Horton Plaza, now just a fountain on Broadway and the entrance to a mega-mall, used to be a sleepy little Spanish style Plaza with gardens of flowers and wrought iron benches warmed by the noonday sun. You could sit and while away an afternoon or wait for a bus or streetcar to come your way.
World War II changed that.
The Plaza became the hub of activity for servicemen of all branches. It was where you met girls ... it was where you ran for buses headed back to the base ... it was an underground comfort station. And for the San Diego Gideonís it was a place to establish a booth to hand out New Testaments to service personnel, nurses, and just about anyone who had a desire to have one.
"A Bible In Every Hotel" had been there motto for years, but as soon as our country declared war, they put that program on hold and had their printers set up for making pocket sized New Testament and Psalms for every enlisted man and woman of that era.
The Testaments were khaki colored for Air Force, Marines and Army, Blue for the Navy and Coastguard and White for the nurses of any branch.
The men of the San Diego Gideon Camp volunteered to keep the red, white and blue booth open at peak traffic times, especially on weekends. Of course, that meant their wives and children were also volunteered.
"Do you want to go down to the Plaza today, Johnny?" Poppy asked.
I tried very hard not to sound too excited. I really wasnít so caring about handing out New Testaments as I was in just meeting Sailors and Marines. I was actually too young for the sport, but in my mind I wasnít. I felt very grown up at fourteen ... I was tall for my age ... very interested in all the popular hairdoís of the day and could easily pass for fifteen.
I literally ran up the stairs to get ready to go.
To this day the thought of Horton Plaza evokes memories of diesel fumes from the buses and hordes of milling people ... excitement! Of course it is now the entrance to a lovely fashion mall and because of the problem with vagrants, there are no park benches or pretty flowers.
That Sunday I handed out New Testaments and Psalms to the lonely draftees that passed our booth by the Gideon Booth by the hundreds.
When Poppy died, I found a small, worn and dented Testament in his belongings. There was a note inside. I slowly opened it and found the words of a grateful Marine from Louisiana. His name was Henry Porter. I remembered him. Poppy had given him the New Testament that day we worked together. I remembered him, because Poppy invited him home for dinner. In the note he told of how he carried the Testament in his breast pocket all through the war and he had been grazed by a bullet, but the scriptures had taken the brunt of the blow and his life was spared. He told Poppy that he could have the Testament and tell his story to churches as the Gideons did in order to help raise funds for more Bibles and Testaments.
Henryís Louisiana address was at the end of the letter so I wrote to him telling him of my fatherís passing. I sent him his ragged Testament as a memento ... I felt he should have it.
He wrote back. After the war, on the G.I. Bill, he had gone to seminary and studied for the ministry. He now pastors a small Baptist church in southern Louisiana.
For Poppy, that would have been all the thanks he ever needed for having given so many hours by standing in the red, white and blue Gideon booth on Horton Plaza passing out Testaments to lonely young men so far from home.
I can remember him telling me "If just one young manís life is changed by this Book ... itís worth our time here."
Of course he was interested in their souls. At fourteen, I was more concerned about winning their hearts!