Happy Fourth of July! Here’s an excerpt from Testament, An Unexpected Return as little Shiloh celebrates its 115th Independence Day Jubilee in new Priestly Park…
The Fourth of July in Shiloh!
The storm front blew over as predicted, allowing the sunshine to break through partly cloudy skies by the time we arrived at Priestly Park. “God Bless the USA” blared over the park’s public address system as we snaked through the growing crowd in search of our friends.
Bob “Bubba” Patterson and Cecil Chambers, owners of Bubba’s BBQ, along with Silas Thrope from the Butcher Shoppe, tended twin smokers that filled the air with the mouthwatering aroma of roasted pork. Beneath a red, white and blue canopy, Barbara Patterson, Cora Chambers, and Bernie Thrope readied themselves to sell their husbands’ highly anticipated, finger-licking fare.
I surveyed the sea of people until I locked onto Larry Scribner waving his arms. A minute later we set up our chairs between Larry, his wife, Martha and Sam and Susanna Simmons.
Martha snickered. “Would have thought Mary warned you to get here early. The whole town has been abuzz for weeks since the city formally announced the Jubilee’s new venue, especially after news got out about the park’s dedication ceremony.”
Liddy peered at me with a told-you-so sneer followed by a playful punch to my arm when I said to Martha, “Don’t blame her. I just didn’t expect this kind of turnout, but I’m glad to see it for Harold’s sake.”
Sam added, “Give poor Theo a break. This crowd is the biggest I recall ever attending a Jubilee. No doubt Harold’s vision for Priestly Park intended to give Shiloh’s annual Jubilee a shot in the arm.” He pointed at the building under construction with its steel skeleton cordoned off by yellow caution tape and bright orange plastic barrels. “Can’t wait to see the new community center when it finally opens.”
Liddy asked, “Has anyone seen Arnie and Judy? What about Zeb, Marie, and John?”
“Preacher’s over behind the grandstand with Judy, waiting for the ceremony to get underway,” Martha groaned, craning her neck, half-raised from her chair. “And there’s Zeb behind the pavilion leaning against his truck shooting the breeze with John and Marie.”
“Susanna, where’s Andy and Megan?” Liddy asked, eyeballing the crowd.
Susanna shrugged her shoulders. “Not sure, but they promised they’d be here.”
Liddy nudged closer to me and whispered, “Hal just pulled behind the grandstand driving Harold’s dually with Harold in the passenger seat, and parked beside Phillip’s red Wrangler.”
Sam jumped from his chair and whistled above the clamor of the crowd. Susanna stood as Andy and Megan appeared making their way around the throng of blankets and chairs.
Megan’s relaxed smile, ponytail, and makeup-free, suntanned cheeks presented a welcome contrast to the pretentious, prim and proper young woman we encountered only a few months ago. In place of high heels and glamor, she clung to Andy’s elbow wearing green and gold GCU warm-ups and a white cotton tank top. After we all exchanged hugs, Andy and Megan sat down beside Susanna and Sam.
Moments later, the shrill of a fife and a rhythmic drum cadence quieted the crowd before a voice barked, “For-ard harch!” Pete, Jay, and Jim marched abreast in step to the lead of the teenage fifer and drummer, all wearing Minutemen costumes. Jay and Jim held shouldered muskets on either side of Pete, who carried the American flag with both hands. The crowd came to its feet as the color guard approached the makeshift stage until Jay shouted, “Color guard, halt!”
Hal Archer stepped to the podium and invited Miss Phoebe Thatcher, the high school’s music director, onto the stage to sing the Star Spangled Banner. Arnie Wright followed with a prayer of thanks for our nation, community, and today’s Jubilee. Hal then welcomed everyone to Shiloh’s one-hundred-and-fifteenth Independence Day Jubilee and added, “Before we enjoy all this scrumptious food and the activities planned this afternoon, I’d like to introduce my father, our Mayor Emeritus, the Honorable Harold Archer.”
Harold rose from his seat and gripped the podium to steady himself. His baggy shirt and slacks affirmed rumors of his declining health. His voice cracked as he spoke. “Friends, fellow citizens of Shiloh, first of all, I want to thank you for allowing me the joy of witnessing my son serving as your new mayor. He represents the third generation of Archers to be so honored. But, that’ll be enough of that. There’s a far better reason I am here today. Would John Priestly and Marie Masterson join me?”
John escorted his cousin Marie onto the stage before Harold continued.
“Last December, I promised the citizens of Shiloh that I would build this park for our city right here on this picturesque site next to Shiloh Creek. I humbly stand before you, proud we’re celebrating this year’s Independence Day Jubilee on this property my family deeded to the city.”
