Our big surprise on The Glory Road

Nita Faye Jones in the early 50’s.

We were in the Arkansas piney woods near Narrows Dam, which had just been built to harness the Little Missouri and Ouachita Rivers, creating Lake Greeson.  There were all kinds of fish for Daddy and Leslie Ray, pimento cheese on white bread and longneck bottles of Pepsi for Mother and me.

Daddy had been trying to convince Mother to settle down in a small town where he would pastor a church and tend his flock, but it was her calling we followed for years, performing, traveling the Deep South, singing, packing up instruments, moving on and doing it all over again.

One morning on the way to Hot Springs, Daddy said we were only visiting the Singing today because Mother had a new song she’d written and by tonight we’d return to our new house.

A few months back we’d moved into the parsonage where in the vacant lot between the house and the church our lives changed.  A freshly planted garden grew alongside Leslie Ray’s rabbit pens and pigeon cages.  We had a chicken coop and a giant weeping willow tree with branches fluttering almost to the ground, creating a cozy space I claimed as a playhouse.

A few steps from these homey installations in no more than a minute we could be at church, then turn around and go the other way and walk to school.  Such convenience was previously unknown, and this was clearly how we were meant to live. Not in a car.

Our town was country all the way from the outer edge where a road led to a creek and back in the other direction to the cluster of buildings around Courthouse Square.  It was nothing like the bustle of Texarkana where we kept an apartment as headquarters while we traveled.

Soon it was apparent our settling down might have something to do with Mother’s changing wardrobe.  Instead of the slinky jersey dresses with the sweetheart necklines, she was sewing cotton tops with an abundance of fabric in the front.

Here’s what you don’t see in the picture up there – the real reason we stopped touring for a while.  We got us a baby who also seemed to enjoy life among the pines.

 

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Churning – Unusual Rebellion on The Glory Road

By the time my brother was 13, he was getting slippery about his comings and goings.  His moods were unpredictable and he was nearly impossible for our parents to deal with.  His new weapons were anger and silence.  I envied him all that barely-contained rage.

For a while, Leslie Ray used his paper route for freedom. If he was late for church, he said the papers arrived late. Sometimes  he skipped church altogether, a sin for a preacher’s boy, according to Daddy, and instead he went door to door collecting on his route.  Freedom from Sunday School lasted only until Daddy set up other collection times. I wanted to be just like Leslie, brave and bold. So far the best I’d come up with was moping.  When things went wrong, I was the sad one.  He was the mad one.

This is not the face of a happy boy.

 We were interpreters for each other.

“What’s your sister crying about now?”

“Nothing.  She just cries sometimes.”

Not eloquent, but given that he always knew exactly what I was sad about, it was his attempt to let me keep secrets too.

“Where’s your brother?”

“Don’t know,”

I was a fairly competent liar myself by then and getting better at it all the time. Saying “I don’t know,” when in fact I did know, was necessary to keep them from engaging in a line of questioning that might have exposed Leslie Ray’s present sanctuary.  I assumed part of his enjoyment was derived from keeping them guessing.

We never tattled on each other.  Exercising an instinct shared sometimes by children born close together, we helped each other avoid incrimination.  We were dedicated to maintaining the dividing line between Them and Us.

Leslie practiced brinksmanship, magically reappearing just before a situation required someone to go hunt for him.  His arrivals back home were cut so close, he entered the house a cartoon character accompanied by screeching, braking sound effects.  Contrary to Daddy’s suspicions, my brother was not, at the present time anyway, doing anything our parents would consider sinful, but his history of misdeeds kept them alert to all possibilities.  I wished just once without jeopardizing Leslie’s privacy, I could say,

“Go ahead, ask me that again.  Ask me  ‘Where’s your brother?’ so I could answer,

“Churning.”

Churning for Sister Coker.  That’s where he was at least once a week. Churning and listening to the radio in the Cokers’ kitchen and chatting with the family while maneuvering their old wooden churn paddle into a happy slap, glug, slap glug rhythm that turned milk from their cows into butter.  Which was a surprise at first because he was impatient, full of energy, never could sit still, and everyone knows churning takes time.  It’s repetitive.  I never lasted a whole churn’s worth, but Leslie could sit there all night swooshing that dasher around.

