Steve's Yarns-- All those years growing up
and living in Oklahoma, California,
Arizona, Texas, and Africa.....
Ain't done growing up 'til I get over on the
other side :-)

Steve Van Nattan



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This is where my memories start. A river bottom life in a town that had not returned to normal after the Great Depression.


Population Five

My Dad and Mom trained for Christian service at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. After marriage they looked for some organization in which to serve Christ. I do not know why, but they chose the Go Ye Mission of Oklahoma. Their choice may have been because the Go Ye Mission was supported heavily by Mennonite churches around the USA. Dad and Mom had been saved through the ministry of the Immanuel Mennonite Church, then in Los Angeles.

My parents were assigned to Briartown, Oklahoma where Dad was to pastor a small local church. The mission usually sent missionary pastors to groups who had no pastor and had approached the mission for help. The support my parents were promised by the mission was $70 a month. Even though that was in 1949 when people lived on a lot less than today, it was still doubtful if my folks could live on that small amount. The offerings from the church were supposed to partly add some income to my folks salary. But, the offerings were mostly pennies. This is because the area around Briartown was still very poor as a result of the Great Depression. The Great Depression went away in the big cities, but in rural America life did not come back to normal for some years.

When our family drove into Briartown, there was a sign on the highway that said, "Briartown- Population 5". The whole population was made up of the Bolen family, and the only house is town was Bolen's General Store. It was also the Bolen's home, the Post Office, and the gas station. Our new home was a tired farm home up on posts in river bottom land. All homes in the area were on posts because the Canadian River was nearby, and it was known to flood some years. A dirt road ran from the highway in front of Bolen's story down to the river, and we lived not far from the river.

It is hard to think back and visualize ourselves when we were six years old. That seems like too far away to get hold of. It helps if we had mostly happy memories because we tend to forget the bad memories. Thankfully, God made us that way. He also likes to forget the bad memories, and Christ died to remove our sins so that God could forget our sin forever. The only thing I know that God cannot do is remember my sin. I still can though, and I look forward to Heaven where I too will never again remember my sins.... or yours.

But, I must have had a very happy life in Briartown because I have so many memories that were packed into only about a year and a half.


Here are my memories from Briartown, Oklahoma.

Every home had a cyclone (tornado) cellar which was a hole in the ground covered by a post and dirt roof and with a wood door that opened up to the outdoors. Everyone had one because that part of Oklahoma has the most tornadoes of anywhere in the world. A tornado went by our home one night, and it destroyed several homes nearby. We went to see how church members fared the tornado, and an older lady had gone into her cellar, and when she came back out of it, she only had the chimney left of her home. A deacon of the church had his roof neatly lifted off the house and set down gently in the front yard. It was creepy to imagine why the tornado seemed to do that without destroying the roof.

So, how did we survive with such a low support income from the mission?

The only way we survived is by Dad and Mom at once finding ways to live off of the land. They also became a part of community life. In poor rural areas like ours, people all shared work and harvests, and it was simply a way of life to help anyone you could help and share their burdens if you had extra in your pantry. There was no welfare or Government assistance.

Our phone was also on a party line. We knew that people would pick up the phone and listen in on other people's conversations. People really didn't resent it a lot because the information learned often resulted in a box of groceries or garden vegetables being dropped off at someone's home because the party line let caring people know there were some very bad times going on in that home, and they needed help. In fact, when a conversation came to a block because someone could not remember some detail, another person listening in would provide the information. I know this sounds strange, but long ago, part of our survival depended on this old fashioned hack which was driven, not by greedy companies wanting to know who should see their advertisements, but by some very special people who cared about one another. The party line also helped us all keep our mouth and attitude toward people under control. Any ugly thing said would be heard by many ears.

I read a story of a US Military soldier who got to use the phone one day from a combat zone so that he could call home. This was common in the military. The soldier called his home party line exchange back in the USA, and the operator could not raise his home and family. A couple of people came on the line and got excited to hear the voice of their famous home town soldier boy. After exchanging greetings, the two people figured out where his Dad and Mom were, and the operator connected him with the home they were visiting. I defy you to duplicate that with modern technology. The old ways were indeed better sometimes.

Mr. Bolrn, the store owner, helped them in many ways to survive. The store had two gas pumps in front that you pumped with a long handle to fill a glass tank on top of the pump, and then you pulled a lever, and the gas drained down the hose into your tank. See the gas pump at the right. There was no government regulation of gas pumps in those days because you did your own regulation by looking at the glass tank up above to see if the level of the gas matched the price.

The store also had a soda pop cooler. It was filled with water which was cooled by some sort of refrigeration system. You put in your dime, and pop bottles of all flavors were lined up in slots in the cold water. You grabbed bottles and slid them from one slot to the other until you had the one you wanted, and you then pulled it up through a trigger that reset for the next customer. My favorite was Neehi chocolate soda.

