The two days in Murray Brett’s home in Commerce, Georgia, were a delight. Saturday morning I sent off the first part of this letter to the family and congregation and the Bretts’ sons and daughter returned home and so did his father and mother. Mr. Brett had been a John Deere dealer and knew Tommy Peaster. He provided Aberdeen Angus beef, the centre of the ribs, for lunch on Sunday. That was the best meat we had had. It simply melted in your mouth. On the Saturday afternoon we went to a factory outlet park. It was a disaster for me. I had not taken a book to read and so the hours there were boring. I bought Osian something that took my fancy. Then I hung around for Iola not in a nice mood. There was no restaurant to sit in. We spent the evening with the family eating shrimp they had caught.
The church is new and has no building. There are scores of Baptist churches in the community and one little Roman Catholic building. So they are meeting in the civic or community centre and I spoke at the 9.30 hour on Bunyan, and then on the raising of Namaan’s daughter at 11. People had heard that message from the Internet. One of the elders knew it well as the lessons from the sermon he had learned when he had been with his dying father and passed them on to him. It is OK preaching messages that people have heard before. They say, “We hoped you were going to preach such and such a message. It is our favourite,” and sometimes I do preach that message. How the Doctor opposed cassettes of his sermons being made, because people would obtain them hearing them before he preached the word in the flesh. Now everyone may freely hear your sermons on line.
At the lunch table we sat around a new table that Murray had made of walnut wood. He had had the planks for a few years but our coming got a date fixed in his mind and so he planed and polished the wood until it glowed. Twenty yards at the top of the garden is a two story sized building and in half of it is his tool shop, and then another area is his study. It is a fascinating building set in the trees. What a dream den. So we ‘launched’ the table and ate the Aberdeen Angus rib, and Murray addressed the four families eating with us one by one asking what would be the book they’d take to a desert island with them. The majority went for Bunyan; he went for Owen on Communion with God while Iola and I went for Studies in the Sermon on the Mount by Dr. Lloyd-Jones.
Sunday night the meeting was held upstairs in the town auditorium which could also be used as a dancehall and big functions. Murray had invited little churches in the area to join with us. He gave me my third effusive welcome-introduction of the day; there was a good number in the congregation and a good listening. We had a meal afterwards and I moved from table to table sitting and talking to the groups of people. This church has real potential. In the evening we got Emails from Catrin and Fflur and the next morning from Eleri so we were right up to date with the family, and we also got a letter from Sandra Petherbridge so we knew a little of what was happening in the Principality.
At 9 a.m. on Monday morning we set off on the 450 miles journey to Mississippi. It was straightforward; motorway all the way, a break at a Cracker Barrel half way through and we were in Flora before 6 p.m. for a week with our old friends Tommy and Linda Peaster. I was soon swimming in their pool in their magnificent landscaped home. Deer are getting bolder in this drought and in the last few days have been climbing up the terraces around the French windows, which is OK, but not their eating the tomatoes. We tumbled into bed at ten.
On Tuesday I had a luxurious morning to myself beginning my next sermon on the Holy Spirit. It was delightful; Iola got her washing done in the empty house, and the humming birds were dive-bombing one another as they hung in the air drinking at the scarlet feeder. By the middle of the day Linda was back and soon Tommy came back from the bank. We got ready for our trip and at 3 p.m. Tommy drove us the 170 miles to New Orleans where we stayed two nights in the Marriott Hotel on the banks of the Mississippi which is half a mile wide. We were high up on the 17th floor with a great view of the river and its boats. We went out to a neat restaurant at 7 p.m. How close the tables were to one another – it was not a big room and somewhere in the suburbs. What a din everyone made talking at the tops of their voices. How delicious was the food as is the case in almost all the restaurants in New Orleans or they couldn’t survive. The journey there a couple of miles up one of the oldest thoroughfares in the city passed some of the finest homes and a couple of the universities like Loyola.
Wednesday morning we walked half a mile to the Café du Monde, a famous New Orleans restaurant which only sells chicory-based coffee and icing-sugar-loaded square donuts and nothing else. Philippines’ waitresses served us this breakfast and the icing sugar fell everywhere. As we were munching in the open a man with an acoustic guitar sat on the pavement and played Beatles favourites. Then we took a horse and carriage ride around the French Quarter. Our young guide had one of those sharp clear voices that comes from the back of his throat. Every word could be understood and he kept up an entertaining and educational commentary on the houses we passed and the whole history of that part of New Orleans, the best restaurants and museums and jazz clubs people could attend, where the murders had occurred and where Lee Harvey Oswald (JFK’s assassin) had gone to school. The horse knew when to stop to give a chance of seeing the sights. There was little traffic. There had been a rare collision at dawn between a bridge pillar and tanker full of diesel oil and the smell of the thousands of gallons of diesel filled the air along the banks of ‘Moon River’. All river traffic was banned and long floating boons were snaking across the Mississippi to contain the oil.
