The Hussy in the Hippie Bus


By Laura Kathryn Rogers

Johnny Paul Vernon was a blessed man, and he knew it.

He’d gotten his father’s bright blue eyes and long curly eyelashes. His skin, as a teen, never had the first acne eruption. His frame was long and lean, and he had plentiful hair in all the right places. He had been able to start shaving at about age ten. He had a mellow voice and longish blonde hair that put one in mind of a feller who was on his way to being star of something or another.

Johnny Paul got his first hickey when he was six, in the sandbox at school. Aunt Ginny wore out a peach-tree switch on him for that. No boy she was raising was going to be getting ‘the devil’s tattoo’ on his young, innocent skin, not while she was around. And God help the little hussy that mistook her lips for a vacuum cleaner hose.

But even Aunt Ginny couldn’t stop puberty and the evils (in her eyes) which followed. Girls loved Johnny Paul. They wrote him love letters, brought him treats, begged for kisses, and even called him on the phone at home. Aunt Ginny was scandalized.

She tried to keep all his would-be girlfriends away from him. She worked him around the house, the garden, and monitored what little free time he did have. She marched him to church every chance she got, hoping she’d work the devil out of him.

All this did was make Johnny Paul get secretive with his many girl followers. In a small town where everyone knew everyone else, he was pretty successful at keeping his girlfriends from finding out about each other, and Aunt Ginny finding out about any of them. He had to go to school sometime, and there he kept what jealous boy classmates called a virtual harem.

He was a raring, wild, red-hot young man in the flower of deep Southern youth, and he wanted to try every flavor in the Baskin-Robbins school of love before he settled down.

Aunt Ginny wouldn’t let him take phone calls from the girls, and if she saw him with gifts, she’d throw them away. So Johnny Paul took to eating his home-made treats in the woods before he got home. When Aunt Ginny finally said he could date, Johnny Paul sorta laughed to himself. He’d been dating in his own way, since kindergarten.

Johnny Paul, though well fed, clothed and cared for by Aunt Ginny on an amazingly tight budget, didn’t have much money for a car. That didn’t matter to the gals in Mulberry County. They had cars, they’d squire him around. Johnny Paul took it as his due, and it was a frequent thing to see him sporting around in the passenger seat of the county judge’s daughter’s mustang, or the most successful rancher’s daughter’s Camaro.

Johnny Paul had begun drinking as a youngun, too and it was better than mother’s milk to him. Although he was naturally funny, handsome and drop-dead charming, he felt that a little nip just made him that much more irresistible.

And he must have been right. That, and a slap of ‘Brute’ aftershave in all the right places got him more gals than honeybees to a hollow tree.

Johnny Paul graduated high school, and went to technical school at the nearby junior college. He learned to diagnose and fix a car to such a level that he was almost like a savant at it. He could listen to the car, smell the fumes coming out of it, even just note the way it was going down the road, and tell you exactly what ailed it. He quickly got a very good job with Monty Farmer over at the Ford dealership as a mechanic.

Monty Farmer loved having Johnny Paul working for him, at least at first. Gals from all over the county, all the way down to the Florida line would come for him to ‘fix’ their cars. Likely as not, not a thing was wrong with them. The gals just wanted a reason to spend some time near Johnny Paul. Monty made a small fortune on tune-ups and oil changes–sometimes the same car several times in one week.

Johnny Paul loved the attention, and the gals kept him so busy that Morty gave him all the overtime he wanted. Johnny might come to work a bit lickered up some days, but it never kept him from doing a good job. He gave Morty a ‘honest eight’ and then some.

The problem was, that the girls would get impatient, waiting for their turn with Johnny Paul. They’d get jealous of each other, and small fusses would turn into epic battles in the dealership waiting room. After awhile, Morty told Johnny he would screen the women coming in, and give the non-emergencies to other equally able mechanics. The girls didn’t like that one bit, and boycotted for a while. But finally they all came back in dribs and drabs.

Morty figured that if Johnny Paul had his own wheels, maybe he wouldn’t need the girls so much, and things would settle down. For that reason, out of practicality and gratitude for the business the gals brought, Johnny Paul was directed to pick out any used car on the lot. It would be his, as sort of a bonus.

Johnny couldn’t find a thing he liked. Till one day, a new vehicle drove on the lot, and Johnny Paul fell in love.

This was the mid-sixties. A lot was changing in Southeast Alabama, but a lot was determined to stay the same. The music was changing. All of a sudden, four floppy haired Liverpool lads were making girls everywhere scream. Elvis had been around even longer, singing in a way that made even the most solemn matron’s hips twitch just a little. There was the unpopular Vietnam war and the kids protesting against it up in Tuscaloosa (and even Auburn!). Girls hem-lines were going up, up, up, oh my, and boys hair was getting way too darn long.

That September, Johnny Paul was standing under a car that he’d just changed the oil on the week before. He was pondering if he should waste perfectly good oil just for the eight bits a cute redhead was willing to pay. She was pretty, alright, and he already got her phone number, but he felt sorta bad about it doing unnecessary work on her car. His conscience quieted when the redhead winked at him and walked off in a slinky way to get her a coca-cola.

Just then, his destiny in a multi-colored mini-skirt and thigh high hip boots walked into his life.

Jillian Armstrong was a newcomer in town. Her father, Herman, was a new president at the bank that was the rival of Clevus’ bank. They lived in a nice house on a nice street, and Jillian was the only child. There was nothing that green-eyed, strawberry blonde Jillian couldn’t wheedle out of her pappy. Her mother, Flossie, wasn’t much better. When Jillian got her driver’s license in Birmingham, where they’d lived before moving to Contentment, she only wanted one thing. A Volkswagen psychedelic van.

Her daddy, Herman, managed to get her one that was Tweety Bird yellow. But Jillian didn’t want that. So, her daddy gave her the blessing to take it to the Ford dealership and ask how to get auto paint to make it into the VW psychedelic van of her dreams. That’s where she met Johnny Paul.

Johnny Paul had been a ladies man since he understood what ladies were. He had broken many a heart but managed to keep his own intact. But Jillian was something special.

