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.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sitting in the Big Chair

Our grandson, Jack Iles, is shown with his new friend, Addie Soileau today at Dry Creek Baptist Camp.

Today was catfish lunch at the Camp and we had a good time eating and visiting.
I'd like to share the story about this large rocker that sits on the Tabernacle porch.

When I was manager at the Camp, Brad Robinson's mom, Karan, approached me about getting a big rocker for the porch. She'd already supplied us with half a dozen normal size rockers, as well as several tiny ones (we called them 'baby bear chairs.')

I was impressed with the photo of the large cedar rocker, but I had one question.
"How much does a big one cost?"
She hesitated, "1500 dollars."
"$1500? I'd love for the camp to have one, but that's a little steep."

Of course, that didn't faze Karan. She and her youth group raised the money, bought the chair, delivered it to Dry Creek. It took an offensive line of teen boys to manhandle it off the trailer.

The big chair is the most photographed spot at Dry Creek Camp. Thousands of campers crowd onto it for friendship pictures. The current record is 23 girls on it at a time.

Last summer I visited for a night camp service. An older woman who later admitted she was 91 asked me to help her onto it for a photo. We got a straight chair and she used it for a stepladder to take a seat for her photo opp.

Once as a long line of children waited their turn to climb in the chair, I related the above story to a friend. He smiled and said, "That chair's worth a lot more than 1500 dollars."

"It's worth $15,000." I answered. It is a symbol of all that is good about what we call the Dry Creek Experience.

The best thing about the chair is how campers call it, "God's Rocking Chair." I asked a preteen girl about that. Her answer was simple but sound, "Because it's big enough for God to sit in, and he likes kids to get on his lap."

Well said.
I can't improve on her wisdom and theology.

If you come to Dry Creek this summer, climb up in God's rocking chair. As summer camps begin next week, pray for every camper who'll sit or walk by that big rocker at Dry Creek. Pray for lives to be changed by the power and love of our big God.

Turtle tattooing

I'll be 53 this Monday, and I'm still catching turtles.
Of course, I have a good reason: they're for my grandsons.
I caught this red-eared turtle earlier in the week and put him inside my fenced garden.

He was waiting for Jack when he arrived today.

Before freeing the turtle, we tattooed him. I don't know if you're familiar with turtle tattooing or as we sometimes call it, "turtle branding."

Before you P.E.T.A.* folks get stirred up, it's simply marking a turtle's shell for future reference.
I used a sharpie to write "Jack" and 5/28/09 on the turtle.

We always did this at Dry Creek Camp and several times "re harvested" "branded turtles."

Well, like they say, "It's a redneck thing that you wouldn't understand."

Good night from the land of big rockers and turtle tattooing.

*PETA: "People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals" or "People Eating Tame Animals."


Stand by Me

Sometimes a song gets stuck in your head, or maybe your heart. Because of my love of music and how it affects me in my soul and in my writing, this often happens.

For the last two days, I've heard "Stand by Me" the old negro spiritual. It's always been one of my favorites. It's a song of strength... the testimony of someone who has been through the storms and troubles of life and found a strong foundation in Jesus.

Stand by Me

By Charles A. Tindley

When the storm of life is raging / Stand by me / When the storm of life is raging
Stand by me / When the world is tossing me / Like a ship upon the sea / Thou who rulest wind
and water / Stand by me

In the midst of tribulation / Stand by me / In the midst of tribulation / Stand by me / When the
hosts of hell assail / And my strength begins to fail / Thou who never lost a battle / Stand by

In the midst of faults and failures / Stand by me / In the midst of faults and failures / Stand by
me / When I do the best I can / And my friends misunderstand / Thou who knowest all about
me / Stand by me

When I'm growing old and feeble / Stand by me / When I'm growing old and feeble / Stand
by me / When my life becomes a burden / And I'm nearing chilly Jordan / O Thou "Lily of
the Valley" / Stand by me

If you've never heard it sung, YouTube "Stand by Me/gospel song" * Everyone from the King (Elvis) on down have done takes on this classic.

* There is another fine song, "Stand by Me", made famous by Ben E. Keith and Johnny Lee. Writer Keith said that he borrowed from the gospel version for his.


Will it Last?

This is a 1999 story from my first book, Stories from the Creekbank. I've been thinking about an important word: repentance. It simply means to change directions. Turn around. It's a good word. One's life must be full of repentance is it is to be full and forgiven.

