THE CALLING DREAM
FIRST THREE CHAPTERS
Copyright © 2019 Karlyle Tomms All rights reserved First Edition
PAGE PUBLISHING, INC. New York, NY
First originally published by Page Publishing, Inc. 2019
All rights reserved. No portion or part of this book may be reproduced, copied, or transmitted in any form, electronically or by mechanical means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without the written permission of the author.
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person alive or deceased is purely coincidental, or character descriptions have been used only with permission from that specific individual after whom they are patterned. No character in this book is a duplication of any person known to this author.
ISBN 978-1-64584-448-8 (Paperback) ISBN 978-1-64584-449-5 (Digital)
Printed in the United States of America
“I can say without hesitation that it is a good story and well-written. The characters, the dialogue, etc. ring true and clear, and portray the flavor of life and the people who live in the back country in Arkansas vividly. Well done. Karlyle Tomms has a wonderful gift of expression and the reading is easy.” —Su Sherry, author of My Three Girls
This story is dedicated to my roots, to the Ozark Hills of Arkansas, which bore me and molded me. This is dedicated to the resilient people of the Ozarks, who dug their livelihood out of the rocky soil and forged a resilience, and dedication to survival that is unmatched in many places of the world. This book is dedicated to those who overcome abuse, prejudice, and mistreatment, and it is dedicated to God, to faith, and to those who truly come to understand that love is the bottom line, for this is a book about love.
Prologue There are wars we fight within ourselves. We all do. The wars take different forms and vary with intensity and lethality, but we all fight them. Sometimes there are little skirmishes over whether we should have a piece of cheesecake or remain committed to our goal to lose weight. Sometimes the wars become chronic, dangerous internal battles fought over the course of a lifetime. The casualties may be our sense of self-worth, our feelings of dignity, and sometimes even the loss of our own physical freedom when those wars spill over into legally forbidden behavior. The casualties might be the loss of relationships when our battle invades the lives of others and they decide they can no longer tolerate being around someone in such constant turmoil. Most of the time the wars are about behavior based on our judgment of what we or others should or should not be doing. Often the wars are about an internal judgment as we pretend to think and feel one way while we hide the unspoken.
There are some people in the world who are quite adept at reading the truth on a man’s face. Even if micro expressions or the dart of eyes do not give away true feelings, the one being read may remain paranoid that others see into the forbidden secret he carries. When, on rare occasion, someone does spot it, paranoia can grow until the subject becomes even more determined to hide what he considers to be his dirty little secret.
There are secrets inside us all, some things we will never tell a soul for as long as we live, and some we share only with very trusted few. We all fear it—the judgment of others, the constant dread that someone will condemn us for who we are, how we behave, or what we think. Those who judge may become so attached to their beliefs that they not only hold themselves to their standard of judgment but demand that others must conform to it as well. Sometimes the standards demanded of others are not applied to oneself. The torment of judgment toward self or others can become a maddening fire that consumes the soul to the point of utter destruction. The fires of hell for a tormented soul are not so much an inferno of eternity but the burning anguish of conflict between belief and truth. If there is one who has never begged in anguish, “How can I be saved?” that is the only one who cannot be saved. For all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.
I discovered I was called to preach the day I woke up with a hard-on and the smell of fried chicken in my nostrils. I must have been about ten years old back in 1945.
I lay down on the back porch for a nap after church on a summer Sunday afternoon, and I had the strangest dream. I was standing there by the pond in the barn lot of our family farm over in north Arkansas. There were no cows around, and it was like the barn wasn’t there anymore, but I knew it was. The pond water shimmered silver like a pool of mercury. All around the pond stood tiny little Roman soldiers each one about three feet high. Their breast plate armor was notched with scroll-like designs, and each one had a metal spear and a shield. When I approached the pond, they all stamped one foot and stood at full attention with their spears pointing up to the sky and their shields pulled round in a defensive position.
I knelt down by the water’s edge and reached two fingers into the water. The water shimmered on my fingers as I brought them to my lips. When I touched the water to my lips, the pond began to stir. Then the waters parted from side to side like Moses had parted the Red Sea. When the water parted, up from below came the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Her dress was white and thin, like gauze, like pure white window sheers. As she walked toward me, the fabric flowed back as if it was blown in a soft breeze. I saw the full outline of her body, taut breasts, and perfect womanly hips beneath her thin waist. Her hair was red like fire embers, and it flowed back off her shoulders in the breeze. She came walking straight up to me out of the parted waters. She was tall like a grown woman, and her lips were red like communion wine. Then she leaned over, cupped gentle hands on both sides of my face, and kissed me. I felt her soft lips gently touching mine. Then her tongue went into my mouth, and I woke up, startled.
I found myself lying on our back-porch cot. The overhang shaded me from the hot summer sun that gleamed a golden soft shimmer across the grass in our backyard. I realized that my little soldier—that’s what Momma always told us to call our penis when we were little—was standing at full attention. It was pressing toward the front of my britches like it was trying to get out. It pushed firm and hard against the contour beside my zipper, but the fabric held it captive. Then I smelled fried chicken and I realized Momma must have a meal about ready to serve.
I got up and went in the back door leading to the kitchen. There was Momma turning crispy chicken in the cast iron frying pan, and it was sizzling hot, browning up. I walked up to Momma and said, “Momma, I just had a strange dream.”
“Ronnie, go wash up for dinner,” she said in a hurry.
Now let me explain something here. Hill folks in those days had no word for lunch. You didn’t have breakfast, lunch, and dinner; you had breakfast, dinner, and supper. So, Momma was fixing the midday meal right after church that morning.
“But, Momma,” I said, “I had this dream where I was down at the pond, but it was filled with water that looked like liquid silver, and all around the pond was these little Roman soldiers about three feet high, and they was all standing at attention. Then the waters parted, like Moses parting the sea, and this beautiful woman came up out of the waters, and she walked straight over to me and kissed me right on the mouth. What do you think that means?”
Momma looked at me sternly while she was forking chicken from the frying pan to a bowl.
“What do you think it means, Momma?” I asked again.