She cast her feline eyes on him, and he stared at her from the oil pit, wishing he could’ve taken a shower about fifteen minutes before. He’d never seen anyone so beautiful in his life. From her pretty pout, to the dimples in her heart-shaped chin, to the way she had her hands on her hips, determined to get what she needed for her van. Johnny Paul was completely and irreversibly in love.

Johnny Paul not only bought all the auto paint Jillian wanted for her van, but he quit his job with Morty during a very busy day to help her paint it, and get the van in perfect running order.

Morty called Aunt Ginny in a panic. “What has that boy done now, Morty?” Aunt Ginny asked. When told, she said, “I’ll be up there in a minute to straighten him out.”

When Morty told her Johnny Paul had gotten in Jillian’s van and took off,  Aunt Ginny took to prayer while on the phone. Morty initially joined in to be polite, then he figured, as a believing man, that Ginny had gotten the big guns out and he’d soon have his best mechanic back working for him.

He turned out to be wrong.

Aunt Ginny got all the entire family spread out all over the county looking for Johnny Paul. They looked, but there was no Johnny Paul anywhere.

Perhaps, if they’d looked in Jillian’s back yard, they would have been more successful. There, until the last light made painting impossible, he and Jillian swirled colors, shapes and fanciful words all over the VW van. Finally, exhausted, Johnny Paul fell into a lawn chair and was sound asleep. Jillian, thinking him just adorable in the moonlight, covered him with a light blanket and went into the house for the night.

When Johnny Paul didn’t come home that night, Aunt Ginny near about blew a gasket. Sure he was 22 by that time. Sure he was legally and in every other way an adult. But surely that boy had been raised better! Where could he be?

The next morning, after having breakfast with Jillian’s accommodating, though not quite impressed mother and father, he sidled on home, to figure out his next plan. He no longer had a job, and he wasn’t sure Morty would have him back, so he needed to figure out something else. He spent the day brooding on the back porch, not answering any of his Aunt Ginny’s questions. She finally got disgusted with him and went into the kitchen to fix supper.

About the time she had put the chicken and dumplings, biscuit, collard greens and corn on the cob on the table and called everybody, there was a distinct sound of a horn in the front yard. Not just a horn, but someone was being persistent with that thing. Beep, beep, beep, beep! Dang, it was loud!

Aunt Ginny went out to the front porch, ready to engage in battle. For someone to be that insistent on interrupting their supper hour, there had better be blood and broken bones–at least in her mind. Dinner time was sacred. If you weren’t married (and sometimes if you were) your presence was expected if you were one of Aunt Ginny’s adopted kids. Aunt Ginny didn’t like her boat being rocked one little bit.

Jillian wearing an outfit she’d gotten in Chicago that was similar to one that Grace Slick wore, all green silk, writhing serpents and way too much leg with tall, spiky heels. Jillian loved Grace Slick, and had eyeliner on like hers, and had her hair teased in a wild way that put Aunt Ginny in mind of a witch.

If this startling first impression wasn’t bad enough, Jillian made it worse by laying on the horn again, then standing up so that she came out of the place in the roof that slid back. Aunt Ginny had never seen anything like it in her entire life.

“Johnny Paul here?” Jillian called out, just as normally as if it was a formal call.

Aunt Ginny’s cheeks turned bright red, she started puffing like a blow fish, and stomped her tiny feet on the porch. “No he ain’t!” Aunt Ginny said, angrily. “And I won’t have no hussy in a hippie bus coming to fetch him, neither! Go home, girl!”

What Aunt Ginny didn’t know (who’d actually come to dearly love Jillian in time) was that she’d just met her match. No one had ever told Jillian ‘no’ and made it stick before. This tiny granny-looking lady wasn’t going to do it, either.

“Johnny Paul! Come on out here!” Jillian hollered.

Aunt Ginny was near about beside herself. She looked for the nearest disciplinary weapon in her reach, and found the broom she used to sweep the porch. She heisted it over her head, and went running towards the VW bus, waving it at the shocked Jillian.  “Now I done told you, GIT!” Aunt Ginny yelled.

Jillian’s emerald eyes narrowed, then seeing that broom coming closer and closer, called out Johnny Paul’s name once again, defiantly.

Just like that, a zip of wind rushed by Aunt Ginny.  Johnny Paul got past her somehow, got into the VW bus, and he and Jillian took off down the road, with Aunt Ginny still hollering and waving the broom after them.

Aunt Ginny spent the rest of the evening on the phone to the family who weren’t at the dinner table. She was too shocked to eat. Then, she got on the phone to Brother Holland. He put Johnny Paul on the phone prayer chain. Johnny Paul’s siblings all wondered what the outcome would be. Their brother had been kidnapped by a hussy in a hippie bus! What was the world coming to?

Several days later, Johnny Paul humbly went to Morty and asked for his job back. When Morty asked why, Johnny said it was very simple. He was a married man and he needed to support Jillian, his wife. The two had gone clear to Crestview, Florida and gotten married at her cousin’s church. Florida didn’t require a blood test, and her cousin knew the mayor, so getting it all done was pretty easy.

Morty, his better side appealed to, rehired Johnny Paul and offered his best wishes to the young couple. Johnny Paul, remembering Morty’s offer, picked out a bright blue Ford F-10 that had some miles on it, but would get him to and from work. Jillian would need her van after all, as a young matron.

This time, Johnny-Paul’s employment lasted about three months. Johnny gave proper notice this time, however, with the best of reasons for moving on. He was going to be a Daddy.

Jillian’s father had offered him a bank job (which he would manage to keep for a few years) and had let Jillian pick her choice of a two bedroom mobile home and a lot in the nicest trailer park in the county.

Aunt Ginny, despite her misgivings, finally came around and accepted Jillian. However, it rankled her from time to time that getting a new daughter in law came about because she’d been bested by a ‘hussy’ in a ‘hippie bus.’

 

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It Came From the Lake….


By Laura Kathryn Rogers

The Vernon family was a multi-flavored mess.

You had Clevus, who for many years was the best hell-raiser the county had ever known. You had Tully who was closest to normal, Julie-Ann who was the first to scandalize the families honor by marrying Yankee, and Bessie Mae, who followed her elder sister’s example after two failed back to back marriages.

Next, there was Georgia Grace, former beauty queen and full-time family black sheep. Johnny Paul was the next to youngest, and the town drunk, who took over where his elder brother Clevus left off as resident hell-raiser.

Then, there was Bobbie Ray.

Bobbie Ray had never known his mother or father. Eula Mae, his mother had died giving him birth, and his father Amos Paul died in a logging accident the same week. Bobbie had only known Aunt Ginny, who was Mother, Father, chief bottle washer and family head, followed closely by Clevus.

Bobbie Ray was a tee-totaler. He was faithful husband to Wilmer (Stuart) Vernon, and worked at the local library after getting a degree (with straight A’s) at Auburn. If you ever even suggested to Sheriff “Plug” Coursey that Bobbie Ray was anything less than trouble free, you would have set the good Sheriff laughing hard and long. Bobbie Ray was so well-behaved that he sometimes made folks in Contentment nervous.

All except for one memorable occasion.

It was a hot July day, and Bobbie Ray had taken the week off from the library to tackle a list of Wilmer’s ‘honey-do’ chores. He was so diligent that he’d already gotten most of her list done by Monday. So, by Tuesday, he had some time on his hands, waiting for a few building supplies to come from Montgomery.

After enjoying a sumptuous breakfast that Wilmer whipped up early that morning, Bobbie Ray was sitting in the shade of their white oak tree about to take a nap. His sooner hound, Elvis Presley Jr. had put his head on Bobbie Ray’s lap about to take a snooze of his own.

Just then, a loud roar sounded, about giving Bobbie Ray a heart attack. Elvis Presley Jr. gave a yip and went running under the porch.

Bobbie Ray, squinting towards the noise, sighed deeply. It was his brother Johnny Paul in his bright blue, rusted out Ford pick-up, with a bass boat being hauled in the back.

In the truck beside Johnny Paul was his own sooner hound dog, George Wallace IV. The truck usually sounded like it was about to throw a rod, but somehow managed to get from point A to point B. Today, a stinky blue-black smoke was issuing forth from the exhaust pipe and it looked for a minute like the front brakes were about not to brake. But Johnny Paul managed to get his truck stopped just before he run over Bobbie Ray’s right foot.

“Brother!!” Johnny Paul hollered out, stepping out of the truck, almost losing his footing, and steadied himself at the last minute. As town’s most intoxicated, he had a reputation to maintain. He was never hung-over, because he never stopped drinking. This morning was no exception. So, it wasn’t just his truck blowing smoke.

“Brother!!” Johnny Paul hollered again.

Bobbie Ray rubbed the ear closest to his brother. “I’m right here, Johnny Paul.”

“Right on, Brother, right on! I’m here to spend some time with you! I cain’t think of the last time we spent time together. Cain’t think of it.”

Bobbie Ray stepped back, trying not to breathe in his brother’s alcoholic fumes. “If you’d come to Brother Holland’s services every once in a while, you’d see me. You’d see Wilmer, and Aunt Ginny too.”

Johnny Paul considered the comment, then rejected it. “Church ain’t on Tuesday. Let’s go fishing, brother! We had that big rain last night, I bet the big ‘uns are swimming right near the top, just waiting for our fishin poles.”

“I, uh….” Bobbie Ray stammered. “Wilmer might….”

“Aw, come on. You can’t be under her foot all the time! You need some time out with the guys.” Johnny Paul insisted. Wilmer came to the screen door, and frowned at Johnny Paul. “How you doin’ brother-in law?” She asked, a touch of warning in her voice. Johnny Paul, well taught from life with Jillian, caught that tone of warning, and got charming.

“Wilmer, I want to take Bobbie Ray fishing. He works so hard, he needs a day to just sit in the bass boat and watch the clouds roll by. Have one of your meat-loaf sandwiches or some of your fantastic fried chicken, and bring you home a mess of fish to fry.”

Wilmer considered it, then looked at her husband, her frown softening. “He sure has been working hard on his week off. Alright. I’ll fix ya’ll a nice picnic basket and ya’ll go have a good time.”

Thus blessed, the two men were soon in Johnny Paul’s truck which had stopped spewing black smoke, and acted like it wanted to be respectful. Elvis Presley Jr. had even come out and got in the back of the truck with George Wallace IV. They’d come from the same litter a few years back, and so they got along fine back there.

Hogwalla Lake was about four miles out of Contentment, and was a man-made lake dug out by the Army Corp of Engineers from over at Camp Rucker. It was a 40 acre lake that was fed by the Mulberry River. Some fancy folks kept summer cabins there, but mostly it was a long-time favorite for locals to fish the catfish, bass and bream stocked there.

Some of the best places to fish were on the less traveled sides of the lake near the dam where only trucks could get on dirt roads.  Johnny Paul knew this area like the back of his hand. And it was there on the wild side of Hogwalla Lake that the two men unhooked the bass boat, and set out with the picnic lunch and their fishing gear. The two dogs lay down at the edge of the water, and watched the two men go out to a spot that Johnny Paul swore would get them a boat full of fish in no time flat.

Bobbie Ray had gotten thirsty on the way over, and so he’d started drinking from one of the large thermos’s Wilmer had packed along with their lunch. However, in the packing, he hadn’t seen his brother spicing up the fruit punch Wilmer had mixed together. And that ‘spice’ just happened to be near about 95 proof.

Johnny Paul knew that his brother would object to any alcohol going into his beverage. He didn’t want to upset his brother, so each time he poured more moonshine into his fruit punch, Johnny Paul would distract him.

Bobbie Ray thought it was strange that his brother was suddenly at one with nature, but he obligingly looked each time that Johnny Paul swore that he saw a new type of bird, plant or even a pole cat never seen before in Alabama.

Only Bobbie Ray never saw anything. He’d kept drinking his curious tasting fruit punch, and  by the time he got to the boat, he didn’t really need much convincing. In fact, Bobbie Ray was practically a new person, you could say. The old Bobbie Ray was no where in evidence.

By the time that they got to their spot, Johnny Paul didn’t have to hide his spiking. In fact, Bobbie Ray was helping him mix the ingredients.

The two bonded like they never had before. They sang, they told tall tales, in fact they did everything but fish. The lush and the former tea-totaler were having the time of their lives.

Until the unthinkable happened.

It came out of the lake, near them. Bobbie Ray saw it first. He was just finishing the first jug of mixed up fruit punch when he dropped the jug in his lap. He started making a gasping sound like the punch had gone down the wrong pipe. Johnny Paul looked at him, and then in the direction where he was pointing.

Johnny Paul started to scream.

Later on, they weren’t sure what it was that they saw. Some said that it might have been a large size beaver. Others were sure that it was a turtle. But they were never able to convince the boys of either reasonable solution. Johnny Paul’s hootch and Billy Ray’s imagination (and education) combined to form only one possible conclusion. It was Nessie–the Loch Ness Monster. Somehow, she’d found her way from Scotland to Southeast Alabama.

And she was headed straight for them.

Just then, Sherrif Plug Coursey was coming ’round in the county truck, looking for poachers. He saw the uproar in the lake, and jumped out of his vehicle. The two men half swam, half walked on the water to get to him. They screamed, and cried, then started getting sick, pointing back to the creature that surely was going to eat them for lunch, a creature that Sherrif Plug could not see at all.

The boys dogs got upset at them, because of the carrying’s on, and started barking at them. The Sheriff managed to get Bobbie Ray and Johnny Paul in the back of the truck, and hand-cuffed them to the tool box to keep them from jumping out. Because the dogs were much better behaved, they got to ride up front with Sheriff Plug.

There was really only one way to get Bobbie Ray to his home, and that was straight through town. The men continued to holler and vomit all the way to Bobbie Ray’s, telling all shocked onlooker’s about the ‘monster’ in the lake. The tale got better the more people were looking on.

A red-faced Wilmer drug her inebriated husband into the house, much like a Mama Cat will get after an errant kitten. Jillian, used to Johnny Paul’s antics drove up in her multicolored VW van, unceremoniously threw him in the back, and took off to their trailer. The Sheriff went back to the lake, didn’t see anything at all, and then returned to his office shaking his head.

By the end of the week, Bobbie Ray was over his first (and the only) hangover he would ever have. Johnny Paul was still drinking, swearing that they had found something life-threatening and hideous in the lake. Neither man would ever go near the lake again.

And Nessie, if that was what she was, never made another appearance, perhaps going back to Scotland where folks took pictures rather than losing their minds when she made her rare appearances.

On not taking myself seriously


By Laura Kathryn Rogers

This morning, it seemed to me personal failure was to be my fate.

I got up, and everything that could go wrong with getting ready for mass, seemed to go wrong. I started to wonder if the devil really didn’t want me to go to church.

Then, the phone rang. I let it go to voicemail, and was going to leave without listening. I reconsidered, and listened. To my horror, I realized that not only was I not where I was supposed to be, I was late.

Yesterday, we had a three hour power outage. Prior, I had faithfully set my alarm clock for the right time to get up for mass today. Even turned the clock one hour ahead. Then, while talking to a friend on the phone, bragged about this.

After the power came on, I re-set my clock. A few hours later, went to sleep feeling very competent and prepared.

Problem was, I set the time for winter time, not ‘Spring-forward’ time. While I was listening to my voicemail, mass was going on without me.

Now, this wasn’t just any mass. I am a new convert to Catholicism. I’ve been going to a Rite of Christian Initiation (RCIA) class for about two months. This mass was going to be ‘the Rite of Sending’ where RCIA members along with their sponsors testify that they are ready to take this most important step.

And, I was late.

At first, I considered hiding out at home. Not explaining, just hiding, embarrassed. Thankfully, the adult in me took over the situation. I called my sponsor, got her voicemail, told her I was running late, and then got into the car and headed to church. Got there just as the priest was giving the homily.

At first, I couldn’t find my sponsor. A friendly stranger offered me a seat next to her. I took it, feeling utterly embarrassed. I saw that one of my RCIA attendees was in front of me with their sponsor. When a hymn started, I sheepishly asked if I had missed the rite. They said ‘no.’

I asked if being late meant that I couldn’t take part when it started. Again, “no.” Apparently, this church is more about love and grace than about water torture for people who don’t correctly set their clocks.

Later, I found my sponsor, and went up for the rite. Still, I couldn’t enjoy the service, because I was thinking about how badly being late had messed things up. How disappointed the Deacon (who faithfully leads our RCIA classes) must be. How this was absolute proof that I was not responsible enough or godly enough to be a Catholic.

After, I talked with my sponsor, who reminded me that we are all part of the human race. As such, we will make mistakes. She wasn’t disappointed, not even a little. It led me to wonder: could I be taking myself a bit too seriously?

I had heard it before. It had been said both justly and unjustly.  Once, from a professor when I took leadership over my graduate school student group when a member of it was being inappropriate. Another time, when I worried aloud (excessively) about my absence from a church I faithfully attended.

Still, another time, from a former client after illness forced me to leave my social work job. She approached me in church, and asked (not nicely) “So, now that you’re gone from the agency, do you think the roof will fall in without you?”

The words, to the point, were simple–“Don’t take yourself so seriously.”

Today, the issue had come up again. At the end of the service, I went up to explain and apologize to our Deacon and offer to delay my coming into the church. Not only was he great about it, but he joked that our church was not in the habit of torturing errant parishioners. Where would one start?

At home, I knew I had a lot to think about. I was finally ready to get serious about this business of taking myself far too seriously.

I wrote a blog, and then edited it. I thought it was very good. Even had names in mind with whom I wanted to share it. As I went to read and edit it for a final time, I erased it. It was totally G.O.N.E. At first, I was livid. Then, I thought it was proof that God didn’t want me to write anything today. That, maybe, a nap was more in order. Then, it occurred to me that I might sleep through the service this afternoon (also a part of the RCIA process) if I did.

Finally, I started writing the blog again.

Maybe this will speak the message the other one was intended to do. Maybe not. The message I have is this: we can all benefit from learning how to let go.

My mistake this morning was something that anyone could have done. In fact, the Deacon told me of a family who had missed mass this morning for the same reason. I started to think, ‘but they weren’t in a RCIA class.’ Then, told myself, mentally, to shut up, accept the grace, and show up on time that afternoon.

That’s a good fix to a problem I was making far too problematic. I was, you guessed it, taking myself way too seriously.

Today, perhaps we should consider those moments when we take God off the throne of our lives, and put our worries, our impatience, and our lack of vision on that throne.

Instead, when we make a mistake, own it. Consider then, how to fix it. If needed, confess the mistake, and make amends.

Then, let it go.

God does not want us to be stuck in a mire of self absorption. However, that is exactly the place where Satan wants us. The more we stew on our inadequacies and errors, the more we take our mind off of God and serving Him. How easy is it then, to practice self absorption as a religion? Inflate our perceived importance and forget who controls all things?

I know that putting myself in the center of my mistakes and then inflating it to some ridiculous place is a struggle that I will have again and again. However, perhaps naming it gives me a leg up in the struggle.

God wants us to know that we are loved, set free by His grace, and able to grow past the junk that life throws our way. He wants us to stop sweating the small stuff, and to move past the big stuff. He wants us to grow up in His grace.

When we catch ourselves focusing too much on our mistakes, or how to fix the mistakes of others perhaps we should instead stop and view ourselves appropriately.  Stop beating ourselves up. Take it to God who best knows how to deal with us, all of us, and leave it to Him to bring forth the best outcome.

 

No Plague of Locusts In Sight


It was hard being a third grader in 1974.

Especially if you lived in Contentment, Alabama where there was only one third grade class and teacher in the town. Most especially if you were Eulalie Bradshaw or Suzanna (“Zana”) Redfeather. These two first cousins went around drooping like a hound-dog with a full coat of fleas. Problem was, the grown ups around them understood their predicament, and knew they weren’t far wrong to act that way.

Their problems all lay in one person: their third grade teacher, Nora “Miss Misery” Miserae.

The class was working on multiplication and Zana, later to become an accountant, just loved it. She’d multiply figures on her scratch paper just to see the answer. Even when she ought to be listening to Miss Misery tell her the difference between a verb and a pronoun. She’d scratch busily away at a made up problem, level of difficulty-severe, and lose track of time and those around her.

In Miss Misery’s class, this could be a dangerous thing to do.

One day, while Zana solved the third grade equivalent of Riemann’s hypotheses, she didn’t hear it go utterly quiet in the classroom. She didn’t feel an unholy presence close at hand. Not until a bony white hand grasped her shoulder and forcibly got her attention.

“Did anyone tell you it was time to do math, you buzzard bait?” Miss Misery screeched, ” Did I tell you it was time to do math?”

Zanna had been house broken for years, but just then she very nearly forgot that she was. “No ’em.” She gulped, her eyes huge with fear.

“No ‘UM’ what, Stinker face?” The teacher demanded.

“No, Miss Misery.” Zanna said quickly.

“Well, since you like math so well, you just go over to that corner desk, and do all the problems in the book. And if you miss one, I’ll take my special paddle to you.”

Zanna went over to the desk, her body trembling. Even her fire-red hair seemed limp after that encounter. The joy of experimenting with her once favorite subject was gone, now there was only anxiety that she might foul up and get a paddling.

Zanna told the story at home, and her Daddy, Luther, true to his Cherokee roots, nearly went on the warpath. But Luther was a man who contemplated first, and scalped second. And thank goodness for that, because Luther solved the problem with a ten cent stamp.

It was April, and really hot. But Mrs. Misery wouldn’t raise the windows. Never mind that the classroom had no air conditioner. Never mind that other teachers took pity on their classes and even brought fans in, or let the kids make their own.

Mrs. Misery didn’t sweat. She loved the heat. The hotter, the better.

Some might have said she was getting prepared for the afterlife, others just shook their heads.

It put the children in mind of Egypt, with which Brother Holland seemingly was obsessed. He preached endlessly about what it took to get the evil Pharaoh to see sense and let the children of Israel go. He talked about frogs, and gnats and all the manner of plagues visited on the stubborn leader. But as hard as Zanna and Eulalie prayed for relief, for them, there didn’t seem to be a plague of locusts in sight.

Then, April 12th, the answer came. Mrs. Misery had just put two boys in the ‘position’ for whispering to each other, and had just slapped the girl’s hand next to Eulalie for having messy handwriting. Eulalie was daydreaming about cold, clear water when a knock came at the door.

Mrs. Misery acted like nothing had happened. This was her little fiefdom, and it could hardly be expected that anyone interrupt. The students didn’t dare take their eyes off Mrs. Misery, even as the knocking repeated, and then again, getting louder.

Finally, Mrs. Misery had had enough. She gave her special signal which meant that every head dropped to their desk in total silence. She marched to the door, clutching her ruler. Everybody wondered what the unwise knocker had in store for them.

Mrs. Misery flung the door open and started to say something. Or, the children, peeking up from their desks, thought she did. They heard the rush of inhaled air that usually preceded a tongue lashing from her. But then it went….nowhere.

“Hello, ma cherie.”

Now the kids were seriously peeking, some braver than others, not caring if she caught them sitting upright. The braver ones saw a man of exceptional dress, who somewhat resembled Colonel Sanders. Everything about him spoke taste and refinement.

“Jacques.” Mrs. Misery was heard to say, in a hushed voice, a voice the students had never heard her use before. It made her sound less the she-devil and more the normal acting woman.

A few more heads picked up. She didn’t notice.

“I got your letter, Cherie.” Jacques said, his voice taking on a manly, rich tone. “I’m glad you’ve outgrown your youthful willfulness. I’m here to take you home to Paris.”

All the children had their heads up now, trading looks, mouths gaping. Zana leaned over and poked Eulalie. Eulalie poked her back.

Now, the first thing both girls did every Saturday morning, after eating Lucky Charms or Frosted Flakes, was to sit down and watch Bugs Bunny and his friends on television. It was set in stone that this was how a Saturday started for them. Their parents went along with it, because they could sleep in, and the kids were just transfixed, no matter how many times they saw the cartoons.

One of their favorites was the one when the Tazmanian devil found a she-devil for a mate. Bugs Bunny had arranged this to get Tazz off his back. And, suddenly, it appeared to them both that maybe the would-be couple at the door might not be too far off from the human version.

And Jacques and Nora Miserae did not let them down.

Within seconds, they were screeching at each other, circling, and making growling sounds that sounded more like the cartoon pair than Eulalie and Zana thought was possible.

You can imagine what this did for the classrooms nearby. Eventually, the principal came down the hall, fairly shaking with trepidation about having to deal with Mrs. Misery. But, as it turned out, he was spared.

Through a series of growls, insults and grunts, the two ultimately, in full view of the class, decided they were going to be a couple again. Mrs. Misery took off, all the time fighting with her beloved, out of the school, never to be seen again.

The principal finished the teaching that day, his first act opening the windows. The children, hardly believing their luck, were perfectly attentive and well-behaved the rest of the day.

When Zana got home, she hollered the news to her mother and father.

Luther, sitting at his desk, working on some bills, smiled at his only child.

Eventually the story came out. Luther had written the letter to Jacques Miserae. He had pondered, what might a woman who’d never stopped loving her runaway husband say to bring him back across the ocean?

Luther tapped into his best battle strategy handed down to him by his chief father, who sometimes doubled as the tribe medicine man. He made it sweet enough to appeal to Jacques, but not so sweet that the man would think that Nora Miserae had lost her mind.

And, it worked.

The rest of the term, a nice, but firm substitute, a retired teacher named Mrs. Barnes, taught the class. She brought the kids home-baked treats, sometimes let them finger-paint, and she praised them when they did right.

And she didn’t put the first one of them in the ‘position.’

Sometimes the kids would look fearfully at the door to see if Mrs. Misery was going to make a triumphant return. But she never did.

The two girls knew who their ‘Moses’ was, who had delivered them from their own personal Egypt and brought them the promised land of a teacher who wasn’t a sadist. They didn’t tell, fearful that the word might get back to Mrs. Misery somehow and that she might renew her reign of terror before forth grade began.

But Zanna’s father had proven the power of the pen, which would lead Eulalie to later become a journalist.

And to everyone in Contentment’s best knowledge, Jacques and Nora Miserae went back to France, and lived miserably ever after.

No Manna for Eulalie


When Eulalie Bradshaw got ready for third grade, she thought she was prepared.

She and her Mama, Julieanne, had gone all the way up to Montgomery, Alabama to the mall and to the JC Penney store to get her new school clothes. They only clashed a little bit. Okay, they clashed a lot. Eulalie wanted blue jeans, flannel shirts and comfortable cotton shirts that allowed for some ventilation. Julieanne wanted her only child and daughter to be a little lady.

They would never agree. Julieanne would come up with a pile of pink frilly things that made Eulalie itch just to look at them, and Eulalie would bring her pile of Levis and striped snap button cowboy shirts.

Julieanne would sigh, and throw up her hands as if about to have a serious hot flash. “Now baby girl, I gave you a purty girl name. Why cain’t you dress like a purty little girl? You have such a sweet face. Even your freckles are sweet. Why do you want to look like a little…..”

“Cause dresses are stupid.” Eulalie would interrupt.

And, for the rest of their lives together, calling something ‘stupid’ was Eulalie’s reason for not doing, being or acting in some way that her Mama wanted. And Julieanne, as much as she loved her daughter, never could argue her out of it.

They did agree on school supplies. Julieanne went hog-wild on these. Eulalie loved bright colored notebooks and shiny new pencils. She always got a new lunch box, and that year it was an Elvis lunchbox because she and her mother agreed that he was the finest man alive.

On the first day of third grade, Julieanne sent her only child off with hugs and kisses and a few left over tears from the year before. Julieanne never quite got used to her ‘baby’ leaving her for 8 hours, even when that baby was getting ready to go to graduate school. She made her a nice lunch of cold meatloaf sandwiches, potato chips, a fruit cup,  and pound cake and gave her some money to get a pint of milk.

Eulalie came back that afternoon looking like she’d been shell-shocked. She went and very quietly put all her school things away, changed out of her school clothes, and sat down on the couch. She just sat, didn’t turn on the television or put on a record, or clammer to go outside and tree-climb with her cousins. She just sat.

After awhile Julieanne sat down beside her and cuddled her a bit. “What’s the matter, baby girl?” She asked Eulalie.

The story came out. Eulalie didn’t like her new third grade teacher. When she said the ladies name, her Mama’s jaw dropped. For you see, Eulalie’s teacher had been Julieanne’s teacher in 3rd grade twenty-five years ago.

And Julieanne hadn’t liked her one bit either.

In fact, she’d try to hide from her if Julieanne saw Nora Miserae  coming towards her at the grocery store, or filling station. It was like a small animal ducking out of the path of a hungry hawk.

Nora Miserae was a stern woman, with slate gray hair that had never seemed to be any other color. She had humor-less eyes of undefined color, and a thin, but strong figure that held out no hope for femininity. She kept her hair piled high on her head, plastered with a stinky kind of hairspray she got up in Montgomery, that she said she’d paid ten dollars a can for. In 1974, that was more than some people’s Sunday dress cost, and people who heard about it shook their heads and called her crazy.

No one in Contentment had ever seen her smile.

She was from a good family up near Wetumpka, and back in her maiden years, was a Roberts. Then, she’d high-tailed it off to Paris, France to take some teaching classes and met up with a Jacques Miserae, and married him, to her parents formidable disgust.

The marriage had not borne fruit, and the two pretty much tore into each other like two pole cats in foul mood. Jacques took off back to France after the first anniversary, and Nora kept his name. Nora’s only job offer came from the school system in Mulberry County and thus, she began a long career of terror in the classroom in Contentment.