It’s a full house in the tabernacle tonight. Our Back to school youth camp always is an exciting week. Campers and adults just show up expecting God to work. And He has worked in a mighty way this week.

Because of the many campers and the large number of guests, we’ve moved chairs into the Tabernacle. Tonight I’m sitting on the front row- a place I seldom sit.

The camp pastor, Troy Terrell, begins his message. All eyes and ears are on him as he paces the stage sharing a passionate story about obedience and commitment to Jesus. About twenty minutes into the message a young man get up from the middle section of the Tabernacle. He catches my eye just as he gets to the front.

Let me describe this camper. He looks to be about seventeen. He is a big ol’ boy- about 5'10" and a good 240. He doesn’t hurry as he comes forward- he just sort of ambles. Looking at him I know he is country and I mean that as a compliment. He just looks solid . . . and I’m not just talking about his physique.

I think to myself, “He’s coming up to pray at the altar.” But he bypasses the pews that serve as our prayer area. He slowly comes up to the steps in the middle of the stage. All eyes are on him . . . even Bro. Troy has stopped in mid-sentence.

My next thought is, “He is going to hit the preacher!” But the slight smile on big boy’s face tells me differently. Then the thought hits me that he is going to share an impromptu testimony.

But he ambles by Troy and the microphone to the edge of the stage. Into a white trash bag on the stage he puts an object from his hand. The bag has been on stage all week. During the week, teens have placed items that they wanted out of their lives. I had peeked into earlier and saw shattered musical C.D.’s, magazines, even a wadded pack of cigarettes.

I have a pretty good idea of what he had in his hand, but I won’t tell you because the object doesn’t matter- the act of his heart does. Just as slowly as big boy came, he returns to his seat. As he passes Troy, he simply nods his head in the way country men do as a sign of respect.

I breathe a sigh of relief that he didn’t sock Troy or disrupt the service. Then I realize what a beautiful act of obedience we’d witnessed. We adults may feel led to give up something in repentance, but few of us would go up front during the middle of a service. We’d wait until the Tabernacle was empty and discreetly go to the white bag.

But that’s what I love about young people. They passionately act on their feelings toward God. They practice something we can all learn from- Instant obedience. Instant obedience is something all of us so-called mature Christians should learn about. If God lays something on your heart, do it and do it now.

Bro. Troy now gets his second wind and is preaching full speed ahead. But my mind is still on the sermon I’ve just seen. Then the thought creeps into my mind: I just wonder if he’ll be keeping his commitment two months from now at school. In other words, “Will it last?”

Quickly I feel Holy Spirit conviction on my attitude. I recall where I’ve been reading in Luke about the lost sheep. In Luke 15 Jesus says,

“And there will be greater rejoicing in Heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine other righteous men who need no repentance.

The thought hits me: There’s no one in Heaven right now saying “Will it last?” They are just rejoicing. And if they are rejoicing, so should we.

And then I think back to a young man in this same building in 1972. During the youth service God has spoken to many young people. Some have come forward to be saved. Others just like our big boy this summer have stepped forward to get some junk out of their lives. Others have come just with a desire to follow Jesus closer.

During this service nearly thirty years ago, one young man simply comes to the front to pray. The desire of his teen age heart is be surrendered completely to do whatever vocationally God wants Him to do. There is nothing sensational or even emotional about his decision. He is simply offering a blank check to God to be filled in as He wishes.

I’m sure someone thought, “I wonder if it’ll last?” Because of God’s faithfulness, that decision has stuck. Here’s how I know that- I was that young sixteen year old boy.

I’ve not always been what I should be but as I’ve sought God’s will each step of the way, God has graciously led me step by step. Never in my wildest imagination did I dream that my prayer at the front of the Tabernacle would lead me to leading this camp one day.

I hope in future times as I have the continued privilege of watching God work in young lives I will not become calloused or cynical of seeing young people make commitments. Our encouragement and support are what teens need as they make decisions to follow Jesus in a full way. What a privilege we have to be there for them.


Sunday, May 24, 2009

A small baygall in a growing pine plantation near Dry Creek.

What is a ‘Baygall’?

Most people today have no idea what a “baygall” is. When I speak to students and read a passage from The Wayfaring Stranger describing a bay gall, they stare as if I’m talking about something on the moon.

The No Man’s Land of western Louisiana is mainly miles of pine trees. Along the creeks and swamps, hardwoods—mainly oaks, beech, and hickories—grow.

