer, and bootlegger, would perform an action of goodness right after finishing up a most hideous crime. He gave mega funds, over and above to the Catholic Church. He gave away free gifts to the poor. He began soup kitchens for the homeless. Some say it was for laundering money. Yet, all of that was good, but the hound drool was all over it.

Too often, in our measly efforts, the norm to remedy sin’s guilt and shame, we work something we, and others, would see as a good deed. You might say, some see it as an attempt to build a tower to climb the levels of eternal self-insurance. In doing so, it cleans our dirty plate, or so it would seem from our fallen perspective. King David wrote something astonishing. Those who read it were dismayed. Frankly, it is still baffling to most. He wrote, “…There is no one good. Not even one…” (Psalm 53:3 – my translation) He wasn’t saying people don’t do good things, or people neglect displaying explosions of loveliness. Instead, he was showing us the misnomer of a sparkling tin plate, licked by one of the filthiest tongues created. He was pointing out that what we consider good can never rise to God’s holiness, His spotlessness, His sinlessness, His standard.

We see it all the time, even in high places. We now call evil “good”, and good is now “evil”.

I am sure the old hermit died in that shack, believing with all his heart that his plate was cleansed every night. However, two teenagers knew the truth of it.

To leave this earth spotless can only happen with a free offer of washing in fuel for the race.

“All of us have become like something unclean, and all our righteous acts are like a polluted garment; all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities carry us away like the wind.” Isaiah 64:6 (Holman Christian Standard Bible)

Service, Please

“…But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
Indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord.
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody…”
(1979) “Gotta Serve Somebody” Written and Recorded By: Bob Dylan

Dylan had gone through a spiritual heart conversion, and with it came this song. Many scoffed at it, including John Lennon, who cruelly responded publicly with his own cut entitled, “Serve Yourself”. It was one of Lennon’s final recordings before his death.

His name was, Uncle Doss. At least that’s how I knew him. He was an intriguing, somewhat mysterious man in my early childhood. I was always trying to figure him out.

My Grandmother Swindell lived in the country, just about six miles away from my grandparent’s house in Greenville, Texas. Now, I realize that sentence looks odd, but allow me to explain.

You might be wondering how many grands did I have as the crow flies. Ella Swindell was my grandmother’s mom. Although she was my Great-Grandmother Swindell, my mom called her, “Grandmother”, so I did, too.

To describe her at all would be best done to mention Aunt Bea (Frances Bavier) from The Andy Griffith Show. Although shorter than Frances Bavier, she dressed just like her. Her hair was arranged as Aunt Bea, most of the time. And on Sunday, like Aunt Bea, she wore the little pill hat, combined with a thin netting veil over her face, white cotton dress gloves, and a small black patent leather purse with a short strap. Oh, and yes, she had the “work your fingers to the bone” ethic, with the quick on the draw attitude of Aunt Bea. She was a green-thumb, no-nonsense, get-it-done worker of the soil. My mom called her a workhorse of a woman.

Photo: Wikipedia: The Andy Griffith Show -CBS. Frances Bavier. as Aunt Bea.

Generally, a few times a year in the early to late 1960’s, we visited her little cottage, out in the east Texas farm country, during weekend visits to my grandparent’s house. (If you’re a longtime blogging friend of mine, you might recall that I have written a snippet about Ella Swindell before. However, it’s been a long while.) We would drive down the county dirt road, passing corn and cotton fields, then pull up onto her makeshift driveway of chalky white rocks. I couldn’t wait to jump out in my cowboy boots, crisp blue jeans, and straw cowboy hat, run through her pasture behind the little frame house, and explore the old, haunted barn which rattled and groaned in the Hunt County winds. This city boy truly loved the adventure.

