Monday, December 18, 2023

"Please Duck," or "The Thriftshop Throne"

Daddy played the slide trombone.  If you were sitting in the front row of the small church he pastored in 1992, my husband Jim jokes that you had to duck when he started sliding wildly at the fast parts of a song.  The soaring vibrato from his trembly wrist as he pumped that slide with blatant enthusiasm to a glorious crescendo, sparked fervor into the hearts of his straggly congregation.   The pianist bobbed her considerable girth in a dramatic and savage attack on the keyboard.  I always wonder why pianists think body movements enhance piano performance.   A few of the faithful leap to their feet and clap.  An Amen carries from the back row.

By then, all Daddy had left was a fringe of white hair around the edges of his shining earthly crown. The dominant feature of that face below the sagging nose was his wide smile with those big square teeth, a little crooked which I inherited. Adams apple moving up and down in preparation, he had a habit of pausing during the sermon for an interpreter to translate his Swahili into Nandi or Kikuyu, as if it was 1960 and he were still in East Africa.    Of course, the church was in Florida and he was speaking English.  He was paid no salary, and offerings were so small that he had to build his own small podium that I have today.   I use it for a bookcase in the bedroom.  “It could be Holy,” I have tried to explain to Jim.

My Dad
Rhett Butler

My parents bought the 10,000 sq. ft. former Alger-Sullivan sawmill office near the railroad track in Century, Florida for a song.  It had rich wood wainscoting throughout, weathered wood floors and ceilings reaching to 18 feet.   “It has possibilities,” enthuses Dad as he and Mom lean over the black iron fire escape in back.  They planned to turn this albatross into a southern mansion complete with four big columns out front and a winding staircase to the second floor.  They did actually hang a crystal chandelier and did endless repairs but the staircase never materialized. Mom always imagined that she was Scarlett from “Gone with the Wind” and Daddy,  Rhett Butler.  The only similarity was the mustache.  The sawmill came with a sagging hotel next door, the “Century Hotel.”  My sister and I still joke about who finally gets the fountain which was in front, a small boy, with water streaming forth.

After Daddy died and Mom sold the house, I chose the podium (see first paragraph), family pictures, the “Africa trunk” which is in the foyer of our home and the grand piano that has a cracked soundboard, but sounds good except for the three low keys.  The antiques, which Mom loved and “silver service” went to my siblings, the famous trombone to my oldest brother, incidentally, the only one of us that “turned out right.”  The rest, mostly remnants of Dad’s hardware store like books of paint samples and carpet squares, we surreptitiously tossed from the second story window into the waiting arms of a blazing fire in the side yard between the former sawmill house and the hotel, (not the fire escape side).  
We saved some of their old letters from Kenya, back when people used carbon paper in the typewriter for every piece of correspondence.  They had been painstakingly hole-punched and put in big blue folders which had faded into an unattractive shade of splotchy purple.  Much, sadly, we threw away but I saved two boxes of their letters, in case I wanted to write a book. 
We saved the leather football helmets and soiled uniforms from some team sponsored by the lumber mill years before, for the “antique road show.”  They have since strangely disappeared.
To get back to the point of this story; I’m drawn like a magnet to thrift shops.   I ducked into one along 9th Ave. in Pensacola last Thursday and there was a sawn-off pew the size of a wide chair with bright red upholstery between the rich wood arms, perhaps a small exaggeration. The hymn holder and round holes for communion glasses were still perched jauntily on the back. I showed amazing restraint pausing just long enough to sit in it quickly and surmise it was surprisingly comfortable. 
It was large enough to accommodate a preacher the size of Hagee or someone important like Billy Graham.  Now in my eyes, my Dad far surpassed either of those men and skinny as he was in the end, I could imagine him in this throne-sized pew.  Who knows, it could be as holy as the aforementioned podium, now bookcase.  I showed amazing restraint plus the fear that Jim would kill me.  I did not purchase the pew-throne.
Yesterday back on 9th Ave., I found myself veering wildly into the parking lot of the “Teen Challenge Thrift Store” to see if it was still there.  It sat affixed with the orange sticker for $10.99 among the soiled couches and scratched coffee tables arranged in the glaring light of “today only” bargains near the front windows.  I sped-walked so as not to be obvious and let the cashier know I wanted it.  I was amazed no one else had snatched this treasure.  
Feeling impulse-shoppery,  I spied the gaudiest oriental chest with brass hardware (well, it could have been) beside the checkout that I thought would be a great sewing cabinet instead of the cracked plastic green thread holder I use now. It used to be Mom’s, now that I think about it.  I asked for the manager and pulled out all my overseas missionary haggling skill and the price was dramatically reduced.  I am really not an impulse buyer, but I felt uncharacteristically and unflinchingly audacious.  I got those two words from the hardback Thesaurus they threw in for 25 cents.

