From Golden Baptist Church to the Streets of Gold

From this weather graphic on my way to Ben Fine’s Visitation . . .

To this view of a double rainbow from the balcony of my room that same evening.

It was a turbulent weather day on my way to pay my respects to my old friend, Ben Fine, at White Funeral Home in Cassville, Mo. A 12-year-old girl drowned near Neosho, Mo., as did a 34-year-old man who jumped in the water to try and save her after she was swept away.

As I drove back to Springfield, Mo. after the visitation, the City Park in Monett had lots of flooding and my windshield wipers were getting an extreme workout. Later that evening, the rain subsided. As I stood on the balcony of my motel room in Springfield, a beautiful double rainbow appeared in the eastern sky.

The next morning as I drove south on 160 Highway through Nixa and Highlandville toward Golden, Mo., to attend Ben’s funeral, the sky was overcast, but calm. The drive on that peaceful morning took me through familiar territory.

Many of my wife’s ancestors are buried in Flood Cemetery west of Highlandville just off of Route O, behind Pleasant View Baptist Church. My wife and I own a couple of plots near the back of that cemetery. I will be buried under a walnut tree to which someone already tied a wind chime to a lower limb. If I go first, I have instructed my wife to surreptitiously remove the wind chime and dispose of it. Having to listen to that throughout eternity would drive me nuts.

Further down the road I crossed the bridge over Table Rock Lake at Kimberling City. In times gone by, I have fished and waterskiied in that area. Just beyond that is the Mill Creek Recreation Area. In the late 1960’s, Ben Fine, another guy whose name I cannot recall, and I pitched at tent at Mill Creek. We played Indian Ball until it was dark, followed by the card game, Spades, until late. Before we crawled into our sleeping bags we got hungry. We attempted to cook a frozen chicken over a hastily built fire. We did not starve and we did not contract any foodborne illnesses, but I recall the chicken was charred black on the outside but still had some ice crystals near the center. The middle was perfect.

The funeral was at the Golden Baptist Church, in Golden, Mo. Behind a well-maintained sanctuary I drove to a large, metal building with a concrete floor suitable for basketball and large dinners, with plenty of room to stretch out. The building also had a stage. In front of the stage was Ben’s casket.

As I walked in the door, I was greeted by the delicious smell of fried chicken being prepared by caring people for a family dinner after the funeral.

A large crowd was present. Many, I suspect had planned to attend the visitation the day before, but were wisely discouraged by the weather.

After a welcome and a song, the Pastor asked if anyone had any stories they would like to tell about Ben. There were multiple stories about Ben’s goodness and concern for others. And more than a few fishing stories. His son, Brad, also told a “moving” story – as in moving away. After finishing his education, Brad wanted to move to Los Angeles. Ben was supportive. They rented a U-Haul, loaded it with Brad’s possessions and headed west. After numerous breakdowns, the truck finally gave out near Gallup, N.M. When U-haul arrived with a replacement truck, Ben & Brad unloaded the first truck and loaded everything into the new truck in the desert heat. As often happens, L.A. did not work out and Brad and his family now live near Charleston, S.C.

I debated whether to take the microphone.

The next thing I knew I was walking to the front. The Preacher handed me the mic.

“I went to school with Ben. We were both in the Hillcrest High School Class of ’66. Ben and I went fishing a lot at Fellows Lake, north of Springfield, Mo., in our younger years. We would rent an aluminum boat for three bucks a day from the Marina there, and row around the lake. We both loved fishing and we both love spending time on the water” I said. “On my way down yesterday, I decided to visit that old Marina – just for old times sake. When I arrived, I was greatly surprised to find it was being demolished. By today, I imagine it is gone.”

There were disappointed murmurs from those in attendance.

“They plan to build a new Marina on Fellows Lake. Another fifty or sixty years in the future, it will wear out too. Ben Fine’s body wore out. But Ben now has a brand new heavenly body that is never gonna get COPD or wear out!”

I handed the microphone back to the Preacher and hurried back to my seat. As I was seated, the Preacher handed the mic to another guy who had made his way to the front.

“My name is Gary Ellison. I was also in the Hillcrest Class of ’66 with Ben. And it is great to see my old friend, Doug Reece! What’s it been, Doug? Fifty years since we’ve seen each other?”

And with that, though I had lost one old friend, I had just been reunited with TWO OTHER old friends! After the funeral, Gary, his wife, Judy and I exchanged hugs and contact information. I was in their wedding. They had already celebrated their Golden Wedding anniversary.