“I think it means you were called to preach,” she said as she wiped hands on her apron then carried the bowl of chicken to the table. “Now go wash up. Find Teddy and Hannah. Get them to wash up too, and go call your daddy for dinner. He’s out in the garden.”
Now, our house was on a farm near Ravenden, Arkansas. That’s where the Ozark Mountains begin to melt into the Mississippi delta. It ain’t exactly flat, but it ain’t exactly hill country either. The house wasn’t much. There were four rooms inside a square. There was a living room and a kitchen on opposite corners with a doorway between them slightly overlapping in the middle. The kitchen was rudimentary at best, and Momma cooked on a woodburning stove that made the kitchen awful hot in the summertime. Nonetheless, our table was in the kitchen, and that’s where we ate our meals whether it was hot or not.
On the other corners were two bedrooms. One corner was Momma and Daddy’s bedroom with a door off the living room. My older brother, Teddy, and I slept in the other corner bedroom back on the north side of the house, and it also had a door off the living room, but the kitchen door was right next to our door. Teddy and I shared a bed, and Hannah, my baby sister, had a little cot on the opposite side of Momma and Daddy’s room. Hand-cut cedar posts held the porch roofs up. There was a porch in the front and one in the back. The back porch was on the north side, and it was also shaded, so good for summer naps.
I went straight out the back door again and saw Daddy off in the distance past the yard fence. He was working a hoe in our garden, cutting weeds back from the vegetables. “DAADDDDYYYY!” I shouted. “Dinner’s ready.”
“Go round the side of the house and get your brother and sister!” he shouted back. “I’ll be right there.”
When I went around the house, Teddy was leaned up against the northeast side reading a book. Hannah was three years old then. She was lying there on the grass with her homemade doll, fast asleep. Teddy looked up at me and asked, “Dinner ready?”
“Yeah,” I said as I walked over and started picking Hannah up off the ground. “Come on, sissy. It’s time to eat.”
She moaned a little bit and sat up with her rag doll. I picked her up and carried her on my hip. Then we all went around the house to get washed up. Normally, Daddy would’ve had me and Teddy working with him in the garden, but he gave us a break on Sunday.
My daddy was a preacher at a little country church, and you would think he would not be doing work on the Lord’s Day, but he said it wasn’t a sin for him to work the garden on Sunday because he had such a good time doing it. He said it was fun and relaxation for him instead of work, but it sure felt like work to me and Teddy.
On the porch, next to the kitchen was what they used to call a dry sink. We moved it inside in the wintertime. We didn’t have running water, so everything had to be pulled up with a zinc bucket from a rock-lined well. The well had a wood brace over the top and a pulley for lowering the bucket into the water with a rope. A couple of buckets sat on the dry sink next to an enameled wash pan. One of the buckets had a dipper in it so we could get ourselves a drink of water, and the other was for washing. Teddy took the wash bucket and poured a little bit into the wash pan, and then we all took turns picking up the bar of homemade lye soap and swishing it around on our hands in the pan of water. Sissy couldn’t reach the pan, so I took a washcloth and got some soapy water to wash her hands.
Inside, Momma had the kitchen table set for dinner. The big bowl of fried chicken was in the middle, and there was a mashed potato salad that Momma had made before church that morning and kept in the icebox till dinner. We didn’t have electricity in those days, so Daddy had to buy block ice in town and put it in our icebox to keep food cold. The ice would last the whole week in the wintertime, but it didn’t last but a couple of days over the summer. Momma had sliced salted tomatoes from the garden, and she made a wilted salad from lettuce, green onions, and hot bacon drippings. She baked some cornbread while she was frying the chicken, but most of it she had put together before we went to church that morning. She warmed over a pot of pinto beans she had made earlier in the week. The more they were reheated, the better they got. It was a downright feast.
We all sat down quietly at the table and waited for Daddy to get washed up and come in. We weren’t allowed to talk till after Daddy said prayer. Before we sat down, Momma had us hold our hands palms up then flip to the back so she could see that we washed up before we ate. If she wasn’t satisfied, it was right back to the dry sink and only come back when they were clean.
After a while, Daddy came in and sat at the head of the table. Momma always sat on the opposite end, and we kids sat between. Daddy reached out his hands to each side, and we all held hands around the table. Hannah sat on a wood box in a chair next to Momma so Momma could help feed her. Everybody held hands on either side except for Hannah. She couldn’t reach Daddy’s other hand, so she just held Momma’s hand. After all hands were clasped, Daddy looked around the table and bowed his head. That was our cue to do the same. With my head down, I watched the flower patterns in that china plate and wondered what I was going to fill it with, then Daddy started to pray.
“Dear Lord, we thank Thee for the bounty that is before us this day and for this food that will nourish our bodies. Dear Lord, we thank Thee for bringing Teddy some wisdom so that he knows when he ought to behave. We thank Thee, Lord, for little Ronnie and for how he always tries to be good help. Lord, we thank Thee for little Hannah and for bringing her sweet countenance into our family, and yes, Lord, I thank Thee for Marylee, for her faithfulness and for being a hardworking, good wife. Lord, we thank Thee for the health and well-being of this family and for the blessings we are about to receive. In Jesus’s name, amen.”
Now, after prayer, everybody sat quietly, and nobody said a word till Daddy acknowledged us. He would start with a fork to the chicken bowl, serving the oldest child first. That would be Teddy. He was thirteen years old when I was ten. “Teddy,” he would say, “what kind of meat would suit your liking today?”
Teddy always asked for the same thing. He picked up his plate and held it out toward the chicken bowl. “I believe I would like thigh and leg please, Daddy.”
Then Daddy forked out a thigh and leg for Teddy and asked me what I wanted. I always wanted the breast meat and sometimes the gizzard, but a gizzard by itself wasn’t quite enough. If Daddy felt like I had been good, he would go ahead and put the gizzard on my plate too. After he served me and Teddy, then Momma served Hannah. After that, Momma and Daddy served themselves. Then, we started passing the bowls around the table. By the time it was all done, we each had a heaping plate full of good food.