After I was called from the house porch to sit and visit, I would bounce through her opened screen door, greeted by her little Manchester black dog called, “Little Bit”. There was always a memorable aroma wafting from her tiny kitchen as we inched our way toward lunchtime, (Dinnertime, in her vernacular.) She made the best cornmeal fried okra and fried yellow squash you can possibly imagine, all grown from her garden. After hugging my 4′-11″ish Grandmother Swindell, I would immediately ask where Uncle Doss was, if he wasn’t already sitting in his chair in the far back corner of the front living room. Usually, her reply went something like; “Awe, he’ll be along dreckly. He knows when to come eat.” Being such a young lad, I didn’t have my arms around just why Uncle Doss wasn’t always around. After all, he was not what you would call friendly, sociable, or a chatter box. In fact, he was the opposite. He was evidently born without facial expressions, complete sentences, and topical interests. Yet, I couldn’t wait to see him.

Nobody had told me just yet how older generational married couples of certain upbringing lived. A good example was the fact Uncle Doss and Grandmother Swindell had separate bedrooms. Anytime I went to the back of the house toward the back door, which opened up to the back pasture, his room was the door just prior to the back exit. The door was always shut when visiting. My curious little brain always wanted to put my ear to the door to hear if he was in there. The temptation to slowly turn the glass doorknob for a quick covert peek into his domain was great. Before I had a chance to try the door, I usually heard; “Alan, leave your Uncle Doss be!” From kindergarten through 4th grade, I spent a week with my Grandmother Swindell during summer vacation. Once I ventured toward the back of the house, while she was out picking green beans for dinner (Supper, in her vernacular.) When I turned the corner for the back door, I saw his bedroom door wide opened. I tip-toed across the creaking wooden plank floor and took a gander. He was away fishing, or down at the general store trading fishing lures with some other old men in overalls. The room looked like something from a ranch bunkhouse for hired hands. It had a vaulted ceiling, and was just big enough for a single spring bed, a small chest-of-drawers, and a closet. I remember being amazed at how tiny it was. Maybe more amazed why he closed himself up in there whenever he was home.

But there we were, visiting with my Grandmother Swindell and Little Bit as he jumped into our laps begging for scratches behind his ears. When it came time for lunch, you could always expect the back door to open and close as Uncle Doss arrived from wherever he had been that particular day. As Uncle Doss walked into the the living room, I would look up at this tall, thin elderly man with a full head of snow white straight hair, ever-present stubble on his carved handsome face with bushy eyebrows. I was always stunned at how long his nose hairs were. I regret I don’t have a photo of him, but he looked a lot like the old western movie star, Randolph Scott.

RANDOLPH SCOTT PHOTO BY:ROBERT ABRUSCATO/MICHELSON/GLOBE PHOTOS, INC

Unlike Randolph Scott, he was not dapper, or even clean most of the time. He smelled of hay, dead fish, and chewing tobacco. He wore old faded denim overalls, a farmer’s cap, and dirty old lace-up rounded toe boots. With a sparkle in my eye, my exuberance in seeing him again would blurt out like water from a spillway, “Hi, Uncle Doss!” My Grandmother Swindell was regularly and surprisingly a bit sharp with him, “Doss, you go get yourself cleaned up right now! It’s dinnertime. Be quick about it. And scrape off those boots, for Pete’s sake!” He would nod his head at us in a down-home greeting, grunt at her, and head off to the bathroom built just for him. As a kid, I thought it funny, and a bit scary, how he was clearly older than she, and yet she inflicted her husband with such a quick tongue in front of us. Frankly, it was a tad embarrassing.

After a made-from-scratch country lunch, which could win awards at the State Fair Of Texas, we would sit a bit longer in the living room, complete with sweetened iced tea, for more east Texas accented chatter. That was my cue to prepare to head out the door to have make-believe adventures in the old rickety barn, and visit a my great-aunt Madge across the dirt road for a slice of freshly baked homemade pecan or apple pie. No doubt, that woman baked all day, every day. She was invariably such a joy to spend time with, and treated me as if I were the only boy on the planet. But she knew I wouldn’t stay long. After all, there were hay stacks to jump on, and corn fields to get lost in.