Harold looked back toward the unfinished steel framework and pointed. “And, my son Phillip assured me that the new community center will be open before summer ends.” Harold smiled at Phillip who stood beside Jeannie Simmons in front of the stage. “With that assurance,” Harold eyed John and Marie by his side. “I now and forever more declare that Priestly Park shall henceforth commemorate the Priestly family’s contribution in making Shiloh a better place for our families to prosper.”
Harold picked up a plaque off the podium and paused as he cleared his throat. John stepped closer and patted Harold on his back. Harold took a deep breath and slowly exhaled before he continued. “I asked Missus Masterson and Coach Priestly as members of the Priestly family to accept our city’s small token of appreciation for all that their family has meant to our community throughout the years.” He handed the framed pewter plaque to John. “A larger duplicate of this plaque will be mounted beside the entrance to the Betty Priestly Community Center when it opens in the coming weeks.”
Hal returned to the microphone as Harold escorted John and Marie off the stage. He raised his arms to quiet the crowd’s applause. “I’ve been advised that the roasted pigs are about to be carved. Don’t forget to check the pavilion bulletin board for times and locations of this afternoon’s activities. Otherwise, please enjoy the day at Priestly Park and remember the fireworks will begin right after sunset.” Patriotic music returned across the public address speakers as Hal exited the stage.
Pete, still wearing his 1776 Minuteman outfit, appeared moments later with Mary and invited all of us to an area they staked off near Zeb’s truck behind the pavilion. We gathered our chairs and found John and Marie already chatting with Zeb’s sons, Jim and Jay. Zeb sat on his tailgate and offered everyone a cold drink from the ice chest in the bed of his truck.
# # #
Long after I confessed to eating way too much, I found myself surrounded by empty chairs. The grunts and moans of the more athletic, younger members of our group drew my attention to their heated volleyball game. Zeb and Sam refereed the match, standing on opposite ends of the net. Liddy and Marie had disappeared earlier to sign up for the annual egg toss, thanks in large part to the persistent goading of Megan and Jeannie. Although Judy, Martha, and Susanna urged me to watch, I opted to catch up with Arnie meandering toward the creek.
“You know we’re both missing out on the celebrated egg toss.” I leaned down and flung a couple of pebbles into Shiloh Creek. Arnie chuckled and skipped a stone across the surface.
“Hey Arnie, you’re closer to Harold. You’ve known him as his pastor for a long time. Is he going to be okay?”
Arnie reached for another stone and juggled the smooth tawny pebble between his fingers. “Not sure Theo. Just because I’m his pastor doesn’t mean I’m privy to know everything. I know, like you, that second trip to the hospital in January sucked the wind right out of his sails.”
“But is it just physical? I’ve hardly seen him around town since.”
“I’m not a doctor, but I believe a broken spirit can be as lethal as any heart attack. And, in Harold’s case, he’s experienced both. Since his release from the hospital, he’s spent every day cooped up in his study. He hardly drives anywhere anymore. In fact, last month when I visited Hank at the county jail I learned Harold hadn’t visited him since Hank and Megan’s divorce finalized in May.” With an extended sigh, Arnie chucked the stone skyward and watched it disturb the water’s calm surface.
“He sure looked washed out as he shuffled on and off the stage. I know he’s holed himself up in recent months, but I hoped he’d get better, not worse. I’ve not reached out to him as I probably should’ve, but I’m glad you’ve talked with him.”
Arnie gazed at the expanding ripples on the glistening creek’s surface. “Theo, I fear Harold’s never gonna get better. Even the doctors warned him that his tired ticker needs lots of rest and less stress. But what I am afraid of the most is that he’s convinced he failed Hank when he needed him most.”
The stone I fumbled with slid through my fingers and fell into the wet sand at my feet. “What can we do to help? He’s not been to church since he got out of the hospital either. Maybe Liddy and I should’ve made a better effort to visit him.”
“I’m not sure you and Liddy can do anything more except keep him in your prayers right now. Hal and Phillip keep a close eye on him and…” Arnie looked up with a partial smile. “You and I also know Maddie’s using her, well, her mother hen instincts to indulge Harold’s needs.”
I chuckled as I pictured the look on Maddie’s face sharing her hard-love quips meant to snap Harold out of his woebegone moods. “If Maddie’s struggling to nurse Harold back to health, how much good can we offer?”
“Of course, Harold did agree to take part today. Maybe getting around the town’s people and laughing again will help. I also think him seeing how Priestly Park turned out has helped too. Perhaps this Jubilee outing will galvanize his mental and physical recovery. If not…” Arnie went silent as he squatted at the water’s edge and stared at the far side of the sun-drenched creek. I squatted alongside and tossed another pebble to break his locked gaze.
