My journey to learning about his life and death began on a dusty soccer field near the Nile River in Uganda.
Africans wear all manner of American shirts and caps. I always enjoyed talking to them about who the Boston Celtics were, Adrian Peterson’s Vikings jersey, and my favorite, “Kiss me: I’m Irish.”
I snapped the above photo of the boy in the Tyler Lundin shirt. The young refugee’s face is such a mixture of hope and pain. He’s probably seen things I wouldn’t imagine.
Then there’s Tyler’s smile with the date of 10-26-06. Without knowing the story, I surmised it was the day he died. Eight years before I took this photo in one of the most desolate and remote refugee camps I’d visited.
When I left Up Country (what we called the Bush) and returned to civilization, I googled Tyler Lundin.
Tyler was killed in a car wreck caused by an illegal alien who was drunk and had no license or green card.
Anyone with a heart and brain can agree that a drunk person with no license has no business on the road.
The fact that they’re illegal only deepens the feelings. The fact that Tyler Lundin was killed by a Hispanic illegal alien, Wilfredo Brizuela, is a tragedy. Most Hispanics are the hardest workers you’ll ever see. They do the jobs many Americans won’t: planting trees, picking crops, doing the dirty thankless jobs that are part of every society.
It’s a truth that hundreds of my African friends told me, “I want to go to your country. Take me back to America. We’re looked at as the land of great opportunity. And it is true, but I’d tell my friends, “You wouldn’t like it. You’d miss Africa.”
My friends laughed not realizing I was serious.
If you’ve not seen the Reese Witherspoon movie, The Good Lie, I recommend it. It takes place in South Sudan, Kenya, and Kansas City and shows the difficulty of refugees coming to America.
The best book on this same difficult transition is Dave Eggers’ What it the What.
Folks worldwide wish to come to our country. I don’t blame them. I’ve seen where many of them live.
But they must play by the rules.
My experience was in central Africa, but I guarantee most Middle Eastern refugees want the same thing the Somalian, Darfurian, Dinka, or Nuer want: a chance to live freely without fear.
Before you judge an immigrant or refugee, remember that they’ve lived in places where living is survival.
I wonder what Tyler Lundin would say about it all.
I’m amazed at the fact that a t-shirt with his face on it made it from California to Uganda.
It’s a safe bet that the young refugee wearing the shirt is still wearing it most days. It’s probably ripped, stained, and he’s outgrown it. But as he wears it, having no idea who Tyler Lundin is, he still bears witness to a life lived on another continent.
If I ever go back to Rhino Camp, I’d love to find him on that soccer field and tell him Tyler Lundin’s story. To place a face to a life.
And if could be with Tyler Lundin, I’d show him this photo.
He’s got a nice smile on the shirt. I believe it would be wider and brighter.
Always a good time to think about the speed of life and balance.
This story from my childhood sums up what I’m still searching for: the balanced life.
“Come apart or you will come apart.” – Vance Havener
I come from a long line of men and women who lived in the woods and loved their dogs. Here is a dog story with a reminder as we start a new year.
My grandfather raised woods hogs. To raise, catch, and handle wild hogs, you needed help from another animal- and that helper was a good hog dog.
Most of the dogs my Grandpa had were just curs- a motley mix of Catahoulas, hounds, and maybe a touch of pit bull. There was one thing they had in common- an inborn instinct to go in the woods to corral and catch hogs.
There were over one hundred hogs in the woods with the Iles mark. The grown hogs were marked on their ear with the family mark, which differed from the other woods hog owners. This marking was done when the hogs, preferably in the piglet stage, were caught and brought to the barn. There they were marked and the males were castrated. You have never heard more squealing than on the day when these small pigs were marked. (I’d squeal too if someone was doing that to me.)
On my woods wandering, I would see these wild hogs and sense something truly free and remarkable about these animals. Their fierce freedom and isolation deep in the woods really made them seem even more admirable as they lived on their own, far away from humans. During the time of my childhood, our community was in a time of great change as fences were being built, land was being posted, and forest land was being converted to soybean fields. It was obvious the “free range” era of hogs, cattle, and sheep running loose in the woods was coming to an end.
I think that freedom is also why Papa enjoyed these wild hogs so much. The truly wild hogs, found only deep in the swamp, represented the spirit of wandering freedom that he admired. The wildest hogs were the ones he hunted with his dogs. . .
On the day of a hog hunt, even before he opened the dog pen door, I believe the dogs would sense what was about to happen. There they’d be—barking loudly, tails wagging, and jumping at the fence.
I didn’t get his name or badge number, but I firmly believe that today—Friday, January 6—he provided the greatest job in the town of Alexandria, Louisiana.
The freezing rain began just as his city bus pulled into the main terminal adjacent to the Red River levee. The warm terminal was crowded with homeless men. It’s a bitter cold day and everyone is looking for some shelter from the storm. I sat quietly among the men. In my jeans, old Carthart jacket, and scuffed boots, I fit in pretty well. Except for one thing: I was the only white and had truck keys in my pocket.
My adopted city of Alexandria is a black town and nowhere is that more evident than in the city’s public transportation system. I’m astounded at how many working folks depend on the buses.
Today, I’ve chosen to ride the Jackson Street Extension/Lower Third bus route. It cuts a swatch across all areas of Alex. I’m not riding out of necessity: My truck is parked three blocks away. Today, I needed a long bus ride to think, journal, and observe the different world outside my doorstop.
