Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
Jackie took a drag on her cigarette and coughed. She looked at Mark and asked, "Do you have any idea where we are?"
"Beats the hell out of me," Mark said. "There was nothing on the map, unless we’re way the hell away from where I think we are. I kind of think Perry is more to the east than it is to the north of us, but it doesn’t help much. We got ourselves turned around pretty good while we were looking for a way around that thunderstorm."
Mark looked in the cockpit and pulled out the map. Jackie looked over his shoulder as they analyzed where they were. As Mark had said, there was nothing showing on the map at all, but here they were, on an airstrip the map didn’t show. As they landed, they had seen a town a mile or more off in the distance and a few houses near the airstrip, but neither the town nor the airstrip showed on the map.
All of a sudden, Jackie tried to suppress a giggle. "What’s so funny?" Mark asked.
"You ever see The Wizard of Oz, maybe on TV?"
Mark smiled. "You mean, ‘Toto, somehow I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore?’"
"Yeah," she smiled. "There’s a path out behind the T-hangar that I think leads to a road."
"I don’t think it’ll be paved with yellow brick," Mark smiled. "We may not be in Kansas anymore, but we darn sure are still in north Florida. Somewhere in north Florida, that is. I suppose we’d better find your yellow brick road, find someone who can tell us where we are, and find a telephone."
"What do we need a telephone for?" Jackie asked.
"So we can call my dad and have him get some of the leftover fabric and dope in the mail to us."
Jackie looked a little alarmed. "Is there any reason we have to tell him what really happened? If Dad and Sarah find out, they might get all upset again."
Before they set out, they decided to get out of the storm-soaked clothes they had on and put on some dry clothes. They changed out in the open, each under one of Rocinante’s damaged wings, then set out on their way.
Mark was a little relieved to find the road in front of the airstrip wasn’t yellow brick, but sandy dirt, much like the ones around their Spearfish Lake home. "Which way did you think those houses were?" Jackie asked when they got to the road.
"To the right, I think," Mark said, and they set off walking.
To step out on the road was to feel the eternity of the forests surrounding them; for as far as the eye could see from above, they had seen forest, swamp, and a few shapeless scattered clearings. Longleaf and loblolly pines rose jaggedly at intervals alongside them, and there was a faint smell of pine resin mixed with the faint smell of the salt sea of the gulf. It was a very quiet woods; they could hear the whisper of the remaining breeze through the pine needles as they walked soundlessly up the road, already drying from the fallen rain.
They did not go very far before they began to see signs of the tornado’s passage. Here and there a tree was down, or ripped off halfway up, but as they walked along, somehow, none of the trees had fallen across the road. They turned a slight corner, right in the center of the path the tornado had taken, and came to what had been a little clearing in the woods. At the foot of the clearing, they could see a river beyond; wide and still, it rolled away in marshy grasses and occasional cypress trees with their wide, grotesque stumps; little patches of Spanish moss still hung from some of them, despite the violence of the storm.
At the edge of the clearing stood what the tornado had left of a white-painted building, now surrounded by debris the storm had left behind. The roof was gone, and a handful of black people stood silently in front of the building, just looking at it.
Mark and Jackie walked closer to the little group. "Anybody hurt?" Mark asked.
Most of the group looked up, surprised to see Mark and Jackie approach. "Naa, thank the Lord," a big, burly man said in a thick accent, almost incomprehensible to Mark’s and Jackie’s northern ears. "Lord created, and the Lord destroyed, and blessed be the name of the Lord. Ethylene and me was sweepin’ the church out, gettin’ it cleaned up for the prayer meetin’ tonight, and the Devil’s Wind come and the roof come up off the top of our heads."
"This was your church?" Jackie asked.
The man nodded. "With the Lord’s help, we’ll rebuild it," the man said.
"Cain’t believe the roof just disappeared," a boy said. Mark and Jackie looked around. In addition to the man, there were three women and the boy, about ten. "I think your roof is sitting back up in the middle of the airstrip," Jackie said. "What’s left of it."
"You come up from the airstrip?" the boy said. "I thought I heered a plane land jest before the storm hit, and didn’t think Mr. Cowgill was a-goin’ to have any quail hunters this time of year."