If Dad had enough money, he would get me a soda and a moon pie or some stick candy. There were huge glass jars sitting on the counter with all flavors of stick candy.

The store had a porch on the front with a bench where older man sat and whittled while they talked. My Dad would join them when he walked to town for any reason. The men liked the preacher, and they called him Brother Van. When Harry S. Truman ran for election as President in 1948, my Dad walked to town and voted at the Bolen's Store. In those days a man could vote for his wife who did not have to be present. Dad cast two votes for the Republican Thomas E. Dewey. Later, when Dad went down to the store and went to sit down on the porch, an old timer asked Dad, "Brother Van, you know there was only two votes for the Republican candidate in this whole precinct. Would you happen to know who them two people were?" Dad laughed and admitted it was he and Mom. So, the old timers said Dad could not sit on the bench anymore. They rolled a nail keg out on the porch and told Dad he had to sit on the nail keg. It was kept there just for him, and Dad went along with the prank because it was all done in home town fun.


Wild food

My Dad enjoyed going frog gigging with neighbor men. They went at night and used flashlights to see the eyes of the frogs. We ate frog legs pretty often. They are a luxury found only rarely in some restaurants, but they were subsistence food to our community.

Fishing with a trot line

There are three ways to catch catfish other than by a pole and hook. Noodlling: First, some people wade along the river bank, in the water, and look for hollowed out places in the shore line. Catfish will back into those cavities and hang out. The men would put on a work glove, and they would slowly put their hand into the holes until they put their hand in the mouth of a catfish. The fish would clamp down on their hand and refuse to let go. This way, the man could pull the catfish out and haul it up on the shore. The problem is, some Blue catfish can get as big as 100 pounds. It is a good idea to have a friend on hand to help get the fish out of the water and onto the bank to make sure the thing does not drown you.

The second way to catch catfish other than with a pole, is called jug fishing. You tie a leader and bait to a plastic jug and throw it into the water and let it float along. You stay nearby in a boat, and when the jug starts bobbing in the water, you follow it until the fish is tired, and then you pull it in. Several jugs are usually floated at the same time. Long ago, men used huge brown pharmacy glass jugs to jug fish. The trick was to catch up with the jug when a fish got hooked on it before the fish dragged it along and broke it hitting other jugs baited and floating nearby. Of course, all of these methods are subject to fish and game laws, and some states do not allow these methods.
Again, be sure to read up on the fishing and hunting laws in your state before you try this. You can jug fish with a one gallon plastic milk jug. You just have to watch for when the jug starts bobbing up and down.

The third way to fish without a fishing pole is called a trot line. A heavy line is fastened to the bank of the river and run across the water to preferably an island or snag in the river. Game laws do not allow a trot line all the way across the river. It would stop canoe and tubing traffic. To the heavy line, a leader is tied every so often to the heavy line, probably the distance of a horse's trot, and that line is baited. The trot line can be left for a day, but it must be checked regularly. This was the method my Dad tried, and it was only moderately rewarding, but it put food on the table. I always feared eating fish because I was terrified of getting a bone caught in my throat. Probably, some unhelpful adult told a story of someone choking to death on a fish bone while I was listening. If you have a morbid need to tell horror stories, tell that kid about Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf. Stop terrorizing kids with tales of disaster that they can turn into a phobia. To this day, I have to talk to myself a while in order to enjoy a fish filet.
This is simply a variation of the trot line, but the leader is tied to a tree limb along the shore. This would be a good way to fish without interfering with canoe traffic. Be sure to tag the leader so that swimmers can see it and stay clear of the thing.

There is another method of fishing by some hillbillies which is illegal everywhere. That is to light a quarter stick of dynamite and toss it into the water. The shock kills many fish which are not harvested. It is very unsportsman like of course, as well as very illegal. Getting caught can get you a serious vacation courtesy of the state penitentiary. Behave yourself, Bubba.

Dad trapping and hunting rabbits

Dad had several ways to get rabbit for Mom to fry. He made wooden box traps and put carrots in them in the summer. But, in the winter the rabbits hibernate. The neighbor would cut down trees on his land for fire wood, and he would make a pile of the twigs and small branches. Dad asked him permission to hunt rabbits on his land, and he gladly told Dad to do so. Dad would take his 22 cal. rifle out to the wood lot on a bright sunny winter day when the ground was covered with snow. He would stomp on a pile, and a rabbit would wake up and shoot out of the pile. Because of the brightness of the sun and the snow, the rabbit was blinded, and Dad could easily shoot it.

Also, when we went to church or prayer meeting in the 1939 Plymouth, when coming home in the dark, rabbits would run out in the road ahead of the car. They would panic and run down the road ahead of the car because they could see where they were going by the light of the headlights. Dad would speed up and try to run over the rabbit, and he would try to hit it with the deferential of the rear axle. If we heard the thump, Dad would stop the car and retrieve the rabbit. That was dinner for tomorrow.

