Hooter McCormick liked kids, and kids liked Hooter McCormick. Everybody knew that. But Hooter had to admit he was a little nervous about being put in a position to actually provide some formal education.
Of course, he wasn't nearly as spooked as some of the parents upon finding that Hooter was to be the substitute Sunday School teacher for their 3 and 4-year-olds until Lonny Johnson and his wife, Lucy, returned from an extended trip.
"Well, ahemmm," said Mrs. Womac, leading her granddaughter, Bailey, into the room. "Isn't this ahemmmm, isn't this a pleasant surprise. I just found out and I know ahemmm, you'll do a wonderful job."
"You coming down with something?" asked Hooter. He chuckled, knowing exactly the root of her discomfort. "Sounds like an old tomcat that can't quite spit out all the bones."
As Mrs. Womac was pinking up, Hooter added, "It's O.K. I know what you're worried about. I won't teach 'em anything they don't need to know."
"Ahhh, Ahhhhemmmmm. Yes, Hooter, indeed. I know that you'll do fine."
But all she could think about as she reluctantly let go of Bailey's hand and instructed her to mind "Mr. Hooter" was how Hooter and her own husband, Peetie had once gotten the entire community to picket not only this Rio Rojo United Methodist Church but also Apache Flats First Baptist--the only two churches within 90 miles--because of what they claimed in fliers at the time were: "Religious fools wagging the tail of the Truth."
That was in response to virulent membership campaigns each church was conducting, campaigns that were dividing each congregation and the community itself. Admittedly, it was a campaign both sides reckoned might have gotten beyond them when Elijah Davis, a member of the Baptist Church and the county's sole monument maker offered "Free engraving to the first 10 new members, whenever you need it."
Not to be outdone, Lonnie Johnson, owner of the local feed store and the current patriarch of a long line of Methodists that started with John Wesley himself, countered with, "50 Free Fly Tags to the First 20 New Members."
In disgust, Hooter and Peetie Womac had pasted the following fliers all over the county: "It's About Discipleship, It ain't About Membership. If you agree, come join us to fellowship and worship our Lord at the river each Sunday until these idiots discover that religion ain't mentioned anywhere in the Bible."
And, the community had turned out in droves for some good old-fashioned worship and praise music. The turnout was so strong that leaders of the local churches figured they'd better make amends while there was still something left to jingle in the collection plate.
Make no mistake, although there were few things Hooter took seriously wrapped in the mortal coils of earth, he believed in his Creator with all his heart and soul and in the Bible as a straight forward guidebook to life.
In fact, his aunt, Pinkie Finkelfrack, who invited him to substitute teach, long harbored the belief that Hooter would one day go to the seminary so that he might share his passion with others.
So, while Gladys Womac admired Hooter's conviction and that of her husband, she was more nervous that a settin' hen astraddle porcupine eggs at the methods they were willing to employ.
"Bye, bye, Bailey. Grandma loves you," said Mrs. Womac as if she might not ever see her towheaded granddaughter again.
"If you need anything, Hooter, or if you need anything Bailey," said Mrs. Womac with pleading eyes, "You know where to find me. I'm just a few steps away."
Angels Amongst Us
Finally, after similar conversations and emotional pleas from Delmar Jacobs' kid brother's wife--depositing Homer Jacobs; Jiggs Callahan and his wife--asking forgiveness from their only child, Luther as they backed away chalkier faced than a Charolais cow in a dust storm, finally Hooter had his class assembled.
Funny, Hooter thought, the only people who didn't make a big deal out of him taking the pre-school helm, the folks who actually seemed tickled he was there was his good old buddy Izzy Franklin who had dropped off his nephew, Fuzzy Franklin, a raven-haired, ebony-eyed lad of 3 who already had his uncle's bowling ball build. Then there was the widow, Claire Riggs, who had left off her 4-year-old daughter Katherine, whom everyone around town called Bugsy. Aside from her diminutive stature relative to her age, if there was a cricket, ant, spider, lightenin' bug or any other winged, multi-legged insect anywhere in the vicinity, Bugsy had it cupped in her soft little hands, giggling as she listened to it buzz, chirp or whatever else it might be doing to communicate back.
Widow Riggs was relatively new to the area, only a couple of years or so. Her husband, Danny, had brought his family from the Panhandle to go to work for the Blood Lake Ranch at the time. Folks around Apache Flats soon came to know him as a top hand with a ready smile and a family he doted on. Unfortunately, about a year after he came a horse wreck claimed his life. His widow stayed on at the ranch to cook and help with the books.