Momma’s fried chicken would make you want to sing praises to the Lord. It was so good you had to fight the urge to moan when you tasted it. The skin was always crispy and brown, fried up in some lard, and she somehow got even the breast meat to stay moist on the inside. I took a big bite of chicken and chewed it well before I swallowed. I had to get a bite of that before I did anything else. Then I said, “Daddy, Momma says I was called to preach!”
Daddy held his chicken in both hands in front of his face and looked at me with a kind of smirking grin on his face. “Oh, she did?” he mumbled while chewing chicken and looking over at Momma. Daddy was kind of a handsome man—kind of. He was bald, but he had blue eyes and dimples on his cheeks that made his smile look twice as wide. He was a tall man and thin. Everybody always said I looked like my daddy in the face, but I never got that tall or went bald like him. Whatever clothes Daddy wore looked kind of like they flowed around him instead of clinging to him, and thick chest hair always curled above the top button of his shirt. He had big hands, and the veins on the back of his hands made them look manly and strong. This time of the year, the sun had darkened them so much you could barely see those veins, but in wintertime, when his skin lightened a bit, the veins looked like road maps across his hands. He was such a strong, fine-looking man, you would have thought he would have been called to war, but Momma said he didn’t go because he had rheumatic fever when he was little. I guess that must have done something to him to keep him from fighting, along with the fact that he was already older with a family when World War II started, and he was too young to fight in World War I.
“Yeah,” I said. “I had this really weird dream when I was off taking a nap, and Momma said it means I was called to preach.”
He glanced over at Momma again. She sat quietly chewing, not looking up much from her plate except to make sure Hannah was getting properly fed without too much mess. She gave him a shy glance, and he turned his attention back to me.
“Did you dream about angels coming down and telling you to speak the Word of the Lord?” he asked.
“Well, not exactly, Daddy,” I replied. “I dreamed I was down at the pond in the barn lot, and the water was all silver like, and there were little Roman soldiers standing around the pond, all about three feet high. When I came to the pond, they all stood at attention and pointed their spears to the sky. Then I touched the water to my lips, and it parted like the Red Sea, and up out of the parted waters came this beautiful redheaded woman wearing white flowing robes. She had bright-red lips, and she came up out of the pond and came over to me and put her hands on my cheeks and kissed me right on the lips. Then I woke up.”
Daddy looked at me stern and scornful for a second like I had just done something terrible to him. Then he glanced around the room like he was checking to see if anybody saw his reaction.
‘’That sounds to me more like the dream of a sinner than a man called to preach,” Daddy said. “Cavorting with some red-lipped Jezebel that rose up out of the pond don’t exactly sound to me like a dream that a man of God would have. That sounds to me like you were giving in to lascivious temptation.”
Teddy was snickering by this time, and I was mad that he made fun of me. He was sitting right next to me, so I slapped him on the leg and said, “Shut up, Teddy!”
Daddy immediately reached over and smacked me flat handed and hard on the back of my head. “You stop that nonsense and behave yourself at the table!” he said firmly.
“But, Daddy, Momma says the dream means I was called to preach,” I pleaded, “and Teddy was laughing at me.”
“Was not,” Teddy defended.
“That’ll be enough of that!” Daddy snapped. “I don’t care what your Momma says. That’s a sinner’s dream! You dreamed about fornicating with a strange woman, and your momma thinks that means you were called to preach?” He looked up at Momma with an angry stare. She didn’t say anything but just kind of looked down at the table. The truth is she was disciplined by him just like we kids were. Daddy kept staring at her. Then in a moment she said, “I’m sorry. I really didn’t hear the boy. I was busy and just wanted to rush him on out of my way.”
“Well, you gotta be careful what kinds of things you say to a child,” Daddy scolded. “An impressionable child gets the wrong idea about things like that. If anything, he should have been scolded for having smut like that in his mind.”
“But, Daddy,” I started imploring.
“Shut up, boy!” he snapped before I could finish my sentence. “Eat your dinner!”
We didn’t say much for the rest of that meal. Even Teddy kept his mouth shut. We all knew better than to push when Daddy was in a bad mood.
After dinner we rested a little bit for the remainder of the afternoon and then had to do evening chores before supper. That meant that the cows had to be gathered into the barn for milking, the hogs had to be slopped, the chickens fed, and eggs gathered. Our chickens were free range, but it was easy to feed them in the coup to lure them in for the night. We locked them in the coup at nighttime to protect them, but varmints still got to them pretty often. Now and then Daddy would get hold of a wood shipping crate that we would fill with straw and place in a corner of the coup in hopes the chickens would take to nesting in it. Sometimes they would still nest out in the weeds, and some old hen would come marching up one day with a passel of fluffy yellow chicks trotting around her.
I didn’t say another word about my dream through supper or Bible study at church in the early evening, and that night after we went to bed, we heard Daddy chewing Momma out for saying “frivolous things” to children. I felt sorry for Momma because she got scolded and punished just like one of the kids. I wanted to go in there and tell him it wasn’t her fault, but I knew better. Besides, I would have had to crawl over Teddy to get out of the bed, which was shoved up into a corner by a window. He would have just pushed me back and told me to go to sleep. Sometimes I couldn’t tell if Teddy was protecting me from Daddy or helping him out.
After a while the yelling stopped, but I didn’t fall asleep right away. I just lay there on my back, staring into the darkness and thinking, What if Momma was right? What if my dream means I was called to preach?
Before Daddy came to get us up for chores the next morning, I had another dream. I was back down in the barn lot. The pond was still shimmering with silver water, and the little Roman soldiers stood at attention all around it, but this time I heard wailing and crying off to the side. I turned around, and there was Jesus nailed to the side of the barn with arms outstretched like he was nailed to a cross instead of the old gray barnwood. He hung on the side of the barn just above the opening to the corn bin. He had thorns all around his head, and they were poking into his forehead, so little streams of blood ran down his face. He had big iron nails through his wrists and hands. He had big nails through his knees and his feet, so they were bleeding too. Streams of dripping blood ran down the side of the barn onto the ground. There on the ground before him was the redheaded woman who had come up from the pond in my other dream. She was kneeling down and crying in great horrible sobs. Her pure white dress was stained with his blood. She looked up at Jesus and said, “My Lord! My Lord! Why have you forsaken me?” Then Jesus looked down at her and said, “Wait, wait patiently, for the time will come when all will be revealed.” After he said that, he looked over and saw me standing there looking up at him, and he shouted in this voice that echoed all over the whole farm, “YOU ARE MY WORD!” The next thing I knew, Daddy was shaking me awake, shaking Teddy, and telling us to get up.
