This is the third in a guest series by Phil Cate. Watch for new installments every Friday. If you missed previous chapters, you can read them all by clicking on “Phil Cate” under the Categories heading in the right panel.
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The Heart of Dixie
We moved to Alabama, where the schools were not nearly at the level of our schools in Maryland, and my parents finally found a huge ray of hope — lower standards. However, since I was quite adaptive, I lowered my performance to meet the change in standards. (I was always proud of my adaptive abilities.) Lori suggested that since we lived in a golf community surrounded by cotton fields, surely they could find a place for a good burial. Bless her heart.
In Alabama, though, I noticed something different. In sixth grade I had two wonderful teachers, Ms. Bass for home room and (I believe) social studies, and Ms. Menefee for math in second period. These gals had to be pushing seventy, gray-haired and formidable. As I recall, both of them wore holsters containing nickel-plated revolvers that would’ve made Clint Eastwood swallow hard, but maybe that was just my first impression. Nonetheless, even I didn’t mess with them.
Now about this time, the courts were bantering over whether school- sponsored prayer was a violation of the Constitution. When that hit the local news, I still remember to this day Ms. Bass saying, “Stand up, children, we’re going to say the Lord’s Prayer as we always have. They’ll just have to come lock me up to get me to stop; we will honor the Lord in my class.” It stirred me deeply that morning; and I went on to Ms. Menefee’s class and she said even more strongly, “Children, get out of those seats and we’ll recite the 23rd Psalm as we always have. We will honor the Lord in my class, and if they want me to stop they can just come shoot me!”
To this day I cannot explain why, but something was different in sixth grade. I had as usual struggled through all of my classes, but now I showed one burst of performance. Early in the year, Ms. Bass and Ms. Menefee had met with my parents. I anxiously stood out in the hall, waiting to get my usual post-conference reaming, but they were talking casually and I heard them discussing where we went to church. They were even laughing. From that day on, I thrived in those two classes and made solid grades for the rest of the year — but only in those two classes.
Ms. Bass had heard I was the best player on my baseball team, and she often cheered me as I went out the door to “go win that game,” and she always asked questions about how I had done and how the team had done. I was never closer to a teacher, and at the beginning of that year I had been scared to death of her.
Toward the end of the school year, my mom stopped by one day to pick me up for a dental appointment before baseball practice. We bumped into Ms. Menefee in the hall, and Mom asked her how I was doing. Ms. Menefee said, “Well, he’s struggling with division of fractions, but I’m not worried. With his personality, he’ll be a salesman; and all they need to know how to do is tell time and count money.” That sounded great to me; maybe I had found my career path. I was qualified to be an idiot with a personality, and I would not disappoint.
Going to church in Alabama was different, too. Now, I had been in church my entire upbringing, for two reasons. The first was that Mom and Dad both had been raised in the church and believed in the Savior and the study of His teachings taught in His Church. The other reason was that they wanted to take me to services so the congregation could see what a real sinner looked like. Mom had a thirdreason, but they didn’t do exorcisms in Alabama Methodist churches — unless you said something unseemly about Bear Bryant.
Going to church in Montgomery was different, though, due mostly to a guy named John Ed Mathison. He was the senior minister at Frazer United Methodist Church, where we were members. John Ed was different than most ministers; he didn’t want you to just worship in his church, he wanted you to live in it. The second you joined, he’d put you to work. Most often, he’d put you in charge of something or another that would get you involved with the other people in church.
He was incredible; in a fairly small town like Montgomery, he had built in short order the second largest Methodist Church in the country. I adored John Ed. He was an athlete, a very serious tennis player, a fun, warm guy; and he could preach so that even a kid like me would know what he had said. Frazer also had this music director, Joe Pat Cox (southern religious leaders go by their first and middle name I guess), and he could sing so dynamically all of us loved it.
We were in church every time the church was opened, and they knew how to “do church” at Frazer. We had BBQ chicken cooking in the summertime right out in the parking lot and sold the chicken to raise funds. It was a men’s deal and father-son deal and it was magic. We’d throw ball out on the diamond, cook chickens, eat, laugh, play . . . it was heaven. All the kids in my neighborhood went to Frazer, as did my whole baseball team and my little league coach and his boys. The church had a softball team for the men, and all their sons — me and my friends — would go and throw ball.
John Ed and Dad were the two biggest sports fans on this earth and immediately became close friends. John Ed was around our house constantly; he’d just stop by, eat “supper” as he called it, watch the game and go throw ball with us in the back yard. His whole family got to know ours, and it was really a good situation.
All of us had cried leaving Maryland for Montgomery, but now we couldn’t be happier. I played ball for Dixie Youth little league, and we lived on the second tee box of a modest but very nice country club. Mom was very glad to be back in Dixie, and I think those were our happiest years.
Our entire world was built around the church, not so much the building but the people. It was far more than a church; it was a community. We even went to Auburn games with church parishioners, and we always found time for family fun and recreation. During the two years of ’74-’76, I got to see for just a short time the way I feel God intended our lives to be. Life was simple and laid back, yet very reverent about worship. There was a humble, open “feel” to the people; and they interacted in a way I had never seen before. They seemed to genuinely love and care about each other. I wish we had stayed . . .
Next: Into the Abyss
Phil Cate is a resident of the Atlanta, Georgia, metro area and runs a small medical equipment resale business. He is available for speaking engagements and can be reached at PhilC@ER3.biz or by phone at 678-429-0901
Printed by permission from Phil Cate, Mama told me Jesus saved my soul, but who was gonna save my butt??? Confessions, lessons, and revelations of a born rebel, © 2008.