I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Part One, Chapter One: Total Immersion
Principia Martindale lived in Blankenship Hall on the campus of Hillister Baptist College, founded in 1886 by John J. Hillister who coined the phrase, “a distinctive school for higher learning which takes pride in welcoming students of all races and denominations into the folds of Christian fellowship;” a phrase which was to him proof of his profound magnanimity, but because he feared that he would not be remembered for having possessed such open minded goodness, he had the statement inscribed on every portal, plate, cornerstone, and pew as well as on the base of his marble statue, which after his death came to grace his private grave site, a triangular patch of English ivy growing near the Hillister Chapel and spreading like the word of God from one tree to the next but for some reason or other refusing to touch his statue.
Principia Martindale often stood in at the foot of his grave and wondered what it must have been like to have lived in the presence of such an inspired man of God. She would stand with her back perfectly straight, her eyes closed, her head bowed, and thank the Lord for giving her the privilege of studying in a Christian atmosphere.
Principia was not only the most promising freshman to have entered Hillister Baptist College in many decades, she was the youngest as well. She was majoring in the New Testament, minoring in the Old Testament and hoping that the Lord would lead her to some far distant place where she could serve him for the rest of her life.
Her strongest desire was to become a foreign missionary and, looking back over the years, she believed that her whole life had been moving rapidly in that direction, even when she was unaware of it. At the age of three she walked down the aisle as the congregation sang, “Jesus is tenderly calling today …” She took Brother Callaway, her pastor, by the hand, accepted Christ as her saviour, and then, almost in the same breath, she dedicated her life to full-time Christian service. She rededicated her life every year after that, sometimes more often if she felt like it, and at the age of 16, still burning with the fervor of her commitment, she graduated with honors from high school, entered Hillster Baptist College the next fall and signed up for a full load of classes, mostly in the theology department.
Because of her striking appearance, her bright red hair particularly, she became, almost overnight, the most recognizable figure on campus. Her hair was naturally curly, fell to the middle of her back, and because she had two cowlicks, one on either side, her hair often looked as though it had never been combed.
Her father had always called it “sunshine hair,” and said that her widow’s peak gave her face the shape of a perfect heart.
Principia wasn’t very tall, but she was rotund; “big boned,” her mother always said to get around the subject, yet, there was something graceful about her, something that gave the impression that she was much smaller than she actually was. But Principia had never been able to see that quality in herself. She was conscious of her size and for that reason she always wore loose fitting, long sleeved smocks; most of them buttoned down the front and were purple—or some shade thereof—her favorite color.
She didn’t remotely resemble anyone at Hillister Baptist College, nor anyone in her family, but that never seemed to bother her. “God threw away the mold when he made you,” Dr. Norman Truly, her Bible professor always said. He considered her his best student and so did the rest of her teachers. She felt at home in all her classes, contributed to oral discussion, was a straight A student, and happy to be living on campus. All her life she had dreamed of attending Hillister Baptist College and during her freshman year she could hardly believe that her dream had come true.
The school was located at one end of Sycamore Street which began at the red light in downtown New Bethel—Principia’s hometown—and ended directly in front of Blankenship Hall, a large dormitory of Southern colonial architecture which—in 1957 when Principia lived there—boasted an excellent security system by the name of Miss Lively Hathaway, the dorm mother, who would sit in her living quarters day after day and keep a constant eye on the front door, the only way in or out that wasn’t always locked.
Lively Hathaway was a tiny woman with straight grey hair that she always wore the same way: pulled up into a bun and twisted so tight that the wrinkles on her forehead smoothed out and her eyes seemed to be forced wide open. She had false teeth that didn’t fit, glasses that slid down her nose and fingers that were always working on something, usually a quilt. Everyday Miss Hathaway—who had known Principia Martindale all her life—would open the front doors of Blankenship Hall at 7:30 AM and then retire to her apartment just across the hall where she would gather her patchwork and crocheting around her, and, keeping one eye on the needle work and the other on the entrance, she would, in the course of the day, make three checklists. On one she would count every girl going out; on another every girl coming in; and on the third she would record every visitor by name, who they were visiting, and how long they stayed. Then at 10:30 after the front doors were locked for the night, she would retreat to her manual adding machine—she hated anything electric—and tabulate her lists, making the necessary additions and subtractions until, at the end of a half hour, she would emerge either greatly relieved that all her girls were inside where they should be, or, deeply distressed over the discovery that someone was not merely late but missing and that the unfortunate girl had probably been strolling back to the dormitory when she was kidnapped, forced into a van and raped repeatedly, unmercifully, and beyond human belief.