When I fly over Beauregard, Vernon, and Rapides Parishes, I’m always amazed at the miles and miles of forests unmarred by civilization.

In areas where the ground is “swampy,” pines won’t grow. Instead the hardwoods with their tolerance for wet ground, take root.

Among the trees that thrive in a wet condition like this are the bay trees. Along with cypress and water tupelo, these trees will grow thickly.

One of my favorite references, the Dictionary of American Regional English, defines a baygall as “an area of low-lying boggy land, overgrown with sweet bay trees; smaller than a swamp.”.

Because of the abundance of bay trees, settlers called these swampy areas bay galls.

Many times these circular “bay galls” would be in the midst of a pine forest or even in open fields.

Bay galls serve as the home for wildlife such as squirrel and deer, who feast on the acorns, woodcocks that probe the wet soil for insects, and wood ducks that feed and roost in areas that hold water.

If anyone has a picture of a larger bay gall, please email it to me. We’ll add it to this blog.

What is a baygall?

To see and read about a baygall in Natchitoches Parish, visit


Joe Moore camps out at a bay gall.

The following passage is from The Wayfaring Stranger. The Irishman Joe Moore, is wandering among the piney woods after crossing the Calcasieu River near Hineston, Louisiana.

He had now entered the "No Man's Land" of Louisiana which in 1849 was wild and unsettled. Joe sets up camp in a swampy area by a slough.

As another day of walking ended and the evening sun settled behind the pines and the shadows lengthened, Joe began searching for that night’s camping spot. He’d just crossed a small creek with clear fresh water. The pines were mixed with oaks as the terrain dropped down to the creek. This looked like a great place to get a much-needed bath, cook supper, and spend the night.

Exploring the nearby area for firewood he came upon an odd circle-shaped area of hardwoods. As he explored it, he realized it extended for several acres. Most of the tree-filled circle stood in water the color of black coffee. Judging from the look of it, it didn’t seem deep.

What made this swampy area even more memorable was how it extended out into the pine area. On every side except where the creek was, tall longleaf pines surrounded the swamp. The wet area was beautiful and featured tall majestic canopies of every shade of green imaginable. The wind filtered through them and leaves fluttered down around him. Regularly the acorns fell through the canopy, loudly striking limbs and leaves, on their way to the ground. He picked up a bright green acorn and bit into it. It didn’t taste bad— then he spit it out—it was bad!. It had a bitter aftertaste that took a long time to get out of his mouth.

He would later learn that this circular grove of hardwoods was what the settlers called a “bay gall.”

Joe knelt down in a wet area and drank his fill. The water, tinged a dark brown, had a slightly bitter taste similar to the acorns. He decided that his next drink would come from the nearby creek.

He unloaded and untied his small pack and then unrolled the canvas tarp that had been the only shelter over his head for the last week. He tied a rope from two smaller trees and draped the cloth over the rope, carefully tying down the four corners to small bushes. This created a tarp that would keep most of the rain out if the wind didn’t blow too hard. Experience had taught him about tying the corners to a bush. Last week he had used sticks driven in the ground to anchor the corners. A strong wind blew one corner loose and the result was everything getting wet and then the other three corners coming loose.

By tying the corners to bushes, the tarp could bend and give in the wind instead of ripping the sticks out of the ground. Standing back and admiring his work, he couldn’t help but remark, “Well, a fellow’s kind of got to be like that tarp. You’ve got to bend with the wind and give a little without turning loose.”

With that thought, he began gathering twigs, limbs, and leaves for a cooking fire. He also gathered enough larger sticks and dead wood to build a good companion fire after supper. He got his trusty new rope out and made a large circle on the ground surrounding where he planned to sleep. He wasn’t sure it would keep snakes away, but wasn’t taking any chances.

Just as dark approached, the sound of flapping came from the slough. He turned toward the water and saw a pair of ducks land giving off one of the strangest calls he’d ever heard. Within seconds these two ducks were joined by five more. With it being nearly dark and his body being shielded by a large cypress, the ducks were not initially aware of his presence.

They continued with the strangest squealing and clucking he’d ever heard. It was different from any waterfowl he had encountered on his island. There was an eeriness and lonesomeness in their call that terrified him, yet made him smile. Later, telling of this encounter he would call it “the woodsiest sound” he’d ever heard.

