Oklahoma Baptist Homes for Children

James Browning

stories from the book
by James V. Browning

Childhood Memories

William Merrifield

How does one begin to dredge up the mental pictures of a childhood lost? How do you reach back into those dark recesses of a child's cry for understanding? How do you explain the youthful loneliness and hate of a throw-away to those who have never experienced it, when you do not understand all of it yourself? As with most painful memories, I have learned to deal with them in my own way, and have clouded the past in tales of high adventure, choosing to remember the good parts and leave behind the really painful ones. There is so much to tell that time and space do not allow and so, much of what I write is in remembrance of a lost boy whose only true friend in those lost days was Christ.

My mother and stepfather started to drink heavily, or maybe I just noticed it, when I was around 8 years old. They began to fight a lot, and I was being left at home by myself more and more. Mother did see that I got to church on Sunday (most of the time), even though sickness kept her away. I remember a Sunday School teacher saying, If you're not good, then God won't love you. How does an 8-year-old handle such a statement? If God does not love me, then I will not love God! But, on December 7, 1954, just one week short of my 9th birthday, I lay in bed, alone and asked God to love me. Oh, how I needed someone to love me!

I made my profession known and was baptized in the Downtown Baptist Church. Shortly before Christmas, we left Oklahoma City and headed west. I was not to have another family Christmas until I was married. That's not to say the Children's Home didn't do its best to give me a Christmas, but they weren't family, or I didn’t see them as family.

We left Oklahoma City that summer. I attended 11 weeks of school that year. Christmas found us in a migrant workers' camp outside of Phoenix, Arizona. I remember that, because I sang in the Christmas play at school, which really angered some of the home folks. People may talk Christian talk, but most don't really want your kind in “their” communities. They are fast to pray with you, as long as you remember your place.

We finally came to rest in El Central, Calif. I was passed on to the next grade only because my mother promised the teacher I would study during the summer. I don't remember if I did or not.

My stepfather got a job driving wet backs up and down the coast to do migrant work. Both his and mother's drinking became worse, and he began to take Bennies to aid him in staying awake while driving. The Bennies and alcohol also made him see charging rhinos. Mother started staying out with her friends more and more often, leaving me alone for two or three days at a time, but always being home when my stepfather came in.

Dad was a strange man. At one time, I loved him so much. I don't remember when it started, but he took to whipping me every Friday, because: I know you've done something that I did not find out about. Well, if a young boy is going to get a whipping, he sure as heck is going to do something to deserve it. One Friday, I could not think of a single thing I had done to deserve a whipping, so as I walked by this little girl, I hit her square in the face. Dad was waiting when I got home, and I deserved that whipping!

One night, Dad came home early and mother wasn't there. She and some of her friends had gone to MexiCalia for the day. I didn’t have the nerve to tell my stepfather. He started drinking and taking pills, and went in search of Mom. When he did not find her, he came home and took a light cord to me. I had played hooky from school, and Mother, not knowing what Dad had done, sent me to school without a note. So, I had to go to the principal's office. The principal made me drop my pants to give me licks, but when he saw my back, he sent me back to the class with a note. The teacher let me sit on her cushion for the rest of the week. It was three days before my stepfather found out what he had done. He saw me taking a shower. He was sorry, oh so sorry, but the damage had been done. I told him if he ever touched me again, I would kill him.

He tried only once after that to whip me, and I pulled a knife on him, and told him he could not stay awake forever. Sooner or later, he would have to sleep, and I would be waiting. I guess the really frightening thing was that I meant it. As much as I had loved him, I now had developed a deep hatred for him.

  • Continued...

    Shortly after that Mom and Dad split up. Mom dropped me off at the bus station with the money for a ticket back to Oklahoma City. She and some of her friends were going to Las Vegas and did not want to be bothered by having a kid along. I watched as she drove off, looked at the money, looked at the bus station, put the money in my pocket and hitchhiked back to Oklahoma City. I was about 9 years old. My grandparents did not even know I was coming. I saw my mother off and on for the next few years. My grandparents tried, but there were 10 of us living together, often in a two- or three-bedroom house. The bigger boys had to have their own room, so we often slept three in a bed. That was not so bad, but one of my uncles was a bed wetter. Not his fault, but.....

    I quit school at 13 to get away from all the fights caused by one of my uncles. I lied about my age and took a bicycle delivery job with a blue print and supply company. When I would not give that same uncle half of my paycheck, so he could go get drunk, he told the boss how old I was. I was terminated. A short time later I came home from looking for work and was met at the door by my grandfather. He handed me a suitcase and $20. He said, Larry, if you are going to make it, you'll have to do it on your own. Don't look back, and don't help anyone up; they will only drag you down. I was 13 years old.

    For the next two years or so, I hit the road. I made the wheat harvest in Kansas, the potato harvest in Idaho, the apple harvest in Washington, and picked up various harvests from California to Florida. I worked a tuna boat off Alaska, icing fish. I tried my hand at working brick in St. Louis, Illinois, and making venetian blinds in Ohio.

