The Fire Next Time

I have been attracted to fire for as long as I can remember.  Like a moth to a flame, or a mosquito to a bug zapper on my parents’ back porch in the Southwest desert, I have always been pulled inexorably to fire as if by some sort of unnatural gravity.  Fire may be the devil’s only friend, as Don McLean assured us many years ago in the song “American Pie,” but the devil isn’t fire’s only friend.  It pains me to think that we have even that much in common, but I must face the truth of it;  I love a good fire.

From my earliest days, fire was usually associated with good, or at least not so bad, things.  My father was a welder and metalsmith in the Navy, and he made for us what he called a charcoal broiler, possibly out of scrap metal from his ship or else from somewhere in the Navy yard.  The squarish steel box, probably a foot across and about eight inches deep, stood atop a three foot pole fixed to two steel crosspieces at the bottom.  A grate rested on small ledges in the middle of each side of the box along the top.

Many, many burgers and hot dogs and steaks were cooked on that device, some in our back yard or at the beach or at camps and picnic areas in the Laguna Mountains and the desert, and it was always my duty to get the fire started and produce the bed of coals that was to get the meal cooked.  I was a terrible eater in my youth, so the payoff for me was more in the fire than in the food.

I remember having a bright idea one day; a way to save money on all of the charcoal that we were using.  I had read of Native Americans heating rocks and then dropping the glowing stones into pots of food that they wanted to boil.  “I’ll just throw some rocks in the broiler and heat them up.  It’ll save money”  I told Dad, and he knew of no reason why I shouldn’t try.

My plan worked great on the first try.  The stones heated up to a cheery glow and flawlessly cooked our dogs or burgers or whatever we put on the grate that day.  Basking in my father’s accolades, I looked forward to my first opportunity to repeat my performance.  That opportunity came quickly enough, and with it the flaw in my plan was exposed.

It turns out that there are fracture planes in many rocks, and that those planes are weakened when the rocks are heated and expanded, and then cool and contract.  They are then ready to snap apart the next time that they are heated.  The Native Americans knew about this and how to choose the right stones that could handle repeated heating and cooling.  They neglected to share that information with me.

I had no idea of what was coming until the first stone popped like a gun going off.  The chip flew off of the rock, bounced off of the side of the metal box and disappeared – – – somewhere.  I was mystified as to what had just happened and leaned over the broiler in order to assess what was going on in my fire.  At that moment another stone exploded, sending chunks of burning wood up into the air and several chips whizzing a couple inches past my right ear.

“*&%%#!” I yelled in this unguarded moment as I jumped back away from the infernal device which now promised pain and worse than pain instead of burgers and dogs and praise.

“Glenn!” came the stentorian voice of my father, calling me in, I knew, to have me account for the salty language that had just erupted from my mouth.  “Come in here.”

Dad’s bedroom window was not twelve feet from where I then stood, and his desk where he studied for his post-military college classes was situated directly in front of that window.  I knew that there was nowhere to hide.  The fear of exploding rocks and fire in my face was now replaced by my fear of the wrath of my father.

As I trudged into the house through the back door and then down the hall towards Dad’s room I pondered which of the two threats was the worse.  By the time that I walked through the door into his room I was still not sure of the answer to that question, but the fact that I had survived the first and had not yet seen a resolution to the second inclined me to consider the latter most likely to lead to definite discomfort.

To my surprise and relief, Dad was sufficiently impressed by the gravity of the situation to allow me to wriggle off the hook with no more than a mild admonishment to clean up my mouth.  I believe that he felt responsible for allowing a dangerous situation to develop on his watch, and although I couldn’t imagine how he should know any more about the lore of Native Americans on the subject of cooking with hot rocks than I did, I clutched my free pass with eager hands.  I felt like I had navigated between the Scylla of an exploding fire and the Charybdis of Pop’s judgement and emerged unscathed.  That was luck enough for me for one day!

Most of my experiences with fire were more benevolent that that however.  Dad and I played a game of sorts.   Whenever a fire was needed in order to cook outside it was my duty to produce that fire by the use of only a single match.  Whether it was at the beach or in the backyard during the summer, with an abundance of dry wood, good kindling, and no wind, or in the mountains in the dead of winter, surrounded by fields of snow and with a one-inch coat of ice over the grate of the stone and steel camp stoves provided at Green Valley Falls, my job was to get that fire going with the greatest economy possible short of rubbing two sticks together.

At first, Dad allowed the use of big strike-anywhere matches; the kind that you could light by scratching them on the zipper or the pant leg of your jeans.  Later, as I honed my skills, the challenge was made greater by limiting me to one PAPER match.  And no paper was allowed in the process, other than the paper of the match.  Paper was only needed by pansies.  Real Men, and Real Boys who wanted to think that they are men, took their knife and hatchet and produced a pile of shavings, then splinters, then sticks, until at last they had a pile ready to do the master’s bidding.

I never failed.  It never took more than fifteen minutes for me to have a roaring fire even on the coldest and frostiest and wettest days, days when I could hardly feel my fingers for the cold.  And the payoff was enormous.  Mom’s fried potatoes and bacon, eggs and biscuits, and the coffee that I loved to smell but did not yet prefer to drink were a prize beyond gold.

But even more than Mom’s breakfast I would enjoy Pop’s inspection of the blaze, nod of approval, and declaration that I had the makings of a man who could live off of the land, and that was heady stuff for a kid who was born and raised in the city, yet knew that there was a world closer to the way that things should really be out there in the fields and the forests.

Not all fires that I was engaged in were made by me nor under control however.  San Diego is a dry place, and in the 1950’s and 60’s the neighborhoods were laced with brush-filled canyons which led to dry creek beds that ran with water only when it rained.  And I mean rained a lot!

During the summers kids would play in those canyons, and while for some unknown reason I never started a fire in one, others were less cautious.  Many times we would hear the fire engines going down Fairmont Avenue, or Highland or Chamoune, or any of the numbered streets around us, headed to a canyon to put out a fire.

We might be throwing a football in an alley, or playing baseball at the diamond at Hamilton Elementary School, or just hanging out at the recreation center.  We would stop what we were doing, scan the horizon for smoke, and then upon sighting our quarry, mount our bicycles and pedal there as quickly as was possible.

The excitement which we experienced was palpable.  Residents on the fringe of the burning canyon would be out with their garden hoses, wetting down house and yard as much as possible in an attempt to protect their property in the event that the wind pushed the flames in their direction.  Firemen would already be on the scene, unlimbering hoses, connecting them to nearby hydrants, and plunging heroically into the heart of the inferno.

We boys would jump off of our bikes and find the first hose that looked like it needed an extra hand to drag its heavy self in the direction of the firemen, and we would then haul it into the canyon, allowing the firemen to worry only about fighting the fire.  For some reason which eludes me to this day, none of us got cooked for our efforts.  The firemen never let us get too close to imminent danger, of course, but they really did appreciate our help.  In retrospect I find it hard to believe that this was allowed at all.  In our current insanely litigious society, no fireman in his right mind would allow anyone, much less eleven and twelve year old kids,  to jump into such a dangerous situation.