Two previously “challenged teens” loaded the treasures into the Honda.  I could not close the trunk, but the pew-throne was so heavy, there was not a chance it would fall out.  I thought the young man with the blue tattoos and strings of greasy blonde glued to his skull was snickering, but I chose to ignore him.
Inching around the curves down Scenic Hwy. with the big red throne-pew hanging precariously from the trunk, a sizable parade formed behind me.  A white sports car screamed past on the left and I might have seen a hand gesture of encouragement thrust from his window over the roof of his car. 
My only regret is that I didn’t have time to sand and poly the throne and put in a place of honor so that I could imagine Daddy was here with his Bible and trombone celebrating Christmas with us.  I know he is in heaven playing with the heavenly choir, shaking that wrist for a special vibrato, weaving his trombone in wide sweeps as the white clad choir members duck.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

What a surprise!! I won $100 for this story about my childhood in Kenya "Boarding School at Mara Hills"

Kenya and Tanganyika, East Africa, 1956

I never could eat that first week at school.  My parents had no choice.  The mission board under which they went to Kenya gave them no choice.  They had to send us to boarding school.  I was nine, and my sister Lydia was seven.                    
My sister, Lydia

My parents drove us in the old green pickup with the canvas-covered back that first time.  We rode behind the cab leaning against our luggage, the red dust thickening our hair as it seeped through the cracks.  Two others missionary kids rode with us.  After hours fighting rutted dirt roads, we were stymied by an impassable river rushing toward eager banks.  New to Africa, my Mom had on high heels but gamely took them off, wading through mud and streams those last few miles to Mara Hills.  My sister and I could hardly contain our admiration.  Mom was seven months pregnant.

My Mother
We walked five miles with our luggage watching the sun burn itself out.  The black impenetrable night was punctured by a vast array of stars as we arrived. We sat patiently waiting on a bench next to the flickering candlelight in the entrance of the u-shaped building while our beds were hastily prepared.  Lydia rested her weary head on my shoulder, her silent tears burning into my neck.  My dad was feverish and shaking with chills from his first case of malaria, one of many to come.  He still managed to get up at the first light of day and trudge back with two Masai men to push the truck out of the rising river.

How could I imagine what lay ahead?  There were bars on the windows, beds from twisted Zebra hides, flashlights boring a bouncy minuscule shaft in the night on our way to the outhouse, an eye out for snakes.  I routinely shone my flashlight down the hole in the rough wooden seat, prompting nightmares of slipping into the maggots swarming below.  “I suspect a slight infraction,” the housemother announced one morning, a smile playing around her thin lips.   We were supposed to use the potty under our bunks at night.

The hunt brought gazelle and impala for our meat, salted down to preserve it.  No fridge at Mara Hills.   We had little garden plots where we all competed, urging on our corn and tomatoes.  We fought to take out slop to the pigs, which were also butchered for meat.

We went barefoot to class, a one-room schoolhouse, grades 1-8.  I saw my first dead body, a man lying stiffly in the back of the school pickup right before class.  We popped green coffee beans right off the plant into our mouths, saving them in our cheeks, enjoying the sweet juice as our heads bent innocently over our books.

The Mennonite house parents were stern but kind.  I missed the daily hugs and kisses from Mama and Daddy that I had so taken for granted.  I wrote letter after letter begging them to come get us.  The letters were not sent, I learned later.

Meals were formal, our cloth napkins stuffed carefully in rings made from sliced Impala horns.  Dessert was often one cookie with a raisin in the center, as lonely as I felt.  A freckled girl with long strawberry braids tried to dislodge a guava seed caught in her teeth with her fork.  She got cleanup duty that meal.  Manners were important at Mara Hills.  Her Dad owned a diamond mine in South Africa.  She did not get one letter from home.

My sister and I clung to each other for security.  One day to my horror, she ran towards me, dark braids flying, one eye pinched shut with a shiny eyeball gracing her palm.  Panic gripped me as I realized I had failed to watch out for her and she had lost an eye somehow.  Convulsing with laughter, she opened her eye shouting, “pig eye.”  It was slaughtering day.

Semesters lasted three long months and then home for a month and so on.  Headed for home at last, Lydia and I leaned against the rail of the steamer as it inched from the shore of Lake Victoria in Musoma, Tanganyika headed for Kisumu, Kenya.  It was just too far and dangerous for Mom and Dad to fetch us by truck each time.   We turned towards our stateroom where two small beds would see us through the lonely night. 