I got to like fried rabbit a lot more than fried chicken. Some people called it underground chicken. There are some things God put in the world around us that we consider wild and inferior because we are so accustomed to buying our food at a store. Ironically, wild food often tastes better than the store bought. That sure is true of wild berries and grapes. In later years, while my parents were missionaries in Africa, I got to prefer wild game meat a lot more than that from the meat market. For example, hippopotamus is possibly the best meat you can find anywhere. It was tender and just as tasty as beef. We also learned, when I pastored a church in Michigan, that snapping turtle is exceptional and has seven flavors of meat. Clams from the river nearby were just as good as store bought if you did not over cook them.

Collecting- pecans, wild onions, and sassafras tea

We also foraged for wild onions, raspberries, pecans, and poke weed. Poke weed is also called poke salat. That is not a typo. I don't know why it is salat. Poke weed is a tall succulent weed with red stems and black purple berries. It can be a bit toxic to some people, so it needs to be always cooked. It is often cooked in bacon grease. I love it, but it does not grow here in Texas that I know of.

Pecans dropped from enormous wild pecan trees along the river. We picked them up, and Mom made pecan pie, my favorite.

Mom took me along to pick wild onions. They may have been ramps, and we did not know that. I loved a wild onion salad, and I still do. They grew in small meadows of nothing but onions, and I thought it looked like a lush green carpet for me to roam in.

Possibly the most exciting forage item was wild persimmons. They grow about two inches in diameter, and they will pucker your mouth terrible if you don't let them completely ripen. But, we would pick them, and my Mom would make what she called persimmon pudding. It was sort of cross between pudding and cobbler. If you want to have some fun, pick one that is not quite ripe, and give it to a green horn from the big city, and watch him pucker up.

Sassafras tea was drunk by everyone in our neighborhood because it was foraged from the wild and free. The best way to get the bark was from the roots. All over central Oklahoma the roads were dirt, and they were graded regularly by road grader vehicles. These graders had a huge blade in the center which moved dirt from place to place. They were also used to make what we called "grader ditches" along the side of the road. These ditches were often six feet deep because Oklahoma is flat, and the ditches were the only way water could drain away to be emptied into the rivers.

The road grader made the ditches by putting two right wheels up on the top of the bank, and two left wheels on the road, and the blade was dropped all the way down at about a 45 degree angle. The dirt was dragged up onto the road and leveled later. When the grader would go by a sassafras tree up on the bank, it would chop off roots from the tree. We would go down in the ditch and collect bark off of the roots of the tree. That made a lot better tea than the upper parts of the tree.

If you want to really give your Bar B Que a country kick, get online, and order sassafras chips from Amazon. They will probably come from Missouri. Sassafras makes the best Bar B Que as far as I am concerned. Add in some mesquite, and it will be perfect.

City Boy Learns about the Farm

My Dad had been born in Grand Junction, Colorado on a sheep ranch. His father failed at ranching sheep because they had a drought, and all the wells went dry. So, they moved to Los Angeles, California when my Dad was five years old. So, Dad had little or no experience with farming and farm animals.

The neighbor came over one day leading a cow. He told Dad my brother and I needed milk to drink, and he said Dad could borrow the cow and milk it while it was fresh and giving milk. Dad learned to milk the cow, and we had a photograph of him milking the cow. Traditionally, cows are milked from the right side, but Dad did not know that, and he milked it from the left. Thankfully, the cow did not complain, which many cows would do if the side was changed.

We had chickens also. There are several reasons to have chickens. First, there are the eggs of course, and we had some layers. Second, some chickens get to take a walk in the frying pan on Sunday, especially if they would not lay eggs. Thirdly, chickens would keep the snakes away. Roosters who rule their harem of hens well will kill a rather big snake. We had one here in Texas that killed a huge snake. He would fly up in the air and come down and peck the back of the snake's head until it was dead.

So, Dad would get the hatchet and a chicken and chop its head off, which is the usual method of killing a chicken. One day, Dad got the idea that he could shoot the chicken's head off with his 22 Cal. rifle. He aimed very carefully, and bang, off went the head neat and clean. Dad thought he would never kill a chicken another way because the chicken had no trauma, and that prevents the meat from getting tough from the adrenaline rush when the chicken is grabbed and laid out for the slaughter.

Another missionary family from the Go Ye Mission nearby came to our home for dinner one day, and Dad told the man he had a better way to kill a chicken. Dad chose a big rooster, and he aimed carefully, and bang, off went the bottom comb, and the chicken started bleeding seriously. Dad reloaded, and bang, off went the top comb, and the chicken began to squawk and prance around in a panic. Finally, Dad managed to shoot its head off, but only after the chicken looked like a star in a horror movie. The other missionary teased Dad about his chicken killing plans for years.

