Our first photograph together. Bud is little guy in back row on far right. I am the diapered baby just in front of him.
Bud and I share a unique relationship stretching back to a time before I remember. Our families were neighbors and friends long before I was born. The two Bethea Brothers, Odell and Lou, worked in the shipyards in California during World War II with Willard Johnson. When the three traveled home together after the war, the Bethea Brothers stopped off in Kansas and married Mary and Mildred Johnson, Willard’s two sisters. Before long, the Bethea Boys went to work on the pipeline and moved their families to Northwest Louisiana, where my parents had settled. The couples spent a great deal of time together, becoming friends for life. The children of all three families grew up together.
When I was born, Odell, Bud’s father was working out of town, so Mary, his mom brought Bud and Betty, his sister, to help for a few days till Mother was back on her feet. Mary often said afterward, she should have pinched my head off when she had the chance. It probably would have saved him a lot of trouble.
Our families continued to be friends as we grew up. When I was about three years old, I asked permission to “say the blessing” one evening when we were sharing dinner. Both families reminded me for years that I bowed my head piously and quoted, “God is great, God is good. Pass the beans.”
Before he started school, Bud’s parents bought a little place with a country store and a tidy little house they could rent till the owner moved it in a couple of years. Mary ran the store to help with the expense of house-building. The understanding was, they’d get plenty of notice. Odell began construction on his outbuilding so he’d have a place to work and keep his tools dry while building. In less than six months, they got the news they’d have to vacate the in days. Odell hurriedly got the building in the dry and ran power and cold water to it. Lightbulbs hung down on wires for lights. He set up Mary’s gas stove in the center and in they moved with their three small children. An outdoor toilet was hastily erected behind the barn, a galvanized tub serving as a bathtub. They ran lines across the rafters to hang quilts and divide the open barn into rooms. Space heaters heated the cavernous space. Footfalls echoed on the bare concrete floors.
Bud loved living in the barn, likening it to a perpetual campout. I was wildly jealous. They often moved the quilt partitions to set the rooms up in different configurations. The only thing never moved was the kitchen stove and heaters, since they were hooked to gas lines. I was fascinated to look up and see the rafters and stars winking through the tin roof, my pleasure enhanced by the story of Odell bagging a large barn rat running across the rafters. He’d gotten rid of the rat and the resulting hole was easily dealt with. I hoped in vain for a rerun but was disappointed when the rats kept to safer quarters. Life in that barn looked perfect to me.
One night, my dad and Bud’s Uncle Lou worked the late shift. My mother and his Aunt Mildred decided they’d spend the evening with Bud’s mom. His Aunt Mid had a new driver’s license she needed to try out. It must have been a weekend night since we got to stay way past our usual bedtime. Our departure was delayed by a light rain. Mary dealt with the drips by putting a pot under the leaky roof, an entertaining solution to me. Rain on the tin roof was rhythmic and lovely till the weather escalated and the constant lightning, reverberating thunder, and pounding of the rain on the tin roof became overwhelming. The wind whistled around the eaves, giving the impression that the storm was coming for us. Though Mother reassured me there was nothing to be worried about, I wasn’t convinced.
Betty, Bud’s older sister used her time wisely by pulling out the family Bible and showing us the picture of the Prophet Elijah ascending into Heaven in a chariot of fire. Then she threw in a few stories about Hellfire and Brimstone she’d gleaned from a revival meeting. It seemed a perfect personification of the storm. I was petrified. Finally, the tortuous storm abated and the stars came out. Aunt Mildred, a timid driver, waited till she thought the roads were dry enough she wouldn’t slide into a ditch.
The women piled six wide-eyed kids in the car. Though I was afraid to close my eyes, fatigue got the best of me. I was probably asleep before the car left the drive. The next thing I knew, I was awakened by a crash, screaming, and blinding light. We were spinning around in a whirlwind. Instantly, I realized we were ascending to Heaven in a chariot of fire, but then remembered the Hellfire and Brimstone which I was pretty sure that would involve bright lights, too!
The screaming kids were slung off the seats and scared mamas rattled around in the spinning car till it came to rest in a ditch. Kids were pulled out and a head-count confirmed we’d all survived. Mother noticed blood dripping from her forehead and felt for damage, finding a bloody skin flap hanging over her right eye. Realizing her eye was gone, she held a baby diaper to her forehead to staunch the flow and hide her injuries from us. I remember seeing blood dripping on her yellow circle skirt and the diaper pressed to her head. She was clutching my little brother Billy and had Phyllis and me by the hand. For once, I was happy to do as she said.
The supernatural force we encountered that night was not from Heaven or Hell, just the son of a prominent business owner driving home drunk. He’d hit us head on, despite the fact that Aunt Mid (Mildred) had swerved to miss him. We spun wildly, landing in the ditch. One of the neighbors heard the crash and came to our assistance. Like all new drivers, Aunt Mid’s worst nightmare was having a wreck. To make matters worse, she was hysterical when she realized she’d come off without her Driver’s License. Her helpful neighbor flew to her house to get it since we were less than a mile from her home. All was well with her license long before the officer got there, though frankly, in small towns, little things like drunk driving and lost licenses can be swept under the carpet.
While Aunt Mid got her problems squared away, someone took Mother to the hospital where she was relieved to learn her eye was undamaged. Her blindness was caused by a skin flap from a cut hanging over her eye. Fortunately, a few stitches restored her vision. For a long time, she worried that her looks would be ruined, but the cut healed beautifully. She did have to fill her eyebrow in with a pencil for a few months. She’d always been proud of her eyebrows. Incidentally, the blood stain did not come out of her pretty, yellow, circle skirt.
All’s well that ends well. The drunk driver’s daddy gave Mother two thousand dollars in damages. Aunt Mid’s car was repaired and she didn’t get a ticket. Mother got a used automatic washing machine for eighty dollars. We took a trip to see one of Daddy’s old Navy buddies with three hundred dollars of Mother’s settlement. The washer stayed on the blink most of the time, aggravating Mother incessantly. Daddy talked Mother out of the rest to buy a used sawmill. He made money sawing cross ties for the railroad for a few months before the demand failed, then moved the saw home to sit behind the barn. Many years later, a burning brush pile got away from him and burned it up.