My Tribute To Larry Bierl

“I will remember you.  Will you remember me?  Don’t let life pass you by.  Weep not for the memories…”   I Will Remember You, (1995).  Recorded by:  Sarah McLachlan.  Composers:  Sarah McLachlan, Seamus Egan, Dave Merenda

Cover photo:  Anne Neville/Buffalo News

Life sure has its ways of reminding us how we should have corrected ourselves at some point and time.  The rear-view mirror can be a teaching tool.

I lived in Williamsville/Amherst, NY, a Buffalo suburb, from 2003-2008.  It’s approximately 5,300 in population.  I chose Williamsville because it was a beautiful, quaint little area, away from the city where I did a radio show.  The property taxes were higher, with the safe neighborhood, as well as the school district.  It was a superb place for my three girls.

Often times, while driving into the quiet, older downtown village of Williamsville for a dinner run, or a nice walk down to the Ellicott Creek waterfall in Glen Park, we would see a mysterious man walking the sidewalks.  He was quite the oddity for the setting of Williamsville’s more upper-crust reputation.  He was a homeless man, or so we assumed.  The majority of the homeless were seen in the city, not the norm for the Williamsville/Amherst section of Buffalo.  More than likely you would see him clad in camouflage coat & pants, or a pair of cargo khakis, hunting lace-up boots, and long heavy yarn scarves wrapped around his neck that hung down to his thighs.

One evening, while sitting in the car in a parking lot, waiting to pick-up my daughter from a musical rehearsal, I saw the man was nearby, digging through a trash bin outside a Wendy’s fast food location.  At closer glance, I observed the scarves with a better perspective.  The scarves were not scarves at all.  They were extremely long strands of thick, matted hair, appearing to be mufflers of wool.  These strands were not dreadlocks, with crafty braids of hair art, although many attempted a good spin by calling them dreadlocks.  They were as thick as a dock rope.  It was an amazing sight, and certainly highly unique.  It told part of this man’s narrative.

My oldest daughter, Tabitha, 16 at the time, worked part-time for Spot Coffee, a popular coffee and pastry bar.  He made a semi-daily stop there for a tall cup of straight java.  He was offered free coffees and food from most of the businesses in the village. or wherever he showed up, but he always paid when he could.  Empty bottles and cans were his prey.  It was a familiar scene, a plastic trash bag full of the soon-to-be recycled items, draped over his shoulder.  He had a zip-lock plastic bag of coins and dollar bills stashed in the thigh pocket of his pants.  Nobody ever saw him begging on the street corners.  However, the community members, not allowing judgement to overrule them, donated money to him coming and going.  One might wonder how the business owners and the police dealt with him.  I am proud to say, very kindly.  Everyone understood, this man was part of our community, living a life of his choosing.

More days than not, if you drove by Spot Coffee, you would see him sitting at one of the patio tables with coffee in hand, gazing off toward the horizon.  He seemed to live in his own world.  He was gentle, never causing trouble.  Although he was not one to enjoy talking much.  He would respond if spoken to.  My daughter has a big heart.  She made sure she spoke to him while serving him coffee, or whenever she was close enough on other occasions.

Larry Bierl AT Spot Coffee Photo:  Carole Taylor & Buffalo News

Sometimes you could see him sitting outside a Burger King on a sidewalk bench, eating a burger.  Other times, he would be stuffing one into an old worn backpack.  It was not unusual for him to decline someone offering him fries to go with it.  My opportunity was one August afternoon as I jogged by the bench.  You guessed it.  I looked straight ahead listening to Fleetwood Mac on my headset, pretending I didn’t notice him.

Many have seen him walking the campus of the University of Buffalo, watching the pigeons.  There is a subway station there, on the south campus, where he often took shelter.  With that said, I think he simply enjoyed the peaceful surroundings of the campus, even under hostile weather.

After a year of living there, this man just became a fixture to me.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not that I no longer acknowledged his presence, but rather I expected to see him…somewhere.  What’s truly nagging at me is the fact he had a story and I didn’t know it.

Although he was an icon, even a staple in the area, most only heard rumors concerning who he really was.  Not many ever knew his name, including your’s truly.  One rumor painted the man on the street as an alcohol and drug addict.  Another rumor dubbed him as a military vet from the Vietnam conflict.  Because he often paid for his coffee and food, many believed he was covertly wealthy, wanting to experience the street life of the poor.  It’s funny how we can extract scenarios about someone when they are shrouded in mysteries.

One thing is for sure, he was a tough soul.  During the decades of street life, he braved some of the worst winter blasts Buffalo/Niagara had to offer, and they are many.

My middle daughter, Megan, still lives in Buffalo.  Recently I asked if she has spotted the roving man after all these years.  She said he stays pretty much in the Amherst/Williamsville suburbs, but nothing had seemed to change for him.

Last week, Megan posted an article from the Buffalo News newspaper.  During the horrid polar vortex weather system, which blew in sub-zero temps, and all that goes with it, Buffalo was hit extremely hard.

At the height of the storm, he had gone to one of his coffee hang-outs, a Tim Horton’s location, but it was closed due to the travel ban with the deep freeze encasing the region.  (It’s highly rare to see a Tim Horton’s closed due to weather.)  He then entered, for the very first time, the lobby at a nearby luxury hotel.  The manager of the restaurant and bar, offered him coffee and a chair, which he accepted.  Seeing that he was suffering from the penetrating polar winds, he was generously offered a room for the night.  He declined.  (Even if he had accepted, he would’ve abandoned the accommodations soon after.)  The manager then offered hot food, a warm hat, as well as another coat.  As it was his usual form, he declined.  After a small time of warmth,  the poor man began to make his way to the lobby door.  The staff begged him to stay longer, only to watch him nod as he made his frigid exit.

Lawrence “Larry” Bierl, age 67-69, was found the following morning, January 31st, just two blocks down from the hotel, on a bench at a three-sided plexiglass bus stop on Main Street.  Somewhere in the overnight, he had passed away from the wrath of the polar vortex.

Main St Bus Shelter Buffalo

Photo:  Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News

The Buffalo News article had published a beautiful letter from Larry’s extended family.  Nobody was aware he had family at all.  His sister was the writer.  As the family revealed Larry’s story, I could hardly hold my mouth closed.  Larry held a master’s degree.  He was once in management of a well-known airline corporation.  He never was a vet.  He never was a drug addict, or alcohol abuser.  One day, in the mid 70’s, for no apparent reason, he walked away from his life as he knew it to be.  He traveled the country, often hitching rides with truckers and hopping trains, only to return to Buffalo to live as a homeless man.  The family did all they could to help him.  They tried for years to convince him to get help.  He declined.  After many years of tracking him, pushing him to get the much needed assistance he deserved, the family surrendered to his wishes.  Nobody in his family ever knew exactly what happened to his mind, or what derailed his life, but he lived with a mental illness.

After reading of his terrible death, along with his story, I must admit, I cried.  As I write this blog, my mind still hasn’t come to grips with how I feel, or how to process this.  Why?  Because I never spoke to Larry, although many I love had done so.  Not once did I ever offer him a meal, a bottle of water, or a new pair of shoes.  It came to mind to grab a gift card at a hair salon, or a clothing outlet, but I never did.  Clearly, God gave me opportunities, but apparently “I” was more important.

“…Love your neighbor as yourself.” – Jesus –  Mark 12:31a (NIV)

Sure, there were internal excuses.  They went something like this,  “The Buffalo City Mission downtown will take care of him.”  Here’s another,  “My neighbors will do it.”  Of course the most common,  “I don’t have the time on my schedule today.”  Ironically, I’ve volunteered at missions and shelters since I was a teenager.  You could’ve found me feeding the homeless at various soup kitchens, from time to time in my life.  But Larry….not one thing, not once.  Mentioning him on my radio show would’ve been acceptable.  I could’ve brought more awareness to Larry’s plight.  No, I didn’t open up at all.  I had the chance to make a difference in his day.  I did nothing of the sort.  Part of me never wants to hear rejection, even if it’s offering a pair of socks to a homeless one who may decline.  Well, that’s my lame excuse.  Frankly, my tears weren’t just for Larry, but they were also for my seemingly growing jaded outlook.  God forbid that my heart grows cold and hard with age.

Someone very wise once said, “Never cry for a life lost.  Rejoice because it happened.” (Paraphrased)  One sour soul might say Larry’s life was a wasted life, a waste of time, and a waste of space.  However, the hundreds that helped Larry, who gave of themselves through the decades, were enriched by the man.  Think about it.

“It is more blessed to give than to receive.” – Jesus (Quoted in Acts 20:35 – NAS)

It might be wise to deice, or defog the rear-view mirror first, before going the extra mile.

The ice melts.  The sub-zero temps vanish.  But life…life makes its stamp.  Somewhere in Williamsville/Amherst, NY, if you go to a quiet place, you just might hear the whisper of Lawrence Bierl, “I was here.”

Remembering and serving, floods from the river of fuel for the race.

“Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh (and blood)?”  Isaiah 58:7 (NAS)

Slippery Slopes

“…She was going way too fast.  Before she knew it she was spinning on a thin black sheet of glass.  She saw both their lives flash before her eyes.  She didn’t have time to cry.  She was so scared.  She threw her hands up in the air.  Jesus, take the wheel.  Take it from my hands. ‘Cause I can’t do this on my own.  I’m letting go…”  – Jesus, Take The Wheel, (2005)  Recorded by:  Carrie Underwood.  Composers:  Brett James, Gordon Sampson, Hillary Lindsey.

14 years ago, an old friend of mine, Jaylene Johnson, miraculously survived a severe crash.  (See her car above.)

She is a successful singer/songwriter/recording artist, Juno Award nominee and Covenant Award winner from Winnipeg, Canada.  To say she was exhausted at the end of a cross-Canada solo tour, would be an understatement.  With her heater blowing full throttle, as she was driving home after a heavy snowfall in North Western Ontario, she was eager to see her hometown.  Jaylene was negotiating the roads as well as could be expected.  There was a moment in time she thought maybe it was best to grab a hotel before they closed the highways, but that had yet to happen.  Her car was packed to the roof with her guitars, keyboard, sound equipment, promotional products, and luggage.  The only thing on her mind was the weather conditions bearing down on the route.  She is a cautious driver, well versed in winter driving, but the semis nipping at her bumper were not so careful.  The rear-view mirror became her friend.

jaylene johnson performing

Jaylene on-tour.  Photo:  Tim Hellsten

The last thing she recalls is the map.  She had made it just outside of Upsala, Ontario, in the Thunder Bay District, when all went dark.  (Some of the following details came from eyewitnesses, EMT’s & police reports, along with her own post-accident inquiry.)

Travelling westbound, she had reached the top of a ridge overlooking a valley below.  As she began to descend into the valley, she slipped on some unexpected black ice covering the highway, and lost control.  As her little vehicle slid across the highway, she hit a transport coming eastbound head-on.  When she came to in the wreckage, a stranger on the scene, named “Willie”, pulled her through a shattered window, held her hand, and covered her with his coat before the EMT’s arrived.  As she sobbed, he comforted her while stroking her hair as she laid there in shock.  Fast-forward, she spent the rest of the day on a back brace in a Thunder Bay hospital.  Her body was riddled with pieces of broken glass.

Back in 2004, I was doing a radio show in Buffalo, NY while she had just released her first major album.  At the time, it was rare for Canadian artists to get radio airplay on the USA side of the border, especially independent bands.  I wanted to change that trend in the corner where I was.  The station I worked for was operating with 110,000 watts, reaching well north of Toronto, generally all of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).  The signal stretched over the entire Western New York area, northwestern Pennsylvania, and some portions of Ohio.  There was too many stellar Canadian artists putting out top-shelf cuts, not being heard on the U.S. side.  My number one focus was quality writing, production, along with terrific vocals to debut south of the Canadian border.  However, it was under a global relief, development and advocacy banner where our roads converged.

World Vision International had approached the two of us to join their work in El Salvador, as part of an ad campaign for support.  We worked together there, alongside other Canadian artists, for a week or so.  I was doing live reports back to the radio station as I interviewed World Vision workers, as well as benefactors.  It was there Jaylene and I became friends in a much warmer climate.

me in el salvador with world vision 2004

Jaylene took this photo of an interview I was doing with a World Vision recipient through a World Vision interpreter.

After our trip, we kept in touch.  Jaylene graced my show, in studio, a couple of times when she was performing in the GTA or WNY.  Through the years I kept track of her tours and television appearances.

After hearing from her on the details of the accident, I grew concerned about her health in the wake of such trauma.  In the end, there was no need for concern on my part.  God took the wheel, indeed.

I’ve had my own experiences with icy paths.  When you believe you can negotiate the roads in that condition, caution and prep would be top priority.

Come to think of it, no matter what climate you travel through, icy roads can derail your life.  Do you know what I mean?  We can be living life as a smooth operator, no issues in sight.  Then suddenly, without warning, our feet come right out from under us.  Zero traction takes us by surprise.  We’re never really prepared for it.  Just when we think we are, “BOOM”, on our tailbone we go.  (And it’s always the tailbone, right?)  For some, it might be losing traction on funds and finances.  We might experience losing traction on world peace.  Maybe a loss in traction with our child, our health, our marriage, or our nation.  It happens.  Before you know it, we slide hard into a nearby ditch, off the trek we were to be on. Just like Jaylene’s shellacked pavement, the ice doesn’t have to be thick to cause a head-on collision.  We can find slippage on the invisible, and/or what we deem as non-threatening.  It’s a tragic mistake.  Some find slippery slopes that lead to life-ending results.  There are non-negotiables out there which can transport you to where you don’t want to be.

“…stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand….and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace…” – St. Paul, Ephesians 6. 

In Paul’s time, Roman soldiers were fitted into special sandals with studs on the soles, like cleats.  For me, my preference are my insulated snow-boots with cleats on the rubber soles.  Better yet, Paul indicates a true gripping.  It’s more like the spikes on a mountain climber’s boot.  Anyone who has ever fallen hard on the ice, or slid down a slippery slope in the winter, or did so in a social, political, or economic climate, would recommend cleats in decision making.  Just ask the citizens of Venezuela.  Unlike Jaylene, when driving in the ice on bald tires, your future is certain.

Prep all you want.  There’s always the God-factor outside of your own abilities and strength.  Have you been there?  Maybe you have and you didn’t truly take the time to consider it.

As for Jaylene’s ordeal, a couple of mysteries still hover.  One unsolved oddity surrounds “Willie”.  As she was being placed in the ambulance, she looked back for him.  He, and his coat, were gone.  No person at the scene could tell her who he was, where he came from , or where he went.  Plus, according to the reports, the shear impact from the head-on collision with the transport, and her small vehicle, was of tremendous force.  Yet, she walked out of the hospital, on her own power later the SAME DAY!  Just shocking.

Also, one of the EMT’s was familiar with her music from Canadian radio.  He went the extra mile after taking her to the hospital.  He went back to the scene and helped to retrieve her property from the wreckage, all on his own time.

Lasting effects remain with her, mostly psychological in nature.  To this day, Jaylene will tell you, she can’t seem to fully relax anymore.  Yet, she does see God’s hand in the incident on several levels.  So do I.

jaylene johnson promo Jaylenejohnson.COM

I’m proud to say she continues to write, record, and perform.  She’s now married and raising a family.

When in slippery, tight places, it goes better when fitted with the cleats of fuel for the race.

“For He will give His angels charge concerning you, to guard you in all your ways.  They will bear you up in their hands, that you do not strike your foot against a stone.”  -Psalm 91:11-12 (NAS)

 

For Something You Love More – A Short Story

By: Alan Scott Brown

The holiday season of 2009 was a lean one for many.  Doug Benford was eager to see the year fade off into the realms of history.

He didn’t hear the alarm this particular Friday morning.  Sparks, his beloved tan and white Jack Russell Terrier and Dachshund mix, jumped on his chest with an ample supply of tongue lashings to the face, warnings for outdoor bladder relief.

“Okay okay, pal, I’m up!” Doug said with a bite to his groggy voice.  “Hop off the bed.  I’ll meet you at the back door.”

On his way to the closet he asked himself common a question, “My better-half brought him home, saying he was part rooster.  Why can’t he just wait for the alarm?”

Doug laid-out his clothes for the day – jeans, flannel shirt, and leather jacket.  As he was changing, he heard a familiar scratching coming from the back kitchen door.

“Hey, Sausage!”  (His wife’s nickname for Sparks.)  “So help me, if I wind up painting that door I’ll have your hide on the garage wall!” said Doug as he threw on his shirt on his way to the back door.  As Doug opened the door, Sparks let out his high pitched terrier yelp.  Just then, like a flash, the short-haired companion headed for his favorite backyard spot.

The Tennessee morning had a light dusting of snow on the ground which gleamed with intermittent rays of sunshine, coming through the high clouds.  As his routine of late, Doug walked slowly across the frosty lawn, taking in each step, each sight, as if organizing a mental photo album.

A streak of unfortunate circumstances had disabled his income.  He had adjusted surviving on what little savings was left, as well as weekly unemployment checks.  He had one more CD he’d not cashed-in, but the clock was ticking.  After almost fifteen years at the Spring Hill GM plant, the layoffs cast him into a devastating position.  He had to put his SUV up for sale just to make it through a few months.  Now, an antique Ford pick-up took up the driveway space.  The truck was a project he once enjoyed, making efforts to refurbish it.  For now, its bed served to hold branches, twigs and scrap lumber.  Doug had resigned to warming part of the house with wood he had chopped-up from selective trees on the property.  He feared cutting electricity altogether, as he considered resigning to a log cabin with a potbelly stove.

With foreclosure looming in the near future, he turned to gaze slowly over the home he and his wife moved into some years ago.  In those times it was sheer dreams of Americana, complete with a house full of visiting kids from the block and friendly next-door neighbors.  Standing in the cold morning air, while facing the back of the house, he caught a quick glimpse of an apparition.  Through the frozen fog of his exhales, he saw a little girl peering out an upstairs bedroom window, wearing an innocent grin only adoring parents could memorize.  For a moment, just before her image melted away, she held out her hand with a slow wave.  After a pregnant pause, he came to himself, shaking his head after a few seconds in the midst of waving back.

Grieving families know all too well how quickly an automatic smile can be transformed into the frown of loss.  Dreams of the tragic car crash on a wet highway that took his wife, Cheryl, and his four year old, Emily, haunted his days and nights.  The years seemed like weeks, since that deadly sword of fate carved a trench in his heart.  What was intended to be a wonderful July 4th get-a-way to the Smokies, had plunged his world into an abyss, so dark and so deep, that only a day’s work at the plant could distract his focus from the torture.  Now, he could no longer use full-time work as the medication of choice.  Jack Daniels was his new covert friend.

The house was filled with echoing vacancy.  Doug’s depression pained his physical body as he stepped up to a young Loblolly Pine tree, the “King Pine” of the South, planted firmly along the back line of the lawn.  It was now the lone tree, carefully nourished and treasured with love.  It was a tree of so much pride, wrapped in a father’s heart.  He got the idea from a neighbor to plant a seedling in the yard on the day Emily was born, a symbol marking the start of a precious God-given life.  As she and the tree grew, he nailed a pink ribbon to the trunk each year on her birthday, gauging her height.  On the day of high school graduation, Emily was to stand next to the tree, in full cap and gown with cameras flashing, as he was to nail the last pink ribbon to the trunk.  Now, the tree grows as a stark reminder of the missing pink ribbons, which would never be added.

A tear slowly rolled down into his salt-n-pepper stubble thinking of what might have been.  He and the family dog were now struggling in the wake of this unexpected cosmic eraser of hopes and imaginings.  As he blinked to see his wristwatch, Sparks broke the heaviness by taking wild, full-beans laps around Emily’s tree.  With a half chuckle he hollered, “Yep, let’s get it together, boy.  The kids will be waiting.”  As much as he wanted to reminisce, the day’s schedule wouldn’t allow it.

The old rusty Ford sat in the driveway nearly every day as Doug took the economically-forced bus ride to his annual part-time gig.  He gave it a pat on the hood as he walked by on the way to the bus stop, some two miles from his house.  After boarding, the sprinkling of a late November snow was already beginning to say its good-byes to the morning sun.  As he traveled from intersection to intersection, watching the angry holiday traffic, he was reminded of the dreary miles to a job he had learned to despise.  His circumstances had soured his very bones, which caused a dismal filter on everyday life.  It was only short-term; a job to keep the water bill afloat with soup cans on the shelf for another month.  Sitting next to another city traveler he whispered to himself, “Homelessness is for February.”

The local mall was overwhelming the day after Thanksgiving.  The insanity of consumerism was in fast forward mode, with shoppers only taking time out for a dash at any empty table in the food court.  Black Friday stress was evident on every face, full of hustle and bustle, and way beyond the expected annual rat race.  A year of recession had taken its toll, especially for low and middle income households.  Customers needed good deals.  Coming down the escalator were platoons of humanity with shopping bags in both arms, trying to recall where they had parked.

At the bottom of the moving stairs, where the steps vanished into the first floor, families were lined-up.  In a roped maze line, displaying a parade of holiday weariness, children were decked out in their festive best.  There were little girls sporting satin gowns, coupled with silk ribbons in their hair.  The boys were squirming, pulling at their neck ties of Christmas colors.  Mothers were busy working on uncooperative strands of hair, along with fathers staring absently into space, eating steaming hot pretzels, in efforts to tune out the mayhem.  And there in the distance, in the center of the activity, was a throne, laced in gold metallic paint and red velveteen, fit for a…Santa.  Cameras were locked and loaded for personal documentary, at a fat cost.

Each morning on the way to the outside employee entrance, Doug passed an elderly Salvation Army kettle volunteer ringing his little tin bell, greeting potential donors loaded down with holiday cares.

“Hello, young fella!” the old man belted, with a sincere warmth that could melt frost.  Doug never wanted to appear as a Scrooge, so he always responded like an award-winning actor on the red carpet, “Good morning!”  The old guy always seemed to pick up on Doug’s tossed spirit.  Wishing to cheer, the jolly man responded, “Yessir, it’s always a good morning when one can serve where you’re doing the most good.”

Doug stepped up his pace, thinking to himself, “Do the most good by staying home, that is.”

Every day – weekdays and weeknights throughout the month – the routine was the same.  And, every day he thought of alternative ways to get to the employee entrance without passing the old man at the red kettle stand.  In his sleep he heard, “It’s always a good morning when one can serve where you’re doing the most good.”  At times he wondered if he said it aloud after Sparks would wake him, jumping up in the high antique bed, landing on his chest, whining and sniffing his face.

The door of the break room flew open as Doug came stumbling in, murmuring under his breath.  Startled with the sudden sound, a cleaning lady, who was pouring a cup of coffee, responded lightheartedly to his clumsy entrance.

“Hey Doug, did Mr. Grinch bring you to work today?”

He closed the door with a bit of frustrated force.  With a large exhale he replied, “Oh, Maggie, that old bell ringer out there has two volume levels, loud and very loud.”

Maggie again responded with a joyful chuckle, “Last year, you complained about that old man just about every day.  Let me ask you, now did it ever get you what you prefer?”

Doug grunted as he took off his jacket.

“Come on,” Maggie said, “I’ve already got you a cup of cheer this morning.  I just made the first pot.  Donuts are in the box.”

Maggie was a poor single mom who worked at the mall, sweeping up debris shoppers left behind, emptying trash cans and mopping floors.  For such a hard working woman, with just above a minimum hourly wage, she never let her state in life rule over her disposition.  It was noticed, and certainly Doug had a front row view of her jovial way of getting through daily life.  Maggie was the type who had Christmas spirit during the storms of the spring, in the heat of July, and while the leaves of every hue let go of their branches in autumn.

Doug had a tendency to hide stored-up layers of envy, wishing he could rise above his strata of fog to shine like Maggie. Through the year he would walk the mall for exercise and visit with Maggie on her breaks where the two would debate about the recession, religion, and geopolitical news.  Yet, the one thing he wouldn’t discuss with his friend was his loneliness, due to his cascading losses in life.  Although they were like a wave he had to surf, he remained embarrassed by his state.  Sadly, he felt the pain was for him to own, not to share.  Maybe it was his pride, or just the way he was raised by somewhat stoic folk, but he kept his troubles to himself.

After taking another sip of the fresh java, Maggie shared more than he expected.  “Ya know, Doug, you’ll have to bring that little mutt of yours up here before Christmas comes and goes.  My little guy, Aiden, has a DVD of “101 Dalmatians” and just cackles at the antics, along with all those cute faces.  He’s in first grade now and has yet to even pet a dog.  Can you believe it?  Honestly, one of these days I’ll have enough saved up for a dog from the pound.”

Doug found himself listening closely to her, dreading all the while the next twelve hours at the job.  With a click, the time clock struck 9:30am.  Downing the last swig of coffee, he pulled the words out of his mouth, “I guess I can’t stop the clock, Maggie.  I’ll see you later.”

“I hear that.  Have a good day!” said Maggie.  She slowly shook her head as she watched him walk away with shoulders slumped, heading to a section of metal lockers.

Chin to his chest, Doug opened the locker door.  He let out a big sigh at the sight of what was hanging on a hook.  The fluorescent lights above him landed on a bright red Santa suit, complete with black boots, a white wooly strap-on beard, and a hat only the best Claus could wear.  With a weak groan, he collected the heavy fur wardrobe and turned to the men’s room to change.

Doug was a man of integrity at heart.  Playing the role of the jolly old elf to the throng of kids and parents was done well; after all, this is what he was hired to do.  Through the weeks he sat in that chair posing for pictures and videos with children from all slices of life.  Overbearing mothers, some with their diamonds and silk purses, bothered him the most as they pushed and prodded their little brats with the will of a perfection-driven, Hollywood director.

He was amazed at the variety of Claus worshippers.  No matter the race, religion or status – whether rich or poor, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, or atheists – the farce continued with plastic smiles and a “HO-HO-HO”.  For weeks on end he fought with the beard-pulling kids and petrified youngsters, forced into this scene by their pseudo stage-moms.  Then came the dreaded college students, who insisted on posing with him for the fun of it.  Oh, and then there was the occasional Calvin Klein-clad seven year old, who must have come from a long line of mobsters, threatening him with Christmas Eve cookie and eggnog withholdings.  Frankly, the shock wore off after hearing a set of twin girls demanding that they get whatever the little girl before them inquired about.  It was that caliber of child that pierced his heart the most, as he thought of the sweetness of his little Emily and her selfless personality.

What kind of young woman could she have been, if life had been granted?  He fought the gravity of the emotional vortex which took him to that awful place of deep inexplicable loss.

With each day he felt a growing anger toward children.  So much so, he counted down the remaining shopping days when he could hang up the suit and candy canes for the very last time.

*****

It was the night of December 23rd, when Doug shuffled his way up the driveway after another marathon day in Santa’s court.  In the darkness he spied an envelope taped to his front door.  It was a notice for interruption of electrical service from non-payment.  He looked down, shook his head, letting the document slip out of his hands.  No amount of cinnamon sticks, sugar cookies, nor magical reindeer dust could keep the feelings of resentment and dejection away.

He found himself shouting into the chilled air, “God, what are you trying to do to me?  Don’t you think I’ve been through enough?”  Exhausted, coupled with anger and sorrow, Doug sat on the front steps, pulled his knees up to his chest and released his tears.

After dragging himself inside, he reached for the liquor cabinet in the kitchen for a shot of synthetic comfort.  Being pragmatic, he immediately began to plan just how he could survive another two months without electricity, until the bank took the house.

Later, that same night, he stoked up the fire in the fireplace, warmed up a can of soup on the hearth and sorted through his mail.  Sparks just looked at him with an expression of, what seemed to be, canine telepathy, ‘Whatever it is, it’s okay.’  Doug, appreciated the cute facial expression.  While scratching the dog lovingly behind the ears, he replied with a whisper, “You’re right, boy.  You’re right.”

As he and Sparks snuggled, with the oak logs ablaze, warming his cold feet, thoughts of his childhood rolled through his memory like an old movie.

Doug’s dad always left the nativity set for him to assemble under the tree.  He recalled taking a great deal of satisfaction placing all the characters where he pleased.  In particular, there was one figurine of a lamb, just tall enough to peer over into the manger, as if curious to why there was a baby where his dinner should be.  Doug broke out with unanticipated laughter just revisiting the thought.  Soon, he would be like the baby Jesus: in a crowded town, without a home, hanging out with an animal.  That was the last thought ushering him into a broken night’s sleep.

Christmas Eve morning was uneventful: same walk to the bus stop, same bus route with the same street scenery.  For the last time he would stroll by the old Salvation Army soldier ringing that hideous bell.  With Doug’s head turned the opposite direction, the familiar daily gruff voice addressed him once again.

“Hello young man!  It’s a good morning, ain’t it?”

In a huffy tone Doug nodded, “Yeah, I guess. I’m sure you’re serving where you can do the most good.”

Without a trace of offence, the old man laughed, “That’s right, son.  Loving others before loving ourselves.  God willin’, next Christmas I’ll be waitin’ for ya, right here.”

With a brisk step, he moved away with the gate of a New York jaywalker.

For the third day in a row Doug entered the break room to find his friend Maggie wasn’t in her usual place.  The coffee pot was empty and the counters hadn’t yet been wiped down.  He felt a sagging inside, knowing this was his last morning to pretend to be someone he’s not.  But, without Maggie’s bright morning face, along with her joy-filled attitude, the boost to make Santa what he could be, would be lacking.

After he suited up, he visited the mall manager’s office to ask about her.  She had left a message that her son had the flu and, actually, asked for Doug to call her when he got a break later in the morning.  He found himself feeling sorry for the little guy as the hours dragged on.  At his noon break, only after a final “HO-HO-HO”, he went back to the office to ring Maggie up.  Her voice shook as she told him of her overwhelming fear of Swine Flu.  She had seen the symptoms before, during a recent outbreak.  Struck by the unsettled sound in her voice, Doug’s heart sank.  Surprisingly so, he experienced a deep emotion for a little boy he had never met.

Maggie’s voice cracked a bit, “Doug, he wanted to come see you…I mean, Santa…before you shut down.  As you can see, that’s not gonna happen.  He simply won’t see Christmas this year at all.  I’m wondering if you would think about doing me a favor.  Why not come here, to the apartment as Mr. Claus, after you get off tonight?  If you can’t, I’ll understand.  No pressure.”

Doug paused only for a moment.  Without thinking it through, his response came so naturally, “Sure, sure I will.  We close down early tonight so Kris Kringle can get back to the North Pole for dinner with the Mrs.”

With a great deal of relief, she gave him her address in hopes for a holiday shocker that would be one of Aiden’s greatest childhood memories.

Around 5:30 that afternoon, Doug got off the bus near the apartment complex.  Right away he realized where he was.  Way back when, he and his co-workers would laugh and mock the “trash” that lived in this ghetto.  If there were second class citizens in town, they lived here, according to his way of thinking.  He looked up into the cloudy sky with a quick and silent thought, “God, why me?”  The neighborhood was known for gang violence year-round.  He began cautiously walking toward the rundown complex.  Looking over his shoulder a few times, he asked himself why he wasn’t carrying a weapon for protection.  He shook off the mental images, as he mustered up some holiday cheer for a sick little boy.  Maggie soon heard a “HO-HO-HO” at the door.

Maggie’s chin quivered as she fumbled a bit disengaging the locks.  She opened the door to find Doug standing there, decked out in his Santa suit, exhausted from the gauntlet of last minute shoppers.  On the verge of collapse herself, Maggie responded, “Oh, Doug, thank you for coming.  You have no idea what this will do for his spirit.  Come in, take a load off.”

He sat nervously on the couch, with his knee bouncing up and down.  After pouring him a mug of hot cocoa, she prepared Doug for the visit to come.  She softly spoke of their financial frailty, admitting Aiden was unaware of the struggles they faced.  Doug was touched by her candor.  He understood and opened up to her the facts of his similar circumstances.  Clearly they shared a harboring of unearned, unnecessary guilt and shame.  He knew their kindred spirit hit a benchmark as the conversation led them both.  With hard truths shared, Maggie squeezed his hand as they both looked down at the floor recognizing their somber moment.

Almost as an afterthought, Maggie reached for a sealed plastic bag, pulling out a surgical mask.  She stepped up closer to him, ready to place it over his strap-on white beard.  Doug quickly grabbed her by the wrists, took it in his hands, and placed it back in the bag.

“But, Doug, he has a 103 temp right now.” she explained with deep concern.

With a half smile he replied, “He doesn’t need to remember a St. Nick who took precautions to be with him in a time of need.  I’ll take my chances.”

She nodded in agreement while holding back the sob rising from her belly once again.  With a deliberate hush in tone, she said, “Okay, Follow me.”

Aiden was in bed, half asleep from the meds prescribed.  He was pale.  His eyelids were swollen and his little face was gaunt.  Being roused by the opening of the bedroom door, he heard his mom’s forced cheerful voice, “Honey, look who dropped by to see you.”

When Doug walked through the door, Aiden gasped, “SANTA!!”

With the best delivery he could put out, Doug moved into Santa-mode, “HO-HO-HO!  Merry Christmas, young man!”  The little guy threw his head back with an exuberant belly laugh of his own, followed by an aggressive, lingering chest cough.

Maggie knew what needed to happen.

“I’ll leave you two alone.  Honey, Santa can’t stay long. Okay?”  She then exited, closed the door softly behind her, bracing herself against the hallway wall.

Right away, Doug’s heart was lifted as he saw a very ill little boy whose bloodshot eyes lit-up with wonderment.  Doug had witnessed hundreds of red-cheeked faces, with a look of awe only a child could express, but this face was vastly different.  The smile Aiden displayed at his unexpected visitor could have ignited Doug’s house with every Christmas light string possible.

Surrendering to being authentically moved, in his best Santa-voice he belted, “Well, son, what do you want under your tree in the morning?  It’ll be here in a flash and I don’t have much time.”

In response, Aiden struggled to sit up in bed, “Santa, can I tell you a secret?”

Doug tried hard not to laugh but managed to say, “The fact is, Santa is well-known for keeping secrets.  Let me have it.”

The boy motioned him to bend down closer so he could speak softly, “Um, we don’t have a Christmas tree this year.  Mom said we couldn’t afford a tree.  So, I know there won’t be anything waiting for me, ’cause without a Christmas tree, you can’t put any gifts under it, right? Everybody knows that.”

As Doug felt a lump growing in his throat, he turned his head away, and looked out the bedroom window for a moment for distraction.  He dared not allow the boy to see Santa breakdown.  Aiden continued sharing his thoughts.

“Santa, there’s just one thing I want, if you can do it.”

Doug quickly responded, holding tightly to his Kringle character, if only by the fingernails, “Of course I can do it!  I’m the king of the elves!  No limitations here!  What will it be?”

Aiden whispered slowly, “Give mom a new face in the morning.”

For the boy’s sake, Doug wanted to look like Father Christmas understood the request.  Concerned he was not going to pull it off, he spoke quickly, “Well, what kind of face should she have tomorrow?”

With a sore throat, the boy swallowed hard, “Uh, Santa, ever since I got sick she no longer smiles.  She wears a strange frown, one I’ve never seen before.”

Doug paused and stroked his fake beard.  A sense of bona fide fatherhood rolled through his veins, a sensation he hadn’t possessed since the loss of his little Emily.  He cocked his head slightly to one side.  It seemed to be an automatic gesture, as he brushed a strand of hair from the boy’s forehead with his white-gloved hand, and with the other, presented a candy cane.

Leaning closer to the lad, he said tenderly, “Boy, just love your mother every minute of every day, and you’ll see that smile.  Now, close your eyes and get to that ‘long winter’s nap’ you hear about.  Merry Christmas, Aiden.”

The boy was weak but had enough strength to squeeze Doug’s finger.  As he broke out with a grin he replied, “Merry Christmas to you, too.  And be careful on the roof.”

With that, Doug left the apartment, as if in a rush, without saying more than Merry Christmas to Maggie on the way out.

Standing in the open doorway, watching him quick-step toward the bus stop, she yelled, “But Doug, what happened in there?”  As he climbed onto the nearly vacant bus, he felt crushed with the perplexing crossroads of what to do for the two of them.  All the way home one phrase from an old man bubbled up in his mind.

‘It’s a good morning when one can serve where you’re doing the most good.’ 

 Once again, he considered his poverty, his rapidly depleted savings, and his last payroll check from the mall.  It was a stark certainty for him, unemployment launched once again on Christmas Day.  The means were slim to none, and for him, humbling.  Taking off his white gloves, he rung his hands, bowed his head, and for the first time in a long time, prayed for wisdom, strength, and clarity

*****.

Christmas morning came early for Maggie.  She had attempted sleeping in a chair in Aiden’s room, which didn’t deliver.  After taking his temperature, she shuffled her way to the kitchen to make her best Christmas breakfast to celebrate the most special, the most meaningful holiday of the year.  It wasn’t long until a weak little boy awoke to the smell of buttermilk flap-jacks and French toast, crowned with cinnamon.  The boy noticed the candy cane still clinched in his hand.  He thought to himself, ‘This can be Mom’s Christmas present.’

Slowly lifting himself out of bed, he stumbled down the hallway to hang the peppermint cane on his mom’s bedroom doorknob.  Walking passed the sliding glass door to the patio, he could see the sunlight peeking through the slats of the vertical blinds, wishing he had snow and health to play in it.  Rounding the corner, he could see his mom working diligently in the kitchen with her hair a mess, along with swollen, sleepy eyes.  Maggie’s tired face brightened as she saw him standing there in his footed pajamas, with some long-awaited color in his cheeks, looking as if he had a little more energy than the day before.

“Merry Christmas, honey!” she said without hesitation.  Hugging his frame, she could feel his weight loss, “Have a seat. Breakfast is almost ready.”

He made his way to the table where a rare sight was waiting.  By a stack of pancakes, dripping in warm maple syrup, was a tall glass of freshly squeezed orange juice blended with milk.  He knew then that this was no ordinary morning.  Maggie had saved up enough to splurge on a holiday breakfast that was beyond their norm of a simple cup of oatmeal.  Aiden felt an appetite for the first time in three days, and it was good timing for them both.  After a quick prayer, which included, a “Happy birthday, Jesus”, he began to dig in.

After a bite or two, Aiden got up the courage to ask a hard question. “Mom, after breakfast can I go outside to play?  Lots of my friends will be playing with their new toys.  I feel good enough.  Really I do.”

Barely drawing a breath, Maggie almost cut him off, “Absolutely not, young man.  You won’t be playing for a few days yet.  You are not out of the woods by far.  Besides silly, the sun isn’t up yet.”   With a puzzled look on his face he charged back, “No, Mom.  I saw the sun coming through the sliding glass door.”

Puzzled, Maggie looked at her watch, put down her fork before heading to the patio door.  As she walked away, he sprinkled more cinnamon on his delectable stack.

From the other room he heard her inquisitive tone, “What in the world?  Aiden, come to the patio, quick!!!”

The boy leapt up, with strength he didn’t think he had, and hurried to the sliding glass door to find his mom pulling back the blinds.  As she did, it revealed a brightly lit patio with a string of white lights up and down the posts, lacing around the patio door frame.  His eyes followed the string of lights along every inch in disbelief, until he spotted a magically lit, gloriously decorated large Christmas tree standing in the corner of the patio.  He couldn’t catch his breath out of pure shock.  All the branches donned silver bells and blue balls that ricocheted gleaming lights, carefully arranged up and down the depth of the branches.  At the very top perched a golden star with tinsel streaming down from its tail like a frozen waterfall.

The two found themselves speechless.  Both mom and son realized their mouths were opened in awe as they spied a large Virginia smoked ham under the tree, with all the trimmings for a traditional family feast.  Next to it, a tin of old fashioned frosted sugar cookies was propped up against the large tree trunk.  But, the biggest surprise of all was something they could not have imagined.  Next to the tree, an animal crate sat with a metal plate over its door.  Etched on the plate was the name, “Sparks”.  Gazing through the mesh door was a curious look from a short-haired dog with big brown eyes.

Aiden dropped to his knees, “MOM!!  It’s  a…it’s a…uh..uh…a…”

Maggie forced herself to speak through her astonishment, “…A DOG!!!”

As the boy opened the crate, the Jack Russell Terrier-mix jumped into his arms, licking his face like flaps from a flag, as Aiden giggled uncontrollably.  The boy looked up at his mom to see a face of laughter, a face shining with joyous, youthful wonder, exuberance, and hope.

“He did come, he did!!” yelled Aiden.

Maggie responded quietly, deeply moved, “Yes, well yes.  I guess he did, indeed.”

She noticed a Christmas stocking hanging down from one of the branches.  She carefully retrieved it while asking her son to reach in for whatever it contained.  With eyebrows raised in anticipation, an enormous grin he pulled out several gift cards from food stores, clothing retailers, and a local toy outlet.  Both began laughing in a sense of bliss that had not been heard in the apartment for quite a long time.

Suddenly, the boy noticed a mysterious color along the trunk, previously covered up by the stocking.

Fixated, he asked, “Huh…What’s that?”

Maggie took a closer look.  In the glow of the festive lights, four weathered pink ribbons were nailed to the trunk, almost evenly spaced apart.

“Whaddya think that’s for, mom?” he asked.

Maggie slowly tilted her head as she stared at the hanging pink ribbons running up the tree’s trunk.

Speaking with a sense of bewilderment, “I’m not sure, honey, but I do know this, it makes this Christmas tree even more unique and magical than ever.”

*****

The Christmas dawn found Doug sitting in his lawn chair, with a mug of coffee warming his hands, looking at his treeless back yard.  There, braced against a freshly cut stump, stood a well-worn axe.

He still didn’t know what his future held.  The anxiety remained.  But, what he didn’t expect was a volley of truths flashing in his heart from outside of himself.  For the first time, he accepted the fact that his pain and depression had morphed him into a modern-day Scrooge, with a twisted complex concerning children.  It was the giving of himself that revealed this tumor growing in his heart.

He sat there in the still crisp air, with a thankful heart for the old bell-ringer’s message each morning.  Doug had found a God-given moment to do the most good where he was.

He smiled at the thought of his childhood nativity set.  He remembered placing the ceramic baby Jesus in the manger next to the one curious lamb, taking in the divine event.  For Doug, he rested in the fact of sacrifice being a choice, rendering joy to the most disturbed souls in his own backyard.  The ancient truth, that giving one’s “self” away, is what the baby in the manger would later say is the best of blessings.

With a silent nod, he smiled thinking that millions of cups of spiked egg nog, millions of angry shoppers, and millions of wrecked lives could never diminish his newly discovered mission.

                                        Sacrifice is giving up something you love

                                                for something you love more.

                                                              – Cindy Beall

Here’s To The Educators

Photo:  smilingcolors.com

“Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man (humankind) a more clever devil.” – C.S. Lewis

Miss Cain’s first grade class was busy in a reading circle.  Each child in the circle was to have his/her turn at a word in a workbook, one after the other.  The teacher herself, in her green Celtic plaid dress, was sitting in a chair inside the ring of readers, listening carefully to each delivery.  A girl in class had just finished her reading only to be followed by silence.  Miss Cain had seen this before, too many times apparently.  It was him again.  There he was, staring out at the meadow he loved playing in just outside the classroom window.  Before he realized it was his turn to read, BOOM!  He suddenly felt a solid bump on his right knee from the edge of Miss Cain’s fist.  “Alan, you’re daydreaming again!  Pay attention!”  It was her first year to teach.  Probably all of 22 years old.  I had a huge crush on her.  After all, her short blonde silky, soft curled hair was cut in a chic fashion (It was 1966.) which bounced up and down like a slinky when she walked.  My mom said Miss Cain had two wardrobes, one for the conservative school-look and one for her other life.  She had steel blue eyes which matched her terrific smile.  She reminded me a bit of a mix of Goldie Hawn and Kim Novak.  Above all, she drove a fire-engine red, MG Midget Roadster convertible.   What little guy wouldn’t be impressed?  (I lived across the street, so she never offered me a lift home.)

MG Migit 1965

I thought she was the cat’s meow.  So, as you can imagine, it broke my heart when she called me out with a firm bop on my knee.  Several times that year she and my mom had meetings about my daydreaming.  It was a sign of things to come.  They didn’t speak much of right-brained, artsy kids in the days of yore.  She probably retired early because of me.

In most districts around here, the new school year is just kicking off.  Skylar, my 2nd grade granddaughter, started school this past Wednesday.  The kids are hopefully prepped and ready to tackle another year in the classroom.  However, the educators have been prepping for awhile.  There’s so much work done behind the scenes that nobody thinks about.  An educator’s work is never done.  I know all too well.  My wife is a tutorial teacher.  My oldest daughter is a teacher.  My middle daughter has been a teacher.  I have a slew of family on both sides who are teachers or school administrators, active and retired.  Many, many of my friends are educators.  And, do they have stories to tell!

Meet my salty, Aunt Grace Atherton.

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She taught school for decades.  She married my great-uncle Robert Atherton who was also a teacher.  The two of them went on to be well-known school district administrators in east Texas, and the Dallas-Ft Worth area, back in the day.  The two of them raised educators, spawning a second generation of teachers and administrators who made a difference.  In fact, in Arlington, Texas, between Dallas and Ft Worth, there is an Atherton Elementary in honor of the couple.  They were salt-of-the-earth types.  He passed away in 1977.  As for her, she always reminded me of our own personal Bette Davis with an unmatched persona.  At 99 years old, she walked faster than I did.  She was a firecracker, a get-it-done lady.  I remember her email address was “grace-a-doer”.  She passed away at the young age of 103.  Sharp as a tack until the very end.  They LOVED teaching.  Moreover, they LOVED the kids under them.  Love matters!

It may be in the genes.  I, too, was a teacher for a broadcasting school in the mid 80’s, then trained many in voice-work, music vocalization and mentored air-staff during my radio years.  Loved every minute of it.

Please, allow me a moment here.  Stay with me on this and see if you recognize someone in your life.

Meet the Irish Rose, Peggy O’Neill.  Choral director, music theory, piano and guitar teacher.

Peggy O'Neill

She looks so calm in this old photo.  To this day, she will tell you, when I walked into her choir room, with a chip on my shoulder in 8th grade, she knew I was trouble from the start.  It was my first year in the area. I had come from a tough Jr. High school where it was the norm for race riots to breed gang warfare.  I think she saw me as a special challenge.  No doubt, she was on target.  Affectionately known as P.O., she did challenge me in a myriad of ways.  Later that year, she had me doing solo work, MC work, stand-up comedy, as well as guitar lessons.  She knew exactly how to keep me perking.  It wasn’t long when I wanted to excel just to make her proud…or because of the sheer fear of her Irish-red-faced wrath.  Unexpectedly, I became her #1 tenor in choir.  She must’ve loved me because she followed me to high school, the following year, where she became part of the choral directorial staff.  We still laugh about that.  She and I remain friends to this day.

Meet Ted Polk, the man, the maestro, the legend.

Ted Polk

T.P. is how we lovingly refer to him.  He was so many things to me during my high school years, but officially he was the top choral director and chief of the choral department.  There were five choirs total in the school of 3,500 kids.  He had a tender way of leading.  He taught music, but more than that, he instructed us in life.  Through my four years with him, I believe he gave some commentary on the lyric of every piece performed.  Rightly so, he made sure us music lovers didn’t just jam to the compositions, but rather knew the meaning of the lyrics and the composer from which they came.  He ushered us into giving each lyric value, not in just musical mathematical mechanics, but also the soul of the phrase.  Under him, I learned how to be more than just a singer and sight-reader, but an artist.  Craftily, he used his faith and philosophy as he directed rehearsals.  He lived what he believed and shared it openly.

I recall a couple of times how T. P. warned us not to get so absorbed in the workforce after school hours.  Gently, his message was how work will always consume your adult life, so free-up those precious days of youth before they fade into history.  The care and the encouragement for each of us was so apparent, available and tangible.  His door was always open and I took advantage of it many times, even after graduation.  He recognized talent and knew how to grow it, mold it and give it wings.  That’s what he did for me.  I could write a novel about this man.  He later would become the district’s Fine Arts Director over all the schools in our Dallas suburb.  Even today there is a middle school which bears his name.  When he died suddenly, a few years later, thousands of us mourned and still do.  You will never find me ashamed to say: I am the man I am today because our paths intersected in my early teen years.  Thank God!

Meet the lovely Anel Ryan.

Anel Ryan

Anel, among other things, was a theater teacher.  It was her first full year to teach when I was a senior in high school.  I was a singer, not an actor…or so I thought.  My choice was not to take theater.  All my electives that year had to do with music and voice.  When I won the male leading role in the musical production that year, Anel took me under her wing.  She was/is a super talented actress and director.  Somehow she saw some seed in me beyond singing and stage presence.  She basically tutored me in and outside school hours with a catch-up acting course, complete with character retention exercises, as well as proper blocking and stage etiquette and disciplines.  It was all so foreign to me, but she pulled out the results she was looking for.  If not for her direction, her challenging this boy and her Job-like patience, I know my performance would have been lacking.  That May, Anel wrote the following in my yearbook, “I’ll be watching your life.”  Oh, my!  I can’t tell you how that small sentence turned my core several times during the days of adulthood.  Afterwards the acting bug stuck!

The following decades were filled with lots of stage and video characters taken, plays written and a couple of thousand pages of script as a voice actor.  There were times she agreed to critique me privately for role development after high school, as well.  Years later, the tables were turned.  One year, while casting my next radio theater project, I asked Anel if she would tackle a tough role for me.  Even though she was living over 160 miles away, she was happy to do it.  She’s one of my heroes in this life.  I love her dearly.

Stay with me.  There’s a method to my madness.

Meet the engaging Eric Bowman.

Eric Bowman

This comes from a humorous newspaper photo as he was pretending to be a student.  Like Anel, Eric was an alumni of our high school.  We used to poke at him while we sang
the “Welcome Back, Kotter” theme song when he walked into the classroom.  Do you remember it?  Are you singing the first line?  Me too.  He taught Government and Civics.  His talented style drew the students in with analogies along with side stories of humor.  I dreaded the class until I discovered his brand of teaching.  He got on our street level to help us understand and respect the due process of law, voting and the systems of civic, state and federal government.  I loved his class, as most did.  When I was chosen to be on a jury for an armed robbery, right after the year I graduated, I couldn’t wait to go back to tell him of my experience.  He soaked in all of my verbal waterfall describing my jury duty, including my youthful, wide-eyed exuberance.  He grinned from ear to ear listening intently.  He was excited to see my excitement.  He followed it up by asking what I learned from it.  He was always finding ways to stretch our minds.  I am so glad I visited that day.  He died in a car crash about a year later.

And then there’s an education of another kind.  Often it can be just as relevant as math or science.

Meet the champ!  Demetrius “The Greek” Havanas.

Demetrius Greek HavanasHe was simply known to his students and friends as “Greek”.  Greek was my Kickboxing and Tae-Kwon-Do trainer.  He was a world renown, blue-collar martial arts instructor and world contender in both standard tournaments as well as full-contact bouts.  It would take about four pages to list all of his titles and accomplishments.  (I suggest a Google tap and/or a YouTube viewing.)  With his professional teaching techniques, he created national and international champions.  This was my life outside of school and church.  While being trained by Greek, he kept me and three or four of my high school mates off the streets and among quality….well, okay, semi-quality competitors.

Channeling certain energies of youth can be a very good thing for the community at large.  He knew the ends and outs of protecting yourself in street fights, or in the ring.  He taught us endurance,physically and emotionally.  He taught us how to respect other athletes studying other styles that were different from our circles.  By just hanging around him we learned much about respecting other races, creeds and cultures.  This boy really needed it at the time.  He taught cool-headed, rewarding confidence which gang members often avoid.  To this very day, 40+ years later, I deal with pain like a fighter in a competitor’s bout.  His training opened our eyes to endure.  He instructed in the knowledge of absorbing pain, struggle and fatigue while never giving up.  Under his training you either were toughened to the hilt, or you dropped out to join a chess club.  Case in point:  Last December, when they opened me up for a quadruple bypass, the cardiac surgeon told me I had old bruising on my chest plate, like a tattoo.  I smiled, knowing whose footprint branded its mark there.  He lost his life in a plane crash in July of 1981.  The who’s-who of the martial arts world came to his memorial service, including Chuck Norris, who couldn’t even get in the building due to overflow, standing outside on the steps for the duration.  Through my tears I thanked him for coming.

People building people.  Constructionists building society.  C.S. Lewis was right.  Education alone will not bring inner peace or enlightenment.  It’s such a misconception not often determined through the lens of study.  The turnip will not be squeezed.  Virtues and attributes like ethics, faith and love will not drip out of degrees and diplomas.  Stellar core values often are discovered in individuals who never finished school, or cracked open curriculum from higher learning institutions.  Educators worth their salt know this, accept it and adhere to it.

Great educators produce great educators.  The evidence is all around us.  Common denominators seem to include:  passion stirred with compassion, intuitiveness and love.  It matters!

The debates rage concerning unions and non-unions, private or public schools, home schooling or the little rural frame building out in the woods with an old school bell.  The rub will most likely continue.  However, if you’re an educator of the heart, you’re enriched already through a higher calling.

May this new school year grant you wisdom beyond your degree, beyond your training, beyond your studies.  May your goals be worthy and focused.  May the care for the kids be authentic, full of grace and discernment.  May you and your classroom be well protected from evil.  May it be a sacred, honored and loving place.  May you be comforted when you burn the midnight oil only to rise up early the following morning.  May you discover new loves this year that will ink themselves on your heart during your coming days of rest.  Most of all, know that your very fingerprints will remain on their hearts and minds for decades to come.

Miss Cain, wherever you are…here’s to ya!

Remind yourself each day that many may write about you long after you are gone, maybe some 40-50 years from today.  When wrapped in the thought, you might just find more fuel for the race.

“My friends, we should not all try to become teachers.  In fact, teachers will be judged more strictly than others.” – James 3:1 (Contemporary English Version)

 

 

How Grand They Were!

Photo:  Martin & Opal Atherton and their firstborn, Bob.

“I didn’t know it would be so strong, waiting and wondering about you.  I didn’t know it would last so long.  Nights are forever without you.”  Nights Are Forever Without You – Recorded by:  England Dan & John Ford Coley.  Released: July 1976.  Composer:  Parker McGee.

He walked into Wolf City, Texas junior high classroom for the first time, straight from his Oklahoma stomping grounds.  Being the new kid in town, he had yet to make friends.  She looked up, locking her kind and smiling blue eyes on this ruddy, wavy, auburn-haired boy.  He had a swagger, which was alien to the other boys, and a subtle, lopsided grin from one corner of his mouth, as if he were holding secrets nobody else knew.  His dark brown eyes shifted toward the brunette beauty sitting at her desk, trying to look busy.  They were studious in that they studied one another from minute one.  Later, “Lucky” –my granddaughter’s middle name — was the nickname placed on him because of his special catch.  The name stayed with him for the next seven decades.  But that was somewhere around 1933-1934.

Fast forward to 1938.  It was a different world, another place and time.  I will say, I can’t imagine getting into a tux, or suit and tie, or wedding dress to brave the Texas July heat.  Air conditioning wasn’t around at the time.  Yet, that’s what my maternal grandparents did, 80 years ago this month, July 13th, to be exact.  They were just country kids from family stock that the salt of the earth is made.

How about a few photos?

OMA-B MRA Wedding

When I say Martin and Opal Atherton were true diamonds in the rough, I am understating the truth of this incredibly fine couple.  Anyone who knew them could write novels of their character — a character of one, not two.

11 OMA MRA Lovers

Frankly, my novel, painting their portrait, would be as thick as War and Peace, or The Tale of Two Cities.  What I will give you today is a smidgen of a peek into my favorite human beings of the past century.

19 OMA MRA Booth

One of my favorite stories concerns a common practice when they were teens dating out in the east Texas woods.  My granddad had a horse he would ride to my grandmother’s house down the dirt road in Hunt County, Texas.  When he arrived at her house, he would tell the horse to go home, I imagine with a little slap on the behind (the horse’s behind, not my grandmother’s), and the horse would go all the way home without any distractions.  The old playwright comes out in me as I envision the empty-saddled horse passing by an old gas station/general country store.  My mind’s eye sees three old men in overalls leaning back in rickety wooden chairs out front saying, “Yep, there goes Martin’s horse.  He must be at that Opal girl’s house.”

30 OMA Trigger Horse

6 OMA MRA Bonnie&Clyde

A little boy’s memories of his grandparents surround small things. Small, but powerful.  Little memories that brought wisps of joy don’t have to be much.  Something like: a cold bottle of Coke, a peanut butter cracker sandwich or a well-stocked pantry filled with Oreos and variety packs of chips.  Also, things like the toys stashed behind a french door in the corner of the living room reserved just for me.  In the far back of the living room, away from the audio of the Philco television, my grandmother would sit next to me, reading softly from the dialogue bubbles of old comic books she had saved.  I can still feel the bristles of his late-night beard stubble while he hugged and kissed me good-night.  One of my favorite times was watching, and learning, as my granddad would cook out on his grill on a Saturday afternoon.  Before that, he would have detailed my mom’s car, changing the oil and spark plugs, usually before the crack of dawn.  It all goes to small efforts of great love.

Granddad at the grill. early 1980s.

Back In 1962, when my 18 year old mom needed to divorce my biological father (I was two years old), it was for reasons of security and safety for both of us.  The abusive situation was horrid, without any hope of changing for the better.  So much so, my granddad, with his well-known John Wayne attitude and a tad of Robert Mitchum looks, forged a deal.  He made a deal where he would pay all court costs if my bio-father agreed to cut ties, never to attempt to contact us again.  Part of the deal was my bio-father would be released from child-support (yes, it was that bad). An agreement was made rather quickly.  He told the judge he would help to raise me, to take me as his own.  Indeed, he and my grandmother were young enough to be my parents.  When I was born, he was only 41, she had just turned 39.  If I could remember, that would’ve been a major benchmark of one of my first memories of them.

32 OMA Me Easter

In retrospect, I cannot recall a time when they did not support me and my endeavors.  They dropped everything to attend most all of my events, concerts, graduation, musicals, and plays.  I could always count on seeing them in the audience, cheering me on.

My young mom was a highly independent woman, doing all she could to “make it” as a single mom in the ’60s & ’70s.  She was my Mary Richards from the Mary Tyler-Moore Show.  She can still turn the world on with a smile and turn a nothing day into one that seems worthwhile.  She would not take funds from my grandparents, even when we lived in poverty.  So, it was a norm for my granddad, without saying a word, to covertly slip me a few bills whenever he shook my hand, while she was looking the other way.  Later, especially at his funeral 10 years ago, I found out he made that under-the-table-hand-off to multiple people, from the needy next door, co-workers, to their pastor’s kids.  He truly gave of himself.

41 OMA MRA Curly Porch

Giving wasn’t always monetary for the Athertons.  Texas thunderstorms are notorious for rolling in like a bulldozer, with 60 mph straight winds up front, followed by torrential rains.  Flash flooding is not uncommon.  If you live along a lake, creek or river, stay on guard.  Sometime in the early 1950s, laying in bed late one night, out in their country ranch home, a forceful squall came busting through the clouds.  Unforeseen night-time storms are the best times to snuggle up, close the shutters and hope for the best.  While doing just that, they heard cries of panic and whimpering in the distance outside.  The sound was painful to hear.  My grandparents couldn’t help themselves.  They jumped out of bed, with a flashlight in hand, and followed the bellowing into the pitch black night, with the driving wind and rain pushing them back.  They ran to a gully, a dry creek bed.  The flashlight spotlighted the reality of what the stormy dark night was hiding.  A flash flood was raging, carrying whatever was not tied down into its swift current.  Along the bank was a frightened litter of puppies and their mom.  The mom was doing all she could to get each pup in her mouth in efforts to move to higher ground.  There was no time to hesitate.  She would surely lose the majority of her children if someone didn’t intervene.  That’s exactly what my grandparents did.  Still in their night clothes, they fought through the raging, rising flood, reached the mom and her pups, rescuing them all from certain death.  Not one was lost.  THAT was the heart of Martin and Opal Atherton.

47 OMA Tulo dog

18 OMA Wolfgang 1999

During WWII, my granddad struggled with the fact that his wounded older brother was in the thick of fighting the Nazis in France in a tank division, while he remained here raising his three kids and making a living.  At some point, regardless of his responsibilities at home, and with a newborn baby daughter (my mom), grit and patriotism kicked in.  He joined the navy and off he went to the newly liberated Philippines to keep the Japanese from returning.  It was the toughest separation for Martin and Opal.  They were so much in love.  Anyone who knew them could tell they were of one heart.  After the war was won, he came home on a Greyhound bus with his duffel bag on his shoulder.  As the bus arrived in the old square of downtown Greenville, Texas, my grandmother was anxiously waiting for him to step out of the folding doors.  I would give anything to have been a fly on the wall, just for a minute or two, to witness their loving reunion.  It has been said, right then and there, they promised one another they would never go anywhere apart from each other ever again.  They held to that promise, unless it was for a short men’s or women’s Bible class at their church, or a day of mechanical upgrade classes from General Motors.  God’s music score has its own arrangements.  He passed away about five weeks shy of their 70th anniversary.  She joined him eight years later after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s.  I would’ve loved to have been a fly on Heaven’s gate to witness their second loving reunion.

Grands at NF mid 90s

My mom still lives in their house.  It was a house always remembered as a refuge from the harsh world.  My memories of that house are caressed with warm feelings of safety, security and love.  The home inside that house was without harsh judgments, cursing and violence.  A few months after his death in 2008, a Google search of the address was quite the surprise to us all.  To this day, I think of this as a sweet gift from above.  Even after he had left us, the Google photo of the house showed my granddad looking away while standing on the front porch.  Although rare he would be on the front porch, it was oh, so natural.

Granddad on porch in Google map pic. He had been dead for a long time.

Whether it was stranded puppies, a toddler doomed for harm and hopelessness, countless missionaries around the globe doing righteous work, to an elderly poor African-American man down the street, they were there for whomever needed a friendly helping hand and a kind smile.  I dare say, without any reservations whatsoever, this writer would have been dead long ago, or in prison somewhere, if not for my grandparents who unconditionally loved me as if I were their son.

This was the last photo together and last kiss.  He passed away about a week later.

Grands last pic. May 25, 2008. He died the following week.

There’s so much more to share of the life of Martin and Opal Atherton.  Let it be known, they preached their funerals every day of their lives, always filling themselves with fuel for the race.

“Blessings are on the head of the righteous…” – Solomon – Proverbs 10:6a (KJV)

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”  Hebrews 12:1 (NASB)

 

 

Short Fuses

Photo: Shutterstock

“Stop draggin’, stop draggin’, stop draggin’ my heart around…”  Recorded by: Stevie Nicks & Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (1981).  Composers: Michael W. Campbell and Tom Petty.

He said, “NO!  This is my band, it’s my song catalog!  BYE!”

Electric-guitar

Photo: todayifoundout.com

Recently, I interviewed a well-known Grammy-winning lead singer of a rock band you would recognize, for a three-hour radio special.  This man is now a solo recording artist who has about 50 years of a rewarding rock career.  He and his band once opened for Janis Joplin, Chicago, B.B. King and others.  Off air, he told me an inside story, which I couldn’t share, concerning a major riff between band members in talks of a reunion tour, as well as a new CD of their reworked hits.  The founder and band-mate, of this famous band, had some health issues and wouldn’t give his nod on multiple topics related to the reunion efforts.  It became a huge political squabble behind the scenes.  It grew into the founder refusing to take part of any reunion efforts.  Soon, the word “lawsuit” was mentioned.  This, after 40 years of being part of a tightly knit musical family.  Ouch!

44 OMA MRA, Swindell side and B, D&C

Photo:  Ella Swindell (Far left)

Rewinding back to 1971, my great-grandmother Ella Swindell passed away.  She was one of the most selfless, sweet, servant-type person you could ever meet.  Her mother was an invalid with many children.  Somewhere around 1910, when it got to the point where she was unable take care of her children, along with the household in general, my great grandmother dropped out of school (3rd grade) to take over, instantly becoming an 8 year old mother, nanny, cook and bottle-washer.  At that young age, she raised her siblings as well as taking care of her parents.  All her life she played the role of the humble servant, the giving of herself.  In 1971, after her funeral, there was a gathering of her siblings and children (my grandmother and great uncle).  They met in my great grandmother’s house to discuss the property and possessions, tiny as it was.  In the meeting a knockdown-drag out occurred among these individuals she helped to raise (now elderly themselves) over the smallest personal affects.  Greed took control, even though she was a poor woman with very little.  What she did have was not valuable.  Still, they wrestled one another, making total fools of themselves.  A family split ensued.  Ouch!

Shorty At Attention July 2014

My dog, Shorty and I, moved into the house where we currently live, right at a year ago.  My wife and I were newlyweds and we moved into her house.  Next door, there are three dogs.  One looks to be a Dingo mix, the other two are Chihuahuas.  The two little bosses, with a little Caesar syndrome attitude, have real names, but I call them Yipper and Yapper.  They didn’t like Shorty from the very start and they made it clear, loud and clear.  Shorty is a kind, sweet dog who loves everyone he sees.  He has a firm belief that everyone he sees wants to play.  From the first moment he saw them at the adjacent fence, he ran over to initiate playtime.  NOTHIN’ DOIN’.  They nipped, yipped and snipped at his friendliness.  A few weeks later, after many attempts to become pals, to no avail, he slowly walked over to the barking pack, got close to the fence, lifted his leg and peed in their direction, running off afterwards like a celebrated conquering king of the neighborhood.  I laughed, but I was also quietly proud.  (I’m his dad.  What can I say?)  Ouch!

How quickly we burn our fuses and usually for small, insignificant reasons.  You say one thing that I may misunderstand, followed by my knee-jerk reaction, followed by your shock of my tone and then you raise it another level, etc.  Isn’t that the way it goes?  While in heavy traffic, someone rolls down their window as you hear “Hey, your car needs to be smashed!”  You love your car, and of course without thinking, the reaction comes quickly as you roll down your window to shout, “Well, how about I smash in your ugly grill?  Oh, sorry, that’s your teeth!”  The tragedy is, the actual words spoken were from a British chap, “Hey, your car is super smashing!”  Oh, the lessons learned.

Candle 2014

Unlike the band-mates of the rock star, my great grandmother’s siblings, along with Yipper and Yapper, we can, and we have, the ability to lengthen our fuses a great deal, allowing peace to rule the day.  It’s what love does.  Love denies self.  In fact, if we see our short fuses as short wicks, we can find the light diminishes as the dark side takes over like a long black cloak.  The longer the wick, the brighter the true view.  The shorter the wick, the darker the mask which shades the actual subject, distorting the view.

Who said it was easy?  Yet, there’s power in fuel for the race.

“Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” – Paul – Romans 14:19 (NIV)
Continue reading “Short Fuses”

Mysterious Visitor

He boldly said, “I won’t be back, but you’re going to be okay.”

A Warning:

Before you read the account below, please read my article entry from last week entitled, “Confronted By Death – February 13, 2013.” This is a continuation of the life-changing event detailed in the earlier blog release.  In fact, I purposefully omitted this chapter of my story from last week’s piece. What is written here will be confusing if you read it prior to reading the entry posted on Feb 12th.

Once again, as I did in last week’s posting, I preface this account with a hard statement:

The documentation below is my accurate testimony, without embellishments or artistic license.  What I have written here was only witnessed by two people, my former wife (depicted for this purpose as “Joan”) and myself.  On more than three separate occasions, I double checked the facts and timelines with Joan in order to be as accurate as possible.  At the time, I told my doctors I would write a book about the experience of the journey I was hurled into.  I never did so.  Then came the promises to family, friends and God that I would tell the story in some format when the time was right.  In one case, I spoke clearly concerning my story during a speaking engagement.  Prior to public speaking of the episode, I documented it for posterity and memory sake.  I was reluctant to share this account on this blog, but was persuaded to do so, only after watching two similar occurrences from interviews with a well known Dallas, Texas business man, as well as Dr. Kenneth Cooper MD, MPH, founder of the renown, Cooper Aerobics Center and the Cooper Institute of Dallas, Texas.  In short, it is what it is.

I will make a request of you.  If you begin to read this stunning, and very personal episode, please read it to the end for a greater understanding of the evidence and circumstances detailed here.

CCU Hallway

A Grim Setting

I believe it to have been Friday the 16th, or Saturday the 17th of February, 2013.  I had just awakened for the first time from a coma.  (The first time with ability to observe and reason.) I was quickly beginning to get clarity of thought, consciousness of people around me and my surroundings.  As mentioned in my posting from last week, I was hooked up to various machines with tubes and cords coming in and out of every part of my body.  I was on life support and had my mouth full of tubes, unable to talk.  My wife, at the time, was there with nurses swiftly coming in and out of my ICU/CCU room like a fast food restaurant.  My room doorway in the ICU/CCU ward remained opened, leaving my bed in a clear line of sight from the nurses’ station just across the hall.  This was on the 3rd floor at the Medical City of Plano in Plano, Texas in the North Dallas area.  Opening my eyes, I recall seeing Joan standing close to the door that led into the hallway, as a nurse was tending to me.

To be as detailed as possible, I do not recall how much time passed from when my eyes opened and the following took place.  I will say less than five minutes, certainly no more than that time-frame.

A Grand Entrance

At a point when a nurse stepped out of my open door, a very familiar tall, slender man, clean-shaven with dark brown short thinning hair, walked briskly into my room as if he owned it, without knocking or asking if he could enter, or inquiring if I was awake or not.  He was dressed in a mid thigh dark coat, or a suit coat.  Aesthetically speaking, he looked to be roughly in his late 40’s.  As for appearances this is all I can honestly remember, with the exception of wearing a million dollar grin with joy-filled warm eyes to match.  There is no certainty, but I want to say his eyes were brown or hazel in color.

Without any hesitation or shyness, he walked right up to my bedside, on my left, and took my hand, which was strapped down.  Looking directly into my eyes he stated with a wide white toothy grin, “It hasn’t been a good day for Alan Brown, has it?”  This is a point that is difficult to explain.  As he asked the question, it was as if my best friend was there with a lighthearted phrase.  He was so very familiar to me, as if we had a past, a history.  Let’s just say, ironically, I recognized him, this man I had never met.

In retrospect, what is remarkable to me is the WAY he said the words.  He uttered them with an authority, as if he knew not only my prognosis at the time, but WHY I was hospitalized. As strange as it might sound, it was as if he wasn’t really asking a question, or even delivering a sounding board for information gathering.  When it hit my ears I thought I was missing time, as if he had been an eyewitness to a tragic event I didn’t recall and was following up with a kind visit.

At this time in my health event, I didn’t know a thing.  Clueless would be a good word.  (I knew I was in a hospital setting, but had no idea why or for how long.)  If I am sounding as if reaching or stretching for an explanation, I certainly understand, but he sounded as if he had the complete history of an event that I had yet to find out about.  My former wife told me later she hadn’t seen him before, outside or in the hallway prior to that moment.

My CCU Room Panned-2013

Dim To Lit

He continued to grip my left hand with his in the way we used to call the “soul handshake” with our thumbs nestled against each other at their base.  During his initial entrance, Joan had moved to the right side of the bed while he remained on my left, just between the railing of the bed and the row of machines keeping me alive.

Although intensely focused on my face, he glanced up at Joan a couple of times as he was speaking to me.  Let me add here, I began to get emotional, shedding a couple of tears.  It was unusual for me to get weepy without much context.  After all, this guy was a stranger who had only spoken one sentence at this point. However, I felt as if I was being caressed by a dear old friend, one I had known for a long time.  There must have been some sort of reading in my face for what he asked next.  I might have nodded my head in the affirmative or squeezed his hand because he reacted by saying, “Do you know who I am?”  I nodded my head to confirm.  Why did I?  Because, again, I felt like we had an old relationship.  I know, it doesn’t make sense as you read this today.  I understand.  One thing I want to add here is a certainty of the boldest expression in which he looked at me and spoke to me as if HE, too, had known me for a long time.  Joan described the look on my face as a look of comfort and connection, as well.  She indicated she thought at the time this man was someone I knew well by the glow on my face and the grip of our hands.  She went on to say for the first time she saw a “light” in my eyes.  (Apparently I had opened my eyes before, while in the coma, but nobody was at home, so to speak.)  One of the thoughts Joan had was that he must have been one of my favorite pastors from the metroplex area, prior to our marriage.  Making the point clear, I will repeat this important element: I never saw this man before that moment, yet somehow I knew him intimately. I only know he was there, the first visitor to comfort me at the moment I became conscious with full mental awareness, not a minute before, nor the next hour afterwards.

In a very cherished moment, he spoke some words that, to this day, cause me to shiver.  Joan believed it to be one of the most defining moments.  It was the stuff of raised eyebrows and confirmation that this man was not your average Joe randomly entering a stranger’s hospital room.  Withholding now the comments made, I will say, I speak of something divulged which was highly personal, shaking us both to the core.  However, I feel uncomfortable to share all he had to say, at this time.

“…This is what the Lord, the God of your father David says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you…” 2 Kings 20:5 (NIV) 

For the following I admit I honestly do not recall the next words used, although I would give away my possessions to know.  After some words of warmth and comfort, the man then said something to the effect of, “Let’s pray”, or “I want to pray for you”.  He reached across the bed to grab Joan’s hand. There we were, the three of us, alone in a CCU room without one interruption from medical staff or the various sounds from monitoring equipment, which seemed constant.  As mentioned earlier, the hospital staff was on high alert, constantly entering and exiting like an endless parade.  Yet, suddenly, there was an astonishing hush.

If I were to explain why I cannot bring up the wording of his prayer it would be simply put, I was mesmerized.  It was as if we were somewhere else with frozen clocks.  To describe exactly how I felt during this part of his very quick visit is to solicit judgment from those who will flush this entire account of my mysterious visitor.  I am hyper-aware some will claim me to be a cloaked new-ager of the highest order, or mystic at heart with deceitful intentions of pulling out of the reader a wow factor.  Allow me to reinstate, as the Lord God is my eternal judge, I speak the truth of the matter written in this testimony, without the tool of artistic license.

A No Latin Or King James Zone

Joan has verified and attests to the following description:  As he prayed, beginning with whatever his opening words were, I was in complete and utter wonderment, we both were, almost to the realm of a trance-like state.  He didn’t “pray TO” the Father, or spoke “AT” the Father, but rather he “communed verbally WITH” the Father.  He gave off the sense of a closeness or intimacy with Whom he addressed.  No dogma, no Christianese, no highbrow factors.  Lacking were the standard Old English verbiage, habitual memorized automatic phrasing, or a listing of the various titles of the Almighty One (often used to impress the human ears).  If you are not a person of faith, or an unchurched individual, you will not understand my meaning, and that’s okay.  Stay with me on this.  If you are a person of faith, let me ask in all sincerity, the following:  Does this make any sense at all?  Has this happened to you in your prayer life?  In my clumsy efforts, I am sure I am not truly revealing, in a comprehensive way, the sheer, raw essence of this man’s prayer.  To say I have known thousands of Christians in my life would be a gross understatement.  It is also a gross understatement to say I have heard thousands of prayers and from many who would certainly be labeled “prayer-smiths”, who could write them as poetry, selling calligraphy or audio copies for years to come.  At no time in my days have I ever been lifted, dazed and amazed as I was with this man’s effectiveness of praying.  He delivered the prayer as if he were speaking to a brother or a dad he had known since hour one.  When you hear someone speaking on the phone with a loved one, where you only hear a one-sided conversation, this is the hew of tone he used with warmth, love and an overwhelming sense of the familiar.  As I laid there I felt as if warm honey had made its way into my IV.  It was nuts!

“There isn’t any problem in my life, there isn’t any uncertainty in my work, but I turn and speak to Him as naturally as to someone in the same room, and I have done it these years because I can trust Jesus.” – D.L. Moody, Founder of the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. 

After he prayed, he walked to the other side of the bed, spoke her name and lovingly hugged Joan, wrapping his hand around the back of her head, patting her as if consoling a long lost daughter, just holding her there for a few seconds.  I watched her simply melt into his embrace like a rag doll.  I had never seen her so moved, nor since.  She later would compare it to a father holding a child in comfort, with designated warmth she had never felt to the point of a physical relaxing of the muscles.

An Astonishing Reveal

The two of us gazed at him as he walked toward the door just as he had entered.  Just before he stepped out into the hallway, while placing his hand on the door frame, he turned and stated something strangely odd for the occasion.  The first part of the sentence was, “I won’t be back…”  It was true, we never saw him again.  Within a six week hospital stay, there were a couple dozen ministers, pastors, chaplains and church layman, with business cards in hand, who took the time to visit with me.  Although I dearly appreciated the encouraging visits and prayers done on my behalf, none could ever compare to this mysterious moment of visitation.  I say his reveal was strangely odd, and it was.  But the proclamation spoken, ending his statement, was the most mysterious phrase of the entire episode. He said something no doctor, EMT or nurse had yet to say and wouldn’t say from that time onward.  Just before his exit, with that enormous grin, in concert with the joy in his eyes, with a forceful delivery, these words were the last thing he uttered, “…but you’re going to be okay.” 

I won’t be back, but you’re going to be okay.”

That declaration was the exact opposite of what we heard during my six weeks in the hospital.  There wasn’t much hope concerning my survival, in fact almost zero when I arrived in the ER.  All through my struggling journey, while in the hospital, I was being told of how handicapped I would be for the rest of my life.  I was told to expect a return to ICU/CCU.  I was told my kidneys were dead and would never come back.  I was told about unexplored brain damage, heart damage, neurological nightmares, motor skills,  muscle depletion, double pneumonia, sepsis in the bloodstream, etc.  So, how dare he blatantly sound off as he walked out the door with these words, obviously said in ignorance and false hope, “…but you’re going to be okay.”  Delivered in the midst of tragedy, as if he knew for certain the outcome of the crucial time, his delivery was smooth and effortless.  How cruel!  Am I right?  Joan, knowing the extent of my condition at that time more than I, was left stunned at this sentence.

My CCU Room Zoom-in 2013

He Might Have Been Olympic Great Jesse Owens

In a state of shock, along with wiping tears from her face, Joan said something to the effect of, “Wow, that was really a different experience.”  She then mentioned to me how she didn’t ask for his card (as was her practice with various ministers visiting me).  Right away she turned toward the door and left to catch him.  After a time, she came back with a pale look.  She told me that he wasn’t seen in the hallway or visiting any other CCU patients in other rooms. (With the exception of my room, the other rooms had sliding glass doors.)  My room was in the corner of two adjacent long hallways where you could see all the way down to other wings, both leading in two different directions.  She approached the nurses at the desk just outside my room, some nine or ten feet from my open door.  After she inquired about our visitor and his description, they claimed they saw no one in my room. Zero, zilch, nada!  I strain to even type the following, but I must.  He simply seemed to have vanished.

My CCU ward layout 2013

Almost as if I had responded to a director’s cue in a tear-jerking scene in Act II, I slipped right back into a coma a short time after he left us.  I remained unconscious for at least another 12-24 hours.

The simple truth sounds absurd.  I awoke, for the first time, before he entered the open doorway, and sunk back under the surface of unconsciousness after his exit.  Beyond being ultra mystifying, it didn’t occur to us until weeks later that while he was there, not one staffer walked in or out.  It was as if time was stilled in that room exclusively for the three of us.  Of course, that never happened again with any other visitors.  It was indeed an exclusive moment.

If you’re like me, your mind is probably scrambling and searching every corner of the imagination to find a key to unlock this mystery.  Don’t spin your wheels, I already have. Joan and I muddled through a mix of scenarios concerning this mysterious visitor.  Between the two of us we came up with a couple of possible explanations.  Allow me to shed some light on our thoughts.

It wasn’t long when I began to wonder about the in-house chaplain service there.  It would be natural for an “on-his/her-toes” chaplain to visit the CCU patients and families every day with some good old fashioned shoe leather, followed by some pressing of the flesh.

A Visit Of Another Kind 

Not too many days after they wheeled me into my new telemetry room on the 5th floor three weeks later, a middle-aged woman with a clipboard sheepishly knocked on my door.  She wasn’t dressed in hospital garb, but did have a badge identifying herself as a member of the chaplain volunteer service.  I never remembered her name, but she was very faithful to visit me when she was on duty.  She explained to me that she was indeed a volunteer who was commissioned, by the chaplain himself, to visit the patients on each floor.  She said there were just a handful of volunteers who participate in that ministry, which are mostly made up of laypeople from different faiths, to be available and suited for any situation and/or needs of various faiths, creeds and cultures.  With direct intension, she asked if I wanted her to pray for me.  I immediately responded in the affirmative.  She asked what faith I belonged to.  I told her I was Christian and quickly added, “I belong to the Lord”.  How evangelical of me.  Frankly, I don’t know why that phrase came out of my mouth, only to say it was like an involuntary reflux. The health event did rekindle a hearth-like closeness to God from the moment I was awake with the ability to reason again.  Like a survey marketer, asking about my race or marital status, she asked if I was protestant or catholic. By this time I just wanted to say, “Sister, forget the titles and the denominational stats.  Place your rubber-garnished hand in mine and let’s get to it.”  After what I had been through up to that point all religious borders, laws and ideas of what God looks like seemed almost silly child’s play to me.  I knew the true Creator, Healer and Lover of my soul and He is a God of intimacy, on the microscopic personal level, Who cares not for the titles we publish to each other.  Somehow, the truth-is-truth notch had been cranked up in my heart and mind.  Instead, I answered very calmly, “Protestant”.  To this day, I don’t recall when I asked her about the man who visited me, but I did ask if he was the chaplain.  She said he wasn’t there every day.  That was one of the purposes for her volunteerism and her co-minister’s efforts.  When I described the mysterious man to her in detail, she didn’t recognize him, but she didn’t believe he was the chaplain.

Being Sherlock 

After several months at home I gained strength to get myself to the desktop computer.  I initiated a bit of research on the chaplain ministry at Medical City of Plano.  Like a would-be gumshoe, I went to the hospital website in hopes of finding a page on the chaplain ministry and perhaps a photo of the chaplain.  Very little info on the ministry was on the site, but it did give me a phone number to the chaplain’s office.  Like a man on a mission and without hesitation, I called.  The chaplain himself answered the phone.  Without delivering all the fine details, I told him a bit of why I was calling.  He reconfirmed to me about the structure of the volunteer staff.  He explained some chaplain office protocols.  He revealed how they are required to wear badges with their names and what service of the hospital they serve under. He mentioned he too dons a name-tag at all times while on duty.  It seems they all are told they MUST ask permission to pray with the patients when introducing themselves and their general ministry.  Also, they MUST ask the individual’s religion of choice in order to pray the selective prayers with all its slants.  After a nervous swallow I inquired concerning his length of service there, thinking he may be new to that location.  He said he had been the one and only chaplain there for ten years.  A lump grew in my throat when I asked if it might have been him in my CCU room that day.  Right away he began to describe his features to me.  By process of elimination he was out of the running fairly quick when he mentioned how he was heavyset and wore a salt-n-pepper beard.  I asked if he would have been clean-shaven the week of Feb 13th.  He proudly replied that he had his beard for at least six years. Like a snapshot flashback, I was reminded of the slender, beardless, tagless, badgeless man who did not ask permission to pray over me in my CCU experience. Nor did he ask what religion I adhered to.  I thanked him for his service and said good-bye. With remarkable timing, my wife walked through the front door.  Right away I told her of my decision to look up the chaplain at the hospital.  Before I could tell her how the minister described himself to me over the phone, she said he, the chaplain, had come by a few times while I was in CCU.  She had his card to prove it.  Before that moment, I had no idea Joan had met the chaplain.  She immediately stated the mystery man was NOT the chaplain.  Her description of him was spot on.  She vividly remembered both the chaplain and the mysterious visitor being two very different men.

Questions have faded in my brain concerning the man.  There is a good reason too.  FAITH!

No need to ask me where God was in my time of trouble, trauma and tragedy.  He will do what He will do.

Poignant Questions

Without my identity on the door, how did he know my full name?  Moreover, how did he know Joan’s name?  Why or how was it that we seemed to know one another?  Why did he know of my desperate, critical condition without seeing my chart or asking a status at the nurses’ station?  Even so, there were medical privacy rights in play.  Why did he not ask permission from the nursing staff, or the welcome desk, or Joan herself to enter my room and approach me, the guy in the coma?  Why did he not knock before entering my room?  During the time of the visit, why did the hospital staff not enter, as was their custom, regardless of who I was with?  Just before he left the room, why did he make it a point to tell us we wouldn’t see him again? I dare say, the average visitor wouldn’t spell that out in a case like mine.  Why was that important to mention?  Could it be he was saying, “So, take this word of encouragement.  Use it and ride it like a wave.  No need for me to come back.”  Lastly, why did he walk in as soon as I came out of the coma and not before and/or after other friends or family visited?  Why was he seemingly aware I had just awakened and was about to go back under?  The timing was, well…impeccably synced to perfection.  How did he vanish in the hallway, alluding the nursing staff?  How could he exit the long hallways before Joan followed him out of the room?  Was he an Olympic sprinter?  Perhaps other questions may arise, but one thing is for certain.  Whoever he was, there is a peace of knowing that after my life is over this same individual will come to me once again with that brilliant grin and say, “Hello, Alan Brown.  Remember me?”  My response will be, “How could I ever forget?”  In that new day I will not be surprised if he then says, “It’s a good day for Alan Brown, isn’t it?”

My veins have been full ever since with warm fuel for the race.

“Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?” – Hebrews 1:14 (NIV)

In The Words Of David Cassidy…

“Sayin’ goodbye is not easy.  How will I ever explain?  Everyone looks just like cardboard pictures, falling apart in the rain…Running, yes I am, wave goodbye to all the trains.  If I’m looking for a river that goes on forever, then I guess I’ll have to go away.  Sayin’ goodbye is not easy.  How will I ever explain?…” – “I’ll Have To Go Away”, recorded by David Cassidy from, “Getting’ It In The Street” album, 2014.  Composers: Renee Armand & Kerry Chater

1970 was an impact year for the young David Cassidy.  The musical-sitcom, The Partridge Family, launched its first season on ABC.  The story is of a single mom with five kids heading up a pop-rock band made up of the entire family.  David Cassidy played the lead singer, Keith Partridge.  He was only 20 years old at the time.

Although Mr. Cassidy had millions of residual fans spinning off from the TV show, after the series’ end he struggled to be taken seriously as an authentic rock star.  Alcohol and substance abuse addictions plagued his journey throughout the next few decades.

Fast forward to the last couple of years, he began to experience dementia issues.  While on stage, he tussled with recalling the lyrics of his own songs, and the city and venue in which he was performing.  I personally was saddened when he passed away recently from organ failure.  The comet of this star burned out quickly.  David was only 67.

Family members of David Cassidy gathered around his bedside in ICU during his last days of life.  The reports from various family members said, when awake from a coma, he was in good spirits, considering the circumstances.   He lit up like a Christmas tree seeing many of his family walk through the door, albeit for a short time.  His daughter, actress, Katie Cassidy tweeted out a heart-wrenching statement after her father’s death.  She wrote that before his life ended, David’s final words were, “So much wasted time.”

Katie Cassidy states that she learned something from her father’s final words; may we, as well.

Singer/Songwriter, Jim Croce comes to mind from his “Time In A Bottle” classic.  “If I could save time in a bottle, the first thing that I’d like to do, is to save every day ‘til eternity passes away just to spend them with you.”

TIME!  It’s not just the title of a magazine.  It’s ruled by the orbits and rotations of the moon and planets, so precise that all humanity survives on it to the millisecond.  Time is overwhelming in its weightiness.  The poundage outweighs the earth’s oceans.  You can’t buy it, barrow it, cheat it, shape it or maneuver it.  You can’t retract it.  You can’t delete it, displace it, delay it or deny it.  Time is a raging creature, almost stealthy with a speed which cannot be reversed.  During the trek of time, it only shifts to one gear: forward drive.  If you believe you can do the above, in the end, time will rise up, chain you and place you in the town square while selling tickets to see the town fool.  Time.  It will overtake you like a steamroller.

If David Cassidy were able to communicate to us today, I believe he would speak through the filter of a time management consultant.   Maybe he would advise us with the following.  Find the time to fill in the blank.  We are at the midnight hour of 2017.  There is still time to hug more, kiss more, write more letters, Christmas cards and emails.  There is still time to get clean and sober.  Time says, “Make that apology while you can!”  There is still more time to pick up the phone and call just to say, “I love you.”  There is still time to give of your blessings to bless someone else.  There is still time to stand in the Santa line with your favorite munchkin.  There is still time to have lunch with that old friend who helped to change your direction in life.  David might shout, “TAKE THE TIME!”

Scripture calls out the urgency of wisely using the time allotted to us.  “But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today’…”  “And it came to pass…”  “The time is at hand…”  In fact, if David Cassidy could be with us today, I firmly believe he would agree with St Paul.  “Therefore watch carefully how you walk, not as unwise, but as wise; redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” (Eph 5:15-16)

Take the time to add fuel for the race.

How May I Serve You?

You hear it from time to time.  Usually it catches the ear at maybe a highbrow restaurant, tuxedo department in Neiman Marcus or a Rolls Royce dealership.  But it doesn’t have to be.

Thanksgiving afternoon finally arrived at our house.  It was just four of us, my wife and her two adult sons.  After the prayer, the dishes were passed around the table.  My son-in-law, Kellen was sitting next to me, scooping out his portion of the delicious rosemary Swiss cheese sweet potato casserole right out of a heavy corning ware baking dish.  When finished, instead of passing it to me, he said something to the effect of, “Can I dish this out for you?”  That happens at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle, not at our house.  I thought maybe he might place my napkin in my lap, as well.  It was so unusual, but I accepted his offer.  Ever since Thanksgiving I’ve been thinking about that humble moment of servanthood.

Many years ago, while working at KLTY/Dallas, my boss, Jon Rivers, attended a showcase gala of sorts for radio and record labels in a ballroom at one of Nashville’s finest hotels.  The dinner was prepared by the chefs of the hotel.  It was arranged in a buffet style with servers in funny hats and chef smocks, standing at the ready behind each delicacy, under silver domes.  After the meal was served, the reserved seats were waiting for artists, record and radio moguls.  As Jon went through the buffet with the servers assembling his choice of dishes, he made his way to the end of the long line of serving tables to find exquisite dessert selections.  The server asked, “How may I serve you?”  Jon thought he recognized the voice.  As he looked up from the wide range of desserts, there stood, none other than, recording artist and songwriter extraordinaire, Rich Mullins.

That was who Rich Mullins was.  With humility, he was exercising servanthood for the nourishment of his own soul and spirit, but he was also making a quiet statement for the suits in the room.  It was as if he were shouting, “THIS IS THE WAY OF CHRIST!  LET US NOT FORGET!”

In 1979, the cultural music icon, Bob Dylan released the song, “Gotta Serve Somebody” off his “Slow Train Coming” project.  It would receive airplay on many Christian radio stations at the time and through the following years.  It’s been covered multiple times by artists from almost every genre.  Here’s a sample:

“…You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.  But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.  Yes indeed, you’re gonna have to serve somebody.  Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”  – Bob Dylan

When I see the madness of the mobs on Black Friday, many of which ignored Thanksgiving with family and friends to campout 24 hours prior the retailers Black Friday frenzy, my mind goes into shock concerning the change in our society.  Injured people are carried away from the stores, victims of trampling or punching, kicking and shoving by fellow-shoppers.  WHY?  For a few dollars of savings.  For a new item seen on an ad.  Meanwhile, the Salvation Army volunteer with his/her bell and red collection kettle is run over as if invisible.  Selflessness has been invaded by selfishness.  Giving has been encroached upon by greediness.  Servanthood, out of love for others, has been replaced by self-hooded retail ravagers.  And, I fear it will only get worse in years to come.

Let me challenge myself, and you, to rise above the fray.  As you calculate serving somebody during this Christmas season of giving, donate to that Salvation Army kettle when you see it.  In fact, we invite you to read about, “A Hand Up” homeless initiative I’m involved with.  It’s not a hand-out, but truly lifting up the homeless to opportunities to live a productive life, and planting their feet in a home or apartment, not a shelter.  It’s a great way to serve somebody while you can still choose to do so.  Please read about it at http://www.ccmclassic.com  When you do, you might just hear yourself say, “How may I help you?”

There are two people in today’s world.  Givers and takers.  What would you like to be known for?  Choose well for the soul of our society.  When you do, it will pour out fuel for the race.

(After Jesus washed the feet of His disciples.)

“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” – Jesus, John 13:14-15 (NIV)