It was the mid-1960’s when the Beatles were big and the music was loud and catchy — “Yellow Submarine,” “Wild Thing,” “A Groovy Kind of Love,” “California Dreamin’,” and “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Music had a snappy beat back then and was easy to dance to. But to me, there was nothing like slow dancing to When a Man or My Girl and slow dancing with someone who held me tightly.
It was to this backdrop of Beatle mania and British bands that First Baptist Church brought forth in the city of Cleveland a Singing Christmas Tree. Girls in seventh through twelfth grades well rehearsed in soprano, second soprano, and alto, wearing long green dresses wrapped in tinsel, green mittens, holding candles that twinkled in the tinsel, filled a specially constructed stand, and sang songs like “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel,” and “Little Drummer Boy.” This presentation was led by Rev. Milton Burd, who is still to this day at First Baptist. He sang and helped with my father’s funeral 3 years ago and my mother’s funeral almost 3 months ago. As Milton sat in my mother’s living room before the service he asked, “Do you remember what song you had me sing for your dad?” “Yes,” I answered, “‘Little Drummer Boy.’ It was his favorite song, and it’s not just for Christmas; its words tell of giving of yourself, giving your all.”
It was fall semester of my senior year in high school, and I was in the very first Singing Tree; the effort went on for several years after that. I sang second soprano and stood on the bottom row … where it was safe.
The Tree was a part of the Cleveland Christmas Parade that winter. I seem to remember there was a problem. The stand was too high to clear the electric wires, and the top persons had to climb down and someone had to lift the wire so our float could pass under.
I notice now four decades afterward that we got press in the Jackson Daily News. I didn’t know then how phenomenal that was, but I do know now. It was one thing to be in the local Bolivar Commercial, but the STATE paper — wow! That was big ink!
I remember those girls, our extra part rehearsals, how our voices blended, how lovely the sopranos were, and how we sang our hearts out. Those days were beautiful days and the memories are sweet and precious.
My sister gave me Outhouse Theology for Christmas, and I read it last night before going to sleep. It’s a book by Macklyn Hubbell who was our preacher when we were growing up. He has written a collection of funny stories that have happened over the years to him, as he has interacted with people in his congregations. “The minister, handler of the holy, will experience the humorously unholy in pursuit of the holy.”
Dr. Hubbell, who was also a professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, served six churches in all as pastor. Some of the book’s stories happened in my hometown Baptist church. Some of them I remember from the 1960s, like the earthquake that shook the sanctuary during the Sunday morning service when he was preaching about the Second Coming, and like the man who came forward during a Sunday evening invitation hymn and asked to deliver a word to the congregation. He told us when the world would end … around 1970, I think.
My favorite story in the book involves Brother Hubbell, as we called him back then in the Sixties, and Brother Burd, the Minister of Music and Education, who is still involved in the work of the church after forty-five years. The two were agitated because someone was messing with the Coke machine every Monday during afternoon and evening children and youth activities: choirs, Sunbeams, GA’s, RA’s, and Boy Scouts. The pranksters were puncturing a hole in the caps of the bottles that lay sideways in the machine and drinking all the liquid out of those bottles available for purchase. To catch the Coke thief, Brother Hubbell and Brother Burd decided to play detective and hide in the tiny ladies’ restroom that had a good view of the machine. Hubbell sat in a chair and Burd peeked through a crack in the door.
You’ve got to get this image right for the story to be funny — two respected and dignified holy men of the cloth, leaders of the biggest church in town, pillars of the community … hiding in a small women’s bathroom — together — with the lights off, in a pitch black church.
Someone appeared with a flashlight. They thought they’d caught him.
“To our surprise,” Hubbell says, “the thief was not the thief — it was [science] Professor Henry Lutrick of Delta State University looking for his daughters’ school day pictures. His daughters had participated in the church choir program on Monday and had left their pictures somewhere in the building — Henry thought.”
The two Coke detectives thought their cover was safe, as surely Henry would not check the bathroom … but he did, shining the flashlight first in Burd’s face, then in Hubbell’s. “Startled, he backed out of the restroom and disappeared.”
I would give a chunk of money, a gold Krugerrand, and an old diamond engagement ring to know the thoughts that went through Henry Lutrick’s head at that moment. Two ministers. After hours in a dark church. Together, in the ladies’ restroom, lights off. No excuses offered when the light hit them.
Come to find out — as Hubbell found out ten years later at a dinner party — that it was Franklin Nored who punctured the Coke caps and sucked out the Coke with a straw. Franklin was two years younger than I, and we went on many of the same church outings … and if memory serves correctly, I was in on pranks with and to him.
After the visual of the faces of these two holy men shining in the beam of a flashlight, it took an episode of “Andy Griffith” and two episodes of “I Love Lucy” before I could go to sleep.
