My brothers and sisters and I were playing one day beside the small creek that bordered the back yard of our 11th Street house. Some black children who lived behind us also came down to the creek that day. A stretch of woods separated their house from the creek. From our yard, we could barely make out where they lived, up the hill, through the trees.
I didn’t see those children often because their mama didn’t allow them to go into the woods. However, that day they had slipped down to the creek and we played together for a while. They told me that our family was poor, which was news to me.
I had heard of poor people but it never occurred to me that we might be counted among that number. I saw nothing poor about the fact that there were ten of us living in a two bedroom house. I thought poor people were like the men who slept in the hobo jungle over by the railroad tracks. Sometimes one of them would come and knock on our door to ask Mama for something to eat, which she always gave them. I had also seen poor people scavenging in the city dump over in Gum Hollow, when I had gone there with Dad to carry a load of trash. We weren’t like that; we weren’t poor.
Still I wondered, so I went into the house and asked, “Mama, are we rich or are we poor?”
“Oh, we’re rich, Son,” Mama said. “We don’t have a lot of money but we’re rich in many ways.”
“Like what, Mama?”
“We’re rich in love; I’m rich in children and you’re rich in brothers and sisters,” Mama said. “And we’re rich in books.”
Rich in books; I liked that. Mama was right about it. There were literally thousands of books in our house, far more than any of our friends had. From a very early age I had been taught to love and respect books. I ran out of the house and down to the creek bank. Cupping my hands like a megaphone, I yelled at the top of my lungs, up toward my little friend’s house. “We’re rich in books! We’re rich in books!”
Dad was, and is, the most obsessive bibliophile I have ever known. His personal library, at its peak, numbered more than six thousand volumes, and they were all organized and lovingly cared for. There were books everywhere in our house, and lots more at his office.
As an editor, Dad was fortunate that almost every Christian publisher in America sent him review copies of everything they printed. But he also bought books -- lots of them. In addition to Christian books, our family library also contained most of the classics, reference works, including three different sets of encyclopedias, many history books, hundreds of books for children and youth, and lots more.
Our library was legend in our town. There were times, both at Mayfield Elementary and at Bradley High School, when teachers couldn’t find what they were looking for in the school library, so they asked one of us children to check and see if we could find it at our house. Often we could. Even the Cleveland Public Library was known to call Dad and see if he had a certain book which wasn’t on their shelves.
Before we children could read, Mom and Dad would read to us. Mom had a ritual for celebrating the first frost every autumn. On that day, she would gather us children around her and read from a book of poetry by James Whitcomb Riley: “When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock….”
I loved that poem and looked forward to the first cold snap every year so I could hear Mama read it again. There were other poems in that book which I knew by heart, such as “Little Orphant Annie,” and “The Raggedy Man.”
As soon as a few of us older children learned to read, Dad set up a program to encourage our reading habits. Every book in his library was classified and we were rewarded from one to ten points for each one we completed. Mom and Dad kept a careful record and we were given a penny for each point. A children’s book under 50 pages got one point. A novel over 100 pages brought a nickel, and a longer non-fiction book could fetch up to a dime. Since we never got an allowance, reading books was my chief means of earning money until I got my first job at age 10. There were also other ways we were encouraged to read -- like having siesta.
Dad returned home once from a missionary trip to South America and called a family meeting. School had just been let out for the summer and Dad informed us we were going to begin a new family tradition -- one he had learned about on his trip. It was called "Siesta." Beginning that very day, and until the first day of school in the fall, we would observe Siesta every Monday through Friday.
Siesta was scheduled from 1 p.m. until 3 p.m. There would be no playing and no talking. We had only two options; we could take a nap or we could read. I never knew of anyone to sleep during that time except Mom and maybe the babies. All of us children read, both from the family library and books we checked out from the Cleveland Public Library. In the course of a typical summer, each of us would read several dozen books.
Most comic books were not allowed in our house. Superman and other super heroes were too violent. Cowboy comic books had shooting in them, and we weren’t allowed to play with toy guns, or read about cowboy guns. Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were forbidden because of their foul language. Those cartoon characters frequently used words like “Gee, Golly, and Gosh,” which Mama said was just a different way of saying Jesus or God. We couldn’t read anything that took the Lord’s name in vain.
