Fantasy Squadron

IMG_7093

As Veteran’s Day approaches, I remember my late “Uncle Shorty.” When the United States entered World War II, he answered his country’s call to military service. After basic training, the Army sent him to Officer’s Candidate School. Ninety days later he emerged as a second lieutenant preparing to ship out to the Pacific where he would lead an infantry platoon into some zone of hell he had yet to imagine.

Just as he stepped off the gangplank onto a troopship, he received new orders to report to the Pentagon where he spent the rest of the war writing training manuals. He finished with the rank of captain. I had another uncle who fought in North Africa, and another who served in the merchant marine service, but I didn’t see them much. Uncle Shorty was more visible because he served in the States and came home on furlough frequently.

So, Uncle Shorty wasn’t a war hero–but he was my hero. When I asked what he was doing to win the war, he would tell me he was “squirting ink” at the enemy. I was only eight when the war ended, so my imagination was fired up about what he must have been doing. By the way, his name wasn’t really “Shorty”–it was Elmer, after his father, but he didn’t like that name, so he went by “Bud.” I called him Uncle Shorty because he always called me “Shorty.” It was just a little transfer of identity between us.

After the war, many kid’s dads in my Cincinnati neighborhood came home and gave some of their military paraphernalia, such as sergeant’s stripes or a lieutenant’s bar, to their kids. During recess at Clifton School, we boys would spread our arms as though wings of an airplane, then run around the schoolyard like a fantasy squadron in combat. We would say “rat-a-tat-tat” in pretend dog fights shooting each other down. The kid whose dad had the highest rank was the squadron leader.

Now, my dad wasn’t in the military during the war. He was a supervisor on an assembly line at the Curtiss-Wright aircraft plant. We lived in Blue Ash just outside Cincinnati where there was a small airport whose runway ended behind our house.

I recall the scream when one of the Helldivers did demonstration dives at the airport, and another time when they brought in a B-25 bomber for a demonstration. It seemed like the pilot taxied almost into our back yard, then turned the plane, held it with his brakes while revving the engines to full throttle before thundering down the runway and into the air. I can still remember how the ground shook with the vibration of those revved-up twin engines.

By the time the war ended, we had moved back into the city, which is how I came to attend Clifton School. I soon found I had a problem with the squadrons in the schoolyard. Since my dad hadn’t been in the military, I had no rank insignia, so I was excluded from the flying aces during recess–that is until I talked to Uncle Shorty. Being a pretty quick study, he picked up on the problem right away.

Soon afterward he sent me a gift, an Army garrison cap with captain’s bars. Wearing that insignia on the school playground the next day gave me a chance to lead a fantasy squadron of my own.

 

The Launching Years

img_3578

Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016

Like clouds breaking open to reveal eternal expanses beyond the boundaries of earth, so our lives open as we journey through adolescence into adulthood.  These are The Launching Years.

Mary glimpsed this dynamic in her oldest son when he joined the Army and left home for three years.  His return in July, 1959, brought fresh transitions for the whole family.  He would live at home, but being out of the army’s “nest” meant he had two immediate needs–a car and a job.

“Look at this,” his dad said while reading the Saturday newspaper.  “‘Nineteen-forty-nine Pontiac for sale, good tires, runs well.  One owner.  Priced to sell.'”

“Let me see that.”  Hugh T checked out the ad and jotted down the number.  “Let’s call about this.”

“Go ahead.  You’re on your own now…but I’ll take you to look at it.”

He called and found the car belonged to two elderly women in the nearby town of Dayton. It turned out to be as good as advertised, and the price worked for him, so Hugh T bought it.

With the car issue settled, the next thing was a job.  He found an ad from a local sewing machine store seeking a salesman.  “Sewing machines!” he muttered as he read it.  “Guess I could do that.”  He went for an interview and got the job.  That’s when some new issues surfaced.  His first week went okay in the store, learning the features of each machine and how to use them.  The beginning of the next week was when things changed.

“Here’s how things work around here,” he boss told him.  “When you come in each morning we’ll have some leads for you.  These are people who have called in for service on their machines.”  He looked sharply into Hugh T’s eyes.  “I don’t want you fixing those machines!  Your job is to sell them a new machine.  You won’t get a commission from repairs.”

That set up a moral dilemma when he discovered that most of the calls were from elderly women, often widows, for whom sewing provided a sense of purpose.  Most of them lived very simply with limited resources.  He expressed his feelings to Mary one morning at breakfast.

“I feel like I need this job, but I can’t do what they want.  These are old ladies who know more about sewing than my boss will ever learn.  I just don’t feel settled about selling them a machine, no matter how advanced it is, when all they really need is a new bobbin, or some simple adjustment.”  He paused while he studied his plate, then looked back up.  “The trouble is, the boss says I either sell them new machines, or I’m fired.”

Mary felt his distress.  Her husband had been through issues like this a few times. “Sometimes you have to follow your conscience…your inner voice, even when you can’t see  where that will lead you.”  She put her hand on his.  “Besides, how do you know you’ll even have time for this job when your classes start next month?”