It was only later that he learned these birds were known as wood ducks or squealers. They were the native ducks of the creeks, streams, and wooded sloughs of Louisiana. During the day they feasted on acorns and beech mast in the creeks. Evening brought them daily to their roost spots where they stayed on the open water to rest and remain out of reach of predators.

This slough in the bay gall swamp was one of these roost spots. For the next ten minutes, ducks winged their way in, splashing loudly as they landed. They mostly came in pairs, but also in smaller groups of four or five. He wasn’t counting but he guessed that over three dozen had landed as he watched. The pairs were always a hen and drake. The wood duck hens were mottled brown and slightly smaller. It was easy to see how their natural camouflage would hide them in the bushes during nesting season.

The drakes were the most unusual, and without a doubt the most beautiful bird he’d ever seen. Their distinguishing feature was the bright green head topped by a hood. The rest of their body was a wonderful blend of green, blue, black, and white. There is no way he could have adequately described them.

Landing, the pairs could sense Joe’s presence and quickly swam away. The females made the unusual squealing call. Listening to the these calls, he sensed that there were two calls: one a type of warning call and the other an invitation to incoming flocks to join the party.

What a party it was! The males made a softer call. The hens seemed to be competing as to who could call the loudest and most. It was a wonder to be this near this spectacle.

Slowly, the parade of incoming wood ducks lessened and then ended. The bay gall area was now very dark and he could only see the outlines of the ducks and the wakes they left on the water as they swam about in groups.

The ducks called and carried on for the next hour before settling down. Throughout the night, Joseph would periodically be awakened by the loud squeal of the birds, but it didn’t bother him at all. He smiled, rolled over and enjoyed the best night of sleep he’d had in months.

Read the following blog entry for my favorite passage from The Wayfaring Stranger. It tells of Joe's second trip to the bay gall a year later.


A dead beech log across Crooked Bayou

This companion passage to Joe's visit to the baygall occurs over a year later in our story. It's near the end of The Wayfaring Stranger. It's my favorite passage and when I read the end of it to groups, their reactions are always a mixture of nods, smiles, and tears.

Enjoy it! -C.I.

Chapter 41

January was normally the coldest month of the year in Louisiana, but it can also be filled with pleasant days.. A stretch of nice weather like that, about a month after the ice storm, is what led to the disappearance of Uncle Arch Weeks..

Unk and Joe were working with the sheep on this fine, clear morning when they heard someone blowing repeatedly on a cow horn. They stopped to listen and discuss whether it was just a neighbor calling his dogs or the signal of something being wrong. When it continued unabated, they both stopped and hurriedly started toward the sound of the horn.

The sounds led them straight toward Uncle Arch and Aunt Mollie’s place. As they neared the cabin, there were already two or three other men gathered in a clump by the front porch. Aunt Mollie sat on the porch with two other neighbor women. As they approached, Joe heard the man holding a big cow horn say, “If he’s been missing since last evening, I fear for him.”

Another man answered, “Uncle Arch knows these woods as well as anyone. I can’t believe he got lost on land he’s tromped for all his life.”

“You’re right. It makes me think he might have got hurt or something worse. The bottom line is we’ve got to git to looking fer him.”
The men, now including Unk and Joe, went to the porch and the horn blower asked her, “Aunt Mollie, did he give you any idea where he might be a-going?”

She was rocking her legs nervously as she answered, “No, he just said it was too good a day not to go out and kill a few squirrels for a gumbo. Usually when he wanted to shoot squirrels, he’d go downstream along the creek.”

“He didn’t go no other places some of the time, did he?”
“Not that I know of, Child.”

Seeming to scold herself she muttered, “I tried to git him not to go, but no—he just had to make another hunt. He was too old and stooped to be out in the woods like that. When he didn’t come home at dark, I got real worried, but had no way to contact anyone.”

She put her head in her hands and continuing muttering inaudibly. One of the women sitting by her stroked her hair and said, “Aunt Mollie, don’t you worry none! He’s all right—and he was gonna go hunting whether you let him go or not.”

The men quickly gathered and each agreed to search a particular area. Instructions were given as to how to make contact when he was found. The men with guns were told to shoot three times in succession. The others with cow horns were told to blow them in sets of three. Joe and Unk, who had neither, were told to just start hollering and quickly work their way back to the house.
One fellow asked, “Do you reckon he could have crossed the creek?” Everyone looked around and finally a man replied, “No, I don’t believe he would. I can’t see him getting out on a log or wading.”

