The muddy-blue water appeared lonely and lifeless as he stood peering out over the great lake. It was a scene he did not know since it was created long after his footprints last touched this countryside: a countryside that held so many memories of precious bygone times.
The lake came to be when the great Arkansas River was impounded to provide much needed water and recreation for surrounding areas. It was a noble cause, he knew. Yet, the waves breaking softly at his feet seemed to whisper “all is lost, all is lost”.
So much of what made him who he was lay buried under the untold fathoms of water. Houses, farmyards and haunts of his friends no longer rested on the banks of the River that flowed no more.
So many memories sentenced to aimless wanderings seeking a resting place - where none could be found: gone forever; destined to be doubted if they ever existed at all. Places of their birthing no longer secure and hence finding themselves doomed to be forever deprived of the tangible foundation necessary to assure a memory is real.
As he stood gazing out at the mysterious lake he imagined he could locate a particular spot - a particular town – now resting beneath hundreds feet of water. The little village sleeping uneasily beneath the waves must always exist. Too much of him, of those he loved, would remain forever there.
Running through his mind was the silently repeated conviction that this should not be.
But, like much of life, what should be bears little familial relationship with what is.
And so, like so much of the past, he was fated to live times again that would forever exist only in vaults of treasured memories.
Human logic tells one those entities that most impact one’s life and memories should be human in nature: or at least some type of living organism. Yet, one cannot exist long upon this watery orb without realizing such is not the ordered reality in which men live.
There are places - trails, buildings, villages, that assume degrees of importance to clearly rival those living beings one holds dear. Without such places men would have no meaning, no place, no purpose. Surely they were designed by the Master Designer with a purpose ever bit as settled, as sure, as important, as those living beings which would pass one’s way. For without them living beings themselves would have no memory and, hence, no meaning.
In a very real sense, such places are themselves living organisms. Like men, they are destined for eternity; and like men, though their outer shells may decay, crumble and return to the dust from whence they came, such can never be said of their spirits.
They live on in each one they touched, in memories that will forever be eternal – as the Designer surely destined them to be.
As his parents settled in on their farm following his father’s discharge from serving in the Navy during the Great War, all knew a new life awaited them in a myriad of ways. He recalled the apprehension and finality of leaving his grandparent’s house – the only true home he had ever known. For the first time in their lives the little family faced a future they would themselves mold.
The small farm house they had purchased had only four rooms, but it was theirs. For the first time some part of this earth belonged to them and them alone.
As in all of life, one learns more from mistakes and heartaches than from signature successes in life. And for the little family there was an abundance of such learning experiences waiting.
His father had lost contact with farming for almost 30 years but, like all of humankind, memories are locked into the firmest recesses of one’s mind and are not easily dislodged. The Naval officer remembered his days as a lad on his family farm and then working as a hand for his future father-in-law. He knew that a good team of horses was all that was needed to work the land – little realizing that the mechanical age had long moved passed those treasured and simpler pioneer days.
The early weeks on the farm were spent searching for a team. When finally located and purchased, they were brought to the farm with great anticipation on his father’s part. Like every man, he truly remained but a boy in heart and mind, and in the private recesses of his inner being, like every man, he would always be. And, like every man, he was certain, as it was in his childhood; it must always and forever remain.
A few weeks of observing those on nearby farms brought the realization of the mistake he had obviously made. It was a hard and bitter admission, but soon an International Harvester tractor graced the farmyard and the hardworking team was sent on their way.
His sister, three years older than he, found the adjustment to the new farm even harder to make than he. He missed his grandmother, but still saw her often. And he had Pooch always by his side to occupy much of his idle time.
His sister had lived longer with his grandparents and was, in some ways, even more dependent on them than he. He wasn’t fully aware of her state of mind until one day he found her taking a branch of the rapid growing Trumpet Vine and sticking it under a board on the side of their little house. Sensing his puzzlement at what she was doing, she noted she hoped it would grow up under the boards and destroy the house so they could “go back to Grandma’s”.
There was much to do in settling into the new home and community. His parents had decided years before that among the most important tasks was to locate a good church where their family could grow in the nurturing atmosphere only such an institution seemed able to provide.