Hugh T’s tension seemed to fade a bit.  “Yeah, I thought of that, too.  I guess I just needed to hear it from somebody else.”  He paused thoughtfully.  “Glad I saved enough while in the Army to pay for the first year’s tuition.”

“That’s a blessing already.”

Hugh T got up from the table, stepped over to the kitchen sink, then turned back toward her.  “Actually, I hope to get a student pastoral appointment next summer…once I get my feet on the ground.”  She knew he had completed a year-long correspondence course while in France that had qualified him for a Local Preacher’s License.

Within a week he had quit the job, and shortly after that came student orientation and then the beginning of classes.   One morning when he was about to leave the house Mary handed him an official-looking  letter that had arrived the day before.  He had a puzzled expression as he opened it, then looked shocked.

“I can’t believe this!”  He waved the letter in the air.  “They say the Army overpaid me and they want the money back with interest.”  He sank into a chair, handing the letter to his mother’s outstretched hand.  “That’s practically everything I have in savings.”  He looked up at her.  “What am I going to do?”

Mary wished she could step in and help, but she and Hugh didn’t have the resources available.  She also knew this was something her son really needed to work out for himself…the first of many challenges that would require spiritual resources.

“I don’t know, but if God called you to the ministry, God will have an answer.  Your Daddy and I have faced some things like this, and we found God was bigger than our problems.”

Just a few weeks later an opportunity opened for Hugh T that he couldn’t have seen coming.  The Keezletown church was part of a circuit that included two other churches nearer to Harrisonburg.  When her pastor had a heart attack, he had to cut back on his activities. He narrowed his focus to the Keezletown conregation and hired Hugh T to preach at the other two until June.  This helped with his day-to-day expenses, as did a part-time holiday job at a men’s clothing store.

A couple of months later Hugh T announced that he was going to get married to a young woman named Gerry he’d met through a college friend.  They had been spending a lot of time together, so it wasn’t a total surprise, but some flags went up in her mind.  Then she remembered how she and Hugh had known each other only three months when they got married.  Maybe this is how my parents felt! 

“Since your Daddy and I had a brief courtship, I guess I can understand that.  But things are different for you.  You’re in college.  This is a big step.”

“I know, but several day students are married, and they seem to manage okay…”  He paused a moment.  “Besides, there’s something else going on.  There’s a small charge east of Elkton that might become available as a student appointment in June.  I just learned, though, that they won’t consider a man who’s single.  By getting married this spring, I can qualify for consideration.”

“And how does Gerry feel about that?  Is she ready to be a pastor’s wife?”

“She’s excited about it.  You know, her parents are both active in their church.  She says she looks forward to it.”

Hugh T and Gerry were married in March.  In June he was appointed student pastor at the Blue Ridge Charge.  Two-and-a-half years later they presented Mary with her first granddaughter.  An image of her own Grandma Mary came into her mind and she wondered if she was ready for this.  Looking in the mirror she thought, With my gray hair, I guess I look old enough to be a grandma, but I sure don’t feel like it.  

Getting her oldest son launched wasn’t Mary’s only task during these years.  She had already seen her daughter through nursing school.  After working for a while at MCV in Richmond, Sis had moved to Staunton where she worked at King’s Daughter’s Hospital, and lived in nearby nurse’s housing.  Mary praised God for her daughter’s accomplishments, but she was also anxious for her to meet some man who would love her and take care of her.  One day the phone rang with a message that eased those concerns.

“I have someone I want you to meet,” Sis said.  “His name is Bill Diehr.  One of my friends at work is dating his cousin, and they introduced us.  We’ve been seeing each other for a while and I want him to meet you.”

Mary and Hugh had them for dinner and got acquainted.  Bill had been in the Air Force, and had a good job with a major airline at Washington National Airport.  He was different from anyone Sis had been interested in before.  She had dated a man who was in the Navy who asked her to marry him, but Sis had been unsettled about it.

Mary recalled Sis asking her, “Do you think I should marry him?”

“I don’t know,” she had replied.  “How do you feel about him?  Are you ready to get married?”

That same conversation happened several times, and finally Mary had said, “If you have to keep asking me about this, maybe you shouldn’t marry him.”  Soon after that Sis attended the christening of the ship he was to sail on…and met his wife!  

Sis had told Bill about that, and now he told Mary and Hugh his story.  “I’ve been married before.  I’m divorced.  I married a beautiful woman and we lived in South Carolina…but I found out she was really married to herself.  She had no room for me in her life.”  Bill went on, “I learned a lot from that.  I learned that I wanted inner beauty from a woman, and Merle has that.  I also think I learned something about being considerate and supportive as a partner.”

