Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Bike and a Prayer

I discovered bikes in 1965.  A kid on foot could not hang out for long with kids on bikes.  All it would take was for one of the bike crowd to say "let's go" and off they would pedal to the music of clanking bike chains and tires humming, leaving the more earth-bound far behind.  There was no point in trying to follow, even if the destination was close by.  By the time I or any of my pedestrian cohorts arrived, the bikers would have already drained their delight from the new location and were ready to move on.  A bike meant spontaneity.  Being on foot required planning and forethought.  Any destination took a long time to reach and you still had the walk back.  And by that time you were hungry as all boys are every two hours.

I need one of those...
What was the proportion of mounted to walking kids?  I didn’t know.  All I knew was that enough kids were cruising around the trailer park on bicycles for me to see that I was an exception.  Not in a good way.  I was exceptionally deprived.  I dearly wanted a bike.  No, I needed a bike.  Not just any bike, but a particular one I had found in the ubiquitous Sears catalog.

My exposure to advertising was limited.  We had no TV, did not subscribe to a newspaper and the few radio ads I heard were forgettable.  Besides seeing what other kids had, my primary source for information about STUFF was the Sears ‘Big Book’ catalog.  It came out twice a year and was as thick as the telephone book.  It had everything a person could want.  Clothes, tools, hardware, appliances, electronics, furniture.  If it wasn't in the Sears catalog, you probably didn't need it.

In what seemed just short of magic, Mom  would make a phone call, then goods would arrive at our local Sears store for pickup not many days later.  Sears published smaller seasonal or sale catalogs from time-to-time as well.  Each catalog was no doubt carefully planned for release by a huddle of marketing types in Sears headquarters.  My favorite catalog was the much-anticipated Christmas 'Wish Book' that showed up shortly after Halloween, loaded with toys for children of all ages.  I would sit for hours thumbing through the pages, imagining a paradise with rooms full of toys for my endless pleasure, until the reality of our trailer park life popped my bubble.

Those were the days of wheelie bicycles, a tribute to the motorcycle culture of the 1960's.  Banana seats and high handlebars were in vogue.  'My' bike was painted a glittering gold color.  I saw freedom and speed and power in that bike, reminiscent of a big jungle cat. That bicycle became the focus of all my longings.

"Lil Tiger"
And so I began to pray.  We had been in church for some time by then and I had heard enough preaching and testimony about prayer that it seemed worth a shot.  So every night I would earnestly pray for that bike to become my own with the faith of a 6-year-old.  Then, one day, very near to my birthday, a large box arrived from Sears.  Barely daring to hope, I started an interesting mental game some people play when it appears likely that their dreams will be realized.  I desperately wanted the bike, and was almost certain that it was lurking in that box.  But, I also tried to convince myself it could be any number of other things to hedge against disappointment.  Soon, though, the box was opened and in a nearly-assembled state, there was ‘Lil Tiger’.  I have purchased or been given countless things in the years since.  None have given me nearly the thrill of seeing that bike transformed from a small picture in a catalog to a reality in our tiny trailer living room.  Getting that first bike was more important than getting my first car.  (Of course, my first car was a Mazda GLC, which could just barely go faster than a bike).

How Mom ever came up with the money to get me that bike is a mystery.  Motherhood is full of unseen sacrifices that a child is not even aware of until much, much later.  Somehow, she managed it.  I distinctly remember telling Mom that I had prayed for that bike and I am sure she affirmed my childhood faith.  My reality was that God had given me a bike because I prayed really, really hard.  Perhaps a misguided notion of what prayer and God are about.  Still, my mother had to have faith that whatever corners she had to cut to get that bike would be made up for in some way by the same providential God to whom I attributed the delivery of my bike.  So, in that sense, I was riding on the coat-tails of Mom's faith.  Then, as now, her connection with heaven was more direct than mine.

Between Mom and I and maybe a neighbor, the bike was quickly assembled.  As I was a slightly built 6-year-old with distinctly average physical coordination, learning with training wheels was mandatory.  Not that I cared.