Prior to my quick escape from the Swindell cottage, I would try to get Uncle Doss to talk with me. After lunch he would sit in his corner chair and light up his pipe. I would sit on the floor in front of him, next to his tobacco spittin’ can, made from a discarded coffee can, with his knees about eye level to me. My goal was to launch my usual start-up questions. “What kind of a pipe is that, Uncle Doss?” Or, “How long have you been wearing those old dirty overalls?” Or, “Can I touch your prickly whiskers?” (He would allow it. As if it were yesterday, it felt like sandpaper.) Otherwise, if he gave me answers, they were usually one or two word sentences coming from his stone face, “Yep”, “Nope”, and “Oh, a bit.” The dog, Little Bit, loved that old man. Anytime Uncle Doss planted himself in his chair, Little Bit abandoned whatever lap he was on, hopping right up on his dusty lap in one leap. By the time I got back from running around the countryside, Uncle Doss would be gone, or shut-up in his small back room. It didn’t seem like much of a marriage to me, not like the union my grandparents displayed day in and day out.

Later in my childhood, maybe third grade, I was saddened, as well as curious, when finding Uncle Doss in a bed in the front living room off in the corner where his chair would normally sit. I didn’t ask questions of him. I think my mom prepared me beforehand. Although surprised by the living room bed, she must have simply told me he was sick and needed more rest. Frankly, seeing him in that bed spooked me just a little. For some reason I was feeling a little frightened by it all.

It was one of the last times I saw Uncle Doss. However, I did find out it was only a temporary illness at the time. Later, he didn’t need the bed in the living room.

Being a tiny bit afraid of my Uncle Doss was the norm. That may be why I tried so hard to get to know him better, which never happened. While in Jr, high school, after seeing the movie, “To Kill A Mockingbird”, I recognized the feeling I had for Uncle Doss in the view of the children constantly trying to understand their spooky, mysterious neighbor, Boo Radley. I then understood, Uncle Doss was my Boo Radley.

Photo: popsugar.com To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) Robert Duvall as Boo Radley

I’m not sure how old I was when my mom finally broke the news to me. There must have come a time when she thought I could handle the unfortunate truth concerning my Uncle Doss. My Uncle Doss was my Grandmother Swindell’s oldest brother, not her husband. If memory serves me right, there were six brothers, and two sisters in that clan, my grandmother Swindell being the youngest sister, the youngest of all of her sibs. My mom also let me know why Uncle Doss was such a strange individual. Even though he was the oldest, he was like a nine year old child. He was the only one in the family who was stricken with a mental disorder. Being born in the late 1880’s, very little was known on how and why childhood illnesses often caused long-term effects. I’ve been told, Uncle Doss was left with some slight brain damage after a hard bout with a version of the measles when he was a child. Today we know, acute encephalitis can be the result of a measles infection, causing permanent brain damage.

The family was mostly poor share croppers, working the black soil of east Texas, more times than not, travelling from one cotton farm to another, wherever there was work available. Their mother, my great-great-grandmother Molly, was an invalid. The title of, “Invalid” could have various definitions back in those days to country doctors. Nevertheless, their mother was a sickly woman, and unable to take care of her kids. So, Ella, dropped out of school at 2nd grade to become the caretaker of her mom and the sibs who were too young to take care of themselves.

After their mother, Molly died, Ella became the mom of the clan. After everyone was grown and went off on their own, Ella continued to take care of her dad and her oldest brother, Doss full-time.

Sometime in the teens, Ella Tapp became Ella Swindell when she married Claude Swindell, but it was understood how life would be. So, for many years she took care of the three men in her life until her husband died in the late 1940’s. (Records for that branch of my family are scarce. I’m unsure of actual dates of some events.)

This is Ella on the far left next to her daughter & son-in-law, (my grandparents), my mom as a baby, with her two brothers in front. Ella’s husband, Claude, my Great Grandfather Swindell in the back.

The Swindells and Athertons around 1945. Doss not pictured.

A couple of years after I was born in 1960, Ella’s dad passed away, leaving her with her brother, Doss.

