Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Rare and Precious Gift

In each of our lives there are some rare and precious gifts. If we are not careful we will overlook these gifts and fail to appreciate them. These rare gifts are often a person. One of the rare gifts in my life was a man named Kurt Elam. Kurt was my mother’s first cousin. He was the son of Aunt Sarah Elam, who was a sister to my maternal grandfather Morgan Williams. Aunt Sarah’s husband George had been killed while working on the railroad a few years before I was born. They had raised a large family all of whom were grown or nearly grown by the time I knew them. Kurt was one of the older children. He never married and except for a few months in 1953 when Aunt Sarah was living in Covington KY he lived all of his life with Aunt Sarah. At the time I knew him it was mostly just he and Aunt Sarah living together and taking care of one another.

The polite words used in our culture to describe Kurt would have been “simple” or “a little slow”. Some might have said he was socially awkward. He could not read nor write. I am told however, that when it came to reasoning he was a logical thinker and could solve ordinary everyday problems that might arise. Kurt never had steady employment but he kept himself busy doing odd jobs, particularly helping local truckers load and unload their cargo for which he received some small pay. He learned to cope with his challenges and society allowed him to function. He was a member of the New Salem Baptist Church near London, KY and he attended church every time the doors were open. He was always neatly groomed. He was courteous. He was quite. When he did speak it was often a question or a concern about the well being or activity of others.

The New Salem Baptist Church was heated by a coal furnace that was located in the basement. Kurt had the task of firing the furnace and keeping the church warm and comfortable. He took this task seriously and would get up early, walk the mile or so from his house, down Baxtertown Road and across the tracks to the church. No matter how early you got to church Kurt was already there and had the fire going. It was in the process of his carrying out these duties that I had an altercation with Kurt one Sunday morning that caused a different side of him to erupt that I had never seen before. I was probably 6 maybe 7 years old. We got to church early one winter morning and I began to explore the premises. I found myself in the furnace room. The coal furnace had a big lever on the side that you would move back and forth to shake out the ashes. I knew all about this lever and I grabbed hold of it and began to move it back and forth. There were two problems with that. First of all it was not my furnace. For all practical purposes it was Kurt’s furnace. Secondly, the ashes did not need shaking out because there were not many ashes yet which meant that when I moved the lever I was shaking out the hot coals and messing up the fire Kurt had just worked hard to build. It did not take Kurt long to find me and when he did he was angry. His eyes raged and his face was red. He yelled at me. I was scared. My dad heard the commotion and came and rescued me. I was a little worried that dad might have some rage of his own but I guess he figured that Kurt’s abrupt reprimand had been enough. He just got me upstairs to a safe place, told me to stay put and not to mess with Kurt’s fire again. I steered clear of Kurt the rest of that day. By the next Sunday Kurt was back to normal and acted as if the incident had never happened. But I have never forgotten that day. The memory is as clear as yesterday.

I have thought about that incident often and I have wondered why a few shakes of the lever had disturbed Kurt so much. Yes, I had shaken out a few hot coals. While that was a problem and might slow down the heating process it could be fixed easily enough. Another shovel full of coal and a few minutes would solve the matter. I suspect the issue was that I had entered into Kurt’s private world. Firing the furnace and making sure the church was warm was his job. He did not need any help and he did not want any help, especially from a 6 or 7 year old boy. There were few things in life that belonged totally to Kurt but this job did. He knew how to do this job. He knew how to do it right. He was going to do it his way. He was conscientious about this responsibility. I learned a valuable lesson that day about the importance of staying out of the way and letting people do the work that is assigned to them.

Maybe Kurt also understood the importance of his job. The worshippers would be there soon and they would expect the building to be warm and comfortable. Indeed it was important that our bodies were warm. If we were cold we would complain. We would not be able to focus on the truth of God’s word and the movement of God’s Spirit. By making sure the place was warm Kurt was enabling us to have a meaningful time of worship. Indeed we all have important tasks in the church and if we fail to perform our tasks the other facets of the church are hindered also.

Kurt died suddenly of a heart attack. He was only 56. I was a teenager at the time. I attended his visitation. It was a humbling experience. I realized then that in this quiet, content, unassuming man we had been blessed with a rare and precious gift.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Perfect Attendance

I began my academic career at the East Bernstadt School in East Bernstadt KY. East Bernstadt is an independent K through 8 school district that encompasses the small town of East Bernstadt and a small portion of rural area that surrounds it. All the other schools in Laurel County KY are a part of the Laurel County School District. In spite of a wide variety of pressures East Bernstadt has proudly and stubbornly maintained her independence and has thrived in the process.

