My mother organized a Camp Fire Group in Kountze and any and all were welcome to join. We did many interesting things – camped out, appeared on Cowboy John show in Pt. Arthur and met on a regular basis at First Baptist Church. It was a good way to enjoy living in a small town.
The most memorable event for me was meeting Mrs. Frances Rhodes. By that time she was over 100 years old and lived with her daughter Mrs. Loftin. Mrs. Rhodes was bed ridden, unable to leave the confines of her home. I recall a tiny woman lying in a bed of fluffy blankets which all but obscured her. Mrs. Rhodes’ white hair was pulled back into a tight bun and her night gown clean and well tended . Her body was tired and worn but her mind was clear and concise and her memories of the American Civil War vivid. The Camp Fire Girls would stand at her bedside and find ourselves back in time – to days long ago. Back to the days when she was Frances Gay – daughter of Elizabeth and Solomon Gay.
Mrs. Rhodes described the Civil War as a terrible event in American history. So many died. So many suffered. Her own father fought and it was not known if he would return. Her mother kept a rifle beside the door but for the most part it was not needed. As soldier after soldier passed their home – it was obvious they were too weak to harm a woman and child.
Mrs. Gay would feed the veterans – and offer them a warm bed of hay in the barn to sleep on. All of the soldiers wanted to get home. All their clothes were threadbare which covered a body frequently scarred and painfully thin.
One soldier seemed to haunt Mrs. Rhodes. He arrived late one day – and asked for something to eat. Mrs. Gay offered him a fresh bed of hay to lay down on. He thanked her and promptly went to sleep. Mrs. Gay covered him with a quilt and later spoon fed him broth which she kept warm on the old wood stove. The next morning Mrs. Gay and her daughter found the young man had died during the night. No identification was found. The unknown soldier was buried with as much dignity as could be given the circumstances. As Mrs. Rhodes told this story her eyes filled with tears. The painful memory had not dimmed with time.
Mrs. Rhodes hoped her Papa would return. One day a man arrived, very thin, a full beard and a voice which seemed familiar. He claimed to be Papa but Mama was not sure. She made him shave first and soak in a bath – filled with lye soap. Mrs. Rhodes remembered his clothes practically crawled so her Mama picked the pants and coat up with a long stick and burned them. Fresh clothes were placed beside the bath. Once he had dressed and shaved it was clear Mr. Gay had come home. The family was reunited. Mrs. Rhodes said she had never been so happy.
Her Papa suffered ill health but with good care he began to improve and the memories of war were filled with the passage of time. Mrs. Rhodes grew up, raised a large family and lived to be five weeks shy of 104. When she died in February 1964 my mother, Wilma Laird and I went to her funeral. It was a rainy day but not cold. I remember standing under the canopy and watched her coffin lowered into the ground. I felt a sense of loss.
I met Mrs. Rhodes at the end of her life. She met me as I was still in my first decade. Our worlds were connected by a love of history. Our worlds were connected by the realities that courage is found everywhere – behind the smile of a young girl who lived in the American Civil War or in the life of someone who faced a different kind of adversity. When I see little old ladies with white hair – pulled back into a bun I remember Mrs. Rhodes and her incredible tales of the American Civil War.