It was a beautiful, cool night in November, just a few days before we were to leave to go to San Antonio for the 2015 National Bible Bee, for my sister, Lilly, age nine, and I, age fourteen, had qualified to compete there. Already we had sent some totes full of luggage with Popo and Nana, Daddy’s parents, who were going ahead of us to Texas by car so they could spend some time with Popo’s sister and her husband, who lived in Dallas. The fall had been a bit of a struggle for me, sometimes studying diligently for Nationals and sometimes purposely forgetting about studying. But that was past, and my time for studying was almost finished—for better or for worse. I was looking forward to Nationals, for I had heard so much about it and wanted to see for myself what it was like.
Now, my family was bundled in our twelve-passenger van, going shopping for a few last-minute things we needed. In the back seat, I was reading Remember the Alamo! by Amelia Barr. I had read it once before, and my interest had been once again piqued by the thought that we were soon going to San Antonio. Twelve-year-old Justin was supposed to be reading A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, but I don’t think he was. Mommy had given him an assignment to read it and write a report on it before we left; but Justin, who was not a particular fan of reading, had a good deal left to read of the book.
A warm excitement was in my heart as we shopped. I remember going to the shoe store; and I specifically remember getting some black boots made out of felt-ish material. Lilly got some brown slip-on shoes that had fuzzy insides; she called them her moccasins, because that’s what they looked like.
The next day, I had one last, valiant effort to study—I spent all day working on my 712 verses. I was at least very familiar with all of them, and I knew most of them. In the afternoon, I pushed eighteen-month-old Levi in the stroller around and around our house. Justin was sitting in a lawn chair on our tiny front porch, trying desperately to read the big chunk he had left of Narrative of the Life of David Crockett.
The next afternoon, the sounds of our excited voices bounced off the walls as we packed for our trip. All throughout the fall, it hadn’t seemed real that we were actually going to Nationals. Now, it was happening.
Monday, November 16, 2015, dawned clear, sunny, and cool. Inside our large brick house, we rushed through our last-minute tasks—eating bowls of cereal; putting our luggage and carryon bags into the car; gathering the things our golden retriever, Sugar, would need; and putting Sugar’s things on the porch for her caretaker to get. (She was going to stay with the couple that owned her best friend, a mutt named Shmoo; and then after a few days she would go stay with our old friends the Fradys.)
As the hour-long drive to Charlotte began to come to a close, we could see airplanes flying overhead. Just as we were getting out of the car in the airport parking lot, an airplane soared over us. We squealed and said, “That was loud!” Inside the airport was filled with people from all over the world, pulling suitcases. I breathed in the smell of the airport and smiled.
After only a few minutes, of waiting at the jet way, we walked onto the plane and down the narrow aisle to our seats; I sat with Justin, behind Daddy, Lilly, and Levi. We pointed out the window at four-year-old Andrew’s and Levi’s strollers, which were being toted out in a luggage cart. I could hardly believe we were finally on our way to Nationals.
A big man came to sit down beside Justin and me, and he asked us why we were going to Dallas. I told him we were actually going to San Antonio for the National Bible Bee. I explained what it was, and he seemed surprised. Then he put in his earplugs and watched videos on his iPad, and Justin and I continued to look out of the window.
Daddy started to pray for our safety; but he stopped because the plane’s engines suddenly drowned out his voice. The plane turned and began to slowly move toward the runway. On small screens above us, videos about what to do if the plane crashed played. The plane raced down the runway until suddenly, I felt that we were not on the ground anymore. I looked down at the ground fading below us and beamed.
After a while, Justin pulled out his drawing things and I read aloud to him Myles Standish and the Amazing-but-True Survival Story of Plymouth Colony by Cheryl Harness. We were now soaring over puffy white clouds; and although I knew that rain was falling below us, up here it was beautiful. I was reminded that that trusting Jesus would take me up to the heights, above the rain and drizzle of life. I had always been a very fearful little girl; and at this time, I was afraid of a good deal of things of things. It was through the Bible Bee—through the ministry of the Word of God to my heart and the friends that I made there—that God made me so much stronger, bolder, and braver than I ever was before. But I’m getting ahead of myself!
After a while, a flight attendant announced that our flight would be longer than expected because the weather in Dallas was not good. But then, without warning, we hit the ground, and the runway spread out before us. Rain was drizzling onto the skyline of Dallas in the background.
The plane slowly rolled over to a jet way, and other passengers pulled down their luggage and exited the plane. We followed them and found Andrew’s and Levi’s strollers. Popo and Nana met us at the back of the airport and we ate sandwiches that we had made that morning. “It’s hard to believe that we made these back in North Carolina, and here we are in Texas,” Daddy remarked.
Popo and Nana took the rest of our luggage; and we got onto another bus that would take us to the car rental place. The car rental building was large and spacious inside, but it seemed to take Daddy an age to rent our car. When he was finished, we went outside and looked at our rental car. It was a small SUV with hardly an excuse for a trunk.
Daddy laughed. “I thought I was getting a different car than this.”
“Will we fit?” Mommy wondered.