All I saw once I settled into the seat was how perfectly my hands fit around the rubber grips on the handle bars and how my feet fit the pedals.  I took off slowly at first, figuring out how to turn this beast I was mastering.  After a few small circles, I was off.  Riding faster with the silver plastic streamers hanging from the ends of the grips snapping in the turbulence.  It was not long before the training wheels came off and I was truly a free rider.  I don't remember that first moment of balancing on two wheels, but there are few things to compare to the exhilaration of pedaling a bike with the breeze in your face as you and the bike respond to changes in the road: standing up and pumping really hard to get up hills, crouching down and coasting as gravity pulls you faster than you could ever pedal down hills, jamming on the brakes and leaving long skid marks.  I didn't even think about the wear and tear, just about the coolness of the black stripes I was leaving on the pavement or sidewalk.

My gold steed was a faithful companion for many days, weeks and months that stretched into two years.  But, after a wet winter, I hauled the bike out for a ride one spring evening.  My arms, which had stretched comfortably out in front of me when I first got the bike, now had to be bent at the elbows and splayed out to avoid hitting my legs as I peddled.  To cover the same ground that my faithful steed used to race over before required much more effort because of my increased weight and the awkward leverage made necessary by my longer limbs.  My bicycle was suddenly too small.  In the dark of winter, my bicycle had shrunk and with it my affection.

I don't know what happened to my first bike after that.  Maybe it was passed down to my brother for awhile before completely disappearing.  In another couple of years I would have a new bike that fit me.  But that would require a long and unexpected field trip to the desert with a stranger who happened to be my father.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

In The Summertime (1972)

The summer of 1972 was glorious.  The end of the school year was always a source of joy.  To make school bearable, I would begin the count-down on the first day in the fall: how many days until Christmas vacation, then how many more until school was out for the summer.  But that year, summer vacation was more significant than ever.  You see, I had survived 7th grade.

The change from elementary school where I had the exalted status of a 6th-grader to the Junior High where I was a punk 7th grader was shocking.  I was a creature of routine.  One teacher in the same classroom day in and day out was ideal.  Now my school days were spent on a sprawling campus where I had to find a different class room every hour.  There were weeks of wandering with my campus map until I got the hang of it.  And I will not discuss the calamity of P.E. which was only hinted at when the shopping for ‘back to school’ clothes included the purchase of an unusual garment to be worn only for gym class.

Ford Pinto
or was THIS the worst car ever?
Chevy Vega - worst car ever made?
Meanwhile, I had older sisters who were navigating the more sophisticated climes of high school.  Being the 'kid brother' had its drawbacks to be sure.  Older sisters could go places and do things that were only mysteries to the mind of a 12-year-old.  Ford Pintos or Chevy Vegas or equally underpowered thrift-minded cars would appear and my sisters would join their giggling friends and motor down the narrow trailer park access road and disappear towards the entrance.

The Osmonds
Phase 3
Three Dog Night
But occasionally, their friends would stay.  They would hang out in the living room playing Three Dog Night or Chicago or, heaven forbid, the Osmonds, while somehow carrying on a conversation over the blaring speakers of the straining console stereo.  If mother had only known.  But she was at work, where she was every weekday until 5:30 or 6:00 in the evening.  Those hours between the end of school and mother's arrival home were sort of a free-zone from the usual decorum that had to be observed on the return of our sole, overworked parent.  And the usual decorum most definitely did not include rock ’n’ roll.

Need more bell...
What straight hair was all about.
An awareness came to me that these female friends of my sisters were — aside from their propensity for loud and laughter-punctuated talk that made absolutely no sense whatsoever — interesting in a way that the girls at school were not.  It was the era when long, straight hair was required on girls, and straight-legged jeans were absolutely outcast.  A large amount of time was spent straightening hair and sewing extra denim into the legs of jeans so they would be transformed into massive bell-bottoms.  

In the summertime, the visitors came more frequently.  School had ended.  The sun and Coppertone® were out in force.  Jeans gave way to cutoffs.  And halter-tops. And bikinis.  Until that summer, I may have only been vaguely aware that the surface area of a person had so much skin.  (Something in the neighborhood of 17 square feet.  Do the math.)

