Angels in Action: the Fire Tower

My fourth and fifth years were special, but then, it seems to me that most children are particularly radiant at that age. So much so, in fact, that I have come to believe we all enjoy a brief but magical “golden time” when our angels are allowed to be both especially active and unusually communicative; a time when we might even, under the right circumstances, embrace them as friends. But, at best, and even if I’m right, it is a fleeting season that can only begin once we have developed a working vocabulary – say around three-and-a-half – and necessarily ends when we cut our own cord – set sail upon the course of our own determining – by making our first fully-informed moral choice between right and wrong; that very day – say around the fifth birthday – when we become “mind-full” enough to begin our dance with God, thereby signaling that the time has come for our angels to back away and give us enough room to dip, twirl and sway with Him as, from that point on, we do what we will do.

I have already told you the dramatic story[1] of how, when I was four, I first heard what I believe to have been the voices of my angels as they moved me off the prow of Daddy’s motorboat , and, further, the tale[2] of how, a few months later, Jesus and I became friends when I and my “imaginary” little-old-British-lady friends, Mrs. Seafey and Mrs. Cocktif – also, surely, my angels – invited Him to join us around my child-size tea table. But, like all good stories, our utterly real (to me) association had not only a beginning and a middle, but an ending, as well – or transition, really – so today I’m hoping to round out my memories of those “golden years” with this telling of how I literally heard my angels speak to me for the last time before they took their place behind the veil, from where they have ministered to my evolving soul ever since (and even as I write this, I can sense their smiles).

In describing the lush Bankhead National Forest in which we lived, I earlier said, “think Hansel and Gretel and you’ll have it exactly,” and that is surely true, but perhaps it undersells the true specialness of that time and place. There were few more verdant or simple places on earth than our surroundings in those years, and it was rich with the glory of God. So rich, in fact, that I was delighted but not surprised when the author James Redfield (The Celestine Prophecy) set his moving sequel, The Tenth Insight,[3] in the Sipsey Wilderness Area just up the road from Grayson, presumably to take his readers to the most aboriginal, untouched forest conceivable; a place where spiritual inspiration and deep thinking about God, nature and their relationship to each other were impossible to avoid and could most easily be nurtured.

Just one of thousands of great photos of the Bankhead Forest that you can find on line. A truly special part of the world. (Photo: Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area)

Just one of thousands of great photos of the Bankhead Forest that you can find on line. A truly special part of the world. (Photo: Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area)

To live among those Appalachian foothills was to breathe deeply of pine, sweet gum and sassafras and feast on persimmons, chinquapins, mulberries and figs. It was to walk beside rocky streams bouncing happily down slippery granite scarps adorned with clumps of fiddle-head ferns and Day-Glo moss made brilliant where the sun shone through. And, ultimately, it was to dismiss the notion that such abundance and range of beauty could ever have simply happened because a few amino acids in some grey primordial goop accidentally joined forces a billion years ago. Though my early calculus had very little to do with the enchantment of my surroundings, the setting was certainly conducive to spiritual exploration since it beggared belief that any force other than a great and benevolent First Cause could have conducted nature’s orchestra so adroitly.

For the first three years of my life, we lived in a bungalow right by the side of the mill yard, but when Mr. Clancy, who owned the mill, moved to Decatur, about an hour away, he offered his big white house on the hill to us, and we gratefully moved out of the cinders. The main road through the Forest ran right past our new front yard, and just a few miles north of us was a classic fire tower

The fire tower that was up the road. (Undated Postcard (looks 50s to me) from the Ron Kemnow Collection)

The fire tower that was up the road. (Undated Postcard (looks 50s to me) from the Ron Kemnow Collection)

that I had been eyeing ever since Daddy had told me about going up into it to during forest-fire season. A sturdy but simple steel frame about twelve stories tall that rose far above the trees the skeleton supported a little hut in the shape of a Monopoly house, just big enough for a couple of people and the fire-spotting equipment. I knew that Jerry Lethcoe, the Forest Ranger in those days, was in charge of it and – emboldened by the fact that he was also our new next door neighbor –as we drove past it one day, I asked if I could climb it.

“No, Tommy,” Mama said. “You’re too young.

“Well,” I said, “when will I be old enough?

“When you’re five,” one of them said.

“You promise?” I asked.

“When you’re five,” Daddy reinforced Mama, assuming that was the end of the matter. I was, after all, their first child, and I don’t think they really appreciated just how young I would still be at age five. And, even if they did, I was only three at the time and I’m sure they thought I would have long forgotten the conversation by then. Of course, every time we passed that tower for those two years, I remembered their promise, but I already had learned enough to know that it would be unwise to mention it further, so I kept my peace.

As it happened, my fifth birthday fell on a Wednesday, so I made sure get an early start. I knew we would need at least an hour and Daddy would have to go to work around eight, so I planned to be up by six. I have no idea how I managed to wake myself, but I did. I dressed, put on my shoes and jacket and when I was ready to face the challenge of the day, I proceeded into the kitchen, where my parents were having breakfast.

“Well, Tommy, you’re up early!” Mama said, and then quickly added in unison with Daddy, “Happy Birthday!”

“I’m ready to go,” I said.

“Go where?” Mama asked.

“To the fire tower,” I replied matter-of-factly, “You said I could climb up it when I was five, and now I’m five.”

The room fell silent. Mama looked at Daddy with an ‘Oh, no, what are we going to do about this?’ look in her eyes. He looked at her with his wheels turning ninety-to-nothing.

“Well…   we told him he could,” Daddy – to his everlasting credit – finally said.

“Oh, Hank, no,” Mama countered. “He’s just too young.”

“But you promised!” I chimed in.

