Creekbank Blog

The writing blog of Curt Iles and Creekbank Stories. Our mission: To connect hearts to God by using stories of encouragement and inspiration.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Plowing a ‘100 Foot Line’ in 2009

There’s a fine stand of young slash pine at Dead Man’s curve on the Longville Gravel Pit Road. I’ve watched with interest the growth of this forest. After the field was earlier ‘clear cut’ for its marketable timber, a hard-working Mexican crew then replanted it in straight rows.

By the following winter, the pines began to poke their heads above the grass. This year, they have emerged above the surrounding bushes and scrub trees. As time goes on, they’ll link their canopies, drop their pine straw, and completely wipe out the other growth in this field.

That is if a woods fire doesn’t kill them first.

Last week I studied closely the wide fire lane plowed around these pines. In our area, with the coming of true winter and the frosts that kill the grasses of the piney woods, having good fire lanes, or fire lines as we call them, is essential.

Often woods fires will break out when a cold front and its accompanying north wind dry out the ground and grass. There is a long tradition of burning the woods among the folks in western Louisiana’s ‘No Man’s Land.’ It began with the early cattleman and sheepherders burning off the dead grass, believing that new fresh grass was better for their animals.

When the forests were full of longleaf pines, which will survive most woods fires, and few settlements, “burning off the woods” was accepted as a rite of late winter.

However, the reforestation of Louisiana with Loblolly and Slash pines, which will not survive a hot woods fire, meant loss of trees and habitat from fire. For years, our area led the state in woods arson fires. It was as if the old settlers still believed it was their right to burn the woods.

Feuds over hunting leases or grudges led to other fires. Sometimes the fires were accidentally set and spread by a strong wind and low humidity. Regardless of the source, our two most common species of pines are exceptionally vulnerable to fire.

I always worry over fields like the one on the Gravel Pit Road. Once they get tall enough, they can withstand some fires, but in the first five years, a fire will often destroy an entire stand.

As I drive by and examine the fire line, I wonder if they’d plowed a “hundred foot line.” Often to guard against arson fires where the perpetrator would set the fire inside the fire lane, wise timber owners plow an additional line one hundred foot farther into the forest.

This would mean an arson fire would be stopped by the hundred-foot line and not spread to the entire plantation. I sure hope this field of slash pines has one. It provides insurance for the larger part of the field.

I see a spiritual and mental component to the 100-foot line. In our busy lives, we need this guardrail of space and protection for our minds and souls. This fire lane or margin gives us boundaries and space to breathe.

It allows us to control the raging fires that can burn in our lives. I know all about that—I’ve had some arson fires in my own heart—usually self-inflicted.

How do we plow those hundred foot lines?

Here are two ideas:

Be still… I love the words of the shepherd David in Psalms 46:10 “Be still and know that I am God.” It’s both a promise and commandment. Taking time to be still, get quiet and pray and meditate help us as well as protect us. We must build solitude and silence into our lives and guard a time and place for them.

Get outdoors. Wendell Berry made this statement, “The Bible was written to be read outdoors.” There is something about being in nature: a clear blue sky, the wind in the pines, an owl’s call, and a star-filled winter sky with a fingernail moon.

* Readers often comment on one of their favorite passage in The Wayfaring Stranger about Miz Girlie Perkins’ morning time in the woods. Scroll down to for this story.

When I build an outdoor fire—whether it’s in my backyard, the Dakota Black Hills, or under an Africa night sky—and sit around it with a cup of steaming coffee, so many things that weigh me down seem to disappear and fade away. Conversely, the things that really matter—and the things that matter are not things—come clearly into focus.

As we approach another year—the last year of the first decade of the new millennium, I want to purposely plow that hundred-foot line in my life. A safeguard to keep me on the tracks and control the fires that always come into our lives.


Monday, December 29, 2008

My favorite quotes of 2008

I collect quotes and these are some of my favorites of the past year.