Of all the books in our house, the Bible was number one. When we were very young, Dad told all of us children that he expected us to read the entire Bible through before we reached our 12th birthday. Upon completion of reading the Bible cover to cover, we were to be awarded the princely sum of $10, which was much more money than I had ever had at one time in my whole life.
On the evening of my 10th birthday, I began reading the Bible through, and it took me more than a year to complete it. At Dad’s suggestion, I read the New Testament first, and then went back to the Old Testament. I read it all in the Authorized King James Version. I was aware of a few other translations in existence, like the Moffat Bible which I sometimes heard preachers quote, but the King James was the only Bible readily available, and it was considered the most reliable.
Dad’s idea to read the New Testament first was a good one. I enjoyed reading the Gospel accounts of the miracles of Jesus, although I had already heard all of it before in church and Sunday School.
The Old Testament was more difficult for me to understand. I got bogged down in all the genealogies, and some of the blood and gore and sex scenes were things I didn’t hear preached about too often in church. The Bible was the only book I could read that had violence in it. I plodded through and earned my ten dollars before I turned 12.
Not only did we children read the Bible, but we memorized huge chunks of it. Even before we could read, Mother would spend hours with us children, teaching us by rote to recite many of the Psalms and other favorite passages from both the Old and New Testaments. We were rewarded for quoting Bible verses from memory. Depending on the length, we might be given a nickel or a dime for a passage of Scripture.
Once, in preparation for a statewide Bible quiz for the Church of God in Tennessee, I memorized the entire books of II Timothy and Titus. I took the top prize for the North Cleveland district and made it to the state finals in Daisy, Tennessee. I lost out to another contestant when I had a mental block while standing in front of the big crowd.
When I was six, the summer before Paul and I started first grade, we learned the books of the Bible. One morning at church our Sunday School superintendent, Brother Bridges, announced a contest. He held up a five dollar bill and said that in two weeks he was going to give that very five dollar bill to the youngest Sunday School scholar who could stand up in front of the church and recite, in order, the names of all 66 books of the Bible.
I immediately had mixed feelings. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that I could memorize the Books of the Bible if I wanted to, even though I couldn’t read yet. The problem was Paul. He was almost 11 months younger than me and if he decided to memorize them too, I wouldn’t have a chance. There was only one prize and it went to the youngest.
Walking home from church that afternoon I asked Paul, “Are you going to learn the books of the Bible?”
Just as I feared, he was, so that left no hope for me. I immediately abandoned the idea of even trying. If I did learn the books of the Bible, I couldn’t make myself younger than Paul.
About a week later, Paul could recite the entire Old Testament and was closing in on the New. On Monday evening, he stood in front of the family at our devotional time and recited all the way from Genesis to II Corinthians.
Dad turned to me and asked, “What about you, Stephen? How many of the books can you recite? Are you going to try to win the five dollars?”
Why should I learn any of the books of the Bible? There was absolutely no incentive for me to do so. Paul was going to win that five dollar bill and there was no way I could beat him -- not even if I quoted the books of the Bible backwards, while I stood on my head and gargled peanut butter at the same time -- naked. Paul was younger than me and I didn’t have a chance.“I can’t name any of them,” I told Daddy.
After devotions, Dad called me aside and said how disappointed he was that I wasn’t going to try to win the contest. I thought Dad was either really stupid or that he thought I was. I tried to explain to Dad that Paul was going to win the contest, and there was no use in my trying. I just couldn’t get him to understand. He ordered me to learn the books of the Bible whether I won a prize or not.
For the next five days, I studied the books of the Bible with Mom. Paul and I also studied them together. By that Saturday night, I stood up in family devotions and recited all 66 of them, with only one quick gasp for breath after Malachi. I fervently hoped that Paul would wake up Sunday morning with the flu, or maybe measles.
The next day, at the closing exercises for Sunday School, in front of the whole North Cleveland Church, Brother Bridges asked all of the boys and girls who had learned the books of the Bible to rise to their feet. About a dozen of us stood.“
Wonderful! Now all of you who are more than 12 years old, please be seated.” Three older kids sat down.