"We were kind of surrounded by the storm," Mark told the boy. "We saw the airstrip and we landed. We’re not even sure where we are."
"This is Twillingate," the man said. "Just the edge of it. The rest of the town’s over yonder."
"Do you know if there’s any place around where we can made a phone call?" Mark asked.
"Phone line’s down out here," the man said, "But maybe Mr. Thibodaux can get through from the phone company."
"How do we find the phone company?" Mark asked.
"I can show them, Brother Erasmus," the boy said.
"All right, E.J.," the man, who had to be Brother Erasmus, said. "You take them to Mr. Thibodaux’ place, but don’t you be beggin’ no dime for no bottle of Dr. Pepper, then stoppin’ in the juke joint."
"Aw, I won’t," the boy said.
E.J. led Mark and Jackie farther down the sandy road. "You’uns really fly in here?" he asked, as soon as they got out of sight of the shattered church.
"Right in front of the storm," Mark told him.
"What’s your names?" he asked.
Mark introduced himself. "This is Jackie," he added.
"Mist’ Mark, what’s you last names?" he asked. "Brother Erasmus’d cane me if he heard me call grownups by they first names, ’specially if they is white grownups."
Mark smiled. They might as well be in Oz, after all. It was a lot different than Spearfish Lake. "You can call me Mr. Gravengood," he said. "This is Miss Archer, but you can call us Mister Mark and Miss Jackie if you think you have to. What’s your last name, E.J.?"
"I’s E.J. Seasprunk. The E and the J don’t stand for nothin’. You really have you own plane?"
"We rebuilt it this last winter, way up north, where it gets real cold," Mark told him.
"You take me for a ride?"
"Can’t right now," Mark told him. "The tornado put a couple of holes in the wings, and we’ve got to get it fixed, first."
"Can I hep you fix it?" the boy asked. "All the time I look up and see planes flyin’ over; I wonder what it’s like to look down and see Twillingate."
"We might just be able to arrange that," Mark said.
The town of Twillingate didn’t prove to be very much. There were several houses, all of them pretty well scattered, so no telling population, but it didn’t appear there were very many. It turned out they were walking along the main road into town; the other streets were unpaved sand, just like the road itself. At the edge of town, there was an unpainted, dilapidated building, rather tumbledown; from inside, at earsplitting volume, came the familiar voice of James Brown. "That’s the juke joint," E.J. told them. "Brother Erasmus would skin me alive if’n I went in there."
On past the juke joint were more houses, scattered and set back from the road. Some were as unpainted and dilapidated as the juke joint; some didn’t even have glass windows, just screens and shutters, with chickens scratching around old junk cars left to molder in the yards. Others were a little nicer; they had paint, and the yards were cleaner, but nowhere was there anything that would qualify as a lawn – just sandy, weedy soil. Here and there, a small garden struggled to grow.
The "downtown" proved to be only five stores, the biggest of which was a wooden, two-story general store, set up several feet off the ground on pilings, as were most of the buildings in Twillingate. In front of the general store was a gas pump – the old-fashioned kind, hand pumped, with a glass top. The user pumped the gas up into the glass top of the pump, to measure it by marks set into the glass, and then let it drain by gravity into the gas tank. Mark had only seen one of them in his life before; there was an abandoned store in Hoselton, east of Spearfish Lake, with one setting in front of it – but apparently, this one was in regular use. There was what appeared to be a dry-goods store, another unpainted garage-appearing building that also had a hand-powered gas pump, then a building that appeared to be a small market, and another building that had a sign on it: Post Office, Twillingate, Florida. The few signs on the building fronts didn’t give much indication of what went on in them.
E.J. led them right through the middle of the "downtown" section, to yet another of the houses set on pilings. This one was a little bigger than the rest, and there was a small handwritten sign on the door: "Twillingate Telephone." E.J. led them right inside through the screen door, without knocking. "Missus Thibodaux, you heah?" he called.
An immensely fat dark-haired woman stepped out from the next room. "Oh, it’s you, E.J.," she said. "Land, you scared me."
"This is Mist’ Mark and Miss Jackie," E.J. told her. "They needta be makin’ a phone call. They landed they plane upta’ the airstrip jest afore the Devil’s Wind come through."
"You folks all right?" the woman asked, in an accent hardly less thick than that of Brother Erasmus or E.J.