Daddy surveyed the car. “I think so. It’s a good thing we sent our luggage with my parents!”
Popo and Nana had brought Andrew’s and Levi’s car seats to the airport, so we put Andrew’s car seat in the very back and Levi’s car seat in the middle. Justin figured out that we had to push a button on one of the middle seats to get to the back.
Lilly, seven-year-old Luke, and Andrew climbed to the back seat, and Justin, Levi, and I sat in the middle. Daddy drove, and Mommy sat in the passenger seat. “Katie has to sit in the middle because her legs are long,” Lilly informed. (Actually, I was only five foot one and have since grown only one inch. I will most likely be the shortest one in my immediate family after everyone has finished growing.)
Since Uncle Alton and Aunt Shirley do not exactly live in Dallas, we drove an hour to get to their house. It was a small, cozy stone house, in a little neighborhood. Inside, we greeted Uncle Alton and Aunt Shirley and settled in. Mommy helped Aunt Shirley with the last finishing touches on dinner, and Daddy sat in the living room and talked with Uncle Alton. We children went through another door into a smaller room, where Luke, Andrew, and Levi were soon occupied with cars. Lilly sat down at the keyboard, and Justin tried out the armchairs, pushing little buttons on the side to make them go up and down. I sat on the little couch and looked at my huge stack of verse cards.
Popo and Nana came, and we all sat down at the table to eat. The house was filled with warm laughter and happy talking. After dinner, we went to our different rooms. Popo and Nana slept in the large guest room, and Mommy and Levi slept in a little room across the hall from them. Uncle Alton blew up an air mattress for some of the other children. Daddy slept on one couch and I slept on another.
All was dark and quiet as I lay on the couch. No matter how hard I tried, I could not go to sleep, because I was too excited. I could hardly believe that tomorrow began Nationals. It was the first of many such nights for me throughout my Bible Bee years!
A bright light flooded the living room and I sat up, my eyes still closed. I was just about to tell Luke to turn off the light and lie back down, when I opened my eyes and saw Uncle Alton standing beside the light switch. “Howdy, ya’ll,” he said in his Texan voice, deep and husky. “Time to get up.”
Everyone stirred, sat up, and opened his eyes. I got up and went into the cool garage, where Mommy was standing beside our plastic totes. She handed me my Locals t-shirt and jean skirt, and after I had dressed, I found that the house had flown into a flurry of activity. Aunt Shirley was frying pancakes, and Uncle Alton was helping her. Popo and Daddy were loading our totes and most of our other luggage into Popo and Nana’s van, the other kids were dressing, Mommy was dressing the little boys, and whoever was already dressed was helping to arrange snacks and day bags in our rental car. After breakfast, we brushed our teeth, said good-bye to Uncle Alton and Aunt Shirley, and climbed into the small white SUV. Popo and Nana were right behind us in their gray Dodge minivan. Then we started out for Nationals.
San Antonio was about three hours from Dallas, but no one seemed to mind. Lilly read The Secret Garden, Andrew ate nuts, Levi slept, Justin drew, I looked out the window, and Luke did something or other. The huge Texas skies were gray and threatened to drop down rain any minute. The landscape was nothing like beautiful, hilly North Carolina. It was flat as far as the eye could see, and the only trees were little bushy things that hardly seemed like trees at all. (Sorry, Texans. I do like Texas a lot, but I’m a Carolina girl through and through!)
After two hours of driving, we stopped in Austin to buy food at Trader Joe’s. We must have spent an hour there.
When we drove away from Trader Joe’s, the trouble started.
Levi had eaten some nuts on the floor of the car. Now he was having a terrible allergic reaction. We had not known he was allergic to nuts. His little body was covered in hives and he was very white, and everyone who knew what was going on was very frightened. My heart was beating very fast as I got him out of his car seat and gave him to Mommy. We pulled into a CVS parking lot and Daddy bought Benadryl. Levi calmed down somewhat after he had some Benadryl, although we later learned that, even though people think Benadryl saves lives, it does not. We praise God for saving the life of our sweet little Levi!
Mommy came to sit in my seat beside Levi and I sat in the front with Daddy. Thus we started off for the troublesome hour left of our drive to San Antonio. After lunch, Andrew threw up once for no apparent reason and Levi started throwing up more than once as a result of his allergic reaction. Then Levi began to have diarrhea. No one noticed when the sun came out until we reached the San Antonio hill country.
Excited shouts filled the car when we saw, rising above some trees, the J.W. Marriott—we were all relieved to end this eventful drive. In a few minutes, we pulled into the carport of the biggest hotel I have ever seen. Bellmen were everywhere—and so were rental cars, twelve-passenger vans, taxis, and buses, carrying excited contestants and their families. Popo and Nana had already arrived; and as we piled out of the car, Popo came out with some clean clothes for Levi from one of our plastic totes. Daddy took Justin, Lilly, Luke, Andrew, and I inside for registration, which was about to close.
The lobby was huge and covered with shiny tiles. We walked across the lobby and into a hall, which was covered with crowds of children and adults. There was excited chatter and happy laughter as friends who had not seen each other all year were reunited. We registered, got our shirts, and then Lilly and I had our contestant pictures. I figured this was supposed to be a happy time; but stress from the events of that afternoon almost overpowered any happiness I felt right then.