It was natural the family would begin their search by visiting neighbors and inquiring as to their places of worship. To their surprise, almost to a person, the little community worshiped at the same church. Over and over they heard the name “Uncas Baptist Church”. His mother had grown up a Baptist. His father was the son of a United Brethern pastor. The Baptist church, along with an even smaller Methodist congregation, were the only churches close at hand. Both parents agreed the Baptist would most likely fill the need they now felt as well as come closest to their personal beliefs.
Soon after settling in on the homestead, the family made their initial journey to the church that would become an integral part of their existence for the remainder of their lives. Although the realization was not there, they were approaching the place they would serve, lead, come to salvation, marry and die. In the final reckoning before the eternal Judge, what more could be asked of any church?
As the car scurried down the dusty roads, in the distance, nestled along the banks of the Arkansas River, a small village materialized. It was his first view of the town of Uncas: a town destined to survive to see him safely to maturity, to provide his most basic spiritual, physical and community needs, and then to disappear forever.
Humans exist as flesh and blood in a continuous family line from Creator to billions of created. The uncounted multitudes have one common trait: none is like unto another. Each individual exists in a universe belonging only to them. A universe stumbled into at times, carefully planned at others. But no one from wisest sage to simplest commoner can know what influence each second, each hour, each day will have on the one. And none can foresee other forces that will interact on a special one out of all the unnumbered universe of others.
Sometimes the acting force can be another clinging to breath; sometimes an idea; sometimes, surprisingly, nothing more than a building, a village or a trail. But all, acting together, form the inescapable inner framework of the individual. Without awareness or understanding, all become unknowing slaves to the unique mold into which only they will fit; a mold which they are, without full awareness, constantly constructing.
From birth to final breath, man’s destiny is little else.
A number of buildings in the small village would have significant impact on his life. All were now gone. The water assured that not even where they once were could be found. Of them all, certainly none rivaled the influence of the small white church nestled in the valley. It was the heartbeat of the hamlet and the surrounding community. And, it soon became the heartbeat of his family.
The little church actually survived the onslaught of the lake. The building was relocated to a neighboring village resting on much higher ground and safely protected from uncaring waters.
He recalled the visit he made to the little church after its relocation. For the first time in almost 40 years he returned to this reservoir of so many memories. It was a time of great anticipation. He knew all the memories of childhood would come flooding back. They were all surely safely ensconced in the building where they had always been and would always be.
As he climbed the steps a familiar door beckoned him in. Little seemed changed. The door creaked with the same discordant sound that had welcomed him in his childhood. It was a comforting noise reassuring him all was well and would forever be.
As he stepped through the door, inside was all he imagined or hoped it would be. The same knotty pine paneling clung half way up the walls of the auditorium that stretched to seat 75 people. The hard pine pews still stood as silent sentries in their forever assigned place.
Above the altar hung a faded picture of Jesus praying in Gethsemane that he remembered seeing the first day he walked through the door some 50 years before. As a young lad, he remembered staring at the painting when he would have been better served absorbing the message being proclaimed. He recalled being puzzled as to its meaning.
There was comfort in seeing so little had changed. The little church that played such a vital role in his life could have been lifted from his childhood and dropped into the present and everything would have remained as it always was. Or so it seemed at first glance.
The day of his visit, Sunday morning services were about to commence. No problem locating a vacant pew, but before he sat, his eyes sought the most important reassurance as they swept the small audience. In an instant, all that he had expected came crashing down to lay in little more than dust on the pitted wooden floor.
His eyes darted from corner to corner, pew to pew. It could not be. The building was here. All was as it always had been. But, the church was gone. Surely, it could not be true. Frantically, his longing search led his gaze up one pew and down the next. But all was in vain. The church was gone and strangers had misappropriated the spaces forever reserved for rightful possessors.
That spot was for the Bradleys; over there Dorcus and Harley sat; the McClungs claimed the spot up there; the Meyers, Rozells, Pearl Stanley, Mrs. Scott and a host of others should have been there. Their spaces, reserved eternally for them, remained.