Everyone headed out quickly in his assigned direction. Joe and Unk trotted toward the creek and began a step-by-step process of trying to cover all of the hardwoods area on the near bank. They got about forty yards apart and began walking parallel to the creek.
Unk would holler about every ten steps, “Uncle Arch. Where ye at? Come on out, Uncle Arch. Aunt Mollie’s got breakfast ready.”

As they worked their way along the small draws among the beech and hickory groves, they watched carefully for any signs of footprints, but found none. All this time, Unk kept up his calling, “Uncle Archie Weeks. Where ‘bout are ye? Come on out, Uncle Arch. Hide and seek’s over. It’s time to come home.”

Joe kept thinking about an old man this age being stranded in the woods overnight. It’d not been too cold last night, but there had been a light frost, which meant it had gotten below forty degrees. Not a good night for a fellow to be lost in the woods.

After Unk and Joe had been searching for thirty minutes and had gone what he estimated was nearly a mile, Joe walked over to Unk. “I just don’t believe he went this far, do you?”
“It would be a fer piece for an old crippled man to stumble along. Anyway, there’s plenty of squirrel places way back there.”

Joe asked, “Unk, you don’t think he wandered up into the pines do you?”
“I wouldn’t think so. Don’t nobody hunt squirrels in the pine stands. The fox squirrels will cut pine cones in the mixed stands of oak and pine, but they don’t like to leave the acorns and beech mast. No one knew that better than Uncle Arch.”

“Could he have crossed the creek?”
“I don’t think he would have—or could have. I can’t see him wading the creek at any ford and that flat log crossing ain’t been used by Uncle Arch in years.”

“Could there—would there—have been any reason for him to cross the creek?”
Unk thought for a minute. ”I don’t see why. You can git squirrels easier on this side.”
They discussed their options and decided to retrace their steps, moving up from the creek. Thy walked more quickly in their return due to their belief that the lost hunter wasn’t in this area.
Joe asked, “Hey Unk, what is across the creek where the flat-log crossing is?”

“Nothin’ but more woods like this—then there is a bay gall with a slough in it.”
Joe stopped in his tracks; he knew exactly the area Unk had just described. It was the spot where he’d once spent the night soon after entering this part of No Man’s Land. It was the first time he’d ever seen wood ducks and the place had made a lasting impression on him.
“Unk, you just keep working your way along the creek until you get back near the cabin. I’m going across the creek just to have a look around.”

“I believe you’re jes’ wasting your time.”
“Well, so be it, but I just feel I need to take a look.”

Cherry Winche Creek near its confluence with the Calcasieu

Joe quickly came to the crossing over Cherry Winche. It was actually an old hickory that had fallen years ago during some past high water. Someone had notched the top of the log with an ax. This made for a flatter and rougher walking surface.

The log had a good bit of age on it—covered with slick green moss and showed signs of rotting, so Joe walked carefully onto it. He looked below in the water for any sign of where a person might have fallen. It was a good twenty feet down to the water—not a good distance to fall. He examined closely the top of the log for any signs that someone had recently crossed and found none. Joe considered stopping, turning around, and returning. He just couldn’t see a person Uncle Arch’s age and condition getting on this log—.

It was where the log ended that he saw it—one human footprint on the muddy bank. There was nothing else. Damp leaves covered the rest of the trail and there was no sign where, or if, the footprint had continued. If Uncle Arch had crossed here, Joe now had an idea where he had been headed.

He thought about hollering for the other men, but didn’t. He’d wait and see first.
He remembered that the slough began where the swamp changed from hardwood to surrounding pines. It was a bay gall—an wet wooded area surrounded by dry land.
On one of his visits with Arch and Mollie, he had asked Uncle Arch about the wood duck slough. The old man’s eyes lit up, and Joe remembered well Arch’s ensuing story: “Boy, that’s the first place I ever shot a wood duck. I was probably ten or so. I crawled up on the slough and shot me a pretty wood duck drake. I brought it home and my momma made me clean it, and we had the best duck gumbo I’ve ever tasted to this day.”

Thinking back on the light in Uncle Arch’s face when he’d told this story, Joe thought he knew at least where the old Ten Miler was headed. He thought about hollering for him, but decided if he was there, he’d find him soon enough.

He saw the oak trees and then the dark water of the slough. Approaching the east side of the slough, Joe saw what he was looking for—the old man was sitting peacefully against a tree right by the water. He looked so peaceful there and seemed to be asleep.