Before 'SPF'
Skin looked so much better on tanned girls than it did on my pale, scrawny physique.  So when my sisters had visitors, I would find all sorts of excuses to make the trek from my room (where I was by an unwritten protocol imprisoned due to my complete uncoolness) to the kitchen at the opposite end of our boxy trailer,  whereby I had to pass through the intoxicating sanctum of music and teenage femininity.  The sights and sounds.  The unconscious gesture of a girl's hand flipping a wisp of hair back over her shoulder was enough to make me stumble.  Should one of them look my direction, my mouth would suddenly parch.  I would swallow hard.  Sure, there were girls in Junior High, but they merely hinted at the promise that these companions of my sisters embodied: womanhood in full bloom.

high school girl.
On my return trip to the meagre bedroom I shared with my brother, I would occasionally hear whispered tones and quiet giggles.  A suspicion came to me that perhaps I was the unfortunate cause of their mirth.  Still, I told myself, it had to be better to be noticed than to remain invisible and virtually non-existent.  

I had not progressed much beyond that awkward, tongue-tied state several years later when I met another tanned, lovely high school girl.  Providentially, she knew how to carry a conversation that continues to this day.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Sunday Night Missionary Service

After God found our family, it was not long before Mom molded our family life to the rhythms of the little Assembly of God.  Several of the founders were originally from Arkansas, giving this simple Pentecostal church in a rural community the flavor of a Bible-Belt transplant.  Sunday morning services were much the same each week with the exception of the first Sunday of the month when communion was served.

Sunday nights were a different matter.  Pastors are busy fellows.  Coming up with two barn-burning sermons in one day requires a lot of preparation, so most Sunday night services were a catch-all for an assortment of special guests: evangelists, musical groups and missionaries.  Missionaries became, in my mind, the true heroes of the faith.  I learned about the missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul in Sunday School and read the biography of David Livingstone and other missionaries of times gone by.  But there was nothing like hearing about missionary work first hand.

There were good missionary services and dull ones.  The best were like a trip to a museum with a knowledgeable curator.  The worst were when the missionary just preached a ‘regular’ sermon.  After all, I could get that any Sunday night.  For a elementary school age boy, little could compare to the wonder of arriving at church on a Sunday night to see the communion table swept clear of its normal accoutrements and in its place a collection of foreign artifacts spread out for our wondering eyes: animal hides, musical instruments, weapons, eating utensils (and sometimes food), clothing.  The most creative missionaries would dress in the native garb of the mission country.  Typically, their first words would be in the language of the land they were serving, followed by a translation into English.  I had no way to verify anything they said, but that didn’t matter.  Their stories included all the strangeness of a foreign people, rare diseases, grinding poverty, odd foods, occasional violence, dangerous animals, and of course, testimonies of converts.  A slide show or movie would take me places that I would never otherwise visit.  My first exposure to the Third World was through the lens of a missionary camera.

Missionaries were not just there for my entertainment, however.  They had to raise support to get back to their work.  At the end of their presentation, the pastor would come back to the podium and it was time for the missionary offering.  As a child, I rarely had money.  But I remember wanting to give.  Souls were hanging in the balance.  Still, after hearing their tales, the boy I was wondered why people would choose to go.  It all came down to ‘The Call’.  Missionaries had invariably experienced an irresistible internal beckoning to a foreign people.  They often encouraged those in the service to be open to a similar experience.  I never heard that call to head out for parts unknown.  I felt both guilty and relieved.  Guilty, because I knew I should want the lightening to strike me as it did the Apostle Paul; relieved, because I was given to car-sickness and international travel by ship, air, or rail seemed a sure path to an early grave, even before I reached the destination.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

What Do I Believe?

What do I believe?  I am not ready to revisit that question just yet, since I still hold essentially to what I described at the end of this post almost two years ago.  Instead, I want to share a list of beliefs that I ran across while reading about LIFE magazine's location in the Rockefeller center after watching the movie 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty'.