Nora believed in firm discipline. Lots of it. And she thought herself far above the little reprobates she taught. As far above them as the human was above the amoeba.

She never let anyone forget that her family had a two-story brick house with a circular drive in Wetumpka and her family employed a upstairs AND a downstairs maid. And of course, that she’d married a Frenchman, and, for many years, she told everyone the correct way to pronounce her married (though now divorced) name.

She spoke perfect grammar with a slight accent that no one could place, except that it sounded really uppity and uptight all at the same time.

“Miz-zar-rae” she’d correct the bank teller or the butcher or whoever struggled with her name. She’d light into them and remind them that she didn’t have to come here to teach their little ignorant heathens. She could have taught in a private school in Wetumpka.

No one ever asked her if she would please just go back to Wetumpka, though a few wanted to over the years. Nora Miserae consolidated her nefarious hold on third grade and the hearts and souls of its children. And, over the decades, it became something that, if discussed at all, it was talked about in low whispers with anxious looks. Nora Miserae became the town’s living bogey man.

It went on for nearly 30 years. By the time Eulalie got her as a teacher, she’d stopped trying to tell people how to pronounce her name, and just accepted that they would call her (with justification) “Miss Misery.”

Eulalie told Julieanne that Miss Misery made two of her friends cry that first day. Called them ‘buzzard bait’ and threatened to shake them till their little brains pureed if they said the word ‘ain’t’ again.

When one little boy was talking to his friend, Miss Misery came over and took his brand new number two pencil, and snapped it in half. That boy nearly cried too. He’d been proud of that new pencil.

“What can I do about her, Mama? She’s just mean as a snake! She looks at you like she’s going to eat you for dinner.”

“Well, she was purty mean when I was little, baby girl,” Julieanne said. “And she’s had time to work on it since then.”

As weeks went on, the stories multiplied. Miss Misery did this. She did that. Miss Misery could have taught the Nazi’s a few tricks. If you forgot your homework, she’d slap your hand with a ruler. If you talked too much, she’d make you write the last thing you said fifty times.

And then, there was the ‘position.’

This was usually for the boys, because even in Eulalie’s childhood, most of the little girls wore dresses to school, and it wouldn’t have been decent to make them do this particular punishment. The child would lean over, grasp the back of their ankles and stay there until Miss Misery said they could stand up. Sometimes for a full hour. When that child was allowed to stand, the muscle aches ensured their good behavior the rest of the day.

One day, when Clevus was visiting his sister, he overheard his niece talking about Miss Misery making one of the girls eat a note she tried to pass to another girl. ‘Now that ain’t right.” He announced.

By then, he was newly elected Mayor of Contentment, and felt like he should have some say in local education. He went down to have a talk with Nora Miserae.

When his family next saw him, his posture and humble bearing said one thing, and one thing only. Miss Misery had made him assume the ‘position’ too.

That fall, Brother Holland was preaching about the Israelites and their journey to the promised land. Eulalie and her first cousin, Zanna, listened eagerly at first, hoping to obtain some strategy for surviving third grade.

But Brother Holland was in a morose mood that autumn, and he mostly preached on the hunger of the children of Israel, their thirst, and the weeping and gnashing of teeth in Egypt. Eulalie well understood. Weeping and gnashing of teeth was a daily occurrence in Mrs. Misery’s classroom.

So, she and Zanna endured each new horror, tried to stay out of the line of fire, and longed for the ‘promised land’ of the 4th grade, where they heard there was a nice teacher, and dreamed of heaven-sent ‘manna’ in the form of that final report card saying that they were free to leave Mrs. Misery’s classroom of ‘reading, writing, and ruination.’

(Next: How things come to a head in Miss Misery’s classroom, and how the promised land shows up just a little early.)

Shedding that stubborn skin


One of my favorite parts of the Narnia stories takes place when the good-kid-in-the making, Eustace, is called on to shed his skin.

That sounds like a pretty big job for anyone, but Eustace has worse problems.

When directed to do this, he is a dragon.

Yeah, you heard me. A fire breathing, gold hoarding, thoroughly nasty character that turns up in C.S. Lewis mythology turned theology “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.”

Eustace was a bad kid. Spoiled, rude, obnoxious, something of a bully if he could get away with it. Not the sort you’d want to take for a long sea trip.

Via an enchanted painting, he and two of his cousins get pulled into the world of Narnia for a long, adventure-filled sea trip that tests, tries and grows all of them.

However, I’d argue that it was Eustace who benefited most.

At the beginning of the story, Eustace was a prize stinker. Think of the person you wanted most to pummel in grade school and then multiply by ten–you’d roughly have Eustace.

Put him on a small ship, with people he quickly made despise him, and two cousins who barely tolerate him, in sometimes life-threatening conditions, and you might say he was lucky he later became a dragon.

If he hadn’t, the others might have fed him to one.

Once enchanted and realizing he is indeed a dragon, he at first sees it as a grand opportunity to exact revenge on his foes back on the ship. Then, he realizes that he no longer really wants to. He learns that he doesn’t want to be alone.

However, with such a frightening countenance, who would want to hang around with him?

Once he awkwardly establishes his identity to his family and crew, it is decided that he can be very useful to them. He tears up trees to repair the ship. He does a number of other things to help that would be hard for the crew to do. And for the first time in his life, he finds he likes being useful.

However, practical heads think he must be left behind when the ships voyage continues. How could a ship haul a dragon, even one that can fly? Where would he sleep? What would he eat?

Eustace, the metaphor for what sin can do to a human who has totally given themselves over to it, and isolated themselves from others, faces a very dismal night of the soul.

Then, Aslan, the Christ figure in the story, shows up.

When directed, Eustace gladly tears away at the dragon skin. And it feels good, like scratching a bad itch. Problem was, no matter how many coats he scratches off, there is a smaller, nastier, better fitting one underneath. Until finally, he can’t scratch the last one off.

“I must do it.” Aslan says.

He tears the final skin off Eustace, and throws him into water in a well. Eustace is again a boy, albeit a much better-behaved one.