So, Mary thought, they’ve both been through bitter experiences–two broken hearts–two hearts being healed.  She and Hugh gave their blessing.  Sis and Bill were married in December, 1964.  They would soon present Mary with her first grandson, Tony, and four years later a granddaughter, Shannon.

img_4808-001

Jimmy, twelve years younger than Hugh T and six years younger than Sis, was having his own launching experiences in the midst of all this.  His entrepreneurial life began at age eleven when he took over delivering the Grit newspaper.  The boy who had done it before had simply handed the papers out to anyone who wanted a copy.  Jimmy saw a better way. He got on his bicycle and delivered a copy to each home in the community, which made the paper more visible.  He was soon gathering new customers.

Mary complimented him on the way he did this.  “Just like your daddy,” she said.  “A born salesman!”  Early in his life Jimmy had exhibited artistic talent.  When he entered a contest connected with a local Saturday TV show, she wasn’t surprised that he won.  Local artist, Judy Preston, ran the show, and Jimmy was invited to appear as a guest.  He became a regular participant, and also took oil painting lessons from her.

Mary and Hugh’s friend, Bradford Cobb, owned a small cavern in the Massanutten Mountain.  When Hugh T was a high school sophomore, Brad was just getting started with the enterprise, and trained him as a part-time summer guide.  After Hugh T went into the army, Jimmy wanted to take his place.  He worked there three summers…first cutting grass, then selling tickets, and finally as a substitute guide.

In 1955 Hugh took a job selling oil and grease to large construction projects in North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.  The company, Lubrication Engineers, was headquartered in Dallas.  Periodically they had sales conferences where the men brought their wives.  When Sis was working in Staunton, she was able to stay at the house and care for Paul and Jim while Mary went with Hugh to these meetings.  It gave Mary a break from her routines, and sometimes included sight-seeing.  One time they took Jim with them to New England where they visited Boston, where Hugh had gone to high school, and Cape Cod.

After high school, Jim entered Richmond Professional Institute (RPI) where he studied art. The campus, which later became Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), was located in downtown Richmond.  One day his dad made an unexpected visit to his son, whom he didn’t believe was getting along as well as he could in college.  Not long after that Jim joined the Navy.  He took his basic training in Florida, and then was trained as a photographer.

img_4812-001

While at Pennsacola, Jim had been assigned to help the protestant chaplain.  When he reported for duty on an oceanographic ship with a small Navy complement, he was again asked to be chaplain’s assistant.  He spent his enlistment on this ship in the Atlantic Ocean, then when he was released, got a job as a photographer in Cincinnati.  He lived there for a time with his uncle and his wife, Bud and Charl, in the old Townsend Dairy farmhouse his mother had loved visiting when he Grandma Mary lived there.  Since the family had moved to Virginia when Jim was two, this gave him a chance to connect with his Townsend roots.

The Launching Years!  Mary’s family was growing up and moving into their own life spheres.  Just as she began adjusting to the changes, her mother and dad called from Florida.  “We’ve put our place here on the market.  Florida has been a nice retirement place, but now we’d like to get closer to family.  We were wondering if you could help us find someplace near you in that beautiful valley?”

Mary was thrilled.  “Oh, yes, we’ll help any way we can.  Of course, the weather won’t be as nice as Florida.  Are you sure you’re ready for that?”

“Absolutely,” her dad said.  “It will do us good to have four seasons again.  Besides, your children are growing up and moving away, but Paul is still there.  You tell Mr. P. R. Harris that I can’t wait to fill up some of his empty space.  We’ll have a grand time together.”

Mary was energized with preparations.  Elmer and Merle bought a mobile home and had it placed on a spot just across the driveway from Mary’s house.  Hugh built an entry porch and storage room onto the trailer, poured a sidewalk to the driveway, and built a carport for Elmer’s Buick.  All was ready for the dairyman and his daughter to reconnect, away from the city…out in the country.

Thank you, Lord, Mary prayed.  How truly blessed I am!

img_4810

(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter” by Hugh Townsend Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)

 

 

 

 

 

Going the Extra Mile

img_4698-001

CP Mother of the Year

(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)

Mary and Hugh were challenged to go the extra mile when they got involved with a CP Parents group.  Here were people who wanted to create a center to provide schooling and physical therapy for their children.  They were actively exploring methods to fund their dreams.

The group provided good networking for Mary.  She thrived on their bi-monthly meetings that provided bonding around common experiences, ideas, frustrations and triumphs.  She got involved with the funding discussion.  Television was a new and powerful communication instrument.  The group decided to approach WLW-TV about doing a telethon to get visibility for their efforts.

They launched a contest to name one of their members “CP Mother of the Year,” and have this person presented during the telethon, which would be held at a prominent hotel. Over a period of time community business leaders submitted letters nominating someone for this honor.  Mary was overwhelmed when she received the most letters and was selected.  The night of the telethon her children were thrilled to see their mom on television.

From there on fund-raising efforts proved effective.  The group hired a professional fund-raiser to direct the program and soon they were able to move forward with the center.  That’s when Mary suddenly hit a brick wall.  When the center was ready to open she found out Paul wasn’t qualified to participate.  Several other children with similar levels of need were also rejected.  She learned that group leaders had set minimum standards for participation that said only children who could feed themselves and were toilet trained could qualify.

