Friday, May 6, 2011

Psalm 121 and Pilot Mountain School

    I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills.
    From whence cometh my help?
My help cometh from the Lord,
which made heaven and earth.

Psalm 121 has always been one of my favorites, probably since I am surrounded by hills and mountains. I've recited those verses many times over the years, usually in the King James version where I first memorized it.

This psalm has even more meaning to me now that I have have completed the research for Pilot Mountain School and learned about the missionary/teacher who impacted the children there. Lettie Hamlett taught the fourth/fifth grade combination class in the late fifties and talked frequently about her years on the mission field in China. I interviewed many of her former students, listening as they each tried in their own ways to explain the impact she made on their lives. When I finally received the packet of bio information from the mission board, I discovered there was more to this story.

Did she tell her students everything about her life as missionary? That she and her husband operated a floating library in a river boat? Probably that, yes. But the rest of the story... That the Japanese occupation soldiers considered this mission to be a threat? That on December 7, 1941 she was out of the mission compound on a library run and returned to a different world? That she and her husband were held captive for several months and then used as pawns in a prisoner of war exchange? That her husband's health suffered because of the harsh conditions and that he died shortly after their return to the US?

Morganton News Herald, September 11, 1942

That she bravely returned to the same mission alone after the war only to be considered suspect by the Communist soldiers? That she was once again held captive in the compound until word came that she was to be expelled from the country?

Here's where Psalm 121 comes into the narrative.

She had been helped through her final months of containment by the local community who, at their own peril, supplied her with food and wood for heat and herbs for medical purposes. She supplied them with words about her God and glimpses of a faith that they wanted to hear more about. So when they heard that she was to be deported, they wanted to give her a present for her to remember them by. She was allowed to carry nothing in her hands, but she could carry anything in her heart and mind.

They gave her Psalm 121.

It's true. Three different people, unknowing what the other was doing, whispered in her ear as they said their final farewells, "I give you the one hundred and twenty-first psalm."

She returned to the US, retired from the mission field, and at the age of seventy-two, came to Pilot Mountain School and a classroom that faced the ridge of the South Mountains. I wonder how often she recited that psalm, looking out the window, needing her spirit restored. From whence cometh her help? Her help cometh from the Lord. And the mountains stood as a reminder.

That's the rest of the story. And here's the rest of the psalm, in more modern translation:

He will not let your foot slip.
He who watches over you will not slumber;
Indeed, he who watches over Israel
Will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord watches over you.
The Lord is your shade at your right hand;
The sun will not harm you by day,
Nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all harm.
He will watch over your life;
The Lord will watch over your coming and going
Both now and forevermore.

Catch of the Day,



  1. Great catch! Awesome story. Interesting that the Morganton newspaper article was dated September 11.

    You have completed your research? How is writing coming?

  2. Completed my research? Good question! I probably could continue the interviews for years, but I feel that I have the basic story from school board minutes and newspaper accounts. Add to that the overabundance of side stories I have caught as I talked with individuals and I have a fairly complete account. I'm making decisions about stories like Mrs. Hamlett's China experience, to include or not to include. It is not directly about the school, but certainly did impact the children.
    This chiseling process has been as difficult as the writing process.

  3. Gretchen,

    I'd like to piggyback on your comment. Please don't chisel away the "heart" or emotional impact when editing. Teachers' impact on the children is a big part of the story in my opinion. Good luck!

    Linda A.