The things Dad learned in Oklahoma about farming came in very handy when my parents went to Africa years later as missionaries. Whatever we are struggling though now is not wasted. God will use it on down the road for another purpose.


Life in General

Subsistence farming -- Emmit Lowery -- Joanne lead singing in church

Jerry Lowery's sister Joann lead the singing in the little church my Dad pastored in Briartown in about 1950. My Dad was known as Brother Van. Emmet Lowery, the father, was a deacon in the church as I recall. The Lowerys were Cherokee, which went over well with my Mom because she was part Cherokee. I was six then. I do recall visiting the Lowery farm in the river bottom land and loving the atmosphere. It was one of my favorite places to "go visiting." We did that long ago, you know. I probably played with Jerry. He was the type who would have patience with a little kid and play with him. Those were hard times. Briartown and that area had not totally recovered from the Great Depression. But, all I have are good memories of people like the Lowerys. Here is the obituary of Jerry Lowery to give you an idea of the kind of people who lived in Briartown long ago.

Older boy shooting off 22 cal. shells

I was at the general store one day with my Dad. I saw some older boys nearby, and I went to see what they were doing. The oldest boy was demonstrating a trick he did. He set a 22 cal. bullet bottom down on a brick, and then he hit the nose of the bullet with a hammer. The bullet fired and went off into the bushes. At age 6 I had no idea what the trick was. Later, I discovered the trick to making sure the bullet went where you wanted it do go. He hit the bullet with the hammer at an angle so that, when it fired, it shot away from him. Later, I told my Dad about it, and he told me that the kid was doing a very dumb thing, and he gave the verdict that our parents had to give us once in a while, "You could get yourself killed doing something like that." I decided my Dad knew what he was talking about, and I never got the urge to try the trick myself.

Our house

Our house at Briartown, was an old clap board farm house. It had cracks around the windows, and there were cracks between the floor boards. Dad used to study at night for his sermons with a Coleman pressure lamp between his knees to keep warm. Like all houses in Oklahoma, the house was up on posts to allow a crawl space and keep the house from being flooded during heavy rains. At night in the winter, we all went to bed willingly because all of the leaks to the outside made the house cold. I slept on the porch because the house had so few rooms. There was a pipe that ran along under the edge of the window sill, and I don't know if I ever figured out why it was there. I used to have nightmares, and I would wake up wrestling with that pipe thinking it was a big snake.

We had an out house like everyone else. Very few people had inside plumbing. The out house was a two holer, one hole for grown ups, and one for us kids. We had toilet paper sometimes, but usually we used the Sears and Roebuck Catalog for cleaning up. It was cold in the winter. You don't understand cold very well until you have to park your fanny on a cold out house seat. My Dad and Mom had to monitor my bladder well because I would put off the business because of the terrible cold and the walk in the snow.

Years later, growing up in Africa, night time potty business was just as intimidating because the walk to the out house might include a confrontation with a cobra, or a swarm of pinching ants might be in the area. Once, my brother and I went outside to pee, and unknown to us we stood in a swarm of ants. On the way back to the house, we suddenly got hit in a thousand places by the ants, and a howl went up in Jerusalem. Dad came running and gave us permission to take our clothes off on the spot while he helped pull the ants off. Wouldn't you know it..... that evening we had another missionary family visiting us. But, the pain of pinching ants in every personal place takes all the timidity away so that you only want deliverance.

The well

We had an old fashioned country well for our water supply. It had a long bucket that was about four inches in diameter and five feet long. It was let down by a rope, and when it entered the water below, a flap in the bottom opened, and water came flowing into the long bucket. When it was lifted, the flap closed and kept the water in the long bucket. Once it was up out of the well, it was then emptied into a regular bucket by pushing up the flap with one finger. I am not sure why these buckets were used unless it was because they made it a bit easier to handle the water.

See the long bucket at the right.

We also would use a regular bucket to put a watermelon into and let it down into the well to cool. The well water was a lot cooler than the open air. We also cooled watermelons by dipping a towel or burlap sack in water and then wrap the melon in it. It was set out in the breeze to cool the melon by evaporation.

Go Ye Mission and how we survived.

Minimum hourly wage in 1950 was $ 0,75. My parents support from the Go Ye Mission was $ 70 a month. They managed, what with a cow to milk and a garden and the generosity of neighbors. When Dad "went calling," that is, visiting people in the area, they would not let him leave without a jar or two of canned food. That was an absolute cultural must for people in middle America long ago.

