A Wonderful Present

Vice Admiral Michelle Howard

I was thinking of a story my Aunt Alma told her country-school third and fourth graders back in the 1960s as I picked up the morning paper. My eyes fell on an announcement: the Navy had just promoted a sailor to deputy commander of U.S Fleet Forces in Norfolk, Virginia. The sailor is the first black woman to earn a three-star rank in the armed forces.

Vice Admiral Michelle Janine Howard has a record of setting milestones. She was the first black woman to command a Navy warship, and the first to command an expeditionary strike group at sea. She is the first female graduate of the Naval Academy to achieve the rank of rear admiral.

How far we have come from the pre-civil war days and Aunt Alma’s tale of her great-grandmother Mary Pyle Redfield, who was born in Kentucky in 1819 and then moved to Illinois with her parents.

Slavery was a hotly-debated issue in Illinois at that time. Some of the wealthier people in the state owned slaves. Other people were strongly against slavery and fought for abolition.

One day little Mary was allowed to go play with another little neighbor girl. That child’s family owned slaves. One of them, a young woman, had a baby. Her mistress thought she spent entirely too much time with the child. The neighbor woman saw how fascinated Mary was with the tiny black baby, the first she had ever seen, so she gave her the baby. She explained to Mary how she could play with her while she was small and when she grew up, she could do all her work.

Mary hurried home with her wonderful present, as happy as any child who carries home a darling puppy or kitten.

Great-great-grandmother wasn’t happy at all. She happened to be one of those who felt slavery was a wicked and selfish thing. Back went the baby, the playmate and the future slave. Mary was a sadder but wiser little girl.

The Visitors

In the fields where their cattle now graze, North Dakota relatives still find circles of rock that mark where Native Americans pitched their tepees and smaller circles of blackened stones where their campfires once blazed. The Indians that left them are long gone, but when Grandpa Tom and Grandma Ethel came to their homestead near Williston in the early 1900s, some First Americans still lived on the prairie. The buffalo herds that had sustained them were dead. They scratched out an existence any way they could.
Thomas and Ethel’s third child, my Aunt Alma, told this story: “One Sunday morning when my parents were having breakfast on the homestead, the door opened and in walked three Indians. The leader, seeing my sister and brother, went to their crib and gravely shook hands with them. Then, turning to my father, he asked, “Your papoose?” When my father assured him they were, he said, “Heap fine papoose.”

Then he came to the purpose of his visit. My uncle had shot and skinned a bobcat, then thrown the carcass out back of the barn. The visitors wanted it. My father gave them permission to take it but asked, “What do you want with that thing, anyway?”

“Him eat! Good!” said the old Indian. And as quietly as they had come, they left, taking the carcass with them.”

Grandma and the Prairie Fire

A steam-powered threshing machine at work on the prairie

My father’s sister, Alma, told this story, one her mother often repeated to her. Alma was third in a family of seven siblings. In the early 1900s, her parents, Thomas and Ethel Rawlins, migrated from Illinois to North Dakota. Traveling by train with their livestock and meager household goods to the broad, rolling grasslands near Williston, they staked a claim to a homestead.

Thomas purchased one of the new-fangled threshing machines on credit. The salesman had persuaded him that he could make good money by hiring out his machine and labor to neighboring homesteaders. But that meant he had to stay away from home during harvest time, leaving Ethel alone with two small children on the vast, empty prairie.

One day in late fall, Ethel spied smoke rising from beyond the horizon. It was a prairie fire, dreaded by all homesteaders! Their two-room tar-paper shack could never survive the flames. There was no place to go, no way to get help. As the column of smoke grew bigger and closer, her eyes fell on the square of bare dirt left when she and Thomas had moved the barn to a new location just weeks ago. It was her only hope. She hauled buckets of water from the well, filled containers, and with the help of four-year-old Freddie, lugged them to the square of dirt. She piled the quilts from the beds next to the water, thinking she would soak them and wrap herself and the children in them for protection from the flames. Then she snatched baby Amy from her cradle, ready to take her and Freddie to the only place of possible safety. Oh, and the cow! She had to try to save the cow, too.

As Ethel hurried outside with the children, she glanced again at the oncoming smoke. Was that a horse and rider, racing ahead of the fire? Yes. It was Thomas! Seeing the fire, he’d borrowed a horse and come to save his family.