Spending time at the Cokers’ house was never forbidden.  They were among our most faithful church members, and their farm was one of the places we were welcome any time we could slip away. That’s why it was so odd and somehow more fascinating that Leslie Ray kept his time with them a secret.

Just down the road from our parsonage, on the way to the creek, was the Cokers’ place, where a humble farmhouse boasted a wide front porch that welcomed a steady flow of neighbors.

Sister Lastena Coker with our Baby

Sister Coker was sometimes a little absent-minded but she continued to absorb information even while seemingly in a trying-to-remember state so you didn’t want to underestimate her, because she could drop a cogent remark into a conversation when you least expected it.  You had to let yourself stay relaxed about whichever state you found her in.  She was always occupied with the farm and family and church and always offered the world a kind demeanor.  She said, about most any problem,

“Everything will work itself out directly.”

She repeatedly misplaced one or another of her favorite butter molds and when Leslie Ray showed up ready to churn, she first dispatched him to help her get everything rounded up again.

“Leslie Ray, climb up there and see if you can find that one that’s shaped like a rose. That was my mama’s favorite.  I want you to see it.  Be careful now.  Use that ladder.”

He was already on the counter, part monkey, part growing boy, and was feeling around at the very top of the cabinets where somebody, probably Sister Coker herself, kept stacking up the old, prized butter molds, and when the stack tumbled, some of them lodged in odd spaces. Leslie said,

“Here it is! It slipped down back there.  We better fix that shelf.  It’s pulling away from the wall. You got a hammer handy?”

She answered with another subject.

“Now what’d I do with that dasher?”

From his perch up on the counter, he performed a quick scan and spotted it.

“It’s over yonder. You probably took it out to clean it.”

He came back home to our parsonage carrying his handmade and quite artistic fresh butter, acting like the Cokers had made it and asked him to give it to their pastor.

Daddy was an appreciator of everything homemade and he thought Sister Coker was responsible for the recent abundance of beautiful butter on our table.  He called to Mother,

“Doll-Baby, c’mere and look at this butter Sister Coker made.  This one’s shaped like a rose.”

Leslie delivered butter to us every few days and we spread it on warm biscuits and didn’t even bother with preserves, the butter was that good. Not once did my brother reveal himself as the maker of this bounty.

When Daddy thanked Sister Coker for the butter, she said,

“Oh Leslie Ray’s such a big help,” and her statement rolled right on into that great ball of Southern church-speak where people say nice things they think someone else wants to hear, so Daddy thought Sister Coker was just complimenting him on his very trying son’s behavior.

Leslie’s secret would have been uncovered if Sister Coker had ever once said something more specific like “He’s so helpful with the churning,” or “So sweet the way he makes butter every week,” but the words never happened to fall that way into a conversation, so nobody was telling a lie.

While we lived in Murfreesboro, Arkansas, my brother spent as much time as he could with that family, helping them at butchering time, working in their garden whenever he wasn’t required to work in ours and finding something there that he needed, something more important than just being able to disappear now and then.  Leslie Ray needed to be in charge of something. The Cokers let him.

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Quadruplets on The Glory Road

By Anita GarnerThe Arkansas Ponder Quads

Settling in a small town after years of traveling with our family’s gospel show was something to celebrate.  Daddy was the new pastor in Murfreesboro, Arkansas, population 1075. When we arrived in 1952, he  cautioned my brother and me, saying the behavior of a preacher’s kids would be noticed. People were already talking about the way Mother sang (and looked) and the way Daddy preached, and how unusual our church services were.

Leslie Ray and I tried to disappear, which was impossible, especially since we were the only redheaded kids around and ours were unusual parents.  We hung around Courthouse Square where people stopped to get acquainted and after “How y’all doin’?” “How’s your Mama?” and “How’s your Daddy?” next came, “Where’d you two get that red hair?”