Noon the next day, the sun like a scream in the sky beat down on the black skin of Africans swaying and humming softly to the throbbing of the engine.  Their night had been spent on the deck under the stars.

At sundown, we nosed into the harbor.  Two thin figures became clearer as we neared the shore.  Dad in khaki shorts and Mom, long legged and slim, smiling, holding the baby brother we had not seen yet.

Three months’ emotion let go and I sobbed with total relief at what seemed happiness beyond my wildest dreams.  I would be home in Kaimosi in two hours.
Probably Mombasa in front of Ft. Jesus. 
This picture got wet during the Hurricane Ivan in Pensacola.


Monday, September 5, 2022


Whitney 7, Natalie 8

I stared at the ZipLoc bag, clouded with moisture. Inside were muddy shoes. I had placed them there for the dogs to sniff so that they would have the girls scent. By the time they called in the dogs the temperature was dropping rapidly and Natalie was only wearing a sweatshirt.

Why hadn’t they found them? It had been four hours and the helicopter had circled the area with their loud speakers shouting, “Natalie and Whitney Esson, age 7 and 8. If you see them, please call the sheriff’s office. Natalie and Whitney, we are looking for you. Stay in the open.” .....The air is frigid.

Right after lunch, we were deep in conversation with an animated missionary friend up in the mountains. Natalie and Whitney kept tugging at me asking if they could go to the top of the mountain. Finally, not wanting to miss out on our friend’s adventures in South America, I quickly say, “Yes, yes, go ahead, but be careful.” I thought they meant the top of the hill behind the cabin. They meant..."the top of the mountain.” Alicia who was ten stayed to hear the stories.

Half an hour later, I send Alicia trudging up the hill to check on them. They are nowhere in sight. Jim and I feel vaguely concerned so huff and puff up the hill calling loudly. There is a pretty steep drop off at the top and our eyes scan the brush below. We decide to follow the path. Muddy ravines stretch out continually to our left and numerous paths go off to the right as we hurry faster scouring the cliffs.

We search for an hour shouting their names repeatedly and more desperately. Worry runs through me like a current. I realize how easily you could lose your way as we hurry back with nothing clearly marking the many winding paths in these torn hills.

I remember the waitress at the donut shop who said this mountain has the highest percentage of child molesters of any place in California. The girls are level headed so it’s not the getting lost that scares me. I am praying now with more urgency. Jim calls the sheriff and our friends.

I’m caught somewhere between incredulousness, embarrassment and terror. I look totally calm and collected, however...well, maybe a little mist in my eyes. Two fixed wing aircraft are now searching and one helicopter. Ground crews have been unsuccessful. This can’t be happening.

Jim makes me stay at the cabin with a deputy and our missionary friends who alternately pray with me and reassure me with many stories of God’s faithfulness in their lives. There’s a knock at the door and an eager ranger type wants clothes or shoes for the dogs to sniff. Another knock and two female trackers, awfully young I notice, want me to identify the girls' footprints in the mud around the cabin to help in their search. I get the feeling this is their first 'for real’ search. It is almost dark now and the crackle of the deputy’s radio tells us the girls have not been found.

I’m shivering inside the cabin and wondering why they can’t find two small girls in such a small area. Strangers are kindly out combing the hills. The radio startles us. A man on a tractor, clearing land had seen two girls walking earlier.

“Where can they be?” I ask lamely. The deputies are obviously perplexed. We hear the helicopter but it will soon be too dark to see. I am still not panicky but I wish Jim would return. He is still out there.  I walk outside. The needle sharp wind stings my eyes. A police car arrives.

A friend confides she thinks they may have found them but they aren’t allowed to say. A little girl has called 911 from a pay phone in front of a liquor store and said she is lost. We wait. Yes, there are two girls. They have been walking for hours looking for civilization and a pay phone. I’m more than misty now.

Jim is not back. A crowd is gathering. Another police car arrives and in the back seat sit two of the most precious little girls I have ever seen. I snatch them from the car and strangle them with hugs. The officer says they too have been praying. “The guys were pretty worried,” he says, giving me a knowing look.

I’m amazed at all the Christians in this ‘heathen place’ the waitress had described. Whitney’s words rush out with a worried look, “Mom, we didn’t talk to strangers but we did wave to a lady with a dog.” I see Jim coming now, disheveled and breathless. His face is drawn and white from four hours running, walking, shouting, and agonizing for his daughters.