Summer wasn’t much fun for us. There was always a lot of work for us to do on the farm, and Daddy always got us up just before the rooster crowed. By the time he woke us though, Momma already had pork chops, eggs, biscuits, and gravy ready on the table. The smell of breakfast and fresh coffee filled the house so sweetly you could almost float into the kitchen on the aroma.
Since it was summer, there was no school to attend, and Daddy would have us out on the farm working all day. We would be fixing fence, cutting firewood for winter, or something similar to that. There barely ever was a day Daddy didn’t have us working. All year-round we worked. As soon as we came home from school, we had chores to do. Through the colder months, Teddy and I attended school together in a little one-room schoolhouse that was about a two-mile walk from our farm, and all year-round we worked.
After we washed for breakfast, we came in and sat down at our places at the table. Daddy said prayer, as he did before every meal, and then he began to pass the biscuits around. I waited for him to say something to me because I wanted to tell him about the other dream, but he didn’t speak to me. I knew I would only get smacked if I spoke first, so I didn’t say anything. He never asked me if I wanted a pork chop—nothing. He just passed the bowls around and motioned for us to take what we wanted. Momma didn’t say anything either. I guess she didn’t want to upset Daddy after he got mad the day before.
After we finished eating, Teddy and I just sat there looking at empty plates not saying a word. Finally, Daddy said, “After you feed the stock, you boys go get the mule hooked up to the plow. I think we need to be prepping the south side of the truck patch for some winter crops today.” We didn’t say anything but “Okay.” Then we got up and headed for the barn.
We didn’t feed hay this time of year, but we would put some grain mix out for the milk cows to get them into the barn for milking. I would be doing that while Teddy mixed some table scraps with wheat shorts to slop the hogs. Catching the mule was sometimes a problem because he always seemed to know when we were thinking about hooking him to the plow, and he didn’t like to work. I don’t know how he knew, but he always knew. It was like he could read minds or something. Any other time when we weren’t thinking about putting him to the plow, any one of us could walk right up and pet him, but he always knew the difference. I always held off on the mule’s feed till last, trying not to give him any ideas, and I waited long enough for Teddy to get the hogs slopped so he could come help me.
I would lead the mule into the corral with a feed bucket. Teddy would try to get the gate closed behind him before the mule figured out what was going on and took a run for it. As likely as not, we would end up having to get Daddy to help us because the mule would push through the gate and run off. Then we would both be in trouble, and Daddy would be telling us that we were stupid and we couldn’t do anything right.
On that day, we lucked out though. We got the mule locked in the corral all right and got him fed, but when we started trying to hitch him up, he started slinging his head and kicking. Then, we ended up chasing him all over the corral. It took Daddy coming over to get him settled down. Teddy and I were chasing the mule around, yelling at him to stop, when we heard Daddy from behind. “Yelling at him ain’t gonna get him to take that harness!” he shouted.
We turned to see him come strolling up from the gate. I wished Daddy would think that yelling at us wasn’t going help. He didn’t yell at the livestock, but he seemed to think yelling at us would do the trick. Apparently, it did, because I always did what Daddy said. Teddy misbehaved some, especially as he got older, but I always did what Daddy said.
Daddy helped us get the mule into a chute, and then we got him cinched up and led him to the plow. After all the excitement was over and we were getting ready to go to the truck patch, I finally got my courage up to talk to Daddy.
“Daddy,” I said hesitantly. “Can I tell you about another dream I had, a different dream?”
“What is all this interest in dreams you suddenly have?” he questioned as he stared like he was angry at me, between glances up to the mule reins.
“Well, don’t the Bible say there were interpreters of dreams?” I went on. “I was thinking maybe my dreams had to have some meaning.”
Teddy led the mule out in front of us and occupied himself with pulling the seed heads off stalks of grass that came within reach of his opposite hand. He pretended not to hear.
“Well, those were prophets some and priests of Pharaoh that interpreted dreams,” Daddy said. “I don’t know nothing about interpreting dreams, but I do know the kind of dreams a man of God should not be having.”
“Well, this dream is a little different. Can I tell you and maybe you might get some idea?” I questioned. “People are always wanting to tell their dreams. There has to be a reason why people want to tell their dreams.”
“All right then,” he reluctantly agreed. “Tell me your other dream.”
“Well, Daddy,” I began nervously. “It was back down in the barn lot again. Those little Roman soldiers were still standing around the pond, and the pond still glimmered silver, but I looked up, and there was Jesus being crucified on the side of our barn. It was awful. He had nails in his hands and feet, and he was nailed up to the side of the barn with old rusty nails, and blood was running down the side of the barn. That redheaded woman from the first dream was at his feet, and she was crying. She said, ‘My Lord, My Lord. Why have you forsaken me?’ Jesus told her to be patient, then he looked up and saw me standing there watching. When he saw me, he shouted in this loud voice that echoed across the whole farm. He looked at me straight and said in a big echoing voice, ‘You are my word!’ Then I woke up.”
Daddy said nothing. He just kept walking. I waited patiently for him to say something but he never did. Finally, I said, “Daddy? Are you thinking about it? What do you think it means?”
He said, “I think it means you better quit snacking before bedtime.”
I shouted, “Shut up, Teddy!”
To this, Daddy popped me on the back of my head and said, “You boys behave and get on down the path.”
I knew enough not to say anything else. I could read Daddy’s moods as easy as the Sunday paper, and I knew when it was best to just shut up and drop things. We got the south side of the truck patch plowed by noon and then went back to the house for a bit of dinner while the old mule stood under a shade tree.
