Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

“Vacation Bible School”

Don Johnson is poet in residence at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, where he has been on the faculty for more than thirty years. He has written four volumes of poetry and is the editor of Hummers, Knucklers, and Slow Curves, a collection of contemporary baseball poems. He has also published numerous articles on Appalachian literature. Twice winner of the Ruth Berrien Fox Award from the New England Poetry Club, he is also the recipient of a Tennessee Arts Commission Individual Artist Award.

Vacation Bible School

Decades before “Paradise Island Adventure”
and “Fishin’ on a Mission with Jesus,” we gathered
in the Bible School basement where we ate saltines
as unleavened bread. Manna was wild honey
with a comb and a stubborn bee afloat in the golden jar.
On a gray board we outlined all eight “Thou Shalt Not’s”
in thin spaghetti that our teacher said the Catholic miner’s
wife called fedelini. When we misbehaved, Miss White,
the teacher, made us wear a burlap bag with holes cut out
for heads and arms and sit in the corner on a bed
of “ashes” made of shredded black crepe paper.

We colored drawings based on Psalms—a weeping man
harried by bulls and snapping dogs, with God
smiling down on him from Heaven, the shepherd
in Death Valley menaced by bearded Philistines
among the rocks—Apaches looking down
on settlers in a week-end matinee. I robed
the shepherd in red in contrast to the pond’s
still waters. Beyond the blue the pasture glowed
in every shade of green the double-decker box
of crayons offered. The shepherd followed

his bunched-up flock along the path beside
a table full of bread, sheep shining in Crayola white.
Behind the shepherd, two dogs trotted as if he
were their only care. I named those dogs Goodness
and Mercy, trusting they would follow him
all the days of his life, the way this summer morning
memory follows me: Mrs. Cascioli, whose children
had no church, warbling from her doorway, fedelini,
as we ambled our way toward Methodism.
Fedelini, “little faithful ones.”