We were still standing out when what we wanted was to blend in. We hadn’t counted on being remarked about this soon and we didn’t like it, but Murfreesboro was on the brink of change and other diversions would soon be available.

Out town was about to get its own diamond mine. On a nearby farm, people discovered diamonds in the dirt and now the owners were selling tickets, turning it into an attraction. Anybody could go out there and search. You paid your fee and stayed all day. Of course we wanted to go, but Daddy said it wasn’t becoming for a preacher’s kids to be out there digging up dirt, looking for money. We said we would be looking for diamonds, not money, but he said it’s the same thing.

About a mile from our parsonage was the home of the Ponder family. On a day made famous in the newspapers and on television, the Ponders expanded by four when their quadruplets were born. Doctor Duncan delivered the babies where the Ponders lived with their eight children. Now their modest home would hold twelve children.The Ponder Quads’ first home.

The Quads were written up everywhere and a reporter from New York came to interview the family. When his story appeared, it said the Ponders didn’t have enough chairs to sit on, that they hadn’t had enough for their other children even before the quadruplets came.

Daddy read about it to my brother and me at the kitchen table. He laid down the newspaper and huffed,

“Well I never!  Somebody sayin’ a thing like that about poor people. We have got to go get that family everything they need.”

He said he’d speak to the county Ministerial Alliance and ask every congregation to contribute, but before he could get his efforts started, a new story came out saying now that the Ponders were instantly famous, businesses would provide everything they needed.

All the babies we knew drank canned milk mixed with water in their bottles until they graduated to soft foods. Dickey and Dewey and Danny and Donna Ponder were soon photographed with the famous Pet milk can with the cow on the label while the company built a new home for the family with a room in front featuring a wall to wall window for public viewing of the babies. Other companies gave the family everything from diapers to furniture.

The new Ponder home was near the road so cars could drive by, and a large parking space was alongside so we could get out and walk up to the window. If we were lucky, all four babies might be in their custom bassinets there.

The Ponder Quads did my brother and me a great big favor. While they were lying around being famous, we hoped to fade into the background. Instead of everybody talking about the new preacher’s redheaded kids, they could now drive down the road and look through a window at a bigger curiosity, four identical babies.

With the birth of the Quads, the whole nation was allowed to point and stare, without being considered unkind. Mister and Miz Ponder and Doctor Duncan went to New York to be on television. Those babies were all anybody talked about.

We’d finally achieved our dream of moving to a small town, one step closer to figuring out what normal might feel like. Now with the birth of four identical babies, Leslie Ray and Nita Faye Jones could slip and slide around and break some rules without always being the center of attention in Murfreesboro – new population 1079.

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A version of this story, excerpted from my book, The Glory Road, appeared in a recent issue of Reminisce Magazine

The Singing Cowboy on The Glory Road

Gene Autry & Champion, The Wonder Horse

                                                                ————

Daddy was a Pentecostal preacher in the Deep South with a list of sins as long as your arm he intended his children to avoid.  Too late. We were already sinners. We’d been to California.  We saw a picture show. Gramma K dropped us off at the Alex Theater in Glendale where we stayed for hours.  She knew Daddy preached against it, but she didn’t care. Now we were back home in Arkansas, dreaming of how the rest of the world might be as soon as we could get there. My brother, Leslie Ray, was at the point in our church where a person is meant to declare himself and get baptized. He had no intention of doing that. Here’s a scene from my book, The Glory Road, which also appears in the play.

– – – – – – – – – – –

Murfreesboro, Arkansas 1951
Population 1,075

Behind the parsonage, past the back yard and the weeping willow, our garden sprang forth, Reverend Jones’ agri-painting spread out in rows of different colors. Daddy’s years of living on farms taught him everything he needed to know about planting and tending and harvesting and he was determined we would also learn to grow and cook what we needed. This was the first time we’d had space for growing and we used every inch of it.

A chicken wire fence enclosed three sides, with climbing vines already moving up and a row of Marigolds around the base. He said Marigolds discourage unwanted pests. The fourth side, closest to the house, had a picket fence with a gate. Adjacent to the garden was a shed where Daddy kept tools safe and dry.