We went up to Popo and Nana’s hotel room and found Mommy giving Levi a bath. He still had diarrhea, but everything would be all right now—Levi was going to be okay, Andrew had not thrown up again, and we had not missed registration.
Some of us kids walked through a door in Popo and Nana’s room and came out into our room, which was a huge suite. On one side of the suite was a big table with chairs, and to the right of the table was a small area with a sink, fridge, and microwave. A counter over a row of cabinets lined one wall of the suite. There was even a couch, there was plenty of room to move around. The bed was in the wall—we just had to pull down the wall and down came the bed! Daddy and Mommy would sleep there; roll-out beds were ordered for everyone else.
Justin, Lilly, Luke, and I helped Popo and Daddy carry in the Trader Joe’s bags, and Mommy spread out the food on the counter. By the time we were all settled, it was evening. I went out with Justin and Luke on the balcony, which overlooked the hotel’s water park. The sky was orange, pink, and blue, and cool, fresh breezes came in from the water. Below us, two girls from the Senior division, quizzing each other on their verses, were walking on the sidewalk that wound around the water park. The sidewalk was lined with Christmas trees decked in shiny balls and silver strings.
Popo and Nana left to get food from Olive Garden, while Mommy sorted our clothes from into piles for each person. Each of us had to fold our stack of clothes and put the stack into one of the cabinets beneath the counter. While we were folding, Justin said, “This morning, when Uncle Alton turned on the light, I sat up all fast, because I didn’t want him to see me lying sleepy in my bed.”
After dinner, we went downstairs for the contestant fun night. The hall was thronged with people laughing and talking. We found some of the Crosswhites—Mr. Crosswhite, eighteen-year-old Rachel, and eight-year-old Abigail. The Crosswhites, the only people we knew at Nationals, were the ones who had, two years before, told us about the National Bible Bee. Rachel has always been a really good friend to me, and at that time she and Bethany Pace were my only two good friends.
Rachel asked me to sign her Bible Bee program, explaining that the white page in the back of the program was for signatures.
After a while, our family split up; I took Justin with me to the Junior room. There a group of Junior contestants were playing “Never Have I Ever”, and we joined the game. Chairs were set up in a semicircle, with one chair for each player except one. “It” would stand in the middle and tell something he had never done. Everyone who had done that thing had to go to a new seat, and whoever was left without a seat had to go to the middle.
“Never have I ever broken a bone,” said one boy.
I had never broken a bone, but I watched as other ran to each other’s seats, squealing and laughing. One boy walked up to his sister and said, “You’ve broken a bone.”
“No I haven’t. That was you,” the girl reminded him.
Suddenly, a girl with dark brown hair and glasses jumped up. “Ellie!” she squealed and ran to a blonde girl who was standing in the doorway. The two gave each other a big hug.
“Oh, I knew you’d come,” the girl said, her face shining. “I just knew it!”
“I just had to,” Ellie said happily, and the two girls left the room.
Everyone else looked at each other. “Is she leaving?” asked one boy.
The Junior division guide looked around the room. “I guess so. Let’s just take out a chair and keep playing.”
Everyone else was sitting down, so the boy who’d been talking to his sister was left in the middle. “I’ve broken three bones,” he proclaimed. “Okay, let’s see. Never have I ever been better than ranking number twenty at Nationals.”
Former finalists, semifinalists, and a few other contestants from previous years ran for the empty seats. The boy who was left in the middle said, “Never have I ever ridden in a car!”
Everyone ran for the empty seats, squealing and laughing and saying that it was against the rules to say that when of course the boy had ridden in a car. I fell into a seat beside a girl with wavy, light brown hair and bright eyes. She had braces and so did I, and that fact made me feel a bit close to her.
“What’s your name?” she asked me.
“I’m Katie,” I said shyly. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Josephine. How old are you?”
Josephine smiled. “I’m fourteen too!”
I looked at her and smiled.
A girl who seemed to not know what to say had been left in the middle. A dad sitting outside of the group spoke up. “I have one. Never have I ever been in Bible Bee!”
This time, everyone got up and ran to the other seats, which were all empty. Squealing and laughing, the players fell into the abundant supply of empty seats.
After a while the Junior division guide looked at her watch and said that it was time to end this game and start a new one. Some of the players, including Justin and me, left the room. Justin and I went across the hall to the Primary room, where tables were set up with board games and card games. There we found Daddy and Mommy, who were talking with a couple named Mr. and Mrs. Moss. Daddy and Mommy said good bye to their new friends and fetched Lilly and Luke, and we all went upstairs to our suite.
My roll out bed was next to the balcony, where I could pull aside the curtain and look out at the countless stars in the Texas sky. I pulled my scratchy little blanket around me and tried to sleep. I could not stop thinking about Psalm 145, my last passage. I had never officially memorized it, but as I turned it over in my mind, I decided I had read it enough to call it “memorized” and I could quote it tomorrow if I had to.