Joseph Mansfield


Howtie Martin died the other day at the age of 79.  His name was pronounced “haughty”.  I have no idea what the name meant or the circumstances of his being so named.

He and his family lived about a block from my home when I was aged three to ten.  They lived on the side of a ridge.  I was amazed that the Martin children could run up the hill and not get winded.

The elementary school I attended for six years was built in 1949 as a state of the art schoolhouse.  It had a clock system wherein a single master clock could keep other clocks synchronized throughout the building.  I found this fascinating.  When a teacher would remove me from the room for disruptive behavior and stand me in the corridor, I could be entertained indefinitely just watching that clock jump one minute at a time, with its satisfying rhythmic hummmmmmmm...perKlunk.

Due to problems in my home I was shipped off to relatives for a couple of years, then returned here to high school.  In visiting my old elementary school on its adjoining campus, I found the old master clock had died in my absence.  They had replaced it with a timer that rang the bells but did not drive the slave clocks.  So I built a new master clock.  It worked, too.

Also during my absence, Mr Martin had hired on as the school janitor.  He was most irascible and greeted my clock work with hostility.  He fed the principal lines about fire hazards; the latter, realizing the warning was groundless, let me continue to maintain the clocks.  Whereupon Howtie got into the clock wiring and cut the circuit, twisting the wires back together to resemble a splice.  In time I found the problem.  Subsequently one of Howtie’s sons let it slip to me that Howtie had crippled the circuit.

I don’t remember what happened after that.  I know the clocks ran on my master unit for several years, but I don’t remember any further events along the Howtie thread.  I do remember that even as a child, I realized Howtie was fighting some battle of his own which I was not privy to.  I was awfully curious as to why and how he perceived me as a problem to him, or a threat, or whatever it was that made him want to sabotage my work.  I don’t remember, even at the time, being angry with him.

This series of incidents has remained vivid with me over the years, just as my curiosity has also failed to subside.  From time to time I thought of visiting Howtie and his wife.  I never did.  He struck me as a man who would not mellow with age, a man for whom there would never be enough years gone by that one could ask a question about old times and receive a gentle answer.  Maybe I should have risked it anyway.  For I do have another vivid memory from an even earlier age: that of trick-or-treating at the Martins’ house.  They gave out nickel treats when other families gave penny treats, even though they were desperately poor at the time.  Perhaps this is why I later knew, somewhere inside, that Howtie was not malicious.

Howtie belonged to a pentecostal sect.  Their liturgy, prior to the acquisition of sophistication in the past thirty years or so, often included persons falling into an ecstasy which could have them jumping up on benches or rolling around on the floor; hence the unofficial name of the sect, “Holy Rollers”.

Officially the “Church of God”, they called themselves the “Holiness Church”, or just “Holiness”.  We mainstream protestants ridiculed them.  Now with perfect hindsight I see that they were perhaps the only ones among us who had some notion of the awful splendor of the divine Majesty, and who possessed both the joy and the fear appropriate to those who would approach the Presence.

The Holy Rollers worked with their hands.  They wore their work clothes to church, jeans and bib overalls.  They did not think it good to approach the Lord in the clothing of a banker or broker.  Indeed they declined even to own such clothing.

Every man is dignified when he is dead.  For those who had eyes to see, Howtie possessed an austere dignity while he lived.