The funeral procession slowly made its way from Golden Mo., down busy Highway 86, to Roach Cemetery. Along the way, passersby stopped their cars in the roadway to pay their respects. Roach Cemetery is 200 yards of dirt road north of 86 Highway in Eagle Rock, Mo.

Ben’s remains were buried just to the right of the large tree in the background

Rest in peace, Ben. Thanks for making the good times better. Not sure who will be next, but the Class of ’66 seems to be headed your way in ever increasing numbers.

The weather was pretty scary on Day 1, but cool, beautiful and dry on Day 2. As I drove home, I felt I had accomplished two goals:

  1. I had paid my respects to an old friend and his family; and
  2. I had followed the advice of Yogi Berra, who observed “If you don’t go to other people’s funerals, they won’t go to yours!”

Paying it Forward (Revisited) and Paying My Respects

The morning I was to depart to pay my respects to my old friend, Ben Fine, started off ominously. After a restless night of sleep, I sat on our screened-in porch shortly after dawn. As I pulled up the newspaper on-line, I thought I detected a faint rumble of thunder in the southwest. Frogs, turkeys, whippoorwills, and a few mourning doves joined in a chorus in advance of the approaching storm.

Though the sun had risen, the woods and fields around our house began to darken.  The sudden sound of wind in the treetops added to the anticipation as the fast-moving storm approached.  Big splats of rain began to hit the deck. They were accompanied by nickel-sized chunks of hail.  It was fast and furious, but in 20 minutes it was all over.  The hail was mercifully light. 

As I got in my car to head the direction from which the storm had approached, weather forecasters on the radio warned more turbulent weather was on the way. 

On my way out of town I made a brief stop at Scooters for a large cup of dark roast coffee to go.  On my last trip through Scooters the people in front of me had paid for coffee for my wife and me.  I had declined to pay for the vehicle behind me when I found their bill was the better part of a twenty-dollar bill including tip, and my bill had been just under six bucks.  I had second-guessed my decision that entire day. 

Today I intended to make it up.

As I ordered my coffee, (three bucks) I glanced at the car behind me.  It was occupied by a single female.  When she had pulled into the line behind me earlier, she had blocked the lane for cross-traffic, a pet peeve of mine.  As I continued to watch, she lit a cigarette and talked into her phone.  Maybe not the person I would have chosen to buy coffee for, but I was committed. 

As I progressed in the line, I noticed the car behind the lady behind me was occupied by several people.  It was déjà vu all over again.  I was going to pay for her drink ($4.76).  Then she would ask how much for the car behind her and it was going to be twenty bucks.  She would be faced with the same dilemma that had troubled me the last time I visited Scooters. 

Or maybe not.  Based on her “I’m in a hurry” lane blocking, she might have just taken her free cup of coffee, exhaled a cloud of smoke, and sped away.

The important thing was that I had paid it forward and still had enough money for my trip.

Near Springfield, Mo, I decided to take a quick side trip and visit Fellow’s Lake.  That’s where the Marina was located from which Ben and I had rented aluminum rowboats and gone fishing many times. That was way back in the days of the Richard M. “Tricky Dick” Nixon Administration.

I drove slowly through the countryside as I neared the lake, savoring the trip down memory lane. 

A surprise awaited me.

As I pulled into the Marina parking lot, yellow tape blocked the concrete stairway to the lake.  The noise of heavy equipment from the direction of the Marina dominated the beautiful setting.  Peering through the trees down to the site of the Marina I saw a large machine rip up a section of the Marina floor and carry it aloft to a large, nearby dumpster.  The Marina was being demolished.

The Marina I remembered . . .

A slab of Marina flooring headed to the dumpster

All that was left of the Marina the day of my visit- Going, Going . . . Gone!

Maybe its my fault. 

The hospital where I was born?  Demolished.

The Church where my wife and I were wed?  Demolished.

The High School I attended? Part of the original building is being demolished even as I type this.

And now the Marina from which Ben and I launched many fishing trips, mostly on days when the fish were not biting? Demolished.

A new Marina is planned. It just seemed ironic that the very week Ben died they tore down the Marina that had been standing, actually, floating, since 1958.

Overhead the sky began to rumble.  I took a few pictures and got back into my car. On the radio was more talk of weather watches and warnings, flooding, damaging winds, and lightning.

By the time I reached Republic, Mo. it was raining so hard the windshield wipers were having a hard time keeping up.  The next 30 miles were similar to what I imagine driving 50 mph in a car wash would be like.  Following the instructions of Google maps, I turned onto HW 39 south at Aurora, Mo. 