In 1962, the center management placed a plaque at the plaza with a list of principles in which John D. Rockefeller Jr. believed, and first expressed in 1941. It reads:
"I believe in the supreme worth of the individual and in his right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I believe that every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every possession, a duty.
I believe that the law was made for man and not man for the law; that government is the servant of the people and not their master.
I believe in the Dignity of labour, whether with head or hand; that the world owes no man a living but that it owes every man an opportunity to make a living.
I believe that thrift is essential to well ordered living and that economy is a prime requisite of a sound financial structure, whether in government, business or personal affairs.
I believe that truth and justice are fundamental to an enduring social order.
I believe in the sacredness of a promise, that a man's word should be as good as his bond; that character not wealth or power or position – is of supreme worth.
I believe that the rendering of useful service is the common duty of mankind and that only in the purifying fire of sacrifice is the dross of selfishness consumed and the greatness of the human soul set free.
I believe in an all-wise and all-loving God, named by whatever name, and that the individuals highest fulfilment, greatest happiness, and widest usefulness are to be found in living in harmony with His Will.
I believe that love is the greatest thing in the world; that it alone can overcome hate; that right can and will triumph over might."
As heir to the Rockefeller fortune, John clearly thought deeply about making the most of the life and resources he had been given.  For so long, I have drifted along (like Walter Mitty, I suppose) with unspoken assumptions about what is important, but never actually making the effort to articulate the essence of what my life is about.  So, a task for 2014 -- define what I believe.

Thursday, February 20, 2014


The old Sam Cooke song 'Wonderful World' starts with these three words:
"Don't know much..." 
And as the song unfolds, there is a lot of things he doesn't know much about.  Which just about sums up life.  The more you learn, what you don't know seems to grow exponentially.  But Sam sings of one vital thing he knows about: love.

I managed to squeeze in a few moments for devotional reading this morning and was struck by the importance of 'knowing' the right things.

Jeremiah 9:24 ...let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”

Romans 8:26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.

Prayer remains a difficult mystery for me after many years.  I don't know God well, I don't know how to pray well.  But if the pangs in my spirit result in more of what God desires -- love, justice, righteousness -- in my world, I can be content with that.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Allegiant and the whole 'Young Adult Lit' thingy

As mentioned earlier, I was at the tail-end of the Divergent trilogy in January.  My review is here at Goodreads.  Veronica Roth is not long out of college and wrote much of the trilogy while still in college.  I am not sure what that says about college, but it is an impressive feat of writing to put together a coherent 3-volume narrative in that time span while otherwise academically occupied.  I am convinced that even the most creative fiction authors are still autobiographers.  Who Veronica Roth is seeps deeply into the characterizations in Divergent-Insurgent-Allegiant, particularly the values that Tris holds and her view of her parents.

The YA genre works because it is idealistic, fast-paced, emotional, reactionary.  Exactly.  I was a teenager once.  Which is why I am not recommending a steady diet of this for my daughters or anyone else for that matter.  However, in the inescapable buzz of our media-saturated culture, the Divergent movie will be this year's Hunger Games.  Oh, wait, Hunger Games 2 is this year's Hunger Games…  Anyway, I am not sure about watching the Divergent movie because there are some parts in the book that could lend themselves to overly violent or overly sexual imagery.  Have to wait for some reviews.

Whether anyone in my family reads the books or not, the story will be out there.  And I want to be part of that story with my daughters.

Some great questions are raised, not necessarily answered, by the series:
What does it mean to be loyal to family, friends, your culture?
What do you do about conflicting loyalties?
How much does your genetic heritage determine who you are?
Can you overcome a horrible childhood or even a slightly flawed childhood?
What is the place of faith in an often violent and unjust world?

Those are precisely the kind of questions I should be discussing with my idealistic, fast-paced, emotional, reactionary teenage daughter.  :-)

Saturday, February 1, 2014


It is, as we will continue to be reminded for the next 13 days, Valentine's month.  Yesterday, I shared a joyful breakfast with a friend whose son wed a delightful young lady in January.  Their start together is captured so well here.  We have high hopes for their 'ever after'.

"Happily Ever After" Disney Corporation
As my wife and I are well into the 'ever after', I have seen how much 'happily' there can be.  Marriage at its finest is so enriching.  Truth be told, though, it isn't 'ever' as in 'forever' happy.  There is a steady accumulation of daily choices resulting in a two becoming one, or in a slow drifting that ultimately leads to two individuals who don't know each other.  Every day I have to choose, because I wake up a slightly different person than I was yesterday, and my bride does as well.  After 32 years, that can be a lot of change.

Do the vows mean something two or three decades later after the bloom of youth has been eroded by work and children and the simple struggle to live?  I have found the vows continue to mean something when I live them in the light of something higher:

"Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself… “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound…"