Most of the kids from my generation grew up in rather conventional houses. My brother and I were so fortunate to have a unique experience. We happily spent our early years living in the beautiful, old parsonage of a country church, in a tiny little Eastern Washington town.
My Daddy was the pastor of a Lower Naches, Washington church in 1951-1954. I believe he succeeded Rev. Ralph Hetrick as pastor. The church was called Lower Naches Congregational. My brother, Al III, and I lived with my mom, Jeannie, and dad, Al, Jr., in the parsonage — a huge, old, white, three-story house located near the simple yet beautiful, ancient church. I lived in that old house from the age of two to almost five, and I remember this.
The church and parsonage was situated on a large parcel of land. The location was very much in the “country”. On our land grew five aged, beautiful black walnut trees, which our family loved. They were just huge, and they provided us with cool shade on those hot Yakima Valley summer days. Each year at harvest time, we ate delicious, strong-flavored black walnuts. If you haven’t tasted black walnuts, they’re really something. They grow in a husk, which must be opened in order to get at the nut. In doing so, you get the material in your fingernails, and you smell like black walnut husks all day! — One day, around 1953, without warning, some men came to our home, bringing with them huge saws, and they cut all the trees down. We boys were shocked, and we never knew why this happened. Even Daddy was surprised to see this take place. We were very sad. Apparently the church board hired the men without telling Daddy.
Next to the church was a huge, grassy pasture which the church rented out to an old man who kept two huge draft horses. They scared my brother and me, because they appeared so large and powerful. They didn’t seem very friendly — at all. Their hooves alone, were amazingly large. We never tried to feed or pet the beasts. — I wonder how many people have seen a draft horse in these modern times except on TV?
Behind the church was a beautiful field of wildflowers. I remember skipping, running through the field, singing little made-up songs. And, nearby lay a wooded area, which I visited every day, with Al III, my dog, Romper, or by myself. I’ve always enjoyed my alone time, visiting the natural world.
I remember a few neighbors, including a very old man living down the road, who owned a rundown, black, Model T Ford “tin lizzie”. That rickety auto was one of the first vehicles I remember riding in. It was not restored, or a “collector” car. It was just his transportation. I remember how it shook when the old-timer started it with a crank.
I do remember a couple of family names from Lower Naches Congregational: Assink and Aller. I recall a girl named Macile Assink, and her parents, George and Nellie. Nellie just passed away in September, 2014. She lived a very long time! I also remember the Aller family, who had a pretty, blond daughter named Patty. That’s about the only names I recall. I do remember that a boy my age lived across the street from us, and he had, not a pedal car, but a pedal airplane. Sadly, though, it hung from the ceiling in the family garage, and it was never ridden! What a waste. I remember the boy was still learning how to talk. He would say, “Jhzeese are my overjhzalls” (not easy to spell!), meaning he was referring to his little Oshkosh B’gosh overalls.
My brother and I rode tricycles around our property. We weren’t big enough for bikes. One day, I was riding my trike near the cellar steps of the parsonage. I got too close, my three-wheeler tipped over, and it dumped me to the bottom of the stairwell. I knocked myself out. When I regained consciousness, my brother was kneeling next to me. He walked me to Daddy and Mom, and told them where he found me. After a lot of hugging, cooing and fussing over me, I was offered an Old Henry candy bar. Well, my head was aching and brain was clouded, and I declined the offer. Fifteen minutes later, when I was feeling a little better, I asked for it, but since I hadn’t wanted it, Al III ate it. – Years later, when people would ask me, after knowing me a while, if my Mom dropped me on my head when I was a child, I was able to say, “No, I did it myself.”
We had one more family member: the world’s sweetest dog, a red cocker named Romper. When folks would ask why we called him that, I’d say, in my 3-year-old manner, “Because he womps awound so much!” And he did. No one leashed their dogs in the early 50’s, especially in the country. Romper had the run of the countryside. Unfortunately, one day, he crossed the street and went to our not-so-friendly neighbor’s house, where he hurt a baby chick while playing with it. — An unleashed dog and a free-running chicken equals trouble! The neighbor brought the chick over and showed Mom; he was furious. Mom put it in a cardboard box and nursed it for a couple of days. She did everything a Tennessee-born woman could think of to heal a baby chick; but in the end, it died. Our neighbor ordered us to get rid of Romper, or he said he would call the cops. Well, Daddy was a minister; he always tried to do the right thing. So he took Romper to the “pound” in Yakima. We were sad little boys. Our best pal was gone. But one day, a month later, there was a scratching on our back screen door. It was an old, ragged, cockle burr-ridden spaniel. I tried to pet it and it nipped at me, something Romper would never ever do. However, Dad said, “It’s Romper!” It turned out, he had found his way back to the parsonage and his beloved family. But he had lost most of his hearing, and he was permanently worn out – at 3 years old. Well, a couple of weeks went by, and one Sunday afternoon, right after church, we found our little dog, asleep out back. But he would not, and did not wake up. My folks said our neighbor did it.