In 1971, Doss got out of bed in his long-johns to find the kitchen dark and quiet. He wondered why his breakfast wasn’t waiting for him. After walking to his sister’s bedroom, he saw the door was still closed. He knocked and called her name, “Ella?” Silence. He tried the glass doorknob, opened the door to find her sleeping soundly under a sheet and blanket. He spoke to her again and again. She didn’t rouse. He approached her bed, nudged her, and found her to be cold. All attempts to wake her fell short. Because she was cold, he went back to his room to fetch his patchwork quilt she had made him and covered her. Uncle Doss lit up his pipe and sat in his chair for some time. Getting a little hungry, he called to her several times without any response. At that point he began to believe Aunt Madge, across the road, might be helpful in getting Ella out of bed. He walked over to his brother’s house, still in his long-johns, where his sister-in-law, Madge was busy washing dishes after breakfast. Still wearing her apron, my Aunt Madge rushed over to the cottage to find my Grandmother Swindell had easily roused…in the arms of Jesus at about 67/68 years old.

It may come as no surprise to let you know, my Uncle Doss Tapp passed away not long after, within the following year.

In short, if my Uncle Doss were here today, with a full healthy mind, he would testify of the great and strong servanthood his sister Ella display for her entire life. Literally, she gave over 60 years of her life to serve others. Unlike John Lennon’s response to Bob Dylan’s musical statement on finding someone to serve, without demanding something in return, was about an unselfishness, putting one’s “self” last.

A hero of mine gave 33 years of service to others. He taught the servant was more valuable than a ruling king. Much like today, he served during civil unrest, crude political scandals and unlawful corruption, economic hardships, incurable diseases among the public, violence in the streets, etc. Still, he found a way NOT to say, Every man for himself!

In that bright “gettin’ up” early morning, when my Aunt Madge walked into her sister-in-law’s bedroom, the words could’ve well been spoken of Ella, “Here is one who emptied herself out because of unconditional, gracious love.”

About ten years ago, after many decades had passed, I chose to drive out to my Grandmother Swindell’s old place in the country. Most all expected a new parking lot over her pasture with a sprawling office complex. Rumors about the area had grown concerning new neighborhoods of expansion for new home buyers, along with zoning for business developments. I was emotionally prepared, or so I thought. Yet, not much had changed down her dirt road. It’s been crudely paved now, but that’s almost all the change. When I turned the corner to that favorite stretch of familiar road, I saw my Aunt Madge’s old house still standing next to the cornfield. Shock came over me to find the old rickety haunted barn was still erect. Her pasture was still wild and free from builder’s dreams. Before I move on, have you ever smiled and shed tears at the same time? That’s what happened to me as I pulled up in front of her cottage, or rather, where her cottage once stood. Seeing that her little humble house had been removed wasn’t the cause of my facial reaction at all. Rather, it was the arranged perennial flowers which continued to bloom, outlining where the edge of her house once was, in a rectangle just where she planted them back in the early 1960’s.

God speaks in various ways, doesn’t He? I heard Him loud and clear that day.

The greatest servant of all is highlighted and illustrated in fuel for the race.

“For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come.” – Apostle Paul – 2 Timothy 4:6 (ESV)

I Almost Couldn’t Bear The News

“When I know you know baby, everything I say
Meet me in the country for a day
We’ll be happy and we’ll dance
Oh, we’re gonna dance our blues away…”  (1972)  “Listen To The Music”  Recorded By:  the Doobie Brothers  Composer:  Tom Johnston

Someone very wise once told me that you never are really sure what you’re praying for when praying for your children.  Usually it becomes more clear in retrospect of a life event.

Megan is my middle daughter, now 30 years old.  I have written of her before, so forgive me if part of this post sounds redundant.

Out of three daughters, Megan is the one most like me, in various ways.  My girls are precious to me, and Megan is the one who aligns more closely to who I am.  It could be because when she was a toddler and pre-schooler, I was Mr. Mom for a few years.  When Tabitha, her older sister (2 years older), went on to kindergarten, Megan and I spent lots of solo time together.  In fact, the solo time lasted two of her young years.  Although she lives in Buffalo, NY now, and I live in Dallas, Tx where she was born, we do still have a special bond.  It’s always apparent when she comes home for a visit.

Megan hug April 1st 2017

Megan was a child actress before she turned singer & recording artist.  Megan has racked up a mound of accolades in upstate NY for the last 12 years.  The bands she fronts have been news worthy and award-winning.  (Currently you can see some of her videos when you look-up Grosh, or Grosh Band.)  She’s on stage about as much as she sleeps each week.

