I remember riding the rolling hills of western Kentucky. Sometimes the slopes seemed long and low, sometimes steeper. Most of the trips I remember were from our home in eastern Todd County between Pembroke and Elkton over to Horton’s Chapel in Muhlenberg County. That’s where Dad preached for several years in my pre and early adolescence.
There were a couple of spots on that route where the hill was steep enough that cresting the top at road speed would give you that sweet little roller coaster lift of your stomach and other parts. I sometimes imagined going over those hills at eighty miles-an-hour and wondered if all four wheels would actually leave the ground. We moved away before I was old enough to check that but I wouldn’t be surprised if one of my older brothers could testify regarding the matter.
Apart from that small thrill, some of my favorite memories go back to those rides. Especially the ones in the dark.
Much of the time, it was just Dad and me on those preaching trips. Every Sunday morning, after the early milking and the cleaning up afterward, we’d head over to Horton’s Chapel Church of Christ. Mom and Paul would often stay at home to do the evening milking. Dad and I would spend the afternoon with one of the church families who would feed us dinner and supper.
After evening services, we’d head back home.
I loved the smells of the fields and farms: fresh cut hay, tasseling corn, honeysuckle. Sometimes, I’d stick my arm out the window and pretend my hand was an airplane. Tilting up or down, curving to one side or another. Sometimes Dad would tune in a ballgame on the radio, sometimes catch the news. Sometimes he’d turn off the radio and we’d sing church songs. Old hymns and some not as old.
We’d sing “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Tell Me the Old, Old Story,” or one of a hundred others. Dad was a good singer. He didn’t have an amazing voice but it was strong and solid and he never missed a note, whether he was singing lead or bass. (In his later years, the voice faltered a bit and he sometimes was off key, possibly a combination of old age and impaired hearing.) He also knew how to read shape notes and could sing some tunes by the names of the notes: “Mi, mi, ra, do; ra, ra, ra, ti, fa…” I may be wrong, but I think that was the start of “Leaning on Jesus.”
Whether my shape note recollection is accurate or not, I am quite sure that all those hours of a Capella music in the car helped me with more than learning how to sing. Those old hymns reinforced doctrine, offered encouragement and brought about an early awareness regarding mortality and accountability. To this day, I still find comfort and familiarity in them. And the singing gave Dad and me a closeness that I would seldom experience in any other way with him.
Headed through the night on our way home, able to see only a few hundred feet in front of us, we drove down those long slopes into the low parts along the creeks and ditches. With woods lining both sides of the road and the stars a vast canopy over us, we’d sing “We Are Going Down the Valley” through those darkest stretches, knowing that we’d soon be home.