Mary was crushed and angered.  “I can’t believe this, can you?” she said over the phone to another parent whose child was rejected.  “Why did we all work so hard if this isn’t going to serve the children who need it most?”

She took her feelings to God in prayer.   Lord, I don’t understand this.  We found this group, believed in their cause, helped them raise money to create this facility…and now we’re blocked!  Why?  What did we do wrong?  Show us the way.

In response, she heard an inner voice saying, Wait!  Keep the faith!  Look deeper!

Mary found herself going the “extra mile” again.  She called the other parents of rejected children.  “Maybe this just wasn’t the right approach,” she found herself saying.  “Maybe we need to do something else.  Can you come to our house Saturday afternoon?  We’ll have sandwiches and talk this over.”

On Saturday five children and their parents showed up.  This was a different “coming together” than they had experienced with the other group.  They were all active caregivers who loved their kids and wanted to advocate for them.  They began to meet each week and dubbed themselves the CP Support Group.

img_4791-001

The impact on the children was noticeable.  Being a child with Cerebral Palsy was isolating.  People around them didn’t understand their condition or their needs.  The support group had the effect of normalizing their lives.  Now they could simply “be kids”–laughing and playing together in the safety this group provided.  Mary and Hugh were thrilled.

“Sometimes God has different ideas that we can’t see right away,” Mary said one day.  “We had to run into a brick wall in order to see past the boundaries we had helped set up.”  The support group began to feel energized and soon became visible, and people wanted to help.  One of those  was Paul’s Sunday school teacher.  She and Mary had become friends, and one day she said, “You know, I’d love to come over when your group meets and read some stories to the children.  It might help stimulate them to learn words.  Do you think that would be all right?”

Mary and the group welcomed her.  Soon she was innovating ways to teach these special needs children to speak.  She would put a word she wanted them to learn on a red ribbon that she pinned to their shirt or dress.  The kids squealed with delight and tried to form the words.  They began to have contests to see which child could get the most words on their ribbon.  This became such a stimulus that the group grew from six to twelve children.

About that time Clifton Methodist Church received a new pastor, Reverend Warren Bright. Mary invited him to her house for one of the support group’s meetings.  He was impressed with what they were doing, but noticed how crowded they were.  He made a suggestion.

“Have you ever considered meeting at the church?  We have a large social hall, a kitchen and bathrooms–anything you might need.  You would have so much more room.  I do hope you’ll consider this.”

It didn’t take them long to say “yes.”  The group became known as the Clifton “CP School.”  A woman named Mildred Martin emerged as a key leader who would keep the group functioning for many  years.

Mary and Hugh continued their trips with Paul to visit Dr. Phelps during all of this.  They were still thinking about moving to the Shenandoah Valley some day so they could be closer to Maryland.  Mary also remembered how the beauty of the area had attracted her.  They put their house on the market, but after a while took it back off due to lack of interest.

Hugh had been selling women’s hats, and had done well with it, but it took him out of town a lot.  Then he had the chance to open a business of his own.  He had become interested in woodworking and cabinetry.  A space suitable for a shop opened up on Vine Street, next door to a moving company.  It was an ideal location.  A major part of his work became refinishing furniture damaged in transit.  Applying his woodworking skills to the house, he decided to remodel the kitchen.  About this same time they put the house back on the market, still thinking about Virginia.  He was only halfway finished with the remodeling when the house sold.

Suddenly their world was turning upside down again.  The dream of living in the Shenandoah Valley was now a possibility.  Hugh drove to Harrisonburg where they had stayed at the Pure Village Court, and looked for a house.  He had limited funds and the realtor showed him several places, but nothing seemed right.  Then he was shown an old tenant farm house in the village of Keezletown.  It had once been part of the estate of Senator George Keezle.

img_4794

The property covered three-and-a-half acres that included an apple orchard…and a magnificent view of the Massanutten Mountain and the valley that spread out from it.  The house needed a lot of work, but the price was right.  He went home and described it to Mary.

“I bought the most magnificent view you’ll find anywhere in the Shenandoah Valley.  You can sit in the front yard and look out across miles of farmland.  She was fascinated with his description, and intrigued by the apple orchard.  Then she choked back some misgivings when he told her more about the condition of the house.

“It has a cistern for water located right outside the back door.”

Mary pictured the well outside the kitchen of the hold house on the dairy farm where She wasn’t sure how she felt about the cistern.  Then he told her the biggest drawback.  “It doesn’t have a bathroom, and it has no closets.”

“Hubert Harris, if you think I’m going to live in a house without a bathroom or closets, you are mistaken!”

He tried to console her.  “You won’t have to live in it like that, honey.  I’m going back for a few weeks and I’ll fix it up.  The soil perks, so I can put in a septic tank and build a bathroom…and I can build closets.  I’ll also turn the old back porch into an enclosed utility room.”