Meganfest

MEGAN-BROWN in Artvoice June 23rd 2016

Photo:  Megan in Artvoice Magazine, June 2016.

Exhaustion and burnout can be an issue if not careful in that business.

So, enter kayaking and camping.  We didn’t do either of these things for outdoor activities when she was a kid, but she always wanted to.  She and a small group of close friends often rough-it out in the beautiful countryside of the southern tier of New York State, or northern Pennsylvania.  With kayaks and tents loaded up, they always manage to find these areas of serene landscapes to unplug and get the fingernails dirty.  Last weekend, they chose the gorgeous hills of the Allegheny National Forest.  Megan always takes pictures for us.  (Why am I hearing the whistle of the old Andy Griffith Show theme song?)

Kayaks PA The lakes and streams are crystal clear, and cold.  With an oar in one hand, and a camera in the other, I love getting to see her kayak perspective.

Kayak 2 PA

Honestly, can’t you just smell the pines and feel the cool breeze rising off the calm waters?  Yeah, me too.

At night they circle the campfire, laughing at each other’s stories, and roasting s’mores over the open fire.  Usually, it’s the wee hours before everyone hits the tents and rolled out sleeping bags.  Ah, youth.

Early last Sunday morning, Aug 2nd around 5 o’clock, while nicely wrapped in their sleeping bags, the piercing quietness of the forest suddenly was shattered by the canvas-shaking roar and snorts of a loud animal in the camp.  Everyone jumped a couple of inches off the ground by the unexpected wildlife just a few feet from the tent stakes.  Peeking out from the flaps of the tent opening, Megan saw something huge and hairy hovering over the food supplies by the now quenched campfire.  Someone turned a flashlight on the enormous growling mass of a creature to find a extra large black bear.

Black Bear Wiki

Photo:  American Black Bear (Wikipedia)

The flashlight in his face didn’t disturb him one iota.  Then someone began to yell and scream at the hefty bear with hopes of frightening him away.  The vocals fell deaf on his slightly rounded ears.  About that time, someone, probably the drummer, had the idea to grab a couple of metal chairs, and beer bottles, and proceeding to clang them together in a sharp ruckus sound for the bear’s fear factors.  No doubt the sound echoed throughout the hills with an ear-shaking frequency.  Still, the bear did not flinch.  Not one eyelash was batted.  It seemed an 18-wheeler could hit the big wall of black hair and he would’ve only be slightly annoyed.  Fright began to turn in the minds of Megan and friends as their bear-banishing choices came to an end.  In cases like this, experts say to flap your arms way up in the air while growling and yelling as you jump up and down to make yourself look bigger than you are.  For some reason that is the best way to scare-off a bear, and other wildlife.  However, no one was brave enough to try it as close as they were to the massive beast.

Nothing they did worked to spook the animal away because he was laser-beam focused on a nylon backpack full of all the ingredients for s’mores.  That’s right.  Inside were graham crackers, marshmallows, honey, and chocolate bars.  He tore into the tough nylon exterior of the pack, as if it were rice paper, and began to chow down, cardboard boxes, plastic wrappers and all.  Nothing that they could do, percussion, scream, or shine on him mattered.  His mind was in tune with one thing…his sweet-tooth.  Interestingly enough, right next to him was a cooler full of hot-dogs, deli turkey meat, and cheese.  I am sure his nose picked up on the scent of the meat and cheese, but even so, the sugar in the backpack was his priority.  THANK GOD!  Finally, the brute of a beast knocked over a cooking kettle next to him and with a dart, he ran off with the makings of s’mores.  The key was…he frightened himself.  His own, “fear itself” shook his core.

I told Megan if that had been a mama with her cubs looking for food, they all would be dead in the woods, far from civilization.  (It was just the dad in me adding that tidbit.)

alone calm faith light
Photo by Garon Piceli on Pexels.com

Yep, sometimes when you pray for your kids, you often don’t know just what you are praying for until after a life & death event occurs.  The Everlasting Arms searches the prayerful heart while holding the future in His hands.