That afternoon we took the disk to it to break up the clods, and Daddy had us out there sowing turnips and other things that would come into make in early October. Food was what the farm was about. We were always working on how to feed ourselves. That might be milking the cows or cutting a crop of hay to feed the cows over winter. It might be growing vegetables for Momma to can for the winter or selling some animal or crop so we could buy other things we needed. The farm was always turning over and over, bringing a living up out of the soil. We didn’t think much about “consider the lilies of the field” because we were too busy plowing them up to plant something else in their place.
Supper time came with a little fried meat, potatoes, and some leftover beans, and cornbread. After supper Daddy sat down in a corner of the living room under a couple of kerosene lanterns to read the Bible and prepare his sermon for the next Sunday. I had watched him do this my whole life, but I began to see it with a new fascination after I thought I had been called to preach. He would scribble little notes onto pieces of paper and tuck them in various spots of the Bible as bookmarks. Sometimes he would go to the indexes and scan for the verses that supported something he wanted to talk about. Then he would flip over to those verses and read them, sometimes aloud, sometimes not. Other times, he would sit staring at his reflection in the dark glass of the window by his chair and tap his pencil on the back of the Good Book.
That evening, when he got to one of those stopping places where he was staring at his reflection and tapping his pencil, I asked him, “Daddy, can I ask you something?” He half startled when I broke the silence. He turned to me with a foreboding look. “What?” he said irritably, “No more of that crazy stuff about your dreams!”
“No, Daddy,” I said shyly.
He continued to sound irritated, and I hesitated.
After a hesitant pause, I asked, “How do you do it? How do you know what you are going to preach about and then pull it all together into a sermon?”
He sighed deeply. “Sometimes, it just comes to me, and it all falls together like God meant it to be that way. Sometimes, I see something that is going on in the congregation or hear about something that somebody has done wrong, and I know I need to preach about it. Sometimes, it just don’t seem to come at all, and I struggle all week thinking about what I’m going to preach on Sunday morning. Other times, I just rewrap an old sermon with new ribbon and present it in a different package.”
“Will you teach me?” I pleaded. “Will you teach me how to write a good sermon?”
The Bible had sat open on his lap. He placed his pencil in the fold of the book, closed it, and then set it on the table beside his chair. “I think it’s time you kids were in bed,” he said firmly.
Momma had already put Sissy to sleep in her little cot an hour or two back. She sat on a chair, opposite Daddy, working on mending one of Teddy’s shirts. Teddy sat on the floor by Momma fiddling with a pocketknife and a stick of hickory. He was whittling the shavings into an empty dish pan so he wouldn’t make a mess. We didn’t have a sofa or a radio in those days or electric light. Daddy had refused the first time the county came through offering to hook us up to electric. He said it cost too much money. I thought Daddy was kind of stingy, but I didn’t know what it was like for him to survive the Great Depression. Momma set Teddy’s shirt down into her lap and said, “You boys go get ready for bed.”
Teddy and I both got up and went out to the dry sink to wash up a bit. We brought one wet wash rag back to wash the dirt off our feet before we got between the sheets. We stripped down to our underwear in our room, and then I got in bed first. I sat half in and half out till I could wash the bottom of my feet with the old wash rag. Then I snuggled up next to the wall, and it was Teddy’s turn.
The room wasn’t big enough for the bed to sit out from the wall, and we had no solid doors in the house except for those leading from the front and back to the outside. Momma had hung homemade curtains on nails over the doorways to the bedrooms so we might be lying there in bed, and they might think we were asleep, but we could hear everything that went on in the house.
After we were in bed for a while, I overheard Momma say Daddy’s name. “Paul,” she said, “don’t you think you could at least humor Ronnie a little bit? The boy has a good heart, and he’s just curious.”
“The boy is too young to preach,” Daddy retorted.
“Well, I know he is,” Momma replied gently, “but at least he wants to be like his daddy, and it’s better he learns it from you, don’t you think?”
“If he is genuine about it and this ain’t some passing whim, he has got plenty of time to learn when he gets a little older,” Daddy commanded.
Momma didn’t say anything else, but I drifted off to sleep comforted that Daddy was going to teach me how to write and preach a sermon when I got older. He didn’t rule it out or say “No way.” He said I had plenty of time to learn when I got older.
I didn’t recall a dream that night or for several nights to come. Life went on the way it was supposed to, I guess, and I waited for another dream, or for Daddy to tell me it was time for me to start learning how to preach. In the meantime, he was too busy teaching me how to be a farmer, and that wasn’t an easy thing to do in the 1940s. You earned your muscle from the back side of a plow, and you burned every calorie you ate. You begged the sun for mercy in the summertime, and the snow and ice for mercy in the winter. If you were good at it, you would eat well. If you weren’t good at it, or if nature was unforgiving that year, you relied on your neighbors to get you through. It was a hard life the way I grew up, but it was the only life I knew, so maybe it didn’t seem so hard at the time. I learned the value of hard work and the value of good friends and neighbors. I learned that the seed doesn’t come up overnight, and the plant does not bear fruit for months to come. I learned, if nothing else, to be patient.
As I grew older, my little soldier stood at attention more and more, or maybe I just noticed it more. Along about the time I was turning twelve years old, there was a different feeling down there, like some kind of itch or urging that wouldn’t go away. It was like my little soldier was just begging to be touched and petted kind of the way a dog likes to be petted. Now, at first, I was a little hesitant because we had basically been taught that the only time you were supposed to touch it was to wash it or to hold it while you pee, but it seemed like I couldn’t keep my hands off it, and I knew that Teddy had been touching his for quite a while. Maybe he thought I was asleep, or I didn’t know what he was doing, but I knew he was touching his little soldier too.
One night after we got in bed, about thirty minutes after the light went out, I felt the covers move. I would probably have just passed it off as nothing and would have gone back to sleep except that the covers kept moving and moving. He was lifting them up and setting them back down quickly over and over. He had been doing that for a couple of years almost every night, but that night I was moved to a curiosity that I didn’t have before I started wanting to touch my own little soldier. Finally, I asked, “Teddy, what in tarnation are you doing?”
“Nothing!” he exclaimed in a whisper. “Go back to sleep!”
