In the summer of my ninth year, I got to go to a week long camp. On the last evening, I stood with my new friends around the campfire. By this time we were comfortable enough with each other to use all our forbidden vocabulary and were trying our best to impress each other.
I was quite proficient at this, having learned a lot of unprintable words from the hired hands on the farm and from friends at school. The other boys were very impressed with my vocabulary and I glowed in the warmth of both the fire and the admiration. I was not thinking much about God.
Fall came, and with it a series of special meetings at the church which my siblings and I attended. The speaker spoke a lot about “accepting Christ as your savior,” and one evening I bowed my head and asked Jesus to come into my life and save me. Very shortly after that, my use of forbidden words began to drop away.
I found myself becoming curious about what the Bible had to say and that year began a habit that has continued throughout my lifetime: reading a chapter a day in the Bible.
I began in Genesis and as I got into Numbers and Deuteronomy found some of it heavy going. At one point while reading about Old Testament food regulations, I wondered about whether I should eat ham any more. Then I nearly got bogged down in the long lists of names, but pressed on and made it through.
I also began to pray regularly. My parents, unaware of my negative, secret “other life,” including my unprintable vocabulary, did not particularly notice any change in their outwardly compliant, obedient son, but change had begun.
In the summer of my tenth year I strained to see over the dashboard of the old farm truck, my legs just long enough now to reach the pedals. The dirt road leading down the hill from the hayfields was rough, so I drove slowly, not wanting to lose any of the hay bales piled high on the back. I really enjoyed haying, especially when I got to drive the truck.
As I drove along, a quick movement caught my eye and I turned to see a huge spider that had spun its web near the floor on the passenger side of the truck cab. I was fascinated–and scared. I’d never seen such a large spider before.
Suddenly the truck started bouncing wildly, throwing me into the air. I pushed on the brakes as hard as I could and jolted to a stop. I jumped out to find that in watching the spider I had driven off the path into a pile of rocks.
Then I looked back at the load and my heart sank: half of the bales had fallen off the truck. What would Grandpa say if he saw this? Well, no need to even ask that question because I already knew the answer: there would be strong words of condemnation!
I struggled to get the bales back onto the truck, but when the load got near the top, I couldn’t throw them up high enough.
Then Dad came along with the tractor and rake, and after giving me a stern word– but certainly less stern than Grandpa’s would have been–helped me reload the remaining bales. I was relieved that I’d escaped any worse rebuke, but my soul smarted as I felt foolish for having driven off the road. I did not like feeling like a fool.
The five of us kids and Mom were having supper when she went to the stove to get something and looked out the window.
“Oh, there’s a tire customer.” She said. “Your father’s out on his wholesale tire route, so who’s going to go and wait on this person?”
Since our grandfather had retired from farming, Dad had expanded his part-time tire selling into a fulltime business and was struggling to make it financially, so often needed our help.
My younger brother, Les, and I looked at each other. “What kind of car is it, Mom?” asked Les.
“It’s a red one.”
“No, no” I said. “What kind of car is it? Is it an old one or a new one? Is it going to be a tube-type customer or one with tubeless tires?”
“I don’t know; it’s a big car. You’ll have to go and see.”
Les and I looked at each other again and rose from the table. Two could do this faster than one.
We did enjoy working for Dad, but we didn’t like to change tires with tubes in them because it was so easy to rip one. We much preferred to sell and mount the newer tubeless tires. In this case we were glad to find that it was a newer car and the customer wanted tubeless tires.
We especially liked going on road calls at night with Dad, fixing a truck flat on the turnpike, or doing an emergency repair on a tractor tire on a farm–you never knew what you’d experience.
We often did no more than hold a flashlight while Dad fixed the tire, but he said it was a great help. For us boys it was schooling in dealing with life, watching Dad solve practical problems and deal with the public.
As we worked with him Dad taught us a lot of positive things that I use to this day. He pointed out how two people could do the work of five just because they could encourage each other.
He also drummed into us the principle of working with gravity, not against it. How often I would be pushing up on a bar, trying to loosen a nut, when Dad would say, “No, turn it this way and step on it! Work with gravity!”
Another oft repeated advice was, “Keep your eyes and ears open. Being aware of what’s going on around you may save you from a lot of trouble in the future.” And more than once that’s what happened.
It was a great education, having a far greater impact on my life than any formal learning. There was, however, one area of my life where all that Dad taught could not help me. I had a growing reservoir of anger.
One summer day my oldest cousin, Charles, took his two brothers, Les and me to the nearest city where we bought a box of glazed donuts and ice cream bars on sticks.
Charles led us down to the railroad yard where he worked and we all sat on the loading platform to devour our goodies, starting with our ice cream before it could melt.
Looking at the box of donuts, I pointed to my favorite one and said, “I want that donut when I’m done with my ice cream.”
Everyone nodded. Then right in front of me, before he finished his ice cream, one of my cousins reached over, took “my” donut and bit into it.
I felt the heat of anger rising in my chest. I stood up, stomped my foot, threw the rest of my ice cream down on the concrete and shouted, “How could you do that?”
My cousin smiled, “Easy, just like this,” he said, taking another big bite.
I choked on my anger. My inability to control the situation and the frustration of not getting what I wanted was overwhelming. I felt totally powerless and this only increased my anger, which was becoming another bar in the cage of my soul.
Picture: us 5 siblings posing in front of Dad’s work truck and “tire shop” in the cellar of our house.