And it truly was dangerous!  Many years later, while working on a construction job on Mira Mesa, a nearby canyon fire was my siren song once again, and I responded like the ten year old boy did over a decade earlier.  This time, thick smoke reduced my vision and I got turned around, and soon I was running like a jackrabbit only a step or two in front of Santa Anna Wind – driven flames.  It was the last time that I ever stepped up to help fight a canyon fire, or any other, fire.

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The Cobra

We who work in the medical field know that we may deal with unpleasant realities on any given day.  People don’t usually come to the doctors’ offices or clinics or hospitals to prove that everything is right in their world.  In fact, most of the time the reverse is true.  As a result of this hard truth, we medical workers develop an odd sense of humor in order to deal with the stress, much in the same manner as law enforcement agents or military personnel or others doing those jobs that most people wouldn’t want to do.  Some call it ‘gallows humor,’ and I suppose that is as good a description of it as any other.

But underlying that humor, we medical workers remember that we’re working on flesh-and-blood people; people who have lives and histories, families and connections and, probably most important, simple human worth.  We will work like fiends possessed in order to snatch a patient back from the grip of death, and if death has just been dealt too strong a hand we will sometimes cry and pound our fist against a wall when The Reaper wins the table.

It is with all of that in mind that I will now share a story from my medical career of over forty years.  I have no intention of making light of a person’s health crisis, and will refrain from stating the patient in my story’s age, medical diagnosis (which I never knew anyway), location, or anything else that could possibly identify this person or cause harm or pain to him or any living relative or acquaintance.  This is meant simply as a bit of humor; the humor that I and many who do work like mine use in order to keep our sanity.

This story is entitled ‘The Cobra,’ and it is with reference to the spitting cobra that is found in Africa and Southeast Asia.  It began when I was called to perform an ultrasound study of the abdomen on a patient in the Intensive Care Unit at a hospital where I worked years ago.  As usual, I loaded gel and linen on top of my ultrasound machine and pushed it to the room where the patient lay.

Outside the door was a cart with gowns and masks and bonnets which are usually provided when the patient has some disease such as MRSA, Clostridium difficile, E. Coli, or any other such highly communicable disease.  As I was gowning up, the patient’s nurse came by and I asked her “What nasty bug am I protecting myself from today?”

“Oh” she replied.  “He doesn’t have any infectious disease that we know of.”

I looked at the cart and bright yellow gown that I was wearing and then asked the nurse “Then why am I wearing all of this?”

“He spits” she said.

“Pardon me?”

“The patient spits.  It’s a neurological thing.  We don’t even know if he’s aware that he’s doing it.  He isn’t aiming, as far as we can tell, and you’ll only get hit if you stray into his line of fire.  He just spits constantly, so this is for your protection.”

I had never heard of any such thing, and so with a mix of caution and doubt I pushed my machine into the patient’s room and set up to go to work on the right side of the bed.  I quickly sized up the situation.  The floor was indeed a swamp of spit.  His bedding had recently been changed, so there was only a general dampness to the sheets and blanket that covered him.  His head was turned to the left, so I plugged in my machine, pulled up my chair, lowered the blanket and raised his gown, and then began to scan according to my abdomen protocol.

“Left lobe of the liver; four pictures in the transverse plane, including the portal vein.  Now three views in sagittal, trying to capture the caudate lobe framed by the left lobe and the inferior vena cava.”

Just about as I snapped that last picture The Cobra, which name I gave to the patient as a part of the coping mechanism that I have explained above, began to slowly move his head from his left to his right, where I was sitting.  “Pffft!  Pffft!  Pffft!”  “Oh crud” I thought.  “They’re right!  He’s spitting and he’s turning toward me!”  

In Vietnam I had seen things coming my way; things that I had little or no ability to prevent.  In such circumstances I had to focus on survival, and so it was on this day.  “Think, Durden.  Think fast!”

The Cobra’s face passed the 90 degree mark and his liquid missiles were beginning to arc onto the right half of his bed.  My peril was undeniable and my reason nearly failed me.  At the last minute however inspiration broke through and took charge of the situation.

“Look” I said, pointing to the wall near the left side of his bed.  “What’s that?”

Gradually, by microscopic increments like slow motion on barbiturates, The Cobra’s head stopped its starboard progress and reversed course, and like a supertanker making a U-turn he began to roll his head to port in order to investigate whatever it was that I was pointing at, spitting all the while like a fireboat at a Fourth of July celebration.

I resumed my exam with a new sense of urgency.  Pancreas: Bam! Done!  Aorta: Bam! Done! Gallbladder: Well, sort of like a Bam!  Those things just take a little more time.  Then on to the right lobe of the liver, with many segments and structures, veins and ducts and such to evaluate.  The liver will slow you down, and time was not on my side.  Sure enough, before my last liver image was taken the fount of saliva began to once again track back to the right.  This time, however, I felt like I had a handle on the situation; it was that or I was cutting the exam short.

“Look” I said again, and with greater urgency this time, just in case he was catching on to me.  “What’s that?”  Again I pointed to the left and again, after almost getting my outstretched right hand spat upon, his head returned to a leftward arc, dousing that side of the bed, the floor, and the wall with a saliva rain.

Now I knew that I had this one in the bag.  I finished the liver and right kidney and began to shut down my machine.  This process didn’t take long and before The Cobra could turn to anoint the right side of the room I was outside, peeling off my isolation gear safe and dry and feeling pretty good about myself.

“How did you manage that?” asked a nurse as I snugly dropped my dry gown and gloves into the appropriate receptacle.

“Manage what?” I asked, being a confirmed and determined smartass.

“How did you stay dry?  Nobody else has done that.”

“Hey, no problem” I replied.  “Desperate times, desperate measures.  I used a decoy.”

I left the nurse scratching her head as I descended to our department to develop my film and show a pretty good study to the radiologist.

The Price of Vanity

As I sit in a chair on my driveway in the afternoon shade while watering my lawn and shrubbery, I look down at the healing wound on the inside of my right heel and the blister that is scabbing up on the back of my hand.  To do this I must peer over the pale flesh of my abdomen; flesh that has passed many a month since it has seen the face of the sun.  The condition of these three parts of my body, hand, heel and belly, is intimately connected.  The pale flesh of the belly, untouched by the rays of the sun for so long, is my belated attempt to avoid further damage to my skin; damage exemplified by the recent biopsy of a mole on my heal and the freezing of the remnant of known squamous cell carcinoma on the back of my hand.

If you grew up in San Diego as I did in the middle of the last century, you had a high regard for the sun tan.  In fact, after the explosion of the surfing culture around 1960, the degree of one’s status and social attainment was greatly assisted by the quality of their tan, and I did everything that I could think of to get a tan.  One of my personal favorites, as I reflect, was the application of baby oil while I would lay under the open sun at Pacific Beach or some other sun-drenched spot where I could properly cook myself.

Baby oil, we teens were guaranteed, was the magic elixir that would turn even a melanin-challenged northern European like me into a bronzed god.  I do not remember who it was that issued that bogus guarantee, but their sales pitch was effective to the utmost.  I would roll over every so often, basting myself anew each time.  The only guarantee that was fulfilled was the unspoken one that I would cook myself like a Thanksgiving turkey.

