Every once in a while, my Dad or I meet someone with an unusual question. It usually goes something like, “What happened to that holy woman who lived at Alma Heights? A long time ago, she walked down from the school one night and prayed for me. I’ll never forget her.” Then the person will recount a night from the 1970’s when they were partying on the lawn in front of the school, perhaps in the deep shadows of the big cypress trees.
Our family lived on the campus, in the white house up the hill above the school. My brother Joe and I were aware of the guys, usually older teens, who would sit in the dark down there. We called them “hippies,” a catch-all term replaced by “stoners” a few years later. Miss Stetson, our serene school principal, paid us a dollar each week for picking up bags of trash in front of the school. Sometimes we found beers cans that weren’t empty. I would pour out the nasty liquid, curious and fearful at the thought that someone like me could learn to enjoy something so vile.
We recognized the favorite spots of the “hippies” by the quality and quantity of the trash left behind. Usually it was down near the street under the cypress, but sometimes they must have wanted more privacy, because we would find evidence left further up the hill. There was a dark area hidden by a willow thicket with a tangle of blackberry thorns, poison oak, and an old native plum tree. We climbed the rickety tree to pick handfuls of the small fruit and sometimes paid for it with some stickers in hands and a poison oak rash the next day.
Just above the thicket was a steep bank with a small gap between young cypress that Dad had planted near our house. One summer, Dad set up an old green tent trailer from the WWII era in the front lawn and let Joe and me live out there so we could paint our bedroom. The painting went along at a snail’s pace. The longer it took us to finish, the longer we could sleep outside. Sometimes our wildest young friends, Scott and Nick, would stay over. We didn’t always get a lot of sleep those nights.
Scott had an amazing gift that kept us in somewhat of an uproar. It’s still a mystery to me, but Scott could apparently summon up an unlimited supply of farts. I was a little in awe of him. I would try to eat things that would help me match his output, but I’d have to fake flatulence by blowing on my forearm. Joe and Nick couldn’t do much better.
One night out in the tent trailer, we got a little more adventuresome as we considered the problem of the large supply of banana squash that my father kept stored in the firewood shed. Dad had a garden, and he planted lots of things we were glad to eat. He also planted okra one year, and Pastor Cather, Joe, and I conspired to divert the water away from the okra patch to prevent it from ever reaching our dinner table.
The second worst thing Dad planted was banana squash. Those squash were enormous. They fit in nicely with the firewood logs in the wood shed. We were a large family, but when Mom opened up one of those gigantic squash, she had a solid source of nutrition that could last us for days and days. She put slabs on a cookie sheet and baked them with a bit of butter and brown sugar on top. It smelled really nice in the oven, but it was a hard to eat a whole piece.
Joe and my little sisters complained about the banana squash, so Mom and Dad would require them to take a nice chunk and watch them fight through it. I was a little sneakier, so I pleased my parents by cheerfully taking large pieces of squash. The trick was to eat the sweet layer on top and then get the chunk into my pocket during an exciting part of the meal. I would then excuse myself to use the bathroom or to check outside for the newspaper or something. Even on warm evenings, I would tend to wear a loose-fitting jacket to dinner if I smelled banana squash baking.
I don’t remember which boy had the brilliant idea one night out in the tent trailer. It was an idea that solved a number of problems. We were annoyed with the hippies who left lots of trash down on the hillside by the school. We were annoyed with the banana squash. We were in need of something to do that was more entertaining than waiting for Scott to “rip another rouser.”
The inspiring solution was to take a banana squash or two from the shed, cut off ammunition-sized chunks, sneak over to the gap in the cypress trees, and fling the pieces over the willow thicket into the cluster of hippies. For added impact, we got out Taco, our little black dog with the big bark, to come out to chase the banana squash chunks.
I’ve tried to imagine what it might have felt like to be one of those hippies that night. I would guess that they weren’t really having all that much fun. They probably did not get to sleep out in tent trailers at night, and they probably were not required to eat home-grown banana squash by hard-working and devoted parents. They probably needed prayer. But we delivered chunks of squash and a crazy little dog that you could never quite see in the dark.
There was some cursing and then a rapid exodus from the target zone. Taco bounded joyfully up the hill, and the four of us were choking back excited bursts of laughter. I remember wondering if the hippies might get mad at us and counterattack. They seemed to embody everything evil, and we thought of ourselves as courageous to be taking them on at night with just some banana squash and a small dog. What if they came to find us? We couldn’t get Dad. He would find out about the squash.
The hippies must be in their 50’s or 60’s by now, and none of them have returned with stories about the night they were frightened off by a demon dog and somebody throwing vegetables. The story is of a holy woman and her prayers.
Miss Stetson knew about the kids, their substance abuse, and all the trash they left behind. Sometimes she would get a group of us children together on a Saturday morning. Then she would lead us around the campus, picking up bags of trash and praying for the “young people” who obviously needed to know Christ and His love.
One man recounted to Dad that he had frequently come with his friends to party on the hillside, and that a holy woman had suddenly but quietly arrived among their circle and asked, “Now wouldn’t it be good for us to read some Bible verses together?” She had opened the scriptures and read in her serene voice, and then she had prayed, and the prayer had a power that was something this guy had never known.
e remembered it decades later, and he was still alive in spite of a rough start, He believed that God had heard this holy woman’s prayer. Now he’s a Dad who prays with his daughter, and his daughter is the chaplain in our high school. She loves to pray with other students, some who have no one praying with them in their homes.