Memories of confinement in summer vacation Bible school

Published 9:51 am Friday, June 26, 2015

Oh, dear. I think I’m going to step on some toes here. Don’t mean to — honest I don’t — but, really I don’t see how I can avoid it. You see, it’s all about summer Vacacation Bible School. Every year my siblings and I dreaded it. After all, we’d just been let loose from more than eight months of captivity behind a desk only to be forcefully shoved behind another one. I’ll grant you that Bible School was shorter in hours and days, but it was still confining. For us, summer freedom was short lived.

Peggy McLaughlin Keener, center right, is pictured with her siblings David, from left, Neil and Mary.  -- Photo provided

Peggy McLaughlin Keener, center right, is pictured with her siblings David, from left, Neil and Mary.
— Photo provided

Now I’ll grant you, there was no hard and fast law about attending Bible School, if we discounted being orphaned by our parents. No, it was lax compared to the iron clad laws that dictated the attendance in “real” school. But, then, real school was different. I loved that!

Yes, I did. Still, as much as I adored going to school everyday, I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit to a great and growing yearning that started to develop every year about the beginning of May. That’s when the big countdown began until summer vacation started.

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I had visions of such fun. It would start with abandoning our normal daily routine. No more rushed breakfast time in order to not be late for school. In its place my brothers, sister and I could mosey down to the kitchen and casually pour a bowl of cereal and milk. Well, actually that’s not altogether true for this more accurately describes how mornings went at our house during summer.

It was all about the milkman. If I wanted to have real 100 percent cream on my Rice Krispies—which I certainly did!—then I’d have to be up when the milkman arrived. This was early, but it was worth getting up for because there on the top of the bottle, encased in its own glass bubble, was pure cream. It was as if Nirvana had just opened the kitchen door and stepped inside.

For those of you who know what I’m talking about, you’ll shake your heads in wild acknowledgement of what I’m saying. For those who haven’t a clue, I will feel sorry for you until the day I die. Here’s the straight poop. If you’ve ever had the fierce desire to set off the true pyrotechnical power of snap, crackle and pop exploding in your cereal bowl, let me assure you that only real cream will do the job. And talk about flavor. It was like eating homemade vanilla ice cream made from fresh thick cream as compared to ice cream made from well water. Get it?

But, then, how did I drift so far from Bible School? Oh, that’s right … breakfast. Breakfast and Bible School. Trust me, even though school was out and we were into June there was no lollygagging over our breakfast cereal bowls because we had to get to church on time. The pressure was stifling. Also the air. There was no air conditioning in churches in those days. God hadn’t yet invented it for the faithful … like we were better believers if we sweated.

I think … no, I know … I loved summer vacation Bible School when I was really young. It made me feel mature and cool and really academic even though I did little more than color Bible story pictures. I think I even collected them in an archival album like they were holy proof of my scholarly endeavors. You know, documents I could show visiting relatives in the hopes they’d be impressed.

But, later on in grade school, things changed. What we four McLaughlin kids wanted when June rolled around was a deliverance from studies, not another form of scholastic bondage. Like our brains needed a rest from listening to a teacher tell us what was true and not true. Besides, unlike real school where we all learned the same thing, I had a sneaking suspicion that what the Baptists were teaching as truth might just be different from what the Lutherans were teaching as truth. Who were we kids supposed to believe?

Our Presbyterian righteousness came from Cora Dovenberg, our year-round Sunday school teacher. Miss Dovenberg was a tiny woman who appeared as fragile as a bird’s wing. I’m here to tell you it was all a façade for she had a control over us like the grip of a loading tractor fork. Miss Dovenberg was boss! Boss of us kids!

There was one thing in particular that she did which we all loved. In fact, we couldn’t wait until a year rolled by and we would have our chance at it again. The birthday lighthouse! In landlocked Austin, a lighthouse was truly a very wonderful thing. It conjured up all kinds of visions of pirates and sailors and rocky cliffs and storms at sea. And here, wonder of wonders, we had one in our own Sunday school class!

Miss Dovenberg’s lighthouse was creamy white and stood about 14 inches tall. It did look a little worse for wear as she had been using it for decades, and let me tell you, Miss Dovenberg was ancient! At the top was what looked to me like a kind of cage, but was actually the room where the lighthouse keeper sat. I could picture him vigilantly guarding us while we slept. (Well, not actually us for there was little fear of the East Side Lake causing such a disaster, but certainly guarding some imaginary people somewhere in a far off land.)

On our birthdays, we children were allowed to put pennies into a slot on the side of the lighthouse; one penny for every year of our new age. Each time a penny dropped to the bottom of the hollow lighthouse, a tiny light bulb momentarily flashed inside the cage. The effect on us kids (who, I guess, lived without a lot of magic), was … well … magical! I’ll be the first to admit, however, that it was a kind of bummer to be only five and therefore produce only five sparks of light, whereas on the other hand it was like the Fourth of July when we reached ten!

We four McLaughlin kids actually liked Miss Dovenberg despite her iron fist. I suppose in a way she was like a sort of grandma to us as we seldom saw the one we had. One time Miss Dovenberg had a splendid inspiration. Why not have the four of us perform? Why not? We would be a perfect quartet as we could all carry a tune. Additionally she would have the delight of arranging our four bodies in a stair-step grouping according to our ages. As we were all born within less than four years, the perfectly staggered appearance of our height would come over as masterful in front of the congregation. She set about shaping us into performers with the vengeance of a spider weaving a giant web with us kids bound tight in the center.

Of course her plan now meant we had to come to church not only on Sundays and during the week for Bible School, but also for frequent rehearsals of our gig. But, then unlike studying, singing was different. It was sort of (okay, a lot of) fun and who knows, Lawrence Welk might discover us? And even if he didn’t, we’d still look pretty cute standing there together … girl, boy, girl, boy in chronological heights and ages — 4, 5, 6, and 7.

Miss Dovenberg’s choice of a rhapsodic musical score was “Little Bird in Yonder Tree.” I can still sing it for you 72 years later. It will come as no surprise to you that Lawrence did not sign us on. This mattered not one iota to Miss Dovenberg. She had us perform whenever there was an unexpected slot that needed to be filled. The congregation must have gagged about the third time. “Oh, no, not those darned McLaughlin kids again!”

Secretly, though, I think Mom loved it. Too bad we were Caucasian. We might have become the Jackson Five! But, then, if I’m counting right, Mom would have had to hurry up and give birth again.