None of my homeless neighbors in the terminal board the bus. They had a free warm spot to spend the day, and I don’t blame them.
I dropped my three quarters in the slot and found a comfortable seat midways back. Pulling out my journal, I began sketching the scenes around me. Over the next hour, I observe a constant flow of riders hurrying in and out of the sleet and snow.
A lady hops off at Walgreen’s and re-boards on the buses’ return loop. An older man climbs on with two armloads of Kroger bags. He’s stocking up for the long icy weekend.
At each stop, the boarding ramp lowers to the accompaniment of air brakes. The driver, a man about my age, says “Watch your step.” I wasn’t sure if this was his normal statement or had to do with the ice forming on the sidewalks.
Eventually, we complete our orbit around central Alexandria and arrive back at the main terminal. I wait until the other passengers exit, and stop at the driver’s door. “Sir, I hope you realize what an important job you’re doing today.”
He shrugged. “I hope so.”
“You’re getting people in and out of the weather, so they can go about their daily lives. That’s especially essential on a day like today.”
I put my hand on his arm. “I believe that today you have the most important job in Alexandria.”
His eyes misted over and he looked me in the eye. “Sir, you don’t know how much that means to me.”
“Well, I mean it with all of my heart.” I bounded off the bus with a little extra bounce in my step, and truth be told, my eyes were a little misty, too.
Another load of cold Alexandrians boarded the Jackson St./Lower Third Bus. Above the hiss of the air brakes and roaring diesel engine, I hear my driver say, “Be careful there, Ma’am. Those steps are mighty slippery.”
What would you say
If I told you that I won’t be by today
Would you say that
I’m just a bus driver
And what do I know
Just a bus driver
And what do I know
*The Tribe is the name of our Friday Story Letter.
We thank the several thousand of you who read this weekly.
In 2017, we’ll be asking you to serve as a member of The Creekbank Tribe.
Here is how you can be involved:
Pray for DeDe and me in our work and my writing in 2017. Main prayer need: God’s guidance about Curt’s trip to April in late Fall.
2. Your help in publishing our upcoming novel, As the Crow Flies. We’ll be asking you to pre-order copies, write reviews, and get the word out. My agent has dropped me and no publisher has been willing to publish it. This means we’ll get this important (and captivating) story out as a Tribe. Stay tuned for details.
3. Would you be willing to write an Amazon review for any/all of our twelve books you’ve read? Your review should be honest and doesn’t need to be flowery or long. Thanks in advance,
4. My keyword in 2017 is Transparency. I want to live in a state of openness and integrity in my writing, speaking, and lifestyle.
Recently, they built a new Post Office in Dry Creek. It’s a large modular building complete with glass doors and modern conveniences. Out in front of it, the Postal Service poured a large concrete paving area. However, it just doesn’t look like it fits in Dry Creek.
On the night after they poured the slab for the parking lot, someone slipped in and wrote in the wet concrete. On the southeast corner of the slab, someone scratched, “Coco Harper lives.”
Therefore, it is my duty as an official Dry Creek historian to fill you in on the most mischievous resident to ever live in Dry Creek—Coco Harper. First of all, Coco Harper was not a person, but rather a spider monkey. He belonged to the Ryan Harper family who ran the grocery store where Foreman’s Meat Market now stands.
Ryan Harper was a unique person in Dry Creek. Known by practically everyone because of his country store, he was rough, crude, and very kind—all rolled into a larger-than-life man. Most of all, to me he was my friend. An adult who takes the time to listen to a child will always be held in high esteem by that child. Ryan Harper always had time for me when I went into his store. I never remember his being impatient with me as I visited at his store, and that is why he will always hold a special place in my heart.
I don’t know what possessed Ryan and his wife, Iris, to buy a spider monkey. I guess it was to add to his collection of animals. Ryan lived across Highway 394 from the store, and there was a steady stream of peacocks, chickens, and Doberman dogs roaming his yard and the store area. I believe the monkey was probably the idea of one of his two daughters, Ramona or Wynona.
The first time I saw Coco was sometime during the late 1960’s. As I sat outside the store drinking a soda, Ryan’s old two-tone blue Chevrolet Impala came driving up. I saw an unforgettable sight—there scampering back and forth on the front of the car was a skinny spider monkey. It was as if the car had a live hood ornament. This was my first encounter with this infamous monkey.
Wherever Coco was, he seemed to take over, and when he was inside the store, it was no exception. Now I want to say this tactfully—Ryan’s store was not well-kept. I’ll always remember venturing into the back room to get a case of Coca-Colas in the returnable glass bottles, and half expecting a bear to jump out of the piled-up junk and empty boxes that filled up the room.
My Uncle Bill, always quick with a quip, called it “Ryan’s Rusty Restaurant.” To me, Ryan’s was a second home. Our Post Office was located at this time inside the store. Our Postmaster, Mrs. Kat King, would let me look through the FBI wanted posters on the wall. In my fertile young imagination, I half expected one of the criminals on the posters to come into the store door.
Ryan’s store was a place where a young boy, by just sitting quietly and listening, could learn a great deal about our area—from the price of calves at the sale barn to the inside scoop as to why a deputy was called in to referee a spat between two neighbors.
I always felt at home at Harper’s store. We had a charge account, and I loved the thrill of getting a snack and saying, “Ryan, put it on our bill.” My younger sister, Colleen, once exclaimed, “Momma, let’s go get it at Ryan’s, it doesn’t cost us anything there.”