Telling Freddie to stay with his baby sister, Ethel ran to help. Neighbors appeared. Everyone was so busy fighting the fire, no one noticed the sky until snow began to fall, heavy, wet flakes that filled the air. The flames sputtered and died down. In a matter of minutes the prairie fire flickered out. Ethel later told her daughter, my aunt Alma, that this was the only time in her life she’d loved a snow.

Cowpies and Firecrackers

    Fireworks made cheap and abundant entertainment for husband Hank when he was a boy, shortly after the close of World War II when wartime prohibitions ended.

    Here’s one of his stories:

    “Cousin John and I would ride our bikes to the nearest fireworks stand and compete to see who could buy the most fireworks for five dollars. That usually meant large packages of medium-sized firecrackers. Then we’d cooperate in finding different and interesting ways to enjoy our purchases.

    “We liked to place an empty two pound coffee can upside down over a firecracker with the fuse sticking out. We’d light the fuse with a punk and when the firecracker exploded, we watched the can fly eight to ten feet into the air. With each explosion, the bottom of the can pushed out a little more, until the can was rounded on the bottom like a bowl.

    “John, Aunt Myra, Uncle Bing, and cousins Jean and Judy lived in a little house on Grandpa Husby’s place. Grandpa had about two acres of pasture for his cows. July brought plenty of fresh grass, and with all that fresh grass for feed, the cows produced an abundance of cow pies.

    “So John and I thought, why not put a firecracker in a fresh cow pie, light it and run? We’d be far away when the cow pie exploded. This worked fine. We whooped and laughed at the mayhem we were creating.

    “John had just lit one more firecracker and turned to run when a charley horse seized him. He grabbed his leg and yowled. Fortunately, his back was to the cow pie. Ka-blam! The firecracker exploded. The cow pie splattered all over John. I bent double, laughing.

    “As John limped up to their house with me as moral support, Aunt Myra met us at the back door and handed out a fresh set of clothes to her son. She said, “You’re not coming in here until you clean up.” She pointed to the outside water hose.

    “I helped by hosing his back. When John was clean as possible under the circumstances, he changed his clothes in the outhouse, which was attached to the back porch.

    “John and I found something else to do for the rest of the afternoon.”

Keep Your Eyes on the Master

Keeping his eye on his master’s face

  One fun thing about being out and about is observing  the “slices of life” that happen all around. We wandered along an Oregon beach a few weeks ago, watching the waves roll onto the shore and also watching other people enjoy the sand, the breeze, and the water. Suddenly a long-legged Black Lab galumphed past us, frolicking like a pup but looking back over his shoulder all the time, keeping his eye on the young man with a camera who trotted along behind him. The young man called to the dog, telling him to sit. He posed the dog looking out to sea, then moved away a few feet and squatted to snap the picture. The obedient dog  stayed sitting, but he squirmed in place until he faced his master. I snapped a picture of photographer and subject, and the young man laughed. “I take more pictures of him than anything else,” he said. “And in every one, he’s looking at me.”

    I thought of Sharon, the Irish Setter who was a loving part of our family for fourteen years. We got her when she was a pup and we thought she’d never grow up. Irish Setters are known as the clowns of Dogdom and Sharon was no exception. She was a beauty, and she loved to run. She had the setter characteristic of following her nose, literally. Muzzle to the ground, she’d zigzag across any open space and through the Alaskan woods, in hot pursuit of the scents she’d discovered.

   When we moved to Anchorage, we lived in a house that backed up to a huge storage yard full of lined-up road equipment. Since it was fenced all around the perimeter, we’d let her off leash to run to her heart’s delight. She’d race off to the far end of the yard, then turn to be sure we were still there. When she decided to run around the end of the row, my daughter and I stepped back between two big machines and waited to see what would happen. Moments later we heard her pounding toward us and peeked around the tires. Sharon skidded to a stop at the spot she’d last seen us, stood up on her hind legs and frantically looked around for us. When she spotted us, she dropped to all fours and trotted away as nonchalantly as possible under the circumstances. But after that, she made sure to keep us in view.

    We, too, have a Master who knows how prone we are to trouble if we don’t keep our eyes on him. His words to us:
     When you said, “Seek my face,” my heart said to You, “Your face, O LORD, I shall seek.” Psalm 27:8 (NSB)
    Psalm 25:15 My eyes are continually toward the Lord, For he will pluck my feet out of the net.   

Sharon the Irish Setter guarding the back yard

Keeping watch for their master