When Claire brought Bugsy, she said, "Now this is that nice Mr. McCormick. You remember him, don't you? I know you're going to have such a good time. Mr. McCormick, you have no idea how much I appreciate you being willing to teach our children."
As she said this, she'd given Bugsy's hand to Hooter and flashed a smile and sparkling green eyes that had Hooter seeing stars.
As Hooter was trying to figure out what to say, he felt a tug on his jeans. Bugsy was looking up at him, arms outstretched, the delicate smile of an angel on her lips. Hooter picked her up as his heart melted, while his mind raced to make sense of Mrs. Rigg's obvious trust.
"She's been around long enough to hear every story, true or otherwise, these old hens wanted to tell her. Yet she was so nice to me...hmmmm."
Learnin' By Educatin'
After a quick opening prayer, everyone holding hands, Hooter took a quick glance at the lesson plan Lonnie and his wife had left him, then he quickly abandoned it. Him and structure always mixed like PETA activists and common sense.
"I tell ya what, I don't know about you, but I always think better when I got something in my hands. What'ya say we get out some clay and make crosses you can take home while we find out what each other know about Jesus," said Hooter.
Even Luther Callahan, one of the oldest in the class, but also the most naturally bashful, seemed excited at the notion that he was going to get to play in church.
As Hooter sat the different cans of different-colored clay on the table, he asked, "Who can tell me about the cross, what it means, what it stands for...dive in, use any colors you want, however you want to make whatever kind of cross you want."
"I want to use red," said Bailey Womac.
"Me too," said Homer Jacobs, "And some of that purple."
"Like I said, use whatever you like. Be sure and share it, but there's plenty to go around."
Watching Fuzzy Franklin squash the hues of all eight colors into a big ball, pound it onto the table, then wipe his hands on his pressed white shirt, Hooter could hear Aunt Pinkie: "Do whatever you want, Hooter, but keep it clean and keep the kids clean. Surely even you can do that."
"How about you, Fuzzy. What can you tell us about the cross?"
"It's where Jesus died," said Fuzzy matter of factly, much more interested in the mountain of clay before him that he was attempting to scale with one of the dimes he'd brought.
"That's right," said Hooter. "That is where Jesus died on this earth. Do you know why he died there?"
"'Cause he got in a heap of trouble," said Fuzzy earnestly. "People didn't like him so they killed him and put him on a cross."
"That's close," said Hooter. "Anyone else?"
Homer Jacobs, wiped a sleeve across his nose, streaking blue clay after it. "I think it had somethin' do with him not gettin' the right animals on the boat and that made God mad," he suggested. "I'm thirsty, Mr. Hooter. You got anything to drink? Mr. and Mrs. Johnson always have something for us to drink."
"Maybe after while," said Hooter. He couldn't help but wonder how many time's he'd heard Homer's uncle, Delmar, ask the very same question. Delmar, bless his heart, nice as they came, lived in a sustained state of picklement.
"What about you, Luther. What can you tell us?" asked Hooter. Luther had hardly looked up from his work, crafting a cross of green that was meticulous in its proportion and detail--"Chip off the old block," thought Hooter.
"Mama just says it's all about hope and that I best not ever say anything bad about it," said Luther meekly.
"Yep, that's sure right," said Hooter. "What about you young ladies?"
Bailey Womac looked up from what could only be described as a spider-like clump of clay, a ball in the middle and legs of every length and thickness running everywhere. "See, Mr. Hooter, a sea monster."
"He looks plenty mean, too, Bailey," said Hooter smiling. "But what about the cross? What does it have to do with Jesus?"
Bailey squinched her brows in concentration. "It's got somethin' to do with sassafras and it makes my mama cry."
Hooter had to think on that for a spell. "Oh, I bet you mean sacrifice. Yep, that's exactly right. And, the thought of a man in human flesh giving his life for us, yep that brings tears to the eyes."
Hooter looked over at Bugsy, who was working diligently and quietly. "How about you Bugsy, what can you tell us about the cross and what it means?"
Bugsy looked at Hooter with that angelic smile, revealing her handiwork for the first time: a giant red heart.
"That's easy, Mr. Hooter. It's love. Mama says Jesus died there because he loves me just like I love you."
Amen, Bugsy, Amen.