I tried to go back to sleep. I really did, but it was hard to sleep in a bed with someone squirming even if it is just a tiny little bit. Finally, I reached over to his elbow in the dark and ran my hand quick down to his hand, and there it was. His little soldier was out of his underwear, standing at full attention. It was hard, and his hand was on it. He immediately threw my hand back and exclaimed in whisper shout, “Don’t ever do that again!”
“Well, what are you doing?” I whispered.
“Nothing,” he muttered. “Go back to sleep.”
“Well, I might have an easier time sleeping,” I told him, “if the covers wasn’t moving back and forth all the time.”
“Fine!” he quietly blurted kind of angry. Then he rolled over on his side away from me.
“Teddy, why are you mad at me?” I queried.
“I’m not mad. Go to sleep.”
It was less than a year or so later that I began to figure out what Teddy was doing. My own little soldier kept calling me and calling me till I practically couldn’t keep my hands off it.
One night I was playing with my little soldier when Teddy suddenly rose up in bed, propped his head on one hand, leaned on his elbow, and whispered. “Why, Ronnie, what in tarnation are you doing?”
My eyes popped open, and I saw him propped up there staring at me with the moonlight shining gray on his face through the window.
“Nothing!” I exclaimed and quickly pulled my hands away from my little soldier. My heart was pounding like I had just been caught robbing a bank.
Teddy snickered, rolled over on his other side, and said, “Kind of fun, ain’t it?”
“What?” I said, pretending I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I won’t tell.”
Those were comforting words, but I still wasn’t sure. On one hand, it was comforting to have permission to do what I needed to do. On the other hand, I felt like I was doing something terribly wrong. Still, my little soldier was urging me like it was hungry or something, like it needed to be fed with touches.
Teddy stayed on his side with his back to me, I guess to give me some privacy. Finally, I moved my hand back to my little soldier and began to play with it. It always stood at full attention when I played with it. Sometimes it felt like it was never going to relax. I played with it for a while, and then I said in my mind, Go to sleep. This was a command more for my little soldier than for me because I knew that I wasn’t going to be doing much sleeping as long as it was standing up and demanding attention.
Nothing changed. My little soldier kept standing at an upright angle and refused to lay down. I took my hands away from it and said again in my mind, I said go to sleep! Nothing, it just kept standing at attention, aching to be touched. At ease, little soldier! I commanded in my mind, but it just kept standing up, pushing against my underwear. Every time it pumped, the rub against my underwear sent surges of urgency through me. Either it had to be appeased, or it had to be squelched.
A little bit upset with it, I reached down, pulled my underwear back, and slapped it against my belly. Gritting my teeth in a low but audible whisper, I said, “Go…to…sleep!” It just popped right back up, so I slapped it down again and again. I was slapping it against my belly so much it must have sounded like a broken fan belt flapping on a wheel—flap, flap, flap, flap, flap. Teddy didn’t turn over. He didn’t move. I was scared with all the commotion that Teddy might turn back over and tell me to stop it, but then I heard him snoring. I had no idea how he could sleep through that, but he seemed to be asleep.
Suddenly I felt the strangest feeling like something was pulling all the way up into my insides. I felt like every muscle in my body tightened up then released in spasms as this warm, wet stuff came out of my little soldier, pulsing all over my belly. It took everything I had to keep from groaning like I was in pain. I reached over with my other hand and felt that stuff on my belly. In the dark I couldn’t see, so the first thought I had was, Oh Lord! I’m bleeding! I have slapped my little soldier so much he is bleeding! The fear rose up in me. I didn’t know what to do. There were after-pulses, as though my little soldier
was still trying to stand up, but it couldn’t. Gradually, it began to deflate like a balloon slowly losing air.
Oh Lord, what am I going to do? I questioned myself. I could maybe have told Teddy, but I didn’t want to wake him or bother him in the middle of the night when he was sleeping. So I carefully crawled over the foot of the bed and sneaked into the kitchen. Then I felt around carefully, trying to be quiet, till I found one of Momma’s kitchen matches. I struck the match and held it down near my little soldier. The light was dim, but I couldn’t see anything that looked like blood. The match burned down to my fingers and burned me. I shook it out, biting my lips so I wouldn’t say “Ouch!” and stuck my fingers in my mouth. Then I thought I needed more light, so I eased over in the darkness and used a match to light a candle from the kitchen table and held it close to my belly. I didn’t want any light to wake Momma and Daddy, but I had to take the risk. I had to see what was wrong with my little soldier. I don’t know what I would have told them if they had gotten up to find me standing in the kitchen with my underwear down to my knees and a candle over my privates. Thankfully, they didn’t get up.
By this time, my little soldier was completely limp, just hanging there. My belly was still wet, and try as I might, squint as I could, I could not see blood. What I saw was a semiclear liquid all around my navel with a tinge of white to it. Then I thought, Oh, dear Jesus. I have an infection. That’s why my little soldier was all swollen. I must have made it pop like a boil when I was slapping it around. My mind could not wrap around why the feeling was so strange and pleasurable, not really like pain, and it never occurred to me that I didn’t feel the least bit sick.
I had no idea what to do. I didn’t really want to talk about it at all. It was too embarrassing, but I knew I had to tell somebody. Finally, I pulled up my underwear, pressed the cloth into the liquid so it would absorb some of it, blew out the candle, and went back to our bedroom. I could hear Teddy snoring a bit when I got there, so I knew he was still asleep. I carefully crawled over the foot of the bed and didn’t get under the covers because it was a warm night anyway. I didn’t sleep much. I just lay there on my back, wondering if this was a symptom of some terrible disease and if I was going to die a horrible death.
The next day, Daddy got us up as usual before the crack of dawn. The sun was just a tan light on the horizon still trying to wake itself up. Momma already had breakfast ready. I got up and put on my pants, noticing that overnight my underwear had stuck to my belly where the white stuff had been. I turned to the wall and kind of pulled the cloth away from my belly where it was stuck almost like glue. It was uncomfortable pulling my underwear off my belly, and there was this kind of musty smell coming up from down there. It must be the smell of death, I thought to myself. I have a terrible disease, and I am going to die. My little soldier is probably going to rot off, and then it will rot the rest of my body, and I am going to die! I kept the anxiety to myself and finished dressing.