Add yours on the "comments" section of this blog. I'd love to hear from you.


We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give. – Winston Churchill

Inspiration does exist, but it must find you working. -Picasso

If you want to change your world, pick up your pen. -Martin Luther.

If you want what God wants, you’ll always get what you want.

-Benjie Loyd

Never use money to measure wealth. - Robert Duvall “Broken Trails”

People ask why I play the game the way I do. It’s because you guys expect it.

-Craig Biggio

The greatest poverty in the world is loneliness. -Mother Teresa

May your enemies live long enough to see the great person you become.

-Chinese proverb


Sunday, December 28, 2008

Passage from Chapter 25 of The Wayfaring Stranger by Curt Iles

Background: Joe Moore, a teenaged Irish immigrant has been befriended by an old Redbone woman known as Miz Girlie. This scene takes place in the longleaf pines of Louisiana in 1849.

Joe slept each night on the porch. Miz Girlie gave him an old quilt and moss-filled mattress to lie on; aside from the mosquitoes, it was a fine place to sleep.
Every morning about daylight, he’d hear the old lady leave the house. She’d be barefooted and trying to slip out quietly, but invariably he’d hear her footsteps.
After the third day of watching her leave each morning, his curiosity got the best of him. When she returned an hour later through the tall pines, she greeted him as she got to the porch. Joe didn’t know if it was the early morning sunshine or something else—but her face seemed to have a glow to it.
As she ascended the front step, he asked, “Miz Girlie, now I ain’t trying to be nosey or nothing, but, uh, where do you go each morning?”
The old woman smiled. “Baby, you come with me and I’ll show you where I go. It’ll be a sight easier to show it to you than tell you about it.”
They walked out of the yard and into the tall longleaf pines. The shafts of sunlight shone through the tall canopies and Joe Moore was reminded of why he already loved the Louisiana piney woods.
Miz Girlie led him to an old twisted pine that was obviously in its last stages of life. The woodpeckers had drilled holes all up and down its thick trunk. Under the tree was a homemade bench that showed evidence of long use.
“Joe, this here spot was what my momma called her ‘prayer tree.’ It was where she started her day all the years I can remember. It didn’t matter how cold it was—raining or August hot—she came out here every morning.
“Son, it was her place to start the day with the Lord—under this here prayer tree—just her and the Lord, and a cup of coffee. When she passed in the year 1827, I just adopted it as mine. It’s now my prayer tree—a place where I meet every morning with the Lord, and we jes’ visit.” She smiled in a way Joe would always remember, “It’s my place to meet with God.”

To learn more about The Wayfaring Stranger and read the first two chapters, click here.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

How to Bury a Country Man

“The thing about common sense is that it ain’t common, Son.”
–Erik Pederson (whom we recently buried in his jeans and khaki shirt.)

The funeral director pulled me to the side. “We’ve got everything set up. The last song before you speak is a Johnny Cash song. I listened to it and it should be just right.”

I was already nervous. This was a difficult service—a tragic death, a divorced family attempting to walk together through their sudden shock and loss. It was now my job to find the comforting words to guide these folks I loved.

Just before I spoke, the CD began with the first notes of “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” It struck a chord of fear in my heart, because I knew the song, and it wasn’t Johnny Cash. It was another Johnny—Johnny Paycheck, and he was launching into the opening lines of his “The Outlaw’s Prayer.”

It’s a talking song about being thrown out of a downtown Ft. Worth church for showing up in jeans, a cowboy hat, and boots. It’s replete with his sitting on the sidewalk and having a long talk with Jesus. Johnny uses several mild expletives complaining about his treatment in the house of the Lord.

It isn’t exactly the perfect song to go before a funeral sermon. I thought. How in the world am I going to tie this together? As I do before preaching, I asked Jesus to help me. Then as Paycheck “signed off” and the song ended, I made my way to the podium.