"We’re OK," Mark said. "The tornado came closer to us than I like to think about, but we’re all right."
The woman shook her head. "We didn’t even think that they’d be anyone up to the airstrip. You’d be needin’ to call out of Twillingate, I ’spect?"
"Yeah," Mark said, and explained how Rocinante had taken a couple of hits from flying debris, and how he wanted to call home for repair materials.
"Well, come on back," Mrs. Thibodaux said. "I don’t know if Paul has got the line to Perry fixed yet, but we can try and see. E.J., you best be gettin’ on back or Brother Erasmus is goin’ to be wonderin’ wheah you are."
"’Spect so," E.J. replied. "Mist’ Mark, Miss Jackie, doan forget, I want to hep you fix you plane so’s you can take me for a ride."
Mark smiled, reached into his pocket, and pulled out a dime. "Thanks, E.J.," he said. "We won’t forget. Why don’t you stop at the store and get yourself a Dr. Pepper, but don’t you go into that juke joint, now."
The boy beamed. "Why, thank you, Mist’ Mark," he said, and turned to leave.
Mark and Jackie followed Mrs. Thibodaux into the back room, and instantly Mark’s jaw dropped. In front of him was an old-fashioned switchboard, with plugs and sockets. The Army used similar systems for its field phones, and Mark had worked on them, but he hadn’t known there were any left in civilian use. He could remember the one in Spearfish Lake when he was a small child, before the dial phones had been installed, years before.
Mrs. Thibodaux picked up a headset and put it over her ears, then gave a crank on the switchboard a twirl. "Still dead," she said. "We’ve only got but the one line to Perry, and Paul went out to see if he could fix it. All the lines out to the north are down, but we can still call around town."
Mark moved closer, to get a look at the switchboard. It was older than the ones he had worked on in the Army, and had "Rhinelander" in script on a metal plate fastened to the top of it. It had to be at least fifty years old. "How many lines have you got?" he asked.
"Twenty-four lines, two hundred eighty-three phones," Mrs. Thibodaux said. "’Bout half the lines got took down by the storm, but I called around on the ones that was left and found out that no one was hurt, thank the Lord," she went on. "The old teppentine camp was beat up pretty bad, but there ain’t been nobody livin’ there for years. Brother Erasmus’ church had the roof taken off, but since you came in from the airstrip I ’spect you know that. Your plane hurt bad?"
"Just a couple small holes in the fabric, but nothing we can’t fix once I get the stuff from home," Mark said. "Do you suppose it’d be all right if we camped up at the airstrip for a few days, till we can get the plane fixed?"
"Don’t suppose Mr. Cowgill’d mind," Mrs. Thibodaux replied. "I’d give him a call and ask, but the line’s down to the plantation, too." Just then, a battered old pickup truck pulled up outside. "Here’s Paul now," she said. "If he’s back, then there’s more trouble with the lines than he can manage by himself."
Paul proved to be a tall, thin man, taller and thinner than Mark; He was in his fifties, perhaps; it was hard to tell, from all the lines in his face. "Got a couple hundred yards of line down out by the teppentine camp, Bessie," he reported in an accent that was more understandable than Mrs. Thibodaux, although it carried a strange lilt to it that Mark couldn’t place. "Busted lines all over the place, and it’s more than I can do by myself. Guess I’ll have to drive into Perry and see if I can get one of them young fellas from Southern Bell to come help me out, and it could take a couple of days to get one of them down here."
"What’s the problem?" Mark asked. "Getting the lines spliced and back up?"
"That, and running continuity checks, and just sorting everything else out," the man replied.
"Let’s go do it," Mark said. "I want to make a phone call."
"You know anything about splicing lines and climbing poles, young fella?"
"Spent four years working on Army systems," Mark told him. "A year and a half of it was working on field phones, and they’re not much different from what you’ve got here. By the way, I’m Mark Gravengood, and this is Jackie Archer."
The man stuck out his hand. "Paul Thibodaux," he said, "Guess you’ve already met my wife, Bessie, here. I’m sure pleased to meet you, ’specially if you know telephones."
"They was flying past," Bessie said, "and landed out to the airstrip, and their plane got hurt in the storm."
"Thought I heard a plane, just before the storm hit," Paul replied. "If you don’t mind, I’d be glad of your help. It’d sure save time."