The church was very old; it was the traditional white church with the steeple. Daddy would climb the stairs to the steeple and ring the bell every Sunday, or whenever services were scheduled. I remember him letting me ring the bell sometimes! When we were little boys, my brother and I would play in the pews during the worship service which Dad led. I recall stacking up hymnals, and moving them around on the big, beautiful wooden pews. But as I grew a little older, I listened more and more to Daddy’s sermons, and I began singing the hymns, which I grew to know and love. My love of and my expertise in singing, sprang out of that little country church.
The large, old, white-painted parsonage had many rooms, with a big fireplace and mantle in the living room, and several bedrooms upstairs. There was a third-floor attic which we loved to visit with Mom. Way downstairs was a huge, dank-smelling basement with a cold cement floor. We rarely played in the basement. Everything in the house was big. Huge staircases. Huge beams, huge moldings. The house was probably built in 1910, or even earlier. I believe the church was of the same vintage. But I am just guessing, to be honest….
The church had plaque on the wall which featured movable numbers, which Dad used to record information such as the number of members, the number of attendees at the previous week’s service, the amount given in the offering plate. I remember the church had a silver Communion service, complete with tiny glasses into which church ladies poured a small amount of grape juice. Dad used simple saltine crackers, which he broke up, for the bread. I remember him leading the Communion service many times during my childhood. I always loved taking Communion. Dad invited all believers to take Communion. He did not practice what is called closed Communion, where only church members can partake.
A couple of the men of the church would stand in the aisle and pass offering plates during the service. While the plates were passed, Dad led the congregation in singing the Doxology, written by Thomas Ken in 1674: “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow….”
I remember the church choir, and the elderly lady who played piano to accompany its songs. The piano was an old upright, and it had that slightly tinny, out of tune sound which you may imagine it would have. But it was a beautiful old instrument. I loved to “plunk” on its ivory keys. Another musical treasure was a vintage pump organ, which was placed in Dad’s study, rather than in the sanctuary. Apparently, it had been retired…. My brother and I would sit and play that organ for what seemed like hours. We were so small that one of us had to work the pedals to provide air for the reeds, while the other one “played” the keys. We pushed and pulled on all the draw bars. We didn’t know how to play, but we had so much fun making sounds!
Christmastime was always very special at the church and parsonage. Church ladies would decorate the sanctuary so beautifully. The choir and congregation would sing wonderful Christmas carols to the accompaniment of the old piano. And, Mom and Dad purchased a manger scene for Christmas 1952, which they arranged on the fireplace mantle in our home. The inexpensive manger was made of cardboard, and the figures were simple chalk figures. The manger has been in my possession for years, and I display the animals, the angels, the wise men, and Mary, Joseph and Jesus, all made of painted chalk, every Christmas. (I am thinking back: it’s possible my Grandpa and Grandma Bowles, from the “big city” (to us) of Spokane bought us and my Dad’s brother’s family the mangers. — If this is the case, I wonder if Uncle Ray’s kids still have theirs?)
Those childhood years I spent in Lower Naches were some of my best. I’ll always have happy memories of living in the country among the wildflowers and woods, playing with Romper, ringing the church bell in the steeple, worshiping with my neighbors every Sunday, and then each winter, celebrating Christmas in the most beautiful and loving setting.
As I sit here in my apartment in Seattle’s densely-populated lower Queen Anne district, typing on a laptop, which itself is old school in 2016, I see the many changes which have taken place in the world; in yours and mine. I realize I have helped make some of those changes. So have we all. Sometimes, it’s difficult to make the adjustment; but with change comes growth, progress, and new learning. We no longer drive around in tin lizzies, medicine has made miraculous advances, the struggle for human rights moves forward. We are a world comprised of all sorts of people, we all have our own story. Mine is just one among billions!
In the 1960’s, when I was a young teen, my family was invited to travel to Lower Naches to participate in a mortgage burning ceremony at the old church. I remember going there with Daddy, Mom and Al III, and being flooded with memories. Yes, the old church was still there, and so was the parsonage. The church may have been added-on to, but it stood. Daddy spoke from the altar for a few minutes about how wonderful it was to have the mortgage paid off.
A new structure eventually took the beloved old church’s place, and it was given a new name: Memorial Bible Church. I reached out to the congregation recently, but didn’t get much of a response. They were probably wondering, “Who is this old man?”