But, they were gone. Each one. He recognized not a person. It was not right. The church of his childhood, the church that nurtured him, the church in which he and his sister were saved, in which both were later married, the church down whose center aisle they carried his father and his dear friend, Al Bradley. It had to be there. But it was not. It was eternally not right: but it was not. No more church suppers where each waited to see if they could get a piece of Mrs. Meyer’s angel food cake. No more ice cream “socials” where freezers of homemade ice cream abounded and hence became the only times a young boy could eat all the ice cream he wanted without fear of motherly intervention. No more Sunday School classes in the small basement, separated by nothing more than crudely hung, hopelessly thin curtains. No handsome young pastor with the scar on his cheek who sang as an angel and preached hell fire and brimstone so forcefully that he remembered laying at night and looking up into the sky to see if the moon was yet turning to blood.
He knew all the faces would be gone but didn’t realize it until that moment. They all left the only way anyone seemed to ever leave the little church: carried down the middle aisle by six somber members rehearsing the short journey they themselves would someday take.
But it was not right. And because it was not, his life could never be complete. Too much was gone. Too much of who he was could never be replaced.
It was life: but it was not right.
From earliest history, progress has been measured by growth – numerically, financially or via some other common perception. Mankind has set themselves on a path of ever greater achievement and perceived progress. Measuring criteria as diverse as size, speed, appearance, affluence, knowledge, and a host of others have become man’s yardstick of the upward march of society and civilization. Man’s standards of progress has been readily accepted and universally admired. Not surprising, considering the yardstick used to categorize and evaluate societies, cultures, individuals and civilizations are the product of a common and familiar creator.
Not all entities in existence have the advantage man has in this regard. Few there be that are afforded or seize the opportunity to judge themselves by criteria they have themselves created.
An idyllic existence in the original garden was forever spurned in favor of the ability to judge – “to be as God”. Not the least among the judgments ripped from the hands of God and nature was the establishment of standards of progress and success for man himself. Creation assumed the role of creator, and with the assumption, the enviable responsibility of having only to meet criteria of his own imagination and conscience; a responsibility with the seeds of assured success craftily inherent within.
But buried deeply within the mind of every man there exists the nagging doubt that if where he finds himself and his culture in his day is really a desired and laudatory progression from that of yesterday.
To minimize the impact and import of such doubts, progress labels them “nostalgia” and relegates them to the neverland of dreams and visions – where memories go to die.
A smile of remembrance tinged with regret crept across his face as he remembered the small general store that rested “catty cornered” across the street from the little church. Rozell’s store was owned and operated by Lonnie Rozell, a man generally regarded as the most affluent of the 150 or so residents of the village. His house set directly across the street from both the church and his store, completing an imaginary, but very real, triangle of his interests and life. As a long time deacon in the church and proprietor of the only store in the town, Lonnie served as unofficial, but universally accepted, mayor of Uncas.
Lonnie’s attractive oldest daughter had been his first Sunday School teacher when he was barely six years old; and, just as important, his first love of an older woman. Being in her 20’s and married in no way discouraged his ardor for her. It was an innocent and hopeless love and certainly of a different type than that held tight by the ringlets of his youth, but it was love nonetheless and it would always hold a treasured place in his memories.
Rozell’s General Store was a throwback to multitudes of stores throughout pioneer America. The smells, sounds, and friendliness felt as one opened the old screen door were memories destined to never flee his mind.
One wall was lined with identically shaped bottles containing a myriad of spices needed for home cooking – an art all but lost in today’s society, but universally practiced by homemakers of the time. All other basic essentials were crowded into what remained of the small store.
Modern self serve supermarkets were unheard of at the time and would certainly have had no place in the atmosphere of the Rozell store even had they been in existence. Grocery lists were either written and handed to Lonnie to be filled or read to him as he gathered the needed goods.
Filling the far end of the store was Lonnie’s real calling: a long meat counter containing numerous varieties of fresh and prepared meats, usually sliced, and many prepared, on the premises. Lonnie standing behind the meat counter with the smile that always seemed to grace his face was a memory that always returned with thoughts of the store.