We lost a few more successively when he called for those who were 11, 10 and 9. After a couple of 8-year-olds were eliminated, only Paul and I remained. I still stood my ground while Brother Bridges called out, “Any seven-year-olds?” But when he asked for six-year-olds, I had to sit down. Paul stood alone at age five, beaming from ear to ear.
Brother Bridges called Paul up to the platform and asked him to face the congregation. Paul quoted the books of the Bible flawlessly. The whole church cheered when he was awarded the five dollars.
That afternoon when we got home from church, Dad and Mom called me and Paul together and did something I thought was a bit unfair, but I was still very glad they did it. They told Paul that since we both had memorized the books of the Bible, and since we were brothers and also the two youngest standing, he should share the prize. Paul got three dollars for first place and I got two dollars for coming in second.
Another reason we children spent so much time reading is because we didn’t have a television in our house. Dad wasn’t one of those hard-line Pentecostals who thought television was a sin. He enjoyed watching TV, but he and Mom agreed that having one in the house would be a detriment to family life. They did not get their first television until after I was grown and had moved away from home.
In the beginning, we didn’t have a television because none was available. I remember when the first television station went on the air in Atlanta, Georgia, 120 miles south of Cleveland. Only two people of my acquaintance got TV sets then. One was Bill Vest, who owned Vest Grocery, and the other was Lee Bell, who was a member of our church and a friend of our family.
To pull in a signal from Atlanta required a very tall tower, set up with guy wires, which also necessitated a considerable outdoor space. A rooftop antenna wasn’t powerful enough do the job.The first program I ever remember seeing was a Georgia Tech football game at Lee Bell’s house. Since Dad was a big Georgia Tech fan, Brother Bell invited us over on Saturdays whenever a game was televised. All television was black and white then, and the best picture we could pull in was often fuzzy or snowy.
A few years later the first station came to Chattanooga, and very soon thereafter there were three Chattanooga stations. Almost everybody in Cleveland got a TV then. All that was required to bring in a clear signal from Chattanooga was a rabbit ears antenna which sat on top of the television set.
Whenever one of us children asked when we were going to get a television, Dad’s standard answer was that we would get one as soon as all twelve children had each read all 6,000 books in our library.
Although we didn’t have a television, we did have a high fidelity record player, and Dad had a large collection of 33 rpm records -- mostly classical. Some of my friends referred to our house as Conn’s Library and Hi-Fi Shop. Dad tried, with limited success, to instill in us children an appreciation for classical music.
Elvis Presley became very popular when I was a pre-teen, but Dad wouldn’t allow any of his “vulgar” music in our house. I did listen to Elvis on the radio in my room sometimes, along with other singers like Jerry Lee Lewis and Pat Boone. I enjoyed the vintage rock-and- roll, as did my siblings. Paul once dared to smuggle into the house a 45 rpm single of Elvis singing “Heartbreak Hotel.” Unfortunately, Dad found the record, confiscated it, and we never saw it again. He felt it was his duty to guard us children against such unwholesome influences.
One day Mom got a new automatic washing machine to replace her old Wringer Washtub. The new one had a round glass front door through which you could see the wash cycles. It was a fascinating sight to behold. I thought that washing machine looked a lot like a big white television set -- and in living color too. Color television wasn’t even available yet.
I sat and watched that washing machine go through its cycles, timing each one of them. Then I listened to a couple of my favorite records in Dad’s collection: the William Tell Overture and the Grand Canyon Suite, noting the time of each movement. I particularly liked the William Tell Overture because a portion of it was used as the theme for The Lone Ranger, a program I listened to on the radio.
From these elements, I put together a program and then gathered all my brothers and sisters around. Putting a load of laundry in to wash, I turned on the record player, setting the wash cycles to music. I played the “Cloudburst” movement of the Grand Canyon Suite during the rinse cycle and when the spin cycle kicked in I had the William Tell Overture blasting, with the Lone Ranger riding into the sunset. Now that was entertainment!