This is a fantastic story, if you read it just as that. It hits all the requirements for a humdinger of a great story. But there is something much more to take away from this tale.

It is the story of redemption.

At the time we become a Christian, we wear a layer, perhaps many layers, of acquired sin. Stubbornness, self-deception, pride, you name it. It becomes thicker, and more multi-layered the longer we cling to it, not wanting to give up our autonomy.

We might cling to it for years before awakening to God’s grace. Even after that awakening, we might resist God’s further interventions.

When we first learn that Jesus loves us, and wants to be in our hearts and lives, that first layer is stripped away. If we have support from mature Christians, and a hunger to grow further, many more layers fall off as God works with us.

The thing I realize, though, as I go through my life, is there is always another layer. I have  had times when I was sure I had it all figured out, was Suzy-Super Christian. Knew what I needed to know. Don’t bother me with conviction, Lord, I’ve got it! Aren’t You proud of me?

And, to be sure, God is proud of us. He loved us eight layers ago when we were in a much worse place. Yet, he loves us SO much, that he cares TOO much to let us stay in our current layer of sin and rebellion. And sometimes, depending on how tightly we have hung on to the layer that currently covers us, only God can tear that layer off.

When we hold on too tight, God pulls our hands away. We leave some spiritual skin behind.

It hurts.

But in retrospect, it hurts, as the rock song says, ‘so good.’

Jesus loves you and me, He really does. He looks at all the ugliness of our sins, way under all those layers, to that person He knows us to be. To that person we can be, if we trust him to pull off the layers that we might not even be aware are there.

It might hurt, it might be very inconvenient, but such obedience brings us to another part of our journey. A place where our walk can be a little more free, and a little closer to Him.

Today, consider your life. What might your ‘dragon’ skin consist of? What does God need to help you remove from your heart, ambitions, practices or thoughts to move you forward?

Amen.

The Trouble with “Thy Will Be Done.”


Thy Will Be Done.

Wow. That’s a scary proposition. Turn over my ideas, my thoughts, the way I think things should be–to God?

I am made of questions as I ponder this. Why would I want to give up my will to anyone, let alone God?

After all, I have my plans, ambitions, the way that I think things should be. What if God doesn’t agree with my plan? Where will I be then?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve struggled with God over my will versus His will for my life. So many times, He’s allowed me to blunder ahead, stubborn and sure that I’m right. Until, painfully, I realize that I am not.

An associate of mine said to me, a long time ago, “I like to be the one who has my hands on the steering wheel of my life. Problem with that is, God calls me to let go. And if I won’t let go willingly, He pulls my hands off the steering wheel. When that happens, I usually leave some skin.”

At the time I heard that, I thought it was a pretty clever thing for someone else to say. Until time passed, and my hands had to be wrenched from the steering wheel of my life. Until I too had to leave some skin on that steering wheel.

It has only come to me gradually that there is only one problem with saying “Thy Will be Done” to God. What is that problem?

Me.

I don’t want to give up my perception of autonomy. I don’t want to surrender my fantasy of control. I don’t want to think even for a second how out of control I am. Sure, I have a comfortable home, loving friends, a great job, adequate income for both needs and wants. I have the world by the tail, don’t I?

But I also have my own past to remind me how quickly things can change for the worse. As a person who has been homeless, jobless, and at one point, without a single person I felt like I could call on for support, I know that I control nothing. Everything good in my life is a gift from God. A gift of His grace.

As I draw closer to God, I find that there is something freeing in giving up my perception of control. It’s a joke, anyway. I control nothing. The certainty of my eventual death proves that. I don’t control the next heartbeat or breath. Whether the world will even be in existence tomorrow. But in knowing that I have no control, I am free to look to the source of all control–God, the Father.

When I give up control, and with the trust of a small child, say with love, “Thy Will Be Done” and try to mean it each time I say it, it becomes a love song to heaven, something great and eternal within my soul. I get out of my own way.

When I wonder how to pray for someone, and say “Thy Will Be Done” about them, I pray the most pure and loving prayer of all. I don’t suggest to the Creator of the Universe what might be best to do for both my loved ones and not so loved ones (though I sure could give God a few ideas!)

When I plan what I study, where I will work, what decisions I should make on the job, when or if I should marry, or when or if a certain type of ministry is right for me, the first course of wisdom are those four words.

The problem with “Thy Will Be Done” for myself and so many others is that in really saying it, we open ourselves up to become the workmanship of Christ. Really His body, hands and feet. We open ourselves up to the unknown.

We open ourselves up to a way that may not be what we think it should be, but the way God knows that it needs to be. By purposefully surrendering our lives day by day, we learn to desire a will that not only loves and desires to protect us, but a will that has our best interests at heart.

And that, my friends, is a very good problem to have.

Amen.

Traveler Found


The walker in the darkness, lost in the storm

Has seen a great light, in the midst of night

The walker had a flame ignite, so softly, softly

That they did not know themselves

And that flame caught on and burned steadily

Until it became a bonfire bright

Still, lost, the traveler became aware

Of the warm glow of a lover of their soul

They can never go back now,

Never be truly lost again

For they have seen the change,

They have seen the light

They will never be lost again.

 

Dreary…..AND Beautiful


It’s a beautiful dreary Saturday morning.
 
What? You may not understand. But, I’m not kidding. 
I’ve recently had a major heart change in how I choose to view things. To look for the good instead of dwelling on what I perceive as bad.
 
This morning there is the reality of the cold drizzle and the ongoing bronchitis. But there is also the reality of my warm, comfortable apartment, my beautiful Bethany snuggled up next to me…wow that cat loves me more than I am sure I deserve!
 
There is the reality of my Comet, who chooses the couch other than the bed to sleep in, but who comes to visit regularly, rubbing his head adoringly on my legs and feet. And the looks he sometimes gives me, the slow sweet blinks, that show me he feels safe and secure in our home…if a Siamese does that, you know you’re doing okay as the ‘owned’ of a pet!!
 
I have so many blessings, why dwell on what isn’t going well?
 
God is so Good and He is still on the throne.
 
And I am infinitely BLESSED.
 
Amen.