Five years into our marriage, Margaret and I had a honeymoon. That’s what happens when you are a) poor and b) in seminary all the time, trying to earn your credentials as a pastor.
Anyway, I was just graduating from seminary and pastoring a little church on a bayou some 25 miles west of New Orleans and we decided the time had come for a real vacation. We did something that was so unlike us that it seems a little foolhardy now and I wonder that we did it at all. We hired a lady to come in and stay with our two small boys for the week. (Okay, it wasn’t quite that scary. Leola was a lovely Black lady who helped Margaret with the housekeeping one day a week and our boys adored her.)
We were driving a 1964 red Ford Falcon with no air conditioning, but hey, it was 1967 and that’s how most people lived. And so we went to Texas.
Had you asked, I would have had a hard time telling you what I needed from that trip. I was mentally tired and wanted a change of scenery. I hoped to see something I had never seen before, to go where no one could reach us, and not to be needed by anyone. I needed to renew my spirit, to refresh my imagination, to laugh again, maybe be a kid for a few days.
Several things about that trip have lingered all these years. On Sunday morning, we went to church at First Baptist Church of Dallas. The pastor, Dr. W. A. Criswell, one of my heroes, was not in the pulpit that day, but Ray Roberts of Ohio preached. The two things I recall about that day are a) an usher dropping the offering plate and money scattering everywhere, and b) Dr. Roberts telling two little poems I’ve quoted ever since.
The first was something a deacon wrote about his preacher:
My pastor’s eyes I’ve never seen
Though with Heaven’s light they shine
For when he prays he closes his
And when he preaches, he closes mine.
The preacher came back with this rejoinder:
Tell my deacons when I die
For me to shed no tears
For I’ll be no deader then
Than they have been for years.
Margaret had allowed me to plan the vacation, and my plan was no plan. I insisted that the last five years had been so regimented with jobs and schools and babies that I needed the freedom to get up in the morning and decide that day where we would be going. That’s how we ended up in Wichita Falls that night. It sounded “western” to me, and as an Alabama farm boy, that was my definition of exotic. Alas, Wichita Falls was flat and dull and history, as we headed south Monday morning as fast as we could. We did attend a little Baptist church there that Sunday night, named Sunshine or something. We sat in the congregation incognito, but amazingly, at the end of the service the pastor looked in my direction and said, “I think you are a preacher,” and he called on me for the benediction. My joy had outed me.
I remember praying in a motel room in San Antonio. Back home, a pastor search committee had called from Mississippi wanting to come down for a visit. I told the chairman my plans for years had been to get a doctorate in history and teach on a college level while pastoring small churches on the side. I had always worried about new college students, the way they lose their bearings and get drawn into drugs and booze and more, and had wanted to teach on the freshman level in order to be there as a strength to these kids. The question hung there whether this was my plan or God’s. “Let me talk to the Lord about this,” I said, “and I’ll call you in a week.” In that darkened room just a few blocks from the Alamo, while Margaret slept, I prayed. Suddenly, the Lord spoke to my heart as clearly as anyone ever has, that He had called me to pastor His church.
Somewhere in West Texas we came upon a sign pointing to “Alamo Village,” the setting for John Wayne’s recent movie “The Alamo.” Now, this was what I had come to see. The real west. Sort of. There it was, nestled in a little valley, picturesque and quaint. And fake. Lots of false fronts to the buildings. But that was all right. Even that was fun to see. We sat in the barren saloon, walked the dusty streets, and took a stagecoach ride while I tried to pretend I was ten again and fighting bad guys alongside Gene Autry and Allan “Rocky” Lane. The locals told us Raquel Welch would arrive soon for a new movie to be shot there. Ever since, whenever “Bandoleros” runs on the old movie channel, I watch it just long enough to see Alamo Village and remember the summer of 1967.
Recently I picked up Tom T. Hall’s book “The Storytellers’ Nashville,” in which he recounts his experiences in country music over the last forty years. As a country boy–but you knew that already–I was well acquainted with Mr. Hall and his great talking songs, in particular “The Year Clayton Delaney Died”, “I Love,” and “Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine.” He is most definitely in a category by himself. And it turns out that Mr. Hall has been to Alamo Village.
Somewhere along the performing road, Hall had befriended the man who owned Alamo Village, and several times over the years, went to visit him. After the movie had been shot, he says the owner had decided to rebuild the Alamo replica–John Wayne had destroyed the first one on the property in making the movie–and to invite tourists. Which is how we came to be there. It turns out Tom T. Hall rode around in that same stagecoach, sat in the same saloon, and walked the same dusty streets. And seeing as he hails from a little rural community in Kentucky, there is no doubt in my mind that he did some pretending, too. That would seem to be the whole point for going to a place like Alamo Village.
We came home to a grand welcome from our little boys. Leola had survived, and had earned our eternal gratitude. Margaret and I had enjoyed the time together. I made the call to the pastor search committee to tell them I was available if they still wanted to come. Two months later, we moved to Emmanuel Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi. And nothing has been the same since.
Our oldest son, Neil, still owns that red Ford Falcon. It’s in his garage, and he says he’s going to restore it some day.
Hey Joe — you wrote about my hometown, maybe even my home church! I was born in Wichita Falls, Texas and baptized at Sunnyside Baptist church. I was 6 years old in 1967 — so it’s possible that I was there that Sunday you prayed. My daddy was a bivocational minister of music, and may have even led you in a couple of hymns that day!
I’m sending your story on to my folks — who are still in WF — to check out the dates.
By the way — you’re right about the terrain there. My father-in-law says that my daddy’s backyard looks like a John Wayne movie! But I loved growing up there anyway.
Thank goodness you listened to God and became a pastor. I know you were such an influence on my life beginning when I was a freshman in high school until way past that unsure freshman in college. Thank you for all you have done for and meant to me and my family through the years.
Joe: Not long ago, I attended a funeral for a man where the closing “hymn” was “Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine,” by Tom T. Hall. One of his sons rationalized this by saying, “Well, it was his favorite song!”
On the way to my first meeting today I listened to my Tom T. Hall CD to remember the days at Mississippi State University and Driving to FBC, Columbus, MS for Church. Tom T. Hall and Joe McKeever; I can see the two of them in a room having a great chat and heavy discussion about one of Tom’s other songs, “Trying Everything from Jesus to Jack Daniels”.
Joe and Tom; 2 great storytellers. Now if we could just figure out how to get them in the same church one Sunday morning. That would be one spectacular service.
Yes indeed, we remember “Watermelon Wine” and Tom T’s million dollar voice. Your story of Alamo Village also stirred many fond memories. Being blessed by the Air Force with three tours in Del Rio, TX, meant that we did considerable poking around, looking for things of interest to us/the kids in that fairly desolate part of Texas. Several of our military and civilian friends there were extras in various movies filmed at the village near Brackettville, and we stopped by to see what was going on many times over the years.
There is also an old cavalry for there, Ft. Clark, and naturally, it has been turned into an attraction. It is extremely well preserved and quite photogenic. There is an enormous spring that served the fort and the locals, which sustains a breath-taking live oak forest. In the 30’s and 40’s the fort was quite a popular stop on the “jet set” circuit of Texas (of course the aircraft were DC-3s and such); the air strip was well maintained and busy. Now there is a grand golf retirement community there, and probably other additions I’m not aware of.