Mark and Jackie and Mr. Thibodaux squeezed into the front seat of the pickup truck. It was a tight squeeze; there were tools on the seat, and other tools on the floor. "I was a little surprised to see a crank system here," Mark said.
"They’s not but half a dozen or so left in the country anymore," Mr. Thibodaux said as they drove back up the road toward Brother Erasmus’ church and the airstrip. "And I hope we’re not going to have this one in another year or so. Mr. Cowgill has been helping me with a bank up in Tallahassee, and maybe by next winter we’ll be converting to dial."
"Who’s this Mr. Cowgill?" Jackie asked.
"Mr. Cowgill owns the plantation, and most everything else around here," Thibodaux explained. "He’s the one whose airstrip you landed on. In the winter, they’s Yankees that fly in to hunt quail on the plantation. They pay a couple hundred dollars a day just for room and board and quail hunting."
"Seems like a heck of a lot of money, just for hunting," Jackie said.
"’S’pose so," Thibodaux said. "But Mr. Cowgill’s like everybody else around these parts, he’s got to make it where he can."
"What do people do around here?" Jackie asked.
"Oh, this and that. Lot of ’em work out to the plantation. Mr. Cowgill’s got a little corn out there, and some shade ’bacca. He’s still got a few people slashin’ for teppentine, though not as many as they used to be. Teppentine’s hard work, don’t pay much, and even the black folk don’t want to do it if they can find something else to do, and I don’t blame them. Mr. Cowgill’s got the sawmill, and cuts a lot of lumber, and people work for him doin’ that. A few people fish mullet and gather moss and try to get by the best they can."
They drove by the shattered little white church, still roofless. A few more people were around now, looking at the mess the tornado had made of the church. A little two-rut track led off to one side; Mark and Jackie had missed it earlier. They saw E.J. had made it back to the church.
Thibodaux stopped the truck by the crowd of black people. "Sure is a mess, ain’t it, Brother Erasmus?" he said.
"The Lord’s will," the black man said. "Guess he’s tryin’ to teach us to have faith in spite of everything."
"Got to get the phone lines fixed," Thibodaux said. "Then I’ll come back and do what I can to help."
"Sure would ’preciate it, Mr. Thibodaux," the big black man said. "Lord take care of you, now."
Thibodaux drove on down the road. "Guess he’s a little shell-shocked," he said. "Brother Erasmus’ll talk your ear off normally, give him half a chance, but he’s been good people to have around. Shows you that it ain’t true that nothin’ good never came from a teppentine camp."
"What’s this ‘teppentine’ I keep hearing about?" Jackie asked.
"Teppentine is the sap they get from the trees. They boil it out, and it’s used to clean brushes, and like that," Thibodaux explained.
"Oh, turpentine," Jackie said. "The word kept getting lost in the accent. I know about turpentine. We’re from woods country ourselves."
They drove for a mile or more down the two-rut, and came to the place where the tornado’s path had crossed the trail and the telephone line. It was a mess. Trees were down all over the place, covering phone wires. By some miracle, only one phone pole was down, but the old-fashioned multi-wire party lines were a total snare of wire. Some wires were broken, and others not. "Thought maybe we could take that busted pole and wire it up to that busted-off loblolly snag," Thibodaux said. "We can run some new wire, but I don’t have enough to replace all what’s laying under that timber, so we’ll have to salvage some."
Mark counted a dozen wires buried under the tornado’s litter. "It’d be better if we could put in a new pole," he said.
"Don’t got any new poles, right now," Thibodaux said. "I don’t want to put a lot into fixing up this old system, anyway. It just wants to be good enough to last a year or so. We’ll salvage some of the old wiring for the dial system, but this part is all junk, anyway. I can sling a new pole in there when we get ready to put the new system in."
"Well, you’re the one who knows what you want," Mark said, shaking his head.
It was well they had several hours of daylight left, for they used most of it to patch up the multiple breaks in the system. Mark and Mr. Thibodaux unfastened the wires from the crossbucks of the broken pole, then the three of them used a come-along to drag the pole a few feet over to where a broken-off pine tree stood. With a block and tackle, they winched the pole upright next to the pine stump and wired the pole to what was left of the tree with some of the pieces of telephone wire that lay around.
