Shortly after my third birthday, my father carried me across a newly harrowed field and set me on the driver’s seat of the old John Deere tractor.
“Now, you see that tree on the other side of the field?” he asked. “The one with the white bark?”
I squinted at the tree about 300 yards off and nodded.
“Good,” said Dad. “Now you just steer towards it. Hold the wheel tight and keep looking at the tree.” He put the tractor in the lowest gear and pushed in the hand clutch. The tractor moved off slowly while I sat straight, gripping the steering wheel, focusing on the tree. I was really pleased. Here I was, helping my father, doing real work and driving!
As the tractor crept slowly across the field, my father walked behind, picking up rocks and throwing them onto the steel drag hitched to the tractor.
When we reached the other side, Dad got up on the tractor, took me on his lap and with both of us holding the steering wheel, drove to the end of the field where he emptied the rocks onto the stonewall. We then drove back and headed the tractor towards where we had started.
“Now, see that open spot between the bushes there?” he asked, pointing to the other side of the field. I nodded. “OK, just steer towards it.”
Again we worked our way across the field, Dad collecting rocks on the drag, me concentrating on steering, grinning in delight. We did a good afternoon’s work and came home both dust-covered and happy.
I was four years old when Dad said, “Let’s go to a movie!” We three kids jumped up and ran to the car. No need to ask twice. Dad took us to the nearest theater, not knowing what was playing.
The film was, unfortunately, a monster movie, one about people who entered a cave and had moss grow on them turning them into monsters. Then they would eat other people who blundered into the cave.
I was terrified, even though I could see the zippers on the moss costumes. That night a fear of the dark entered my life; from then on I was terrified of being home alone after dark. This fear was to stay with me for fifty-one more years, forming another bar in my cell.
One evening after I had turned five, Dad took me with him to the barn as he went to do the milking. Holding a milk pail in one hand and a stool in the other, he led me down the aisle between the cows to one with a distended belly.
“This is the one,” he said. “She’ll have her calf pretty soon and we need to dry her off, so she must be milked by hand. Here, you sit down on the stool. Hold the pail between your knees like this. Her udder has already been washed, so you can start milking.”
I put my hands on the first two teats and squeezed. A weak stream of milk flowed from each into the pail. The cow shifted on her feet.
Dad smiled, “She doesn’t like your cold hands,” he said, “but she’s a gentle one and won’t kick. You go ahead and milk her.”
I set to work, carefully squeezing the milk into the pail. Sitting there between the cows, feeling their warmth and breathing in the smell of animals, of the hay and grain was pleasant.
My only regret was that this new chore of milking prevented me from watching my favorite TV show, “Howdy Doody,” with Buffalo Bob and Chief Thunder Thud. It came on at 5 pm on the tiny black and white screen of the used TV Dad had recently bought. But the good feeling of being entrusted with real work took away the sting of missing the program.
By the time I was done, my hands and forearms ached from the unaccustomed activity. However I was glad for this chance to be useful and help Dad.
The summer I turned six, I was sitting in the church basement during Daily Vacation Bible School, listening to a lesson given by Mrs. Strube, the pastor’s wife. I liked that she used a flannel graph as that made it easier to pay attention. I was not good at learning in classroom situations.
As she concluded her presentation of the death and resurrection of Christ, Mrs. Strube paused, “If any of you would like to accept Jesus as your Savior, come with me into the furnace room.”
I’d always wondered what was behind that mysterious grey door in the corner of the basement and here was my chance to find out.
We all filed in quietly and sat on wooden folding chairs. I looked around in wonder at the squat shape of the furnace crouching in the corner, its multiple arms snaking out in various directions to carry hot water to distant parts of the church. It was fascinating but also sinister.
I barely heard what Mrs. Strube was saying, but I did catch enough to bow my head at the right time and listen to her lead us in a prayer to accept Jesus. Line by line I repeated it after her.
As we filed out, what remained in my mind, however, was not Jesus, but that intriguing, scary furnace.
In the summer of my seventh year I walked up the farm lane, across the road and into the woods. It was 4:30 p.m. on a warm, sunny August afternoon and I was on my way to bring the cows down from the fields and into the barn for milking.
As I walked in the woods, the sun was shining through the green leaves of the oak trees. The rays of the sun turned the leaf dust in the air into great shafts of glowing light, piercing the quiet gloom.
I can remember very clearly stopping in my tracks, struck by the beauty before me: the textured bark of the tree trunks, the delicate green of forest grass pushing up through the leaves, the gray jumble of the stone wall separating the woods from the field, and most of all those great shafts of golden sunshine.
As I gazed at this scene, suddenly a question came into my mind, “I wonder why I’m here on the earth?”
I had no idea that such a question doesn’t usually occupy the thoughts of seven-year-old boys. Only later would I realize that God had sovereignly placed that question in my mind and heart to draw me to Himself. He was already at work, leading me toward the “spacious place” of freedom He had prepared for me.
At the moment, however, it only brought me a sense of unsettledness, an understanding that there was something missing in my life. I pulled myself out of my state of wonder and moved on to find the cows, unaware that I’d just had a brush with eternity.
Picture: Me with my older sister Andrea and younger brother Les.