But when Joe walked up to him, he realized he wasn’t asleep. Joe Moore had seen enough dead people to recognize one when he saw one now—Uncle Arch was dead. He knelt down by him and placed his hand on his shoulder. The stiff body—its coldness—the color of his skin—were all mute testimony that he’d been dead a while, probably since the evening before.

There were several things that instantly caught Joe’s attention: First of all was how Uncle Arch had a wood duck drake in his right hand. Even in death, he held the bird firmly by the neck. Two fox squirrels lay beside the shotgun that leaned against the tree. The old man’s boots were wet as well as his pants up to just above the knees.

The second thing Joe noticed—the one it would stay in his mind—was the look on Uncle Arch’s face. There was a slight smile, frozen there by death. His eyes were closed and a deep look of peace was on his grizzled face.

He couldn’t take his eyes off the man’s face. Joe thought back to all of the death he had seen during the famine. The visage of a person who had starved to death very seldom looked peaceful. It was a slow, hopeless, and undignified way to die.

But here was something totally different. Looking around, Joe could nearly reassemble the last minutes of Uncle Arch’s life: slipping up on the slough and shooting that drake wood duck—just like he’d done as a boy. Then slowly wading out into the shallow slough to retrieve his kill; coming back out of the water with the duck; going over to the tree where he’d leaned the shotgun, thinking about how good eating this would be in Mollie’s gumbo.

Probably he’d been winded from the excitement of the hunt, so he’d sat down against the tree to catch his breath—and then he’d just went to sleep.

Joe shook his head: There were lots of worse ways to go than how Uncle Arch Weeks had left this earth, holding a wood duck firmly in his right hand, sitting against a beech tree.

He recalled an old Irish saying often overheard at the wakes of those who’d lived a long life with much of their last years filled with sickness and agony: “He lived a lot longer than he should have had to.” He smiled wanly as the looked at the peaceful face of Uncle Arch. He had lived just right. He’d done what every rural man—whether in Ireland or America wanted to do—he’d died with his boots on.

Joe thought about picking him up to carry him back across the creek, then he thought better of it. He’d learned enough about the Ten Mile men to know they would want to see this sight for themselves.

So leaving the body right where it was, Joe headed back to the creek where he began hollering. Within fifteen minutes, four of the men, including Unk, came running.
“I found him. He’s dead over by that slough.”

They peppered him with questions, for which he simply answered, “You need to see it for yourself.”

The five of them got to the slough and surrounded Uncle Arch’s body. No one said a word for nearly a minute. Then one exclaimed, “Now if I could choose how to go, that’s how’d it be, fellows. Just like that.”

They all nodded in agreement. Finally, Unk commented, “It looks like he jes’ nodded off asleep and woke up with Jesus.”
Joe added, “He once told me this is where he killed his first wood duck.”
One of the men added, “Yep, and it’s whar he killed his last one, too.”

Author's note: Most fiction is lifted from real events. One of my heroes, Mr. Jay Miller made a deer hunt in November 2000. He took his daughter Juanita to a deer stand in Miller Pasture, then placed his pastor, Glen Ducharme, on another stand.

As Mr. Jay, who was in his 80's, hurried in the dark to his deer stand, he fell dead in a fire lane.

As family and neighbors later waited for the ambulance to arrive, one of the older men commented, "Fellows, that's just how I'd like to go. On my way to my deer stand, .30-.30 rifle under my arm."

It's the goal of every country man to die "with his boots on." This is what Jay Miller did as well as fictional Uncle Arch in The Wayfaring Stranger.

Jay Miller was a special friend. He once told me of a December visit to The Old House where my great grandparents lived. As they sat on the porch drinking coffee, the radio had a news flash telling of an attack by the Japanese on a place called Pearl Harbor.

It was Sunday, December 7, 1941.


Saturday, May 23, 2009

Terry and Sara Iles

We had a wedding today. DeDe and I didn't lose a son, we just gained another daughter.

It's a bittersweet moment when your youngest child marries. There is a finality to it. We've had a partial empty nest for two years, but the nest became truly empty today at 10:00 am.

And that's a good thing.

It's as it's supposed to be, and I'm happy.

I couldn't have a selected a better wife for my son than Sara. (As well as Robin for Clay, and Amanda for Clint.)

And there are rewards for an empty nest. The reward is called "grandchildren."

Here are our three grandsons (Jude, Noah, and Jack) performing a recital with concertmaster Britney Robinson.