From there on, it was mostly wiring and splicing. The work wasn’t difficult, but it required several sets of hands, and having Jackie there to help pull and tug on things, or carry stuff, was helpful. One by one, they spliced in lengths of wire at the next pole and cut the old length free. Then, they ran the wire down past the new pole to the next good pole, climbed up, and with the help of the block and tackle, pulled the wire as tight as they could before they spliced it into place there. Then, they went back up to the pole in the middle and lifted the wire up to the crossbucks and fastened it to the insulator, and after calling Bessie at the switchboard to check the circuit, it was on to the next wire.
After a while, the spool of new wire in Thibodaux’s truck began to run low, and they had to resort to salvaging some of the downed wire, splicing it together in short lengths. The day was winding down before they had all of the circuits back up and running. "Sure glad you happened along," Thibodaux told Mark and Jackie as the three of them got back into the old pickup. "When I need help with the system that’s more than just carrying things, I have to get one of the guys from Southern Bell over in Perry to come over on his time off to help out, and sometimes they can’t get here right away."
"It’s no big deal," Mark told him. "I’m a phone man, anyway." He explained how his father had worked for the Spearfish Lake phone company for years, and how he expected to be working there in another year, too. "It’s just a little locally owned company," Mark explained. "A little bigger than yours, but then the town is bigger, too."
"Kinda thought so," Thibodaux said. "Phone people tend to stick together when things get tough. I ’spect Bessie will have called people out on each of those circuits to see if everyone’s all right, but we’d better drive back to see. I want to stop off at Brother Erasmus’ church and see if there’s anything we can do to help them out. But after we’re done with that, maybe you folks would like to come have dinner with Bessie and me after you make your call."
"Thanks," Mark said. "We’d appreciate it."
It was along in the evening, now, though the sun was still up. As they came back out into the clearing where the church was, they found Brother Erasmus, Ethylene, and E.J. busy with a few other people, carrying hymnals and other things from the church into a little shack out at the edge of the clearing. "Anything we can do to help?" Thibodaux asked Brother Erasmus.
"Not much now, Mr. Thibodaux," the big black man said. "We took most of the things out of the church a’ready, things that would get hurt if’n they get wet. We goin’ to have to get some lumber to rebuild the roof, but the Lord will provide, somehow."
"The old teppentine camp is pretty much a mess," Thibodaux told him. "But I’ll wager they’s some boards there that could be salvaged. I’d want to ask Mr. Cowgill first, but I’ll wager he’d tell you to take anything you can use. Phone line’s back working out to the plantation, so you could give him a call."
"Shore will give him a call, ’fore dark," Brother Erasmus told them.
"If he says it’s all right, I’ll come out tomorrow and help you haul in some of the boards," Thibodaux promised.
Brother Erasmus nodded his head. "Shore would ’preciate it," he said.
"Your old roof is up at the airstrip, I think," Mark reminded Brother Erasmus. "At least, I think it’s your roof. It’s busted up a bit, but there might be something there you could use, too."
They rode back up the road into Twillingate. "He’s been a good man," Thibodaux said. "None finer. I’d hate to see him have to leave over something like this. He’s poor like any preacher, but we’re all poor, here. Still, he’d give you the shirt off his back if you needed it. That E.J. of his, his daddy run off before he was born, and his momma run off not long after that, and Brother Erasmus has been raising him, since they ain’t no one else." He shook his head as they drove into the edge of town. "Sure makes you wonder what the Lord’s thinking about, sometimes," he said. "Wreck the church of a good man like Brother Erasmus, and leave the juke joint standing."
The truck squealed to a stop in front of the phone company, which they had learned was also Thibodaux’ house. Inside, Thibodaux asked his wife, "Line to Perry working?"
"It’s got some static on it," Bessie said. "I called the sheriff and told him that they didn’t seem to be anybody hurt out here."
"Don’t guess much got hurt ’cept Brother Erasmus’ church, the old teppentine camp and the airstrip," Thibodaux said. "These two was a big help. You want to get the operator in Perry on the line? Guess we can stand them a phone call and supper for they help."
