"Have you not asked those who travel the roads, and do you not accept their testimony?" (Job 28:29)

Monday, February 20, 2017

A Distance Crossed...

BEING A ONCE young man in the military service, I tried many experiences that did not turn out as expected. Of such type was a temporary duty to which I was assigned during the summer of 1961. You see, while enlisted in the United States Air Force (USAF), I received an order to report for training school sessions. The time would be spent learning the maintenance of a new electronic aircraft navigation system. To accomplish the classes, however, I had to leave my assigned base in the center of North Dakota and travel to Ellsworth Air Force Base, located near Rapid City, South Dakota.
 Now, know that getting to the technical school was easy. All I needed to do at the time was hitch a ride on a small, twin-engine plane from my base to the other. It was only a distance of approximately 350 miles. I did so easily, and arrived at my assigned school with time to spare. Reporting in, I was given a room in which to bunk. However, a problem then presented itself.
 The trouble was that the school I was to attend didn’t begin for several weeks. If attending those classes, I would be there for much longer than my time allotment. Knowing the meaning of SNAFU, I calmly called back to my home base and inquired about the delay. What was I to do? Should I return to home base?
 The answer surprised me. My First Sergeant said, “No, stay there until it starts. Attend the classes and then come back.” After I told the instructor about his response, he verified the order with my sergeant, and then chuckled. He handed my orders back to me and said “Go sightseeing. We’ll see you in two weeks.”
 At first I had difficulty absorbing that I’d just been given a dynamite vacation. Many questions immediately raced through my mind. How far could I go? Could I travel home to PA? There was time. Or… should I just roam around the Black Hills and see such as the Mt. Rushmore monument? The trouble was… I didn’t have my car there. How was I to get around? What to do? What to do?
 Then it dawned on me! I decided that I needed to get back to North Dakota and retrieve my car. Quickly, I walked over to Flight Control to get the return flight back to my home base. There was no way that would happen, for my flight had already left. So there I was, stranded. However, know this. The U.S. military is known for making good on-the-spot decisions. I was taught no different.

 Dressed in my summer uniform, I stuck out my thumb. I thought to hitch rides in cars, trucks or whatever rolled up. I’d ride in anything that was headed north. These days, for safety reasons I cringe at that thought.
 My plan seemed to be a good one at first. It was rather easy to get a ride from that base to Rapid City, and then head northward to a town called Belle Fourche. It was from there, however, that I got stuck. Being somewhat persistent though, I walked just a bit north out of town and waited for a vehicle to come along. I waited there without any traffic coming my way at all… and waited… and waited some more… for about an hour. Finally, an old Chevrolet pickup truck rolled slowly up to me.
 The old truck had a dent in the left front and was missing its right rear fender. As I opened the door and slid onto the forlorn passenger seat, I realized that the driver was an elderly Native American man. He had a time-worn complexion, and was dressed in boots, jeans, and a blue cotton-flannel shirt. His head was topped with a traditional looking, dirty beige cowboy hat. As he grinned at me, I noticed several missing teeth.
 He said, “Where ya headed?”
 I told him, “Minot, North Dakota.”
 “I’m not going that far, but I take ya as far as I can.”
 I settled in, and we rattled on toward the north with the truck’s stove bolt six whisking us across the prairie. We ran through a few gentle rolling hills, out onto the flat prairie… and headed toward the mesas of the Badlands.
 The old man talked friendly as we went along. He told me that his grandson was in the Marines, and his enlistment was soon coming to an end. He doubted a bit sorrowfully about whether the young man would come back home. We also passed time talking about my home and folks. He seemed quite interested in the food that my mother made, because he was a cook.
 We talked just to pass the time, for between our conversations there was little to see. The near silent prairie grass was blowing slightly… rustling the whisper of ages in the early afternoon wind. Then abruptly many miles out, startling me out of the road hypnotism that had settled in… we pulled over alongside a monument. A rather Pyhrric stone sat stoically; a single granite pillar on a flat prairie courtyard.
 I got out to stretch my legs and wandered over to the pillar with the old man. It was then that I learned of the sacred nature of the place. The pillar marked the “Wounded Knee” massacre site. We were there at a date just before the place was declared a national monument. We stood there together, an old native man who knew too well what it stood for… and a young man of European descent who was just learning about the sinful historical gap caused by racism. We stood quietly there for a few moments out of respect, and then I listened to his telling about his family tree… and those who had been lost in that battle from the Lakota Sioux settlement… and the fallen of the Army. Then he looked away toward a small shower drawing near to us from the west, and said “It’s time to go.”
 After returning to the road, my benefactor got a five-gallon jerry can from the bed of the truck and added gas to his fuel tank. I am reminded now that the old truck was unlikely to achieve more than fifteen miles to the gallon. Then we climbed back onto the sway-back truck seat and headed north once again.
 For the many miles afterward we traveled steadily in a near straight line fashion. As we went, my driver pointed out abundant life hidden in the open prairie. Deceptively empty, the land was instead abundant. We saw antelope, coyotes, rattlesnakes, jack rabbits, a few buffalo and literally hundreds of pheasants. These last flew across the highway as we motored through the center of the flock.