However, when I selected my snacks, there was one area of the store I did not buy from, and that was the cookie jar. Rumor had it that Ryan would sometimes let Coco stick his paw into the cookie jar and pick out its own cookie. I’m not too picky, but I didn’t want a cookie that had been handled or smelled on by a monkey. Anyway, as I remember it, those cookies were so stale, probably nothing but a monkey would have eaten them.
Coco Harper, as monkeys go, was pretty excitable. This led to a wild experience one day when my childhood friend Paul Young and I were in the store. Coco was sitting there on the faded green recliner that was the fashion statement of Harper’s Store. Neither Ryan nor the customers were watching, so Paul and I lunged at the monkey. Coco immediately went into a cataclysmic fit and scampered through the open rafters of the store. Customers ducked for cover as the screeching monkey raced around.
Coco finally ended up going into the adjacent Post Office. Mrs. King, the most proper lady in Dry Creek, came running out as Coco became the resident postal monkey for the United States Postal Service. (The fit that Coco threw, and also how Mrs. King reacted, would today be called “going postal!”) Finally, after a while, Ryan corralled the chattering monkey, and a semblance of calm was restored. For some reason, no one looked at Paul or me to ask what had set off this escapade.
Before you begin to feel too sorry for Coco, let me tell you what a thief he was. L.D. Spears told of leaving his preschool son Greg and nephew Sean in the truck while he went inside the store to check his mail. When he came back out, there were the two young boys, petrified as they huddled together on the seat of the truck. There sat Coco, on the dashboard, eating the ice cream sandwich he had snatched from one of the boys.
Being a thief, Coco Harper was good at getting into vehicles and taking food. People never locked their car doors in this time before A/C was standard in cars, and most folks left their car windows rolled down. This enterprising spider monkey needed to stay fed.
Legend has it that Coco’s favorite food was bread. He could rifle a loaf of bread and be gone with it quicker than you could believe. Bread was what led to Coco’s most memorable adventure. Some members of Ryan’s family were visiting at the Harper home. They parked their Lincoln convertible in the yard, and carefully put the ragtag convertible roof, up. They were returning from shopping at Piggly Wiggly in DeRidder, so their vehicle was loaded with groceries. Being aware of Coco’s thieving ways, they wisely put up the convertible top.
Much to their chagrin when they came back outside, they found the monkey inside the car, enjoying a loaf of bread. The worst part was the long tear in the convertible fabric that Coco the burglar had ripped open to gain entrance to the groceries.
It wasn’t long after that episode that Coco Harper disappeared from Dry Creek. I don’t know what happened to him, but rumors abounded as to his demise. My friend, Eddy Spears, who loved to tell a good whopper, told how a near-sighted squirrel hunter sent Coco to the Promised Land. Another story was that he was electrocuted while running along on a high-line wire. Someone else said one of Ryan’s Dobermans got him.
I never got around to asking Ryan what happened to his monkey. I’ve always suspected the man with the convertible was a prime suspect for the end of a memorable monkey named Coco Harper.
Yes, Coco Harper lives, but only in the memories of guys like me.
Current wanted poster in our Alexandria Zip 71307 Post Office. Viewing it brought the following story to mind.
A Lady Named Kat
To my knowledge Kat King was never featured on a wanted poster, but I still think of here when a see a F.B.I. wanted poster in the post office.
It’s amazing how you remember people who are kind to you as a child. Growing up in a wonderful place called Dry Creek meant I was the recipient of so much adult kindness. I’ve always said that everyone was your uncle and aunt in the Dry Creek I grew up in.
Among some of the best of this kindness came from Kat King.
Mrs. King was the postmistress of Dry Creek’s small post office. Zip code 70637. Until my teen years, the post office shared space in Ryan Harper’s grocery. Later it moved into the south end of the building that is Dry Creek Camp’s office.
Anytime I went into the post office to get our mail, Mrs. King asked about my day, school, and the events of my life. She evidently noticed my preteen interest in the wanted posters found in federal post offices. When criminals were apprehended by the FBI and Mrs. King received notice to remove a poster, she gave it to me.
I pinned the old posters in my bedroom. They were part of my growing up. They were one of a hundred ways that Kat King made me feel special. I made it my business to speak to her anytime I was in downtown Dry Creek.
I didn’t turn out to be an F.B.I. agent or on the Top Ten Most Wanted list, but I grew up in the shadow and smile of an adult friend who always made me feel special.
Her name was Kat King and on this second day of a new year, I thank God for her and her husband Ed.
Today I’m thankful to have the calling of writing. It’s what I do. Who I am. I’m thankful that you have chosen to read this blog and allow my heart to hopefully warm your life.
Gratitude. What a good word.
For the month of December, we’ve served a daily helping of our short story collection, Christmas Jelly.
We have three more chapters to complete. They’re short thoughts on ending one year and getting ready for the new year. I call this week, “Bah Humbug.” Christmas is over and there’s no way it could meet every expectation we had. It’s no accident that the Christmas season and the week(s) after are a wonderfully difficult time.
Bah Humbug week is a great time to reflect, think, plan, and prioritize.
Enjoy today’s story, “Moving Out.”
As a special gift, here is a link to a message on depression. It is the time of year where many of us deal with depression. This message, which I preached at First Baptist Jennings several years ago, is both a study on Elijah and a personal testimony of my journey through depression.
