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.