The Go Ye Mission was directed by Homer Mutee Sr. He was a true Bible believer who was zealous to win souls and preach from the Bible. But, he did not understand the ethics of handling funds. When he got a brain wave for some new project, he would take money from the general fund and pay for the project. The general fund was where he got the money to send to all the missionaries at the end of the month. If he had taken too much for his project, he would send part of the support plus an IOU, and he added a call for special prayer for more donations to pay up the back log. This meant that my folks often had to make do with less than $ 70 a month. Homer should have credit though. When he got money ahead he tried to make up what he owed the missionaries.

Because of this, my folks had to learn not to be angry with the mission director. He was not stealing, but he was irresponsible financially. So, Mom learned to bake pretty good cakes using lard instead of Crisco or butter. Dad foraged the area for wild life to put meat on the table. More on this elsewhere in this article. We grew a garden and had a few fruit trees. And we churned our own butter. Milk was skimmed to get the cream for butter, and when we were short, Mom resorted to second skimming the milk. The skim milk was thin and pretty tasteless, but I was addicted to that farm butter. It seems that there is no way to get that butter today unless you churn it yourself. Commercial "farm butter" is not ever quite right. To turn the cream to butter, Mom would put it into a Mason quart jar, and I would sit on the front steps and shake the jar until it turned to butter.

Jack Bolen, who owned the general store, put the groceries on the chit when my folks had a bad month for financial support, and they would pay off the debt during good months.

The reason it was so hard for Go Ye Mission missionaries to raise support was because most churches did not see the romantic nature of missionaries going to American needs. A little church in South Dakota might be a member of the Presbyterian Church, but they could not get a pastor to come and take that church because it was so small and poor. I preached in that church one Sunday, and my old college buddy, who worked at a farm store in a city nearby, was pastoring the church so that they had some Bible teaching. These sort of little forgotten churches are the kind the Go Ye Mission supplied with missionary pastors. American churches almost all get a lot more excited about sending a missionary to the Congo jungles to preach the Gospel.


Generosity of People

Helping neighbors shelling corn

In farming country it has always been part of the culture that farmers help one another. By helping your neighbor, you lower his costs because he does not have to hire help. In Briartown, the farmers around us could not possibly hire help anyway. They were too poor.

One day Dad took me to the neighbor's farm, and, with a couple of other men, Dad helped him shell his corn. This corn would be used to feed hogs and other animals during the winter.

The corn sheller in the photo is a lot like the one we used to shell corn. A man sat at the end of the tray, and men would put ears of dry corn on the tray. The operator would feed ears into the round hopper on top and keep the hand crank going all the time. The shelled corn would fall out the bottom of the machine and was scooped up later.


While the men and my Dad were shelling corn, the farmer's son and I went exploring. I loved to explore barns and hay lofts. They were so mysterious. Well, we had explored the dark corners of the barn, and we started getting bored, and that is a bad thing with young boys. We looked up in the eve of the barn outside, and there was a wasps' paper nest the size of a basketball. We decided it would be fun to knock it down, so we started throwing rocks at it. We won, and the wasps lost. But, we had not counted on the wasps' revenge. They came out of the nest in a furry, and we headed over the horizon. The wasps then decided to find other objects for their revenge and headed for the man shelling corn. They too ran for cover. There was a lot of discussion by the men about why the wasps were so mad, but we said nary a word. Declaring war on wasps was an international crisis, and the trouble makers would definitely get the belt on their bottom. So, we remained incognito.

Slaughtering a hog

The neighbor was going to slaughter a hog, and he asked my Dad to come and help. Dad was delighted because he had never been in on a hog slaughtering. The process starts with a 55 gallon barrel that has a fire built under it. The water is heated up hot but not boiling. Then, a tripod of poles is set up over the barrel. The hog is killed, usually shot with a gun. And, the hog is hoisted up using the tripod and let down into the hot water. This loosens the hair. The hair is then scraped off with a special steel tool to pull off the hair. See photo.

The hog is then gutted and put on a table and cut up into workable pieces. Meat is taken to the ladies who have one or more hand operated meat grinders going to make sausage. The men cut up the rest into pieces that can be frozen. In the old days, pork chops were layered in a big crock with lard between them. This preserved them for use during the winter. I do not know why the chops did not spoil, but they did not. Some of the meat was canned in Mason jars for use in the winter. They have to be boiled in water for a very long time to keep safely. When I was a kid, pressure cookers had just been invented, and they made it possible to can meat in only 90 minutes.

The skin was cooked in hot oil to make cracklings, which all us kids loved. Today, I go to a Mexican market nearby here in Texas, and I buy checharones, which are fried pig skins. It is a great snack if one is dieting.