Arnie flinched and looked at me. “I was thinking back on what you said about Harold’s sluggish appearance today. It made me wonder about his state of mind. When Hal and I first persuaded him to come, he seemed chipper enough and much more upbeat than he appeared today.”
“Do you think something happened in the last couple of days?”
“I don’t know Theo, but it wouldn’t hurt checking up on Harold before Hal or Phillip takes him home.”
“Before who’s going home?” A familiar deep voice reverberated behind us.
Arnie and I stood and stared at Harold’s weak smile directed at us.
Arnie stammered, “Didn’t hear you walk up, but we’re sure glad you decided to join us.” Arnie picked up a stone and flipped it toward Harold who instinctively snatched it out of the air.
I said as Harold matter-of-factly let the stone fall and brushed his hands off, “You sure must be proud of how the park turned out.”
Harold offered a tired grin. “Hal and Phillip made me feel very proud today. I just wish the community center could’ve been ready.” Harold paused. “So tell me, how have you been Theo? Haven’t seen hide nor hair of you lately.”
“Guess that’s my fault.” I concentrated on his face though his eyes focused on the ground. “I’ve not seen you around town either, but I should’ve visited you long ago.”
Harold mustered a forced grin, but his hesitant look revealed the truth. “Not a problem Theo. I haven’t felt too sociable lately either. How’s that book working out?”
“Mary’s delivering the manuscript to Cornerstone Monday. Barring any unforeseen issues, books should be off the presses and arrive well in advance of Larry’s advertised book launch shindig before Thanksgiving. I reckon you’d like to know how it turned out?”
Harold nodded with a curious shrug.
“I chose not to dodge the truth about Hank’s mistakes, but in the epilog, I added how our country has failed to adequately care for our veterans, especially those coping with underlying mental health symptoms of PTSD.”
Arnie added. “Theo’s done a masterful job based upon what little he’s allowed me to read. He treated all the victims in Jessie’s Story with the greatest respect.”
Harold’s dark eyes looked up. “I’ve got no doubt, Arnie.” He rested his right hand on my shoulder but turned toward Arnie. “Preacher, do you know what a banshee is?”
Arnie stared back, speechless.
Harold squeezed my shoulder as he asked me, “Do you?”
“Some kinda witch, I think, or something ominous like that,” I replied with one brow arched.
“I dreamt, or at least believe I dreamt, that a banshee visited me last night. She wore a dark, hooded cloak that covered her face and wailed three times from the foot of my bed, ‘Death awaits. Get ready.’” Harold looked right through me as he spoke. “It brought back memories of my grandpa’s tales about a banshee’s visit days before his father passed. Though my father dispelled my grandpa’s tale as hogwash, I can assure you that I awoke in a cold sweat this morning.”
Arnie asked, “Couldn’t you make out the face beneath the hood of the cape?”
“Not really, but she, and it was a woman, seemed familiar, but she never answered when I asked.”
“Did she say or do anything more in your dream?” I asked.
“No, but she pointed directly at me before she spoke her final warning and disappeared.”
“Harold, this sounds like nothing more than a nightmare,” I said as I patted his hand still clenching my shoulder moments before I sensed a slight wobble in his stance.
Harold wrinkled his face. “I just can’t shake the chill it gave me.”
“Let’s head back up before someone wonders what happened to us,” Arnie suggested as he took a position on the other side of Harold. We walked together back to the pavilion ready to steady Harold if needed.
Hal met us near the pavilion. “Dad, you feeling okay?”
Arnie laughed. “Hal, I think your dad’s just a bit tuckered out. You might want to run him home.”
Phillip ran up as Hal drove off with Harold in the passenger’s seat. “What’s up? Is dad okay?”
“He’s just tired,” I answered. “By the way, did he share with you anything about a dream he had last night?”
Phillip’s head swayed with a puzzled look. “No, but he seemed lost in deep thought during breakfast. What dream?”
“Just a dumb dream that caused him to lose some sleep. He’ll be fine after he gets some rest. I think today took a lot out of him.”
“You’re right, I’m sure.” Phillip laughed. “You missed the tug-of-war and egg toss. Zeb, Bubba, and Silas got Mister Simmons and Mister Scribner to join Hal’s team to take on my team with Pete, Jay, Jim, and Coach Priestly. I couldn’t believe it. Those old men whooped us! More importantly, you better find Miss Liddy and Miss Marie. They won the egg toss.”
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God bless, America! And, God bless, our love of small town traditions and heritage. T. M. Brown