It took Bessie longer to get the operator in Perry on the line than it took that operator to make a long distance call to Mark’s home in Spearfish Lake. "Didn’t expect to hear from you again quite so soon," Mark’s father said. "Walt and Sarah were over last night, and they brought the pictures you and Jackie sent them from Everglades City. Too bad you didn’t get a picture of the rocket going up."
"We were pretty far away," Mark said, thinking it seemed such a long time ago they had watched the Apollo 15 Saturn lift off into the air. Twillingate had to be another world entirely. "We had to watch it through binoculars and the telescope, and we just never thought to get a picture, but it wouldn’t have shown much."
"Sure would like to see one some time," his father said.
"Well, Dad, that’s not the reason I called," Mark said. "We had a little trouble with the plane. Just a hangar-rash kind of thing while it was tied down, but I’ve got a couple holes in the fabric. I know I’ve got some dope and stuff sitting down under the workbench, and I’d like you to air mail some of it to us so I can fix it."
"I can do that. What do you need?"
"I’ll need about a square yard of Ceconite, but it doesn’t have to be that big," Mark said. "A minimum of three or four pieces at least a foot square would work just as well. I figure I’ll need a quart of clear dope, maybe a pint of silver dope, and maybe a half pint or a pint of the white enamel. There’s a quart can of the enamel that’s less than half full, and it would do fine.
"Better let me get a piece of paper and write all this down," his father said.
In a minute, Mark went back over the list slowly, as his father took it down.
"Anything else?" his dad asked finally.
"Maybe you could throw in two or three cheap brushes. There were some lying on the workbench, if you didn’t clean it up," Mark told him. "Oh, and my pinking shears were down there too, if you could throw them in. Ship all that stuff the fastest way you can, and I’ll see you get paid for the postage."
"Don’t worry about the postage, son," Mark’s father said. "That’s only going to be a few bucks. Where do I send it?"
"Send it to us, General Delivery, Twillingate, Florida. I don’t know the zip code, just a second." Mark asked Bessie for the zip code; she told them, and he passed it along to his father.
"I’ll have it in the mail first thing in the morning," Mark’s father promised. "How’s your trip been since Everglades City?"
"Pretty good," Mark said. "We’ve been to Disney World, and Daytona Beach, and St. Augustine, and it’s been pretty interesting. I’ll have to sit down and tell you all about it some time."
"Well, it’s good to hear from you, son. You take care of yourself, and be careful."
"Will do, Dad. We’ll be seeing you."
Mark nodded at Bessie, who broke the connection. "That’s a relief," Mark said. "This is what? Tuesday? Wednesday?"
"Tuesday," Thibodaux said.
Mark counted on his fingers. "Yeah, it would have to be," he said. "We went to church in St. Augustine two days ago, so this would have to be Tuesday. That stuff might be here by Saturday, first of the week at the latest. Then, it’ll only take a couple of days, and we’ll be able to go."
"I called Mr. Cowgill for you," Bessie said. "I told him about you landing at the airport, and your plane being damaged, and you wanting to camp there, and he said he guessed it didn’t matter if you did, seeing as how you didn’t have much choice."
"Thanks, Mrs. Thibodaux," Mark said. "I appreciate it."
Over dinner, they learned more about Twillingate, and about Paul and Bessie Thibodaux, as well. The dinner was corn bread and fresh fish – mullet that one of the local fishermen had netted out of the gulf that morning, and while it wasn’t exactly lake trout, it was good eating. It was the first dinner they’d had in a home since they’d left Spearfish Lake, and it turned out they had missed it a little. Besides, the Thibodauxes were easy people to get to know.
It turned out Paul Thibodaux really wasn’t a Twillingate native; he was a Louisiana Cajun, and had met Bessie when he had been stationed at Eglin Field during the war. Bessie’s father had started the Twillingate phone company thirty years earlier, but he had taken ill shortly before Paul got out of the service. They had returned to Twillingate to nurse him and keep the phone company going, and had just never left. "We ain’t gotten rich at it," he said. "But we’ve had a decent living, raised our children, and put them through college. We like the place. Most everybody here is poor as church mice, but most of them are good people."
While they talked, Mark and Jackie told them the story of how they came to be flying over Twillingate, how they had landed in front of the storm, and the terror of the tornado. "One thing I’m curious about," Jackie asked, "Is why there should be a barbecue pit out at the airstrip. Not that I’m complaining, because we’re both darn glad it was there, but just wondering why it’s there."