The deluge continued unabated.  In some places water began to run across the road.  At one spot, I was carefully passing through standing water over the road when a large pickup pulling a large travel trailer came speeding around a sharp curve toward me, edging ever closer to the center line.  When the truck hit the water,  I anticipated the travel trailer might spin in my direction.  I am not sure what happened. As the truck hit the standing water it threw up a tremendous spray that completely obscured my vision.  The travel trailer prolonged the blinding spray of water.  

I braced for an impact that never came. 

There had to be some (very wet) angels protecting me. It wouldn’t be the first time.

I drove on.

When I was finally directed to turn west on 248 toward Cassville, the curvy road followed a ridge to my destination.  No more water over the road.  I made it without further incident.

As I pulled into the funeral home parking lot I reflected on the white knuckle drive.  At least, I thought, if that travel trailer had wiped me out it wasn’t too far to the funeral home.  

The rain began to slacken and I hurried to the front door of the funeral home.

The attendance at my friend’s visitation was not as heavy as I had expected.

A lot of sensible people had stayed home rather than brave the horrendous weather and treacherous roads.

Just goes to show Harry Truman knew what he was talking about when he observed, “It doesn’t matter how big a ranch you own or how many cows you brand, the size of your funeral is still gonna depend on the weather.”

Next up:  Ben Fine’s funeral. I lost a good friend – but I found two!

On the Road Again – Day 4

Fifty-Four Years of Entertaining the World (and each other)

Presley’s Country Music Jubilee in Branson, Missouri celebrates its 54th Anniversary next month. My wife and I rarely miss an opportunity to see the Presley’s Show. In 1967, I attended the show with my parents. Later with my wife, and then my wife and son, and later with my wife, my son, his wife and our grandkids. On this visit, my wife and I attended with our neighbors, Tom & Linda Block.

I think that qualifies as a family tradition.

My Favorite Visit to the Presley’s Country Jubilee

2017 marked the Golden Anniversary for Presley’s Country Jubilee. It was also Gary & Patty’s 50th wedding anniversary.

As they said in their advertising that year, “Now that’s a pretty good start!”

Gary and Pat also received a very special honor in 2017. They became the first husband and wife to be inducted into the Springfield, Mo. Public Schools Hall of Fame. I had the distinct honor of introducing them at that ceremony.

Here is a synopsis of what was said about them in the program and a short video featuring fellow Hillcrest students and celebrities alike

Branson’s first music theater opened 50 years ago and with it Gary and Patricia Presley launched a business and a partnership that would establish their family as a cornerstone of Branson’s entertainment and tourism industry.

Although Presleys’ Country Jubilee opened its doors in 1967 to entertain guests with a mix of comedy, bluegrass and gospel performances, Gary Presley, better known as the comedic Herkimer on stage, says it might never have happened had it not been for one fateful fire drill at Hillcrest High School where he ended up standing next to Patricia Adams.

The couple married a few months before the Presley family opened their theater along Highway 76—the glittering strip now crowded with theaters, restaurants and arenas. It was nothing more than a big metal box with folding chairs for 360 people. The show eventually gained national attention from television shows like “60 Minutes” and “Good Morning America” and today the theater seats 1,600 people and features three generations of Presleys. Gary and his brother Steve, who joined the show when he was 10, are the only original members still in the show. Patricia runs the front of house, managing anything and everything from customer inquiries to securing new costumes, which for the past 30 years have been made in Hollywood. 

The Presleys put on 230 live shows a year at the theatre plus 26 TV shows broadcast on RFD-TV to a weekly audience of 400,000 nationwide. 

I am proud to have been a friend and admirer of the Presley’s since they started this amazing journey. What they have accomplished is mind-boggling.

On this trip I got to visit the theater twice.

First to enjoy the show, and then the next day to attend worship services of the Freedom Fellowship Church which are held in the Presley’s Theater at 10 am every Sunday morning. Pastor Scott Presley delivered the inspiring sermon. I have never heard a better sermon while sitting in a more comfortable seat.

Congratulations to the Presley family on their astonishing accomplishments over the past 54 years and thanks for always, as Tim McGraw might say, staying humble & kind.

And now, in closing, here are some pictures of Patty & Gary from their years at Hillcrest High School in Springfield.

Patty, left, and best friend Wanda
Patty’s Senior Pic – Class of ’66
This is a picture of Gary with Ron Cordry. The caption states “Mr Ron Cordry, Freshman-Senior Counselor, seeks further information to advise Gary Presley on future plans.”
I wonder if Mr. Cordry advised him to open a music theater in Branson?
Gary in Action