“Folks, I’ve spoken at many funerals, but never after a Johnny Paycheck song, but that’s all right. I want to talk about Jesus, and I want to remind you that the ground at the foot of the cross where Jesus died is level. Johnny Paycheck is completely welcome to come there—and so is every man and woman in this room today.”

That’s what I want to talk about: the uniqueness of rural funerals and how to lead them. Not just any funerals, but country funerals. I’m not an expert on how they conduct funerals in other parts of the country, but I’ve been part of dozens of Southern funerals. Funerals where we lovingly laid to rest country men—and country women.

This writing comes after a weekend call from a younger pastor friend. He’d been called to officiate at the service for a close friend’s sister. We talked about some things to think about that I’ve listed below for you.

As I start, I want to confess: I’m not an ordained minister and have no theological training. Most of what I’ve learned on country funerals is from watching and listening. I encourage all young ministers to read and learn all they can. There are excellent books and resources on ministering to families at the time of death.

I firmly believe there is no greater privilege and responsibility than to be called on by a family to help bury their loved one. Here are some tidbits to guide you.

1. Above all, spend time with the family. Nothing replaces being present. You don’t even have to say flowery words. Honestly, they won’t remember many things you say, but will never forget the gift of your presence.

This begins with the first viewing by the family. In our part of Louisiana, this is always an hour before public viewing. It is the family’s first viewing of their loved one in a casket. It is an emotional and tender time. Whether the loved one has been ill for months or died suddenly, it is a difficult moment for the family. Get there early and pray with them as a group, then go in and be present.

Don’t feel as if you must say a great deal. Honestly, answer their questions even if the answer is “I don’t know.” Let your words be few, yet real. The old Irish always said at their wakes, ‘I’m so sorry for your loss.’ That says a great deal. Telling people “I love you and I’m praying for you” is what they need to hear and feel.

During the time of the wake and visitation, spend time with the family. It will provide an opportunity for them to share stories and reminisce. This is especially important if you didn’t know the deceased. I often ask, “Tell me what you would like said about your daddy?” They’ll open up and give fine stories to share.

Here’s an example: A few years ago, I helped with the funeral of one of Dry Creek’s most beloved senior adults, ‘Uncle Rob’ McCracken. While preparing for the service, his family told this story: Uncle Rob lived in South Carolina most of his life. When he and his wife Iola moved to Louisiana, they continued returning for his yearly class reunions.

When he missed a few years because of health, his classmates mistakenly received word of his death. They were saddened at the loss of one of their favorite classmates.

About five years after the report of his demise, he returned for a reunion. When he walked into the meeting room, one of the women yelled out, “My goodness, Robbie McCracken done come back from the dead!”

At his funeral, I related this story and everyone laughed loudly. Then I added, “Now some folks believe Robbie McCracken is dead, but I want you to know he is more alive now than he’s ever been. He’s with Jesus and Jesus himself said,

“I am the resurrection and the life. He that believes in me, though he dies, he shall live again. He that believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Just like Martha and Mary told Jesus that day at the grave of their brother Lazarus. “I believe you Jesus. I believe you.”

2. Plan the service. Most of the time, the family will tell you how they’d like the service conducted—what songs and when, who reads the obituary, etc. Part of our job is to write down an outline of the service, if no one else has. Make copies for the musicians, funeral directors, other speakers, pallbearers. Make sure everyone is on the same page. There is nothing more disconcerting than blank stares when no one knows what is next.

3. Before going in to the service, gather the pallbearers and other speakers and pray. The pallbearers are often grandsons, nephews, or close friends. It’s a tender time for them, so gather them in a circle and pray with and for them, as well as the family.

4. Before walking in, make sure your coat is buttoned and your fly is zipped. This may not sound important, but I’ve seen it ignored, and “it ain’t a pretty sight.”

5. If you are reading the obituary, know how to pronounce every name and double check every detail with an informed family member.