"Mr. Cowgill built it back before they cleared the airstrip, and they just never took it down," Paul said. "We used to have a hog roast out there every fall, back fifteen, twenty years ago, but after the airport was in, we just quit having them. Don’t suppose it’s been used in years."
They sat around the supper table talking until it was almost dark. "Guess we’d better get going," Mark said. "We want to get our tent set up before it gets too dark to see."
Thibodaux offered to drive them out to the airstrip, but they declined. "That was such a good meal, we need the exercise to walk it off," Jackie said.
"Well, don’t be strangers while you’re here," Bessie said.
Mark and Jackie set off walking back toward the airstrip. They walked silently at first, through what passed for downtown Twillingate, past the juke joint, where James Brown was still blasting through the failing light, and on up the sandy road through the scrub pine. "I’ve been in poor towns," Mark said. "I’ve been in places in Vietnam worse than this. I didn’t really expect to find people as nice as they are, but I guess there are good people wherever you go."
"I don’t know of any place around home anywhere near as bad as here," Jackie agreed. "I mean, you think of, say, Hoselton, but it’s a paradise compared to this. But you’re right, there seem to be good people here."
"You hear something?" Mark asked.
"Yeah," Jackie said. "Sounds like singing."
The sound was up ahead of them. As they got closer, it proved to be singing, indeed. They were not surprised to come out of the woods in front of what was left of Brother Erasmus’ church, to see thirty or forty black people standing in the yard in front of the church, holding a hymn sing.
They were both impressed. In their limited church careers, they had both attended churches that could turn the liveliest hymn into a dirge. The Baptist Church they had attended in St. Augustine the previous Sunday had been the same way. Since they had no nice clothes and had been dressed in shirts and jeans, all they had with them, they felt their reception had been rather cold, and they were just as happy to leave.
The music here was different: Negro spirituals, sung with feeling and power. Some of the hymns they had heard before, and had even heard Negro church music on television, but they had never experienced anything like this. There were a couple of men over there in the gathering gloom that could sing a rolling bass, and this was a congregation that knew how to sing.
Not wanting to be seen staring, they walked on past, but once they were out of sight, up in the edge of the woods, they stopped to listen for a while. "It doesn’t sound like their church got blown away today," Jackie whispered.
"No, it doesn’t," Mark agreed as they watched from the shadows, impressed with the sight and sound in front of them.
Eventually the singing came to an end. They stood there, wondering if there would be more, and then they could hear Brother Erasmus’ voice booming across the little clearing. "Brothers and sisters," he said. "The church didn’t get blowed away, today. The building done got beat up a bit, but we all know that the church is more than just a building. A church is its people, and as long as we’ve got our people, we’ve still got our church."
A chorus of "Amen, Brother," went up.
"Nobody got hurt or killed today, praise the Lord. That’s worth feeling joyful over, and that’s somethin’ we have to praise the Lord for."
"Amen, Brother," filled the evening air again.
"We can rebuild the building. The building is just handy. The buildin’ is just the place where the church meets. It ain’t the church. Even with the Lord’s help, it won’t be easy for us to rebuild the buildin’, but we don’t have to rebuild the church."
Jackie leaned over to Mark and whispered, "I guess I never thought of it that way."
"Yeah," Mark replied quietly. "Let’s listen."
"Brothers and sisters," Brother Erasmus said loudly enough that Mark and Jackie could hear him clearly, "We may be poor in money, but we ain’t poor in spirit. We have the faith that the Lord will provide for us, so we gotta have the faith that the Lord will show us the way to rebuild our buildin’. The Lord creates, and the Lord destroys, but he does nothing without havin’ some meaning for it. We must be open to the lesson that the Lord is teachin’ us today, ’cause he does nothin’ without a reason to."
"Amen, Brother," again sounded in the clearing.
"Makes you wonder," Mark whispered.
"Wonder what?" Jackie whispered back.
"Makes you wonder if he’s right, or if it’s just an excuse that covers everything."
"He believes it. He’s got faith, if he’s got nothing else. Maybe it would be nice to be able to believe that," she said, quietly in the falling darkness. She stood there silently for a moment, then said, "Mark, I think we’d better get back to the plane."