Ready to Move Out
A few summers ago, DeDe, our youngest son Terry, and I took part in a youth camp in the Black Hills of South Dakota. This area of majestic mountains, covered with vast stands of tall Ponderosa Pines, is one of my favorite places in America.
To get to camp, we drove deeper and deeper into the Hills following a long snaking dirt road called Pasa Sapa Road (the Sioux name for the Black Hills.) Upon arriving at Kamp Kinship, we were greeted by the friendly staff and soon made ourselves right at home.
One of the first things the Camp Director did was to instruct all drivers to park their vehicles outside the front gate. They were shown how to park in lines with the vehicles pointed out toward Pasa Sapa Road.
My inquisitiveness at this was answered by one of the local men. “Up here in the Hills a wild fire can spread quickly. During the hot summer season, dry lightning storms rake across this area. One lightning strike in these dry hills can spark a spreading dangerous inferno that destroys everything in its path.” He nodded as the carefully parked cars. “We’re ready to move out at a moment’s notice. If you hear the camp bell ringing non-stop, it’s the signal to load up and evacuate immediately. Don’t even go back to your cabin.”
This plan of “Being ready to move out” made an impression on me, especially later in the week. Wednesday evening, we had a wonderful worship service of singing and sharing. In the distant northwestern sky over the mountain, bright flashes of lightning split the sky one after another. My friend Stan said, “That storm’s coming from Wyoming. This is just the type that sets off fires in the mountains.”
About midnight the storm roared over the camp. There was no rain but plenty of howling wind, bolts of lightning, and booming thunder.
Fortunately, no fires were ignited near Kamp Kinship. Only later did we learn that several fires erupted at different locations in the Black Hills.
Later that weekend we traveled into Wyoming to Devil’s Tower and saw a huge wildfire that had been burning since the previous week.
Parking the vehicles pointed out at camp “ready to move out” gave me several thoughts about being ready. Here are a few:
Being ready to live – If only we would daily decide to live as if this was our last chance to suck in oxygen and see the sunset. Man, I want to be “ready to move out” and attack life with passion and joy.
Being ready to die– “No man is ready to live who is not ready to die.” No one gets up in the morning and says, “Well, I believe I’ll probably go out and die today.” Deep down inside, we humans all secretly believe we’ll be the one exception to the rule and live forever.
One time after the sudden death of a young person in Dry Creek, a wise man told me, “When you put your shoes on in the morning, you don’t ever know who’ll be taking them off you.”
“Living ready to die” for me entails living in a personal relationship with Jesus. He is my rock, friend, savior, confidant, and guide. I’ve trusted Him for every aspect of my life, including my eternal destination. I can confidently face life and death knowing He is holding not only my hand, but also my destiny.
Living ready to die also includes keeping a short account in my relationships with those around me. I choose not to let hurt feelings or a bad experience keep me from being in touch with others. If there is a problem, I go to them. As needed, I apologize and seek to make things right. That is a part of living joyfully and with gratitude.
I’m pointing the vehicle of my life so I can be ready to go… or content to stay. Many of you have heard me speak of Brett Thornton who has a tattoo on each arm. One arm says, “R 2 G”, and the other, “C 2 S.”
These tattoos sum up his life mission: “Ready to Go, Content to Stay.” It is an attitude of readiness to go where God leads: Ready to jump in the vehicle and spin out if the bell of God’s Holy Spirit rings out.
At the same time, it means possessing a quiet peace that we can trust God if our instructions are to stay put and dig deeper right where we are.
“I’m a thousand miles from anywhere, waiting for a train.”
“Waiting for a Train”
Calling someone an “easy mark” is normally not a compliment. We use it in the context of taking advantage of someone and associate it with weakness. I have a story that explains the term’s origin. I’ll let you—the reader—decide if being an easy mark is a compliment or not.
Thanksgiving and then Christmas are good times to think about the “G words” of gratitude and generosity. They’re two of the best words in the English dictionary.
The Great Depression of the 1930’s was a traumatic time in our nation’s history. This is evidenced by how deeply affected those who lived through were. My grandfather would sadly shake his head as he described the challenges of supporting a young family during that tough decade.
During these hard years, families and individuals were uprooted and roamed the country desperate for work. My mother, who was a young child during this time, told of sitting at the window of a moving train and seeing a hobo, hanging onto the side of her car, passing by.
Most hoboes were single men riding the rails looking for work. As the slowing trains neared a station, the hoboes would jump off and find the nearby gathering places called “hobo jungles.”
One of my friends in Longville has a wonderful story from the Great Depression. His father was walking along the K.C.S. tracks toward their family home. Nearing their house, he found a note attached to a limb, “Next House: Good Eats.”
He kept the note as a souvenir. He was proud to be an “easy mark.”
The following is my favorite easy mark story.
An older widow lived along the tracks in a small Midwestern town. Although alone and poor, this woman had a reputation for giving food to anyone in need. In the language of hoboes, she was an “easy mark.”
Hoboes, using a piece of chalk or coal, would mark the gatepost or nearby fences of homes where handouts were readily available. This woman’s gatepost was decorated with a massive X. She was used to the knocks at her back door, and actually looked forward to the opportunity to share, even though what she had was meager.
One winter, just before Christmas, a strong storm blew through her town. The pelting rain seemed to be coming down sideways, and soon turned to snow as conditions deteriorated.
The woman watched through her window as the slowing trains passed and wet hoboes jumped off, trotting toward shelter from the storm. However, to her surprise, they passed by her gate, oblivious to the cups of fresh hot soup awaiting them.