Being a stalwart in the very fundamental Baptist church, Lonnie never considered stocking any type of alcoholic beverage. Not that the issue would ever arise. No grocery or food store of the time would dare stock such fare, knowing if they did no “churchgoing” families of any persuasion would even enter their establishment. And, since most folks of that era considered themselves to be “church goers” – even if they had not darkened a church door in many years – such a decision would have been the death knell of any business.
Similarly, was the establishment of hours of operation for businesses. Usual operating hours consisted of opening early in the morning six days a week and closing in late afternoon for six of the week’s seven days.
In larger towns and cities scattered across the nation’s vast heartland businesses kept late hours on Saturday, usually remaining open until 9 pm. The night was a special treat for farm families. It was structured around their working hours and was often planned to be the only trip to town during the week.
Streets housed Saturday crowds larger than they were ever designed to accommodate. Farmers and their offspring milled about enjoying a rare time of area wide socializing.
Younger children spent Saturday afternoons at movie matinees. It was a rare town of more than 1000 residents that did not offer such diversion. Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Lash LaRue, Hop-a-long Cassidy and others mesmerized and cared for the young while parents enjoyed their only free “adult” time. No Saturday matinee was complete without a “comedy” preceding the featured film. Only one really mattered to the gathered young: if it was really a “comedy” it had to be the “3 Stooges”, and their appearance on the screen always elicited loud cheering from the prepubescent audience; both the “whites” below and the “coloreds” in the balcony.
When Sunday morning arrived, no store of any type opened. In larger towns laws enforced the Sunday closings. In more rural areas it was a matter of survival. A proprietor opening his establishment for business on a Sunday would have guaranteed few would ever again shop his establishment any day of the week. It would have universally been regarded as disrespect for the “Lord’s Day”: a day designated by the Creator as the day of rest – emulating his own rest following original creation.
As with most general stores in rural America, no more important function was served by Rozell’s than that of being the accepted weekday place of meeting and fellowship for the surrounding community. Such stores never planned to provide this service, but they were the only logical places for such activities to occur (other than bars which were frequented by another tier of post-frontier society). With each visit to Rozell’s store, a few friendly faces ready to “pass the time of day” could always to be found – usually resting on the front porch.
For a lad of his age, however, no more important service was dispensed from the store than it being the repository for the rare treat of commercially produced ice cream. A chocolate covered ice cream bar from Rozell’s – when it could be afforded - made any trip to Uncas a successful one.
Uncas had one service station (Pearl Stanley’s) and had supported a small Post Office for many years. He recalled with some amusement that it was even served by “Doodle Bug” transportation for some time. (“Doodle Bugs” were trains consisting of one small engine and one passenger car which whisked passengers between small towns of the era.) All of these eventually succumbed to “progress”, if indeed that was what it was. But, as long as Rozells or the church survived, Uncas would remain a functioning community. And, for many years, survive they did.
But now as he stood looking out over the lake, he noted with some sadness that what time and progress could not destroy; seemingly, water could.
Streets, roads, highways are virtually unnoticed appendages attached to each one’s life. Yet, in their mystical way they chronicle all that was, is, or will ever be. On any street, if considered, the realization will come that the street is the current culmination of everywhere one has been and everything one has done. Look back and recall all that has gone before. Some street, some road, some trail led by them all, carrying the weary traveler through what man labels “ life”.
And the traveler needs but turn and look ahead to find all that will ever be. The wise realize every step one takes creates a new beginning. For the footprints one stands within today are the new doors to all tomorrows.
Some paths lead to sorrow and some to great joy. Some are walked with loyal friends and loving family; others are traveled alone. Along the way a street may pass through great wealth or wide spread acclaim; through health or illness; struggles or victories.
But the more fortunate travelers recognize the Architect and Builder of all waiting on each corner to direct and guide the weary Pilgrim’s way.
As designed by said Builder, the trails of one’s life stretch from first hesitant step to last feeble stumble. In between is only time; no less measured by trails than by time pieces of great precision and value.