Friday, October 23, 1964. No football game that night — it was an open date. So the Baptist church planned a youth retreat over at Benoit Lake at someone’s lake house with a fluff of activities appropriate for a fall evening.
But I had something important to do before I climbed aboard that old green-and-white church bus waiting on North Bolivar Avenue with a wild and rowdy bunch of teenagers to head west toward the Mississippi River and its oxbow lakes. My mother was taking me downtown to the police station. I was scared. My heart pounded, my hands trembled, my head was so full of anticipation that it was about to explode. All I could think of was that it would be over soon. And I would have bragging rights to a tiny slip of paper that said I could operate a motor vehicle.
I had turned 15 six weeks earlier, and for a birthday gift, Dad bought me a red, padded key case with brand new shiny keys to the green, long-finned Ford Fairline 500. He had even taken me out on trials runs. I did good most of the time, until the outing when I tried to copy Karen’s mama who had a new sleek Olds with power steering, which I did not have. She’d open and straighten out her hand, rest her palm against the steering wheel, and push it around in a circle to make the car turn. When I tried that in the Ford at the corner of Leflore and College, I ran upon the curb on the opposite side of College Street. Boy, was Dad mad! He made me get out of the car right then and there and trade places with him. He drove the rest of the way home and fussed the whole time. I had knocked his tires out of line; he was sure of it. I didn’t try the power steering light touch any more.
The real test came when an officer of the law was sitting in the seat where Dad usually sat. He was full of badges and patches and flags and a leather gun belt that creaked and moaned when he moved, and he carried a book and pad to write on. He was a big man and he kept shifting around to get comfortable. I made a point to check my rearview mirror, to pump the pedal to get the gas where it needed to be, and to ignite the car in one smooth turn of the key. My key. I put the gear in R and backed out of the parking spot on the little spur street that ran off Cotton Row next to the railroad track.
“Turn left,” he said. I put on my blinker, stopped completely, and followed directions.
“Go left, then left on Court and over the tracks, then left again.”
I rolled past Walt’s Gulf, braked at the Stop sign, looked up Court Street to the right beyond the Ellis Theater marquee, then looked left over the railroad tracks at the old Grover Hotel on the main street. I’d been in this spot millions of times, but it all looked different now. It was different. I was in control of this machine, and I had a man in uniform sitting next to me, judging me. I had to do everything right, and if I blew it, I really blew it. I was under the gun. I kept both hands at 10 and 2 on the wheel, turned left, went up over the railroad tracks past the old depot, and turned left onto Sharpe Avenue. I proceeded past the light at North Street and drove past Owen’s Drugstore, Jay’s, Kamien’s — stores I shopped for dresses in on Saturdays with my friends — Cleveland State Bank, Fred’s Dollar Store, Barbati’s Shoe Shop. And this very pavement I was moving over, with my foot on the accelerator and my hands guiding the wheel, was the same concrete I marched on with the Pep Squad in parades before Friday football home games. I wore a short black felt circular skirt, white blouse, black felt vest with a big wildcat on front, and white gloves. My dad would be standing against the light pole in front of Owen’s, watching. I knew he’d go back to his shop and brag to customers that he had to go see his daughter march in the parade behind the band.
At the end of the main drag, West Implement Company on the opposite side of the intersecting highway, I turned left, then left again on Cotton Row, and drove back to the police station and parked in the same spot. One square route over white concrete and my test was completed.
“Good job, young lady.”
“Did I pass?”
A surge of pride came and covered me when he handed over the tiny white cardstock square with an ID number, name, address, eyes green, hair blond, height, weight. I had succeeded. I became an adult. With this came freedom. I had only told one little white lie — I listed my weight as five pounds under what it really was. Well, maybe ten.
From the police station, Mama let me drive to the church. I leapt from the car, squealing and jumping up and down, with the white square in hand. “Look, y’all! Look what I got!” I held it out, close to the eyes of each person there, including Brother Burd. It was nothing impressive to my friends, as I was one of the youngest in the class, and most already had their licenses. But to me, it was everything.
And so that night on a crisp cool hayride along the levee under autumn stars, I thought about one thing. It was tucked away inside a tiny zipped front pocket of my navy blue parka. In front of a bonfire, its warmth soaking in my cheeks and its glow lighting the ragged circle of my friends gathered with hot dogs and marshmallows, I thought about one thing. On a sliver-of-a-moon walk through the woods with Jim and Jerry and Gerri, crunching leaves underfoot, laughing, getting lost, the girls getting tired and riding piggyback, I thought about one thing. In the cabin where the girls were in one room and the boys were in the next, separated by two inches of closed door, and we girls were plastered to it trying to listen under the crack at the bottom to what the boys were saying and doing (and our whispered laughter at what one of the boys had done that made all the others die out laughing), I thought about one thing.
I got my drivers license!