This disturbed her greatly as she watched the nearby tracks. When another group of men struggled by without stopping, she grabbed her umbrella and stepped out into the cold rain.
At her gatepost, holding her umbrella with one hand, she pulled out a piece of chalk and re-sketched her X where the rain had washed it off the post. Stepping back, seemingly satisfied that her “easy mark” was visible again, she returned to the house, wet but ready—ready and happy to greet the men who soon began coming through the gate to her door.
I love that story because I grew up in the home of “an easy mark.”
His name was Clayton Iles, and he was my beloved father. Both of my parents modeled kindness and generosity toward others, but Daddy turned it into an art form. He was a true easy mark—always ready to give a helping hand.
Although not rich materially, he willingly made small “loans” to folks. Due to his being known as an easy mark, needy families came to him. And he helped willingly and without any expectation of repayment—which was good because repayment seldom came. He considered it a “gift” instead of a loan.
When he died, I stood by his casket for four straight hours as a long line of friends and neighbors snaked out of the funeral home and into the street. Many leaned in and whispered about specific things Daddy had done for them—acts of kindness and compassion.
At Southern funerals and wakes, we use the term “come to pay our respects.” That long line of mourners was Daddy’s repayment on his giving—respect mixed with love. He chose to invest his life in others and it paid great dividends in the joy and friendship he received in return.
Beside his grave at Dry Creek Cemetery are several items: an old softball, a horseshoe, and a pinecone—all testaments to the things he loved. Engraved on his grave marker is the verse that was also engraved on his heart—the very words of Jesus in Matthew 25: “. . . For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me . . . . Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”
That was his ‘easy mark’ verse. He viewed it as a commandment from his Savior and lived by it daily. Now I’m a long ways from being the man of generosity that my dad was, but I’m still working on it. I’m going to work on it extra hard this Christmas season.
Yes, Thanksgiving and Christmas are times when we remember it’s better to give than to receive. A time to live with gratitude for the “easy marks” that show up on gateposts, in hearts, and in generous deeds.
Merry Christmas to you and your kin from all of us at the Creekbank. This new short story, “Midnight Chicken”, is our gift to you. May its theme of It is more blessed to give than to receive resonate and bless your Christmas.
Curt and DeDe Iles
Dec. 23, 1943
Elizabeth Miller awoke to loud pounding on the front door. She shined her flashlight on the alarm clock: just after midnight. Nothing good, especially good news, travels at this time of night.
She peered out the crack in her bedroom door where Poppa stood in the open hallway in front of a young soldier. “Sir, I know it’s late, and we hate to bother you.”
There were two more soldiers besides their spokesman. Elizabeth wondered if the soldiers saw the shotgun leaning against the wall within Poppa’s reach.
“We’re shipping out in the morning by troop train for Europe.” The spokesman nodded at his partners. “When we marched by here today, we saw y’all had chickens. Anyway, we figure it’ll be a long time before we have fried chicken again.” The soldier nodded at his buddies. “Do you think y’all could fix us a fried chicken supper?”
Poppa placed both hands on his hips. “You mean to tell me you woke me up in the middle of the black night asking us to fix you supper?”
“I’m sorry, Sir.”
Elizabeth’s Momma’s voice echoed from the hallway. “Honey, what’s going on out there?”
“You’ve got to hear it for yourself.”
Her momma, a blanket draped over her, listened as the soldier repeated their request for midnight chicken.
Momma stepped forward. “Where are you boys from?”
“Me and Buck here are from Texas.” The spokesmen smiled. “Cohen here is from New York City but don’t hold that against him.”
Momma stepped aside. “You boys come on in here out of the cold. We’re fixin’ to make you a supper you won’t forget. Elizabeth, get your housecoat on, I need you to catch and dress three good fryers.”
Elizabeth detested dressing chickens, especially in the middle of the night. She caught up with her momma. “Why in the world are we doing this?”
Momma grabbed a butcher knife and motioned outside. “Baby, your brother’s in a German prisoner of war camp, and your husband is on some God-forsaken Pacific Island. I’d hope someone might show them the same kind of kindness. And besides, it’s Christmas.”
Elizabeth shivered as she went out into the cold. After dutifully killing and picking the chickens, she washed them in well water. When she returned to the kitchen, Momma was heating lard and rolling out fat cathead biscuits. “Elizabeth, if you’ll get the milk out of the well, I’ll whip up some sawmill gravy.”
On her way to the well, Elizabeth eased to the doorway of the living room. Poppa and the three soldiers sat in front of a roaring pine knot fire in the blazing fireplace, Poppa, with an old map of Europe spread on the floor, was regaling the young soldiers with Great War stories, or as folks were now calling it, World War I. He wasn’t talking about the war itself but was telling tall tales of the lights of Paris, French girls, horses, and food. Whether the soldiers were listening out of interest, politeness, or in anticipation of fried chicken, they were attentive as Poppa paced back and forth. “Boys, when you get to London, put your wallet in your front pocket. Those Limeys have some of the best pickpockets in the world and they’ll clean you out in a New York minute. Then I’ll warn you about that British food. It’s not bad, but neither is it good.”
Elizabeth hurried to the well and drew up the milk jug, hurrying in the house, she reported to Momma: “Poppa’s re-fighting the Battle of Britain in there.”
“Has he got to the pickpockets?”
“As we speak.”