Country folk will correct you from the pew if you mispronounce “Aunt Minerva’s” name. It is a sign of courtesy to be prepared for this. Also in your sermon notes, write the name of the deceased with a black marker at the top of the page. I’ve seen ministers forget the deceased’s name or mispronounce it, which usually brings a loud correction from the next of kin and kills the spirit of the service.

6. When you walk to the podium to speak, draw a mental box around the immediate family and speak to them. Block out the crowd, the location, the flowers. It is just you, the family, and the body of their loved one.
The family is the ones who matter most and by speaking directly to them, you’re ministering to everyone present.

7. Keep the content of your message simple: You’re there to lift up Jesus and remind all present that He is the only way to Heaven. You can never go wrong in lifting Him up. Use scriptures throughout your message—familiar scriptures that the grieving folks have heard all of their life take on a full and new meaning at this time. The Holy Spirit will take those promises from the Bible and speak into the hearts of those present.

Concerning the spiritual condition of the man or woman you are burying: our job is not to preach them into Heaven or send them into hell. We are to clearly share the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Also, in the case of every person who has lived, their life has dignity and their funeral is a time to celebrate that life. In the case of country folks, which is done best through stories. That’s why spending time with the family is so essential. I ask, “If you were standing up there tomorrow, what would you say? What story do you think describes your mother the best?”

8. Pray earnestly aloud. Pray from your heart, asking God to comfort these folks.

9. With the end of the service, your job is not finished. In fact, your presence and love during the closing is just as important. Recently a funeral director asked me, “Will this service be a KJV or NIV?” I didn’t understand so he explained. “The old way of ending a service—what we call the King James service—is to reopen the casket and allow those present to file by in “paying their last respects.”
He continued, “More and more, families are requesting that the coffin remain closed and the attendees file out the back. We call that a NIV service.”

Then he added, “There’s one more we call the New King James—or NKJV—the coffin remains closed but the folks file by and express their concern to the family.”

Most Dry Creek funerals are “KJV.” My pastor, a young man from North Georgia says it’s never done like back home, but it’s the way it’s done in the Louisiana piney woods.

The directors open the casket and the gathered mourners, beginning at the back of the building, file by. As a pastor, you’ll stand beside the casket. Many folks will give you a nod as they pass, some will hug you, or offer a word of thanks. Most will respectfully stop at the casket and say goodbye in gestures or words.

Usually many of those filing by will hug or speak to the family members on the front pew. This part of the service can take a good amount of time. I always remind myself that this is a very necessary part of getting closure—for everyone present.

Then as the last passerby exits, it’s time for the family to say goodbye. Once again, this cannot be rushed and is a sacred time.

When I speak at funerals, I’m able to keep my emotions in check. However when the family members come to the casket, I lose all composure. As I watch a teenage granddaughter place her head on PaPaw’s chest weeping on his freshly starched overalls, I weep with her.

As two sons steady their old mother and she looks for the last time on this earth at the face of her husband of sixty years, I weep. It’s not a put on or for show. It comes from my heart. I once was ashamed of this, but have come to realize that sharing ‘the gift of tears’ with folks is important.

When the last family member has left, your job is to stand there as the directors close the casket, and escort the body to the hearse.

10. Let me be brief on the cemetery service: be brief. This is not the time to preach or say a great deal. Scripture, prayer, and your concern are all that is needed at this time.

11. Finally, don’t rush away from the cemetery. Linger and hug on grandchildren and kiss older ladies on the cheek. They are now your family and you are theirs. When you help a family bury a country man—or country woman—you become linked at the heart. And the years and miles will not diminish the bond you share.

I always try to return to John 11 when Jesus visits the tomb of his friend Lazarus. That chapter is so full of Jesus’ wisdom for leading a family or group through grief. The words of Isaiah the coming Savior says it clearly: “. . . a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.”

As followers of that same Savior named Jesus, we are called to be well acquainted with grief. It allows us to lock hearts with those hurting and grieving.

It's a calling.
It is an honor.
It’s a privilege.


