FRONT-PORCH GOSPEL: This life story begins in 1973 (kind of) – part 28
“It really was the night they Drove Ol’ Dixie Down,” I said to Cheyenne, with a grimace, referring to our 1970s hit song on Pee Wee’s radio on the way home that July evening.
I don’t think I’ve ever been as scared as I was that night, I told him. Seeing Grandaddy’s car parked on the side of the house by the curb, where he always parked, just shook me. I could feel something was wrong. Pee Wee could sense it, too, and he looked at me, reached over, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Pup’s, it’s going to be all right.”
Those were his only words, but his face said more. His tone was more hopeful than sad, and it was as if Pee Wee knew that was exactly what I needed at the moment. I didn’t need false hope, because the inevitable had been staring us all in the face since the cold, cold winter. But I think I did need to hear that whatever was to happen this summer, and even whatever I was going to find when I got inside the house that evening, that it was going to be all right. Somehow.
Pee Wee became a bigger hero there than he already was. But I had a lot heroes, that’s one of the best things about this story. You don’t have to look into a Louis L’Amour western to find a hero, and you don’t have to look far in life, either. That summer they came in all colors, all sexes – there would be the richest, and there would be the poorest, but none of those things mattered a bit.
“What hero are you talking about?” Cheyenne said, “Pee Wee, or your grandfather?”
“Both,” I said, “and a good many others, too: My auburn-headed preaching uncle Alton who really stepped in at a critical time years before, both of my big brothers – you know one of ‘em taught me to love basketball and the other led me to bricklaying, and both of those things would go on to help me make a living for half a century.
“And then there’s my sister who would take us in later, and all the folks at church, and, in this setting, all of the ones at the job over in Roanoke, Alabama.
“Ah, lookin’ back, all those heroes the Lord gave are the reason hope always hung in the air. The Lord gives you a lot more than you realize. Don’t forget that. He knew he would be takin’ away a great deal – only He understands the ‘Why?’ with that – but He also knew He could give us other things that would allow us to make it through.
“Grandma always told me, ‘All things work together for good to those who love the Lord’ – she could quote scripture as well as Preacher Miller – and that verse sure has proven true these fifty years.
“As for Preacher Miller’s heroism, it wasn’t anything in particular he did in the summer of ’73. His was more what he did my whole life.
“Everybody called him Preacher Miller, so much so that I did myself and have all through the years. I’ll have to tell you more about him as we go along because he probably is the most influential person in my life.
“But he was a different grandfather than, say, I am to you. You and I are more like friends. We can talk about anything, we can go way down in the valleys the way we are here and delve into the deeper type meanings.
“But Preacher Miller was more business-like. It seemed to be his mission in life to teach me as much Bible as he could. He was a preacher’s preacher, too, and he carried his ‘sword’ wherever he went, both inside and out. He was easy to spot around town, because he always wore a suit. Most people never saw him when he wasn’t wearin’ one.
“Those things, and a powerful raspy preaching voice, all of it made his whole persona just bigger-than-life. He was about six feet tall, but seemed taller. He and Daddy were about the same height, and they both had a tremendous influence but in completely different ways.
“Preacher Miller’s spiritual influence, though, is at the core of everything that I became and that you and everybody else in our family became – both him and Grandma, your great-great grandmother Zoni Belle Miller. But jus’ knowing Preacher Miller’s unwaverin’ faith and his carryin’ himself as if his face was always set toward Jerusalem, as the Bible says – it would be impossible not to carry a good piece of him with you the rest of your life.”
I could tell Cheyenne was taking it all in. Perhaps he realized he was hearing a history that had never been told before, until now.
“But back to that evenin’,” I said, “When Pee Wee drove up to the house and Preacher Miller’s car was parked on the curb where he would park to keep from blockin’ the driveway for the Rowe’s who lived next door, somethin’ jus’ told me that things were not goin’ to be good.
“I opened the screen door in the back of our house, where we always went in, never the front door,” I said, “And as soon as I walked in and got to Mama’s room I could hear her cryin’, sittin’ on the side of the bed. Grandma and Preacher Miller were standin’ beside her, and the air in the room was so thick you could have sliced it. I’ll never forget that.
“When Mama saw me, she reached her arms out and called me to her, and I went over and she jus’ grabbed me and hugged me like she never had before, cryin’ all along. Mama wasn’t a crier, and seein’ her broken heart, and not knowin’ exactly what was goin’ on, was more than I could take. I bit my lip, turned my head and gazed out of the window to help hold it together. After a minute, I managed to get some words out,
“What’s wrong, Mama?” and my voice cracked much more than I wanted.
Mama gathered herself, let go of me, brushed her hair from her face and wiped the tears, then took ahold of my hands.
“Sweet Billy Ray,” she said after a moment, “I can’t stay here anymore. I can’t stay in my home. I have to go to Mama’s so she can take care of me all the time. I have to leave my home, and I have to leave you, an….” She paused.
“… And I know I won’t ever get to come back,” she said, and the tears just flowed.
Now, fifty years later, I found myself having to pause, too, just in reliving the moment.
“Cheyenne,” I said, finally, “I don’t think I’ve ever been as heartbroken as I was that night.”
I stopped there, looked away, and thought of the Ol’ Dixie song. General Sherman had gathered his troops and was marching right through our lives again, a hundred years later.
Coach Steven Bowen, a long-time Red Oak teacher and coach, now enjoys his time as a writer and preacher of the gospel. And, after a ten-year hiatus, he’s also returned to work with students at Ferris High School as well.
In addition to his evangelistic travels, he works and writes for the Church of Christ of Red Oak at Uhl Road and Ovilla. Their worship times are 10 a.m. Sundays and 7:30 pm. Wednesdays. Email email@example.com or call or text (972) 824-5197.