The bus drove slowly through the streets surrounding the church, Grandaddy honking the horn and kids hanging from the windows waving and screaming: "Come to Vacation Bible School! Come to Vacation Bible School!"
From front yards, mothers in summer dresses and skinny kids in shorts waved back, their faces blank with surprise. As the parade advanced, we sang an upbeat Sunday School tune: "Deep and wide, deep and wide, there's a fountain flowing deep and wide ... Wide and deep, wide and deep, there's a fountain flowing wide and deep." The tempo ramped up with each chorus, until the end when we were singing "deepandwidedeepandwidether'safountainflowingdeepandwide" so fast that we collapsed in exhaustion and laughter.
Bible School opened the next morning with a ceremony in the church sanctuary, complete with flag bearers marching up the center aisle with the American flag and the Christian flag, pledges to both, and the singing of anthems. This was much more fun than Sunday services as kids made up the entire congregation, filling the wooden pews shoulder to shoulder with their squirmy bodies, paper lunch sacks smashed in their laps, sweaty legs sticking to the hard benches.
I yearned for the day when I would be old enough to be a flag bearer, to march up the center aisle, the long flagpole wedged against my hipbone reaching upward at a diagonal, the flag sweeping gracefully with each step. I watched as my older brother carefully inserted the flagpole into the aluminum fixture on the front podium, then stepped back and solemnly joined in the pledge, hand over heart:
"I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag,
And to the savior for whose kingdom it stands.
One brotherhood, uniting all mankind,
In service and in love."
We dispersed to our perspective age groups, each group led by kind mothers and fathers. There was a Bible lesson, there were Bible races and drills, and there was a daily offering for poor children in China or India or Africa. Some days our teachers would read a letter from a missionary off in some exotic part of the world. I listened, imagining not so much the land or the different-colored children who lived there, but thinking of a man from our church, living in a place far away from Kentucky, in a house without a kitchen like ours, or a bathroom.
We had lunch outdoors, beneath the aluminum roof of the picnic pavilion. My grandmother -- we called her Mammaw, the other kids called her Sister Carpenter -- dispensed gallons of grape and cherry Kool-Aid and paper cups of vanilla ice cream to be eaten with flat wooden spoons. We opened our limp lunch sacks and were met with the warm scent of bread and peanut butter, the sweet essence of apple.
We napped after lunch on towels stretched out over the cool linoleum of the classroom, the blinds closed against the noonday sun. Our teachers walked up and down fanning us. Sometimes I reached a finger out and brushed the smooth ankle of my teacher as she strolled past my napping spot.
In the afternoon, we made things: scrolls of butcher paper with illustrated Psalms; villages of Popsicle-stick buildings glued with Elmer's Glue; construction paper chains; collages made with macaroni, spray-painted silver and gold. We decorated our classroom with all our fine handmade crafts in anticipation of the last day of vacation bible school and parents' night.
We sang. We swayed arm in arm to the melodic waltz, "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam" :
"... to shine for him each day ...
A sunbeam, a sunbeam, I'll be a sunbeam for him."
We sang the standards about Jesus' love and all the little children of the world.
My favorite was the dramatic tale of the tax collector, Zaccheus:
"Zaccheus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he,
He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the lord he wanted to see.
And as the savior passed his way, he looked up in that tree ...
And he said ..."
Here we took on a stern expression, put one hand on a hip and held the other up, a scolding finger pointing forward:
"Zaccheus, you come down.
For I'm going to your house today. I'm going to your house today."
I wandered home from Vacation Bible School through neighborhood back yards, wondering which of the tall trees I passed might be a sycamore tree.