After breakfast, Teddy and I went to the barn with Daddy to do morning chores. This included feeding the cows that had come to the barn for milking. Once they got used to being fed and milked, they just kind of always showed up on time. You didn’t have to go herd them in from the field much anymore. Teddy and I each milked into zinc buckets, while Daddy made sure there was feed in the bins or went out to select the next cow for milking. We got more milk than the family could use, so Daddy took the excess and poured it into milk cans that had been cleaned with bleach water. We usually filled up one or two ten-gallon cans of milk each morning. A little later in the morning, after milking, the milk truck would come by our house and load up our milk to take over to the dairy in Pocahontas. We always had plenty of milk, and Daddy got a check once a month from the dairy. It varied depending on how much milk we had sent in that month. We also got a discount on cheese if we went to the dairy store.
Ravenden was about twenty miles from Pocahontas, so we didn’t get over there much before we finally got a car. Even though cars had been around for a long time, out in the Arkansas woods, a good many people still only had a horse and wagon all the way up into the 1950s.
After milking, we packed up to go to the cotton fields. Daddy raised a little cotton, and after it was picked, we would load it onto wagons and take it over to the cotton mill in Pocahontas. At that time of year, the cotton had to be hoed. Teddy, Daddy, and I would do most of it, cutting out the weeds from around the cotton plants with a garden hoe. Momma did a little bit of it, but she also had to pay attention to Hannah, who was old enough to be in the fields with us but still too young to be left on her own. Momma would give her a short-handled hoe and was trying to teach her how to push and pull the weeds from around the cotton, but most of the time, she sent her to a part of the patch where she could be watched but also do the least amount of damage.
All morning long, my mind was nagging me about my little soldier and the terrible disease I must have. I hadn’t noticed any pain or anything. In fact, my little soldier had even stood up a couple of times since then like it wanted to be touched again, but I couldn’t keep my mind off the fact that a terrible ooze came out of my body and that it must be a sign I was awful sick.
We worked all morning, and you would think that would keep my mind off things, but it didn’t. Every time I cut a weed from between two stalks of cotton or happened to accidentally cut down a cotton stalk, I thought about how maybe my little soldier might have to be cut off to stop the infection and keep me from dying. The thought horrified me, but I had to consider what could happen.
I saw Teddy coming down the opposite direction from me on the next row over, and when he got up even with me, I went “Psssst! Teddy!” in kind of a loud whisper.
“What do you want, knucklehead!” he said out loud, never looking up from his hoe.
“Shhhhh!” I said. “I don’t want Momma and Daddy to hear.”
“What?” he exclaimed. “Not too loud!” I pleaded in a whisper. “What?” he finally whispered back.
“When we break for dinner, I need to talk to you really bad. Can we go off and sit somewhere separate?”
“Whaaaaaat?” he implored.
“I got a problem,” I explained. “I need to talk to you, something I need to talk about really bad.”
“Okay, fine,” he replied. Then he kept on chopping the weeds in his row.
When noontime came, we all retreated to a shade to get a bite to eat. Momma had put a gallon-sized Mason jar of tea down in the creek so the water flowing over it would keep it kind of cool. She had wrapped a farmer’s lunch in a table cloth, and when time came, she untied the table cloth and spread it along the ground under the thick canopy of a big oak tree. There were biscuit sandwiches with ham that were left over from breakfast. She had made some fried apple pies and some batter fried potato wedges. It was food you could pick up with your fingers and that saved having to carry forks and knives over to the field. We each had tin cups for cold, sweet tea.
There wasn’t much we could do about hand washing. Momma brought a rag up from the creek that she had wet in the cool water, and we all kind of wiped our hands on it. However, when you work the fields, you get used to a little grime in your food. Some folks said it made the grub taste even better. I grabbed a sandwich, some fries, and a fried pie and made a pocket for them by pulling up my shirt tail. Then I said, “Teddy, the shade up on that knoll there looks like it might be a bit cooler than down here.”
“Huh?” he said, having initially forgotten what I had asked. Then he went, “Oh, yeah—it does look pretty cool up there. Just let me get a handful of taters and I’ll come up there with you.”
When we got up to the knoll, Teddy spread his handkerchief out on the ground to put his food on it, and I just let my shirttail down so mine was in my lap. We had to be careful about setting our cups on the grass because it wasn’t a very level surface, and the cup could tip over. Neither one of us wanted to waste a drop of Momma’s sweet tea.
“Now what is so all-fired important for you to talk about?” Teddy asked. “And why have you been moping around all morning?”
I looked down at my apple pie and fingered around the edge of the toasty brown crust. “Teddy,” I said at last, “I think I am really bad sick. I think I might have some terrible, awful disease like cancer
and I might even die. I’m scared how I am gonna tell Momma and Daddy.”
He looked at me and grinned as though he had just seen a circus freak.
“Ronnie, what in the world would make you think that?”
“Well,” I began hesitantly, “last night I was playing with my little soldier. You know, like you said, it’s all right, but I still don’t think it’s right. So I was trying to stop touching it, but my little soldier just kept standing up and pushing. No matter what I did, it kept wanting my attention, and I needed to go to sleep. So I slapped it and told it to go to sleep.”
“Don’t laugh,” I pleaded with tears welling up in my eyes. He saw the anguish on my face and sat back a little bit.
“Go on,” he said, fighting a grin. I look back now and realize that he must have known exactly where I was going before I ever got there.
“Well, it wouldn’t lay down,” I continued, “so I slapped it again and again, trying to get it to lay down, and then suddenly this warm mush came gushing out of it. I thought it was blood and I had maybe hurt myself slapping it, but when I got up and checked by a candle in the kitchen, it was kind of white and watery looking. It must be some discharge of sickness. I know I have to have some terrible disease.”