When all the hog had been "put up" in one way or another, the farmer gave some meat and sausage to take home to the men who helped him. My dad was given a generous portion. I long for real farm sausage today. Even organic seems to be a bit unlike what we ate. It may be because of breeding of hogs that are not the same as long ago. Also, those farm hogs were fed good wholesome garbage, and they had the run of the hollows by the creek where they ate walnuts and pecans that dropped from the trees. The hogs also caught and ate any slow rodents in the farm yard. It sounds horrible to modern folks who think hogs should only eat corn, but those farm hogs were exceptional eating. And, the slow smoked country ham............. must move on before we have a nostalgia panic attack.

This shows the process from shooting and killing the hog to cutting up the meat. The vast majority of American kids have no idea where their meat comes from. We had a girl in a church I pastored in Michigan, ironically in the country, who thought meat all came from shrink wrapped styrofoam packages. One day, she was present at the slaughter of some farm animal, and she refused to eat meat from them on. Seeing this process will help your kids understand that something has to die for them to live, and it will show them that taking life needs to be for a moral reason.


One Saturday the family all got into the old Plymouth, and we crossed the Canadian River on Route 2, and we found the auction in Whitefield. There was a main auction, with all sorts of people selling endless choices of merchandise out of trucks and booths. One man was on the back of a flat bed truck yelling at the top of his lungs. He had big cartons of white socks, and he was trying to auction them off. He would yell, "Please give me an offer on these socks. My wife is at home dying, and I need to get home. But, I must sell the socks first."

I thought it was terrible for the man to let his wife stay home and die while he sold socks, and I told my Dad what I thought of him. Dad laughed, and he gave me my first lesson in false advertising. He said the man was simply lying, but everyone knew it was a joke to make people laugh and spend their money on socks. I did not think it was funny because, if I lied, I got a whipping. So, advertisers have been lying for a very long time.

Blind Evangelist Eli eating ice cream

An evangelist was invited by my Dad to preach to the church he pastored. His name was Brother Eli, and he was blind. At six years old, I had not ever got to interact with a blind person like him, and he was a tender hearted man and talked to me like I was important. Every six year old is sure he is very important, so I was charmed.

Mom had made homemade ice cream, and we all went outside after a meal to have ice-cream. I was amazed that Brother Eli could find his mouth every time with the spoon. Later, at supper, I closed my eyes and tried to find my mouth with a spoon of food. Voile, it worked, and I learned something about how the human brain works. I don't know why I remember this childhood moment. It is odd how we retain some of the weirdest memories. Brother Eli had not had ice-cream in a long time and was very excited about it.

Tooth Straightened

At six years old, I had a top front tooth coming in crooked. It pointed back into my mouth. My parents could not afford to pay dental bills, so my Dad, the great improviser, came up with a solution. He used a regular six inch tongue blade. He put the end of it into my mouth behind my top teeth, and he put the other end in the neck of my T shirt. The T shirt kept the tongue blade tight and at tension against the back of the tooth that needed to be moved forward. I was very unimpressed with his invention of course. How could I play like that without being totally handicapped. Well, this time Dad did not threaten discipline. He got out the Sear and Roebuck catalog, and he said I could have anything in the toy section if I would keep the tongue blade in place all day every day for the rest of my life. Well, that is what it sounded like to me. I browsed the toy section of the catalog, and it suddenly hit me..... Dad said, "any toy in the catalog." That was a mouth full for my parents' limited income. I recall figuring that out, and I decided to not get carried away.

Dad said years later that he was terrified that I would ask for the bicycle or the biggest wagon. I picked a cap gun. It was a one off cap gun that came and went quickly because it did not look like a gun, and when playing cowboys and Indians, it just didn't look right. The trick was that it was pneumatic, and I had to pull back a handle to set the thing. It had a roll of ordinary paper in it, and when I pulled the trigger, it snapped a metal device against the paper and popped a hole in it. The pop was somewhat like the bang of a traditional cap gun. The thing looked more like some sort of staple gun. But, in the catalog it looked exciting.

I kept the tongue blade in place very faithfully for several weeks. I was a mess to look at because the tongue blade made me drool on myself, and I loved to play in the dirt with my cars. So, you can easily imagine how I looked like a filthy monster. My tooth did straighten out, and I did get the cap gun. I only wish I had kept it. It would be worth a fortune now because it was a total commercial failure. You can see from the photo that it just does not look like a Colt 45 that a cowboy would pull to shoot cattle rustlers. Also, the pop it made sounded more like a library paper punch than the bang of a gun..

The cap gun in the photo is the exact same one as the one my Dad bought me.

Halloween Story and Neighbor's Wagon

On Halloween, neighborhood boys would roam the area and tip over out houses. I never understood what the thrill was about making trouble for people like that. One farmer would only dig a hole that would last one year. Then, after the boys pushed the outhouse over, he would dig another hole and push his out house to that new hole and set it up. After covering the previous hole, he would plant a fruit tree in it. This way, after several years, he had a fruit tree orchard of very productive trees.