Tuesday, December 09, 2008


The following is an abridged (shortened) version of Curt Iles' Christmas short story, "Medic" featured in the new story collection, The Write Before Christmas.

A compilation of nineteen stories by fifteen Southern authors (including two by Curt) it is available at

Copies are $10.00 each plus $5.00 shipping per order. An autographed book is the perfect
Christmas gift! Order today. (More ordering information is at the bottom of this story.)

“The Medic’s Long Walk”

“Medic. Help.”
Nazi sniper Unerfeldewebel Franz Schmidt didn’t know any English, but in the case of the nearby wounded American soldier, he didn’t need to. The man’s anguished cries were beyond words. Medic. Help me.

It was somewhere in Belgium on Christmas Eve 1944, and Schmidt had never been colder in his thirty-two years. However, he was in a lot better shape than the wounded American freezing to death twenty yards away.

The German turned his rifle on the American and put the crosshairs on his helmetless head. It’d probably be a kindness to put the poor devil out of his misery.

But for some reason, he didn’t pull the trigger, instead thinking, I’ll wait a little longer.

In the hour or so since the firefight, the man’s cries of “Medic” had become weaker and spaced farther apart. Lying just past the fallen American was a German casualty. Schmidt couldn’t remember the young soldier’s name, as he’d only been in their unit a week or so.

The German soldier was shot in both the chest and leg. Although still alive, he made no sounds.
Franz Schmidt thought of how ironic it was for these two dying soldiers to be lying together on the cold ground on the very day before the birth of the Prince of Peace. It seemed obscene—even barbaric for men who supposedly worshipped the same Savior to be killing each other this near his birthday.

He sadly shook his head. Those two wounded men won’t be celebrating the Savior’s birth—at least not on this earth. They’ll be dead long before dark.

The morning’s sudden battle had resulted when an early morning American patrol walked right into the perimeter of his unit of about one hundred Germans.
The result of this brief firefight was these two soldiers lying close together, blood from their wounds staining the white snow.

As soon as the shooting ended, Franz Schmidt had been called forward to do his job. He was a specialist—that most dreaded of all combat soldiers—a sniper.
Carefully choosing his position, he zipped his hooded white uniform and crawled forward to a log.

The Americans had withdrawn out of range for normal rifles, but Schmidt’s weapon and methods weren’t normal. He was a silent killer, using his keen eyes and untiring patience to do his job.
Using his scope, he’d carefully scanned for any movement in the fog-shrouded woods. Spotting a blur running to crouch behind a tree, he’d taken quick aim, fired, and heard the sound of wood splintering and a man’s cry, followed by silence.

Continuing his vigil, the cries of the nearby wounded American began to get on his nerves.
“Medic. Help, medic.”

Turning his scope back on the American, he studied the man’s contorted face.
“Medic . . . Help.”

It’d be best to end his suffering.

But before he could fire, voices behind him called to him. He turned to look and saw a nearby German soldier in a foxhole gesturing excitedly toward the western end of the American lines.
Schmidt twisted back around and saw a startling sight: An American soldier was walking out of the cover of the trees. His olive uniform against the snow’s background made him impossible to miss. Schmidt adjusted his scope. This is going to be too easy.

However, his scope’s magnification revealed something else: This American was a medic.
Schmidt spoke aloud. “What in the world is that fool doing?”

Slowly, carefully, steadily the Medic left the safety of the trees toward the open field. He was plodding toward the wounded American who laid a stone’s throw from where his concealed position.

Schmidt cursed softly and tried to clear his head.

* * *

Across the open field, another set of eyes looked through the scope of a sniper rifle. Corporal Robert Wilson had been scanning the snow-covered field for the German sniper who’d just wounded one of his men in the shoulder.
“Where are you at, fellow? Make a move and I’ll get you.”

This was Wilson’s chance to take out an opposing sniper, the highest goal of any rifleman.
He repeated the mantra from training school. “A dead enemy sniper means twenty more G.I.’s will live.” Detecting movement behind a log in the snow, he carefully wiped off his scope, and tried not to blink.