Teddy got the freakiest look on his face. He stared at me for a second with his eyes popping wide. He had a huge grin came on his face, and then he couldn’t contain himself any longer. He burst out laughing like I had just told the funniest joke he had ever heard. I was horrified. There I sat thinking that I was dying, and he was laughing like it didn’t even matter.
“I can’t believe you would laugh at me like that,” I exclaimed. I got up, forgetting that I had dinner in my lap. My food went rolling off into the grass. I marched off in the opposite direction, crying as I went. I was mad, scared, and hurt.
“Wait! Wait! Ronnie, come back,” Teddy said pleadingly as he came after me. He might have been half genuine with concern but more likely was afraid that Daddy would get onto him for picking on me. About twenty feet away, he caught me by my elbow and spun me around toward him. “Ronnie, you are not dying,” he said, still wanting to snicker.
“How do you know?” I exclaimed.
“Because I know what happened to you,” he affirmed. “Come on, let’s go sit back down and I’ll tell you what is going on.”
I reluctantly went back to our spot with him. Teddy picked up my biscuit and pie off the grass and handed it to me. “Here, you better eat,” he said. “Daddy ain’t gonna let us sit out here much longer.” I took the food, brushed grass and twigs off it, and took a hesitant bite.
“Sit down, Ronnie,” Teddy said as he patted the ground next him. I sat down and munched on what was left of my dinner.
“What happened to you last night is called cumming,” he said. “Men and older boys do it all the time. It means you are becoming a man. If it hadn’t happened to you from slapping your little soldier, it would have happened pretty soon in a dream or something. It happens to me every time I play with my little soldier. It’s supposed to happen.”
“How come something like that is supposed to happen?” I inquired.
“’Cause it’s where babies come from,” he said, glancing back toward Momma and Daddy.
“You mean I’m gonna have a baby?” I exclaimed once again half horrified.
He laughed again. “Boy, you do have a lot to learn. No, goofball! You have been on this farm all your life. You know where baby animals come from—out of their mommas, same as we came out of our momma. That stuff on your belly last night is called jizz, cum. Some people call it semen. It is what makes a baby if it gets inside a girl. You know we breed cattle and hogs. They have it too. If it don’t get inside a girl, it don’t do nothing, and even if it gets inside a girl, she has to be at the right time of her period for it to make a baby even then.”
“What’s a period?” I pondered.
“It is like when the cow comes in heat and the bull breeds her. If the cow ain’t in heat, then she don’t get bred, but even if she did, she couldn’t make a baby then.”
“You mean people go in heat and breed like cattle?” I questioned, my sense of wonder mixed with disgust.
“Yep,” he replied. “It’s how you, me, and sissy got here.”
“Oh, Lord of mercy,” I said, looking away from him.
“It’s okay,” he continued. “Almost all adults do it. Haven’t you ever heard the bed squeaking from the front of the house in the middle of the night before? Hasn’t that ever woke you up?”
“Yeah,” I replied, not looking back at him, “but I just thought it must be the wind blowing the screen door or something.”
“Nope,” he went on. “That was most likely Momma and Daddy breeding.”
“Don’t you talk like that!” I exclaimed as I turned directly toward him with sudden anger. “They don’t do that!” Suddenly, I had this image in my mind of Daddy mounting Momma like a bull in the field.
“Yes, they do,” he said. “If they didn’t do it, we wouldn’t be here. Just like if the bull didn’t breed the heifer, we wouldn’t have any baby calves to take to the sale barn. It’s nature, Ronnie. It’s normal, and so is slapping your little soldier around. It’s just something boys do till they get married.”
“You mean that’s okay?” I questioned.
“Yeah. I said it was, didn’t I? Just don’t let Momma or Daddy ever catch you, especially Daddy.” Teddy looked back over toward Daddy and Momma and then back to me. “Daddy would give you some line from the Bible like, ‘It is better for your seed to be buried in the belly of a whore than spilled needlessly on the ground.’ Then he is likely to swat your bottom.”
“Well, if Daddy would spank me for it, then how can it be okay?” I questioned.
“’Cause I said it is,” he replied. “Daddy gets all high and mighty with that preaching stuff and wants to tell everybody how to live, but truth is, he ain’t so perfect himself. There are things he does that ain’t right.”
Teddy never did get along too well with Daddy. There were plenty of times he defied Daddy’s authority and plenty of times he got his butt beat for it. Part of me wanted to believe Teddy that it was okay to play with my little soldier, but part of me was half scared I would be doing something terribly wrong. Yet as much as we spatted, I was close to Teddy, and I looked up to him.
“Boys,” we heard Daddy call from off down at the edge of the cotton field, “time to get back to work.”
Teddy and I scrambled to our feet and walked fast toward the cotton field because we didn’t want Daddy upset with us for lollygagging. I shoved the rest of the fried pie in my mouth as we went.
After that, I had mixed feelings. On one hand, my little soldier seemed to demand more and more attention all the time, but after I heard what Teddy said about Daddy not approving of it, then every time I did it, I felt awful guilty about it.
Teddy, if he noticed, never gave attention to it, and once in a while I would wake to catch him rubbing around on his little soldier as well. We didn’t talk about it much after that. It was just an understanding we had between brothers that we would be touching ourselves, and we wouldn’t tell nobody. I learned to just keep rubbing my jizz stuff into my belly when I was done, and then it would all kind of disappear into the skin like lotion.
I battled with myself over touching my little soldier all through fall and winter and prayed that Daddy would never catch me. It was like I couldn’t stop, like my little soldier made demands on me, extracted payment. My body and my needs could not be denied. I had no idea at that young age that it would become the biggest battle of my life. My talk with Teddy helped some by letting me know it was natural, but it didn’t help in the way of my guilt, and I felt like I needed to talk to someone else for that.
My Grandma Miller lived just over the hill from our house. She was my grandmother on Momma’s side, and she lived just across the back side of our farm. Grandpa Miller, they say, died in World War I after he volunteered to go. Momma was just a toddler when he was killed, and she was the only child he had. Grandma Miller never married again and raised Momma all by herself—well, except for a
little help from my great-grandparents, I guess. She said Sam Miller was the only man she loved and the only man she would ever love, so she never allowed another man to court her.
She probably seemed a