She thought about the view and her desire to live in the Valley.  This was the biggest “extra mile” she’d encountered yet.  After prayer and more discussion, she saw God’s hand in it. It was 1951 and they had lived in the house of her dreams on Howell Avenue for six years. She reckoned it was time to trade dreams and entrusted that to God.

img_4905

The dairyman’s daughter was about to move back to the country…not to a farm, but close. It felt good!

(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter” by Hugh Townsend Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The War Years

Hughs Wordquilts

IMG_4771

(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)

Wartime hit like the explosion of an artillery shell in the backyard of everyday American life.  Pearl Harbor’s “Day of Infamy” rained enormous consequences that touched every aspect of life.  No one was spared its impact!

In Mary’s family it touched two of her brothers directly when they were drafted into military service.  Both served in the U.S. Army–John in North Africa, and Bud as an officer at the Pentagon.  When Bud was drafted he qualified for Officers Candidate School. Upon completion of his training, as a second lieutenant, he was headed for the Pacific Theater.  Just before boarding a troop ship he received a change of orders sending him to the Pentagon where he spent the war writing training manuals.

Hugh’s older brother, Floyd, served on the Atlantic Ocean as part of the Merchant Marine throughout the war.  Hugh was not drafted.  The…

View original post 1,343 more words

Life was Good!

IMG_4655

Mary Ellen with brother Bud at a family picnic.

(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris 1911-2016)

For a while after she quit school Mary Ellen felt relieved, unstressed, and happy.  Sleeping late was a luxury she felt she could get quite used to.  Her mother had other ideas.  She tolerated a few weeks of “Met,” as she called her when she was mad or being sarcastic, lazing around, shopping, and running off to Columbus with Artie.

Merle wasn’t sure about this young man.  He was a good student, had a lot of promise, but he was a socialite.  Mary Ellen and Artie grew closer and by summer she was wearing his engagement ring.  He still had another year until he would graduate from college, and then he had to get a job.  He believed that would be no problem.  Merle Townsend wasn’t so sure.

One morning in June when Mary Ellen came down to breakfast her mother announced, “Met, I’m leaving in a few minutes for my Eastern Star meeting and I want you to come with me.  You’re eighteen now.  It’s time you got involved in some worthwhile activities.”

Boom!  Just like that!  Her mother had been through all the Eastern Star chairs and had said many times that she wanted Mary Ellen to join when she was old enough.  It wasn’t that she was disinterested, it just wasn’t something she wanted to do right then. She knew better than to get into an argument over it, so she went.  In high school she’d belonged to a sorority.  The Eastern Star felt a little like that, but it was focused on biblical teachings, and had a lot of very rigid rules and practices.

Joining the Eastern Star opened a door her mother used to get her into more organizations and activities.  Mary Ellen decided enough was enough.  One Saturday morning when she and her dad were in the kitchen by themselves she decided to have a talk with him.  Elmer Townsend was a wise and patient man.  Though he and the family were now attending the Methodist Church, his Quaker roots of quiet contemplation were still present.  He had not been happy with her decision to quit school, but had not pressed her about it.

For her part, Mary Ellen had done some research.  She had checked into the Littleford Nelson Business School’s offerings and decided she wanted to go there.  It was expensive and she had to ask her dad for the money.

“Daddy, I think it’s time for me to have a job…some way to support myself if I should need to.  I can’t go on living here forever, and it will be awhile before Artie and I can get married.”

He looked at her with his characteristic expression, one eyebrow raised higher than the other.  “You know jobs are hard to find these days.  You didn’t finish high school….”

She knew even a high school diploma was no guarantee of a job.  At Western Hills she had made Home Economics her course of study.  She had learned skills in cooking and sewing that she knew would serve her well throughout her life, but a job in those areas?  Probably not easy to find.  The country was in the Great Depression.  She’d been in the classroom when news of the stock market crash devastated everyone.  Her teacher had invested in stocks for retirement and lost everything.  The school had been closed down for the day.

Elmer looked intensely at his daughter.  “Mary Ellen, I understand what you’re saying, and I’m impressed that you’ve looked into this.”  She had told him the cost.  “I could afford to send you there, but how do I know you’ll stay?  What if your young man wants you to be with him when you need to be in class…what will you do?”

“He won’t do that.  Artie knows I need to take care of myself until we can get married.  And what if something happened to him later?  I’d need some skills to fall back on.  I don’t have my head in the sand about this.”

The discussion went on and finally her dad softened his concerns.  “Okay, I’m going to trust you.  I believe you really do want this and that you’ll stick with it no matter what.  Is that a promise?”

‘Yes, I promise,” she said, hugging him.  “Thanks, Daddy.  I’ll make sure you won’t ever regret this.”

At Littleford Nelson secretarial students had to choose between learning shorthand, or stenography, which was a code system using a special machine that was faster than shorthand.  Mary Ellen chose stenography and did well with it.  She felt deep satisfaction and pride when she had completed everything and was ready for a job.