There it was—the slight gleam of a metallic object. Wilson took a deep breath and squinted closer. More movement came from that spot, and Wilson detected a rifle barrel’s outline behind the log.

That’ll be the last movement that German sniper ever makes.

Wilson adjusted his scope for the distance of about four hundred yards. Too far for an M-1, but just right for his Remington sniper rifle.

He steadied himself for the shot. However, before he squeezed the trigger, nearby movement and voices behind distracted him. Trained never to take his eye off a confirmed target, he resisted the urge to turn.

As footsteps crunched in the snow, he glanced up to see the company medic walk past him. The guy was new and Wilson tried to think of his name—no longer than medics lasted out here, it was hard to remember their names. It seemed they were all known by “Medic.”

The idiot walked past Wilson’s hidden forward position as if on a holiday stroll. Through clenched teeth, he said. “Medic. Fool, come back here.”

He either didn’t hear, or ignored him.
“Fool. You’re dead.”

Corporal Wilson quickly turned back to his German target. The enemy sniper had shifted his aim, and Wilson knew it was focused now on the American medic.

Wilson thought. I’ll get the Kraut before he gets our medic.
Then he paused. If I kill the German, they’ll kill the medic.
He held his fire. I'll just wait and see.

* * *

Franz Schmidt, nervously watching the advancing Medic, had no idea he was in the crosshairs of an American sniper across the way.

The German winced. I can kill him before he gets any closer.

Hearing the wounded soldier moan, “Medic. Help,” Schmidt thought. I’ll let the medic get to him, but if he takes one step past him, he’s mine.

Hundreds of German and American eyes watched the Medic’s journey toward the wounded man as he crossed the open snow-covered field.

Schmidt, the German sniper, had the best seat for what happened next. He was shocked as he the Medic walked on past his wounded American comrade.

Slowly and carefully, the Medic continued toward the German lines.

Schmidt, meaning to keep his vow to shoot, leaned against his rifle’s cheek piece and put the crosshairs on the back of the medic’s neck—just below the helmet line.

Unknown to the German sniper, Robert Wilson, United States Army sniper, also adjusted his aim, placing his crosshairs on the forehead just below the German’s white hood.

Each sniper knew from experience what a bullet from his rifle would do. Whether it was the American 30.06 slug or a German 8 mm cartridge, the results would be the same.
But neither fired and it was because of what the Medic did next. He knelt in the snow beside the wounded German. Franz Schmidt, watching from his hidden position, lowered his scope, so he could watch with his own eyes.

From his small bag in his hand, the medic took out a small bottle of some sort, broke it open, inserted a syringe, and stabbed it into the German’s arm. The wounded soldier jerked and then went limp.

The Medic was of medium build and much smaller than the heavily uniformed German. With great effort, he hefted the wounded man on his back and stumbled toward the enemy foxholes.
When the Medic reached the German lines, two soldiers jumped up and took their fellow soldier from him.

The Medic turned back toward the wounded G.I., jogged quickly to him and gave him the same shot of medication. He then lifted his fellow soldier up, and began the long walk back to the American lines.

* * *
Corporal Robert Wilson of Helena, Arkansas had watched plenty of killing in the last six months since the invasion of Europe began. He’d done plenty of killing with the scoped rifle he now re-aimed back at the German hidden in the snow.

He had to kill the German sniper. The Medic was now out of range of all the enemy except the sniper. He couldn’t take a chance.

Focusing in, he clicked the scope for the four hundred yard shot. I can make this shot in my sleep.

Wilson’s eyes watered, evidently from the cold.

He lowered his rifle and thought. It’s Christmas Eve. Tomorrow’s Christmas day. There’ll still be killing today and even tomorrow, but it won’t be from me.

He took his safety off, wiped his face, and whispered toward the distant German sniper, as if the man could hear him.

“Merry Christmas, my friend, Froshes Fest.”

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