“Oh my God in Heaven, I just can’t stand to think about such a tragedy as this happening right here on a Baptist campus,” Miss Hathaway would say. Principia Martindale had heard her many times. Then she would usually leap to the conclusion that the missing party had not been raped at all but, worse than that, was off in some remote parking lot somewhere giving herself willingly and joyfully and without shame to the young man of her choice.
With these thoughts whirling through her head, Miss Hathaway would not waste a second dialing the New Bethel Police Department and then, beating two double boilers together, she would run up and down the corridors until every girl had assembled for another late night roll call in the sunken living room of Blankenship Hall.
“Now I’m going to call the name of each and every girl living in this fine old dormitory in order to determine who is not among us this evening,” Miss Hathaway would say, running her fingers and thumbs all over her face and neck. “And if I catch anyone answering twice, that person, no matter who she is, will be immediately expelled. Is that clear? Honesty is a virtue, and here at Hillister Baptist we each and everyone of us pride ourselves on the virtuous life, which is, of course, the Christian life.”
Because Principia Martindale believed Miss Hathaway was doing a noble job of keeping track of the 280 girls who lived in Blankenship Hall, she tried to assist her dorm mother in every way possible, especially during the late night roll calls when she always took it upon herself to watch carefully in order to catch someone answering twice, and often she did. It gave her a thrill to be able to report such an observation to Miss Hathaway who was well aware that she could depend on Principia, and therefore, she was given special privileges, among them the privilege of watching the front door when Miss Hathaway went to the cafeteria for lunch or dinner, or the privilege of calling the roll during a late night assembly. But better still, Principia was allowed to keep the only key to the broom closet on the second floor. Everyone knew that the closet was never locked, but to Principia’s way of thinking that wasn’t the point. Just knowing that she had the one and only key was the honor of it all, and besides that, she could lock the door from the inside if she chose, and often she did. It was the only place in New Bethel where she could be completely alone, and there was hardly a day that passed when she did not go there and count her many blessings.
“Lord Jesus, Prince of Peace,” she prayed one morning in the darkness of the closet. “I thank you for this most beautiful day. Lord Jesus, I thank you for this privilege of worshipping right here in New Bethel. Yes, I thank you for this pretty little town Lord Jesus and for this Christian college Lord Jesus and for all my friends Lord Jesus and Lord Jesus I just want to thank you for this mountain-top experience I’m having right here in my home town.”
Principia had been born late in her parents’ lives. Dr. Carl Milam, the family doctor, had already told Wilma Lee that she was past the age of child bearing, that something else was causing her to gain so much weight, and he would have to run some tests in order to find out what was wrong. He was certain that she was not pregnant, but Wilma Lee, determined to prove the doctor wrong, held firmly to the idea that she was carrying a child. She had dreamed that she was, and the dream had recurred five nights in a row; all the proof she needed.
For nine months the parents-to-be waited in great excitement and expectation. If the child was a boy he would be named Principal after his father, if a girl she would be called Principia and that was that, nothing more could change their minds for they were both out to prove Dr. Milam wrong.
“If you do so,” he said, “I’ll be ruined for the rest of my career.” But Principal Martindale reminded him that he had nothing to worry about because his career had been going strong for 51 years and he was the eldest, and therefore the most respected citizen in New Bethel.
Throughout the pregnancy, Dr. Milam refused to believe what was going to happen, for after all, he had seen Wilma Lee through what he called her “difficult years,” and was convinced that there was no way under heaven that she could be pregnant. Yet, Wilma was convinced that she was, and nothing would dissuade her, neither the rabbit test which Dr. Milam had performed five times to negative results, nor the Frog test, nor the absence of a brown line on her abdomen which the esteemed physician called the linea nigra and said that it was always present on pregnant women.