“Good. Now Baby, go ahead and crack us a dozen eggs. We’re gonna give these boys a meal to write home about.”
About an hour and half after the first knock, the table was set and the food was hot. Elizabeth wasn’t sure if the glow in the small kitchen was from the coal oil lamp or the simple joy of strangers sharing a meal together. The soldiers scarfed down their food, commenting on every bite as they laughed and told stories about their time in Louisiana, as well as their pre-war lives. Elizabeth studied the soldiers as they told of their homes. They were on their way to a war from which they’d never return the same.
The Spokesman turned to Elizabeth. “Do you have a man in the Army?”
“Yes, my husband’s in the Pacific, and I imagine it’s been a while since he had fried chicken.”
Momma said, “And I’ve got a son who is an airman. He was shot down over Europe, and we just found out that he’s in a German P.O.W. Camp.”
New York spoke up. “Ma’am, I’m sure sorry about your son. I know y’all miss him.”
“Miss him like the spring rain.”
“When this mess is over, I know he’ll be sitting here enjoying a meal like this.”
“It won’t be soon enough.”
The three soldiers ate as if they would be fasting until they arrived in Europe. After multiple helpings of chicken, biscuits, eggs, gravy, and cane syrup, everyone was stuffed.
Coffee was served and Elizabeth watched New York’s eyes widen when he took a sip. “This coffee’s strong enough to stand up a spoon.”
Poppa drained his cup. “That’s how we make it down here. Grow some hair on your chest.”
Finally, the second Texan, who hadn’t said much, stood. “Boys, we’d better slip back into camp before daylight catches us and they discover we’re missing.” He removed his wallet. “What can we pay you for this meal?”
Momma wiped her hands on her apron. “You can’t. It’s been our pleasure.”
Second Texan wiped his eyes. “Why did y’all do this for us?
“First of all, you asked for it, and secondly, we’ve got family fighting halfway around the world. I’d hope at Christmas that someone might do something kind for them. And the Lord Himself said it’s always more blessed to give than to receive.”
The soldiers hugged all of the family and exchanged addresses. Poppa gathered everyone in a circle and prayed for their safety and travel. When he said, “Amen” the only sounds were sniffles.
Elizabeth and her parents stood on the porch as the soldiers disappeared into the dark. Poppa shook his head. “It’s been a while since we heard laughter—especially from boys—in this house. It was good.”
Back in the house, Elizabeth began washing dishes and was startled by Momma’s shout. “Lord, have mercy.” She was holding up a $20 bill. “It was under one of the plates.”
A quick inspection of the plates and saucers revealed another twenty, and a ten under the sugar bowl.
“Those boys left a king’s ransom.” Momma placed a stack of plates by the sink. “The joy of having those boys sitting around our table was way better than any amount of money. It’ll always be a Christmas we always remember. It truly is more blessed to give than to receive.”
“Midnight Chicken” is from the future book, As You Were, by Curt Iles.
Christmas is a time for gifts and there are all types of gifts.
The best gifts come from hands, hearts and are created from love and skill.
As Christmas 2011 approaches, I’m obsessed with a gift I saw last week. I call it a gift from DQ.
DQ. I’m not referring to Dairy Queen.
I’m referring to Dwayne Quebedeaux.
Dwayne is a talented carpenter. His older truck sported a bumper sticker, “My boss is a Jewish carpenter.” I admire Dwayne and his wife Allison for their commitment to help others in the name of that carpenter, Jesus.
Two weeks before Christmas, a need arose in Dry Creek. Harold Yancey died of cancer. His only survivor, his son David, insisted that his father be buried in a pine casket. “My daddy worked in the woods and I want him buried in a wooden one.”
That’s fine and good if you’ve got plenty of money. Pine caskets are expensive at a funeral home and David didn’t have the necessary funds.
That’s when DQ stepped in. He volunteered to build a homemade casket for Mr. Yancey. He did a crash course on the size and style needed. A neighbor told me she heard Dwayne’s router and table saw all weekend..
On Monday, Harold Yancey was laid out in that beautiful rough pine casket at our church. I watched his son’s satisfied look as he examined the work of art—and gift of love—built by Dwayne Quebedeaux.
The entire community pitched in to help. Men from the Bible Church dug the grave. Dry Creek families provided food and sat with the body. Mr. Yancey’s final journey to Dry Creek Cemetery was on the back of a log truck, not a hearse.
We’ll see lots of nice Christmas gifts this week.
Others crafted with love.
But none will match the gift made by DQ.
A pine casket built of love and rough pine.
Built from trees felled by Hurricane Rita’s destruction.
* * *
It may seem morbid to feature a casket for a Christmas story.
We’re much more comfortable talking about wooden mangers than pine caskets.
But to fully understand the true story of Christmas, we must realize that the real reason for the coming of the Savior was to die.
Jesus came for a purpose and it was fulfilled with his death.
It’s like the biker tattoo, “Born to Die.” It was his purpose and destiny.
He lived a perfect life and died a sacrificial death.
He wasn’t placed in a pine casket but in a rock hewn tomb.
The best part of the story is that He didn’t stay there. As proof of the fact Jesus was God’s son and he had completely paid for our sin, God raised him from that grave.
He’s not in any grave nor is He in any manger.
He is now seated at the right hand of His Father.
May you celebrate His birth as never before and may you serve him wholeheartedly with every fiber of your heart, being, and soul.
Merry Christmas from the Creekbank … from where good stories flow.