    I went to Clearfield, Penn., where my birth certificate said my biological father was born. I met his sister, my aunt, and through her, I found my father when I was 15. He and his wife had just lost two children in a fire. My understanding later was that he had been drinking at the time of the loss. I stayed with them for about a month. The anger and hate I felt coming from May (his wife) was so great that one day I came home from my job at the blind factory, packed my bags and left without a word. It was payday and I used my paycheck to get a small place nearby, but the man I worked for cheated me out of more than half of my pay because I was underage, and I could do nothing about it.

    I still had a little money. So I hit the road again. This time I headed toward Washington, D.C. It was cold and I stopped at a Dairy Queen to get some coffee and a bite to eat. A police officer talked with me a little and then went and got an old Navy jacket he had. He gave it to me and told me to keep moving; he didn't need any trouble on his beat.

    I got picked up by the police in Washington, D.C., my only crime being I was a boy on his own. Not having anyone to turn to, I called Senator Robert S. Kerr's office. Thank God, he was a Christian man who was willing to help a boy in trouble. He arranged for me to be sent back to Oklahoma City to the Baptist Children's Home. I was in sad shape. I knew Jesus. I often talked to Him on those lonely nights on the road when it was dark and I was by myself, but I did not share Him with anyone. When you grow up in the slums, you learn not to share. Someone will take what little you have away from you, and you will have nothing left.

    I was hard for a kid, what others would call a punk and, looking back, very unlovable. I did not trust people and saw only the worst in them. After entering the Children’s Home, I remember telling the housemother she was wrong about something. Later that day, her husband came into my room and accused me of calling her a liar. He had a belt in his hand. I told him I would do anything he told me to, but if he touched me with that belt, I'd kill him. He must have seen the hate in my eyes, because he did not try to whip me with that belt. I was sent to Mr. Browning. I think it was the first time I could remember someone hearing my side of anything. I don't mean just listening to my story, but really hearing. It was also the first time anyone took the time to pray with me. I had been in a lot of churches, but no one really prayed with me. Over me, to me, but never with me.

    It was a time of rest. There was food on the table, clean clothes, a bed to sleep in, people who really tried to get close to me. Even with all of that, I did not receive a physical rest. I think I pulled more time in the laundry room on the sheet machine, and on work detail than any one single person until that time. Later, Mr. Browning would tell me, if I thought I was bad, I should see some of the kids today. I don't think he ever met a kid he did not find some good in.

    I went to John Marshall High. I was still in the eighth grade. There were some kids there who did not like Home boys. Some of the teachers made it clear they did not think we belonged there either. One day a boy started a fight with me in the classroom while the teacher was out. The teacher came into the classroom and grabbed me. The boy was about to really lay one on me, and the teacher wasn't doing anything to stop him, so I hit the teacher, and then hit the boy. The principal understood, and Mr. Browning tried to help, but I was still expelled. As I remember, the other boy got a short suspension.

    Mr. Browning arranged for me to enter the Army. I was three months short of my 17th birthday. Mr. Browning still believed in me, and encouraged me to do the right thing. He told me I should look at this as a new beginning. That time in the Home was a respite to me—a time of recovery. I would still have some trouble growing up, and that is another story for another time, but my feet had been set on a different path. I was going to make it.

    I got my GED in the 101st Airborne Division in 1963, and a one-year college GED in Vietnam in 1967. I married a wonderful woman in 1964. I became the youngest Sergeant First Class in the U.S. Army in 1970. I was discharged from the Army on a 30 percent disability in 1972. My loving wife told me now was the time to go and get that education I had always felt cheated out of. I attended Oklahoma City University, graduating with a BS in Professional Law Enforcement in 1977. On Dec. 7, 1976, the year before I had finally answered the Lord's call to ministry.

    I attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Fort Worth, Texas, graduating in 1980 with a Master of Divinity Degree. Mr. Browning drove all night to be there for my graduation, having to turn around and drive back that same night.

    By God's grace, I was called to the Army as a Chaplain in 1982. I completed a Doctor of Ministry Degree in 1992, and on the Nov. 1, 1997, I was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Not bad for a junior high school drop out from the slums of Oklahoma City.

    Where do I go from here? Only God knows. I will go where I am sent, and wherever I go, I will minister. But this road I travel started at the Baptist Children's Home when an unlovable boy found love through people who were willing to share the Christ they knew with one of His children. So, thank you, Oklahoma Baptists, for giving me a lift at a very critical time in my life.

    Oh, I almost forgot! I have two daughters, and four of the best looking grandchildren you ever saw. I have been blessed to baptize three of my grandchildren and a son-in-law. In May of 1998, I celebrated 34 wonderful years with the best help-mate any man could ask for, or be blessed with.

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