“The West Coast has the sunshine, and the girls all get so tan – – -“ goes the lyric in a well known Beach Boy song, and the girls did their best to imitate art with their lives.  Twenty years later little had changed.  “I can see you, your brown skin shining in the sun.  You got the top pulled back and that, radio on baby.”  At least three times in that song Don Henly mentions his wayward lover’s brown skin, and unless she is derived from an more melanin-rich lineage than mine (or Don’s, to judge from when I have seen him on TV) that suggests that the girl spends a lot of time working on her tan.

But I’ll not point my gnarled finger only at the beach culture.  One fine day while enjoying a burger and coffee in a roadside squat-and-gobble restaurant somewhere west of Albuquerque I heard a waitress tell a regular customer that her affections would be reserved for a man with that “weathered look.”  Several ranchers and truckers in that joint filled her description to a tee, their tough, brown-to-red skin dried out and creased by deep wrinkles that looked eerily like the gulches and dry arroyos of that sun-blasted land.  The Marlborough Man had as much to fear from the sun above him as he did from the carcinigous death sticks that he liked to suck on.

But let’s bring this story back to my favorite topic:  Me.  As I stated earlier, I tried desperately to get my uncompromisingly white skin to take on some color.  I would broil under the sun at the beach all day, or roast in the desert at Yaqui Pass, Tamarisk Grove, or any of a score of unnamed (as far as I know) springs that could be found up valleys and ravines on the east slope of the Laguna Mountains, in search of the elusive tan.  My record of “success” tended mostly to a glowing redness that never quite matured into that coveted bronze tan.  Rather, it frequently evolved into full blown blistering.

Usually those episodes of trying to imitate a bratwurst on a tailgater’s grill would result in peeling that made me look like a snake shedding its skin.  Perhaps that was my body’s way of getting me to put on some protection.  Clothes applied to cover up my pseudo-leprosy also sufficed to block the next round of damageing sun exposure.

San Diego was not the only scene of my crimes against my own epidermis.  In Texas, Vietnam, northern California, New Mexico and the Pacific Northwest I chased that unreachable symbol of sun-blessed health.  It wasn’t until my third round of biopsies and freezings and lectures from my dermatologist that my addled brain at last allowed the thought that this might not be in my best interest to squeeze through into my consciousness.

So here I sit, writing this sad tale.  However, it’s not really all that bad.  Yeah, my belly’s white, but I’m sitting in the shade on my driveway, drinking some wine, watering the shrubs, and staring at the grass which I currently abide above instead of below.  At long last I understand that life is worth more than a tan, and I believe that I would like to stick around for a little while longer.

Proverbs 5

PROVERBS 5

     I have been pondering Jake’s sermon on Proverbs 5 and Wisdom for a couple of weeks now, chewing on it and trying to put it into a context that I can deal with.  Here’s where I stand in this endeavor at this point.

I was instantly bothered by the format of a father warning his son to stay away from the adulteress who was seeming lurking around every corner.  It sounded like little Shimron could hardly walk to the 7-11 to buy a couple of fig cakes and some new wine in a new skin without at least a couple or three adulteresses hitting him up on the way home for a little hanky-panky.

What I couldn’t help feeling is that it would probably be far more necessary to issue such warnings to daughters than to sons, when you consider the precarious position of women in that patriarchal society.  Now to be fair, women enjoyed far greater status in Hebrew culture than they did among the surrounding peoples, from being declared to be created in the image of God in Genesis 1, to gaining legal rights in Numbers 27 (the Daughters of Zelophehad) to being treated equally with men by Jesus.

Still, nobody can reasonably say that women were likely to be the sexual aggressors in Israel in Solomon’s day, or for that matter anything like equal.  So that issue bothered me from the beginning and perhaps distracted me somewhat from the main points of the sermon.  That left me to fill in my own gaps, which is always a dangerous thing.

But I did just that, and this is the result.  So far.  My first move was to put down my twenty first century lenses and stop trying to view the Bible as if I was a twenty year old sophomore  at Harvard fleeing to a safe space.  Proverbs 5 was written at the beginning of the last millennium before the birth of Jesus and the Middle East was then, as it continues to be to this day, a male world.  So if it sounds a little androcentric, like, duh!

What struck me though, once I began to consider the book for what it is, is that the woman who really counts is Wisdom; Sophia.  She is wise, she is ancient, she is almost omnipresent, if not indeed omnipresent.  She was present at the creation of things and danced with joy as God the Father did Their work.  Wisdom is calling to you, ready to give you insight that will benefit you in every way if you will only come to her.  In fact, it seems as if she is more likely to waylay you on your way to the 7-11, and try to knock some sense into your head before you buy any of those hot dogs that go round and round in the little countertop ovens. You know, maybe she should be called She; She is sort of like a feminine Jesus, but I don’t know about my theological foundation on that one.

What I’ve decided, however, is this:  Chapter 5 of Proverbs is providing a contrast; the Way of Wisdom and the way of folly.  Both ways are presented in a female form; it’s not like “Be like the Smart Dude and stay away from the Ho.”  No, to me its more like “Take the smart road and not the stupid one,” and nothing more than that.

Something I haven’t quite sussed out for myself however is whether or not God used the feminine gender for His portrayal of both wisdom and folly in Proverbs 5 in order to hint to the very masculine culture of the day (and just about all succeeding cultures to this day) that their androcentric views might be off of God’s tracks a little bit.  In that chapter both the Way of Wisdom and the way of folly are female; there’s no Great Male Way offered.  Was this an early act of God, pressing forward the process of reconciling men and women in equality and respect, a process that is taking a distressingly long time to bear fruit?  I don’t know.  I’ll have to think about that some more.

 

Walking the Dog

“Here I am, at the start of my hike up Dog Mountain. I got here at six thirty in the morning in order to beat the throng. I’m told that crowds begin to converge on this trail early, and the only way to get a parking spot at the trailhead is to beat the rush. It looks like I managed to do that. There’s a dozen or so cars here and all of them are empty. People must already be on the trail.

I guess I’ll get on the trail too. Rumor has it that it is a very difficult climb to the top of the mountain. There was one woman who said that it is not so bad as people say, but she’s an animal who could run to Albuquerque just to get a bowl of green chili stew and then run back before the evening rush hour, so I’m not putting to much stock by her description of it. Well, here goes.

 

Phew! It’s been only ‘up’ ever since the first step! And I really mean UP. The trail is not very wide and it is easily a forty five degree slope going up one side of it and a forty five degree downslope on the other. I have taken frequent rest stops, leaning on a walking stick that I made out of a young maple tree that was growing just across the backyard fence in my neighbor’s yard. He doesn’t care, and I hate having maples grow so close to my house. Their seeds and leaves clog my gutters, and the shade encourages moss growth on my roof. Yes, it serves much better as a walking stick; keeps me vertical when walking on the loose rock and helps me to propel myself forward and upward.

I was surprised by the number of people who passed me by. It’s not that I’m a mountain goat or anything like that. Heck, I’m 69 years old and I’m amazed that I’m this far up the hill in the first place. No, it’s the raw number of hikers that surprises me. Where do they all come from? Is anybody left in Portland or Vancouver? By ones and in groups they stream past me, and I step aside to let them pass. Actually, I appreciate the rest.

I haven’t gotten out of the trees yet, but I’ve found a wide spot in the trail where I can sit down on a log, drink some water, eat a handful of trail mix, and appreciate the fresh forest air and the silence. Well, sort of appreciate the silence. The tinnitus that sings constantly in my ears prevents me from enjoying true silence. I cannot hear the cars on Highway 14 far below me however, and if a train has chugged by on the tracks that run along the Columbia River, I didn’t hear it. Only the birds, the occasional rustlings of what I presume to be small animals in the undergrowth, and the breeze blowing through the trees which surround me make any noise at all. And those are soothing noises, so that’s all right with me.

I’ve seen some wood anemones growing among the vegetation between the trees. At least, that’s what I think they are. They’re delicate little white flowers. I’m told that there are many, many more flowers further up the trail. I think I’ll get up now and go have a look-see.

 

Oh, good Lord! This stinking trail really does just go up. The leg of the hike that I just finished was a longer version of the first one, but I’ve finally found a proper place to take a breather. I’ve come out of the trees and found a cluster of boulders on an open spur of the hillside. A young couple was leaving as I arrived, so I have a sweet little spot to sit on with a magnificent view of the river rolling to the west.

I’ve got no idea how high I am but I’m looking down at the tops of some hills, and a barge on the river looks pretty small. There is a train on the Oregon side of the river that looks like one of those really little model trains; what are they? I think they may be H O gauge. I don’t remember. But it’s really small.

My legs are burning pretty good, but it’s a nice burn. The quads, which I know is actually a group of four muscles in each thigh, have not worked like this for a very long time; not since before the heart attack and surgery that I had three years ago. I’m happy to have made it this far, and if it doesn’t get any worse I should make it to the top in pretty good shape. My hip joints can get a little balky sometimes, but so far so good.

There is a profusion of yellow flowers that completely surrounds me. They grow straight up the hillside behind me, and straight down the hillside in front of me. They are quite beautiful but I have to confess a bit of disappointment. Long ago my brother and I were traveling through Arizona in the springtime and we pulled off to the side of a very rural two lane road, literally somewhere south of the middle of nowhere, to sleep for the night.

When we woke up the next morning we found ourselves surrounded by a riot of flowers of all shapes and colors. It reminded me of the room that the river of chocolate flowed through in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. You know, Willy Wonka. The Gene Wilder version. I’ve never seen anything like that before or since. I kinda thought that I might see something like that here, but I didn’t.

Well, time to pick it up. I’ve chugged down some more water and trail mix, and a couple of chunks of bison for a little protein. My legs are still tired but I think I have a little more left in them. Here goes.

 

Oh, man. I’m whipped! The last leg was insane! Most of the grade was steep, as it has been since I first set foot on the trail, except for one section about two thirds of the way through it. That one was steeper. And there were no switchbacks on that leg. It was a beast, and that’s what I called it: The Beast. The damned thing just went up. And up. And up. There were a few trees growing next to the trail that I could lean against in order to let other hikers pass by, or simply because I couldn’t take another step without rest.

I thought several times about cashing in my chips on The Beast. I mean, I’m not trying to prove anything here. Or am I? I have to admit that there’s a little pride at work here. I really want to say that I’ve mastered Dog Mountain, and this may be my last chance to do it. But first I had to master The Beast, so I’d rest and walk, rest and walk, rest and walk.

About two hundred yards down the trail from where I now sit I broke out of the trees and onto a vast sweep of the mountainside that was thick with a carpet of the ubiquitous yellow flowers. I took one picture of the hillside that included a tree, for the vertical perspective, and the horizon for the horizontal. The angle is easy to see, and it’s mind blowing. I’m now seated on a chunk of concrete on another small level area. Someone said that the chunk was a remnant of a Forest Service observation platform, and I guess it probably was. But how on earth did they ever get the materials up here?

More water, more rest, more bison and trail mix. The view is positively stunning. I am well above many of the hills and mountains in the Columbia River Gorge and the river itself is a blue ribbon running far below me. The sun has climbed in the sky and has grown rather warm, and I’m glad for my hat with a broad brim and a flap down the back of the neck, and also for the big, poofy long-sleeved hippy shirt that a friend made for me. My skin has been damaged by the years that I spent trying to put a tan on skin that refused to be tanned. I don’t do that any more.

The breeze is very pleasant. It flows up from under my shirt and out through the open neck and the long poofy sleeves, cooling me down and helping me to prepare for what I’m told is the last leg before the summit. The worse is over, some of the other hikers say. I certainly hope so.

 

Ah, the top! Indeed, the last leg was easier than The Beast, and otherwise quite doable. The only problem was that I am nearly spent from my earlier exertions. Man, am I tired! But here I am, on a rather small knob on the top of Dog Mountain. The summit is jammed with people, many of whom look as if they have just been out for a Sunday stroll. That somehow just seems to be wrong. I’m pretty sure that I would be exhilarated if I wasn’t exhausted. But the view from up here is beyond belief, and also beyond my pathetic ability to describe it.

The top of a very good-sized hill adjacent to the River is seen far below me. The Wind River meanders through its valley on it’s way to join the Columbia several miles to the west. You can feel the elevation, see almost all the way to Portland, over fifty miles away, and smell only the clean air blowing either up or down the Gorge. It’s hard to say exactly which way it’s blowing because of the swirls and eddies it makes as it curls around hills and mountains and bends in the mighty Gorge.

The best part of this has been that I have not experienced one iota of chest pain, and no more shortness of breath than one would expect for any other sixty-nine year old. Or a thirty-nine year old, for that matter. I’ve put my rebuilt ticker to the test, and it looks like my surgeon’s work is holding up just fine. I don’t take that for granted. Not one little bit. God and Dr. Martin have given me a few more years to run at peak performance. I’m thankful to both and determined to make the most of it.

 

Hah! Back at the trailhead. I’ve just made a seamless push to get from the peak to the parking lot, and at last I’m here. Downhill is almost as demanding as uphill. Almost. In fact, it can be more hazardous. I slipped in one pile of loose rock and fell right on my tush. I could feel my hip begin to tighten up immediately, and that made me nervous. It loosened up however, and the trip down was somewhat easier than the one up. The path back down is longer than the one that I took up, so the grade was easier, and that was a bonus as I see it.

And now it’s time to drive home, although a beer and a burger in Stevenson sounds good too. I may be sore as the dickens tomorrow but I won’t really care. From this day forward I will be able to truthfully say that I walked the Dog, and that makes it all worth it.

The Garden, Epilogue

Charlie stood in front of the church, waiting for his bride to walk down the aisle toward him.  Spread out before him in the sanctuary of House of Grace Church in downtown Vancouver was a small crowd of well-wishers who came to witness the union of Charlie and Carolyn Hamer.  Charlie looked out over the crowd and marveled at the number of people who he now called friends, and with whom he shared life on a level of intimacy that he could never have imagined for the first forty five years of his life.

He could see Maureen and Carl seated to his right, in the groom’s half of the room.  Maureen was radiant, and now wore Carl’s engagement ring.  Jack was preparing himself to play the bride’s procession at the piano that sat on the right hand side of the stage.  He smiled and nodded at his father, who beamed back at him.

LuAnn, Jason and Tank were in the back row.  Jason still wasn’t coming any closer to a church service than that, so the others sat with him.  Rachael and her fiancé, Manny Baca and his small herd, Lester and Frank from the construction crew and others were there.  Billy and Dom and Father Krempke were seated in the front row.

And then there was Carolyn.  She wore a gown of soft yellow with a white veil, and to Charlie it looked like the sun had come out in the back of the church.  She looked at Charlie as Jack began to play, and beamed toward him pure love and joy.  He could hardly believe that he deserved this, and beamed the same back to her.

Carolyn walked slowly forward, mounted the steps and took her place next to him.  They faced Pastor Saunders, who began the ceremony.  Charlie held her hands, repeated his vows and accepted hers.  Then, as the pastor asked for the ring with which Charlie would seal his end of the bargain, he heard a fart that had to register at least eight on the Richter Scale.  Pastor Saunders looked shocked, but Charlie and Carolyn had to suppress a laugh.  He leaned toward Carolyn’s ear and whispered “looks like Walt finally made it.”

The Garden, Chapter XXIV

“This is really weird” Charlie said softly as he and Rachael took their seats at Beth Shalom church in Vancouver, Washington.  “It looks like I’m in Israel.”

“I can’t imagine why that should be” Rachael replied with a chuckle.  “After all, we’re a bunch of Jews here who just happen to believe that Yeshua is the Messiah.”

Charlie took in the menorahs, the stars of David, the men wearing the little hats that Jewish men wear, and especially the wall on the right side of the room that was painted to look like the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  He even had to walk up to that wall to convince himself that the grass growing in the racks wasn’t real.  “So you learned how to be so nice by going to church here?” he asked.

Rachael sighed.  “Not really” she answered.  “If I really am all that nice, I learned if from my parents.  They really are two of the most wonderful people that I ever have known in my life.”

Rachael’s tone grew more somber after she told him that.  Charlie remembered her story from the first day that they had met, and began to connect the dots.  “But you don’t see them anymore, do you?”

Rachael heaved another sigh and sat silently next to him.  After a minute he spoke again.  “I’m sorry Rachael.  I shouldn’t have brought that up.  I guess I forgot that my pain wasn’t the only pain in the world.  Let’s just drop the subject, OK?”

“No” she replied.  “It’s not good to ‘just drop’ things.  Things don’t usually stay dropped.  It’s alright Charlie.  My parents consider me to be dead in their eyes.  They feel that I have left the faith that has sustained my people for thousands of years.  In their opinion, that places me outside of the community.  I know that they will always love me, but I am as dead to them as your daughter is dead to you.  I will be married within the year and, God willing, will begin a family, but my parents, my aunts and uncles, and all of the family except for two black sheep cousins won’t be a part of it.”

“I really am sorry Rachael.  I don’t know how to say it better than that.”

“It’s OK Charlie.  Really, it is.  I feel your sympathy more than hear it, and it’s appreciated.  The Holy Spirit interprets our prayers to the Father when our words fall short.  I think that the Spirit works like that between humans sometimes too.”

“Oh boy, have I got a lot to learn about this stuff.  I really don’t know anything about this Father and Holy Spirit business.  I thought it was all about Jesus; er, I mean Yeshua.”

“Yes, it is a lot to learn, and we Jews are very dedicated to learning.  ‘We learn so that we can teach’ is a guiding principle with us.  But don’t get tangled up in the details.  Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Do that and you’re way ahead of the game.”

“Well, that’s not too – – -.”

“Ahhh-Ooohhhh!” A horn wailed.  A man emerged from a side door with a long, curled horn raised to his lips.  “Ahhh-Ooohhh!” A second man entered the room from a different door, blowing on a similar horn with a higher pitch.  The service had officially begun.

Three hours later Charlie and Rachael were walking toward the parking lot.  Two hours of service, nearly half of which had been spent singing in Hebrew, had been followed by a meal in a large room downstairs.  “Schmooze. Dance. Nosh” said the bulletin that had been handed out at the door, and that is exactly what went on downstairs.

“These people are my family now” Rachael said as they walked toward her car.  “They’ll never really take the place of Mom and Dad, but they’re not supposed to.  They’re my community.  We worship together, pray together, celebrate together, grieve together.  We complete each other.  I’m not close to everyone that you saw today.  In fact, there’s a few with whom I spend as little time as I can.  But I would do anything for all of them because they were made in God’s image and Yeshua loves his creation.  I will try as best I can to love them too.”

“That explains a lot” Charlie said.  “I suppose you believe that the kid that hit you is made in God’s image.”

“Exactly.  Yeshua loves him and died to redeem him just as he did to redeem me.  So how could I hate him?  Hate is the devil’s work, and I’ll let him keep that to himself, as best I can.”

“Rachael, can I just say this?” Charlie asked as they reached her car.  “You are one of the sweetest, most kind human beings that I have ever met.  I don’t know whether to thank your parents or your God for you, but I feel like a very lucky man to be able to call you my friend.”

Rachael blushed deeply, which lent an extra radiance to her usual beauty.  “Thank you Charlie.  I really don’t think that I deserve all of that, but a girl loves to hear a compliment.”

“That fact that you don’t think you deserve it makes it all the more applicable” Charlie replied.  “Thank you so much for sharing all of this with me.  “I don’t know where I’ll go with it, but you’ve given me a lot to think about.”

“I’m glad for that, Charlie” she replied.  “OK, I’ll see you soon at the garden.”  Rachael climbed into her car, backed out of the parking slot, and disappeared into the traffic on 49th Street.  Charlie watched until she drew out of sight.

He had no set plans for the rest of the day.  Carolyn was helping her sister to move a niece to Cheney, Washington, where she was beginning college at Eastern Washington University, and would be out of touch for a couple of days.  Charlie had been given a lead by his friend Manny Baca on a house that a speculator intended to have built for immediate sale, and Carolyn had been agreeable to letting Charlie put his crew on the job while all of the proper hoops were being jumped through on the strip mall project, which increasingly looked like it was going to happen.  Lester and the crew were good men.  They appreciated Charlie’s efforts to keep them busy, and repaid him by being diligent in their work.

Charlie drove by the project and saw that footings had been dug and forms were being set for the foundation.  Nobody was working that day and there was nothing there to inspect, but Charlie got out of his truck and walked among the trenches and forms and rough plumbing anyway.

The idea slowly formed in Charlie’s mind that for most of his life places like this had been his church.  Building codes, tax codes, balance sheets and labor laws had been his Bible, or maybe his Torah, the rolled up scroll or whatever it’s called that was carried around the room at the Jewish/Christian church he had been at that morning.

Those building codes and laws had outlined how he should live, what rules to follow, how to succeed, and what gave his life meaning.  But when the hammer of Stevie’s death came down on his head those codes didn’t have any answers for him.  Despair could not be countered with the hope offered by a balance sheet.  A family could not be held together by five nails in the field, on sixteen inch centers.

Charlie felt an unexpected moment of hatred toward the trades; this false god.  It promised him that it would be sufficient for him but it was a damned lie.  The trades had stabbed him in the back and then thrown him under the bus when he needed it the most.  Then he remembered Rachael’s words:  “Hate is the devil’s work.”  With an effort he switched gears and, maybe for the first time, looked at the trenches and pipes and forms around him and saw what they really are, which is trenches and pipes and forms, and nothing more or less than that.

Charlie inspected those artifacts one more time, but as a construction project this time, and not as a sacrament.  Satisfied with what he saw, he climbed into his truck and debated where to go next.  Billy was at home, studying hard in order to get a good start on his program at the community college.  Charlie could go there and do a little work on the main house where Billy’s parents lived, but he didn’t feel like it at the moment.  Finally, he simply turned on the engine, put the truck into gear and began to drive.

It seemed as if the truck drove itself, and soon Charlie saw that he was near the Blake Meadows neighborhood where he and Maureen had lived.  Charlie had not been in this neighborhood since the separation and felt an aversion to going into it now that he realized his proximity.

Another feeling overwhelmed that aversion.  Was it curiosity?  A desire for self-punishment?  A hope for, what?  Hope itself?  Charlie didn’t know, but whatever it’s provenance, that feeling gave him the steel to turn left onto Winston Street.  After a few turns he pulled up in front of 14513 NE Brownfield.

He parked across the street but allowed the motor to continue to idle.  The house looked a little the worse for wear.  It had been only two and a half years since he had lived there, but more like three and a half since he had cared about the place.  Now the roof shingles were sporting a coat of moss, thanks to the shade provided by the Enyerts’ maple tree next door.

The paint on the trim around the garage door was cracking at the bottom, where the splash from years of rain had weakened it  The lawn needed mowing and was sprinkled with a crop of dandelions.  Charlie felt a sadness, and an impulse to make an offer to buy the place back and restore it to health.  He quickly laid that aside however.  “You’ve moved on” he reminded himself.  “Maureen and Jack are moving on.  There’s nothing to be gained here, so it’s time to leave this place alone to be somebody else’s problem.”

Charlie put the truck into gear and drove through the neighborhood, remembering people, places and events in the same manner as when he had  walked through his old neighborhood in San Diego.  “That was yesterday” he thought.  “I’m more interested in today and tomorrow.”  At last he turned out of the neighborhood and after more aimless wandering found himself on the edge of downtown.  Having nothing better to do, he drove on into the area, found an empty spot along Main Street, pulled into it and shut down his motor.

Charlie simply sat in the cab of his truck, listening to the ‘ping,ping’ of the engine cooling.  “Why am I so melancholy?” he asked himself.  “Things are as good for me now as they have ever been, and yet I feel empty and aimless.  What the heck is this all about?”  After a few minutes he emerged from the truck and began to walk.  Leroy’s was not too far away, but LuAnn wouldn’t be working there that day.  He had no intention of eating but he decided to walk past the restaurant anyway.  It was almost ready to close.  He looked through the front window and saw Peggy cleaning up the last tables.  He waved to her and she waved back.

Charlie walked south, down Main.  “Funny” he thought.  “I enjoyed seeing Peggy and waving to her, and she’s not one of my favorite people.”  He passed by the pawn shops, past the homeless people congregating outside of a kitchen that soon would be passing out soup and sandwiches, and finally under the railroad bridge to where the path across the I-5 bridge began.  “I haven’t been here since that night last spring” he thought, and then he began walking up the approach and then onto the bridge itself.  The noise was awful, but he tuned it out and focused on a spot perhaps a seventy five yards in front of him.

When he reached that spot Charlie stopped.  The pedestrian path widened here at the middle of the river.  He looked over the railing at the water and watched it gurgle, ripple, and flow around the concrete pier and on down river towards the sea.  Today there were no faces imploring him to jump over the railing into those waters, and no voices coming out of the white noise produced by the traffic.

He stared into that water and thought of the Maureen who had visited him that night, and of the Jack who screamed at him to jump.  Now he had new faces to occupy his memory; Jack eating tacos and talking excitedly about music and history, and a forgiving Maureen offering her hand in friendship and mutual concern for their son’s welfare before driving away to meet Carl.  “Those are a good deal more welcome than the last faces were” he thought.  He continued to stare at the corner of the pier, where Stevie’s body had once appeared to be bumping up against it in the waves.  Today there was nothing but water, with the light of the sun sparkling on the tiny waves.  Stevie had elected to stay dead and buried today.

Charlie stayed there for perhaps twenty minutes, looking at where ghosts once played and beckoned.  Several pedestrians and bicyclists walked and rode past him.  He was aware that some looked at him strangely.  “Probably think I’m going to jump” he thought.  He assumed that the ones he didn’t pay attention to were looking at him in the same way.  Finally he grew tired of staring at the water, or to be more accurate he found no further reason to stay there.  He turned his back on that place and walked back across the bridge and into Vancouver.

Charlie’s restlessness was tempered but not cured.  He kept walking, and soon was walking past the apartment building where he had once lived.  “Existed would be more like it” he said to himself.  He walked past the window that he had nearly always kept open.  Today it was open too, probably in order to let a breath of cool air penetrate to allay the stuffiness of the warm summer day.  When he had lived there it was open in order to make the path easier for anyone who wanted to enter the apartment and kill the occupant in the process.

He didn’t linger near the apartment.  There were no good memories there and no good reason to linger, so he began his walk back to where the truck was parked.  That last few blocks led him past the big cathedral that he had entered a couple of times before, and he decided that he may as well go inside and pay it one more visit if it was open.

The building was in fact open, and Charlie stepped through the heavy wooden doors, into the cool interior of the cathedral.  There was nobody in the sanctuary at that time of the day.  Charlie was not sure why he had come in to this place.  He thought of the times the he had been there before; of how odd it felt and how he had been afraid that somebody would talk to him.  It now occurred to him that that was exactly what was causing his restlessness that day.  He wanted somebody to talk to.

Billy was busy, Carolyn was out of town, and his crew was off work today.  Rachael was relaxing at home on this sabbath day.  The only person with whom he could possibly connect at this time of the day was Walt, who was probably harvesting vegetables to take to the food bank.  Walt was a friend, it was true, but he was not what Charlie needed at this time.

On an impulse, he pulled out his phone and punched in Jack’s number.  Perhaps his son would spend a few minutes chatting with his lonely father.  After five rings the sound of a dog barking came over the phone, followed by a message:  “Hi!  This is Spunky the Dog.  My boy Jack is not available.  For the price of a bone I’ll pass on any message that you leave after the beep.  Woof.  Woof.”  Charlie thought about hanging up but rejected that idea out of hand.  He had already hung up on his son enough for one lifetime.  “Hi Jack.  This is your Dad.  I was just listening to a work by Haydn and it made me think of you.  I’ll try to touch bases with you later.  Bye.”

Charlie hung up and put his phone away.  “It’s probably bad form speaking on a phone in church anyway” he thought.  “Even if nobody’s here.”  He sat on the hard wooden pew for a while longer, thinking that he should go somewhere, but unable to think of anywhere to go that was any better than were he already was.

At last he arose and began to look at the art work, in the same manner as he had when he came here the previous spring.  The same statues; the same saints with their fingers raised in a silent blessing, the same sad Madonnas, the same bleeding Jesus.  Yeshua.  Charlie looked closely at the statue of the crucified Yeshua.  There was blood running down his forehead and into his beard, from the nails in his hands and feet, and from his side.  “I wonder what made that wound” Charlie thought.

Once again Charlie walked around looking at the pictures that hung on the walls and depicted Yeshua’s very bad day.  The art was beautiful, but Charlie looked more deeply into the story this time.  Yeshua condemned by a Roman governor, Yeshua, already bloodied, receiving his cross.  Yeshua stumbles.  “Man, that guy got a really bad deal” he thought.  “How could he carry that cross even if he hadn’t been beat to a pulp.  I know how heavy that much wood would be.”

     Now some guy gets to carry the cross for Yeshua.  A woman wipes his bloodied face.  He falls again. “The Rabbi didn’t talk about that today.  Why did Jesus/Yeshua have to do all of that?”  Yeshua is stripped, he’s nailed to the cross.  Charlie looked over at the statue of the crucified Yeshua and thought “That statue isn’t an isolated moment frozen in time.  That was part of a bigger, horrible deal.”  Yeshua finally dies, is removed from the cross and is buried.

“So, Rachael believes that this Yeshua went through all of this and is still alive.  I don’t know how you can believe such a thing, but she does and it guides her to be one of the most decent people I know.”  Charlie’s internal debate continued.  “But Carolyn’s a wonderful person too, and I’ve never heard her mention anything about religion, or if she has, I’ve forgotten it.  So why do I feel drawn to this?  Why did I go to church – she called it a synagogue – with Rachael this morning?  Was it just to be with Rachael?  No.  She’s a lovely woman, but that’s not why I went.

     And why am I here now?  This place with its saints and candles and bleeding god/hero is just as foreign to my life as is the Hebrew and the horns and all of the other trappings were this morning.  Why did I come here, and more important, why do I want to stay?”

     Charlie failed to find a good answer to that question and abruptly turned to leave the cathedral, and promptly walked right into a man in dark clothing and a white collar, exploding a box of papers that he was carrying and spraying hot coffee over both of them.

“Shit!” Charlie barked.  “I’m so sorry!  Let me help you with these.”  He bent down and began to gather up the papers and was quickly joined by his victim in that task.  After a moment though the man in black began to chuckle, then to laugh, and finally sat down on the floor with his back against the wall, right underneath where Yeshua was being laid to rest by some guy accompanied by a couple of grieving women, and laughed until tears ran down his face.

This was confusing to Charlie.  He finished collecting the papers and tried to give them to the man, who could hardly compose himself enough to receive them.  His laughter was as infectious as a benevolent bubonic plague, and soon a confused Charlie began to chuckle too.  He, too, sat down and leaned against the wooden pew opposite where the man in black rested.

“You’re a pastor, aren’t you?” Charlie asked.  “Or a priest?  I don’t know much about these things, but I’m pretty sure that you’re not a rabbi.”

“Father Krempke, but you can call me anything that you like, except late for dinner.  And you are – – -?”

“Uh, Charlie.  Charlie Hamer.”

“Pleased to meet you, Charlie Hamer.  I take it you’re not Catholic.” Father Krempke said as he began to get his laughter under control.  “A good Catholic boy would never steamroll a priest carrying his coffee.  His pathetic scribblings perhaps” and he pointed toward the papers.  “But never his coffee.”

“I really am sorry about that” Charlie said.  “And I’m sorry about my profanity too.”

“Oh, you mean shit?  It seemed perfectly suitable for the occasion to me.  I’m just glad that you couldn’t hear what I was thinking.  You can call me a priest if that is more comfortable to you, but I wouldn’t mind if you called me John.  That’s what my friends call me.”  The priest then looked at his empty cup of coffee and the brown liquid on the stone floor.  “I suppose I should get that up and get myself another cup.  Would you like to join me?”

Charlie felt at ease with this affable young man – what was he, in his thirties? – and offered to clean up the mess while Father Krempke poured two cups of coffee.  Soon they were seated in the pew near where the collision had occurred beneath the fourteenth station of the cross, sipping their coffee and becoming acquainted.  Father Krempke asked him about his life; not in an inquisitorial manner but as if he was genuinely interested.  Charlie responded to this young man’s kindness and interest and spoke of his going to the synagogue with Rachael that morning as his first real exposure to the religious experience, and of the questions that now bothered him.

“I’ve had a rough time the last few years, and I’m only now beginning to get a handle on things.  I’ve run into a few people who go to church and they seem to be onto something that I’m not.  But I know other people who don’t go to church and they’re doing OK too.  I feel sort of drawn to this” – Charlie waved at the interior of the church, – “but I don’t really know why.  I look up at those paintings and I can see that Yeshua – I mean Jesus – had a bad time of it, and I wonder, if he was a god or something, why did he take it in the shorts like that?  And if he was a god, why do all of the really crappy things that happen in the world still happen?  I can say crappy around here, can’t I?”

“Yes.  You can say ‘shitty’ if you want to” Father Krempke replied.  “You just asked enough good questions to produce a couple dozen books with good answers, and some of them I don’t have a good answer to.  Let me try to give you a thumbnail, even a drive-by, answer to some of them if you will.

You pointed out that you know good and decent people who are believers and others who are not.  How can that be?  I mean, if you’re not one of God’s flock you must be a total jerk, right?  Well, it’s not all that easy, and it’s not easy to explain either.  Let me put it this way.  God has created all of us.  All of this” – Father Krempke’s arm swept from his right to his left – “and he created it to be good.  We have a problem, though, that God calls sin, and that problem separates us from him but it doesn’t change who made us and how we were made to be.  That goodness can still shine out, regardless of a person’s religious belief or lack thereof.  Some of the nastiest people I know are religious while some atheists put a lot of effort and love into their community.  Remember, the people who killed Jesus were the religious leaders of his time.

“I don’t really know much about all of that, but I’ll take your word for it.”

“You really are new to this!  Well, anyway, God has said to us that he was interested in your heart, not in your credentials, and he preferred a helping hand offered to a neighbor more than the sacrifice of a thousand bulls.  Don’t get too tangled up in that sacrifice thing; that comes in Theology 1.02.  If you have unbelieving friends who are extending love to you, just know that their love is coming from God Himself, and he’s crediting that love from your friends to them as righteousness.”

“So” Charlie said, picking up on that thread.  “You’re saying that the God you’re talking about cares about us, even if we don’t know anything about him?”

“No, I didn’t say that at all, but I’m sure that I would have gotten around to it eventually.  What I was saying is that Jesus – God With Us – died for all of us.  He didn’t go through all of that” – Father Krempke again swept his arm, this time at the paintings of the stations of the cross – “just because it was the next step in the Big Plan.  He did it because he loves all of his creation.  There’s a verse in Romans, a book that a very smart Jew wrote to Jewish and non-Jewish believers in Rome.  ‘God demonstrated his love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.’  So God loves us all, and all of us, to one degree or another, reflect that love back into the world.  God pays attention to that.”

“But then why does he let all of this awful stuff happen in the world?” Charlie asked.  “Why did my friends get so badly damaged in their wars?  Why did my boss’ husband die of cancer?  Why – – -,”  Charlie choked back a surge of emotion that was tinged with anger.  “Why did my daughter die?”

Father Krempke sat silent for a moment.  At last he said “Charlie, in the first place I’m sorry for your loss.  I truly am.  We priests don’t get to have daughters, so I won’t pretend to know how that hurt feels.  But I’ve buried enough sons and daughters to know that the hurt is deep and the anger is natural.  Again, I’m sorry.

As to why those things happened, I won’t try to give you a facile argument, because I frankly don’t know why they happened.  Humans just seem to love wars and they love to send their young men to fight in them.  The world is bent, if not fully broken.  I can assure you that God does not like the idea of war.  And disease was not God’s plan either.  He made the world perfect.  It got bent, as I said, and I won’t go into the ‘how’ about it right now.  It just did and now God’s working on straightening it out.  That’s why he did what he did” – the priest pointed at the paintings of Jesus on his journey to the cross and then to the grave.  “That was the only way that God could sort this mess out.

Finally, I don’t know why your daughter died, but it was not because God wanted it.  Like I said, he is straightening this mess out but it isn’t finished getting fixed just yet.  Until it does get fixed, these sad things will continue to happen.  But he IS working on it and paid a pretty high price to get things in motion.  When he gets this all sorted out it will make sense in the end.  Until that happens, we just have to live by faith.  But know this; God loved – no loves – your daughter, and wants the very best for her.  Her death was not because God was angry with her, that I can assure you.”

“So you think that Stevie might be in heaven?”

“Hmm.  That’s above my pay grade.  Let me try to wriggle off of that hook by saying that it is very possible that she is.  I told you earlier that I believe that people who show God’s love, whether they know that he is the source of it or not, have that credited to them as righteousness.  How that plays out in the end, I don’t know.  The Bible is an operator’s manual, not an exhaustive schematic.  But I do know that God doesn’t want anyone to die an eternal death.  Not one person.  He’s not some sort of cosmic spoil sport who creates people just so that he can cook them.  There’s other scripture that says God wants all people to live, but I don’t want to overwhelm you with that.”

“But you ARE saying that Stevie MIGHT be in heaven” Charlie persisted.

Father Krempke sighed and said “Yes, I guess that is what I am saying, but it’s so much more complicated than that; so much nuance.  But I will say to you again that the answer is ‘yes’, I believe that she might be in heaven.”

“The sheep and the goats thing, right?” Charlie asked.

“Yes, exactly.  So you do know something about all this.”

“Very little.  A Jewish Christian told me about that, but I don’t really know the context or anything.”

“Well, bless his or her heart.  Look, God is gracious and loving.  God made a lot of people who couldn’t possibly know anything about Abraham or Moses or Jesus and his ministry.  Native Americans who fished for salmon in the Columbia River right here three or four thousand years ago, for instance.  How could they know how to pray the sinner’s prayer and punch their ticket into heaven?  Unless you believe that God created those people, people that the Word of God clearly says that he loves, specifically to go from birth to barbecue, and I emphatically DON’T believe that, then you have to believe that there’s more to the story than what we generally know.  That smart Jew that I mentioned earlier?  He wrote about that issue too.”

“Well, if we can get into heaven just by being good, why do all of this?” and it was Charlie’s turn to sweep his arm from right to left through the sanctuary.  “Why worry about all the rules and restrictions?”

“I never said anything about rules and restrictions, and I don’t believe God said much about them either.  He said ‘Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.’  It was actually a little more poetic than that, but that’s what he said.  Love God because God is good and deserves to be loved, and love your neighbor in the same way that God loves you, or as near to that as you can get.  That’s about it.  We men have laid a lot of other stuff on top of that, but that’s really what God said.  He gave us a lot of suggestions about how we can make a better life, but that one commandment was the one that he said he really wanted from us.

And faith means a lot to God. Doing good things is certainly valuable to him, to your neighbor and even to you, but trying to run up a score as if you have the power to work your way into heaven isn’t the whole trick.  Doing this because you have faith in God is really what he wants, but this is a lot to pack into a first conversation.”

Charlie was beginning to think the same thing.  That morning with Rachael he had been introduced to the awe and mystery that a people had felt for thousands of years for a God who they had never seen, but who’s presence they had felt through their few victories and their long and murderous list of persecutions.  Now he was listening to this priest tell him of a God who knows him and loves him personally, and who loves Stevie and Walt and Jack, and everyone else that he knew and cared about on a personal level.  It was a lot to think about, and Charlie felt like it was time to go and do that.”

Charlie rose from the pew and asked Father Krempke if they could talk again.  “Of course” the Father had replied.  “I live here.  I look forward to seeing you any time that you like, as long as I’m not baptizing a baby or something.”  Charlie smiled at that and then walked out into the sunlight of the Vancouver afternoon.

His truck was only a couple of blocks away and soon he was in it and driving east.  At first he didn’t know where he was going but it soon became clear as he drove closer to the cemetery where Stevie lay resting.  He entered the lot in front of the cemetery office and parked the truck.  A lot of bodies had been added to this place in the last two and a half years, but Charlie walked straight to a spot that he knew he could never forget.

There it stood, the granite marker that announced the final resting place of Stephanie Allison Hamer, August 7, 1995 – June 12, 2015.  Charlie walked slowly up to the marker and knelt down in front of it.  He stayed there silently for a long time, he had no idea how long.  At last he began to speak.

“Hi Stevie” he said.  “It’s been a long time.  I guess I would normally ask somebody how they’ve been doing, but it seems a little misplaced here, with you being dead and all.  But on second thought, maybe you aren’t really dead.  That’s a new thought, and it’s taking some getting used to.  I think that I like it though.  I could sort of get used to it.  I’ll let you know how it works out.

I’m doing fine, I think.  I’m back in the saddle as far as work goes, but it’s not the most important thing in my life any more.  I think it was people, and not work that saved my life.  Well, actually, some really cool people are telling me that it was God sending those people into my life that have saved my life.  I never really thought about God much before.  Well, to be more truthful, I never thought about God at all.  I’m thinking about him now though.  I think that maybe you’ve even met him.  Funny, talking about God as a him.  God would have to be pretty big to be creating all of this stuff and keeping it going.  Like, does he – it – have a body?  I dunno.  You might know, but I don’t.

Anyway, your mother seems to be doing OK.  I saw her last week and she looks good.  She’s still a beautiful woman, really.  She’s where you got your beauty from, in case you didn’t know.  She’s got a boyfriend.  You know, that sounds really weird.  Unless the guy’s like seventeen or something, why would I call him a boyfriend?  Anyway, she does, and she says that he’s a good man.  We’re talking again and I hope that we can always be friends.  I think we can.

I’m seeing a woman too.  I guess I have to call her a girlfriend.  I suppose it’s only fair.  But she really is a woman, and a beautiful one.  I know that you would like her.

Stevie – – -.  Stevie, some people that I know have suggested that you aren’t really dead, that you are alive and in a place called heaven.  I don’’t know about that but I feel the greatest possible comfort knowing that it is at least a possibility.  I mean, a year ago I didn’t even believe that heaven exists.  Now, I believe that it is possible.  How?  I don’t know.  A very nice guy just told me today that some knowledge was above his pay grade.  I guess that knowledge is above mine.  I mean, it’s possible that this is all a bunch of crap and I’m kneeling here talking to a piece of rock in the middle of a big lawn.

But maybe not.  Maybe you are alive and can hear me and are the happiest that you could possibly be, and maybe I’ll be with you someday, just as happy as you are and never to be without you again.  Maybe you had to have that accident and die so that I could figure that out.  I like that thought.  For now, I think that I’ll hang onto it and see how far I can go with it.

“Say ‘Hi’ to Yeshua for me.  That’s what a Jewish friend of mine calls Jesus, but I guess you might already know about that.  I’ll be seeing you when my time rolls around.