Then the sky grew darker and darker and – whoosh – how it rained. Iola from her deep experience of quality rain in those first twenty years of her life had scarcely seen a downpour like it. The gutters were turned into torrents as the drains couldn’t take that amount of water and the cast iron lined verandahs had their own overflows which poured cascades of water onto the deserted streets. We dashed under our inadequate collapsible umbrellas under a verandah and finally escaped from it going around a large museum for the remainder of the morning. The first time we set out to cross the street for the museum in the driving rain, that very moment as we left the pavement, there was an overhead clap of thunder and lightning, I mean, right over our heads, “BOOM!!!” making us jump with shock.
That afternoon we walked from our hotel room to the New Orleans Aquarium and had a fabulous time there, so well laid out, a hundred huge tanks, high and deep, some of which you walked under and through via the curved glass walls. There were sharks, sting-rays, turtles, sea-otters, an albino alligator, serpents, even a boa-constrictor and piranhas in a South American Amazon river display. Then there were sea-horses and a host of the smaller luminous fish in abundance. It was a sheer delight at the beginning to stand transfixed and watch them swim around, contemptuously ignoring the human eyes looking and the little hands tapping on the glass. They studiously avoided touching one another but went as close to that as possible without rubbing one another’s sides. These fish created a happy atmosphere, encouraging strangers and spectators to talk with one another. When that finished we went to an Imax film of the Catrina hurricane disaster projected on a screen fifty feet high and very moving as this 200 mile wide storm came rolling in a few years ago and hit New Orleans. It was the biggest natural disa
ster to have struck the USA. We have not seen any evidences of it in the part of the city where we are staying, because we are just above sea-level, but once a levy was breached the sea poured in and inundated the homes below sea level and they are still in ruins today.
That evening we walked down the road towards Bourbon Street but none of us wanted to walk that street itself with its ugly dives. Instead we went down a quieter street to Preservation Hall attending its traditional nightly jazz band concert for 40 minutes. We arrived at the perfect time as the new audience was moving in and grabbing somewhere to sit – just a hundred or so people – but we also got seats – though the girls sat on benches (half the audience had to stand), and others sat on the floor. Tommy and I had seats with backs to them, mine was a superb royal throne (I claimed) in the front – just where the most honoured guest would sit. The Hall is battered, dusty with curved sheets of old peg-board attached to some walls, other walls just had cobwebs, and faded posters. There were no windows and it is half the size of downstairs in Alfred Place. We had talked to one distinguished looking man in the street inquiring directions as to the way there and he turned out to be the clarinet player. There was a tuba player, an electric guitarist, a trombonist and a drummer. No trumpeter alas. It became a life-affirming musical feast as the five musicians played old and new pieces concluding with the inevitable long finale of When the Saints Go Marching In . . . of course. We spoke to the clarinet player afterwards as Tommy had asked him to direct us to the Hall earlier. I thanked him. It was our 44th wedding anniversary and such a happy different way to spend it. I told him of the years of our marriage. “A long time,” he said, and it is.
On Thursday we were late rising and we had brunch in a nearby courtyard in the French Quarter while a trio played jazz in a corner – a woman played the banjo, a man played a double bass and another played a saxophone. Creepers grew overhead and sparrows and pigeons pecked around us. Most tables had the shelter of a large umbrella. We could go into the adjoining room and take as much food as we desired. There was an enormous and bewildering choice, from shrimp to a cooked breakfast, fresh fruit and cakes, salted herring – you name it. That was our morning treat and then we drove back the two hundred miles to Mississippi and to home arriving at 3.30.
Friday we set off for Reformed Theological Seminary. I wanted to visit its splendid bookstore having ordered three books before leaving Aberystwyth; they had not arrived, but maybe they would come this afternoon the young lady told me. I wanted to get a couple of other books for Tommy but neither of those was in stock. Derek was away for the morning, but we are getting together on Monday a couple of times, at 2 p.m. he is interviewing me for the church’s TV channel and then he is coming round for the evening. He is off to London a week on Monday for the celebration of his mother’s 80th birthday. She wants to go to a Promenade Concert “for the last time” and so all the family are going to be there for a Vaughn Williams’ English music concert which Derek thought she would appreciate. Then he is staying a week or so.
We went to a shopping mall in the afternoon and when we came out into the car park could not remember where we had parked the car. We walked up and down like country bumpkins; up and down the rows of cars. I hardly could remember what the car looked like. Yes it was definitely a silver Dodge with a Georgia number plate and I was pressing the key as I went up and down the rows so that the headlights would light up, but nothing happened. Then a security policeman spotted us and I explained what was wrong. “Hop in,” he said and so he drove around three different car parks slowly on each side of the mall, all of us looking for that illusive Georgia number plate. I pointed my key and pressed the button at every car. He was from the Gambia and had come to study law in the USA getting this job temporarily. After twenty long minutes we found the car. Its lights winked back at my key and we were released from our embarrassment. I was able to spend several hours continuing preparation of the sermon on the Holy Spirit, and then at 6 we left for Tommy’s brother’s home, Sonny Peaster, where we stayed until ten. They all hope to attend the Calvin500 celebrations in Geneva next year. We got back home to catch in the glare of the headlights two deer stealing the tomatoes.
Today is our last Saturday and this morning we are writing sermons and postcards and Emails. The temperature is promised to reach 100 degrees today and so we will not be out of doors much except to use the swimming pool. Just a few more days and we will be back home, looking forward to that as much as we are enjoying this.
Love from the intrepid travelers,
Geoff and Iola.