And the angels sang

(To read the prologue of this story, click here)

The snow outside church portended a brutal night and I watched the parking lot as much as I watched the costumed kids preparing for their role in the Christmas pageant. I expected the arrival of a new helper who was racing south from Colorado ahead of a blizzard.

She was a helper whose arrival I anticipated with mixed emotions.

I had been a volunteer at Templo Bautista in Espanola, NM for two months. Recently discharged from the Army as one of America’s last draftees, I’d gone there to exercise my faith with the goal of making a difference in an environment foreign to me, a Midwestern Scandinavian who grew up in Truman’s World.

Is it any wonder I wanted no intruders? Teresita Naranjo, left, recognized as the No. 2 potter in all of New Mexico, cut my hair with Mrs. Abbott.

Mrs. John Abbott – never Ethel – carried on the work at Templo that she and her husband started decades earlier. But John had been killed in a farming accident and Mrs. Abbott told God she could only carry on as God would send help.

Enter me.

I was the first long term helper and became bus driver, Sunday School teacher, wood splitter, phone tree operator, youth director, visitation director and encourager. Life was good. Mrs. Abbott treated me like a son, fed me like a king and taught me like Socrates.

Two months later I returned to the church I attended in Colorado Springs to tell my crowd what was happening in Espanola, and to raise a few bucks to buy Christmas gifts for the kids there. In that crowd was the daughter of a man I knew well. She had just left college and was at loose ends, struggling to discern a broader, greater plan for her life.

My heartfelt appeal and enthusiasm for life at Templo Bautista struck a chord in her heart and she wanted to pray with me about the possibility of coming to help. The last thing I wanted was an intruder to dilute my lone role as Golden Child in Mrs. Abbott’s realm.

But, we prayed and this girl and I had the unmitigated gall, the brazen audacity, the cocksure brass to demand the creator of the universe provide a clearly discernible answer within seven days.

I returned to Espanola with some cash for gifts and a secret. I didn’t want my apple cart upset. I wasn’t going to stand in God’s way, but I wasn’t going to feed him an easy assist, either.

So I waited several days before telling Mrs. Abbott about Sue Ellen Carver’s interest in coming to help. I figured Mrs. Abbott would take a couple days to  pray, to cogitate and consider. By then, the seven-day deadline would be passed and I’d be home free. So, at breakfast on the sixth day, I mentioned casually that Bob Carver’s daughter, Sue Ellen, was interested in coming to Templo to help.

“Bob Carver’s daughter?” she asked. Bob had been to Templo many times on weekend work trips and was a member of a very supportive church.

And yet, who could blame me for my resistance fading?

I nodded, smug in my manipulation of the calendar. To my dismay, Mrs. Abbott reached for the phone, asked me for Sue Ellen’s number, called it and said, “Come on.”

“OK,” I thought. “It’s a couple weeks before Christmas, and she’ll have to give notice at her job and make arrangements and well, maybe I’ve got three to four weeks before the invasion.

Instead, within three days she was on the road, racing a winter storm south from Colorado to New Mexico, sliding into the median, using every ounce of knowledge her dad gave her about rocking the car to get out of a drift, crossing Raton Pass just before it was closed and arriving at Templo Bautista just as the shepherds and angels were marching through the hallway to line up for their part in announcing good news to a waiting world.

She arrived covered in frost with a smile that would melt many a heart just as the kids were shuffling down the hallway to the stage. It was a Christmas pageant scene so perfect that it would have embarrassed even Hallmark.

Over the following months, we worked daily together. Eventually, of course, I began to see Sue Ellen far less as a nuisance and far more as someone I wanted to know on a far more personal level. Sure, she was the only green-eyed blonde in Sante Fe County, but just as attractive was her indomitable, loving spirit that pitched in enthusiastically to every task and made every person who crossed her path feel like they’ve been heard, seen and loved.

Whatever it was, we left Espanola heading in different directions and had only occasional, long distance conversation until in October the following year, she came to Oklahoma Baptist University to visit her sister and we reconnected. We talked for hours – much to the dismay of her sister, who felt neglected. We talked of our own perspectives of the future, who we were and who we wanted to be, never really talking about that future together.

Yet, when I returned to my apartment after seeing her off to the airport, I knew. The next morning I called her dad and said “I want to marry your daughter.” To which he replied, “Which one?” He had four and he had no clue Sue Ellen and I had been talking.

One month later we returned to Espanola for the first time – to plan our wedding, which took place one month after that.

I’ve made a lot of decisions in my life, but none were better than that one 47 years ago.

Fateful day half-century in the making

Sept. 13.

Fifty years ago today my dad wrapped his arms around me and said out loud for the first time I can recall, “I love you.” Then I turned toward the bus idling there to take me to Milwaukee where I was inducted into the U.S. Army.

With a draft lottery number of one, received a year earlier, this day was inevitable. But it arrived under a dark cloud of dread that wouldn’t lift for months.

I never doubted my dad loved me. I never asked myself if he did. I never wondered, pondered, considered, weighed or suspected his love. He showed me in many, non-verbal ways: working hard to provide for his family, being present, shooting baskets with me, including me with tasks we could do together, assigning me responsibilities like cleaning the barn or splitting the wood for our farmhouse furnace, then bragging about me to his friends when I worked beyond his expectations.

Primarily, my assurance of dad’s love and my subconscious security in my household growing up was how he loved my mother. Our dinner time was consistently 5:30, but no one sat down until dad arrived home from his gas route. He drove a fuel truck that serviced farmers in a four-county area, but he consistently arranged his days and route to be home for dinner on time.

Then mom would meet him at the door and the kids would have to sit at the table, waiting while they hugged and kissed and got all sloppy in the doorway.