My family actually lived right on the edge of the school district but the district was lenient and if you lived close to the line and could catch the bus you could choose to either go to the appropriate Laurel County school, which my case would have been Pittsburg, or to East Bernstadt. My mother claimed that East Bernstadt was superior and when it came time for me to go to first grade she decided that I would go there. My mother made a big deal out of starting school. We went together and bought some new clothes and some necessary school supplies including a red-checkered satchel with a shoulder strap so I could bring my papers home for her inspection. On the first day of school I got dressed in my new clothes, mother combed my hair and we sat on the front porch to wait on the bus. Our neighbor, Mr. Napier, was the bus driver and I would be the second stop and the second student on the bus each morning. When the bus came I put my red-checkered satchel on my shoulder and walked out and boarded the bus. My mother caught the moment with her Brownie-Hawkeye camera. I have the picture to prove it. I was on my way in pursuit of grand academic achievements as a first grader at East Bernstadt School.

The school and the gymnasium were made of brown sandstone. This was of no interest to me at the time but judging from the time of construction and the architecture I am wondering if they were built as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). There was one class for each grade at the school and the first grade classroom was in the basement. My first grade teacher was Mrs. Wilma Griffin. I had never met her before but I was told that she was my father’s first cousin which made her my second cousin. Her father and my grandfather were half brothers, sons of the same father but of different mothers. So I guess that made her my half-second cousin or should it be my second half-cousin. Genealogy aside she was my teacher and I was determined to not disappoint so I worked hard and did OK in first grade.

Spring rolled around and I had not missed any days of school. I was working real hard to have perfect attendance. But I got to school one morning and noticed that the glands under my chin were swollen and a little sore. I felt fine otherwise but I made mention of this to Mrs. Griffin and she mentioned it to the principle Mr. Mason. Mr. Mason was afraid that I might have the mumps and he decided to take me home. I got into the front seat of his pickup truck and as the journey home began I started to protest that I did not want to go home because it would mean that I did not have perfect attendance. He said to me “Son, you made it to school this morning. If you are better tomorrow and can come to school and do not miss anymore this will not count against you and you will get your certificate for perfect attendance”. I took him at his word and I told my mother what he had said and the next morning I felt fine. I put my red-checkered satchel on my shoulder, got on the bus and went to school. A few days before the school year was over Mr. Mason came into our first grade classroom and asked Mrs. Griffin how many people in her class had perfect attendance? My ears perked up. She got out her record book and read the names of 3 people and my name was not one of them. I held up my hand and boldly said “Mr. Mason, I have perfect attendance. You took me home early one day but you told me if I did not miss anymore days that since I had made the effort to come to school that it would not count against me and I have been here everyday”. He said “You are right. I remember that. You will get your perfect attendance certificate”. There was an award ceremony scheduled an evening or two after that and I went home and told my mother that we had to go to school that night because I was going to get a certificate. That created a bit of a problem because by this time my Dad had taken a different job in a distant town and therefore he was not home. My mother got someone to watch my younger siblings and we went to the awards ceremony. I remember sitting in the bleachers waiting to hear my name so I could go get my certificate. When it came time for my name to be called Mr. Mason pointed out the importance of perfect attendance and told the crowd the story of my desire and persistence and how I had remembered and held him to his word. The crowd chuckled I am sure. I jumped from the bleachers with a thud and walked up and received my perfect attendance certificate.

That was the only year I attended East Bernstadt School. By the time second grade started we had moved 100 miles away. I think it was probably the only year I ever had perfect attendance. But I have reflected upon that experience over the years and I have often wondered about the value of perfection. Truth is none of us are perfect and that probably does not matter very much. There were more than 20 kids in my first grade class that did not get perfect attendance and I am guessing the got along fine without it. Of those of us who did get recognized for perfect attendance at least one of us accomplished that feat due to a minor technicality. Indeed none of us are perfect and to even get close to being perfect means that someone has cut us some slack and grant us a measure of grace.