I heard about a farmer in Canada who pushed his outhouse side to side about two feet so that the wall was just above the edge of the hole. Outhouses had a hole considerably smaller than the outside dimensions of the outhouse to give support to the thing. When the naughty boys on Halloween came to push his outhouse over, they all pushed, and they all took one step forward which was usually safe. This time, they took a step forward into the hole, and two of them fell in. Two can play that game.

One Halloween, the boys headed for our neighbor's farm to play a prank. The old man was alone on the farm, and he was very cranky. His wrathful response seemed to inspire the boys, and they liked to torment him. My Dad felt sorry for the old man. The boys got the man's turnip wagon that was pulled by horses. They took it to a creek nearby and ran it into the sand and got the wheels stuck on purpose. My Dad decided to turn the tables on them. He got his 22 caliber rifle, and he went out on the road in the dark and began to chase the boys and shoot into the ditch. He made sure to shoot so that he would not accidentally hurt anyone. Dad also limped as he ran on purpose to mimmic the limp of the old man. The boys went through the barbed wire fence and fled through a watermelon field in a panic.

The next day Dad went to the general store. When he sat down on the porch to visit with the old timers, one of them said, "Brother Van, did you hear that one of the boys from around here was shot in the dark last night?" Dad figured the old timer knew exactly who had chased the boys, and he was trying to scare Dad. So, my Dad said, "What happened to the boy?" The old timer said, "They took him to a hospital in Muskogee I heard." Dad said, "Tell me which hospital, and I will go and visit him." The old timer realized Dad was not rising for the bait, so he said the boy was not hurt that bad and would probably be coming home right away. This sort of thing was common among the men in the area. They loved to play tricks on each other.

There was a boy who decided it would be fun to push his own outhouse over on Halloween, and that is what he did. Later, his father found him, and he asked him why he pushed over the outhouse. The boy decided not to lie and admitted he did it. His father at once cut a branch off of a tree and gave his son a whipping. The boy had his feelings hurt. He told his Dad that George Washington cut the cherry tree down, and when his father asked about it, George said he could not lie and admitted he did it. George's father forgave him. So, why had this kid's father whipped him when he told the truth? The father said, "George Washington's father was not sitting in the cherry tree."


Churches in School in Town and Van

Wild night at Van School House

Dad pastored at least two church gatherings. One was in Briartown, and one in the country in the Van School House. The photo at the right shows a look alike school building built in 1921 that reminds me of the country school we met in. The church, of course, met on Sunday and Wednesday evening. In those days it was not considered an offense by anyone for a church to meet in a school house. Many things, in those days, took place in the community school house. The town council met there. Politicians campaigned there. Schools were voting centers on election day. Schools were where the Grange met. Weddings and family reunions used schools for gatherings. About the only group that did not meet in the school house was the Freemasons. They are terrified of windows and want the place they meet to be totally blocked from outside eyes. There is something creepy about that sort of temperament.

So, it was Wednesday evening, and we got into the old Plymouth and headed out for prayer meeting. There was no weather forecast on the radio in those days, so we had no idea a fierce blue norther was on the way. When we arrived at the school house, only two people were there. It was Fall, and it was cold. So, Dad filled the pot bellied coal stove with coal and lit it. The photo shows a chimney which would have been over the coal stove. Dad also lit the Aladdin lamps. The school had no electricity.

An Aladdin lamp, like the one at the left, was pretty expensive long ago, so many people had the old hurricane kerosene lanterns. Aladdin lamps are still made, but they cost anywhere from $90 to $350 depending on how fancy they are. The Aladdin lamp came with metal bases and China bases, and the home models had an elaborate shade which was often made of glass also. The wick was made so that it gave off an enormous amount of light, but without pressure.

The coal stove lit well, but coal takes quite a while to get going. Once it gets going well, it gets fiercely hot. Well, Dad was not used to coal stoves because they were rare in Los Angeles where he came from. So, he had filled it way too full, and it got so hot it started to roar. Dad knew that was not good, so he damped it down the most he could, but it kept right on sounding like a locomotive getting ready to climb the Rocky Mountains. That meant we had an urgent prayer request on our hands, and some of us prayed that the stove would not blow. Dad had heard about coal stoves blowing, and this one was on its way. It got so hot that it started turning color, and THAT was bad news for sure. The seams even slightly opened and let out light, and the smell of hot coal was getting into the room.

Well, God delivered us from disaster, and the old stove began to relax and just roar a little bit. But by then, the place was super hot, and we were all sweating. It was a hot time in the church that night, and soon thanks was offered the Lord for keeping us from more fire from Heaven than we were ready for.

By this time, it was pouring outside, and Dad started wondering about the road home. All the country roads in Oklahoma in 1949 were dirt, and when it rained, that black cotton soil got sticky as molasses in January. We finished the prayer meeting, and the other two people headed for home. We got into the Plymouth and started slipping and sliding like a good old boy at a barn dance.