Dad never fully grasped the implications of my lottery number. It didn’t penetrate his consciousness that radio announcing my birthday as No. 1 had changed the trajectory of my life. Nor did he comprehend my heart when I petitioned for and received status as a conscientious objector, willing to serve in the military, but not willing to bear arms.

To my surprise and delight, my basic training platoon at Fort Sam Houston consisted entirely of conscientious objectors of my same persuasion. We were all to be trained as medics. Logic was, I guess, if we weren’t going to carry a gun, we should run around with a target on our backs.

Religious belief was the overwhelming rationale for conscientious objection in my platoon. And not all represented religions were Christian. Consequently, our discussions were invigorating and affirming. Our attitudes were positive and our nascent friendships sincere.

Then, we graduated from basic. And our 40 men were divided among 10 other platoons of men who had just finished basic training that included weapons, and an indoctrination of “enemies” versus the right and righteous arm of the United States.

Suddenly, barracks were bellicose. An undercurrent of distrust and tensions ran through the room where long rows of bunks ran down both sides of the room, with lockers in the middle and footlockers at the end of each bunk. You never wanted to leave either open or unlocked.

One day I hung a pair of clean underwear on the hook while I showered. When I got out, mine had been taken and replaced by someone’s dirty underwear.

Discussions were not harmonious, but usually disintegrated into offensive and defensive positions on issues, especially religious and political. The most hard core guys could not wait to get to Viet Nam and “kill some Charlie Cong.”

Such was the atmosphere that debilitated my spirit one night when I walked to the bank of phones to call my dad for a word of encouragement. I know he loved me. But he still didn’t understand.

Depressed, I was walking back to the barracks to face another miserable night when my path took me past a base chapel. It was brightly lit and happy sounds were coming from it. I walked in. Why not?

There was a youth group on the platform getting ready to perform a musical. And I found a couple of my buddies from basic training there. After the musical, the youth offered to come pick up any soldiers who wanted to attend their church on Sunday.

Pretty girls populated the platform. I eventually dated one. My buddy Steve ended up marrying her sister.

Events of that night, and that group from Baptist Temple in San Antonio, opened the portal to the rest of my life which included a career among Baptists in communications, and marrying a girl I met at a Baptist church in my next station.

Fifty years ago. Today. As I’ve said many times since, it’s not something I wanted, nor would ever want to do again. But my life was set on course by having done it once.

Beautiful killer

This morning I saw the most beautiful fox ever. Larger than typical, with bright red fur, tail long and bushy, not matted by thorns. It looked fresh from a spa: fluffed, puffed, tufted, shampooed and blow dried. Eyes intense, intelligent, confident and controlled. Lithe, nimbly athletic, light of foot like a dancer. 

And I wanted to kill it.

Coming back from her sunrise walk, my wife heard the terrorized shrieking of chickens in the open range pasture just behind the cottage where we stay on my son’s property. She stepped quickly to the pasture where she saw a fox with a chicken in its jaws. When she shouted and clapped, the fox sprinted away. The chicken didn’t.

Granddaughter helped to bury the first two victims of the carnage.

As Sue Ellen told me what happened, she asked what to do with the carcass. “Make nuggets” seemed an inappropriate suggestion. 

Before we could fully get our minds around what had just happened, we heard the terrified squawking again. I rushed to the door and this time I saw the fox…with another chicken in its mouth. I threw open the door and for an instant was shocked silent by the fox’s beauty.   

But my anger at its audacity quickly overcame my admiration and I stepped out the door and shouted. It understood my threat and I was pleased to see it run away, leaping the fence as if the rails were a padded obstacle in tumbling class.

I grabbed my shotgun and followed the fox’s trail, knowing it would never show its head to me while I stumbled and tripped through its habitat. I felt better somehow, though, knowing I was “doing” something, at least dropping some “man scent” around so the fox would know who it was messin’ with.

The second chicken was still breathing, its legs twitching, eyes registering a resigned acceptance of fate. I dispatched it, then tossed it into the garden while I went to get a shovel. 

My seven-year-old granddaughter watched wide eyed the entire proceedings, dressed in the “farmer girl” overalls we’d given her for an early Christmas present the day before. 

Uncowed, she helped me dig a hole, her sudden awareness of the life cycle presenting her a sad, but not devastating new insight. 

The life cycle as presented on a National Geographic special sees the fastest lion chasing down the slowest antelope, and it all seems natural and normal, almost pristine, except for the dust. Eating a hamburger never makes me think of the feed lot on which the donor was raised. 

Yet, somehow, because we fed and cared for these chickens, tucked them in at night and gave them special treats from our vegetable shavings, it became a personal insult. 

Yes, they’re free range and hawks circle constantly overhead. Yes, the fox has to eat and yes, the prey/predator cycle is natural. But, the fox invaded my space with impunity, looking at me as if I was an inconvenient interruption at his meal, like a waiter who informed him he had an urgent phone call and he had to leave the cordon bleu to cool.

It was a sad morning, but only a prelude. 

Worse, we came home after dark that night and I went out to check on the chickens, to make sure they had put themselves up in the coop, where safety lay behind a closed door. I looked inside and there was not a single chicken in the coop. 

With a sickening dread, I cast my light over the field and the beam fell on multiple carcasses, each with the head and neck gone. The goats huddled in their own shed, witness to the horror. I followed my flashlight beam around the pasture, accounting for all the chickens but one. 

I found her in the far corner, shaken and shivering. She didn’t protest a bit when I picked her up and put her in the coop, behind closed doors. I don’t know what killed the chickens and I don’t know how this one survived.

We named her Lucky.