Her joy was tempered, however, by a change in her relationship with Artie.  That’s when he developed a new romance at college and broke off the engagement.  Her spirit was torn between the joy of achievement and the pain of a broken heart.

Her dad offered her a job at the dairy.  She accepted it, suspecting that he did it to keep an eye on her.  Every day she checked out the newspaper classified ads.  One day a secretarial position was offered with a coal company in Bluefield, West Virginia.  She read the ad.  “Must be willing to travel.”  Oh!  This is perfect.  I’ve always wantd to travel.

 It was a dream job that she knew was meant for her!  She went for an interview but felt intimidated when she found a room full of people filling out applications.  Still, she filled out hers, was interviewed, and then left to keep an appointment to have her hair done.

When she got home her mom said, “Did you apply for a job today?  Someone has been calling you–they want you to go back to the hotel this evening for another interview.  Oh, they said to bring your machine with you.”

Mary Ellen was elated.  She went back and got the job with the Virginia Smokeless Coal Company.  The position was as secretary to the manager of a branch they were opening in Cincinnati.  Travel arrangements were made for her to go by train to Bluefield where she would work in the home office for about six weeks.  When the train pulled in she was met by the the vice president, Dr. Houston St. Clair.  He took her to his home for breakfast and then to a room with a private bath he had rented for her.

 A lasting memory of that arrival in Bluefield would always be Dr. St. Clair’s small son who gave her a big hug and then announced, “My, you smell pretty!”

Her landlady, Mrs. Stringfellow, was a single parent with a little girl, and her mother also lived with her.  To supplement her income she had a small home business making cakes, candy and pastries.  They made Mary Ellen feel right at home by designating her the “official taster.”

“The air here is a little different than Cincinnati,” Dr. St. Clair told her.  “Take a few days to get adjusted before you come to work.  You’ll probably want to sleep a lot at first.”  He was right.

When she did report for work, Mary Ellen found the office staff cordial and welcoming.  Dr. St. Clair’s father was the president of the company.  One day he called her into his office to take dictation for some letters.  While transcribing her notes she was startled to read the words, “chicken ridge.”  Chicken ridge?  I must have made a horrible mistake.  If I type this I’ll be fired.   Her training kicked in, however, and she typed the letter exactly as she had transcribed it.  She took the typed letters in to President St. Clair with great apprehension. He read each one carefully, then signed all of them.  “Be sure to get these in the mail today.”  He handed them back to her.

The next day she asked Dr. St. Clair what “chicken ridge” meant.

“Oh, that,” he said, breaking into laughter.  “So he tried that little trick on you!”

It seemed that Dr. St. Clair’s father was dubious about stenography and the fact his son had hired such a young, inexperienced girl.  She continued to learn about the coal businss and about people, and how to get along with them working in a large office.

The coal mines were located in Jewel Ridge, Virginia.  The coal was called Jewel Pocahontas.  They gave Mary Ellen a tour of the mines, and showed her how coal was separated into different sizes.  She learned about gondolas, freight cars, tippies, and how coal was shipped to various parts of the country.

At the end of her training she returned to Cincinnati where she went to work for the branch manager, Mr. Victor Gillespie.  The office was located downtown in the Mercantile Library Building on Walnut Street.  Mr. Gillespie was out of the office almost three weeks every month.  Her job was to be there, answer the phone, write letters, and be ready to really work hard when he returned.

Mary Ellen soon found this gave her a lot of spare time.  She would sometimes cut out and baste a dress or a blouse.  She had time to do a lot of reading.  And there were always salesmen coming by to give her a diversion and conversation.

Life was good!

(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter” by Hugh Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)

A Cozy Timelessness

Remembering the life of Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016

2015-12-22 14.14.06

“Missy, you’re gonna wear that swing out,” called Mary Ellen’s mother from the kitchen.  “I need you to set this table.”

“I’m coming!”

At age ten chores were an interruption in her imaginative world, but Mary Ellen dutifully slid off the porch swing and slammed the screen door as she entered the house.

Her mother turned from the stove, hands on her hips.  “Do you have to slam that door?  I’ve asked you a million times not to do that.”

“I’m sorry.  I forgot.”

Her mother shook her head.  “Well, I hope you haven’t forgotten how to set the table.”

“No, Ma’am.”  Mary got to work.

Decades earlier what was now the kitchen had been the Townsend family’s original log cabin.  It had gradually been expanded to include a dining room and parlor on the first floor, and three bedrooms upstairs.  The kitchen was arranged around a table with chairs in the center, and cupboards, a wood stove, an ice box, and a sink against the surrounding walls.  To Mary Ellen there was a cozy timelessness about this room that she liked–even though it was uncomfortably hot when the wood stove was fired up.