The king is dead. Long live the king.
Life is good. Every stage of the journey is rewarding.




Friday, May 22, 2009

Sergeant Leroy Johnson

U.S. Army 1941-1944

A Soldier’s Story

Every soldier has a story.

It’s a story that needs to be told.

Some soldiers, often the bravest,

Never get to tell their story.

Then it becomes our job to tell their story…

This is the story of Sgt. Leroy Johnson, United States Army.

Since 1965, a bronze plaque has stood on the median of Louisiana Highway 10 in the town of Oakdale. This plaque briefly tells the story of Sergeant Leroy Johnson. The inscription on the plaque ends with the wonderful words of Jesus from John 15:13,

Greater love has no one than this,

that he lay down his life for his friends.

Leroy Johnson was born on December 6, 1920 near Caney Creek, Louisiana. His father was a carpenter and his mother was busy rearing a large family of children.

Growing up, Johnson knew what is was like to work hard and do the best he could with what he had.

Men like Leroy Johnson, who later fought in our greatest war grew up in our nation’s hardest time - the Great Depression. I’ve often thought that these difficult years prepared many of these future soldiers for being part of the victorious American armies that fought throughout Europe and the Pacific.

Many young men of this generation found work with the Civilian Conservation Corps. The “C.C.C. Camps” as they were called, gave these men jobs, some income (much of which had to be sent home to their families) and most importantly, a sense of self-respect and work skills. Additionally they learned to live and work together, a trait that came in handy during the next decade’s war years. Leroy Johnson worked in just such a camp in the Kisatchie Forest of central Louisiana.

Lawrence Lacy, a Dry Creek area resident described his friendship with Johnson, “He was a good man to work with, and he liked to fight. We went at it more than once, but he was also a good friend to have.”

In 1941, prior to Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of war, Leroy Johnson joined the Army. When he enlisted and was sent to boot camp, it was the last time he would ever be home in Allen Parish and see his family.

Evidently the Army agreed with him. From his letters home and comments from the men he served with, he was born to be a soldier.

He was placed in the 32nd Infantry Division. Most of the men in this Division were from the northern states of Wisconsin and Michigan. This division was involved in the large scale maneuvers then being held in the forests of Louisiana. New southern enlistees like Johnson were plugged into these units. I’m sure there were some interesting experiences from putting guys from the Louisiana woods with these Midwesterners.

From reading his service letters and the history of this division, we can track his travels over the next few years of the war. He was part of the campaign to take the eastern portion of New Guinea from the Japanese. This invasion was to stop the Japanese advance toward Australia. General MacArthur stated his strategy when he said, “We will protect Australia from New Guinea.”

Reading the official division history, it is learned that the fighting on this large island was difficult, slow, and deadly. The Japanese troops were experienced jungle fighters. The 32nd Division, which would later spend more days in actual combat than any other division in the war, was green and untried.

During this campaign was when Leroy Johnson first showed his prowess as a soldier. He was awarded the Purple Heart as well as the Silver Star for gallantry.

Sgt. Johnson spent part of the next year recuperating from his wounds in Australia

The 32nd division, or Red Arrow Brigade as its men called it, were part of the 1944 invasion of the Philippines. The fighting with the Japanese on the many islands of this country was tough and deadly.

Company K, in which Sergeant Leroy Johnson served, landed on the eastern Philippine island of Leyte. As they fought their way inland they came to an area near the Filipino city of Limon.

The commanding officer of Company K was Johney B. Wax. Captain Wax, also a Louisianan, had been Johnson’s commanding officer for several months.

The brave act for which Leroy Johnson won the Congressional Medal of Honor is best described in the following two documents.

The first is the official Army citation of his heroism on December 15, 1944. The second is a

transcript of a personal letter written by Captain Wax to Sgt. Johnson’s parents shortly after the end of the war in 1945.

Official Citation: Congressional Medal of Honor

On 12/15, 1944 Sgt. Johnson was squad leader of a 9 man patrol sent to scout a ridge held by a well entrenched enemy force. Seeing an enemy machine gun position, he ordered his men to remain behind while he crawled within six yards of the gun. One of the enemy crew jumped up and prepared to man the weapon.

Quickly withdrawing, Sgt. Johnson rejoined his patrol and reported the situation to his commanding officer. Ordered to destroy the gun, which covered the approaches to several other enemy positions, he chose three men, armed them with hand grenades, and led them to a point near the objective.