 

 

 

Saturday, February 23, 2013

My 1971 Volkswagen Convertible

The year was 1976. I was 19 years old and had just completed my first year of college. I was driving a 1967 Oldsmobile Delta 88. It was a big old tank with a 455 engine. It got about 10 miles to the gallon. My dad had bought it used a few years before so that my mother would have transportation back and forth to work. They gave it to me and said I could finish wearing it out. In the winter time I had to take the breather off, stick a screw driver in the carburetor to hold the choke open in order to start it. By spring I had grown tired of it and began looking for a new set of wheels. I found what I wanted in an orange 1971 Volkswagen convertible. There were a lot of VW Beetles around but there were not many convertibles and I thought they looked stylish. I reasoned that I could increase my gas mileage 3 fold and be cool all at the same time.

I bought it from a sassy little beautician who was a friend of mine but who would not negotiate very much on the price. She would not budge below $1300. I am sure she could tell that I wanted it. So I wrote her a check and off I drove in my orange Volkswagen convertible. I now had a vehicle I wanted to show off. It was a fun car to drive. You did not want to lug it, so in order to drive it right you had to wind it all the way out before changing gears. Those cars had a distinctive purr to them so people who knew you could always tell when you were coming. The cars were noisy. A friend of mine described it this way: “When I ride with you I feel like I have the motor to my grandmother’s wringer washer in my hip pocket”. There was no comfort to be found in a Volkswagen Beetle. You felt everything on the road. I drove it 750 miles one day and believe me when the day was over I knew I had been on a journey.

I am not sure what really attracted me to the car. Maybe it was the fact that it was a convertible. I did utilize that facet of the car quite a bit, especially when I was in college. My friends and I were even known to put the top down on a winter day and drive around campus in it. The car was quite a novelty. It was sometimes a little temperamental and had to be tuned up often but by and large owning and driving it was an enjoyable experience.

I owned the car for seven years. I drove it the rest of the way through college. I drove it to Kansas City, MO when I went to seminary. During that time I made several 600 mile trips between Kansas City and Georgetown, KY. Many of those trips were made at night after I had already gone to class and driven a school bus for 4 hours that day. I drove it back and forth to the places I was preaching in my seminary churches. During the course of the seven years I put well over 100,000 miles on the car in addition to the 45-50,000 that was on it when I got it. As most any VW Beetle driver would tell you, over that much time and that many miles you are going to have to overhaul the engine which I did. I also overhauled the transmission and had a new cover put on the top. I took my wife out on our first date in that car. Even though she was not a lover of VW Beetles she agreed to marry me anyway. It might be worth noting that she now drives a 2010 VW Jetta and likes that just fine.

By 1983 I was growing tired of the car. I began to think about selling it. It was around that time that my wife and I drove it to Northern Missouri (yes Northern should be capitalized) where I was preaching during the last year of seminary. It was Memorial Day weekend and it was late, close to midnight. I am driving south on I-35 when the light comes on telling me the car is overheating. It is an air cooled engine and when the light comes on you need to stop soon. You cannot limp along to the next exit because by that time you will have generated enough heat to warp the aluminum heads and perhaps do some serious damage to the engine. I pull over and stop not knowing what I am going to do. I have a flash light so I open up the engine compartment at the back of the car and I inspect and discover the problem. The pulley which turns the only belt and of course turns the fan which cools the engine is loose.  My memory is not real clear here but as I recall the pulley is made in two pieces, slips over a shaft, and is held tight and together with a nut and washer. The threads have striped on the shaft and thus there is not enough tension to keep the pulley together and tight so that it can move the belt. I am thinking that if I had another nut, the original nut could serve as a lock nut and I might get it tight enough so that I can limp home. But I do not have another nut and the only tools I have with me are a screwdriver and an 8 inch adjustable wrench. It is two miles to the next exit and there is nothing there and I know that it is 20 miles to an exit that has a station but it is Sunday night on a holiday weekend. And how do I get there? These thoughts are racing through my mind when a van pulls over. They ask if they can help, we discuss the problem and they offer to give us a ride to the station and back. The folks in the van are a little bit strange and I am not sure I trust them. But we are stuck on the side of the road at midnight and we decide to take them up on the offer. They give us a ride to the station where a kid is working who knows very little about mechanics but does help me find a nut that might work. The folks give us a ride back and in the middle of the night and with the light of their headlights I put the old nut and the new nut on the shaft tighten them down with an 8 inch adjustable wrench and hope. I thank the good folks in the van and by their help and the grace of God make it home. I learned a valuable lesson that night that I have pondered for almost 30 years. I learned that there are a lot of strange people in the world. Most of them are probably good people who are willing to help. If we can learn to look past their strangeness they can be a blessing to our lives.