Mary had learned to give her mom space when her words grew abrupt or short.  Her mother’s maiden name had been Merle Kemp Smith, and she had some Irish blood in her.  She often told the children stories about her mother, Romina, who had come to America from Ireland.  Her father was a doctor, which became an important connection when Merle came down with tuberculosis.

A family friend, Dr. William Savage, was studying to become a surgeon..  He was one of several doctors who were exploring a theory about using ether to treat TB.  Merle’s case gave him the opportunity to test the theory.  He periodically administered either through a face cone, spacing treatments with rest periods.  It took a long time, but Merle recovered with only some scar tissue in her lungs.  There were no lasting effects beyond that.  She went on to give birth to her youngest boy, Bud, and learned to drive a car.  She became active in organizations like the church, Mother’s Club (a forerunner to the PTA), and the Order of the Eastern Star.  Her husband, Elmer, came to refer to her as a “joiner.”  She would live to be eighty-nine.

The TB experience spanned an entire year.  Elmer built a sleeping porch on the back of the house to isolate his wife.  She stayed there day and night, sleeping in a hooded, down-lined sleeping bag on a twin bed.  Elmer slept on the other bed to be available if she needed something during the night.  The room had screened windows on three sides, with heavy canvas blinds that were rolled down when it rained hard and during the winter months.  All of that had been a harrowing time that Mary knew she would remember clearly for the rest of her life.

 Having life centered around TB didn’t prevent Merle’s children from being normal kids.  Mary Ellen’s sister, Helen was a typical sixteen-year-old.  She had an attitude that seemed to put her in conflict with people around her, especially her mother.  To her family this was balanced by the fact that she had developed rheumatic fever at age three which resulted in having to wear a brace to walk for eight years.  Mary thought that had a lot to do with her attitudes.  Helen wasn’t around much now.  She had a boyfriend down the road and spent a lot of time there.

Mary’s twin brothers, John and Gene, were fifteen and created frequent havoc with their behavior.  They had jobs caddying for golfers at the country club where their father was a member.  Merle felt they spent too much time at the clubhouse picking up bad ideas and habits.  Mary thought that was probably right.  The two boys seemed to stay away from the house as much as possible.

Mary felt a close bond with her younger brother, Bud.  He often became her charge..  While she hated doing household chores, she never rebelled about caring for Bud.  At age three he had developed a serious illness.  It was during a time when the family enjoyed trips to a wicket dam called Fernbank on the Ohio River near Cincinnati.  It had been constructed the year Mary was born, 1911, to deepen the water channel for navigation.  Families visited the dam and children loved to drink from a public water fountain with a pedal you stepped on to make the water flow.  Mary’s parents became convinced that Bud got sick from that fountain.

The doctor disagreed.  The family had a well outside the kitchen with a bucket they used to pull water up from an underground source.  The doctor had the well tested and found it was filled with bacteria.  The well was closed and Bud recovered–Mary Ellen said–without becoming bossy like his sister, Helen.

Mary set the table as asked, then her mother sent her into the parlor where Bud was playing on the floor with a metal farm set.  She picked up a toy chicken.  “Well, well, you forgot to lock up your chickens.”

“No, I didn’t!”

He grabbed for it.

“Time to put everybody in the barn so we can eat supper.”  Mary made a game out of playfully helping Bud put away his toys, then took him to the sink and washed his hands.  Helen came in and helped her mother serve the plates, then they settled into eating.  Merle had fixed Mary’s favorite dish–vegetable beef soup.”

“Ugh!  Not this again,” said Helen in a sulking mood.

“It’s good for you and you’ll eat it, young lady!”

“I like it,” said Mary.

Helen made a face at her.

“Now, children, that’s enough of that,” said their mother.  “I think I smell a rhubarb pie in the oven.  Everybody who finishes their soup gets a piece of pie.”  She looked at Helen.  “If you don’t finish…no pie.”

That resolved the soup issue.

Mary’s dad came in after dinner was over.  She ran to him.  She loved hugging him around his legs.  He reached down and had her put her feet on his shoes, then walked her around the room.  She wished he could work there on the farm instead of at the dairy downtown.  She wanted to be with him more often.  Elmer’s job required so much time that he frequently left for work before Mary got up, and came home after she was in bed.

This particular night Mary Ellen was glad her daddy had gotten home a bit early.  When he tucked her in bed she fell asleep with pleasant thoughts to round out an adventuresome day.  For the dairyman’s daughter, life could not have felt more comfortable.  She had learned to adapt to challenges, knew when to stay in the background, and was quite adept at simply being herself.  Mary Ellen couldn’t imagine that things would ever really change.

She could never have dreamed that thirty years later she would have her own kitchen in a farmhouse in Virginia that would remind her of the cozy timelessness she felt at age ten in her mother’s kitchen!

IMG_4669

(An excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter,” by Hugh Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)

An Unstained Spirit

DSCF6857Years ago my mother gave us a spray bottle containing a formula that has proven stronger than many a stubborn carpet stain.  At the time we had light grey carpeting throughout our house.  No commercial stain remover (short of steam cleaning) came close to hers in maintaining that carpet.