 We rode farther, and the old man described ancient days when a ten-mile wide valley that we were crossing at the time had once been covered by a shallow lake. He said that he hadn’t seen it himself, but the legend about its plenteous nature had been taught to him by his grandfather. He had in turn taught the story to his grandson… and he was also teaching it to me.
 Suppertime approached as we later entered the town of Bowman. The sun had lowered toward the horizon. We pulled into a Standard Oil gas station. The old man began to fill his fuel tank and refill the can that he’d emptied. Then he told me I would have to catch another ride. He said that with a breeze and a blessing I’d go farther north, then due east and make Watford City before dark.
 I asked, “How far north do you need to go to get home?”
 He looked at me… and said in no great fashion, “South, I have to go back south.”
 It was only then that I learned that the old man should have turned off the highway to go eastward… some 70 miles or so to the south, way back somewhere lost in time. He could have rightly dropped me off on the wind swept prairie many miles before we came to that town.
Since that time, I often think about the moment when I learned that he had gone hours out of his way… just to see me to safety. In that four hour trip he’d taught me about strife, about family ties, and the preservation of our common human history. He went an extra distance to ensure that I would not be afflicted by sun, wind, rain and the empty wildness. He had, without being asked… gone many extra miles.
 To this day as a pastor who is now dressed in a different uniform, I do not know for sure whether that wonderful man was a Christian. Nevertheless, I do know that Jesus would have been very proud of him. For Jesus had once said..,

 But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other as well…. and if anyone would sue you and take your coat… let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile in doing a service, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
 You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor… and hate your enemy.”  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil, and on the good… and sends rain on the just, and on the unjust.”

 An unknowing wanderer back then, I was indeed privileged for that short time to ride with someone who personified the will of God, and I was blessed by the occasion. Just as he prophetically predicted. I did get to Watford City before the heaviness of night came upon me. There the sheriff gave me a cot in his unlocked jail to sleep on, and bought me breakfast before sending me on my way the next morning. Ah yes.., that is yet, just another story.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Light Shines...