I took the car to a mechanic the next day who fixed the problem correctly. But I decided after that experience that it was time that the orange Volkswagen convertible and I part ways. Within a week or so I placed an ad in the paper – FOR SALE: 1971 Volkswagen convertible. I got a few calls and within a few days along came a guy who was buying his daughter her first car. I could tell in her eyes it was just what she wanted. We haggled a little bit on the price. He offered me $2,000 and I said OK. He pays me and his daughter drives off in the car proud and smiling. I watch her drive away and I think to myself I hope she enjoys that car as much as I have.

 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Tribute to Donald Ray Bledsoe

There is a small cemetery located in the church yard of the New Salem Baptist Church on the east side of U.S. Highway 25 near London, KY. With a quick search you will find the tombstone for Donald Ray Bledsoe. The first date on the stone is June 29, 1947. On that day he was born into a family of common, ordinary, working class folk.  His father was a big hulk of a man who made his living as a construction worker. His mother stayed home and tended to their large and growing family. They were faithful in the New Salem Baptist Church, the same congregation my family was a part of. Donald Ray Bledsoe was 10 years older than me so I am remembering him as one of the “big boys” at church. I was just a child. But I remember the day he was baptized. The church did not have an indoor baptismal pool. So often we would baptize outdoors in a little pond that was located across U.S. Highway 25 and probably about the distance of two city blocks beyond. After church was over one Sunday morning we all made the trek across the highway and down to the pond and Donald Ray Bledsoe and some others were baptized. The folks who were baptized had to walk barefoot and wet back to the church where I suppose they changed clothes in the basement. It is funny the images that linger in our mind. For me the sight of him walking barefoot and wet back to the church is the lingering image I have of him

It was not to long after that baptism that his number came up. He was drafted into the United States Army. Upon completion of his training he was assigned to C CO, 1st BN, 8th CAV RGT, 1 CAV DIV. He was given ID No 51949865 and sent to Vietnam. His tour began Wednesday, Feb. 5, 1969. It ended 38 days later on Saturday, March 15, 1969. That is the second date on the tombstone. Somewhere near Hua Nghia, South Vietnam Private First Class Donald Ray Bledsoe suffered multiple fragmentation wounds and died. He was 21 years of age. Three or four weeks later his body was returned and he was buried in the church yard.

At the time of his death my family had moved to a different city. I am sure my parents let their condolences be known but other than that we would have had little contact with the family. He was however a topic of conversation. I was 12 years old at the time. I knew a war was going on but did not know much about it and frankly did not worry much about it. But I now knew someone who had died in Vietnam. The Vietnam War had become real. It was sad. To this day Donald Ray Bledsoe is the only person I personally knew who died in Vietnam. I have often wondered how his family got along afterwards.

I believe the year was 1996. My family and I were on vacation in Washington D. C. We visited the Vietnam War Memorial. I told my wife and children that I personally knew one person who had died in Vietnam and that I wanted to find his name on the memorial. I found it on Panel 29W Line 043. I ran my finger across his name. I read his name out loud – Donald Ray Bledsoe. Then something happened that I had not expected and that I was not prepared for and that I could not prevent. I began to cry. My voice broke. I shed tears. My children looked at me anxiously. I did not cry long but I cried until I was ready to stop.

It has been nearly 44 years since Donald Ray Bledsoe became a casualty of hostile forces in a distant land. He was serving dutifully at the summons of his government. He yielded to the situation of his times for a cause he could scarcely understand.  His personal dreams and ambitions became secondary and were never given the chance to come to fruition.  But let us not forget that for his country and for the family and friends who loved him his life mattered.  As for me, I am grateful that in some small way he helped to shape my life.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