“It will be all right, Jane” Daddy said, still looking into Mama’s pleading eyes. “I’ll be right behind him the whole way, and he will be safe enough.”

And so, under protest, Mama got Mimi out of bed and we all loaded into the car to drive the mile or so up the road to the tower. It was too early for anyone to be there, and Daddy explained that I wouldn’t be able to actually get into the hut at the top of the stairs because the access through the floor was locked. I was undaunted and determined. I didn’t really care about getting into the hut, anyway. I just wanted to see the view. I wanted to know what Daddy saw when he looked for forest fires. I wanted to see how far my eyes could see.

We confirmed that the gate to the chain-link fence was open and then, after Daddy reassured Mama one more time that he would be right with me the whole way, we left her in the front seat holding onto Mimi. We walked over to the spot where the stairs – they were really more ladders with handrails than stairs – began zigzagging their way up to the little trapdoor at the top. It was so far up I couldn’t even make it out.

“Okay, Tommy,” Daddy said. “I’ll follow you up,” and we were off.

When you’re only four steps tall, it takes some pretty giant strides to move from tread to tread, and there were sixteen flights – one hundred and forty-four steps – from the concrete base to the Ranger station. But I was not the least bit concerned about the height, and saw no danger, only the opportunity to finally realize my lifelong fantasy of making it to the top of the tower. It seems to me, looking back, that I was up to the top in a flash, but I also know I took my time looking around as I went higher. After the first few flights, I could see the tops of the trees and, after a few more, I saw the surrounding hills. More flights up and I could even see the hills beyond that and, if not for the rising morning mist, would have seen even further.

Once I had climbed as far as I could go, I touched the trapdoor to make it official and then just stood there for a few moments looking around and asking Daddy questions about what was where. He pointed out the top of the red 60’ TV antenna tower in our yard (there was only one channel in those days, and it was ninety miles away, so the antenna was a requirement), and it was easy to see the smokestacks of the mill in the distance. I may have only been one-hundred-and-twenty feet off the ground, but I was in little-boy heaven and as proud as a banty rooster.

Of course, all too soon, it was time to go and we started our descent. The stairs were so steep and shallow it would have been almost impossible to walk down facing forward, so we backed down in the same positions relative to each other that we had taken on the way up. If at any point I had chanced to slip, I would have fallen into Daddy’s arms, so it was secure enough, but much to my surprise, I found going down the steps much scarier than going up, because I couldn’t see the next step and had to feel blindly for each one with my foot. Daddy was so intent upon making sure he was there to catch me if I fell, and I was so intent upon not falling, that we didn’t talk much as we took it one step at a time, flight after flight. It was a slow and awkward exercise, but everything was going according to plan until, about half way down, I began to feel myself freezing up. A sort of cold dread was taking hold and I realized I was on the cusp of a fully-formed panic when, out of the blue, I heard the disembodied voices of my dear friends, Mrs. Seafey and Mrs. Cocktif. It would be the last time they ever spoke to me that I could actually hear them, and they had chosen their moment well.

In the years since, I have come to realize their words of reassurance were much more than a mere salve to ease my fear. Their words were a gift, a parting gift, something to hold me in good stead through whatever turbulent times I may face in the years ahead. Like Arthur’s Excalibur or Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak, I, too, was bequeathed something wonderful to keep me safe, a souvenir of our friendship and time together, and it could not have been more well-chosen or appropriate for the moment, or for the life that was mine to live.

“Put on your scared-proof clothes,” they said. “Just put on your scared-proof clothes.”

And so I did, and in that instant all the fear that had been gathering around my legs completely vanished. My backwards stride regained its confidence, my spine grew erect, and I was as brave as Davy Crockett on a “bar” hunt.

Mama was relieved beyond measure when we finally made it back to the car. I’m sure I was bubbling over with the experience and telling her about everything I had seen when she asked, “Well, Tommy, didn’t you get scared?”

“Yes,” I said in a quote that became a featured part of our family lore, “About halfway down I got really scared, but I just put on my scared-proof clothes and kept on going.”

And, the truth of the matter is, I don’t believe I’ve ever taken them off. They have worn oh, so, well now, for fifty-nine years, through many “dangers, toils and snares” to quote a favorite hymn of that place and time, and they work just as well today as they did on that day when they were presented to me.

Following the arc of my emerging personality and the culture within which we were then living, Mrs. Seafey and Mrs. Cocktif surely must have been able to project many of the hurdles I would inevitably face on several fronts, saw the unique opportunity to provide me with a layer of psychic protection against those threats, and brought forth in love my suit of spiritual armor at exactly that moment when I was most likely to don it. And, I can honestly say that, through all the ensuing years, it has worked its magic even, perhaps, too well, since I have gone out on more than a few limbs in my life that might have been better left unexplored, but even in these excesses there were lessons to be learned, and my protective shield has always seen me safely back to solid ground.

I cannot, of course, prove any of this had anything to do with angels, but, for me at least, those few months that began with their warning to me on the boat, and came to a close with their parting words on the fire-tower stairs, were truly golden times. For well over a year, the three of us shared everything with each other. We laughed together, cried together, and, wonder of wonders, together we even welcomed none other than Jesus, Himself, into our midst. I may not remember exactly what we said around our tea table, but the fundamentals they helped me cultivate for myself, even as a child, were sufficient to direct me safely through the rocky years ahead far more adroitly than would have otherwise been the case, and my great blessing is the reality that every step taken in all the years since that cool April morning has been walked in the light of their parting gift to me: my beautiful scared-proof clothes.


[2] , the “Second Thread: Not All Unseen Friends Are Imaginary”

[3] James Redfield, The Tenth Insight, 1996, Time-Warner Books

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1 Response to Angels in Action: the Fire Tower

  1. sophiebowns says:


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