GREY CLOUDS skidded coldly across the white sky over the garage as I drove up. During that late Sunday afternoon in February, snow was forecast... but I’d picked that time to visit. By leaving home I’d avoided a TV hand controller fight with my wife. She insisted on watching her professional basketball game. I didn't like watching basketball much, so I did the wisest thing. I went out to visit Mike.
 Mike’s garage is a warm and welcome place. It's located in the back yard of his house. In times past, the shop was a barn that housed a small dairy herd. Mike had inherited the farm and the tasks of his dairy farming father. The trouble was… though he loved the farm, Mike didn’t like cows. So he sold the cows, raised some hay... and started a business selling car parts and tools.
 As years went by, he collected parts for old cars. Then the car collector passion struck him. It came on fully when he retired and bought an old Packard. A “light in the darkness” so to speak, the Packard now resides in one bay of his hay barn.
 The two-door is warmed by a wood stove, and attended to by an ample tool bench and neighboring bar stools. A visitor can settle down for a visit in the barn, alongside the old Packard, for a sweet afternoon.
 After entering the shop, I saw that a couple of safety stands held the old car’s rear axle up high enough so that Mike could crawl under the right running board. I peered back into the garage from the doorway and could see two work boots pointed heavenward.
 “Mike, is that you under there?” I said as I saw his feet pointed skyward beneath the car.
 I waited for an answer coming from underneath.No answer came. I took a couple more steps up alongside the graceful fender. From there I peered down at the well-worn workman’s boots.
  “Mike, are you okay?” I said quietly.
 I listened; then heard the sound. The low rumble echoed out like a Harley V-twin backing down the long hill into the valley, then a few snorts occurred like the bike had the muffler baffles blown out.
  I got down on my knees and peeked beneath the car. A shop light was on, glowing a yellowish tinge that only heavy duty bulbs can emit. The creeper headrest was up. Mike was laying there… sound asleep.
 He looked restful, snoring with his reading glasses perched between his nose and his white mustache. He had a hand-written wiring diagram sitting on his chest. In his right hand was a electrical test light, with its probe end hung around a black wire that routed toward the rear axle of the old car. It was that he’d naturally fell asleep amid a voltage test. His arm rested gently on a cross member bracket and his finger was on the trigger ready to insert the tip and probe the wire. He's not pulled the tester’s trigger. So here they were... resting together.., an old car and its wizened caretaker, born in the same year of Our Lord.
  I thought about kicking his boot sole to wake him, but decided against it. That’d been done to him many a time, and he’d gotten a bandage on the top of his bald head each time that he’d snorted awake.
 Since Mike was in no mood for work, I nosed quietly around the shop… waiting for him to awaken. I checked out the four new wide whitewall tires he’d shipped in from a warehouse in Tennessee. Mike had waited quite a while for them, so he’d be ready for an upcoming car show.
 Mike sputtered slightly beneath the Packard, but was still backing the bike down the hill... so I thought I’d just leave and come back another time.
 I walked out to my car and saw that the approaching darkness brought the onset of more cold and snow. A few flakes rested on the hood of my old Chevy truck.
 Then I smelled them.
 I knew what they were. There was no mistaking the smell… Welsh cookies!
 Mike’s wife Betty was in the kitchen making my favorite dessert of all time! Having less shame than a street rodder caught in a classics show, I went to the back porch of the house and looked into the kitchen.
 Betty stood over a hot griddle on the stove. In the soft light shed from over the old sink, this tall and graceful woman held a spatula up alongside her gray hair. She was singing a long forgotten hymn that I thought had died with my grandmother. “I walk in the garden alone…” went the tune. Betty held the key much better than my grandmother, but I knew their recipe for Welsh cookies was identical… at least they tasted as much.
 Unashamedly, I knocked on the door… though I had been often told that a knock wasn’t needed.
 “Come on in!” she piped between stanzas. “And he walks with me and he talks with me, and tells me I am his own.” she continued.
  I came in and she smiled and without missing a note, then flipped some cookies on the griddle.
 “How’ve ya been?” she asked after stopping her song.
 “Good”, I returned. “I was just out in the shop and smelled the cookies.”
 “Mike is snoozing, ain’t he?”
 “Yes, he is.” I said.
 She smiled a little, and said… “He’ll be coming in shortly, it’s almost four o’clock and the last cookies are just about done.”
  A rumble of a Ford flat head V-8 and its side lake pipes rattled the window above the sink. I heard the car pull up outside. Betty peered out the window, saying… “That’s Jessie, she brings that old car home before any snow gets on the road. It’s a bit too low for country roads, let alone any snowfall. Why Mike dropped that Ford down that low for her, I’ll never figure.”
 Jessie pulled her car up in front of the barn door, at the bay next to the old Packard. She woke Mike with a cold blast of air when the door lifted in answer to her push button control. Soon, with the tools put away and lights put out, the two… both father and daughter, came through the darkening light to the kitchen door.
 “Take those greasy coveralls off!” Betty barked curtly.
 Mike complied, as I would… given the reward of Welsh cookies hanging sweetly in the air.
 Betty sat us down at the table, and dished out some home-made chicken soup. She said to me, “If ya want the cookies.., eat the soup.”
 We said thanks to God and ate. Each spoonful of soup, though tasty indeed… was torture for me. Home-made chicken soup was only given at our house when we had a cold. I thought... “I’d really stopped in for the cookies.” It was like I had to think about the bad, before the good was going to be offered up.
 Finally they came. A small porcelain plate with a picture of the church in the center was placed before me. It held the near perfect Welsh cookies.., near perfect, because instead of lard...butter made them a bit healthier as they cooked with the right kind of currants.
 Three cookies were given to each person. They were done just the way I liked them. We ate, and drank coffee that you could cut with a knife. We laughed.., and we talked cars. I worried a bit about the strong drip coffee I’d just used to wash those cookies down.
 “Would it keep me awake all night?” I thought. “Was it decaf?” Somehow it didn’t matter.
 Betty left for a few minutes, then reappeared in the kitchen with her coat and hat secured. She said, “Let’s go, we’re going to be late.”
  Mike looked at me. “You’re coming, right?”
 “Where?” I asked.
 “To the hymn sing, silly.” Jessie said.   “Mom is leading the gospel choir tonight.”
  It’s amazing what good friends and good cookies will cause. A change of plans formed in my mind. We all loaded into Mike’s everyday beater and motored over to the Christ Chapel. We sat in the glow of the flame shaped bulbs nestled in candelabras. Beneath those trinity lights in the chapel… we heard stories from the bible about Jesus telling of the light of God’s love. And we sang music that rooted me to the pace of an old foot pedal organ and some old time religion. I listened intently to the sweet voices of the small choir accompanied by the organ, a flute, and a flattop Gibson guitar.
 I remembered those words that Betty sang with the choir as I drove my old truck home that night. I caught myself humming them over the rhythm of the small block eight.  I’d heard them before from my beloved Grandma Jacobs as she washed dishes. With a faded soprano she’d sing… “And the joy we shared, as we tarried there, none other... has ever... known.” For some reason which I’ve just begun to understand, she’d then wipe tears from her eyes using her apron.
 The words came written as those of Mary Magdalene meeting Jesus in the garden after his Resurrection. As I think of it now in my mind’s eye, I can see Mary standing there confused, for Jesus said “Do not hold onto me”. She was alone, like my Grandma after Gramps had died, looking for a sure and certain hope.
 When Mary saw Jesus, she didn’t recognize him at first… for no one had died and ever came back. But there Jesus stood. Even though not understanding, she surely must have felt shocked, but loved... and reassured. She must have felt as grateful as I did, when after the dishes were done and I’d help. Grandma put them away. Gram would say... “Child, it’s time to read scripture before bedtime. Would you like some Welsh cookies and milk?”
 You know... when I consider the taste, I guess they were a heavenly communion of sorts.