One Thousand and Forty-Six Weddings


I own a precious heirloom that I am quite proud of. It has no real value but it has a lot of value to me. It is a simple ledger book that my mother purchased in 1956. Within it she recorded the names of the men and women whom my grandfather, Morgan Williams, performed wedding ceremonies for along with date of the wedding. There are 1046 entries in this book. The dates range from July 2, 1923 until Nov. 21, 1961. According to my mother my grandfather had a record of all the marriages but they were recorded in a number of small notebooks. Wanting to secure this piece of history in one volume she purchased the simple ledger book and personally took on the task of recording the names of each couple and the date they were married. There are 1030 entries up to July 25, 1956, all written with the same pen in my mother’s handwriting. Sixteen entries are recorded over the next 5 years with different pens and a variety of penmanship. My grandfather died in 1962. At some point after his death and before my grandmother’s death in 1974 my mother secured the book and held onto it as a precious part of family history. My grandfather Williams was a country preacher in Laurel County, KY. He was also a blind man which meant he needed assistance in completing the marriage documents. Even as a young teenage girl and into her early adulthood my mother had often served as his scribe, hence the personal importance of this piece of heritage to my mother. About ten years ago my mother gave the book to me. Mother’s memory was fading by this time but when she gave me the book we sat down together and for about an hour and a half went through the ledger page by page. She knew a lot of the people and could tell me some tid bit of information about them. I was surprised how many of the people I knew.

I recently went through the book and discovered that 876 of those weddings took place in just over a decade between 1940 and 1950. In fact 662 of them took place in the five year period between 1945 and 1949. In 1945 my grandfather performed 127 weddings. His most prolific year was 1946 when he performed 219 weddings. He performed 145 in 1947, 96 in 1948, and 80 in 1949. It does not take to much knowledge of history to figure this out. The boys were coming home from war and were either reconnecting with or finding their girls and starting families. My grandfather was a good friend with the County Clerk. The couples would come to the courthouse and get their marriage license. If they were in need of a minister to perform the wedding he would suggest that they go see my grandfather Morgan Williams. Fact is, during that time period he was not that far away. Often he was at the courthouse anticipating the need for his services. During the course of his ministry there was 31 times that he married three couples on the same day. On nine different occasions he married four couples on the same day. Seven times he married 5 couples on the same day. And on March 29, 1947 six different pairs of brides and grooms stood before him and said “I do” to their vows and he pronounced them husband and wife. Only in Vegas and places like London, KY.

Those were different days. It was in many ways a different culture. What pre-marital counseling was done in those days was done by grandma and grandpa and other such elders in the community. Weddings were simple but they were important and memorable. Saying “I do” did not mean “I’ll try” it meant “I will”. Yet, I am certain that within the 1046 marriages that my grandfather solemnized there were some that failed. Some kept their failures secret. Some learned to endure and work through the tough spots. Some ended up back at the courthouse. I am certain that some were gloriously happy and have fond memories of the day when they got their marriage license and found a preacher who would do the honors and send them on their way. I guess the truth is some would have looked back on their marriage experience as a mixed bag of trials and blessings. Love kept them together and they endured the trials because they enjoyed the blessings. That is the way marriage is. That is not going to change whether you get married in a cathedral by a priest or down by the courthouse by a country preacher.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Thirty Years Ago

My wife and I have been married thirty years today. We were married at a little chapel in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, just one block away from the Kansas state line. Our wedding was simple with just our parents, siblings, niece and nephew, and three other friends attending. My wife’s pastor performed the ceremony. Our life together has been a busy and circuitous journey. We have lived in just two states but have had 10 different addresses. I have had seven different employers. We have three children and together with them have traveled in 42 states and Canada. We have been a lot of places, done a lot of things, met a lot of interesting people, encountered a few challenges and have found solutions to or resolve with most of them.

Thirty years in some ways seems like a long time. For one thing there have been a lot of changes over the past thirty years. Thirty years ago we were still using one of those big heavy typewriters (and a lot of whiteout). We had scarcely heard of the internet. Yet here I am today communicating to people and places in different parts of the world with a click of a mouse. Thirty years ago we would seek to eradicate any mouse that got in the house and now I have a mouse at my right hand a great deal of the time. On the other hand thirty years does not seem long at all. It is not so long ago that I cannot remember holding my wife’s hands, looking into her eyes, and saying my vows. I can still hear her voice as she said her vows to me. I guess if you had thirty years with the wrong woman it would be a long time. But I have been fortunate to have spent the last 30 years with the right woman and it does not seem all that long.

Thirty Years Ago

©2013 Brent Cloyd

Man and woman, pledging no more to be single
Bride and groom, excited that their lives would mingle.
Husband and wife, in love, with hopes and dreams aglow
We were married at the chapel, thirty years ago.

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