I have thought about that during this holiday season.  Christmas is a stain remover!  It’s a time when we can dare to lift our spirits toward the highest and best, rather than being submerged in fear and despair.

There are so many things happening every day–big things that affect communities and nations–and small things that are private, seemingly invisible.  It’s easy to become stained by fear. Faith frees; fear stifles!  The problem is, you can’t have both at the same time.

Christmas tells us that what really matters is being connected to God’s love, because it overpowers fear.  It defines us as unique and special–each one of us.  Much of life revolves around either finding this uniqueness and being empowered by it, or being stained by fear that thrives in the darkness of a stained spirit.

Recently I came across some of my old grade school records. Among them was a report card that triggered emotions I had long ago laid to rest.  I picked up my pen and began to recall the occasion–and how it felt.

A STAINED SPIRIT

Forebodingly my spirit spirit sank with each step as

I plodded ten long blocks home from school.

Duty-bound, I carried a note containing a

future-stifling proclamation:  I had failed!

Failed to measure up.

Failed to earn my way to grade three.

Feet dragging.

Spirit sagging.

It wasn’t fair, I told myself.  It wasn’t right.

All because we’d moved to Clifton’s gas-light

heights.  If only I could have stayed with

the simplicity of the Blue Ash country school.

Now that was gone.

What kind of place was this?

What kind of people these?

What would become of me?

In a world too big for me to comprehend,

a war had just ended.

In my inner world, one had just begun.

What could the future hold for one

so tainted?  My fears were stoked by the

teacher’s note.  “I do wonder,” she wrote,

“whatever will become of Hugh?”

It took years for me to live past that soul-staining sense of failure and unworthiness.  Only God could remove that, and he did!

We all go through soul-staining experiences.  It goes with the territory of human life.  Yet like my mother’s stain remover applied to carpets, God’s love applied to life can lift us out from the most stubborn stains.  It can set us free to try it again, and just maybe, we’ll succeed this time.

God love you, and if you let him, he will give you an unstained spirit.  Trust him!

 

 

 

 

 

Autumn Leaves

IMG_2665-002

So!  It’s that time again!

Another season sliding out the back door as we hang the fall wreath on the front door.  I saw a spray of yellow leaves here and there along the parkway today.  The angle of the sun has shifted.  Now it makes me squint my eyes while cooking on the patio grill.  Sunlight arrives a little later each day, and departs a little sooner.  Just a few weeks and we will set the clocks back to standard time.

I turn on some classical music, lean back and close my eyes.  This is a landmark kind of thing–changing seasons.  At least it feels that way at this stage in my life.

September!  That’s the month when I finished army basic training fifty-nine years ago–and then went to my secondary training in Long Island.  I shivered in summer khakis when I stepped off the train in New York City.  What a relief when they issued winter uniforms!

“Autumn Leaves,” played by Roger Williams, floated in the air, along with real leaves.  Fort Slocum was an island, and it was blustery.  I had qualified for the Army Information School, which was more like a college campus than an army post.  What a change from infantry training in South Carolina during July and August!  Our training included press photography, newspaper journalism, writing radio scripts, and more.  Here was a different world, one I had to stretch to fit into–geopolitics nearly did me in.  But I made it.

They sent me to the Pentagon after two weeks of leave.  I got there just in time to be assigned as a runner for the Eisenhower Inauguration Committee.  Along with that, I clipped newspaper articles in the Chief of Information’s office:  anything about the Army–from all over the country–every day.  It seemed like I was the only non-college-grad in the Fort Meyer South Post barracks.  I went home weekends.  But that’s a story for winter.  Fort Slocum’s autumn leaves are a sufficient memory for the fall.

It was September three years later when I entered Bridgewater College.  I remember freshman orientation week.  A cold front blew in for those few days.  Then classes started and it stayed cold at night, but was quite warm at mid-day.  The campus came alive with activities, and my mind came alive with academic challenges.  I still listened to Roger Williams and “Autumn Leaves” whenever I could.

September three years later was the month when my daughter was born.  We were living in an upstairs apartment of a college-owned house.  Life was hectic with school, four mountain churches where I was serving as a student pastor, and a new baby.  I was awestruck by the immensity of parenthood, the huge responsibility to nurture a tiny bundle of gurgling joy into an adult human being.  The task seemed overwhelming.  I rocked her at night and sang new lyrics I’d put to the tune of a familiar lullaby:  “Rock-a-bye Linda, in daddy’s arms….”  Autumn leaves brushed the window pane outside.

Decades later I had an opportunity to meet Roger Williams.  It was at the Schuller Institute for Successful Church Leadership in Garden Grove, California.  He performed during one of our worship times at the Crystal Cathedral.  I marveled as he played “Autumn Leaves” that day.  Later I had a chance to tell him how much that song had meant to a young GI at an army school in New York decades earlier.

Autumn leaves!  They’re returning.