In this strange and spooky election year, full of rage, riots, fires, loud voices, along with a frightening pandemic, we can choose to be the bear, or we can choose to be the kids with noise-making talents.  Personally, call me Yogi.  With all the distractions of our uneasy, restless times, I shall not be moved.  My choice is to stay focused of the life, liberty, and the sweet pursuit of happiness our founding fathers placed in a bag just for me and my descendants.  I will NOT be distracted from it by all the noise-making.  My choice is to stand on what I know to be true in my heart, that core which turns me to the east or west, north, or south.  I will keep my nose in that bag of treats from 1776 and disregard all else that attempts to woo my attention.

Thank you, bear.  Thank you for the personal application at this time in my life.  Most of all, thank you for obeying your Creator by not caring if my daughter was five feet from you while stuffing your cute face.

Speaking frankly, the bear necessities can be rediscovered in fuel for the race.

 “Let a man meet a bear robbed of her cubs, rather than a fool in his folly.”                – Proverbs 17:12 (NAS)

 

Like A Bridge

“Like a bridge over troubled water I will lay me down…Like a bridge over troubled water I will ease your mind.” (1970)  Bridge Over Troubled Water   Recorded by:  Simon & Garfunkel   Composer:  Paul Simon

As I gladly munch down on the left-over Halloween candy, I am looking out my studio window spying the very first turning leaves on my street.  Although faint, they are there.  They lack the brilliance of the stop-sign red maple leaves I loved in my Buffalo, NY days, but they do testify of the season in Texas.

Up north foliage-hunters are taking in the unmistakable aroma in the autumn air, as well as taking to the roads gazing at the mix of hues splashing across the wooded landscape.  Depending upon where you are you just might be on an old country road, with all its twists and turns, where after a few curves in the stretch you might just roll the tires up close and personal to something like this.

Covered bridge from Joan

My fiance, at the time, took this shot as we were overjoyed at the find deep in the woods of Western New York.

If you discover one of these in my home state of Texas it would not only be rare, but an oddity at that.  In fact, in the U.S. where covered bridges are not long gone, they will be unless a local proactive community protects them.  Such a lovely view of a time way beyond the scope of our rear-view mirror.

Most were built like this one, humble and narrow, as the horse & buggies and early automobiles were constructed.  Most were designed to accommodate only one buggy, or car of its day going one way.  And finally, most all were covered with roofs, some shingled while others were tar layers or tin.  The majority of old covered bridges in the U.S. were built between 1825-1875.  The traveler of yesteryear would tell you the reason they were covered was to shelter the rider, along with the horse yoked to the wagon, buggy, or stagecoach.  After all, it was welcomed during storms when pounding country roads.  In the heat of summer, it was a natural bull-run and shade.  The breeze would blow from one end to the other while the roof made for a cooling rest stop.  However, even though the functionality existed, the builders of that time would explain the purpose for roof and walls in another way.  The bridges were covered to protect the wooden floor of the bridge from rain, snow and ice, keeping it from water logging and weather-rot.  And THAT’S why you don’t see them much in the dry state of Texas.

If you ever approach an old covered bridge, I suggest parking off to the side to take a leisurely walk through the old rustic structure.  Much like an antique barn, it has that old weathered lumber smell floating through it.  Look up.  Often birds have their nests in its low hanging rafters.  You can hear your footsteps greeting the wooden planks with all its creaks, pops, and knocks.  Examine the railings, the boarded walls, and beams as you run your hand over the aged grain of the timber.  Peek through the occasional knotholes at the water beneath.  Listen for the wind as it communes with the long-standing structure.  Its breezes have been whistling through the old woody frame for over one hundred years or more, sharing tales of older times.  Close your eyes and hear the echoed wooden wagon wheels against the floor of thick lumber.  Listen for the hooves prancing on the planks from one end to the other.  Feel the vibration from a 1918 milk truck slowly making its way through the antique wooden housing.  It’s a very unique experience.