“I wouldn’t believe a word he told me if I were you,” said Lively Hathaway. That was on a Monday morning early in the pregnancy. Carrying her Sunday school quarterly in one hand and her sewing basket in the other, she showed up at Wilma Lee’s kitchen door and said that Dr. Milam was full of ballooned up errors. “I don’t care if the man has made all those tests plus three sets of X-rays,” she said, helping herself to a cup of coffee. “My test is absolutely accurate and there are no two ways about it either.” She ran a needle and thread through the eraser of an unsharpened pencil, dangled it in front of Wilma Lee’s abdomen and stood back as far as possible so her opinion would have nothing whatever to do with what was about to happen. “Listen to me,” she said. “If this brand spanking new pencil starts moving crossways then you’ve got yourself a boy, but if it starts moving backwards and forwards you’ve got yourself a girl. Now that’s not too hard to remember is it?”
“Yes it is,” said Wilma Lee. “It sounds like something my sister would say.”
“Your sister’s dead and gone,” said Lively, holding the string between her thumb and index finger. “Ask God to put her out of your mind for the next five minutes so we can get on with this little test.”
For a long time the pencil just dangled there without moving at all. Then it started going in circles so fast Lively Hathaway said it made her head swim just to look at it, “I sure don’t know what’s going on here,” she said straightening herself up and staring off into a corner of the room as though she might find an answer there. “But I can tell you one thing. Whoever it is you’re carrying is going to be a mighty special somebody, and that’s for sure.”
Before the day was over, the results of Lively Hathaway’s test had reached almost every household in New Bethel, and for months thereafter everyone waited on pins and needles to see what was going to happen. Some of the men down at the pool hall started placing bets. Most of them favored Dr. Milam’s opinion over Wilma Lee’s because he had delivered more babies than anyone in the country, and therefore ought to know what he was talking about. The men behind bars in the city jail also began to take interest in what was going on, as did the domino players on the courthouse square, so by the time Wilma Lee went to the hospital, nearly half the population of New Bethel had something to gain or lose.
How well Lively Hathaway remembered that day. It seemed to her that everybody in the county had followed Wilma Lee to the hospital. The afternoon was cold and windy. The waiting room was filled to overflowing, and Lively had to stand on the front lawn with dozens of others. She had been sewing that afternoon when the call came; left the dormitory in a hurry, forgot her headscarf, and then refused to go back and get it. By the time the announcement was made she was chilled to the bone, but so glad she was there.
“New Bethel has seen a miracle this day,” said Dr. Milam when he appeared on the hospital steps. A hush came over the crowd and nothing could be heard but the faint sound of Lively Hathaway clicking her purse open and shut as fast as she could, “Wilma Lee Martindale has given birth to a baby girl,” said the doctor, “And she has the reddest hair and more of it than I have ever seen on any newborn baby in my whole and entire life.”
Jubilation filled the streets of New Bethel that day. It was almost as though a sinner had given up the ways of the world and come home, only it was better than that, according to the way Tumpy Bull remembered it. He swore that her birth had been prophesied in the Bible, but he could not go back to the exact scripture to save his life. “Well, it’s either in the New Testament or the Old Testament,” reported Nova Ray Lutes as though she had stumbled upon a clue to the mystery. But Marcita Cunningham who had gone to church all her life disagreed. “You won’t find anything like that in the Bible at all,” she declared, “because the Bible prophesies have already come true.” After she had spoken, nearly every one of her friends rose up against her. They said that she should stop running around so much and start rereading the scripture so she could find out a thing or two. “That’s right,” replied Dewey Martin, the postmaster. He believed that Principia’s life had been blessed before it ever got started. Lavonia Hicks, secretary at New Bethel Baptist Church, said that that was nothing but foolishness because everybody’s life was blessed before it ever got started, and to that Lively Hathaway added: “Principia, like Deborah, is slated to carry the breastplate of righteousness into the battle for everlasting life.” Annabelle Winters, swooning with ecstasy, believed that she had witnessed the birth of a saint, and Brother Callaway, pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church, was certain that Principia’s birthday would be remembered for a long long time to come; which indeed it was.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee