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One night in 1969 -- it was early springtime -- after signing off at the radio station and saying good night to the technical staff, I did not go straight home. Instead I drove about ten miles out of town, leaving Ithaca’s lights sparkling in the valley below. All over again I marveled at the beauty of this Finger Lake country in upstate New York. The moon was just past full, peepers were out by the thousands, fields were fresh plowed, or whatever you do to fields in the spring. I’d never spent any time around farms; microphones and turntables... that was my world.
And there it was, washed in moonlight, Peg Hardesty’s barn.
It sat closer to the road than I remembered, right up against the highway, like most of the houses and barns up here where snow can pile up four, five feet. "You can always get your milk through a drift to the highway if you don't have to shovel too far," Peg had explained.
I couldn’t imagine what had pulled me out to take a look at this place again. When I had seen it last it had seemed like a big nothing -- just a tumble-down old barn like a hundred others around here. The silo roof was caved in, rusty sheets of galvanized iron creaking in the breeze. There was an incredible stink about the place that Peg said were "normal" barn smells of manure and rotting straw. Maybe a little dirtier than most: Peg’s husband was dead and help was hard to find.
Why was it then that I saw this old barn differently now, as I pulled the car quietly to a stop so as not to wake Peg in the farm house beyond. Why, as I switched off the headlights, did the place suddenly seem—I don’t know. Holy.
It was more than just the magic of moonlight, which turned the old weathered wood silver. It was more than a night breeze which blew the barnyard smells away from me. I got out of the car and pushed the huge sliding doors open just a crack. Peg’s dog Niki heard me and set up a hysterical yapping. Poor Peg two o'clock in the morning!
It was dark in the big barn. Only a little moonlight came in through the holes in the roof. Off to one side I thought I could make out a pile of hay, to the other what looked like a vast junk heap. A huge centerpost grew out of the floor holding up the beams that in turn held up the roof. Somewhere in the shadows a cow heaved to her feet and stamped, waked up by that darn dog, no doubt.
And still I continued to look around with strangely opened eyes. Crazy ideas kept coming to my mind, like, with a shovel I could get the manure out of those cow stalls. Or, I could pile all those old boards into a corner.
But what for? What could anyone use an old barn for—especially me, of all people on earth? Now that my eyes were adjusting to the dark I could see that the shadow on my right was a junk pile, all right: ragged Sears-Roebuck catalogues, rusty farm machinery, an old mattress.
I shook my head to clear it of strange notions and walked out to the car. I intended to go back to Ithaca, to my wife Nedra and our baby daughter.
And yet I didn't go back. Instead I took a long rambling drive through the dark countryside. What was there about that old barn? It had a strange pull, which I could not understand. Certainly there was nothing about a barn that meshed gear with our lives, lives which up until recently had been centered on the New York rock music scene: pot, LSD, heavy drinking, running around with the Beatles, the Stones, Bobby Dylan.
Where was that world now? Finished and done with in one sense. And yet in another sense filling my whole mind, just as bits and scraps of the past filled that old barn. All of us hang onto stuff from the past. Some of it salvageable and good. Some of it just lying there rotting.
Mine, my past, began in Glasgow, Scotland, where I was born—where the first thing I remember is the orange glow of bombs lighting up the sky, the shock of explosions shaking my room, my bed, everything.
I wasn’t afraid of the bombs.
To me, nighttime air raids over Glasgow were just the way life was—noisy, but not frightening. I accepted them the same way I accepted food shortages and soldiers in the streets; British and American uniforms side by side. At the first wail of the sirens I would climb into a chair beside the window to watch the city lack out street by street, until all I could see was the flicker of flashlights as wardens went from house to house checking blackout curtains.
As far as I knew, life had never been any different. Soon my father would come into my room in the tiny walk-up apartment where he, Mum and I lived, and pick me up in his arms. Always it was the same. First I would rub the end of his nose in a silly little game we’d somehow started. I rubbed it so often he had a shiny patch there. Then Dad would speak to God, asking Him whether we should go to the air raid shelter. I could never hear God’s answer, but Dad could, because we hardly ever did go to the shelter. "We will trust God," Dad would say. Outside I could hear men shouting, fire fighting equipment rumbling by. Sometimes there would be earth-rocking explosions as bombs struck the Clyde Bank shipyards nearby.
I remember the first time I ever saw a frightened person—and there wasn’t even a raid that night. Some people had come to see my parents, bringing a little boy about my age, three or four, I suppose, and the two of us were put down in my bed. When Mum had tucked us in, she switched off the light. Immediately the boy began to scream. His mother ran into the room crying:
"Don't do that! He can't sleep in the dark!"
It was my first encounter with fear. I remember feeling a morbid interest in it, as one might in a deformity.
For the most part this freedom from fear was an inheritance from my father. Dad was one of six sons of a small hotelkeeper in Inverness. All went off to the First World War; three came back. It was during this war, while he was in India, that Dad had a remarkable experience. He knew nothing at all about God when he left home for overseas duty. But one day in India while he was away from his unit, walking along a country road, a strange and mighty power swept him to his knees. He had no idea what was happening, except that he knew he had met God.
His conversion was as permanent as it was unexpected. But it was not something he could talk about with his family. He came back to Scotland to find that his widowed mother had nearly lost her mind with grief for her three dead sons. Soon she packed her bags and fled to America, where we heard from her only occasionally; bitter, complaining, unhappy letters.
Dad had wanted to become a preacher, but he had no money for theological school. So he became a mechanical engineer in the Glasgow shipyards, using engineering in the same way St. Paul used tent-making; during the day he worked at the shipyards, at night and on weekends he lived his real life as a lay preacher in the Apostolic Church.
God was as much a part of normal life to me as the air raids. I remember sitting in the kitchen with my mother one day listening to a Bible story. All of a sudden, as she read, I noticed another person in the room. He was wearing a robe with all kinds of colors glinting from it like a rainbow. In his hands I saw blood-caked holes. He had no shoes on and his feet were hurt and torn too. I looked up at his face and had to shut my eyes; above his shoulders was a blinding light. I knew who he was and wasn’t surprised to see him; what surprised me was that Mum just went on reading.
I nudged her. "Mum," I said, "it's Jesus."
Mother looked up, then around the room.
"No, right there. Over there!"
The person I was looking at was not a hazy vision but perfectly solid. Except for the light where I couldn’t look, he seemed as flesh-and-blood as Mum. I jumped up and ran to him—and just as suddenly he was gone. I burst into tears.
Mother took me in her arms. "It’s all right, Charlie. Don't cry. He’s still here. Jesus is always here. Would you like to talk to Him?"
So right there in the kitchen we knelt down on the old linoleum floor, and Mother showed me how to say, "Jesus, thank You for being here. Please now come into my heart."
I loved Jesus, and I loved to walk beside my father Sunday mornings as he and his friends gathered a crowd for church. With a noisy, brassy band they'd parade through the steep, cobble-stoned streets of Glasgow till they had pied pipered a congregation right into their soot-blackened church.
But that was the only thing I liked about Sunday. Mostly it was a day when we couldn’t do things. Other days, when Dad’s shift was off at the shipyards, he'd take me riding on his bicycle—sometimes clear out to the sea. I could never understand why what was such fun on weekdays was a sin on Sunday.
Listening to the radio was a sin every day. The neighbors downstairs had a set but I was not allowed to visit them when it was playing. Motion pictures were even worse. Everyone who went to the movies was going to hell. So was everyone who smoked. This bothered me because I had a good friend who smoked. He was an American soldier who gave me chewing gum and I didn’t like to think of him in everlasting damnation.
I was five when the war ended. There was still very little food and fuel but I didn't mind because I couldn't remember anything else. For a while I missed the friendly soldiers in the streets; then in the fall of 1945 I started school and made a lot of new friends. Now I hated Sundays worse than ever because that was the day the boys met to play soccer in a lot where a neighbor's home had been before it was hit by a buzz bomb. Since it was Sunday I was not allowed to join them.
The real change in my life, however, the all-encompassing one, came just before my ninth birthday, when my father called me into the kitchen and announced that we were moving to America.
My reaction was panic. I didn't want to go anywhere. Especially not to America. America was where my angry, dour grandmother lived. And what about my friends?
"God is sending us, God will provide our every need," Dad said.
My friends thought otherwise. "Charlie will be scalped by the Indians!" they chanted. They warned me that lions would eat me and giraffes would step on me.
But worse than the threat of wild men and animals was the spectacle of our home breaking up before my eyes. Bit by bit, during that Christmas season of 1948, I watched it all go. There went the umbrella stand; there went Mum's kettle, and my little push-pedal car. The only things we kept were our clothes and some family photographs. Finally everything else was gone. We borrowed crates from the greengrocer to sit on. These bare, ugly rooms had been our home.
I remember a lot of people crying at the train station, then a long train ride. On January 1, 1949, we boarded the S.S. America in Southampton. Most of the passengers were still celebrating New Year's Eve and I stared at them in astonishment. The drunks who had sometimes stumbled into the church back in Glasgow were poor and dirty, but these boisterous, reeling people were better dressed than we were. Dad and I were put in one cabin with a lot of men, Mum in another with a group of women. The crossing was stormy all the way: one morning Dad and I were the only two passengers in the dining room.
Finally on the morning of January 6 we steamed into the Hudson River. I couldn’t believe the size of everything. Automobiles were enormous. Buildings towered higher than mountains. Bridges were longer than anything I had ever seen.
To make a good impression when we arrived at my grandmother’s, I wore my best clothes, which of course meant kilts. It was a mistake. Even Grandmother, when at last we reached her house in New Jersey, scoffed at my old-country appearance, while the boys in the neighborhood were hysterical.
"What’cha' got under there, Scotty?"
"Hey, Scott,can I have a date?"
I soon packed the kilts away, but I never got rid of the nickname. From then on only my family called me Charles.
While my father was trying to find work—post-war jobs were hard to come by and he was not a citizen—I did my best to adjust to this new land. First, there was learning to think in dollars instead of pounds, shillings and pence. Harder to get used to was the amount of food Americans stuffed down their throats. In Glasgow adults drank ersatz coffee, kids drank powdered milk: one pint would last me four days. We didn't cut butter (and of course it wasn't really butter); we scraped it off the top of the bar to conserve it. Three powdered eggs would last the family a week. Here, two fresh eggs went onto the breakfast plate for each member of the family. It was incredible. The first time I bought a bottle of Seven Up I couldn’t finish it: it was too much for me.
School was the toughest place. My accent kept the whole class roaring. The teacher was often angry with me for disrupting things, but I could never tell which remark would be taken funny. I remember the day I asked, "Would you pass the rrr-rubber?"
For some reason that broke everyone up.
"What's a rubber?" they said.
"I mean the rrr-rubber, the rrr-rubber you erase the blackboard with."
Also, at first, when the teacher called on me I would jump to my feet and say, "Yes, Miss," like we did in Scotland. She thought I was making fun of her and kept me after school several times until I learned not to do this.
I determined to become a regular Joe, and when the boys started playing baseball in the spring I put down as my position, "catcher." But I forgot that the bat is not swung like a cricket bat and stepped right into it. The next thing I remember is being carried off the field in the arms of the school sports hero, Manuel Simpson. Manuel came all the way to the hospital with me, and that made me a hero too. When I woke up from the anesthesia I had pieces of steel in my nose, a huge bandage around my head, and the news that I’d be breathing through my mouth for a year.
Perhaps if we’d been able to stay in one place for a while I could have earned my place in the group. But over the next several years Dad moved continually, from one temporary job to another—New Jersey, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland—and I remained just enough "different" to be singled out as a target by the kids wherever we were. I was the foreigner. The oddball. The runt.
Whether it was the shortage of food my first few years or what, wherever we lived I was always the smallest kid in the class. Eventually I learned that my only chance in a fight was surprise. Once a kid walked up behind me and said, "I'm going to beat you up, you little squirt, because I don't like the way you."
I never learned what he didn't like. Before he had finished the sentence I had swung around and put my fist into his nose, hard. He doubled up, blood squirting between his fingers, and never came near me again.
In that same school another boy jumped me in the locker room. I twisted out of his grip, pulled his feet from under him and had my hands on his throat before he knew what was happening. The guy weighed fifty pounds more than I did, but it took two teachers to pull me off him.
Dad's income remained very low during all this period. Night watchman, chicken plucking, making broom handles—he never really found a good job. My sister Anne was born the first year we were in America, so now there were four of us to clothe and feed. But Dad never questioned God's will, never seemed to doubt that he had truly been sent to this "field." After work, every evening, he would preach—most of the time in homes and small storefront churches. Dad was preaching the Baptism in the Holy Spirit, which was not widely accepted then. But he kept saying that he was seeing results. Maybe he was, but if the kind of people who came to his services were his results, I wanted no part of it.
I couldn’t believe my ears as these loving Christians would gather on the sidewalk after church and cut each other to ribbons. As long as they were face to face it was "Brother this" and "Sister that"—but when the first one left!" "I saw him on the bus and what do you think he was reading?" "hasn't washed those curtains in over a year!"
They didn't carry on this way when Dad was in earshot. He hated gossip like nothing else in the world. But I might as well have been one of the neighborhood dogs for all the notice they took of me.
They were hypocrites too. I’d listen to them in church, Sunday after Sunday, "giving their testimony" about how they’d been delivered from nicotine—and know which ones had been sneaking cigarettes back of the building before the service. Just because I was young did they think I had no eyes or ears or any sense at all?
Sometimes I’d try to talk to Dad about these things, but he wouldn't listen to gossip from me, any more than from anyone else. He kept telling me I must try to see people as God saw them.
And then the thing happened which made me wonder if God saw anything at all. Dad had found work in a food-packing plant near the church where he was pastoring and since we stayed with a family who attended the church there was no rent to pay. I remember that I had my own room in those people's house, the nicest room I ever had. The man who owned the house said if I was a good boy he was going to give me a bicycle.
One afternoon I was lying on the bed reading, when this man walked in and shut the door. He said something about being tired and lay down beside me. After a while he began talking about my clothes—how they were too tight and he’d loosen them for me. I didn’t know what was happening. For a while I was too frightened and confused to move. Then I bolted off the bed and ran down to the cellar and hid.
I was too ashamed to tell my father about it. But when it happened again and then a third time, I finally did. I don't know what happened between Dad and the man. I only know I came home from school one day to find Mum crying as she put our things in a suitcase. We left that same evening and nobody even came to say goodbye.
The funny thing was that outside of church, if only we stayed in one place long enough, I would meet great people. Down the street from our house in Winchester, Virginia, for example was a little store owned by a man and his wife, Ted and Margie. They had a popcorn machine outside the store on the sidewalk. Inside were comic books, candy and a soda pop dispenser. Ted and Margie let me spend hours there, just hanging around. I was especially fascinated by the Wild West stuff for sale. By American standards I was too old to be playing cowboys, but in Glasgow I’d never had the chance.
Toward Christmas 1951, just after my twelfth birthday, they got in a new supply of guns and holsters. They were unbelievable. One set in particular haunted me. The guns had mother-of-pearl handles; the belt and holsters were jet black with silver studs. I’d go around whispering to myself, "Don't anyone buy them." I just wanted them to stay there where I could look at them. Then one day that set was gone. For days a lump came up in my throat whenever I thought of those guns. Christmas morning Ted and Margie asked me to come down to their store. They gave me a package all wrapped up in red paper. It was my gun set! I couldn’t get over it. For months I went around practicing my draw.
Why couldn’t Christians be like Ted and Margie, who never went to church? But Christians weren't like that. By the time we moved to Hagerstown, Maryland, I found myself rejecting church and everything it stood for. It was in Hagerstown that I first went to the movies. Though I thought I no longer believed in sin and hell, I shook all the way through the show, half expecting to see Satan himself spring from behind the screen.
When I got home Dad was in the garage building a table for Mum's sewing machine. "Where've you been, Charlie?" he asked me.
It was probably a perfectly innocent question, but I felt my guilt stand out in flames. Bursting into tears I blurted out a confession, and a lot more—my dislike of the pious, Bible-toting hypocrites who attended his church, my longing to be like the other kids at school.
To my amazement, Dad took this outburst calmly. "Charlie," he said, planing down a table leg as he spoke, "do you remember the day, a long time ago back in Scotland, when you asked Jesus to come into your heart? You were very small then, but Jesus hears the prayers of children. I believe He came to you that day, and He has told us, ‘I will never leave you." When Mum and I can no longer help you with the decisions you must make, He will always be there to guide you."
I often wondered what my father thought of his own bold words over the next few years, as my path branched farther and farther from his own. The new direction in my life stated, strangely enough, at a church rally, shortly after I turned fifteen. A minister was holding a big evangelistic meeting in Hagerstown and, because I hadn’t done much lately to make my folks happy, I went to it. At the close of the service the minister invited the whole congregation to come with him to the local radio station where he was going to broadcast part of his message. I went along with a group of others to the old frame house where the station was located.
I stepped through the door, and my life was changed. The microphones, the earphones, the soundproof studios, the cables all over the floor -- I didn’t understand any of it; I only knew it was the most beautiful place I'd ever seen. When the others left, after the broadcast, I hung behind. I slipped into a side studio and just sat there in the dark, watching the announcer through the big glass wall. It was late at night when I crept through the front door of the creaky old house and walked home through a softly falling snow.
Going to the station became a regular custom for me. I used to sneak over there after school, open the door and tiptoe in. I soon got to know the exact spots on the floor where the boards squeaked and learned to sidestep them. There was a production studio where I could hide, sitting in the dark so that no one could see me. Next to the soundproof plate-glass window was a control panel. I learned which buttons to turn so that the sound came on in my little cubicle. I would sit, wide-eyed, watching the disc jockey in the next room handling records and turntables, keeping up a line of chatter, dreaming that I was that man working so unflappably, talking so smoothly.
One night when I was sitting in the dark a guy who worked at the station walked into the room. He flipped on the light, then stared. I knew who he was instantly—Terry Hourigan. I had listened to him scores of times from my secret vantagepoint.
"What are you doing here?" he said.
He didn't sound mad. The sight of a kid sitting there in the dark seemed to strike him funny. I didn't know what to say, so I simply told him the truth.
He looked at me for a long time. "Listen," he said at last, "why don’t you come into the main studio?"
Fantastic! Terry introduced me to Jack Spielman. And all of a sudden these two men, the fellows who had been my heroes, were my friends. Over the next several months I practically lived at the studio. Terry and Jack and their friends treated me as a sort of mascot. They took me with them on studio assignments. It was with Terry and Jack that I first went to Washington, D.C. It was with them that I first went to a real restaurant and learned how to order food off a menu.
Through them too, I was introduced to music. Jazz, the classics, anything: Copeland, Bach, Mantovani, Percy Faith, Beethoven, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, and The Four Freshmen. In 1957 we went to the Newport Jazz Festival to hear Duke Ellington. This was also the first time I saw people smoking pot. A new drug culture, I discovered there, was beginning to grow up around the music culture.
But in our little studio in the sticks, back in Hagerstown, Maryland, we were content with beer. It was with the men at the station that I started drinking. Not that first year. Everyone knew I’d never had anything alcoholic and no one wanted the responsibility of giving me my first drink. But by Christmastime I guess they just got tired of saying, "No, man, you can’t have any." Anyhow, one night when they broke out the Budweiser, I helped myself and no one objected. I didn’t think much of the taste, at first, but I enjoyed the grownupness of sitting around the studio with our feet up on the desk listening to Brubeck on one turntable while going out over the air were traditional, mawkish Christmas records.
Thus it was that I became more or less officially attached to the radio station. One day Terry said to me:
"If you're going to hang around here all the time, why don’t you help out?"
He started by showing me how to edit the news: the local stories, the national stories, the world news. When he was through he says, "Do you want to give it a try?"
"Are you kidding?"
All of a sudden I was an employee. Terry started paying me a little for getting out records for him and filing them away correctly when he was finished. He gave me what he could afford: three, four, sometimes five dollars a week. But at seventeen, doing the one thing in the world I wanted most, that was a fortune.
Besides, the money was welcome at home. Mum and Dad relented a little toward "the devil's box"—as they still regarded the radio—when they saw that it could put groceries on the table.
Still, this must have been a rough time for my folks. Many nights I would come home wiped out of my mind and stinking like a brewery. I would cross the lawn to avoid our crunchy gravel driveway and tiptoe through the "sanctuary" downstairs. Past all the folding chairs, past the little raised platform where my father preached, past the attendance board with its pathetic tally of Dad’s results: "Attendance today: 26. Attendance last Sunday: 27. Offering: $7.06." Up the stairs, drop into bed with my head spinning, pass out.
Finally Dad could take it no longer. He called me into his study and said in his heavy Scots accent:
"Boy..." whenever he called me "Boy" I knew a serious talk was to follow. "Boy, I've raised you in Jesus. Now I've got to let you go. There are things you're doing now which I do not approve of. But you can't hear your Mum and me any longer. Remember what I told you. Jesus is your guide now." He paused to clear a huskiness from his throat. "I want you to know that a day never passes except we pray for you."
But if my folks let me go, the people in the congregation did not. I still came to church in deference to Dad—after all sometimes I made up ten percent of the congregation. And I still got the lectures.
"Charles Edward Ross, how old are you?"
"Seems you're a mite small for your age."
They had a way of putting their talons right into the place that hurt most. Yes, I was small for my age.
"One of the brothers saw you coming out of a bar last Saturday night," the nagging would go on. "Don't you know alcohol stunts the growth? And you a preacher's son!"
I knew better than to try to get away. I just stood still and learned my lesson, but not the one they thought they were teaching. For as they lectured, my mind ticked off the number of men in the congregation I knew to be drinkers on the sly.
I had thought their hypocrisy could no longer hurt me. But I was wrong, because it turned against Dad himself. From whispered conversations after church it gradually dawned on me that they were planning to dump him, to replace him with another, more popular preacher.
An evangelist came to the little house-church to hold revival services for a week. At the end of the week he stayed on. And on. He was preaching Sunday mornings now. "Dad!" I'd say. "Why don't you say something! Why don’t you do something?" But that was not the Christian way, Dad answered. Christians were not to hold out for their rights, but to prefer one another in love.
Finally a delegation from the congregation came to Dad and said, "This man is our new pastor." Just like that.
I don’t know what Dad’s inner reaction was. I could only watch what he did. He stayed right on in the church, sitting now on a folding chair along with everyone else, listening to the evangelist. They let us go on living in the house, so the rest of us had to come to the services too. Then one Sunday a strange thing happened.
The evangelist took his place on the little platform, but no sound came from his mouth.
He literally could not speak. After a while my father stood up and said in a low voice,
"Perhaps this morning I should take the service."
That morning my father preached about love and humility. It was not one of those double-edged sermons, which really accuses. He actually was preaching about love. And as he preached, the congregation came, in their phrase, "under the anointing of the Holy Spirit." At the close, the evangelist embraced him with tears running down his face. The next day he was gone.
But I didn’t forgive so easily. Humility may have been Dad's way; it could never be mine. The whole incident was just one more proof of what I already knew: Christians in general, and those in this town in particular, stank.
New York City. That's where I'd head just as soon as I finished high school. The spring of my senior year, I hitchhiked up there, just to look around. The first thing I did was go to the Empire State Building, pay my fifty cents and ride up to the observation platform. Below me was the city, just above me the huge transmitting tower.
The scene I was forming in my mind was pure daytime radio stuff: the little Scottish runt, picked on and despised, come to the Big City and take the broadcasting world by storm...
Dad was sick. You could tell that just to look at him. One morning I came into the kitchen and found Anne, nine years old, trying to fix my breakfast herself. In the middle of the night Mum had called a neighbor to drive Dad to the hospital. It hurt that in such an emergency nobody had even waked me up. I’d grown so far from my family I guess no one felt I belonged to it anymore.
Dad was terribly still in the oxygen tent when I reached the hospital. Then I saw that his lips were moving. I knew he was praying and I didn't know how to feel about it. On the one hand prayer stood for a church which I couldn't stand. On the other, I knew that God was as real to Dad in this little curtained-off room as I was. Maybe more.
He opened his eyes and saw me. I leaned down to the speaking vent in the plastic tent.
"Hey," I said, "I like your greenhouse."
He smiled. "I do to," his lips said.
Dad had always talked about how he wanted white hair. Yesterday he'd scarcely had a gray one.
"You've got your white hair, too," I said. I swung the bed-mirror around so he could see, and he smiled again. We were embarrassed together. I could think of nothing to say. This little man who lived for Jesus twenty-four hours a day, this little man who saw good people where I could see only their faults, how I loved him! How I struggled to find some way to say so. In the end, I couldn’t. When the doctor came in I started for the door, but Dad called me back.
His voice was barely more than a whisper and muffled by the plastic canopy.
"Boy, God's got a purpose for your life in this—radio thing."
I swallowed, knowing what it must be costing him to admit that good could come from the devil’s box.
"Maybe," the laboring voice went on, "if Satan can use it, God can use it better."
He closed his eyes. The doctor was reaching into the tent, taking Dad’s pulse. At last he straightened up and murmured a few words from the doctor's liturgy about how well Dad was going. Perhaps he’d be going home in a few days. After the doctor left I said to Dad, "Hey that's great! The doctor says you can go home soon."
Dad opened his eyes. He looked at me. "Yes," he said softly. "I'll soon be home."
He died at two o'clock the next morning. Later Mum and I talked with the nurse who’d been with him. She said that suddenly his face just seemed to fill up with light. He raised his hands and said one word.
And then he was gone.
When we got back to the house a lot of people were inside, removing things that belonged to the church. Mum, numbed with grief, couldn’t grasp what was happening. One man and his wife were even trying to get through the bedroom door with my bed.
Half the stuff they carted off was ours in the first place—like the sewing table Dad had made, and some rose bushes in the side yard. But it was when I saw a bunch of them pawing through Dad's toolbox that I went crazy. Those weren’t the precious church’s tools, they were Dad's tools—the ones he’d built my bookcase with, and the backboard for my basketball hoop, the ones I'd seen in his hands a thousand times. I slammed the tool chest lid down and I did a lot of yelling. I couldn’t put my Dad's Jesus and these people together. They told Mum that now they’d need a new pastor she'd have to get out of the house. Right away too.
"The sooner the better," I said. "You just keep your crummy hands off my Dad's tools."
There was a low-income government housing project in town. I'd get Mum and Anne in there, and then I’d leave this hick town, with its hick ideas, and I wouldn’t ever come back.
That night I went to visit my father for the last time at the funeral home. He was in a wooden box, the cheapest coffin the undertaker had. I looked down at him, in his brown "preaching suit," the startling white hair neatly combed. On the very tip of his nose was a small bright, shiny place. Suddenly it was all back: the wail of the air raid sirens, the darkening city. Then Dad striding into my room, picking me up—how tall he seemed then—the quiet, fearless voice with its deep burr, discussing with God the evening’s plans...
The last thing I ever did with him was to lean down and rub the end of his nose.
This excerpt from Scott Free is reprinted with permission from the author. Any use of this material without written consent of the author is strictly prohibited.
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