We stood in a ragged circle. We thank God for the men on the police force and the dedication of the search and rescue team. The crowd thins. Natalie confides, “We sat down on the path, held hands and prayed six times, Mommy." "We walked and walked in the mountains until we came out on a road with a yellow line.” She took a deep breath and continued, “I took off my sweatshirt and let Whitney use it for a pillow and we rested by a giant stump.”

Natalie adds that a policeman drove by and she put up her hand for him to stop but he just waved. I smile thinly. Whitney interrupts with a frown and whispers, “We saw a man on a tractor. He left his magazine and we picked it up, but we threw it back down cause it had bad, bad pictures.”

Natalie chips in, “We looked for a pay phone forever. I carried Whitney piggyback to keep her warm.” Whitney then divulges, “When we finally found the pay phone Natalie told me to be quiet and let her do all the talking.”

Our missionary friends sent us the front page headline from the Big Bear Grizzly after we returned home. It said among other things:


“Some 20 searchers from the Sheriff’s station, Search and Rescue, Posse, on foot, horseback, motorbike and in a helicopter and all-terrain vehicles, combed the East Valley for some five hours. Meanwhile, the girls recognized that they were lost, found their way to Big Bear Blvd. and walked to the Liquor Junction store where they called 911 from a pay phone. The girls were unharmed.”

Sunday, August 21, 2022

I Hate Snakes

My  Mom sips her coffee and watches the sun burn the last of the dew off the grassy slope outside the dining room window.   A month has elapsed since she and our family debarked from the ocean liner in Mombasa, rode the train to Nairobi and drove overland in an open jeep to this lonely station in Kaimosi, Kenya.

Mom conducts sick call on the lawn each morning.  This is before Daddy built the brick clinic for her.

A man with blood spilling from a long gash in his calf limps slowly up the dirt path.  The woman with him flops down on the grass while the man pounds at the kitchen door shouting for the houseboy, Chege.  Chege politely speaks with the memsahib about the panga wound. 

Memsahib Eby. (my mom) rushes out to apply a tourniquet, then back in for antiseptic and sutures to do a layered closure on the wound, something she was not trained to do in nursing school.  It is a wide gaping wound, very common among Africans who work with pangas, long heavy-bladed knives.  The woman continues to lie lazily on the grass.

When they leave, Mom sees something at the spot where the woman had stretched out on the grass.  Walking closer, she draws in a breath when she sees a thick snake 4-5 ft long.  To this day, Mom believes the woman had it under her cloak and left it there as a warning or “gift” of some sort.  Africans can be very superstitious.

My Dad took this picture right after the woman left

I’ve always hated snakes and with good reason.  In East Africa, unless you have anti serum with you and few did; a session with a black mamba could mean certain death.  My Mom who is 95 now, says a mamba could easily reach up from the dirt road and strike into an open car window.

Far from home at boarding school in wild and hostile country, 400 kilometers from home, I had a continuous ache in my chest from homesickness.  No phone, no e-mail, only isolation and loneliness.  The only time I didn’t ache was when running in the grass barefoot, skinny legs scrambling, stealing the soccer ball from underneath the legs of the big boys, then running like a gazelle and pushing it into the goal. 

There were no inside toilets at the small boarding school in Tanganyika, East Africa.  Like early America, there were outhouses, with rough hewn walls surrounding a wooden seat over a deep hole filled with maggots.  I knew this because I peered down the hole with my flashlight on inky nights when I crept out of the dorm to use the facility.  I rarely used the potty under my bed, but that soon changed. 

The sun is warm on my back as I hoe my garden patch and as usual, I wait until the last minute to answer nature’s call. I pound down the path, bolt through the door, drop the latch, reaching the seat just in time.  As my eyes adjust to the slivers of light streaking though the cracks, I scream, paralyzed.  A snake is coiled in the corner between the door and me.  It looks like a puff adder, which will strike over and over again.  Puff adders often lay along a path, dozing until disturbed, then strike with amazing speed. 

My heartbeat thunders in my ears and I see the puff adder raise his head, flicking his tongue.  Like a jack-in-the-box, I jump, pulling up my pants midair, knock up the latch and I’m out the door as fast as an ostrich with a lion on its tail. I once coiled a long snake, dead of course, in the corner of the girls shower, hoping to scare the living daylights out of my classmates.

(2004) “There are no snakes in Lake Kivu,” Dr Lusi states unequivocally, “because of the methane gas.” Lake Kivu is a huge lake next to Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo.  I had just arrived with a crew of volunteers to replace the crew already there with Jim.  Jim and crews were building a new hospital to replace the hospital destroyed by the volcano…”right on top of the lava.”   