All the country roads in Oklahoma had grader ditches along the sides. I talked about this above when telling you about sassafras tea making. Well, the grader ditches along the road that night were deep enough to swallow a Plymouth with room left for a Ford. And, that is just what that ditch did.

We were putting along spinning our wheels, and Dad was fighting to keep the car in the middle of the road, when we came to a bridge. We got over it all right, but on the other side was a modest wash out. But, it was enough to pull the car off of the road, and we tipped over into the ditch, and we came to rest with the car on its side and the top against the bank. The ditch had totally swallowed the car. Dad was a great one for killing panic attacks, and he at once told us we were not hurt and would get out of the car all right.

Dad got up and out of the driver side door, and then he pulled Mom out onto the side of the car, and then he pulled my little brother and me out of the back and onto the side of the car. Dad then straddled the car and the bank of the ditch, and he flung us each, one by one, onto the bank above the ditch. We then huddled, and Dad said we needed to stop and pray and thank God for saving us from being hurt. So, we had another prayer meeting in the rain in a cotton field in Oklahoma, and we indeed were thankful.

Dad went off and found help, and someone drove us home. The next day Dad found a farmer with a tractor who offered to pull Brother Van's car out of the ditch. Well, in those days, automobiles were all steel. That Plymouth hardly had a scratch on it, and it went on serving us for a long time.

The battery for the car was under the back seat, and the acid ran out and got on the inside of the car. It also soaked Dad's notebook with all his sermon notes for years in it. The next day Dad did something to try to counter act the acid, and he hung all his sermon notes on the clothes line to dry. That must have caused some speculation among the neighbors.

By the grace of God, that is the only car accident I have been in during my life. Well, not quite. I dumped a motorcycle in heavy traffic on Rosecrans Blvd. in Norwalk, California when I was in college. Again, God was looking out for me, and I ended up with only seven stitches and a deflated ego. I haven't been on a motorcycle since then. Elizabeth made me promise I would not get a motorcycle so that I had better odds to stay available to help raise the kids. And, now that she is with Jesus, I cannot see pushing the odds again.

Stamps Baxter shape note hymn book. Southern Gospel quartets.

The school house had a piano, and it was way out of tune. The keys were clinking and totally out of fellowship with one another. But then, probably 99% of all the school houses in America had out of tune pianos. Mom played for our hymn singing, and the hymn books had been around for a few years and were kept at the school house. They were written in shaped notes which was used long ago for Sacred Harp singing. That is a singing method in which the names of the notes are sung first, and then the words of the hymn are sung next. It is also called So-Fa singing.

Notice that many of the people keep time with their hand. This is to help keep together while singing. There are also usually three or four song leaders at the same time.

That was the heritage of the Stamps Baxter hymn books we sang out of. Mom had a terrible time with the funny shapes for each note in the Do Ra Mi scale. But, she eventually learned. The Stamps Baxter hymn book company got quartets together who went around America singing songs from their hymn book. These quartets used a swinging beat and a stride piano which made the hymns sound more like they belonged in a dance hall in New Orleans. But, many churches went for it and thought they would have singing like that if they bought the books. This is now called Southern Gospel and is a mix of sacred hymns and boogie woogie and is the main product peddled by Bill Gaither and most Charismatic churches.


Moving on

Dad and Mom were having so much trouble making ends meet that they decided to pack up and move to Arkansas where Dad went to John Brown University and studied Greek. He felt he could be a better preacher if he could study the Bible in Greek. He kept that feeling the rest of his life, but I believe he preached the best sermons when he did not dig so much in the Greek.

While in Arkansas, Dad also pastored three churches up in the Ozark Mountains. We drove up there every Sunday in the old Plymouth, and on the way we collected a bunch of kids, some of whom had to hang on the outside of the car and stand on the running board because the car was packed full. Was that dangerous? Of course, but we did things like that long ago, and it was just part of getting on with life.

After Arkansas, we moved to Salina, Oklahoma where Dad pastored a Methodist church, but that is another story that will come soon. Look for it in the Table of Contents.




His father Emmet was a deacon in the little church my Dad pastored in Briartown. Jerry's sister lead the hymn singing. The family were Cherokee Indian. I loved to "go visiting" to their farm because it was green and lush. Emmet build his house on river bottom land and farmed it. That is dangerous of course, because in a once-in-a-hundred-year flood, his home would have been flooded. But, it was smart also, because he no doubt got the land cheap. For what he saved he could repair the damage if he ever had a flood. Jerry probably played with me back then because I recall having fun with the Lowery kids, even though I was a lot younger than they were.

This is a video about a cemetery in Briartown, and the guide tells the story of Tom and Sam Starr who were outlaws in the area.