When we were there, I couldn’t help but think about the various travelers who graced the old covered bridge throughout the last century.  Surely there was a doctor in a Model-T on his way to deliver a baby at the next farm beyond the creek.  Then there’s the rancher’s wagon with a new plow horse in tow rumbling the timber slabs.  Back in the day, a circuit preacher on horseback clopping through for services at the Methodist Church, after closing services at the Baptist congregation earlier the same Sunday.  I can imagine, a farmer on an iron-wheeled tractor pulling a flatbed wagon of freshly harvested hay popping the timber floor.  There had to be someone’s great-great-grandparents who raced to the covered bridge during a stormy honeymoon night on the way to the threshold of a new house.  Many, many lives.  Many, many stories.  Many, many who have gone before us to their resting place.

One caution here.  Today’s vehicles are much heavier, much bulkier than what the old bridge was built to accommodate.  Some may have warning signs at the entrance displaying a weight and height limit for those who wish to drive across.  Some SUV’s may be too wide.  Some trucks, too tall for the rafters.  Also, be aware, the buggy wheel of the times never had to worry about flat tires.  Our trek across may find loosened carpenter’s nails.  Due to weathering and age, many pegs and nails find their way back to which they were driven.  There’s much for a driver to consider.

My picture was taken around 2007.  Although a few years have gone by, I often run across the digital shot in my computer files.  When I do, without fail, a warm flush runs through my veins.  A smile visits my face each time my eyes land on it.  I can’t help but wonder if it’s still there.  A simple brush fire can consume its aged lumber within minutes.

At the time I didn’t think of it, but life tends to point to teachable moments at the most simplest of objects.  The old covered bridge is very much a photo of my personal life, my personal faith.

As life would have it, my faith in Jesus is a narrow path.  The objector might point out the age of the object of my faith.  To that person, Jesus only lived to be a 33 year old man, some 2,000 years ago, in a far away sliver of a weakened country ruled by a dominating Emperor in Rome.  At first glance through the knothole of history, it would seem old, ancient, and rickety.  That one without faith may see Jesus as unable to hold up the weight faith requires, much like the old bridge.  My agnostic friends and family would say having faith in a 2,000 year old Jesus doesn’t yield much.  After all, to trust an old, seemingly fragile bridge, accompanied by all the poundage of the day, might very well deliver a carpenter’s nail in your tire, slowing the progress to the other side.  The Apostle Peter might come up out of the water to warn of the winds which shake and rattle the structure on the journey across.  All are true, fair considerations.  Still, it’s not a bridge too far.  Besides, isn’t that what faith is?  Believing on something without hard evidence, or even unseen would be a biblical description.

Yet, the coin flips to another view etched in metal.  The ancient, rickety, weathered, narrow covered bridge is the perfect picture of faith.  (If you need to scroll up to take a closer look at the photo, now’s the time.  It’s okay, I’ll meet you back here.  I’ll be waiting for you.)

My atheist and agnostic friends, who I dearly love, should consider why I stopped to absorb the framed structure.  The detail, the craftsmanship, the engineering from someone who went before me, prepared it for me, knowing I would arrive at the entrance in due time is a fascinating thought.  That mirrors nicely the One known as The Great I Am.

Consider this:

Jesus makes a way over trouble waters on multi-layered scales.

Jesus makes a way, bridging, connecting my unholy state to His righteousness.

Jesus made His way narrow.  In order to tread through it, you will need to unload.

Jesus made the way to be solo, only one-way.  Nobody goes through as a duet, trio or quartet.  Owning humility is the entrance toll.  Pride must be shed.  All must leave behind their wide vehicle.

Jesus made a way with low hanging rafters.  To be in Him, bow the head, the knee.

Jesus made a way with shelter.  He shields from conjured destructive elements.

Jesus made a way with hardships expected.  Life in faith will have its rusty nails.

Jesus made a way to new birth, new teachings, new crops to harvest, new flock, new home with an everlasting spiritual marriage partner, and a new promised resting place.

Jesus made a way with old creaking planks, supported by The Rock Of Ages beneath.

As for me, I drive across this faith bridge daily.  Challenging at times?  Yes, but He said it would be so long ago.  The victory trophy comes at my last stride.

Non-believers will claim my faith is a crutch.  I say it’s a bridge, weatherproofed with fuel for the race.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God;  not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.  For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”  – Ephesians 2:8-10 (NAS)