The lake is cold and deep so I didn’t have the usual fear of something biting my feet.  I swim out maybe a quarter mile and the waves are getting a little rough.  I see something long and green swimming in the waves.  I know at once…..”A METHANE-RESISTANT SNAKE.”

The adrenaline surges so powerfully that my arms and legs ache with it. My arms become skinny windmills and I believe I set a world swimming record with the long green snake snipping at my feet.  

My daughters pull me up on the pier, hands clasped over their mouths, in dismay I surmise.  They are merely stifling giggles as they fish the long crooked green stick out of the water.   You laugh, but that was one scary stick.

                                             So why am I sharing all this snake stuff?

Walking down the stairs Sunday morning to make coffee, I see something black and shiny writhing from underneath a pile of my underwear thrown on the second step to bring upstairs on one of my many daily trips up.  I have the customary adrenaline rush and stand perfectly still lest I scare whatever is there.  My eyes might be fooling me.  Sure enough, a coil is moving veddy, veddy slowly from under the unmentionables.  My stomach squirms and does some very professional somersaults.

Driven by uncontrollable panic, I leap past the step up to our bedroom to tell Jim about the horror right here in our very own home.  He just snorts and turns over.  It’s obvious he isn’t going to come save me. I tiptoe down silently and jump past the last few steps, with my heart hammering like pistons in race car, flip-flopping all over my chest.  I can imagine the snake throwing his long scaly body around my leg in a wild embrace, sinking in his teeth for a venom extravaganza.

I race to the garage and grab a heavy, long-handled shovel, flick the underwear off the snake, with the handle, throw the snake what I hope is a scalding look and start slicing and stabbing with the shovel.  The head is still on, but I do enough damage to kill him, plus several wide gashes in the bottom step.  I stab at him  several more times just to be sure he is dead. 

Disheveled and breathless, I lean on the handle.  I finally rouse Jim.   Can you believe he laughs and says it is just a worm?  Later emptying some coffee grounds, I find that big snake in the kitchen trash.  It gives me the shivers just thinking about it.  That was not what I meant by getting rid of the snake.




Thursday, June 9, 2022

   Bogota: a city of 8 million people 

  The Drain  

I’m actually quite well known within missionary circles for my drain unclogging expertise and resolving other gruesome bathroom dilemmas.  In fact, rubber gloves are the first things I pack along with needle nose pliers.

I thought Haiti had the only guest house that forbids flushing toilet paper.  Not true.  Put Bogota, Colombia on that list.

Maybe it’s the 8 million residents bustling about in the smog filled city at 8,600 ft.  Bogota lies trapped between a ragged circle of mountain ridges.  “Scummy drains, overflowing toilets, and trickles of water plague the rich and the poor whether living in a mansion or a second story walk-up,” states my Spanish teacher matter of factly.  I inquire where I can buy some Drano.

I have athletes foot paranoia and toe fungus hysteria.  Amazingly, I’ve not had either.   Ever since a missionary friend told me that she had the above mentioned malady for 14 years from an encounter with a shower in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; my feet recoil instinctively in tubs and showers.

I once put a large glass Pyrex bowl upside down in a tub in Ethiopia to take a shower which was a tantalizing feat of balancing bravado.  My feet never touched the puddling, germ infested refuse collecting in the tub, I’m proud to report.  Addis Ababa is also high at 7,500 ft.  I wonder if altitude is pertinent?

After a week In Bogota, I finally scour, poke, and plunge the agonizingly slow-draining shower only to drag up suspicious black particles of a mystery substance.  My battle with the drain tumbles further downhill as the water quits draining completely and is precariously close to overflowing the 6 inch tile rim.  I envision a flood gushing down the concrete stairway to the hallway and kitchen below eliminating any mission construction work invitations in the future.  If there is Drano in Bogota, I couldn’t find it.

Later when desperation forces me to confess, our host feeds me some important info, like a scrap of meat to a hungry lioness.  He ladles standing water into a bucket with a green melmac coffee cup.  “A little vinegar, soda and a coat hanger will open it right up,” he admonishes.  Amazingly, he is right.

After a week of balancing on the rim and bending backward to wet my hair in the trickle of water, I can now stand on clean tile with water swishing merrily down the drain.  

Interesting side note, if the electricity goes out, the little device hooked to the shower spout to heat the water, goes out too.   The electricity goes out at random hours.  I won’t go into the ugly details.

Patricia, the beautiful Spanish teacher with her jeans, boots and swingy black hair asked why we would come to Bogota with all its problems when we could stay in the United States where things are wonderful.  I told her that we love God and the people in Bogota and we want to please God.  I’m thankful that a question about Drano led to an opportunity to share about the hope that is within me.

Love, Karen