When he called us to come work in the garden, we raced to the back porch to put on our gardening shoes, which were last year’s school shoes. Daddy didn’t own casual shoes either. He gardened in his oldest hard-soled preacher shoes and pulled galoshes over them.  We went straight to the shed to pick our implements.

Daddy said,

“Nita Faye, that hoe’s too big for you.  Easy now.  Maybe we’ll give you this trowel instead.  Son, did you feed your rabbits?”

Even when the completion of an assigned chore was more a future plan than an actual fact, Leslie Ray answered the same way every time the question came up.

“Yessir, fed ’em.”

Daddy took the trowel from me and demonstrated.

“Don’t slice into things like that. Turn the dirt over real gentle. You gotta work with intention, girl, like this.”

He reached around and brought up a clump of tiny potatoes in one swoop.

He asked Leslie,

‘How about the chickens?”

“Fed ’em.”

“Son, tell me, what were you thinking, lettin’ those pigeons out on Sunday?”

“I wanted to see if they’d come home.  See if they’re homing pigeons.”

“You know where your pigeons went, don’t you?  They flew straight over the congregation just when people were leavin’ church.”

Daddy was trying not to laugh.

“The whole situation could-a been avoided if you’d-a been in Sunday School class where you belong.”

I said,

“He hates Sunday School.  Leslie Ray’s a heathen.”

Leslie said,

“Shut up Nita Faye.”

Daddy responded,

“Boy, I don’t want to hear ‘shut up’ come out of your mouth again.”

We weren’t allowed to yell at each other or hit each other, so we slung around some language to make a point. We called each other the strongest names we could think of, words that sometimes showed up in Daddy’s sermons, therefore I got away with ‘heathen’ for a while but Daddy kept tightening the rules.

“Son, you know what those pigeons did right on top of the congregation, don’t you?”

He burst out laughing and we joined in and had to stop digging, we were laughing so hard.

“You should-a seen Sister Anthony!  You better hope they come home a different way than they went!”

Daddy strode up and down the rows, a satisfied man plucking a weed, tapping a cantaloupe.

“Leslie Ray, bring in some-a them green onions.  That row over yonder’s about right. Nita Faye, you’re not doin’ so good with those potatoes. Here, dig ‘em up like this. Give ’em a little pull. Just a little. See?”

He got down on his knees again and unearthed more of the prettiest   potatoes. I copied his technique.

“Daddy, can we have new potatoes and creamed peas and cornbread for dinner?”

“We can if you don’t chop those poor little things all to pieces.”

He started to whistle, then hum, then he sang,

 I’m back in the saddle again
Out where a friend is a friend

I sang too.

Where the longhorn cattle feed
On the lowly jimson weed
I’m back in the saddle again.

Leslie taunted,

“That’s Nita Faye’s boyfriend’s song.  She loooooves Gene Autry.”

“Yes I do.  I’m gonna marry Gene Autry and sing on the radio with him and move to California and live right by Gramma K.”

Daddy said,

“Well now, Nita Faye, you can’t marry Gene Autry.”

Leslie added,

“Yeah because when you grow up he’ll be too old to marry you by then.”

Daddy kept collecting vegetables, putting them into the basket we used so the dirt could shake out before we took them into the kitchen.  He was  serious when he said,

“Naw – cause I’m not sure he’s right with the Lord.  Don’t matter if a man’s famous.  He’s not goin’ to heaven unless he gets down on his knees and gets saved first.”

“Uh huh!  I bet he’s saved!”

“Well he’s not usin’ his voice to sing the Lord’s music out in public like he ought to.  The Lord gives you a gift like that, you got to use it only for him.”

And just like that, after withering my dream of being Mrs. Autry, Daddy picked up the basket full of beautiful baby potatoes  and headed to the back steps, where he took off his galoshes and went whistling into the kitchen.

– – – – – – – – —

Here’s an old recording of my future husband singing
Back In The Saddle Again