When Mary birthed Jesus ’twas in a cow’s stall,
With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all.
– “I Wonder as I Wander”
The old barn looks snakey.
You may not realize snakey is an adjective. It can mean “overrun with snakes.”
In our area of the South, it refers to any place where you expect to find snakes such as “don’t put your hand in there, it looks snakey.”
My pawpaw’s old barn has a broken-in roof, rotten walls, and thick spider webs that may be the only things holding it together.
And it’s been empty for thirty years.
During my boyhood, it was full of animals. Two plow horses named Sam and Dallas, calves, woods hogs, and scurrying chickens.
Now it’s dark, damp, and lonely.
It’s a clear cold day before Christmas. They kind of day PawPaw would’ve called “hog butchering weather.”
I’m on a strange mission. I’m looking for a feed trough.
Yesterday I read Luke 2 on the birth of Jesus. I’ve read and heard the story hundreds of times, but always learn something new about the greatest night in the history of Planet Earth.
Everything about that night was humble.
The first to learn of the Savior’s birth were shepherds, the outcasts of Jewish society. One more reminder that Jesus’ bond was, and continues to be among the common people of the world.
It is amazing that the most educated, wealthiest, and powerful have a hard time with Jesus as the Son of God. Throughout, the two thousand years since that Bethlehem night, He has most often found the biggest welcome among the simple and common people of this world.
Folks like you and me.
God could have provided any place for the birth of His son, but he chose an old barn.
That name Emmanuel—God with us—was lived out that night.
It’s astounding that his parents wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in a manger.
It’s a shame how we’ve cleaned up and sanitized the manger. A manger is nothing but a fancy term for an old feed trough. The very place where a few hours earlier, a donkey, horse, or sheep had been eating and slobbering.
That’s why I’m at PawPaw’s old barn today. I’ve come to get a feed trough.
The trough I find is rough, weathered, and filled with rotten hay and trash. It’s been the home for my sister’s cat.
Well-used feel troughs always have a smell of feed. They are wet from the saliva of a hungry animal. The edges are chewed down from animals trying to get that last kernel of grain.
I begin pulling the trough from the stall wall. It comes loose except for one stubborn rusty nail. After several tries I grab hold with both hands and jerk.
The nail comes out, the trough comes loose, and I unceremoniously fall hard on my butt. I’m lying there with the trough in my hands.
I have to laugh. I’m unhurt, lying in a puddle of rainwater that still smells of manure.
I carry the prized trough under my arm. At the barn entrance, I stop and look around. Remembering how a live barn is: the smells of wet animals. The noise, the cramped surroundings.
My friends who have been to the Holy Land tell about the small caves that serve as barns. It is probably in that cramped, noisy, nasty environment that Jesus was born.
The greatest story ever told . . . and the official opening act begins in a dark humble barn.
The King of Kings, to be worshiped by millions forever, is first laid in a well-used feed trough.
Then I think of the unique teachings of Jesus, the God-Man.
I have come to give my life.
The first shall be last . . .
Whatever you have done unto the least of these.
I load the feed trough in the truck, silently thanking God for teaching me new lessons this Christmas season.
Lessons of humility
Lessons of service.
Lessons of giving.
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die
For poor on’ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
J.J. Miller had set up camp where he had a good view of the surrounding area. There were no signs of any settlers in the last mile he’d come, and he had scouted down to the nearby creek and seen no recent signs of human habitation.
It was December 24, 1853 and he didn’t expect trouble on Christmas Eve, but a stranger in these woods couldn’t be too careful. He’d come down from South Carolina had experienced his share of difficulty along the way. He hoped his sojourn here in Louisiana wouldn’t hold any major trouble.
At least the cold wasn’t unbearable. Back home on the Eastern Coast, the weather could be brutal in early winter, but so far, it’d been fairly nice here in the Deep South.
A pot of coffee perked on the fire, as the 25 year-old Miller, sat down beside a large beech with his loaded musket leaning against the tree.
His horse’s snorting was the first sign of approaching company. This alerted Miller, who laid his gun across his lap, partially covering it with an old blanket. He soon saw a man on a horse coming up out of the creek bottom. The easy manner the man sat on the horse didn’t seem like trouble, but Miller knew better than to relax yet.
He recalled stories he’d heard on the Natchez Trace about the area he now was in. It was called “The Outlaw Strip” and served as a haven for men wishing to live outside the law in nearby Texas or eastern Louisiana.
The approaching rider must have seen the rifle across Miller’s lap. He slowed his horse to a slow gait and raised his free hand in a friendly gesture. His other gloved hand was on the reins. J.J.Miller saw no visible weapon so he stood to his feet, holding his gun in the crook of his arm.
“Howdy, neighbor,” The rider said. Miller judged the older man to be about sixty. He also took note of the rider’s tone of voice. It had the same musical quality common among the Scot-Irish he’d left behind in the Carolinas.
After studying the older man further, Miller answered, “Evening, Sir. How are you?”
“I’m jes’ fine. You mind if I get off my horse for a visit?”
“Help yourself.” Miller did something he hadn’t planned to do—he leaned his gun against the tree and walked toward the dismounting rider. He watched how the rider carefully surveyed the camping spot to see if anyone else was present.
The man walked up to Miller, taking off his right glove and extending his hand. “I’m Burkitt Lindsey.”
“My name’s John James Wilson Miller, lately of South Carolina.”