Singer Garth Brook’s song points out that grave markers record the moment of one’s birth and the second of their death. But, neither really has importance. What is important is the dash between the two; the dash from cradle to the grave: the pathway of one’s life.
As he stood peering hopelessly out over the vast expanse of water his thoughts returned once again to the dusty streets of the little village. How many times in ages past had he walked those cliché covered byways leading unerringly to adulthood?
How could he know when he first traversed the old streets as a six year old that his feet were, for the first time, touching the streets that would lead him to friendships, to marriage, to God? No gold adorned these byways……or did it?
No matter. He stood longing to once again view the familiar sites around each street corner. There by the Rozell’s house is where, each Sunday, the Bradley’s old station wagon pulled up and unloaded those they had transported to church. He remembered the vehicle always seemed to hold more than its design would dictate.
The church sat on Main Street and one block behind the building the town ended. There the pastor’s son and he spent many precious childhood hours while their parents worked and served around the church.
On the outskirts of town he’d see the Meyer’s large two story house and the creek running beside it. It was a common location for young people’s Sunday School parties, usually consisting of a cookout and devotion. He recalled with some satisfaction that he had “paid his dues” as he matured through the little church’s Sunday School. Always a good measuring instrument for maturity and faithfulness, he’d gone from cast member in the Christmas pageant, then to shepherd, wise man, and finally to Joseph. Eventually he was selected leader of the Youth Department, ironically at one of the times in his life when he knew he least deserved it. But, whenever the church doors were open his family was there: Sunday School, Sunday morning services, Sunday evening and Wednesday services, work days and parties and even for the periods of two week revivals that occurred each Spring and Fall – with services held each evening and twice on Sundays. He had put in his time. Over the years the church and he had become part of one another. In more ways than he could enumerate the streets of Uncas had led to the palaces of God.
Psychologists point out that all men are role players as they travel the trails of life. An individual presents one image at home, another at school, another around friends, another at work, still another at church. Experiments have shown that, at times, these roles are so divergent acquaintances in one location do not even recognize the individual by descriptions given by those who come into contact with the person elsewhere. He knew it was certainly true in his young life. He was never sure which of the several roles he played was truly him. He was left to hope it was the one he had played for church, but, in his innermost being, he knew it was not.
The hamlet’s streets had also been there for one of the signature times in his (or any young man’s) life: he was old enough to begin learning to drive. He had always driven the farm machinery but now he could rush from the church, jump behind the wheel of the car and assume all who passed would be suitably impressed with his new responsibility, recognition and maturity. Strangely during this time he never recalled being allowed to drive to church, but he was often given the opportunity to take the Ford stick shift down the trails toward home. When he wasn’t, his Sundays were certainly ruined: a ruination he made little effort to hide from his family.
As with all young, “today” was all that was of import to him. Little did he realize that the privilege of driving, given because of age, was an irreversible omen that his days in the little village were short. Time was rushing on, faster with each passing day. And time stops for no man.
And now, many years later, as much as he would yearn, it would not stop for him.
He knew it was time he must leave the bank of the lake. What had he found? Memories. Memories he must now turn away from, but never lose.
Looking back, like the journey we call life, maybe the road was more important than the driving. For now the memories that were most nearly real were not confined to the time he spent behind the wheel of the old Ford or walking over the vast hill country, but were molded by the trails which must surely bare the tread marks and footprints of everywhere he wandered.
Memories were now all that remained. Memories inhabiting all the twisted roads of his life.
It is said all roads lead to somewhere. But of one thing he was certain: for only the truly blessed does at least one lead to such a place as he called “Uncas”.
He turned for one final searching look as the wind whipped across the vast lake. Sprays of the water that had stolen so much from him clung to his brow and, as their brethren joined them, crawled down his cheeks and, becoming as tear drops, dropped silently to the ground.
Perhaps that’s what they were. Perhaps he was mistaken about the water. Perhaps it sensed what it had unwittingly taken from him.
Perhaps it did care. Perhaps the spray flowing down his cheek, mixing with his own tear drops, was more.
Perhaps - just perhaps - the lake was weeping with him.