After taking partial cover behind a log, the men had knocked out the gun and began an assault when hostile troops on the flank hurled several grenades. As he started for cover, Sgt. Johnson saw 2 unexploded grenades which had fallen near his men. Knowing that his comrades would be wounded or killed by the explosion, he deliberately threw himself on the grenades and received the full charge in his body. Fatally wounded by the blast, he died soon afterwards. Through his outstanding gallantry in sacrificing his life for his comrades, Sgt. Johnson provided a shining example of the highest traditions of the U.S. Army.

This following letter was sent to Johnson’s family by Captain Wax:

October 16, 1945

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Johnson,

Several times during the last few months I have received good news, but none made me any happier than when I picked up last Monday’s Times Picayune and learned that your son had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

He was a fine boy and every inch a soldier. I was closely associated with him for several months and always found him cooperative and helpful in every way. I witnessed the incident for which he received our country’s highest award. After receiving his fatal wound, he managed to get up, take about three staggering steps and reach about three of us who were rushing up the hilltop to help him. We lowered him rapidly down the hill and he died within a few minutes.

Nothing can bring back his life but I am sincerely glad that a grateful nation could in some way, even though small, show their appreciation for what he did. His name hand the sacrifice he made will always stand out in a Division that has been outstanding throughout this war.

Johney B. Wax, Captain

Formerly C.O. Company K

(Captain Wax later served as long time principal at Live Oak High School where he touched many lives through the same leadership, concern, and discipline he exhibited as a company commander. He was present at the dedication of the Oakdale plaque on February 13, 1965. After a full life of investing in young people and bringing out the best in others, Johney Wax died in 1991.)

Leroy Johnson was buried near Limon, Leyte, Philippines with full military honors. At a later date, his body was moved to the American Military Cemetery near Manila, the capital of the Philippines. He is buried in plot C-10-79 along with 17,206 other brave soldiers. Among this vast number of graves are the remains of six other Congressional Medal of Honor recipients.

In addition, the New Orleans army base was renamed in his honor and memory as Camp Leroy Johnson. Although the base later closed, a bronze portrait of Sgt. Johnson once displayed at the base can now be seen in the Allen Parish Courthouse in Oberlin.

Thinking about Leroy Johnson’s selfless act on that day sixty years ago, two questions come to mind:

First of all, when did he decide to fall on those hand grenades? Was it a split second decision where everything happened so quickly that all action was instinctive?

Then maybe Sgt. Leroy Johnson’s act of laying down his life to protect his three fellow soldiers was not spontaneous. Could it have been a decision, or better yet, a commitment, he’d made days, even weeks, maybe months ago of what he would do in a situation like this?

Maybe he had sat around a battlefield campfire one night - the men of his company eating cold C rations, covered with mud. At that moment, he decided that he would gladly lay down his life for any of these men.

Did he look around at these men gathered in a circle and think, “If I need to, I’m willing to die to save these men?”

Then my second question is maybe even more

thought-provoking: What causes a man to throw himself, knowing sudden certain death awaits, on a hand grenade? In Sgt. Johnson’s case, he outranked the three men with him on this patrol. Why was he, their leader, willing to die to save them?

My humble belief is that he did it because of love. Probably soldiers of Johnson’s group would have been embarrassed at that term - “I did it because I love you.”

But I go back to the words of the plaque in Oakdale. They are the words of Jesus, who also knew what He was talking about when discussing self-sacrifice:

“Greater love has no man than this- that he lay down his life for his friends.”

I can think of no better way to say it and I will not attempt to put it differently. Jesus’ words, as well as His actions, speak for themselves.

I guess one of the reasons I’ve always been fascinated by the story of Leroy Johnson is due to how his act in the Philippines is a reminder of what Jesus did on the cross for us.

Once again the leader, the “ranking soldier” in this unit saw that quick and decisive action was required. He did not appoint a lesser soldier to take action. He had been assigned this job by his commanding officer who watched from a short distance. He would finish this assignment - no matter what it took.

He freely, and willingly, took on the full brunt of the enemy’s device. No one made him do it. He did it completely on his own.

Jesus freely sacrificed His life. Although there is no need for it, He would gladly do it again to save your soul.

And a soul, the part of a human that lives on when this physical body dies and decays, is invaluable...and priceless… and worth whatever it takes.

A soldier’s story of sacrifice.

A soldier’s story to remember

with both gratitude and respect.