“Came a ways, didn’t you?”
“Sure did.” Miller noted the man’s strong grip as he asked, “What do you call this place here?”
“We call it Dry Creek.” The rider nodded back toward the creek. “That creek is called Dry Creek.”
“Is it dry?”
“Never. I was told its Indian name was ‘Beautiful Creek’ and the English translation got buggered up.”
Miller laughed and so did the other man. “Now say your name again.”
“It’s Lindsey. Burkitt Lindsey. You by yourself?”
“I am. I’m looking for a place to settle where there’s plenty of room and a good creek to put in a water mill.”
“There’s plenty of space for sure around here.” Lindsey pointed toward the creek. “There’s several places down Dry Creek that might work well. Now what was your name again?”
“John James Wilson Miller,” the younger man answered, but I go by “J.J.”
“That’s a mighty long name for a fellow as young as you are.” The older man’s eyes twinkled as he said it.
Miller looked toward the creek bottom. “Is that where you live Mr. Lindsey?”
“Me, my wife, and our kids live across the creek about a quarter.”
Miller noticed the visitor’s stare as he hesitated before asking, “Mr. Miller, do you know what tomorrow is?”
“I believe it’s Christmas Day.”
“You’re right. Do you have plans?”
Miller grinned as he looked around his meager campsite. “Does it look like I have any plans?”
“Good. That means you’ll have Christmas dinner with us. No one should be alone on Christmas Day.”
The younger man hesitated, “I’m afraid I’d be a bother… and you’d need to ask your wife.”
“We’d be honored if you’d join us.”
“I’m not sure.”
“But I am. We’ll be looking forward to your visit.” As if the matter was settled, Lindsey walked to his horse. “When you get down to the creek tomorrow, just ford it and follow the trail up through the hardwoods, when you get back in the pines, you’ll be near our place.”
Clicking to his horse, he turned back toward the creek. “It was good meeting you, Mr. Miller.”
“You can call me J.J.”
“Good meeting you, J.J. Miller. We’ll see you for dinner tomorrow.”
“Thank you kindly, Mr. Lindsey.”
“It’s Burkitt.” The older man answered.
“Thank you, Burkitt… and Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas to you, J.J.”
Miller watched the man ride off into the gathering darkness before tossing another pine knot on the fire. It sizzled and sputtered as he said aloud, “I believe I might be able to like this place.”
The next day John James W. Miller crossed Dry Creek and joined the Burkitt Lindsey family for Christmas dinner. It began the friendship between these two homesteading families that now has stretched into its third century. He fell in love with, and later married, Burkitt Lindsey’s daughter Laura Francine.
Southwestern Louisiana is full of the descendants of these two pioneer families that still carry their good names in the piney woods.
The hospitality of the Lindsey family is indicative of what I love best about our area and its people. It’s shown in kindness to the stranger, a willingness to extend a hand of welcome to a newcomer. In the unforget-table days after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans as thousands of evacuees poured into our area, this same hospitality was extended to those strangers in need.
Three weeks later, when Hurricane Rita destroyed much of our area, these same qualities of aiding neighbors, self-reliance, and perseverance stood in good stead in Southwest Louisiana. The actions of people in our area didn’t make the national news but we didn’t expect to: Folks just did what Burkitt Lindsey did on that long ago Christmas: they “crossed the creek” and took care of their neighbors. No one waited on the government or some agency to come rescue them, they banded together, reached out, and helped each other out.
That attitude is really what Christmas is all about: Hospitality, service, and kindness as we celebrate the birth of the Savior Jesus who exemplifies everything about giving and sacrifice.
May we worship Him during this Christmas season of 2009.
May our worship show itself in kind deeds toward the neighbors around us.
Merry Christmas from a special place called Dry Creek, Louisiana.
In this week’s story letter:
1. A word called Resilience.
2. Free Download of “My Grandpas’ Boots.”
3. Christmas Sale: all 12 of our books for $100.
4. Filling your stockings with Christmas Jelly.
5. Photos of “A Day at The Old House.”
A word for December.
It’s a good word. It’s about the quality of bouncing back.
If you fall down seven times, get up eight times.
Our free download story, My Grandpas’ Boots, is a story about the resilience of two men during a tough time in Louisiana.
In my writing, I seem drawn to characters who have the quality of resilience. This is reflected in My Writing World View:
Life is a spiritual journey.
The road is often difficult, but you are never alone.
Growth is necessary, not optional.
Adversity happens. You can become bitter or better.
We invite you todownload the entire story hereand share it with your friends. It’s a good reminder that Christmas is about giving and the right gift can overcome any barrier.
A Special Christmas Gift
We’re featuring a gift package for the Holidays. You can purchase all twelve of our Creekbank books for $100 plus $10 shipping. We’ll even send an invoice with your order. Learn more here.
Stocking Stuffers: Christmas Jelly
It’s always a thrill to hear from readers who’ve enjoyed Christmas Jelly, our holiday book celebrating Christmas in the woods. Features additional stories for “Bah Humbug”* week. We’re selling Christmas Jellyfor $10.00 each plus discounted price on any order of 10 copies or more Learn more here.
* Bah Humbug week is the infamous week after Christmas.
A Day at The Old House
It’s the place where I find the best ideas.
It’s also where my roots are deepest.
We call it The Old House,
And it’s a part of me wherever I go.
The best fires always begin with pine kindling.
The Old House has a double fireplace.
There’s something about a good fire on a cold day.
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